The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  he would get just shy of three seconds of pure one-on-one, before the other two arrived behind him.

  Three seconds was plenty. The lone guy thought he was ready, but he wasn’t. He was thinking all wrong. His subconscious mind was telling him his best play was to hang back a little. Human nature. Millions of years of evolution. Then the front part of his brain was telling him no, if a confrontation was inevitable, then logically his interests would be best served by staging it as close to reinforcements as he could get. Therefore he should move toward the other two. Not away from them.

  The stop-start impulses in the guy’s head produced a sudden forward lurch, which brought him too close too soon. His mental bandwidth was all taken up with locomotion issues. Time and space. He wasn’t thinking about how to defend himself. Until too late. And even then he showed no imagination. He had seen elbows and feet, and he improvised a kind of all-purpose defensive posture against either, but Reacher ignored both and took the last unexpected stride at full speed, and seamlessly head-butted the guy full on the bridge of the nose. Moving mass and momentum. You bet your ass. Game over, right there. A second and a half.

  Reacher turned fast and found the last two guys already around behind the line of motorcycles, twelve feet away, coming on at a medium speed, somewhere between eager and obligated. Reacher stepped backward over his head-butted victim and looped back around to the street side of the bikes. He watched the last two follow. Watched them realize. They were on an oval racetrack. They could go around and around all night long.

  They split up, one and one. They glanced and paused and coordinated. They waited, one behind the last bike on the left, one behind the last bike on the right. The survivors. The pick of the litter. The smartest, certainly. Always better to go fifth and sixth than first or second.

  Then on a silent count of three they stepped forward. Not the worst Reacher had ever seen. Their speed was right, and their angles were right. The textbooks would say it was very likely Reacher would get hit. From one direction or another. It was almost unavoidable. They would arrive together. He would be the turkey in the sandwich.

  Probably Chang was sitting down and eating by that point. Whatever she had made. At her kitchen table. With a glass of wine. A small celebration, maybe. Home safe.

  Getting hit was a rare event for Reacher. And he intended to keep it rare. Not just vanity. Getting hit was inefficient. It degraded future performance.

  He stepped forward, just as the two guys were rounding the ends of the line of bikes. Now the angle was flatter. More of a straight line than a triangle. He took a breath. The two guys got closer. One from his left, and one from his right. They were mincing along, pace for pace, always glancing ahead at the relative distances. Aiming to arrive together.

  Human nature. Millions of years of evolution.

  Reacher darted left, and two things happened. The left-hand guy reared up backward, because he was surprised, and the right-hand guy sped up forward, to close the gap, because he was in full-on hunting mode, and his prey was getting away.

  So Reacher spun back instantly, and the right-hand guy ran full speed straight into his scything elbow, whereupon Reacher turned once more, and found he had half a second to spare, because the left-hand guy was taking some major amount of time to get his rearing-up-backward momentum converted into forward motion again. Which gave Reacher space to pick his spot. He kicked the guy in the knee, which dropped him face down on the gravel, bang, and then Reacher kicked him in the head, but left-footed, which was his weaker side. Normal for right-handed people. And appropriate. No need to go too far. Being dumb wasn’t a capital crime. Wasn’t a crime at all, in fact. Merely a handicap.

  He breathed out.

  Undefeated.

  From the sidewalk Jimmy Rat said, “Feel better now?”

  Reacher said, “A little.”

  “You could work for me, if you want.”

  “I don’t want.”

  “Is it woman trouble?”

  Reacher didn’t answer. Instead he squeezed between adjacent handlebars, and he swung his leg over, and he sat down on Jimmy Rat’s bike. He pushed back in the saddle and got comfortable and put his foot up on a peg.

  “Hey,” Jimmy Rat said. “You can’t do that. You can’t sit on another rider’s motorcycle. It’s disrespectful. It’s a thing, man.”

  “How big of a thing?”

  “It’s rule one.”

  “So what are you going to do about it?”

  Jimmy Rat said nothing.

  Reacher said, “Answer my question and I’m out of here.”

  “What question?”

  “I want a place and a name in South Dakota, where you got that ring.”

  No answer.

  Reacher said, “I’m happy to sit here all night. Right now there are no witnesses. But sooner or later someone will come along. They’ll see me sitting on your bike. With you doing nothing about it. Like a pussy, not a rat. You’ll be finished.”

  Jimmy Rat glanced all around.

  He said, “This is not a guy you want to meet.”

  “Neither were you,” Reacher said. “But here I am anyway.”

  There was the sound of traffic, one block over. Maybe a pick-up truck, rolling slow. Jimmy Rat watched the corner. Would it turn in? It didn’t. It hissed away into the distance, and silence came back.

  Reacher waited.

  There was the sound of another car, a block the other way.

  Jimmy Rat said, “He operates out of a laundromat in Rapid City. His name is Arthur Scorpio.”

  The car on the parallel block was slowing. Preparing to turn toward them. It was thirty seconds from the corner. Reacher got off the bike, and squeezed back between the handlebars again, to the sidewalk. Jimmy Rat went the other way, around the bikes, into the shadows behind the building. Maybe in through the rear door.

