Across the country, women are being murdered, victims of a disciplined and clever killer who leaves no trace evidence, no fatal wounds, no signs of struggle, and no clues to an apparent motive. They are, truly, perfect crimes. In fact, there’s only one thing that links the victims. Each one of the women knew Jack Reacher—and it’s got him running blind.
About the Author
Date of Birth:1954
Place of Birth:Coventry, England
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Table of Contents
Praise for RUNNING BLIND
“Truly surprising . . . a brain-teasing puzzle that gets put together piece by fascinating piece, and a central character with Robin Hood-like integrity and an engagingly eccentric approach to life.” —Publishers Weekly
"Deeply satisfying . . . plan to stay up long past bedtime and do some serious hyperventilating toward the end.”
“This fourth Reacher thriller is easily the best. The plot is a masterpiece. ” —Booklist
“With numerous plot twists and turns, Child puts Reacher through his paces brilliantly, arriving at an unusual solution. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal
“Running Blind is a great read.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Reacher is one of the more interesting suspense heroes to come along in a while.” —San Antonio Express-News
“Spectacular . . . muscular, energetic prose and pell-mell pacing.”
—The Seattle Times
“A superior series.” —The Washington Post Book World
Praise for LEE CHILD
"Reacher is a wonderfully epic hero: tough, taciturn, yet vulnerable.” —People
"Great style and careful plotting. The violence is brutal . . . depicted with the kind of detail that builds dread and suspense.”
—The New York Times
“The author pens nightmarish images as casually as an ordinary writer would dot an ‘i’ or cross a ‘t.’ ”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[Child] must be channeling Dashiell Hammett . . . Reacher handles the maze of clues and the criminal unfortunates with a flair that would make Sam Spade proud.” —Playboy
“Reacher is as tough as he is resourceful.” —The Denver Post
“Child . . . gives us one of the truly memorable tough-guy heroes in recent fiction: Jack Reacher.”
—Jeffery Deaver, author of The Bone Collector
“I love the larger-than-life hero Jack Reacher. I grew up a fan of John Wayne’s and Clint Eastwood’s movies, and it’s great to see a man of their stature back in business.” —Nevada Barr
“Jack Reacher has presence and dimension—a man you definitely want on your side. Child has a sure touch and a strong voice. Definitely a talent to watch.” —Lynn Hightower
Praise for Lee Child’s JACK REACHER NOVELS
A People Magazine “Page-Turner”
An Anthony Award winner
“It’ll blow you away.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“From its jolting opening scene to its fiery final confrontation, Killing Floor is irresistible.” —People
“Tough, elegant, and thoughtful.” —Robert B. Parker
“A riveting thriller. It’s a winner.” —Greg Iles
“Grabs hold with the first page . . . This is pulse-pounding suspense.” —Arizona Daily Star
“Gives new meaning to what a page-turner should be.”
“If Without Fail doesn’t hook you on Lee Child, I give up.”
—The New York Times
“Child’s plot is ingenious, his characters are first-rate, and his writing is fine indeed. This is a superior series.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Child is a vigorous storyteller, gradually building the suspense to almost unbearable levels.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“As sweltering as the El Paso sun. Bottom line: jalapeño-hot suspense.” —People
Titles by Lee Child
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Previously published in the United Kingdom under the title The Visitor.
A Jove Book / published by arrangement with G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Copyright © 2000 by Lee Child.
All rights reserved.
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For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
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JOVE is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
The “J” design is a trademark belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
For Edith and Norman,
after twenty-six years of good times
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 his shelves.
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 and the people on the sidewalk were hurrying past with their faces ducked deep into scarves. He kept his hands in his pockets and leaned on one shoulder and watched the traffic flow coming toward him.
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 into the first guy’s palms and crushed them together and counted to ten. Chemical handcuffs. He hauled the guy upright by his collar and held him while he relearned how to stand. Then he tossed the car key to the second guy.
“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.
GARRISON IS A place on the east bank of the Hudson River, up in Putnam County, about fifty-eight road miles north from Tribeca. Late on a fall evening, traffic is not a problem. One toll plaza, empty parkways, average speed can be as high as you dare to make it. But Reacher drove cautiously. He was new to the concept of driving a regular journey from A to B. He was new to even having an A or a B. He felt like an alien in a settled landscape. And like any alien, he was anxious to stay out of trouble. So he drove slow enough not to be noticed and let the late commuters in their fast sedans scurry past him on the left and the right. The fifty-eight miles took him an hour and seventeen minutes.
