Night School by Lee Child


  “No,” Orozco said. “This is better done face to face than on the telephone.”

  “Why?”

  “You gave me the small story. You missed the big story.”

  “Are they selling something worse?”

  “No, about forty scrap M9s over six months or so is all it was. Plus a thousand rounds of ammunition. Not the end of the world. We’ve all seen worse.”

  “So what’s the big story?”

  “Their ID was genuine.”

  “They’re real German citizens?”

  “No, they’re American as apple pie. Arkansas and Kentucky. They barely speak English, let alone German. Their names are Billy Bob and Jimmy Lee. Or something like that.”

  “So their ID was phony.”

  “In that sense, yes. But it was also genuine. In the sense that it was way too good to be faked. So good we think it must have been manufactured for them by the German government itself. In their regular plant. Alongside all their regular Kraut stuff.”

  “They said they got it from a guy in the bar.”

  “They said that to me, too.”

  “And?”

  “And I believe them.”

  “So?”

  “Where did the guy in the bar get it from?”

  “How sure are you about this?”

  “I asked around. We had a debate. Some say it’s complicated because when the Wall came down a whole bunch of communist forgers lost their jobs. And they were really good. All kinds of mischievous documents came out of the old East Germany. So now those guys are working for someone else. Best case, that would be organized crime. Worst case, it’s the new German intelligence service. Either way, best to keep this off the phone lines. We don’t know who’s listening.”

  “German intelligence can afford its own sidearms. They wouldn’t need to print up phony IDs for a couple of small-time crooks.”

  “Agreed. But let’s assume their intelligence service has a document creation division. Like they all do. Staffed by the usual array of eccentrics. Like they all are. Suppose one of them is bent? Suppose he does his business in that bar? Billy Bob and Jimmy Lee make that place sound like the stock exchange. Buy, sell, trade, anything you want.”

  Reacher said, “The first witness who saw our guy is a government worker. I guess there could be others in there.”

  Orozco nodded. “You need to take care. You keep on shaking that tree, all kinds of crap could fall out. Some of it could be heavy duty.”

  —

  Orozco left and Reacher stopped by Neagley’s room to call White in Virginia. He said, “We’re getting solid intelligence that genuine German ID is for sale in that bar. So far we’ve seen identity cards and drivers’ licenses. Nothing to say you can’t get passports, too. Nothing to say our guy didn’t buy one. So watching four hundred American names is a waste of time. A buck gets ten he’ll travel under a German alias.”

  White was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “You’re right there in town. You could find out who sold what to him, and you could find out what name he put on it. Date of birth and passport number would be good, too. These types of vendors keep records, usually. For security, and blackmail.”

  “That’s all or nothing,” Reacher said. “They’ll panic if we hit that bar. Word will get around fast. Our guy will go to ground immediately. And maybe he has more than one passport. There’s more than one bar. Our witness splits his time between two of them.”

  “It’s still our best chance.”

  “Talk to Ratcliffe. I would want to know how on my own I am.”

  —

  Then Reacher went next door to his room and went to bed. He was tired. He had been awake more than thirty hours. He put his shoes side by side under the window, with his socks draped over them. He folded his pants seam-to-seam and laid them flat under his mattress to press. He took off his jacket and hitched it straight on the back of a chair. A pocket crackled. Griezman’s envelope. The fingerprint. He had thought about giving it to Orozco, but he had forgotten.

  Next time, maybe.

  He took a shower, and cleared a dozen green brocade pillows from his bed, and then he climbed in and went to sleep.

  —

  The American’s bedtime routine had not changed in several days. He started with ten minutes of pleasure, and then he did twenty minutes of work. The pleasure came from a map of Argentina. Large scale, fine lines, a lot of detail. The ranch he was going to buy was right in the middle. It was a huge square parcel, fully thirty miles on a side. An hour’s drive, at city speed limits, from corner to corner. A total of nine hundred square miles. Nearly six hundred thousand acres. Practically visible from outer space. But not, truthfully, bigger than Rhode Island, which was about twelve hundred square miles. But it was bigger than the largest single contiguous property in Texas, which was only eight hundred square miles. Both were dwarfed by the Anna Creek sheep station in Australia, which was more than nine thousand square miles. Nearly six million acres. About the size of Massachusetts. He had read a story about its owner. The guy had put a hundred thousand miles on his truck without ever once leaving his own property. But still, the new place in Argentina would be in the top ten in the world. It was a big-ass spread. No doubt about that. His house would be fifteen miles behind his own fences. Which was the kind of isolation he would need, in the new world he was helping to create.

  He folded his map and started his twenty minutes of work, which was all about improving his Spanish, by listening to language tapes. He was going to need workers, and he couldn’t expect them to learn English. So he lay in bed with foam headphones clamped to his ears, listening, repeating, learning, until his brain got tired and he fell asleep.

  —

  Neagley knocked on Reacher’s door at eight o’clock the next morning. He was awake. He had showered and dressed. He was ready for coffee. The elevator was like a gilded birdcage on a chain, inside a shaft made of filigreed wrought iron. They heard it coming up to meet them. They stepped in. There was a credit card on the floor. Or a driver’s license. Or something. Face down. Dropped by accident, presumably. Not a Bundesrepublik Deutschland identity card. Wrong color.

