CHESTER STONE'S DAY started out in the normal way. He drove to work at the usual time. The Benz was as soothing as ever. The sun was shining, as it should be in June. The drive into the city was normal. Normal traffic, no more, no less. The usual rose vendors and paper sellers in the toll plazas. The slackening congestion down the length of Manhattan, proving he'd timed it just right, as he usually did. He parked in his normal leased slot under his building and rode the elevator up to his offices. Then his day stopped being normal.
The place was deserted. It was as if his company had vanished overnight. The staff had all disappeared, instinctively, like rats from a sinking ship. A single phone was trilling on a distant desk. Nobody was sitting there to answer it. The computers were all turned off. The monitor screens were dull gray squares, reflecting the strip lights in the ceiling. His own inner office was always quiet, but now there was a strange hush lying over it. He walked in and heard a sound like a tomb.
"I'm Chester Stone," he said into the silence.
He said it just to be making some noise in the place, but it came out like a croak. There was no echo, because the thick carpeting and the fiberboard walls soaked up the sound like a sponge. His voice just disappeared in the void.
"Shit," he said.
He was angry. Mostly with his secretary. She had been with him a long time. She was the sort of employee he expected to stand up and be loyal, with a shy hand on his shoulder, a gleam in her eye, a promise to stay and beat the odds whatever the hell they were. But she'd done the same thing as all the others. She'd heard the rumors coming out of the finance department, the company was bust, the paychecks would bounce, and she'd dumped some old files out of a carton and boxed up the photos of her damn nephews in their cheap brass frames and her ratty old spider plant from her desk and her junk from her drawers and carried it all home on the subway to her neat little apartment, wherever the hell that was. Her neat little apartment, decorated and furnished with his paychecks from when the times were good. She would be sitting there now, in her bathrobe, drinking coffee slowly, an unexpected morning off, never to return to him, maybe leafing through the vacancies in the back of the newspaper, choosing her next port of call.
"Shit," he said again.
He turned on his heel and barged out through the secretarial pen and back out all the way to the elevator. Rode down to the street and strode out into the sun. Turned west and set out walking fast, in a fury, with his heart thumping. The enormous glittering bulk of the Twin Towers loomed over him. He hurried across the plaza and inside to the elevators. He was sweating. The chill of the lobby air struck through his jacket. He rode the express up to eighty-eight. Stepped out and walked through the narrow corridor and into Hobie's brass-and-oak lobby for the second time in twenty-four hours.
The male receptionist was sitting behind his counter. On the other side of the lobby a thickset man in an expensive suit was coming out of a small kitchen, carrying two mugs in one hand. Stone could smell coffee. He could see steam rising and brown froth swirling in the mugs. He glanced between the two men.
"I want to see Hobie," he said.
They ignored him. The thickset man walked over to the counter and set one of the mugs in front of the receptionist. Then he walked back behind Stone and put himself nearer the lobby door than Stone was. The receptionist leaned forward and rotated the coffee mug, carefully adjusting the angle of the handle until it was presented comfortably to his grasp.
"I want to see Hobie," Stone said again, looking straight ahead.
"My name is Tony," the receptionist said to him.
Stone just turned and stared at him, blankly. The guy had a red mark on his forehead, like a fresh bruise. The hair on his temple was newly combed but wet, like he'd pressed a cold cloth to his head.
"I want to see Hobie," Stone said for the third time.
"Mr. Hobie's not in the office today," Tony said. "I'll be dealing with your affairs for the time being. We have matters to discuss, don't we?"
"Yes, we do," Stone said.
"So shall we go inside?" Tony said, and stood up.
He nodded to the other guy, who slid around the counter and took up position in the chair. Tony came out and stepped across to the inner door. Held it open and Stone walked through into the same gloom as the day before. The blinds were still closed. Tony padded ahead through the dark to the desk. He walked around it and sat down in Hobie's chair. The sprung base creaked once in the silence. Stone followed after him. Then he stopped and glanced left and right, wondering where he should sit.
"You'll remain standing," Tony said to him.
"What?" Stone said back.
"You'll remain standing for the duration of the interview."
"What?" Stone said again, astonished.
"Right in front of the desk."
Stone just stood there, his mouth clamped shut.
"Arms by your sides," Tony said. "Stand straight and don't slump."
He said it calmly, quietly, in a matter-of-fact voice, not moving at all. Then there was silence. Just faint background noises booming elsewhere in the building, and thumping in Stone's chest. His eyes were adjusting to the gloom. He could see the score marks on the desktop from Hobie's hook. They made an angry tracery, deep in the wood. The silence was unsettling him. He had absolutely no idea how to react to this. He glanced at the sofa to his left. It was humiliating to stand. Doubly so, when told to by a damn receptionist. He glanced at the sofa to his right. He knew he should fight back. He should just go ahead and sit down on one of the sofas. Just step left or right and sit down. Ignore the guy. Just do it. Just sit down, and show the guy who was boss. Like hitting a winning return or trumping an ace. Sit down, for God's sake, he told himself. But his legs would not move. It was like he was paralyzed. He stood still, a yard in front of the desk, rigid with outrage and humiliation. And fear.
