Heat Lightning · Preview Chapters
The midnight shift: The shooter was going to work.
He jogged through the night in a charcoal-colored nylon rain suit and black New Balance running shoes, with a brilliant reflective green strap over his shoulders, like a bandolier. With the strap, he jumped out at passing cars; nothing furtive here, nobody trying to hide anything...
He ran carefully, taking his time. The old sidewalk, probably laid down in the first decades of the 20th century, was cracked and shifting underfoot. A wrong step could leave him with a sprain, or worse. Not good for a man with a silenced pistol in his pocket.
The night was hot, cloudy, humid. Lightning flickered way off to the north, a thunderstorm passing by. The tempest would miss by ten miles: no relief from the heat, not yet. He ran through the odor of summer flowers, unseen in the darkness nice houses here, well maintained, flourishes of Victorian gingerbread, fences with gardens, flower heads pale in the dim ambient light.
Stillwater, Minnesota, on the bluff above downtown, above the St. Croix River. Third Street once had so many churches that it was called Church Street by the locals. The churches that remained pushed steeples into the night sky like medieval lightning rods, straining to ward off the evil that men do...
The shooter passed the front of the red brick historic courthouse, which was guarded by a bronze Civil War infantryman with a fixed bayonet and a plaque. He paused next to a hedge, behind a tree trunk, bent over with his hands on his knees, as if catching his breath, or stretching his hamstrings, like runners do. Looked around. Said quietly, "On point."
Dark, silent. Waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. After a last look around, he pulled off the reflective strap and stuffed it in a pocket. When he did that, he vanished. He was gone; he was part of the fabric of the night.
Across from the courthouse, just downhill, a metal spire pushed up from a vest-pocket park. Ten-foot granite slabs anchored the foot of the needle. On the slabs were more bronze plaques, with the names of the local boys who didn't make it back from all the wars fought since Stillwater was built. A blank plaque awaited names from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The shooter slipped across the street, shadowed the edge of the memorial. The brilliant light made the nearby shadows even darker. He disappeared into one of them, like an ink drop falling into a coal cellar. Before he went, he pulled back the sleeve of the running suit and checked the luminous dial of his combat watch.
If Sanderson stuck to his routine or the dog's routine, anyway he'd walk down the west side of Third Street sometime in the next ten minutes. Big German shepherd. Shame about the dog...
Chuck Utecht had been the first man on the controller's list. He'd been a smooth white egg of a man, whose insides, when he cracked, flowed out like a yellow yolk. He'd given up three names. He'd given them up easily.
"I only did one bad thing in my life," he cried. "I've been making up for it ever since."
His final words had been, "I'm sorry," not for what he'd done, but because he knew what was coming and had peed his pants.
The scout could only extract so much information from a man who accepted his own execution, who seemed to believe that he deserved it. They had not been in a place where the scout could use pliers or knives or ropes or electricity or water-boards. All he had was the threat of death and Utecht had closed his eyes and had begun mumbling through a prayer. The scout had seen the resignation; he looked at the shooter and nodded.
The shooter shot him twice in the back of the head, halfway through the prayer.
Now he waited for Sanderson and the dog.
They needed two more names.
The scout said in the shooter's ear, "He's coming."
Bobby Sanderson strolled down Third Street with the dog on the end of its lead, a familiar nighttime sight. The dog was as regular as a quartz watch: took a small dump at eight o'clock in the morning, and a big one at eleven o'clock at night. If it wasn't out on the street, it'd be somewhere in the yard, and Sanderson would step in it the next day, sure as God made little green apples. So, twice a day, they were on the street.
Sanderson was preoccupied with an argument he'd had with his girlfriend. Or maybe not an argument, but he didn't know exactly what else you could call it. She didn't want him out at night; not for a while. Not until they found out whether something was going on.
"If you're scared enough that you have meetings, then you ought to be scared enough to stay inside at night," she'd said. She'd been in the kitchen, drying the dishes with an old square of unbleached muslin. She smelled of dishwashing liquid and pork chop grease.
"You know what happens with the dog if he don't get his walk," Sanderson said. "Besides, who's going to mess with Mike?"
