The Midnight Line by Lee Child

  “I didn’t like it. I was an embarrassment. I was every soldier’s worst fear. A disfiguring wound. The glamour was with the arms and legs. All that scientific technology. Titanium and carbon fiber. Some of those legs cost a million bucks. They looked better than new. Guys would wear shorts to show them off. Not me. I would have been a PR disaster.”

  “You can get IVs at home,” Reacher said. “With a certain kind of doctor. Your sister will find one. The kind who will also advocate a very long slow glide path, when it comes to dependency issues. The kind who might want to maintain your current habit for at least another year, while you settle in.”

  “I don’t believe her.”

  “That she wants to?”

  “That she can.”

  “She has money. This is the civilian healthcare system we’re talking about here. She can get what she wants.”

  “People will see me. It’s a suburb.”

  “It’s Lake Forest, Illinois. You could wear a bag on your head. They’ll think it’s performance art. A year from now you’ll have your own show.”

  “I like it here better.”

  “Because of what Stackley brings. Before that what Billy brought. Which is a freak aberration. That trade was closed down. You’re on the end of the very last leak. They’re hunting for it right now. They have Billy in a cell. They’re two steps away from cutting you off. Think about it tactically. We need immediate action.”

  She didn’t reply. She just breathed a bit harder, and stiffened. He felt it from a yard away. A low vibration, through the wood of the step.

  She said, “I’m going inside now.”

  He said, “I’m sorry I upset you.”

  “I’ll be fine ten minutes from now.”

  She stood up, and stepped up on the porch, and then he heard her turn around again and wait. He looked up at her. She looked back at him from deep inside the hood. In the movies her eyes would have lit up red.

  She said, “This is the problem. It will need to be seamless. Unfortunately I find I need this stuff. Like right now the most important thing in the world to me is a new fentanyl patch. Right now that’s worth a hundred rings or a dozen sisters. But fortunately I have a new fentanyl patch. I already decided to lick it. I already made that choice. Does all that upset you?”

  “Yes,” Reacher said. “A little bit.”

  “Me too,” she said.

  He waited ten minutes for the hit to click in, but she didn’t come out again. So he took a walk, around the tree line, until he saw the cowboys coming along their path toward him. The three guys, as always with the one in the lizard skin boots a step in front. They said hello to Reacher in a way that made him feel they were surprised to see him. He told them he had stayed behind.

  The guy in the boots said, “The others aren’t here?”

  “For a couple more hours,” Reacher said.

  “Were you talking to Rose?”

  “I was,” Reacher said. “As a matter of fact.”

  “How’s she doing?”

  “She said she was there when Porterfield died.”

  “I believe that’s true.”

  “Where were you?”

  “We were in Colorado. Spring was late down there. We got work hauling hay.”

  “What did she say about it when you got back?”

  “She never talks about things like that.”

  Reacher said nothing. The three guys looked at each other, a little hesitant, a little momentous, as if they had just gotten a weird idea.

  The guy in the boots said, “We could show you the place where he was found, if you want.”

  “Is it near here?” Reacher said.

  “About an hour on foot. Mostly uphill.”

  “Is it interesting?”

  “The walk is interesting. As far as the argument goes. You get to judge what kind of person could have carried a body that far.”

  “You said anyone could have.”

  “I said anyone would have. There’s a difference. The people who could have are a subset of the population.”

  “OK,” Reacher said. “Show me.”

  They crossed the clearing near the corner of the house, and headed toward another gap in the trees, but first the guy in the boots detoured to the crew-cab, and came back with a rifle. He said right or wrong, remember why they were going. It was bear country.

  Chapter 37

  The path rose through the woods, which thinned a little as the slope got steeper. Some trunks were scored by elk antlers. There were moose prints on the ground. No sign of bear. Not yet. Which Reacher was happy about. The guy’s rifle was an ancient M14 Garand. A U.S. soldier’s main squeeze sixty years before. A clumsy weapon. But competent. Except it was chambered for the NATO round. Which was a slim little thing compared to a bear. Maybe it was all the guy had left. Maybe he had traded the rest away, to pay for something that had suddenly gotten expensive.

  Better than nothing, Reacher thought.

  They walked on. The air felt thin. Reacher felt he was breathing hard. Not the three cowboys. They looked normal. They were used to it. At sea level they would be dizzy with excess oxygen. Maybe better than licking a patch. The hike itself was no big deal. Roots and rocks and gravel, the same as the tracks they had been driving, but narrower. The gradient was modest. Occasionally there were big steps up. Carrying a heavy weight would have been slow and awkward, but possible. For a subset of the population. Like the guy had said.

