An Excerpt from Without Fail by Lee Child
Return to the main page.
They found out about him in July and stayed angry all through August. They tried to kill him in September. It was way too soon. They weren't ready. The attempt was a failure. It could have been a disaster, but it was actually a miracle. Because nobody noticed.
They used their usual method to get past security and set up a hundred feet from where he was speaking. They used a silencer and missed him by an inch. The bullet must have passed right over his head. Maybe even through his hair, because he immediately raised his hand and patted it back into place as if a gust of wind had disturbed it. They saw it over and over again, afterward, on television. He raised his hand and patted his hair. He did nothing else. He just kept on with his speech, unaware, because by definition a silenced bullet is too fast to see and too quiet to hear. So it missed him and flew on. It missed everybody standing behind him. It struck no obstacles, hit no buildings. It flew on straight and true until its energy was spent and gravity hauled it to earth in the far distance where there was nothing except empty grassland. There was no response. No reaction. Nobody noticed. It was like the bullet had never been fired at all. They didn't fire again. They were too shaken up.
So, a failure, but a miracle. And a lesson. They spent October acting like the professionals they were, starting over, calming down, thinking, learning, preparing for their second attempt. It would be a better attempt, carefully planned and properly executed, built around technique and nuance and sophistication, and enhanced by unholy fear. A worthy attempt. A creative attempt. Above all, an attempt that wouldn't fail.
Then November came, and the rules changed completely.
* Reacher's cup was empty but still warm. He lifted it off the saucer and tilted it and watched the sludge in the bottom row toward him, slow and brown, like river silt.
"When does it need to be done?" he asked.
"As soon as possible," she said.
He nodded. Slid out of the booth and stood up.
"I'll call you in ten days," he said.
"With a decision?"
He shook his head. "To tell you how it went."
"I'll know how it went."
"OK, to tell you where to send my money."
She closed her eyes and smiled. He glanced down at her.
"You thought I'd refuse?" he said.
She opened her eyes. "I thought you might be a little harder to persuade."
He shrugged. "Like Joe told you, I 'm a sucker for a challenge. Joe was usually right about things like that. He was usually right about a lot of things."
"Now I don't know what to say, except thank you."
He didn't reply. Just started to move away, but she stood up right next to him and kept him where he was. There was an awkward pause. They stood for a second face-to-face, trapped by the table. She put out her hand and he shook it. She held on a fraction too long, and then she stretched up tall and kissed him on the cheek. Her lips were soft. Their touch burned him like a tiny voltage.
"A handshake isn't enough," she said. "You 're going to do it for us."
Then she paused. "And you were nearly my brother-in-law."
He said nothing. Just nodded and shuffled out from behind the table and glanced back once. Then he headed up the stairs and out to the street.
Her perfume was on his hand. He walked around to the cabaret lounge and left a note for his friends in their dressing room. Then he headed out to the highway, with ten whole days to and a way to kill the fourth-best-protected person on the planet.
* It had started eight hours earlier, like this: team leader M. E. Froelich came to work on that Monday morning, thirteen days after the election, an hour before the second strategy meeting, seven days after the word assassination had first been used, and made her final decision. She set off in search of her immediate superior and found him in the secretarial pen outside his office, clearly on his way to somewhere else, clearly in a hurry. He had a file under his arm and a definite stay back expression on his face. But she took a deep breath and made it clear that she needed to talk right then. Urgently. And off the record and in private, obviously. So he paused a moment and turned abruptly and went back inside his office. He let her step in after him and closed the door behind her, softly enough to make the unscheduled meeting feel a little conspiratorial, but firmly enough that she was in no doubt he was annoyed about the interruption to his routine. It was just the click of a door latch, but it was also an unmistakable message, parsed exactly in the language of office hierarchies everywhere: you better not be wasting my time with this.
He was a twenty-five-year veteran well into his final lap before retirement, well into his middle fifties, the last echo of the old days. He was still tall, still fairly lean and athletic, but graying fast and softening in some of the wrong places. His name was Stuyvesant. Like the last Director-General of New Amsterdam, he would say when the spelling was questioned. Then, acknowledging the modern world, he would say: like the cigarette. He wore Brooks Brothers every day of his life without exception, but he was considered capable of flexibility in his tactics. Best of all, he had never failed. Not ever, and he had been around a long time, with more than his fair share of difficulties. But there had been no failures, and no bad luck, either. Therefore, in the merciless calculus of organizations everywhere, he was considered a good guy to work for.