But before he'd gone, he'd skipped up the stairs, as though he'd forgotten something, had taken the .38 out of the bed stand, and slipped it in his pocket. He was not the kind of guy to be pushed. If somebody pushed, he'd push back, twice as hard.
Sanderson was fifty-seven, five-six, a hundred and sixty pounds. A short man, with a short-man complex. You don't fuck with me. You don't fuck with the Man.
He thought like that.
He thought like a TV show.
The shooter was waiting behind a rampart of limestone blocks, next to the monument. Not tense, not anything not thinking, just waiting, like a rock, or a stump, or a loaded bullet. Waiting...Then a word in his ear, one word: "Coming."
He first heard the click of the dog's toenails on the sidewalk. The animal probably went a hundred pounds, maybe even one-twenty. Had to take him smooth...
The shooter's hand was at his side, with the pistol dangling from it. When they'd scouted Sanderson on a previous walk, they noted that the dog was always on a long lead there'd be some distance between the dog and Sanderson. The dog didn't seem particularly nervous, but might well sense a man waiting in the night.
Comes the dog.
The shooter went into his routine, squaring his feet, the deep breath already taken. He exhaled slowly, held it, and the dog was there, ten feet out, turning his big head toward the shadow the alarm, or curiosity, or something, in his eyes, he knew something...
The shooter was in his shooting crouch, arms extended, and the gun recoiled a bit. There was a fast snap sound, like an electrical spark, and a mechanical ratcheting as the gun cycled. The dog dropped, shot between the eyes, and the shooter vaulted from the shadows, moving fast, right there in Sanderson's face in a quarter-second.
This was no TV show, and you do fuck with the Man. Sanderson's eyes just had time to widen and his hand went to his pocket he never really thought he'd need the pistol.
Never really thought.
The shooter had reversed the pistol in his hand and now held it by the silencer, so that it functioned as a hammer. He chopped Sanderson on the left ear and Sanderson staggered, falling, and put down his gun hand, no gun in it, and the gun pocket hit the ground with a clank and the shooter, realizing that he hadn't hit him quite hard enough, hit him again, and this time, Sanderson went flat.
Not a killing blow.
They needed two more names.
The shooter was trained, the shooter was a killing machine, but he was still human. Now, breathing hard, he tasted blood in his mouth like you might after a tough run; and all the time, he was looking for lights, he was looking for an alarm, a cry in the dark.
He said into the mouthpiece, "Come now."
He yanked the dog-lead off Sanderson's wrist, dragged the dog's body into the darkness under the limestone blocks. Moved Sanderson next, the man twitching, trying to come back, but the shooter, gripping him by the shirt collar, moved him effortlessly into the dark. Another look around.
The scout came, all of a sudden, like a vampire bat dropping from the sky. He took a loop of rope from his pocket. The rope was a short noose, with a twisting handle, like the handle on a lawn mower starter-rope. He slipped the noose around Sanderson's neck, twisted the handle until the rope was not quite choking the semi-conscious man.
He knelt, then, his knees weighing on Sanderson's chest, pinning him, and he shined an LED penlight into Sanderson's eyes. Sanderson moaned, trying to come back, then turned his head away from the burning light, his feet drumming on the ground.
"Listen to me," the scout said. "Listen to me. Can you hear me?"
It took a moment. Though the shooter had been careful, even a mild concussion is, nevertheless, a concussion. "Mr. Sanderson. Can you hear me?"
Sanderson moaned again, but his eyes were clearing. The scout turned the choke rope, so that Sanderson could feel it, so that he couldn't cry out.
Slapped him, hard: not to do further injury, but to sting him, bring him up. He put his face next to Sanderson's, while the shooter watched for cars, or another runner. The scout said, "Utecht, Sanderson, Bunton, Wigge. Who were the other two? Who? Who is Carl? Mr. Sanderson..."
Sanderson's pupils narrowed: he was coming back.
"Mr. Sanderson, who is Carl?" The scout's voice was soft, and he loosened the noose. Sanderson took a rasping breath. "It wasn't me. It wasn't me. Not me. Not me."
"Who is Carl? We know Ray Bunton, we know John Wigge, but who's Carl?"
