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Personal (Jack Reacher #19)(4)
Author: Lee Child


I said, ‘I think hitting twice at fourteen hundred yards is harder than hitting once at a mile or more. It’s all about repeatability. I think this guy has talent.’

‘So do I,’ O’Day said. ‘Do you think he’s been in the service somewhere?’

‘Of course he has. No other way to get that good.’

‘Do you think he’s still in the service somewhere?’

‘No. He would have no freedom of movement.’

‘I agree.’

I said, ‘Are we sure he was selling?’

‘What are the odds a citizen with a grievance was also once upon a time a world-class sniper? More likely the citizen with a grievance has spent some money on the open market. Maybe a small group of citizens with a grievance. A faction, in other words. Which would increase the spending potential.’

‘Why do we care? The target was French.’

‘The bullet was American.’

‘How do we know?’

‘The gas chromatograph. There was an agreement. Some years ago. Not widely publicized. Not publicized at all, actually. Every manufacturer blends the alloy differently. Only slightly. But enough. Like a signature.’

‘Lots of the world buys American.’

‘This guy is new on the scene, Reacher. This profile has never been seen before. This was his first job. He’s making his name here. And it’s a hell of an ask. He has to hit twice, and fast, with a fifty-calibre cannon from fourteen hundred yards. If he makes it, he’s in the major leagues for the rest of his life. If he misses, he’s bush league for ever. That’s too big of a gamble. The stakes are way too high. But he shoots anyway. Which means he knew he was going to hit. He had to know. For certain, twice, at fourteen hundred yards, with total confidence. How many snipers that good are there?’

Which was a very good question. I said, ‘Honestly? For us? That good? I think in every generation we’d be lucky to have one in the SEALs, and two in the Marines, and two in the army. Total of five in the service at any one time.’

‘But you just agreed he isn’t in the service.’

‘Plus therefore an additional matching five from the previous generation, not long retired, old enough to be at loose ends, but still young enough to function. Which is who you should be looking at.’

‘Those would be your candidates? The previous generation?’

‘I don’t see who else would qualify.’

‘How many significant countries are there, in that line of work?’

‘Maybe five of us.’

‘Times an average of five eligible candidates in each country is twenty-five shooters in the world. Agreed?’


‘More than ballpark, actually. Twenty-five happens to be the exact dead-on number of retired elite snipers known to intelligence communities around the world. Do you think their governments keep careful track of them?’

‘I’m sure they do.’

‘And therefore how many of them do you think would turn out to have rock-solid alibis on any random day?’

Given that they would be surveilled very carefully, I said, ‘Twenty?’

‘Twenty-one,’ O’Day said. ‘We’re down to four guys. And that’s the diplomatic problem here. We’re like four guys in a room, all staring at each other. I don’t need that bullet to be American.’

‘One of ours is not accounted for?’

‘Not completely.’


‘How many snipers that good do you know?’

‘None,’ I said. ‘I don’t hang out with snipers.’

‘How many did you ever know?’

‘One,’ I said. ‘But it’s obviously not him.’

‘And you know this because?’

‘He’s in prison.’

‘And you know this because?’

‘I put him there.’

‘He got a fifteen-year sentence, correct?’

‘As I recall,’ I said.


Socratic. I did the math in my head. A lot of years. A lot of water over the dam. A lot of different places, a lot of different people. I said, ‘Shit.’

O’Day nodded.

‘Sixteen years ago,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t time fly, when you’re having fun?’

‘He’s out?’

‘He’s been out for a year.’

‘Where is he?’

‘Not at home.’


JOHN KOTT WAS the first son of two Czech emigrants who escaped the old Communist regime and settled in Arkansas. He had a kind of wiry Iron Curtain look that blended well with the local hardscrabble youth, and he grew up as one of them. Apart from his name and his cheekbones he could have been a cousin going back hundreds of years. At sixteen he could shoot squirrels out of trees too far away for most folks to see. At seventeen he killed his parents. At least, the county sheriff thought he did. There was no actual proof, but there was plenty of suspicion. None of which seemed to matter much, a year later, to the army recruiter who signed him up.

Unusually for a thin wiry guy he was immensely calm and still. He could drop his heart rate to the low thirties, and he could lie inert for many hours. He had superhuman eyesight. In other words, he was a born sniper. Even the army recognized it. He was sent to a succession of specialist schools, and then he was funnelled straight to Delta. Where he matched his talents with unrelenting hard work and made himself a star, in a shadowy, black-ops kind of a way.

But unusually for a Special Forces soldier the seal between the on-duty part of his head and the off-duty part was not 100 per cent watertight. To drop a guy at a thousand yards needs more than talent and athletic ability. It needs permission, from deep down in the ancient part of the brain, where fundamental inhibitions are either enforced or relaxed. It needs the shooter to really, really, truly believe: This is OK. This is your enemy. You’re better than him. You’re the best in the world. Anyone who challenges you deserves to die. Most guys have an off switch. But Kott’s didn’t close all the way.

I met him three weeks after a guy was found with his throat cut, in the weeds behind a faraway bar in Colombia, South America. The dead guy was a U.S. Army sergeant, from the Rangers. The bar was a hangout for a CIA-directed Special Forces unit, who were using it for downtime when they weren’t out in the jungle, shooting cartel members. Which made the suspect pool both very small and completely silent. I was with the 99th MP at the time, and I got the job. Only because the dead guy was American military. A local civilian, the Pentagon would have saved the airfare.

No one talked, but they all said plenty. I knew who had been in the bar, and I made them all describe it, and they all told me some little thing. I built up a picture. One guy was doing this, another guy was doing that. This guy left at eleven, that guy left at midnight. The other guy was sitting next to the first guy, who was drinking rum not beer. And so on and so forth. I got the choreography straight in my head, and I revised it over and over until it ran smooth and coherent.

Except for Kott, who was nothing more than a hole in the air.

No one had said anything much about him. Not where he was sitting, or what he was doing, or who he was talking to. He was more or less completely undescribed. Which could be for a number of reasons, one of which was, just possibly, that although no one in his unit was going to actively rat him out, no one was going to make stuff up for him, either. Some kind of ethics. Or lack of imagination. A wise choice, either way. Invention always unravels. Better to say nothing. As in, just possibly, hypothetically, a long fierce argument with the dead guy might become … nothing. Just a hole in the air.

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