The Hard Way by Lee Child

  don't see why they sent the guy who couldn't talk to meet with the building super."

  "Neither do I," Pauling said.

  "Or to run the OP. It would make more sense if he had been on the other end of the phone. He can't talk, but he can listen."

  Silence for a moment.

  "What next?" Pauling asked.

  "Hard work," Reacher said. "You up for it?"

  "Are you hiring me?"

  "No, you're putting whatever else you're doing on hold and you're volunteering. Because if we do this right you'll find out what happened to Anne Lane five years ago. No more sleepless nights."

  "Unless I find out five years ago was for real. Then I might never sleep again."

  "Life's a gamble," Reacher said. "It wouldn't be so much fun otherwise." Pauling was quiet for a long moment.

  "OK," she said. "I'm volunteering."

  Reacher said, "So go hassle our Soviet pal again. Get the chair. They bought it within the last week. We'll walk it over to the Bowery and find out where it came from. Maybe the new buddy picked it out. Maybe someone will remember him."



  REACHER CARRIED THE chair in his hand like a bag and he and Pauling walked together east. South of Houston the Bowery had organized itself into a sequence of distinct retail areas. Like a string of unofficial malls. There were electrical supplies, and lighting fixtures, and used office gear, and industrial kitchen equipment, and restaurant front-of-house outlets. Reacher liked the Bowery. It was his kind of a street.

  The chair in his hand was fairly generic, but it had a certain number of distinguishing characteristics. Impossible to describe it a moment after closing the door on it, but with it right there for direct comparison a match might be found. They started with the northernmost of six separate chaotic establishments. Less than a hundred yards of real estate, but if someone buys a used dining chair in Manhattan, chances are he buys it somewhere in that hundred yards.

  Put the good stuff in the store window was the usual retail mantra. But on the Bowery the actual store windows were secondary to the sidewalk displays. And the chair in Reacher's hand wasn't the good stuff, in the sense that it couldn't have been part of a large matched set, or it wouldn't have been sold separately. Nobody with a set of twenty-four chairs leaves himself with twenty-three. So Reacher and Pauling pushed past the stuff on the sidewalk and squeezed through the narrow doors and looked at the dusty items inside. Looked at the sad leftovers, the part-sets, the singletons. They saw a lot of chairs. All the same, all different. Four legs, seats, backs, but the range of shapes and details was tremendous. None looked very comfortable. Reacher had read somewhere that there was a science to building a restaurant chair. It had to be durable, obviously, and good value for money, and it had to look reasonably inviting, but it couldn't in reality he too comfortable or the patrons would sit all night and a potential three-sitting evening would turn into an actual two sittings and the restaurant would lose money. Portion control and table turnover were the important factors in the restaurant trade, and Reacher figured chair manufacturers were totally on board with the turnover part.

  In the first three stores they found no visual matches and nobody admitted selling the chair that Reacher was carrying.

  The fourth store was where they found what they wanted.

  It was a double-wide place that had chrome diner furniture out front and a bunch of Chinese owners in back. Behind the gaudy padded stools on the sidewalk were piles of old tables and sets of chairs stacked six high. Behind the piles and the stacks was a jumble of oddments. Including two chairs hung high on a wall that were exact matches for the specimen in Reacher's hand. Same style, same construction, same color, same age.

  "We shoot, we score," Pauling said.

  Reacher checked again, to be certain. But there was no doubt about it. The chairs were identical. Even the grime and the dust on them matched precisely. Same gray, same texture, same consistency.

  "Let's get some help," he said.

  He carried the Sixth Avenue chair to the back of the store where a Chinese guy was sitting behind a rickety table with a closed cash box on it. The guy was old and impassive. The owner, probably. Certainly

  all transactions would have to pass through his hands. He had the cash box.

  "You sold this chair." Reacher held it up, and nodded back toward the wall where its siblings hung.

  "About a week ago."

  "Five dollars," the old guy said.

  "I don't want to buy it," Reacher said. "And it isn't yours to sell. You already sold it once. I want to know who you sold it to. That's all."

  "Five dollars," the guy said again.

  "You're not understanding me."

