Running blind, p.1
PEOPLE SAY THAT knowledge is power. The more knowledge, the more power. Suppose you knew the winning numbers for the lottery? All of them? Not guessed them, not dreamed them, but really knew them? What would you do? You would run to the store. You would mark those numbers on the play card. And you would win.
Same for the stock market. Suppose you really knew what was going to go way up? You're not talking about a hunch or a gut feeling. You're not talking about a trend or a percentage game or a whisper or a tip. You're talking about knowledge. Real, hard knowledge. Suppose you had it? What would you do? You would call your broker. You would buy. Then later you'd sell, and you'd be rich.
Same for basketball, same for the horses, whatever. Football, hockey, next year's World Series, any kind of sports at all, if you could predict the future, you'd be home free. No question. Same for the Oscars, same for the Nobel prize, same for the first snowfall of winter. Same for anything.
Same for killing people.
Suppose you wanted to kill people. You would need to know ahead of time how to do it. That part is not too difficult. There are many ways. Some of them are better than others. Most of them have drawbacks. So you use what knowledge you've got, and you invent a new way. You think, and you think, and you think, and you come up with the perfect method.
You pay a lot of attention to the setup. Because the perfect method is not an easy method, and careful preparation is very important. But that stuff is meat and potatoes to you. You have no problem with careful preparation. No problem at all. How could you, with your intelligence? After all your training?
You know the big problems will come afterward. How do you make sure you get away with it? You use your knowledge. You know more than most people about how the cops work. You've seen them on duty, many times, sometimes close-up. You know what they look for. So you don't leave anything for them to find. You go through it all in your head, very precisely and very exactly and very carefully. Just as carefully as you would mark the play card you knew for sure was going to win you a fortune.
People say that knowledge is power. The more knowledge, the more power. Which makes you just about the most powerful person on earth. When it comes to killing people. And then getting away with it.
LIFE IS FULL of decisions and judgments and guesses, and it gets to the point where you're so accustomed to making them you keep right on making them even when you don't strictly need to. You get into a what if thing, and you start speculating about what you would do if some problem was yours instead of somebody else's. It gets to be a habit. It was a habit Jack Reacher had in spades. Which was why he was sitting alone at a restaurant table and gazing at the backs of two guys twenty feet away and wondering if it would be enough just to warn them off or if he would have to go the extra mile and break their arms.
It was a question of dynamics. From the start the dynamics of the city meant that a brand-new Italian place in Tribeca like the one Reacher was in was going to stay pretty empty until the food guy from the New York Times wrote it up or an Observer columnist spotted some celebrity in there two nights in a row. But neither thing had happened yet and the place was still uncrowded, which made it the perfect choice for a lonely guy looking to eat dinner near his girlfriend's apartment while she worked late at the office. The dynamics of the city. They made it inevitable Reacher would be in there. They made it inevitable the two guys he was watching would be in there, too. Because the dynamics of the city meant any bright new commercial venture would sooner or later get a visit on behalf of somebody wanting a steady three hundred bucks a week in exchange for not sending his boys in to smash it up with baseball bats and ax handles.
The two guys Reacher was watching were standing close to the bar, talking quietly to the owner. The bar was a token affair built across the corner of the room. It made a neat sharp triangle about seven or eight feet on a side. It was not really a bar in the sense that anybody was ever going to sit there and drink anything. It was just a focal point. It was somewhere to keep the liquor bottles. They were crowded three-deep on glass shelves in front of sandblasted mirrors. The register and the credit card machine were on the bottom shelf. The owner was a small nervous guy and he had backed away into the point of the triangle and was standing with his backside jammed against the cash drawer. His arms were folded tight across his chest, defensively. Reacher could see his eyes. They were showing something halfway between disbelief and panic and they were darting all around the room.
It was a large room, easily sixty feet by sixty, exactly square. The ceiling was high, maybe twenty or twenty-five feet. It was made of pressed tin, sandblasted back to a dull glow. The building was more than a hundred years old, and the room had probably been used for everything, one time or another. Maybe it had started out as a factory. The windows were certainly large enough and numerous enough to illuminate some kind of an industrial operation back when the city was only five stories tall. Then maybe it had become a store. Maybe even an automobile showroom. It was big enough. Now it was an Italian restaurant. Not a checked-red-tablecloth and Mama's-sauce type of Italian restaurant, but the type of place which has three hundred thousand dollars invested up front in bleached avant-garde decor and which gives you seven or eight handmade ravioli parcels on a large plate and calls them a meal. Reacher had eaten there ten times in the four weeks it had been open and he always left feeling hungry. But the quality was so good he was telling people about it, which really had to mean something, because Reacher was no kind of a gourmet. The place was named Mostro's, which as far as he understood Italian translated as monster's. He wasn't sure what the name referred to. Certainly not the size of the portions. But it had some kind of a resonance, and the whole place with its pale maple and white walls and dull aluminum accents was an attractive space. The people who worked there were amiable and confident. There were whole operas played beginning to end through excellent loudspeakers placed high on the walls. In Reacher's inexpert opinion he was watching the start of a big reputation.
