The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  She said, “Was it freebies from Stackley?”

  He said, “Yes.”

  “I guess that’s really bad.”

  “I’m not loving it so far.”

  “What does Stackley have against you?”

  “His boss doesn’t like me.”

  “But you’re not here on business.”

  “I picked things up along the way.”

  “What happened up there?”

  “One KIA,” he said. “Friendly fire. Hasty aim, a moving target, confusion in front of him.”

  “Let them go,” she said. “Keep the rifle. It’s their only remaining weapon.”

  The two guys shuffled off down their own path, and the sisters moved to meet Reacher and Bramall at the porch step, where they all sat down to talk. Sanderson had her hood pulled forward again. It was molded into a narrow vertical aperture. It turned and lined up with Reacher’s face, and she said, “I apologize for them.”

  “No need,” he said. “No harm, no foul. Tactical sophistication and superior skill in maneuvering overcame an initial material deficit.”

  “When did you know?”

  “First sign was we stopped in a clearing and they got a bit weird. But I guess the guy couldn’t pull the trigger. I guess he had never done it before.”

  “I apologize for them,” she said again. “They were my friends.”

  “No need,” he said again.

  “But I can’t condemn them. You have no idea of the magnitude of what they were offered.”

  “I’m getting an idea. From cause and effect alone. I’m taking it seriously, believe me. I’m not judging it, either. It is what it is. You got to do what you got to do. Right?”

  “Yes.”

  “Right now what you got to do is go inside and get a brand new patch, because after that the next thing you got to do is make a choice.”

  “Between what?”

  “You can have a sensible conversation about what comes next.”

  “Or?”

  “I’m moving on without you.”

  Chapter 38

  Rose Sanderson went inside to get a brand new patch, and as the door closed behind her Bramall’s cell phone rang. He checked the screen and said, “It’s Special Agent Noble, from his office in Denver.”

  “Don’t answer,” Reacher said. “He’s going to ask if you found Rose. Either as a pleasantry in passing, or because he wants her for a witness. You can’t tell him where she is. Not now. You’ll feel bad holding out on him.”

  “He might have something for us.”

  “He hasn’t retired yet. He’s all take and no give. Don’t answer.”

  Bramall didn’t. The call timed out and voicemail clicked in. Bramall retrieved it immediately. He listened, and he said, “He wants to know if we found Rose.”

  Behind them the door opened again and Rose stepped out. Small, lithe, graceful. With the hem of her hood leading the way. She sat down on the step.

  She turned her hood Reacher’s way.

  She said, “Obviously it’s your own decision when to move on.”

  He said, “I’m not looking to save the world. All I wanted was to know the story. Which I do now. Not a happy ending. I don’t want to be here when it turns even worse. I don’t want to be here while you go cold turkey in federal lock-up. With no medical supervision. Not even antiseptic cream. While your sister gets busted as some kind of an accessory, all because the Boy Detective thinks a rich white woman would balance the books on the TV news. While she goes bankrupt, fighting the bullshit charges. While Mr. Bramall loses his license and has to find a third career. I want to be gone before all that happens.”

  She said, “You make it sound certain to happen.”

  “They have Billy in a cell. And you have a dead cowboy on your land. Someone will find him, like someone found Porterfield. Sheriff Connelly will search your place. Unless the Boy Detective has already gotten here first, thanks to Billy drawing a hand-lettered map. Unless the supply cuts off before either one of them arrives, in which case you’ll be in the ER five times a day with a toothache. One of those things is certain to happen.”

  “How long before the supply cuts off, do you think?”

  The thing that mattered most.

  “That’s a circular argument,” Reacher said. “If I move on without you, my first stop will be Rapid City, South Dakota. I need to pay Arthur Scorpio a visit. He lied to me about Porterfield, and he told two separate people to shoot me from behind a tree. He crossed the line. It’s not going to end well for him. He’s going in the tumble dryer. Two days for me to get there, and one day to do it. I would say the supply cuts off about three days from now.”

  “You’re forcing my hand. Either I agree to go now, or you’ll make me go anyway. It’s a unilateral three-day deadline.”

  “It’s an unintended consequence. Look at it from my point of view. Obviously I don’t want to be here when it goes from bad to worse. And obviously when I leave here I have no choice except go straight to Rapid City. What else could I do? The guy is messing with me. What would you do if you were taking rounds from a distant building?”

  “I would call in an air strike.”

  “This is my version.”

  “So I have three more days here.”

  “But only as an unintended consequence. I’m not looking to save the world.”

  She didn’t reply.

