The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  Sheriff Connelly himself turned out to be a solid leathery guy of about fifty. He was wearing blue jeans and a tan shirt and a Stetson hat. Clearly the woman at the desk had called ahead, because Connelly already knew his name. He said, “How can I help you, Mr. Reacher?”

  Reacher said, “I came to Wyoming to look up a guy named Seymour Porterfield, but I’m told he got eaten up by a bear a year and a half ago. I was hoping you could tell me what you know about that.”

  Connelly said, “Take a seat, Mr. Reacher.”

  Reacher sat down, on an old-fashioned wooden visitor chair polished to a high shine by a thousand pairs of pants. Connelly looked at him without speaking. A level gaze, equal parts suspicion and the benefit of the doubt. He said, “What was your connection with Seymour Porterfield?”

  “None at all,” Reacher said. “I’m looking for someone else, and I was told Porterfield might be able to point me in the right direction.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “A guy in South Dakota.”

  “Who is the someone else you’re looking for?”

  Reacher took the ring out of his new pants pocket, and said, “I want to return this to its rightful owner.”

  “A woman,” Connelly said.

  “Name of Serena Rose Sanderson. You know her?”

  The guy shook his head. “She a friend of yours?”

  “Never met her. But we look after our own.”

  “You a West Pointer too?”

  “A long time ago.”

  “Where did you find the ring?”

  “In a pawn shop in Wisconsin. I traced it back to Rapid City, South Dakota. I was told it was brought there from Wyoming by Porterfield.”

  “When?”

  “After he was dead.”

  “So how can I help you?”

  “You can’t,” Reacher said. “But I’m curious. Getting eaten by a bear seems a little extreme.”

  “Could have been a mountain lion.”

  “How likely is that?”

  “Not very,” Connelly said. “Either thing would be rare.”

  “So what do you think happened?”

  “A practical man would say the guy was gut shot or knifed in the stomach and then dumped in the woods. It was the end of winter. Bears or mountain lions might have been hungry enough to scavenge the corpse. Birds would have, for sure. Also raccoons and what-not. But there was zero evidence either way. We confirmed all the parts were Porterfield, but he was real torn up. We didn’t find a bullet. Didn’t find a knife. There were marks on the bones, but they were all animal teeth. I had folks at the university take a good long look. All inconclusive. We called it an accident, and maybe it was.”

  Reacher said, “What do you know about the guy himself?”

  “Very little. This is Wyoming. We leave people alone. No one inquires into other people’s business. He lived by himself. He had a fairly new car with a lot of miles on it. So he got around some. He had cash in a shoebox in the back of his closet. That’s all we found out.”

  “How much cash?”

  “Nearly ten grand.”

  “Not bad.”

  “I agree. I wish I had ten grand in the back of my closet. But it wasn’t enough to get all excited about.”

  “Except you formed the impression he was the type of guy who could get gut shot or knifed in the stomach.”

  “I try to keep an open mind, both ways around.”

  “No friends or relatives showing up asking questions?”

  “Not a peep.”

  “OK,” Reacher said. “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome,” Connelly said. “I hope you find who you’re looking for.”

  “I plan to,” Reacher said.

  Chapter 14

  Reacher walked east the best part of a mile, to where the university buildings started. He stopped in at what looked like a general office and asked for the geography department. The kid at the desk looked like a student. He was half asleep. But eventually he understood the question. He said, “What do you need there?”

  “I want to look at a map,” Reacher said.

  “Use your phone, man.”

  “I don’t have a phone.”

  “Really?”

  “And I want to see detail.”

  “Use satellite view.”

  “All I would see is trees. Plus like I told you, I don’t have a phone.”

  “Really?”

  “Where’s the geography department?”

  The kid pointed and said further on down the road, so Reacher went back to walking. Five minutes later he was in the right place, in front of another kid at another desk. This one was a girl, and she was wider awake. Reacher told her what he needed, and she went away and then came back laboring under the weight of a hardbound Wyoming topographical atlas about the size of a sidewalk paving slab. Reacher took it from her and hefted it to a table under a window. He opened it up and found the southeast corner of the state. Found Laramie, and the two-lane south toward Colorado, and the dirt-road turnoff at Mule Crossing.

