The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  “Forget what I said. Ignore familiarity. I was wrong. I was desperate. Every idea looked like a good idea. Maybe she chose unfamiliarity instead. Somewhere she didn’t know at all.”

  “She knows Wyoming.”

  “Exactly. To have both is just right. Familiarity and unfamiliarity.”

  Reacher checked the view from the bedroom window. There was dust on the dirt road. A long cloud, vivid red in the softening light, spiraling and drifting. A tiny dot at its head, winking in the low sun.

  Six minutes, maybe.

  “Coming here?” Bramall said.

  “Maybe,” Reacher said. “Maybe not. But I hope so. I hope it’s Billy. He knows where Rose lives. From plowing her driveway, if nothing else.”

  “He might have his deer rifle.”

  “Has he listened to his voicemail yet?”

  “We didn’t check. I guess he could have snuck home at some point. A fast in-and-out. We’ve been gone for hours.”

  “OK,” Reacher said.

  “How do you want to do this?”

  “Inside, obviously. Downstairs would be best. There’s a poker on the fireplace. I’ll head in that direction. You take the other side. Find what you can. Look for steak knives. Often in a sideboard drawer.”

  Mackenzie said, “What should I do?”

  “You go check if the phone is still there. On the desk in the back parlor. If it is, it should say one new message. That’s how Mr. Bramall left it. If it’s there but it’s showing a regular screen, that means Billy came back and listened to it, but left the phone home again for whatever reason. So check it out and tell us which. Shout it out good and loud. Then we’ll know what we’re dealing with here. We’ll know how hard to hit the guy.”

  “If it’s Billy,” Bramall said.

  “Hope for the best,” Reacher said.

  They went down the stairs, Reacher first, heading left, then Bramall, heading right, and last Mackenzie, looping back toward the parlor. Reacher took a look out the front window. The dust was closer. It was lit up from within by the setting sun. Four minutes, maybe. He moved on to the fireplace and picked up the poker. The yard of iron, with the hook at the end, like a hitchhiker’s thumb.

  Mackenzie called out, “The phone is still here and now it says two new messages.”

  Reacher paused a beat.

  Then he called back, “Listen to the second one.”

  He heard a static whisper from the distant earpiece as the first message was skipped, and then more as the second was played. He figured there might be some kind of urgency behind the faint breathy cadence.

  Mackenzie called out, “It’s Arthur Scorpio leaving another voicemail for Billy. They got a warning about a federal agent leaving Montana for parts unknown. And Scorpio wants Billy to call him back. He sounds mad. He said, don’t make me worried, Billy. Not in a nice way.”

  Bramall said, “Got to be either ATF or DEA in Montana. They both have western task forces.”

  Reacher said, “I don’t care.”

  They waited.

  From the shadows deep in the room Reacher saw a truck nose through the trees and come out at the top of the driveway. Not a pick-up truck. It was a Chevy Suburban SUV, the large size. Black in color, but caked red from the road. A basic specification. Cheap wheels, not much chrome. An aftermarket antenna, mounted in the center of the roof.

  It crunched over the dirt and came to a stop not far from Bramall’s Toyota. A guy got out. He was broad but not tall, maybe fifty-something, with a lot of hard miles on his clock. He was dressed in gray flannel pants and a tweed sport coat. He moved with a certain amount of grace. Maybe once an athlete. Given his shape, probably field not track. Maybe he had put the shot, or thrown the discus.

  Now he worked for the government.

  The pants and the coat and the truck made that clear.

  “Relax, guys,” Reacher called. “Step down to Defcon Two.”

  Mackenzie called back, “What does that mean?”

  “We’ll try talking to this guy. Before we do anything else.”

  “Is it Billy?”

  “I’m pretty sure not,” Reacher said.

  Out on the dirt the guy tweaked the tails of his coat and squared up his shoulders and headed for the porch. On the way he took out an ID wallet and held it ready. Reacher saw straps under his coat, for a shoulder holster.

  They heard footsteps on the porch boards, and then a knock at the door.

  Chapter 23

  Bramall opened up. Reacher and Mackenzie stood behind him. The guy from the government car held up a federal ID. A worn gold badge, with a shield and an eagle, and a plastic card like a driver’s license, except it said United States Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. The photograph was the right guy, a little younger, with his hair brushed better and his tie knotted tighter. The writing said his name was Kirk Noble, and his rank was Special Agent.

  Reacher couldn’t help it.

  He said, “Sounds like a comic book. Kirk Noble, Boy Detective.”

  No response.

  “I guess you never heard that before.”

  Noble said, “Who are you?”

  They all introduced themselves, names only.

  Noble said, “What are you doing here?”

  Reacher said, “We’re waiting for a guy named Billy. He lives here. We want to ask him a question.”

  “What question?”

  “We’re looking for a missing woman. We think he knows where she is.”

  “What woman?”

  Reacher had no real sense that Noble could help. But he knew for sure he could hinder. If he wanted to. He worked for the government. He had a shield with an eagle. He had a thick book of rules.

