Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(2)


by Lee Child

He stepped into the coffee shop with a blank-eyed all-in-one scan of the room, like he had a fifth of a second to identify friend or foe before he started shooting. Obviously his briefing must have been basic and verbal, straight out of some old personnel file, but he had me at six-five two-fifty. Everyone else in the shop was Asian, mostly women and very petite. The guy walked straight towards me and said, ‘Major Reacher?’

I said, ‘Not any more.’

He said, ‘Mr Reacher, then?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

‘Sir, General Shoemaker requests that you come with me.’

I said, ‘Where to?’

‘Not far.’

‘How many stars?’

‘Sir, I don’t follow.’

‘Does General Shoemaker have?’

‘One, sir. Brigadier General Richard Shoemaker, sir.’

‘When?’

‘When what, sir?’

‘Did he get his promotion?’

‘Two years ago.’

‘Do you find that as extraordinary as I do?’

The guy paused a beat and said, ‘Sir, I have no opinion.’

‘And how is General O’Day?’

The guy paused another beat and said, ‘Sir, I know of no one named O’Day.’

The blue car was a Chevrolet Impala with police hubs and cloth seats. The polish was the freshest thing on it. The guy in the blazer drove me through the downtown streets and got on I-5 heading south. The same way the bus had come in. We drove back past Boeing Field once again, and past the Sea-Tac airport once again, and onward towards Tacoma. The guy in the blazer didn’t talk. Neither did I. We both sat there mute, as if we were in a no-talking competition and serious about winning. I watched out the window. All green, hills and sea and trees alike.

We passed Tacoma, and slowed ahead of where the women in uniform had gotten out of the bus, leaving their Army Times behind. We took the same exit. The signs showed nothing ahead except three very small towns and one very large military base. Chances were therefore good we were heading for Fort Lewis. But it turned out we weren’t. Or we were, technically, but we wouldn’t have been back in the day. We were heading for what used to be McChord Air Force Base, and was now the aluminium half of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Reforms. Politicians will do anything to save a buck.

I was expecting a little back-and-forth at the gate, because the gate belonged jointly to the army and the air force, and the car and the driver were both navy, and I was absolutely nobody. Only the Marine Corps and the United Nations were missing. But such was the power of O’Day we barely had to slow the car. We swept in, and hooked a left, and hooked a right, and were waved through a second gate, and then the car was right out there on the tarmac, dwarfed by huge C-17 transport planes, like a mouse in a forest. We drove under a giant grey wing and headed out over open blacktop straight for a small white airplane standing alone. A corporate thing. A business jet. A Lear, or a Gulfstream, or whatever rich people buy these days. The paint winked in the sun. There was no writing on it, apart from a tail number. No name, no logo. Just white paint. Its engines were turning slowly, and its stairs were down.

The guy in the blazer drove a well-judged part-circle and came to a stop with my door about a yard from the bottom of the airplane steps. Which I took as a hint. I climbed out and stood a moment in the sun. Spring had sprung and the weather was pleasant. Beside me the car drove away. A steward appeared above me, in the little oval mouth of the cabin. He was wearing a uniform. He said, ‘Sir, please step up.’

The stairs dipped a little under my weight. I ducked into the cabin. The steward backed off to my right, and on my left another guy in uniform squeezed out of the cockpit and said, ‘Welcome aboard, sir. You have an all-air force crew today, and we’ll get you there in no time at all.’

I said, ‘Get me where?’

‘To your destination.’ The guy crammed himself back in his seat next to his co-pilot and they both got busy checking dials. I followed the steward and found a cabin full of butterscotch leather and walnut veneer. I was the only passenger. I picked an armchair at random. The steward hauled the steps up and sealed the door and sat down on a jump seat behind the pilots’ shoulders. Thirty seconds later we were in the air, climbing hard.

TWO

I FIGURED WE turned east out of McChord. Not that there was much of a choice. West was Russia and Japan and China, and I doubted such a small plane had that kind of range. I asked the steward where we were going, and he said he hadn’t seen the flight plan. Which was obvious bullshit. But I didn’t push it. He turned out to be a chatty guy on every other subject. He told me the plane was a Gulfstream IV, confiscated from a bent hedge fund during a federal proceeding, and reissued to the air force for VIP transportation. In which case air force VIPs were lucky people. The plane was terrific. It was quiet and solid, and the armchairs were sensational. They adjusted every which way. And there was coffee in the galley. A proper drip machine. I told the guy to keep it going, but that I would go back and forth myself, for refills. He appreciated that. I think he took it as a mark of respect. He wasn’t really a steward, obviously. He was some kind of a security escort, tough enough to get the job, and proud I knew it.

I watched out the window, first at the Rockies, which had dark green trees low down and blinding white snow high up. Then came the tawny agricultural plains, in tiny mosaic fragments, ploughed and sown and harvested, over and over again, and not rained on much. By the look of the land I figured we clipped the corner of South Dakota and saw a bit of Nebraska before setting out over Iowa. Which because of the geometric complexities of high-altitude flight meant we were likely aiming some ways south. A Great Circle route. Weird on a flat paper map, but just right for a spherical planet. We were going to Kentucky, or Tennessee, or the Carolinas. Georgia, even.

We droned on, hour after hour, two full pots of coffee, and then the ground got a little closer. At first I thought it was Virginia, but then I figured it was North Carolina. I saw two towns that could only be Winston-Salem and Greensboro. They were on the left, and receding a little. Which meant we were heading southeast. No towns until Fayetteville. But just before that came Fort Bragg. Which was where Special Forces HQ was located. Which was Tom O’Day’s natural economic habitat.

Wrong again. Or right, technically, but in name only. We landed in the evening dark at what used to be Pope Air Force Base, which had since been given away to the army. Now it was just Pope Field, just a small corner of an ever-bigger Fort Bragg. Reforms. Politicians will do anything to save a buck.