The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  salon he had read a magazine that said success in business depended entirely on ruthless control of costs. Thus wherever possible he slept in his truck. Hence the camper shell. A motel would take what he made on two pills. Why give it away?

  The old gal across the Snowy Range had bought a box of fentanyl patches, but he had given her one he had already opened, an hour before, very carefully, so he could skim out a patch all his own, for his pocket, for later. The old gal would never notice. If she did, she would assume she was too stoned to count right. A natural reaction. Addicts learned to blame themselves. The same the world over.

  He took scissors from his glove box, and he cut a quarter-inch strip off the patch, and he slipped it under his tongue. Sublingual, it was called. Another magazine in the same salon said it was the best method of all.

  Stackley couldn’t argue.

  At that moment sixty miles away, in the low hills west of town, Rose Sanderson was putting herself to bed. She had pulled down her hood, and taken off her silver track suit top. Under it was a T shirt, which she took off, and a bra, likewise. She peeled the foil off her face. She used her toothbrush handle to scrape excess ointment off her skin. She buttered it back on the foil. With luck she might get one more day out of it.

  She ran her sink full of cool water. She took a breath, and held her face under the surface. Her record was four minutes. She came up and shook her head. Her hair had grown back in. She had cut it the week before West Point. She had to get a hat on. There were regulations. She had kept it short for thirteen years. Now it was back. With coarse threads of gray. Like barbed wire in a hay bale.

  The least of her problems.

  She took scissors from her cabinet, and she cut a quarter-inch strip off her patch, and she stuck it behind her bottom lip. A maintenance dose. It would keep her asleep all night. It would keep her warm, and gentle, and relaxed, and at peace, and cradled, and happy.

  At that moment three hundred miles away, in Rapid City, South Dakota, Gloria Nakamura was sitting in her car, watching Arthur Scorpio’s back door. Once again it was showing a rim of light. It was propped open an inch. Another warm night. He had been in there more than two hours. She had been working on her list of what might make a room hot enough for extra ventilation. Electronic equipment, maybe. She knew a guy with a home cinema. He had a closet full of black boxes, that gave out a penetrating kind of heat. It was thin and fierce and smelled faintly of grease and silicon. The guy had a fan in there, whirring all the time.

  Her cell phone rang.

  Her friend in Computer Crimes.

  Who said, “Give me a yes or no answer. Do we assume it was Scorpio who got the text message about the new Billy?”

  She said, “We couldn’t take it to court.”

  “That wasn’t a yes or no answer.”

  “Yes, we can assume it was Scorpio.”

  “The same signal just got a voicemail from a tower in Laramie, Wyoming. From someone by the name of Stackley. He called Scorpio Mr. Scorpio. He said all was well, but there were stories about two men and a woman poking around, asking questions. One of the men was a very big guy and they were in a black Toyota.”

  Reacher, she thought.

  Her friend said, “Then Scorpio called back and left a voicemail in return. He told this guy Stackley the same thing he told Billy. He wants the big guy out of the picture. He was ordering a homicide again.”

  “Wait,” Nakamura said.

  Scorpio’s door was opening. He stepped out to the alley and turned back and locked up. Then he headed for his car.

  “I’m going to follow him,” she said.

  “Waste of gas,” her friend said.

  She clicked off and started her motor.

  Scorpio went home.

  He went home every time.

  At that moment six hundred miles away, in a small town named Sullivan, in the Oklahoma panhandle, Billy ran a red light. He was in a six-hundred-dollar Ford Ranger pick-up truck, more than twenty years old. He was out to get a second six-pack. He was mildly buzzed from the first. His pal from Montana was back at the motel, waiting in the room. The next day in the afternoon they were due to meet a guy who had connections in Amarillo, Texas. The employment situation was looking good.

  The light he ran had a cop parked on it. The guy lit up his roof bar and yelped his siren once. Billy froze and kept on rolling. Dumb. He had nothing to hide. The buzz, maybe, but hey, this was the panhandle. A couple of beers was probably a minimum requirement to get behind the wheel. Apart from that he was respectable. He couldn’t run anyway. Not in a six-hundred-dollar piece of shit.

  He hit the brake and pulled in at the curb.

  Like all humans the cop was prey to small subliminal emotions. Billy’s failure to stop right away kind of pissed him off. He found it cocky and disrespectful. Normally he might just have pulled alongside and dropped his far window and told the guy to take it easy. But now he felt a hot bite of annoyance, and it kind of puffed him up and set his jaw, and he found himself launching into the whole big performance.

  He pulled up behind the pick-up, and left his lights flashing. He put on his hat. He counted to twenty and got out of the car. He unlatched his holster and put his hand on his gun. He walked forward slowly, and stopped level with the old Ford’s load bed, and he called out loud and clear, “Sir, please step out of the vehicle.”

