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|The Prey Series|
Bright-eyed Marlys Purdy carried a steel bucket around to the side of the garage to the rabbit hutches, which were stacked up on top of each other like Manhattan walkups. She paused there for a moment, considering the possibilities. A dozen New Zealand whites peered through the screened windows, their pink noses twitching and pale eyes watching the intruder, their long ears turning like radar dishes, trying to parse their immediate future: was this dinner, or death?
A car went by on the gravel road, on the far side of a ditch-line of lavender yarrow and clumps of black-eyed susans and purple cone flowers, throwing a cloud of dust into the late-afternoon sun. Marlys turned to look. Lori Schaeffer, who lived three more miles out. Didn't bother to wave.
Marlys was a sturdy woman in her fifties, white curls clinging to her scalp like vanilla frosting. She wore rimless glasses, a homemade red-checked gingham dress and low-topped Nikes. Short-nosed and pale, she had a small pink mouth that habitually pursed in thought, or disapproval.
She popped the door on one of the hutches and pulled the rabbit out by its hind feet.
The animal smelled of rabbit food and rabbit poop and the pine shavings used as bedding. A twelve-inch Craftsman crescent wrench, its working end rusted shut, lay on top of the hutches. Marlys stretched the rabbit over her thigh and held it tight until it stopped wriggling, then picked up the crescent wrench and whacked the rabbit on the back of the head, separating the skull from the spine.
So it was death.
The rabbit went limp, but a few seconds later, began twitching as its nerves fired against oxygen starvation. That went on for a bit and then the rabbit went quiet again.
Some years before, Marlys had mounted a plank on the side of the garage, at head-height. Before mounting the board, she'd driven two twenty-penny common nails through it, so that an inch of nail protruded through, angling upward. Every year or so, she'd use a bastard file to sharpen up the nails.
Now she positioned the bucket, with a used plastic shopping bag on the inside, under the board with the nails. She pushed the dead rabbit's feet onto the nails, until they stuck through; and, in a minute or so, had stripped the rabbit's fur, pulled off its head, and gutted it, all the unwanted parts and most of the blood draining into plastic bag in the bucket
Not all of the blood: a dinner-plate-sized blotch of old black blood stains marred the wooden side of the garage, supplemented by a few new red blotches from this last butchery. She carried the bloody meat back to the house, paused to tie up the top of the plastic bag and drop it into the garbage can, and in the kitchen, washed the meat.
During the entire five-minute process of killing and butchering the rabbit, she'd never once thought about either the animal, or the process. All of that was automatic, like pulling beets or picking wax beans.
Marlys' brain was consumed with other thoughts.
If and when, and where and how, and with what.
Marlys was a woman of ordinary appearance, if seen in a supermarket or library, dressed in homemade or Walmart dresses or slacks, a little too heavy, but fighting it, white haired, ruddy-faced.
In her heart, though, she housed a rage that knew no bounds. The rage fully possessed her at times and she might be seen sitting in her truck at a stoplight, pounding the steering wheel with the palms of her hands; or walking through the noodle aisle at the supermarket with a teeth-baring snarl. She had frightened strangers, who might look at her and catch the flames of rage, quickly extinguished when Marlys realized she was being watched.
The rage was social and political and occasionally personal, based on her hatred of obvious injustice, the crushing of the small and helpless by the steel wheels of American plutocracy.
Jesse walked into the kitchen, running a hand over his close-cropped hair. He peered over her shoulder into the sink. "What are we having?"
"Rabbit fettuccine alfredo," Marlys said to her blue-eyed son. "We're eating early, 'cause I got to get over to Mt. Pleasant. You go on out and get me some broccoli and a tomato. Where's your brother?"
"Messin' around with that .22," Jesse said. He put a hand to his left cheek, a gesture of thought or weariness in others, but in Jesse, an unconscious move to cover the port wine stain that marked his neck and the bottom of his cheek. "He says there's nothing wrong with it that a good cleaning won't fix."
"Well, he knows his guns. Go get me that broccoli. We'll eat in an hour."
Marlys and her younger son, Cole, lived on a nine-acre place north of Pella, Iowa, in a weathered clapboard farmhouse with three bedrooms and a bathroom up, a living room, parlor, a half-bath and a kitchen down, and a rock-walled basement under all of that.
The basement held the mechanical equipment for the house, and a twenty-one cubic-foot Whirlpool freezer that Marlys filled with corn, green and wax beans, peas, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli, that kept them eating all winter. Apple sauce from a half-dozen apple trees went in Ball jars, stored on dusty wooden shelves next to the freezer.
Her older son, Jesse, until recently had lived in an apartment in town with his wife and daughter, and sold Purdy produce at most of the big farmers' markets between Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
Cole worked in the truck gardens and ran the mower at the country club during golf season. Between the two of them, they'd jacklight four to six deer during the various hunting seasons, and the venison steaks and sausage, supplemented by the rabbits, filled out their meat requirements. They'd once had a chicken yard, but a mid-winter spate of accounting, several years earlier, had convinced Marlys that chickens were cheaper to buy at the supermarket, than to raise at home, even given the bonus eggs.
In the winter, to raise cash, Marlys made hand-stitched quilts which she sold through an Amish store in Des Moines. She wasn't Amish, but nobody much cared, as long as the quilts moved.
The Purdys weren't rich, but they did all right, not counting the possibly inherited tendency to psychosis.
Jesse walked down to the closest garden, cut a few broccoli heads they were big and tough, being the last harvest of the first season, but good enough when chopped and got a nice ripe tomato. All of that took only a minute, but by the time he started back to the house, he was sweating.
There'd been a lot of rain that Spring and everything was looking lush and fine. At the moment, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the low nineties, with the humidity close to eighty percent.
The local farmers, of course, were bitching because the bean and corn harvests were going to be huge and the prices depressed. Of course, if it hadn't rained, they'd be bitching because their crops were small, even if the prices were high. You couldn't win with farmers.
For Marlys and her sons, the frequent rain was nothing but a blessing: more food than they could eat, so many apples that they'd have to cull them before they were mature, to keep the apple tree branches from breaking; enough raspberries and Concord grapes to make jam enough for five years of toast. Marlys had been talking of buying an upright freezer for the kitchen. She could freeze a year's worth of cinnamon apple slices and they all did like apple pie.
As Jesse walked back to the house, he noticed a pale haziness on the western horizon, above the afterglow left by the sun, hinting of a new weather system moving in, even more rain. All right with him. Looking up at the top floor of the house, he saw Cole sitting behind the bedroom window screen with his rifle, which he had reassembled.
"You don't go shooting nobody," he called up to his brother.
Cole didn't say anything, but lifted a hand.
Gray-eyed Cole sat in his bedroom window, looking out over the road, a scoped Ruger 10-22 in his hands. Squirrel rifle. Below him, a quilt hung on the wire clothesline, airing out. Before the end of the day, the quilt would smell like early-summer fields, with a little gravel dust mixed in. A wonderful smell, a smell like home.
An aging green pickup was motoring over the hill to the south, about to take the curve in front of the house. Cole tracked it with the scope, watching David Souther horse the truck around the curve heading south toward Pella. He whispered to himself, "Bang!"
One dead Souther.
