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|The Prey Series|
The Kidd Series
The Singular Menace
Jimmy Sharp stepped back from the curb and impatiently waved the car by, waved it by like a big shot, like he couldn't be bothered to assert his rights to the pedestrian crosswalk.
"We shoulda took a cab," Tom McCall said. "I'm freezing my ass off."
As the car went by, a woman driver peered out at the three of them. The overhead reading light was on, and she was wearing an overcoat, wool hat and one black glove. Her bare hand was holding a cell phone to her ear, and she was talking as she looked at them. A multitasker, headed for a three-car smash up somewhere down the line.
"One big problem there you gotta pay the driver, and then we got a witness," Sharp said. "Besides, the walk will warm you up."
"Glad I got the gloves, though," McCall said.
Becky Welsh said, "It's April, you fool. You don't need gloves for the cold. Just walk."
Jimmy had smoked a Marlboro down to the filter, and he snapped it into the street and bent into the task of climbing the hill, Tom and Becky on his heels, the three of them throwing splashy shadows in the pale April moonlight. Halfway up, Jimmy stopped to catch his breath, turned and said, "That's a pretty sight of the town."
They all turned to look, the Bigham business district spread out below them, the county courthouse with it's eternal flame, a few cars turning corners, flashing red lights on an ambulance heading into the hospital. The Minnesota River was down there, a black ribbon at the foot of downtown, not much more than a creek, really.
"It is pretty," Tom agreed. Puffs of steam came out of their mouths, dissipating in the night air.
Jimmy took another cigarette out of the pack and tapped the tobacco end on a thumbnail, then cupped his hands to his mouth and lit it with an old Zippo lighter that left behind the stink of lighter fluid when he sparked it off. His square jaw looked yellow in the light of the flame; the trace of a ladder-stitched scar showed up on his chin, from the bad old hay-humping days down in Shinder, when a piece of wire from an ancient baling machine lashed him like a whip.
He was wearing a green Army field jacket that he'd bought at a flea market, with the collar up under his ears, and a blue Dodgers baseball cap with a big white LA on the front. He'd never been to LA, but he planned to go, someday soon. He'd manage Becky's career, and they'd both get rich and buy a motorhome and tour around the country.
"Diamonds tonight," Becky said.
Tom said, "I don't know about this. It don't feel entirely right to me."
Tom was tall and wiry, and wore silver-rimmed glasses that he got from the three weeks he was in the Navy. At the end of three weeks, one of the RDCs noticed the scale on his arms and asked, "Is that the heartbreak of psoriasis I see there?" It was, and Tom was out.
On this cold night, the psoriasis was concealed by a thin blue work shirt and an uninsulated leather jacket, the sleeves too short to cover Tom's bony wrists. With his black jacket and black jeans and black hair and glasses and big nose, he hovered around Jimmy and Becky like a cartoon crow.
"Don't be a pussy," Becky said.
"It's diamonds," Jimmy said. He rolled the words around the cigarette as he studied Tom's pinched face. "What's the matter with you? You look nervous. You nervous?"
"Naw, I'm not nervous, I just want things to go right," Tom said.
They crossed the top of the hill, heads down, hands in their pockets, around the curve and past George, past Arroyo. They were in the dark, with nobody around, a quarter to two o'clock in the morning, a sharp eye out for prowling cops. Jimmy had a pistol stuck in his waistband at the small of his back, and he reached back under his coat and touched it from time to time, a talisman of power.
"Getting close," Becky said. They passed a streetlight, and in the pool of light, which fell on them like a mist, she said, "Stop a minute, Jimmy." She caught his arm and pulled his cigarette hand out to one side, and kissed him, and put her tongue in his mouth, and pressed her pelvis against him.
Jimmy said, "Baby," and stepped back, and took a drag and tipped his head into a dark side street and said, "Let's go."
They were going over to Lincoln, to a dark wood-frame house with a wide front porch and bridal wreath bushes down the sides: good cover. They'd scouted it earlier in the day, Jimmy and Becky, arm-in-arm down the sidewalk, Becky spitting, "Fuckin' Hogans, they think they're so hot-shit. Like, not."
"O'Leary's," Jimmy said. "O'Leary's, now."
Marsha Hogan had grown up in Shinder, out on the prairie, her father the town pharmacist. Hogan had sent his virgin daughter up to St. Kate's, the big Catholic girls' college in St. Paul, and hoped for the best. A nice Catholic boy, he hoped, from St. Thomas, who might even be a... pharmacist.
He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Marsha had met John O'Leary, a bio-chemistry major who had ambitions in medicine. She'd married him a week after their graduations, lived with him in dark apartments as he worked through med school at the University of Minnesota, and then through an internship in Milwaukee. Back in Bigham, John joined a prosperous practice and Marsha bore him two daughters, Mary, named after her mother, and Agatha, named after his, and four boys, John Jr., called Jack, and James, Robin and Franklin.
Marsha was fifty-three years old when she went back to Shinder for her thirty-fifth high school reunion. She'd been on the court of the homecoming queen, back when, had been her homeroom representative to the student council, had organized a school-wide charity to help support the county animal-rescue program. She still had friends in Shinder, though they mostly saw her in Bigham, which was only thirteen miles away.
For the reunion dance, and she wore her twenty-fifth anniversary necklace, possibly the most expensive array of diamonds ever seen in Shinder. Everybody commented on it, both approvingly to her face, and jealously behind her back. The homecoming queen, who rumor said was an alcoholic down in Des Moines, didn't show, so Marsha was the belle of the ball...
And had been served a square of chocolate sheet-cake by Becky Welsh, the prettiest and hottest girl ever to come from Shinder, a girl who'd never had a diamond, or much of anything else.
Becky had seen Marsha O'Leary in a Snyders drugstore right after they hit town, had recognized her immediately, though Marsha hadn't shown a flicker of interest in Becky. She mentioned the diamonds to Jimmy, but he hadn't been interested until that night, when he showed her a gun and said, "Let's go get you them stones."
Lincoln Avenue was quiet and dark. Jimmy, Becky and Tom sauntered along, looking far too casual for a people on a midnight stroll. If a cop car had come along, they might all have died, for Jimmy had said he'd never give himself up to the law, and he meant it, which Becky felt was one of the exciting things about him. He meant it. No cop car came.
They slowed as they came up to the house, taking a last look around, then Jimmy said, in a whisper, "Quick now."
They crossed the lawn in single-file, their feet crunching on the blades of grass that had stiffened in the night chill. They stepped between the bridal wreath bushes, now invisible to the street, took cowboy handkerchiefs from their pockets, and tied them over their faces. Becky and Jimmy pulled on the same type of cheap brown cotton work gloves that Tom already wore. Becky took a cell phone from her pocket and turned it on, and Jimmy took out his pocket knife and unfolded the main blade, and in the dim light from the screen, they worked their way down the side of the house, Jimmy trying the windows with the blade of his knife.
