Past Tense, the brand new Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child, follows our hero on a quest into his father’s past and climaxes in the most nail-biting, hair-raising ticking time bomb of an adventure yet.
Jack Reacher plans to follow the autumn sun on an epic road trip across America, from Maine to California. He doesn’t get far. On a country road deep in the New England woods, he sees a sign to a place he has never been – the town where his father was born. What’s one extra day? He takes the detour.
At the very same moment, close by, a car breaks down. Two young Canadians are trying to get to New York City to sell a treasure. They’re stranded at a lonely motel in the middle of nowhere. It’s a strange place… but it’s all there is.
The next morning in the city clerk’s office, Reacher asks about the old family home. He’s told no one named Reacher ever lived in that town. He knows his father never went back. But was he ever there in the first place? The present can be tense, but the past can be worse.
Read on for the first three chapters of Past Tense by Lee Child!
Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, he began his long migration south. But not, he thought, straight down the coast. Not like the orioles and the buntings and the phoebes and the warblers and the ruby-throated hummingbirds. Instead he decided on a diagonal route, south and west, from the top right-hand corner of the country to the bottom left, maybe through Syracuse, and Cincinnati, and St Louis, and Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque, and onward all the way to San Diego. Which for an army guy like Reacher was a little too full of navy people, but which was otherwise a fine spot to start the winter.
It would be an epic road trip, and one he hadn’t made in years.
He was looking forward to it.
He didn’t get far.
He walked inland a mile or so and came to a county road and stuck out his thumb. He was a tall man, more than six feet five in his shoes, heavily built, all bone and muscle, not particularly good-looking, never very well dressed, usually a little unkempt. Not an overwhelmingly appealing proposition. As always most drivers slowed and took a look and then kept on going. The first car prepared to take a chance on him came along after forty minutes. It was a year-old Subaru wagon, driven by a lean middle-aged guy in pleated chino pants and a crisp khaki shirt. Dressed by his wife, Reacher thought. The guy had a wedding ring. But under the fine fabrics was a workingman’s body. A thick neck and large red knuckles. The slightly surprised and somewhat reluctant boss of something, Reacher thought. The kind of guy who starts out digging post holes and ends up owning a fencing company.
Which turned out to be a good guess. Initial conversation established the guy had started out with nothing to his name but his daddy’s old framing hammer, and had ended up owning a construction company, responsible for forty working people, and the hopes and dreams of a whole bunch of clients. He finished his story with a little facial shrug, part Yankee modesty, part genuine perplexity. As in, how did that happen? Attention to detail, Reacher thought. This was a very organized guy, full of notions and nostrums and maxims and cast-iron beliefs, one of which was at the end of summer it was better to stay away from both Route One and I-95, and in fact to get out of Maine altogether as fast as possible, which meant soon and sideways, on Route Two, straight west into New Hampshire. To a place just south of Berlin, where the guy knew a bunch of back roads that would get them down to Boston faster than any other way. Which was where the guy was going, for a meeting about marble countertops. Reacher was happy. Nothing wrong with Boston as a starting point. Nothing at all. From there it was a straight shot to Syracuse. After which Cincinnati was easy, via Rochester and Buffalo and Cleveland. Maybe even via Akron, Ohio. Reacher had been in worse places. Mostly in the service.
They didn’t get to Boston.
The guy got a call on his cell, after fifty-some minutes heading south on the aforementioned New Hampshire back roads. Which were exactly as advertised. Reacher had to admit the guy’s plan was solid. There was no traffic at all. No jams, no delays. They were bowling along, doing sixty miles an hour, dead easy. Until the phone rang. It was hooked up to the car radio, and a name came up on the navigation screen, with a thumbnail photograph as a visual aid, in this case of a red-faced man wearing a hard hat and carrying a clipboard. Some kind of a foreman on a job site. The guy at the wheel touched a button and phone hiss filled the car, from all the speakers, like surround sound.
The guy at the wheel spoke to the windshield pillar and said, ‘This better be good news.’
It wasn’t. It was something to do with an inspector from a municipal buildings department, and a metal flue liner above a fireplace in an entrance lobby, which was properly insulated, exactly up to code, except that couldn’t be proved visually without tearing down the stonework, which was by that point already three storeys high, nearly done, with the masons booked on a new job starting the next week, or alternatively without ripping out the custom walnut millwork in the dining room on the other side of the chimney, or the millwork in the closet above, which was rosewood and even more complicated, but the inspector was being a hardass about it and needed to see for himself.
The guy at the wheel glanced at Reacher and said, ‘Which inspector is it?’