Souther was a hippy kind of guy and had a hundred and twenty acres given over to sheep which he'd shear, so his wife could wash, spin, dye and weave the fleece into blankets and wall-hangings, which they sold at a store at the Amana Colonies. Souther was also a poet and sometimes had a book published. The Purdys had two of his books, which Souther had given them, but Cole had never read any of the poems.
Cole had nothing at all against Souther or his wife. They worked hard and they didn't get rich, but they did all right, he supposed. Janette Souther was the shyest woman Cole had ever met: she couldn't even look at another human being. How she and Souther ever gotten together, he had no idea. Of course, they had no kids, so maybe they hadn't exactly gotten together, Souther being a poet and all.
Another truck came over the hill to the south.
Cole put his scope on it...
Cole had been to Iraq twice, with the National Guard. He'd been a truck driver, not a combat troop, but in Iraq, even the truck drivers were on the front lines. He'd been in his truck on two occasions when IEDs went off at the side of the road, once a short distance ahead of him, once behind him, artillery shells fired with cell phones.
He hadn't exactly been wounded either time, but he'd been hurt. He couldn't hear anything for a while after the second explosion and never could hear as well as he had when he enlisted. Right after the IEDs, he'd been too dizzy to drive for a while, and nauseous for a couple of days, but the Army told him that he was okay, and the VA had waved him off they had more important things to do.
He wasn't entirely sure about how okay he really was. Hadn't been able to sleep since he got back, and that was nine years now; and he'd had a bell-like ringing in his ears since the first explosion, sometimes so loud that he thought it would drive him crazy.
And maybe it had.
The approaching truck went into the turn: Sherm Miller, who had a farm up the road, nine hundred and sixty acres, one of the richer people around, his land alone probably worth seven or eight million.
Cole whispered, "Bang!"
Jesse dropped the broccoli and tomato with his mother, and said, "I'm running down to Henry's to get some cigs. You want anything?"
"Mmm, get me a box of those hundred-calorie fudge bars. You stay away from Willie." Willie was Jesse's estranged wife.
"We gotta get that sorted out soon," Jesse said. "I can't be living here for the rest of my life."
Marlys paused in her dinner prep: "Well, you could. You could have your old bedroom back, permanently. You know you're welcome."
"Gotta get away from here sooner or later, ma," Jesse said. "Then I won't have to listen to any more of that political bullshit from you and Cole. That Michaela Bowden bullshit. You guys are a little fucked up on the subject."
"Quiet! You be quiet!" said. "I don't want to hear anything about her."
"Nobody here but us," Jesse said.
Marlys pointed toward the ceiling: the NSA satellites were watching everything and everybody, and sorting, sorting, sorting. She was on forums that said so. The feds would be listening for the name "Michaela Bowden." Mention it the wrong way and the black helicopters would be all over your butt.
"You go on, but be back for dinner," Marlys said. And, "Stay away from Willie."
Jesse said, "Yeah," and "Cole's up in his window again," and walked out.
When Jesse was gone, Marlys went back to thinking about what she'd been thinking about for the past year: getting the right man in the White House.
That would mean killing Michaela Bowden, the leading candidate on the Democratic side. Bowden was a sure thing, everybody thought. Sure to get the nomination, sure to win the election.
She might already have some Secret Service protection, but the convention was still a year off. Bowden was running around the countryside, pumping up the base, trying to brick up the nomination, trying to fend off any possible competition, stretching to win Iowa's political caucuses, now only five months away. She was out in the open and the Secret Service protection would be light, compared to what it'd be after the convention.
If they were going to get her, now was the time.
Right now. They couldn't wait.
Jesse got back to the house with the cigarettes, and two minutes later, his wife showed up with the kid. His wife, whose name was Wilma, but who everybody called Willie, was dropping the daughter, Caralee, for the weekend.
Marlys heard Willie and Jesse collide at the front door and thought, "Uh-oh," and hurried that way, in time to hear Jesse saying, "I ain't payin' to support that asshole no way. You want to suck his lazy cock, you go right ahead but you ain't seeing no more money from me..."
"I'll get the court after you again, you ugly piece of shit," Willie said.
Marlys called, "Hey, hey, you all shut up. Both of you. Willie, you get the hell out of here, you aren't welcome inside the house. You know that."
Caralee was sucking on a binkie and had the dried remnants of green baby food dribbled down her shirt. A small, round-headed blonde, she looked frightened, her eyes switching nervously between her parents, and Marlys got down on one knee and said, "Come on to Grandma, honey, come on, it's okay."
Willie left, banging the screen door behind her and shouting, "Fuck all you Purdys," and Jesse shouted back, "Suck on it, bitch," and Willie threw a finger over her shoulder. Upstairs, Cole put the scope's crosshairs on Willie's back and said to himself, "Bang."
That evening, after dinner, as Jesse, Cole and Caralee settled down to watch a Cubs game on television, Marlys drove to Mt. Pleasant. On the way, she felt the anger burning through her, as it always did, when she got together with the other members of the Lost Tribes of Iowa.
Found herself hunched over the steering wheel, her knuckles white, remembering.
It had been thirty years since the Purdys lost the farm. Four hundred and eighty acres of good black soil, gone with low crop prices and high interest rates. Gone with it was the three hundred thousand dollars that her parents had loaned to the newlyweds as a down payment on the mortgage loan, and to buy basic equipment. The loss of the three hundred thousand had crippled her father's retirement. He'd planned to travel, to do great things in his final years; maybe even buy a February time-share down in Fort Myers. He'd been left as an old man staring at a TV screen, sitting out the Iowa winters.
Two years after the disaster, Marlys's husband, Wilt, left their rented house, climbed in the rust-bucket Chevy, wound it up to ninety miles an hour and pointed it into a concrete pillar on a railroad underpass. He'd been killed instantly, or, at least, that's what the cops said.
Marlys had never remarried, had never gone with another man: no time, no inclination, and not many offers. Maybe a few, turned away before they had a chance to become real. She still flashed to the day of Wilt's death, the sight of the sheriff and the Baptist minister coming up the flagstone path on the rental house... Sometimes at night, she could roll over in bed, and see the back of Wilt's head on the next pillow, silhouetted in the silvery moonlight, and she'd reach out and touch an empty pillow and whisper, "Wilt."
All she had left of Wilt was Cole's wide gray eyes.
The highway patrol kindly ruled Wilt's death an accident and the insurance company had been forced to fork over the money that bought the current house and the acreage outside of Pella.
When they bought it, the house had essentially been abandoned, inhabited by bats and mice and even a raccoon that had nested in the thin attic insulation. Marlys put the kids in school and worked two parttime jobs during the day and then worked half the night fixing up the house and barn, planting her trees and berries and grapes, paying for the compact John Deere tractor she needed to work her gardens.
The kids worked with her: they'd had to.
She'd almost gotten straight with herself and with Wilt's death, when Cole went off to Iraq in '07 and came back funny. The next year, the economy collapsed and friends and neighbors began losing jobs and homes again.
She could see so clearly that it was not their fault.
The system was rotten. The Administration was rotten, the Congress was rotten, the banks were rotten, the oil companies were rotten, the media were liars and thieves. Michaela Bowden was their instrument, mixed right in there with them.
