Jack Reacher was happy to play the hand he was dealt, and to live life the way it came. Except for one strong preference: he liked to be warm in winter. Which imposed some kind of shape on his year.
By October at the latest he would start heading south. Usually the end of December would find him at his most distant point. The Florida Keys, sometimes. Or Tucson, Arizona. Or Mexico, one year, after the State Department found it convenient to renew his passport. Always either tropical or desert.
In recent years he had seen more Christmas lights strung up in palm trees than fir trees. They looked pretty good, especially at night. And there were lots of them.
Once he had read a newspaper story about homeowners in the north-east having such elaborate Christmas displays they needed new breaker panels. Now the same thing was happening way to the south. Everyone loved Christmas. Except the guy in the Santa suit, who was liable to pass out from heat exhaustion.
That particular year the plan worked as normal. On Christmas Eve Reacher arrived in a small town near Barstow, California, out in the desert halfway between Edwards Air Force Base and Fort Irwin. Not as far south as usual. But he knew both places from days of old, especially Irwin, which was a gigantic army training ground, where he had spent many a happy hour. He liked the emptiness. He liked the climate. Warm, dry, and reliable.
But not that particular year. What also arrived on Christmas Eve was snow, in huge quantities, in what media elsewhere were quick to call a one-time freak once-in-a- lifetime storm of the century.
Around Barstow no one called it anything, because the power went out immediately, and the phones went down, and the cell towers went off line. Not surprising. The great state of California wasn't so great with snow. Especially when the snow was wet and heavy and 3ft thick on the ground.
Cars were buried. Roads were invisible. The rocky tan desert was replaced by a smooth white blanket, as far as the eye could see.
Reacher got inside as soon as he could. He saw a lone low building up ahead. Some kind of bar or roadhouse. He stumbled in through the door, his back thickly coated with snow, his pants soaked to the thigh. He huffed and puffed, and clapped his hands together, and stamped on the mat.
He was the fifth refugee. There were two couples already in there, a man and a woman somewhere north of 60, and another man and woman somewhere south of 40. They all looked like they had arrived not long before, the same way he had, huffing and puffing and stamping and clapping. He nodded a rueful all-in-the-same-boat greeting, and they all nodded back.
The power was out. There were candles burning on the bar, and one on every table. Not decorative candles. No sleighs or reindeer. They were utility items, made of greasy white wax, from the hardware store, next to the dish mops and the kitchen matches. Each table also had a Christmas tree on it, about a foot high, made of feathery green plastic dusted with silver glitter. There were icicle lights hanging from the ceiling. Without power they looked like strings of dull grey pearls.
There was a guy behind the bar, a lugubrious fellow, maybe 70 years old. He called out: 'Get you something?'
Reacher glanced around. The candles were all set on porcelain saucers, all the same, white and sturdy, like hotel ware crockery. Which was good, because saucers implied cups, and cups implied coffee, which was what he wanted, black, no sugar.
Except the power was out.
He said: 'What have you got?'
The guy said: 'Beer.'
'Works for me.'
The guy ducked down to a silent refrigerator and put a long-neck bottle on the bar. Reacher took it.
He thought the older couple looked a little upset. They were going to be stranded overnight, and they didn't like it.
The younger couple weren't married. Reacher was sure of that. Not romantically involved at all. They were colleagues of some kind. Like business travellers, except they weren't dressed like it. No suits or wrinkle-free fabrics. Both were in worn denim jeans and T-shirts and old leather jackets. Both looked fit and competent. The guy had short brown hair, neatly brushed. The woman had short black hair, cut in a bob that just missed her collar.
Military, Reacher thought. Which made sense, with Irwin a hop one way, and Edwards the other. Except they weren't American. He was sure of that, too. Some subtle thing. They were foreign contractors, maybe. Or liaison officers from friendly forces, out of uniform, maybe off duty. Or maybe not, because they looked just as upset as the older couple. They were going to be stranded overnight, and they didn't like it.
Reacher took a table. The older couple fussed and stopped and started, as if they weren't sure whether to blame each other, or reassure each other.
The younger two stared at their phones, and fiddled with a larger device they tried to keep hidden, but which Reacher recognised as a Nato transceiver tied to a joint command network. It wasn't working. He heard them whisper. Like BBC radio. British Army, he thought. Maybe due at Irwin for a training exercise. Maybe embarrassed they were late. No way of getting in touch. Bad show. Not cricket. Reacher knew the British Army. It liked to be reliable, if nothing else.