  Reacher had been at West Point when reading paper maps was still taught as a serious lifesaving skill. Terrain was important to an army. Understanding it was the difference between winning and getting wiped out. What he saw west of the old post office was an unimproved road of reasonable width, never quite straight, following the gentle contours of the surrounding land, flanked on both sides by empty plains, which broke up after a mile or so into the faintest first foothills of the Snowy Range mountains fifty miles further on. There were fence lines here and there, engraved as fine as the detail on a hundred dollar bill. There were thin streams colored blue, and forests colored green, and orange contour lines rising and falling. Left and right along a twenty-mile distance were occasional ranch roads, leading to faraway buildings drawn as tiny brown squares. The first such track on the left was almost exactly two and a half miles from the old post office. It ran south for a spell, through patchy conifer woods, and then it curved west, and then snaked east, and then west again, up a shallow rise onto a knoll cradled by a higher U-shaped ridge to the south. On the knoll were shown two tiny brown squares. A house and a barn, maybe.

  Billy’s place.

  The next track on the left was almost three miles further west. Same kind of situation. A meandering dirt track, squirming right and left through the early hills and the thickening forest, leading to some kind of an inhabited dwelling. Obviously Reacher could use that second track and loop back to Billy’s place through the trees on the blind side. Which would be an advantage. Except that to get there in the first place he would have to walk the unimproved road all the way from the old post office. He would be visible from Billy’s house for the best part of forty minutes. The knoll was at least a hundred feet higher than the road. He would be a speck in the far distance, for sure, but the guy had been warned. Maybe he had binoculars. Or a scope on his deer rifle.

  A problem.

  The girl at the desk said, “You OK, sir?”

  “Doing well,” Reacher said.

  He turned the page.

  Much more interesting was what lay further to the south. The next right off the two-lane after Mule Crossing came three miles later. It was a forest service track into a nature preserve labeled Roosevelt National something. It was right at the bottom of the map. Right on the state line. The third word would be on the first Colorado sheet. Forest, presumably. Teddy Roosevelt, Reacher supposed, not Franklin. The great naturalist, except for when he was shooting things like tigers and elephants. People were complicated. The service track fed a spider web of more service tracks, one of which curved around north and came out on the back slope of the U-shaped ridge right behind Billy’s house. The contour lines showed the ridge was more than a hundred feet higher than the knoll. A person could get within fifty yards completely unobserved, no matter how many binoculars or rifle scopes the guy was using.

  Map reading. The difference between winning and getting wiped out.

 
; Reacher heaved the giant book shut, like closing a heavy door. The girl at the desk told him to leave it right there on the table. Maybe she felt she had done enough bicep curls for one day. He thanked her and stepped out to the sidewalk and headed back west to town, in the right-side gutter, with his left thumb out. He got a ride within a minute, with a friendly wild-haired bearded character, maybe an eccentric professor, but the guy was going only as far as the supermarket, so Reacher got out on the corner of Third Street and started over, walking south like he had the night before. A ratty old pick-up truck stopped before he got to the edge of town, and he climbed in and asked for a spot three miles south of the bottle rocket billboard. The driver looked a little puzzled, as if wondering what the hell was there, but he didn’t ask. He just drove. This is Wyoming. No one inquires into other people’s business. They passed under the highway bridge and Reacher glanced left, across the grassy strip, at the lot in front of his hotel. The black SUV was gone.

  Chapter 15

  Forty minutes later Reacher was alone on the two-lane’s shoulder, watching the pick-up truck drive away. The mouth of the forest road was overgrown with sagebrush, and it had a heavy chain slung across it, dipping low between two weathered posts. He stepped over it and set out hiking. The altitude was more than eight thousand feet above sea level, and the air was thin. The effort made him breathe hard, and left him light headed. The forest was mostly fir and pine, dappled with sun, blazing here and there with bright yellow groves of aspen. His normal rule of thumb for walking north through a wood was to look for moss on the tree trunks. Less of it would be facing east, south and west. Regular daylight would see to that. But the mountain air was bone dry and there was no moss at all. So he navigated by the sun. It was mid-morning, so he kept it forty-five degrees behind his right shoulder. He kept his shadow ahead and to the left. He angled west where he could, and felt the ground rise under his feet. An hour or less, he figured, before he got to the back side of the U-shaped ridge. He pictured Billy, watching the wrong horizon. He trudged on, panting.

  Nakamura walked the corridor to her lieutenant’s corner suite, and said, “Reacher called me last night.”

  Her lieutenant said, “Who?”

  “Bigfoot,” she said. “The Incredible Hulk.”

  “And?”

  “He asked me to hold off a day before calling the sheriff in Wyoming.”

  “Why would he?”

  “He pointed out there was no specific location mentioned in Scorpio’s voicemail, and therefore he felt a warning wouldn’t mean much to law enforcement out there. He didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.”

  “That’s very scrupulous of him.”

  “I got the impression he wants freedom of action.”

  “Do you think he should have it?”

  “That’s not for me to say. Or him, either.”

  “We work for the people of Rapid City, and no one else. Certainly not a bunch of cowboys out west.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Therefore, on that basis, what helps Rapid City most?”