Something had to be done to save America. The country needed a strong President whose heart was in the right place, who'd take care of the struggling folks at the bottom of the economic heap.
Somebody like Minnesota's governor, Elmer Henderson.
The Mt. Pleasant meeting was in the home of Joseph Likely, an aging activist and gasbag who nevertheless knew a lot of history, and how history seemed to work through certain small moments the assassination of John Kennedy or the 9/11 attacks. Moments that changed the world, usually for the worse.
But not always. Not always, Marlys thought.
At Likely's house, Marlys got out of the car and took the insulated pizza-delivery bag, left from one of her parttime jobs, from the passenger seat. The bag was still warm. She climbed the porch and knocked on the door. She could see a dozen or so people already sitting in the living room and then Joe Likely threading his way through them. Likely was a sixties leftover, with a nicotine-stained beard and eyebrows like tumbleweeds.
He opened the door and smiled and said, "I hope to hell that's apple pie you're carrying."
"Two of them. How are you, Joe?"
"Getting older," Likely said. "Hoping to make it until Chirstmas."
She followed him into the living room, where ten other people were sitting on metal folding chairs. She knew them all. Joe said, "Marlys has brought pie."
A few people said, "Yay," and "Thanks, Marlys," and Joe took the pies into the kitchen, then came back and stood at the front of the room.
"Like I was saying before Marlys got here, the news isn't real good, but I guess you all know that. Right now, politically, we've got nowhere to go. The Republicans, as usual, are batshit crazy, and with the Democrats, well, choose your poison. Dan Grady has filed papers to run for governor..." There was a smattering of applause. "... but even those of us who like Dan, know that he won't get even two percent of the vote. We're back in survival mode. I have to admit that our network is getting thinner, not stronger. So, the question is, what do we do? We need fresh ideas."
Fresh ideas from this group was virtually an oxymoron, Marlys thought, wriggling her butt against the comfortless chair..
She heard the same old things about organizing, about reaching out to young people, about getting in touch with the unions, about starting a website. The ideas were mostly inane; a few were actively goofy. None of them had even a touch of realism about them. Given what happened to her pies during the break, she began to wonder how many people still came to the meetings only for the free dessert.
She looked around: long-time acquaintances and friends now grown shabby, tired, broken. Cinders. In the old days, they'd all burned with righteous fire.
Arnold Palmer stood up not that one and said that he was talking to a press in Iowa City about publishing his book. His book was three thousand pages long now. Palmer suffered from an idëe fixe, that is, that the Jews controlled everything. Everything. He was writing down every single human process he could think of, and tracing it back to Jewish control, like tracing every human being through six degrees to Kevin Bacon.
His three thousand pages only scratched the surface. His talks with the press were not far advanced, he admitted. He really needed an agent, but guess-what about most agents?
Marlys hadn't met many Jews and those she had seemed ordinary enough but it was clear to her who ran the banks, the media, the corporations. Or for that matter, the literary agencies. But with Jews, there was no leverage. Sure, you could go around blaming the Jews if you wanted, but they were so dispersed, there was nothing you could really do about them. They weren't a fulcrum that you use to move the world.
Michaela Bowden was.
If she were elected President, it would be the same-ol' same-ol: sucking up to, and taking care of, the powers-that-be, the banks, Wall Street, the corporations, the foundations. Nothing but crumbs for the little people.
With Elmer Henderson, things would be a whole lot different. Henderson was independently wealthy and didn't have to suck up to anyone. He came from a farm state, and even owned a farm, she'd learned. He knew what had happened to the average folks back in the 80s, and then in the 2000s. His heart was in the right place. If he became President, there was a chance for change.
Among the whole bunch, Marlys knew, she was the only one who had a real practical idea, that might actually move the world. No way she could talk about it, not even here.
She let Arnold Palmer's words flow around her, eyes half closed. The people here, in this room, were right-enough in their thinking, in their hopeless way. They knew something had to be done but they didn't know what, and they wouldn't do it if they did know.
And she would.
August, with the late afternoon sun glittering off the ripples in the lake outside the double doors; a pleasant silence after the whine of the table saw.
Lucas Davenport sat in a battered office chair with a bottle of Leinie's, looking at the unfinished interior of the room he was adding to his Wisconsin cabin. The place smelled of sawdust and coffee, with a hint of the piney woods that surrounded the house, and the beer in his hand. Through the plastic sheet that separated the new room from the rest of the cabin, he could hear Delbert McClinton singing "Two More Bottles of Wine" over the computer speakers.
The carpenter had just left, taking her coffee with her, after installing the tongue-in-groove pine planks on the wall facing the lake. Lucas had been doing the cutting, on the table saw, while the carpenter did the final fitting and nailing. Another two days and the walls would all be in, and then they'd start on the finish work. Jesus don't tarry and the creek don't rise, the room would be done before winter, with weeks to spare.
Of course, he'd heard that story before. In his experience with house construction, the creek did rise, or Jesus did tarry, or both. So far, though, they were on schedule.
Delbert had finished "Two More Bottles" and had gone to work on "Gold Plated Fool," when Lucas' phone rang. His wife, he thought, checking in after work. He dug his phone out of his pocket and looked at the screen.
A single word hung there: Mitford.
Neil Mitford was chief weasel for the governor of Minnesota. A finger of pure pleasure touched Lucas' heart: something was up. Mitford never called unless he had to.
Lucas clicked on Answer and asked, "What happened?"
"The governor needs to see you," Mitford said. "Soon as possible."
"He get caught with a teenager?"
"Don't even think that," Mitford said, as if thinking it might make it happen.
"Yeah, well, in case you hadn't noticed, I no longer work for the state," Lucas said.
"He needs to see you anyway."
"I'm up at my cabin. I could probably make it down tomorrow afternoon."
"Unfortunately, we're in Iowa. We just left Fort Madison..." Lucas heard somebody in the background call, "Fort Dodge," and Mitford said, "... Fort Dodge, on our way to Ames. We've got a noon speech there, tomorrow, followed by a reception at the student union. That'll go on 'til two o'clock. We'd like you to be there by the end of the reception."
"What's the problem?" Lucas asked, because there would be a problem.
"I can't tell you that because we're talking on radios," Mitford said. "So be here at two."
"I'm a private citizen now and I don't necessarily jump when the governor..."
"Two o'clock," Mitford said, and he was gone.
Lucas smiled at the phone: something was up.
"Good," said his wife, Weather, when she called to check in. "He's got something for you to do. You'll stop driving Jimi nuts and I'll get to see you tonight."
"Treat me right, I might even throw you a quickie," Lucas said.
"As opposed to what?"
"Very funny," Lucas said. "And I'm not driving Jimi nuts."
Jimi was the carpenter. "Yes, you are. Nuts. Like you did when you drove the contractor nuts on this house. Then you spend all day looking at Jimi's ass, up on that scaffold. Which might explain the quickiness."
"She does have an exceptionally nice scaffold," Lucas said. "Anyway, see you about seven o'clock. Maybe we can sneak out for a bite."
"Before or after the quickie?" Weather asked.
"Big talk, big guy."
Lucas was a big guy, but not a lunk.
