The man was over thirty, Reacher thought, and solid, and hot, obviously. He had sweated through his suit. The woman face to face with him could have been younger, but not by much. She was hot too, and scared. Or tense, at least. That was clear. The man was too close to her. She didn’t like that. It was nearly half past eight in the evening, and going dark. But not cooling off. A hundred degrees, someone had said. A real heat wave. Wednesday, July 13th, 1977, New York City. Reacher would always remember the date. It was his second solo visit.
The man put the palm of his hand flat on the woman’s chest, pressing damp cotton against her skin, the ball of his thumb down in her cleavage. Not a tender gesture. But not an aggressive gesture, either. Neutral, like a doctor. The woman didn’t back off. She just froze in place and glanced around. Without seeing much. New York City, half past eight in the evening, but the street was deserted. It was too hot. Waverly Place, between Sixth Avenue and Washington Square. People would come out later, if at all.
Then the man took his hand off the woman’s chest, and he flicked it downward like he wanted to knock a bee off her hip, and then he whipped it back up in a big roundhouse swing and slapped her full in the face, hard, with enough power for a real crack, but his hand and her face were too damp for pistol-shot acoustics, so the sound came out exactly like the word: slap. The woman’s head was knocked sideways. The sound echoed off the scalding brick.
Reacher said, “Hey.”
The man turned around. He was dark haired, dark eyed, maybe five-ten, maybe two hundred pounds. His shirt was transparent with sweat.
He said, “Get lost, kid.”
On that night Reacher was three months and sixteen days shy of his seventeenth birthday, but physically he was pretty much all grown up. He was as tall as he was ever going to get, and no sane person would have called him skinny. He was six-five, two-twenty, all muscle. The finished article, more or less. But finished very recently. Brand new. His teeth were white and even, his eyes were a shade close to navy, his hair had wave and body, his skin was smooth and clear. The scars and the lines and the calluses were yet to come.
The man said, “Right now, kid.”
Reacher said, “Ma’am, you should step away from this guy.”
Which the woman did, backward, one step, two, out of range. The man said, “Do you know who I am?”
Reacher said, “What difference would it make?”
“You’re pissing off the wrong people.”
“People?” Reacher said. “That’s a plural word. Are there more than one of you?”
“You’ll find out.”
Reacher looked around. The street was still deserted.
“When will I find out?” he said. “Not right away, apparently.”
“What kind of smart guy do you think you are?”
Reacher said, “Ma’am, I’m happy to be here alone, if you want to take off running.”
The woman didn’t move. Reacher looked at her.
He said, “Am I misunderstanding something?”
The man said, “Get lost, kid.”
The woman said, “You shouldn’t get involved.”
“I’m not getting involved,” Reacher said. “I’m just standing here in the street.”
The man said, “Go stand in some other street.”
Reacher turned back and looked at him and said, “Who died and made you mayor?”
“That’s some mouth, kid. You don’t know who you’re talking to. You’re going to regret that.”
“When the other people get here? Is that what you mean? Because right now it’s just you and me. And I don’t foresee a whole lot of regret in that, not for me, anyway, not unless you’ve got no money.”
“For me to take.”
“What, now you think you’re going to mug me?”
“Not mug you,” Reacher said. “More of a historical thing. An old principle. Like a tradition. You lose a war, you give up your treasure.”
“Are we at war, you and me? Because if we are, you’re going to lose, kid. I don’t care how big of a corn-fed country boy you are. I’m going to kick your ass. I’m going to kick it bad.”
The woman was still six feet away. Still not moving. Reacher looked at her again and said, “Ma’am, is this gentleman married to you, or related to you in some other way, or known to you either socially or professionally?”
She said, “I don’t want you to get involved.” She was younger than the guy, for sure. But not by much. Still way up there. Twenty-nine, maybe. A pale-colored blonde. Apart from the vivid red print from the slap she was plenty good looking, in an older-woman kind of a way. But she was thin and nervous. Maybe she had a lot of stress in her life. She was wearing a loose summer dress that ended above her knee. She had a purse hooked over her shoulder.
Reacher said, “At least tell me what it is you don’t want me to get involved in. Is this some random guy hassling you on the street? Or not?”
“What else would it be?”
“Domestic quarrel, maybe. I heard of a guy who busted one up, and then the wife got real mad with him afterward, for hurting her husband.”
“I’m not married to this man.”
“Do you have any interest in him at all?”
“In his welfare?”
“I suppose that’s what we’re talking about.”
“None at all. But you can’t get involved. So walk away. I’ll deal with it.”
“Suppose we walk away together?”
“How old are you, anyway?”
“Old enough,” Reacher said. “For walking, at least.”
“I don’t want the responsibility. You’re just a kid. You’re an innocent bystander.”
“Is this guy dangerous?”
“He doesn’t look it.”
“Looks can be deceptive.”
“Is he armed?”
“Not in the city. He can’t afford to be.”
“So what’s he going to do? Sweat on me?”
Which did the trick. The guy hit boiling point, aggrieved at being talked about like he wasn’t there, aggrieved at being called sweaty, even though he manifestly was, and he came in at a charge, his jacket flapping, his tie flailing, his shirt sticking to his skin. Reacher feinted one way and moved another, and the guy stumbled past, and Reacher tapped his ankles, and the guy tripped and fell. He got up again fast enough, but by then Reacher had backed off and turned around and was ready for the second maneuver. Which looked like it was going to be an exact repeat of the first, except Reacher helped it along a little by replacing the ankle tap with an elbow to the side of the head. Which was very well delivered. At nearly seventeen Reacher was like a brand new machine, still gleaming and dewy with oil, flexible, supple, perfectly coordinated, like something developed by NASA and IBM on behalf of the Pentagon.