  Nakamura said nothing.

  “Well?”

  “I checked him out,” Nakamura said. “I made some calls. He was an elite MP. He has medals. He’s possibly better prepared than the average person.”

  “Can he help us with Scorpio?”

  You could put him in a zoo.

  She said, “I really don’t see how he could hurt.”

  “OK then,” the lieutenant said. “Wait a day.”

  Then he said, “No, wait two days.”

  Reacher found what had to be the lower back slope of the U-shaped ridge after fifty minutes of hiking. The dirt underfoot was thin and gritty. There were pine cones everywhere, some of them the size of softballs. He climbed slowly, with short choppy steps, kicking his toes into the dirt for grip. He got close to the top and found what might have been a fox trail that led him the rest of the way to the summit. He dropped to his knees and took a look.

  He was a couple hundred yards east of where he needed to be. He dropped back to the fox trail and went west, three minutes at a slow pace, arms out for balance.

  He took another look.

  Now Billy’s place was directly below him, fifty yards away.

  It was a log house, stained dull brown, with a log barn, both structures surrounded by beaten-down brush and dusty red dirt. A rutted driveway ran away through the woods, appearing and reappearing in the gaps between the trees. On the right the land fell away and flattened into wide empty plains. The old post office was visible in the far distance, and the firework store, and the two-lane road. There was a grazing herd of pronghorns about a mile away. The dirt road was vivid ochre, neatly scraped, nicely cambered. On the left the land rose into low jagged peaks, like miniature mountain ranges, like premonitions of what would come for real a hundred miles farther west. The air was still and unnaturally clear. The sky was deep blue. There was absolute silence.

  Billy’s house had a green metal roof, and small windows with no light inside. Not a trophy cabin. Not a weekend place. But not a mess, either. No junk in the yard. No rusted washing machines. No cars up on blocks. No pit bull on a chain. Just a workaday house.

  No people.

  Reacher eased down the near slope, slowly, from tree to tree. Forty yards away. Thirty. A pine cone rolled ahead of him and hit a bump and kicked up in the air.

  He froze.

  No reaction.

  He kept on going, stepping sideways for grip, staying where the trees were thickest. Twenty yards away. Ten. He could see Billy’s back door. Footsteps had beaten a path from it to a similar door in the back of the barn.

  He stopped five yards inside the tree line. Safe enough. All was quiet. He waited. He figured Billy wouldn’t have taken Scorpio’s voicemail literally. The guy wouldn’t be hiding behind an actual tree with his rifle at his shoulder. He was more likely sitting in a chair on his front porch. With his rifle on the boards beside him. He could see twenty miles. He would figure he would get plenty of early warning.

  Reacher moved east through the trees and lined up with the back of the barn. His first port of call. He took a breath and stepped out.

  No reaction.

  He crossed the open space, controlled, not fast, not slow, with tiny slaps and crunches from his feet on the grit and the gravel.

  No reaction.

  He pressed up against the back of the barn. There were no windows. The personnel door was ten feet to his left. He crabbed sideways and tried the handle. Locked. Which was a pity. Barns were usually good for useful stuff. Hammers, hatchets, wrenches, knives. He crabbed back to where he started, and onward to the corner. The house was twenty feet away. Still quiet. The side facing him was made of heavy logs, and it had two small windows on the first floor and two on the second. All four were backed by half-closed sun-faded drapes.

  He took another breath and crossed the open space. He pressed his back hard against the logs. The first-floor window sills were about level with his shoulder. He inched closer and risked a one-eyed look inside. He saw a powder room, with a closed door. He moved on. Checked the second window. Saw a small alcove at the foot of a staircase. Beyond it was the front half of a living room. Two more windows, a front door, a stone fireplace, well-worn armchairs. Log walls, stained dark.

  No people.

  The front door would lead to a front porch.

  Which would be around the next exterior corner.

  He moved on, slow and cautious. He stopped a foot short of the corner and listened hard. Heard nothing except silence, and the tiniest eddy of breeze through the trees, and the caw of a rook far in the distance. No breathing, no movement, no creak of wood. Nothing at all.

  One more half step.

  He peered around the corner. Saw a covered porch, with a railing, and two heavy wooden chairs, and a swing seat hanging motionless on four thick chains.

  No people.

  No rifle resting on the boards.

  No Billy.


  Reacher shuffled sideways to the rear corner of the house. He paused a beat, and slid around, and moved along the back wall. He checked the first window he came to. A kitchen. Still and quiet and no one in it. Next to the kitchen window was a kitchen door. Solid wood. No glass. He passed it by and checked a second window. A small back parlor. A desk, a chair. Still and quiet and no one in it.

 
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