  The door opened.

  Billy got out.

  “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I guess I was daydreaming. I guess it was a good thing no one else was around.”

  The cop was pretty sure the air coming off the guy smelled like beer.

  He said, “License.”

  Billy dug in his pocket and handed it over.

  The cop said, “Sir, please wait there.”

  He walked back to his car, as slowly as he could. He got in. He had a computer terminal on a swan neck, bolted to the tunnel near the shifter. Courtesy of the last new mayor. All kinds of budget promises.

  He typed in Billy’s details.

  Up came a code from the western division of the federal DEA.

  He got out of the car again. He walked back to Billy, as slowly as he could, and when he got there he spun him around, and banged his head on the old Ford’s roof, and cuffed his hands behind his back.

  Chapter 35

  They met in the lobby at eight in the morning. After the diner they drove to the grocery store, where they bought stuff for Rose. Food, mostly, some of it wholesome, some of it not, but also soap, and a pair of pink socks, and a new comb with wide-spaced teeth, and a paperback book. The kind of little thing that got left out, when a household budget came under pressure.

  They bought two of every type of antiseptic cream.

  Bramall’s phone rang in the checkout line. He looked at the screen and said, “It’s Special Agent Noble, from the DEA.” He answered and listened, and made appreciative but noncommittal noises. At one point he left a split second gap, as if he should be saying something, but wasn’t. As if he was choosing not to. One federal guy playing chess with another. Reacher knew the signs.

  Bramall clicked off and said, “Billy was arrested last night in a small town in Oklahoma. Noble questioned him by phone. So far he’s denying everything. Including he claims he doesn’t know anyone named Rose Sanderson, or where she’s located.”

  “Yesterday’s news,” Mackenzie said. “We don’t need Billy anymore.”

  The drive back to Rose’s place was a typical Wyoming time warp journey. In their minds they didn’t have far to go. It was a purely local trip. Mule Crossing was just down the road, and Rose lived just west of the turn. But in reality it took two whole hours to get there. The long, long two-lane, and then the dirt road, slower than they wanted through the infinite space, and then the rutted four-mile driveway. The sky was the color of steel. Not a threat, but a reminder. Winter was on its way.

  The three cowboys met them where the track came out of the woods in the final clearing. They were doing noth
ing. Just waiting and watching, strung out in a ragged line thirty yards short of the house. Like a defensive perimeter. We got kind of protective. Bramall slowed down, in a no-threat kind of way, and eased around to where he had parked before. Reacher unloaded the groceries and stacked them on the porch. Mackenzie carried them into the house. She closed the door behind her.

  The clearing went quiet.

  Reacher saw Bramall at the edge of the ravine. A small neat man, in a dark suit, with a collar and a tie. He should have looked out of place in the wilderness. But he didn’t. He looked perfectly at home. He was that kind of guy. He was thinking about something. Reacher could see it in his face. A problem. A struggle. Some kind of an ethical dilemma.

  Reacher was pretty sure what it was.

  Billy.

  Not yesterday’s news.

  Tomorrow’s news.

  Reacher walked over to where Bramall was standing.

  He said, “I know,” in what he hoped was a sympathetic way.

  “You know what?” Bramall said back.

  “You feel bad you didn’t tell the Boy Detective we found Rose without Billy’s help.”

  “Would you have?”

  “No,” Reacher said. “Too much information. What happened in Oklahoma?”

  “He ran a red light. The system kicked out his name and his face. Noble called him and tried to get some answers out of him. The question is why he did that. It could have been purely a courtesy on our behalf, because he was sympathetic to Mrs. Mackenzie’s situation. She asked him to let her know, after all. Maybe he was just going through the motions for her. Or maybe not. Maybe he was getting real. Maybe he figured since he got handed Billy on a plate anyway, he might as well write up a comprehensive report. It would scratch an itch, after all. He doesn’t like the ghost network. In which case, if he knew where Rose was, the book says his first logical move should be question her as a witness, or arrest her for buying illegal narcotics, or both. This is not the time for me to risk either outcome. Not right now. For many reasons. One of which is my client’s stated preference to keep her sister out of the system. So I didn’t tell him. And yes, I feel a little bad about it. I prefer not to conceal things from people like him.”

  “Was your contract extended?”

  “For the duration of the current crisis.”

  “How long will that be?”

  Bramall glanced up at the house.

  He said, “I’m not an expert.”

  “How long will Billy hold out?”

  “If Noble gets real?”