  The old guy smiled. "No, I think I'm understanding you very well. You want information about the purchaser of that chair. And I'm telling you that information always has a price. In this case, the price is five dollars."

  "How about you get the chair back? Then you can sell it twice."

  "I already sold it many more times than twice. Places open, places close, assets circulate. The world goes round."

  "Who bought it, a week ago?"

  "Five dollars."

  "You sure you've got five dollars' worth of information?"

  "I have what I have."

  "Two-fifty plus the chair."

  "You'll leave the chair anyway. You're sick of carrying it around."

  "I could leave it next door."

  For the first time the old guy's eyes moved. He glanced up at the wall. Reacher saw him think: A set of three is better than a pair.

  "Four bucks and the chair," he said.

  "Three and the chair," Reacher said.

  "Three and a half and the chair."

  "Three and a quarter and the chair." No response.

  "Guys, please," Pauling said.

  She stepped up to the rickety desk and opened her purse. Took out a fat black wallet and snapped off a crisp ten from a wad as thick as a paperback book. Placed it on the scarred wood and spun it around and left it there.

  "Ten dollars," she said. "And the damn chair. So make it good." The old Chinese man nodded.

  "Women," he said. "Always ready to focus."

  "Tell us who bought the chair," Pauling said.

  "He couldn't talk," the old man said.



  THE OLD MAN said, "At first I thought nothing of it. An American comes in, he hears us speaking our own language, very often he assumes we can't speak English, and he conducts the transaction with a combination of gestures and signs. It's a little rude in that it assumes ignorance on our part, but we're used to it. Generally I let such a customer flounder and then I pitch in with a perfectly coherent sentence as a kind of reproach."

  "Like you did with me," Reacher said.

  "Indeed. And as I did with the man you're evidently seeking. But he was completely unable to reply in any way at all. He just kept his mouth closed and gulped like a fish. I concluded that he had a deformity that prevented speech."

  "Description?" Reacher asked.

  The old guy paused a beat to gather his thoughts and then launched into the same rundown that the Sixth Avenue super had given. A white man, late thirties, maybe forty, medium height and weight, clean and neat, no beard, no mustache. Blue jeans, blue shirt, ball cap, sneakers, all of them worn and comfortable. Nothing remarkable or memorable about him except for the fact that he was mute.

  "How much did he pay for the chair?" Reacher asked.

  "Five dollars."

  "Wasn't it unusual that a guy would want a single chair?"

  "You think I should automatically call the police if someone who isn't a restaurant owner shops here?"

  "Who buys chairs one at a time?"

  "Plenty of people," the old man said. "People who are recently divorced, or down on their luck, or starting a lonely new life in a small East Village apartment. Some of those places are so tiny a single chair is all they
want. At a desk, maybe, that does double duty as a dining table."

  "OK," Reacher said. "I can see that."

  The old man turned to Pauling and asked, "Was my information helpful?"

  "Maybe," Pauling said. "But it didn't add anything."

  "You already knew about the man who couldn't talk?" Pauling nodded.

  "Then I'm sorry," the old man said. "You may keep the chair."

  "I'm sick of carrying it around," Reacher said.

  The old man inclined his head. "As I thought. In which case, feel free to leave it here."

  Pauling led Reacher out to the Bowery sidewalk and the last he saw of the chair was a young guy who could have been a grandson hoisting it up on a pole and hanging it back on the wall next to its two fellows.

  "The hard way," Pauling said.

  "Makes no sense," Reacher said. "Why are they sending the guy that can't speak to meet with everyone?"

  "There must be something even more distinctive about the other one.

  "I hate to think what that might be."

  "Lane abandoned those two guys. So why are you helping him?"

  "I'm not helping him. This is for Kate and the kid now."

  "They're dead. You said so yourself."

  "Then they need a story. An explanation. The who, the where, the why. Everyone needs to know what happened to them. They shouldn't be allowed to just go, quietly. Someone needs to stand up for them."

  "And that's you?"

  "I play the hand I'm dealt. No use whining about it."