His street was very dark, because it was buried deep in an underpopulated rural area. The contrast with the brassy glow of the city was total. He turned into his driveway and watched his headlight beams bounce and flick over the massed plantings crowding the asphalt. The leaves were turning dry brown and they looked vivid and unreal in the electric light. He rounded the last curve and the beams swung toward the garage door and washed over two cars waiting nose-out in front of it. He jammed to a panic stop and their lights came on and blazed in his face and blinded him just as his mirror filled with bright light from behind. He ducked his head away from the glare and saw people running at him from the side with powerful flashlight beams bouncing in front of them through the dark. He swiveled and saw two sedans crunching to a stop behind him, headlights swinging and blazing. People were spilling out and running toward him. His car was pinned motionless in a bright matrix of light. People were flashing through light and darkness, coming at him. They had guns and dark vests over their coats. They were surrounding his car. He saw that some of the flashlights were strapped to shotgun barrels. The crowding people were lit from behind by the harsh beams from their cars. Fog was drifting up from the river and hanging in the air. The lights were cutting through the fog and the beams were crisscrossing in crazy moving horizontal patterns.
A figure stepped close to his car. A hand came up and rapped on the glass next to his head. The hand opened. It was a small hand, pale and slim. A woman’s hand. A flashlight beam turned directly on it and showed it was cupping a badge. The badge was shaped like a shield. It was bright gold. There was a gold eagle perched on the top of the shield with its head cocked to the left. The flashlight moved closer and Reacher saw raised lettering on the shield, gold on gold. He stared at it. It said Federal Bureau of Investigation. U.S. Department of Justice. The woman pressed the shield against the window. It touched the glass with a cold metallic click. She shouted in at him. He heard her voice coming at him out of the darkness.
“Turn off the engine,” she was shouting.
He could see nothing except beams of light aimed at him. He killed the motor and heard nothing but fog hanging in the air and the crunch of restless boots on his driveway.
“Place both hands on the wheel,” the woman’s voice shouted.
He placed both hands on the wheel and sat still, head turned, watching the door. It was opened from the outside and the light clicked on and spilled out over the dark woman from the restaurant. The sandy guy with the fair mustache was at her shoulder. She had the FBI badge in one hand and a gun in the other. The gun was pointed at his head.
“Out of the vehicle,” she said. “Nice and slow.”
She stepped back, with the gun tracking the movement of his head. He twisted and swung his legs out of the footwell and paused, one hand on the seatback, the other on the wheel, his weight ready to slide his feet to the ground. He could see a half-dozen men in front of him caught in the glare of headlights. There would be more behind him. Maybe more near the house. Maybe more at the mouth of the driveway. The woman stepped back another pace. He stepped down to the ground in front of her.
“Turn around,” she said. “Place your hands on the vehicle.”
He did as he was told. The sheet metal was cold to the touch and slimy with night dew. He felt hands on every inch of his body. They took his wallet from his coat and the stolen cash from his pants pocket. Somebody pushed past his shoulder and leaned in and took his keys from the ignition.
“Now walk to the car,” the woman called.
She pointed with the badge. He half turned and saw headlight beams trapped in the fog, missing his legs by a yard. One of the sedans near the garage. He walked toward it. He heard a voice behind him shouting search his vehicle. A guy in a dark blue Kevlar vest was waiting at the car near the garage. He opened the rear door and stepped back. The woman’s briefcase was upright on the rear seat. Imitation leather, with a clumsy coarse grain stamped into its surface. He folded himself inside next to it. The guy in the vest slammed the door on him and simultaneously the opposite door opened up and the woman slid in alongside him. Her coat was open and he saw her blouse and her suit. The skirt was dusty black and short. He heard the whisper of nylon and saw the gun again, still pointing at his head. The front door opened and the sandy guy knelt in on the seat and stretched back for the briefcase. Reacher saw pale hairs on his wrist. The strap of a watch. The guy flipped the case open and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He juggled a flashlight and played the beam over them. Reacher saw dense print and his own name in bold letters near the top of the first page.
“Search warrant,” the woman said to him. “For your house.”