He was a few pounds under two hundred, now, after much of a summer working on the cabin for three days each week. He'd had no easy access to restaurant food, the big killer, and so had been cooking on his own, mostly microwave stuff. He'd been running twice a day and doing early-morning weight work every cabin workday. Although he was a natural clothes-horse, he'd spent the summer in jeans, t-shirts and lace-up boots, and was beginning to miss the feel of high-end Italian wool and silk and English shoes.
He was a dark-haired man, with a long thin scar tracking down from his hairline, across his tanned forehead and over one eye to his cheek; not, as some people thought, cop-related, but an artifact from a fishing misadventure. Another pink/white scar showed on his throat, left over from the day a young girl shot him in the throat. A surgeon who was not yet his wife saved his life by cutting open an airway with a borrowed jackknife.
Lucas was no longer a cop. He'd quit Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension when a combination of personality conflict and paperwork had finally done what street work hadn't been able to do: push him out.
When he was a cop, still working with the BCA, he'd done a number of quiet jobs for the governor and they'd grown to somewhat trust each other. But only somewhat: politicians could rationalize the Crucifixion of Christ. And had.
The governor, Elmer Henderson, was currently campaigning for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, though that's not what he said he was doing. He claimed to be campaigning for the presidency, but he knew quite well that rumors about his early interest in three-and four-way sex with young Seven Sisters co-eds and fellow Ivy Leaguers, as well as in the life-enhancing effects of cocaine, would eventually get out and keep him from the nomination.
However, he was liberal enough that he could nail down the lefty fringe of the party for a candidate who ran more toward the middle; and he had a half-billion dollars, which would come in handy during a national campaign. The sex-and-drugs thing wouldn't keep him from something as insignificant as the vice-presidency.
He had a shot.
After the call from Weather, Lucas showered and shaved, put a Band-Aid and some antiseptic on his index finger, above the knuckle, where he'd picked up a splinter earlier in the day, and put on some fresh clothes. He took ten minutes to vacuum up an accumulation of Asian ladybugs that had found their way through the windowless addition, and bagged up the garbage and trash. He called Jimi to tell her he'd be gone for a short time, no more than a few days.
"Thank god," she'd said.
"I mean... that the time'll be short," the carpenter said.
Closing down the cabin took fifteen minutes. He hauled the garbage bag to his Mercedes SUV, locked up the cabin, and was on the dirt road out.
That night, Lucas's friend Del Capslock and his wife came over for barbequed steaks and salad, and they sat around speculating on the governor's problem. "It better not involve a woman," Weather said. "If he's been caught with his hand in the wrong pair of pants, that's not a problem I want you to solve."
"A hand wouldn't be such a big problem a pregnancy would be," Del said. "But Elmer's not that dumb."
"His penis might be," Del's wife said.
"He has a well-schooled cock; he only impregnates what he wants to impregnate," Del said.
"Hope you're right," Lucas said. "If it's that kind of problem, he's on his own. I'll turn the truck around and go back to the cabin."
Lucas' youngest kid, Gabrielle, was now old enough to sit in her own chair t the table. She pointed a spoon at Del and said, "Cock."
"Oh my God," Weather said.
Lucas' son, Sam, now in third grade, said to Weather, "Mom, Gabby said 'cock.'"
Del's wife rapped Del on the head with a soup spoon.
And the next morning, leaving behind a wife and two small children Lucas had an older adoptive daughter going to college at Stanford he put the Benz on I-35 and pointed it south for Iowa.
Weather waved from the doorstep. She was smiling.
"Quickie my ass," he thought, as he rolled out of the driveway.
From St. Paul to Des Moines was three hours, more or less straight down I-35. Ames was a half-hour short of Des Moines, and a college town Iowa State. A few miles out of St. Paul, Lucas was into the corn and soybeans, and corn and beans it would remain, all the way to Ames, the grain fields punctuated by snaky lines of junk trees along the flatland creeks, the windbreaks around farmhouses, and the occasional cow.
After he'd quit the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas and Weather had taken a vacation trip to France. They'd spent most of their time in Paris, with a one-day run by train to London, but had also spent a week driving around the South of France, where they'd encountered a fundamental difference between European and American farmlands.
In Europe, it seemed, farmers mostly lived in villages, and during the day, went out to their farms. In America, they lived on their farms and during the day, went into the villages.
The European way seemed more... congenial. There'd always be somebody to talk to at night. Especially on long winter nights. When you were as far north as St. Paul or Paris, the nights began at four o'clock in the afternoon and ended at eight in the morning; Lucas had been surprised to learn that Paris was further north than the Minnesota-Canada border. Looking at some of the old farmsteads out on the prairie, Lucas thought he might well have died, if forced to sit through a winter in one of those isolated farmhouses, back in pre-TV days, nothing for companionship except the wind and a wood stove and a Sears Roebuck catalog...
Halfway down to Ames, Virgil Flowers, a former BCA subordinate, called: "Me'n Johnson Johnson are going over to Vilas County to rape the lakes of all their muskies," Flowers said. "You want to come along? You might learn something."
"I've done more fishing this summer than any summer in my life," Lucas said. "So no. Besides, I'm on my way to Ames, to meet the governor. He might have an errand for me."
"You got your gun?" Flowers asked.
"In the car, not on me," Lucas said.
"Stay in touch, I want to hear about it," Flowers said. "Especially if it involves a woman."
Ames was a different kind of college town from those of Lucas's experience. The University of Minnesota, where he'd played four years of hockey, not counting a fifth year as a rare hockey redshirt, was built on the banks of the Mississippi, and was a thoroughly urban campus, within walking distance of downtown Minneapolis and the strip of bars and music clubs on Hennepin Avenue.
The other college towns he'd visited as part of the hockey team, or on Big-Ten related sports trips, were also pretty interesting, even when small: often a little shabby, with old-line bars and riverside or lakeside walks, and long-haired hipsters and lots of girls reading Kahlil Gibran. The presence of The Prophet had always, in his experience, boosted the potential for hasty romances. He even knew a few handy lines: Fill each other's cup, but drink not from one cup. And you could take that any way you wanted...
Ames, on the other hand, was flat and dry, or almost so; and the main street facing the campus looked like it had been built by recent refugees from the old Soviet Union, who'd been allowed to use bricks instead of concrete. The coeds not too many, in the dead of summer all looked like they were majoring in something that required math or rubber gloves and weren't carrying copies of The Prophet. There wasn't a hipster in sight.
Lucas followed the trucks's nav system down Lincoln, spotted the student union, drove around for a couple of minutes and found a parking spot outside a Jimmy Johns sub restaurant, which was a good thing. He plugged the meter and ambled on over to the student union.
Checked his watch: 1:45.
He could see Henderson's political rally from the far side of the street, a crowd of brightly dressed young people overflowing down the steps of a concrete terrace off the left side of the student union. He crossed the street and climbed the steps to the terrace where he found Neil Mitford, a pale balding man with a sun-pinked face, in a blue-and-white striped seersucker suit, leaning against a terrace wall, a drink in one hand. The terrace was packed, a hundred and fifty people pounding on a drinks-and-snacks table like ravenous wolves.
Mitford nodded at Lucas and said, "Right on time."
From where he was standing, Lucas could see another, higher, level to the terrace, as crowded as the one they were on, with the governor standing in the center of it, surrounded by the co-eds that Lucas hadn't seen on the streets.