  The car showed up at the corner, right on time. It was the county cop. Back again.

  Chapter 5

  The cop paused a beat, with his foot on the brake, and then he hauled on the wheel and stopped on the same curb he had used before. He buzzed his window down and surveyed the scene. Six men, all horizontal, some of them moving. Plus Reacher on the sidewalk, standing straight.

  The cop said, “Sir, please approach the vehicle.”

  Reacher stepped over.

  The cop said, “Congratulations.”

  “On what?”

  “What you did here.”

  “No, this was all self-inflicted. I was just a spectator. They had some kind of a big falling out. I think someone sat on the wrong motorcycle.”

  “That’s your story?”

  “You don’t believe it?”

  “Just theoretically, would I be expected to?”

  “The pawnbroker’s lawyer says it would be better for us all if you did.”

  “I want you out of the county.”

  “Works for me. I’m planning on the first bus.”

  “Not fast enough.”

  “Want me to steal a motorbike?”

  “I’ll drive you.”

  “You want me gone that bad?”

  “It would save a lot of paperwork. For both of us.”

  “Where would you drive me?”

  “I’m guessing they answered your question. So now you’re headed west. The county line out there is a straight shot to the I-90 on-ramp. Plenty of friendly folks. You’ll get a ride.”

  So Reacher climbed in, and forty uneventful minutes later he climbed out again, in the middle of nowhere, on a dark two-lane road, next to a sign that said he was leaving one county and entering the next. He waved goodbye to the cop, and walked forward, a hundred yards, two hundred, and then he stopped and looked back. The cop flashed his lights and backed up and turned and drove away. Reacher watched his tail lights disappear, and then he moved on, to a spot where the shoulder widened a little. He waited there. Ahead of him was about sixty miles of two-lane, and then I-90. Which led west through Minnesota, into South D
akota, through Sioux Falls, and all the way to Rapid City.

  And onward. All the way to Seattle, if he wanted.

  At that moment, more than fifteen hundred miles away, Michelle Chang was eating a delivery pizza at her kitchen table. With a glass of water, not wine. Not a celebration. Just calories. She had been busy all afternoon, catching up on a week’s worth of missed chores. She was tired, and partly happy to be on her own, and partly not. She figured Reacher would have gone to Chicago next. Plenty of options from there. She missed him. But it wouldn’t have worked. She knew that. She knew it as clearly as she had ever known anything.

  Also at that moment, nearly seven hundred miles away, a phone was ringing on a desk in the Rapid City Police Department’s Crimes Against Property unit. It was answered by a detective named Gloria Nakamura. She was small and dark and three years in. No longer a rookie, but not yet a veteran. She was an hour away from the end of her watch. She said, “Property, Nakamura.”

  It was a tech from Computer Crimes, doing her a favor. He said, “My guy at the phone company called me. Someone named Jimmy on a Wisconsin number just left a voicemail for Arthur Scorpio. On his personal cell. Some kind of warning.”

  Nakamura said, “What kind?”

  “I’ll email it to you.”

  “Owe you,” Nakamura said, and hung up. Her email dinged. She clicked on the message, and clicked on a file, and dabbed her volume button. She heard what sounded like a barroom, and then a nervous voice speaking fast. It said, “Arthur, this is Jimmy. I just had a guy inquiring about an item I got from you. He seems set on working his way along the chain of supply. I didn’t tell him anything, but he already found me somehow, so what I’m thinking is maybe he’ll somehow find you too. If he does, take him seriously. That’s my advice. This guy is like Bigfoot come out of the forest. Heads up, OK?”

  Then there was a plastic rattle as a big old receiver was fumbled back in its cradle. Maybe a pay phone on a wall. In a bar in Wisconsin. The Arthur Scorpio file was already three inches thick. Nothing ever stuck. But Rapid City’s CID never quit. Every scrap of intelligence was logged. Sooner or later something would click. Nakamura wrote it up. After the narrative summary she added her notes. No smoking gun, but persuasive about the existence of a supply chain. Then she opened a search engine and typed Bigfoot. She got the gist. A mythic ape-man, hairy, seven feet tall, from the Northwest woods. She reopened her document and added: Maybe Bigfoot will shake something loose! She emailed a copy to her lieutenant.

  Afterward she felt bad about the exclamation point. It looked girlish. But it had to. Really she meant for her boss to read her note and order an immediate resumption of surveillance. Just in case Scorpio’s incoming visitor proved significant. A no brainer, surely. Obviously Jimmy from Wisconsin was lying when he said he didn’t tell the guy anything. That claim wasn’t logical. A guy scary enough to warrant a heads-up voicemail was scary enough to elicit the answer to just about any question he wanted to ask. So obviously the guy was already on his way. Time was therefore of the essence. But her boss claimed all executive authority as his own. Nudging was counterproductive. Hence the giggly deflection, to take the sting away. To make the guy think it was his own idea all along.

