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Lucas Davenport

Rules of Prey
Shadow Prey
Eyes of Prey
Silent Prey
Winter Prey
Night Prey
Mind Prey
Sudden Prey
Secret Prey
Certain Prey
Easy Prey
Chosen Prey
Mortal Prey
Naked Prey
Hidden Prey
Broken Prey
Invisible Prey
Phantom Prey
Wicked Prey
Storm Prey
Buried Prey
Stolen Prey
Silken Prey
Field of Prey
Gathering Prey
Extreme Prey
Golden Prey
Twisted Prey
Neon Prey
Masked Prey
Ocean Prey
Righteous Prey
Judgment Prey
Toxic Prey

Righteous Prey · Preview Chapters

Chapter One

Bitcoin billionaire, amateur art historian, one-time farm boy, George Sonnewell sat on a concrete abutment in a sour-milk-smelling alley near Union Square in San Francisco, the cement rough against his jean-clad butt.
The night was chilly, a good excuse for the long-sleeved shirt workshirt and nylon Air Force jacket, heavy jeans and boots, although a neutral observer might have been puzzled by the translucent vinyl gloves he wore on his hands. The clothing had been worn only this once, the better to minimize the transfer of DNA to a murder victim.
And he waited, a predator in plaid.
Overhead, between the buildings, he could see exactly one star, surrounded by roiling purple nighttime clouds that reflected the kaleidoscope city lights back to earth. Though he rarely used alcohol, Sonnewell had three-fourths of a jug of Burnett's peach vodka by his hip.
His hands trembled. Nerves, he thought. He was scared, but he was going for it.
And here came Duck Wiggins, right on schedule, down the alley that he considered his alley. He spotted Sonnewell and the jug. Wiggins was a battered man, his face a collection of fleshly crevasses, eroded by his years on the street. His beard might almost have been mistaken for religious expression, so twisted and solid with filth it was.
Wiggins said, "Hey! This is my street, bitch!" and a moment later, "Whatchagot there?"
Sonnewell, matching the aggression: "What the fuck is it to you?"
"Gimme a taste."
"Why should I?"
Wiggins: "Give me a taste and I'll blow you. Later." He was lying. He was the top of the food chain, not this dweeb sitting on the wall like Humpty Dumpty.
Sonnewell pretended to think about it: "Bite me and I'll kill you."
"I don't bite."
Sonnewell pretended to think about it some more: "Okay."
They sat together, a yard apart on the abutment, silent except for the steady gurgling of the vodka — Wiggins got on it and never let up. It occurred to him at one point that the other man was neither drinking nor complaining, but if he wasn't complaining, then Wiggins wasn't complaining.
Sonnewell turned as if to say something, but instead cocked him arm and struck Wiggins at the base of the skull with a scything forearm blow, knocking the other man off the wall, face-down in the alley. The bottle fell backwards, still on the wall, but didn't break.
As Wiggins hit the ground, Sonnewell dropped all his two hundred and twenty pounds on his back. Too drunk to fight, Wiggins tried to push up and then to roll, but the other man forced him down to the broken concrete.
Wiggins, face to the side, mumbling into the dirt: "Wha... t'... fuck?"
Sonnewell pulled a short hard-finished nylon rope from his hip pocket. The ends of the rope were knotted around four-inch lengths of dowel, like an old-fashioned lawnmower starter rope, the better to grip it. He dragged the rope past Wiggin's forehead, nose, lips and chin to his neck, and pulled on the dowels for a long three minutes as Wiggins thrashed and kicked and pounded the concrete with his fists.
Sonnewell cursed and looked up and down the alley as he rode the other man, fearing a witness, but he'd chosen the kill site carefully and there were no other eyes. The alcohol was too much for Wiggins to overcome; Sonnewell won in the end.
When he was sure Wiggins was dead, Sonnewell untangled the rope from his victim's neck, put it back in his hip pocket, looked up and down the alley. Then he crossed Wiggin's feet, and turned them, rolling the dead man onto his back.
Wiggin's forehead was wet with sweat and maybe vodka, and air burped from his lungs, creating a stench compounded of alcohol and old meat. Sonnewell took a black Sharpie from his shirt pocket and wrote a careful "1" on Wiggin's forehead. He retraced the "1" three times, to make sure it was perfectly clear. When he was satisfied, he stood, looked both ways, and left Wiggins as he lay.
Sonnewell was a half-mile from his car and it was dark, and the San Francisco streets were mean. He touched his hip, where he'd tucked a compact nine-millimeter handgun. He was not to be fucked with, not on this night. Before he left the alley, he pulled on a dark blue COVID mask; he shouldn't get close enough to anyone to get COVID, but it was useful disguise.
As he walked back to his car, he passed a row of tents inhabited by homeless people. He left the remains of the vodka there, next to a tattered plastic POW flag planted in a bucket of dirt.
When he got to his Mercedes SUV, unharmed, he locked himself inside, took out a burner phone and called a memorized number. The phone call was answered by a woman. Her name was Vivian Zhao. She lived somewhere in Southern California, but he wasn't sure where. One thing he did know for sure: she was crazier than a shithouse mouse; and smart.
"How did it go?" she asked.
"Done. Alley near Union Square. As we discussed."
"You're my hero," she said. "Don't forget to throw the phone away. And your rope."
She hung up.
On the way out of town — Sonnewell lived south down the peninsula, in Palo Alto — he asked himself how he felt about killing another man. He was interested, but not surprised, to find that he was now genuinely frightened.
He would be frightened, he thought, for a while. Accompanying the fear was an unfamiliar and growing exhilaration.
Sonnewell had grown up on a Central Valley corn farm, one of the four abused children of a hard-faced descendant of Oakies who'd actually made it in California. His father believed, as his parents and grandparents did, in the fist and the razor strop. Sonnewell, his two brothers and his sister, lying on the banks of a local creek, had talked of killing the old man. They'd never done it, or even tried, though the talk had been serious.
Through strange and unrepeatable circumstances, Sonnewell had once invested fifty thousand dollars in a thing called Bitcoin. When he sold out, with Bitcoin at $46,000 per coin, he was a billionaire. He'd ripped off ten million dollars for each for his siblings and they unanimously told their father that he and his farm could go fuck themselves.
Yet, in his heart, Sonnewell was still an American farm boy, and believed in an America he saw dissolving around him. Half the people in the Central Valley couldn't speak English; the crazies who ran the California government had jacked taxes so high that ordinary hard-working people could hardly make it without abasing themselves before the assholes who ran the government. The assholes who stood by as the great coastal cities of California were swarmed under by the unclean, the unhealthy, the addicted, the grasping.
Like Buck Wiggins.
The product of beatings since he was a toddler, Sonnewell was not quite right in the head.
He knew that. He was willing to use his difference.

As Sonnewell was pushing down the peninsula, U.S. Marshal Lucas Davenport was pulling into his driveway in St. Paul, Minnesota, half a continent away. Snow was falling: more than a flurry, less than a blizzard. There were two new inches of snow on the driveway, and he knew, as he drove across it, that he'd leave frozen tracks behind himself that wouldn't come off with a snow-blower. He'd either have to laboriously scrape off the tracks in the morning, or they'd be there until February or March.
Though it was late, there were lights in the windows. He pulled into the garage, got out of the car, walked back outside and turned his face up to the snowflakes. They were like feathers, caressing his face; cold, tender, refreshing.
From well down the street, he could hear the faint tingling of recorded Christmas music, coming from a house that must have had six hundred red, blue and green lights hanging from it, and a sleigh with eight plastic reindeer in the front yard, along with a creche. It was far enough away that he didn't mind, but he suspected the nonstop jingles were driving the adjacent neighbors nuts. Christmas was two weeks gone. In his opinion, it was time to can the Christmas tunes.
As the snowflakes evolved from refreshing to cold and wet, he went back into the garage, dropped the overhead door, and walked through the access door into the house, where his wife, Weather, was burning toast.
"You're burning the toast," he called.
Weather ran back into the kitchen and popped up the toast. "Mmm," she said, "Peanut butter-covered charcoal."
"Do anything good today?" Lucas asked.
"Skin grafts on a guy who got fried trying to fix a high-tension wire," she said. She was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. Her voice was routine because the work had been routine; it was what she did. "Blew most of the fat off his body. He's got the face of a thirty-year-old angel, but everything below his neck is a mess of scar tissue."
"Nice image," Lucas said, shucking his coat. He hung it on a hook in the hallway between the kitchen and garage.
"How about you? You catch him?" she asked.
"No, but I've got a better idea where he might be hiding. Not that I care much. He's not exactly Al Capone."
"What are you going to do now?" Weather asked. She was a short slender woman, with blue eyes and an over-sized, slightly bent nose, which Lucas had found instantly attractive when they first met: gave her a craggy aspect. Her hair, originally a dishwater blond, was showing the first hints of gray, and now was being managed by an enormously expensive hairdresser named Olaf, though only Lucas considered him enormously expensive.
"Get a beer, and either watch some basketball from the West Coast or roll around in the bed with my old lady," Lucas said.
"I'll meet you upstairs in fifteen minutes," Weather said. "My breath will smell like peanut butter and burnt toast."
"Mmm. Peanut butter." He patted her on the ass on his way to the refrigerator.

