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He sat down in cubicle two, and the screen in front of him came to life. It lit up blue, a plain wash of color, apart from two small icons in the top right corner, like postage stamps on a letter. He was not an experienced computer user, but he had tried it once or twice, and he had seen it done many more times. Now even cheap hotels had computers at reception. Many times he had waited while a clerk clicked and scrolled and typed. Gone were the days when a person could slap down a couple of bills and get a big brass key in instant exchange.  He moved the mouse and sent the arrow up toward the icons. He knew they were files. Or file folders.

You had to click on them, and in response they would open. He was never sure whether you had to click once or twice. He had seen it done both ways. His usual habit was to click twice. If in doubt, etcetera. Maybe it helped, and it never seemed to hurt. Like shooting someone in the head. A double tap could do no harm. He put the arrow center mass on the left-hand icon and clicked twice, and the screen redrew to a gray color, like the deck of a warship. In the center was a black and white image of the title page from a government report, like a bright crisp Xerox, printed with prissy, old-fashioned writing in a government-style typeface. At the top it said: U.S. Department of Commerce, R. P. Lamont, Secretary, Bureau of the Census, W. M. Steuart, Director. In the middle it said: Fifteenth Census of the United States, Returns Extracted For The Municipality Of Laconia, New Hampshire. At the bottom it said: For Sale By The Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C., Price One Dollar. Reacher could see the top of a second page peeking up from the bottom of the screen.

 Scrolling would be required. That was clear. Best accomplished, he imagined, with the little wheel set in the top surface of the mouse. Between about where its shoulder blades would be. Under the pad of his index finger. Convenient. Intuitive. He skimmed the introduction, which was mostly about many and various improvements made in methodology since the fourteenth census. Not boasting, really. More of a one-geek-to-another kind of a thing, even back then. Stuff you needed to know, if you loved counting people. Then came the lists, of plain names and old occupations, and the world of nearly ninety years before seemed to rise up all around. There were button makers, and hat makers, and glove makers, and turpentine farmers, and laborers, and locomotive engineers, and silk spinners, and tin mill workers. The was a separate section titled Unusual Occupations For Children .

Most were optimistically classified as apprentices. Or helpers. There were blacksmiths and brick masons and engine hostlers and ladlers and pourers and smelter boys. There were no Reachers. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year Stan was two. He wheeled his way back to the top and started again, this time paying particular attention to the dependent children column. Maybe there had been a gruesome accident, and orphan baby Stan had been taken in by unrelated but kindly neighbors. Maybe they had noted his birth name as a tribute. There were no dependent children separately identified as Stan Reacher. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year he was supposed to be two. Reacher found the place in the top left of the screen, with the three little buttons, red, orange, green, like a tiny traffic signal laid on its side. He clicked twice on red and the document went away. He opened up the right-hand icon, and he found the sixteenth census, different Secretary, different Director, but the same substantial improvements since the last time around.

Then came the lists, now just eighty years old instead of ninety, the difference faintly discernable, with more jobs in factories, and fewer on the land. But still no Reachers. Not in Laconia, New Hampshire, the year Stan Reacher was supposed to be twelve. He clicked twice on the little red button and the document went away …………….  Two miles later the road he was on curved gently left, and a new road of equal size and appearance split off to the right. Not exactly a turn. More like an equal choice. A classic Y-shaped junction. Twitch the wheel left, or twitch the wheel right. Your call. Both options ran out of sight through trees so mighty in places they made a tunnel. There was a road sign. A tilted arrow to the left was labeled Portsmouth, and a tilted arrow to the right was labeled Laconia. But the right-hand option was written in smaller writing, and it had a smaller arrow, as if Laconia was less important than Portsmouth. A mere byway, despite its road being the same size. Laconia, New Hampshire. A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father’s place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines. Such was the vague family legend. Escaped from what had not been specified. But he never went back. Not once.

