No hikers up ahead.
Helen said, “Reacher, you blew it.”
He said, “Start with the polysyllabic examples. I’m always interested.”
She said, “Maybe something already happened to them.”
“But what? There are no search parties coming north out of Naismith. No other hikers. The missing equipment is not jumping up and biting them in the ass. Not actually. You can say so later, figuratively, but so far nothing much can have happened to them.”
“Then where are they?”
“They must be static. Maybe they pitched their tent already. Maybe they found the perfect spot.”
“I think they hustled and we missed them. I think we came in behind them. You blew the call.”
“Life’s a gamble,” Reacher said again.
They moved on, speeding up a little, ignoring the sylvan glades to their left and right, every one of them a separate curiosity, like a room in a museum. There was a new breeze high above them, and the canopy was rustling, and tree limbs were clicking and groaning. Small furtive animals made darting sounds in the underbrush. Insects hung in tight clouds, to be avoided if possible, or batted through if not.
Then the trail jinked right and left around a huge mossy bole four feet wide, and up ahead in the gloom they saw two bright objects stacked side by side on the forest floor. Red and orange and yellow, nylon, straps and buckles.
“Theirs,” Helen said.
Reacher nodded at her side. He had seen the backpacks before, most recently at the wilderness arch that morning, hoisted into place and ready to go. They walked on and stopped next to the luggage. It was not abandoned. Both packs were set upright, leaning one on the other. They had been carefully placed.
“They stepped off the trail,” Reacher said. “A little side excursion. No point hauling bags through the brush.”
“When?” Helen said.
“Recently, I hope. Which would mean they’re close by.”
Behind the click and the hum of the living woods there was nothing but silence all around. No gasps, no calls, no feet ripping through the tangled undergrowth.
Helen said, “Should we shout?”
Reacher said, “Not too loud.”
“Henry? Suzanne?” She said their names like a fierce stage whisper, louder than talking, but far from yelling, with an anxious questioning cadence rising on the ends.
She said, “They can’t be far away, surely.”
Reacher studied the brush to the left and the right. Logic said if they had stepped off the trail, they would have done so near their bags. No sense in stacking the packs and then choosing an exit point a hundred yards away. So Reacher knew where to start looking. But he was no kind of an expert tracker. Not out in the wilds. Not like the movies, where the guy squats down on his haunches and ponders a moment and says, They passed this way three hours ago, and the woman has a blister on her ankle.
But there were broken shoots and torn leaves in one location. Easy enough to imagine a planted foot, and the sweep of a short, cautious stride, and the next foot, and a second person following behind, leading with one shoulder, then leading with the other, squeezing through the gaps.
Helen said, “Should we try it?”
Reacher said, “Call their names again.”
“Henry? Suzanne? Where are you?”
No response. No echo off the trees.
Reacher pushed his way into the brush, scanning ahead, looking for disturbances, for kicked twigs, for sap oozing from crushed stalks. It was an inexact process. In most places there was no obvious new direction to follow. He was forced to stop every few yards, and examine a whole arc ahead of him, and choose the least-worst possibility from among a number of equally plausible angles. He figured rabbits and other small animals could sweep blades of grass aside just as easily as a brushing foot, but only human weight could break anything thicker than a pencil, so he based his guesses on the presence or absence of bright new wood on the inside faces of busted twigs. On and on, like an algorithm, yes and no and no and yes.
Deeper into the woods.
Every ten yards they stopped and listened, the backs of their brains filtering out the normal sounds and scanning for the abnormal. But hearing nothing, not on the first stop, or the second, or the third, but the fourth time around Reacher felt he could sense held breath nearby, a tense human vibe, which the ancient part of his mind interpreted as either predator or prey, and therefore of interest either way. A hundred generations, and they all survived. Then he heard a tiny sound halfway between a wheezing click and a whirring crunch, all spiky with tiny squeaks and whistles and mechanical resonances, and bathed in faint but cavernous echo. Like a Nikon camera, but not really. An electronic imitation, reedy and insubstantial.
A cell phone, taking a picture.
