The Midnight Line by Lee Child

  “The pie lady,” Reacher said. “Porterfield’s neighbor. We were here yesterday. We almost missed it then.”

  “But the pie lady is out. We saw her go.”

  Bramall turned in on the track and drove, the same way as the day before, but faster, twisting and rising through the trees, more than three miles, during which distance they saw nothing and no one, and then as before all of a sudden the trees opened up and the Toyota burst out on the flat acre with the long view east, and the one-story house, with its brown boards, and its ancient millwork, and its old church pew.

  Nothing there.

  No battered old SUV, caked with dust.

  Nothing moving.

  No sound.

  Mackenzie said, “There must be other ways out of here. Like the places I showed you yesterday.”

  Bramall drove on, in a wide bumpy circle, all the way around the house, around the outbuildings, always tight to the tree line. They saw three separate forest tracks running onward through the trees. One went due west, one went south, and one split the difference between. They were like trails for hikers or hunters, all worn and beaten down, all gnarled with roots and rocks, all dappled with gentle sunlight, all curving out of sight.

  All narrow.

  But good enough for a boxy old SUV.

  It was impossible to say which one had just been used. The ground was bone dry. There were tire tracks everywhere, sharp in the dust.

  “Want to gamble?” Bramall said.

  “Waste of time,” Reacher said. “These trails have too many turns. The odds would get impossible. Plus your truck is bigger than hers. We’d get stuck.”

  “If it was her,” Bramall said.

  “Suppose it was.”

  “Doesn’t matter which way she went,” Mackenzie said. “The question is why she went. What happened?”

  “We scared her,” Reacher said. “We were waiting on the shoulder. We could have been state police. She didn’t want us to catch her. So she pulled off the road and tracked back on some weird forest service route only she knows. Now she’s laying low someplace, trying to figure out what she wants to do next.”


  “Within about a thousand square miles of right here. In a spot we’ll never find.”

  Mackenzie was quiet a beat.

  Then she said, “Did you see the silver?”

  Bramall said, “An impression.”

  “What did you make of it?”

  “A coat,” Bramall said. “With a hood.”

  “But tight,” Reacher said. “I thought like athletic wear. The kind of thing they peel off before the race.”

  “Did it look like foil?”

  “Partly,” Bramall said. “Maybe the trim.”

  Mackenzie said, “Why didn’t she want us to catch her?”

  “She didn’t know it was you,” Reacher said. “She didn’t see your face. Her windows were dusty, and so were ours, and when she came by head-on, she was looking the other way. It wasn’t an emotional decision. It was practical. She thought we were cops. Maybe she’s the kind of person who can’t let a cop see the inside of her car.”

  “If it was her,” Bramall said.

  “Because she’s an addict,” Mackenzie said.

  “Worst case,” Reacher said.

  “Which happens.”

  “More than never, less than always.”

  “Which way are you leaning?”

  “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”


  “I’m thinking about Seymour Porterfield,” Reacher said. “We’re assuming Billy took over his business, whereupon that kind of thing usually triggers some kind of vigorous expansion afterward, which seems to be the whole reason businesses get taken over in the first place, all because someone else sees missed opportunities. And this is not a type of business that ever gets smaller anyway. It only gets bigger. Therefore, long story short, on a theoretical basis, for a number of reasons, we could expect law enforcement to see Billy as a bigger proposition now than Porterfield ever was. But the Boy Detective as good as told us he isn’t even interested in a person like Billy. He said he was going to put his face in the system. That’s code for letting him walk away. Because he’s too boring to talk to. Whereas on the other hand, the even less interesting Seymour Porterfield has his own sealed file at the Pentagon.”

  Bramall said, “Could be nothing. He might once have had small-time connections in Central America. The military wrote everything down. His file might be one word long. You know what that stuff was like. You were probably there.”

  “Why would a one-word file be sealed?”

  Bramall said, “I don’t know.”

  “What do we actually know for sure about Porterfield?”