  Then the night shift came in, and Nakamura went home. She decided she would swing by Scorpio’s laundromat in the morning. On her way back to work. Thirty minutes or an hour. Just to take a look. It was possible Bigfoot might have arrived by then.

  Reacher had no reason to doubt the county cop when he said western Wisconsin was populated by friendly folks. The problem was quantity, not quality. It was a lonely rural road, in the middle of nowhere, and by that point it was late in the evening. There was no traffic. Or almost none, to be exact. A Dodge pick-up truck had blasted by in a howl of warm wind, and five minutes after that a Ford F-150 had slowed down to take a look, before speeding up again and driving on without stopping. Now the eastern horizon was stubbornly dark and silent. But Reacher remained optimistic. It only took one. And there was plenty of time. There was no big strategic hurry. The ring had been in the pawn shop for a month. There was no red-hot trail to follow.

  A buck gets ten there’s no story at all.

  Reacher waited, and eventually he saw distant headlights in the east, just dim twinkles like faraway stars. For a whole minute they seemed to get no closer, because of the head-on perspective, but then the picture sharpened. A pick-up truck, he thought, or an SUV. Because of the height and the spacing of the lights. He stood a yard inside the traffic lane and stuck out his thumb. He turned half sideways, like a Hollywood pose, so his profile was presented at an angle, so visually his bulk was minimized. Nothing he could do about his height. But the less threatening the better. He was an experienced hitchhiker. He knew he was subject to snap decisions.

  It was a pick-up truck. A big one. A crew cab. Japanese. Lots of chrome and lots of shiny paint. It slowed down. Came close. The driver’s face was lit up red, from the instrument panel. Not going to happen, Reacher thought. The driver was a woman. She’d have to be nuts.

  The truck stopped.

  It was a Honda. Dark red metallic. The window buzzed down. There was a dog on the back seat. Like a German Shepherd, but bigger. About the size of a pony. Maybe a freak mutation. It had teeth the size of rifle ammunition. The woman leaned across the console. She had dark hair up in a knot. She was wearing a dark red shirt. She was about forty-five years old.

  She said, “Where are you headed?”

  Reacher said, “I need to get on I-90.”

  “Hop right in. That’s near where I’m going.”

  “You sure?”

  “About where I’m going?”

  “About me hopping in. From the safety point of view. You don’t know me. As a matter of fact I’m not a threat, but I would say that anyway, right?”

  “I have a savage dog in here.”

  “I might be armed. The obvious play would be shoot the dog first. Or cut its throat. And then start on you. That’s what I would be worried about. Professionally speaking, I mean.”

  “You a cop?”

  “I was in the military police.”

  “You armed?”

  “No.”

  “Then hop in.”

  She was a farmer, she said, with a lot of dairy cattle on a lot of acres. Doing well, Reacher figured, judging by her car. It felt about as wide as a Humvee inside. It was upholstered in quilted leather. It was as silent as a limousine. They talked. He asked if she had always been a farmer, and she said yes, four generations. She asked him what he did for a living, and he said he was between jobs. The giant dog followed the conversation from the back seat, turning its wicked head one way, and then the other.

  An hour later she stopped and let him out at the I-90 cloverleaf. He thanked her and waved her away. She was a nice person. One of the random encounters that made his life what it was.

  Then he walked to the westbound ramp and started over, standing at an angle, one foot on the rumble strip, the other in the traffic lane, with his thumb out wide.

  Nearly seven hundred miles away, in his office behind his laundromat in Rapid City, Arthur Scorpio was clearing the last of the day’s texts and emails and voicemails off his phone. He got to Jimmy Rat’s message, and heard I didn’t tell him anything, but he already found me somehow, so what I’m thinking is maybe he’ll somehow find you too. Which, translated into plain English, meant I snitched on you and a guy is definitely on his way. So, in the long term, no more business for Jimmy Rat, and in the short term, defensive measures might have to be considered.

  Scorpio called his secretary at home. She was on her way to bed. He asked her, “Who or what is Bigfoot?”

  She said, “He’s a giant ape-man who lives in the woods. On the slopes in the Northwest. About seven feet tall and covered in hair. Eats bears and cattle. One rancher lost a thousand head, over the years.”

  “Where was this?”

  “Nowhere,” the secretary said. “It’s imaginary
. Like a fairytale.”

  Scorpio said, “Huh.”

  Then he disconnected, and made two more calls, both to reliable guys he knew, and then he locked up his laundromat and drove himself home.

  Chapter 6

  Close to midnight Reacher got a ride in a shiny stainless steel truck carrying five thousand gallons of organic milk in a tank shaped like a boat-tail bullet. It was headed to Sioux Falls, which was the western limit of that particular dairy’s distribution area. But which was still more than 350 miles short of Rapid City. Don’t worry, the driver said. Onward rides would be easy to get. There was a truck stop with all kinds of traffic, night and day. A real big place, like the crossroads of the world.

  Reacher kept the guy talking all the way through Minnesota, which he figured was his job, like human amphetamine. Anything to keep the guy
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