  Neagley bent down and picked it up.

  She looked at it.

  She said, “You owe me ten dollars.”

  It was American ID. A Virginia driver’s license. The photo was sharp. A woman. An open, honest face. Blonde hair, medium length, an unaffected style, no doubt combed with her fingers. Marian Sinclair. She was forty-four years old, and her home address was Alexandria. A suburban house, judging by the street number.

  Reacher pulled cash from his pocket. He separated two American fives, and handed them over. He said, “She must have just checked in. After the night flight. I’m losing my touch. I didn’t think she would come. And I especially didn’t think she was the type of person who would lose her driver’s license in an elevator. She’s number two at the NSC, for God’s sake. The future of the world depends on her.”

  The elevator arrived at the ground floor. They stepped out. Breakfast was in the basement. They followed a winding stair and came out in a pretty room with double glass doors standing open, with a sunken courtyard beyond. Sinclair was right there, at an outdoor table in the morning sun. Drinking coffee. Eating a pastry. Wearing a black dress. They walked over, and said, “Good morning.”

  Sinclair looked up.

  She said, “To you, too. Please join me.”

  They sat down, and Reacher asked her, “Why are you here?”

  She looked straight at him and said, “Slim is better than none.”

  “You dropped your driver’s license in the elevator.”

  “Did I?”

  He handed it over. She put it on the table next to her cup. She said, “Thank you. Very careless of me. Very lucky you found it. I’m not using my real name here. They wouldn’t have known who to return it to. You just saved me a bunch of DMV paperwork.”

  “Why aren’t you using your real name?”
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  “Hotels report to the police. My name would trigger a diplomatic alert. And I’m not here officially.”

  “You have an alternate identity?”

  “Several. We have a document creation division. Just like the Germans. I spoke to Major Orozco this morning and got the whole story. Naturally we were watching your friends. You disobeyed me. I told you only me, Mr. Ratcliffe, or the president.”

  “It was private business.”

  “No business is private. Not in this matter. But please don’t blame your friend for ratting you out. He had no choice. And don’t feel too bad, either, because both Mr. White and Special Agent Waterman have already done the same kind of thing. With their friends. Not unexpected. We were briefed about your backgrounds.”

  “It wasn’t relevant.”

  “It was, because of the ID. That changes everything. ID for sale good enough to get through multiple foreign borders is very rare. We didn’t include it as a factor. Now we must, which reduces our chances to less than zero. Our American will be one of ten million anonymous people going to one of ten thousand different places.”

  “Our chances are better than zero,” Reacher said. “He’ll want a place where he feels at home and the messenger doesn’t. Which means a big Western city. With direct connections by air. He won’t want to travel more than he has to. And he’s already familiar with Hamburg. He might come back. Our chances are one in ten, maybe.”

  “You’re pushing to watch the safe house.”

  “I think we need to.”

  “They might have more than one.”

  Reacher nodded. “They might have ten in every town on earth. It’s a percentage game. We have to start somewhere.”

  Sinclair nodded in turn. “We’re taking it under consideration. In either case we’ll be alerted as soon as the messenger arrives. If he ever does. Then we’ll take it from there. Last time the wait before the rendezvous was forty-eight hours. We’ll have time for a decision.”

  “How does the Iranian communicate?”

  “On the phone if he can. If it’s safe. Or by dead drop. And the Hamburg head of station just arranged a very basic early warning. Under the circumstances we felt it was necessary. If the Iranian can’t get to the phone or arrange a drop, he’ll move a lamp on his bedroom window sill. From the edge to the center. As soon as the messenger shows up. His bedroom is in the back of the building, and the window is visible from the next street over. The head of station is doing four drive-bys a day.”

  A waitress with yellow pigtails came by for the newcomers’ orders. Sinclair dug in her bag and came out with a large brown envelope. She gave it to Neagley and said, “This is your mail from the Department of the Army.”

  Neagley said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and opened the envelope. She checked the contents, put them back, and smiled an only-the-army kind of a smile.

  Reacher said, “What?”

  “Nothing.”

  Sinclair said, “You can speak freely in front of me, sergeant. I have a security clearance.”

  “No, ma’am, it’s really nothing. Not relevant at all. Except I guess it proves once again the most efficient unit in uniform is the press room. I asked for information about a four-month-old AWOL case we found. A purely tangential inquiry. Nothing to do with anything. But Major Reacher asked me to keep him up to date with it.”

  “Why?”

  Reacher said, “That’s a command I want to avoid.”

  “And the press room responded?”

  Neagley said, “They sent two generic newspaper articles about the guy’s unit. The best they could do. Trying to be helpful. In fact one of them isn’t even an article at all. It’s an advertisement. Because obviously they don’t know anything about the guy himself. Because they’re only the press room. But they’re very willing and very fast.”

  “And nothing from the units that do know something about the guy?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Is four months unusual?”

  “It would be in a unit I worked for.”

  Reacher said, “They’re putting people in advertisements now?”

  Neagley took out the envelope’s contents for the second time. An old Army Times, and a trade show handbill. The Times had a bland piece about the ongoing drawdown out of the Fulda Gap, near Frankfurt, where once upon a time great swirling tank battles had been envisaged. Now the enemy was gone, and the border had moved hundreds of miles farther east, like an ebb tide, and front-line units had been stranded like fish on a beach. Some had pushed onward, just in case, and others had streamed back to immense storage lagers, where they were mothballed. Just five Chaparral units were still on active duty, including the AWOL’s crew, who were featured in a photograph at the top of the story.

  The photograph was a posed picture, with the camera set low behind the men and their vehicle, all of which were facing away toward an imagined incoming threat. The missiles on the truck were in their launchers, aimed at a low horizon ahead, and the guys were staring at the same spot in the sky, some with binoculars, some with hands shading their eyes, as if the sun was coming up. As if the viewer of the photograph was cowering twenty yards behind their manly and vigilant protection. From the rear the men looked like a useful bunch, lean and purposeful and energetic. Reacher knew people from similar units. In his experience they acted halfway between regular artillerymen and the flight deck crews on a Navy carrier, all hustle and bustle, with a little maverick Top Gun aviator mixed in. They thought of their trucks as parked airplanes. Morale and unit cohesion tended to be high. These particular guys all had Mohawk hairstyles, with two-inch-wide tufts running front to back across otherwise shaved skulls, all spiked up with soap or wax. Not strictly legal, according to Army Regulation 670-3-2, which said that haircuts should be neat and conservative, and that extreme, eccentric, or faddish styles were not authorized. But clearly a wise commander had turned a blind eye. Some battles were not worth fighting, especially when more important battles were on the horizon, literally.

  The trade show handbill had been printed up to look like a newspaper article, by a uniform manufacturer touting a new urban camouflage pattern. Aimed at the Department of Defense, possibly, or at police SWAT teams. The main picture looked like it had been shot in a giant indoor studio, and it featured the same Chaparral crew as the Army Times piece, and their vehicle, all of them decked out the same way, men and machine alike, in a design that looked like digital noise, made up of tiny printed rectangles, all different shades of gray. The men’s faces and hands and part-bald heads were painted the same way, as was the truck, and as were the missiles themselves. They were all posed in front of an artificial painted backdrop, like a theater set that showed a ruined cityscape. This time the camera was set high and in front of them, like an incoming pilot’s eye view. Like an attack helicopter coming in low and close, for a preemptive strike. In which case the new camouflage was doing an excellent job. The men and their machine were barely visible. They merged into the background more or less perfectly. They were a ghostly presence, both there and not there all at the same time. No details were clear. Even the missiles themselves were hard to make out. Only the Mohawk hairstyles were obvious, five in a line, because they were the only things not painted. Very impressive. Except the manufacturer had the luxury of designing the studio floor and the theater backdrop itself, any old way it wanted. Which in this case had been to match the camouflage exactly. Which helped. The real world might be different.

  Sinclair put a fingernail on the ghostly half-hidden missiles and asked, “Could things like these be stolen and sold?”

  “Not for a hundred million bucks,” Neagley said. “That’s the problem. We’ve been over and over it. It’s a Catch-22. There’s no middle ground. Everything is devalued now. There’s too much cheap old stuff coming out of Russia and China, and too much cheap new stuff for sale anyway. Arms manufacturers have been hustling ever since the Wall came down. They’re worried. They’re feeling the pinch. Every month there’s
an arms fair somewhere. If you’ve got the right kind of checkbook you can get anything you want. Except nuclear. Which kind of proves my point. There’s no middle ground. To get to a hundred million, you would have to go nuclear.”

  “Don’t say that word out loud.”

  “We have to, ma’am. If only to dismiss it instantly. We have bombs on air bases back home, and missiles in silos in the badlands, and missiles on submarines under the sea. All of them are under heavy guard, and we’d notice if one went missing. The smallest and most accessible portable piece in our current inventory is probably a Minuteman ICBM, and selling and delivering the Brooklyn Bridge would be a thousand times easier. Plus no individual ever knows the complete arming codes. Regulations mandate that arming codes must always be split between two personnel. That’s a basic nuclear safeguard.”

  “So in your opinion this is not military?”

  “Unless it’s intelligence.”

  “What kind of intelligence is worth a hundred million dollars?”

  “We don’t know that either.”

  “Should we audit our physical inventory?”

  “That would take forever. And I can tell you exactly what it would find. We have a million small things missing, but no big things.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I would have heard.”

  “The world’s most efficient grapevine,” Reacher said. “Someone just told me that.”

  The table went quiet.

  Reacher said, “We should watch the safe house.”

  “We’d need a clandestine team,” Sinclair said. “We don’t have one in Hamburg. And it would be hard to justify bringing one in. Taking one-in-ten chances is not a policy stance.”

  “Neither is running around with your hair on fire.”

  “Griezman could do it for us,” Neagley said. “His guys were pretty good. They tracked us to the restaurant last night. And he owes us. He told Stuttgart about us.”

  Reacher took the sketch out of his pocket. The American. The brow,
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