The windows were new, made of wood, some dark color that they couldn't make out but that still smelled faintly of the paint. The house was old, and wood, and carefully preserved with its antique hardware, because the O'Learys were that kind of people, concerned with historical preservation. At the back of the house, Jimmy stopped at a window that gave him room to operate, and unfolded his jackknife. The blade went deep into the crack between the window and the sill and it lifted as though greased.
Becky, surprised by the ease with which they were in, said, "Whoa."
"I ain't to be involved in anything but diamonds and cash, and gold rings," Tom said, in a hoarse whisper that was way too loud.
"Shut the fuck up," Becky said.
"Both of you shut up," Jimmy said. "Give me a boost."
Tom made a stirrup with his hands. Jimmy disappeared through the window head-first, and found himself on a kitchen counter. The kitchen was not quite dark, with bare illumination coming from a variety of LEDs on the refrigerator, stove, clock, coffee-maker and dishwasher and a hard-wired telephone. The granite counter was slick under the cotton gloves, but solid, and he levered himself the rest of the way through the window, to his knees, and then cautiously lowered himself to the wood floor. The kitchen smelled faintly of stew meat; he stood in the dark for a moment, letting his eyes adjust, then made his way to the back door and unlatched it.
Becky and Tom, waiting there, followed him into the house.
Jimmy had a pencil flash, but didn't need it yet, as the street light shone through the lacey curtains over the front windows into the dining room, and the front-room on the other side of the center hall. The light threw bent shadows of armchairs across the soft thick carpet underfoot. The staircase going up to the bedrooms was on the other side of the front room. As they were crossing it, a grandfather clock struck two, soft gongs from a bell that shocked all three of them, Jimmy dropping into a fighter's stance, Tom and Becky freezing.
Jimmy breathed, "Shit," and Becky giggled.
Tom said, "Just the diamonds now."
Jimmy waved a hand, hushing him, and they began climbing the carpeted staircase, feeling with their feet the slightly worn area at the center of each tread. In front of the window at the landing, Jimmy took the pistol out of his belt, and continued up. The pistol was an old .32 Smith & Wesson Hand-Ejector with a six-inch barrel, a piece of shit but the only gun they had.
Jimmy turned to the front of the house. The carpet had ended with the stairs, and he was on a wooden floor now, and it creaked under their weight as they made their way down the hall. There was a door at the end, which couldn't be anything but a bedroom, and as he came up, he saw a darker edge, and realized that the door was open just a bit.
And then he heard a female voice.
"Ag, Ag, get up. There's somebody in the house."
"You're dreaming," another voice said. "Go back to sleep."
"No, Ag, there's somebody in the house." Then, louder, "Is that you, Jack? Are you messing with us?"
Ag. Agatha O'Leary.
Jimmy pushed open the bedroom door, into a rush of girl-smell, perfume and powder and clean bedclothes. He put his flashlight up, next to the barrel of his gun, clicked it on. There were two beds, side-by-side, a girl sitting up in one, the other still lying flat, eyes open but sleepy, now widening quickly.
"It ain't Jack," Jimmy said quietly. "You two keep your traps shut. We're only here to do a little stealing. You scream, you're dead."
"Jesus, God, please Jack!" It was a little girl's voice, with nothing behind it.
"I told you, it ain't Jack. Now shut up. Are you Ag?"
Tom said, "Let's get out of here."
The larger of the two girls, the sleepy one, rose out of her bed and shouted, "Get out of here. Get...!
Jimmy reached out with the flashlight and cracked her across the head, and she went down.
Mary said, "Please, please, don't hurt us." She reached toward the girl on the floor, "Oh, my God, Ag..."
Tom said, "It's gone wrong, let's get out of here," and he turned and ran.
Becky said, urgently, "I hear somebody."
Jimmy said, "Shit," looked down at Ag, who'd gotten to her knees He pointed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger. He could have changed his mind then, and everything that came after would have been different. He hesitated, then pointed the gun at Ag's head and pulled the trigger.
The Smith flashed in the dark, Ag went down, and Jimmy ran after the others.
Tom and Becky had already gone through the front door, which stood open to the streetlight, and as Jimmy crossed the front porch he heard the other sister scream, "Mama, mama, he killed Ag, he killed Ag."
The three of them ran across the lawn and across the street in the still night, another block, then across Dannon Avenue and down the hill, through the park, following a gravel track barely visible as a dark thread in the moonlight, then heard the first of the sirens, another block in another thirty seconds, across White Street, running hard, single-file, into the parking lot, into the Firebird. Jimmy jammed the key in the ignition and turned it, and nothing happened.
Nothing at all. "Motherfucker," he groaned. The car started about half the time. Given a few minutes, he might have gotten it started. Now, half-panicked, he said, "Come on, come on..."
At that moment, Emmet Williams walked out of the side door of the apartment complex and, absent whistling an unrecognizable tune, strolled down the side of the building to the street, where he'd parked his brother-in-law's Dodge Charger.
Tom said, "Somebody's coming."
Jimmy tried the ignition again. Nothing. He'd put the gun back in his pocket, but now he pulled it out again, said, "Come on."
Williams was walking away from them. He pointed the ignition key at the Charter, pushed a button, and the car's light flashed back at him; the last light he'd see. Jimmy was leading the line of runners, and he ran straight at Williams and when Williams looked up, the pistol flashed again, from six feet, and Williams went down, and Jimmy dragged him around the front of the car and dumped his body on the grass next to the sidewalk, turned toward the car, turned back, took Williams' wallet out of his back pocket. Becky piled into the passenger seat and Tom in the back, Jimmy took the wheel, and five minutes later, they were headed out of town.
"Where're we going?" Becky asked. "Get the fuck far away from here," Jimmy said. "Rest up, figure out what to do. Maybe head for LA, if we can get a car."
"That girl back there, is she hurt bad?" Tom asked.
She's dead," Jimmy said. "She should be dead, anyway. If she ain't dead, I'll go back and shoot the bitch again."
Tom looked out the back window and said, "I think the black guy is dead, too."
Jimmy said, "Yeah?" He reached out and turned on the radio, and the satellite came up, Outlaw Country, Travis Tritt singing "Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde."
"Ain't this some fuckin' car?" Jimmy asked. "Ain't this a ride?"
Virgil Flowers was standing under a streetlight outside the Rooster Coop in Mankato, Minnesota, at the mouth of a long cobblestone alley that led down toward a curl in the Minnesota river. He talking to Cornelius Cooper, the proprietor of the place, about who, exactly, was the best country singer America, at that very moment.
They agreed that while Ray Wylie Hubbard was a leading candidate, there was no question that it was not Ray Wylie, but, in fact, Waylon Jennings, who wrote and sang the best song ever written, which was Good Hearted Woman. How could you be the best country singer, if you weren't responsible for the best country song?
Waylon was at a disadvantage, though, being dead.
And then there was always Willie, who was the best country singer in a lot of years when Waylon wasn't, but at that very moment?