  So Reacher told the story fair and square. Maybe somewhat aware of his federal audience. Maybe nudging a little ways toward a certain kind of circular argument, in which the participants’ professional backgrounds not only justified but actually required their involvement, while simultaneously absolving them of any kind of blame. Because of their status. As in, a retired military major, with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, joined a near-forty-year veteran of the FBI, now a properly licensed private investigator in a populous state, to search for another retired military major, this one with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart all her own. Feds couldn’t argue with stuff like that. Not without saying yeah, all our lives are bullshit.

  And even if they did, there was the twin sister, right there, a connection so spectrally close it legitimized everything, in a blinding flash, like bleach thrown on a crime scene. Especially with the face and the hair. Noble was a guy. Deep down he wasn’t thinking legal technicalities. He was thinking: There are two like that?

  Reacher kept it as subtle as he could.

  Eventually he finished up.

  Noble said, “You won’t get an answer to your question.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because Billy ain’t coming back.”

  “Why not?”

  “Long story.”

  The guy moved in through the hallway and glanced up the stairs. He looked at the ceiling. He looked at the walls. He turned this way and that, craning his neck, like a contractor about to ballpark an estimate.

  He said, “Did you check the refrigerator?”

  Reacher said, “For what?”

  “Food.”

  “No.”

  Noble moved to the kitchen. He looked at the dishes in the sink. He opened the refrigerator. He glanced back, as if counting heads.

  He said, “We could share bacon and eggs. There’s beer to drink.”

  Mackenzie said, “You’re going to eat Billy’s food?”

  “First of all, it ain’t Billy’s anymore, and second of all, I have to. I can’t claim expenses if there’s food in the house.”

  “Expenses from who?”

  “You, in the end,” Noble said. “The taxpayer. We’re saving you money.”

  “We make you eat dinner from the suspect’s refrigerato
r?”

  “It’s your refrigerator. And mine. This place became federal property at two o’clock this afternoon. Seized by the government.”

  “So where’s Billy?”

  “That’s the long part of the story,” Noble said. “We should eat.”

  At his age, after the things he’d done, Reacher would have said there wasn’t much coming, in terms of new and delightful experiences in his life. But strangely the bacon-and-egg dinner in Billy’s kitchen was one of them. They felt like conspirators. Or castaways. Like a random group, stranded overnight at the airport. They didn’t really know each other. Maybe the first-class cabin, taken by taxi to a country hotel. Mackenzie found candles and lit them. Which then made it feel like the start of a movie. The opening scenes. An innocent group gathers. Little do they know.

  Noble cooked, and talked about heroin. It was both his paycheck and his passion. He knew its history. Once upon a time it was a legal ingredient. It was in all kinds of stuff, branded with famous names still known today. There was heroin cough syrup. There was heroin cough syrup for children. Stronger, not weaker. Doctors prescribed heroin for fussy babies and bronchitis and insomnia and nerves and hysteria and all kinds of other vapors. The patients loved it. Best health care ever. Millions got addicted. Corporations made a lot of easy money. Then folks got wise, and by the start of World War One, legal heroin was history.

  But the corporations never forgot. About the easy money. At that point in the story Noble was melting butter in the egg pan, and he paused the spoon mid-air, as if to emphasize his point. He said remember, this is an active-duty DEA agent saying this stuff. We know who causes our problems.

  The corporations took eighty years to get back in the heroin business. They came in the side door. By that time in history heroin itself had negative PR. Nothing more than underworld squalor and a bunch of dead rock singers. Kind of sordid. So they made a synthetic version. A chemical copy. Like an identical twin, Noble said, looking at Mackenzie. Exactly the same, but now it had a long clean name. All bright and shiny. It could have been a toothpaste. They put it in neat white pills. What were they for? Getting high, baby. Whatever you want. Except they couldn’t put that on the pack. So they said they were for pain. Everyone has pain, right?

  Not really. Not at first. Pain was not yet a thing. Institutes had to be funded, and scholarships endowed. Doctors had to be persuaded. Patients had to be empowered. Which all worked in the end. Pain became a thing. Self-reported and untestable, but suddenly a symptom as valid and meaningful as any other. As a result, America was flooded with hundreds of tons of heroin, in purse-size blister packs, backed with foil.

  By that point of the story they were eating, and Noble was in full flow. Like he was teaching a class at the academy. He paused again, with his fork mid-air, and he said, “Let me emphasize two very important things. First up, most of this stuff goes to the right people for the right reasons. No one could deny that. It does a lot of good. But equally, no one could deny enough has fallen out around the edges to also cause a lot of harm. Because second up, no one should ever underestimate the appeal of an opiate high. Far as I can tell, it’s a beautiful thing. The way they talk about it, it’s the best thing ever. For some folks it hits the spot so hard it reboots their lives.”

  He paused to drink some of Billy’s beer.

