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|The Prey Series|
The Kidd Series
The Singular Menace
One of those days: late fall, bare black tree branches scratching at a churning gray sky, days cold, nights colder. The harvest was very late record late and moving fast. The soybean crop had been delayed because of a cold summer, and then in the middle of October, with half the crop in, rain began to fall, a couple of inches a week, and didn't quit for a month. Now it was dry again, but a landslide of bad weather hovered over the western horizon, and the combines were working twenty hours a day, bringing in the last of the beans and corn.
Bob Tripp leaned against the highway-side wall at the Battenberg Farmer's Co-op grain elevator, knowing that Jacob Flood was on his way.
You could not only see the harvest the working lights in the fields at night, the tractors and wagons on the roads but you could hear it, and smell it, and even taste it in the air. Tasted like grain, and a little like dust, Tripp thought. His favorite time of year for the outdoors: regular deer season just over, muzzleloader coming up, snowmobiles ready to go.
Flood had called from his field in the early afternoon: "I need to get in and out fast. You open?"
"I got two wagons being weighed right now," Tripp had said. "John McGuire's coming in probably twenty minutes, nothing after that. If you can get here in an hour or so, we should be open. People have been calling to check, nobody's called about coming in after John."
"Put me down for three," Flood said. "And goldarnit, I gotta get in and out."
"Help you the best we can," Tripp said.
Tripp was nineteen, a high school jock who should have been playing freshman football at a state college. An automobile accident in June, which had broken his left leg, had put that off for a year. The leg had mostly healed by September, and he'd taken the temporary clerk's job at the co-op, where the leg hadn't been too important. He was getting along well, doing rehab exercises every night. The doc said he'd be as good as ever by spring.
Maybe he would be, he thought. Maybe not.
He looked at his watch. Five minutes to three. Nobody coming in. He walked back to the small elevator office, worked the combination on his locker, and popped it open. He wore coveralls on the job, kept his civilian clothes in the locker. He pushed them aside, took out the aluminum T-ball bat he'd hidden there.
He'd had the bat since he was five years old, even then a budding star. He swung it a few times, getting reacquainted with its weight, and thought about what he was going to do. He might get caught, but he'd do it anyway. He looked at himself the way athletes do, spotted the fear, the trepidation, and the anger, and let them percolate through his muscles, jacking himself up for the battle.
Running late and barely able to keep his eyes open, Jacob Flood leaned on the truck's horn as he nudged the old Chevy up to the edge of the scales. He'd been working since early Wednesday morning, with four hours of sleep in the middle of it. He was beat, and not done yet.
The clerk came out in gray coveralls and a feed cap worn backward, over long hair. The kid knew his business: weighed the truck, helped guide it as Flood backed it through the elevator's twenty-foot-high receiving doors. The fit was tight, with just enough room for a man to pass on either side. Flood watched in his rearview mirror until the kid waved at him to stop.
The kid moved onto the dump grate to open the hatches in the middle and at the bottom of the truck's larger dump doors. The hatches needed to be opened first, to start the grain flow and ease the pressure on the main doors. Once that was done, Flood would engage the hydraulics and tilt the bed for the dump, overloaded to about thirty tons of soybeans.
Flood heard the dump start, and then the kid yelled something and waved, and he engaged the hydraulics. When the truck bed stopped rising, he leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. If he could get just an hour...
He'd take an hour when he got home, he decided. But if that incoming storm turned to bad snow, he'd leave a few tens of thousands of dollars' worth of beans out in the fields. He'd hire another combine in, but everybody from the Missouri line to central Minnesota was going hell for leather, and there was no reliable equipment to be had.
But he'd get it in, if the weather held. If he could stay awake.
Flood had almost fallen asleep when there was a sharp rap on the glass next to his face, and he jumped. "What?"
"I can't get the main door open," the kid said. "The handle's stuck. Gimme a hand?"
Flood climbed down from the truck. He wasn't a big man, but he had the hard muscles of a forty-year-old who'd spent his life doing heavy labor. He was wearing OshKosh overalls and a hat with a front label that said "John 3:16."
He walked around the back of the truck and stepped onto the grate. Beans trickled from the larger door's open hatch. The farmer leaned in and grabbed the handle and pushed up hard, expecting resistance. There was none, and the bar slipped out of its slot and the doors swung open. Beans flowed out in a wide, fast stream.
Surprised, Flood hopped back a few feet to the edge of the grate, and turned to where the kid had been. "What the hell..."
The kid wasn't there. He was behind Flood, with the T-ball bat, light and fast in his athletic hands. Flood never saw it coming.
The bat cracked into the back of the farmer's head and Flood went down like a sack of dry cement. "Fuck you," Tripp said. He spat on the body. "You sick fuckin' prick..."
Then the fear lanced through him, and he looked up, guilty, expecting to see somebody watching: nobody there. He walked around to the edge of the building, peered down the highway. Nobody coming. A pigeon flew out of the rafters up above, and he jumped, stepped back, and looked down the road again.
"Nobody there, man, nobody there. Don't be a pussy," Tripp said aloud, to himself, for the simple reassurance of his own voice.
He went back to the body, watched the flow of grain coming out of the truck. Already half of it was gone: he stirred himself, said, "Move, you dumbass."
