Authors: Lee Child
Tags: #FIC000000 Fiction / General
“About the moon landings.”
“That's called non-fiction. There's another kind, called fiction. You make stuff up, perhaps to illuminate a greater central truth. In your case, maybe you could tell me a story about a poor homeless man, maybe from out of town, who came in to launder his clothes, except he had no money, nothing at all except a ring, which you reluctantly traded for a couple of hot-wash cycles and a couple of dryer loads, plus enough left over for a square meal and a bed for the night. All out of the kindness of your generous heart. Detective Nakamura couldn't argue with that. It would be a fine story.”
“I would have to admit selling the ring to Jimmy Rat.”
“Which was perfectly legal. You run a laundromat. You carry quarters to the bank. You don't know what to do with a ring. Fortunately a guy passing by on his motorcycle offered to buy it from you. Not your fault he turned out to be a bad guy. You're not your brother's keeper.”
“You think that's a good enough story?”
“I think it's a fine story,” Reacher said again. “Just as long as you happen to remember the out-of-towner's name.”
“Out of state,” Scorpio said. “That's exactly what happened. More or less. Some broke guy came in from Wyoming. I helped him out.”
“Six weeks ago, maybe.”
“From where in Wyoming?”
“I believe a small town called Mule Crossing.”
“What was his name?”
“I believe it was Seymour Porterfield. I believe he told me people call him Sy.”
Across the street Nakamura was still watching. Reacher stood up and stepped over the left-hand sentry. He looked at a tumble dryer. Bigger than people had in their homes. Good for comforters and other large items. He might have gotten Scorpio in there.
He said, “You want me to leave through the back door?”
Scorpio shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Go out the front.”
So Reacher stepped over the right-hand sentry and pushed out to the sidewalk. The air smelled warm and fresh. He turned right and started walking. He heard Nakamura's car start up. He heard the wheeze of its steering, and grit under its tires, and then it pulled alongside him and stopped. The same as Scorpio's, except lower and bluer.
The window came down.
Black hair, dark eyes, a severe expression.
She said, “Get in the car.”
“You mad at me now?”
“I told you not to commit a crime inside my jurisdiction.”
“We were in the laundromat. Does that even count?”
“That's not fair. We're trying.”
Reacher opened the passenger door and slid inside. He racked the seat backward, for leg room. He said, “I apologize. I know you're trying. Scorpio is a tough nut to crack.”
“What did he tell you?”
“The ring came in from a guy in Wyoming named Sy Porterfield. About six weeks ago. Scorpio as good as admitted an onward connection to Jimmy Rat in Wisconsin. So he's part of a chain, flowing west to east along the I-90 corridor.”
“Can't prove it.”
“Also he pays off restaurant workers for information. Which he claims is only one of many networks he's running. Maybe he's the neighborhood bookie. Maybe he lends money.”
“Can't prove any of it.”
“But I'm not sure how successful he is. His personal vehicle is a piece of crap worth about a hundred dollars, and his goons had guns older than you.”
“Did the car work?”
“I guess so.”
“Would the guns have worked?”
“Probably. Revolvers are usually pretty reliable.”
“This is South Dakota. People are thrifty. I think Arthur Scorpio is plenty successful.”
“Where are the guns now?”
Reacher took them out of his pockets and dropped them on her rear seat.
She said, “Thank you.”
He said, “Also there's something wrong with his back room. It would have made more sense to talk to me in there. Certainly it would have made more sense for me to leave that way. He must have known you would stop me and ask me questions. Better if I went out through the alley. You wouldn't have seen me. But he wouldn't let me. You should check it out.”
“We'd need a warrant.”
“You've got the tap on his phone. He might say something stupid. A buck gets ten he's calling Porterfield in Wyoming right now.”
“Is that where you're going?”
“As soon as I find a map. The town is called Mule Crossing. I never heard of it.”
Nakamura took out her phone. She swiped and typed and waited, and then she said, “It's down near Laramie. A wide spot in the road.”
She held out the phone to show him.
She said, “That's the I-80 corridor, not I-90.”
He said, “Population density drops to nothing west of here. A supply chain would need to branch out, literally. Maybe there are many Porterfields, all over Wyoming and Montana and Idaho. All feeding Scorpio, like a river system. Do you monitor his visitors?”
“We try, from time to time. We've seen cars and bikes in the alley. Some with out-of-state plates. People go in and out his back door.”
“You need to get a look in his back room. It ain't full of drums of spare detergent. That's for damn sure. The guy has no customers.”
