The Midnight Line by Lee Child

  She said, “Face down on the floor.”

  He said, “You’re making a fool of yourself. I’m doing my accounts after a long hard day. So I can pay my taxes to pay your wages. One of the many burdens a small businessman bears.”

  “You’re hacking pharmaceutical industry security. Which is supervised by the federal government. Are they going to find Russian software? In which case you’re in a lot of trouble.”

  “I run a laundromat.”

  “The laundromat of the future. It looks like IBM in here. But your system just crashed. Check your GPS. Your panel van is stuck in a snowplow shed. Reacher took the key. And everything else.”

  Scorpio went quiet.

  She put her badge away and took out her handcuffs.

  Then it all fell apart.

  Behind her a guy walked through the open door with two go-cups of coffee from the convenience store. Black coat, black sweater, black pants, black shoes. More than six feet tall. A bruise on his neck. She had seen him before.

  Scorpio hit her in the back of her head, and she sprawled on the floor, and her gun went clattering away. She was dazed for a second, and felt herself being mauled and manhandled, and then she came to sitting on the floor, cuffed to a table leg. With her own handcuffs. Her skirt was up. She pulled it down, one-handed. Her bag was gone. With her phone.

  Scorpio asked her, “What did you mean, everything else?”

  She said, “All of it.”

  The guy in black said, “Want me to go check it out?”

  “We’ll both go,” Scorpio said.

  He looked at the alley door, at the inner door, at Nakamura.

  “Bring the car to the front,” he said. “I’ll go out that way. We’ll leave her right here.”

  The guy in black hustled out. Scorpio locked the alley door. He sat down and stared at a screen.

  Nakamura said, “You’re out of business.”

  “No,” he said. “I’ll never be out of business. It’s about moving on, that’s all. One door closes, another door opens. Nothing lasts forever. I’ll get what I need somewhere else. I always did before.”

  He left her there, sitting on the floor, handcuffed to the table. He turned out the lights. He stepped through the inner door to the laundromat. He closed the door behind him. The office went pitch dark. She heard the door lock from the other side. Then immediately she heard the street door open. Not Scorpio going out. Too soon. He was still thirty feet away. It was someone else coming in. The guy in black, presumably. With the car.

  But then she heard a muffled voice.


  She thought it said, “What have you got in your pockets?”

  Sanderson said, “Afterward I realized he wasn’t chewing on a stick. Or just a stick. It was to hide himself chewing on something else too. He had started the party early. He was going for the big OD. One fatal dose on the walk up the hill, and another when we got there. He hated his life. The thing with the DIA kept him going. But that was over now. They had closed ranks against him. He gave up. He decided this time, when he knocked on the gates, if they opened for him, he would go in.”

  Reacher said nothing.

  “And why not?” she said. “It was the end of everything. He had no money. Which was different for him. Like me being unlucky. I watched him go. He started out good. He was happy as could be. I guess he knew what was coming. He was lying on his back, with the smell of pine all around. His breathing got slower and slower. Then it stopped. That’s how it was.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “I was too. For myself. For him, I was happy. It was for the best. Like people say. I left him there. He loved those hillsides. He loved the animals there. I packed my stuff and drove home.”

  “What was the black-bag burglary for?”

  “His copy of the report. In the desk drawer. The first place anyone would look.”

  “What was in the report?”

  “Old-fashioned cash at the supply depot door. A colonel in a Marine Corps medical battalion was selling stuff to Arthur Scorpio. That’s how Scorpio did it two years ago. Different now. But back then Sy was buying the stuff he should have been getting all along. It was weird. I guess the colonel saw the file and took care of the problem behind the scenes.”

  “Scorpio knew Sy’s name too,” Reacher said. “He gave it to me as a decoy.”

  “Maybe the colonel told him.”

  “Or maybe he told the colonel. If the roofer saw things, then Billy did too. Maybe Billy told Scorpio, and Scorpio told the colonel. The investigation hadn’t started yet. Now it never would. The guy shut it down with the phony warrant. I think that’s the only way the timing works.”

  “You’re saying Scorpio sold him out.”

  “We should get going,” Reacher said. “Time to pay him a visit.”

  Chapter 48

  Sanderson and Reacher rolled through dark tomb-quiet streets, slow but never stopping, to the corner with the convenience store, where up ahead they saw a black sedan slowing at the curb. Arthur Scorpio’s car. The same car that had picked him up outside the restaurant with the chromium phone. The same guy in it. Last seen gasping for breath on the laundromat floor.

  Sanderson stopped tight behind the Lincoln, and Reacher caught the guy on the sidewalk, halfway to the laundromat door. He hit him once, just a loosener, and the guy took a knee on the concrete, and flapped a hand in surrender. Turned out he had been sent to bring the car around, ahead of a trip to a highway department maintenance depot, where there was a problem of some kind. Mr. Scorpio would be out in a moment.

  Reacher put the guy in the Lincoln’s trunk, which was big enough for two of him. The old square design. Then he headed for the laundromat door and got there just as Scorpio came out from the office. Tall and bony, maybe fifty, gray hair, black suit, white shirt, no tie. He closed the door behind him, and locked it, and turned back around.

  Reacher stepped inside.

  He said, “What have you got in your pockets?”

  Scorpio stared.

  Didn’t answer.

  “You told Billy to shoot me,” Reacher said. “And then the new guy, same thing.”

  No answer.

  “They didn’t get the job done,” Reacher said. “As you can see. So what happens next?”

  Scorpio said, “It was nothing personal.”

  Then he glanced at the street.

  “Your boy ain’t coming,” Reacher said. “It’s just you and me now.”

  “It was business. What would you have done?”

