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When the brutal killing of a family in a small Minnesota town reveals unsettling similarities to drug-retribution crimes, baffled police officer Lucas Davenport is shocked by findings that lead him into the darkest case of his career. By the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Buried Prey. (suspense)
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John Sandford is a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of twenty-two Prey novels and eleven other works of fiction, most recently the Virgil Flowers novel Shock Wave. He lives in Minnesota.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
That was the summer of the cast and the cell phones. Cell phones everywhere. He sometimes felt as though he were caught like a fly in an electronic spiderweb, and anytime anyone, anywhere, had an urge to waste his time, they could reach out and ring his bell.
When it began, though, at that one specific moment, he had no phone. . . .
Lucas Davenport ran through the night, a fine mist cool on his face, the tarmac smooth and reliable under his Nike training shoes. They’d been through a rough winter. Most years, the last of the parking lot snow piles would be gone by early April. Now, as April ended, with the temperatures ballooning into the seventies, there were still mounds of ice at the edges of the larger lots, and they’d still be there on May Day.
But not on the streets—the streets were finally clear.
As he ran, he thought about everything and anything, about the life he’d led, the children, the snatches of time frozen in his mind: a moment when he’d gotten shot in an alley, and the flash of the man who’d shot him; the first sight of a newborn daughter; his mother’s face, crabby with an early morning slice of toast in her hand, her image as clear in his mind as it had been twenty-five years earlier, on the day she died. . . .
They all came up like portraits and landscapes hanging on the wall of his memory, flashes of color in the black-and-white night. With all the trouble and struggle and violence he’d seen, the deaths of parents and friends . . . it’d been pretty good, he thought. Not much to regret. Not yet.
He was getting older, with almost as much gray hair as black at his temples, with the beginnings of what would someday be slashing lines beside his mouth, but right now, on this spring day, he could run five miles in a bit less than thirty minutes, even on wet city streets; and at home, there were four people who loved him.
As much as he could have hoped for.
Running through the mist in a faded Bass Pro Shops sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves and gray sweat shorts, he turned up the hill off Mount Curve and eventually slowed and looked through the windows on the Ford Parkway Wells Fargo ATM. The booth was empty, which was good. He was panting and smelled like he’d just run a hard five miles, which is not necessarily what somebody else wants to see from a stranger inside an ATM booth.
He went inside. He had nothing with him but the ATM card, his driver’s license, and fifteen dollars, in a Dunhill money clip. No phone: for this rare half hour, no cell phone. He stuck the card in the ATM slot, punched in his four-digit code, hit the video square that said his most frequent withdrawal was five hundred dollars, and in the next few seconds, collected his card, his five hundred in twenties, and the receipt. He pushed the card and his ID back in the money clip and slipped the money clip back in his pocket, and was looking at the receipt, which showed he had $19,250 in his checking account, as he pushed through the door.
The tweeker was right there, with a piece-of-shit chromed revolver shaking like a leaf, three feet from Lucas’s eyes. The hole of the muzzle large as the moon, and the man was saying, “Gimme the money gimme the money gimme the money . . .”
The gunman’s eyes were pale blue, almost as though they’d been bleached. He had spiky reddish hair, hanging raggedy over his ears, as though it had been cut with pinking shears. He was missing several teeth, his face was touched with a patchy rash, and the muscles of his gaunt forearms twitched like pencils under the skin.
Lucas thought, I could die. It’d be a weird way to go, killed in a street robbery with this clown, after chasing down dozens of heavy hitters in his life, serious killers with functioning brains.
Lucas became aware of a woman, looming two or three feet behind him. He glanced at her, quickly: she was big, rawboned, and empty-handed, with the same gaunt meth-addled eyes as the man. Across the street, another woman was walking toward the bookstore at the top of the hill, under a black umbrella, a dachshund on a leash beside her, the dog’s legs churning like a caterpillar’s as it tried to keep up. There were cars passing by, their tires hissing on the wet streets, and he could smell the fleshy stink of run-over worms, and the tweeker was almost screaming, spit rolling down his chin, “Gimme gimme gimme,” and Lucas handed over the five hundred dollars.
He’d lost track of the woman, as he concentrated on the muzzle of the gun and the man’s fingers on the butt and trigger. If they turned white, if he started to squeeze, Lucas would have to go for it.