Lucas woke at ten o'clock the next morning, pleasantly relaxed after the moderately athletic sex. He got up, yawned, scratched his stomach and wandered downstairs in his undershorts and Tee-shirt, made himself a cup of cocoa with tiny marshmallows, turned on his laptop and brought up the Google news feed.
The headlines weren't all bullshit, but most of them were; his eyes hooked on a short story about a man strangled in San Francisco, the strangulation having been announced in a press release by the killer. The press release was attached to the story as a sidebar.
A vertical wrinkle formed between Lucas' eyes. A killer was sending out press releases?
We are all, he thought, going to hell.

The Five
  If you have money, a lot of money, as we all do, how do you get your thrills? Sky diving? Fight clubs? Orgies? Gambling? Fly your own jet, sail your own super-yacht? Well, of course you do. All of that. But it gets old, doesn't it? It has for The Five.
  So now, to liven our lives, we're going to murder people who need to be murdered. We're doing a service to the American culture at large, and at the same time, enjoying the extreme thrill of being hunted by the police, by the FBI, by whomever takes the time to chase us. Yes: we are going to help rid America of its assholes. We invite others to join in. Really. Please do. We can't get this done alone. So many assholes, so little time.
  As for us, we've already killed the first of our designated victims, Buck Wiggins. Wiggins lived on the streets of San Francisco. He was a disgusting piece of human trash. He stole, he raped, he precipitated fights, he attacked innocent elderly Asians, and the San Francisco police believe he stabbed at least three of his fellow denizens of the gutters. And, of course, he defecated on the sidewalks whenever he felt the urge.
  One of The Five strangled him this morning. We put a numeral "1" on his forehead and San Franciscans will no longer have to put up with Wiggin's vicious insanity.
  To complicate the moral matters for all of you, each of The Five have put an anonymous, untraceable Bitcoin (worth $44,123.23 apiece at the instant of this writing) into a Bitcoin wallet whose address we've already sent to Street of Hope, a San Francisco organization dedicated to helping the homeless. Will Street of Hope accept the $220,616.15 (as of this instant) to do good? Or refuse to do $220,616.15 of good on grounds that it's blood money? We shall see, shan't we?

The Five

(Next up? A politician! Stay tuned to this station.)

A week after the Wiggins murder, an almost cartoonishly handsome dude — and a dude he was, with big shoulders, square teeth, a chin he could have used to chop wood, a thousand-dollar sport coat, loafers worn without socks — snuck out the back door of the Asiatic Hotel in Houston, Texas. He planned to walk around the corner to where he'd parked his car.
His simple plan was sidetracked by a bottle blonde, a beauty, maybe thirty, maybe a little older, medium tits, small waist, tight ass, the whole alluring package. She was leaning against the wall of the theater building across a narrow brick walkway from the good-looking guy, next to a door used by the stage talent. She was wearing a black silk blouse and dark skinny jeans. She was smoking a cigarette, like one of those 40's stunners in the black-and-white noir films.
The good-looking guy was not bashful. He pulled up, nearly stumbled, and said, "Whoa! Howya doing, girlie? All alone in the dark?"
"Taking a break between sets," she said. He could hear the faint sound of music behind her, coming from the partially open door. She frowned, stepped closer to him, said, "Say... are you Jack Daniels?"
He gave her his best whitened-tooth grin. "Maybe. You from around here, or are you traveling?"
"From Austin," she said. She looked out of the alley toward the street. They were alone. "Are you sure you're really... let me see your face."
She reached out a slender hand, as if to turn his head into the light. Daniels let her do it, the grin still on his face. She didn't touch him, though. She had the blade of a straight razor tight between two fingers, snatched her hand back toward herself, nothing gentle about it, and Daniels felt a streak of cold pain, like a lightning strike, along his neck.
The woman stepped away and he realized, as blood gushed across his thousand-dollar sport coat, that she was wearing translucent vinyl gloves.

Andi Carter's father was the executive vice-president of the LaFitte National Bank in New Orleans. He'd never be president; nor would he ever be less than the exceptionally well-paid executive vice-president.
When Andi Carter's father was thirty-eight, his wife ran off with a building contractor to begin a new and better life in the Florida Keys. Her father, in the meantime, was left in a middle-management bank job with not much in the way of prospects and with no notable assets... with one exception.
A smoking hot thirteen-year old, she'd caught the eye of several LaFitte executives and board members. They'd collectively made a deal with her father, and thereafter taught Andi the ways of the world, along with several uncomfortable sexual acts.
They eventually (under some duress) pooled money to send her to Wharton, at eighteen, to study finance. Her father, in the meantime, had been promoted into the do-nothing executive vice-president position. From which he'd never be promoted or demoted. That's just the way it was, in New Orleans, if you'd whored out your teen-aged daughter.
At Wharton, Carter had been told about this extraordinary investment opportunity in a thing called Bitcoin; all the smart kids were talking about it. She'd extracted the necessary money (under some duress) from the bank executives and board members, and though she'd gotten in a little late, it wasn't too late. A few years later, she was worth more than all the executives and board members put together. She could have bought the bank, if she'd wanted it.
She didn't.
Now, in the alley with the slightly crazy Andi Carter bending over him, Jack Daniels bled to death, but not instantly. When cut, he'd staggered in a circle, grasping at his neck, his carotid artery slashed open by the razor and furiously pumping out his life blood.
When he finally fell, Carter had again looked out toward the street, then dragged the body to the end of the walkway and behind the dumpster there, leaving a long bloody streak on the bricks. It was hard work, made easier by the jolt of adrenaline that was surging through her.
When they were out of sight from the street, she squatted and watched in the harsh illumination of a LED penlight as the last of Daniel's blood trickled out on the bricks. Trickling, not pumping: his heart had stopped.
She gagged once, not because of the blood, but because of the rotten-tomato sauce and spoiled-banana odor that lingered behind the dumpster. When she was sure he was gone, she took a Sharpie from her purse and wrote a loopy "2" on Daniels' forehead. She packed the penlight in her purse, along with a tissue-wrapped straight razor and the Sharpie, and removed a compact 9mm pistol, just in case — she was not in a good part of Houston.
She walked three blocks to her Panamera, which had a splash of mud across the license plate, obscuring the number. Still wearing the gloves, gun in hand, she made it to the car unmolested, looked at her watch. She'd be back home in New Orleans well before dawn. She took a burner phone from under the front seat, punched in a memorized number, and said, "It's done. Straight razor, his body's behind a dumpster at the side of the Asiatic Hotel."
The woman on the other end said, "A dumpster? That's so delicious."
"The best thing of my life, Vivian," Carter said. "I want to do another."
"That can happen — but we should leave some room for 3, 4 and 5 before we go all Lizzie Bordon."
"I guess. But move them along, huh?"
"I will."
Carter clicked off. The phone would be dropped on a dark portion of I-10, its parts run over a thousand times before first light. She'd stop on a side street to wipe the mud off her license plate, so a cop wouldn't stop her for that violation, and maybe remember it, if her car had been photographed as it passed near the murder scene. She giggled as she pulled off the blond wig, threw it in the back seat, and settled down to drive.
That whole thing with the executives and the board members? It left a mark on her psyche, one not easy to rinse out. Not that she tried too hard.