Ray Wylie had been around a long time too, long enough to write the National Anthem known to downtown cowboys as Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother. That was good, but not nearly enough to make him the best country singer, but he'd followed that up, many years later, with stuff like Wanna Rock 'n Roll, and The Messenger, and Resurrection, and Snake Farm, some genuine poetry, with a taste of blues and the salt of humor.
"But in fact, it is not Ray Wylie who sings Wanna Rock n' Roll the best," Cooper said, "But Cross Canadian Ragweed."
"That's true," Virgil said. "But what song, right at this moment, is as good as Resurrection?"
"But he didn't write Resurrection."
Virgil said, "No, but he sings it, and he did write..." and he broke out in a gravelly baritone imitation of Ray Wylie's The Mission"
Cooper said, "Jesus Christ, keep it down. People will think you're drunk. And what about Guy Clark?"
Guy Clark. What could you say about Rita Ballou or Homegrown Tomatoes or Texas 1947 or Cold Dog Soup or LA Freeway?
But then, what about Sunday Morning Coming Down? And if Sunday Morning was that good, right up there at the top, and the same guy wrote Me and Bobby McGee, which actually was pretty good, despite being some sort of hippie shit, shouldn't Kris Kristofferson be considered? They thought about that a minute, then simultaneously, said, "No," because when everything was said and done, Kristofferson just wasn't country enough, down in his heart.
Billie Joe Shaver? Good, very good. There was a lot to be said for Georgia on a Fast Train and even, they agreed, Wacko from Waco, which testified to a certain genuineness of the life-style. Then there was Old Five and Dimers Like Me, covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, backed by Eric Clapton? What about that? What could you say about the second-best country song ever?
They were still working through it, each with a Leinenkugel longneck in his right hand, and Cooper crowned with a black hundred-beaver cowboy hat from Santa Fe, New Mexico, when along came a Mankato cop named Bob Roberts, who everybody called Bob-Bob, and who said, "Hey there, Virg."
Virgil asked, "Is Ray Wylie the best living country singer?"
Bob-Bob hitched up his duty belt and said, "Well, hell. Let me think. How about... Emmylou Harris? Or maybe Linda Ronstadt?"
There was a moment of silence, then Virgil said to Cooper, "You miserable sexist piece of shit. You never even considered a woman."
"I'm sorry," Cooper said. "I apologize to all women. For everything."
"I don't think that's good enough," Bob-Bob said. "You'll have to come down to the station for an application of pussywhip."
Virgil, trying to smooth over the awkwardness, said, "I think we can all agree that the Texas guys write very smooth stuff."
"In other words, not tin-eared Nashville whining violin Marta White Grand Ol Opry banjo bullshit," Cooper said.
"And at this very moment, I say Ray Wylie leads the pack," Virgil said.
He held out his bottle, and Cooper hesitated only for a moment, then clinked his bottle against it, and they both said, "Ray Wylie." Cooper tipped his bottle up, finishing the last of the brew, and then then looked down the alley and said, "See that net?"
They couldn't, because there was no net. What there was, was a hoop, with a sixty-watt bulb flickering just beyond it, where the kitchen staff shot baskets on slow nights.
"Sort of," Virgil said.
"One shot each, for five dollars."
"You got it," Virgil said.
Cornelius carefully gauged the distance just about a free throw then arced the bottle toward the hoop. The bottle clanged off the rim, ricocheted down the alley and shattered on a cobblestone. "Shit," he said.
Virgil finished his beer, and Bob-Bob said, "I got two dollars says you don't even hit the rim."
Virgil said, "You got that, too," and lofted the bottle down the alley; it dropped gracefully through the hoop, the neck just ticking the steel as it went down, and then shattered on another cobblestone. "That's what you get when you go head-to-head with a natural athlete," Virgil said, "Pay up."
"I been set up," Bob-Bob said, as he dug two dollars out of his pocket. "By the way, this BCA guy, Davenport, is trying to find you. He said you don't answer your phone, but he knows you're around here. He called at the station house and Georgina said she'd seen you down here. They sent me down to tell you to call in."
"They say what for?" Virgil asked.
"Not to me," Bob-Bob said. "But calling at this time of night..."
They all reflexively looked up toward the moon: it was midnight. A call at midnight meant there'd probably been a murder somewhere. Virgil fished the cell phone out of his pocket, turned it on, found three messages from Davenport.
"Goddamnit. I got home from vacation at six o'clock, and he's already on my ass."
"You look like you're tanned," Bob-Bob said, squinting in the bad light. "You didn't get that here. Where you been?"
"Bahamas," Virgil said. "Bone fishing."
"Bahamas," Bob-Bob said with amazement, as though Virgil had said Shangri-La.
Virgil pushed the button to call Davenport, who picked up on the first ring.
"We got a bad one in Shinder," Lucas Davenport said. "You better get over there."
"I'd blow about a ten-point-three right now," Virgil said. "Can it wait until morning?
"They're holding everything for you," Davenport said. "Get some coffee, and when you're down to a seven, take off. I'll find out where the highway patrol is, and you can dodge them. I'm putting crime scene on the road, soon as I can."
"Still probably three hours before I can get there," Virgil said.
"Three hours is better than anybody else we got," Davenport said. "And you know that country."
"How many dead?"
"Two. Man and a wife, named, uh, let me look... uh, Welsh. Shot in their kitchen, probably last night or early this morning. The locals got nothing, except maybe their dicks in their hands."
"I'm going," Virgil said, "But I'll be a little slow."
"You know about what happened Friday night?"
"Friday night I was on Grand Bahama," Virgil said, "Fishing all day, and at night, playing beach volleyball with women wearing bikini bottoms."
There was a moment of silence, then Davenport said, "I might have to kill you. It was snowing up here."
"Yeah, well, what happened Friday?"
"There was a double murder over in Bigham. I don't know if these two are connected, but they're over in the same corner of the state. Haven't been four murders, that close, in that corner, in a hundred years."
"Who got that?"
"Ralph. But there wasn't much to do after the crime scene crew got finished. Nobody had any idea of what happened."
"Okay. Send me what Ralph got."
"I will," Davenport said. "When you say they were wearing bikini bottoms, they were also, like, wearing the tops, right?"
"Nope, just the bottoms," Virgil said.
"Fuck me," Davenport said again. "Anyway, you bring anything back home?"
"Jesus, I hope not," Virgil said.
"I meant fish," Davenport said.
"Oh. No, I guess not."
Cooper offered him a ride home, but Bob-Bob said, doubtfully, "That don't sound like a real good idea," and Virgil said, "Thanks, anyway, Cornelius. I can use the walk."
Virgil lived the best part of a mile northeast of downtown, a cool walk in early April, but he was wearing an insulated Carhartt jean jacket, over a black Wolfmother t-shirt, jeans and boots, and was comfortable enough as he ambled along through the dark. He lived in a small two-bedroom frame house with a double garage. A fishing boat was usually parked in the driveway, in this case, an almost-new fishing boat, a Ranger. The boat had been purchased with some fear and trepidation about ethics, from a friend of the governor of the state of Minnesota.
