The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  Chapter 40

  The cowboys were up at dawn, drinking coffee from tin mugs, in rocking chairs, on their bunkhouse porch. The sun came up behind the hills, and threw a flat shadow across the plain. In her house Rose Sanderson slept on. She was not a dawn riser. Fentanyl saw to that. Bramall was up, already showered, and dressed, with his hair brushed, and his necktie knotted. Mackenzie stirred, and woke, and lived a happy oblivious moment where nothing had ever happened. Then she remembered, and half wanted to go back to sleep again, and half wanted to get up and do something, anything, for as long as it felt like progress. In the end going back to sleep won the contest. For a short time. Outside the air was cold. Early on a late summer morning, high in the mountains.

  An hour later the cowboys walked down to the mouth of the driveway. They waited there, the same as they had the morning before, and the morning before that, except now they were two, not three. They stood around, not talking, like part of the landscape, infinitely patient. In her house Rose stirred, and woke. She put her hand on her night table. Two patches. Still there. She breathed out and sagged back on her pillow. It was safe to get up. Bramall had made coffee in his token kitchenette, and was out on his porch drinking the last of it. Mackenzie was in the shower, hosing water through her hair.

  An hour later the cowboys still waited. The sun climbed higher and came up over the ridge behind them. It dappled the trees where they stood, and warmed the air. In her house Rose was showering. Bramall was still on his porch, his coffee long gone, just passing the time. He was a man life had taught to be patient. Mackenzie was in her cabin, in an armchair, on the phone with her husband, talking about doctors.

  An hour later the cowboys were still waiting. Waiting for the man, for their connection, for their hook up. Wasted hours. Part of a user’s life. They leaned on trees and breathed the air, soft and piney. In her house Rose Sanderson was dressed, in her silver top, with the hood pulled forward. She had cut a new piece of aluminum foil, and smeared it with new lotion, and smoothed it into place. She was in her living room, with the window open. In position. Ready. As was Bramall, fifty yards away in the woods. He was sitting on a log. Mackenzie was fifty yards the other way, leaning on the trunk of a fir, with filtered sunlight playing in her hair.

  A minute later at the mouth of the driveway there was the sound of a straining engine, and the scratch and patter of struggling tires, and the cowboys stood aside. The beat-up old pick-up truck came out of the woods, carrying its camper shell on its back like a turtle. At the wheel Stackley scanned ahead. He saw no black Toyota. No big guy. No one else.

  He eased to a stop.

  The guy with the boots walked over.

  Stackley got out.

  He said, “How’s it going?”

  The guy said, “You owe us.”

  “For what?”

  “The big guy.”

  “You got it done?”

  “Yesterday in the afternoon.”

  “How did you do it?”

  “Lured him in the woods and shot him with a rifle.”

  “Want to show me?”

  “Sure,” the guy said. “But he’s an hour uphill. We didn’t want him found too soon.”

  “Then how do I know you did it?”

  “We’re telling you.”

  “I need proof. This is a very large fee we’re talking about here.”

  “Two boxes each.”

  “Between you,” Stackley said.

  Then he looked again and said, “There were three of you yesterday.”

  The guy said, “Indisposed.”

  “With what?”

  “Sore throat.”

  “I need proof about the big guy,” Stackley said. “This is a business deal we got going here.”

  The guy with the boots put his hand in his pocket and came out with a slim blue booklet. Silver printing. A passport, maybe three years old, a little curled and bent. He handed it over. Stackley opened it up. The big guy’s photo was right there. A face like a stone. His name was Jack Reacher. No middle initial.

  “From his pocket,” the guy said. “Less messy than his scalp.”

  Stackley put the passport in his own pocket.

  He said, “I’ll keep it as a souvenir.”

  “Sure.”

  “Nice work.”

  “We aim to please.”

  “But you caught me out,” Stackley said. “Business is too good. I’m running low.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “You’ll have to wait.”

  “That wasn’t the deal.”

  “What do you want me to do? Say no to someone else, just in case you got it done, which frankly I didn’t expect so soon? I can’t hold stuff back on a theoretical basis.”

  “So you got nothing left?”

  “Not much.”

  The guy said, “Want to show me?”

  “Sure,” Stackley said. He wasn’t averse. A dwindling stock was a kind of advertisement all its own. The modern environment. Business was all about velocity now. It was rule one. He turned toward the camper door.

  And came face to face with the guy from the passport.