  Jane Mackenzie said, “Reacher, three days is not possible.”

  “Let’s challenge that assumption,” he said. “Let’s make it possible.”

  They moved inside. Bramall took a chair, and Mackenzie took the other. Sanderson said she was happy sitting cross-legged on the floor. Reacher laid out on his back, with his arm behind his head, and he stared at the ceiling, and listened. They started out by making a list of what Rose would need, which was easiest done by making a list of what she already had, which was quiet and isolated accommodations, and access to pharmaceutical-grade opioid medications in daily doses wildly in excess of what any responsible physician could even contemplate.

  Mackenzie said in the long term the accommodations were no problem at all. But in the short term they didn’t exist yet. She and her husband owned no beach houses or hunting cabins. There was an original staff apartment over their stable block, but it would need new heat and a new bathroom.

  Reacher said, “Do you have a guest suite?”

  “Two, but they’re in the house.”

  “With you and Mr. Mackenzie, a nice man and a good match. Is he going to be a problem with all of this?”

  “No, he’s going to be totally on board.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Completely.”

  “OK,” Reacher said. “How about Rose lives in a guest suite until further notice. Put her in the east wing, facing the lake. You got a six-acre yard and I’m sure it’s a quiet leafy street. Not like living in the middle of Times Square. We need to make fast decisions here. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

  Mackenzie looked at Rose, who nodded. She agreed. She could afford to. It was about the future. Which wasn’t coming. The second item on the list meant they could never get there.

  Mackenzie said, “We need to be realistic about the doctor. We haven’t even started looking yet. I’m sure they’re thin on the ground. I suppose the internet will help. But we might have to wait for an appointment. And I’m sure they at least go through the motions. They’ll want an initial consultation. Or else right now the right guy is on Anguilla playing golf. You know what this crap is like.”

  “I don’t,” Reacher said.

  “Two weeks,” she said. “I live in that world. Trust me. This feels like a two-week thing, absolute bare minimum.”

  No one answered.

  From deep in her hood Rose said, “You’re all very polite people. So I’ll say it myself. I’m the big problem. How are you going to bridge the gap? How are you going to hook me up every day for two weeks? Some of which will be s
pent on the road. A different town every night. You can’t do it.”

  Again no one answered. The questions hung in the air. How are you going to bridge the gap? How are you going to hook me up? It was the snag in every plan. Like a splinter in a banister rail. The rest was easy. Reacher could picture it all. Except for that. The quantities were staggering. It would be a full-time job.

  To fill the silence Mackenzie talked for a spell about Lake Forest, Illinois. It sounded like a very nice place. Their house was a grand old Tudor, with ancient bricks and leaded windows, and a long sloping lawn, and a stone dock, with a small boat, and the glittering lake beyond, as big as an ocean. Then Reacher realized she wasn’t just filling the silence. Or bragging on her real estate. She was spinning some kind of shared twin fantasy from long ago, about the lives they were going to have, and what would be in them, like an ideal dream. He could understand how girls in landlocked Wyoming would want a waterfront. Now Mackenzie was saying she had made it happen. It was right there for the taking. She was saying come live in your dream for the rest of your life. With its damp lawns and its mossy bricks. It was a masterpiece of gauzy seduction. Reacher could only imagine how much more power it had, from one twin to another, down on some unknown level of intimacy. It was enticing. Irresistible. Worth sacrificing for. Great psy-ops. Except he was left with a couple of questions.

  How are you going to bridge the gap? How are you going to hook her up?

  Down in Denver Kirk Noble had gotten caught up in some other thing, and then he had gotten dragged into a meeting about something else entirely, so in the end he left Billy to sweat way longer than two hours. Closer to four. He stopped and looked in the one-way window. Good and carefully. He prided himself on reading the signs. Right away he saw Billy was a hardscrabble country boy, maybe forty years old, lean and furtive, like a fox and a squirrel had a kid, and spent half the time baking it in the sun, and the other half beating it with a stick. He wasn’t sweating and he wasn’t shaking. He wasn’t drumming his toe or picking a nail. Not a user. Not even a smoker.

  Such a guy would give nothing up. Except by accident. Foxes and squirrels had numerous admirable qualities, but they didn’t get college degrees. There would be some kind of side door. Some kind of trigger. Maybe approval. Billy was the type of guy who most likely never had much. Maybe he could be stroked into prideful reminiscences, about the deals he had done. Maybe using the granular-priced jewelry as a show-and-tell example. He could recall how he came by each item. He could say, yeah, some chick had no money so she gave me this.