The sandy guy ducked back out and slammed the door. The car went silent. Reacher heard footsteps through the fog. They grew faint. For a second the woman was backlit by the glare outside. Then she reached up and forward and clicked on the dome light. It was hot and yellow. She was sitting sideways, her back against the door, her knees toward him, resting her gun arm along the seatback. The arm was bent, with the elbow on the parcel shelf so the gun was canted comfortably forward, pointing at him. It was a SIG-Sauer, big and efficient and expensive.
“Keep your feet flat on the floor,” she said.
He nodded. He knew what she wanted. He kept his back against his own door and shoved his feet underneath the front seat. It put an awkward sideways twist in his body that meant if he wanted to start moving he would be slow enough at it to get his head blown off before he got anywhere.
“Hands where I can see them,” she said.
He straightened his arms and cupped his palms around the headrest on the seat in front of him and rested his chin on his shoulder. He was looking sideways at the SIG-Sauer’s muzzle. It was rock-steady. Beyond it her finger was tight on the trigger. Beyond that was her face.
“OK, now sit still,” she said.
Her face was impassive.
“You’re not asking what this is about,” she said.
It’s not about what happened an hour and seventeen minutes ago, he said to himself. No way was this all organized in an hour and seventeen minutes. He kept quiet and absolutely still. He was worried about the whiteness in the woman’s knuckle where it wrapped around the SIG-Sauer’s trigger. Accidents can happen.
“You don’t want to know what this is about?” she asked.
He looked at her, blankly. No handcuffs, he thought. Why not? The woman shrugged at him. OK have it your own way, she was saying. Her face settled to a stare. It was not a pretty face, but it was interesting. Some character there. She was about thirty-five, which is not old, but there were lines in her skin, like she spent time making animated expressions. Probably more frowns than smiles, he thought. Her hair was jet-black but thin. He could see her scalp. It was white. It gave her a tired, sickly look. But her eyes were bright. She glanced beyond him, out into the darkness through the car window, out to where her men were doing things in his house.
She smiled. Her front teeth were crossed. The right one was canted sideways and it overlaid the left one by a fraction. An interesting mouth. It implied some kind of a decision. Her parents hadn’t had the flaw corrected, and later neither had she. She must have had the opportunity. But she had decided to stick with nature. Probably the right choice. It made her face distinctive. Gave it character.
She was slim under her bulky coat. There was a black jacket that matched the skirt, and a cream blouse loose over small breasts. The blouse looked like polyester that had been washed many times. It spiraled down into the waist-band of the skirt. She was twisted sideways and the skirt was halfway up her thighs. Her legs were thin and hard under black nylon. Her knees were pressed together, but there was a gap between her thighs.
“Would you stop doing that, please?” she said.
Her voice had gone cold, and the gun moved.
“Doing what?” Reacher asked.
“Looking at my legs.”
He switched his gaze up to her face. “Somebody points a gun at me, I’m entitled to check them out head to toe, wouldn’t you say?”
“You like doing that?”
“Looking at women.”
He shrugged. “Better than I like looking at some things, I guess.”
The gun moved closer. “This isn’t funny, asshole. I don’t like the way you’re looking at me.”
He stared at her.
“What way am I looking at you?” he asked.
“You know what way.”
He shook his head.
“No, I don’t,” he said.
“Like you’re making advances,” she said. “You’re disgusting, you know that?”
He listened to the contempt in her voice and stared at her thin hair, her frown, her crooked tooth, her hard dried-up body in its ludicrous cheap businesswoman’s uniform.
“You think I’m making advances to you?”
“Aren’t you? Wouldn’t you like to?”
He shook his head again.
“Not while there are dogs on the street,” he said.
THEY SAT IN crackling hostile silence for the best part of twenty minutes. Then the sandy guy with the mustache came back to the car and slid into the front passenger seat. The driver’s door opened and a second man got in. He had keys in his hand. He watched the mirror until the woman nodded and then fired up the motor and eased past Reacher’s parked truck and headed out toward the road.
“Do I get to make a phone call?” Reacher asked. “Or doesn’t the FBI believe in stuff like that?”
The sandy guy was staring straight ahead, at the windshield.
“At some point within the first twenty-four hours,” he said. “We’ll make sure you’re not denied your constitutional rights.”