"Don't know his name..." The desperation was right there, on the surface. The scout could hear it.
"But you knew Utecht," the scout said, persisting, pressuring. "Bunton and Wigge were at your house two days ago. I watched you argue. Who was the man in the car?"
"Some pal of Wigge's. I don't know, I don't know." He strained for air, feet beating on the ground again.
"There was a sixth man. Who was the sixth man?"
"Don't..." Then Sanderson's eyes reached up toward the scout's and he seemed to recognize him, what he was, why he was there; with the realization came the knowledge that he would die. "Ah, shit," he said, the sadness thick in the words. "We were remodeling the house."
The scout saw the death in Sanderson's eyes. Nothing more here. He stood up, shook his head. The shooter extended the gun and without a further word, shot Sanderson twice in the forehead. He caught the ejected .22 shells in his off-hand.
The shooter could smell the blood. The odor of blood sometimes nauseated him, now. Didn't happen before. Only the last couple of years. He slipped a lemon from his pocket, scraped it with a fingernail, and inhaled the odor of the lemon rind. Better. Better than blood.
Then he bent, pushed down Sanderson's jaw, shoved the lemon into his dead mouth.
Every night, before he went to bed, Virgil Flowers thought about God.
The practice was good for him, he believed, and saved him from the cynicism of a cop's life. Virgil was a believer. A believer in God and the immortal soul, though not in religions a position that troubled his father, a Lutheran minister of the old school.
"Religion is a way of organizing the culture, your relationship to God and the people around you," his father argued, the last time Virgil went back home. "It's not a phone booth to God. A good religion reaches wider than that. A good religion would be a value in itself, even if God didn't exist."
Virgil said, "My problem with that is I don't believe God cares what we do. Everything is equally relevant and irrelevant to God. A religion is nothing more than a political party organized around some guy's moral views, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, like conventional political parties are organized around some guy's economic views. Like Bill Clinton's."
His father disdained Bill Clinton, but he took the shot with appreciation.
So they'd argued around the breakfast table in the kitchen, enjoying themselves, the odor of breakfast rolls lingering in the air, cinnamon and white frosting and hot raisins, and coffee; and mom humming in the background. Though he and his father had the usual growing-up troubles, they'd become closer as Virgil got into his thirties, and his father began dealing with sixty, and the reality of age.
His father, Virgil understood, appreciated that his son believed in the immortal soul and that he actually thought about God each night. He may have also envied the fact that his son was a cop; the preacher thought of himself as a man of peace, and he envied the man of action.
The son didn't envy the father. Virgil had been raised in a church, and the problems his father dealt with, he thought, would have driven him crazy. It's relatively easy to solve a problem with a gun and a warrant and a prison; but what do you do about somebody who is unloved?
Better, Virgil thought, to carry a badge, and maintain your amateur status when it came to considering the wonders of the universe.
On this hot, close night, Virgil's consideration of the wonders of the universe were discomfited by the proximity of Janey Small's naked ass, which, in Virgil's opinion, was one of the wonders of the universe. Like a planet. A small, hot planet like Mercury, pulling you both with its heat and its gravity.
Janey was asleep on her side, snoring a bit, her butt thrust toward him, which Virgil believed was not an accident. They'd already gone around twice, but Janey was fond of what she called "threesies," and Virgil had been married to her long enough to understand the signal he was getting. Married to her second; that is, between his first and third wives. And before her third and fourth.
Janey Small had been a rotten idea. Virgil had been in town, had dropped by the Minnesota Music Café to see what was up, and there she was, leaning on the bar, the wonder of the universe packed into a pair of women's 501s.
One thing led to another it wasn't like they were sexually incompatible. That hadn't been the problem. They'd just been incompatible in every other way, like when she became webmaster of a Celine Dion fan site, or decided that fried tofu strips were better than bacon, or that fish felt lip pain.
A problem. He liked her, but only for a couple hours at a time...
Maybe if he could slide really slowly over to the edge of the bed... his jeans and boots and shirt were right there on the floor, he could be halfway to the door before she woke up.
Virgil was making his move when the cell phone went off on the nightstand, and Janey woke with a start and rolled flat, and said, "You left the cell phone on, you goddamned moron."
