The Midnight Line by Lee Child


  weighed ninety-five pounds. Her fingers were about as thin as pencils.

  She took the ring off again. She weighed it in her palm. She looked at the inside, at the engraving. She asked, “Who is S.R.S.?”

  “I don’t know,” Reacher said.

  “So what’s the story?”

  “I found it in a pawn shop in a small town in Wisconsin. It’s not the kind of thing you would give up easily. This woman suffered four hard years to get it. Every day they tried to break her and make her quit. That’s how West Point works. And 9/11 had just happened. Those were serious years. And what came afterward was worse. Iraq, and Afghanistan. She might have sold her car, or the watch she got from her aunt for Christmas, but she wouldn’t have sold her ring.”

  “Does this guy Jimmy own the pawn shop?”

  Reacher shook his head. “He’s a local biker. Goes by the name Jimmy Rat. He wholesaled the ring along with a bunch of other trinkets. He told me he got it from Arthur Scorpio, here in Rapid City. So now I want to know who Arthur Scorpio got it from. That’s the only question I want to ask him.”

  “He won’t tell you.”

  “That’s what the guy in the pawn shop said about Jimmy Rat.”

  Nakamura didn’t reply. Nothing was happening out the window. The waitress came back with Reacher’s meal. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, maple syrup. It looked good. He asked for more coffee. Nakamura ordered hot tea and a bran muffin.

  Reacher put the ring back in his pocket.

  The guy in the necktie got up and left.

  Still nothing happening out the window.

  Reacher asked, “What kind of private investigator is he?”

  Nakamura said, “I didn’t say he was.”

  “I told you stuff. Now you can tell me stuff.”

  The waitress brought Nakamura’s muffin. It was about as big as her head. She broke off a pea-sized crumb and ate it.

  She said, “He’s from Chicago. His name is Terry Bramall. He’s retired FBI. He finds missing persons.”

  “Who is he looking for here?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Is Scorpio a kidnapper too?”

  “We don’t think so.”

  “Yet Mr. Bramall from Chicago is watching his place. Not just this morning. He was in the neighborhood last night. I saw him in the convenience store.”

  “You got in last night?”

  Reacher nodded. “Pretty late.”

  “You came straight here from Wisconsin. This is important to you.”

  “I could have gotten here sooner. I took a nap in Sioux Falls.”

  “Exactly how did you get Arthur Scorpio’s name from Jimmy Rat?”

  “I asked him nicely.”

  She didn’t reply. He carried on eating his breakfast. She sipped her tea. There was a long silence.

  Then she said, “Arthur Scorpio is not well liked within the police department.”

  “Understood,” Reacher said.

  “Nevertheless I am officially required to warn you against committing any kind of crime inside our jurisdiction.”

  “Don’t worry,” Reacher said. “All I’m going to do is ask him a question. No law against that.”

  “What if he doesn’t answer?”

  “I suppose that’s always a theoretical possibility,” Reacher said.

  She took a business card from her purse. She put it on the table, near his coffee cup. She said, “Those are my numbers. Office and cell. Call me if you need to talk. Scorpio is a dangerous man. Never forget that.”

  She put five bucks on the table. For her tea and her muffin. Then she got up and left. Out the door, along the sidewalk, and out of sight.

  Still nothing happening out the window.

  She had left her muffin. Whole and untouched, apart from the pea-sized crumb she had eaten. So Reacher ate the rest of it, with another mug of coffee. Then he called for his check, and asked for quarters in his change. He stopped in the restroom corridor, where there was a pay phone on the wall. Just like there was in the bar in Wisconsin. Which was where Jimmy Rat had made his call to Arthur Scorpio. The background noise proved it. Reacher had seen the guy loop around the line of bikes, to the rear of the building, where he must have gone in the back door, where he must have seen the phone on the wall, where he must have decided upon an immediate warning. Right there and then. While Reacher was still outside, still talking to the county cop.

  Some kind of urgency.

  Reacher leaned on the wall, where he could still watch the front window, and he dialed the same ancient number from memory.

  The same woman answered.

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

  “This is Reacher,” he said.