He bent over the older man, lifted his head and slammed the back of it against the grate, hard as he could, as though trying to crack open a coconut, and at the same time, trying to hit at the precise point where the bat had. He'd thought about this, had lain in bed and planned it out, visualized it, the way he would a pass pattern. He was right on schedule.
With Flood profoundly unconscious, or maybe already dead, Tripp lifted the man and pushed him into the grain flow, face up, reached out, and pulled his mouth open. Soybeans were spilling from the truck like water from a pitcher, flowing around the unconscious farmer, filling his mouth, nose, ears. They gathered in his eye sockets, and in his shirt pockets, and in the John 3:16 hat. They squirted down into his overalls, slipping through the folds of his boxer shorts, hard and round, looking for a resting place in a navel or a fold of skin.
Tripp watched for a minute, then hurried back to the side of the elevator to make sure there were no more trucks coming, then went inside, washed the bat, stuck it under the mat in the trunk of his car. Back inside, he filled out the paperwork on Flood's visit. Five minutes passed.
Had to be dead, Tripp thought. He went outside and looked at the man on the grate. His eyes were open, but there was nothing going on. Tripp leaned forward and put his hand over Flood's mouth, and pinched his nose with the other hand. No reaction. Held them for a minute. Nothing. He was dead. He hadn't seen many dead bodies that he could remember: his grandfather, but he'd been in a coffin and looked more waxed than dead. He'd gone to a couple more funerals when he was a kid, but he could hardly remember them.
But this guy was dead.
Tripp stood, caught sight of the hat, said out loud, "Three:sixteen, my ass." He knew what it meant "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life."
He knew what it meant, but it didn't apply to Flood. Tripp bent over, grabbed the farmer by the feet, and dragged him off the grate. Watched him for another moment, thought, Shit, if he's not dead, he's Lazarus.
He called 911 from the old Western Electric dial phone in the office. He'd been frightened by the killing, by even the thought of the killing, and he'd known that he would be, and he'd known there'd be a use for his fear and anguish: he let it spill out when the cop answered.
"Man, man, this is Bob Tripp, there's been a bad accident at the Battenberg elevator," he shouted into the phone. "We need somebody here, we need an ambulance, man, I think he's dead..."
The next Saturday. End of the golf season.
Lee Coakley collected twelve dollars, her biggest score of the year, and almost enough to get her even. She had a last Sprite, and looked at the gray wall of clouds in the western sky, and said to the others, "I'll see you girls on April Fools' Day, if I've spent all this money by then. It's such a bunch, I probably won't."
"Stay out of Victoria's Secret," one of them said.
"Right. I'll remember that." Walking with a grin through an indelicate stream of scornful comments, she carried her golf bag out to her car and threw it in the trunk, with only a mild pang of regret. She'd been golfed-out for a month, and though she'd be right back at it in the spring, the winter break was always a relief. When she took her two weeks in Florida, the clubs would stay at home.
In the driver's seat, she opened the center console and checked her cell phone: two calls, one from Darrell Martin, her private attorney, who was, she thought, looking to assuage her grief over the divorce probably at the Holiday Inn in Rochester, far enough away that his wife wouldn't hear about it and one from Ike Patras, the medical examiner in Mankato. The call had come in forty minutes earlier, about when she'd been standing on the eighteenth green, waiting to putt out.
Coakley thought, Huh. Working on a Saturday.
She punched redial, and a woman answered, and she said, "This is Lee Coakley down in Warren County. I'm returning a call from Ike."
"Yeah, just a minute, Lee," the woman said. She added, "This is Martha, Ike's in the back. I'm gonna put the phone down"
"What're you doing working on a Saturday? Something happen?"
"I think so," Martha said. "Let me get Ike."
And Coakley thought, Uh-oh.
Patras came up a minute later and said, "There's something fishy in Battenberg, and it ain't the lutefisk."
"What happened?" Coakley asked.
"I looked at Flood. The back of his head had two deep cuts and impact impressions like you'd expect from a grate. Same pattern as the grate. But there was another blow, before those two. Hit him right in the back of the head, and it came before his head hit the grate."
"Like something from the truck hit him?"
"Well, something hit him, but I don't think it was the truck," Patras said.
"What was it?" Coakley asked, with a bad feeling about the question.
"I think the boy there might have hit him. I don't know with what. A big pipe, a baseball bat, something on that order. The boy says he was the only other one there... and I think somebody hit Flood on the head."
"He's a pretty good kid, Ike," Coakley said. "Bobby Tripp, I know him and his folks."
"Well, something happened, good kid or not," Patras said. "Let me give you a couple items. I did some dissection around the wound. The grate cut sliced through a small artery in his scalp. It bled some, but not nearly enough."
"So his heart wasn't pumping."
"That's right. He was already dead when his head hit the grate. If he'd been hit by a truck, and if he'd fallen straight down and landed on the grate, his heart would have kept pumping for a minute or two, even with a fatal brain injury. Sometimes, the heart keeps going for a long time after a fatal brain trauma, depending on what it is. But even if it was the kind of thing that would cause almost instant death, there was hardly any way it could stop that quick. There should have been a lot of blood. There wasn't. That suggests to me that the grate wound came at least a minute or two after the original wound. Also, the original wound was cup-shaped, and the grid of the grate doesn't show in the middle of the cup, which means that the cup-shaped wound came first."
Coakley closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. "Okay. What else?"