Not like she had a mouth on her.
Virgil fumbled for the phone, peered at the view-screen, hoping against hope that it was from an 888 number, but it wasn't.
Lucas Davenport. Virgil said aloud, "It's Davenport."
"That's not good," Janey said. She was a cop groupie and knew what a late-night call meant. Her last husband, Small, worked vice in St. Paul. Janey said he'd picked up some entertaining tips on the job, but unfortunately, was deeply enmeshed in his model train hobby, and when he began building the Rock Island Line in the living room, she moved out.
In any case, she knew Lucas. "So answer it."
He did. "Yeah, Lucas," Virgil said into the cell phone.
"You sound like you're already awake," Lucas said.
"Just getting ready for bed," Virgil said. "I'm kinda beat up."
"No, he isn't," Janey shouted. "He's over here fuckin' me."
"Who was that?" Lucas asked. "Was that Janey Carter?"
"Ah, man," Virgil said. "It's Janey Small now. She got married to Greg Small over at St. Paul. They broke up."
"There's a surprise," Lucas said. "Listen: get out to Stillwater. The Stillwater cops have a body at a veterans memorial. With a lemon."
"What?" He swung his feet over the edge of the bed. "Two shots to the head?"
"Exactly," Lucas said. "They'd like to move the body before the TV people get onto it. It looks exactly like Utecht, and you're the guy. Tom Mattson is the chief out there, he called operations and they yanked me out of bed."
"Okay, okay," Virgil said. "I might need some backup. This could get ugly."
"Yeah, I know and I'm heading into DC tomorrow for more convention stuff. Del's going with me, the feds are briefing us on the counter-culture people. You can have Shrake and Jenkins if you need them. I'll be on my cell phone if you need some weight, and I'll leave a note for Rose Marie."
"You gotta move on this," Lucas said. "Take your gun with you."
"I'm on my way. I'm putting on my boots," Virgil said. "I got my gun right here."
"Stay in touch," Lucas said, and he was gone.
Janey said, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass."
Three-thirty in the morning, running not that late, he thought, ninety-five miles an hour east out of St. Paul, on an empty I-94, his grill lights flashing red and blue, hair wet from a shower, but feeling tacky in yesterday's t-shirt, underwear and jeans. Thumbed his cell, wrapped up the exit onto I-694, got the operations duty guy, got a phone number for the Stillwater chief of police, punched it in, got the guy at the scene.
"Mattson," the chief said.
"Hey Virgil Flowers, BCA. I'm getting there fast as I can. I'm on 694 coming up to 36. You shut down the scene?"
"Yeah, we shut off the whole block," Mattson said. "No TV yet, but there probably will be. People are coming out of their houses."
"Was the guy on the ground, or do you have some kind of display?"
"He's sitting up, leaning back against one of these memorial slab-things," Mattson said. "We put a construction screen around him so there won't be any photos. I guess Davenport probably told you about the lemon."
"Yeah, he did," Virgil said. "Who found him?"
"One of our guys. Sanderson victim's name is Bobby Sanderson went out to walk the dog and didn't come back," Mattson said. "His old lady got worried and called in and we rolled a car around his route. Not like he was hidden, or anything. He was right there, in the lights. Something going on with his old lady, though. She's got a story you need to listen to."
"All right," Virgil said. "You think she had a hand in it?"
"No, no. I'm sure she didn't," Mattson said. "She's a pretty messed up ol' gal. But something was going on with Sanderson. He might've known the killer."
"Be there in ten minutes," Virgil said. "You're up on the hill, by the old courthouse?"
"Right there. We got coffee coming."
Virgil was medium-tall and lanky, mid-thirties, weathered, with blond hair worn on his shoulders, too long for a cop. He'd once sported an earring, but after two weeks, decided that he looked like an asshole and got rid of it.
He'd been a high school jock, and played university-level baseball for a couple of years. When he didn't show up for the third year, the coaches hadn't beaten his door down. Good on defense, with a strong arm from third base, he just couldn't see a college-level fastball, and was hitting .190 at the end of his second season.
