Extract: The Midnight Line by Lee Child
Jack Reacher takes an aimless stroll past a pawn shop in a small Midwestern town. In the window he sees a West Point class ring from 2005. It’s tiny. It’s a woman cadet’s graduation present to herself. Why would she give it up? Reacher’s a West Pointer too, and he knows what she went through to get it.
Reacher tracks the ring back to its owner, step by step, down a criminal trail leading west. Like Big Foot come out of the forest, he arrives in the deserted wilds of Wyoming. All he wants is to find the woman. If she’s OK, he’ll walk away. If she’s not … he’ll stop at nothing.
Read on for the first three chapters from The Midnight Line!
The Midnight Line
Jack Reacher and Michelle Chang spent three days in Milwaukee. On the fourth morning she was gone. Reacher came back to the room with coffee and found a note on his pillow. He had seen such notes before. They all said the same thing. Either directly or indirectly. Chang’s note was indirect. And more elegant than most. Not in terms of presentation. It was a ballpoint scrawl on motel notepaper gone wavy with damp. But elegant in terms of expression. She had used a simile, to explain and flatter and apologize all at once. She had written, You’re like New York City. I love to visit, but I could never live there.
He did what he always did. He let her go. He understood. No apology required. He couldn’t live anywhere. His whole life was a visit. Who could put up with that? He drank his coffee, and then hers, and took his toothbrush from the bathroom glass, and walked away, through a knot of streets, left and right, towards the bus depot. She would be in a taxi, he guessed. To the airport. She had a gold card and a cell phone.
At the depot he did what he always did. He bought a ticket for the first bus out, no matter where it was going. Which turned out to be an end-of-the-line place way north and west, on the shore of Lake Superior. Fundamentally the wrong direction. Colder, not warmer. But rules were rules, so he climbed aboard. He sat and watched out the window. Wisconsin flashed by, its hayfields baled and stubbly, its pastures worn, its trees dark and heavy. It was the end of summer.
It was the end of several things. She had asked the usual questions. Which were really statements in disguise. She could understand a year. Absolutely. A kid who grew up on bases overseas, and was then deployed to bases overseas, with nothing in between except four years at West Point, which wasn’t exactly known as a leisure-heavy institution, then obviously such a guy was going to take a year to travel and see the sights before he settled down. Maybe two years. But not more. And not permanently. Face it. The pathology meter was twitching.
All said with concern, and no judgement. No big deal. Just a two-minute conversation. But the message was clear. As clear as such messages could be. Something about denial. He asked, denial of what? He didn’t secretly think his life was a problem.
That proves it, she said.
So he got on the bus to the end-of-the-line place, and he would have ridden it all the way, because rules were rules, except he took a stroll at the second comfort stop, and he saw a ring in a pawn shop window.
The second comfort stop came late in the day, and it was on the sad side of a small town. Possibly a seat of county government. Or some minor part of it. Maybe the county police department was headquartered there. There was a jail in town. That was clear. Reacher could see bail bond offices, and a pawn shop. Full service, right there, side by side on a run-down street beyond the restroom block.
He was stiff from sitting. He scanned the street beyond the restroom block. He started walking towards it. No real reason. Just strolling. Just loosening up. As he got closer he counted the guitars in the pawn shop window. Seven. Sad stories, all of them. Like the songs on country radio. Dreams, unfulfilled. Lower down in the window were glass shelves loaded with smaller stuff. All kinds of jewellery. Including rings. Including class rings. All kinds of high schools. Except one of them wasn’t. One of them was West Point 2005.
It was a handsome ring. It was a conventional shape, and a conventional style, with intricate gold filigree, and a black stone, maybe semi-precious, maybe glass, surrounded by an oval hoop that had West Point around the top, and 2005 around the bottom. Old-style letters. A classic approach. Either respect for bygone days, or a lack of imagination. West Pointers designed their own rings. Whatever they wanted. An old tradition. Or an old entitlement, because West Point class rings were the first class rings of all.
