The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  “Legally we have to ask ourselves if the county owns it now. Which it might, officially. Because of the unpaid taxes. Breaking into county property is a big step. You can’t fight city hall.”

  “Maybe you smelled a suspicious smell, or thought you heard something. Like a despairing cry. The kind of thing that would justify a warrantless search. Did you?”

  “No,” Bramall said.

  “You’re retired,” Reacher said. “You don’t have to stick to FBI bullshit anymore.”

  “What would be the army approach? Set the place on fire?”

  “No, that would be the Marine Corps approach. The army would conduct a careful survey of the exterior, and by great good fortune would discover a pane of glass previously broken by persons unknown, at a previous time, maybe long ago, or even just recently, which if true would reasonably suggest an ongoing emergency inside, which in turn would justify a good look around. I don’t think the Supreme Court could argue with that.”

  “Previously broken either recently or a long time ago?”

  “Obviously any sounds you hear in real time will be me, accidentally stepping on previously broken glass left lying on the porch ever since the unknown previous incident. That can sound very like a freshly breaking window. It’s a common illusion.”

  “That’s a standard FBI trick too. We weren’t all bullshit.”

  “Some of you came to us for training.”

  “And some of you came to us.”

  “I’m going to conduct a careful survey,” Reacher said.

  He got out of the car.

  Chapter 18

  It was a big house, but an easy survey, because the porch ran all the way around the structure, flat and level and true, and it served up all the first-floor doors and windows at a convenient height for inspection. Reacher started at the front, with the door Bramall had knocked on, which was a solid wooden affair, locked tight, and way too much effort to break down. So he moved on, to a hallway window, which would have taken no effort at all to get through, except it was on the front of the house, and even in the uninhabited middle of nowhere some ancient part of his brain sounded a warning. The front was never good. Not during, and not even afterward. Why leave after-action evidence in plain view? Not that there would be much. A discreet punched-out hole in the glass, about the size of a big man’s elbow, and a slit insect screen rippling in the breeze. That would be all. Not much. But maybe enough to catch a passerby’s eye. Always safer if that kind of thing happened later, not sooner, for all kinds of reasons.

  The back was better.

  Reacher walked down the side of the house, past five more windows all the same as the front. Which made it likely the windows in back would be all the same, too. Some kind of a unifying design theme. Or some kind of a big discount for a bulk purchase. But either way was good news. Windows like that were easy.

  He turned the corner, and the first window he came to was broken.

  It had a hole punched through it, about the size of a big man’s elbow.

  The insect screen was slit.

  The broken glass was dirty, and the screen was mildewed. A year, maybe more. At least four seasons of wind and weather. Inside was a kitchen. Countertops that should have been shiny were dull with dust. Beyond the kitchen was a dining area, all gloom and shadows.

  He walked the long way around the porches, and back to the car. Bramall had gotten out again. He was standing in a no-man’s-land patch of dirt about thirty feet from the house.

  Reacher said, “I found a busted window.”

  “Nicely done,” Bramall said. “I didn’t hear a thing.”

  “For real. An actual busted window. Previously broken by persons unknown. A year or more ago, by the look of it. Exactly how we would have done it.”

  “Show me,” Bramall said.

  Reacher led him along the front porch, and the side porch, and around the corner to the back. Bramall took a good long look. He seemed impressed by the mildew. He said, “A year at least. Let’s say a year and a half. Why not? Let’s say this happened right after Porterfield died. Was it the sheriff? You told me he searched the place.”

  “The sheriff had the keys,” Reacher said. “He found them in Porterfield’s pocket. That’s how they identified him, along with his teeth. So the sheriff didn’t need to break in. This was someone else, who didn’t have the keys.”

  “Squatters, maybe.”

  “They wouldn’t bust the kitchen window. The kitchen is a room they would want to use. They would have bust a window somewhere else.”

  “Ordinary burglars, then.”

  “Possible. We’ll know by how much mess they made.”

  “We’re still going inside?”

  “We were before,” Reacher said. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t now. This is practically an open invitation. We have a duty as citizens.”

  “To call the sheriff, technically.”

  “It’s a gray area. The owner is dead. There are no heirs. It’s a different situation. People read whole books about this kind of thing in law school. I’m sure the sheriff doesn’t want to get in a big long discussion. Plus this could be where she called her sister. Right here. When she said, shut up, Sy, I’m on the phone. Had to be his place or hers. Either way she spent time here. So you know we’re going in.”

  “I know I am,” Bramall said. “But you’re under no obligation.”