"The guy was full of soybeans. The goddamn things are like ball bearings, Lee. He had them up his nose, he had them in his ears, he had them in his throat, he had them in his navel, he had a few where the sun don't shine. But he didn't breathe any in. I should have found some in his lungs, like water in a drowning man, but I didn't. When the beans hit him, he wasn't breathing."
"Ah, shoot," she said. "No chance that some of the other damage got done when Bobby hauled him out of the bean pile?"
"No. The sequence is clear. A heavy hit, followed some time later minutes later by impact on the grate, a very heavy, deliberate impact, on exactly the same site as the original impact. To me, that suggests intention. And then the beans. The very least the kid did was fake the accident. It didn't happen the way he says it did."
"He says he didn't witness the actual accident"
"Lee, I'm telling you. It's not right. I believe Flood was murdered, with maybe a one percent chance of an accident of some weird kind."
"All right. I hear you, Ike," Coakley said. "I'll get my guys together, we'll work it over. Damnit, he really is a good kid."
Virgil Flowers was winterizing on his boat: time to get it done, since there was almost a foot of snow in the yard. Despite the cold, he worked with the garage door open, for the light. He added stabilizer to the remaining gas, checked the grease levels in the Bearing Buddys, yanked all three batteries, hauled them into the house, into the mudroom, and stuck them on the auto-conditioners.
He was back in the garage, removing the bow and stern lines best to buy disposables in the fall, when the sales were on, than in the spring when a white SUV pulled into the driveway. A tall blond woman got out of the driver's side; she was thin, with a bony face and nose, and the nose looked like it had been broken sometime in the past. She wore her hair pulled back in a short ponytail, and plain gold-rimmed glasses, a hip-length canvas car coat, black gloves, and cowboy boots that pushed her total height to six feet.
She had a wintry look: a few unhidden strands of gray showed in her hair. Her face was a bit weathered around her pale eyes. She walked up the driveway and took off her gloves and asked, "Are you Virgil Flowers?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
She said, "You don't look much like a law enforcement officer."
"Just because you're a cop, doesn't mean you can't be good-looking," Virgil said.
She cracked a thin smile, then stuck out her hand and said, "I'm Lee Coakley, from Warren County."
"Oh, hey, Sheriff, pleased to meet you," Virgil said. He wiped his right hand on his pants and shook. "I've been meaning to get down there to talk to you, but I've been busier'n heck."
"I've come over to ask for your help. Or to find out who I talk to, to get your help," she said. She had a dry, crisp voice, something you'd expect from a green apple, if green apples could talk.
"I'm the guy you talk to," Virgil said. "Come on in. I'll get you a cup of coffee or a Diet Coke. I'm about done here."
"Pushing the season a little," Coakley said, looking at the boat.
"I was," Virgil agreed. "I'd be back out there tomorrow, if it wasn't fifteen degrees out."
"Tomorrow's a workday," Coakley said.
"Well, except for that," Virgil said. He thought she might have been joking, but her tone was flat, and he wasn't sure. "Come on in."
She took coffee, and instant microwave was fine, she said, but she could use an extra shot of coffee crystals: "I'm so tired I can't see straight."
Virgil got her the coffee and dug a Diet Coke out of the refrigerator. He was a tall man himself, tall enough that he could still look a bit down at her eyes, cowboy boots and all. He had unruly blond hair that hung down over his ears, and was slender enough that, except for her red hair, people might mistake them for brother and sister.
"So what's up?" he asked.
She'd been sleepily checking out the house bachelor neat, not fussy, furnished for comfort. She sighed, brushed a vagrant lobe of hair from her eyes, turned back to him and said, "I've been in office for less than a month and I have the biggest problem our office has ever run into," she said. "At least, if Ike Patras is right. Ike's the one who told me how to get to your house."
"Ike doesn't make many mistakes," Virgil said. He knew Patras well. "You had a kid hang himself in the jail. I heard about that."
"That's part of it," she said. "But there's more."
The trouble started, she said, with an apparent accident at a grain elevator in Battenberg the previous Thursday. A kid named Robert Tripp, called Bob or B.J. by his friends, had phoned 911 to say that a farmer named Flood had apparently fallen on a grate and knocked himself out, and then drowned in the beans that poured on him.
"We shipped the victim's body up to Ike, and Ike decided it was no accident. He said it was about ninety-nine percent that it was a murder, that Flood was dead before he ever hit the grate. Probably killed by a blow to the head with something like a pipe, or a baseball bat. The Tripp boy already said there'd been no one else there but he and the farmer, so..."
"He had to be the one," Virgil said.
She nodded. "You could think of other scenarios, but it was pretty thin. So Ike called it a murder, and another deputy and I went over to interview the boy. Read him his rights, pushed on him, he started crying. He didn't actually confess, but it was close. This is a kid I've known since he was born. Know his parents. Really nice people, really nice kid," she said.
"Anyway, he said enough that we thought we had to hold him. Took him down to the jail, processed him in, went back to his house with a search warrant, looked in his room, looked around the house. Out in the garage, among a bunch of really dusty, unused stuff, we found a clean aluminum T-ball bat. Cleaner than it should have been you could smell the gasoline on it. Looked in the trash, found some paper towels that smelled of gas, had a few hairs on them..."
"So you had him," Virgil said.
