In the spring of 1989 Caroline Crawford was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. She bought a silver Porsche to celebrate. She had family money, people said, and plenty of it. A trust fund, maybe. Some eminent relative. Maybe an inventor. Her uniforms were tailored in D.C. by the same shop that made suits for the president. She was held to be the richest woman in the army. Not that the bar was high.
With the new rank came a new posting, so the silver Porsche’s first trip was south from War Plans in the Pentagon to Fort Smith in Georgia. All part of the War Plans method. There was no point making plans that couldn’t be executed. High-level on-the-ground liaison was crucial. With a little surreptitious behind-the-scenes observation mixed in. Every new light colonel’s first rotation. Crawford was happy to do it. Even though Fort Smith turned out to be a small damp place in the woods, full of desperate characters. Special forces, of various types. No tailored uniforms. Which was OK. Promising, even. Raw material, possibly, for the kind of new units she was going to need. Input at an early stage could be vital. They might even name the units after her. She would make full bird within a year and a half. She would be fast-tracked to her first star. And she was entitled to have some input. Wasn’t she? Liaison was a two-way street. She was entitled to suggest what they should do, as well as listen to what they couldn’t.
The first week went well, even though it rained a lot. The rumor mill had it straight within an hour: she was unmarried and available, but not cool to hit on, because War Plans was serious shit. So relationships were cordial, but with enough of a hint of a buzz to be interesting, too. The visiting officers’ quarters were adequate in every respect. Like a motel, but more earnest. The woods were always damp and stretched for miles all around, but there were roads through, some of them just forest tracks or firebreaks, others with lit-up signs on their muddy shoulders, eventually, an hour or so out, for barbecue sometimes, or bars with dancing. Life wasn’t bad.
At the end of the first week she left Fort Smith in her tailored Class A uniform, in her silver Porsche, and she turned off the county road at the first big fork, which eventually led to a hidden not-quite two-lane road-to-nowhere through the trees, mostly straight and sunlit, perfect with the windows down, with the wet smell of the rich mud on the shoulders, and the woody echo of the exhaust coming back off the bark, part throaty, part whine, part howl.
Then, a broken-down car up ahead. A sedan, stopped diagonally across the road, its front wheels turned all the way, its hood up, a guy peering in at the motor. A tall guy, obvious even from a hundred yards away. Not lightly built. Big feet.
She slowed, late and hard, just for the fun of it, changing down, the exhaust popping behind her like a firework show. The stalled sedan was a Detroit product painted army green. The guy under its hood straightened up and turned to look. He was tall indeed, maybe six-six, in standard battledress uniform, woodland pattern. He was all in proportion, and therefore far from delicate, but he held himself gracefully. He looked slender, except he wasn’t.
She stopped the car. She rested her elbow on the door and her chin on her elbow, just looking, part quizzical, part resigned, part ready to help, maybe after some teasing. All those things, and not suspicious at all. The raised hood triggered some kind of ancient early-motorist instinct. Helpful, and sympathetic.
That, and the familiar uniform.
The tall guy walked closer. Big clumsy feet, in battered tan boots, but otherwise an elegant long-legged lope. No hat. Cropped fair hair, receding. Blue eyes, an open gaze, somehow both naïve and knowing. An otherwise unremarkable face, with features just the right side of blunt.
He had a full colonel’s eagle on his collar. Above his right pocket his tape said: U.S. Army. Above his left pocket his tape said: Reacher.
He said, “Forgive me for interrupting your journey, but I can’t push it out the way. Can’t turn the wheel. I think the power steering broke.”
She said, “Colonel, I’m sorry.”
He said, “I’m guessing your car doesn’t have a trailer hitch.”
“I could help you push.”
“That’s kind of you, but it would take ten of us.”
She said, “Are you who I think you are?”
“You’re Joe Reacher. You just got a new counterintelligence command.”
“Correct on both counts,” Joe Reacher said. “I’m pleased to meet you.” He glanced down at her nameplate. Plastic, white on black, because of the tailored Class As. The nameplate is adjusted to individual figure differences, centered horizontally on the right side between one and two inches above the top button of the coat. He looked at her unit insignia and her badges of rank. He said, “You must be Caroline Crawford. Congratulations.”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Part of my job. But it’s not part of yours to know who I am.”
“Not part of my job, but part of my interest. I like to track the key players.”
“I’m not a key player.”
“Sir, bullshit, with respect, sir.”
“Academic interest, or career interest?”
She half smiled, half shrugged, but didn’t answer.
He said, “Both, right?”
She said, “I don’t see why it can’t be.”
“How high do you plan to get?”
“Three stars,” she said. “In the Joint Chiefs’ office, maybe. Anything more would be in the lap of the gods.”
Joe Reacher said, “Well, good luck with all of that,” and he put his hand in his battledress pocket, and he came out with a standard army-issue Beretta M9 semi-automatic pistol, and he shot Caroline Crawford with it, twice in the chest and once in the head.
Also with a new posting the same week as Caroline Crawford was a military police major named David Noble. He was detaching from his current command and heading to Fort Benning, Georgia, from where he would oversee criminal investigations throughout the southeastern military districts. A brand-new reorganization. Someone’s baby. Unlikely to last, but temporarily important work. Noble never got to do it. He was in a car wreck on the way. In South Carolina. An adjacent state. Nearly there. Not fatal, but he ended up at Walter Reed. He had a collapsed lung. He couldn’t breathe right. So an emergency substitute was decided on and hunted down and pulled off his current maneuvers and hustled north to Benning. Just how it always was, for the army. Situation entirely normal. A big job, the second-best guy, a week late. On the bright side people said this new one was a fast study and a hard worker. He might catch up. If he got started right away.
So it was that the same moment Joe Reacher said, “I’m not a key player,” his younger brother, Jack Reacher, walked into a brand-new office more than a hundred miles away, and then out again, in search of coffee, almost ready to begin overseeing criminal investigations throughout the southeastern military districts.
The Porsche was found early the next morning, by four soldiers in a Humvee, who were trying to find a shortcut back to Smith after a night exercise had gone all kinds of wrong in terms of navigation. They recognized the car from a distance. It was already famous on the base. The new War Plans lady. Hot, smart, and rich. Nothing wrong with any of that. Nothing at all. Maybe she had a flat tire. Maybe she was in need of assistance.
As they pulled closer they thought the car was empty.