Nakamura was quiet a beat.
Then she said, “Thanks for the report.”
He said, “You're welcome.”
“Can I give you a ride somewhere?”
“The bus depot, I guess. I'll take whatever heads west on I-90. I'll get out in Buffalo and go south to Laramie.”
“That would be the Seattle bus.”
“Yes,” Reacher said. “I thought it might be.”
He got out of Nakamura's car at the depot and said goodbye and wished her luck. He didn't expect to see her again. He bought a ticket as far as Buffalo, and sat down to wait, with about twenty other people. They were the usual mixture. The room had pale inoffensive walls, and fluorescent squares in the ceiling. Out the picture window was an empty asphalt space, where sooner or later the Seattle bus would show up. It was on its way from Sioux Falls.
Nakamura called her friend the tech, and asked him to check with his pal at the phone company, to see who Scorpio had called in the last hour, with special focus on outgoing attempts to the 307 area code, which was Wyoming.
No need to check, the guy told her. The lieutenant had re-upped electronic surveillance too. Everything on Scorpio's land line and personal cell was going straight to a hard drive, accessible from her desktop computer.
Only one problem, the guy said.
Scorpio had made no calls at all.
Reacher saw South Dakota change to Wyoming through the bus window. He was in his favorite spot, on the left, over the rear axle. Most people avoided that location, because they feared a bumpy ride. It was everyone else's last choice. Which made it his first.
He liked Wyoming. For its heroic geography, and its heroic climate. And its emptiness. It was the size of the United Kingdom, but it had fewer people in it than Louisville, Kentucky. The Census Bureau called most of it uninhabited. What people there were tended to be straightforward and pleasant. They were happy to leave a person alone.
The first part of the state was high plains. Fall had already started. He gazed across the immense tawny distances, to the specter of the mountains beyond. The highway was a dark blacktop ribbon, mostly empty. From time to time trucks would pass the bus, slowly, sometimes spending a whole minute alongside, edging ahead imperceptibly. Reacher was eye to eye with their drivers, across their empty cabs. Old men, all of them.
My wife would say you feel guilty about something
He looked the other way, across the aisle, at the other horizon.
Nakamura walked the length of the corridor to her lieutenant's corner suite. He looked up, all glittering eyes and restlessness.
“Bigfoot left,” she said. “Scorpio answered his question. Next stop Wyoming.”
“What's in Wyoming?”
“The ring was supplied to Scorpio by a man named Porterfield from a town named Mule Crossing. About six weeks ago.”
“How did Bigfoot make Scorpio tell him all that?”
“He decked the muscle. I suppose Scorpio knew he was next.”
“Did you see it happen?”
“Not really,” Nakamura said. “It was over very fast. I couldn't swear to exactly what took place. Not precisely enough for a courtroom.”
“So we're nowhere,” the lieutenant said. “In fact we're back a step. Scorpio's phones have gone quiet. Which means he went to the pharmacy and bought a burner and some pre-paid minutes. Which means from now on we have no idea who or where he's calling.”
The lieutenant said nothing more. He returned to his email. Nakamura walked back to her desk, quiet and alone.
More than eight hundred miles east, in an expensive kitchen in a big Tudor house on the Gold Coast north of Chicago, a woman named Tiffany Jane Mackenzie dialed Terry Bramall's cell number. It rang and rang and wasn't picked up. A recorded voice came on and asked her to leave a message.
She said, “Mr. Bramall, this is Mrs. Mackenzie. I'm wondering if you've made any progress. So far, I mean. Or not, I suppose. I would like to hear either way, so please call me back as soon as you can. Thank you. Goodbye.”
Then Mrs. Mackenzie used her phone to check her email, and her bookmarked web pages, and her chat rooms, and her message boards.
Reacher got out of the bus at the Buffalo stop. His onward options were limited. There was no direct service to Laramie. There was a departure to nearby Cheyenne, but not until the next day. So he set out walking, following signs to the highway south, with his thumb out, hoping to get a ride before he hit the on-ramp. About fifty-fifty, he figured. Heads or tails. In his favor was a friendly population not given to irrational fears. Against him was almost no traffic at all. The friendly population was thinly spread. Wyoming. Mostly uninhabited.
