Rusty Rutherford emerged from his apartment on a Monday morning, exactly one week after he got fired.
He spent the first few days after the ax fell with his blinds drawn, working through his stockpile of frozen pizzas and waiting for the phone to ring. Significant weaknesses, the dismissal letter said. Profound failure of leadership. Basic and fundamental errors. It was unbelievable. Such a distortion of the truth. And so unfair. They were actually trying to pin the town’s recent problems on him. It was . . . a mistake. Plain and simple. Which meant it was certain to be corrected. And soon.
The hours crawled past. His phone stayed silent. And his personal email silted up with nothing more than spam.
He resisted for another full day, then grabbed his old laptop and powered it up. He didn’t own a gun or a knife. He didn’t know how to rappel from a helicopter or parachute from a plane. But still, someone had to pay. Maybe his real-life enemies were going to get away with it. This time. But not the villains in the videogames a developer buddy had sent him. He had shied away from playing them, before. The violence felt too extreme. Too unnecessary. It didn’t feel that way anymore. His days of showing mercy were over. Unless . . .
His phone stayed silent.
Twenty-four hours later he had a slew of new high scores and a mild case of dehydration, but not much else had changed. He closed the computer and slumped back on his couch. He stayed there for the best part of another day, picking at random from a stack of blu rays he didn’t remember buying and silently begging the universe to send him back to work. He would be different, he swore. Easier to get along with. More patient. Diplomatic. Empathetic, even. He would buy donuts for everyone in the office. Twice a month. Three times, if that would seal the deal . . .
His phone stayed silent.
He didn’t often drink, but what else was there left to do? The credits began to roll at the end of another disk. He couldn’t stomach another movie so he retreated to the kitchen. Retrieved an unopened bottle of Jim Beam from the back of a cabinet. Returned to the living room and put a scratchy old Elmore James LP on the turntable.
He wound up asleep, facedown on the floor, after—he wasn’t sure how long. All he knew was that when he woke up his head felt like it was crammed full of rocks, shifting and grinding as if they were trying to burst out of his skull. He thought the pain would never end. But when his hangover did finally pass he found himself experiencing a new emotion. Defiance. He was an innocent man, after all. None of the bad things that had happened were his fault. That was for damn sure. He was the one who’d foreseen them. Who’d warned his boss about them. Time after time. In public and in private. And who’d been ignored. Time after time. So after seven days holed up alone, Rutherford decided it was time to show his face. To tell his side of the story. To anyone who would listen.
He took a shower and dug some clothes out of his closet. Chinos and a polo shirt. Brand new. Somber colors, with logos, to show he meant business. Then he retrieved his shoes from the opposite corners of the hallway where he’d flung them. Scooped up his keys and sunglasses from the bookcase by the door. Stepped out into the corridor. Rode down in the elevator, alone. Crossed the lobby. Pushed through the heavy revolving door and paused on the sidewalk. The mid-morning sun felt like a blast furnace and its sudden heat drew beads of sweat from his forehead and armpits. He felt a flutter of panic. Guilty people sweat. He’d read that somewhere, and the one thing he was desperate to avoid was looking guilty. He glanced around, convinced that everyone would be staring at him, then forced himself to move. He picked up the pace, feeling more conspicuous than if he’d been walking down the street naked. But the truth was that most of the people he passed didn’t even notice he was there. In fact, only two of them paid him any attention at all.
The same time Rusty Rutherford was coming out of his apartment, Jack Reacher was breaking into a bar. He was in Nashville, Tennessee, seventy-five miles north and east of Rutherford’s sleepy little town, and he was searching for the solution to a problem. It was a practical matter, primarily. A question of physics. And biology. Specifically, how to suspend a guy from a ceiling without causing too much permanent damage. To the ceiling, at least. He was less concerned about the guy.
The ceiling belonged to the bar. And the bar belonged to the guy. Reacher had first set foot in the place a little over a day earlier. On Saturday. Almost Sunday, because it was close to midnight by the time he got into town. His journey had not been smooth. The first bus he rode caught on fire and its replacement got wedged under a low bridge after its driver took a wrong turn twenty miles out. Reacher was stiff from the prolonged sitting when he eventually climbed out at the Greyhound station so he moved away to the side, near the smokers’ pen, and took a few minutes to stretch the soreness out of his muscles and joints. He stood there, half-hidden in the shadows, while the rest of the passengers milled around and talked and did things with their phones and reclaimed their luggage and gradually drifted away.
Reacher stayed where he was. He was in no hurry. He’d arrived later than expected, but that was no major problem. He had no appointments to keep. No meetings to attend. No one was waiting for him, getting worried or getting mad. He’d planned to find a place to stay for the night. A diner, for some food. And a bar where he could hear some good music. He should still be able to do all those things. He’d maybe have to switch the order around. Maybe combine a couple of activities. But he’d live. And with some hotels, the kind Reacher preferred, it can work to show up late. Especially if you’re paying cash. Which he always did.
Music first, Reacher decided. He knew there was no shortage of venues in Nashville, but he wanted a particular kind of place. Somewhere worn. With some history. Where Blind Blake could have played, back in the day. Howlin’ Wolf, even. Certainly nowhere new, or gentrified, or gussied up. The only question was how to find a place like that. The lights were still on in the bus depot, and a handful of people were still working or waiting or just keeping themselves off the street. Some of them were bound to be local. Maybe all of them were. Reacher could have asked for directions. But he didn’t go in. He preferred to navigate by instinct. He knew cities. He could read their shape and flow like a sailor can sense the direction of the coming waves. His gut told him to go north, so he set off across a broad triangular intersection and on to a vacant lot, strewn with rubble. The heavy odor of diesel and cigarettes faded behind him, and his shadow grew longer in front as he walked. It led the way to rows of narrow, parallel streets lined with similar brick buildings, stained with soot. It felt industrial, but decayed and hollow. Reacher didn’t know what kinds of businesses had thrived in Nashville’s past, but whatever had been made or sold or stored it had clearly happened around there. And it clearly wasn’t happening anymore. The structures were all that remained. And not for much longer, Reacher thought. Either money would flow in and shore them up, or they’d collapse.
Reacher stepped off the crumbling sidewalk and continued down the center of the street. He figured he’d give it another two blocks. Three at the most. If he hadn’t found anything good by then he’d strike out to the right, toward the river. He passed a place that sold part-worn tires. A warehouse that a charity was using to store donated furniture. Then, as he crossed the next street, he picked up the rumble of a bass guitar and the thunder of drums.
The sound was coming from a building in the center of the block. It didn’t look promising. There were no windows. No signage. Just a thin strip of yellow light escaping from beneath a single wooden door. Reacher didn’t like places with too few potential exits so he was inclined to keep walking. But as he drew level, the door opened. Two guys, maybe in their late twenties with sleeveless T-shirts and a smattering of anemic tattoos, stumbled out onto the sidewalk. Reacher moved to avoid them, and at the same moment a guitar began to wail from inside. Reacher paused. The riff was good. It built and swelled and soared, and just as it seemed to be done and its final note was dying away, a woman’s voice took over. It was mournful, desperate, agonizing, like a conduit to a world of the deepest imaginable sorrow. Reacher couldn’t resist. He stepped across the threshold.
Copyright © 2020 by Lee Child. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.