ore than three years from now is the new millennium, with every capital city celebrating around the clock, which makes that one single day the greatest propaganda target in the history of planet Earth. We need to know who these guys are well ahead of time. All of them. So we ignore nothing.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s a place where they send good agents fresh off a big win.”
Waterman paused a beat. A new thought. He said, “Are you the same as us? I don’t see why you wouldn’t be. Why draft two the same and not three?”
Reacher nodded. “I’m the same. I’m fresh off a big win. That’s for damn sure. I got a medal this morning. On a ribbon around my neck. For a job well done. All clean and tidy. Nothing to get embarrassed about.”
“What kind of job was it?”
“I’m sure it’s classified. But I’m reliably informed it might have involved someone breaking into a house and shooting the occupant in the head.”
“One in the forehead and one behind the ear. Never fails.”
“No, where was the house?”
“I’m sure that’s classified, too. But overseas, I expect. And I’m reliably informed there were a lot of consonants in the name. Not many vowels at all. And then the same someone did the same thing the next night. At a different house. All for good reasons. Which taken together means I would expect him to get better than this afterward. I would expect him to get some input into his next deployment, at least. Maybe even a choice.”
“Exactly,” White said. “And my choice wouldn’t have been this. It would have been to do what I should be doing right now.”
“Which sounds challenging.”
“Which is typical. As a reward we want a challenge. We don’t want the easy commands. We want to step up.”
“Maybe we have,” Reacher said. “Let me ask you a question. Think back to when you got these orders. Was it face to face, or written?”
“Face to face. It had to be, for a thing like this.”
“Was there a third person in the room?”
White said, “As a matter of fact there was. It was humiliating. An administrative assistant, waiting to deliver a stack of papers. He told her to stay. She was just standing there.”
Reacher looked at Waterman, who said, “Same for me. He kept his secretary in the room. Normally he wouldn’t. How did you know?”
“Because the same thing happened to me. His sergeant. A witness. But also a gossip. That was the whole point. They all talk to each other. Within seconds everyone knew I wasn’t going anywhere interesting. Just a meaningless course with a bullshit title. I was instantly yesterday’s news. Immediately off the radar. I’m sure it’s far and wide by now. I’m a non-person. I disappeared into the bureaucratic fog. And maybe you did, too. Maybe administrative assistants and FBI secretaries have networks of their own. If they do, then the three of us are the three most invisible people on the planet right now. No one is asking questions about us. No one is curious about us. No one can even remember us. There’s nothing more boring than where we are now.”
“You’re saying they moved three unrelated but in-form operatives completely under the radar. Why?”
“Under the radar doesn’t capture it. We’re in class here. We’re completely invisible.”
“Why? And why us three? What’s the connection?”
“I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s a challenging project. Possibly the kind of thing three in-form operatives might regard as a satisfactory reward for services rendered.”
“What is this place?”
“I don’t know,” Reacher said again. “But it ain’t a school. That’s for damn sure.”
At five o’clock exactly two black vans pulled in off the road, and drove past the knee-high sign, and parked behind the three Caprices, like a barricade, trapping them in. Two men in suits got out of each of the vans. Secret Service, or U.S. Marshals. Both pairs of men looked around briefly, and gave themselves the all-clear, and ducked back to their vans to get their principals out.
From the second van came a woman. She had a briefcase in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. She was wearing a neat black dress. Knee length. It was the kind of thing that could do double duty, in the daytime with pearls in hushed high-floor offices, and in the evening with diamonds at cocktail parties and receptions. She was older than Reacher, maybe ten years or more. Middle forties, but doing well. Looking sharp. She had blonde hair, medium length, arranged in an unaffected style and no doubt combed with her fingers. She was taller than the average, but no wider.
Then out of the first van came a guy Reacher recognized instantly. His face was in the paper once a week, and on TV more than that, because as well as getting coverage for his own business, he was in a lot of stock photographs and B-roll footage, of Cabinet meetings, and tense shirt-sleeve discussions in the Oval Office. He was Alfred Ratcliffe, the National Security Adviser. The president’s top boy, whenever it came to things that might not end well. The go-to guy. The right-hand man. Rumor had it he was nearly seventy years old, but he didn’t look it. He was an old State Department survivor, historically in and out of favor as the winds changed and he didn’t, but he had hung in there long enough until finally his backbone got him the best job of all.
The woman joined up with him and they walked together, with the four suits all around them, to the lobby doors, which Reacher heard open, and then he heard feet on the hard carpet, and then they all came into the classroom, two suits hanging back, two walking point toward the chalkboard, Ratcliffe and the woman following them, and turning when they could get no further, to face the room, exactly like teachers at the start of a lesson.
Ratcliffe looked at White, and then at Waterman, and then at Reacher, way in back.
He said, “This is not a school.”