"You look a little nervous," he said.
"I am, a little," Froelich said back.
His office was small, and quiet, and sparsely furnished, and very clean.
The walls were painted bright white and lit with halogen. There was a window, with white vertical blinds half closed against gray weather outside.
"Why are you nervous?" he asked.
"I need to ask your permission."
"For something I want to try," she said. She was twenty years younger than Stuyvesant, exactly thirty-five. Tall rather than short, but not excessively. Maybe only an inch or two over the average for American women of her generation, but the kind of intelligence and energy and vitality she radiated took the word medium right out of the equation. She was halfway between lithe and muscular, with a bright glow in her skin and her eyes that made her look like an athlete. Her hair was short and fair and casually unkempt. She gave the impression of having hurriedly stepped into her street clothes after showering quickly after winning a gold medal at the Olympics by playing a crucial role in some kind of team sport. Like it was no big deal, like she wanted to get out of the stadium before the television interviewers got through with her teammates and started in on her. She looked like a very competent person,but a very modest one.
"What kind of something?" Stuyvesant asked. He turned and placed the file he was carrying on his desk. His desk was large, topped with a slab of gray composite. High-end modern of Ące furniture, obsessively cleaned and polished like an antique. He was famous for always keeping his desktop clear of paperwork and completely empty. The habit created an air of extreme effciency.
"I want an outsider to do it," Froelich said.
Stuyvesant squared the file on the desk corner and ran his fingers along the spine and the adjacent edge, like he was checking the angle was exact.
"You think that 's a good idea?" he asked.
Froelich said nothing.
"I suppose you've got somebody in mind?" he asked.
"An excellent prospect."
Froelich shook her head.
"You should stay outside the loop," she said. "Better that way."
"Was he recommended?"
Stuyvesant nodded again. The modern world.
"Was the person you have in mind recommended?"
"Yes, by an excellent source."
"Yes," Froelich said again.
"So we're already in the loop."
"No, the source isn't in-house anymore."
Stuyvesant turned again and moved his file parallel to the long edge of the desk.Then back again parallel with the short edge.
"Let me play devil's advocate, "he said." I promoted you four months ago. Four months is a long time. Choosing to bring in an outsider now might be seen to betray a certain lack of self-confidence, mightn't it?
Wouldn't you say?"
"I can't worry about that."
"Maybe you should, "Stuyvesant said. "This could hurt you. There were six guys who wanted your job. So if you do this and it leaks, then you've got real problems. You've got half a dozen vultures muttering told you so the whole rest of your career. Because you started second-guessing your own abilities."
"Thing like this, I need to second-guess myself. I think."
"No, I know. I don't see an alternative."
Stuyvesant said nothing.
"I'm not happy about it," Froelich said. "Believe me. But I think it's got to be done. And that's my judgment call."
The office went quiet. Stuyvesant said nothing.
"So will you authorize it?" Froelich asked.
Stuyvesant shrugged. "You shouldn't be asking. You should have just gone ahead and done it regardless."
"Not my way," Froelich said.
"So don't tell anybody else. And don't put anything on paper."
"I wouldn't anyway. It would compromise effectiveness."
Stuyvesant nodded vaguely. Then, like the good bureaucrat he had become, he arrived at the most important question of all.
"How much would this person cost?" he asked.
"Not much," Froelich said. "Maybe nothing at all. Maybe expenses only.
We've got some history together. Theoretically. Of a sort."
"This could stall your career. No more promotions."
"The alternative would finish my career."
"You were my choice," Stuyvesant said. "I picked you. Therefore anything that damages you damages me, too."
"I understand that, sir."
"So take a deep breath and count to ten. Then tell me that it's really necessary."
Froelich nodded, and took a breath and kept quiet, ten or eleven seconds.
"It's really necessary," she said.
Stuyvesant picked up his file.
"OK, do it," he said.