Virgil's previous boat had been blown up by a mad bomber. Virgil had crawled away from the wreckage, unhurt, by the very skin of his teeth. The governor had offered to help out by locating the Ranger, a year old, but with only thirty hours on the motor. Virgil initially declined, because he thought that the boat broker might be doing a favor for the governor, some kind of political deal, and he didn't want a part of that.
The governor insisted that there was no deal, he only did it because he imagined that he and Virgil were friends and he felt bad about the bomb, and there was no payback required or expected. Virgil got a letter from the Director of the BCA saying it was okay, and bought the boat, because, the fact was:
He yearned for it.
It had been love at first sight. A Ranger Angler, red with black and grey trim, eighteen feet, six inches long with a ninety-eight inch beam. There was a rod case under the front deck with space for six rods, plenty of storage, a Minnekota trolling motor on the bow, a 175 Merc on the back.
Virgil had to put up the whole insurance payment on his old boat and motor, plus he'd financed twelve thousand dollars over four years through the state credit union. That was cheap, he thought, when it came to true love.
And now, as the saying went, he could pad his ass with fiberglass, a big change from his old aluminum boat.
Virgil was a tall man, an inch or two over six feet, slender, with blue eyes and blond hair worn long for a cop, but not too long for farm country, where he usually worked. Like country people, he had a tendency toward ball caps, barn jackets and cowboy boots, especially in the Spring, when he needed to be mud-resistant.
He got back to the house around twelve-thirty, clear of mind if not fresh of breath. He patted the boat on the nose and said, "Hey, baby," went in the house, started a pot of coffee, brushed his teeth, threw a few days' worth of shirts, jeans and underwear in a satchel, along with a Dopp kit. He got his pistol and a shotgun out of the gun safe, and some ammo, took the whole pile of gear out to his truck, a Toyota 4Runner, and packed it away. That done, he hooked the truck up to the boat, backed the boat into the garage, unhooked it, and locked the garage door behind himself.
Back inside the house, he poured a cup of coffee, put the rest in a Thermos, sipped at the coffee and went back to the second bedroom he used as a study, and dug out his Minnesota atlas.
Shinder was a small farm town of a few hundred people, ordinary enough, as far as he knew, out on the prairie in western Minnesota. It was only thirty miles from Virgil's hometown of Marshall, and probably seventy-five or eighty from his current home in Mankato.
Though he'd been past Shinder a hundred times, he'd never stopped, because there wasn't much to stop for. He wasn't even exactly sure what county the town was in it was right where Yellow Medicine, Lyon, Redwood and Bare came together. He thumbed through the atlas, and found that it was just inside of Bare County, five miles from the Yellow Medicine line.
Virgil said, aloud, to his empty house, "Ah, man."
Bare County was run by Sheriff Lewis Duke, known to other local sheriffs as the Duke of Hazard. He believed in Good Morals, the American Constitution, Guns, Punishment, and Low Taxes. If he wasn't the source of all those things the Almighty God was he was at least the Big Guy's representative in Bare County.
Among other things, he'd tried to set up a concentration camp on the site of an old chicken farm, complete with barracks and barbed-wire fences, for minor criminals. He believed that an actual indoors Minnesota jail was simply pampering the miscreants. He figured to rent space in the concentration camp barracks to other counties that wanted to unload expensive prisoners, and even make a profit for his Bare County constituents. The state attorney general's office, backed by a court order, stopped the concentration camp.
But no court order could stop Lewis Duke from being an asshole.
At ten after one o'clock in the morning, ninety-eight percent sober, Virgil pulled out on the street, and rolled away in the dark toward Shinder. His phone rang on the seat beside him, and he picked it up: Davenport, who always stayed up late.
Davenport asked, "How're you feeling?"
"Stone-cold sober, if that's what you mean," Virgil said. "I just pulled out of my house I'm on the way."
"Good. It'd be best if you were gunned down in the line of duty, and not killed in a drunk-driving accident."
"The crime scene truck is leaving town now," Davenport said. "They'll be an hour and a half or maybe two hours behind you. If you're going over on 14, you don't have to worry about the patrol, so you can let it roll. Watch out for town cops."
"I'll do that," Virgil said. "You think Ray Wylie Hubbard is better than Waylon Jennings?"
"I don't know, but they're both better than any of the Beatles," Davenport said. "I'm going to bed. Hesitate to call."
One good thing about a long drive in the dark, when you didn't know anything about where you were going, or what you were going to do when you got there, was that you had lots of time to think.
Virgil had for years worked a sideline as an outdoors writer, a freelancer for the diminishing number of magazines that were actually about the outdoors, as opposed to outdoors technology. Virgil knew what fishing rods he liked, and what reels, and something about guns and bows and snowshoes and about boats and canoes, and not as much as he would have liked about dogs his job made it almost impossible to keep a dog but not much about high-tech.
He wasn't much interested in arguing whether a .308 was better or worse than a .30-06 on whitetail, or a Ranger a better boat than a Lund or a Tuffy, or a Mathews Solocam a better bow than a Hoyt or a PSE. He couldn't have found his own dick with a GPS. He just did what most guys did, which was talk to his friends and try a few things out; the fact was, most of the known names worked pretty well, and you got used to what you had.
So when he wrote, he looked for stories. He usually sold them. He'd even sold a two-part crime story to The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
A few months earlier, Davenport's daughter had been shot in the arm, and he'd gone to see her in the hospital, and had seen her afterwards at Davenport's home. Her name was Letty, and she had been adopted by the Davenports after her alcoholic mother was killed on a case that Lucas Davenport had worked in Northwestern Minnesota.
Virgil had known that she had been a dirt-poor country girl, but he hadn't quite understood how bad it had been, and what she'd actually done to survive. One thing she'd done was wander around the countryside with a bunch of leg-hold traps and a .22, trapping raccoon, mink and muskrats mostly rats. She sold them to a local fur buyer for enough money to keep the family's head above water. Had done this when she was ten years old...
He'd gotten pieces of the story when she was recovering from the wound, and somewhere along the line, it occurred to him that it was a terrific story. Here was what appeared to be a stylish young high-school girl, who'd shot a cop the same crooked cop on two different occasions, and recently survived a shootout with two Mexican narcos, leaving the narcos dead. He talked to Davenport about it, and then Letty, and wound up doing five long interviews, on five consecutive weekends, during the fall, as well as some research up in the Red River Valley.
He'd spent the next two months writing a girl's short memoir of a nightmarish rural life though she hadn't thought it particularly nightmarish, it just was and sent it off to The New York Times magazine, to the editor who'd bought his earlier pieces.
The editor had gotten right back, and said that while the Times wouldn't buy it it was simply too long he'd sent it to a friend over at Vanity Fair, and they were definitely interested.
The problem was, Vanity Fair wanted to send Annie Leibovitz out to the Red River Valley with a ton of photo equipment to shoot Letty and Lucas Davenport, as part of a major editorial package. Both Letty and Davenport had the faces for it, and Letty loved the idea of meeting Leibovitz, but the Davenports had gotten their knickers in a psychological twist about what the attention would do to their daughter, about the whole gestalt of Vanity Fair, about how Letty had already had way too much attention from the press, and blah blah blah...