"You needed a bigger space," Lucas said.
"Which tells me how much you know about politics," Mitford said. "If you think five people are going to show up, you hold the rally in a phone booth. If it's twenty-five, you hold it in a garage. If it's five hundred, it's this place it's a place where not quite everybody can get in, so the press says you're attracting overflow crowds."
"You've mentioned that before," Lucas said. "I forgot it because it wasn't important."
"And because you're not a political influential, like me."
"I gotta admit, I didn't think the crowd would be this big, this early in the campaign," Lucas said. There were probably a hundred young women in royal blue-and gold t-shirts, Henderson's campaign colors.
Mitford said, "Four words: college campus, free food."
"Ah. So what does Elmer want me to do?" Lucas asked. "Something criminal?"
Mitford shrugged: "Maybe, but I'll let him tell you about it. It'll take some of your time, though, so you better cancel everything else."
"I'm not going to do it, if it involves Elmer's sex life," Lucas said.
"Good. Anyway, I charge four hundred bucks an hour," Lucas said. "Eight hundred if it involves something criminal."
Mitford made a farting noise with his lips, then said, "The governor expects you to contribute your time, since you're already richer than Croesus." He paused, then said, "Croesus was..."
"I know who Croesus was," Lucas said. "I was a hockey player, not a moron."
"Sorry. But you know, get hit in the head by too many pucks... By the way, we haven't actually seen your name on our donors' list."
"Must have missed it," Lucas said.
On the lawn below the terrace, a fight had broken out. Lucas felt no compulsion to do anything about it, other than to look past Mitford's shoulder and say, "Fight."
Mitford turned to look, where two middle-aged men were rolling around on the grass next to a pond and a fallen political sign.
"Oh, that guy," Mitford said, leaning over the terrace wall, watching with interest. "The one in the white shirt. He's got these big signs that bounce up and down on a spring, on a pole that's about fifteen feet high. One says, 'The Henderson Hoagie, Two Girls Better Than One,' and the other one says, 'Henderson Equals Godless Comminism.' That's c-o-m-m-I-n-i-s-m."
"Must be one of your rightwing intellectuals," Lucas said.
A crowd encircled the two fighting men, but nobody seemed about to intervene, except a woman in a yellow blouse who kept pleading, "Is this the way to settle anything? Is this the way adults..." She stopped and dabbed at a spot of blood that spattered on her blouse.
Lucas wondered briefly if she were intellectually challenged: in his experience, fights settled all sorts of things. Some of them, permanently.
"He's been following us around the state. He's harmless, but embarrassing," Mitford said. Now four men were trying to pull the fighters apart, but the guy on top got in a last three or four good-looking shots to the face, and Mitford shouted, "Hit him again, Walt."
Lucas: "Walt? You hired that guy?"
"Of course not. That would be wrong. But we're pretty sure Bowden hired the guy with the sign." Mitford went back to his drink.
The fighters were dragged apart, the winner disappearing with professional discretion into the crowd, while the loser tried to sop up the blood from his nose with a blue cowboy handkerchief.
A woman's arm slipped around Lucas' waist and he looked down at a redhead who was slender in all the right places.
"How are you?" he asked.
Alice Green looked up at him and smiled, her green eyes a little tired. He could feel the gun on her hip.
"Having a good time?" Lucas asked.
Her eyes slipped away. "I guess. Working pretty hard."
Lucas looked at her for a moment and she never looked back, and he pulled her a few steps away from Mitford and said, "Don't tell me..."
"I don't want to hear a fuckin' word about it, Lucas," she said. "I knew you'd figure it out, right away, and I don't want to hear a single fuckin' word."
"Does Neil know?"
"I'm sure he does," she said.
"How long?" he asked.
"It's not going anywhere," Lucas said.
"Depends on what you mean by 'going.' He's not going to marry me, but I could come out of it with a hell of job in Washington."
"Ah, man... I hope you know what you're doing," Lucas said.
"I don't, entirely," she said. "I really like him and he really likes me. Trouble is, there are a lot of women who really like him and he really likes them back. And his wife is basically Darth Vader in an Oscar De La Renta dress."
"Really? I always thought she looked like a decorator lamp with a twenty-five watt bulb."
"The lamp part is right, the dim bulb not so much," Green said. "She's at least half the brains in the family and she's not going anywhere."
Green headed Henderson's security detail. Lucas had introduced them, at the end of a U.S. Senate campaign in which Green, a former Secret Service agent, had been working for a psychopathic Senate candidate named Taryn Grant. Lucas was positive that Grant had orchestrated the murders of several people during a Senate campaign in Minnesota.
Lucas asked, "You hear anything from Taryn?"
"No. She was unhappy when I quit, so I don't think I will," Green said. "You still thinking about her?"
"From time to time," Lucas said. "I know goddamn well that she was behind those killings."
"Won't get her, not after all this time," Green said.
"Not for those," Lucas said. "She'll go after somebody else, though nutso freaks like her do it for the thrill of it and they get addicted to the risk. She'll screw up somewhere along the line. I'd like to be there when she does."
"You'd need a new cop job," Green said.
"I could see myself coming back, under the right circumstances," Lucas said. "I just haven't figured out exactly what the job would be."
"Nobody likes a free-lancer," she said.
"Including me. I wouldn't go free-lance. I'd like a real badge, but it's got to be the right one," he said. And, "Do you have any idea what Elmer wants?"
"Yes, but I'll let him tell you. The governor speaks for himself." A group of young women dressed all in black were picking up the leftover food and dumping it into garbage sacks and stacking up unused paper plates, signaling the end of the party. Green said, "Let's go talk to the guy."
Henderson, a tall, slender man with blond hair, was still surrounded by co-eds and the kind of soft-faced young men who walked around with policy manuals under their elbows. They'd all wind up in Washington where, even if they never did good, they'd certainly do well.
The governor saw Lucas and lifted a hand and said to the people around him, "My muscle has arrived. We've got to go talk. I'll be back; I'd like somebody to show me those pool tables."
Several young things volunteered and the governor, babbling a variety of assurances and clichés, waded through the crowd, shook hands with Lucas and said, "Come on, let's go across the street."
He led the way down the steps to the street level, Mitford, Green and another security guy running interference for them. They crossed the street and Henderson waved back at the crowd, then took Lucas's elbow and led him onto a sidewalk that bordered a large winding pond.
"So what's up?" Lucas asked, as they walked along.
"Let me turn my music on," Henderson said. He took an iPhone from his pocket, pushed some buttons, and J.D. McPherson started singing 'Let the Good Times Roll.'
Lucas looked around. "Boom mikes?"
"Can never tell," Henderson said. He held the rockin' iPhone between them. "Better not to take a chance."
"It's that bad?"
"Don't know," Henderson said. "But it's got a nasty vibe."
Henderson outlined some background that Lucas already knew: that he wasn't really running for the presidency, but for the vice-presidency, and that most political insiders knew that.
