The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  that was great. He said he needed the part with the cheap motels. The guy said he would be passing by that general area, about two streets over, and would be happy to point the way.

  The cheap part of downtown was dark. Daylight was long gone. There were lights on some street corners, and some of them worked, but not enough. Reacher got out of the Dodge and walked a long block west, mostly by feel, with visibility about a yard, and then another block just the same, and then he turned left and as promised he found two side-by-side motels, on a strip that also featured a diner and a gas station and a tire shop, which likely meant it was a popular route in and out of town. The right-hand motel had a tall lit-up sign, with come-on offers stacked up vertically, like logs in a pile: Free Breakfast, Free Cable, Free Wi-Fi, Free Upgrades.

  The left-hand motel had: Free Everything.

  Which Reacher doubted. Not the actual accommodation itself, surely. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. There was an old lady at the desk. She was slender and refined. She had blue hair, spun as fine as cotton candy. She was maybe eighty. Maybe she was the original owner, from way back long ago. Reacher asked his question, and she smiled and said no, he had to pay for his room, but everything else was included. She said it with a half-amused look in her eye, up and then down, and he sensed she meant Free Everything partly as a response to her neighbor’s boasting, whether good humored or teasing or edgy all in the eye of the beholder, but also partly she meant it as a despairing lament that these days, whatever you did, there was always someone in the world prepared to do it cheaper. Where could she go after free?

  Reacher paid for a room.

  He asked her, “Where could I wash my clothes around here?”

  “What clothes?” she said. “You don’t have a bag.”

  “Theoretically. Suppose I got a bag.”

  “You would go to a laundromat.”

  “How many do you have?”

  “How many do you need?”

  “Some might be better than others.”

  “Are you worried about bedbugs? You shouldn’t be. That’s what laundromats are for. Turn the dryer on high, and you kill them stone dead. That’s what I do here. With the sheets.”

  “Good to know,” Reacher said. “How many laundromats are there in Rapid City? I’m curious, is all. I like to know things.”

  She thought about it and almost answered, but then she stopped herself, too naturally meticulous to rely on memory alone. She wanted corroboration. She took a thin Yellow Pages from a drawer. She checked under L, and again under C, for coin-operated.

  “Three,” she said.

  “Do you know the owners?”

  Again she thought about it, at first looking skeptical, as if the question was odd and such acquaintances unlikely, but then her face changed, as if she was recalling old trade associations, and local business campaigns, and rubber chicken, and cocktail parties.

  She said, “Actually I do know two of the three.”

  “What are their names?”

  “Does it matter?”

  “I’m looking for a man named Arthur Scorpio.”

  “He’s the third of the three,” she said. “I don’t know him at all.”

  “But you know the name.”

  “This is a small town. We gossip.”

  “And?”

  “He’s not well spoken of.”

  “In what way?”

  “Just gossip. I shouldn’t repeat it. But a friend with a great-nephew in the police department says they have a file on Mr. Scorpio three inches thick.”

  “He buys and sells stolen property,” Reacher said. “That’s the story I got.”

  “Are you a policeman?”

  “No. Just a regular guy.”

  “What do you want from Arthur Scorpio?”

  “I want to ask him a question.”

  “You should proceed with great caution. Mr. Scorpio has a reputation for hostility.”

  “I’ll ask politely,” Reacher said.

  There was a Rapid City street plan in the front of the Yellow Pages. The old lady tore it out, very carefully, and she marked where the motel was, and where Scorpio’s laundromat was. She folded the page in quarters and gave it to Reacher. For the morning, no doubt she assumed, but he went straight there. Nearly ten o’clock in the evening. He walked long pitch-dark blocks, checking the old lady’s map wherever he found a bulb that worked, and then up ahead he saw the glow of neon. A late-night convenience store, on a corner. According to the old lady’s map, Scorpio’s laundromat was across the street and halfway down the block.

  Reacher found it right where it should be. Just beyond a dead tree. It was in the middle of the block, in the center unit of a larger structure that ran from corner to corner. It was currently closed for business. The lights were off. The door was locked, and it had a padlocked chain wrapped through the handles. The door was glass, with a wider window next to it. Inside was gloom, with a row of stacked machines on one wall, ghostly white and bulky, and a row of plastic lawn chairs on the other, below dispensers for change and soap and fabric conditioner and dryer sheets. Everything seemed to cost a dollar.

  Across the street was the lit-up convenience store way on the left, and then a shoe outlet, and then a couple of empty units dead ahead, and then a little right of center was a breakfast place. A real greasy spoon. Its front window was small, but its line of sight would be good. Its food too, probably. And its coffee. Reacher made a mental note.

  Then he walked around the block, and located the laundromat’s rear door, in an alley. It was a blank fireproof slab, made of metal. A standard industrial product. Nothing special. A zoning requirement, maybe, or insurance. It was locked.