The Five
  We're pleased to announce the death of the second of our designated assholes, U.S Representative Clayton "Jack" Daniels of Brownsville, Texas. He was a real turd: a man of no morals, a liar, a racist, a deeply corrupt rabble rouser who opposed the timely imposition of COVID-19 protective measures, a man whose vote in Congress was openly for sale to the highest bidder. He needed to go, for the safety of us all.
  One of us cut his throat with a straight razor early this morning — those are not easy to come by, in this day and age — and left his body in the alley behind the Asiatic Hotel in downtown Houston. Note to Houston police: look behind the dumpster. Another note to police: Look for Bunny Blue's fingerprints. They should be all over the bed.
  We put a numeral "2" on Daniel's forehead and Americans will no longer have to put up with his political and sexual debaucheries.
  Again, to make the murder more interesting, each of The Five have placed an untraceable Bitcoin in a wallet with the address sent to The Texas Poverty Law Center which leads the fight against Texas hate groups. At the time of the donation, each coin was worth $42,320 U.S. dollars for a total of $211,600. Will the TPLC accept the blood money? We shall see. Fun, isn't it?

The Five

(Next up? We're killing a real greedhead!!)

As Carter was rolling through the night toward New Orleans, Virgil Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, was working late in front of a Lenovo computer. He looked up from page three hundred eighty-eight of a five-hundred-page printed Microsoft Word manuscript that had been edited in red ink, to the same manuscript on the computer screen. He corrected an on-screen typo and...
Quit for the night.
"Jesus." No one awake to hear him. He'd been crouched over the screen for five hours and his back ached like fire. He stretched, scratched his head, yawned, and printed out the chapter he'd just edited.
The printer ran for a while, stopped, signaling that it was out of paper. Virgil put more High Bright Boise Multi-Use Copy Paper in the printer and it started grinding away again. When the last page came out, he moved the edited paper manuscript to the "done" box on his desk, and saved the electronic manuscript to his local drive, to the cloud, and to a thumb drive.
He didn't want to do it, but he'd need to print out and read the whole paper manuscript one last time after he'd edited all five hundred on-screen pages. Doing that, he'd probably find another five hundred small changes.
He'd learned that if he read the novel on paper, he could more easily spot problems. It was a pain in the ass but had to be done. He kicked back in his chair and looked at the stack of paper: this one was good, he thought.
His first effort, the beginner novel, had been naïve. He hadn't known what he was doing, but he had been learning. The second novel, the practice novel, had been better, but was rejected by a New York literary agent, though she'd been encouraging.
"You write well," Esther had said, in a thirty-two second conversation, "You need more complications, more characters, and you need to spend more time developing them. You need to keep the velocity, but you do have to spend enough time with the characters to make them three-dimensional."
He'd done that with this third novel.

The next morning, he woke late — he'd been up until two o'clock – and found his girlfriend, Frankie, sitting in the kitchen, feeding the twins and simultaneously reading the Daily Mail, the American edition, as she did each morning.
"How'd it go?" she asked.
"Got up to page three hundred eighty-eight on the rewrite. I'll finish the inserts tonight." He got Cheerios from the cupboard and milk from the refrigerator. "One more trip through, and it's gone."
One of the twins poked a Cream of Wheat-covered spoon at him and said, "Da," looked confused for a moment, then went back to her Cream of Wheat. Frankie said, "Good. You're gonna sell this one."
"From your lips to God's ears," Virgil said, settling across the table.
The Daily Mail was voracious in its search for the very worst things that happened in the United States each day, and now Frankie, said, "A Texas congressman got his throat cut last night. Somebody wrote a '2' on his forehead."
Eyebrows up: "Like the '1' in San Francisco?"
"Exactly. Press release came out before the cops found the body."
"Fuckin' cops," Virgil said.
"This is gonna be something," Frankie said. "Actually, it already is something. I'll bet you ten American dollars that CNN is all over it this afternoon. Breaking News!"
"Fuckin' CNN."
The late nights on the novel left him feeling grumpy.

A week after that, it was Jamie McGruder's turn, the Minnesota ninja warrior in training.
McGruder slipped over the brick wall and duckwalked across ankle deep snow and past a line of dormant bridal wreath bushes that edged the swimming pool. He was leaving tracks, but the front two inches of his size-thirteen boots were stuffed with paper to make them easier to control on his size ten-and-a-half feet.
McGruder was a tall young man with dark hair, gray eyes, and long, feminine eyelashes. He was wrapped in a dark green Givenchy down parka ($2,990 from Nordstrom) along with black gloves and a black ski mask. He was wearing a black Tumi backpack. He was a hard body, who worked out an hour every day under the eyes of a personal fitness coach. Until six months earlier, he'd never considered murder, not that he personally had anything against it.
He'd scouted the mansion, inside and out, and knew where the security cameras were located. The closest one was at the corner of the empty swimming pool, but on the far side of the bridal wreath.
The half-owner of the house, Anson Sikes, was in New York. His wife, Hillary Sikes, the other half-owner, should be on the move, coming home; she rarely left her office after six o'clock. The housekeeper was in her apartment at the back of the house. He'd seen her shadow on the window shades.
McGruder had never served in the military but had taken a dozen courses from the wannabe tactical schools. He'd trained in knife fighting, sniping, pistol shooting, Scuba diving and evasive driving. He'd learned to spot enemies who were following him, in cars, on motorcycles or on foot, and he learned how to lose them.
He'd spent a year in a boxing gym, where an instructor lied and told him that if he continued to work out for another three years, he'd be ranked in the top ten light-heavies. He'd jumped out of an airplane with a tac-pack dangling below him; he had a brown belt in karate and would be a black belt within a year.
In stalking Hillary Sikes, most of that training had proven to be useless, though, he thought, maybe he could use it someday. And, he had a pistol in his pack. He was an excellent shot, even if he said so himself.
All that training, but never yet knowing the thrill of an actual kill.
McGruder moved slowly through the expensive snow-covered landscaping, mostly duckwalking, but sometimes on his stomach, as much for the thrill of it, the ninja-vibe, as for concealment. He took a full minute to cross the last open space to the corner of the garage and settle there in the soft snow.
In January of 2011, in McGruder's first year at Harvard, he'd turned eighteen and had received the initial payment from the trust set up by his grandfather: one million dollars. He would receive another million at age twenty-one, another at age twenty-five and the last million at thirty.
At eighteen, the twelve years to age thirty seemed like an eternity, and a million, well, it wasn't really all that much, was it? Not in this day and age. You couldn't exactly go crazy with it, or you'd find yourself broke. His stingy wastrel parents made him pay his college costs from his trust, but okay, he had that covered. What should he do with the rest? Could he use it to make more?
The boy had a gambling gene and he'd heard about this thing called Bitcoin. Some ultra-smart computer nerds told him it was going to be big. In February of 2011, Bitcoin reached parity with the U.S. dollar and McGruder thought, what the fuck, what else are you going to do with your money? Buy more shoes? Another guitar? He put a hundred and ten thousand dollars into Bitcoin at $1.10. A hundred thousand bitcoins.
In November of 2020, Bitcoin reached $18,000 per coin and he dumped the whole lot, only to curse himself later when Bitcoin got to $60,000. Still, his original investment was worth better than a billion dollars even after he paid his taxes, which he carefully did, and being a self-made billionaire at twenty-eight wasn't all that bad.
Until he got bored.
The band was particularly disappointing. McGruder sang and played rhythm guitar — rhythm guitar because he'd only learned the chords A, C, D, E, G, plus E minor, A minor and D minor, because they were easy. He simply couldn't do bar chords, which the B and F required, because the strings fell in the cracks of his index finger.
He also wrote some songs, three or four chords each. He thought they were pretty good, until he overheard the bass player, in discussing the music they were playing, refer to him as "the dipshit."
He'd fired her that same night but hadn't since been able to escape the secret feeling that he might actually be a dipshit. Even with all the money, the tactical stuff, the karate, the jumping out of airplanes, the high-end pussy. When he was at Harvard, he'd never been one of the guys invited to go out and drink until they were projectile vomiting, or to drive a rental car to Miami and back on a four-day weekend.
Because, he suspected, nobody liked him. Not even his parents — his parents least of all. He couldn't imagine what his mother was thinking when she bore him. Must have thought she was getting some kind of stuffed toy, like you'd win at a carnival.
So here he was, a simmering human soup of resentment, creeping across Hillary Sikes' yard, dressed in dark green and in black. Halfway across, it occurred to him that dark clothing might not be the best camouflage in a snow-covered landscape. Whatever. At the corner of the garage, he pulled off his backpack, slowly, slowly, and extracted a Japanese chef's knife with a fat nine-inch blade. The knife was sharp enough to cut through a thread floating in the air.
McGruder was wearing cross-country ski gloves, made of leather and nylon fabric, the better to handle the knife. They were uninsulated and his hands were very cold. He touched his pants pocket and the Sharpie was there. He pulled it out and slipped it into his parka's handwarmer pocket, along with his hands, and waited.
The frigid Minnesota air held no water and he could feel the hair prickling inside his nose as he breathed. Not since the day he cashed the Bitcoin had he felt like this, so alive; the tension, the engagement, gripping him like a fist. He could still back out, but everything had gone so well that he didn't believe he would.
There would come a moment, though, when he'd either have to commit, or not. If he didn't, he never would. That moment was coming.
Then it did.
Down the driveway, he saw a flash of light through the inch-wide gap in the security gate panels. A moment later, the gates were fully open and the Lexus SUV rolled up the curving stone driveway as the garage door started up and the interior lights came on. Hillary Sikes slowed as she approached her parking spot. Her summer-only Ferrari Portofino crouched in an adjacent stall like a crimson bullet; not something she'd want to ding, McGruder thought, so she shouldn't be looking into the rearview mirror.
But you never knew, did you? That you couldn't know was part of the thrill. If she saw him, locked the car and called the cops, he'd be in real trouble.
With that thought blundering through his brain, McGruder pulled the pin.
As the car edged into the garage, for a second it blocked the camera that covered the driveway. McGruder lurched forward, duckwalking, at first beside the car. Then, as it drove deeper into the garage, he moved behind it, holding his breath against the exhaust. The garage door rolled down behind him.
The garage was heated and Sikes swiveled and stepped down from the seat of the Lexus, scarlet Manolo Blahnik BB Pumps flashing below an ankle-length silver fox coat; the coat was hanging open.
Sikes walked briskly around the back of the car, jingling her car keys, and then opened her mouth to scream as McGruder lurched up and slipped the chef's knife into her chest below the breastbone, angled upward to slice through her heart. He simultaneously slapped a gloved hand over her mouth to smother any scream.
Through the thin leather of his knife-hand glove, he could feel her heart thrashing against the blade. He pressed her against the car and the scream never made it out of the garage. She died there, lying like a murdered silver fox in a puddle of purple blood. McGruder extracted the blade from her chest, wiped it on her blouse, swiveled, dropped it in the pack. Took the Sharpie from his coat pocket and wrote the numeral "3" above Sikes' half-open eyes.
He stood, looked down at her, awaiting the rush: and oddly, he didn't feel much. A deceased woman, lying on a concrete floor. Nothing to do with him...
One of her pumps had come off. He picked it up, looked at it in the overhead light, turning it, and then impulsively pulled the pump off her other foot, and put them both in his backpack. For the trophy room he'd someday build. Ten seconds later, he was out through the garage access door; moving slowly across a short open space and then behind the bridal wreath, to the wall and over.
The neighborhood was heavily treed, part of the lake country west of Minneapolis. His car was a quarter mile away, in a lakeside parking lot with two dozen others, kids and parents out on the ice, whacking a puck around. The road was actually a lane, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, trees right down to the edge of the tarmac, with almost no traffic.
He stayed at the very edge of the lane except when a car went by — there was only one — and then he stepped behind a bush where he would be invisible. At the parking lot, he waited until there was no one walking toward a car, then hurried across the lane to his Subaru Outback.
He drove a mile out, stopped on a dark backroad to pull the stolen plates off his car. They went across a fence into a snow drift. Another few miles, he was on I-495, following the loop around the Twin Cities to an intersection with I-94 east of St. Paul. On the way, he took a burner phone out of his pocket and called a number he'd already entered.
The woman on the other end asked, playfully, "How's my boy?"
He said, "Done. With the knife. She was wearing a silver fox fur coat, if you need a detail for the press release. It was soaking up her blood when I left." He didn't mention the shoes.
"How do you feel?"
He thought about it for a moment, then came up with the word: "Ebullient."