That all had to be worked through. Virgil didn't want to piss anybody off, and the Davenports were good friends of his, but he really wanted the piece in Vanity Fair. Really wanted it. Maybe not as much as he'd wanted the Ranger, but it was like that.
During the drive out to Shinder, he considered a half-dozen calming approaches he might take with the Davenports; he thought he might point out that all of the stories about Letty had been sensationalized TV trash, while his work was sensitive retelling of the girl's actual history...
And when he was done thinking about the Davenports, he thought a bit about God, and whether He might be some kind of universal digital computer, subject to the occasional bug or hack. Was it possible that politicians and hedge-fund operators were some kind of garbled cosmic computer code? That the Opponent, instead having horns and a forked tail, was a fat bearded guy drinking Big Gulps and eating anchovy pizzas and writing viruses down in a hellish basement? That prayers weren't answered because Satan was running denial-of-service attacks?
He was still thinking about that when he came up to Shinder, running fast, and west, on State Highway 68. The Welshes, if that was actually the victims' name, lived in the north-east part of town. Virgil knew that because he could see, across the barren, yet-to-be-planted prairie, a cluster of cars with their lights on, gathered around a house, and a bunch of houses with their lights on, on the north-east corner of town.
He came to the major intersection going into town, turned north, rolled past a roadhouse and a gas station, and a line of grain elevators that went off at a diagonal to the northwest. He was on April Street, and took it north across Apple, Cherry, Peach, Pear and Plum, to Main, where he took a right, crossed May, June, July and August, turned left, and crossed Aspen, Birch, Cedar, Elm, Maple and Oak toward the pool of light, realizing, as he did so, that the east-west streets south of Main were named after fruits, and alphabetized, and the east-west streets north of main were named after trees, and alphabetized.
At the same time, the north-south streets were named after the months, apparently starting from the west edge of town, and marching east. That meant that if a parent were told her kid was acting up at the corner of Pear and April, she would have an instant appreciation of his precise location. What would happen if the town built more than twelve north-south streets, Virgil couldn't guess. In any case, it all seemed a little anal, even for Minnesota.
The street leading up to the crime scene was closed off by cop cars. Virgil parked, put on a baseball cap, because it was chilly, and climbed out of the truck. He was in what he thought must be the working-man's corner of town small white pre-war clapboard houses, some of them crumbling badly, most of them with small front porches, most with one-car garages converted to rooms, with larger, newer metal-sided garages in back. The neighbors were out sitting on the porches, wrapped in blankets or wearing their winter coats, watching.
The cops had set up work lights to illuminate the house, and Virgil could see a half-dozen people walking the lawn, like soldiers policing up cigarette butts: looking for evidence, he thought. A young deputy was walking toward him, thumbs hooked on a duty belt, and as Virgil came up, he called, "This is off-limits... who are you?"
"Virgil Flowers, I'm with the BCA."
The cop looked him over: Virgil hadn't changed clothes and was still in the jean jacket, open over a turquoise flannel shirt, jeans and the cowboy boots. "You got any ID?"
Virgil had seen the sheriff, James Duke, come out on the porch of the death house, and he said, "Sure," and waved his arms in the air and shouted at the sheriff, "Hey Lewis it's me, Virgil."
The cop turned and saw the sheriff, an annoyed look crossing his face, wave Virgil over. The cop said, "So you're a wise ass."
Virgil said, "Maybe."
"Don't much care for wise-asses in Bare County," the deputy said, as Virgil walked past him.
Virgil said, "Like I could really give a shit," and went on.
Lewis Duke was a short, barrel-chested man who looked like he spent his spare time doing bench presses. He had a square, dry prairie face, thinning sandy hair and a brush-cut mustache. He wore the same uniform his men did, but with four stars on the collar, and a Glock in a military style thigh-mounted holster. He nodded at Virgil and said, "Agent Flowers."
Virgil said, "Sheriff. I've been told you've got a bad one. Actually, I've heard you had two bad ones."
"That's correct," Duke said. "The first one was worse they were good folks. This whole family was white trash, but still, pretty gol-darned unpleasant."
"Let's take a look," Virgil said.
Virgil followed Duke inside, along a path through the narrow living room demarked by two lines of blue masking tape. Duke said, "We put down the tape to keep people from wandering off into other parts of the house. We cleared it, of course, but nobody's been in the rest of the house since then. We're hoping your crime scene specialists can pick up some DNA."
"That's smart," Virgil said. Never hurt to flatter a sheriff, for those who needed it. The inside of the house was a reflection of the outside: poorly kept except for a gigantic LG television which sat against the only wall big enough to take it, with a couple of green La-Z-Boy imitations facing it. A green plastic bowl sat between the chairs, as though it might have contained popcorn; the house didn't smell like popcorn, but like years of bacon grease and nicotine.
Duke led the way to the kitchen. A fat man in a white t-shirt lay on the kitchen floor, looking up at the ceiling eyes wide open with a big bloody splotch in the center of his chest. A broken coffee cup lay on the floor beside him, with a damp brown splatter stain on the floor that probably had been coffee, but might have been something like apple cider. A woman lay in a doorway leading through what looked like a mudroom. She may have been running for the back door, but had been shot before she got there. She was face-down.
"Who found them?"
"Neighbor lady. She'd been trying to talk to Miz Welsh all day, about changing shifts at the nursing home. She walked over and knocked on the back door, about the fifth time she'd done it, and then peeked inside and saw Miz Welsh layin' on the floor. She called us."
"I'll need to talk to her," Virgil said.
"Sure. But, she doesn't have much to say."
Virgil squatted next to each body, one at a time, and looked at them closely. The woman gave him nothing, but the man's dark pants showed a flash of white against the floor. Virgil got his nose right down on the kitchen linoleum and saw that it was an inside-out back pocket. When he stood up, he found Duke and a deputy staring at him, as if he was about to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
"Have your guys figured out when this might have happened?" Virgil asked.
Duke said, "Well, George, there, was seen walking out of the Surprise market between nine and ten o'clock last night. Uh, Friday night. We haven't been able to find anybody who'd seen him today. I mean, Saturday."
"You know what he bought at the Surprise?"
Duke looked at the deputy, who said, "Well, no, I guess we didn't ask that."
The deputy was wearing plastic evidence gloves and Virgil asked, "You got any more of those?"
"Yeah... don't you?"
"In my truck. I'd rather not go back, if you've got some handy."
The deputy glanced at Duke, who nodded, and the deputy said, "Two seconds." He left, and Duke said to Virgil, "Haven't seen much of you."
"I've been busy back east. Besides, do you really want to see the likes of me?"
"Maybe not," Duke conceded. "Not when it's on this kind of business."