  “Even if he doesn’t, I guess. Billy could say something stupid at any time. Some little slip. The Boy Detective might prick up his ears. There’s a big prize, don’t forget. Folks who can tell the difference say what they’re getting out here is the real deal. Made in America. Straight out the factory door. Whole shipments of it, in the proper boxes. Which the Boy Detective thinks is impossible. He’ll take it personally. He’ll hunt it down. He’ll plug the last leak. This is not the time to risk cold turkey either. I’m sure your client’s other stated preference is to keep her sister out of the locked ward in the hospital.”

  Bramall glanced up at the house again.

  He said, “I assume the kind of decisions they’re making can’t be made fast.”

  “Normally I guess not,” Reacher said. “But this time they can’t be made slow, either.”

  “How long have we got?”

  “My instinct would be get out of here within two or three days.”

  “Until then we should say nothing to Noble.”

  “Easy for me,” Reacher said. “But you have a license from the state of Illinois.”

  “Tell me about it. While simultaneously having credible evidence a man named Arthur Scorpio, in Rapid City, South Dakota, which is presumably comfortably inside the western division, is currently coordinating a network invisible to the DEA, but that extends at least into Wyoming and Montana, and that uses some kind of last-surviving loophole source, like El Dorado, the discovery of which would be hailed as a major triumph and the capstone of an outstanding regional success story. I could hand it over on a plate. In fact I have a professional obligation to do exactly that. If and when I believe a crime has been or is about to be committed. And on top of all that I have obvious ethical obligations. I should tell Noble everything I know.”

  “But not yet,” Reacher said.

  “Because the illegal supply must be allowed to continue. At least until my client arranges an alternative semi-legal supply somewhere else.”

  “Relax,” Reacher said. “You’re retired.”

  “Second career.”

  “Fewer rules than the first.”

  “But more rules than you.”

  “I have rules,” Reacher said. “I have plenty of rules. One of which says a wounded veteran gets the benefit of the doubt. But another of which says always be gone before the government arrives. So I agree. We need to thread the needle.”

  The house stayed quiet and the door stayed closed. Reacher borrowed Bramall’s phone, and carried it to the head of the ravine, where it could soak up maximum signal.

  He dialed the number he remembered.

  The same woman answered.

  “West Point,” she said. “Superintendent’s office. How may I help you?”

  “This is Reacher,” he said.

  “Hello, major.”

  “I need to speak with General Simpson.”

  “Wait one, major.”

  The supe came on and said, “Developments?”

  “We found her,” Reacher said.

  “Condition?”

  “We have concerns,” Reacher said. “The Purple Heart was a severe facial wound. She has dependency issues with the painkillers we gave her in the hospital. She has no visible means of support.”

  “Can I help?”

  “At this point only with information. I need to know which boxes she checks. In terms of her mental state. Might help us with what happens next.”

  “What information?”

  “It was a roadside IED. I want to know more about it. Specifically why she was there, and who else was hurt or killed.”

  “I’ll try.”

  “And I want to know more about Porterfield. She said it’s safer if we don’t. I’m not sure what that means. Who was this guy? All we know is fourteen years ago he was a brand new butter-bar lieutenant who didn’t make the first cut. What part of that twelve years later got him so much attention?”

  “Sanderson must know.”

  “I can’t push for an answer. The emotional situation here is delicate.”

  “Did you give back the ring?”

  “She asked for a layaway. Until happier times ahead.”

  “Will they come?”

  “Maybe,” Reacher said. “The first part will be hardest.”

  He gave the phone back to Bramall. Then they waited, ending up in the same places as the day before, Reacher on the porch step, Bramall on a rock at the edge of the ravine. The cowboys were all grouped together in the mouth of the track, standing around, as if they were expecting someone to show up, sometime soon.

  Stackley was a man who believed data and information should be put to work at once. It was rule one in the modern business environment. Or maybe rule two, after ruthless control of costs. Different magazines didn’t always agree. He played it safe by working both ends. Every morning, right there in his truck, before he got up, he read his overnight texts and played his voicemails. Therefore right away that day he knew the big guy was supposed to exit the picture. He spent his early calls working out how to do it. He was a man who believed delegation was the hallmark of a successful executive. It was rule one in the modern environment. Or two, or three. Or whatever. But it was definitely up there.

  By the time he turned at Mule Crossing, Stackley had decided on his strategy. By the time he passed what he had learned was his predecessor Billy’s place, he had decided on the bait. By the time he passed what he had learne
d used to be a guy named Porterfield’s place, he had decided on exactly where to offer it.

  He drove on, many miles, and turned in on the next-but-one track on the right, ahead of what he knew from the morning before was a slow four miles over roots and rocks. Not good for his truck. But he was a man who believed productivity depended on the maximum use of all fixed assets. It was the number one rule in the new environment.

  Behind him Reacher heard the front door open, and he stood up and turned in time to see Mackenzie step out of the house. In the shadows
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