At I-94, McGruder turned east, crossed the St. Croix River into Wisconsin. Forty minutes later, at Menomonie, Wisconsin, the first flakes of snow began bouncing off his windshield. Hadn't counted on snow. He peered up at the sky but could see nothing at all.
By the time he reached Eau Claire, he was driving thirty miles an hour on the Interstate, through a tunnel of snow defined by his headlights and by the winking red taillights of a semi-trailer ahead of him. He could see an occasional flash of lightning in the sky. He eased around the exit at Eau Claire and headed north.
Driving was still difficult, but he was only going a few blocks up the hill. Now moving at ten miles an hour, alone on the street, he took a left, stopped to look at the street sign to make sure he had it right — he did — and then continued through the business park. Slowing again, he found the building he used as a landmark, then turned onto a dirt trail. Another hundred yards and he saw a pile of broken blacktop, another landmark.
Head down, he got out of the car, took a flashlight from his pack and checked his location. He needed to pull forward another ten feet, and then make a left turn. He got back in the car and did that.
With the car now wedged between two fifteen-foot piles of dirt, he parked, and again got out into the storm. He had two, two-gallon plastic containers of gasoline in the back seat. He got them out, and hunched against the wildly blowing snow, poured the gas through the passenger compartment.
When he'd finished, he threw the two containers onto the back seat, opened all the windows and doors, took a wadded piece of computer printer paper out of his parka pocket, lit it with a BIC lighter, and threw the burning paper into the car.
The gasoline flashed into roaring flame, singing his eyebrows. He stepped away, then hurried on foot back the way he'd come. He had a good long trek ahead of him, but he was wearing the world's warmest parka, and with his head bent against the wind, he trudged toward the University of Wisconsin campus.
Overhead, there was a flash and a peal of thunder. Thunder-snow usually didn't last long; it hadn't been snowing twenty miles west of Eau Claire, and like most thunderstorms, he believed this one would be moving east. He'd get to his car, wait the storm out, and then head back to the Cities.
If he pushed it, he might have time to drop by a club. He was well-known at a couple of them and they all had security cameras. If he could get his face on a camera, the night of the murder, that'd be icing on the cake.
And he would greatly enjoy himself, and the mental image of the asshole lying on the cold concrete of her garage floor. He might even try walking around in her shoes that night.

Chapter Two

Murders done by Night People often aren't found until the Day People begin to stir. That was the case with Hillary Sikes. Her housekeeper, who lived in an apartment at the back of the house, got up at 6:30, showered and dressed, and headed for the kitchen.
Sikes usually ate two scrambled eggs with Canadian bacon and a cup of vanilla yogurt with strawberry, raspberry or blueberry jam stirred in. Sikes was an early riser, and the housekeeper could usually hear her thumping around in the bedroom suite — she had a heavy tread.
This morning, the housekeeper heard nothing at all... what she thought (later) was a foreboding silence. She went to the bedroom door and knocked.
"Miz Sikes? You know what kind of jam you want in the yogurt?"
No answer.
She tried again: "Miz Sikes?"
No answer.
She pushed open the door, far enough to peek into the bedroom, and saw the bed had been undisturbed since she'd made it the day before.
When she thought about it for a moment, she hadn't heard the television the night before, she hadn't seen lights come on or off...though she thought she heard the garage door going up and down.
Confused, she went to the garage and looked inside, and saw the Lexus in its normal parking space. She later told the cops she didn't know exactly why she did it, but she walked past the Ferrari to look in the Lexus...
And saw the body in its puddle of blood.
She didn't immediately scream. Instead, she walked back into the kitchen, got her cell phone, dialed 9-1-1, and when the operator asked, "Is this an emergency?" she opened her mouth to say "yes," but instead, she began screaming uncontrollably.
She was sitting on the front porch, in minus-ten temperatures, wrapped in nothing but a quilted house coat and already suffering from hypothermia, when the cops arrived.