The woman kept the SIG-Sauer’s muzzle close to Reacher’s head all the way back to Manhattan, fifty-eight fast miles through the dark and the fog.
THEY PARKED UNDERGROUND someplace south of mid-town and forced him out of the car into a white-painted garage full of bright light and dark sedans. The woman turned a full circle on the concrete floor with her shoes scraping in the silence. She was examining the whole crowded space. A cautious approach. Then she pointed toward a single black elevator door located in a distant corner. There were two more guys waiting there. Dark suits, white shirts, quiet ties. They watched the woman and the sandy guy all the way in across the diagonal. There was deference in their faces. They were junior guys. But they were also comfortable, and a little proud. Like they were some kind of hosts. Reacher suddenly understood the woman and the sandy guy were not New York agents. They were visitors from somewhere else. They were on somebody else’s turf. The woman hadn’t examined the whole garage simply because she was cautious. She had done it because she didn’t know where the elevator was.
They put Reacher in the center of the elevator car and crowded in around him. The woman, the sandy guy, the driver, the two local boys. Five people, five weapons. The four men took a corner each and the woman stood in the center, close to Reacher, like she was claiming him as hers. One of the local boys touched a button and the door rolled shut and the elevator took off.
It traveled upward for a long time and stopped hard with 21 showing on the floor indicator. The door thumped back and the local boys led the way out into a blank corridor. It was gray. Thin gray carpet, gray paint, gray light. It was quiet, like everyone except the hard-core enthusiasts had gone home hours before. There were closed doors spaced along the corridor wall. The guy who had driven the sedan down from Garrison paused in front of the third and opened it up. Reacher was maneuvered to the doorway and looked in at a bare space, maybe twelve by sixteen, concrete floor, cinder-block walls, all covered in thick gray paint like the side of a battleship. The ceiling was unfinished, and the ducting was all visible, square trunking made from thin flecked metal. Fluorescent fittings hung from chains and threw a flat glare across the gray. There was a single plastic garden chair in the corner. It was the only thing in the room.
“Sit down,” the woman said.
Reacher walked away from the chair to the opposite corner and sat on the floor, wedged into the angle of the cinder-block walls. The cinder block was cold and the paint was slick. He folded his arms over his chest and stretched his legs out straight and crossed his ankles. Rested his head on the wall, forty-five degrees to his shoulders, so he was gazing straight at the people standing by the door. They backed out into the corridor and closed the door on him. There was no sound of a lock turning, but there didn’t need to be, because there was no handle on the inside.
He felt the faint shudder of footsteps receding through the concrete floor. Then he was left with nothing but silence floating on a whisper of air from the vents above his head. He sat in the silence for maybe five minutes and then he felt more footsteps outside and the door opened again and a man stuck his face inside the room and stared straight in at him. It was an older face, big and red and bloated with strain and puffy with blood pressure, full of hostility, and its frank stare said so you’re the guy, huh? The stare lasted three or four long seconds and then the face ducked back out and the door slammed and the silence came back again.
The same thing happened over again five minutes later. Footsteps in the corridor, a face around the door, the same frank stare. So you’re the guy. This time the face was leaner and darker. Younger. Shirt and tie below it, no jacket. Reacher stared back, three or four seconds. The face disappeared and the door slammed.
This time the silence lasted longer, somewhere around twenty minutes. Then a third face came to stare. Footsteps, the rattle of the handle, the door opening, the stare. This is the guy, huh? This third face was older again, a man somewhere in his fifties, a competent expression, a thatch of gray hair. He wore thick glasses and behind them his eyes were calm. Serious speculation in both of them. He looked like a guy with responsibilities. Maybe some kind of a Bureau chief. Reacher stared back at him, wearily. No words were spoken. No communication took place. The guy just stared for a spell and then his face disappeared and the door closed again.
Whatever was happening outside kept on happening for the best part of an hour. Reacher was left alone in the room, sitting comfortably on the floor, just waiting. Then the waiting was over. A whole crowd of people came back together, noisy in the corridor, like an anxious herd. Reacher felt the stamp and shuffle of footsteps. Then the door opened and the gray-haired guy with the eyeglasses stepped into the room. He kept his trailing foot near the threshold and leaned his weight inside at an angle.
“Time to talk,” he said.