* She started immediately after the strategy meeting, suddenly aware that doing it was the hard part. Asking for permission had seemed like such a hurdle that she had characterized it in her mind as the most difficult stage of the whole project. But now that felt like nothing at all compared with actually hunting down her target. All she had was a last name and a sketchy biography that might or might not have been accurate and up to date eight years ago. If she even remembered the details correctly. They had been mentioned casually, playfully, late one night, by her lover, part of some drowsy pillow talk. She couldn't even be sure she had been paying full attention. So she decided not to rely on the details. She would rely solely on the name itself.
She wrote it in large capital letters at the top of a sheet of yellow paper. It brought back a lot of memories. Some bad, most good. She stared at it for a long moment, and then she crossed it out and wrote UNSUB instead. That would help her concentration, because it made the whole thing impersonal.
It put her mind in a groove, took her right back to basic training. An unknown subject was somebody to be identified and located. That was all, nothing more and nothing less.
Her main operational advantage was computer power. She had more access to more databases than the average citizen gets. UNSUB was military, she knew that for sure, so she went to the National Personnel Records Center's database. It was compiled in St. Louis, Missouri, and listed literally every man or woman who had served in a U.S. military uniform, anywhere, ever. She typed in the last name and waited and the inquiry software came back with just three short responses. One she eliminated immediately, by given name. I know for sure it's not him, don't I? Another she eliminated by date of birth. A whole generation too old. So the third had to be UNSUB. No other possibility. She stared at the full name for a second and copied the date of birth and the Social Security number onto her yellow paper. Then she hit the icon for details and entered her password. The screen redrew and came up with an abbreviated career summary.
Bad news. UNSUB wasn't military anymore. The career summary dead-ended five whole years ago with an honorable discharge after thirteen years of service. Final rank was major. There were medals listed, including a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. She read the citations and wrote down the details and drew a line across the yellow paper to signify the end of one era and the start of another. Then she plowed on.
Next logical step was to look at Social Security's Master Death Index.
Basic training. No point trying to chase down somebody who was already dead. She entered the number and realized she was holding her breath. But the inquiry came back blank. UNSUB was still alive, as far as the government knew. Next step was to check in with the National Crime Information Center. Basic training again. No point trying to sign up somebody who was serving time in prison, for instance, not that she thought it was remotely likely, not in UNSUB's case. But you never knew. There was a fine line, with some personality types. The NCIC database was always slow, so she shoved drifts of accumulated paperwork into drawers and then left her desk and re billed her coffee cup. Strolled back to find a negative arrest-or-conviction record waiting on her screen. Plus a short note to say UNSUB had an FBI file somewhere in their records. Interesting. She closed NCIC and went straight to the FBI's database. She found the file and couldn't open it. But she knew enough about the Bureau's classification system to be able to decode the header flags. It was a simple narrative file, inactive. Nothing more. UNSUB wasn't a fugitive, wasn't wanted for anything, wasn't currently in trouble.
She wrote it all down, and then clicked her way into the nationwide DMV database. Bad news again. UNSUB didn't have a driver's license. Which was very weird. And which was a very big pain in the butt. Because no driver's license meant no current photograph and no current address listing.
She clicked her way into the Veterans' Administration computer in Chicago.
Searched by name, rank, and number. The inquiries came up blank. UNSUB wasn't receiving federal benefits and hadn't offered a forwarding address. Why not? Where the hell are you? She went back into Social Security and asked for contributions records. There weren't any. UNSUB hadn't been employed since leaving the military, at least not legally. She tried the IRS for confirmation. Same story. UNSUB hadn't paid taxes in five years. Hadn't even filed.
OK, so let's get serious. She hitched straighter in her chair and quit the government sites and fired up some illicit software that took her straight into the banking industry's private world. Strictly speaking she shouldn't be using it for this purpose. Or for any purpose. It was an obvious breach of official protocol. But she didn't expect to get any comeback. And she did expect to get a result. If UNSUB had even a single bank account anywhere in the fifty states, it would show up. Even a humble little checking account. Even an empty or abandoned account. Plenty of people got by without bank accounts, she knew that, but she felt in her gut UNSUB wouldn't be one of them. Not somebody who had been a U.S.Army major. With medals.
From Without Fail by Lee Child
Published by The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc.
Copyright © May 2002 Lee Child
Return to the main page.