Virgil Flowers was hard asleep at 7:45 when his cell phone rang and Frankie groaned, "Damnit. Somebody's dead and it's ten below."
Virgil crawled across both her and Honus the Yellow Dog, who snuck up between them on cold nights, to the nightstand. He picked up his phone and looked at the screen: Jon Duncan, his nominal boss at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
He put the phone to his ear and asked, "What?"
"Minnetonka, right now," Duncan said. "You'll need to bring some working clothes in case you have to stay a few days. I'll get you an address and the rest of it as soon as I can."
"Man, I..."
"Number Three was killed in Minnetonka."
Virgil could hear the capital letters, but they didn't register for a second. Then he lurched upright: "Not here."
"It's real," Duncan said. "The newsies started getting press releases right after midnight. The feds are on the way, we're on the way. The locals are there but standing back. We need you. I'll see you in Minnetonka."
Virgil had been up late, putting the final touches on his novel. At one o'clock that morning, he'd punched the computer key that would send the manuscript to New York, then lay awake for two hours assailed by thoughts of writerly inadequacy. Now this, with four hours of sleep.
Mostly because of Frankie's interest — she was a news junkie and had an instinct for things that were about to blow up on the media — Virgil had been following the investigations into the two Five murders, as they were now being called.
When the first press release had landed in the emails of fifty selected journalists, several of them had called the San Francisco cops on the off-chance there was something to it. The San Francisco police spokesman said it was unlikely that anybody would have time to search downtown alleys in the middle of the night, based on an anonymous press release, but they'd get to it as soon as they could.
When they finally did, at six o'clock in the morning, they admitted that there was a dead Duck Wiggins lying in an alley with ligature marks around his neck and the numeral "1" written in black ink on his forehead.
On the second killing, the Houston cops at first denied knowledge of a murder at the Asiatic, and then — whoops — admitted that there might have been a body there, behind the dumpster.
They refused to identify the body before notification of next of kin, but reporters for the Houston Chronicle were told, privately, that that the dead man did, in fact, resemble U.S. Rep. Clayton "Jack" Daniels. There had been no political meetings at the Asiatic that night; no real reason for Daniels to be there... at least none until the police took the tip from the Five. They found the fingerprints of Bonnie "Bunny" Blue, a sometime actress, on the headboard of the bed in the room rented that night by a "Bob Brown."
Blue was mostly known for her pneumatic breasts and a full-frontal nude scene in the Texas thriller movie Chainsaw Shark-A-Paloosa, in which she was eaten (by sharks).
She didn't deny being in the room Daniels had rented, for cash, under the name Bob Brown, but had no knowledge of what had happened to him after he left the hotel room. The Daily Mail was the first with the story, followed by the Chronicle and, simultaneously, for some reason, the E! network, which may have paid for a first-person interview. Blue claimed she'd been exploited by the dominant male paradigm of Houston and she planned to sue Daniels' estate.
Daniels' wife said Blue could go fuck herself, if she wasn't too busy fucking everybody else in Houston, and she wasn't getting a dime. In Hollywood, a screenwriter thought the murders might be a concept. He noted the liberal tendency reflected in the press releases and began trying to sell it to Amazon and Netflix as a series to be called The Antifa Assassins.
The sensation had not abated when Three was found dead in her Minnesota garage.
Virgil had the best clearance rate in the BCA. Sometimes, when the suits got nervous, his reputation jumped up and bit him on the ass. Virgil told Frankie what Duncan had said and she scrambled off the bed and down the stairs, calling, "It's really cold outside. You'll need a hot breakfast."
Virgil kept a bug-out bag because he often travelled on short notice. After a fast shower and shave, he added a dressy blue cashmere sweater he'd gotten for Christmas, and a Glock semi-automatic pistol, to the top of the bag, pulled on a pair of Vasque winter hiking boots, and headed down the stairs.
The farmhouse had been built in the 1940s, a couple of years after World War II, and the kitchen smelled like all the soups that had been made there since; and it currently still held the lingering odor of the balsam fir they'd put up for Christmas and left up until after New Year's. In his spare time, Virgil and Frankie's older kids had done some modest modernizing, mostly out of sight. The well water no longer smelled of ancient cow manure.
"Eat," Frankie said. "Cream of Wheat with brown sugar and half and half. I made extra coffee and got out the Yeti bottle. Three! I mean... You're gonna be famous."
"We're not there, yet," Virgil said.
He was a tall man, lanky, casual, blue-eyed with blond hair worn too long for a BCA agent; he had smile lines on his cheeks and a few worry lines on his forehead. He might have been a surfer, in Minnesota had surf.
He worked out of his home office, covering the southern third of Minnesota, with the authority to call on the St. Paul headquarters for backup when he needed it. He ate three-fourths of the Cream of Wheat and gave the rest of it to Honus, who sat quietly drooling on the floor next to his boots.
Frankie said, "Number Three. I'll probably be on the network morning shows – Virgil Flowers' paramour — to tell them how modest you are and how you broke it. Maybe that red silk blouse with the cleavage. Something hot."
Frankie was a short, busty blonde with the face of a fallen angel, who salvaged old buildings for a living. She and Virgil, cooperating, had produced the set of twins, one of each, and someday might get married. Frankie insisted on hearing about Virgil's murder cases, in detail, with an emphasis on the blood shed by the villains, as she called them.
"Everything you wear is hot," Virgil said, "Because you're in it." He got his parka, ski hat and winter gloves, kissed her good-bye. "This is gonna be a mess."
One of the twins began to cry in the second upstairs bedroom and then Sam, Frankie's twelve-year-old son by another father, came out of his first-floor bedroom rubbing his eyes, looking cranky, and asked, "What the fuck is going on?"
"Say 'fuck' again and I'll kick your ass up around your ears," Virgil said. "I'll see you guys when I see you."
Sam scratched his stomach and said, "Shoot somebody for a change, huh?"
"Don't forget the Yeti," Frankie said, and Virgil snagged the bottle as he went out the door.
A thermometer on the back porch said it was seven degrees below zero. Virgil crunched across the crystalline snow to the garage, backed his Tahoe out, and pointed it north toward the Twin Cities. The farm had recently been expanded to include a stable, a barn, and two horses. A forever-uncelebrated side effect of the Three murder was that Virgil wouldn't be shoveling horseshit on this particular morning.
Which was good, because it was frosty. A weather forecast from a local radio station predicted temperatures would rise to three degrees above zero by noon, before falling again. The fields around the house were covered by a thin coat of snow, with a shiny, frozen surface that glittered orange when the sun peeked over the horizon.
They hadn't had snow for three weeks, and not much then, just missing a storm that hit the Twin Cities two days earlier. The drive north to the Cities was uneventful, on mostly clear highways, much of it following the Minnesota River north, the river marked by a bosque of barren gray trees. At one point, outside the town of St. Peter, he saw a murder of crows dive-bombing one of the trees, and assumed an owl was lurking there, the mortal enemy of corvids everywhere.
The snow had gotten deeper as he drove north, showing signs of drifting by the time he crossed the I-494 ring highway. Duncan called again, with an address and information about the victim, Hillary Sikes, and told him to drive faster. Virgil arrived at Sikes' home at nine o'clock, an hour and a half after the call from Duncan. At a checkpoint a block out from the house, a local cop checked his ID and waved him through.
Sikes' driveway looked like a police union convention, a dozen cops in and around the driveway, in groups of two and three, all wearing COVID masks, and pumping gouts of steam into the frigid air as they talked. Virgil found a parking spot up the narrow street, put on a mask, and walked back.
Lucas Davenport, an old friend and a U.S. marshal, had his butt propped against the front fender of an SUV. He was wearing a blue Patagonia parka with the hood down, jeans, boots, sunglasses and a COVID mask. He nodded when he saw Virgil coming.
Virgil said, "So?"
"Crime scene still at work," Lucas said. "Body was found by the live-in housekeeper who got up at six-thirty and wondered why nobody had slept in the victim's bed. She looked in the garage and called the cops. The cops called the BCA and the BCA called the FBI. Looks like Sikes was stabbed to death by somebody who knew where the security cameras were. He came over the side wall, crawled along the bushes by the swimming pool and then waited by the garage door."
"Tracks in the snow?"
"Guy had long, narrow feet. Or long narrow shoes," Lucas said. "Might have been dropped off and then picked up by the wall, so there could be two people involved."
"Other security cameras?"
"Looking into it, but the houses here are set back in the woods and have driveways that curve up through a lot of trees. The cameras are on the houses, and don't monitor the road."
"You look pretty relaxed," Virgil said.
"I'm not standing in front of a media firing squad, like some people," Lucas said, with a grin. "This is gonna be a shit-show."
Lucas was as tall as Virgil, with a heavier build, blue eyes, dark hair shot with gray at the temples. A scar tracked across his forehead from hairline to eyebrow, then continued on a cheek, the result of a fishing accident.
Like Virgil, he'd been a college jock, a hockey defenseman versus Virgil's third-baseman. They'd both gone to the University of Minnesota, Lucas twelve years earlier than Virgil. Lucas had once been Virgil's boss at the BCA, a status that had never impressed either of them.
"Okay, I know why I'm here," Virgil said. "Why are you here?"
"I got a call from Porter Smalls," Lucas said. Smalls was a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. He and the other Minnesota U.S. Senator, Elmer Henderson, had conspired to get Lucas appointed at a deputy U.S. Marshal, partly because they liked him and considered him a law enforcement asset, and partly because they could use him. "Sikes was one of his larger donors."
"Good to know this is going to be a clean, well-run operation without political interference," Virgil said.
Lucas nodded at the cluster of cops in the driveway and said, "Here comes your boss."
Jon Duncan shouldered his way through the crowd. Like Lucas and Virgil, he was wearing a parka, jeans, boots and a mask. Unlike them, he sported a Russian-style fur-trimmed hat with the side flaps tied down over his ears, which exponentially increased his nerd factor. He knew that, and it bothered him not in the slightest, because he was warm. He nodded at Lucas and said to Virgil, "We might turn you around and send you home — the feds are being obstreperous. Anyway, you ought to look at this."
"What is it?"
Duncan handed Virgil a piece of paper that had been folded over twice, and then sat upon in a car, so it held a butt-curve. "A press release from the Five. You need to read it to get the full favor."
Virgil unfolded the paper and glanced at Lucas. "You've seen it?"
"Yes." Lucas said. "It'll piss you off. Fuckin' posers."