"Oh, yeah. He did it. Wouldn't say why," Coakley said. "He said he would talk, but only to one guy a newspaper reporter. A gay newspaper reporter. I'm not sure if the gay part is important, but Bobby was a big jock, got a full ride over at Marshall starting next fall, could have slept with half the girls in town, but you didn't hear about that. Maybe he was discreet, maybe he was shy."
"Maybe he was gay."
"Don't know," Coakley said. "But it was an odd request. His father said Bobby didn't have any particular relationship with the reporter, except that he'd been interviewed for newspaper stories a few times. But he must have had some kind of relationship Bobby told me, when I talked to him, that the reporter was the only person in town he would trust, outside of his family, and he wouldn't talk to his folks about it."
"Odd. Interesting," Virgil said.
"So, I was going to set it up," Coakley said. "But early the next morning, I got a call from the jail. He'd hanged himself. He was dead."
"Nobody checking during the night?" Virgil asked.
"Oh, yeah. The overnight deputy. Jim Crocker. Jimmy Crocker. He said Bobby was fine at five A.M., dead at six o'clock." She set her coffee cup down and looked away from him. "Just... appalling. I couldn't believe it. But there he was. I went down and looked at him Crocker didn't touch him, because it was obvious that he was long dead when Crocker found him."
"It happens," Virgil said. He turned the Diet Coke can in his hands, rolling it between them. "I could come up with a bunch of theories about what could have happened, especially if the kid was gay. Gay people can have a pretty hard time when their situation starts becoming undeniable. Especially small-town kids. Especially small-town jocks. Willie Nelson even has a song about it."
"'Cowboys Frequently Secretly,'" she said. "I've heard it. Makes me laugh."
"So are you looking for an outside opinion?" Virgil asked.
"No, I'm not. I'm looking for a hard-nosed investigation. See, we sent B.J.'s body up here to Ike and..." She stopped talking, looking for the thread of her story, and then said, "First, let me say that Jim Crocker used to be the chief deputy. When Harlan announced he was going to retire, Jim thought he'd automatically get elected to be the new sheriff. Well, he didn't. I did."
"You were a town cop in Homestead..."
"Yes. I was the lead investigator for the city. Anyway, I got elected, Crocker didn't. He said some things both before and after the election that made it impossible to keep him on as chief deputy. It wasn't legal to fire him, and he'd always been a bureaucrat, more than a street cop or an investigator, so I moved him into a staff job. Anyway, he was working the overnight.
"We sent Bobby's body up here for the autopsy, and that goddamn Patras excuse my French that goddamn Patras called me back and said it all looked like a suicide."
She paused, and Virgil said, "Except..."
"Except for two things. Maybe three." She scratched her eyebrow. "First: there was a bruise in the middle of Bobby's back. A round bruise, almost like he'd been hit by a baseball. Maybe a little bigger than that. A softball. Hadn't had time to develop much before the blood stopped, but it was there. Almost had to be incurred while he was in the cell. We took him in at four o'clock in the afternoon. Ike says if the impact that caused the bruise had happened before that, it would have been much more developed. The thing is, we couldn't find anything in the cell that would make a bruise like that. You could almost say it looked like he had a knee in his back."
"Okay. That's one thing," Virgil said.
"Two. He hanged himself with a strip of cloth he'd ripped off the end of a blanket. An acrylon blanket. Looped it around his neck."
"His penis out of his pants?"
"No. Wasn't sexual. Anyway, it looked all the world like he'd hanged himself, and Ike agrees. But Bobby had a broken fingernail, like he'd clawed at the cloth."
"Changed his mind," Virgil said. She shook her head, and he added, "Except..."
"Except that when they looked at the fibers under his nails, they were wool. Not acrylon. In fact, they were green wool. Our uniform pants are green wool. Ike says Bobby was scratching at green wool. And he says the way the blood from his nails mixed with the wool, there's no doubt. He was alive when he was scratching at it."
"What's the third thing?"
"It's not evidence, but... Bobby's parents say he'd never commit suicide. Never would. They're so sure, I give it some weight," she said.
They sat at the table, looking at each other for a moment, and then Virgil said, "Crocker."
"But why?" she asked. "When we brought them in, they acted like they didn't even know each other. I mean, Crocker lives all the way out in the west end of the county. He's closer to Jackson than he is to Homestead, so maybe they didn't know each other."
"So there's no motive, that you know of."
"Maybe a thin one. I've heard, but I don't know, that Crocker and Jacob Flood, the man Tripp killed, were childhood friends. But I know Crocker, and that seems so unlikely for one thing, he's way too much of a chicken to do that."
"Did they have any contact when Crocker processed him in? I mean, if they did the body cavity search... Tripp might have thrashed around some."
"No. He was handcuffed during the search, and Ike says his nail was broken at the time of death. He's sure about that."
"You see my problem?" Coakley asked. "The guy who ran against me, who I demoted, I'm now going to investigate for murder, in what everybody, including most of the people in the department, think was a suicide," she said.
"I do see your problem," Virgil said. "Let me make a phone call."
She made herself another cup of coffee, and Virgil got on the phone to his boss, Lucas Davenport. He outlined the situation, and Davenport said, "Go on down there. We bail her out of this, we'll own her."
"Not only that, but we'll solve a vicious crime," Virgil said.
"That, too. I mean, we can't lose, huh? I'll clear you out up here," Davenport said.