It was a very small ring.
Reacher wouldn’t have gotten it on any of his fingers. Not even his left-hand pinky, not even past the nail. Certainly not past the first knuckle. It was tiny. It was a woman’s ring. Possibly a replica for a girlfriend or a fiancée. That happened. Like a tribute or a souvenir.
But possibly not.
Reacher opened the pawn shop door. He stepped inside. A guy at the register glanced up. He was a big bear of a man, scruffy and unkempt. Maybe in his middle thirties, dark, with plenty of fat over a big frame anyway. With some kind of cunning in his eyes. Enough to calibrate a response to his sudden six-five two-fifty visitor. Driven purely by instinct. He wasn’t afraid. He had a loaded gun under the counter. Unless he was an idiot. Which he didn’t look. All the same, the guy didn’t want to risk sounding aggressive. But he didn’t want to sound obsequious, either. A matter of pride.
So he said, ‘How’s it going?’
Not well, Reacher thought. To be honest. Chang would be back in Seattle by then. Back in her life.
But he said, ‘Can’t complain.’
‘Can I help you?’
‘Show me your class rings.’
The guy threaded the tray backward off the shelf. He put it on the counter. The West Point ring had rolled over, like a tiny golf ball. Reacher picked it up. It was engraved inside. Which meant it wasn’t a replica. Not for a fiancée or a girlfriend. Replicas were never engraved. An old tradition. No one knew why.
Not a tribute, not a souvenir. It was the real deal. A cadet’s own ring, earned over four hard years. Worn with pride. Obviously. If you weren’t proud of the place, you didn’t buy a ring. It wasn’t compulsory.
The engraving said S.R.S. 2005.
The bus blew its horn three times. It was ready to go, but it was a passenger short. Reacher put the ring down and said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked out of the store. He hustled back past the restroom block and leaned in the door of the bus and said to the driver, ‘I’m staying here.’
‘Not looking for one.’
‘You got a bag in the hold?’
‘Have a nice day.’
The guy pulled a lever and the door sucked shut in Reacher’s face. The engine roared and the bus moved off without him. He turned away from the diesel smoke and walked back towards the pawn shop.
The guy in the pawn shop was a little disgruntled to have to get the ring tray out again so soon after he had put it away. But he did, and he placed it in the same spot on the counter. The West Point ring had rolled over again. Reacher picked it up.
He said, ‘Do you remember the woman who pawned this?’
‘How would I?’ the guy said. ‘I got a million things in here.’
‘You got records?’
‘You a cop?’
‘No,’ Reacher said.
‘Everything in here is legal.’
‘I don’t care. All I want is the name of the woman who brought you this ring.’
‘We went to the same school.’
‘Where is that? Upstate?’
‘East of here,’ Reacher said.
‘You can’t be a classmate. Not from 2005. No offence.’
‘None taken. I was from an earlier generation. But the place doesn’t change much. Which means I know how hard she worked for this ring. So now I’m wondering what kind of unlucky circumstance made her give it up.’
The guy said, ‘What kind of a school was it?’
‘They teach you practical things.’
‘Like a trade school?’
‘More or less.’
‘Maybe she died in an accident.’
‘Maybe she did,’ Reacher said. Or not in an accident, he thought. There had been Iraq, and there had been Afghanistan. 2005 had been a tough year to graduate. He said, ‘But I would like to know for sure.’
‘Why?’ the guy said again.
‘I can’t tell you exactly.’
‘Is it an honour thing?’
‘I guess it could be.’
‘Trade schools have that?’
‘Some of them.’
‘There was no woman. I bought that ring. With a lot of other stuff.’
‘About a month ago.’
‘I’m not going to tell you my business. Why should I? It’s all legal. It’s all perfectly legitimate. The state says so. I have a licence and I pass all kinds of inspections.’
‘Then why be shy about it?’
‘It’s private information.’
Reacher said, ‘Suppose I buy the ring?’