But the big reputation was obviously slow to spread. The spare avant-garde decor made it OK to have only twenty tables in a sixty-by-sixty space, but in four weeks he had never seen more than three of them occupied. Once he had been the only customer during the whole ninety-minute span he spent in the place. Tonight there was just one other couple eating, five tables away. They were sitting face-to-face across from each other, side-on to him. The guy was medium-sized and sandy. Short sandy hair, fair mustache, light brown suit, brown shoes. The woman was thin and dark, in a skirt and a jacket. There was an imitation-leather briefcase resting against the table leg next to her right foot. They were both maybe thirty-five and looked tired and worn and slightly dowdy. They were comfortable enough together, but they weren't talking much.
The two guys at the bar were talking. That was for sure. They were leaning over, bending forward from the waist, talking fast and persuading hard. The owner was against the register, bending backward by an equal amount. It was like the three of them were trapped in a powerful gale blowing through the room. The two guys were a lot bigger than medium-sized. They were dressed in identical dark wool coats which gave them breadth and bulk. Reacher could see their faces in the dull mirrors behind the liquor bottles. Olive skin, dark eyes. Not Italians. Syrians or Lebanese maybe, with their Arab scrappiness bred out of them by a generation of living in America. They were busy making one point after another. The guy on the right was making a sweeping gesture with his hand. It was easy to see it represented a bat plowing through the bottles on the shelf. Then the hand was chopping up and down. The guy was demonstrating how the shelves could be smashed. One blow could smash them all, top to bottom, he was suggesting. The owner was going pale. He was glancing sideways at
Then the guy on the left shot his cuff and tapped the face of his watch and turned to leave. His partner straightened up and followed him. He trailed his hand over the nearest table and knocked a plate to the floor. It shattered on the tile, loud and dissonant against the opera floating in the air. The sandy guy and the dark woman sat still and looked away. The two guys walked slowly to the door, heads up, confident. Reacher watched them all the way out to the sidewalk. Then the owner came out from behind the bar and knelt down and raked through the fragments of the broken plate with his fingertips.
"You OK?" Reacher called to him.
Soon as the words were out, he knew it was a dumb thing to say. The guy just shrugged and put an all-purpose miserable look on his face. He cupped his hands on the floor and started butting the shards into a pile. Reacher slid out of his chair and stepped away from the table and squared his napkin on the tile next to him and started collecting the debris into it. The couple five tables away was watching him.
"When are they coming back?" Reacher asked.
"An hour," the guy said.
"How much do they want?"
The guy shrugged again and smiled a bitter smile.
"I get a start-up discount," he said. "Two hundred a week, goes to four when the place picks up. "
"You want to pay?"
The guy made another sad face. "I want to stay in business, I guess. But paying out two bills a week ain't exactly going to help me do that. "
The sandy guy and the dark woman were looking at the opposite wall, but they were listening. The opera fell away to a minor-key aria and the diva started in on it with a low mournful note.
"Who were they?" Reacher asked quietly.
"Not Italians," the guy said. "Just some punks. "
"Can I use your phone?"
The guy nodded.
"You know an office-supply store open late?" Reacher asked.
"Broadway, two blocks over," the guy said. "Why? You got business to attend to?"
"Yeah, business," he said.
He stood up and slid around behind the bar. There was a new telephone next to a new reservations book. The book looked like it had never been opened. He picked up the phone and dialed a number and waited two beats until it was answered a mile away and forty floors up.
"Hello?" she said.
"Hey, Jodie," he said.
"Hey, Reacher, what's new?"
"You going to be finished anytime soon?"
He heard her sigh.
"No, this is an all-nighter," she said. "Complex law, and they need an opinion like yesterday. I'm real sorry. "
"Don't worry about it," he said. "I've got something to do. Then I guess I'll head back on up to Garrison. "
"OK, take care of yourself," she said. "I love you. "
He heard the crackle of legal documents and the phone went down. He hung up and came out from behind the bar and stepped back to his table. He left forty dollars trapped under his espresso saucer and headed for the door.
"Good luck," he called.