The guy on the phone said, ‘The new one.’
‘Does he know he gets a turkey at Thanksgiving?’
‘I told him we’re all on the same side here.’
The guy at the wheel glanced at Reacher again, as if seeking permission, or offering an apology, or both, and then he faced front again and said, ‘Did you offer him money?’
‘Five hundred. He wouldn’t take it.’
Then the cell signal ran out. The sound went garbled, like a robot drowning in a swimming pool, and then it went dead. The screen said it was searching.
The car rolled on.
Reacher said, ‘Why would a person want a fireplace in an entrance lobby?’
The guy at the wheel said, ‘It’s welcoming.’
‘I think historically it was designed to repel. It was defensive. Like the campfire burning in the mouth of the cave. It was intended to keep predators at bay.’
‘I have to go back,’ the guy said. ‘I’m sorry.’
He slowed the car and pulled over on the gravel. All alone, on the back roads. No other traffic. The screen said it was still searching for a signal.
‘I’m going to have to let you out here,’ the guy said. ‘Is that OK?’
‘No problem,’ Reacher said. ‘You got me part of the way. For which I thank you very much.’
‘Whose is the rosewood closet?’
‘Cut a big hole in it and show the inspector. Then give the client five commonsense reasons why he should install a wall safe. Because this is a guy who wants a wall safe. Maybe he doesn’t know it yet, but a guy who wants a fireplace in his entrance lobby wants a wall safe in his bedroom closet. That’s for damn sure. Human nature. You’ll make a profit. You can charge him for the time it takes to cut the hole.’
‘Are you in this business too?’
‘I was a military cop.’
The guy said, ‘Huh.’
Reacher opened the door and climbed out, and closed the door again behind him, and walked far enough away to give the guy space to swing the Subaru around, gravel shoulder to gravel shoulder, across the whole width of the road, and then to take off back the way he had come. All of which the guy did, with a brief gesture Reacher took to be a rueful good-luck wave. Then he got smaller and smaller in the distance, and Reacher turned back and continued walking, south, the way he was headed. Wherever possible he liked to maintain forward momentum. The road he was on was a two-lane, wide enough, well maintained, curved here and there, a little up and down. But no kind of a problem for a modern car. The Subaru had been doing sixty. Yet there was no traffic. None at all. Nothing coming, either way. Total silence. Just a sigh of wind in the trees, and the faint buzz of heat coming up off the blacktop.
Reacher walked on.
Two miles later the road he was on curved gently left, and a new road of equal size and appearance split off to the right. Not exactly a turn. More like an equal choice. A classic Y-shaped junction. Twitch the wheel left, or twitch the wheel right. Your call. Both options ran out of sight through trees so mighty in places they made a tunnel.
There was a road sign.
A tilted arrow to the left was labelled Portsmouth, and a tilted arrow to the right was labelled Laconia. But the right-hand option was written in smaller writing, and it had a smaller arrow, as if Laconia was less important than Portsmouth. A mere byway, despite its road being the same size.
Laconia, New Hampshire.
A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father’s place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines. Such was the vague family legend. Escaped from what had not been specified. But he never went back. Not once. Reacher himself had been born more than fifteen years later, by which time Laconia was a dead detail of the long-ago past, as remote as the Dakota Territory, where it was said some earlier ancestor had lived and worked. No one in the family ever went to either place. No visits. The grandparents died young and were rarely mentioned. There were apparently no aunts or uncles or cousins or any other kind of distant relatives. Which was statistically unlikely, and suggested a rift of some kind. But no one other than his father had any real information, and no one ever made any real attempt to get any from him. Certain things were not discussed in Marine families. Much later as a captain in the army Reacher’s brother Joe was posted north and said something about maybe trying to find the old family homestead, but nothing ever came of it. Probably Reacher himself had said the same kind of thing, from time to time. He had never been there either.
Left or right. His call.
Portsmouth was better. It had highways and traffic and buses. It was a straight shot to Boston. San Diego beckoned. The North-east was about to get cold.
But what was one extra day?
He stepped right, and chose the fork in the road that led to Laconia.
At that same late-afternoon moment, nearly thirty miles away, heading south on a different back road, was a worn-out Honda Civic, driven by a twenty-five-year-old man named Shorty Fleck. Next to him in the passenger seat was a twenty-five-year-old woman named Patty Sundstrom. They were boyfriend and girlfriend, both born and raised in Saint Leonard, which was a small faraway town in New Brunswick, Canada. Not much happened there. The biggest news in living memory was ten years previously, when a truck carrying twelve million bees overturned on a curve. The local paper reported with pride that the accident was the first of its kind in New Brunswick. Patty worked in a sawmill. She was the granddaughter of a guy from Minnesota who had slipped north half a century earlier, to beat the draft for Vietnam. Shorty was a potato farmer. His family had been in Canada for ever. And he wasn’t particularly short. Maybe he had been once, as a kid. But now he figured he was what any eyewitness would call an average-looking guy.