  “You sold out Sy Porterfield, too.”

  “He was a nuisance. He had to go.”

  Reacher heard a faint metallic sound. In the office. Maybe a machine, counting quarters.

  He said, “What was the colonel’s name?”

  Scorpio didn’t answer.

  Reacher went to hit him.

  Scorpio yelped, “Bateman.”

  Like a sneeze.

  “Thank you,” Reacher said.

  Nakamura heard Scorpio say Porterfield was a nuisance and had to go. Which was a confession of some sort. It had legal gravity. She was torn between shouting out and keeping quiet. In the end she compromised by clinking her handcuff against the table leg. To no effect. No one bust down the door. Then Scorpio shrieked what could have been Bite me, and then she heard nothing more, except grunts and gasps, and the scrape of heels on the floor.

  And then the slow roar of a tumble dryer, growling and droning, around and around, with a heavy load, thumping and bouncing.

  Sanderson parked alongside the black Toyota, to further shield it from view. Her room was next to Reacher’s. She said goodnight and went in. He went in to his. He sat on the bed. He heard her through the wall. Moving around. Then he heard her go out again.

  There was a knock at his door.

  He opened up.

  Her hood was still back.

  She said, “I guess things have changed about what I’m likely to do. You could give me my ring now.
It would be safe.”

  “Come in,” he said.

  She sat on the bed, where he had. He took the ring from his pocket. The gold filigree, the black stone, the tiny size. A long journey, for a small item.

  She took it.

  She said, “Thank you again.”

  “You’re welcome again.”

  She was quiet a long moment.

  She said, “You know the weirdest thing about this situation?”

  He said, “What?”

  “I’m on the inside looking out. I can’t see myself. Sometimes I forget.”

  “What did the shrinks say?”

  “What would the 110th say?”

  “Deal with it,” Reacher said. “It happened. It can’t un-happen. Most folks aren’t going to like it. Deep down humans haven’t been modern very long. But some won’t care. You’ll find them.”

  “Are you one of them?”

  “I told you,” Reacher said. “I’m all about the eyes.”

  She pushed down her hood. Her hair spilled out.

  She said, “Would you like to see me with the foil taken off?”

  “Honest answer?”

  “The truth.”

  “You sure?”

  “Don’t be polite.”

  “I would like to see you with everything taken off.”

  “Does that line work often?”

  “Now and then.”

  “There’s a lot of ointment.”

  “I hope,” he said.

  “The best way to get it off is take a shower.”

  “We could do that. It’s a motel. We could use a whole bar of soap. They always bring more.”

  She closed his door. She stood on the bed to kiss him. She was fifteen inches shorter. Much less than half his weight. She felt impossibly delicate. The foil crinkled and the ointment oozed.

  “Shower,” she said.

  He unzipped her silver coat, and she shrugged it off. He pulled off her T shirt and unhooked her bra. She felt like he had imagined her sister would feel, firm and lithe and cool to the touch, except the small of her back, which was damp. She peeled off the foil. It slid off her skin. Underneath were different shapes. Entry wounds, maybe, not exit wounds. Easier to stitch. But red with infection.

  They spent twenty minutes in the shower. Then four hours in bed. Most of it sleeping. But not all. At first he was cautious. Not because of her face. Because of her size. She was tiny. He thought he might break her. Then he figured hey, she survived the army. How much worse could it be? After that they got in the same groove together. Not better than fentanyl, he was sure. But better than aspirin. He could testify to that.

  Before seven the next morning Reacher was carrying coffee back to the room, when Bramall cut him off, with the phone. Another call in progress with the West Point Superintendent’s Office.

  But first Bramall said, “I already called Special Agent Noble. DEA is on its way to pick up the pieces. We need to get out of here right now.”

  “Works for me,” Reacher said.

  He took the phone.

  He said, “General.”

  The supe said, “Major.”

  “We’re about to exfiltrate. The mission succeeded. We resupplied and we’re good to go.”

  “Do I want to know the details?”

  “Probably not,” Reacher said.

  “We found out about Porterfield’s crusade. It was a colonel named Bateman who killed it. But DIA didn’t like him. They left Porterfield’s copy of the report in his house for a month. They hoped the sheriff would find it. Outside pressure would have given them cover. But the guy didn’t bite. Eventually they had to go get it back. But they got Bateman later, for something else. He went down hard.”

  “Thank you, general.”

  “Thank you, major.”

  Reacher walked the phone back to Bramall. He was fussing around the Toyota, moving stuff, trying to make more space. Mackenzie was helping him.

  Reacher said, “Relax.”

  He walked back to the room. Sanderson had new foil in place. Her hood was forward, and the drawstring was tight.

  He said, “The supe told me Colonel Bateman went down later. So that’s two for two. Him and Scorpio.”

  “Would that make you feel better?”

  “A little,” he said.

  “Me too, I guess.”

  “I’m not coming with you.”

  “I figured you wouldn’t.”

  “Get the IV.”

  “I will.”

  “Good luck.”

  “You too.”

  They didn’t kiss, because the foil was new. Instead they stepped outside and Sanderson got in the car. Reacher shook hands with Bramall, and Mackenzie, and he watched them drive away. He walked up to the gas and the diesel. He found another homeless guy running another hitchhiking market. A dollar to play. Like Sioux Falls. Maybe a South Dakota thing. There were only three choices. Because of the way the lanes were laid out.

  You could bid for south on a state road.

  Or east on the highway toward Chicago.

  Or west on the highway toward Seattle.

  Reacher paid his dollar and chose south on the state road. Ten minutes later he was in a carpenter’s truck, with a guy who was heading to Kansas, looking for tornado work.

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