But even so, he came up heads within half a mile. A dusty pick-up stopped alongside him, and the driver leaned across and said he was going to Casper, which was about halfway to both Cheyenne and Laramie, straight south on I-25. Reacher climbed in and got comfortable. The truck was a Toyota. It was raised up on its suspension and tricked out with all kinds of heavy-duty components. It looked fit for service on the back side of the moon. Certainly it handled I-25 with no trouble at all. It droned along pretty fast. The driver was a rangy guy in work boots and off-brand jeans. A carpenter, he said, busy fixing roof beams before the winter. Also a rock crawler, he said, on the weekends. If he got weekends. Reacher asked him what a rock crawler was. Turned out to mean driving off-road vehicles over extreme boulder-strewn terrain, or along rocky rapids in dried-up mountain streams. Reacher was at best a reluctant driver, so any assessment was necessarily theoretical, but he was inclined to admit it sounded fun, if pointless.
Nakamura drove her Chevy back to Scorpio's block, but on a hunch she stopped short of the laundromat and parked outside the convenience store instead. She went in and looked around. An inventory check. She saw all kinds of canned and packaged foods, and coolers full of soda and juice and beer in bottles, and rolls of paper towel, and potato chips and candy, and a deli counter, and behind the register a wall of small stuff, including over-the-counter medications, and vitamin pills, and batteries, and phone chargers.
She saw no-contract cell phones, in plastic bubble packs. Lots of them, in two rows, on two pegs, left and right, next to a faded sign saying pregnant women shouldn't drink too much.
She pointed and asked, “Did Arthur Scorpio just buy one of those?”
The counterman said, “Oh, Jesus.”
“No big deal if he did. You're not in trouble. Information is all I need.”
The counterman said, “Yes, he bought one. And some painkillers.”
“Which phone? Left peg or right peg?”
The counterman thought about it. He pointed.
“Right peg,” he said. “More convenient for me.”
“Give me the next two.”
The guy took down two more bubble packs and Nakamura handed over her credit card. When she was back in her car she called her friend in Computer Crimes. She said, “Scorpio bought a burner in the convenience store. I got the next two off the rack. I'm going to bring them to you. I need you to figure out if the numbers run in some kind of predictable sequence. If they do, maybe we can put Scorpio back on the radar.”
“I'll try my best,” her friend said.
Terry Bramall let himself into his motel room, and hung his suit coat in the closet. He took his phone from his briefcase and set about answering his messages. The first was from some guy he had never heard of named Reacher.
We waited in line together last night for sandwiches and we were briefly in the breakfast place at the same time this morning
. And then something to do with Arthur Scorpio and stolen property.
He hit delete, because he was done with Scorpio.
The second message was from his client Mrs. Mackenzie. Anxious about progress, understandably.
I would like to hear either way, so please call me back as soon as you can
. He didn't. He didn't like talking on the phone, especially with anxious clients. So he texted back instead, slowly and methodically, using only his right forefinger:
Dear Mrs. Mackenzie, progress remains very satisfactory, and I hope to have definitive news very soon. Best wishes, T. Bramall
He pressed send.
In Casper, Reacher had a choice. He could stick with I-25 and head south and east to Cheyenne, whereupon Laramie would be a short hop west again on I-80. Or he could go direct on a state road. Two fast sides of a triangle versus one slow side. The hitchhiker's eternal dilemma.
He chose the state road. He was sick of the highway. And he had plenty of time. There was no big hurry. The ring had been out of Wyoming for six weeks. No red-hot trail to follow. He walked west out of town, more than a mile, until the commercial lots left and right petered out into high desert scrub. A hundred yards later he found a head-high sign that said
Laramie 152 miles
. He set up next to it. He felt it told the story. He watched the horizon for oncoming traffic. There wasn't much.
Scorpio gave his sentries twenty bucks and a bottle of Tylenol each, and then sent them home. They went out the front, and he went in the back room. He sat down at a long counter loaded with humming equipment. He tore apart the bubble pack and took out his new phone. He dialed the activation number, and then he dialed a 307 number.
A voice invited him to leave a message.
He said, “Billy, this is Arthur. We got some weird shit going on. Nothing real serious. Just a strange piece of bad luck. Some guy showed up chasing a ring. He wasn't a cop. He knew nothing at all. He was just a random passerby, interested in the wrong thing at the wrong time. Turned out he was kind of tough to get rid of, so in the end I gave him Sy Porterfield's name. Which means sooner or later he's likely to arrive in your neck of the woods. Don't mess with him. Use a deer rifle from behind a tree. I'm not kidding about that. He's like the Incredible Hulk. Don't even let him see you. But get on it, OK? He's got to go, because he's a random loose end. Easier for you to deal with out there than it would be for me here. So get it done.”