Reacher himself had been born more than fifteen years later, by which time Laconia was a dead detail of the long-ago past, as remote as the Dakota Territory, where it was said some earlier ancestor had lived and worked. No one in the family ever went to either place. No visits. The grandparents died young and were rarely mentioned. There were apparently no aunts or uncles or cousins or any other kind of distant relatives. Which was statistically unlikely, and suggested a rift of some kind. But no one other than his father had any real information, and no one ever made any real attempt to get any from him. Certain things were not discussed in Marine families. Much later as a captain in the army Reacher’s brother Joe was posted north and said something about maybe trying to find the old family homestead, but nothing ever came of it. Probably Reacher himself had said the same kind of thing, from time to time. He had never been there either. Left or right. His call. Portsmouth was better. It had highways and traffic and buses. It was a straight shot to Boston. San Diego beckoned. The Northeast was about to get cold. But what was one extra day? He stepped right, and chose the fork in the road that led to Laconia.

At that same late-afternoon moment, nearly thirty miles away, heading south on a different back road, was a worn-out Honda Civic, driven by a twenty-five-year-old man named Shorty Fleck. Next to him in the passenger seat was a twenty-five-year-old woman named Patty Sundstrom. They were boyfriend and girlfriend, both born and raised in Saint Leonard, which was a small faraway town in New Brunswick, Canada. Not much happened there. The biggest news in living memory was ten years previously, when a truck carrying twelve million bees overturned on a curve. The local paper reported with pride that the accident was the first of its kind in New Brunswick. Patty worked in a sawmill. She was the granddaughter of a guy from Minnesota who had slipped north half a century earlier, to beat the draft for Vietnam. Shorty was a potato farmer. His family had been in Canada forever. And he wasn’t particularly short. Maybe he had been once, as a kid. But now he figured he was what any eyewitness would call an average-looking guy. They were trying to make it non-stop from Saint Leonard to New York City. Which by any standard was a hardcore drive. But they saw a big advantage in doing it. They had something to sell in the city, and saving a night in a hotel would maximize their profit. They had planned out their route, looping west to avoid the summer people heading home from the beaches, using back roads, Patty’s blunt finger on a map, her gaze ranging ahead for turns and signs. They had timed it out on paper, and figured it was a feasible course of action.

 Except they had gotten a later start than they would have liked, due a little bit to general disorganization, but mostly due to the Honda’s aging battery not liking the newly crisp autumnal temperatures blowing in from the direction of Prince Edward Island. The delay put them in a long line at the U.S. border, and then the Honda started overheating, and needed nursing along below fifty miles an hour for an extended spell. They were tired. And hungry, and thirsty, and in need of the bathroom, and late, and behind schedule. And frustrated. The Honda was overheating again. The needle was kissing the red. There was a grinding noise under the hood. Maybe the oil was low. No way of telling. All the dashboard lights had been on continuously for the last two and a half years.

Shorty asked, “What’s up ahead?” Patty said, “Nothing.” Her fingertip was on a wandering red line, which was labeled with a three-digit number, and which was shown running north to south through a jagged shape shaded pale green. A forested area. Which matched what was out the window. The trees crowded in, still and dark, laden down with heavy end-of-summer leaves. The map showed tiny red spider-web lines here and there, like the veins in an old lady’s leg, which were presumably all tracks to somewhere, but nowhere big. Nowhere likely to have a mechanic or a lube shop or radiator water. The best bet was about thirty minutes ahead, some ways east of south, a town with its name printed not too small and semi-bold, which meant it had to have at least a gas station. It was called Laconia.

She said, “Can we make another twenty miles?” Now the needle was all the way in the red. “Maybe,” Shorty said. “If we walk the last nineteen of them.” He slowed the car and rolled along on a whisker of gas, which generated less new heat inside the engine, but which also put less airflow through the radiator vanes, so the old heat couldn’t get away so fast, so in the short term the temperature needle kept on climbing. Patty rubbed her fingertip forward on the map, keeping pace with her estimate of their speed. There was a spider-web vein coming up on the right. A thin track, curling through the green ink to somewhere about an inch away. Without the rush of air from her leaky window she could hear the noises from the engine. Clunking, knocking, grinding. Getting worse. Then up ahead on the right she saw the mouth of a narrow road. The spider-web vein, right on time. But more like a tunnel than a road. It was dark inside. The trees met overhead. At the entrance on a frost-heaved post was nailed a board, on which were screwed ornate plastic letters, and an arrow pointing into the tunnel. The letters spelled the word Motel . “Should we?” she asked.