"I'd like to be President someday and this is my only chance I can't get to it without getting the vice presidency first. That whole Henderson Hoagie business, and too many people know that I fooled around with some cocaine... well. Since 1901, seven vice-presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George Bush the First, got to be President, for a whole variety of different reasons. There's no sure thing, but if I can get there, get to be the VP, I've got a fair chance at the top job. Bowden has almost got the nomination sewn up. Jack Carson's still hanging around, but he's well back in third place and he's too wimpy for any major job. I'm a perfect fit for the vice presidency. I'm popular in the Midwest, where Bowden's weak, I'm a Catholic and she's a Protestant..."
"Male and female, tall and short, blond and brunette, leftwing crazy and moderate centrist..." Lucas added.
"Exactly," said the leftwing crazy. "We've gotten some strong signals from her camp that if I don't say anything too rude, I'm at the top of the list. If I beat her here in Iowa and ease up and let her take New Hampshire, it's a done deal."
"But. There's gotta be a 'but.'"
"There is." He paused, then, "I was working the rope line down at the Des Moines airport and this chubby white-haired middle-aged lady took my hand and held onto it, walked along with me for a way, and she said, 'Governor, you've got to move to the center. You have to be ready for the nomination, in case Bowden doesn't make it, in case something happens to her.' She was quite intense, very sincere, and I think a little unhinged."
"Uh-huh. What'd you say?"
"I rolled out a cliché or two and kept trying to get my hand back. Eventually I did, but the incident was odd enough that I remembered it, because she had this scary intensity about her. A few days later, I was in Waterloo and this farm kinda guy took my hand and said, "Governor, you gotta move to the center. We know where your heart is, but you've got to pretend to move to the center if you want the nomination. You gotta be ready if Bowden goes down.' The thing is, this guy had these pale gray eyes, you really felt them. Creepy. And he looked like the chubby lady, except he had a thin face and the gray eyes... the features were hers, you know what I mean? The mouth and the nose... and he said the same thing she had, almost exactly the same words. And when he said it, I had the feeling that something bad might happen to Bowden. He had that look about him like somebody had slapped him on the side of the head with a flatiron."
"That's pretty serious," Lucas said. "You talk to Bowden's security people?"
"I didn't myself. What I did was, I called Bowden directly and told her I was worried. She said she'd talk to her security. One of her guys came over to talk to me and I couldn't give him anything but those gray eyes, that curly white hair on the old lady she wore rimless glasses and the dates of the encounters."
"Did they take you seriously?"
"Sure, but I didn't give them much to work with," Henderson said. "These guys really aren't investigators. They're security people, bodyguards."
"You want me to find the chubby lady..."
"Wait one," Henderson said. He waved at a couple walking along the sideway, and they cooed at him, and they went on their way. "Bowden and I had that little get-together in Sioux City, along with the also-rans. I'm looking out at the crowd, and here's this farmy looking guy again. He looks like those pictures you see of Confederate soldiers. Those flat gray eyes, shaggy hair, too skinny. He was staring at Bowden, fixing on her, then he glances at me and sees that I'm fixed on him. Alice was right off the stage and I excused myself for a minute and I grabbed her and told her about him and she tried to get a picture of the guy with her cell phone, but he was moving away, fast. The photo she got is less than half-assed. Anyway, we passed it all along to Bowden."
"What'd she do?" Lucas asked.
"Got more security, I hope but she's got this weasel working for her, Norman Clay, and he comes by and he says, 'You're not trying to push Secretary Bowden out of Iowa, are you, Elmer?"
"And you said?"
"I said, 'Go fuck yourself, Norm. I wouldn't pull that kind of bullshit on you.' He went away, but she's still here and I wouldn't be surprised if they thought I was trying to get her out of the state. We're dealing with some serious skepticism over there."
"One chubby lady with curly white hair and glasses and a guy with gray eyes who looks like a Confederate soldier, and one bad cell-phone photo. That's all you've got."
"There's a little more," Henderson said. "Our website is inundated with e-mail. We have a few guys going through it looking for two things: possible donors and possible threats. There have been four emails from somebody named 'Babs.' They read like nutty political position papers and they also urge me to move toward the center. One of them says that the author knows my heart's in the right place, but I can't get the nomination unless I pretend to move to the center."
"Exactly what the chubby lady told you," Lucas said.
"Precisely the same words. But, instead of just a momentary contact, there are also these position papers. It's the position papers that tell you these people may be crazy and may be dangerous. You'll have to read them. They want a revolution. If a few eggs have to be broken, that's the only way to make an omelet."
"Okay. What do you want me to do?" Lucas asked.
"I want you to find these people and find out what they're up to," Henderson said. "And do it fast. I'm really afraid something could happen here. When you find them, we'll get the Iowa cops to sit on them."
"If something did happen to Bowden, how would that affect your chances?" Lucas asked.
"What a rotten, cynical question to ask. I'm proud of you," Henderson said.
"What's the answer?"
Henderson shook his head. "I'd be done. I can't take the nomination straight out. I'm too far left. There's no way I could pretend to move to the center and Minnesota isn't a swing state. If Bowden went down, Carl Bartley from Ohio would jump into the middle of it, and maybe Doug Jensen from Missouri. If either one of them got the nomination, neither one would offer me the vice-presidency, because I don't match up so well with them. They're both midwesterners, for one thing. They'd go for a woman or a big-state guy, somebody from one of the coasts. North Carolina or Florida or Washington."
"All right. I'll go talk to Alice, see what she has to say, and see if I can figure something out," Lucas said.
"Alice..." Henderson said. He glanced at Lucas.
"Did you really have to do that, governor?" Lucas asked.
Henderson spread his hands. "You know I've always had a trouble with pretty women. Especially redheads. And blondes."
"And brunettes and Hispanics and Asians and a few long-legged African-Americans..."
"I know. I feel bad about Alice when we're not actually... you know," Henderson said.
"And when you get to Washington, you'll take care of her?" Lucas asked.
"Oh, yeah. Even if I don't make VP. I've already started talking to her about it. You know she comes from Virginia?"
"There's a weak-ass Republican congressman, right from her hometown, who needs to be replaced," Henderson said. "Three years out, our Alice could be looking at a major promotion."
"Think she's up to it?"
"I know it," Henderson said. He stopped to look back at Green, who flashed him a smile. "She's smart, got great red hair, great green eyes, great smile..."
"Well, yeah. No matter what happens with me, I'll get her an impressive-sounding staff job in Washington, something involving Virginia agriculture and natural resources," Henderson said. "I'll buy her some top-end TV training, some good threads, lean on some of my friends for donations. A hot, female, law-and-order Democrat who carries a gun, and has major experience in D.C.? Are you kiddin' me? That tea-party asshole won't know what hit him. He'll be like Toto in the fuckin' tornado."
They wandered back to the party and the governor lied about how he wished he were doing something simple and earthy, maybe working on his cabin, like Lucas was Lucas didn't believe a word of it, as Henderson's main cabin was the size of a downtown Holiday Inn and he owned the lake it was sitting on. Then they were back, and Henderson left him to wrap up the lingering coeds.
Lucas stepped over to Green and Mitford, and said, "Okay, I got it. I need that photo, Alice, and copies of those emails."
"Give me your cell phone number and I'll get it all to you in one minute, though the photo is virtually useless," she said, taking her phone out of her shoulder bag.
