The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  “OK, don’t get a job.”

  “Then we had long conversations about how much our personalities are tied up with our faces. About subliminal cues and nuances. Something very fundamental. Later I realized the head-on stuff went only so far. Now they were being subtle. They were dropping hints. They were telling me my romantic life was over.”

  “Porterfield didn’t agree.”

  “He was different.”

  “Was he blind?”

  “He had problems of his own.”

  Behind them the door opened, and Mackenzie came out on the porch, followed by Bramall. Mackenzie looked like she had something to say, but Bramall’s cell phone rang. He took it out and checked the screen.

  He said, “It’s Special Agent Noble, from his office in Denver.”

  He looked at Rose.

  Then he looked at Reacher.

  Asking for something.

  Reacher said, “You want me to be the bad guy?”

  He took the phone. He hit the green button. He put the phone to his ear.

  He said, “Hello?”

  Chapter 39

  Noble asked why Reacher was answering Bramall’s phone, and Reacher gave him a vague reply, about Bramall taking a walk, maybe out of range, therefore leaving his phone behind.

  Noble said, “Mrs. Mackenzie hired Bramall, right? For actual money.”

  Reacher said, “Yes.”

  “But not you.”

  “No.”

  “Then it’s better I talk to you anyway. Can Mrs. Mackenzie hear what you’re saying right now?”

  “Yes.”

  “Move away.”

  Reacher held the phone up toward the ravine, and mimed heading that way for better reception. When he got there he stood on a rock, and said, “What’s going on?”

  In his ear Noble said, “I think you found the sister.”

  “Why?”

  “Are you saying you didn’t?”

  “I’m asking how you think we could have.”

  “How hard could it be? She was in there somewhere.”

  “It’s a very large area.”

  “That’s a description,” Noble said. “Not a denial.”

  “Finding an entrenched individual in an unlimited acreage of forested land peppered with abandoned cabins is virtually impossible.”

  “That’s also a description.”

  “I can do this all day long,” Reacher said. “I was in the army.”

  Noble said, “I need Rose Sanderson.”

  “Why?”

  “For information. I need to close a file.”

  “You have Billy for that.”

  “Billy is why I need Sanderson now. I think Billy is lying to me. He’s boasting. Either for fun, to tempt me into wasting time chasing rainbows, or just for the sake of his ego. Some dealers love to lie about how they can get the good stuff. It makes them look cool. They’re the man, and so on. But before I can close the file I need corroborating testimony from a customer. Just in case. It’s a cover-your-ass thing.”

  “What did Billy tell you?”

  “That he was still selling what he always sold. Domestic oxycodone and fentanyl, branded and packaged inside the United States.”

  “Obviously that’s a boast,” Reacher said. “You told us it’s impossible.”

  “It is impossible. I can prove it. Literally everything is barcoded every step of the way. Literally every pill. We have access to their data. There is zero leakage now.”

  “So he’s boasting.”

  “Except he knows things he shouldn’t. There have been packaging changes. He knows the new promotional message on the inside of the hospital pack. No one ever sees that.”

  “So he’s not boasting.”

  “Of course he’s boasting. They track every conveyor belt, and every package, and every carton as it goes out the door, and they have GPS on the trucks, and they match the orders with the payments received, and if there’s a mismatch anywhere all kind of red lights start flashing. Which isn’t happening. Nothing is going astray.”

  “So which is it? Boasting or not?”

  “I would like to put my mind at rest. Either way I need to ask Rose Sanderson exactly what she was buying.”

  “Why not go up the chain? Surely a wholesaler’s testimony would carry more weight than a customer’s.”

  “I don’t know these people. It’s an opaque network.”

  “Won’t Billy name names?”

  “So far he’s playing the good soldier. I only got what I got by tricking it out of him sideways. I would need to start a whole new investigation. I don’t have time. We can do it quicker this way. We don’t need much. We’re only closing a file. All she has to say is Billy is a lying asshole and he was selling regular Mexican powder all along.”

  Up at the house Sanderson and her sister and Bramall were still on the porch. They were talking a lot. Some kind of a big discussion.

  Reacher said, “OK, if I ever get the opportunity, I’ll be sure to tell her what you need.”

  Noble said, “Where are you now?”

  “It’s a very large area.”

  “Are you at her place?”

  “It’s hard to pin down an exact spot.”

  “You’re talking on a cell phone.”