  “Wait one, major.”

  She knew his rank. She had read his file. There was a click, and a long silence, and then another click, and a man’s voice said, “This is the supe.”

  The superintendent. The big boss. What any other college would call the president.

  Reacher said, “Good morning, general,” politely but vaguely, because he didn’t know the guy’s name. He didn’t keep up with alumni affairs. But the supe was always a general. Usually smart and accomplished, sometimes progressive, never a pushover.

  The guy said, “Your inquiry yesterday was most irregular.”

  “Yes, sir,” Reacher said, purely out of habit. In such situations there were only three permissible responses at West Point: Yes sir, no sir, no excuse sir.

  The guy said, “I would like an explanation.”

  So Reacher told the same story he had just gotten through telling Nakamura, about the pawn shop, and the ring, and his nagging sense of disquiet.

  The supe said, “So this is about a ring.”

  “It seemed significant.”

  “Yesterday you implied the former cadet was in danger.”

  “She might be.”

  “But you don’t know for sure.”

  “She pawned the ring, or sold it, or had it stolen. Any of which would suggest some kind of misfortune. I think we should find out.”

  “We?”

  “She’s one of ours, general.”

  The guy said, “I read your file. You did well. Not well enough to get a statue on campus, which you wouldn’t get anyway, mostly because of the corners you cut.”

  “No excuse, sir,” Reacher said, purely out of habit.

  “I have one obvious question. What are you doing now?”

  “Nothing.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “It’s a long story, general. We shouldn’t take the time.”

  “Major, I’m sure you understand that supplying personal details about current or former military personnel is strictly prohibited about nineteen different ways. The only possible chance it could happen would be a top-secret off-the-record whisper from one West Pointer to another. Purely as a courtesy. Exactly the kind of oak-paneled bullshit we’re always being accused of. Therefore naturally you and I face a question of mutual trust. Possibly less important to you than to me. You could put my mind at rest by letting me take your measure.”

  Reacher was quiet a beat.

  “I get uneasy,” he said. “I can’t stay in one place. I’m sure if you gave the VA enough time, they could come up with a name for it. Maybe I could get a check from the government.”

  “It’s a medical condition?”

  “Some would say.”

  “Does it bother you?”

  “Turns out I don’t want to stay in one place anyway.”

  “How frequently do you move around?”

  “Constantly.”

  “Do you think that’s a fitting way for a West Pointer to live?”

  “I think it’s perfectly fitting.”

  “In what sense?”

  “We fought for freedom. This is what freedom looks like.”

  The guy said, “There are a hundred reasons for selling a ring. Or pawning it. Or losing it, or getting it
stolen somehow. Not all the reasons are bad. This could be completely innocent.”

  “Could be? That’s a little lukewarm, general. Sounds like you don’t know for sure. Even after reading her file. Which therefore can’t have reassured you completely. So now you’re hinting about a whisper. Because now you’re worried. I think deep down you want to tell me her name. So let me guess. She took off the green suit and now she’s under the radar.”

  “Three years ago.”

  “After what?”

  “Five hard tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

  “Doing what?”

  “Unpleasant things, I imagine.”

  “Is she small?”

  “Like a bird.”

  “That’s her,” Reacher said. “Now it’s decision time, general. What are you going to do?”

  The supe didn’t answer.

  Out the window Reacher saw a black sedan slow up. It stopped on the curb across the street. Outside the laundromat. The driver’s door opened. A guy climbed out. He was tall and bony. Maybe fifty years old. He had gray hair cut short. He was wearing a black suit with a white shirt buttoned to the neck, but without a tie. He stood on the sidewalk for a second, and looked a question at the sentry at the door. Who shook his head, as if to say, No trouble, boss.

  Arthur Scorpio.

  Who nodded back at the sentry, and then stepped past him, in through the door.

  The sentry stepped across the sidewalk in the other direction and got in Scorpio’s car. He drove it away. To park it, presumably. On a side street, or in the alley. Maybe a five-minute absence. The first of two such absences, presumably. He would go retrieve the car at close of business. Two five-minute windows every day.

  Good to know.

