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 parked closer,” 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 – somebody would have seen it, and put two and two together, and then we got a witness,” Sharp said. “Besides, the walk will warm you up.”
“Glad I got the gloves,” 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 its 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. They’d left Jimmy’s Firebird in an apartment parking lot at the base of the hill, where they could get to it in a hurry.
“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 Winnebago 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. He’d never had one of those.
“Getting close,” Becky said. Now she sounded nervous. 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. He tasted like nicotine and French fries.
From MAD RIVER by John Sanford. Published by arrangement with Putnam, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) CJohn Sanford, 2012.
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 spider web, 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 edge 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 grey 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 grey 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’ eyes. The hole of the muzzle large as the moon, and the man was saying “Gimme the money gimme the money gimme the money...”
From Stolen Prey by John Sanford. Published by arrangement with Putnam, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) John Sanford, 2012.
FROM THE BOARDROOM WINDOWS, high atop the Pye Pinnacle, you could see almost nothing for a very long way. A white farmhouse, surrounded by a scattering of metal sheds, huddled in a fir-tree windbreak a half mile out and thirty degrees to the right. Another farmhouse, with a red barn, sat three-quarters of a mile away and thirty degrees to the left. Straight north it was corn, beans, and alfalfa, and after that, more corn, beans, and alfalfa.
Somebody once claimed to have spotted a cow, but that had never been confirmed. The top floor was so high that the board member rarely even saw birds, though every September, a couple of dozen turkey vultures, at the far northern limit of their range, would gather above Pye Plaza and circle through the thermals rising off the concrete and glass.
There were rumors that the vultures so pissed off Willard Pye that he would go up to the roof, hide in a blind disguised as an air conditioner vent, and try to blast them out of the sky with a twelve-gauge shotgun.
Angela “Jelly” Brown, Pye’s executive assistant, didn’t believe that rumor, though she admitted to her husband it sounded like something Pye would do. She knew he hated the buzzards and the saucer-sized buzzard droppings that spotted the emerald-green glass of the Pinnacle.
But that was in the autumn.
On a sunny Wednesday morning in the middle of May, Jelly Brown got to the boardroom early, pulled the drapes to let the light in, and opened four small vent windows for the fresh air. That done, she went around the board table and at each chair put out three yellow #2 pencils, all finely sharpened and equipped with unused rubber erasers; a yellow legal pad; and a water glass on a PyeMart coaster. She checked the circuit breakers at the end of the table to make sure that the laptop plug-ins were live.
As she did that, Sally Humboldt from food services brought in a tray covered with cookies, bagels, and jelly doughnuts; two tanks of hot coffee, one each of regular and decaf; and a pitcher of orange juice and one of cranberry juice.
THE FIRST BOARD MEMBERS began trickling in at eight forty-five. Instead of going to the boardroom, they stopped at the hospitality suite, where they could get something a little stronger than coffee and orange juice: V-8 Bloody Marys were a favorite, and screwdrivers—both excellent sources of vodka. The meeting itself would start around nine-thirty.
Jelly Brown had checked the consumables before the board members arrived. She’d put an extra bottle of Reyka in the hospitality suite, because the heavy drinkers from Texas and California were scheduled to show up.
The first machines on the site were the wreckers, like steel dinosaurs, plucking and pulling at the houses with jaws that ripped off chimneys, shingles, dormers, and eaves, clapboard and brick and stone and masonry, beams and stairs and balconies and joists, headers and doorjambs. Old dreams, dead ambitions, and lost lives, remembrance roses and spring lilacs, went in the dump trucks all together. When the wrecking was done, the diggers came in, cutting a gash in the black-and-tan soil that stretched down a city block. A dozen pieces of heavy equipment crawled down its length, Bobcats and Caterpillar D6s and Mack trucks, and one orange Kubota, grunting and struggling through the raw earth. Now gone silent as death. The equipment operators gathered in twos and threes, yellow helmets and deerskin work gloves, jeans and rough shirts, to talk about the situation. Slabs of concrete lay around the trench, pieces of what once had been basement floors and walls. Electric wire was gathered in hoops, pushed into a corner of the hole, to await removal; survey stakes marked the lines where new concrete would go in. None of it happening today. At one end of the gash, twelve men and four women gathered around a bundle of plastic sheeting, once clear, now a pinkish-yellow with age. It was still set down in the earth, but the dirt on top of it had been swept away by hand. A few of the people were construction supervisors, marked by yellow, white, and orange hard hats. The rest were cops. One of the cops, whose name was Hote, and who was Minneapolis’s sole cold-case investigator, was kneeling at the end of the bundle with her face four inches from the plastic. Two dead girls grinned back at her, through the plastic, their desiccated skin pulled tight over their cheek and jaw bones, their foreheads; their eyes were black pits, their lips were flattened scars, but their teeth were as white and shiny as the day they were murdered. Hote looked up and said, “It’s them. I’m pretty sure. Sealed in there.” The day was hot, hardly a cloud in the sky, the July sun burning down; but the soil was cool and damp, and smelled of rotted roots and a bit of sewage, from the torn-up sewer lines leading out of the hole. Another woman, who’d walked into the pit in low heels and two-hundred-dollar black wool slacks that were now flecked with the tan earth, asked, “Can you tell what happened? Were they dead when they were sealed in?” Hote stood up and brushed the dirt from her jeans and said, “I think so. It looks to me like they were hanged.” “Strangled?” “Hanged,” Hote repeated. “There appears to be some upward displacement of the cervical spine in both girls—but that’s looking through a lot of plastic. Their arms go behind them, instead of lying by their sides, so I think they’ll be tied or cuffed. Anyway—let’s get them over to the ME.” “What else?”
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.
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