The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  awake. Anything to avoid the old joke: I want to die peacefully in my sleep like Grandpa. Not screaming in terror like his passengers. The resulting conversation spiraled off in all kinds of different directions. Institutional injustices in the milk business were exposed. Grievances were aired. Then the guy wanted to hear war stories, so Reacher made some up. The big truck stop came along soon enough. The guy had not been exaggerating. There was an acres-wide fuel stop, and a spreading two-story motel a hundred yards long, and a warehouse-sized family restaurant, blazing with neon outside and fluorescence inside. There were back-to-back eighteen-wheelers wheezing in and out, and all kinds of cars and trucks and panel vans.

  Reacher climbed out of the milk tanker and headed straight for the motel office, where he took a room, even though it was already close to dawn. No point arriving in Rapid City all tired and exhausted. No point arriving exactly when expected, either. Obviously Jimmy Rat would have called Arthur Scorpio. Some kind of a get-in-first cover-your-ass play, as in It wasn’t me, honest, but I think someone dimed you out. Which wouldn’t necessarily be believed in every particular, but which would certainly be acted upon, as a distant early warning. There’s something out there. The oldest fear in human history. Scorpio would post sentries right away. And so in turn Reacher would make them stare at a whole lot of nothing for the first day. To dull them down, to sap their enthusiasm, to make them yawn and blink. Always better to engage at a time of your own choosing. So he ate breakfast in the bustling restaurant, and then he headed back to his room, and took a shower, and went to bed just as the sun rose, with the tiny West Point ring on the night table beside him.

  At that point, more than 350 miles away to the west, in Rapid City, Detective Gloria Nakamura was already up and about. She had woken before dawn, and showered and dressed and eaten breakfast. Now she was heading out, a whole hour early. To work, but not yet.

  She commuted in her own car, which was a mid-size Chevy sedan. It was pale blue, and as anonymous as a rental. She drove through downtown, and turned off the main drag toward Arthur Scorpio’s territory. He owned a whole city block. His laundromat was in the center building. Like a flagship operation. The block fronted on a cracked concrete cross street with a narrow sidewalk featuring a dead tree in a bone-dry pit. Running down the back of the block was a service alley, for deliveries and trash collection.

  She tried the alley first. It was patched and narrow. Overhead a skein of power lines and phone wires looped left and right from tilted poles. There was a guy outside the laundromat’s back door. He was leaning on the wall, with his arms folded. He was in a short black coat against the dawn chill. A black sweater under it. Black pants, black shoes. He was more than six feet tall, and heavy. About twice Nakamura’s size. He was wide awake and watchful.

  She wanted to take a cell phone picture. For the endless file. But she couldn’t be obvious about it. She had heard nothing from her boss. Surveillance had not been officially reauthorized. So she swiped through to camera, and put the phone to her ear, next to her window, as if she was taking a call, and she drove slowly by, eyes front, furtively dabbing with her thumb, click click click, until the sentry was well behind her. Then she turned left out of the alley, and left again, and drove past the front of the building.

  There was another guy at the front door. Same deal. Leaning on the wall, watchful, arms crossed. Dressed in black. Like a nightclub bouncer. No velvet rope. Nakamura put her phone to her ear. Click click click. She turned right at the end of the block and parked on the street where the guy couldn’t see her.

  She checked her pictures. Both sets were tilted and blurry and neither had the subject anywhere near the center of the frame. But the building was recognizable. The overall context was clear. The narrative told a story. Scorpio had gotten word from Wisconsin, and had immediately hired security. Local muscle. Two guys. One in front, one in back.

  Because Scorpio was at least somewhat worried about Bigfoot.

  Who was where?

  Incoming, Nakamura thought. Had to be. He seems set on working his way along the chain of supply. She got out of her car. She walked back the same way she had come, and turned in on Scorpio’s street. She stayed on the opposite sidewalk. The guy at the laundromat’s door saw her. She felt his eyes on her. He didn’t move. Just watched. She kept walking. There was a breakfast place almost opposite the laundromat. Not Scorpio’s. His neighbor’s. It had an undersized front window, but if you took the first table and craned up in your chair you got a pretty good view. Nakamura had spent hours in there.

  She pushed in the door.

  Her table was taken. By a guy with the ruins of a bacon and egg breakfast pushed away from him, and a half-full cup of coffee cradled in its place. He was a neat, compact man, in a collar and tie, and a dark conventional suit made of sensible hardwearing fibers. His hair was neatly brushed. He was somewhere over fifty, but how much over was hard to say. His hair was still brown. He had a lean and ageless face. He could have been sixty. He could have been seventy.

  He was watching the laundromat through the window.

  Had to be. Nakamura knew the signs. He wasn’t craning up in his chair, because although not tall he was taller than she was. But even so, his back was unnaturally straight. Had to be, to get his eye line up over the sill. And his gaze was unwavering. He never looked down. He found his cup by feel, and raised it blind, and watched over the rim while sipping.

  Was this Bigfoot?

