The guy with the money knew where he was going. That was clear. He didn’t glance around to get his bearings. He just stepped through the depot door and turned east and set out walking. No hesitation. But no speed either. He trudged along slow. He looked a little unsteady. His shoulders were slumped. He looked old and tired and worn out and beaten down. He had no enthusiasm. He looked like he was en route between two points of equally zero appeal.
The guy with the goatee beard followed along about six paces behind, hanging back, staying slow, restraining himself. Which looked difficult. He was a rangy, long-legged individual, all hopped up with excitement and anticipation. He wanted to get right to it. But the terrain was wrong. Too flat and open. The sidewalks were wide. Up ahead was a four-way traffic light, with three cars waiting for a green. Three drivers, bored, gazing about. Maybe passengers. All potential witnesses. Better to wait.
The guy with the money stopped at the curb. Waiting to cross. Aiming dead ahead. Where there were older buildings, with narrower streets between. Wider than alleys, but shaded from the sun, and hemmed in by mean three- and four-story walls either side. Better terrain.
The light changed. The guy with the money trudged across the road, obediently, as if resigned. The guy with the goatee beard followed six paces behind. Reacher closed the gap on him a little. He sensed the moment coming. The kid wasn’t going to wait forever. He wasn’t going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Two blocks in would do it.
They walked on, single file, spaced apart, oblivious. The first block felt good up ahead and side to side, but behind them it still felt open, so the guy with the beard hung back, until the guy with the money was over the cross street and into the second block. Which looked properly secretive. It was shady at both ends. There were a couple of boarded-up establishments, and a closed-down diner, and a tax preparer with dusty windows.
Reacher guessed the kid would go for it, right there, and he guessed the launch would be prefaced by a nervous glance all around, including behind, so he stayed out of sight around the cross street’s corner, one second, two, three, which he figured was long enough for all the glances a person could need. Then he stepped out and saw the kid with the beard already closing the gap ahead, hustling, eating up the six-pace distance with a long and eager stride. Reacher didn’t like running, but on that occasion he had to.
He got there too late. The guy with the beard shoved the guy with the money, who went down forward with a heavy ragged thump, hands, knees, head, and the guy with the beard swooped down in a seamless dexterous glide, into the still-moving pocket, and out again with the envelope. Which was when Reacher arrived, at a clumsy run, six feet five of bone and muscle and 250 pounds of moving mass, against a lean kid just then coming up out of a crouch. Reacher slammed into him with a twist and a dip of the shoulder, and the guy flailed through the air like a crash test dummy, and landed in a long sliding tangle of limbs, half on the sidewalk, half in the gutter. He came to rest and lay still.
Reacher walked over and took the envelope from him. It wasn’t sealed. They never were. He took a look. The wad was about three quarters of an inch thick. A hundred dollar bill on the top, and a hundred dollar bill on the bottom. He flicked through. A hundred dollar bill in every other possible location, too. Thousands and thousands of dollars. Could be fifteen. Could be twenty grand.
He glanced back. The old guy’s head was up. He was gazing about, panic stricken. He had a cut on his face. From the fall. Or maybe his nose was bleeding. Reacher held up the envelope. The old guy stared at it. He tried to get up, but couldn’t.
Reacher walked back.
He said, “Anything broken?”
The guy said, “What happened?”
“Can you move?”
“I think so.”
“OK, roll over.”
“On your back,” Reacher said. “Then we can sit you up.”
“First I need to check you out. I might need to call the ambulance. You got a phone?”
“No ambulance,” the guy said. “No doctors.”
He took a breath and clamped his teeth, and squirmed and thrashed until he rolled over on his back, like a guy in bed with a nightmare.
He breathed out.
Reacher said, “Where does it hurt?”
“Regular kind of thing, or worse?”
“I guess regular.”
Reacher got the flat of his hand under the guy’s back, high up between his shoulder blades, and he folded him forward into a sitting position, and swiveled him around, and scooted him along, until he was sitting on the curb with his feet down on the road, which would be more comfortable, Reacher thought.
The guy said, “My mom always told me, don’t play in the gutter.”
“Mine too,” Reacher said. “But right now we ain’t playing.”
He handed over the envelope. The guy took it and squeezed it all over, fingers and thumb, as if confirming it was real. Reacher sat down next to him. The guy looked inside the envelope.
“What happened?” he said again. He pointed. “Did that guy mug me?”
Twenty feet to their right the kid with the goatee beard was face down and motionless.
“He followed you off the bus,” Reacher said. “He saw the envelope in your pocket.”
“Were you on the bus too?”
He said, “I came out the depot right behind you.”
The guy put the envelope back in his pocket.
He said, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have no idea. More than I can possibly say.”
“You’re welcome,” Reacher said.
“You saved my life.”
“I feel like I should offer you a reward.”
“I can’t anyway,” the guy said. He touched his pocket. “This is a payment I have to make. It’s very important. I need it all. I’m sorry. I apologize. I feel bad.”
“Don’t,” Reacher said.
Twenty feet to their right the kid with the beard pushed himself up to his hands and knees.
The guy with the money said, “No police.”
The kid glanced back. He was stunned and shaky, but he was already twenty feet ahead. Should he go for it?
Reacher said, “Why no police?”
“They ask questions when they see a lot of cash.”
“Questions you don’t want to answer?”
“I can’t anyway,” the guy said again.
The kid with the beard took off. He staggered to his feet and set out fleeing the scene, weak and bruised and floppy and uncoordinated, but still plenty fast. Reacher let him go. He had run enough for one day.
The guy with the money said, “I need to get going now.”
He had scrapes on his cheek and his forehead, and blood on his upper lip, from his nose, which had taken a decent impact.
“You sure you’re OK?” Reacher asked.
“I better be,” the guy said. “I don’t have much time.”
“Let me see you stand up.”
The guy couldn’t. Either his core strength had drained away, or his knees were bad, or both. Hard to say. Reacher helped him to his feet. The guy stood in the gutter, facing the opposite side of the street, hunched and bent. He turned around, laboriously, shuffling in place.
He couldn’t step up the curb. He got his foot in place, but the propulsive force necessary to boost himself up six inches was too much load for his knee to take. It must have been bruised and sore. There was a bad scuff on the fabric of his pants, right where his kneecap would be.
Reacher stood behind him and cupped his hands under his elbows, and lifted, and the guy stepped up weightless, like a man on the moon.
Reacher asked, “Can you walk?”
The guy tried. He managed small steps, delicate and precise, but he winced and gasped, short and sharp, every time his right leg took the weight.
“How far have you got to go?” Reacher asked.
The guy looked all around, calibrating. Making sure where he was.
“Three more blocks,” he said. “On the other side of the street.”
“That’s a lot of curbs,” Reacher said. “That’s a lot of stepping up and down.”
“I’ll walk it off.”
“Show me,” Reacher said.
The guy set out, heading east as before, at a slow shuffling creep, with his hands out a little, as if for balance. The wincing and the gasping was loud and clear. Maybe getting worse.