"You're wearing Mr. Hobie's jacket," Tony said. "Would you take it off, please?"
Stone stared at him. Then he glanced down at his jacket. It was his Savile Row. He realized that for the first time in his life, he'd accidentally worn the same thing two days running.
"This is my jacket," he said.
"No, it's Mr. Hobie's."
Stone shook his head. "I bought it in London. It's definitely my jacket."
Tony smiled in the dark.
"You don't understand, do you?" he said.
"Understand what?" Stone said, blankly.
"That Mr. Hobie owns you now. You're his. And everything you have is his."
Stone stared at him. There was silence in the room. Just the faint background noises from the building and the thumping in Stone's chest.
"So take Mr. Hobie's jacket off," Tony said, quietly.
Stone was just staring at him, his mouth opening and closing, no sound coming out of it.
"Take it off," Tony said. "It's not your property. You shouldn't be standing there wearing another man's jacket."
His voice was quiet, but there was menace in it. Stone's face was rigid with shock, but then suddenly his arms were starting to move, like they were outside of his conscious control. He struggled off with the jacket and held it out by the collar, like he was in the menswear department, handing back a garment he'd tried and hadn't liked.
"On the desk, please," Tony said.
Stone laid the jacket flat on the desk. He straightened it and felt the fine wool snagging over the rough surface. Tony pulled it closer and went into the pockets, one after the other. He assembled the contents in a small pile in front of him. Balled up the jacket and tossed it casually over the desk onto the left-hand sofa.
He picked up the Mont Blanc fountain pen. Made an appreciative little shape with his mouth and slipped it into his own pocket. Then he picked up the bunch of keys. Fanned them on the desktop and picked through them, one at a time. Selected the car key, and held it up between his finger and thumb.
Stone nodded, blankly.
"500SEL," Stone muttered.
Stone shrugged. "A year old."
"At my office," Stone muttered. "In the lot."
"We'll pick it up later," Tony said.
He opened a drawer and dropped the keys into it. Pushed the drawer shut and turned his attention to the wallet. He held it upside down and shook it and raked the contents out with his finger. When it was empty, he tossed it under the desk. Stone heard it clang into a trash can. Tony glanced once at the picture of Marilyn and pitched it after the wallet. Stone heard a fainter clang as the stiff photographic paper hit the metal. Tony stacked the credit cards with three fingers and slid them to one side like a croupier.
"Guy we know will give us a hundred bucks for these," he said.
Then he riffed the paper money together and sorted it by denomination. Counted it up and clipped it together with a paper clip. Dropped it into the same drawer as the keys.
"What do you guys want?" Stone asked.
Tony looked up at him. "I want you to take Mr. Hobie's tie off," he said.
Stone shrugged, helplessly.
"No, seriously, what do you guys want from me?"
"Seventeen-point-one million dollars. That's what you owe us."
Stone nodded. "I know. I'll pay you."
"When?" Tony asked.
"Well, I'll need a little time," Stone said.
Tony nodded. "OK, you've got an hour."
Stone stared at him. "No, I need more than an hour."
"An hour is all you've got."
"I can't do it in an hour."
"I know you can't," Tony said. "You can't do it in an hour, or a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, because you're a useless piece of shit who couldn't manage his way out of a wet grocery sack, aren't you?"
"You're a disgrace, Stone. You took a business your grandfather slaved over and your father built bigger and you flushed it all straight down the toilet, because you're totally stupid, aren't you?"
Stone shrugged, blankly. Then he swallowed.
"OK, so I took some hits," he said. "But what could I do?"
"Take the tie off," Tony screamed at him.
Stone jumped and flung his hands up. Struggled with the knot.
"Get it off, you piece of shit," Tony screamed.
He tore it off. Dropped it on the desk. It lay there in a tangle.
"Thank you, Mr. Stone," Tony said quietly.
"What do you guys want?" Stone whispered.
Tony opened a different drawer and came out with a handwritten sheet of paper. It was yellow and filled with a dense untidy scrawl. Some kind of a list, with figures totaled at the bottom of the page.
"We own thirty-nine percent of your corporation," he said. "As of this morning. What we want is another twelve percent."
Stone stared at him. Did the math in his head. "A controlling interest?"
"Exactly," Tony said. "We hold thirty-nine percent, another twelve gives us fifty-one, which would indeed represent a controlling interest."
Stone swallowed again and shook his head.