They were trying to make it non-stop from Saint Leonard to New York City. Which by any standard was a hardcore drive. But they saw a big advantage in doing it. They had something to sell in the city, and saving a night in a hotel would maximize their profit. They had planned out their route, looping west to avoid the summer people heading home from the beaches, using back roads, Patty’s blunt finger on a map, her gaze ranging ahead for turns and signs. They had timed it out on paper, and figured it was a feasible course of action.
Except they had gotten a later start than they would have liked, due a little bit to general disorganization, but mostly due to the Honda’s ageing battery not liking the newly crisp autumnal-temperatures blowing in from the direction of Prince Edward Island. The delay put them in a long line at the U.S. border, and then the Honda started overheating, and needed nursing along below fifty miles an hour for an extended spell.
They were tired.
And hungry, and thirsty, and in need of the bathroom, and late, and behind schedule. And frustrated. The Honda was overheating again. The needle was kissing the red. There was a grinding noise under the hood. Maybe the oil was low. No way of telling. All the dashboard lights had been on continuously for the last two and a half years.
Shorty asked, ‘What’s up ahead?’
Patty said, ‘Nothing.’
Her fingertip was on a wandering red line, which was labelled with a three-digit number, and which was shown running north to south through a jagged shape shaded pale green. A forested area. Which matched what was out the window. The trees crowded in, still and dark, laden down with heavy end-of-summer leaves. The map showed tiny red spider-web lines here and there, like the veins in an old lady’s leg, which were presumably all tracks to somewhere, but nowhere big. Nowhere likely to have a mechanic or a lube shop or radiator water. The best bet was about thirty minutes ahead, some ways east of south, a town with its name printed not too small and semi-bold, which meant it had to have at least a gas station. It was called Laconia.
She said, ‘Can we make another twenty miles?’
Now the needle was all the way in the red.
‘Maybe,’ Shorty said. ‘If we walk the last nineteen of them.’
He slowed the car and rolled along on a whisker of gas, which generated less new heat inside the engine, but which also put less airflow through the radiator vanes, so the old heat couldn’t get away so fast, so in the short term the temperature needle kept on climbing. Patty rubbed her fingertip forward on the map, keeping pace with her estimate of their speed. There was a spider-web vein coming up on the right. A thin track, curling through the green ink to somewhere about an inch away. Without the rush of air from her leaky window she could hear the noises from the engine. Clunking, knocking, grinding. Getting worse.
Then up ahead on the right she saw the mouth of a narrow road. The spider-web vein, right on time. But more like a tunnel than a road. It was dark inside. The trees met overhead. At the entrance on a frost-heaved post was nailed a board, on which were screwed ornate plastic letters, and an arrow pointing into the tunnel. The letters spelled the word Motel.
‘Should we?’ she asked.
The car answered. The temperature needle was jammed against the stop. Shorty could feel the heat in his shins. The whole engine bay was baking. For a second he wondered what would happen if they kept on going instead. People talked about automobile engines blowing up and melting down. Which were figures of speech, surely. There would be no actual puddles of molten metal. No actual explosions would take place. It would just conk out, peacefully. Or seize up. It would coast gently to a stop.
But in the middle of nowhere, with no passing traffic and no cell signal.
‘No choice,’ he said, and braked and steered and turned in to the tunnel. Up close they saw the plastic letters on the sign had been painted gold, with a narrow brush and a steady hand, like a promise, like the motel was a high-class place. There was a second sign, identical, facing drivers coming the other way.
‘OK?’ Shorty said.
The air felt cold in the tunnel. Easily ten degrees colder than the main drag. Last fall’s leaf litter and last winter’s mud were mashed together on the shoulders.
‘OK?’ Shorty asked again.
They drove over a wire laid across the road. A fat rubbery thing, not much smaller than a garden hose. Like they had at gas stations, to ding a bell in the kiosk, to get the pump jockey out to help you.
Patty didn’t answer.
Shorty said, ‘How bad can it be? It’s marked on the map.’
‘The track is marked.’
‘The sign was nice.’
‘I agree,’ Patty said. ‘It was.’
They drove on.