Reacher pushed on, stepping high to keep clear of vines, squeezing through gaps, and then suddenly seeing Henry and Suzanne, standing shoulder to shoulder not ten feet from him, looking down, taking cell phone snaps of the thing on the ground in front of them. No heat signature, and too small to show up on radar. That was for damn sure.
It was a dead human, a man, small, dark-skinned, lean and ascetic, in old orange prison garb. He was on his back, and the angle of his neck and his limbs made no kind of anatomical sense. He looked soft inside, almost liquid, as if his bones were smashed and his organs crushed.
Reacher said, “He fell out of an airplane. Not off an airplane, exactly. Out through the door. Way high up. So he blacks out because he has no oxygen, or maybe the sudden cold gives him a heart attack right then and there, but either way he falls like a rag doll, and he smashes through the canopy, and he hits the forest floor, where he’s DOA for sure. The canopy bounces back, so there’s nothing to see from above, and he’s cooling fast, down to ambient temperature, so the infrared can’t find him, and as far as radar is concerned, he looks exactly like a tree root or a little pile of broken branches.”
Suzanne said, “I hope he had the heart attack from the cold.”
Reacher said, “The question is, did he jump or was he pushed?”
“Who is he?”
“He’s a Canadian citizen. He was supposed to come down in Toronto. But he missed.”
“And who are you?”
“Just another Canadian citizen.”
“Who are the pictures for?”
“Who is he?” Reacher asked again.
“I see both sides,” Suzanne said. “I would do anything to stop another attack. But it’s getting insane now. They fly these guys from Guantánamo to Egypt and Syria, where they get a good working over, and after a while the ones who survive have to come back, because the Egyptians and the Syrians can’t have them hanging about forever, but you don’t want them back, because what are you going to do with them? Guantánamo is always full, and you can’t just say never mind and let them go, because they’ve all got stories to tell.”
“So what do they do with them? And tell me how you know.”
“There’s a network, for people of conscience. Way down in the dark web. Certain facts are established. Your ground crews bypassed a couple of failsafes, and made it possible to open the airplane door during flight. At very low speeds, and very low altitudes, mostly over the far north Atlantic, in the radar shadows, where they would come down low and slow, and open the hatch. That’s what they do with them. Problem solved.”
“So word gets around, and this guy knows he’s either going to die under torture or get thrown out of the plane on the way home. There’s no happy ending here. So he decides to jump out the door on the outward flight. To take them by surprise. Somewhere over Toronto. To make a statement. A sympathetic foreign press, a chance to apply some external pressure.
Reacher nodded. Like a thumb up Canada’s ass. Toronto wasn’t very far away. He said, “What went wrong?”
“Not very much. They have access to information and experts of every kind. They knew the route, which never changes, and they knew the timing. It’s just a question of counting the minutes in your head, and then going for it. Which I guess can’t ever be totally accurate. Although he trained for months. And a gust of headwind counts for a lot, I suppose. Small errors multiply.”
“Who are the pictures for?” Reacher asked again.
“His family. There’s nothing else to be done. None of this exists on paper. The denials would be instant and convincing. They’d say the photos were faked. Low green light, a little grainy. Foreign radicals with a bike shop. The whole thing wouldn’t last a day.”
“Would it have lasted longer in Toronto?”
“They thought so. Cities and suburbs are different. There are lots of witnesses, and cops, and TV. Things don’t go away so easily. They thought it could be a watershed moment.”
“You seem to know a lot about how they think.”
“I try to learn how everyone thinks. It’s the key to understanding. Not that this was some innocent sweetheart. He was a thug straight from the Middle Ages. He was a vicious killer. I was glad he was jumping out of the plane. But he had already told them what he knew. And they were sending him anyway. Just out of habit. It’s insane now.”
“How did you know where to look?”
“Postgame analysis from the experts.”
“We were closest.”
“Out of how many choices?”
Helen said, “Of course.”
Henry said, “It was her idea to pick you up and bring you along. At least that way we get an American witness. You’ve seen it now. You can’t un-see it.”
Reacher said, “We need to get back to Naismith.”