"No," he said. "No, I won't do that."
"OK, then we want seventeen-point-one million dollars within the hour."
Stone just stood there, glancing wildly left and right. The door opened behind him and the thickset man in the expensive suit came in and padded soundlessly across the carpet and stood with his arms folded, behind Tony's left shoulder.
"The watch, please," Tony said.
Stone glanced at his left wrist. It was a Rolex. It looked like steel, but it was platinum. He had bought it in Geneva. He unlatched it and handed it over. Tony nodded and dropped it in another drawer.
"Now take Mr. Hobie's shirt off."
"You can't make me give you more stock," Stone said.
"I think we can. Take the shirt off, OK?"
"Look, I won't be intimidated," Stone said, as confidently as he could.
"You're already intimidated," Tony said back. "Aren't you? You're about to make a mess in Mr. Hobie's pants. Which would be a bad mistake, by the way, because we'd only make you clean them up."
Stone said nothing. Just stared at a spot in the air between the two men.
"Twelve percent of the equity," Tony said gently. "Why not? It's not worth anything. And you'd still have forty-nine percentleft."
"I need to speak with my lawyers," Stone said.
"OK, go ahead."
Stone looked around the room, desperately. "Where's the phone?"
"There's no phone in here," Tony said. "Mr. Hobie doesn't like phones."
"Shout," Tony said. "Shout real loud, and maybe your lawyers will hear you."
"Shout," Tony said again. "You're real slow, aren't you, Mr. Stone? Put two and two together and draw a conclusion. There's no phone in here, you can't leave the room, you want to talk with your lawyers, so you'll have to shout."
Stone stared blankly into space.
"Shout, you useless piece of shit," Tony screamed at him.
"No, I can't," Stone said helplessly. "I don't know what you mean."
"Take the shirt off," Tony screamed.
Stone shook violently. Hesitated, with his arms halfway in the air.
"Get it off, you piece of shit," Tony screamed again.
Stone's hands leapt up and unbuttoned it, all the way down. He tore it off and stood there holding it, shaking in his undershirt.
"Fold it neatly, please," Tony said. "Mr. Hobie likes his things neat."
Stone did his best. He shook it out by the collar and folded it in half, and half again. He bent and laid it square on top of the jacket on the sofa.
"Give up the twelve percent," Tony said.
"No," Stone said back, clenching his hands.
There was silence. Silence and darkness.
"Efficiency," Tony said quietly. "That's what we like here. You should have paid more attention to efficiency, Mr. Stone. Then maybe your business wouldn't be in the toilet. So what's the most efficient way for us to do this?"
Stone shrugged, helplessly. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Then I'll explain," Tony said. "We want you to comply. We want your signature on a piece of paper. So how do we get that?"
"You'll never get it, you bastard," Stone said. "I'll go bankrupt first, damn it. Chapter eleven. You won't get a damn thing from me. Not a thing. You'll be in court five years, minimum."
Tony shook his head patiently, like a grade-school teacher hearing the wrong answer for the hundredth time in a long career.
"Do whatever you want," Stone said to him. "I won't give you my company."
"We could hurt you," Tony said.
Stone's eyes dropped through the gloom to the desktop. His tie was still lying there, right on top of the rough gouges from the hook.
"Take Mr. Hobie's pants off," Tony screamed.
"No, I won't, damn it," Stone screamed back.
The guy at Tony's shoulder reached under his arm. There was a squeak of leather. Stone stared at him, incredulous. The guy came out with a small black handgun. He used one arm and aimed it, eye-level, straight out. He advanced around the desk toward Stone. Nearer and nearer. Stone's eyes were wide and staring. Fixed on the gun. It was aimed at his face. He was shaking and sweating. The guy was stepping quietly, and the gun was coming closer, and Stone's eyes were crossing, following it in. The gun came to rest with the muzzle on his forehead. The guy was pressing with it. The muzzle was hard and cold. Stone was shaking. Leaning backward against the pressure. Stumbling, trying to focus on the black blur that was the gun. He never saw the guy's other hand balling into a fist. Never saw the blow swinging in. It smashed hard into his gut and he went down like a sack, legs folding, squirming and gasping and retching.
"Take the pants off, you piece of shit," Tony screamed down at him.
The other guy landed a savage kick and Stone yelped and rolled around and around on his back like a turtle, gasping, gagging, wrenching at his belt. He got it loose. Scrabbled for the buttons and the zip. He tore the pants down over his legs. They snagged on his shoes and he wrenched them free and pulled them off inside out.
"Get up, Mr. Stone," Tony said, quietly.
Stone staggered to his feet and stood, unsteadily, leaning forward, head down, panting, his hands on his knees, his stomach heaving, thin, white hairless legs coming down out of his boxers, ludicrous dark socks and shoes on his feet.