The woman got up and came over to his table. She was tall and lithe and she had a great smile.
She asked: 'Do you have service on your phone? Maybe you're on a different network.' Her accent was from somewhere in England.
'I don't have a phone,' Reacher said. 'Sorry.'
The woman didn't answer.
'Comms failures happen all the time,' Reacher said. 'Nothing you can do about it, soldier.'
'Are you from Fort Irwin?'
'Is that where you're headed?'
'We're supposed to be there now,' she said.
'Who are you?'
'You first,' she said.
'Right now I'm nobody. Once upon a time I was 110th MP.'
'For my sins.'
The woman turned back and said: 'Tony, come here.'
The guy got up and came over, just the same, tall and lithe. But no smile.
The woman said to him: 'This gentleman was in the 110th over here.'
The guy said: 'When?'
Reacher said: 'Back in the day.'
'How far back?
'You were in high school. Or the workhouse, or whatever you had over there.'
'Did you know Andrew Parker?'
'British guy. He trained with us. He was a lunatic.'
'He was ours. They still tell stories.'
'You're 1st RMP?'
Royal Military Police. They work for the Queen. The guy stuck out his hand and said: 'Tony Jackson.'
The woman said: 'Annie Ness.'
They sat down at his table, half lit by the window, half by the candle. Annie Ness was pretty. But tough. Not hard, but not to be messed with, either.
She asked: 'What kind of vehicle have you got? Ours is what they gave us at the airport.'
'I don't have a vehicle,' Reacher said. 'Sorry.'
'Then how did you get here?'
'Hitched a ride, and walked the last two miles.'
'It started snowing and the guy refused to go any further.'
'I meant, why here?'
'Because it's supposed to be warm and dry.'
She didn't answer.
'Now I'm changing my mind,' Reacher said. 'About the climate, obviously. And about you, as well. Whatever you're late for ain't happening anyway, because it's snowing at Irwin, too. I bet half the people supposed to be there are stuck somewhere else. Yet you're asking me all kinds of questions. Which suggests your duties are more urgent than a joint training exercise. You're 1st RMP, and you don't like that I can't really explain why I came here. Which suggests you're looking for a guy. To which I say best of luck, and to save you time, I'm not the guy you're looking for. I'm some other guy.'
Tony Jackson said: 'You would say that anyway.'
'I would have stopped talking after I told Ms Ness I don't have a phone.'
'Annie,' she said.
'I would have laid low at that point. I would have aroused no further suspicion.'
Jackson said: 'We need to get out of here.'
'That's going to be difficult.'
'How would you do it?'
'I wouldn't. I'm not looking for a guy. I would stay here. Maybe buy myself a bag of potato chips.'
'We can't stay here.'
Jackson didn't answer. At the other table the older lady seemed to be urging her husband to go do some particular thing. She was practically poking and prodding. Eventually the guy got up and crossed the room and came to a stop at Reacher's table, with Ness on his left, and Reacher dead ahead, and Jackson on his right.
'Excuse me,' he said. 'My wife wondered if you were perhaps discussing a way out of here. If so, she wondered if you would perhaps include us in your party. There are no facilities here. There are no beds. There is no food, and no adequate heating. My wife feels we'll freeze to death, or starve.'
'Happy Christmas,' Reacher said.
'Perhaps you have a large and capable vehicle.'
'We don't. But if we figure something out, you'll be the first to know, OK?'
'Thank you,' the old guy said, and he turned and walked back to his own table, where he sat down and whispered to his wife. Presumably updating her on his progress. When he finished she nodded once, but she didn't look any happier.
Reacher said: 'What's so urgent up at Irwin?'
Jackson asked: 'Can you help us?'
'How could I? I'm retired.'
'You could call the MP barracks. You might still know someone. You could mention the 110th. I'm sure that makes people want to help.'
'Usually it makes people want to shoot me in the face. Anyway, communications are down.'
Jackson nodded. 'The Nato net needs a plane in the air. This will blow over in an hour, surely. They'll get one back up. You could ask Irwin to send a helicopter.'
'I could ask for a dinner date with Miss California, too. And a million dollars in cash. I wonder which I would get first?'
'This is serious, Reacher.'
Annie Ness glanced both ways and hunched forward and whispered: 'We're a close protection detail. Bodyguards, basically. We got separated from our principal. We think he's at Irwin without us. Or stuck somewhere along the way.'
'Who is he?'