  “Very little.”

  “What impression did you get?”

  “Like the neighbor said. A rich guy from out of state, come to find himself, maybe writing a novel.”

  “Nice life.”

  “You bet.”

  “You liked his house.”

  “I could live there.”

  “He had everything a person could need,” Reacher said. “Including granite countertops and his very own file at the Pentagon. In fact he had three files at the Pentagon. One of which seems to cover some kind of a joint enterprise with an unspecified woman, during the last six months of his life. On top of which is the broken window in his house. Which looked like government work. Which is ridiculous. Until it isn’t. Plus the guy got eaten by a bear. Or a mountain lion. Either of which is highly unlikely. And all of which lead to wild speculations about what exactly happened during those last six months. Especially toward the end. Maybe Rose ran just now because a year and a half ago she learned not to trust expensive black vehicles full of people. So to answer Mrs. Mackenzie’s original question, I guess right now I’m leaning slightly away from the worst case. Worst cases are usually very banal. This thing feels more complex than that.”

  Mackenzie said, “You think Porterfield wasn’t the man you thought he was?”

  “He could have been ten times worse. Now I don’t know for sure. Which is the interesting part. It makes it equally possible he was ten times better.”

  Bramall said, “If he was, how would Arthur Scorpio know his name?”

  “Through Billy, maybe. Billy was Porterfield’s neighbor, just as much as the pie lady. They all talk. Maybe Scorpio liked to hear neighborhood gossip.”

  “He had ten grand in a shoebox.”

  “Maybe to live on while he wrote his novel.”

  Bramall didn’t answer. His phone rang. He answered, and listened, and gave the phone to Reacher.

  “It’s General Simpson,” he said. “For you.”

  Reacher put the phone to his ear.

  The supe said, “Porterfield was a U.S. Marine.”

  Chapter 28

  The supe said, “Anything below the surface is locked down tight, but we know from Social Security and other unclassified sources that the Seymour Porterfield who died in Wyoming last year was an Ivy League postgrad who joined the Marine Corps the day after 9/11. He was the perfect recruit. A real poster boy. He went to Iraq in the first wave as a lieutenant in a rifle company. He didn’t last more than a month. He was an early casualty. The injury is unspecified. He was honorably discharged, and he returned to civilian life. Back then the Marines could still afford mental-health counseling during that type of separation. There’s a note that says Porterfield seemed happy to resume academic pursuits, and had realistic expectations of a future inheritance, both cash and real estate, such that no one had to worry very much, least of all the Marine Corps. Then he dropped off the government radar for a very long time.”

  “Until?” Reacher said.

  “Two years ago. Some office deep in the Pentagon got a brand new case. Something to do with Porterfield. We don’t know what. We think they dug up his original service file for background, and then sealed it. Which usually means something. Meanwhile they
were also opening a second new file, about Porterfield and a woman. That’s what we can see so far. Three files, like you said.”

  “Was Sanderson the woman?”

  “We don’t know yet. That’s below the surface.”

  “Are you still looking?”

  “Discreetly,” the supe said. “I’ll be in touch.”

  The phone went dead. Reacher passed it back to Bramall, who plugged it in to charge.

  Mackenzie said, “Does this help us?”

  Reacher said, “It might not be her.”

  “Suppose it is.”

  “It gives us a wounded Marine officer and a wounded army officer in the same place for six months. Such a thing could go either way. They could have been the worst addicts in the history of the world. Or they could have been doing better, with each other’s moral support. Or maybe they were never users at all. They were very impressive people, after all. Porterfield quit school and rushed to sign up. Rose was top ten at West Point and did five tours. Maybe they got together for peace and quiet with someone who understood.”

  “Then where is she now?”

  “That’s the problem. That question is also an answer.”

  “Sadly,” she said. “It forces us to conclude that these days she’s more likely to be an addict than very impressive. Or she’d still be calling me.”

  “Worst case.”

  “You were leaning away.”