  "And they need to be avenged, Pauling. Because it wasn't their fight. It wasn't even remotely Jade's fight, was it? If Hobart or Knight or whichever it was had come after Lane directly, maybe I'd have been on the sidelines cheering him on. But he didn't. He came after Kate and Jade. And two wrongs don't make a right."

  "Neither do three wrongs."

  "In this case they do," Reacher said.

  "You never even saw Kate or Jade."

  "I saw their pictures. That was enough."

  "I wouldn't want you mad at me," Pauling said.

  "No," Reacher said back. "You wouldn't."

  They walked north toward Houston Street without any clear idea of where they were going next and on the way Pauling's cell phone must have vibrated because she pulled it out of her pocket before Reacher heard it ring. Silent cell phones made Reacher nervous. He came from a world where a sudden dive for a pocket was more likely to mean a gun than a phone. Every time it happened he had to endure a little burst of unrequited adrenaline.

  Pauling stopped on the sidewalk and said her name loudly over the traffic noise and then listened for a minute. Said thanks and snapped the phone shut. Turned to Reacher and smiled.

  "My Pentagon buddy," she said. "Some solid information. Maybe he busted into someone's file cabinet after all."

  "Did he get a name for us?" Reacher asked.

  "Not yet. But he has a location. It was Burkina Faso. You ever been there?"

  "I've never been anywhere in Africa."

  "It used to be called Upper Volta. It's an ex-French colony. About the size of Colorado, population thirteen million, with a GDP about a quarter of what Bill Gates is worth."

  "But with enough spare cash to hire Lane's crew."

  "Not according to my guy," Pauling said. "That's the weird thing. It's where Knight and Hobart were captured, but there's no record of their government contracting with Lane."

  "Would your guy expect there to be a record?"

  "He says there's always a record somewhere."

  "We need a name," Reacher said. "That's all. We don't need the history of the world."

  "He's working on it."

  "But not fast enough. And we can't wait. We need to try something on our own."

  "Like what?"

  "Our guy called himself Leroy Clarkson. Maybe it was a private joke or maybe it was something in his subconscious because he lives over there."

  "Near Clarkson or Leroy?"

  "Maybe on Hudson or Greenwich."

  "That's all gentrified now. A guy just back from five years in an African jail couldn't afford a closet over there."

  "But a guy who was making good money before the five-year hiatus might already own a place over there."

  Pauling nodded. "We should stop by my office. Start with the phone book."

  There were a few Hobarts and half a page of Knights in the Manhattan White Pages but none of them were in the part of the West Village that would have made Leroy Clarkson an obvious pseudonym. Conceivably one of the Knights might have picked Horatio Gansevoort, and one of the Hobarts might have gone by Christopher Perry, but apart from those two the others lived where the streets were numbered or so far east that their subliminal choices would have been Henry Madison or Allen Eldridge. Or Stanton Rivington.

  "Too much like daytime TV," Pauling said.

  She had other databases, the kind of things a conscientious PI with old friends in law enforcement and an internet connection can accumulate. But no unexplained Knights or Hobarts cropped up anywhere.

  "He's been away five years," Pauling said. "Effectively he'll have dropped out of sight, won't he? Disconnected phone, unpaid utilities, like that?"

  "Probably," Reacher said. "But not necessarily. These guys are used to sudden travel. They always were, even back in the day. They usually set up automatic payments."

  "His bank account would have emptied out."

  "Depends how much was in it to start with. If he was earning then what the others are earning now he could have paid for plenty of electric bills especially when he's not even home to turn on the lights."

  "Lane was a much smaller deal five years ago. They all were, before the terrorism gravy train left the station. Real or phony, Anne's ransom was only a hundred grand, not ten and a half million. Wages will have been in proportion. This guy won't have been rich."

  Reacher nodded. "He probably rented anyway. Landlord probably threw all his stuff on the sidewalk years ago."

  "So what do we do?"

  "I guess we wait," Reacher said. "For your bureaucratic buddy. Unless we grow old and die first."

  But a minute later Pauling's phone went off again. This time it was on her desk, out in full view, and its vibration set up a soft mechanical buzz against the wood. She answered it with her name and listened for a minute. Then she closed it slowly and put it back in place.

  "We're not much older," she said.

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