‘It’s fifty bucks.’
‘Deal,’ Reacher said. ‘So now I’m entitled to know its provenance.’
‘This ain’t Sotheby’s auction house.’
The guy paused a beat.
Then he said, ‘It was from a guy who helps out with a charity. People donate things and take the deduction. Mostly old cars and boats. But other things too. The guy gives them an inflated receipt for their tax returns, and then he sells the things he gets wherever he can, for whatever he can, and then he cuts a cheque to the charity. I buy the small stuff from him. I get what I get, and I hope to turn a profit.’
‘So you think someone donated this ring to a charity and took a deduction on their income tax?’
‘Makes sense, if the original person died. From 2005. Part of the estate.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Reacher said. ‘I think a relative would have kept it.’
‘Depends if the relative was eating well.’
‘You got tough times here?’
‘I’m OK. But I own the pawn shop.’
‘Yet people still donate to good causes.’
‘In exchange for phony receipts. In the end the government eats the tax relief. Welfare by another name.’
Reacher said, ‘Who is the charity guy?’
‘I won’t tell you that.’
‘It’s none of your business. I mean, who the hell are you?’
‘Just a guy already having a pretty bad day. Not your fault, of course, but if asked to offer advice I would have to say it might prove a dumb idea to make my day worse. You might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.’
‘You threatening me now?’
‘More like the weather report. A public service. Like a tornado warning. Prepare to take cover.’
‘Get out of my store.’
‘Fortunately I no longer have a headache. I got hit in the head, but that’s all better now. A doctor said so. A friend made me go. Two times. She was worried about me.’
The pawn shop guy paused another beat.
Then he said, ‘Exactly what kind of a school was that ring from?’
Reacher said, ‘It was a military academy.’
‘Those are for, excuse me, problem kids. Or disturbed. No offence.’
‘Don’t blame the kids,’ Reacher said. ‘Look at the families. Tell the truth, at our school there were a lot of parents who had killed people.’
‘More than the average.’
‘So you stick together for ever?’
‘We don’t leave anyone behind.’
‘The guy won’t talk to a stranger.’
‘Does he have a licence and does he pass inspections by the state?’
‘What I’m doing here is legal. My lawyer says so. As long as I honestly believe it. And I do. It’s from a charity. I’ve seen the paperwork. All kinds of people do it. They even have commercials on TV. Cars, mostly. Sometimes boats.’
‘But this particular guy won’t talk to me?’
‘I would be surprised.’
‘Does he have no manners?’
‘I wouldn’t ask him over to a picnic.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘That’s what he goes by.’
‘Where would I find Mr Rat?’
‘Look for a minimum six Harley-Davidsons. Jimmy will be in whatever bar they’re outside of.’
The town was relatively small. Beyond the sad side was a side maybe five years from going sad. Maybe more. Maybe ten. There was hope. There were some boarded-up enterprises, but not many. Most stores were still doing business, at a leisurely rural pace. Big pick-up trucks rolled through, slowly. There was a billiard hall. Not many street lights. It was getting dark. Something about the architecture made it clear it was dairy country. The shape of the stores looked like old-fashioned milking barns. The same DNA was in there somewhere.
There was a bar in a stand-alone wooden building, with a patch of weedy gravel for parking, and on the gravel were seven Harley-Davidsons, all in a neat line. Possibly not actual Hell’s Angels as such. Possibly one of many other parallel denominations. Bikers were as split as Baptists. All the same, but all different. Apparently these particular guys liked black leather tassels and chromium plating. They liked to lay back and ride with their legs spread wide and their feet sticking out in front of them. Possibly a cooling effect. Perhaps necessary. Generally they wore heavy leather vests. And pants, and boots. All black. Hot, in late summer.