He'd also picked up on the fact that that the slender, brown-haired, big-boobed literature students, the ones who turned his crank, didn't give a rat's ass about baseball, didn't know Mike Schmidt from Willie Mays, but could tell you anything you want to know about Jean-Paul Sartre or those other French guys. Derrida. Foucault. Whatever.
Virgil drifted through college, changing majors a couple of times, and wound up with a degree in ecological science. The demand for ecologists wasn't that great when he got out of school, so he volunteered for Army officer's candidate school. He'd been thinking infantry, but the army made him an MP. Got in some fights, but never shot at anyone.
Back in civilian life, there still wasn't much demand for ecologists, so he hooked up with the St. Paul cops. After a few years of that, he moved along to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, pulled in by Lucas Davenport, a political appointee and the BCA's semi-official wild hair. When he came over, Davenport had told him that they'd put him on the hard stuff. And they did.
Virgil was a writer in his spare time; or, on occasion, got his reporting done by taking a few hours of under-time.
A life-long outdoorsman, he wrote for a variety of hook-and-bullet magazines, enough that he was becoming a regular at some of them, and was making a name. He told people it was for the extra money, but he loved seeing his byline on a story, his credit line on a photograph and he loved it when somebody came up at a sports show and asked, "Are you the Virgil Flowers who wrote that musky article in Gray's?"
He loved pushing out on a stream, or a lake, at 5:30 on a cool summer morning with the sun on the horizon, and the steam coming off the still water. He liked still-hunting for deer, ghosting through the woods with the snow falling down around him, shifting through the pines...
Virgil's home base was in the south-Minnesota town of Mankato, and he worked the counties generally south and west of the Twin Cities metro area, down to the Iowa line, out west to South Dakota. That had been changing, and Davenport had been pulling him into the Metro area more often. Virgil had an astonishing clearance rate with the BCA, as he'd had with the St. Paul cops.
Nobody, including Virgil, knew exactly how he did it, but it seemed to derive from a combination of hanging out on the corner, bullshit, rumor, skepticism, luck and possibly prayer. Davenport liked it because it worked.
This case had begun in the town of New Ulm, right in the heart of Virgil's home territory, when a man named Chuck Utecht had turned up dead and mutilated at the foot of the local veterans monument. He had a lemon in his mouth and had been shot twice in the head with a .22-caliber pistol. The .22 was a target-shooter's piece, or a stone-cold killer's. It was not the kind of gun that a man would keep for self-protection or as a carry weapon. That was interesting.
Virgil had spent much of the two weeks going in and out of the Brown County Law Enforcement Center, working with the New Ulm cops and Brown County sheriff's deputies, doing interviews, pushing the little bits of evidence around, looking for somebody who might hate Utecht enough to kill him. At the end of the two weeks, he'd been thinking about checking out the local food stores, to see who'd been buying lemons at that point, he had zip. Nada. Nothing. Utecht had run a title company; who hates a title company?
He'd talked to Utecht's wife, Marilyn, three times, and even she didn't seem to have a strong opinion about the man. His death had been more of an inconvenience than a tragedy, although, Virgil said to himself, that might be unfair. Marilyn may have been in the grip of some strong, hidden current of emotion that he simply hadn't felt.
Death had a strange effect on the left-behind people. Some found peace and a new life; some clutched the death to their breasts.
Virgil had killed a man the year before, and hadn't quite gotten over it. He spoke with God about it some nights. He wasn't sure, but he thought the killing might have made him a bit more sober than he had been, might have aged him a little.
On the other hand, here he was, tearing through the night, wearing a Bif Naked t-shirt and cowboy boots, with a guilty, semi-chafed dick. He made the turn on 36 and ran it up to a hundred and five. Willie Nelson came up on the satellite radio, with Gravedigger, one of Virgil's top-five Willie songs of all time, and he started to rock with it, singing along, and not badly, burning up the highway toward the lights of Stillwater.
He got off at Osgood Avenue and headed north, past the cemetery, through the dark streets, through a stop sign, without hesitating, over a hump toward a barricade and all the lights of the cops beyond. At the barricade, he held up his ID and a cop came over and looked at it, said, "It's a mess," and let him through. He rolled down a slope, found a hole in the pile of cop cars, stuck the truck into it and climbed out.
