JACK REACHER ORDERED espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man's life change forever. Not that the waiter was slow. Just that the move was slick. So slick, Reacher had no idea what he was watching. It was just an urban scene, repeated everywhere in the world a billion times a day: A guy unlocked a car and got in and drove away. That was all.
But that was enough.
The espresso had been close to perfect, so Reacher went back to the same cafeŽ exactly -twenty--four hours later. Two nights in the same place was unusual for Reacher, but he figured great coffee was worth a change in his routine. The café was on the west side of Sixth Avenue in New York City, in the middle of the block between Bleecker and Houston. It occupied the ground floor of an undistinguished -four--story building. The upper stories looked like anonymous rental apartments. The cafe itself looked like a transplant from a back street in Rome. Inside it had low light and scarred wooden walls and a dented chrome machine as hot and long as a locomotive, and a counter. Outside there was a single line of metal tables on the sidewalk behind a low canvas screen. Reacher took the same end table he had used the night before and chose the same seat. He stretched out and got comfortable and tipped his chair up on two legs. That put his back against the cafe's outside wall and left him looking east, across the sidewalk and the width of the avenue. He liked to sit outside in the summer, in New York City. Especially at night. He liked the electric darkness and the hot dirty air and the blasts of noise and traffic and the manic barking sirens and the crush of people. It helped a lonely man feel connected and isolated both at the same time.
He was served by the same waiter as the night before and ordered the same drink, double espresso in a foam cup, no sugar, no spoon. He paid for it as soon as it arrived and left his change on the table. That way he could leave exactly when he wanted to without insulting the waiter or bilking the owner or stealing the china. Reacher always arranged the smallest details in his life so he could move on at a split second's notice. It was an obsessive habit. He owned nothing and carried nothing. Physically he was a big man, but he cast a small shadow and left very little in his wake.
He drank his coffee slowly and felt the night heat come up off the sidewalk. He watched cars and people. Watched taxis flow north and garbage trucks pause at the curbs. Saw knots of strange young people heading for clubs. Watched girls who had once been boys totter south. Saw a blue German sedan park on the block. Watched a compact man in a gray suit get out and walk north. Watched him thread between two sidewalk tables and head inside to where the cafe staff was clustered in back. Watched him ask them questions.
The guy was medium height, not young, not old, too solid to be called wiry, too slight to be called heavy. His hair was gray at the temples and cut short and neat. He kept himself balanced on the balls of his feet. His mouth didn't move much as he talked. But his eyes did. They flicked left and right tirelessly. The guy was about forty, Reacher guessed, and furthermore Reacher guessed he had gotten to be about forty by staying relentlessly aware of everything that was happening around him. Reacher had seen the same look in elite infantry veterans who had survived long jungle tours.
Then Reacher's waiter turned suddenly and pointed straight at him. The compact man in the gray suit stared over. Reacher stared back, over his shoulder, through the window. Eye contact was made. Without breaking it the man in the suit mouthed thank you to the waiter and started back out the way he had entered. He stepped through the door and made a right inside the low canvas screen and threaded his way down to Reacher's table. Reacher let him stand there mute for a moment while he made up his mind. Then he said "Yes," to him, like an answer, not a question.
"Yes what?" the guy said back.
"Yes whatever," Reacher said. "Yes I'm having a pleasant evening, yes you can join me, yes you can ask me whatever it is you want to ask me."
The guy scraped a chair out and sat down, his back to the river of traffic, blocking Reacher's view.
"Actually I do have a question," he said.
"I know," Reacher said. "About last night."
"How did you know that?" The guy's voice was low and quiet and his accent was flat and clipped and British.
"The waiter pointed me out," Reacher said. "And the only thing that distinguishes me from his other customers is that I was here last night and they weren't."
"You're certain about that?"
"Turn your head away," Reacher said. "Watch the traffic."
The guy turned his head away. Watched the traffic.
"Now tell me what I'm wearing," Reacher said.
"Green shirt," the British guy said. "Cotton, baggy, cheap, doesn't look new, sleeves rolled to the elbow, over a green T-shirt, also cheap and not new, a little tight, untucked over -flat--front khaki chinos, no socks, English shoes, pebbled leather, brown, not new, but not very old either, probably expensive. Frayed laces, like you pull on them too hard when you tie them. Maybe indicative of a -self--discipline obsession."