The woman bent decorously at the knees and laid her briefcase and her stack of papers on the floor. Ratcliffe took a step forward and said, “You three were brought here under false pretenses, obviously. But we didn’t want a lot of fanfare. A little misdirection was better. We want to avoid attention, if we can. At least at the beginning.”
And then he paused, for the drama, as if inviting questions, but no one asked any. Not even: the beginning of what? Better to hear the pitch all the way through. Always safer, with orders from on high.
Ratcliffe asked, “Who here can articulate this administration’s national security policy in simple plain English?”
No one spoke.
Ratcliffe asked, “Why aren’t you answering?”
Waterman retreated behind a thousand-yard stare, and White shrugged as if to say the immense complexities obviously precluded ordinary language, and anyway weren’t the notions of simplicity and plainness entirely subjective, and therefore clearly in need of a preliminary round of argument in order to agree definitions?
Reacher said, “It’s a trick question.”
Ratcliffe said, “You think our policy can’t be explained simply?”
“I think it doesn’t exist.”
“You think we’re incompetent?”
“No, I think the world is changing. Better to stay flexible.”
“Are you the MP?”
Ratcliffe paused again, and said, “A little over three years ago a bomb went off in a garage under a very tall building in New York City. Personally tragic for those killed or injured, of course, but from a global perspective not a very big deal at all. Except at that moment the world went mad. The closer we looked, the less we saw, and the less we understood. We had enemies everywhere, apparently, but we didn’t know for sure who they were, or where they were, or why they were, or what was the connection between them, or what they wanted, and we certainly had no idea what they would do next. We were nowhere. But at least we admitted that to ourselves. Therefore we didn’t waste time developing policies on things we hadn’t even heard of yet. We felt that would generate a false sense of security. So as of now our standard operating procedure is to run around with our hair on fire, dealing with ten things at once, as and when they arise. We chase everything, because we have to. A little m
No one spoke.
Ratcliffe said, “Not that I need to justify myself to you. But you need to understand the theory. We make no assumptions and we leave no stone unturned.”
No one asked anything. Not even: do you have a particular stone in mind for us? Always safer not to speak, unless spoken to. Better just to wait.
But then Ratcliffe turned toward the woman and said, “This is Dr. Marian Sinclair, my senior deputy. She will complete the briefing. Every single word she says is backed by me, and therefore by the president also. Every single word. This might be a complete waste of time and go nowhere, but until we know that for sure it gets exactly the same priority as everything else. No effort is to be spared. You’ll get anything you need.”
And then the guy swept out, between two hustling suits. Reacher heard them leave the lobby, and he heard their van start up and drive away. Dr. Marian Sinclair hauled a front-row desk around until it was facing the rest of the room, and she sat down, all toned arms and dark nylons and good shoes. She crossed her legs and said, “Gather round.”
Reacher moved up to the third row and squeezed into a desk that put him in a neat and attentive semicircle with Waterman and White. Sinclair’s face looked open and honest, but pinched by stress and worry. There was serious shit going on. That was clear. Maybe Garber had dropped a hint. You don’t sound happy. But you should. Maybe all was not lost. Reacher figured White was arriving at the same conclusion. He was leaning forward, and his eyes were still. Waterman was motionless. Conserving energy.
Sinclair said, “There’s an apartment in Hamburg, Germany. A fashionable neighborhood, reasonably central, pretty expensive, but maybe a little transitory and corporate. For the last year the apartment has been rented to four men in their twenties. Not Germans. Three are Saudis, and the fourth is an Iranian. All four appear very secular. Clean-shaven, short hair, well dressed. They favor polo shirts in pastel colors with alligator badges. They wear gold Rolex watches and Italian shoes. They drive BMWs and go out to nightclubs. But they don’t go out to work.”
Reacher saw White nod to himself, as if he was familiar with such situations. There was no reaction from Waterman.
Sinclair said, “Locally the four young men are taken to be minor playboys. Possibly related to distant branches of rich and prominent families. Sowing their wild oats before coming home to the oil ministry. Standard-issue Eurotrash, in other words. But we know they’re not. We know they were recruited in their home countries and sent to Germany through Yemen and Afghanistan by a new organization we don’t know much about yet. Other than it seems to be well funded, strongly Jihadist, largely paramilitary in its training methods, and indifferent to national origins. Saudis and Iranians working together is unusual. But working together they are. They were well thought of in the training camps, and they were sent to Hamburg a year ago. Their mission was to embed themselves in the West, live quietly, and await further instructions. Of which they’ve had none so far. They’re a sleeper cell, in other words.”
Waterman stirred and said, “How do we know all this?”
“The Iranian is ours,” Sinclair said. “He’s a double agent. CIA runs him out of the Hamburg consulate.”
Sinclair nodded. “And brave kids are hard to find. That’s one of the ways the world changed. Assets used to walk in the embassy door. They wrote begging letters. We used to turn some of them away. But those were old communists. Now we need young Arabs and we don’t know any.”