"We could hurt you," Tony said. "You understand that now, right?"
Stone nodded and gasped. He was pressing both forearms into his gut. Heaving and gagging.
"You understand that, right?" Tony asked again.
Stone forced another nod.
"Say the words, Mr. Stone," Tony said. "Say we could hurt you."
"You could hurt me," Stone gasped.
"But we won't. That's not how Mr. Hobie likes things to be done."
Stone raised a hand and swiped tears from his eyes and looked up, hopefully.
"Mr. Hobie prefers to hurt the wives," Tony said. "Efficiency, you see? It gets faster results. So at this point, you really need to be thinking about Marilyn."
THE RENTED TAURUS was much faster than the Bravada had been. On dry June roads, there was no contest. Maybe in the snows of January or the sleet of February he would have appreciated the full-time four-wheel drive, but for a fast trip up the Hudson in June, a regular sedan had it all over a jeep, that was for damn sure. It was low and stable, it rode well, it tracked through the bends like an automobile should. And it was quiet. He had its radio locked onto a powerful city station behind him, and a woman called Wynonna Judd was asking him why not me? He felt he shouldn't be liking Wynonna Judd as much as he was, because if somebody had asked him if he'd enjoy a country vocalist singing plaintively about love, he'd have probably said no he wouldn't, based on his preconceptions. But she had a hell of a voice, and the number had a hell of a guitar part. And the lyric was getting to him, because he was imagining it was Jodie singing to him, not Wynonna Judd. She was singing why not me when you're growing old? Why not me? He started singing along with it, his rough bass rumble underneath the soaring contralto, and by the time the number faded and the commercial started, he was figuring if he ever had a house and a stereo like other people did, he'd buy the record. Why not me?
He was heading north on Route 9, and he had a Hertz map open beside him which went up far enough to show him Brighton was halfway between Peekskill and Poughkeepsie, over to the west, right on the Hudson. He had the old couple's address beside it, written on a sheet from a medical pad from McBannerman's office. He had the Taurus moving at a steady sixty-five, fast enough to get him there, slow enough to get him there unmolested by the traffic cops, who he assumed were hiding out around every wooded comer, waiting to boost their municipal revenues with their radar guns and their books of blank tickets.
It took him an hour to get level with Garrison again, and he figured he would head on north to a big highway he remembered swinging away west over the river toward New-burgh. He should be able to come off that road just short of the Hudson and fall on Brighton from above. Then it was just a question of hunting down the address, which might not be easy.
But it was easy, because the road that dropped him south into Brighton from the east-west highway was labeled with the same name as was in the second line of the old folks' address. He cruised south, watching for mailboxes and house numbers. Then it started to get harder. The mailboxes were grouped in sixes, clustered hundreds of yards apart, standing on their own, with no obvious connection to any particular houses. In fact, there were very few houses visible at all. It seemed like they were all up little rural tracks, gravel and patched blacktop, running off left and right into the woods like tunnels.
He found the right mailbox. It was set on a wooden post that the weather was rotting and the frost heave was canting forward. Vigorous green vines and thorny creepers were twisting up around it. It was a large-size box, dull green, with the house number painted on the side in faded but immaculate freehand script. The door was hanging open, because the box was completely stuffed with mail. He took it all out and squared it on the passenger seat beside him. Squeaked the door closed and saw a name painted on the front in the same faded neat hand: Hobie.
The mailboxes were all on the right side of the road, for the convenience of the mail carrier, but the tracks ran off in both directions. There were four of them visible from where he was stopped, two of them to the left and two to the right. He shrugged and headed down the first of them, leading to the right, over toward the river.
It was the wrong track. There were two houses down there, one north and one south. One of them had a duplicate name-plate on the gates: Kozinsky. The other had a bright red Pontiac Firebird parked under a new basketball hoop on the garage gable. Children's bicycles were sprawled on a lawn. Not persuasive evidence of aged and infirm people living there.
The first track on the left was wrong, too. He found the right place on the second right-hand track. There was an overgrown driveway running away south, parallel with the river. There was an old rusted mailbox at the gate, back from when the postal service was prepared to come a little nearer to your house. Same dull green color, but even more faded. Same neat painted script, faded like a ghost: Hobie. There were power lines and a phone cable running in, swarming with vines which hung down like curtains. He swung the Taurus into the driveway, brushing vegetation on both sides, and came to a stop behind an old Chevy sedan, parked at an angle under a carport. The old car was a full-size, hood and trunk like flight decks, turning the same pitted dull brown that all old cars turn.
He killed the motor and got out in the silence. Ducked back in and grabbed the stack of mail and stood there, holding it. The house was a low one-story, running away from him to the west toward the river. The house was the same brown as the car, ancient boards and shingles. The yard was a riot. It was what a tended garden becomes in fifteen untouched years of wet springs and hot summers. There had been a wide path running around from the carport to the front door, but it was narrowed like a gangplank with encroaching brush. He looked around and figured an infantry platoon equipped with flame-throwers would be more use there than gardeners.