  In exchange for what, Billy?

  Noble sent a runner to his office for the shoebox of jewelry.

  The impromptu conference broke up, and Reacher went out on the porch. Then Bramall came out. Reacher imagined Sanderson would replace him in the armchair. He imagined the sisters would talk. Not too long, he hoped.

  Bramall said, “We can’t fix this.”

  “There must be a way,” Reacher said.

  “When you figure it out, be sure to let me know.”

  “You sure you want me to? You have more rules than me.”

  “One of which makes me delinquent if I don’t prepare a plan B on behalf of my client. At least a mental sketch. In this case it would have to start with hospitalization privileges for Rose. No federal lock-up. A private facility of our own choice. Secured, if they want, at our expense. Obviously the guy to talk to would be Noble, down in Denver. He has the discretion. We already have a relationship. I should maintain it. I should have answered his call. I’ll have to answer the next one. I might need him in the future.”

  “We don’t need plan B yet.”

  “Better to lay the ground.”

  “If you answer the phone to him now, you’ll have to tell him where Rose is. Which will lead straight to plan C, which is the whole thing falls apart. Or you’ll have to lie to him, which is technically a felony.”

  Bramall didn’t answer.

  Reacher said, “Will you do me a favor?”

  “Depends what it is.”

  “Go ask Mrs. Mackenzie if her sister mentioned whether Stackley is coming by again tomorrow.”

  “Why?”

  “I want to know.”

  Bramall went in, but a minute later it was Rose Sanderson herself who came out. She sat where she had before, on the step, hooded, a yard away.

  She said, “My sister gave me money. I told Stackley to come back every day until it’s gone. Or until he runs out of product.”

  Reacher said, “What happens when he does?”

  “Sometimes they miss a day. I guess they go somewhere and get more. We’re real happy to see them come back.”

  “I can imagine.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be. We both took the same history class.”

  She nodded, inside her hood.

  She said, “Morphine dates from 1805. The hypodermic syringe dates from 1851. A great combination, just in time for the Civil War, which left hundreds of thousands of addicts. Then World War One, same thing. Literally millions of addicts in the 1920s.”

  “The army likes tradition.”

  “World War One was also the start of large-scale facial injuries. Millions of them, by the end. The French called them the mutilés. The mutilated. Which is a good word, because that’s how it feels, and because it sounds like mutated, which is also how it feels. You feel yourself become a different person. There was an early type of plastic surgery back then, but mostly they wore tin masks. Artists would match them to their skin color. But nothing really worked. City parks had benches painted blue, where the public was trained to look away. That’s where they sat. But most of them never went out. Most of them never saw daylight, ever again. Most of them died of infections or killed themselves.”

  “You don’t have to convince me,” Reacher said. “I don’t care what you chew.”

  “But you can’t get it for me. Not fourteen days straight.”

  “Suppose I could. Suppose you could get it forever. What would you do?”

  “Seriously?”

  “Give me an honest analysis. You like the truth.”

  She paused a beat.

  “I would party at first,” she said. “Big time. No more rationing. No more cutting patches. I would bathe in the stuff.”

  “Dangerous.”

  “God, I hope so. It’s a world you don’t understand until you’re in it. There is no feeling better than tiptoeing all the way up to the gates of death. All the way up to the big black door, and then knocking on it. It’s a whole different zone. If I hear a news story about some other user dying, due to some batch of something showing up unexpectedly strong, I’m not feeling sorry for the guy. I’m thinking, where can I get some of that good stuff? Not because I want to kill myself. Far from it. I want the exact opposite. I want to live forever, so I can get high every day. I’m sorry, Reacher. I’m not the person I was. I mutated. You should have found someone else’s ring.”

  “What next, after you’re done partying?”

  “Eventually I guess I would have to tone it down. Probably get the IV, if I can have it at home.”

  “You think you can tone it down?”

  She nodded, inside her hood. “I love it like crazy, but there’s enough of the old me still in there. I know that. I made it through West Point and nine years in the infantry. I could make it through this. As long as I knew I didn’t have to quit entirely. As long as I knew the promise was always there. Maybe Saturday night, if I was good all week. I think I could get myself to that level.”

  “And then what?”

  “Then I’ll hide out in my sister’s house until I’m a hundred years old. By which time we’ll all be ugly and I won’t stand out so much. Until then let’s not be Pollyanna. There won’t be any then-what going on. I don’t see how it could.”

  “You could get a job.”

  “You must have missed that memo.”

  He smiled.

  “I work now and then,
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