  He walked back. He paced out the depth of the building, from the alley to the street. Too much. It was about twice the depth he could see through the laundromat’s window. Which meant there was another room in back, about equal in size. A storeroom, maybe, or offices. Where business was done, that gave rise to gossip.

  He stood in the dark a minute more, and then headed back the way he had come. On the opposite corner he stopped in at the convenience store. He figured a cup of coffee would be a good idea. Maybe a sandwich. He was hungry. There was another guy in there on the same mission. He was standing at the deli counter sipping from a go-cup. He was a small man, neat and compact, in a dark suit and a necktie. Apparently he had ordered an elaborate construction involving a fried egg and a large quantity of grated cheese. Clearly not worried about cholesterol. The counterman finished his work and wrapped the sloppy result first in paper, and then in aluminum foil. He handed it over and the guy in the suit turned and stepped around Reacher and headed for the door.

  Reacher ordered his go-to, which was roast beef and Swiss cheese, with mayo and mustard, on white bread. Plus coffee. The counterman turned away and spun up the slicing machine. Reacher asked him, “What do you know about the laundromat down the block?”

  The guy turned back. The blade hissed and sung behind him. He looked puzzled at first, and then a little hostile, as if he suspected someone was making fun of him. Then he looked preoccupied, as if he was struggling with a difficult arithmetic calculation, and coming out with an answer he liked but didn’t trust.

  He said, “That’s what the other guy just asked.”

  Reacher said, “The guy with the fried egg sandwich?”

  “But what does that kind of guy need with a laundromat? The suits go to the dry cleaner, and the shirts get starched for a buck and a half. Am I right?”

  “I’ll be back in a second,” Reacher said.

  He stepped to the door, and out to the sidewalk.

  No sign of the guy in the suit and the tie.

  No echo of lonely nighttime footsteps.

  Reacher came back in and stepped back to the counter, and the guy making his sandwich said, “He would need to wash his underwear, maybe. And socks. But all the hotels have laundry bags in the closet. A guy like that wouldn’t sit and watch the soap suds go a
round and around.”

  “You think he’s staying in a hotel?”

  “He’s not local. Did you get a look at him? He’s some kind of a professional person. I would say a lawyer, in town to try a big case, but he didn’t look rich enough. So now I’m thinking IRS or something. A government worker. And then you asked the same question. About the laundromat. I don’t think you’re IRS, but you could be a cop. So now I’m thinking Arthur Scorpio has got trouble coming.”

  “How do you feel about that?”

  “Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “Whether it works. Mr. Scorpio has been in trouble before. Nothing ever sticks.”

  Chapter 8

  The next morning Reacher left his not-free room just as the sun was coming up. He retraced his steps from the night before, until the last couple of blocks, which he looped around at a distance, until he was beyond them. Then he doubled back, toward Scorpio’s alley from the far side, and he peeked in.

  There was a sentry posted at the laundromat’s rear door. Leaning on the wall, arms folded, short black coat, black sweater, black pants and shoes. Maybe forty years old, maybe six-two, maybe two-ten.

  Reacher backed away, and looped around again at the same distance he had used before, two blocks over, two blocks down, so he could approach the breakfast place unseen, from the rear. He figured it would have an alley of its own behind it. Like Scorpio’s place. A necessary amenity. Greasy spoons generated a lot of trash. Eggshells, coffee grounds, packaging, leftovers. Drums of used grease. And where there was an alley would be a kitchen door. It would be open. Almost certainly a legal requirement. This door must remain unlocked during business hours. To act as a fire escape for the cook. Another necessary amenity. Greasy spoon kitchens burned like napalm.

  Reacher found the alley. Found the door. He went in through the kitchen. Into the dining room. He focused on the window, and stepped left for a better view.

  There was a second sentry at the laundromat’s front door. Same kind of guy. Same kind of pose. Leaning on the wall, impassive, dressed in black.

  Arthur Scorpio was taking precautions.

  There’s something out there.

  Reacher looked away, and looked around the room. And saw the guy he had seen the night before. In the convenience store. In the dark suit and the necktie. He was at the table under the window, looking out.

  Detective Gloria Nakamura repeated her routine from the previous day. Up before dawn, showered, dressed, breakfasted, and out the door a whole hour early. To work, but not yet. She parked where she had before, and turned in on Scorpio’s street, and felt the guy at the laundromat door watching her all the way. She walked to the breakfast place and went in.

  Her table was taken. Again. By the same guy as the day before. Bramall, Terrence, private investigator, Chicago. The same dark suit, a fresh shirt, a different tie.

  And standing in the middle of the room was Bigfoot.

  No doubt about it. The guy was huge. Not quite seven feet, but close. Almost to the ceiling. And he was wide. From shoulder to shoulder he looked like four basketballs in a rack in her high school gym. He had fists like Thanksgiving turkeys. He was wearing canvas work pants and a huge black T shirt. His forearms were battered and sculpted. His hair was a mess. Like he had toweled it dry but not combed it. Like he didn’t even own a comb. He hadn’t shaved in days. His face was all bone and stubble. His eyes were pale blue, like her car, and he was looking straight at her.

