ON A HOT August Thursday in 1974, an old man in Paris did something he had never done before: he woke up in the morning, but he didn’t get out of bed. He couldn’t. His name was Laurent Moutier, and he had felt pretty bad for ten days and really lousy for seven. His arms and legs felt thin and weak and his chest felt like it was full of setting concrete. He knew what was happening. He had been a furniture repairman by trade, and he had become what customers sometimes brought him: a wormy old heirloom weakened and rotted beyond hope. There was no single thing wrong with him. Everything was failing all at once. Nothing to be done. Inevitable. So he lay patient and wheezing and waited for his housekeeper.
She came in at ten o’clock and showed no great shock or surprise. Most of her clients were old, and they came and went with regularity. She called the doctor, and at one point, clearly in answer to a question about his age, Moutier heard her say, ‘Ninety,’ in a resigned yet satisfied way, a way that spoke volumes, as if it was a whole paragraph in one word. It reminded him of standing in his workshop, breathing in dust and glue and varnish, looking at some abject crumbly cabinet and saying, ‘Well now, let’s see,’ when really his mind had already moved on to getting rid of it.
A house call was arranged for later in the day, but then as if to confirm the unspoken diagnosis the housekeeper asked Moutier for his address book, so she could call his immediate family. Moutier had an address book but no immediate family beyond his only daughter, Josephine, but even so she filled most of the book by herself, because she moved a lot. Page after page was full of crossed-out box numbers and long strange foreign phone numbers. The housekeeper dialled the last of them and heard the whine and echo of great distances, and then she heard a voice speaking English, a language she couldn’t understand, so she hung up again. Moutier saw her dither for a moment, but then as if to confirm the diagnosis once again, she left in search of the retired schoolteacher two floors below, a soft old man who Moutier usually dismissed as practically a cretin, but then, how good did a linguist need to be to translate ton père va mourir into your father is going to die?
The housekeeper came back with the schoolteacher, both of them pink and flushed from the stairs, and the guy dialled the same long number over again, and asked to speak to Josephine Moutier.
‘No, Reacher, you idiot,’ Moutier said, in a voice that should have been a roar, but in fact came out as a breathy tubercular plea. ‘Her married name is Reacher. They won’t know who Josephine Moutier is.’
The schoolteacher apologized and corrected himself and asked for Josephine Reacher. He listened for a moment and covered the receiver with his palm and looked at Moutier and asked, ‘What’s her husband’s name? Your son-in-law?’
‘Stan,’ Moutier said. ‘Not Stanley, either. Just Stan. Stan is on his birth certificate. I saw it. He’s Captain Stan Reacher, of the United States Marine Corps.’
The schoolteacher relayed that information and listened again. Then he hung up. He turned and said, ‘They just left. Really just days ago, apparently. The whole family. Captain Reacher has been posted elsewhere.’
THE RETIRED SCHOOLTEACHER in Paris had been talking to a duty lieutenant at the Navy base on Guam in the Pacific, where Stan Reacher had been deployed for three months as Marine Corps liaison. That pleasant posting had come to an end and he had been sent to Okinawa. His family had followed three days later, on a passenger plane via Manila, his wife, Josephine, and his two sons, fifteen-year-old Joe and thirteen-year-old Jack. Josephine Reacher was a bright, spirited, energetic woman, at forty-four still curious about the world and happy to be seeing so much of it, still tolerant of the ceaseless moves and the poor accommodations. Joe Reacher at fifteen was already almost full-grown, already well over six feet and well over two hundred pounds, a giant next to his mother, but still quiet and studious, still very much Clark Kent, not Superman. Jack Reacher at thirteen looked like an engineer’s napkin sketch for something even bigger and even more ambitious, his huge bony frame like the scaffolding around a major construction project. Six more inches and a final eighty pounds of beef would finish the job, and they were all on their way. He had big hands and watchful eyes. He was quiet like his brother, but not studious. Unlike his brother he was always called by his last name only. No one knew why, but the family was Stan and Josie, Joe and Reacher, and it always had been.
Stan met his family off the plane at the Futenma air station and they took a taxi to a bungalow he had found half a mile from the beach. It was hot and still inside and it fronted on a narrow concrete street with ditches either side. The street was dead straight and lined with small houses set close together, and at the end of it was a blue patch of ocean. By that point the family had lived in maybe forty different places, and the move-in routine was second nature. The boys found the second bedroom and it was up to them to decide whether it needed cleaning. If so, they cleaned it themselves, and if not, they didn’t. In this case, as usual, Joe found something to worry about, and Reacher found nothing. So he left Joe to it, and he headed for the kitchen, where first he got a drink of water, and then he got the bad news.
REACHER’S PARENTS WERE side by side at the kitchen counter, studying a letter his mother had carried all the way from Guam. Reacher had seen the envelope. It was something to do with the education system. His mother said, ‘You and Joe have to take a test before you start school here.’
Reacher said, ‘Why?’
‘Placement,’ his father said. ‘They need to know how well you’re doing.’
‘Tell them we’re doing fine. Tell them thanks, but no thanks.’
‘I’m happy where I am. I don’t need to skip a grade. I’m sure Joe feels the same.’
‘You think this is about skipping a grade?’
‘No,’ his father said. ‘It’s about holding you back a grade.’
‘Why would they do that?’
‘New policy,’ his mother said. ‘You’ve had very fragmented schooling. They need to check you’re ready to advance.’
‘They never did that before.’
‘That’s why it’s called a new policy. As opposed to an old policy.’
‘They want Joe to take a test? To prove he’s ready for the next grade? He’ll freak out.’
‘He’ll do OK. He’s good with tests.’
‘That’s not the point, Mom. You know what he’s like. He’ll be insulted. So he’ll make himself score a hundred per cent. Or a hundred and ten. He’ll drive himself nuts.’
‘Nobody can score a hundred and ten per cent. It’s not possible.’
‘Exactly. His head will explode.’
‘What about you?’
‘Me? I’ll be OK.’
‘Will you try hard?’
‘What’s the pass mark?’
‘Fifty per cent, probably.’
‘Then I’ll aim for fifty-one. No point wasting effort. When is it?’
‘Three days from now. Before the semester starts.’
‘Terrific,’ Reacher said. ‘What kind of an education system doesn’t know the meaning of a simple word like vacation?’
REACHER WENT OUT to the concrete street and looked at the patch of ocean in the distance up ahead. The East China Sea, not the Pacific. The Pacific lay in the other direction. Okinawa was one of the Ryuku Islands, and the Ryuku Islands separated the two bodies of water.