  Take him seriously, the voice from Wisconsin had said. And certainly the guy at the table looked like he should be taken seriously. Deep down there was something hard and competent about him. Not immediately obvious. His expression was amiable. But he had limited patience. He wasn’t to be messed with. That was clear. Theoretically it was possible to imagine him as a quiet and deadly foe of some sort. It was possible to imagine him as the kind of man who might merit a whispered heads-up voicemail. With an urgent warning and a pithy description. But the description would not have been like Bigfoot come out of the forest. Not for this man. It would have been a reference to a spy movie perhaps, about a faceless KGB killer blending in with the crowd. It would have been about how neat he was. How physically unobtrusive. He was almost dapper. He was the opposite of Bigfoot.

  So who was he?

  One sure way to find out.

  She sat down across from him, and took her badge from her purse. It was in a department-issued vinyl wallet, opposite a photo ID behind a plastic window. Nakamura, Gloria, Detective, and her signature and her picture.

  The guy took a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses from an inside pocket, and put them on. He glanced at the ID, and glanced away. He took a small notebook from another inside pocket. He opened it with his thumb. He glanced at it, changed pages, and glanced away.

  He said, “You’re with Property Crimes.”

  “You got us all listed in there?”

  “Yes,” he said.

  “Why?”

  “I like to know who does what in a place.”

  “What are you doing here?”

  “My job.”

  “What’s your name?”

  “Bramall,” the guy said. “First name Terrence, but you can call me Terry.”

  “And what’s your job, Mr. Bramall?”

  “I’m a private investigator.”

  “From where?”

  “Chicago.”

  “What brings you to Rapid City?”

  “A private investigation.”

  “Of Arthur Scorpio?”

  “I’m afraid I’m bound by a certain degree of confidentiality. Unless and until I believe a crime has been or is about to be committed. Which I don’t at this moment.”

  Nakamura said, “I need to know whether you’re for him or against him.”

  “Like that, is it?”

  “He won’t be voted citizen of the year.”

  “He’s not my client, if that’s what you mean.”

  “Who is?”

  “C
an’t say.”

  Nakamura asked, “Do you have a partner?”

  “Romantically?” Bramall said. “Or professionally?”

  “Professionally.”

  “No.”

  “Are you part of an agency?”

  “Why do you ask?”

  “We heard someone was on his way here. Not you. Someone else. He was in Wisconsin yesterday. I wondered if he was an associate.”

  “Not mine,” Bramall said. “I’m a one-man band.”

  Nakamura took a business card from her purse. She put it on the table, near Bramall’s coffee cup. She said, “Call me if you need me. Or if you decide to take the confidentiality stick out of your ass. Or if you need advice. Scorpio is a dangerous man. Never forget that.”

  “Thank you,” Bramall said, his eyes on the window.

  Nakamura walked back to her car, with the guy at the laundromat door watching her all the way. She drove to work, and got there early. She woke her computer and opened a search engine. She typed Bramall, Terrence, private investigator, Chicago. She got a bunch of hits. The guy was sixty-seven years old. He was retired FBI. A long and distinguished career. Many successful cases. Senior rank. Multiple medals and awards. Now he was in business on his own account. He was high end. He didn’t advertise. He was hard to get. He was expensive. He was a true specialist. He offered only one service. All he did was find missing persons.

  Chapter 7

  Reacher woke himself up when he figured the lunch rush would be over. He felt OK, after his exertions the previous evening. No real aches or pains. He checked the mirror. He had a light bruise on his forehead, from head-butting the fourth guy. And his right forearm was tender. It had dispatched three of them all by itself. Fully fifty percent. Along the bone there was nothing to bruise, but the skin looked about twice as thick as normal. And red, with tiny puncture wounds here and there. Even through his shirtsleeve. Which happened. Teeth, usually, or chips of bone from broken noses, or eye sockets. Collateral damage. But really nothing to worry about. He was in good shape. Same old same old, on another lonely day.

  He showered and dressed and walked over to the emptying restaurant and ate off the all-day breakfast menu. He asked for quarters in his change and stopped at a pay phone near the door. He dialed an ancient number from memory.

  It rang twice and was answered.

  “West Point,” a woman’s voice said. “Superintendent’s office. How may I help you?”

  “Good afternoon, ma’am,” Reacher said. “I’m a graduate of the academy, and I have an inquiry I’m sure will end up in your office anyway, so I figured I might as well start there.”

  “May I have your name, sir?”

  Reacher gave it, and his date of birth, and his service number, and his graduation year. He heard the woman write it all down.

  She said, “What is the nature of your inquiry?”

  “I need to identify a female cadet from the class of 2005. Her initials were S.R.S. and she was small. That’s all I’ve got so far.”

  He heard her write it down.

  She said, “Are you a journalist?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Do you work in law enforcement?”

  “Not currently.”

  “Then why do you need to make this identification?”

  “I have lost property to return.”

  “You can send it here. We can forward it.”

  “I know you can,” Reacher said. “And I know why you’re suggesting we do it that way. You have all kinds of security issues to worry about now. Privacy rights too. Not like it was when I was there. I understand that completely. You really shouldn’t tell me anything. Which is fine. I don’t want to put you on the spot, believe me.”

