The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  pathogens and all kinds of bad bacteria deep under the skin of her head. This all was four years ago, and she still can’t get rid of the infection. She leaks pus. She looks like a monster twice over. She’s in pain all the time.”

  Reacher was quiet a long moment.

  Then he said, “No wonder she didn’t tell her sister.”

  “It’s a subject they plan to discuss.”

  “Why did she stop calling a year and a half ago?”

  “They haven’t gotten to that yet. But something to do with Porterfield, surely. What else could it be?”

  Reacher got out of the car again. He wanted the air. He walked back to the edge of the ravine, and watched the distant view. It was like looking out through a narrow window. Behind him the house was cradled by wooded hills. He wondered who it belonged to.

  He walked back to the crew-cab truck. All the windows were down. The three guys inside were laying back. Patient. Saving energy. They knew it was all going to take as long as it took. Maybe a cowboy thing.

  The guy in the boots looked up.

  Reacher said, “You told me you were being nice about it. I agree. You’re being very nice about the whole thing. That should be placed in the record.”

  The guy moved his head, as if accepting the compliment.

  Reacher said, “How did it start?”

  “We needed a place to live. We stumbled on this compound. Rose had already claimed it. But she let us stay. She helped us settle in. We helped her with a couple of things. We got kind of protective, I guess. She doesn’t like people to see her.”

  “How long ago was this?”

  “Three years. Rose was just out of the army. She was just moving in.”

  “Who owns this place?”

  “Someone who hasn’t cared to visit in three years at least.”

  “You must have known Sy Porterfield.”

  “I guess we met him a bunch of times.”

  “What did you make of the story with the bear?”

  “I guess we thought it was what anyone would do.”

  “What did Porterfield do for a living?”

  “We never inquired. All we knew is he seemed to make her happy.”

  “She’s high as a kite right now.”

  “Do you blame her?”

  “Not one little bit. But I worry about her supplies holding up.”

  “We can’t discuss that with you. We don’t know who you are.”

  “I’m with her sister.”

  “Not really. The other guy is the detective she hired. No one understands who you are.”

  “I’m not a cop,” Reacher said. “That’s all that matters. I don’t care about that stuff. But she could have a problem, now Billy is gone. That’s all I’m thinking.”

  “You know who Billy was?”

  “Snowplow driver. Especially good in powdery conditions.”

  “You were a cop back in the day.”

  “Everyone was something back in the day. I’m sure you can walk past a cow without feeling the need to drive it to the railhead. Billy ain’t coming back. I hope Rose will be OK. That’s all I’m saying.”

  The guy said, “They already got a replacement for Billy. He was by here this morning. His name is Stackley. Seemed like a nice enough guy. Reminded me of a cousin I got in insurance. So all is right with the world again. It’s back to business as usual.”

  Reacher said, “What is she buying?”

  “Oxy and fentanyl patches.”

  “We talked to a guy who said that’s a thing of the past.”

  “It’s getting expensive.”

  “He said it should be getting impossible. Where is it coming from?”

  “It’s the regular stuff. Same as always. In the white boxes, with the brand names. Made in America, right out the factory door. You get to where you can tell the difference.”

  “You guys like it too?”

  “A little bit, now and then. To take the edge off, time to time.”

  “I heard that kind of thing was hard to get now. Maybe I was misinformed.”

  “You weren’t,” the guy said. “Matter of fact it is hard to get now. Most places very hard. But not here. Which gives you all a big problem. I don’t know what your plans are now, but you need to get one thing straight from the get-go. Rose won’t move from here. Not an inch, not in a million years. How could she? She’s hooked up here. You don’t know what that means to a person. Look at it from her point of view.”

  Chapter 34

  The magic hour was the last part of the sun’s daily travel, like a sixty-minute farewell performance, when it was low in the sky, shining sideways through the atmosphere, which reddened its colors and lengthened its shadows. Reacher sat on the porch step and watched the tawny plain go gold, then ochre, then chili-pepper red. Bramall was below him, on a rock at the edge of the ravine. The guys from the crew-cab were sitting in the dirt, leaning their backs on trees.

  The door opened and Mackenzie stepped out.

  Reacher stood up, and she came down the steps past him, onto the path through the scrub. Meanwhile the guys from the crew-cab all got up and dusted themselves off. Mackenzie met them at the end of the path. She shook their hands, one by one, and thanked them for caring about her sister.

  Then she said to Bramall, “Back to the hotel.”