They looked at the bodies for a few seconds, then the deputy was back and handed Virgil a pair of yellow plastic gloves. Virgil pulled them on, and stepped over to the kitchen sink and pulled open the cupboard beneath it. A trash basket was there, and he pulled it part way out, found a plastic grocery bag near the bottom of the can, under a bunch of empty beer cans. He opened the bag, found a receipt from the Surprise with a time stamp that said 8:45 p.m. It also said that $10.25 had been charged on a Visa card with a number ending in 4508 for a twelve-pack of Miller Hi-Life.
"He bought the beer at 8:45," Virgil said. He tipped the trash can back and forth a few times, digging around, found five Millers, plus three empty Bud Lites.
"Huh," he said. He stood up, stepped to the refrigerator and pulled open the door, expecting to see the rest of the Millers. No beer. He said to Duke, "No beer."
Duke asked, "What does that mean?"
"I don't know. Maybe the killers took it with them." He looked around for a few more seconds, then peeled off the gloves and said, "So, you said this family was trashy?"
"That's what I've been told. Darrell here covers this area..."
Darrell, the deputy with the evidence gloves, said, "George never managed to hold a job for long. I guess Ann was down at the nursing home for quite some time now. George has anger issues, argues with the neighbors, doesn't keep the place up. That sort of thing. You think that's important?"
"What about kids, or in-laws?"
"Got a daughter, named Rebecca, she's up in the Cities, as far as anyone knows. That's the last we heard. Haven't tried to get in touch with her yet, but we're looking around for a contact..."
"Mmmm." Virgil took another quick look around, then said, "I'll tell you, James, it feels like a domestic to me. This George guy bought a bunch of beer Friday night, and he and the old lady or somebody drank five cans of it, and maybe three more Buds. He's wearing a t-shirt, and it's been pretty cold out. He shaves, because I can see a little shaving nick under his ear, healing up, day or two old, but he's not shaven here. Ann is wearing slippers. That all makes me think they'd been in bed, and hadn't been up long that they were killed early in the morning, while they were having coffee, before George had a chance to shave or Ann got completely dressed. No sign of a break-in, or anything. And if you were a robber, would you pick this place?"
Duke looked around, and shook his head. "I guess not."
"Whoever did it, took George's wallet, I think. We'll have the crime scene guys check around for Ann's purse, but I'll bet it's either gone, or the money's gone. It looks to me like somebody came here, somebody that they knew, but who might have been unwelcome. They have an argument, and boom. Whoever it was needed money, because they took the time to rob the bodies, even though they couldn't have had much cash I mean, George charged a twelve-pack on his Visa card."
"So... an argument about money, with somebody that they knew."
"Feels that way to me," Virgil said. "Somebody who might have expected to get some money. I think we've got to take a real quick look at this daughter... though, mmm, I'm not sure a daughter would have brought a gun in, to kill her parents. That doesn't feel quite right."
"We've got the names of a couple of her friends. We can find out where she is," the deputy said.
"If she's in the Cities, I'll have somebody run over and talk to her," Virgil said. "At the same time, we need to look at other possibilities. Friends, other relatives. People George has been hanging out with."
"We can do that," Duke said.
"I talked to the neighbors," Darrell said. "I don't think he had much in the way of friends. I can check out Ann, down at the nursing home."
"Not much more we can do tonight, though," Virgil said to Duke. "I'll want to talk to the woman who found them. Have some of your people close the place up until crime scene gets here. They're on the way, should be here in a couple of hours."
Duke nodded and said, "I'll take you over to the neighbor lady's. The one who found them."
The neighbor lady was named Margery Garfield, and she didn't know anything. She'd wanted to talk to Ann Welsh about trading shifts at the nursing home the next Monday night, so she could go to parent-teacher night at the school, and had been trying to find Welsh all day. "I seen their car was still in the garage, but I never did see them. I was knocking on the front door, and I felt something funny might be going on, so I went around to the back, and peeked through the glass, and I could see Ann on the floor. I didn't know it was a body, at first, but then, my eyes got adjusted, and I was pretty sure it was a body, so I ran back home and called the sheriff."
"You didn't touch anything?" Virgil asked.
She shook her head. "I never went inside. I did put my hand on the window glass, trying to see in better."
He talked for her a few more minutes, and finally ran out of ground; and she asked, "I suppose crime scene will be coming around."
"Pretty soon," Virgil said.
"They oughta be able to figure it out," she said.
Virgil and Duke said good-bye, and they went outside and Duke asked, "You get annoyed by that? The crime scene thing?"
"No. People watch TV. No way to stop that," Virgil said.
"It'd get under my skin, after a while," Duke said. "So, you're going to stick around?"
Virgil nodded. "Sure. I'll run over to the Ramada in Marshall. I'll call back to the Cities tomorrow morning and see if I can get somebody to look for the daughter; I'll give you my cell phone, if you come up with anything over night. Main thing is, we get the scene processed. But, we won't get much going at three o'clock on Sunday morning."
Duke said: "Okay. I'm heading home. I'll have my men seal up this place. I'll be going to church in the morning, and I'll be back here right after."
"I'm planning to do that myself," Virgil said. "The worship service starts at eight o'clock, I'll be out here by nine-thirty or so."
Duke tipped his head: "Little surprised to hear you're church-going, Virgil, but I certainly approve. I'll see you at nine-thirty, unless something breaks."
Virgil checked into the Ramada across the street from Southwest Minnesota State College at little after four o'clock in the morning, set the alarm for six-thirty, and was asleep as soon as he lay down. He'd slept on the plane Saturday morning, and had even taken a short nap after he got home on Saturday afternoon, and was still young enough that he could deal with a day on two hours of sleep.
Although, when the alarm woke him up in what seemed like an instant after he went to sleep, he would, he expected, be fairly cranky by early afternoon.
He sat on the bed for a minute, getting oriented, then picked up his cell phone and punched the menu item for "home." His mother never slept past six o'clock on any one day in her life, and at that moment, he thought, would be looking into the kitchen cupboard and calculating how many pancakes to make that morning.
She answered immediately, an edge of horror in her voice. "Virgil: What happened?"
"Nothing happened, Ma, except some people got killed over in Shinder and I'm looking at them. Right now, I'm down at the Ramada, and I thought I'd run over and get some pancakes if it's not too much goddamn trouble to expect that from your mother."
She was delighted: "Get your buns over here, Virgil. You're father's already up and raving in the study."
"I gotta take a shower. I'll see you in a half hour."
"Raving in the study" the old man was practicing his sermon. Feeling more awake, Virgil cleaned up and got dressed, and headed into a sunshiny morning, that felt like it might even get warm later in the day.
Virgil's father was the lead pastor of the largest Lutheran congregation in Marshall, a town with several species of Lutheran. Virgil had grown up in a red-brick house across the street from the church, and had gone to church services every Sunday and Wednesday of his life, until he went to the University of Minnesota. He'd since given up church-going, but not some fundamental belief in the Great Architect.
When Virgil pulled into the driveway, he was ambushed by his father, who'd been waiting by the back door, and who said, "I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians..."