Lucas gave her the number and one minute later, the photo popped up on his phone. It wasn't as bad as Lucas had feared she'd taken it from behind the farm-looking guy, and he'd glanced back at her as she took the picture. Only a slice of his face was visible, but his haircut, the way he dressed in a high-collared, hunting-style shirt, and the way he carried himself, was all there. Lucas thought he might recognize him if he saw him.
She sent the texts as emails; he'd look at them later.
"I've only got one question," Green said.
"Would that be, 'Why does the governor have his hand on that girl's ass?'" Mitford asked.
Lucas and Green turned to look.
"He's completely unaware of it and she loves it," Mitford marveled. "If I did that, I'd be imprisoned for aggravated lubricity."
The governor took his hand off the girl's ass and continued talking to her enthusiastically about something they couldn't hear. "He really doesn't know," Green said.
"But he can't do that we've got to get him trained," Mitford said. "Maybe we could get one of those electric dog collars and every time he does it, we spark him up. 'Cause that's not gonna work once the voting starts. Once the TV gets heavy, and they start looking for it."
They watched for a moment as the governor kept working the remaining crowd, then Green turned back to Lucas and said, "That wasn't my question. My question is, since you aren't a cop anymore, where are you going to start on this? You've got no resources. You got nothin'."
Kidd was standing on a golf driving range in St. Paul, a five-iron on his shoulder, looking down the range to where his ball was happily slicing hard to the right.
"Holy cats, that's the biggest slice I've ever seen," said his wife, Lauren, the possibly retired jewel thief. She was giving him a lesson.
"Can't really be the biggest one..."
But it was big.
"Yes it is. Because you're so strong and you've got those fast hands, and because you're leading with your right elbow. You can't do that, the ball rolls right off the face of your club..." Lauren was a scratch golfer and had won the club's women's championship the last three years running.
Kidd's phone rang. He stepped back from the pile of practice balls, pulled the phone out of his jeans pocket and looked at it. "It's Lucas," he said to Lauren. He poked Answer. "Yeah?"
Lucas was sitting on a bench next to the pond in Ames, looking out at what might have been a mid-lake sculpture. He was uncertain about that. "I'm working for Governor Henderson down in Iowa," he said. "He's gotten some questionable emails that I'd like you to look at. I need to know where they come from, who sent them, everything you can tell me about them."
"Do I get paid?" Kidd asked. A golf shop guy had driven up in a cart and was walking toward them.
"Of course not. Nor will you ever get any credit for helping out."
"All right, send them to me," Kidd said. "Put a note on them that tells me what it's all about. I'll take a look and call you back tonight."
Lucas rang off and the golf shop guy said, "Uh, Mr. Kidd, some of the members have asked me to talk to you about our dress code. You're not allowed to wear jeans and you need to wear a shirt with a collar."
"Are you kiddin' me?" Kidd asked. He looked down at his t-shirt and jeans; the t-shirt had only the smallest of tears and the jeans, only a few flecks of dried paint. He handed the five-iron to Lauren. 'That's it. I'm outa here. Fuck a bunch of golf. And country clubs."
Lauren said to the golf shop guy, as Kidd stalked away, "Thanks a lot, Dick. It only took me four years to get him out here."
"Uh, my name's Ralph."
"Yes, I know," Lauren said, as she went after Kidd.
The email from Davenport was waiting when Kidd and Lauren got back to their condo. Their son was still at band camp, so Kidd pulled up the emails and the note:
Kidd: These are copies of emails sent to the governor's campaign site. Elmer thinks there are some pretty serious implications in the letters not threats, exactly, but a suggestion that he should move to the center in case "something happens" to Bowden, so he'd have a better chance at election. He's also had two different people (who may be related) approach him at election rallies, and tell him more or less the same thing, in the same words. Elmer's informed Bowden's people of all this, but they apparently haven't done much. He's worried and asked me to look into it. Can you dig anything out of these things? Lucas.
The forwarded emails were tight and well-edited, and while the sentences made sense, the overall content was confusing. Most of the complaints embedded in the email seemed to refer to the Midwestern farming crisis of the middle 1980s, now thirty years in the past. That crisis was tangled up with the Internet market bust of 1999-2000, and the 2008 housing crisis. 'Inequality' was often cited, the cost of medical insurance, the lack of prosecution of bankers implicated in the economic crises, the loss of American values, along with rising rates of murder and rape, and the Jewish influence on American culture, through the Jews' 'control' of the banks and media.
Lauren read the emails over Kidd's shoulders and when they'd both finished, he asked, "What do you think?"
"I can see why Henderson's worried," she said. "These people are nuts. That whole 'Jew banker' thing, the 'Jew media.' I mean, who uses 'Jew' that way, as an adjective, instead of 'Jewish'? Whoever wrote that has been listening to some far-out shit."
"Yeah," Kidd said. "The question is, is it rightwing or leftwing? They don't like corporations, banks, the Fed, or the one-percent, but they also don't like government regulation, Jews, immigrants, abortion, or gay marriage."
"That's why I said the writer's nuts. It's a mashup of all the various hates," Lauren said. "You gonna be able to figure out anything?"
"I'll have to go deep. I can probably tell him where the emails were sent from and if they were all sent from the same machine." Kidd said. "If I can get into that Google text-matching program, I might be able to tell him who wrote them."
"I think I've heard you say that Google's got really good protection," Lauren said.
"They do, for some value of 'good.' A teenie hack won't get in there, but I can," Kidd said. "Probably."
Kidd had been hacking computers forever. He had access to so many systems that a few knowledgeable people thought he might actually control the world, and the NSA had been trying to find him for fifteen years. Lucas didn't know that. Lucas did know that Lauren was a professional jewel thief, though he hadn't the slightest shred of evidence to prove it.
Kidd and Davenport had been jocks at the University of Minnesota at the same time. Kidd had been a wrestler, who became locally famous and lost his scholarship at the same time when he pushed the head of an abusive wrestling coach through two iron uprights in a field house railing. The fire department had to be called to free the man. Although he lost his athletic scholarship, he was almost instantly offered a full ride by the computer sciences department, which he took.
And never looked back.
"Are you going to get us in trouble?" Lauren asked.
"No," he said.
"Really no? For some value of 'No?'"
"If those schnooks at Google catch me, I deserve everything I get."
Sister Mary Joseph, whose civilian name was Elle Kruger, was in her office at St. Mary's University when Lucas's email arrived. A friend of Lucas's since early childhood, she had a PhD in psychology and had consulted on a number of Lucas's criminal cases.
She read through the emails sent by Lucas, sighed and kicked back in her chair. The anger that was coursing through America deeply worried her. Although she was too young to remember the beginnings of the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War and feminist movements, she was also a student of history. Her sense was that as bad as things had been in the '60s, people of goodwill still dominated.
The civil rights and feminist movements had been about gender equality and freedom; and the anti-war movement about the blind stupidity among certain parts of the political class that wound up killing 60,000 Americans, mostly young draftees, and wounding another 150,000, to say nothing of a million or more Vietnamese. The leaders of all those protest movements had been optimists, trying to pull people together.
Now the echoes of those movements seemed mostly about hate about hating your opponents, on either side of any of the questions.
The forwarded emails she'd gotten from Lucas were a reflection of that.