The Five
  We have struck again, as Batman might say, and another asshole is on his – Did we say his? We meant her — way to Hell. This time, we visited the Twin Cities, as we're sure our beloved Twin Cities law enforcement community will discover tomorrow morning.
  This particular body is in her garage. We stuck her in the heart with a butcher knife and left her lying in a puddle of blood, currently being absorbed, or possibly, sopped up, as the vulgar might say, by her silver fox coat. Pity the poor foxes, we pray you, but not this particular asshole. She was well known both for her insatiable greed, single-handedly putting dozens of workers on the streets, and for her right-wing-crazy politics.
  So that's Three. We're tracking Four as we write. Good day to you gentleman and gentlewomen, and please, try to be fair — these people really are gargantuan assholes.

The Five

P.S Once again, the five have donated one Bitcoin each, now worth a total of $218,050, and have sent the wallet's address to the Northern Reach Garden Co-Op, for reasons which will become apparent.

Virgil finished reading and nodded. "It's like The Washington Post says: Snide, college educated, politically liberal, knows the difference between lying and laying, capitalizes 'Hell' as a proper noun. Probably rich if he can tell the difference between a mink and a silver fox on the fly. Or, it could be a 'she', I guess."
"Doubt it," Lucas said.
"The FBI probably has fifty experts arguing about the difference between lying and laying right now," Duncan said. And, to Virgil, "You want to look at the body?"
"Will I learn anything?" Virgil asked.
"No, but..."
"I know. 'Always look at the body.' I think Lucas is responsible for that particular commandment," Virgil said, tipping his head toward Lucas. "I first heard it at the BCA."
"That was me," Lucas said. "Gets your heart rate up. The murder stops being theoretical. Look in their eyes, if they're open."
"Then we should look," Virgil said.
"I already did. I didn't learn anything," Lucas said. "There's a tank of hot coffee in that Minnetonka squad. I'll get you one, if you want a cup."
"I got a bottle of it in the truck," Virgil said. "Don't go away."
Duncan led the way through the crowd to the garage, which was built of gray limestone from ground level to shoulder height, and from there up, was finished in wooden shingles. The back wall was covered with pegboard on which were mounted rakes, hoes, a sickle, manual hedge cutters, and an empty golf-club travel bag.
Four cars were parked in a line, with two side-by-side overhead doors: a gun-metal gray Lexus SUV, a red Ferrari, a black Mercedes SUV and a reddish-orange Porsche Carrera Turbo. A group of cops were discussing whether the Ferrari and Porsche should be seized as evidence, and if so, who'd get to drive them to the impound lot.
Sikes' body was on the concrete floor behind the Lexus, a lush fur coat open beneath her, a congealing puddle of blood seeping out from beneath it. Her face was almost paper-white in death, strong, rather than pretty, with blunt features and a mouth that naturally turned down into a grimace. Her teeth were visible between pale, slightly parted lips; she had a diastema. She had hair the color of last-year's wheat straw, cut efficiently, rather than fashionably.
"She was stabbed, once, big knife, below the sternum, angling up to the heart, like the press release said. The guy knew what he was doing," Duncan said.
Virgil looked at the body for fifteen seconds, learned nothing useful. He could smell the blood. He'd once worked with a female homicide cop who described the scent of drying blood and the off-gassing of dead-body odors as "icky." Virgil had never come up with a better word for it: a sickly, fleshy smell, with a hint of copper.
He found the sight of her depressing and felt the first stir of anger. As an investigator who did murders out in the countryside, he'd seen far worse – decomposed bodies not found for days or weeks, crawling with flies and maggots. Still, he felt a touch of nausea from the sight and smell of Sikes, the icky odor of death mixed with a hint of a flowery perfume and the grate of car exhaust.
Lucas and Virgil were each others' closest male friends, in the way men form friendships around shared traumatic stress and a predilection for jockstraps. Though they were friends, they were not alike.
Lucas could look at a body and become immediately absorbed in technical details of the death: how the killing was at done, possible motives, who had the opportunity. He saw murder as a puzzle. The body was a detail, but not the only one. Murder signaled a competition that he was determined to win.
Virgil sought balance, rather than a victory. He wanted to wrench his world back into what it should be, a peaceful place where people cooperated to create a civilization. He disliked violence and rarely resorted to it. Murder was always a shock to his system.
He was angered and disgusted by the sight of Sikes sprawled on the cold concrete of her garage. Lucas was... interested.
As he stepped away from Sikes' body, Virgil said "We're gonna have to deal with the feds. They got the gun, here."
"Sometimes I hate those guys," Duncan said.
"Yeah, well... I saw a couple guys in long overcoats by the front door. Like movie Gestapo. I assume..."
"Yeah. FBI," Duncan said. "If you got to play with them, please, play nice, Virgie. They've got all the details from One and Two, which we might need, if we get involved here."