"OK," Reacher said.
"You notice things," Reacher said. "And I notice things. We're two of a kind. We're peas in a pod. I'm the only customer here now who was also here last night. I'm certain of that. And that's what you asked the staff. Had to be. That's the only reason the waiter would have pointed me out."
The guy turned back.
"Did you see a car last night?" he asked.
"I saw plenty of cars last night," Reacher said. "This is Sixth Avenue."
"A Mercedes Benz. Parked over there." The guy twisted again and pointed on a slight diagonal at a length of empty curb by a fire hydrant on the other side of the street.
Reacher said, "Silver, four-door sedan, an S-420, New York vanity plates starting OSC, a lot of city miles on it. Dirty paint, scuffed tires, dinged rims, dents and scrapes on both bumpers."
The guy turned back again.
"You saw it," he said.
"It was right there," Reacher said. "Obviously I saw it."
"Did you see it leave?"
Reacher nodded. "Just before eleven -forty--five a guy got in and drove it away."
"You're not wearing a watch."
"I always know what time it is."
"It must have been closer to midnight."
"Maybe," Reacher said. "Whatever."
"Did you get a look at the driver?"
"I told you, I saw him get in and drive away."
The guy stood up.
"I need you to come with me," he said. Then he put his hand in his pocket. "I'll buy your coffee."
"I already paid for it."
"So let's go."
"To see my boss."
"Who's your boss?"
"A man called Lane."
"You're not a cop," Reacher said. "That's my guess. Based on observation."
"Your accent. You're not American. You're British. The NYPD isn't that desperate."
"Most of us are Americans," the British guy said. "But you're right, we're not cops. We're private citizens."
"The kind that will make it worth your while if you give them a description of the individual who drove that car away."
"Worth my while how?"
"Financially," the guy said. "Is there any other way?"
"Lots of other ways," Reacher said. "I think I'll stay right here."
"This is very serious."
The guy in the suit sat down again.
"I can't tell you that," he said.
"Goodbye," Reacher said.
"Not my choice," the guy said. "Mr. Lane made it -mission--critical that nobody knows. For very good reasons."
Reacher tilted his cup and checked the contents. Nearly gone.
"You got a name?" he asked.
In response the guy stuck a thumb into the breast pocket of his suit coat and slid out a black leather business card holder. He opened it up and used the same thumb to slide out a single card. He passed it across the table. It was a handsome item. Heavy linen stock, raised lettering, ink that still looked wet. At the top it said: Operational Security Consultants.
"OSC," Reacher said. "Like the license plate."
The British guy said nothing.
Reacher smiled. "You're security consultants and you got your car stolen? I can see how that could be embarrassing."
The guy said, "It's not the car we're worried about."
Lower down on the business card was a name: John Gregory. Under the name was a subscript: British Army, Retired. Then a job title: Executive Vice President.
"How long have you been out?" Reacher asked.
"Of the British Army?" the guy called Gregory said. "Seven years."
"You've still got the look."
"You too," Gregory said. "How long have you been out?"
"Seven years," Reacher said.
"U.S. Army CID, mostly."
Gregory looked up. Interested. "Investigator?"
"I don't remember," Reacher said. "I've been a civilian seven years."
"Don't be shy," Gregory said. "You were probably a lieutenant colonel at least."
"Major," Reacher said. "That's as far as I got."
"I had my share."
"You got a name?"
"Most people do."
"What is it?"
"What are you doing now?"
"I'm trying to get a quiet cup of coffee."
"You need work?"
"No," Reacher said. "I don't."
"I was a sergeant," Gregory said.
Reacher nodded. "I figured. SAS guys usually are. And you've got the look."
"So will you come with me and talk to Mr. Lane?"
"I told you what I saw. You can pass it on."
"Mr. Lane will want to hear it direct."
Reacher checked his cup again. "Where is he?"
"Not far. Ten minutes."
"I don't know," Reacher said. "I'm enjoying my espresso."
"Bring it with you. It's in a foam cup."
"I prefer peace and quiet."
"All I want is ten minutes."
"Seems like a lot of fuss over a stolen car, even if it was a Mercedes Benz."
"This is not about the car."
"So what is it about?"