  Five minutes later they came out on an open area where a young tree had been pushed down by a moose. There were animal tracks in and out, some of them large.

  The guy with the rifle said, “It was a place like this.”

  “Like this?” Reacher said. “Or this place?”

  “It’s further on. But you get the picture. In case you want to turn back now.”

  Reacher looked left and right and onward, into the trees. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see. He felt a bear was unlikely. What were the odds?

  “I’m OK,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”

  They did. The woods changed around them as they walked. The clearings stopped coming, because the trees themselves thinned out, to the point where the whole vista became a kind of low-density mixed-up half-woods, half-clearing type of landscape. Low scrub on the ground. Access lanes were clear and straight. Lines of sight were long. It was good predator country.

  The guy with the rifle said, “Still OK?”

  Reacher looked all around. The back part of his brain was stirring. It was telling him that kind of terrain was best gotten out of, and quickly. Some kind of a primitive instinct. The front part was thinking about bears. Unlikely, it was telling him. But a reality at some low level of probability. A factor. Worth taking into account. Worth preparing for.

  In his mind he heard General Simpson’s voice, on the phone from West Point: Off post she would have been armed at all times.

  He looked all around again.

  There were no bears.

  Not there.

  He said, “Let’s go back.”

  The guy said, “Why?”

  Because I want to get back in the trees, he thought.

  Out loud he said, “I get the picture now.”

  And he felt he did. Stackley was the new Billy. Inheritor of the whole local empire. Including the periodic voicemail instructions. Stackley must have gotten a new one. Shoot the Incredible Hulk from behind a tree. All over again. Or whichever cartoon character he was by then. Message received and understood. Except Stackley hadn’t tried to execute the mission himself. He had bought in mercenary services from the outside. During the big discussion behind the camper shell. The pitch, the offer, the bait, the acceptance. Maybe handshakes.

  He knew because of the weapon. And culture, and habit, and plain common sense. How likely was it a Wyoming cowboy would venture into legitimate bear territory without a rifle capable of shooting a bear? It was like getting dressed in the morning. Therefore it became a logical sequence. The wro
ng gun meant there were no bears, which meant they were not close to where Porterfield had been found, where bears had been plausible, which meant the three guys had brought him to the wrong place for a completely different purpose. With an M14, which for sure was capable of shooting a person. Or gut-shooting a person. After that they wouldn’t need bears. What had the guy said, in the bar, with the long-neck bottle? You got hundreds of other species already lining up and licking their lips.

  He looked all around. Not good. Wide gaps, slender trunks.

  The middle of nowhere.

  No witnesses.

  No proof. That’s the whole beauty of it.

  For a second he wondered how much they were getting paid, but then he dismissed the question, partly because it was inherently vain, and partly because the answer was obvious. Far as I can tell, it’s a beautiful thing. The way they talk about it, it’s the best thing ever. They were getting a couple boxes of oxycodone and fentanyl patches. Like getting offed in prison for a carton of cigarettes. Life was cheap. Then for another second he felt betrayed. He felt they had gotten along well so far. He had made an effort. He had been polite. Then he got real. He looked at it from their point of view. Some things were more important to a person. More important than family and friends and any kind of a regular trustworthy life.

  No one should ever underestimate the appeal of an opiate high.

  He hoped they were getting a couple boxes each.

  They would have to earn them.

  He turned and walked back, keeping the guy in the corner of his eye. He wasn’t too worried about the first cold shot. It would miss. Snatched at, unaimed. The second shot might get complicated. And the third. And the rest. There were twenty rounds in an M14 magazine. He slowed down, to keep the guy in front of him. He intended to keep him there all the way. A shot low in the back would work just as well. The round would go through and through, and bury its smeared and bloody self deep in the grit ten feet away. It would never be found. How could it? The round that killed him would be a random singularity a quarter-inch wide in an uninhabited state bigger than some foreign nations.

  No proof. That’s the whole beauty of it.

  He slowed again, a wordless shepherding, a polite after you. The guy with the rifle walked on ahead. He could afford to. They were heading back to the first clearing they had seen. Where the young tree had been pushed down by the moose. It was a place like this. Their preferred location, presumably. Why else had they stopped there?

  They walked a minute downhill, some places single file, as the trees thickened up again. Reacher stayed last in line. Where he wanted to be.

  He scanned ahead, and picked a spot.

  Just in case.

  He said, “Let’s go back a different route. I already saw this view.”

  Which was a tactical risk. They didn’t know he knew. Not yet. The time for making waves came later, not sooner. But it was a much smaller risk than arriving exactly where they wanted him. That was for damn sure. Open ground, that they knew, and he didn’t.

  The guy with the rifle stopped and turned around.

  He said, “I don’t think there is another route.”