  Reacher eased out of the trees, and crept up within a yard of the guy. He was about to tap him in the kidney, but right then the guy turned around toward the camper door, so he tapped him in the stomach instead, just enough to fold him over. He used the same hand on the guy’s shoulder to force him face down in the dirt, where he searched him. He came up with his own passport from one coat pocket, and a nine-millimeter from another, and a .22 jammed in one boot, and a switchblade jammed in the other. The nine-mil was an old Smith & Wesson Model 39, with handsome grips made of polished wood. The .22 was a Ruger, not a vest pocket gun, but it fit in the boot. The switchblade was a piece of junk, made in China, maybe in a toy factory.

  Stackley was huffing and puffing in the dirt, and squirming a little, which Reacher thought was excessive for a guy barely hurt. He checked the pick-up’s cab. Nothing in the glove compartment. But under the lip of the driver’s seat there was a mounting clip, where a fire extinguisher might have been, except in this case the clip had been modified, and was currently full of another elderly nine-millimeter with wooden grips, in this case an old Springfield P9. Apart from that there was nothing but drifts of old gas receipts and sandwich wrappers.

  Reacher stepped back to where Stackley was lying, and he held the old Smith out at arm’s length. He clicked the button and dropped the mag from five feet up. It hit Stackley in the head. Stackley yelped. Reacher dropped the gun itself. Stackley yelped again. Reacher did the same thing with the Ruger, mag and frame, and then the Springfield, mag and frame. A total of six separate yelps.

  Reacher said, “Get up now, Stackley.”

  Stackley forced himself upright, a little bent over, a little pale in the face. All shook up. Rubbing his painful head. Facing the same kind of animal issues the two cowboys had, the night before. You fail to kill a man, and then you look up and see him right there. Does he own you now?

  Reacher said, “Open up the back of the truck.”

  The doors were flimsy plastic. Stackley got them propped wide. Then he stood back. Reacher pulled a blanket aside. One forlorn box, mostly empty. It had just three patches left in it, each one individually wrapped, all of them sliding around in a space made for more.

  Not much.

  Reacher stepped away.

  “Stocks seem to be running low,” he said. “What do you do about that, in the normal course of business?”

  “I’m sorry, man,” Stackley said. “About the other thing. I had no choice. I was told to do it. It wasn’t personal.”

  “We’ll discuss it later,” Reacher said.

  “There’s a guy. I have to do what he says. He told me to. It wasn’t like I wanted to. You have to believe that.”

  “Later.”

  “I really didn’t think these guys would do it. I thought I was going through the motions, that’s all. So at least I could say I tried.
It’s their fault really.”

  “I asked you a question.”

  “I don’t remember what it was.”

  “Your stock is low,” Reacher said. “What happens next?”

  Stackley got a look in his eye, like some kind of a thought process was taking place back there. He looked up, and then down. A junction, Reacher thought, or a transition. A change from one thing to another. From winning to losing, from hope to despair.

  To surrender.

  Stackley breathed out, like a sigh of defeat.

  He said, “When I run out I go get more.”

  “Where from?”

  “It’s a kind of warehouse, where you drive in and line up. You wait until midnight.”

  “Where is the warehouse?”

  Stackley paused a beat.

  “We have a special burner phone,” he said. “We get a text message.”

  “Where is your special burner phone?”

  Stackley pointed at the camper shell.

  He said, “In a locker in back.”

  Reacher said, “Get it for me.”

  Stackley stepped up and leaned inside. Reacher heard the snap of a catch. Afterward he recalled a split second of fast chaotic thought, like his whole life was flashing in front of his eyes, except it wasn’t his whole life, merely his mistakes of the last thirty seconds, explained and analyzed and ridiculed and exaggerated to a ludicrous degree. To the point where in his mind he saw his name as a footnote in a psychology textbook about bias confirmation, in a famous case where a guy saw a movement in another guy’s eyes, and took it to mean exactly what he wanted it to mean all along.

  Stackley hadn’t surrendered. Instead he had thought hard and fast and seen a way out. A lifeline. The guy was no dummy. The change in his eyes had been a movement away from losing and back to winning. From despair back to hope. Reacher had read it completely wrong. Completely ass-backward. Too optimistic. Too willing to look on the bright side of life. Which also screwed up his conclusion about the weapons. He had instinctively assumed once you had taken a Springfield, and a Smith, and a Ruger .22 from a guy, then you were pretty much done with finding more firearms. Which had made it fun to take them apart and drop them on the guy’s head.

  Whereas the psychology textbooks would say a guy with three could have four, dead easy. Especially a dope dealer, who took things in trade.

  Dumb.

  Stackley straightened up and turned around.