  “You looking out for me now?”

  “I feel I ought to point out the legal downside.”

  “I get it. You want me to go first. So you can say to yourself the worst thing you ever did was get all swept up. You want me to be the bad guy. Because you have scruples.”

  “Not as such. What I have is a license from the state of Illinois. Which I would like to keep. Doesn’t matter who goes first. What matters is, it would count against me if I didn’t explicitly caution a junior partner against potential legal jeopardy.”

  “Are we partners?”

  “Effectively.”

  “Junior and senior?”

  “By age and experience.”

  “Do you have to explicitly caution me every step of the way?”

  “Technically, yes.”

  “Let’s not do that part, OK? Let’s take it as read. More fun that way.”

  “OK,” Bramall said. “You want fun, you go first.”

  Bramall’s contribution was to stick his arm in through the hole in the glass and wind the window open with the inside handle. Reacher’s jacket was new, and his shirt was new. He didn’t want to smear either one of them with mildew, which he would if he pushed through the slit in the screen, like the original intruder or intruders must have, a year or more ago, back when the screen was clean. So he tore it out of its frame, all the way around, and folded it in a ragged square, and dropped it on the porch.

  Best way into a kitchen was face down and feet first. Because of the countertop. You stood a chance of ending the maneuver standing on your feet, not your hands. But it was hard to set up. It required a contortion. Worse if there was a sink under the window, with a tap. Which could get to the wrong place at the wrong time. But Porterfield’s sink was on a different wall. Which helped. A little.

  Reacher felt his legs swim free, and he jack-knifed at the waist, and planted his feet, and pushed himself upright. Inside, looking out. The kitchen was a little weather-beaten, because of the hole in the glass, but it had started out expensive. That was clear. The wood was thick, and the granite was thicker. There were appliances made out of stainless steel. They all had clock screens, dark and blank. There was absolute silence. No subliminal hum, no rustle in the pipes. No power, no water. No one paying the bills. All closed up.

  He moved on through the gloom, out of the kitchen, into the dining area. From where he saw the living room, all open plan, with a complicated cathedral ceiling, and a full-height rock fireplace, made out of stones the size of tractor tires.

  A trophy cabin. Authentic designs didn’t have fireplaces built with for
klift trucks and hydraulic cranes. They used smaller rocks. And why make a weird ceiling, where a flat one would fit?

  But it was a lived-in trophy cabin. Reacher didn’t hate it. The log walls were stained a light honey shade. The furniture looked comfortable but unobtrusive. There were weird collections on shelves. Animal skulls, interesting stones, interesting pine cones. Almost a family feel. A rich-family feel.

  He walked back to the kitchen. To the broken window. Bramall was looking in at him.

  Reacher said, “Nothing to worry about. It’s like a time capsule. Which rules out a burglary. Because nothing is out of place. The dust is a uniform thickness everywhere. There’s no mess at all. Which I guess rules out squatters too.”

  “I’m coming in,” Bramall said.

  He was stiffer in the joints than Reacher, but those joints started out much closer together, because he was smaller, so overall his maneuver was easier. He pushed himself upright, and looked around the same way Reacher had. Kitchen, dining area, living room.

  Undisturbed.

  Bramall said, “Not what I expected.”

  “In what way?” Reacher said.

  “If I had a cabin it might look like this.”

  “Dope dealers don’t have taste?”

  “Not usually.”

  Reacher checked the hallway.

  He said, “There are bedrooms at both ends.”

  Bramall said, “If it wasn’t burglars or squatters, who broke the window?”

  “Not the sheriff,” Reacher said. “But like the sheriff. A pro with a reason to search.”

  “But where’s the mess? Pro searchers tear a place apart.”

  “Maybe they found what they wanted the first place they looked. Maybe that’s what it means to be a pro. Or maybe they knew where it was all along. Maybe they came to get something back.”

  “Get what back?”

  “I don’t care,” Reacher said. “All I want to do is find Sanderson.”

  “You think she was here. Back when she was dating a dope dealer worth getting gut shot or stabbed in the stomach.”

  “You’re her older brother now?”

  “I doubt the relationship would have happened. She would have done better for herself.”

  “She said, shut up, Sy, I’m on the phone. Even the uptight twin called it friendly and comfortable and happy. Best case, they were real good friends.”

  “Even worse,” Bramall said. “You choose your friends.”

  “Either way, they spent time together. Here, and her place. Wherever that is.”

  “A year and a half ago.”

  “Better than nothing.”

  “If your Sy is the right Sy.”