Virgil put the phone down. "We're good to go. If you want to head out, I'll be a half hour or so behind."
"Why do they call you 'that fuckin' Flowers'?" she asked, leaning back against his kitchen counter and crossing her ankles. He noticed her cowboy boots had handsome turquoise details of the type called pigeon guts. "You seem reasonably straightforward to me."
"Cop alliteration, mostly," Virgil said. "I didn't mind at first. Then it started to piss me off. Now I've given up, and don't mind again."
She cocked her head. "So it didn't have anything to do with romantic activity... on your part."
"Good God no," Virgil said. He gave her his third-best innocent-cowboy grin. "I'm a lonesome guy. I don't understand it, but..."
He noticed then that her pale eyes weren't the same color: one was blue, and one was green. She closed the green one, squinting at him. "I'm a trained investigator. I sense a certain level of bullshit here."
"Hey..." Virgil said. And, serious again, "If Crocker killed the kid, it's possible he doesn't know about the pants. That the pants might have the kid's blood on them. If they're wool, he'd probably dry-clean them, so maybe we could still get them but we gotta move fast. When you get down there, could you pull me a search warrant? I'll pick it up coming through town. Maybe send a couple of deputies along with me? You personally ought to stay clear."
"I will," she said. She turned to rinse her cup at the kitchen sink. "I've got a judge who can keep his mouth shut, too."
Virgil said, "That's always an asset." He watched as she fumbled the cup, and said, "If you're seriously sleepy, I mean, the roads aren't that good. If you want to bag out on my couch for an hour or two, you're welcome to it."
She stretched and yawned and said, "Thanks, but I've got to keep going. I'll see you in Homestead. Quick as you can make it."
Deep snow, with barely a nose stuck into December.
Sometimes it happened that way, and then Minnesotans would be running around warning each other that they were about to get payback for all those warm winters. Exactly what warm winters weren't specified, but it was that one back a couple of years ago when there was a forty-degree reading in January. Or maybe that was five years ago, and actually, they'd been freezing their asses off ever since.
In any case, it was cold, with snow.
Virgil believed that he might be in Homestead for a while, so he packed up his winter travel kit, which he kept in a plastic bin, and put it in the back of the truck, along with a duffel bag of winter clothes. The National Weather Service said it wasn't going to get any warmer, which usually meant it was going to get colder.
He wore a fleece pullover and jeans, with Thinsulate-lined hiking boots, and threw a parka and downhill-ski gloves on the passenger seat. A shotgun and a box of four-ought shells went in the back, and a 9mm Glock, with two extra magazines, in the center console. Only two extra, because he figured if he needed more than forty-two shots, he'd be better off running away.
He turned the house heat down to 64 and hooked up his new answering gadget. When you called, and pressed "9," the machine would answer and tell you the inside temperature. That way, if the furnace went out while you were gone, you had a chance to catch it before the pipes froze, burst, and flooded the place.
He went next door and told Mrs. Wilson that he'd be out of town for a few days. "See anybody in my house, go ahead and shoot 'em."
"I'll do that," she said. She was about a hundred years old, but reliable. "You take care, Virgil. And don't go fuckin' around with them country women."
He rolled out of the driveway at noon, got Outlaw Country on the satellite radio the Del McCoury Band with "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and was on his way, down Highway 60 to Highway 15, and down 15 to I-90 to Fairmont, and west from there to Homestead. Eighty-plus-plus miles, snowplow banks on both sides of the highways, but bare concrete under the wheels.
The countryside was nothing but farms: corn and beans and corn and beans and corn and beans, and over there some wild man had apparently planted wheat or oats, judging from the stubble; the countryside all black trees and brush and white snow and houses and red barns, with a little tan where the wind had scoured the snow down, squared off acreages rolling away to the horizon, with lines of smoke climbing out of chimneys into the sky.
And over there, a yellow house, like a finger in the eye.
He didn't worry much about the fact that his target was a cop. Virgil wasn't a brother-cop believer; he was not disposed to either like or dislike other cops before he met them, because he'd known too many of them. To Virgil, cops were just people, and people with more than their fair share of stress and temptation. Most resisted the temptations. Some didn't. Fact of life.
He did wind up liking most of them, though, simply because of shared backgrounds, and the fact that Virgil was a social guy. So social, he'd been married three times over a short space of years, until he finally gave it up. He didn't plan to resume until he'd grown old enough to distinguish love from infatuation. He felt he was making progress, but he'd thought that the other three times, too.
He considered Lee Coakley, and thought, Huh. She had a glint in her eye, and he knew for a fact that she was recently divorced. And she carried a gun. He liked that in a woman, because it sometimes meant that he didn't have to.
He cut I-90 at Fairmont, stopped to stretch and get a Diet Coke, and headed west. The sun was already low and deep into the southwest, and the sky was going gray.
Homestead was an old country town of fourteen thousand people or so, the Warren County seat, founded in the 1850s on rolling land along a chain of lakes. Warren was in the first tier of counties north of the Iowa line, west of Martin County, east of Jackson. Most of the downtown buildings, and many of the homes, were put up in the first half of the twentieth century. Interstate 90 passed just to the north of town, and Virgil stopped as he went by and reserved a room at the Holiday Inn. That done, he drove on into town, to the sheriff's office. Her office was in an eighties-era yellow brick building built behind an older, mid-century courthouse. The office included working space for the worn deputies, a comm center, and a jail.