The guy crouched on the floor nodded vaguely and the couple at the distant table watched him go. He turned his collar up and shrugged down into his coat and left the opera behind him and stepped out to the sidewalk. It was dark and the air was chill with fall. Small haloes of fog were starting up around the lights. He walked east to Broadway and scanned through the neon for the office store. It was a narrow place packed with items marked with prices on large pieces of fluorescent card cut in the shape of stars. Everything was a bargain, which suited Reacher fine. He bought a small labeling machine and a tube of superglue. Then he hunched back down in his coat and headed north to Jodie's apartment.
His four-wheel-drive was parked in the garage under her building. He drove it up the ramp and turned south on Broadway and west back to the restaurant. He slowed on the street and glanced in through the big windows. The place gleamed with halogen light on white walls and pale wood. No patrons. Every single table was empty and the owner was sitting on a stool behind the bar. Reacher glanced away and came around the block and parked illegally at the mouth of the alley that ran down toward the kitchen doors. He killed the motor and the lights and settled down to wait.
The dynamics of the city. The strong terrorize the weak. They keep on at it, like they always have, until they come up against somebody stronger with some arbitrary humane reason for stopping them. Somebody like Reacher. He had no real reason to help a guy he hardly knew. There was no logic involved. No agenda. Right then in a city of eight million souls there must be hundreds of strong people hurting weak people, maybe even thousands. Right then, at that exact moment. He wasn't going to seek them all out. He wasn't mounting any kind of a big campaign. But equally he wasn't about to let anything happen right under his nose. He couldn't just walk away. He never had.
He fumbled the label machine out of his pocket. Scaring the two guys away was only half the job. What mattered was who they thought was doing the scaring. A concerned citizen standing up alone for some restaurant owner's rights was going to cut no ice at all, no matter how effective that concerned citizen might be at the outset. Nobody is afraid of a lone individual, because a lone individual can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and anyway sooner or later a lone individual dies or moves away or loses interest. What makes a big impression is an organization. He smiled and looked down at the machine and started to figure out how it worked. He printed his own name as a test and pinched the tape off and inspected it. Reacher. Seven letters punched through in white on a blue plastic ribbon, a hair over an inch long. That was going to make the first guy's label about five inches long. And then about four, maybe four and a half for the second guy. Ideal. He smiled again and clicked and printed and laid the finished ribbons on the seat next to him. They had adhesive on the back under a peel-off paper strip, but he needed something better than that, which is why he had bought the superglue. He unscrewed the cap off the tiny tube and pierced the metal foil with the plastic spike and filled the nozzle ready for action. He put the cap back on and dropped the tube and the labels into his pocket. Then he got out of the car into the chill air and stood in the shadows, waiting.
The dynamics of the city. His mother had been scared of cities. It had been part of his education. She had told him cities are dangerous places. They're full of tough, scary guys. He was a tough boy himself but he had walked around as a teenager ready and willing to believe her. And he had seen that she was right. People on city streets were fearful and furtive and defensive. They kept their distance and crossed to the opposite sidewalk to avoid coming near him. They made it so obvious he became convinced the scary guys were always right behind him, at his shoulder. Then he suddenly realized no, I'm the scary guy. They're scared of me. It was a revelation. He saw himself reflected in store windows and understood how it could happen. He had stopped growing at fifteen when he was already six feet five and two hundred and twenty pounds. A giant. Like most teenagers in those days he was dressed like a bum. The caution his mother had drummed into him was showing up in his face as a blank-eyed, impassive stare. They're scared of me. It amused him and he smiled and then people stayed even farther away. From that point onward he knew cities were just the same as every other place, and for every city person he needed to be scared of there were nine hundred and ninety-nine others a lot more scared of him. He used the knowledge like a tactic, and the calm confidence it put in his walk and his gaze redoubled the effect he had on people. The dynamics of the city.
Fifty-five minutes into the hour he moved out of the shadows and stood on the corner, leaning back against the brick wall of the restaurant building, still waiting. He could hear the opera, just a faint breath of sound coming through the glass next to him. The traffic thumped and banged through potholes on the street. There was a bar on the opposite corner with an extractor roaring and steam drifting outward through the neon glare. It was cold
The two guys came back right on time in a black Mercedes sedan. It parked a block away with one tire hard against the curb and the lights went out and the two front doors opened in unison. The guys stepped out with their long coats flowing and reached back and opened the rear doors and pulled ball bats off the rear seat. They slipped the bats under their coats and slammed the doors and glanced around once and started moving. They had ten yards of sidewalk, then the cross street, then ten more yards. They moved easily. Big, confident guys, moving easily, striding long. Reacher pushed off the wall and met them as they stepped up onto his curb.