The two junior agents pushed in behind him and took up station like an escort. Reacher waited a beat and then he jacked himself upright and stepped away from his corner.
“I want to make a call,” he said.
The gray-haired guy shook his head.
“Calling comes later,” he said. “Talking comes first, OK?”
Reacher shrugged. The problem with getting your rights abused was that somebody had to witness it for it to mean anything. Somebody had to see it happen. And the two young agents were seeing nothing. Or maybe they were seeing Moses himself coming down and reading the whole Constitution off of big tablets of stone. Maybe that’s what they would swear to later.
“So let’s go,” the gray-haired guy said.
Reacher was crowded out into the gray corridor and into a big knot of people. The woman was there, and the sandy guy with the mustache, and the older guy with the blood pressure, and the younger guy with the lean face and the shirtsleeves. They were buzzing. It was late in the evening, but they were all pumped up with excitement. They were up on their toes, weightless with the intoxication of progress. It was a feeling Reacher recognized. It was a feeling he had experienced, more times than he cared to remember.
But they were divided. There were two clear teams. There was tension between them. It became obvious as they walked. The woman stuck close to his left shoulder, and the sandy guy and the blood pressure guy stuck close to her. That was one team. On his right shoulder was the guy with the lean face. He was the second team, alone and outnumbered and unhappy about it. Reacher felt his hand near his elbow, like he was ready to make a grab for his prize.
They walked down a narrow gray corridor like the bowels of a battleship and spilled into a gray room with a long table filling most of the floor space. The table was curved on both long edges and chopped off straight at the ends. On one long side, backs to the door, were seven plastic chairs in a line, well spaced out, with the curve of the table edge focusing them all across toward a single identical chair placed in the exact center of the opposite side.
Reacher paused in the doorway. Not too difficult to work out which chair was his. He looped around the end of the table and sat down in it. It was flimsy. The legs squirmed under his weight and the plastic dug into the muscle under his shoulder blades. The room was cinder block, painted gray like the first one, but this ceiling was finished. There was stained acoustic tile in warped framing. There was track lighting bolted to it, with large can-shaped fixtures angled down and toward him. The tabletop was cheap mahogany, thickly lacquered with shiny varnish. The light bounced off the varnish and came up into his eyes from below.
The two junior agents had taken up position against the walls at opposite ends of the table, like sentries. Their jackets were open and their shoulder holsters were visible. Their hands were folded comfortably at their waists. Their heads were turned, watching him. Opposite him, the two teams were forming up. Seven chairs, five people. The gray-haired guy took the center chair. The light caught his eyeglasses and turned them into blank mirrors. Next to him on his right-hand side was the guy with the blood pressure, and next to him was the woman, and next to her was the sandy guy. The guy with the lean face and the shirtsleeves was alone in the middle chair of the left-hand three. A lop-sided inquisition, hunching toward him, indistinct through the glare of the lights.
The gray-haired guy leaned forward, sliding his forearms onto the shiny wood, claiming authority. And subconsciously separating the factions to his left and right.
“We’ve been squabbling over you,” he said.
“Am I in custody?” Reacher asked.
The guy shook his head. “No, not yet.”
“So I’m free to go?”
The guy looked over the top of his eyeglasses. “Well, we’d rather you stayed right here, so we can keep this whole thing civilized for a spell.”
There was silence for a long moment.
“So make it civilized,” Reacher said. “I’m Jack Reacher. Who the hell are you?”
“Let’s have some introductions. That’s what civilized people do, right? They introduce themselves. Then they chat politely about the Yankees or the stock market or something.”
More silence. Then the guy nodded.
“I’m Alan Deerfield,” he said. “Assistant Director, FBI. I run the New York Field Office.”
Then he turned his head to his right and stared at the sandy guy on the end of the line and waited.
“Special Agent Tony Poulton,” the sandy guy said, and glanced to his left.
“Special Agent Julia Lamarr,” the woman said, and glanced to her left.
“Agent-in-Charge Nelson Blake,” the guy with the blood pressure said. “The three of us are up here from Quantico. I run the Serial Crimes Unit. Special Agents Lamarr and Poulton work for me there. We came up here to talk to you.”
There was a pause and the guy called Deerfield turned the other way and looked toward the man on his left.
“Agent-in-Charge James Cozo,” the guy said. “Organized Crime, here in New York City, working on the protection rackets.”