The bikes were all painted dark shiny colours, four with orange flames, three with rune-like symbols outlined in silver. The bar was dull with age, and some shingles had slipped. There was an air conditioner in one of the windows, straining to keep up, dripping water in a puddle below. A cop car rolled past, slowly, its tyres hissing on the blacktop. County Police. Probably spent the first half of its watch ginning up municipal revenue with a radar gun out on the highway, now prowling the back streets of the towns in its jurisdiction. Showing the flag. Paying attention to the trouble spots. The cop inside turned his head and gazed at Reacher. The guy was nothing like the pawnbroker. He was all squared away. His face was lean, and his eyes were wise. He was sitting behind the wheel with a ramrod posture, and his haircut was fresh. A whitewall buzz cut. Maybe just a day old. Not more than two.
Reacher stood still and watched him roll away. He heard a motorcycle exhaust in the distance, coming closer, getting louder, heavy as a hammer. An eighth Harley came around the corner, as slow as gravity would allow, a heavy machine, blatting and popping, the rider lying back with his feet on pegs way out in front. He leaned into a turn and slowed on the gravel. He was wearing a black leather vest over a black T-shirt. He parked last in line. His bike idled like a blacksmith hitting an anvil. Then he shut it down and hauled it up on its stand. Silence came back.
Reacher said, ‘I’m looking for Jimmy Rat.’
The guy glanced at one of the other bikes. Couldn’t help himself. But he said, ‘Don’t know him,’ and walked away, stiff and bow-legged, to the door of the bar. He was pear-shaped, and maybe forty years old. Maybe five-ten, and bulky. He had a sallow tan, like his skin was rubbed with motor oil. He pulled the door and stepped inside.
Reacher stayed where he was. The bike the new guy had glanced at was one of the three with silver runes. It was as huge as all the others, but the footrests and the handlebars were set a little closer to the seat than most. About two inches closer than the new guy’s, for example. Which made Jimmy Rat about five-eight, possibly. Maybe skinny, to go with his name. Maybe armed, with a knife or a gun. Maybe vicious.
Reacher walked to the door of the bar. He pulled it open and stepped inside. The air was dark and hot and smelled of spilled beer. The room was rectangular, with a full-length copper bar on the left, and tables on the right. There was an arch in the rear wall, with a narrow corridor beyond. Restrooms and a payphone and a fire door. Four windows. A total of six potential exits. The first thing an ex-MP counted.
The eight bikers were packed in around two four-tops shoved together by a window. They had beers on the go, in heavy glasses wet with humidity. The new guy was shoehorned in, pear-shaped on a chair, with the fullest glass. Six of the others were in a similar category, in terms of size and shape and general visual appeal. One was worse. About five-eight, stringy, with a narrow face and restless eyes.
Reacher stopped at the bar and asked for coffee.
‘Don’t have any,’ the barman said. ‘Sorry.’
‘Is that Jimmy Rat over there? The small guy?’
‘You got a beef with him, you take it outside, OK?’
The barman moved away. Reacher waited. One of the bikers drained his glass and stood up and headed for the restroom corridor. Reacher crossed the room and sat down in his vacant chair. The wood felt hot. The eighth guy made the connection. He stared at Reacher, and then glanced at Jimmy Rat.
Who said, ‘This is a private party, bud. You ain’t invited.’
Reacher said, ‘I need some information.’
Jimmy Rat looked blank. Then he remembered. He glanced at the door, somewhere beyond which lay the pawn shop, where he had made assurances. He said, ‘Get lost, bud.’
Reacher put his left fist on the table. The size of a supermarket chicken. Long thick fingers with knuckles like walnuts. Old nicks and scars healed white against his summer tan. He said, ‘I don’t care what scam you’re running. Or who you’re stealing from. Or who you’re fencing for. I got no interest in any of that. All I want to know is where you got this ring.’
He opened his fist. The ring lay in his palm. West Point 2005. The gold filigree, the black stone. The tiny size. Jimmy Rat said nothing, but something in his eyes made Reacher believe he recognized the item.
Reacher said, ‘Another name for West Point is the United States Military Academy. There’s a clue right there, in the first two words. This is a federal case.’