But as soon as her partner had taken the money, the woman hit him between the shoulder blades with both hands, and simultaneously hooked his ankles with her foot. With his feet pinned, he went down hard, full-length, broke the fall with his hands but still smacked his knees and chin on the concrete sidewalk, and rolled, and saw the two of them hoofing it down the block. The woman was large with broad shoulders and wide hips, but bony for all of that; the man was thin, jagged-looking.
Lucas got to his feet, his first thought to give chase, but the man turned as he ran and waggled the gun at him. Lucas had nothing on him: nothing but the money clip, two cards, and fifteen dollars in cash. No gun, no phone.
And he hurt. His back hurt from the impact, his hands and knees were skinned, his wrists sprained. He touched his lower lip, came away with a bloody finger, and realized that he’d cut his lip on his upper teeth. His teeth felt okay; nothing wiggled.
He took a few steps after the robbers, then stopped as they turned the corner. A few seconds later, a car screeched away, out of sight. Lucas looked around: nobody there on a wet Sunday night, nobody but the woman across the street, and her umbrella and her dog, rapidly headed away, up the hill, unaware that anything had happened.
He said, “Shit,” and limped toward home. Reviewed what had happened, walked through it in his mind. He had, he decided, done the right thing. The piece-of-shit revolver was probably
a .38. Not the most powerful weapon, but one that could have sprayed his brains all over the street. And he thought, They’ve done it before. The woman had taken him down like a pro, smooth, efficient, practiced.
Lip hurt. Knees hurt. Hands hurt. Five hundred dollars gone. But they’d made a large mistake. Sooner or later, he’d see them again.
Weather, his wife, a surgeon who had spent part of her internship in an emergency room, tried to be the calm one, talking tough while she fluttered around him. She said his lip was nothing, he just had to suck it up like a man, instead of whining about it. His knee required a Band-Aid and some antiseptic, and he might have a couple of small pulled muscles in his back, but he hadn’t lost any function and his spine wasn’t involved.
“You’ve got muscles in your neck, which is good. Helps prevent whiplash,” she said. She was kneading his shoulder as he sat in a kitchen chair, eating an Oreo, tasting a little blood with the creme filling.
She was most worried about his left wrist.
His teenaged adoptive daughter, Letty, asked, “What are you going to do about this?”
“Put them in jail,” Lucas said. “If it’s the last thing I do.”
Letty, her arms crossed over her chest, grunted, “At least.”
He called the St. Paul cops, and a couple of uniforms rolled around and took a report and suggested he come to the station and look at the meth files. When they were done, Weather drove him over to Hennepin County Medical Center and told the doc on duty that she wanted Lucas’s wrists x-rayed. Because of her status in the place, Lucas got instant service.
The doc came back in five minutes, took them around to a computer screen, tapped on some keys. The X-rays came up on the high-def screen, and he said, “You busted your left scaphoid.”
“Ah, God,” Weather said. She peered at the digital image. “Yeah, it’s clear.” She pointed at a line on a wrist bone.
The line looked like somebody had dropped a white hair on the screen. Lucas said, “It can’t be too bad. The bone’s about the size of—”
“Never mind what it’s the size of,” Weather said. Lucas tended to compare the size of almost anything, either large or small, to his dick. “You’ll need a cast.”
“A cast?” He flexed his wrist. It hurt, but not all that bad. He looked at the doc, who nodded, and then at Weather. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“With luck, we can take it off in three months,” the doc said. “A lot of people go six.”
“What? For that?” He couldn’t believe it. A little crack, barely visible in the X-ray.
Weather explained in big words. He didn’t know all of the words, but understood that the carpal bones, of which the scaphoid was one, and which was once called the navicular because it supposedly looked like a boat, allowed the wrist to turn and the hand to work. If the bone was cracked, and didn’t heal, it might die, and rot. Then his hand wouldn’t work right.
That didn’t sound good.
Forty-five minutes after they walked in, they walked back out of the emergency room, Lucas with a fiberglass cast from his elbow to knuckles, and a bottle of hydrocodone in his pocket.
“One good thing,” Weather said, “it’s your left hand.”
“This cast is like a fuckin’ rock,” Lucas said. “If I catch that fuckin’ tweeker, I’m gonna use it to fuckin’ beat him to death.”
“That’s your daily quota on the f-word,” Weather said. “And don’t worry about that guy. If he’s as far gone as you say, he’s a dead man anyway.”
“He’s a dead man if I catch him,” Lucas said.
When they got home, Letty said, “Whoa, that cast’s the size of—”
“Never mind,” Weather said.
