CHAPTER 24

REACHER MOVED IN his chair and said, “Nobody scores a hundred percent. Not in the real world. Not me, not you, not anybody. So get over it.”

“That’s your response?” Pauling said.

“I probably got more people killed than you ever met. I don’t beat myself up over them. Shit happens.”

Pauling nodded. “It’s the sister. She’s up there in that weird little aerie all the time. She’s like my conscience.”

“I met her,” Reacher said.

“She weighs on my mind.”

“Tell me about the three of clubs,” Reacher said.

Pauling paused, like a gear change.

“We concluded it was meaningless,” she said. “There had been a book or a movie or something where assassins left calling cards. So we tended to get a lot of that at the time. But usually they were picture cards. Mostly aces, mostly spades. There was nothing in the databases about threes. Not much about clubs, either. Then we thought maybe this was one of three connected things, you know, but there was never anything else similar to put with it. We studied symbolism and number theory. We checked with UCLA, talked to the people who study gang culture. Nothing there. We talked to semiotics people at Harvard and Yale and the Smithsonian. We talked to Wesleyan in Connecticut, got some linguistics person working on it. Nothing there. We had a grad student at Columbia working on it. We had people with brains the size of planets working on it. Nothing anywhere. So the three of clubs meant nothing. It was designed to make us chase our tails. Which in itself was a meaningless conclusion. Because what we needed to know was who would want us to chase our tails.”

“Did you look at Lane back then? Even before you heard Patti’s theories?”

Pauling nodded. “We looked at him very carefully, and all his guys. More from the point of view of threat assessment, back then. Like, who knew him? Who knew he had money? Who even knew he had a wife?”

“And?”

“He’s not a very pleasant man. He’s borderline mentally ill. He has a psychotic need to command.”

“Patti Joseph says the same things.”

“She’s right.”

“And you know what?” Reacher said. “His men are mostly a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, too. They’ve got a psychotic need to be commanded. I’ve talked to some of them. They’re civilians, but they’re holding fast to their old military codes. Like security blankets. Even when they don’t really enjoy the results.”

“They’re a weird bunch. All Special Forces and black ops, so naturally the Pentagon wasn’t very forthcoming. But we noticed two things. Most of them had been around the block many, many times, but there were far fewer medals among them than you would normally expect to see. And most of them got general discharges. Not honorable discharges. Including Lane himself. What do you think all of that means?”

“I suspect you know exactly what it means.”

“I’d like to hear it from your professional perspective.”

“It means they were bad guys. Either low-level and irritating, or bigger deals but with charges not proven.”

“What about the lack of medals?”

“Messy campaigns,” Reacher said. “Gratuitous collateral damage, looting, prisoner abuse. Maybe prisoners got shot. Maybe buildings got burned.”

“And Lane himself?”

“Ordered abuse or failed to prevent it. Or maybe participated in it. He told me he quit after the Gulf the first time around. I was there. There were pockets of bad behavior.”

“Stuff like that can’t be proved?”

“Special Forces operate on their own miles from anywhere. It’s a clandestine world. There would have been rumors, that’s all. Maybe a whistleblower or two. But no hard evidence.”

Pauling nodded again. “Those were our conclusions. Internally generated. We employed a lot of ex-military in the Bureau.”

“Employed,” Reacher said. “You employed the good ones. The ones with honorable discharges and medals and recommendations.”

“Is that what you got?”

“All of the above. But I had a couple of promotion hiccups, because I’m not a very cooperative guy. Gregory asked me about that. The first one of them I spoke to. The first conversation we had. He asked if I’d had career problems. He seemed happy that I had.”

“Puts you in the same boat.”

Reacher nodded. “And it kind of explains why they’re sticking with Lane. Where else are they going to get twenty-five grand a month with their records?”

“Is that what they get? That’s three hundred thousand a year.”

“It was back when I learned math.”

“Is that what Lane offered you? Three hundred grand?”

Reacher said nothing.

“What is he hiring you for?”

Reacher said nothing.

“What’s on your mind?”

“We’re not done with the information yet.”

“Anne Lane died, five years ago, in a vacant lot near the New Jersey Turnpike. That’s all the hard data we’ll ever have.”

“Gut feeling?”

“What’s yours?”

Reacher shrugged. “Brewer said something to me. He said he just didn’t know, which was weird for him, he said, because whereas he was sometimes wrong, he always knew. And I’m exactly the same. I always know. Except this time I don’t know. So what’s on my mind right now is that I have nothing on my mind.”

“I think it was a genuine kidnap,” Pauling said. “I think I blew it.”

“Do you?”

She paused a beat. Shook her head.

“Not really,” she said. “Truthfully, I just don’t know. God knows I want Lane to have done it. Obviously. And maybe he did. But for the sake of my sanity I have to acknowledge that’s mostly wishful thinking, to excuse myself. And I have to file the whole thing somewhere, mentally. So I tend to come down on the side of avoiding self-indulgence and cheap consolation. And usually the simple option is the right option anyway. So it was a simple kidnap, not an elaborate charade. And I blew it.”

“How did you blow it?”

“I don’t know. I’ve lain awake a hundred nights going over it. I don’t see how I made a mistake.”

“So maybe you didn’t blow it. Maybe it was an elaborate charade.”

“What’s on your mind, Reacher?”

He looked at her.

“Whatever it was, it’s happening again,” he said.

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