Lucas was drinking coffee from a plastic cup when they got back to him, and he asked Duncan, "Did Sikes have any protection? Bodyguards? She's really rich..."
"Not as far as I know," Duncan said. "There were pump shotguns inside the front hall closet and a back closet next to the door from the garage. Another one in a second-floor dressing room. All three were loaded but had empty chambers."
"Do we know if she'd been warned of anything coming?" Virgil asked.
"The FBI contacted her husband — he's in New York, now on his way back – and he says they were not," Duncan said. "No indication that she was a target."
Lucas: "What about the political thing?"
"Snowmobilers For Trump. She's said some pretty goddamned outrageous stuff," Duncan said. "She thought Trump was going to be reinstated as President as soon as Biden was convicted of child molestation. That's what she said, anyway."
"Any reason to think the killer is local?" Virgil asked.
"All three killings have a local feel to them — like the killer knew his way around. On the other hand, they could have come from New Jersey or Utah," Duncan said. "She was hated by a lot of people and they're not all local."
Virgil: "Because..."
"Her business. She created SPACS, S-P-A-C-S," Duncan said, spelling it out. "SPAC stands for Special Purpose Acquisition Company. It's like a free-floating bunch of money that investors give you. Then you go out and buy something that's worth a lot more than you're paying for it and you split the eventual take with your investors. Apparently, somebody always gets screwed."
"I know one of them," Lucas said. "There was a warehouse kind of place in St. Paul, off West Seventh Street, that was used by a Korean company to assemble small electric appliances."
"I had a shooting there when I was working for St. Paul," Virgil said.
"Yeah? Anyway, it's the only piece of private property on that side of the road, and it's right above a lake..."
The warehouse had a long history of manufacturing different small appliances, mostly junk, Lucas said. Sikes' lawyers found that she could buy the business, and the zoning would allow her to replace the building with anything she wanted, as long as it was less noxious than an assembly plant. She created a SPAC, got thirty million together, according to the Pioneer Press, bought the plant, tore it down, and was in the process of putting in four lakefront apartment buildings when she was murdered.
"Although," Lucas said, "It's really more like swamp-front."
Virgil: "And?"
"Kicked three hundred low-income, twelve-dollar-an-hour people out of their jobs," Lucas said. "Just, 'Hit the road.' No compensation, no nothing. There was a media fuss at the time, but that went away soon enough."
Virgil: "Then it probably is local."
Duncan: "Maybe. She's had heavy attention in the social media, both for the SPACS — there were several of them — and the snowmobiler stuff. They had a "Circle the Lake for Trump" thing up at Mille Lacs, the last two Decembers, supposedly a thousand snowmobilers. I haven't seen it, but I've been told there's an anti-Sikes Facebook page. Maybe it's still there, I dunno."
The cops who'd been looking at the Ferrari and Porsche suddenly broke into laughter, and then just as quickly stopped, looked around, mildly embarrassed to be laughing at a murder scene with the body still uncovered and basically underfoot. Only mildly embarrassed.
"What's this Northern Reach that'd supposed to get the Bitcoin money?" Virgil asked.
"The victims of another SPAC deal," Duncan said. "She bought up a big parcel along the river north of Minneapolis that was being rented to a truck-garden co-op. Fifty some farmers out of business, the ones selling at the farmers' markets around town."
"Oh, boy." Virgil rubbed his nose, looked at Lucas: "The killer could have come from anywhere that has Facebook. He leaves no trace of himself as far as we know, except that he has long narrow feet. Or shoes. So, basically, after an in-depth analysis, I'd say we're fucked."
"Not us, so much, as the feds," Duncan said. "They've taken over. They might need somebody to do the scut work, but they'll be doing the heavy lifting, brains-wise."
"Brains-wise. I wish I'd said that," Virgil said.
"We need to talk to them," Lucas said. "Maybe they won't want us around. They're good at all kinds of things — better than we are."
"But we're better at other stuff," Virgil said. "Like the scut work that usually makes the case."
"There is that," Lucas agreed.
One of the FBI agents came out on the home's wide stone front porch and called something down to another agent who was sitting in a black SUV. Duncan, watching him, asked, doubtfully, "They can do things better?"
"Some things," Lucas said. "Who's running this circus? Has anybody seen St. Vincent?"
"He's inside," Duncan said. "That'd be our best shot at a quick meet."
David St. Vincent was the Minneapolis agent in charge. Lucas, Virgil and Duncan ambled over to the porch, looked up at the FBI agent, who was wearing a knee-length wool coat nowhere near as warm as a down parka, and Lucas called, "We need to talk to David."
The agent looked down at them: "You're Davenport."
"Yeah. And this is Virgil Flowers, BCA, and Jon Duncan is coordinating for the BCA."
"Let me talk to agent St. Vincent," the agent said. "I'll be right back."
And he was: thirty seconds after he went inside, the agent was back and said, "Give him five minutes. He's on the phone to Washington. He wants to talk with you."
While they waited for the agent-in-charge, Virgil, Lucas and Duncan went back to the garage to watch the crime scene people work. Duncan said, "They've been all over the car. Doesn't look like the killer touched it."
One of the crime scene techs, a middle-aged woman named Cheryl, turned and said, "If one more of you jerkoffs steps in that snow, I'll shoot you myself."
"You looking for DNA?" Duncan asked.
"Of course. I've got low hopes," Cheryl said.
"Can you get it off snow?" They all looked at the body-sized depression in the snow at the corner of the garage.
"Gotta say that's unlikely," Cheryl said. "I mean, if there was blood, or snot... or if he drooled in the snow. I don't see anything obvious. He did lie down in a couple of places and melted into the snow a little. We're trying to document the impressions."
She nodded at a guy with an LED light panel and a camera with a wide-angle lens.
Lucas turned, looked up and down the street, and said to Duncan, "You know what? We gotta knock on doors."
"Gotta be a camera somewhere that sees the road," Virgil said. "My navigation system says it's a half-mile along the lane, on either side the house, before you get to an intersection."
They were still chatting when David St. Vincent came out on the porch and called, "Jon Duncan: bring your guys up."
St. Vincent was a short man with a 50s style flattop, tortoise-shell-framed glasses, a chiseled chin and a missing pinky finger, which Lucas happened to know was congenital, rather than the product of an accident. He was wearing a blue wool suit, white shirt, burgundy necktie and a COVID mask.
When Lucas, Virgil and Duncan climbed the porch, he said, as they all shook hands with him, "C'mon inside, get warm."
They followed him inside, down a short hallway between two coat closets, and into an expansive living room with a blood-red carpet, mid-century furniture in colors coordinated with the carpet, and a bookcase built in sections on both sides and above a bar. One wall had an expressionistic oil painting of a horse, and from the way it was displayed, Lucas assumed that it was what art people called "important."
Two masked FBI agents were perched on a beige sofa with briefcases by their feet; one was typing on a laptop, the other was on a cell phone.
St. Vincent said, "We need your help — mostly with crime scene."
"Everything we've got," Duncan offered.
"Thank you. We'll reciprocate. We're coordinating the results of the investigations in California and Texas and we'll be adding yours to it. Plus we're doing our own research with the serial killer team."
"Do we know for sure that Sikes isn't a copycat?" Virgil asked. "That it's the Five group?"
"Yes. I assume you've seen their so-called press release? It came into their list of reporters at midnight last night, seven hours before the body was found. They included a copy to the moderator of the Five channel on Facebook. She got so excited she tried to call the White House. Already got more than a million followers, or whatever you call them. I got woken up at one o'clock to warn me that this was coming. Didn't mention Sikes' name, but the rest of the detail is right," St. Vincent said. "With this, I'll tell you, things are about to get seriously ugly."
"It's already ugly," Lucas said.
"About a three on a scale of one to ten. This will push it to seven. If there's a fourth murder, the ugly will be off the scale," St. Vincent said. "Thank God this wasn't another politician, or the wingers would be going nuts. Get 2020 started all over again."
Lucas: "I got a call from a politician."
"I'm not surprised," St. Vincent said. He knew about Lucas' relationship with the Minnesota senators. "In any case, this is what we propose: everybody does everything. Don't worry about conflicts. If you're about to do something that will attract media attention, we'd appreciate a heads-up. Then, go for it."
"I'm not sure at this point what we can go for," Duncan said. "I've read the reports out of Houston and San Francisco, and they were mostly notable for not coughing up any leads at all. No video, no DNA, no witnesses, no known connections between killer and victims..."
"That's correct, but we haven't dug deep enough," St. Vincent said. "These people are more reminiscent of a terrorist group than an ordinary gang. One thing seems clear to us: the victims were not only researched, they were scouted. Stalked. The stalker was seen, by somebody. They might not realize it, but somebody saw this guy."
"Have your computer people been looking at the sources of the emails?" Virgil asked.
"Of course. We're holding this close, but the emails come from a never-before-used Gmail account. They use it once and then not again. The next email comes from a different Gmail account and there are literally millions of Gmail accounts. The emails all come from the same computer. Unfortunately, it's an old Apple, sold long ago, then traded at a defunct used-computer place where nobody kept track of who bought what. It's a very cleverly crafted dead-end."
"They've been thinking about this for a while," Virgil said.
Lucas: "Their press releases say they're all rich, and there's a hint the money might have come from Bitcoin investments. Have you guys..."
St. Vincent was nodding: "The problem is, one of the chief characteristics of Bitcoin is its anonymity, which is why criminals like it so much, and tax evaders. And IRS confidentiality rules don't help... we want them to cough up whatever they have on big Bitcoin winners, but they won't do it. We have to specify a name and then get a subpoena to get his or her records. Of course, a lot of the Bitcoin winners aren't hiding, they're bragging. We've got a list of those guys. There's more than a thousand names on it right now."
"That's tough," Duncan said. "Especially since you know the list is incomplete, and the ones you're missing are probably the biggest crooks."
St. Vincent nodded: "Yup."

"Virgil and I will be knocking on doors" Lucas said. "Because that's all we got."
St. Vincent ticked a finger at him: "I believe that's about the best thing you could do right now, Lucas. We need cops talking to local residents. Somebody saw the killer. Somebody did. I'd rather have local law enforcement pushing that angle, than my agents."