  “Must be,” Reacher said.

  “You wouldn’t want to get lost out here.”

  “I have a pretty good sense of direction. Most days I can tell which way is up.”

  The guy took a step. Now he was maybe ten feet from Reacher, face to face on a narrow section of path, with the rifle held easy down by his side. The other two guys were closer, maybe five feet away, standing apart, so the guy with the rifle could see through the gap between. Underfoot were roots and rocks and gravel. Either side were trees.

  As good a place as any.

  Reacher took a step.

  He said, “This land is not where Porterfield was found.”

  “You’re the big expert now?” the guy with the rifle said.

  “Sheriff Connelly conducted a thorough investigation. At a minimum we can expect he searched every building on the land where the corpse was found. As it turns out the only building he searched was Porterfield’s. Therefore Porterfield was found on his own land. Which is about forty miles from here. With some kind of different ecology. They have bears there.”

  The M14’s safety was a small manual catch tight in front of the trigger guard. Clicked back, it was set to safe. Flicked forward, it was set to fire.

  Reacher watched it carefully.

  So far it was set to safe.

  But all four of the guy’s fingers were near it.

  Reacher said, “Put the weapon down, and we’ll talk about it. It doesn’t have to be like this. Maybe we can all find a way out together.”

  The guy said, “How?”

  “Put the weapon down, and we’ll talk about it.”

  The guy didn’t.

  Reacher said, “You need to look ahead. Stackley is your best friend today, but tomorrow he could be out of business. Rose’s sister is taking her to Chicago. A suburb, not the city. A nice place. She could make it a charitable foundation. You could go with her.”

  “We’re fine here.”

  “They have Billy in a cell,” Reacher said. “They’re two steps from cutting you off.”

  As soon as he said it he knew it was dumb. They reacted like Rose Sanderson had. Sudden breathing, and stiffened postures. The low hum of instant panic. Plus in their case some kind of instant urgency, about what to do next. As if the glittering payday they had been promised could be snatched away. Reacher saw in their faces his words cutting you off translate instantly into a howling voice in their heads screaming get more now now now.

  The guy raised the rifle, right hand to left hand to right hand, a clumsy old thing, nearly twelve pounds in weight, nearly four feet long.

  His trigger finger detoured ahead of the guard.

  It flicked the safety catch forward.

  Reacher crashed into the guy nearest him and used the bounce to hurl himself against a tree. Not really diving out of the way of a bullet, for such a thing was surely impossible, but it was easy enough to estimate a bullet’s likely future trajectory comparatively far ahead of time, and then avoid it, not forgetting that Newton’s Laws of Motion said the same bounce that helped him also helped the other guy, but in the opposite direction, toward the gun, action and reaction, which in his case got him killed. The rifle fired and the guy got hit and went down like he had walked into a clothesline. The roar of the shot died away to an immense cracking mountain echo, then a whisper, then nothing. The guy with the rifle stared. Reacher peeled off his tree and smacked him in the head and took his rifle away.

  The guy staggered and dropped to his knees.

  The third guy was frozen in place.

  Reacher said, “Check your friend.”

  But even from there he could see it was hopeless. The guy had fired high and the round had gone through his buddy’s throat. Just as good as a gut shot, from the point of view of the prevailing theory. Maybe even better. The bullet would fall to earth a hundred yards away. The soft tissue of the neck would be quickly consumed. Damaged vertebrae would be carried away and crushed, for the spinal cord inside. No proof at all.

  The guy kneeling down looked up and shook his head. Reacher pointed the rifle at him, and then at where he wanted him to go. Which was next to the guy with the boots, who was struggling to his feet, steadying himself with a palm on the ground, then finally making it.

  “Lead on,” Reacher said. “We’ll go this way after all.”

  They stumbled ahead of him, and he followed behind, carrying the rifle one-handed. They offered no resistance. They were completely passive, as if resigned to their fate. Maybe in shock. Maybe an addict thing. Maybe a cowboy thing.

  They got back two minutes after Bramall and Mackenzie got back from checking out of the hotel. Rose Sanderson was out on the porch, greeting her sister. Bramall was over by his car, giving them space. The two guys and Reacher came out of the woods right in the middle. And stopped. Center sta
ge. No need to tell the story. It was all right there. Two guys, not three, both of them sheepish and beaten, driven from behind by Reacher with a rifle.

  Rose Sanderson seemed to recognize the rifle. Her head turned. The cuff of her hood traversed like a periscope. She stared at the scene. At the two guys. At the rifle. At Reacher. He knew she was thinking. Like an infantry officer. She was running war games through her head, like a chess computer. Like a West Point graduate.

  She found one that fit.

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