  Reacher saw a petite Asian woman, wearing a black skirt suit like a uniform. Five feet nothing, maybe ninety-five pounds soaking wet. Maybe thirty years old. Long black hair, big dark eyes, cute as a button. But no smile. A severe expression instead, as if she was in charge of something important. As if looking severe was the only way to stay in charge of it. Which was possibly true, when you were starting out from five feet nothing and ninety-five pounds. But whatever, she certainly wasn’t shy. She was looking straight back at him, openly, examining him, top to bottom and side to side. With some kind of dawning recognition in her eyes. Which he didn’t understand. Not at first. He was pretty sure he had never seen her before. He felt he would remember. Then he figured Jimmy Rat would have included a description. In the cover-your-ass phone call he must have made. A big guy in a black T shirt is coming. Maybe the Asian woman worked for Arthur Scorpio. Maybe she had been briefed about the emergency.

  Or maybe she was just an office worker, grumpy about her early start.

  He looked away.

  The guy in the necktie was still staring out the window. His expression was patient and contained. And equable. He looked like the type of guy who would give a polite answer to a reasonable question. But maybe only as a professional veneer. As if he held a place in a hierarchy where old-fashioned courtesy oiled the wheels. He reminded Reacher of army colonels he had known. Squared away, buttoned up, a little gray and dusty, but driven by some kind of quiet internal vigor and confidence.

  Reacher took a table against the wall, at a distance, where he could see out the window over the other guy’s head. Nothing was happening out there. The sentry was still leaning on the laundromat wall. Not moving. The lights were on inside. There were no customers yet.

  A waitress came by and Reacher ordered his go-to breakfast, which was coffee plus a short stack of pancakes with eggs, bacon and maple syrup. The coffee arrived first. Black, fresh, hot and strong. Pretty good.

  The Asian woman sat down at his table.

  She took a small vinyl wallet from her purse. She opened it up and held it out for inspection. On the left was a gold-colored shield. On the right was a photo ID behind a plastic window. It said Nakamura, Gloria, Detective, Rapid City Police Department. It had a picture of her face. Dark eyes, a severe expression.

  She said, “Were you in Wisconsin yesterday?”

  Which told Reacher that Jimmy Rat had indeed made a phone call. And that the Rapid City PD was tapping Scorpio’s line. Which meant there was an active and ongoing investigation. Probably the typed transcript of Jimmy Rat’s call was already the new top sheet in the three-inch file.

  But out loud he said, “Are you entitled to ask that question, even as a cop? I have the right to privacy, and the right to go where I want. It’s a First Amendment thing. And a Fourth.”

  “Are you declining to answer my question?”

  “No choice, I’m afraid. I was in the army. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. Can’t stop now.”

  “What’s your name?”

  “Reacher. First name Jack. No middle initial.”

  “What did you do in the army, Mr. Reacher?”

  “I was a military cop. A detective, just like you.”

  “And now you’re a private investigator?”

  She glanced at the guy in the necktie as she said it.

  Reacher asked her, “Is that guy a private investigator?”

  She said, “I decline to answer your question.”

  He smiled.

  He said, “I’m not a private investigator. Just a private citizen. What did you hear from Wisconsin?”

  “I’m not sure I should tell you.”

  “Cop to cop. Because that’s what we are.”

  “Are we?”

  “If you want to be.”

  She put her ID wallet back in her purse and took out her phone. She swiped through to a section with audio recordings. She chose one and touched an on-screen symbol. Reacher heard a plastic and distorted version of barroom noise, and then Jimmy Rat’s voice. He recognized it right away. It sounded fast and nervous. It said, “Arthur, this is Jimmy. I just had a guy inquiring about an item I got from you. He seems set on working his way along the chain of supply. I didn’t tell him anything, but he already found me somehow, so what I’m thinking is maybe he’ll somehow find you too.”

  Nakamura touched the pause symbol.

  Reacher said, “Why would that be me?”

  She pressed play again.

  Jimmy Rat said, “If he does
, take him seriously. That’s my advice. This guy is like Bigfoot come out of the forest. Heads up, OK?”

  Nakamura pressed stop.

  “Bigfoot?” Reacher said. “That’s not very nice.”

  She said, “What item?”

  “Does it matter? All I want to do is ask Scorpio a question. Then I’ll be gone.”

  “Suppose he doesn’t answer?”

  “Jimmy in Wisconsin did.”

  “Scorpio has protection.”

  “So did Jimmy in Wisconsin.”

  “What item?” Nakamura said again.

  Reacher dug in his pocket and came out with the ring. West Point 2005. The gold filigree, the black stone, the tiny size. He put it on the table. Nakamura picked it up. She tried it on. Third finger, right hand. It fit easily. Even loosely. But then, she was five feet nothing and
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