He made it to the door, with the brush grabbing and snatching at his ankles. There was a bell-push, but it was rusted solid. He leaned forward and rapped on the wood with his knuckles. Then he waited. No response. He rapped again. He could hear the jungle seething behind him. Insect noise. He could hear the muffler ticking as it cooled underneath the Taurus over on the driveway. He knocked again. Waited. There was the creak of floorboards inside the house. The sound was carrying ahead of somebody's footsteps and spilling out to him. The footsteps halted on the other side of the door and he heard a woman's voice, thin and muffled by the wood.
"Who's there?" it called out.
"Reacher," he called back. "General Garber's friend."
His voice was loud. Behind him, he heard panicked scurrying in the brush. Furtive animals were fleeing. In front of him, he heard a stiff lock turning and bolts easing back. The door creaked open. Darkness inside. He stepped forward into the shadow of the eaves and saw an old woman waiting. She was maybe eighty, stick thin, white hair, stooped, wearing a faded floral-print dress that flared right out from the waist over nylon petticoats. It was the sort of dress he'd seen in photographs of women at suburban garden parties in the fifties and the sixties. The sort of dress that was normally worn with long white gloves and a wide-brimmed hat and a contented bourgeois smile.
"We were expecting you," she said.
She turned and stood aside. He nodded and went in. The radius of the skirt meant he had to push past its flare with a loud rustle of nylon.
"I brought your mail," he said to her. "Your box was full."
He held up the thick stack of curled envelopes and waited.
"Thank you," she said. "You're very kind. It's a long walk out there, and we don't like to stop the car to get it, in case we get rear-ended. It's a very busy road. People drive terribly fast, you know. Faster than they should, I think."
Reacher nodded. It was about the quietest road he had ever seen. A person could sleep the night out there right on the yellow line, with a good chance of surviving until morning. He was still holding the mail. The old lady showed no curiosity over it.
"Where would you like me to put it?"
"Would you put it in the kitchen?"
The hallway was a dark space, paneled in gloomy wood. The kitchen was worse. It had a tiny window, glassed in with yellow reeded glass. There was a collection of freestanding units in muddy dark veneer, and curious old enamel appliances, speckled in mint greens and grays, standing up on short legs. The whole room smelled of old food and a warm oven, but it was clean and tidy. A rag rug on worn linoleum. There was a chipped china mug with a pair of thick eyeglasses standing vertically in it. He put the stack of mail next to the mug. When her visitor was gone, she would use her eyeglasses to read her mail, right after she put her best frock back in the closet with the mothballs.
"May I offer you cake?" she asked.
He glanced at the stovetop. There was a china plate there, covered over with a worn linen cloth. She'd baked something for him.
Next to the stove top was an ancient percolator, mint green enamel, green glass knob on the top, connected to the outlet by a cord insulated with frayed fabric. He nodded.
"I love coffee and cake," he said.
She nodded back, pleased. Bustled forward, crushing her skirt against the oven door. She used a thin trembling thumb and operated the switch on the percolator. It was already filled and ready to go.
"It takes a moment," she said. Then she paused and listened. The old percolator started a loud gulping sound. "So come and meet Mr. Hobie. He's awake now, and very anxious to see you. While we're waiting for the machine."
She led him through the hallway to a small parlor in back. It was about twelve by twelve and heavily furnished with armchairs and sofas and glass-fronted chest-high cabinets filled with china ornaments. There was an old guy in one of the chairs. He was wearing a stiff serge suit, blue, worn and shiny in places, and at least three sizes too big for his shrunken body. The collar of his shirt was a wide stiff hoop around a pale scrawny neck. Random silky tufts of white were all that was left of his hair. His wrists were like pencils protruding from the cuffs of his suit. His hands were thin and bony, laid loosely on the arms of the chair. He had clear plastic tubes looped over his ears, running down under his nose. There was a bottle of oxygen on a wheeled cart, parked behind him. He looked up and took a long, loud sniff of the gas to fuel the effort of lifting his hand.
"Major Reacher," he said. "I'm very pleased to meet you."
Reacher stepped forward and grasped the hand and shook it. It was cold and dry, and it felt like a skeleton's hand wrapped in flannel. The old guy paused and sucked more oxygen and spoke again.
"I'm Tom Hobie, Major. And this lovely lady is my wife, Mary."
"Pleased to meet you both," he said. "But I'm not a major anymore."
The old guy nodded back and sucked the gas through his nose.
"You served," he said. "Therefore I think you're entitled to your rank."