Coakley was waiting, with two deputies, big men in their thirties, both weathered, square-jawed Germans, one in civilian clothes, the other in a sheriff's uniform.
"Agent Flowers," Coakley said, "I've got your warrant. These men are Gene Schickel and Greg Dunn, they'll be going out with you."
He shook hands with the two, and Virgil said to Dunn, "I remember you from the Larson accident." Dunn nodded and said, "That was a mess," and added, "I gotta tell you, I don't like this."
"Nobody ever does," Virgil said. "Me coming in, it's like internal affairs. When I was a cop up in St. Paul, I shaded away from those guys as much as anybody. No reason to, but I know what you're talking about."
Dunn said, "Just a feeling that maybe we should clean up our own messes."
Virgil nodded. "But you've got a lifetime job, if you don't screw up. Sheriff Coakley has to get elected, and you've gotta see the political problem in all this."
Dunn nodded. "Yeah, I do. I just don't like it."
Virgil looked at Schickel, the one in uniform. "What about you? Or are you the strong and silent type?"
Schickel's lips barely moved: "We got to look at Crocker. I'd do it, even if nobody else wanted to."
"Then let's go," Virgil said.
Schickel rode with Virgil, to fill him in on Crocker, while Dunn took a sheriff's truck and led the way. Crocker lived seventeen miles out, most of it down I-90. Schickel said, "Greg wasn't trying to give you a hard time. He says what he thinks."
Virgil nodded. "I appreciate that. He didn't cut Larson any slack, either."
Larson had been a state senator who'd gotten drunk, but not very, had run a rural stop sign and T-boned another car on his way home from the bar. The driver of the other car was killed. The question had been whether it was purely an accident, or vehicular homicide. Virgil had helped with the investigation, and though Larson had been indicted on the homicide charge, he'd been acquitted.
"Greg's a good guy, but he doesn't cut anybody a lot of slack," Schickel said. Then, loosening up a little, "Including his wife. He's halfway through a divorce."
"Been there," Virgil said. "So what's with Crocker? Good guy? Bad guy? You think he knew Tripp? Any rumors around?"
"Jimmy's not a good guy," Schickel said. "I'm not talking behind his back. He knows what I think, and I've told him to his face."
"What's his problem?"
"He's got some bully in him, for one thing. Not physical that's one thing I'm not sure about in this Tripp thing. The Tripp boy was a hell of an athlete. Jim Crocker is a big guy and strong as a bull, but I don't know if he'd have the guts to take on Bobby Tripp."
"So when you say Crocker's a bully..."
"He's political, always sucking around for something," Schickel said. "He was Harlan's messenger boy, when somebody had to give out the bad news. You know, if somebody was gonna get fired, or laid off, or disciplined. He was like the assistant principal, if you know what I mean."
"And he enjoyed doing it. But he was also one for dodging serious work. When he went for the sheriff's job, practically the whole department was out there talking up Lee. I would've quit, if he'd won."
"But not crooked... not on the take, or anything."
"Not like payoffs, like protection. But he'd do a favor for somebody," Schickel said. "One time, two or three years back, a doctor's kid got caught driving drunk, one-point-one blood alcohol. No accident or anything, pretty good kid, otherwise, but drunk. His old man came in to talk to the sheriff. Said they had a family cabin up in Canada, and the Canadians wouldn't let the kid into the country with the conviction. He wanted a little consideration."
"And the sheriff said..."
"Basically, that it was too late. Everybody in town knew about the situation. Best to hire a good lawyer. Anyway, when they went to send the file over to the county attorney, the key evidence was missing. The original ticket with the blow-tube numbers on it," Schickel said. "So the prosecutor refused to prosecute, because of tainted evidence and mishandled paperwork. She was happy to do it, because she didn't want to hang up the doctor's family anyway. And she had an out: she blamed our office. Hell of an embarrassment. The eventual... conclusion... was that Crocker lifted the file."
"But no proof."
"No proof, but I'm on board with the conclusion," Schickel said. "Crocker... you can have a beer with the guy, and he can tell a story, but basically, not a good guy."
They followed Dunn off I-90 at Highway 7, turned south through the town of Battenberg. Schickel pointed out a grain elevator: "That's where Tripp killed Jake Flood."
"Oh, yeah? Was Crocker in on that? The investigation?" Virgil asked.
"No, he had nothing to do with that. That all happened in the daytime, and Crocker's been working nights," Schickel said.
"Did he work last night?"
"Nope. Yesterday and the day before was his weekend. He's on tonight."
They passed the high school and went on down Main Street to the intersection of a county highway, turned back east for a couple miles, jogged south.
"He's really out here," Virgil said. "He got a family?"
"No. Wife took off a few years ago. She's married to a guy over in Jackson, now. Or was. This house belongs to his uncle: he gets it free, as I understand it. Otherwise, it'd probably be abandoned. His folks have a farm further on south."
The farmhouse sat on the south side of a tangled woodlot of cottonwoods and box elders, beside a shallow drainage creek that crossed the roadway south of the house. The house was typical old Minnesota: a narrow two-story clapboard place in need of paint and new shingles, and probably new wiring. A thin stream of heated air was coming from a chimney, visible as a shimmer against the sky.