Back outside, Lucas said to Virgil, "Never heard anything quite like that, not from the FBI."
"Don't give him too much credit," Duncan said. "He wants local law enforcement to do it because his agents are too valuable to be knockin' on doors."
Virgil looked back at the porch, where St. Vincent was watching them go; he raised a hand and Virgil raised his. To Lucas: "We knockin'?"
"We knockin'," Lucas said. "Doesn't seem right for cops as high-powered as us, but that's what we're doing." He looked at the crowd of cops in the driveway. "We can get some local uniforms to walk with us."
Virgil checked his iPhone for the time. "Ten o'clock. Meet you back here. Get lunch."
"If you guys get the slightest sniff of anything, call me," Duncan said. "I'll be wired into everybody by then. Now, I gotta go kick some crime scene ass. They need to produce something."
"If they can't?" Virgil asked.
Duncan, grim-faced: "Then they're not working hard enough."

Chapter Three

Vivian Zhao was short and thin with intelligent dark eyes and a way of talking to a person with her head half-turned away, but her eyes cut back to the person's face. She wore one tiny piece of silver jewelry, a simple loop that pierced the side of her left nostril. Her nails were always chewed short.
Zhao's hair fell to her shoulders and she did nothing with it: she called it her witch hair and most mornings, however it was when she woke, was the way it stayed for the day. She had tattoos never seen by anyone but her few lovers: they started below her collar bones and stopped above her knees. Her body between her collar bones and knees was a tangled universe of Japanese manga cartoons, a little color but mostly black, white and gray.
Zhao had been a PhD candidate in economics until the process had become too boring to further tolerate. Everything was boring, except, perhaps, money, of which she had little.
And murder. Murder wasn't boring.
It had become apparent during her economics course work that much of the sand in the gears of America — and the grit in ordinary life, for that matter – was created by assholes. Specifically by assholes.
She could think of no more salient term for them. They were human scum who went through the world hurting others, with not a whit of conscience to be stirred. They weren't necessarily criminals, because the assholes in state legislatures, the Congress and the Presidency had bent and twisted the criminal laws to protect themselves. Everybody knew it; nobody knew what to do about it. The assholes held the levers of power.
They kept the American mushrooms — the people kept in the dark and fed bullshit — struggling toward all their individual concepts of freedoms: the right to own any gun you wanted, for the gun nuts; the right to abortion, for the feminists; fetal rights, for the anti-abortion crowd; the right to universal equality for the Progressives; the right to smoke weed, for the dopers.
It was all bullshit, Zhao thought. There was only one thing that got you real freedom: Wealth. Money. With enough money, you could get anything you needed, any time you needed it. You could get away with actual crimes for years, if you had enough money to protect yourself.
Zhao's money hunger had led her to a Bitcoin convention in Los Angeles. She'd gotten a low-paid speaking gig, in which she'd been introduced as "Dr. Vivian Zhao," although she had never finished her thesis. She hadn't corrected the convention's organizers. She hadn't bothered to tell them that her objective was to find somebody rich, cut him or her out of the crowd, and get some of that cash.
Her speech — "Get Out! No Taxes and the Good Life Elsewhere!" had been well-attended. During the cocktail party at the end of the day, she'd encountered George Sonnewell.
Sonnewell was standing alone, a big man with hooded eyes, a powerful neck and shoulders. A bull. He had a glass of bourbon in his hand, looking solid as a rock, and at the same time, innocent and lost. She approached with an inane comment about the attendance. He ignored that and told her he never wanted to leave the United States, not even to save his Bitcoin fortune.
"I love this country too much. I'd never leave. I admit that it doesn't work anymore," he told her. "The assholes are tearing it down. They're everywhere. I'll tell you what needs to be done: we need to start killing them. If we kill enough of them, maybe the rest will get the point."
With an impulse that she never quite understood, Zhao reached out and grasped the coat sleeve of this nerdish ex-farm boy and said quietly, "I totally agree. What you said... I've been waiting for somebody to say that. It's so obvious, but I never really thought of it that way. Maybe we should... begin."
He'd looked around and instead of fleeing, he'd asked, "Have you met Andi Carter?"
That was the beginning.
By chaining through the members of the ABC — American Bitcoin Council – they'd found two dozen members who had reached the same conclusion and seemed ready to act on it. But most weren't, not really. When the talk grew specific, about tactics, weapons, and targets, the recruits began dropping out. Two at first, then three more, then another, and another.
The talk, the planning, had been done inside Dark Web chatrooms set up by Zhao, using a software package called Discord. As members dropped out, she'd delete the old room and set up a new one, unknown to those who left. When they'd gotten down to five people, plus Zhao, it seemed they'd reached the necessary level of commitment in all the members.
For security reasons, none of the five knew anyone but Zhao, and Zhao knew all five of them by name. When they'd gotten deep into their planning, they'd asked her to prove her commitment. That she wasn't simply hustling then, maybe setting them up for blackmail. Of Zhao and her five recruits, she was the only one who wasn't unreasonably, Bitcoin-filthy rich.
Zhao suggested a victim, a hedge fund operator known for his investments in West Cost slums, which, he bragged, returned sixty-five percent annually. The other five agreed he should be dealt with.
After weeks of research, scouting and discussion in the chat room, Zhao killed him in his driveway on a cool Sunday morning in April. The six knew many things about the victim, and one really interesting thing: he got up at dawn on Sunday mornings, put on a dressing gown, walked out to the gate that protected his driveway, opened it a crack, stepped through and recovered the Sunday New York Times from where the delivery man had thrown it.
The gate opened to the left. Zhao was standing to the left, behind the gate as it opened. The victim stooped to pick up the paper and Zhao shot him three times in the back of the head, and then twice more to be absolutely sure he was dead. She filmed the killing with a Go Pro camera and posted it in the chat room.
Then the other five believed. None of them mentioned death, or murder. Their questions tended to the technical: "Where'd you get a silenced pistol?" and "How'd you choose a .22? Wouldn't a 9mm been more certain?"
"Suppressors are not hard to find, thanks to the assholes," she answered. "Those of you planning to use guns should ask around. You'll see."
The other five were:
George Sonnewell, who hated what the street people had done to San Francisco. Andi Carter hated the greedy, grasping redneck politicians who'd played games with the bankers who'd taken her to bed a hundred times over. Jamie McGruder wasn't strong enough to hate but wanted to try killing someone because he was crazy. Killing an asshole seemed like a good idea and he picked one that made Zhao and the others happy. Bill Osborne was a black man, made rich by a timely investment in Bitcoin, who hated the gun dealers who were turning his beloved hometown of Cleveland into a war zone; and he knew of one who assembled ghost guns, and sold them to children. Marty Meyer's great-grandparents and most of their offspring had died at Auschwitz; he hated fascists and saw them everywhere on the rise. He had his eye on a rightwing talk show host known for his incessant promotion of every absurd rightwing lie.
Since the five recruits decided not to reveal their real names to each other, they chose airport codes as pseudonyms. SFO was San Francisco and Sonnewell, JFK was New York and Meyer, CLE was Cleveland and Osborne, MSY was New Orleans and Carter, MSP was Minneapolis-St. Paul and McGruder.
When their group had been reduced to the final Bitcoin five plus one — Zhao – with everyone committed to killing, they spent hours online together, working out methods of murder. They're watchword was "analysis," as in "We need more analysis" of this or that. They talked about weapons, about get-aways, about evidence, about the tactics used by prosecution and defense attorneys, so they could manipulate their killings to the benefit of the defense, should they get caught.
They looked at each other's choices of victims, suggested changes and dangers. They read thriller novels, most of which were useless, though some made interesting points about gunfire. They reviewed true crime stories, looking at the failures of other murderers, and how those failures might be avoided. They read police reports and learned how to buy dark net police scanners that could hear encrypted digital radio traffic.
While all five recruits knew Zhao, none of them knew for sure who the other four members of the Bitcoin group were, even though they'd all met at ABC conventions at one time or another. Meyer thought Osborne was a member and Sonnewell was almost sure that Carter was. The other three members had no idea of who anyone else was, and Meyer and Sonnewell were only guessing.
At the end, they felt... itchy. Carter had used the term. "I'm feeling... itchy. Got the urge to actually do something. If we're really going to do this, who's going first among the five of us richies? Somebody has to be first."
"I'll do it," said the man they knew as SFO.
Then he did.
And Carter followed.
Then McGruder.