There were cars from Washington County, Stillwater, Oak Park Heights, a fire truck, and even a cop car from Hudson, across the river in Wisconsin. No sign of the crime scene van. Though it was coming up on four o'clock in the morning, local residents were clustering around the police barricades, chatting with the cops and each other, or standing on front lawns, looking down at the memorial. A number of them were carrying coffee cups, and when he got out of the truck, Virgil could smell coffee on the night air.
The courthouse was an old brown-brick relic with an Italianate cupola, sitting on a bump on a hill that looked down on the old river town. Virgil had been there once before, for a wedding out on the lawn Civil War statue to one side, spires of the churches poking through the trees, narrow streets, clapboard houses from the days when the river was clogged with logs, and made Stillwater temporarily rich.
Slightly down the bump from the courthouse, and across the street, the sixty-foot stainless-steel veterans memorial was glittering in the work lights set up by the firemen. In the middle of it, under a spear-pointed shaft reflective of the steeples down the hill, a gated fence, like the kind that gas-company workers set up around manholes, shielded the body from the public eye. Virgil walked on down, picked out a clump of big thick-chested men who looked like the local authority, and headed toward them.
One of the men, a square-shouldered fifty-year-old with a brush mustache, dressed in a rumpled suit, nodded at him and asked, "You Virgil Flowers?"
"Yeah, I am," Virgil said.
They shook hands and the man said, "Tom Mattson," and then gestured to the two men he'd been standing with and said, "Darryl Cunningham, Washington County chief deputy, and Jim Brandt, my assistant chief..."
Virgil shook their hands and noticed all three noticing his Bif Naked t-shirt and he didn't explain it, because he didn't do that. If they wanted to know, they could ask. "Where's the crime scene guys?"
Mattson shook his head, and Cunningham said, "There might have been some miscommunication. They didn't get rolling as quick as they could."
"A fuckin' clown car would have been here by now," Brandt fumed.
Cunningham said, "Hey, c'mon..." He was really saying, Not in front of the state guy.
"It happens," Virgil said, letting everybody off the hook. "Mind if I take a look?"
They walked down to the utility fence as a group, Mattson filling him in on how the body had been found. "He was out walking his dog, a German shepherd. The dog was shot right between the eyes. It's down below, there."
"Takes a good shot to kill a big shepherd with one round," Virgil said.
"Especially since, if you missed, the dog would eat your ass alive. The girlfriend says it was security trained."
The utility fence was hip-high and consisted of two overlapping C-shaped metal frames, covered with canvas panels; the kind of fence that sewer workers erected around manholes, when they were working. A space between the C's allowed the cops to come and go. The fence was ten feet back from the body. Virgil stepped through the space between the two arcs of fence, watching where he put his feet, and eased up close enough to see the bullet wounds in Sanderson's head; bullet wounds with some burn and debris. The muzzle of the gun hadn't been more than an inch or two from Sanderson's forehead.
A quarter of a lemon was visible between the victim's thin lips, clenched by yellowed teeth. Sanderson looked like he was in his late fifties or early sixties. He had rough, square hands; a working-man's hands.
The killing looked exactly like the Utecht murder. Virgil stared at the body for another ten seconds, was about to turn away when he noticed a hard curve in the jogging suit, slightly under the body.
He looked back over his shoulder: "So the crime scene guys know, I'm going to touch his suit." He checked the concrete between himself and the body, to make sure he wouldn't disturb anything, then duck-walked forward a couple of feet, reached out and touched the hard curve. Shook his head, stood up.
"What?" Mattson asked.
"He's got a gun in his pocket," Virgil said.
"Are you shitting me?"
"No. I could feel the cylinder cuts," Virgil said. "You might want to check and see if he's got a carry permit, and if he does, when he got it."
"That means... he knew something was coming."
"Maybe," Virgil said.
"Crime scene's here," Cunningham said, looking back up the street.
Virgil stepped away, back to the fence, and out, and Mattson asked, "What do you think?"
"Same as New Ulm. The gunshots look identical. A .22, from two inches. One difference Sanderson's got some abrasions on his neck, like he was choked. Didn't see that at New Ulm. But the lemon's not public, yet, and that pretty much ties it up."