But hating was one thing, action was something else. There were any number of gun-lovers who never in their lives would pull the trigger on another human being, and maybe not even an animal; they were simply living in a fantasy world that was captured by the physical reality of a gun, the implicit power of a bullet.
The emails from whoever sent them to Henderson, though, contained a disquieting thread. The bitterness was too thick and unleavened, the anger too sharp and unrelenting.
She picked up her phone and called Lucas, who was sitting in his motel, eating a Jimmy Johns sub and had signed on to his bank's investment site to see how much shirt he had left.
Quite a lot, as it happened.
Lucas' phone rang. He glanced at the screen, clicked 'Answer' and asked, "Get a chance to read them yet?"
"Yes. You know how in the past we've talked about 'trigger' moments?" Elle asked. "About how a deranged person will progress through a series of stages and finally arrive at the trigger moment?"
"Yeah. And sometimes they don't pull the trigger and the whole issue goes away and maybe nobody ever knows about it. But sometimes they do pull the trigger."
"Reading the letters, it seems apparent to me that the writer has gone through a series of these stages and is close to the trigger moment," Elle said. "Whether or not she pulls the trigger, is another question. I believe she's capable of it."
"Almost certainly. I can't give you chapter-and-verse, but I sense that the writer is a woman."
Lucas said, "The governor told me that one of the people who approached him is a middle-aged woman, that the other was male, and younger, and that there was a physical similarity between them, like a mother and son."
"Family members that works for me," Elle said. "Family members can devolve into something very much like a cult, with a cult leader and obedient followers. This is usually driven by severe disappointments and failures, that are often not the fault of the victims."
"Give me an example," Lucas said.
"Well, using a woman as the leader, as the case here might be... suppose you have a divorced mother whose children are badly injured in a school bus accident," Elle said. "She is abruptly thrust into the role of a full-time care-giver, which might badly affect her ability to earn a decent living. The children are thrust into roles of helpless dependants, who would be a burden on anyone... I'm talking about friends, who might be expected to help, but the problem is so deep and intractable, that people turn away from them. The whole family is driven closer and closer by their misfortune. You wind up with an embittered mother with her hopelessly devoted and psychologically and physically dependent children."
"That's what you get when the mother kills the kids," Lucas suggested.
"Yes, that can happen when the anger is turned inward," Elle said. "It can also turn outward. The form it takes depends on the intellect and emotional status of the leader. It can be quite diffuse, as in this case, where the leader wants to change the whole way the world works. It can also be quite specific the leader gets a gun and kills the person who caused the accident, or the insurance agent who wouldn't pay her what she thought she deserved. Or even the doctor who treated the kids, who never entirely recovered."
"What do I look for? 'Embittered mother' won't help much."
"I probably can't help you much, other than to tell you to take these things very seriously. She's out there and she's angry and she seems ready to act. She's smart, but not brilliant she's accepted a specific but limited ideology as the source of answers to her problem," Elle said. "She's smart enough to hold these ideals, but not smart enough to see through them. She could be a teacher of some kind, but probably not a lawyer or a minister or a cop or a reporter. She's not cynical and she's not really a skeptic, either. She doesn't have a lot of experience with nuances, or with situations in which there are no good answers. She believes in good and evil, and good actions and evil actions, with a sharp dividing line between them. If she were to do something to Bowden... I really hate to even consider that idea... she'd think it was a positive good. Not evil in any way. She no longer thinks of Bowden as a human being: she sees her as mannequin being manipulated by sinister corporate and governmental powers. "
Elle smiled at the phone. Lucas tended to cut through a lot of theory. "That would be my professional assessment. Yes."
Kidd called back late that night.
Lucas had gone to bed, after his evening chat with Weather, when the phone rang again and he groped for it in the dark.
"Sorry it took so long, but I had to do some sneaking around to get the software tools I needed," Kidd said.
"You find out anything?" Lucas asked.
"Couple things. The messages were all sent from coffee shops, all during the early evening, from Des Moines, Oskaloosa and Ottumwa," Kidd said. "If you look at a map of Iowa, you'll see that's almost a cluster with Oskaloosa in the center..."
"Wait, wait, let me call this up on the iPad..." Kidd waited while Lucas got a map up, and located the three cities. "They're almost in a line. A diagonal line down a highway."
"Yeah. The distance from Des Moines, on the northwest, to Ottumwa, on the southeast, is seventy-five miles in a straight line, with Oskaloosa roughly in the middle. The guy..."
"Probably a woman," Lucas interrupted.
"Okay. I'd be interested to know why you think that," Kidd said. "Anyway, she seems to have this basic internet security idea that she shouldn't send the email from any one place. She's not just running out to the local wi-fi hub and sending it. That suggests to me that none of those places are her home, but that her home is nearby."
"Another possibility," Lucas said, "Is that she doesn't have an internet connection at home and she sent the messages from wherever it was convenient. Wherever she was passing through."
"That's another possibility, though she does own a laptop and uses it consistently, which would suggest an internet connection."
"Okay. Go ahead."
"I can tell you that she composes the email carefully, on an Apple brand laptop using an older version of Word for Mac. When she's finished, she copies out the message and pastes it into her email program. I can't get a positive identifier on a specific machine."
"Still, Apple laptop and Word, that's all a help," Lucas said.
"There's more," said Kidd.
"Here we may be slipping into something that stick-in-the-mud prosecutors might characterize as illegal..."
"I'm not a stick-in-the-mud prosecutor. I'm not even a cop."
"Okay. Google is developing a text identification program that will allow them to look at messages streaming through Google mail and other places, and match texts with a high degree of accuracy," Kidd said. "Ultimately, they hope that if John Doe is a gun nut and chess player and a boat owner, they'll be able to pick out every time he sends a message to any website, from any computer, anywhere, any time, and quickly paste in advertisements for guns, chess sets and boats."
"Gotta love that," Lucas said. "It's the American way."
"Yeah, well, I... borrowed their program for a while this evening and ran it against the emails you sent me. I didn't come up with a name, but I did come up with a group of organizations this woman may belong to. They're scattered all over the Midwest and the plains states farm country and use her ideological language," Kidd said. "Three of them are in Iowa and it seems likely that they overlap. There's the Progressive People's Party of Iowa, the Isaac Alfred Patriot League, and a group called Prairie Storm. I couldn't find a membership list for any of them, but I've got email contacts for all three. They're small organizations, they hit their peak back in the '80s and early 90s."
"Who's Isaac Alfred?"
"He was a kid from Mason City who applied for a religious exemption from the Vietnam War, but was denied the exemption by the draft board. He was drafted and sent to Vietnam as a company clerk, where he was in constant trouble for talking up war resistance. Shortly before the Army was going to arrest him and ship him home, he was killed in a rocket attack on his base. The group was started by his father. That was basically an anti-war group that evolved into a more general populist political-action organization, then got weird and sort of petered out."
"Kidd, I owe you," Lucas said. "If you could put the names and contacts in an email and ship it to me, I'd owe you more."
"I'll collect someday," Kidd said.
"I suspect you will," Lucas said. "Call me if you think of anything new."
Just before he went to sleep, Lucas thought of Alice Green, when she'd said, "You got nothin'."
He smiled to himself: she had no idea what he had.
He had his friends.
27 February 2020
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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