"In the alley, guys," he said.
Up close, they were impressive enough. As a pair, they certainly looked the part. They were young, some way short of thirty. They were heavy, padded with that dense flesh which isn't quite pure muscle but which works nearly as well. Wide necks, silk ties, shirts and suits that didn't come out of a catalog. The bats were upright under the left side of their coats, gripped around the meat of the wood with their left hands through their pocket linings.
"Who the hell are you?" the right-hand guy said.
Reacher glanced at him. The first guy to speak is the dominant half of any partnership, and in a one-on-two situation you put the dominant one down first.
"The hell are you?" the guy said again.
Reacher stepped to his left and turned a fraction, blocking the sidewalk, channeling them toward the alley.
"Business manager," he said. "You want to get paid, I'm the guy who can do it for you. "
The guy paused. Then he nodded. "OK, but screw the alley. We'll do it inside. "
Reacher shook his head. "Not logical, my friend. We're paying you to stay out of the restaurant, starting from now, right?"
"You got the money?"
"Sure," Reacher said. "Two hundred bucks. "
He stepped in front of them and walked into the alley. Steam was drifting up to meet him from the kitchen vents. It smelled of Italian food. There was trash and grit underfoot and the crunch of his steps echoed off the old brick. He stopped and turned and stood like an impatient man bemused by their reluctance to follow him. They were silhouetted against the red glare of traffic waiting at the light behind them. They looked at him and looked at each other and stepped forward shoulder to shoulder. Walked into the alley. They were happy enough. Big confident guys, bats under their coats, two on one. Reacher waited a beat and moved through the sharp diagonal division between the light and the shadow. Then he paused again. Stepped back like he wanted them to precede him. Like a courtesy. They shuffled forward. Came close.
He hit the right-hand guy in the side of the head with his elbow. Lots of good biological reasons for doing that. Generally speaking the human skull is harder than the human hand. A hand-to-skull impact, the hand gets damaged first. The elbow is better. And the side of the head is better than the front or the back. The human brain can withstand front-to-back displacement maybe ten times better than side-to-side displacement. Some kind of a complicated evolutionary reason. So it was the elbow, and the side of the head. It was a short hard blow, well delivered, but the guy stayed upright on rubber knees for a long second. Then he let the bat go. It slid down inside his coat and hit the ground end-on with a loud wooden clonk. Then Reacher hit him again. Same elbow. Same side of the head. Same snap. The guy went down like a trapdoor had opened up under his feet.
The second guy was almost on the ball. He got his right hand on the bat handle, then his left. He got it clear of his coat and swung it ready, but he made the same mistake most people make. He swung it way too far back, and he swung it way too low. He went for a massive blow aimed at the middle of Reacher's body. Two things wrong with that. A big backswing takes time to get into. And a blow aimed at the middle of the body is too easy to defend against. Better to aim high at the head or low at the knees.
The way to take a blow from a bat is to get near, and get near early. The force of the blow comes from the weight of the bat multiplied by the speed of the swing. A mathematical thing. Mass times velocity equals momentum. Nothing you can do about the mass of the bat. The bat is going to weigh exactly the same wherever the hell it is. So you need to kill the speed. You need to get close and take it as it comes off the backswing. While it's still in the first split second of acceleration. While it's still slow. That's why a big backswing is a bad idea. The farther back you swing it, the later it is before you can get it moving forward again. The more time you give away.
Reacher was a foot from it before the swing came in. He watched the arc and caught the bat in both hands, low down in front of his gut. A foot of swing, there's no power there at all. Just a harmless smack in the palms. Then all the momentum the guy is trying to put into it becomes a weapon to use against him. Reacher swung with him and jacked the handle up and hurled the guy off balance. Kicked out at his ankles and tore the bat free and jabbed him with it. The jab is the move to use. No backswing. The guy went down on his knees and butted his head into the restaurant wall. Reacher kicked him over on his back and squatted down and jammed the bat across his throat, with the handle trapped under his foot and his right hand leaning hard on the business end. He used his left hand to go into each pocket in turn. He came out with an automatic handgun, a thick wallet, and a mobile phone.
"Who are you from?" he asked.
"Mr. Petrosian," the guy gasped.
The name meant nothing to Reacher. He had heard of a Soviet chess champion called Petrosian. And a Nazi tank general of the same name. But neither of them was running protection rackets in New York City. He smiled incredulously.
"Petrosian?" he said. "You have got to be kidding. "
He put a lot of sneer in his voice, like out of all the whole spectrum of worrisome rivals his bosses could possibly think of, Petrosian was so far down the list he was just about totally invisible.