But they didn’t make it far. Not as a group. They retraced their steps. It was easy to follow Reacher’s blundering trail in reverse. Then thirty yards short of the path he heard noises ahead, and he saw a blink of movement through the trunks. He held out his hand in warning, and Suzanne and Helen and Henry froze behind him. He crept on without them, leaning rather than moving, straining forward, peering ahead.
Four guys in ACUs. One of which was Sergeant Cain. They were all staring at the backpacks. Carefully placed. One leaning on the other.
Reacher eased back, and they all four ducked their heads together, and he whispered, “Stay in the woods another hundred yards. Loop around. Hit the trail south of them, and then leg it. Jump in the van and head straight for home. Best of luck all the way. Don’t come back again.”
They all shook hands, and the three of them moved off, and Reacher waited. He gave them three minutes, and then he moved toward the four soldiers, as noisily as possible, brushing things and snapping things at every opportunity. They heard him ten yards out, and they turned as one, and their M16s came up, and Reacher heard four quiet snicks as four fire selectors were turned up a notch. Clean precise sounds, hard and real, not like the phony photo shutter.
He said, “Long guns are a poor choice in the woods, Sergeant Cain. You can aim all you want, but there’s always going to be a tree in the way. That’s your first mistake. Let’s hope it’s also your last.”
Cain called back, “Are those people with you?”
“They were hikers, from Canada. I haven’t seen them since this morning.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Let it go, sergeant. Play it smart. There are no medals in this one. By tomorrow morning it won’t have happened at all.”
“They might have seen evidence of a covert operation.”
“They saw what they were supposed to see.”
Cain said, “What does that mean?”
“Like a magician on stage,” Reacher said. “A big showy flourish with the left hand, attracting all the attention, while the right hand does the real work. There are activists in the world, Sergeant Cain. We can’t wish them away. They’re always looking for something to piss and moan about. So we give them something. A big showy flourish with the left hand. Something to get all agitated about. But not too agitated, because after all who really gives a shit about vicious killers straight out of the Middle Ages? Meanwhile, the right hand does the important stuff undisturbed. Classic misdirection.”
“Who are you?”
“I was an MP once. I was your boss’s boss’s boss. And my brother did a spell in Military Intelligence. I met some of his people. Some sly minds there, sergeant. There was an old guy called O’Day. A buck gets ten this scheme is one of his. Think about it. Hundreds of people, a secret website, all kinds of planning and scheming. It’s an energy sink. Like a sponge. It keeps them where we can see them.”
“Let it go, sergeant,” Reacher said again. “Play your part, which is to look sinister next to your Humvees. No one’s going to thank you if you screw up your lines. These things are very carefully orchestrated.”
Then Reacher stepped back and shut up, and let Cain’s career caution do his work for him. After a minute Cain gave the word and all four of them formed up and jogged back the way they had come. Reacher followed five minutes behind them, but he took the precaution of looping the last hundred yards through the brush, and coming out on a parallel street. Two minutes later he was back at the welcome board, waiting for a ride out of town.
It’s not over for Jack Reacher. He’s back in Personal, the new novel from Lee Child—coming September 2014 in hardcover and eBook.
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Eight days ago my life was an up and down affair. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Most of it uneventful. Long slow periods of nothing much, with occasional bursts of something. Like the army itself. Which is how they found me. You can leave the army, but the army doesn’t leave you. Not always. Not completely.
They started looking two days after some guy took a shot at the president of France. I saw it in the paper. A long-range attempt with a rifle. In Paris. Nothing to do with me. I was six thousand miles away, in California, with a girl I met on a bus. She wanted to be an actor. I didn’t. So after forty-eight hours in LA she went one way and I went the other. Back on the bus, first to San Francisco for a couple of days, and then to Portland, Oregon, for three more, and then onward to Seattle. Which took me close to Fort Lewis, where two women in uniform got out of the bus. They left an Army Times behind, one day old, right there on the seat across the aisle.
The Army Times is a strange old paper. It started up before World War Two and is still going strong, every week, full of yesterday’s news and sundry how-to articles, like the headline staring up at me right then: