Night School by Lee Child

  “I don’t. It was forty years ago.”

  “But we need to know what you remember about his unit.”

  “What is this, a folklore project? Oral history month?”

  “We’re looking at a guy named Wiley. As a kid growing up, for a six-year period, from the age of ten to the age of sixteen, his mother’s boyfriend was a twenty-year veteran of the 82nd Airborne in Europe. We think the boyfriend told the kid stories. We think the kid remembered the stories, and then many years later joined the army himself, because of them.”

  “That’s how it’s supposed to happen. I’m glad to hear it.”

  “It wasn’t like that with Wiley. It was like the stories were a treasure map, and he joined the army only because he wanted to dig up the treasure.”

  Helmsworth said, “That’s absurd.”

  “Now he’s got it and he’s AWOL.”

  “Got what?”

  “We don’t know. But it’s worth a lot of money.”

  “AWOL from where?”

  “Air defense with the armored divisions near Fulda.”

  “Major, why am I here? Please tell me you had a good reason for bringing me to Europe.”

  “We want to hear the buried treasure stories. From that old 82nd Airborne unit. We’re sure you remember them. Every officer remembers his first command.”

  “There were no buried treasure stories.”

  “Our boy Wiley got in a unit competition over smart-mouth one-liners about why they joined the army. When his turn came he said because his uncle told him Davy Crockett stories.”

  Helmsworth didn’t answer.

  Reacher noticed.

  He said, “The uncle was really the mother’s boyfriend. The twenty-year veteran. Uncle Arnold. A polite honorific. Possibly appropriate when the kid was ten. Maybe a little weird by the time he was sixteen.”

  Helmsworth said, casually, “What were the Davy Crockett stories?”

  “We don’t know,” Reacher said. “That’s why we’re asking.”

  “What years did the mother’s boyfriend serve?”

  “From 1951 through 1971.”

  Helmsworth was quiet a long moment.

  Reacher said, “General?”

  “I can’t help you,” Helmsworth said. “I’m very sorry.”

  Reacher said, “How mad are you now?”

  Helmsworth almost answered, but then he stopped himself short.

  “Exactly,” Reacher said. “A one or a two out of ten. You’re no longer angry. Because now you’ve got bigger things to worry about.”

  Helmsworth said nothing.

  Reacher said, “General?”

  Helmsworth said, “I can’t discuss it.”

  “You’ll have to, I’m afraid.”

  “I mean I’m not permitted to discuss it.”

  Sinclair said, “General, with respect, you’re talking to the National Security Council. There is no higher level of clearance.”

  “Is this room secure?”

  “It’s in a United States consulate and it was selected by the CIA head of station.”

  “I need to speak with the Joint Chiefs’ office.”

  “On this issue they’ll say what we tell them to say. Why not cut out the middleman and tell us direct?”

  “It was classified a long time ago.”

  “What was?”

  “It’s a closed file.”

  Reacher said, “Tell the story, general. Our boy Wiley is AWOL with stolen material. We need to know what it is. We’re going to sit here until you tell us. I’d like to say we’ve got all day, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe we haven’t.”

  Helmsworth paused again.

  Then he nodded. He hitched his chair in and sat forward. He said, “I’ll tell you what happened to me, and then I’ll tell you what else was going on. This was Europe in the early 1950s. We knew the battle plan. The Red Army would advance through the Fulda Gap in strength and depth. Our first job was to stop their spearhead and then prevent reinforcement. Which we planned to do by targeting roads and bridges behind their lines. To halt their incoming armor. Maybe also power plants and other large items of infrastructure. To degrade their capability. Except the Air Force was unreliable. Back then there were no smart bombs. A bridge is a very small target. We needed certainty. We raised a couple of engineer companies. They were regular combat paratroops trained in demolition. The idea was they would jump with an explosive charge, and hike or if necessary fight from the landing zone to the target, and affix the charge with great precision, to the bridge support or the power plant wall, or whatever it may be. That was the plan. Back then a paratrooper with an explosive charge on his back was the smartest bomb we had.”

  “Good work,” Reacher said.

  “Not really. What’s the maximum they could carry on their backs?”

  “From an LZ to a target? A hundred pounds, maybe.”

  “Which was the problem. A hundred pounds of TNT doesn’t put a scratch on a bridge support. It’s a firecracker. And a power plant is even bigger. So we put the human smart bomb technique on the back burner for the time being. Pending improvements to portable ordnance. Which were generally slow back then. The glamour was all at the other end of the scale. Which was the stuff I didn’t know at the time. Los Alamos was busier than ever. They were working on the hydrogen bomb. They tested it just before I graduated West Point. On Bikini Atoll, in March of 1954. It was a fifteen megaton explosion. By far the most powerful in all of recorded history. It was five times more powerful than all the bombs dropped on Germany and Japan in World War Two put together, including the atom bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Probably more powerful than all the ordnance ever exploded in the whole world before. All in one split second. It was a big-ass explosion, people. So big no one ever seriously thought about going bigger. They thought the atmosphere would catch on fire. Not that I knew any of that stuff at the time.”