His father was a tall man, also slender, with greying hair and round steel-rimmed spectacles. He clutched in one hand the printout of his sermon; he'd been a popular man all of his life, and a kind of sneaky king-maker in local politics.
Virgil said, "Uh-oh."
"I immediately thought of Genesis 16:11 and 12, "You shall name him Ishmael..."
Virgil continued it: "... for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him. And he will live in hostility toward all his brothers."
His father blinked, and said, "I knew if I beat it into your head long enough, it'd stick."
Virgil said, "Where's mom?... and yeah, some of it did stick."
His father said, "In the kitchen. You know Ishmael is considered the father of the Arabs..."
"I know that you'll be up to your holy ass in alligators if you go telling people that the Arabs deserve what they're getting because the Bible says so," Virgil said.
His father followed him into the kitchen, saying, "That wouldn't be the point, not at all, I'd never say that..."
They sat in the kitchen and ate pancakes and his father raved and his mother chipped in with news of various high school friends, and they both behaved as though they hadn't seen him for years, when, in fact, he'd been there only a month earlier. His mother inquired about any new wives, a friendly jab, and he denied any new close acquaintances, and his father said, "But you have to admit, it is passing strange that something that was written three thousand years ago seems to have such a relevance for today's world..."
Watching them bustle around each other in the tight little kitchen, sixtyish and very comfortable, Virgil remembered the time when he was seventeen and the folks had a little dinner party, three other couples plus Virgil. One of the couples were Darrin and Marcia Wanger; Darrin was president of a local bank, a tall, broad-shouldered man with an engaging smile. A Virgil remembered how he caught his mother and Darrin Wanger touching each other with their eyes, and how he thought then, "My God, they're sleeping together."
Old times in the rectory... And who knows, maybe he was wrong.
But even thinking about it now, he thought not. His mother said, "You put so little syrup on those pancakes that it got sucked right down inside. Take some more syrup..."
Then it was the best part of an hour in church, Virgil sitting in the back; but twenty people, mostly older, stopped to say hello to him, and touch him on the shoulder. Good folks. His father did his rave, and it all seemed well-reasoned and kind.
At nine o'clock, he was on his way back to Shinder. Duke was just coming into town and Virgil turned in behind him, and followed him down to the Welsh house. They got out of their trucks at the same time, and Duke nodded at Virgil and said, "How was church?"
"Fine. My old man did his sermon from Genesis 11 and 12, and moved on to the Palestinians and the Israelis..." Virgil gave him a one minute version, and Duke, though an asshole, proved a good listener, and when Virgil finished, he said, "Sounds like your father is a smart man."
"He is," Virgil said. The crime scene van was parked in the swale in front of the Welsh house, and Virgil asked, "You know what time they got here?"
"About two hours ago... around six o'clock," Duke said.
He and Virgil went inside, where Beatrice Sawyer was working over George Welsh's body. Sawyer was a middle-aged woman, more cheerful than she should be, given her job, and a little too heavy. She had bureaucrat-cut blond hair, went without makeup, and was wearing a lime-colored sweatshirt and blue jeans and boots. She saw Virgil and said, "Well, this one's dead."
"Thanks," Virgil said. "He was dead last night, too. Are you going to get anything off them?"
"To early to tell, but I doubt that it'll be anything conclusive if it's a domestic. He was shot from eight to ten feet away, judging from the powder traces there is some, but not much. The shooter was standing where you are, these two were standing where they fell. We'll recover both slugs, and they should be in reasonable shape not hollow-points, they look to be solids. We'll be able to identify the gun, if you come up with it. There were no shells around, and I won't know for sure until we pull the slugs, but it was probably a revolver."
"If you get DNA, why won't it be conclusive?" Duke asked.
"Because, if it's a domestic, there's lot of reasons for the shooter's DNA to be all over the place," Sawyer explained. "There doesn't appear to have been a struggle no defensive or offensive marks on George's hands or arms, which means that the killer didn't close with him. Shot him from a distance."
"But you might get some DNA that would narrow it down," Duke said.
"Possibly," Sawyer said. "But juries don't usually convict on the outside chance that somebody did it."
Another man, wearing a surgeon's mask and yellow gloves, came in from the back and said, "Hey-ya, Virgie."
"Hey, Don." Don Baldwin was a tall, thin man with a sharp nose who wore heavy black-plastic fashion glasses because he played in a punk-revival band on his nights off. Like Sawyer, he was wearing a sweatshirt and blue jeans. "What're you doing back there?"
"Looked like somebody might have slept in the back bedroom; we're working it," he said.
Virgil said, "Um," and then, "You look at their car?"
"Yeah, we'll process it... I won't say that I expect much from it."
"All right," Virgil said. He turned to Duke and said, "Let's run down the daughter. I need to talk to her friends."
"Darrell's got the names..."
As it turned out, Rebecca Welsh didn't have many friends. The Bare County deputies had come up with three names from high school, and only two still lived in the county. Nobody, including her parents, knew exactly where the third one was, but one of the deputies said he'd been told she was hooking out in Williston, South Dakota, amongst the oil crews.
Of the other two, Virgil spoke first to Carly Redecke, a short, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who he found working at the same store where George Welsh bought his last beer. Though she wasn't exactly working when he found her: she was in the back room, sitting on a couple of beer cases, smoking a cigarette.
"I haven't heard from her since last summer," Redecke said of Welsh. "She had a place somewhere up in the Cities and was doing night restocking at a Home Depot."
"Do you have a phone number for her?"
"Yes, but she doesn't have that number any more," Redecke said. "I called it at Christmas, and I got one of those messages that the phone had been disconnected. But, I still got it, if you want it."
Virgil made a note of the number, asked her if she knew anyone who might know better where Welsh would be.
"There's a bunch of old Shinder people up in the Cities I was up there myself for a while, but it scared me, so I came back. I'm thinking of trying over in Sioux Falls. There's nothing here."
"Of the old Shinder people, was she hanging with anyone in particular?"
"Wooo...you might try calling Mickey Berenson. She keeps track of everybody. I got her number, I think its still good..."
Redecke didn't have much more, other than to say that Welsh was "the hottest girl ever to come out of this place, she could be like a movie star."
On his way over to see the second woman, he called Mickey Berenson, who was sleeping when he called. He explained the situation, and said, "...so we're trying to get in touch with her."
"Oh, jeez, I haven't seen her in a long time. You know, she was hanging out with Jimmy Sharp. He's from Shinder, too, he was two grades ahead of us. I think they were getting serious."
She didn't have Sharp's number, either, but said Sharp's father lived in Shinder, and might know where his son was, and maybe Becky, too. Virgil thanked her, and went on to Caroline O'Meara's house, and found her loading sacks of used clothing into the bed of a Toyota Tacoma. She and her mother, O'Meara said, were on their way to a flea market, and were already running late...
"I talked to her, mmm, last fall. I think, about Halloween. She was back with Jimmy Sharp, they were cruising around town in Jimmy's dorkmobile."
"And that would be..."