"You're kidding us, right?" he said. "Petrosian? What is he, crazy?"
The first guy was moving. His arms and legs were starting a slow-motion scrabble for grip. Reacher crunched the bat for a second and then jerked it away from the second guy's neck and used it to tap the first guy on the top of the head. He had it back in place within a second and a half. The second guy started gagging under the force of the wood on his throat. The first guy was limp on the floor. Not like in the movies. Three blows to the head, nobody keeps on fighting. Instead, they're sick and dizzy and nauseous for a week. Barely able to stand.
"We've got a message for Petrosian," Reacher said softly.
"What's the message?" the second guy gasped.
Reacher smiled again.
"You are," he said.
He went into his pocket for the labels and the glue.
"Now lie real still," he said.
The guy lay real still. He moved his hand to feel his throat, but that was all. Reacher tore the backing strip off the label and eased a thick worm of glue onto the plastic and pressed the label hard on the guy's forehead. He ran his finger side to side across it, twice. The label read Mostro's has protection already.
"Lie still," he said again.
He took the bat with him and turned the other guy face upward with a hand in his hair. Used plenty of glue and smoothed the other label into place on his brow. This one read don't start a turf war with us. He checked the pockets and came out with an identical haul. An automatic handgun, a wallet, and a telephone. Plus a key for the Benz. He waited until the guy started moving again. Then he glanced back at the second guy. He was crawling up to his hands and knees, picking at the label on his head.
"It won't come off," Reacher called. "Not without taking a bunch of skin with it. Go give our best regards to Mr. Petrosian, and then go to the hospital. "
He turned back. Emptied the tube of glue i
"I guess you're the designated driver," he said. "Now beat it. "
The guy just stood there, eyes jerking left and right. Reacher shook his head.
"Don't even think about it," he said. "Or I'll rip your ears off and make you eat them. And don't come back here either. Not ever. Or we'll send somebody a lot worse than me. Right now I'm the best friend you got, OK? You clear on that?"
The guy stared. Then he nodded, cautiously.
"So beat it," Reacher said.
The guy with the glued hands had a problem moving. He was out of it. The other guy had a problem helping him. There was no free arm to hold. He puzzled over it for a second and then ducked down in front of him and came back up between the glued hands, piggybacking him. He staggered away and paused in the mouth of the alley, silhouetted against the glare of the street. He bent forward and jacked the weight onto his shoulders and turned out of sight.
The handguns were M9 Berettas, military-issue nine-millimeters. Reacher had carried an identical gun for thirteen long years. The serial number on an M9 is etched into the aluminum frame, right underneath where Pietro Beretta is engraved on the slide. The numbers on both guns had been erased. Somebody had used a round-tipped file, rubbing from the muzzle toward the trigger guard. Not a very elegant job of work. Both magazines were full of shiny copper Parabellums. Reacher stripped the guns in the dark and pitched the barrels and the slides and the bullets into the Dumpster outside the kitchen door. Then he laid the frames on the ground and scooped grit into the firing mechanisms and worked the triggers in and out until the grit jammed the mechanisms. Then he pitched them into the Dumpster and smashed the phones with the bats and left the pieces where they lay.
The wallets held cards and licenses and cash. Maybe three hundred bucks in total. He rolled the cash into his pocket and kicked the wallets away into a corner. Then he straightened and turned and walked back to the sidewalk, smiling. Glanced up the street. No sign of the black Mercedes. It was gone. He walked back into the deserted restaurant. The orchestra was blazing away and some tenor was winding up to a heroic high note. The owner was behind the bar, lost in thought. He looked up. The tenor hit the note and the violins and cellos and basses swarmed in behind him. Reacher peeled a ten from the stolen wad and dropped it on the bar.
"For the plate they broke," he said. "They had a change of heart. "
The guy just looked at the ten and said nothing. Reacher turned again and walked back out to the sidewalk. Across the street, he saw the couple from the restaurant. They were standing on the opposite sidewalk, watching him. The sandy guy with the mustache and the dark woman with the briefcase. They were standing there, muffled up in coats, watching him. He walked to his four-wheel-drive and opened the door. Climbed in and fired it up. Glanced over his shoulder at the traffic stream. They were still watching him. He pulled out into the traffic and gunned the motor. A block away, he used the mirror and saw the dark woman with the briefcase stepping out to the curb, craning her head, watching him go. Then the neon wash closed over her and she was lost to sight.
by Lee Child / Literature & Fiction / Mystery & Thrillers have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on45 votes