There was a fieldstone fireplace, built low in the center of one wall. The mantel was packed tight with photographs in ornate silver frames. Most of them were color snaps showing the same subject, a young man in olive fatigues, in a variety of poses and situations. There was one older picture among them, airbrushed black-and-white, a different man in uniform, tall and straight and smiling, a private first class from a different generation of service. Possibly Mr. Hobie himself, before his failing heart started killing him from the inside, although it was hard for Reacher to tell. There was no resemblance.
"That's me," Hobie confirmed, following his gaze.
"World War Two?" Reacher asked.
The old man nodded. Sadness in his eyes.
"I never went overseas," he said. "I volunteered well ahead of the draft, but I had a weak heart, even back then. They wouldn't let me go. So I did my time in a storeroom in New Jersey."
Reacher nodded. Hobie had his arm behind him, fiddling with the cylinder valve, increasing the oxygen flow.
"I'll bring the coffee now," the old lady said. "And the cake."
"Can I help you with anything?" Reacher asked her.
"No, I'll be fine," she said, and swished slowly out of the room.
"Sit down, Major, please," Tom Hobie said.
Reacher nodded and sat down in the silence, in a small armchair near enough to catch the old guy's fading voice. He could hear the rattle of his breathing. Nothing else, just a faint hiss from the top of the oxygen bottle and the clink of china from the kitchen. Patient domestic sounds. The window had a venetian blind, lime green plastic, tilted down against the light. The river was out there somewhere, presumably beyond an overgrown yard, maybe thirty miles upstream of Leon Garber's place.
"Here we are," Mrs. Hobie called from the hallway.
She was on her way back into the room with a wheeled cart. There was a matching china set stacked on it, cups and saucers and plates, with a small milk jug and a sugar bowl. The linen cover was off the platter, revealing a pound cake, drizzled with some kind of yellow icing. Maybe lemon. The old percolator was there, smelling of coffee.
"How do you like it?"
"No milk, no sugar," Reacher said.
She poured coffee into a cup, her thin wrist quivering with the effort. The cup rattled in its saucer as she passed it across. She followed it with a quarter of the cake on a plate. The plate shook. The oxygen bottle hissed. The old man was rehearsing his story, dividing it up into bites, taking in enough oxygen to fuel each one of them.
"I was a printer," he said suddenly. "I ran my own shop. Mary worked for a big customer of mine. We met and were married in the spring of '47. Our son was born in the June of '48."
He turned away and ran his glance along the line of photographs.
"Our son, Victor Truman Hobie."
The parlor fell quiet, like an observance.
"I believed in duty," the old man said. "I was unfit for active service, and I regretted it. Regretted it bitterly, Major. But I was happy to serve my country any way I could, and I did. We brought our son up the same way, to love his country and to serve it. He volunteered for Vietnam."
Old Mr. Hobie closed his mouth and sucked oxygen through his nose, once, twice, and then he leaned down to the floor beside him and came up with a leather-bound folder. He spread it across his bony legs and opened it up. Took out a photograph and passed it across. Reacher juggled his cup and his plate and leaned forward to take it from the shaking hand. It was a faded color print of a boy in a backyard. The boy was maybe nine or ten, stocky, toothy, freckled, grinning, wearing a metal bowl upside down on his head, with a toy rifle shouldered, his stiff denim trousers tucked into his socks to resemble the look of fatigues buckled into gaiters.
"He wanted to be a soldier," Mr. Hobie said. "Always. It was his ambition. I approved of it at the time, of course. We were unable to have other children, so Victor was on his own, the light of our lives, and I thought that to be a soldier and to serve his country was a fine ambition for the only son of a patriotic father."
There was silence again. A cough. A hiss of oxygen. Silence.
"Did you approve of Vietnam, Major?" Hobie asked suddenly.
"I was too young to have much of an opinion," he said. "But knowing what I know now, no, I wouldn't have approved of Vietnam."
"Wrong place," Reacher said. "Wrong time, wrong reasons, wrong methods, wrong approach, wrong leadership. No real backing, no real will to win, no coherent strategy."
"Would you have gone?"
"Yes, I would have gone," he said. "No choice. I was the son of a soldier, too. But I would have been jealous of my father's generation. Much easier to go to World War Two."
"Victor wanted to fly helicopters," Hobie said. "He was passionate about it. My fault again, I'm afraid. I took him to a county fair, paid two bucks for him to have his first flight in one. It was an old Bell, a crop duster. After that, all he wanted to be was a helicopter pilot. And he decided the Army was the best place to learn how."
He slid another photograph out of the folder. Passed it across. It showed the same boy, now twice the age, grown tall, still grinning, in a new fatigues, standing in front of an Army helicopter. It was an H-23 Hiller, an old training machine.
"That's Fort Wolters," Hobie said. "All the way down in Texas. U.S. Army Primary Helicopter School."