“OK now?” Deerfield asked.
Reacher squinted through the glare. They were all looking at him. The sandy guy, Poulton. The woman, Lamarr. The hypertensive, Blake. All three of them from Serial Crimes down in Quantico. Up here to talk to him. Then Deerfield, the New York Bureau chief, a heavyweight. Then the lean guy, Cozo, from Organized Crime, working on the protection rackets. He glanced slowly left to right, and right to left, and finished up back on Deerfield. Then he nodded.
“OK,” he said. “Pleased to meet you all. So what about those Yankees? You think they need to trade?”
Five different people facing him, five different expressions of annoyance. Poulton turned his head like he had been slapped. Lamarr snorted, a contemptuous sound in her nose. Blake tightened his mouth and got redder. Deerfield stared and sighed. Cozo glanced sideways at Deerfield, lobbying for intervention.
“We’re not going to talk about the Yankees,” Deerfield said.
“So what about the Dow? We going to see a big crash anytime soon?”
Deerfield shook his head. “Don’t mess with me, Reacher. Right now I’m the best friend you got.”
“No, Ernesto A. Miranda is the best friend I got,” Reacher said. “Miranda versus Arizona, Supreme Court decision in June of 1966. They said his Fifth Amendment rights were infringed because the cops didn’t warn him he could stay silent and get himself a lawyer. ”
“So you can’t talk to me until you read me my Miranda rights. Whereupon you can’t talk to me anyway because my lawyer could take some time to get here and then she won’t let me talk to you even when she does.”
The three agents from Serial Crime were smiling broadly. Like Reacher was busy proving something to them.
“Your lawyer is Jodie Jacob, right?” Deerfield asked. “Your girlfriend?”
“What do you know about my girlfriend?”
“We know everything about your girlfriend,” Deerfield said. “Just like we know everything about you, too.”
“So why do you need to talk to me?”
“She’s at Spencer Gutman, right?” Deerfield said. “Big reputation as an associate. They’re talking about a partnership for her, you know that?”
“So I heard.”
“Maybe real soon.”
“So I heard,” Reacher said again.
“Knowing you isn’t going to help her, though. You’re not exactly the ideal corporate husband, are you?”
“I’m not any kind of a husband.”
Deerfield smiled. “Figure of speech, is all. But Spencer Gutman is a real white-shoe operation. They consider stuff like that, you know. And it’s a financial firm, right? Real big in the world of banking, we all know that. But not much expertise in the field of criminal law. You sure you want her for your attorney? Situation like this?”
“Situation like what?”
“Situation you’re in.”
“What situation am I in?”
“Ernesto A. Miranda was a moron, you know that?” Deerfield said. “A couple of smokes short of a pack? That’s why the damn court was so soft on him. He was a subnormal guy. He needed the protection. You a moron, Reacher? You a subnormal guy?”
“Probably, to be putting up with this shit.”
“Rights are for guilty people, anyway. You already saying you’re guilty of something?”
Reacher shook his head. “I’m not saying anything. I’ve got nothing to say.”
“Old Ernesto went to jail anyhow, you know that? People tend to forget that fact. They retried him and convicted him just the same. He was in jail five years. Then you know what happened to him?”
Reacher shrugged. Said nothing.
“I was working in Phoenix at the time,” Deerfield said. “Down in Arizona. Homicide detective, for the city. Just before I made it to the Bureau. January of 1976, we get a call to a bar. Some piece of shit lying on the floor, big knife handle sticking up out of him. The famous Ernesto A. Miranda himself, bleeding all over the place. Nobody fell over themselves rushing to call any medics. Guy died a couple minutes after we got there.”
“So stop wasting my time. I already wasted an hour stopping these guys fighting over you. So now you owe me. So you’ll answer their questions, and I’ll tell you when and if you need a damn lawyer.”
“What are the questions about?”
Deerfield smiled. “What are any questions about? Stuff we need to know, is what.”
“What stuff do you need to know?”