The cast was a constant annoyance. Lucas was a touch-typist and, unable to spread his fingers, had to learn to use the keyboard using only one finger on his left hand. And he had, over the years, gotten used to carrying an old-fashioned Colt .45 ACP, which really required two functioning hands. He switched to a double- action nine-millimeter, but never really liked it. He couldn’t hang on to a steering wheel, though he hardly ever held on tight with his left hand anyway.
The biggest frustration came one day when he was fishing off
the dock at his cabin and hooked into a small bluegill, only to watch the bluegill get chased down, right at the surface, by what he estimated to be a two-foot-long large-mouth bass. He got the bass back close to the dock, but he couldn’t just lift it out of the water: he wasn’t even sure it was hooked. He needed to hold the rod in one hand, and use a net with the other . . . and stood helplessly looking down at the fish as it ran crazily back and forth, finally did a heavy-bodied leap, and came off.
He was pretty sure, as the fish swam away, that it gave him the finger.
The cast was cut off, momentarily, at three months, and his wrist was x-rayed again, and the doc said it needed another month. A scum of dead skin covered his arm, and the muscles looked too thin—withered, Lucas thought. His arm reminded him of the tweeker’s too-thin forearm. The doc let him scrub the dead skin off before he put the new cast on. Under his arm hair, the new skin was as pink and soft as a baby’s butt. “Come back in a month,” the doc said. “In a month, you’re good. And lucky. Some people go six.”
“That’s what the last guy said. But he said if I was lucky, I’d
get out in three.” “That’s really lucky,” the doc said. “You’re only a little lucky.”
The summer of the cast and cell phones, though meteorologically excellent, was professionally slow. Lucas’s job at the BCA was mostly self-invented, and included politically sensitive cases, or cases that might attract a lot of media attention. That summer, the politicians stayed away from ostentatious felonies, as far as anyone knew—something could always pop up at a later date. (“I didn’t know she was fourteen. Honest to God, she said she was thirty-two.”)
So Lucas focused on a self-invented, long-term, statewide intelligence project that involved finding, working, and filing police sources in Minnesota’s criminal underworld. The project was kept secret for fear that it would encounter media ridicule. Most people didn’t believe that there actually was a Minnesota criminal underworld, and those who did—the cops—often didn’t want to give up sources.
Just as in any other state, Minnesota had plenty of crooks. Ten thousand people sat in prison, from a population a little short of six million, with a constant coming and going. Of those, quite a few were one-timers, or criminals of a kind that didn’t interest him: repeat drunk drivers, people convicted of manslaughter or negligent homicide, or white-collar crime. Those kinds of people were singletons, who generally acted alone, out of stupidity and greed, and, aside from the drunk drivers, were not given to repeated mayhem.
He was interested in the repeaters, the professionals, the people who lived and worked in a criminal culture—bikers, gang members, burglars, robbers, pederasts, drug dealers. Lucas had a theory that every county, and every town, would have a “node” that pulled in criminals of that area—a bar, a bowling alley, a roadhouse.
Furthermore, he thought that criminals in one area would know most of the nodes for the surrounding areas, no matter how urban or rural the countryside might be, and would be attracted to those nodes when away from home.
He wanted a thousand names of sources who’d talk to the cops, across that whole web of nodes; at least one or two sources for each.
They would all know him by name, and there would be certain implicit guarantees in their transactions. Like no police comebacks.
To set up his system, he first had to learn about spreadsheets, and then a bit about computer secrecy: he had no interest in building a general criminal database, and needed a way to keep the work away from prying cop eyes. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help other cops, it was just that as soon as more than one person began operating the database, it would stop functioning. Tipsters wanted a relationship: they didn’t want their names in a cop newspaper, and if they thought that was what was happening, they’d shut up or disappear.
So Lucas had spent the summer talking on the phone, taking long rides out into the countryside to meet unusual men and women at sandwich shops and parks, filling out the database.
He realized, at some point, what the computer had done for him. He’d been tempted, at one time or another, to move to a bigger police agency—one of the federal agencies, or to a really large city, like New York or Los Angeles. He’d not done that because he’d realized that the Minneapolis–St. Paul area was the largest size he could comprehend.
In Los Angeles, a cop was caught in a blizzard of shit, and there was never any way to tell where the shit was coming from. You get three murdered in Venice, and the killer was almost as likely to come from Portland or St. Louis as from LA; was likely to be unknown to the local cops. Serial killers had operated for decades in the LA area, without the cops even knowing about it. Chaos ruled.
That wouldn’t happen in the Twin C...
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