Reacher nodded. "He flew choppers in 'Nam?"
"He passed out second in his class," Hobie said. "That was no surprise to us. He was always an excellent student, all the way through high school. He was especially gifted in math. He understood accountancy. I imagined he'd go to college and then come into partnership with me, to do the book work. I looked forward to it. I struggled in school, Major. No reason to be coy about it now. I'm not an educated man. It was a constant delight for me to see Victor doing so well. He was a very smart boy. And a very good boy. Very smart, very kind, a good heart, a perfect son. Our only son."
The old lady was silent. Not eating the cake, not drinking the coffee.
"His passing out was at Fort Rucker," Hobie said. "Down in Alabama. We made the trip to see it."
He slid across the next photograph. It was a duplicate of one of the framed prints from the mantel. Faded pastel grass and sky, a tall boy in dress uniform, cap down over his eyes, his arm around an older woman in a print dress. The woman was slim and pretty. The photograph was slightly out of focus, the horizon slightly tilted. Taken by a fumbling husband and father, breathless with pride.
"That's Victor and Mary," the old man said. "She hasn't changed a bit, has she, that day to this?"
"Not a bit," Reacher lied.
"We loved that boy," the old woman said quietly. "He was sent overseas two weeks after that photograph was taken."
"July of '68," Hobie said. "He was twenty years old."
"What happened?" Reacher asked.
"He served a full tour," Hobie said. "He was commended twice. He came home with a medal. I could see right away the idea of keeping the books for a print shop was too small for him. I thought he would serve out his time and get a job flying helicopters for the oil rigs. Down in the Gulf, perhaps. They were paying big money then, for Army pilots. Or Navy, or Air Force, of course."
"But he went over there again," Mrs. Hobie said. "To Vietnam again."
"He signed on for a second tour," Mrs. Hobie said. "He didn't have to. But he said it was his duty. He said the war was still going on, and it was his duty to be a part of it. He said that's what patriotism meant."
"And what happened?" Reacher asked.
There was a long moment of silence.
"He didn't come back," Hobie said.
The silence was like a weight in the room. Somewhere a clock was ticking. It grew louder and louder until it was filling the air like blows from a hammer.
"It destroyed me," Hobie said quietly.
The oxygen wheezed in and out, in and out, through a constricted throat.
"It just destroyed me. I used to say: I'll exchange the whole rest of my life, just for one more day with him."
"The rest of my life," his wife echoed. "For just one more day with him."
"And I meant it," Hobie said. "And I still would. I still would, Major. Looking at me now, that's not much of a bargain, is it? I haven't got much life left in me. But I said it then, and I said it every day for thirty years, and as God is my witness, I meant it every single time I said it. The whole rest of my life, for one more day with him."
"When was he killed?" Reacher asked, gently.
"He wasn't killed," Hobie said. "He was captured."
The old man nodded. "At first, they told us he was missing. We assumed he was dead, but we clung on, hoping. He was posted missing, and he stayed missing. We never got official word he was killed."
"So we waited," Mrs. Hobie said. "We just kept on waiting, for years and years. Then we started asking. They told us Victor was missing, presumed killed. That was all they could say. His helicopter was shot down in the jungle, and they never found the wreckage."
"We accepted that then," Hobie said. "We knew how it was. Plenty of boys died without a known grave. Plenty of boys always have, in war."
"Then the memorial went up," Mrs. Hobie said. "Have you seen it?"
"The Wall?" Reacher said. "In D.C.? Yes, I've been there. I've seen it. I found it very moving."
"They refused to put his name on it," Hobie said.
"They never explained. We asked and we begged, but they never told us exactly why. They just said he's no longer considered a casualty."
"So we asked them what he is considered as," Mrs. Hobie said. "They just told us missing in action."
"But the other MIAs are on the Wall," Hobie said.
There was silence again. The clock hammered away in another room.
"What did General Garber say about this?" Reacher asked.
"He didn't understand it," Hobie said. "Didn't understand it at all. He was still checking for us when he died."
There was silence again. The oxygen hissed and the clock hammered.
"But we know what happened," Mrs. Hobie said.
"You do?" Reacher asked her. "What?"
"The only thing that fits," she said. "He was taken prisoner."
"And never released," Hobie said.
"That's why the Army is covering it up," Mrs. Hobie said. "The government is embarrassed about it. The truth is some of our boys were never released. The Vietnamese held on to them, like hostages, to get foreign aid and trade recognition and credits from us, after the war. Like blackmail. The government held out for years, despite our boys still being prisoners over there. So they can't admit it. They hide it instead, and won't talk about it."
"But we can prove it now," Hobie said.