The trees cooled and freshened the air, so Reacher was happy to keep up a steady four miles an hour, which for his length of leg was exactly eighty-eight beats a minute, which was exactly the tempo of a whole bunch of great music, so it was easy time to pass. He did thirty minutes, two miles, seven classic tracks in his head, and then he heard real sounds behind him, and turned around to see an ancient pick-up coming crabwise towards him, as if each of the wheels wanted to go in a different direction.
Reacher stuck out his thumb.
The truck stopped. An old guy with a long white beard leaned across inside and wound down the passenger window.
He said, ‘I’m going to Laconia.’
‘Me too,’ Reacher said.
Reacher got in, and wound the window back up. The old guy pulled out and wobbled back up to speed.
He said, ‘I guess this is the part where you tell me I need new tyres.’
‘It’s a possibility,’ Reacher said.
‘But at my age I try to avoid large capital expenditures. Why invest in the future? Do I even have one?’
‘That argument is more circular than your tyres.’
‘Actually the frame is bent. I was in a wreck.’
‘Close on twenty-three years ago.’
‘So this is normal to you now.’
‘Keeps me awake.’
‘How do you know where to point the steering wheel?’
‘You get used to it. Like sailing a boat. Why are you going to Laconia?’
‘I was passing by,’ Reacher said. ‘My father was born there. I want to see it.’
‘What’s your last name?’
The old guy shook his head.
He said, ‘I never knew anyone in Laconia named Reacher.’
The reason for the previous Y-shaped fork in the road turned out to be a lake, wide enough to make north–south drivers pick a side, right bank or left bank. Reacher and the old guy squirmed and shuddered along the right bank, which was mechanically stressful, but visually beautiful, because the view was stunning and the sun was less than an hour from setting. Then came the town of Laconia itself. It was a bigger place than Reacher expected. Fifteen or twenty thousand people. A county seat. Solid and prosperous. There were brick buildings and neat old-fashioned streets.
The low red sun made them look like they were in an old-time movie.
The squirming pick-up truck wobbled to a stop at a downtown corner. The old guy said, ‘This is Laconia.’
Reacher said, ‘How much has it changed?’
‘Around here, not much.’
‘I grew up thinking it was smaller than this.’
‘Most people remember things bigger.’
Reacher thanked the guy for the ride, and got out, and watched the truck squeal away, each tyre insisting the other three were wrong. Then he turned away and walked random blocks, getting a sense for what might be where, in particular two specific destinations for start of business the next day, and two for immediate attention that evening, the first being a place to eat, and the second being a place to sleep.
Both were available, in a historic-downtown kind of way. Healthy food, no place more than two tables wide. No motels in town, but plenty of inns and plenty of bed and breakfast. He ate at a narrow bistro, because a waitress smiled at him through the window, after a moment of embarrassment when she brought his order. Which was some kind of salad with roast beef in it, which was the menu choice he felt would be most nutritious. But when it came it was tiny. He asked for a second order, and a bigger plate. At first the waitress misunderstood. She thought there was something wrong with the first order. Or the size of the plate. Or both. Then she caught on. He was hungry. He wanted two portions. She asked if there was anything else he needed. He asked for a bigger cup for
Afterwards he tracked back to lodgings he had seen, on a side street near the city offices. There was room at the inn. Vacation time was over. He paid a premium price for what the innkeeper called a suite, but what he called a room with a sofa and way too many floral patterns and feather pillows. He shovelled a dozen off the bed and put his pants under the mattress to press. Then he took a long hot shower, and climbed under the covers, and went to sleep.
The tunnel through the trees turned out to be more than two miles long. Patty Sundstrom traced its curves with her finger on the map. Under the Honda’s wheels was greyed and pitted blacktop, the finished surface completely washed away in places by runoff water, leaving shallow potholes the size of pool tables, some of them bare ribbed concrete, some of them gravelled, some of them full of leaf mould slop still wet from springtime, because overhead the leafy canopy was thick and unbroken, apart from one spot where no trees grew for twenty-some yards. There was a bar of bright pink open sky. Maybe a narrow seam of different dirt, or a sudden underground escarpment of solid rock, or a hydraulic oddity with no ground water, or too much. Then the sliver of sky was behind them. They were back in the tunnel. Shorty Fleck was going slow, to save the shocks and nurse the motor. He wondered if he should put his headlights on.