"Life and death," Gregory said. "Right now more likely death than life."
Reacher checked his cup again. There was less than a lukewarm -eighth--inch left, thick and scummy with espresso mud. That was all. He put the cup down.
"OK," he said. "So let's go."
THE BLUE GERMAN sedan turned out to be a new BMW 7-series with OSC vanity plates on it. Gregory unlocked it from ten feet away with a key fob remote and Reacher got in the front passenger seat sideways and found the switch and moved the seat back for legroom. Gregory pulled out a small silver cell phone and dialed a number.
"Incoming with a witness," he said, clipped and British. Then he closed the phone and fired up the engine and moved out into the midnight traffic.
The ten minutes turned out to be twenty. Gregory drove north on Sixth Avenue all the way through Midtown to 57th Street and then two blocks west. He turned north on Eighth, through Columbus Circle, onto Central Park West, and into 72nd Street. He stopped outside the Dakota.
"Nice digs," Reacher said.
"Only the best for Mr. Lane," Gregory said, nothing in his voice. They got out together and stood on the sidewalk and another compact man in a gray suit stepped out of the shadows and into the car and drove it away. Gregory led Reacher into the building and up in the elevator. The lobbies and the hallways were as dark and baronial as the exterior.
"You ever seen Yoko?" Reacher asked.
"No," Gregory said.
They got out on five and Gregory led the way around a corner and an apartment door opened for them. The lobby staff must have called ahead. The door that opened was heavy oak the color of honey and the warm light that spilled out into the corridor was the color of honey, too. The apartment was a tall solid space. There was a small square foyer open to a big square living room. The living room had cool air and yellow walls and low table lights and comfortable chairs and sofas all covered in printed fabric. It was full of six men. None of them was sitting down. They were all standing up, silent. Three wore gray suits similar to Gregory's and three were in black jeans and black nylon warm- up jackets. Reacher knew immediately they were all ex- military. Just like Gregory. They all had the look. The apartment itself had the desperate quiet feel of a command bunker far from some distant point where a battle was right then turning to shit.
All six men turned and glanced at Reacher as he stepped inside. None of them spoke. But five men then glanced at the sixth, which Reacher guessed identified the sixth man as Mr. Lane. The boss. He was half a generation older than his men. He was in a gray suit. He had gray hair, buzzed close to his scalp. He was maybe an inch above average height, and slender. His face was pale and full of worry. He was standing absolutely straight, racked with tension, with his fingertips spread and touching the top of a table that held an old- fashioned telephone and a framed photograph of a pretty woman.
"This is the witness," Gregory said.
"He saw the driver," Gregory said.
The man at the table glanced down at the phone and then moved away from it, toward Reacher, looking him up and down, assessing, evaluating. He stopped a yard away and offered his hand.
"Edward Lane," he said. "I'm very pleased to meet you, sir." His accent was American, originally from some hardscrabble place far from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Arkansas, maybe, or rural Tennessee, but in either case overlaid by long exposure to the neutral tones of the military. Reacher said his own name and shook Lane's hand. It was dry, not warm, not cold.
"Tell me what you saw," Lane said.
"I saw a guy get in a car," Reacher said. "He drove it away."
"I need detail," Lane said.
"Reacher is ex–U.S. Army CID," Gregory said. "He described the Benz to perfection."
"So describe the driver," Lane said.
"I saw more of the car than the driver," Reacher said.
"Where were you?"
"In a cafÈ. The car was a little north and east of me, across the width of Sixth Avenue. Maybe a twenty-degree angle, maybe ninety feet away."
"Why were you looking at it?"
"It was badly parked. It looked out of place. I guessed it was on a fireplug."
"It was," Lane said. "Then what?"
"Then a guy crossed the street toward it. Not at a crosswalk. Through gaps in the traffic, at an angle. The angle was more or less the same as my line of sight, maybe twenty degrees. So most of what I saw was his back, all the way."
"He stuck the key in the door and got inside. Took off."
"Going north, obviously, this being Sixth Avenue. Did he turn?"
"Not that I saw."
"Can you describe him?"
"Blue jeans, blue shirt, blue baseball cap, white sneakers. The clothing was old and comfortable. The guy was average height, average weight."