  “On an omnidirectional antenna somewhere inside a giant circle the size of New Jersey.”

  Noble said, “Certain laws apply when a citizen talks to a federal agent.”

  Reacher said, “Sorry, I was waiting for the dramatic music.”

  “Do you know Rose Sanderson’s current location?”

  “Certain other laws apply when this citizen talks to a federal agent. Mostly the ones about saving breath by skipping bullshit. I know how these things go. And I know you know. Usually worse than expected. Therefore you always have a plan B, so the main office sees a notch on your bedpost anyway. Anyone will do. You want Rose Sanderson on the record buying Mexican powder. Just in case. She’s your plan B.”

  “She breaks the law every day.”

  “You should forget her right now. Seriously. She would be a very serious blunder on your part. She was wounded in the face in Afghanistan. You met her twin sister. Think about it. Their photographs will be printed side by side in every newspaper in the world. The movie star and the monster. Before and after serving her country. Now you’re busting her for pain medication? The backlash would be ferocious. The DEA would be ridiculed. I’m saving you from a PR disaster.”

  “Do you know where she is?”

  “In the state of Wyoming.”

  “Are you refusing to answer my question?”

  “No,” Reacher said. “I’ll answer all your questions. Including the ones you haven’t thought of yet. Let’s set up a call about three days from now. On two conditions. You butt out till then, and you forget you ever heard Rose Sanderson’s name.”

  “Why three days?”

  “That kind of question would fall under the butting-out part of the deal.”

  “I’m not going to negotiate with you.”

  “Then suggest an alternative approach. Oh yeah, there isn’t one. So let’s try to get along. I was an MP, remember. The same as you, except different clothes. I’m not out to screw you. I’m trying to do you a favor. This is one of those lucky things that happen from time to time. I take the tiny slice I want, which is Rose Sanderson, and you get all the rest. It’s a big deal, I promise you. It will win you a medal and make you a hero. Even Mr. Bramall thinks it will be hailed as a major triumph and the capstone of an outstanding regional success story. It’s something for nothing, Noble. The opposite of collateral damage. The Boy Detective would take that offer, I think, in the comic books. He knows it’s how government business gets done.”

  “You’re not the government.”

  “You never really leave,” Reacher said. “Not if you’re the right kind of person.”

  Noble said nothing. Checkmate again. He couldn’t argue. Not without saying yeah, all our lives are bul
lshit.

  “Three days,” Reacher said. “Relax. Maybe take in a show.”

  He clicked off the phone. He walked back to the house. Bramall met him halfway. Reacher gave back the phone.

  “Three days,” he said. “Plus he forgets about Rose.”

  “Nice work.”

  “Thank you.”

  “In exchange for what?”

  “We let him pick up the pieces.”

  “What pieces?”

  “I’m sure there will be pieces.”

  “You saying you got an idea now?”

  “More like a mental sketch,” Reacher said. “I need to ask you a question.”

  “What question?”

  “When you were in Rapid City, why were you eyeballing Scorpio’s laundromat? What did you expect to see there?”

  “Customers, initially. According to phone records Rose called there once. Who else would call a laundromat? Only a customer, surely. Maybe she lost something there. Maybe she wanted to know the opening time. I wondered if it meant she lived nearby. Or had, at one time.”

  “But there were no customers.”

  “Only one or two.”

  “Any other traffic?”

  “None at all.”

  “Did you watch the back?”

  “A couple of bikes.”

  “But no loading or unloading.”

  “None at all,” Bramall said again. “It’s not a loading dock. Just a regular door.”

  “OK,” Reacher said.

  Then Mackenzie came by, and said she wanted to go find the cabins they would be sleeping in that night. Apparently Rose had told her there was a nearby clearing with four small houses all in a square. They were aired out and habitable. Apparently Rose kept them like that all the time, because she felt it was a shame to see good things go to ruin.

  They found the right path, which was like all the other paths Reacher had seen, including most recently the path where the guy with the boots had aimed the rifle. Apart from that it was easy going. After a hundred yards they came out on a clearing, exactly as promised, with four one-room houses built around a space about the size of a tennis court. Like a tiny village. The houses were made of log, each one different, each one built like a serious structure, each one no bigger than a single-car garage. All four doors were unlocked. Bramall claimed one at random. Mackenzie moved in opposite. Reacher split the difference, facing south.