  Reacher said, “When did you find out?”

  “Later in the 1950s. Things were going crazy by then. We found out other things, too. For example, we found out we had two secret nuclear labs, not just one. Not just Los Alamos. There was another place. They had a theory at the time. It was behind everything the Department of Defense ever did back then. In their words they believed rivalry fosters excellence and is imperative for supremacy. It was written in stone. So they gave Los Alamos a rival. It was called Livermore. Near Berkeley, in California. There were smart people working there right from the start. They saw there was no point in designing a bigger bomb. So they went the other way. They designed smaller bombs. They got better and better at it. Eventually they built a whole new nuclear weapons system around a very neat new warhead called the W-54.”

  “Good to know,” Reacher said.

  “Now go back to my original problem. A guy carrying a hundred pounds on his back was no good to me. But I was a commander with a tactical problem to solve. My target list included major civil engineering projects. Roads, bridges, viaducts, power plants, infrastructure. Could a guy carry two hundred pounds on his back?”

  “Maybe,” Reacher said. “But not very far.”

  “Still not good enough. Still just a firecracker. What about four hundred pounds?”


  “What about a ton? Could a guy carry a ton of TNT on his back?”

  “Obviously not.”

  “What about ten tons? Or a hundred tons? Or a thousand tons? Or fifteen thousand tons? Could a guy carry fifteen thousand tons of TNT on his back?”

  Reacher said nothing.

  Helmsworth said, “In the end that was what they offered us.”

  “Who did?”

  “Livermore. The new lab in California. Truth is, their new weapons system was a failure. They got small, but not small enough. They packed the power of the Hiroshima bomb into a cylinder eleven inches wide and sixteen inches tall. It weighed just fifty pounds. The same fifteen-kiloton yield as Little Boy. Equivalent to fifteen thousand tons of TNT. But Litt
le Boy was ten feet long and weighed five tons. So Livermore’s cylinder was a triumph of miniaturization. But unfortunately it wasn’t quite enough of a triumph. It was still too big to use as an artillery shell or a mortar round. There was no reliable man-portable launcher. It was a curiosity, nothing more. It was a solution in search of a problem. But waste not, want not. They found a relevant problem. They gave the cylinder a new name, SADM, for special atomic demolition munition, and they gave it to the 82nd Airborne. Now my guys could jump with just fifty pounds on their backs and take out any road or bridge or viaduct they wanted.”

  “With nuclear bombs?”

  “As big as Hiroshima.”

  No one spoke.

  Reacher said, “What was the SADM’s old name?”

  “Take a guess.”

  “Davy Crockett.”

  Helmsworth nodded. “That was the name they gave to the W-54 warhead. I don’t know why. But it took over. No one ever said SADM. They called the things Davy Crocketts instead. They came with padded canvas transport containers built like backpacks. You strapped it on, and you were good to go. But it was unpopular duty. The cylinders leaked radiation. Or so people said. Some folks got sick. They worried about cancer. But mostly they worried about the newsreel film they had seen from Hiroshima. That immense explosion. They were carrying the exact same bomb. Their orders were to strap it to a bridge support, set the timer, and run like hell. Very different than dropping it out of an airplane eight miles up.”

  Neagley said, “How long was the timer?”

  “A maximum of fifteen minutes. Plus or minus. It wasn’t very accurate.”

  “That’s insane. The Hiroshima lethal blast radius was one mile. The fireball radius was two miles. That’s twelve minutes for most guys on a running track. Across mixed terrain it would likely be impossible. Especially if they had to fight their way in. They’d have to fight their way out again. While waiting to be incinerated. It was a suicide mission.”

  Helmsworth nodded again. “It was a different calculus back then. We would have given up two companies to stop a million men and ten thousand vehicles getting out. We would have thought of it as a bargain.”

  Reacher said, “Two companies?”

  “We had a hundred Davy Crocketts.”

  “Each with its own target?”

  “Carefully planned.”

  “Widely distributed?”

  “Like measles on a map.”

  “Except there aren’t a hundred bridges. Or power plants. Or roads or viaducts. It’s a narrow funnel. That’s why they call it a gap.”

  “There was redundancy built in. About half were to proceed to standby positions.”

  “In the spaces. Linking everything up.”

  “Like a chain.”