What People are Saying About This
“Swift and brutal.”—The New York Times
“Reacher is one of the more interesting suspense heroes to come along in a while.” —San Antonio Express News
“A superior series.”—The Washington Post Book World
“A great read.”—St. Petersburg Times
“Spectacular…muscular, energetic prose and pell-mell pacing.”—The Seattle Times
“Jack Reacher, the wandering folk hero of Child’s superb line of thrillers faces a baffling puzzle in his latest adventure…a brain-teasing puzzle that gets put together piece by fascinating piece…and a central character with Robin Hood-like integrity and an engagingly eccentric approach to life.”—Publishers Weekly
“Deeply satisfying ... plan to stay up long past bedtime and do some serious hyperventilating toward the end.”—Kirkus Reviews
“This fourth Reacher thriller is easily the best. The plot is a masterpiece. Reacher belongs at the same table with…Parker’s Spenser.”—Booklist
“With numerous plot twists and turns, Child puts Reacher through his paces brilliantly, arriving at an unusual solution. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal
The Fan Letter by Lee Child
They say the past is another country, and in my case it really was: provincial England at the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties, the last gasp of the post-war era, before it surrendered to the tectonic shift sparked by the Beatles. My family was neither rich nor poor, not that either condition had much meaning in a society with not much to buy and not much to lack. We accumulated toys at the rate of two a year: one on our birthdays, and one at Christmas. We had a big table radio (which we called "the wireless") in the dining room, and in the living room we had a black and white fishbowl television, full of glowing tubes, but there were only two channels, and they went off the air at ten in the evening, after playing the National Anthem, for which some families stood up, and sometimes we saw a double bill at the pictures on a Saturday morning, but apart from that we had no entertainment.
So we read books. As it happens I just saw some old research from that era which broke down reading habits by class (as so much was categorized in England at that time) and which showed that fully fifty percent of the middle class regarded reading as their main leisure activity. The figure for skilled workers was twenty-five percent, and even among laborers ten percent turned to books as a primary choice.
Not that we bought them. We used the library. Ours was housed in a leftover WW2 Nissen hut (the British version of a Quonset hut) which sat on a bombed-out lot behind a church. It had a low door and a unique warm, musty, dusty smell, which I think came partly from the worn floorboards and partly from the books themselves, of which there were not very many. I finished with the children's picture books by the time I was four, and had read all the chapter books by the time I was eight, and had read all the grown-up books by the time I was ten.
Not that I was unique - or even very bookish. I was one of the rough kids. We fought and stole and broke windows and walked miles to soccer games, where we fought some more. We were covered in scabs and scars. We had knives in our pockets - but we had books in our pockets too. Even the kids who couldn't read tried very hard to, because we all sensed there was more to life than the gray, pinched, post-war horizons seemed to offer. Traveling farther than we could walk in half a day was out of the question - but we could travel in our heads ... to Australia, Africa, America ... by sea, by air, on horseback, in helicopters, in submarines. Meeting people unlike ourselves was very rare ... but we could meet them on the page. For most of us, reading - and imagining, and dreaming - was as useful as breathing.
My parents were decent, dutiful people, and when my mother realized I had read everything the Nissen hut had to offer - most of it twice - she got me a library card for a bigger place the other side of the canal. I would head over there on a Friday afternoon after school and load up with the maximum allowed - six titles - which would make life bearable and get me through the week. Just. Which sounds ungrateful - my parents were doing their best, no question, but lively, energetic kids needed more than that time and place could offer. Once a year we went and spent a week in a trailer near the sea - no better or worse a vacation than anyone else got, for sure, but usually accompanied by lashing rain and biting cold and absolutely nothing to do.
The only thing that got me through one such week was Von Ryan's Express by David Westheimer. I loved that book. It was a WW2 prisoner-of-war story full of tension and suspense and twists and turns, but its biggest "reveal" was moral rather than physical - what at first looked like collaboration with the enemy turned out to be resistance and escape. I read it over and over that week and never forgot it.
Then almost forty years later, when my own writing career was picking up a head of steam, I got a fan letter signed by a David Westheimer. The handwriting was shaky, as if the guy was old. I wondered, could it be? I wrote back and asked, are you the David Westheimer? Turned out yes, it was. We started a correspondence that lasted until he died. I met him in person at a book signing I did in California, near his home, which gave me a chance to tell him how he had kept me sane in a rain-lashed trailer all those years ago. He said he had had the same kind of experience forty years before that. Now I look forward to writing a fan letter to a new author years from now ... and maybe hearing my books had once meant something special to him or her. Because that's what books do - they dig deeper, they mean more, they stick around forever.