  In a city the place would have been called a studio apartment. A living room with a bed in it, or a bedroom with a sofa in it, plus a token kitchenette, and a tiny bathroom. Overspill accommodation for house parties, he figured. They ate and drank and made merry at the big house, but came out there to sleep. Maybe four couples, who all knew each other.

  He put his toothbrush in the bathroom glass and came out to find Mackenzie watching him from the doorway.

  She said, “My husband has started the search for a doctor. He’s taking vacation days from work. He understands the parameters. Our housekeeper is preparing the suite. Mr. Bramall is ready to drive us all to Illinois. I’m sure his vehicle will be comfortable.”

  “I agree,” Reacher said. “It’s a fine truck.”

  “I guess what I’m saying is the rest is up to you now.”

  “The rest?”

  “Bridging the gap.”

  “OK,” Reacher said. “That seems fair.”

  “If you can.”

  “I’m working on it.”

  “Will it be possible?”

  “Rose will need to hang tough. I hope she can. She told me there’s some of her old self still in there. She was smart enough to ask me to hold her ring. Or self aware enough. To some extent she knows what she’s doing. She can still think the old way. At some point she’ll have to trust us and we’ll have to trust her.”

  “When will we leave?”

  “Tomorrow,” he said.

  They ate dinner together, out of what they had brought from the grocery store. Rose was high as a kite and happy. She was mobile and animated. Under her hood and her foil she laughed and smiled and turned from person to person, and talked and listened and answered. Mackenzie laughed with her, half the time projecting boundless energy and support, like a tractor beam in a science fiction movie, something solid for her sister to lean on, and the other half of the time projecting hopeless bewilderment at her new situation. She was adrift. There were old-time fairy tales where the beautiful sister came home scarred, and all kinds of hidden anger and resentment was revealed, ahead of a warm and tearful resolution. But this was different. There was no narrative template. They were both the beautiful sister. They started level. There was no anger or resentment. There were no issues. They were the same person. Almost. Reacher saw the air between them ebb and flow, sometimes making them a single organism, like an aspen grove, sometimes making them separate, but never completely. They were a unit. They were a they. Always had been, always would be. But neither one knew how the current version worked. Or even what it looked like, from the outside. How would they describe themselves now? Would it have to be I and she? No longer we? These were not questions they had asked before.

  Then Reacher told them how he thought the next day might go. Bare bones, a rough outline, three steps, plenty of holes still to fill. Mackenzie was horrified. Bramall looked away, as if to say, is that all you’ve got? Rose quieted down and Reacher felt her eyes on him, under her hood. He felt careful appraisal. She was his main audience. She had the most to lose. She was a professional soldier. She knew no plan survives first contact with the enemy. After that it was about luck, or not. She knew that for sure.

  Afterward Reacher asked Bramall to move his truck behind the house, out of sight from the mouth of the driveway. Then he walked up the cowboys’ path, to where he figured their quarters must be. He found them on the porch of a low log building made to look like an old-time bunkhouse. Two guys, not three, sipping from cans of beer. He thought they looked uneasy, with shock and guilt, presumably, and a more ancient humbling, the guy in the boots especially, where you fail to kill a man, and then you look up and see him walking toward you. Some kind of an atavistic feeling, deep in the back of your brain, about your place on the ladder, from back when the only ladders were trees.

  Reacher said, “We live in crazy times.”

  Neither guy answered. Perhaps they thought he had earned the right to speak uninterrupted. Like giving a lecture. Maybe a cowboy thing. He wanted to tell them no hard feelings. That he understood the pressure. How it distorted judgment. But in the end he didn’t. Too complicated. Instead he told them what they had to do for him. He spelled it out, step by step, and he walked them through it, and he gave them what they needed. He saw it was better than forgiveness. Their heads came up an inch, with new resolve in their eyes, as if they were subject to an older legal system, where through labor or forfeit they could buy back their freedom.

  Reacher walked back to Sanderson’s place. It had a light on inside. He checked where Bramall had left the Toyota. It was safely out of sight. Not bad for the FBI. He walked back to his one-room cabin. The little village. Mackenzie’s place had a light on, and so did Bramall’s. All kinds of people, going to bed. All kinds of preparations and rituals. Maybe lengthy. Maybe Bramall brushed his suit, like a valet. No doubt Mackenzie had a complicated routine, involving potions and unguents.

  For sure Sanderson did.

  Reacher got into bed. Log walls, log ceiling. He understood the appeal. They were solid and massive. They made him feel safe.

 
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