"A black Pontiac Firebird, about a hundred years old. Like he was king shit, or something. My boyfriend said he'd be lucky to get it back to the Cities before the tranny fell on the ground."
"You sound like you don't care for him," Virgil suggested.
"Well, he's an asshole. Ask anyone. He was the biggest bully the whole time I was in school."
"You know where he works?"
"No. I doubt that he works. Might sell a little pot or something. He had a job down at the Surprise for a while..."
"I was just there..."
"Yeah," she said. "You come to Shinder, you wind up at the Surprise. If you live here, you wind up working there, sooner or later...Jimmy got fired after he got in a fight with Larry Panero. Larry wouldn't hurt a fly, but Jimmy got on him and never quit..."
"Huh. Where could I find Jimmy's father?"
Sharp's father lived in an old wind-burned farmhouse at the far northwest corner of town. O'Meara had told him to look for the only red-painted place at the end of January street, with a dirt track leading up to the side of the house: "Mean old redneck, is what he is." A broken-down garage sat at the end of the track.
Virgil pulled into the dooryard and got out. There'd been a little breeze, early, but that had gone, and the place was dead silent so silent that he paused, just to listen, and heard nothing at all. The nearest house was probably a hundred yards away, with an old car parked in front of it, but there was no movement there, either.
Virgil stepped back to the car, climbed inside, got his gun, and slipped it into his back waist-band, under his jacket. Bad feeling. He went to the back stoop, knocked, got no response, knocked louder. Still no response. He backed off and looked toward the garage, with its antique side-folding doors. The doors were partly open, and after another look around, he went that way.
The car was a newer Dodge Charger, with current Missouri plates. There was nobody around the garage, and he turned to walk away when he noticed the bumper stickers. One side featured an oval Thizz Hands sticker, and the other a sticker that said, "Free Lil Boosie." Li'l Boosie, Virgil believed, was currently spending his days in the Louisiana State Pen for issues involving guns and drugs; and he thought it exceedingly unlikely that Old Man Sharp he didn't know the old man's first name was a big gangsta rap fan.
Which made the car, in the eyes of a perceptive law enforcement official, something of an anomaly. Virgil noted the car's tag number, went back to his truck, called the number into the BCA duty officer, and told him to run it.
After a moment, the duty officer asked, "Uh, where are you, Virgil?"
"In Shinder. Minnesota. Out west," Virgil said.
"Where's this car?"
"Sitting in a garage out here. I'm looking at it."
"You got your gun with you?"
"Yeah. What's up, Dave?"
"The thing is, people are looking all over for that car," the duty officer said. "A guy was apparently murdered for it in Bigham, night before last. The same people probably murdered a young girl just a couple blocks away from there, about five minutes before that...I mean, you need some backup, man, or get the hell out of there."
Virgil got the details, and said, "I'll check with you later."
He looked at the house: still dead quiet. He thought about it, then called Davenport, who said, without first saying hello, "You're about to fuck up a perfectly good Sunday morning, aren't you?"
"You know those murders in Bigham Friday night?" Virgil asked.
"Just what I heard around the office... why?"
"Apparently the killers stole the car from one of the victims," Virgil said. "So, I was out here looking at these two dead people, and tried to track down their daughter to see if she might know something. To cut the story short, I'm looking at that car. We have four dead. We might have a spree."
"Ah, shit," Davenport said. "Who've you told?"
"You and Dave Jennings," Virgil said. "I gotta tell Duke, but, uh, you might want to talk to the patrol guys, and get the early warning system going..."
"All right. You talk to Duke, I'll start jackin' people up. Who're we looking for?"
"Right now, I'd like to talk to a Jimmy Sharp and a Rebecca Welsh, who were both living somewhere there in the Cities. That's about all the detail I've got, but I will get back to you with more."
"Do you think Sharp and Welsh...?"
"I don't know, but it's a possibility."
"Quick as you can," Davenport said. "If it's a spree..."
Virgil got on the phone to Duke, told him where he was, told him what had happened and asked him to come over with some deputies. "There's nothing moving here now, but that could change," Virgil said.
Duke said, "I'm activating the SWAT. And me'n a couple other men'll be there in five minutes. You hang tight."
Not like he had some other goddamn pressing thing to do.
Five minutes in the Cities and New York and Chicago and LA were different than five minutes in Shinder, where five minutes was quite literal: you could drive from one end of town to the other in five minutes, with nothing to slow you down. One minute after Virgil got off the phone with Duke, the sirens started, rapidly got louder, and five minutes after they talked, four sheriff's cars piled into old man Sharp's farmyard. Duke was alone in the lead car; he got out, walked around to the trunk, popped it open and took out an M-16 and a magazine, and snapped the magazine into place.
He said to Virgil, "Sonsofbitches."
Fifteen seconds later, Virgil was surrounded by six deputies and Duke. He pointed toward the garage. "We've got two dead here, two dead in St. Paul, and the stolen car here. I think that's enough to go into the house without a warrant somebody could be dying inside. So. Why doesn't one of you guys come with me, and the rest of you post around the house in case we get a runner. Don't shoot unless it's in self-defense. We really need to talk to somebody."
Duke said, "I'll be going in with you, and John Largas, he'll come, too." He nodded at an older deputy. "The rest of you take the corners of the house."
Virgil looked around: there was a woodlot a hundred yards or so behind the house, and some scrubby lilacs along the drive, but no real cover other than the garage. He said, "Somebody can post up beside the garage, but you guys on the other side, stay close to the house. I mean, get your backs right against it. You don't want to be standing out in the middle of the yard where somebody could shoot you down before you know it. Okay? Everybody understand?"
They all nodded, and the group broke up, the deputies pulling their pistols, and Virgil led Duke and Largas to the back door. Virgil pounded on it for fifteen seconds, shouting, "Police. Open up. Open up."
Duke said, "Kick it," but Virgil reached out and turned the knob, and pushed the door open. They were looking at a mudroom, a half-dozen ragged coats hanging from pegs, maybe fifteen ball caps moldering on a shelf, and four or five pair of worn shoes and boots under a bench. Two beat-up umbrellas sagged in one corner, with an old single-shot .22 rifle with as rusty barrel.
Another closed door led into the kitchen; the door had a glass window in it, and Virgil looked through.
"Got a dead guy," he said. Duke looked through the glass, and Virgil said, "Through the far door. You can see a shoe with a foot in it. He's dead, unless he picked that spot to take a nap."
Duke said, "I'm afraid to touch the door knob."
"Got to go in, in case he isn't quite dead." Virgil put his hand flat on the face of the knob, so he wouldn't touch the parts that would have fingerprints, and turned it, and the door popped open. They stepped through the kitchen in a straight line, Duke leading with the M-16; Virgil was not inclined to walk into a possible gunfight in front of a man with a machine gun. But the house was quiet. From the far door, to the living room, they could see the body a middle-aged man with a five- or six-day beard, in a long-sleeved woolen undershirt and jeans, lying flat on his back with a bullet hole in his forehead.
Largas, behind Virgil, said, "That's five. Good God almighty."
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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