"I didn't see his face. Most of what I saw was his back. But he didn't move like a kid. He was at least in his thirties. Maybe forty."
"How exactly did he move?"
"He was focused. He headed straight for the car. Not fast, but there was no doubt where he was going. The way he held his head, I think he was looking directly at the car the whole way. Like a definite destination. Like a target. And the way he held his shoulder, I think he might have had the key out in front of him, horizontally. Like a tiny lance. Focused, and intent. And urgent. That's how he moved."
"Where did he come from?"
"From behind my shoulder, more or less. He could have been walking north, and then stepped off the sidewalk at the cafÈ, north and east through the traffic."
"Would you recognize him again?"
"Maybe," Reacher said. "But only by his clothes and his walk and his posture. Nothing that would convince anyone."
"If he crossed through the traffi c he must have glanced south to see what was coming at him. At least once. So you should have seen the right side of his face. Then when he was behind the wheel, you should have seen the left side."
"Narrow angles," Reacher said. "And the light wasn't great."
"There must have been headlight beams on him."
"He was white," Reacher said. "No facial hair. That's all I saw."
"White male," Lane said. " Thirty- five to forty- five. I guess that eliminates about eighty percent of the population, maybe more, but it's not good enough."
"Didn't you have insurance?" Reacher asked.
"This is not about the car," Lane said.
"It was empty," Reacher said.
"It wasn't empty," Lane said.
"So what was in it?"
"Thank you, Mr. Reacher," Lane said. "You've been very helpful." He turned and walked back to where he had started, next to the table with the phone and the photograph. He stood erect beside it and spread his fingers again and laid the tips lightly on the polished wood, right next to the telephone, like his touch might detect an incoming call before the electronic pulse started the bell.
"You need help," Reacher said. "Don't you?"
"Why would you care?" Lane asked.
"Habit," Reacher said. "Reflex. Professional curiosity."
"I've got help," Lane said. He gestured with his free hand around the room. "Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Recon Marines, Green Berets, SAS from Britain. The best in the world."
"You need a different kind of help. The guy who took your car, these folks can start a war against him, that's for sure. But first you need to find him."
"What was in the car?" Reacher asked.
"Tell me about your career," Lane said.
"It's been over a long time. That's its main feature."
"A good one?"
"110th Special Unit?"
"Some of the time. You?"
"Rangers and Delta. Started in Vietnam, ended in the Gulf the first time around. Started a second lieutenant, finished a full colonel."
"What was in the car?"
Lane looked away. Held still and quiet for a long, long time. Then he looked back, like a decision had been made.
"You need to give me your word about something," he said.
"No cops. That's going to be your first piece of advice, go to the cops. But I'll refuse to do it, and I need your word that you won't go behind my back."
"OK," he said.
"Say it again."
"No cops," Reacher said again.
"You got an ethical problem with that?"
"No," Reacher said.
"No FBI, no nobody," Lane said. "We handle this ourselves. Understand? You break your word, I'll put your eyes out. I'll have you blinded."
"You've got a funny way of making friends."
"I'm looking for help here, not friends."
"My word is good," Reacher said.
"Say you understand what I'll do if you break it."
Reacher looked around the room. Took it all in. A quiet desperate atmosphere and six Special Forces veterans, all full of subdued menace, all as hard as nails, all looking right back at him, all full of unit loyalty and hostile suspicion of the outsider.
"You'll have me blinded," Reacher said.
"You better believe it," Lane said.
"What was in the car?"
Lane moved his hand away from the phone. He picked up the framed photograph. He held it two- handed, fl at against his chest, high up, so that Reacher felt he had two people staring back at him. Above, Lane's pale and worried features. Below, under glass, a woman of breathtaking classical beauty. Dark hair, green eyes, high cheekbones, a bud of a mouth, photographed with passion and expertise and printed by a master.
"This is my wife," Lane said.
Reacher nodded. Said nothing.
"Her name is Kate," Lane said.
"Kate disappeared late yesterday morning," Lane said. "I got a call in the afternoon. From her kidnappers. They wanted money. That's what was in the car. You watched one of my wife's kidnappers collect their ransom."
"They promised to release her," Lane said. "And it's been twenty- four hours. And they haven't called back."
Excerpted from THE HARD WAY © Copyright 2011 by Lee Child. Reprinted with permission by Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.