  In Reacher’s ear the West Point supe said, “She might not want to be found. Did you consider that? No one comes back whole. Not from five tours.”

  “I’m not trying to sell her a timeshare in Mexico. If she looks OK from a distance I’ll walk away and leave her alone.”

  “How will you even find her? She’s under the radar. Will her name even help?”

  “It won’t hurt,” Reacher said. “Especially not at the end. I’ll follow the ring until I find someone who heard of her.”

  The supe said, “Her name is Serena Rose Sanderson.”

  Chapter 9

  Out the window the front sentry walked back into view, after parking Scorpio’s car. He resumed his position, leaning on the wall to the left of the laundromat door, arms folded, impassive.

  He had been gone just over five minutes.

  Still no customers inside.

  Into the phone Reacher said, “Where is Serena Rose Sanderson from?”

  “As a cadet her home state was listed as Wyoming,” the supe said. “That’s all we’ve got. You think she went back there?”

  “Depends,” Reacher said. “For some people, home is the first place they go. For others, it’s the last. What was she like?”

  “She was before my time,” the supe said. “But her file is very solid. She was pretty close to outstanding, without ever quite getting there. Never in the top five, always in the top ten. That kind of person. She branched infantry, which was considered a smart choice for a woman, back in ’05. She knew she wouldn’t see combat, but she guessed the chaos would push her pretty damn near to it. Which I’m sure is what happened. Close support units were always busy. A lot of driving for resupply, which meant a lot of roadside IEDs. Plus vehicle recovery, which would have exposed her out in the open. Off post she would have been armed at all times. I’m sure she was in firefights. Those units took plenty of casualties, same as anyone else. She has a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. So she was wounded herself at some point.”

  “Rank?”

  “Terminal at major,” the guy said. “Like you. On her last tour she was doing a pretty big job. She led her soldiers well. On paper she’s a credit to the school.”

  “OK,” Reacher said. “Thank you, general.”

  “So proceed, but with caution.”

  “Don’t worry.”

  “I do.”

  “Why?”

  “I read your file,” the guy said again. “If you tilt it right and hold it in a sunbeam you can see the invisible writing. You were effective, but reckless.”

  “Was I?”

  “You know you were. You got away with things time after time.”

  “Did I?”

  “One damn thing after another. But you always came up smelling of roses.”

  “Then draw the appropriate conclusion, general. I wasn’t reckless. I was relying on methods I knew had worked before, and would likely work again. I felt I was the opposite of reckless. There’s a clue in the word. Reck comes from reckon, and I felt I did more reckoning than most folks. Not less.”

  “Call me back,” the guy said. “Let me know about Sanderson.”

  For the second day running Gloria Nakamura was early to work. She parked her car and walked up the stairs. The mother hen at the gate to the detectives’ pen told her the lieutenant wanted to see her. First thing. Urgent but not critical. The mother hen said his voice on the phone had sounded OK. Not particularly angry.

  Nakamura dropped her bag at her desk and headed off down the corridor. The lieutenant’s office was a corner suite at the far end of the floor. He was a cancer survivor, worn down to nothing but lacy bone and sinew, but lit up through his papery skin by some kind of crazed internal energy. He had gotten some bonus years, and he was going to slap the shit out of them. He was going to get big things done. Privately Nakamura felt his brush with death had produced an epiphany. He was afraid of being forgotten.

  He was at his desk, reading email.

  He said, “You sent me a thing about Arthur Scorpio.”

  She said, “The voicemail from Wisconsin. Yes, boss. There have been developments.”

  “Has Bigfoot arrived?”

  “Yes, boss, I believe he has. But first there was a private eye from Chicago.”

  “What did he want?”

  “He wouldn’t say. But I checked him out. He’s a missing persons specialist. Very expensive.”

  “Who’s missing?”

  “About a million people nationwide.”

  “Any reason to believe one of them is washing his shorts in Scorpio’s place?”

  “There’s nothing on the wires.”

  “Tell me about Bigfoot.”

  “He’s a military veteran named Reacher. He found a West Point class ring in a pawn shop and he’s tracing its provenance.”

  “Like a hobby?”

 
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