‘You a cop?’
‘No, but I got a quarter for the phone.’
The missing guy got back from the restroom. He stood behind Reacher’s chair, arms spread in exaggerated perplexity. As if to say, what the hell is going on here? Who is this guy? Reacher kept one eye on Jimmy Rat, and one on the window alongside him, where he could see a faint ghostly reflection of what was happening behind his shoulder.
Jimmy Rat said, ‘That’s someone’s chair.’
‘Yeah, mine,’ Reacher said.
‘You’ve got five seconds.’
‘I’ve got as long as it takes for you to answer my question.’
‘You feeling lucky tonight?’
‘I won’t need to be.’
Reacher put his right hand on the table. It was a little larger than his left. Normal for right-handed people. It had a few more nicks and scars, including a white V-shaped blemish that looked like a snakebite, but had been made by a nail.
Jimmy Rat shrugged, like the whole conversation was really no big deal.
He said, ‘I’m part of a supply chain. I get stuff from other people who get it from other people. That ring was donated or sold or pawned and not redeemed. I don’t know anything more than that.’
‘What other people did you get it from?’
Jimmy Rat said nothing. Reacher watched the window with his left eye. With his right he saw Jimmy Rat nod. The reflection in the glass showed the guy behind winding up a big roundhouse right. Clearly the plan was to smack Reacher on the ear. Maybe topple him off the chair. At least soften him up a little.
Reacher chose the path of least resistance. He ducked his head, and let the punch scythe through the empty air above it. Then he bounced back up, and launched from his feet, and twisted, and used his falling-backward momentum to jerk his elbow into the guy’s kidney, which was rotating around into position just in time. It was a good solid hit. The guy went down hard. Reacher fell back in his chair and sat there like absolutely nothing had happened.
Jimmy Rat stared.
The barman called, ‘Take it outside, pal. Like I told you.’
He sounded like he meant it.
Jimmy Rat said, ‘Now you’ve got trouble.’
He sounded like he meant it too.
Right then Chang would be shopping for dinner, probably. Maybe a small grocery close to her home. Wholesome ingredients. But simple. She was probably tired.
A bad day.
Reacher said, ‘I’ve got six fat guys and a runt. That’s a walk in the park.’
He stood up. He turned and stepped on the guy on the floor and walked over him. Onwards to the door. Out to the gravel, and the line of shiny bikes. He turned and saw the others come out after him. The not-very magnificent seven. Generally stiff and bow-legged, and variously contorted due to beer guts and bad posture. But still, a lot of weight. In the aggregate. Plus fourteen fists, and fourteen boots.
Possibly steel capped.
Maybe a very bad day.
But who cared, really?
The seven guys fanned out into a semicircle, three on Jimmy Rat’s left, and three on his right. Reacher kept moving, rotating them the way he wanted, his back to the street. He didn’t want to get trapped up against someone’s rear fence. He didn’t want to get jammed in a corner. He didn’t plan on running, but an option was always a fine thing to have.
The seven guys tightened their semicircle, but not enough. They stayed about ten feet away, with better than a yard between each of them. Which made the first two plays obvious. They would come shuffling in, slowly, maybe grunting and glaring, whereupon Reacher would move fast and punch his way through the line, after which everyone would turn around, Reacher now facing a new inverted semicircle, now only six in number. Then rinse and repeat, which would reduce them to five. They wouldn’t fall for it a third time, so at that point they would swarm, all except Jimmy Rat, who Reacher figured wouldn’t fight at all. Too smart. Which in the end would make it a close-quarters four-on-one brawl.
A bad day.
‘Last chance,’ Reacher said. ‘Tell the little guy to answer my question, and you can all go back to your suds.’
No one spoke. They tightened some more and hunched down into crouches and started shuffling forward, hands apart and ready. Reacher picked out his first target and waited. He wanted him five feet away. One pace, not two. Better to save the extra energy for later.