  “You were making a radiation barrier. Like a minefield. With a hundred bombs it could have been ten miles wide by ten miles deep. Any shape you wanted. You wanted to force the Soviets to go left or right. Where you were waiting.”

  “The file is closed.”

  “Because as time passed all kinds of treaties were signed. You couldn’t do it anymore. You couldn’t even admit planning it.”

  “Yes,” Helmsworth said. “The SADMs were retired, but not strictly for military reasons. They were all brought home. They were not replaced. Eventually nuclear weapons below a certain size were banned altogether.”

  Sinclair said, “Arnold Mason is sick. His wife claims he told her the army would be interested. He told her someone would come.”

  “Sick how?”

  “Brain tumor.”

  “It was a very long time ago. Most cases were much earlier.”

  “There were others?”

  “A sprinkling,” Helmsworth said.

  Reacher said, “Such stories wouldn’t make me want to join the army.”

  Helmsworth said nothing.

  Reacher said, “General?”

  “Different recruits have different reasons.”

  “Horace Wiley was a thirty-two-year-old thief. I don’t think training for a suicide mission and getting sick and then seeing the weapons go home anyway would have done the trick for him.”

  Helmsworth said nothing.

  Reacher said, “General?”

  “This is classified at the presidential level.”

  Sinclair said, “For these purposes, so is everyone in this room.”

  Helmsworth said, “It’s possible there was an inventory error.”

  Chapter 35

  Helmsworth said, “Initial cargo manifests show ten crates leaving Livermore. Each crate held ten Davy Crocketts. Ten times ten is a hundred, which was the number of bombs we trained with. Later cargo manifests show the same ten crates going home again, each one with the same ten bombs inside. Ten times ten is a hundred. All accounted for. All properly delivered and safely stored inside the United States. All subsequently checked and physically examined and counted in front of witnesses. There are exactly one hundred in our possession.”

  Reacher said, “So what was the error?”

  “Those were the cargo manifests. A hundred out, and a hundred in. They matched all known army paperwork. But years later at the Livermore lab someone found an unsent invoice for an eleventh crate. Ten more Davy Crocketts. There was no coherent delivery paperwork. The production figures were ambiguous. It was possible an eleventh order was filled.”

  “But not paid for. Which is unlikely. Which means the invoice was probably the error. Possibly why it was never sent.”

  “That was the initial conclusion,” Helmsworth said. “Unfortunately the crate manufacturer had contradictory evidence, from an unlikely source. An apprentice’s log showed eleven crates had in fact been built. The foreman of the shop had signed off on them all. The eleventh crate wasn’t in the crate factory. It wasn’t at Livermore. And if ten more bombs had been built, they weren’t at Livermore either. So where the hell were they? Did they even exist? Half the argument was philosophical. The other half was better safe than sorry. So they started searching. Didn’t find anything. Not at home, and not overseas. Maybe the apprentice was wrong. But then the foreman had to be wrong, too. They went back and forth.”

  “Until?” Reacher said.

  “It was a split committee. The majority said the ambiguous production figures should be read the other way around, and that therefore the eleventh order had not been manufactured in the first place, and that the invoice was incorrectly raised. Or fraudulently raised, perhaps.”

  “That sounds like a threat, to make the problem go away.”

  “Perhaps it was.”

  “What did the minority think?”

  “That Livermore wouldn’t have ordered the extra crate unless it had bombs to put in it. The crates were prototypes of a standardized system. They were modified inside to carry the load. But on the outside they all looked the same. The error could have been in the delivery paperwork. The crate could have left Berkeley and gone to the wrong destination. Or the right destination with the wrong product description. The inventory codes were very complicated. A single-digit mistake could have been fatal.”

  “That’s a lot of could-haves,” Reacher said. “That’s a cascade of three separate errors. Wrong delivery paperwork, wrong inventory code, and the invoice was never sent.”

  “Every year we were spending billions of 1950s dollars on millions of tons of equipment. The sample size was enormous. It was a frenzy. There was scope for every kind of error. How long have you served, major?”

  “Twelve years.”

  “You ever known anything go wrong?”

  Reacher glanced down at his pants. Marine Corps khakis, sewn in 1962, shipped in 1965, to the wrong branch of the service entirely, undiscovered for thirty years.

  He said, “We’re talking about nuclear weapons here.”

  Helmsworth said, “In our history we’ve had a total of thirty-two accidentally launched, fired, detonated, stolen, or lost. We closed the files on twenty-six of them. The other six were never trac
ed or recovered. They’re still missing. We know those numbers for sure. They’re solid. Another ten isn’t outside the bounds of possibility. Especially given their nature. Davy Crocketts were small and mass-produced. They were not glamour weapons. They were treated like regular everyday ordnance.”

  “How good was the search?”

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