  Mackenzie felt weird, she said, leaving her sister where she was, but Rose would have it no other way. She liked it there, she said, and she had everything she needed. She refused to leave, categorically, even for one night, even to see a doctor. She refused even to consider going to the hospital, or the Veterans Administration, or looking at a clinic, or a rehab center, or living in Lake Forest, Illinois.

  “Give her time,” Bramall said.

  They made the turn at the old Mule Crossing post office, and drove back to Laramie on the two-lane. They ate in town, and drove back out to the hotel, where Bramall parked and said goodnight. Reacher stayed out in the lot again. The night sky was still there. Still huge and black and dusted with millions of bright stars. Microscopically changed, he supposed, since the night before. But not because of his tiny dramas. It was completely indifferent.

  Mackenzie came out and sat down on the bench.

  He sat down beside her.

  She said, “She’s only halfway addicted.”

  He said, “I had a brother. Not a twin, but we were close growing up. Now I’m asking myself, if this was him, what would I want from people? Something polite, or something uncomfortable? I’m not making a point here. I really don’t know. Help me out.”

  “I want the truth,” she said.

  “She looked a lot more than halfway addicted to me.”

  “I meant her reasons. She’s in pain. Partly she needs it. She’s not doing it just for fun.”

  “What’s with the aluminum foil?”

  “The infection. She scrounges up antibiotics if she can, and grinds them down, and mixes them with antiseptic salve from the first-aid aisle. She spreads it on the foil like butter. If she can spare one, she mixes in an oxycodone pill.”

  “Not the life she expected.”

  “You knew last night. When you asked how we felt about being pretty.”

  “It was the only thing that fit.”

  “She’s doing OK, I think.”

  “Me too.”

  “I even liked the house, in a way. I was surprised. For some reason I thought it would be dark inside.”

  “Me too,” he said again.

  “Now tell me what happens next.”

  “I wish I knew.”

  “Seriously,” she said. “I need to figure out how to handle this.”

  “She’s doing OK because she gets high every day. You could give her money, I suppose, and most likely she would continue to do OK, as long as this new guy Stackley keeps on showing up on time, and as long as the Boy Detective doesn’t plug the last leak and put everyone out of business.”

  “Which could happen.”

  “Nothing
lasts forever,” Reacher said. “Her situation out there is not as secure as she thinks it is.”

  “Even if it was, I couldn’t leave her there.”

  “How are you going to move her out?”

  “That’s what I’m asking. I’m open to ideas.”

  Reacher said, “Is she getting no treatment at all?”

  “At the beginning she was in the hospital a whole year. She ran out of patience. She hasn’t seen anyone since. She won’t. She refuses to.”

  “Instead she lives quietly and self-medicates. She does it well enough we both just agreed she’s doing OK. We should respect that. The only way to get her out of there is promise her the exact same thing someplace else. Or even better. As many pills and patches as she wants. You would have to find the right kind of doctor. You would have to find her a quiet place to live. You would have to promise her no hassle. And you would have to mean it. Nothing for a year at least. Which is OK. This kind of thing is a very long game.”

  “She doesn’t like people to see her.”

  “Then she’s better off here than Illinois.”

  “They don’t have the right kind of doctors here.”

  “How big is your yard?”

  “I think six acres.”

  “You could build her a cabin. With a high fence. You could throw her prescriptions over. Leave her alone for a year. See what happens.”

  “So the only way to help her is to be a better pusher.”

  “The Boy Detective said we shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of an opiate high. I’m sure she’s real pleased to see you, but you should assume getting what she needs right now feels more important to her.”

  “That’s tough to accept. Not about me. That she’s so far gone.”

  “She needs you on her side right now. Proving that is your job one. Don’t disapprove of her. What choice does she have? Just bite your lip and shovel pills down her throat. Don’t forget she’s tough underneath. She’s a combat veteran. Sooner or later she’ll realize she needs to shape up or ship out, and then she’ll want to talk. To you especially, because you were the one who treated her right. That’s when you can help her.”

  “I hope I can.”

  “There are books about it. You can spend the first year reading.”

  “Did you take classes?”

  “Not enough curriculum time,” Reacher said. “In the MPs it was all rubber hoses and nightsticks. But the medics had good people. Psychiatrists in uniform. The weirdest thing you ever saw. Always some inflated rank. I knew a couple. They would tell you a bunch of things.”

  “Like what?”