  He said, “These are regular folk I’m talking about. American as apple pie. They like the ball game on the radio, and country music. Not the Grateful Dead. They were seduced by the clean white pill. It made them feel real good. Maybe for the first time in their lives. These are plain people. But smart. They soon figured out ways it could make them feel even better. They got the time-release version, and broke it up, so they got the whole hit at once. Couple times a day. Maybe three. Then they discovered the patches. You stick them on your skin. Like when you’re quitting smoking. A long clean name on the pack, but it’s the same stuff your great-great-grandma lined up for. A nice little maintenance dose, all day long. You could wear two, if you like. Or three. But licking them was better. Or sucking them, or wadding them up and chewing them like gum. So much better, in fact, it got easy to want more than the doctor gave you. It got to where you’re prepared to drop ten bucks here and there, now and then, for a couple extras. Then a hundred bucks for a whole pack, if need be. Every day, if need be. There are ways to get a hundred bucks every day, right? By that point these folks are already hopeless addicts. But not in their own minds. It’s partly a pride thing. Addicts are other people, with a dirty needle in a toilet stall. What they have is a pharmaceutical product, made in a lab, by pretty girls in masks who hold test tubes up to the light, with wondrous concern radiating from their clear blue eyes. They’ve seen it on the television, in the breaks between innings. But in fact they’re running worse risks. Those patches ain’t made for licking. Fifty thousand people died last year. Regular folk. Four times as many as got killed in gun crimes.”

  He paused again, to eat an egg.

  He said, “But we’re winning. I would say we’ve already won, in my region, at least. We can track prescription pain medication from start to finish. We can take out the bent doctors, and we can train the rest to be cautious about how many days they dispense, and we can eliminate pilferage in the factories and along the transportation vectors. So right now the black market is virtually dead, and the medical market is heavily scrutinized. Total success. Except the previous bonanza left us with millions of addicts. Regular folk, remember. They thought a dirty needle in a toilet stall was not their fate. But it’s a free market. When we bit down, the price of pills went up, because of supply and demand. What used to be ten bucks was suddenly fifty. It was a crisis. Suddenly regular cartel powder up from Mexico looked like an irresistible bargain. Remember, deep down it’s the same chemical. These folks are canny shoppers. None of them ever paid sticker for a car. And numbers don’t lie. Even when they factored in the cost to their dignity, with the dirty needles and the toilet stalls and all, hey, the powder was still a bargain. We swapped one problem for another.”

  He paused again, to put his silverware together, and push his plate away. He took a long drink from his bottle.

  He said, “But overall it was good news for us. We like the new problem better. The regular cartel powder is harder to hide. We can follow it better. From our point of view it was like the system had just swallowed a barium meal. Whole networks lit up like neon. Standards got less precise. Our job got easier. But not everywhere. A certain part of Montana, for instance. Nothing lit up at all. We couldn’t see incoming product. No cartel powder going there. So what happened to their addicts? Did they all cold turkey? Or die? Or is someone else supplying? That’s something I would want to know. So I went out to check. I discovered nothing of value. Except one trivial thing. Anecdotally along the way, I discovered I had spooked a low-level operative, who triggered a long-standing pact with a friend, who was also a low-level operative, but in another network. The pact was both of them would immediately get the hell out the very first time either one of them heard a whisper of trouble. Which was the smart play, no question. I’m guessing this wasn’t their first rodeo. These things always fall apart in the end, and they always fall hardest on the lowest-level guys. Better to get out early. Which is why Billy ain’t coming home. Billy was the friend. From Mule Crossing, Wyoming. He’s in the wind, with his pal from Billings, Montana.”

  Mackenzie said, “Where have they gone, do you think?”

  “A new hustle,” Noble said. “Someplace else.”

  “Are you looking for them?”

  “We’re not about to call out the National Guard. We’ll put their names and their faces in the system.”

  Reacher said, “Surely the pact implies they worked for the same network, not different. One whisper made two guys run. Maybe what looked like two different networks were really two parts of the same thing.”

  “Maybe,” Noble said. “I don’t know much about them. It’s an opaque network, remember
. That’s why I went. Odds are the guy in Montana was just a street-corner dealer. Or the rural equivalent. Odds are Billy was, too. Business schools call it customer-facing. And some of those guys have been to business school. Not guys like Billy and his pal. People who own guys like Billy and his pal.”

  “So what next for you?”

  “I’m going to find clean sheets and make up a bed. I can’t claim lodging expenses if there’s a bed in the house.”

  “Then what?”

  “Back to some real work. This all was a waste of time.”

  “The government got a house.”

  “Two houses,” Noble said. “Don’t forget Billings, Montana. I bet we won’t be able to sell either one of them.”

  Mackenzie said, “Is there any way you could let us know if you find Billy?”

  Noble shook his head.

  He said, “I can’t help with your sister. I’m sorry, ma’am. But what have you got? A lot of guesswork and hope for the best. A federal manhunt costs a million dollars a day. They need a very good reason. Which you can’t give them. You got a lot of probable and not much cause.”

  Mackenzie didn’t answer.

  Noble said, “But I wish you the best of luck.”

  Chapter 24

  They left Noble in the house, and drove back to Laramie, with Reacher sprawled across the rear seat, and Mackenzie upright in the front, and Bramall at the wheel, one-handed. They agreed on the chain hotel Reacher and Bramall had used the night before. It had proved adequate, except for
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