He slid another photograph from the folder. Passed it across. It was a newer print. Vivid glossy colors. It was a telephoto shot taken through tropical vegetation. There was barbed wire on bamboo fence posts. There was an Oriental figure in a brown uniform, with a bandanna around his forehead. A rifle in his hands. It was clearly a Soviet AK-47. No doubt about it. And there was another figure in the picture. A tall Caucasian, looking about fifty, emaciated, gaunt, bent, gray, wearing pale, rotted fatigues. Looking half away from the Oriental soldier, flinching.
"That's Victor," Mrs. Hobie said. "That's our son. That photograph was taken last year."
"We spent thirty years asking about him," Hobie said. "Nobody would help us. We asked everybody. Then we found a man who told us about these secret camps. There aren't many. Just a few, with a handful of prisoners. Most of them have died by now. They've grown old and died, or been starved to death. This man went to Vietnam and checked for us. He got close enough to take this picture. He even spoke to one of the other prisoners through the wire. Secretly, at night. It was very dangerous for him. He asked for the name of the prisoner he'd just photographed. It was Vic Hobie, First Cavalry helicopter pilot."
"The man had no money for a rescue," Mrs. Hobie said. "And we'd already paid him everything we had for the first trip. We had no more left. So when we met General Garber at the hospital, we told him our story and asked him to try and get the government to pay."
Reacher stared at the photograph. Stared at the gaunt man with the gray face.
"Who else has seen this picture?"
"Only General Garber," Mrs. Hobie answered. "The man who took it told us to keep it a secret. Because it's very sensitive, politically. Very dangerous. It's a terrible thing, buried in the nation's history. But we had to show it to General Garber, because he was in a position to help us."
"So what do you want me to do?" Reacher asked.
The oxygen hissed in the silence. In and out, in and out, through the clear plastic tubes. The old man's mouth was working.
"I just want him back," he said. "I just want to see him again, one more day before I die."
AFTER THAT, THE old couple were done talking. They turned together and fixed misty gazes on the row of photographs on the mantel. Reacher was left sitting in the silence. Then the old man turned back and used both hands and lifted the leather-bound folder off his bony knees and held it out. Reacher leaned forward and took it. At first he assumed it was so he could put the three photographs back inside. Then he realized the baton had been passed to him. Like a ceremony. Their quest had become Leon's, and now it was his.
The folder was thin. Apart from the three photographs he had seen, it contained nothing more than infrequent letters home from their son and formal letters from the Department of the Army. And a sheaf of paperwork showing the liquidation of their life savings and the transfer by certified check of eighteen thousand dollars to an address in the Bronx, to fund a reconnaissance mission to Vietnam led by a man named Rutter.
The letters from the boy started with brief notes from various locations in the South, as he passed through Dix, and Polk, and Wolters, and Rucker, and Belvoir and Benning on his way through his training. Then there was a short note from Mobile in Alabama, as he boarded ship for the month-long voyage through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Indochina. Then there were flimsy Army Mailgrams from Vietnam itself, eight from the first tour, six from the second. The paper was thirty years old, and it was stiff and dry, like ancient papyrus. Like something discovered by archaeologists.
He hadn't been much of a correspondent. The letters were full of the usual banal phrases a young soldier writes home. There must have been a hundred million parents in the world with treasured old letters like these, different times, different wars, different languages, but the same messages: the food, the weather, the rumor of action, the reassurances.
The responses from the Department of the Army marched through thirty years of office technology. They started out typed on old manual machines, some letters misaligned, some wrongly spaced, some with red haloes above them where the ribbon had slipped. Then electric typewriters, crisper and more uniform. Then word processors, immaculately printed on better paper. But the messages were all the same. No information. Missing in action, presumed killed. Condolences. No further information.
The deal with the guy called Rutter had left them penniless. There had been some modest mutual funds and a little cash on deposit. There was a sheet written in a shaky hand Reacher guessed was the old woman's, totaling their monthly needs, working the figures again and again, paring them down until they matched the Social Security checks, freeing up their capital. The mutuals had been cashed in eighteen months ago and amalgamated with the cash holdings and the whole lot had been mailed to the Bronx. There was a receipt from Rutter, with the amount formally set off against the cost of the exploratory trip, due to leave imminently. There was a request for any and all information likely to prove helpful, including service number and history and any existing photographs. There was a letter dated three months subsequently, detailing the discovery of the remote camp, the risky clandestine photography, the whispered talk through the wire. There was a prospectus for a rescue mission, planned in great detail, at a projected cost to the Hobies of forty-five thousand dollars. Forty-five thousand dollars they didn't have.
"Will you help us?" the old woman asked through the silence. "Is it all clear? Is there anything you need to know?"
He glanced across at her and saw she had been following his progress through the dossier. He closed the folder and stared down at its worn leather cover. Right then the only thing he needed to know was why the hell hadn't Leon told these people the truth?