  “They would tell you to figure out what’s upsetting her deep down.”

  “That’s obvious, surely.”

  “But they’re shrinks, and they’re in the army. They would say a person can have two things wrong at once. They would say they know what infantry officers are like. They would want more detail on the incident with the roadside bomb.”

  “Why?”

  “Specifically they would want to know if there were other American casualties. If so, they would assume Rose is taking it hard. She was an infantry officer. She got her people killed. The facts don’t count. She could have been already wounded and unconscious before anything else even happened. Doesn’t matter. They’re her people. It’s her fault. That’s how infantry officers think. Small words, but they mean a lot to those guys. The top boy at West Point said she led her soldiers well. That’s the hall of fame right there. You could put that on your tombstone. She led her soldiers well. An infantry officer couldn’t hear finer words than those. Because it’s hard to do. Ultimately it works because you make an unspoken promise not to get them killed. It becomes a thing in your head.”

  Mackenzie said, “She won’t talk about it.”

  Reacher said, “The shrinks would also want to know the status of the mission. Was it a routine kind of thing ordered from above? Or was there an element of initiative involved? In which case, they would assume she was taking it even harder. She led her soldiers into harm’s way, literally.”

  “They’re shrinks. You said so yourself. They overcomplicate things. If you hear hoof beats, you look for horses, not zebras. Rose is upset deep down because someone stuck her face in a blender and smeared it with dog shit.”

  Reacher said nothing.

  Mackenzie said, “What?”

  “I’m sure that’s most of it. How could it not be?”

  “But?”

  “I think like a cop. I can’t help it. Her final rank was major. The guy at West Point told me on her last tour she was doing a pretty big job. Which for a major means desk time and briefings. She had limited opportunities to get out and about. Why would she choose to go look at the side of a road outside a small town? She wouldn’t. She was bored with that kind of stuff four tours ago. She went because her command presence was required. She had some kind of operation running. She had captains below her, and lieutenants below them, all covering their own ass, so we can be certain the protective detail around her was thick on the ground. We can be certain lots of people were involved. Was she the only one hurt? Unlikely, but we don’t know for sure. The files are sealed. Which means most likely her operation was a failure. Perhaps with multiple U.S. casualties. So her face may not be all of it.”

  Mackenzie said, “I don’t know if you’re trying to cheer me up, or bring me down.”

  “It’s all bad,” Reacher said. “Whichever way around. Let’s not be Pollyanna. But she had a boyfriend. Sy Porterfield. There were two dents in the bed. That says something about how she sees herself. It’s a glimmer of what might be possible.”

  “She won’t talk about him. I told her about the comb you found, and she didn’t deny it. She said it was safer I didn’t know. Whatever that means.”

  “She thought I was an investigator come to ask questions about him.”

  “No one believes the bear story.”

  “Which could be an additional traumatizing factor. She really doesn’t know what happened to her boyfriend. She really isn’t sure which would be worse, the bear or not. The shrinks would throw a party. They would tell you it’s a whole big mixture of things.”

  “In other words it could be worse than just her face.”

  “That would be a glass half empty type of interpretation. But it’s why I asked if you wanted polite or uncomfortable.”

  “I said truth. You’re speculating.”

  “Agreed,” Reacher said. “And I sincerely hope I’m wrong about all of it.”

  She was quiet a beat.

  Then she said, “You’re a kind man.”

  “Not a word that gets used often.”

  “Thank you for being here.”

  “My pleasure,” he said, and it was. It was a concrete bench in a blacktop lot, but a yard above the ground it was spectacular. The stars were better than he had ever seen. The air was cool and soft and hummed with silence. Beside him on the bench was a woman who looked like the back of a shiny magazine. He figured she would feel firm and lithe and cool to the touch, except maybe the small of her back, which might be damp.

  She asked him, “Do you remember what I said about my husband?”

  “You said he’s a nice man and you’re a good match.”

  “You have a very precise memory.”

  “It was yesterday.”

  “I should have told you he keeps a mistress and ignores me.”

  Reacher smiled.

  He said, “Good night, Mrs. Mackenzie.”

  She left him there, the same as the night before, alone in the dark, on the concrete bench, looking at the stars.

  At that moment a mile away, Stackley clicked off a phone call and parked his beat-up old pick-up truck in a lot behind an out-of-business retail enterprise three blocks from the center of town. Earlier in his life he had favored expensive haircuts, and one time when waiting in the
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