“Why do you need us?” Waterman said. “It’s a stable situation. They’re not going anywhere. You’ll get the activation order about a minute after they do. Assuming the consulate mans the switchboard around the clock.”
Better to hear the pitch all the way through.
Sinclair said, “It is a stable situation. Nothing ever happens. But then something did. A few days ago. Just a tiny random collision. They had a visitor.”
At Sinclair’s suggestion they moved out of the classroom to the office. She said the classroom was uncomfortable, because of the desks, which was true, especially for Reacher. He was six feet five and two hundred fifty pounds. He was wearing his desk more than sitting in it. By contrast the office had a conference table with four reclining chairs made of leather. Which enhanced level of comfort Sinclair seemed to fully anticipate. Which made sense. She had leased the space herself, after all, probably yesterday, or had an under-deputy do so on her behalf. Three bedrooms, and four chairs for the briefings.
The men in suits waited outside, and Sinclair said, “Our asset was squeezed for every detail he had, and we think we can trust his conclusions. The visitor was another Saudi. The same age as them. Dressed the same as them. Product in his hair, gold necklace, alligator on his shirt. They weren’t expecting him. It was a total surprise. But they have a thing like the Mafia, where they might be called upon to perform a service. The visitor alluded to it. It turned out he was what they call a courier. Nothing to do with them. Something else entirely. Just that he was in Germany on business and needed a safe house. Which is always a courier’s preferred option. Hotels leave trails, eventually. They’re very paranoid, because these new networks are very spread out. Which means secure communication is theoretically very difficult. They think we can hear their cell phones, which we probably can, and they think we can read their e-mails, which I’m sure we soon will, and they know we steam open their regular mail. So they use couriers instead, who are really messengers. They don’t carry briefcases chained to their wrists. They carry verbal questions and verbal answers in their heads. They go back and forth, from continent to continent, question, answer, question, answer. Very slow, but completely secure. No electronic fingerprint anywhere, nothing written down, and nothing to see except a guy with a gold chain passing through an airport, alongside a million others just like him.”
White asked, “Do we know if Hamburg was his final destination? Or was he breaking his journey to somewhere else in Germany?”
Sinclair said, “His business was in Hamburg.”
“But not with the boys in the house.”
“No, with someone else.”
“Do we know who sent him? Do we assume the same guys from Yemen and Afghanistan?”
“We strongly believe it was the same guys. Because of another circumstance.”
Waterman said, “Which was what?”
“By a statistically not-very-amazing coincidence, the messenger knew one of the Saudis in the house. They had spent three months in Yemen together, climbing ropes and firing AK47s. It’s a small world. So the two of them had brief conversations, and the Iranian overheard some of them.”
“What did he hear?”
“The guy was waiting for a rendezvous coming up two days from then. Location was never stated, or at least never overheard, but the context suggested it was reasonably local to the safe house. He didn’t have a message to give. He was there to be told something. An opening statement, the Iranian says. An initial position, of some sort. He says it was clear from the context. The messenger was to hear the statement and carry it back in his head.”
“It sounds like the start of a negotiation. Like an opening bid.”
Sinclair nodded. “We expect the messenger to return. At least once, with a yes or no answer.”
“Do we have any idea what the issue is?”
Sinclair shook her head. “But it’s important business. The Iranian is sure of it, because the messenger was an elite warrior, just like himself. He must have been well thought of in the camps, or how could he have gotten the polo shirts and the Italian shoes and four passports? He wasn’t the sort of guy used by small fish at either end of the chain. He was a principals-only typ
e of messenger.”
“Did the rendezvous happen?”
“In the late afternoon of the second day. The guy went out for fifty minutes.”
“And then what?”
“He left, first thing the next morning.”
“No more conversations?”
“One more. And it was a good one. The guy spilled the beans. He came right out with it. He told his friend the information he was carrying home. Just like that. He couldn’t help himself. Because he was impressed by it, we think. By the scale of it. The Iranian said he seemed very excited. These are young men in their twenties.”
“What was the information?”
“It was an opening statement. An initial position. Just like the Iranian thought it would be. Short and to the point.”
“What did it say?”
“ ‘The American wants a hundred million dollars.’ ”
Sinclair sat up straight and hitched closer to the table, as if to emphasize her points, and said, “The Iranian is by all accounts very smart and articulate and sensitive to the nuances of language, and the head of station went over and over it with him, and we firmly believe it was a simple declarative statement. During those fifty minutes the messenger met face to face with an American. Male, because there was no comment about it being a woman, and there would have been, the Iranian says. He’s completely certain of that. During the meeting the American told the messenger he wanted a hundred million dollars. As a price for something. That was clearly the context. But that was the end of the transmission. What American, we don’t know. A hundred million for what, we don’t know. From whom, we don’t know.”
White said, “But a hundred million narrows the field. Even if it’s an opening bid that gets knocked down to fifty, it’s still a good chunk of change. Who has that kind of money? Plenty of people, you would say, but