  “Then we seem to understand each other.”

  “Just do me one favor. Look her up, and then look me up. Consider all the possible circumstances. Either you’ll be kind of happy you didn’t give me a name, or you’ll be kind of sorry. I’ll call you back sometime and you can tell me which it was. Purely out of interest.”

  “Why would I be sorry I followed procedure?”

  “Because in the end you’ll realize that right now was the first faint whisper you ever heard that a West Pointer with the initials S.R.S. was in some kind of trouble somewhere. Maybe alone and in need of help. Afterward you’ll wish you’d taken it seriously from the beginning. You’ll be sorry you didn’t tell me sooner.”

  “Who are you exactly?”

  “Look me up,” Reacher said.

  The voice said, “Call me back.”

  Reacher walked the length of the motel to an area near the fuel pumps, where a kind of unofficial hitchhiking market was being run, by a homeless-looking guy wearing a coat tied up with rope. He would collect the desired destination from each new arriving hitchhiker, and then he would walk around shouting it out to the drivers in line for the pumps, and sooner or later one or another would wave and agree to some particular destination, and the lucky hitchhiker would tip the shouting guy a dollar and climb up in the cab.

  Good business. Reacher was happy to pay a buck. Not that he would need help or luck. Every single driver was going to Rapid City. It was 350 miles away, but it was the first stop. There wasn’t much before it. After it there were choices. Wyoming, Montana, Idaho. But everyone had to pass through Rapid City first.

  He got a ride inside about a minute and a half, in a huge red truck pulling a white boxed-in trailer. The cab had a quadruple sleeper pod behind the seats, bigger than some accommodations Reacher had been raised in. For cross-country house moving jobs, the driver said. The whole crew could sleep in the vehicle. Saved on motels.

  The guy was old, like a lot of drivers. Maybe it was a fading profession. Maybe it had gotten too hard. Reacher thought the last of the frontier would die with it. Those guys were the final generation. The end of the DNA. Now people wanted to be home every night.

  The guy said it would be five hours and five minutes to Rapid City. He said it with the kind of confidence that comes from having done it a thousand times before. They rolled out, sitting way up high, with a clear view to the horizon, and they ground up through the gears, and up, and up, until they were bowling along at more than seventy on the flat, and faster still on the down grades. The mile markers flashed past. Five hours and five minutes seemed dead-on plausible.

  As always the driver wanted to know where his temporary passenger was traveling to, and why. As if in payment. A long story, for a long distance. For some reason Reacher told him the truth. The pawn shop, the ring, his compulsion to find out what connected the two. Which he said he couldn’t entirely explain.

  The driver chewed on it all for ten whole miles.

  Then he said, “My wife would say you feel guilty about something.”

  Reacher didn’t answer.

  “She reads books,” the driver said. “She thinks about things.”

  “I don’t even know who this woman is. I don’t know her name. I never met her. How could I feel guilty about her? All I know is she sold her ring.”

  “Doesn’t have to be about her. There’s a word. Transference, I think. Or projection, although that might be something different. My wife would say you feel guilty about a separate issue.”

  “Would it have to be related?”

  “Broadly, I suppose. Not necessarily that you made some other woman sell her jewelry too. Doesn’t have to be obvious. My wife would say it might be some other failure or injustice.”

  Reacher said nothing.

  “My wife would ask if you had a wife or girlfriend to talk things over with.”

  Chang would be halfway through her first full day back to work. Maybe she had new cases. Maybe she was already back at the airport.

  “Tell your wife to keep on reading,” Reacher said. “She sounds like a very smart woman.”

  As so often, getting from the highway to the city was the hardest part of the trip. The red truck was too big for downtown. Reacher got out at the cloverl
eaf, at ten to eight in the evening, after five hours and five minutes exactly. He stretched and breathed and set out looking for a local ride. There was plenty of traffic. Plenty of pick-up trucks, and SUVs, and regular cars. But there was the wrong frame of mind. They were all coming off the highway. They were all on their last lap. All almost home. Almost there. Almost to the bar. Almost to the girlfriend’s house. Almost to wherever. They all sped past. No one was in the mood to offer a ride. Not then. Did not compute. Rides were offered at the start of a journey. Not at the end.

  Best hope in such a situation would always be a guy who had shaken his head three hundred miles ago, and then regretted it all the way since. Mostly a self-image thing. Such a guy was cooler than that. Such a guy would stop in his last few miles, maybe secretly hoping his limited offer would get a rueful refusal, thereby salving his conscience at zero personal cost, but also weirdly happy to actually go ahead and pick a guy up and drive him five or ten miles. In Reacher’s experience, given the traffic density, such a guy would come along about every twenty or twenty-five minutes. Visibility was key. The earlier they saw you, the better your chances. More time for the cool-guy thing to kick back in. Enough space to glide to a casual stop, and lean across with a smile.

  In the end it took forty minutes. At eight-thirty exactly a Dodge crew cab pulled over. The driver put on a generous but apologetic expression and said he was going only as far as downtown. Reacher said
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