  He had a gun in his hand.

  From the locker in the camper shell.

  The gun was an old Colt .45, worn steel, rock steady. Maybe nine feet away. Eight, if Stackley braced forward for the shot. Hard to miss from there. The downside of being a big guy. A sudden evolutionary disadvantage. Too much center mass.

  Reacher watched Stackley’s eyes. The guy was still thinking hard. Cost, benefit, advantages, disadvantages. All the reels were coming up cherries. In the short term he could solve his immediate this-minute problem. In the long term he could impress Arthur Scorpio as a reliable guy who got things done. All by pulling the trigger. Right there, right then. Just once. The only negative was location. Couldn’t leave a corpse in the mouth of the driveway. It would need to be moved a mile into the woods. But he had the cowboys for that. They would trade labor for a free patch. For two, they would carry a corpse to Nebraska.

  Reacher said, “Don’t point the gun at me.”

  Stackley said, “Why the hell not?”

  “It would be a serious mistake.”

  “How would it, man?”

  Stackley raised the Colt.

  Two-handed.

  He pointed it at the center of Reacher’s chest.

  Like aiming at a barn door.

  He said, “How exactly is this a mistake?”

  “Wait and see,” Reacher said. “Nothing personal.”

  Stackley’s head exploded.

  There was a wet thump like a watermelon rolling off a table, and then immediately the flat crack of a supersonic NATO round in the air, and the antique bark of an M14 firing. Stackley’s head came apart in an instant cloud of red mist, and fragments of it followed his body down, vertically, like a disappearing trick, into a puddle of clothes and limbs and lifeless flesh. Reacher looked back at the house, and saw Rose Sanderson at her window, checking downrange, assessing her aim. Which was pretty damn good, he thought. From a hundred yards out she had put a round through the gap between himself and the cowboys, and she had hit Stackley right above the ear. All with a rifle dumped by the army twenty years before she was born.

  Impressive.

  She came out of the house and walked down toward them, hood forward, carrying the rifle one-handed. From the right Bramall came hurrying in, and from the left came Mackenzie, who had the most trouble with what she found. Theoretically she might have been happy with what turned out, in pragmatic terms, and maybe even moral terms, but a human head shattered by a high-velocity rifle bullet was far from theoretical. It was a purple mess, steaming slightly in the cold mountain air. She turned and looked at her sister. She was prepared to kill people, and I wasn’t. One thing to talk about it. A whole different thing to watch it happen.

  Reacher said, “Thank you, major.”

  Rose said, “How much did he have?”

  The thing that mattered most.

  “Not much,” he said.

  “Shit.”

  She stepped around Stackley and looked in the back of the truck. She twitched the blanket aside and poked around. Her shoulders slumped. Not exactly surprise, but certainly disappointment. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. She looked back at Reacher, as if to say, This one went south pretty damn quick, didn’t it?

  She said, “Where does he go to get more?”

  He said, “The conversation didn’t get that far.”

  “Arthur Scorpio’s place, right?”

  “No,” Reacher said. “There’s no traffic at Scorpio’s place. No loading or unloading. Whatever Scorpio does, he does it by remote control.”

  “What exactly did Stackley tell you?”

  “He said there’s a warehouse, where they drive in and line up and wait until midnight.”

  “Where?”

  “He said he gets a text message on a burner phone. He said the phone is in there.”

  He heard the click of catches and the muted thump of compartment doors being opened and shut. Maybe twelve of them. The camper shell had lockers all over it. Like living on a boat.

  “There’s no phone in here,” she said.

  “There never was,” he said. “It was a decoy. It was a way to get to his gun.”

  “So how do we know where to go?”

  “We don’t.”

  She just stood there. Tiny, slumped, defeated. She was a drug addict. She had just shot and killed her dealer. Catastrophe. Like jumping off a building. Right then she was in mid-air, falling fast, the hiss of terror loud in her ears.

  She was going to panic.

  Reacher said, “Forget the phone. The phone was a trick. He invented it. They couldn’t possibly work it that way. A warehouse big enough to drive in and line up can’t be a moveable feast. It can’t be a last-minute arrangement. It must be a permanent location. Fixed and secure. Hidden away somewhere.”

  Rose said, “But where?”

  Bramall said, “Where is his regular phone?”

  He ducked down, a small meticulous figure amid the gore. He dug through Stackley’s crumpled pockets. He came out with a Samsung smartphone about the size of a paperback book. It had a cracked screen. No password. Bramall dabbed and swiped.

  “He replaced Billy three days ago,” he said. “Obviously he would have
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