The car answered. The temperature needle was jammed against the stop. Shorty could feel the heat in his shins. The whole engine bay was baking. For a second he wondered what would happen if they kept on going instead. People talked about automobile engines blowing up and melting down. Which were figures of speech, surely. There would be no actual puddles of molten metal. No actual explosions would take place. It would just conk out, peacefully. Or seize up. It would coast gently to a stop. But in the middle of nowhere, with no passing traffic and no cell signal. “No choice,” he said, and braked and steered and turned in to the tunnel. Up close they saw the plastic letters on the sign had been painted gold, with a narrow brush and a steady hand, like a promise, like the motel was a high-class place. There was a second sign, identical, facing drivers coming the other way. “OK?” Shorty said. The air felt cold in the tunnel. Easily ten degrees colder than the main drag. Last fall’s leaf litter and last winter’s mud were mashed together on the shoulders. “OK?” Shorty asked again. They drove over a wire laid across the road. A fat rubbery thing, not much smaller than a garden hose. Like they had at gas stations, to ding a bell in the kiosk, to get the pump jockey out to help you. Patty didn’t answer. Shorty said, “How bad can it be? It’s marked on the map.”  temperatures blowing in from the direction of Prince Edward Island. The delay put them in a long line at the U.S. border, and then the Honda started overheating, and needed nursing along below fifty miles an hour for an extended spell. They were tired. And hungry, and thirsty, and in need of the bathroom, and late, and behind schedule. And frustrated. The Honda was overheating again. The needle was kissing the red.

 There was a grinding noise under the hood. Maybe the oil was low. No way of telling. All the dashboard lights had been on continuously for the last two and a half years. Shorty asked, “What’s up ahead?” Patty said, “Nothing.” Her fingertip was on a wandering red line, which was labeled with a three-digit number, and which was shown running north to south through a jagged shape shaded pale green. A forested area. Which matched what was out the window. The trees crowded in, still and dark, laden down with heavy end-of-summer leaves. The map showed tiny red spider-web lines here and there, like the veins in an old lady’s leg, which were presumably all tracks to somewhere, but nowhere big. Nowhere likely to have a mechanic or a lube shop or radiator water. The best bet was about thirty minutes ahead, some ways east of south, a town with its name printed not too small and semi-bold, which meant it had to have at least a gas station. It was called Laconia. She said, “Can we make another twenty miles?” Now the needle was all the way in the red. “Maybe,” Shorty said. “If we walk the last nineteen of them.” He slowed the car and rolled along on a whisker of gas, which generated less new heat inside the engine, but which also put less airflow through the radiator vanes, so the old heat couldn’t get away so fast, so in the short term the temperature needle kept on climbing. Patty rubbed her fingertip forward on the map, keeping pace with her estimate of their speed. There was a spider-web vein coming up on the right. A thin track, curling through the green ink to somewhere about an inch away. Without the rush of air from her leaky window she could hear the noises from the engine. Clunking, knocking, grinding. Getting worse.

Then up ahead on the right she saw the mouth of a narrow road. The spider-web vein, right on time. But more like a tunnel than a road. It was dark inside. The trees met overhead. At the entrance on a frost-heaved post was nailed a board, on which were screwed ornate plastic letters, and an arrow pointing into the tunnel. The letters spelled the word Motel . “Should we?” she asked. The car answered. The temperature needle was jammed against the stop. Shorty could feel the heat in his shins. The whole engine bay was baking. For a second he wondered what would happen if they kept on going instead. People talked about automobile engines blowing up and melting down. Which were figures of speech, surely. There would be no actual puddles of molten metal. No actual explosions would take place. It would just conk out, peacefully. Or seize up. It would coast gently to a stop. But in the middle of nowhere, with no passing traffic and no cell signal. “No choice,” he said, and braked and steered and turned in to the tunnel. Up close they saw the plastic letters on the sign had been painted gold, with a narrow brush and a steady hand, like a promise, like the motel was a high-class place. There was a second sign, identical, facing drivers coming the other way. “OK?” Shorty said. The air felt cold in the tunnel. Easily ten degrees colder than the main drag. Last fall’s leaf litter and last winter’s mud were mashed together on the shoulders. “OK?” Shorty asked again. They drove over a wire laid across the road. A fat rubbery thing, not much smaller than a garden hose. Like they had at gas stations, to ding a bell in the kiosk, to get the pump jockey out to help you. Patty didn’t answer. Shorty said, “How bad can it be? It’s marked on the map.”

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