Jackson said: 'Can't tell you.'
Ness said: 'Our Minister of Defence. Spelled with a letter c.'
'You're kidding,' Reacher said. 'On Christmas Eve?'
'Exactly. A super-secret meeting. Who would expect it?'
'Is he on his own?'
'He went in the lead car. He wanted to talk to his aide in private. We were in the trail car. We spun off but they didn't see and they drove on.'
'A super-secret meeting with who?'
'Your Secretary of Defense, spelled with a letter s.'
'That's a fairly big deal.'
'Our briefing made it sound like the fate of the world hangs in the balance.'
'But still,' she said.
'They're at Fort Irwin,' Reacher said. 'They'll be OK. It's a secure facility. There are lots of men with guns.'
'Unless he got stuck somewhere along the way.'
'Let's assume he didn't.'
'We can't assume,' Ness said, and then she said nothing more.
Jackson said: 'We could search with the helicopter.'
'There is no helicopter,' Reacher said. 'Who do you think I am?'
'We need to find our guy.'
'Is this about saving face? That train left the station long ago.'
'It's about saving lives.'
'You think he's going to starve, too? I bet the aide put a sandwich in his briefcase. That's what those guys are for.'
No answer. No reaction. No smile.
Reacher said: 'This is serious, isn't it?'
'I told you it was.'
'You know of a specific threat.''There's been some internet chatter. Most of it coherent. There's been a name repeated over and over. We think it's the name of an operator or an agent. Always the same in every language, as if it's more of a description than a name, as if it derives from a physical characteristic.'
'What's the name?'
'The Christmas Scorpion.'
'What kind of physical characteristic would that be? What does a Christmas scorpion even look like?'
'We don't know. But obviously the guy is a superstar. They talk about him like Lionel Messi.'
'Soccer,' Ness said. 'Barcelona.'
'Like Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid,' Reacher said.
'Exactly. This guy is top five in the world. And he knows about the meeting.'
'We need a helicopter,' Jackson said.
Reacher looked out of the window. The snow had stopped falling. The sky was lightening.
He said: 'First we need Nato.'
Jackson looked at the transceiver, down in his lap. No signal. The old guy at the other table coughed to get attention, and looked over, optimistically, hoping for good news.
Reacher whispered: 'We can't leave them behind. They'll tell the papers the military evacuated us but not them. They'll cause a scandal. And we should take them anyway. No beds, no food. This is a state of emergency.'
Jackson looked down and said: 'Nato is back.'
'Get the CO in the MP barracks.'
Jackson did, after a lot of back and forth. He handed the transceiver to Reacher, who said: 'Look up DCR 120 in your code book, and call me back on this frequency.'
He clicked off.
Ness asked: 'What's DCR 120?'
'A solid gold promise he's about to get a medal and a promotion.'
'Depends what happens next.'
The guy came back on the line. Reacher asked for everything short of the dinner date and the million bucks in cash. The guy agreed. He said a Black Hawk would be there in 20 minutes.
The older lady tightened the scarf around her neck, and buttoned her coat. She seemed equal parts excited and worried about the helicopter, which arrived five minutes early, dropping low where the road was buried, kicking up a whole new blizzard, hovering with its wheels in the snow, but not set down, because who knew what the snow was hiding?
Reacher floundered out to meet it, keeping low, and he ushered the older lady past him, and turned back into the artificial blizzard for her husband, so he didn't see the same blizzard catch the older lady's scarf, and flap it up, thereby for a split second exposing a small round tattoo in the pit of her throat, the size of a silver dollar, of a Christmas wreath complete with leaves and bows and candles, all surrounding the black silhouette of a scorpion.
The Black Hawk was a roomy machine, but basic inside, with all kinds of wires and belts and straps and webbing, and nothing to sit on except canvas slings bolted to the bulkheads.
Not like a commercial airliner. Not even economy class. It was a deafening metal box full of snow, kicked up through the door by the beating rotor.
Annie Ness got the older couple situated, and then she sat down next to Tony Jackson.
Reacher gave the pilot a wait-one gesture, and he plugged in headsets for Ness and Jackson and himself, so they could confer with the crew over the scream of the engines.
The pilot looked back, and Reacher said: 'We have two humanitarian evacuations, plus two British Army MPs actively searching for a high-ranking official from their own government, who may or may not have made it by road to Irwin after the storm started, and who currently has a credible security threat against him.'
'Cranky but stable. No urgency, within reason.'