Then the canopy thinned for a second time, with the promise of more to come, like a big clearing was on its way, like they were arriving somewhere. What they saw was the road ahead coming out of the trees and running in a straight line through a couple acres of flat grassland, the thin grey ribbon suddenly naked and exposed in the last of the daylight. Its destination was a group of three substantial wooden buildings, laid out one after the other on a sweeping right-hand curve, maybe fifty yards between the first and the last. All three were painted dull red, with bright white trim. Set against the green grass they looked like classic New England structures.
The closest building was a motel. Like a picture in a kid’s book. Like learning your ABCs. M is for Motel. It was long and low, made of dull red boards, with a pitched roof of grey asphalt shingle, and a red neon Office sign in the first window, and then a louvred door for storage, and then a repeating pattern, of a broad window with an HVAC grille and two plastic lawn chairs under it, and a numbered door, and another broad window with the same grille and the same chairs, and another numbered door, and so on, all the way to the end. There were twelve rooms in total, all in a line. But there were no cars parked out front of any of them. Looked like zero occupancy.
‘OK?’ Shorty said.
Patty didn’t answer. He stopped the car. In the distance on the right they saw the second building was shorter from end to end, but much taller and deeper from front to back. Some kind of barn. But not for animals. The concrete ramp to the door was conspicuously clean. There was no shit, to put it bluntly. It was a workshop of some kind. Out front were nine quad bike ATVs. Like regular motorcycles, but with four fat tyres instead of two slicks. They were lined up in three ranks of three, with exact precision.
‘Maybe they’re Hondas,’ Patty said. ‘Maybe these guys would know how to fix the car.’
On the end of the line the third building was a regular house, of plain construction but generous size, with a wraparound porch, which had rocking chairs set out on it.
Shorty rolled the car forward, and stopped again. The blacktop was about to end. Ten yards short of the motel’s empty lot. He was about to bump down on to an owner-maintained surface that his expert potato-farmer eye told him was made up of equal parts gravel, mud, dead weeds, and live weeds. He saw at least five species he would rather not have in his own dirt.
The end of the blacktop felt like a threshold. Like a decision.
‘OK?’ he said again.
‘The place is empty,’ Patty said. ‘There are no guests. How weird is that?’
‘The season is over.’
‘Like flicking a switch?’
‘They’re always complaining about it.’
‘It’s the middle of nowhere.’
‘It’s a getaway vacation. No hustle, no bustle.’
Patty was quiet a long moment.
Then she said, ‘I guess it looks OK.’
Shorty said, ‘I think it’s this or nothing.’
She traced the motel structure left to right, the plain proportions, the solid roof, the heavy boards, the recent stain. Necessary maintenance had been performed, but nothing flashy. It was an honest building. It could have been in Canada.
She said, ‘Let’s take a look.’
They bumped down off the blacktop and rattled across the uneven surface and parked outside the office. Shorty thought a second and shut the motor down. Safer than letting it idle. In case of molten metal and explosions. If it didn’t start up again, too bad. It was already near enough where it needed to be. They could ask for room one, if necessary. They had one huge suitcase, full of the stuff they planned to sell. It could stay in the car. Apart from that they didn’t have much to haul.
They got out of the car and stepped into the office. There was a guy behind the reception counter. He was about Shorty’s own age, and Patty’s, mid-twenties, maybe a year or two more. He had short blond hair, combed neatly, and a good tan, and blue eyes, and white teeth, and a ready smile. But he looked a little out of place. At first Shorty took him to be like a summer thing he had seen in Canada, where a well-bred kid is sent to do a dumb job in the countryside, for the purposes of building his résumé, or expanding his horizons, or finding himself, or some such. But this guy was five years too old for that. And behind his greeting he had a proprietorial air. He was saying welcome, for sure, but to my house. Like he owned the place.
Maybe he did.
Patty told him they needed a room, and that they wondered if whoever looked after the quad bikes could take a look at their car, or failing that, they would surely appreciate the phone number of a good mechanic. Hopefully not a tow truck.
The guy smiled and asked, ‘What’s wrong with your car?’
He sounded like every young guy in the movies who worked on Wall Street and wore a suit and tie. Full of smooth confidence. Probably drank champagne. Greed is good. Not a potato farmer’s favourite type of guy.
Patty said, ‘It’s overheating and making weird banging noises under the hood.’
The guy smiled a different kind of smile, this one a modest but commanding junior-master-of-the-universe grin, and he said, ‘Then I guess we should take a look at it. Sounds low on coolant, and low on oil. Both of which are easy to fix, unless something is leaking. That would depend on what parts are needed. Maybe we could adapt something. Failing that, as you say, we know some good mechanics. Either way, there’s nothing to be done until it cools right down. Park it outside your room overnight, and we’ll check it first thing in the morning.’