  “Still am,” Reacher said. “Still hoping for the best. May I ask you a personal question?”

  “I suppose,” she said.

  “What kind of twins are you and Rose? Do you look exactly alike?”

  She nodded. “We’re identical twins. Literally. More so than most.”

  “Then we should stop by the hospital.”


  “By now people are hurting. I guess some of them might have friends, who might be willing to share. I guess some of them will try to score in town. The rest will go to the emergency room. They’ll claim a raging toothache. Or a crippling backache. Whatever can’t be tested. But pain is a thing now, so the doctor has to take their word for it. He has to write a prescription for the good stuff. We should check if she’s been there. You’ll remind them of her. Like a human missing persons billboard.”

  “I feel like I’m betraying her. I’m accepting she’s a junkie.”

  “It’s a percentage game. We have to start somewhere.”

  She was quiet a long moment.

  Then she said, “OK, let’s go.”

  Bramall started the big V8 motor, and steered a wide circle toward the head of the driveway. They turned their backs on the flat acre with the long view east, and the brown board house, with the ancient millwork and the old church pew. They settled in for three rough miles, and then the dirt road again.

  But coming the other way out of the driveway right at that moment was the woman who had baked the strawberry pie. The woman who lived there. Home from the market, in her Jeep SUV. Bramall stopped and backed up to let her by. But she stopped too, side by side, and buzzed her window down.

  Bramall buzzed his window down.

  So did Reacher.

  The woman recognized them, from the day before, and she nodded cautiously, and then she peered beyond them at Mackenzie. Who she didn’t recognize. No sign at all. Nothing there. The exact replica. The human billboard.

  A stranger.

  The woman said, “Can I help you folks?”

  Reacher said, “We came by to check a couple of things, connected to what we spoke about yesterday. We didn’t know you were out.”

  “Yes you did. I passed you at the turn.”

  “Perhaps we didn’t notice.”

  “You’re private detectives. You’re supposed to notice.”

  “We’re looking for a missing woman,” Reacher said. “Maybe we were preoccupied.”

  “What things do you want to check?”

  “About when you saw Porterfield,” Reacher said. “Was he disabled in any way?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Two arms and two legs?”


  “Was he limping at all?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Talking well and thinking straight?”

  “He was very courteous and polite.”

  “OK,” Reacher said. “Now about that one time on the dirt road, and what you saw in Porterfield’s car. Can you tell us about that again?”

  “There was nothing in the car. I was wrong.”

  “Suppose you were right. What did you see?”

  She paused a beat.

  “It was real quick,” she said. “Two cars passing, that’s all. The wind was up, like a dust storm.”

  “Even so,” Reacher said. “What did you see?”

  She paused again.

  “A girl turning away,” she said. “And a silvery color.”

  “It stuck in your mind.”

  “It was weird.”

  “Had you ever seen such a thing before?”


  “Did you ever see such a thing again?”


  “Are you absolutely sure?” Reacher said. “How about in a different car? All alone. Maybe driving in from west of here.”

  “Never,” the woman said again. “Are you making fun of me?”

  “No, I promise. Now here’s a different question. Do you let people use your driveway any old time they want to?”

  “Apart from you?”

  “Point taken,” Reacher said. “But is it generally OK for folks to drive in and use your forest trails?”

  “No it is not.”

  “You never allow that?”

  “Why would I?”

  “You ever see it happen nonetheless? By trespassers, maybe?”

  “Never,” she said for the fourth time. “What’s going on?”

  “The real reason we’re here is we followed a truck. It was kind of escaping. It drove up your driveway and out again on one of your trails. We don’t know which one.”

  The woman looked all around.

  She said, “It escaped through here?”

  “You ever had that kind of a thing happen before?”

  “Never,” the woman said again. “How could it happen? How would anyone know where my trails go anyway?”

  West Point, Reacher thought. Back when reading maps was a lifesaving skill.

  He said, “Where do your trails go, in fact?”

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