A machine shed, showing fresh tracks going in, but not out, with a new garage door, sat to the left of the driveway, with a ten-foot-long propane tank to one side. The front porch was covered by untracked snow; entry was apparently through the side door, next to the driveway. A satellite dish was bolted to one of the porch pillars, aimed to the southwest.
Dunn led the way in, and Virgil parked behind him, and they got out and stretched and stomped their feet in the snow-covered drive, and Dunn said to Virgil, "Well, time to do your thing."
Virgil nodded and said, "You know what?" He went back to the truck and got the Glock out of the center console and put it in his pocket.
Schickel's eyebrows went up: "You don't carry?"
"I'm more of an intellectual," Virgil said.
Dunn actually smiled: "I've heard that."
Virgil climbed the stoop and knocked on the door. No answer. No sound, except the faint hiss of the chimney. Knocked again, louder. Called, "Crocker? Jim Crocker?"
Virgil stepped back from the stoop, asked the deputies, "There's no chance that anybody called him? That he's running for it?"
Dunn shook his head: "I know for a fact that the sheriff didn't tell anybody but me and Gene, and Judge O'Hare, who's about as tight-lipped as a guy could get."
"O'Hare didn't tell anybody," Schickel said. He climbed the stoop and banged on the door again, yelled, "Jimmy?"
Dunn said, "Let me look in the shed. Maybe he's over in Jackson or something." He walked across the driveway to the shed, peered in a window, came back. "His Jeep's there," he said.
The three men looked at each other, and Virgil said, "I'm going in, on the warrant."
Dunn nodded and said, "Probably best to take out a pane of glass, instead of breaking the door. Be hell to get somebody out here to fix the door."
Virgil used the barrel of the Glock to knock out a pane of glass in the door, reached in, and turned the lock. He pushed the door open, then stepped back.
"Somebody dead in here," he said.
Dunn, suddenly pale-faced, said, "What?"
"I can smell him," Virgil said. "Not much stink, but somebody's dead in here."
"Not a mouse... You guys step careful, here. If he's dead, we don't want to screw up the scene."
They found him on the living room couch, staring with blank eyes at a rerun of Married... with Children.
"Ah, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Schickel said, crossing himself. "He ate his gun. He must've killed Bobby."
A pistol, a matte-black Glock like Virgil's, except in .45 caliber, lay on the floor next to the couch.
"Did he carry a .45 Glock?" Virgil asked, looking at the big black hole at the end of the barrel.
"Yeah, he did," Dunn said.
Crocker was on his back, an entry wound under his chin, a massive exit wound at the back of his skull. The arm of the couch, covered with a plush green material, was soaked with blood, hair, and what might have been pieces of bone; a couple of small holes in the wall beside the couch looked like they might have been made by fragments of the exiting slug.
"Maybe he knew he was gonna get caught," Dunn said.
"Didn't kill himself," Virgil said. "He was probably murdered. Let's clear the house, just to make sure there's nobody hurt, somewhere. We don't want to dig around, just clear it. Two minutes."
The three of them moved through the place, but found it empty. Crocker had lived only on the first floor; the second floor was closed down, the door at the top of the stairs sealed with 3M insulating tape. They pushed through, and found a bunch of old dusty furniture sitting in cold, dry, dusty rooms.
When they were sure there was nobody else in the place, Virgil said, "Let's call the sheriff. This is really gonna make her day."
They stepped carefully past the body and back outside. Dunn made the call, and Schickel asked Virgil, "Why'd you think it's murder?"
"When Lee was telling me about B. J. Tripp, she mentioned him being hanged from the bunk. I asked her if his dick was hanging out you know, strangled himself while masturbating."
"Heard of that, but never seen it," Schickel said.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't. Hanging out. But if you go up there and look, you'll see that Crocker's fly is down, and you can see his dick sticking out. I never, ever, heard of anyone who was yanking his crank and stopped to kill himself. Or anyone who took his dick out, and left it out, and killed himself. It's not dignified. When people kill themselves, they tend to think about how they'll be found they imagine it. They imagine how sad everybody'll be. They're going to show them... but they don't stick their dick out."
"I didn't pick up on that," Schickel said. "His dick."
Dunn came back: "The sheriff's on the way. What about his dick? Whose dick?"
Lee Coakley looked in on Crocker's body. Her mouth was a thin line, with a twist at the end, as though she'd been sucking on a lemon. "He could be a jerk, but I'd never have wished this on him," she said.
"I called our crime-scene people up in the Cities. I thought you might want to go that way, given the situation, instead of using your own man," Virgil said. "You say yes, I'll get them on the way."
She nodded. "Yeah. Get them started. I'll get Gene to set up in the driveway, keep people out. I better go down and tell Jim's folks."
"You okay with that?"
She nodded again. "Yes. My job, and I won't dodge it. I'd feel better if I could spit, but I don't think I can."
"Got a preacher you can take along?"
"We do, but his folks belong to some kind of private religion. I think it'd be best not to try to sneak a Lutheran in the door. I'll just have Greg ride along."
They went outside, and she told Schickel and two other deputies to shut the scene down and wait for the crime-scene crew from the Cities. "I don't want anybody in or out. Anybody."
"They'll be three hours," Virgil said. "They're loading up."
"What're you gonna do?" Coakley asked.