Then he heard tyres on the road again, behind him, and in front of him the seven guys straightened up and looked around, with exaggerated wide-eyed innocence all over their faces. Reacher turned and saw the cop car again. The same guy. County police. The car coasted to a stop and the guy took a good long look. He buzzed his passenger window down, and leaned across inside, and caught Reacher’s eye, and said, ‘Sir, please approach the vehicle.’
Which Reacher did, but not on the passenger side. He didn’t want to turn his back. Instead he tracked around the trunk to the driver’s window. Which buzzed down, while the passenger side buzzed up. The cop had his gun in his hand. Relaxed, held low in his lap.
The cop said, ‘Want to tell me what’s going on here?’
Reacher said, ‘Were you army or Marine Corps?’
‘Why would I be either?’
‘Most of you are, in a place like this. Especially the ones who hike all the way to the nearest PX to get their hair cut.’
‘I was army.’
‘Me too. There’s nothing going on here.’
‘I need to hear the whole story. Lots of guys were in the army. I don’t know you.’
‘Jack Reacher, 110th MP. Terminal at major. Pleased to meet you.’
The cop said, ‘I heard of the 110th MP.’
‘In a good way, I hope.’
‘Your HQ was in the Pentagon, right?’
‘No, our HQ was in Rock Creek, Virginia. Some ways north and west of the Pentagon. I had the best office there for a couple of years. Was that your security question?’
‘You passed the test. Rock Creek it was. Now tell me what’s going on. You looked like you were fixing to fight these guys.’
‘So far we’re just talking,’ Reacher said. ‘I asked them something. They told me they would prefer to answer me outside in the open air. I don’t know why. Maybe they were worried about eavesdroppers.’
‘What did you ask them?’
‘Where they got this ring.’
Reacher rested his wrist on the door and opened his hand.
‘West Point,’ the cop said.
‘Sold to the pawn shop by these guys. I want to know where they got it.’
‘I don’t know exactly. I guess I want to know the story.’
‘These guys won’t tell you.’
‘You know them?’
‘Nothing we can prove.’
‘They bring stuff in from South Dakota through Minnesota. Two states away. But never enough to get the Feds interested. And never enough to put a South Dakota detective on an airplane. So it’s pretty much a risk-free system.’
‘Where in South Dakota?’
‘We don’t know.’
Reacher said nothing.
The cop said, ‘You should get in the car. There are seven of them.’
‘I’ll be OK,’ Reacher said.
‘I’ll arrest you, if you like. To make it look good. But you need to be gone. Because I need to be gone. I can’t stay here all day.’
‘Don’t worry about me.’
‘Maybe I should arrest you anyway.’
‘For what? Something that hasn’t happened yet?’
‘For your own safety.’
‘I could take offence,’ Reacher said. ‘You don’t seem very worried about their safety. You talk like it’s a foregone conclusion.’
‘Get in the car. Call it a tactical retreat. You can find out about the ring some other way.’
‘What other way?’
‘Then forget all about it. A buck gets ten there’s no story at all. Probably the guy came back all sad and bitter and sold the damn ring as fast as he could. To pay the rent on his trailer.’
‘Is that how it is around here?’
‘You’re doing OK.’
‘It’s a spectrum.’
‘It wasn’t a guy. The ring is too small. It was a woman.’
‘Women live in trailers too.’
Reacher nodded. He said, ‘I agree, a buck gets ten it’s nothing. But I want to know for sure. Just in case.’
Silence for a moment. Just the engine’s whispered idle, and a breeze in the telephone wires.
‘Last chance,’ the cop said. ‘Play it smart. Get in the car.’
‘I’ll be OK,’ Reacher said again. He stepped back and straightened up. The cop shook his head in exasperation, and waited a beat, and then gave up and drove away, slowly, tyres hissing on the blacktop, exhaust fumes trailing. Reacher watched him all the way to the corner, and then he stepped back up on the sidewalk, where the black-clad semicircle reformed around him.