New Rules! Changes for Badges and Insignia! Plus Four More Uniform Changes on the Way! Legend has it the news is yesterday’s because it’s copied secondhand from old AP summaries, but if you read the words sideways you sometimes hear a real sardonic tone between the lines. The editorials are occasionally brave. The obituaries are occasionally interesting.
Which was my sole reason for picking up the paper. Sometimes people die and you’re happy about it. Or not. Either way you need to know. But I never found out. Because on the way to the obituaries I found the personal ads. Which as always were mostly veterans looking for other veterans. Dozens of ads, all the same.
Including one with my name in it.
Right there, center of the page, a boxed column inch, five words printed bold: Jack Reacher call Rick Shoemaker.
Which had to be Tom O’Day’s work. Which later on made me feel a little lame. Not that O’Day wasn’t a smart guy. He had to be. He had survived a long time. A very long time. He had been around forever. Twenty years ago he already looked a hundred. A tall, thin, gaunt, cadaverous man, who moved like he might collapse at any moment, like a broken stepladder. He was no one’s idea of an army general. More like a professor. Or an anthropologist. Certainly his thinking had been sound. Reacher stays under the radar, which means buses and trains and waiting rooms and diners, which, coincidentally or not, are the natural economic habitat for enlisted men and women, who buy the Army Times ahead of any other publication in the PX, and who can be relied upon to spread the paper around, like birds spread seeds from berries.
And he could rely on me to pick up the paper. Somewhere. Sooner or later. Eventually. Because I needed to know. You can leave the army, but the army doesn’t leave you. Not completely. As a means of communication, as a way of making contact, from what he knew, and from what he could guess, then maybe he would think ten or twelve consecutive weeks of personal ads might generate a small but realistic chance of success.
But it worked the first time out. One day after the paper was printed. Which is why I felt lame later on.
I was predictable.
Rick Shoemaker was Tom O’Day’s boy. Probably his second in command by now. Easy enough to ignore. But I owed Shoemaker a favor. Which O’Day knew about, obviously. Which was why he put Shoemaker’s name in his ad.
And which was why I would have to answer it.
Seattle was dry when I got out of the bus. And warm. And wired, in the sense that coffee was being consumed in prodigious quantities, which made it my kind of town, and in the sense that wifi hotspots and handheld devices were everywhere, which didn’t, and which made old-fashioned street-corner pay phones hard to find. But there was one down by the fish market, so I stood in the salt breeze and the smell of the sea, and I dialed a toll-free number at the Pentagon. Not a number you’ll find in the phone book. A number learned by heart long ago. A special line, for emergencies only. You don’t always have a quarter in your pocket.
The operator answered and I asked for Shoemaker and I got transferred, maybe elsewhere in the building, or the country, or the world, and after a bunch of clicks and hisses and some long minutes of dead air Shoemaker came on the line and said, “Yes?”
“This is Jack Reacher,” I said.
“Where are you?”
“Don’t you have all kinds of automatic machines to tell you that?”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re in Seattle, on a pay phone down by the fish market. But we prefer it when people volunteer the information themselves. We find that makes the subsequent conversation go better. Because they’re already cooperating. They’re invested.”
“In the conversation.”
“Are we having a conversation?”
“Not really. What do you see directly ahead?”
“A street,” I said.
“Places to buy fish.”
“A coffee shop across the light.”
I told him.
He said, “Go in there and wait.”
“For about thirty minutes,” he said, and hung up.