‘What time exactly?’ Patty asked, thinking about how late they were already, but also thinking about gift horses and mouths.
The guy said, ‘Here we’re all up with the sun.’
She said, ‘How much is the room?’
‘After Labor Day, before the leaf-peepers, let’s call it fifty bucks.’
‘OK,’ she said, although not really, but she was thinking about gift horses again, and what Shorty had said, that it was this or nothing.
‘We’ll give you room ten,’ the guy said. ‘It’s the first we’ve refurbished so far. In fact we only just finished it. You would be its very first guests. We hope you will do us the honour.’
Reacher woke up a minute after three in the morning. All the clichés: snapped awake, instantly, like flicking a switch. He didn’t move. Didn’t even tense his arms and legs. He just lay there, staring into the dark, listening hard, concentrating a hundred per cent. Not a learned response. A primitive instinct, baked deep in the back of his brain by evolution. One time he had been in Southern California, fast asleep with the windows open on a beautiful night, and he had snapped awake, instantly, like flicking a switch, because in his sleep he had smelled a faint wisp of smoke. Not cigarette smoke or a building on fire, but a burning hillside forty miles away. A primeval smell. Like a wildfire racing across an ancient savannah. Whose ancestors outran it depended on who woke up fastest and got the earliest start. Rinse and repeat, down hundreds of generations.
But there was no smoke. Not at one minute past three that particular morning. Not in that particular hotel room. So what woke him? Not sight or touch or taste, because he had been alone in bed with his eyes shut and the drapes closed and nothing in his mouth. Sound, then. He had heard something.
He waited for a repeat. Which he considered an evolutionary weakness. The product was not yet perfect. It was still a two-step process. One time to wake you up, and a second time to tell you what it was. Better to do both together, surely, first time out.
He heard nothing. Not many sounds were lizard-brain sounds any more. The pad or hiss of an ancient predator was unlikely. The nearest forest twigs to be ominously stepped upon and loudly broken were miles away beyond the edge of town. Not much else scared the primitive cortex. Not in the audio kingdom. Newer sounds were dealt with elsewhere, in the front part of the brain, which was plenty vigilant for the scrapes and clicks of modern threats, but which lacked the seniority to wake a person up from a deep and contented sleep.
So what woke him? The only other truly ancient sound was a cry for help. A scream, or a plea. Not a modern yell, or a whoop or a cackle of laughter. Something deeply primitive. The tribe, under attack. At its very edge. A distant early warning.
He heard nothing more. There was no repeat. He slid out from under the covers and listened at the door. Heard nothing. He took a feather pillow and held it over the peephole. No reaction. No gunshot through the eye. He looked out. Saw nothing. A bright empty hallway.
He lifted the drapes and checked the window. Nothing there. Nothing on the street. Pitch dark. All quiet. He got back in bed and smacked the pillow into shape and went back to sleep.
Patty Sundstrom was also awake at one minute past three. She had slept four hours and then some kind of subconscious agitation had forced its way through and woken her up. She didn’t feel good. Not deep inside, like she knew she should. Partly the delay was on her mind. At best they would get to the city halfway through the next day. Not prime trading hours. On top of which was the fifty extra bucks for the room. Plus the car was an unknown quantity. It might cost a fortune. If parts were required. If something had to be adapted. Cars were great until they weren’t. Even so, the engine had started when they came out of the office. The motel guy didn’t seem too worried about it. He made a reassuring face. He didn’t come to the room with them. Which was good too. She hated people crowding in, showing her where the light switch was, and the bathroom, judging her stuff, acting all obsequious, wanting a tip. The guy did none of that.
But still she didn’t feel good. She didn’t know why. The room was pleasant. It was newly refurbished, as promised, every inch. The wallboard was new, and the ceiling, and the trim, and the paint, and the carpet. Nothing adventurous. Certainly nothing flashy. It looked like an apples-for-apples update of what tradition would have had there before, but newly straight and true and smooth and solid. The AC was cold and quiet. There was a flatscreen television. The window was an expensive unit, with two thick panes of glass sealed in thermal gaskets, with an electric roller blind set in the void between. You didn’t tug on a chain to close it. You pressed a button. No expense spared. Only problem was, the window itself didn’t open. Which she would worry about in a fire. And generally she liked a breath of night air in a room. But overall it was a decent place. Better than most she had seen. Maybe even worth fifty bucks.
But she didn’t feel good. There was no phone in the room, and no cell signal, so after half an hour they had walked back to the office to enquire about using the motel’s land line for hot food delivery. Pizza, maybe. The guy at the desk had smiled a rueful smile and said he was sorry, but they were way too remote for delivery. No one would come. He said most guests drove out to a diner or a restaurant. Shorty looked like he was going to get mad. As if the guy was saying, most guests have cars that work. Maybe something to do with the rueful smile. Then the guy said, but hey, we’ve got pizzas in the freezer down at the house. Why don’t you come eat with us?
Which was a weird meal, in a dark old residence, with Shorty and the guy and three others just the same. Same age, same look, with some kind of same-wavelength connection between them. As if they were all on a mission. There was something nervous about them. After some conversation she concluded they were all maxed-out investors in the same new venture. The motel, she assumed. She assumed they had bought it and were trying to make a go of it. Whatever, they were all extremely polite and gracious and talkative. The guy from the reception desk said his name was Mark. The others were Robert, Steven and Peter. They all asked intelligent questions about life in Saint Leonard. They asked about the hardcore drive south. Again Shorty looked like he was going to get mad. He thought they were calling him dumb for setting out in a bad car. But the guy who said he looked after the quad bikes, who was Peter, said he would have done exactly the same thing. Purely on a statistical basis. The car had run for years. Why assume it would stop now? The odds said it would keep on going. It always had before.
Then they said goodnight and walked back to room ten, and went to sleep, except she woke up again four hours later, agitated. She didn’t feel good, and she didn’t know why. Or maybe she did. Maybe she just didn’t want to admit it. Maybe that was the issue. Truth was, deep down, she guessed she was probably mad at Shorty himself. The big trip. The most important part of their secret plan. He set out in a bad car. He was dumb. He was dumber than his own potatoes. He couldn’t invest a buck upfront? What would it have cost, at a lube shop with a coupon? Less than the fifty bucks they were paying for the motel, that was for sure, which Shorty was also pestering her to agree was a creepy place run by creepy people, which was a conflict for her, because really she felt like a bunch of polite young men were rescuing her, like knights in shining armour, from a predicament caused entirely by a potato farmer too dumb to check his car before setting out on about a thousand-mile trip to, oh yeah, a foreign country, with, oh yeah, something very valuable in the trunk.
Dumb. She wanted air. She slipped out of bed and padded barefoot to the door. She turned the knob, and pressed her other hand on the frame for balance, so she could ease the door open without a sound, because she wanted Shorty to stay asleep, because she didn’t want to deal with him right then, as mad as she was.
But the door was stuck. It wouldn’t move at all. She checked it was properly unlocked from the inside, and she tried the knob both ways, but nothing happened. The door was jammed. Maybe it had never been adjusted properly after installation. Or maybe it had swelled with the summer heat.
Dumb. Really dumb. Now was the one time she could use Shorty. He was a strong little fireplug. From throwing hundred-pound bags of potatoes around. But was she going to wake him up and ask him? Was she hell. She crept back to bed and got in alongside him and stared at the ceiling, which was straight and true and smooth and solid.
Reacher woke again at eight o’clock in the morning. Bright bars of hard sun came past the edges of the drapes. There was dust in the air, floating gently. There were muted sounds from the street. Cars waiting, and then moving off. A light at the end of the block, presumably. Occasionally the dulled blare of a horn, as if a guy in front had looked away and missed the green.
He showered, and retrieved his pants from under the mattress, and dressed, and walked out in search of breakfast. He found coffee and muffins close by, which sustained him through a longer reconnaissance, which brought him to a place he figured might have good food hiding under multiple layers of some kind of faux-retro irony. He figured it would take a smarter guy than him to decode them all. The basic idea seemed to be someone’s modern-day notion of where old-time lumberjacks might have dined, on whatever it was that old-time lumberjacks ate, which in the modern day seemed to be interpreted as one of every fried item on the menu. In Reacher’s experience lumberjacks ate the same as any other hard-working person, which was all kinds of different things. But he had no ideological objection to fried food as such, especially not in generous quantities, so he played along. He went in and sat down, briskly, he hoped, as if he had thirty minutes before he had a tree to fell.
The food was fine, and the coffee kept on coming, so he lingered longer than thirty minutes, watching out the window, timing the hustle and the bustle, waiting until the people in the suits and the skirts were safely at work. Then he got up and left his tip and paid his check, and walked two of the blocks he had scouted the night before, towards the place he guessed he should start. Which was the records department of the city offices. Which had a suite number all its own, on a crowded multi-line floor directory, outside a brick-built multi-purpose government building, which because of its age and its shape Reacher figured had once contained a courtroom. Maybe it still did.
The suite he was looking for turned out to be one of many small rooms opening off a grand mezzanine hallway. Like a corridor in an expensive hotel. Except the doors were half glass, which was reeded in an old-fashioned style, with the department name painted on it in gold. Over two lines, in the case of the records department. Inside the door was an empty room with four plastic chairs and a waist-high enquiry counter. Like a miniature version of any government office. There was an electric bell push screwed to the counter. It had a thin wire that ran away to a nearby crack, and a handwritten sign that said If Unattended Ring For Service. The message was carefully lettered and protected by many layers of clear tape, applied in strips of generous length, some of which were curled at the corners, and dirty, as if picked at by bored or anxious fingers.
Reacher rang for service. A minute later a woman came through a door in the rear wall, looking back as she did so, with what Reacher thought was regret, as if she was leaving a space dramatically larger and more exciting. She was maybe thirty, slim and neat, in a grey sweater and a grey skirt. She stepped up to the counter but she glanced back at the door. Either her boyfriend was waiting, or she hated her job. Maybe both. But she did her best. She cranked up a warm and welcoming manner. Not exactly like in a store, where the customer was always right, but more as an equal, as if she and the customer were just bound to have a good time together, puzzling through some ancient town business. There was enough light in her eyes Reacher figured she meant at least some of it. Maybe she didn’t hate her job after all.
He said, ‘I need to ask you about an old real estate record.’
‘Is it for a title dispute?’ the woman asked. ‘In which case you should get your attorney to request it. Much faster that way.’
‘No kind of dispute,’ he said. ‘My father was born here. That’s all. Years ago. He’s dead now. I was passing by. I thought I would stop in and take a look at the house he grew up in.’
‘What’s the address?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Can you remember roughly where it is?’
‘I’ve never been there.’
‘You didn’t visit?’
‘Perhaps because your father moved away when he was young.’
‘Not until he joined the Marines when he was seventeen.’
‘Then perhaps because your grandparents moved away before your father had a family of his own. Before visits became a thing.’
‘I got the impression my grandparents stayed here the rest of their lives.’
‘But you never met them?’
‘We were a Marine family. We were always somewhere else.’
‘Not your fault.’
‘But thank you for your service.’
‘Wasn’t my service. My dad was the Marine, not me. I was hoping we could look him up, maybe in a register of births or something, to get his parents’ full names, so we could find their exact address, maybe in property tax records or something, so I could drop by and take a look.’
‘You don’t know your grandparents’ names?’
‘I think they were James and Elizabeth Reacher.’
‘That’s my name.’
‘Your name is Reacher?’
‘No, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Castle.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ Reacher said.
‘Likewise,’ she said.
‘I’m Jack Reacher. My dad was Stan Reacher.’
‘How long ago did Stan leave to join the Marines?’
‘He would be about ninety now, so it was more than seventy years ago.’
‘Then we should start eighty years ago, for a safety margin,’ the woman said. ‘At that point Stan Reacher would be about ten years old, living at home with his parents James and Elizabeth Reacher, somewhere in Laconia. Is that a fair summary?’
‘That could be chapter one of my biography.’
‘I’m pretty sure the computer goes back more than eighty years now,’ she said. ‘But for property taxes that old it might just be a list of names, I’m afraid.’
She turned a key and opened a lid in the countertop. Under it was a keyboard and a screen. Safe from thieves, while unattended. She pressed a button, and looked away.
‘Booting up,’ she said.
Which were words he had heard before, in a technological context, but to him they sounded military, as if infantry companies were lacing tight ahead of a general advance.
She clicked and scrolled, and scrolled and clicked.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Eighty years ago is just an index, with file numbers. If you want detail, you need to request the actual physical document from storage. Usually that takes a long time, I’m afraid.’
‘Sometimes three months.’
‘Are there names and addresses in the index?’
‘Then that’s really all we need.’
‘I guess so. If all you want to do is take a look at the house.’
‘That’s all I’m planning to do.’
‘Aren’t you curious?’
‘Their lives. Who they were and what they did.’
‘Not three months’ worth of curious.’
‘OK, then names and addresses are all we need.’
‘If the house is still there,’ he said. ‘Maybe someone tore it down. Suddenly eighty years sounds like a real long time.’
‘Things change slowly here,’ she said.
She clicked again, and scrolled, fast at first, scooting down through the alphabet, and then slowly, peering at the screen, through what Reacher assumed was the R section, and then back up again, just as slowly, peering just as hard. Then down and up again fast, as if trying to shake something loose.
She said, ‘No one named Reacher owned property in Laconia eighty years ago.’