  “Fifty-fifty right or wrong. Not bad odds.”

  Bramall took out his phone.

  “Two bars,” he said. “She could have called from here.”

  “What did the cell records say?”

  “You need three masts to triangulate. There’s only one here. Omnidirectional. She was calling from somewhere inside a giant circular area about the size of New Jersey. That’s all we know.”

  “Could have been here. No reason why not.”

  Bramall moved to the center of the living room. He said, “It was a year and a half ago and this place has been searched twice since then. And if you’re right about someone getting something back, then the most important thing we could have found is already gone. So this is about looking for what two other parties missed. Which is slow work. How long have we got?”

  “Out here, about a hundred years, I would think,” Reacher said. “Pull your car around the back, and we could move in and live here forever. No one would ever know.”

  “OK, we’ll search together. No look-out. Two heads are better than one.”

  They found the first missed item in less than a minute.

  Chapter 19

  It was in a mud room near the back door. In a closet where snow clothes were kept. A pair of snow pants had slipped off a hanger. Some kind of stiff nylon. They had hit the floor like spears, and then half crumpled and half stayed rigid, like wobbly legs, like a cartoon picture of a guy who just received a nasty shock. They had toppled backward and had ended up half propped in the corner. Reacher moved them, purely out of habit, and behind them he found a pair of women’s snow boots. A technical product, with hooks and loops. A woman’s size six. Which was small.

  He said, “Boots in the closet is a thing, right? She spent quality time here.”

  “If it was her. Could have been anybody.”

  “I agree. But it’s evidence a guy two separate people described as a loner living alone actually had a companion in his house. Which should have tilted the investigation a little, when such a guy shows up dead. Maybe we can forgive the sheriff. He had a preconceived notion. And I bet everyone in Wyoming has a closet like that. Hard to see what you always see. But whoever came along afterward should have seen it. They should have had fresh eyes. Makes me wonder who they were. And what they were doing. Maybe they didn’t really look at anything. Maybe it really was a fast in-and-out, to get something back. Has to be. Nothing else has been touched.”

  Bramall said, “We should check the other closets.”

  They did, but there was nothing in them, except Porterfield’s own stuff. Apparently he had been a guy who liked blue jeans, and saw no problem at all with laundering things until they went threadbare.

  No women’s clothing.

  No dresses, no blouses, no pants.

  Bramall said, “Why would she leave only her boots behind?”

  “She left at the start of spring. She hadn’t used them for a month. She forgot them. Or maybe they were uncomfortable. Maybe she left them on purpose. Maybe she was fixing to buy new. But she was here. Or someone was. Porterfield didn’t live alone. Not all the time.”

  “That’s a lot to read into a pair of boots.”

  “I bet we find more.”

  They did. But not much more. After two hours they had a very modest haul. More persuasive than conclusive. They saved time by ignoring what was on open view. Instead they looked inside things, and under things, and behind things.

  They found a woman’s comb between the sofa cushions. It was made of pink plastic. All the teeth were widely spaced. Not half and half, like a regular comb. In the master bathroom they found two sinks, each with a soap dish, one with a dried-out cake of scented soap, and one with a dried-out cake of plain. Also in the bathroom they found two sets of towels laid out. In the laundry room behind the dryer they found a pair of women’s athletic socks. Some kind of miracle fiber, small in size, pink in color, stuck all over with dust bunnies.

  That was it.

  Not enough for a courtroom. But suggestive. Reacher said, “She was here. Or someone was. At least some of the time. Maybe just a casual on-again, off-again type of thing. But she was here long enough to get somewhat ingrained. When she left, she did it in style. She made a clean break. Some kind of statement. She scoured the place and packed up everything of hers she could see, leaving behind only the few things she couldn’t. Like her lost comb. She couldn’t take her soap anyway. At the time it was all wet and slimy. Couldn’t just toss it in a bag with her clothes. She didn’t count the towels. Who would? She forgot her snow boots. But it’s the socks I like best.”

  “Why?”

  “They prove she still has two legs. The Purple Heart might not be as bad as it could be.”

  “If it’s her.”

  “Suppose it was. Porterfield must have gone to her place from time to time. Where would that be? How far from here? Suppose you were a guy like Porterfield. How far would you drive to get laid?”

  “Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “A number of things.”

  “Look on the bright side. Maybe not Miss America exactly, but assume she’s a nice-looking person.”

  “This is Wyoming. They drive epic distances for a loaf of bread. For a girlfriend, two hours, maybe. A hundred miles.”
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