"Not much to do until the crime-scene guys have a look," Virgil said. "I think I might go get a bite to eat."
He walked along with Coakley to her truck, and said, "I'd like to look at the files on this whole chain of events the Flood killing, Tripp's death, the personnel file on Crocker."
"I'll call in. You'll want to talk to a deputy named John Kraus. I'll have John put you in the conference room. I'll be back in a couple hours, at the latest. I'd like to read through them again myself."
Virgil Stopped at the Yellow Dog Café in downtown Homestead, got a California burger and home fries, with a Diet Coke, and thought about the three killings. Had to be tied. He didn't know how often Warren County had a murder, but he'd guess one about every ten years or so, if that often. To have three, in a week, all cryptically linked, was pressing coincidence.
They had no reason for Tripp's murder of Flood; no reason for Crocker's murder of Tripp; no reason for an unknown killer to murder Crocker, especially when Crocker was lying on a couch with his penis sticking out. Crocker hadn't been surprised; everything in his old house rattled, so he must've known that he wasn't alone in the house, must've known the person who killed him. And he hadn't feared that person; probably had some sexual relationship with her. Or him.
Hmm. Or him. A few months earlier, Virgil had worked a case in the North Woods in which a bunch of lesbians had been involved. Didn't seem right that he'd go right on to another case involving homosexuals.
On the other hand, Tripp may have been gay, active or inactive. He had wanted to talk to a newspaper reporter about the Flood killing, and the only fact known to Virgil about the reporter was that he was gay.
On the third hand, he did only know one fact about the reporter, and taken with all the facts he didn't know about him, his sexual orientation was probably irrelevant.
He took out his cell phone and called Coakley. She answered on the third ring, and he asked, "Are you at Crocker's folks'?"
She didn't say anything else, and Virgil realized that she was sitting there with them, and they were listening. "Is there any possibility that Crocker had homosexual inclinations?"
"Very, very unlikely. But nothing's impossible, as I'm sure you know," she said.
"You gonna come with me when I talk to this newspaper reporter?"
"Absolutely. I'll see you in an hour."
Virgil hung up, toyed with his home fries. Unless the crime-scene crew came up with something that definitely pointed at a particular person as the killer, or somebody came forward with information, it would be tough to get into the Crocker killing... though it would be interesting to learn more about friends and relatives of Tripp, to see if they blamed Crocker for the death.
And with Crocker dead, it'd be tough to get into the Tripp killing, as well. Had to be some private motive. Some motive that involved Tripp and Crocker and almost certainly Flood.
Tripp had wanted to talk to somebody about Flood, so that killing can't have been on impulse. Tripp planned it. Took the T-ball bat with him. Could be an entry there...
He was about to leave the café when a man in a dark suit and close-cut silver hair came through the door, followed by a pretty, dark-haired woman carrying a briefcase and dressed in a gray lawyer suit. He looked familiar, and the man did a double take when he saw Virgil.
"Virgil Flowers," he said, and, introducing himself, "Tom Parker I cross-examined you in the Larson case." He said it with a friendly smile and Virgil remembered him. Good attorney, he thought, though he'd been on the other side.
"Oh, sure," Virgil said. "Nice to see you again."
They shook hands, and Parker said, "This is my associate, Laurie... and I bet you're not here on a social visit. There's a hot rumor going around the courthouse that Jimmy Crocker's been murdered. That true?"
Virgil said, "I can't really talk to you about it in detail. But, yeah. I'm just in from his place. The sheriff's out telling his folks."
"Better her than me," Parker said.
Laurie asked, "You know who did it?"
"No idea, yet."
"When you find out, let me know," Parker said. "I want to rush out there with my card."
"Maybe not. That didn't work for me the last time," Virgil said. They chatted for a couple more minutes, Parker and the woman probing for more facts, Virgil telling them only that it superficially looked like a suicide, by gun, but that he thought it was probably a murder. Other than that, he didn't know anything.
"Three murders, though, I figure they should be connected," he said, aware that everybody in the café was listening to the conversation. "If you have any ideas, I'd listen to them. I'm fresh out of my own."
"I'll give you a ring," Parker said.
But Laurie said, "In a way, it's four murders."
"About a year ago, a girl was murdered out there... not murdered here in Warren County, but across the line in Iowa, north of Estherville. But she came from a farm by Blakely."
"That's right," Parker said. "Kelly..."
"Baker," Laurie said.
Virgil snapped his fingers: "I remember something about that. Found her in a cemetery, right? The Iowa guys covered it, out of Des Moines. Did she go to school here in Homestead?"
Laurie said, "Maybe, but her house would be out in the Northwest High area... I mean, some people transfer around depending on where their parents work. So, I don't know where she went."
"Had she graduated, or was she working?" Virgil asked.
Laurie said, "I don't know, really..."
A man two booths down from them cleared his throat and said, "She was homeschooled. She had a summer job here in Homestead, at the Dairy Queen. My daughter knew her."
"You know how old she was?" Virgil asked, turning in the booth.
"About the same as my daughter my daughter was a junior when the girl was killed, so, sixteen, seventeen."
Virgil said, "Huh. Another mystery. I wonder if I could clear it all out, with another order of home fries?"
"You'd clear something out, but I don't think it'd be the murder case," the man in the booth said.
A waitress said, "Hey. No pie for you, Earl."
12 March 2018
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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