"Some of the media know about the lemon," Mattson said. "I had Linda Bennett from KSTP, she asked me if there was a lemon in his mouth."
"Yeah, some of them know.We asked them not to report it. But they'll be connecting the dots, the veterans memorial," Virgil said, looking up at the hoops and struts of the memorial. "I hope we can hold the line on the lemon. Don't need any copycats."
"You actually know of any copycats?" Cunningham asked. He seemed genuinely curious.
Virgil grinned and said, "No, but I've seen them on TV shows."
"Speaking of which," Mattson said. Virgil looked up the hill, and saw a white SUV do a U-turn at the barricade. A logo on the door said WCCO.
"I'm surprised they took so long," Virgil said. "You guys ought to take five minutes to think about who's going to say what. The whole bunch of them will be down here, and they'll be all over you."
They all looked over the fence at the body, which looked a little like a scarecrow, deflated and dead, and Brandt asked, "What the hell's going on?"
"Wish you could tell me," Virgil said. The crime scene van was squeezing down the hill, and a cop car had to be moved so it could get past.
"You all through here?" Cunningham asked.
"Yeah nothing much for me to do," Virgil said. "I ain't Sherlock Holmes."
Cunningham said, "I talked to Jimmy Stryker at the sheriff's meet last month, and he thinks you are."
Virgil said, "Well, we're friends."
"He said you were friends with his sister, too for a while," Cunningham said.
Virgil nodded at him, sharp and quick: "Ships passing in the night, sheriff." He wasn't going to step into that bog. "I would like to talk to Sanderson's girlfriend. We need to know why he was carrying a revolver."
Mattson nodded: "She's available."
Sanderson had lived three blocks from the veterans memorial, up the hill, past the courthouse, and down a dark side street. Brandt walked along with him, to show him the way, and to fill him in on the dead man's background.
"We all knew him," Brandt said. "He used to be a building inspector for the city. He was a carpenter before that. He was around, all the time."
"Nice guy? Bad guy?"
"You know had a little mean streak, but wasn't too bad when you got to know him. Short guy stuff," Brandt said. "He'd get in your face. But nobody, you know, took him all that seriously. Never knew him to actually get in a fight, or anything. You'd see him, you might stop and chat. One of the guys around town."
"So... you said he used to work for the city," Virgil said. "What was he doing now?"
"He retired, took the pension, started rehabbing these old Victorians. He'd buy one, live in it and rehab it," Brandt said. "That's how he met Sally. His girlfriend's Sally Owen, she's a decorator in one of the shops downtown."
"No, they must be about the same age. Sanderson was fifty-nine. Sally might even be a year or two older. Her husband was a contractor, died of a heart attack, maybe, three, four years ago. She and Bobby hooked up a couple of years back."
"Building inspectors have a reputation, sometimes, for taking a little schmear here and there..." Virgil said.
Brandt shook his head: "Never heard anything like that about him. Didn't have that smell. He'd tag a site, but I never heard that he was taking money."
"So, just a guy," Virgil said.
"Yeah, pretty much."
Brandt's forehead wrinkled. "Yeah. We asked Sally, when we talked to her. Two years in Korea, during the Vietnam War. Drafted, got out as quick as he could. We could check, to pin it down, but that's what she said."
"Probably need to check," Virgil said.
"The guy in New Ulm he was a vet?"
"Nope. No, he was the right age for the draft, but he had a heart murmur or something," Virgil said. And it bothered him why had a non-vet been left at a veteran's momument?
Walked along a bit. Then Virgil asked, "You find anybody who heard the shots? Three shots?"
"Nope. That's unusual. Every time a car backfires, we get calls," Brandt said. "Even a .22 is pretty noticeable, especially in the middle of the night. We're still knocking on doors, but the further away we get from the scene, the less likely it is that somebody would have heard anything."
Virgil thought: Silencer? Silencers were so rare in crime circles as to be almost mythical. A few leaked out on the street from military sources, but that was almost all on the East Coast, and people who got them were usually jerkwaters showing off for their gun-club pals. Still, somebody should have heard a shot, on a quiet street, with houses only a couple hundred feet away.
A professional assassin might have a silencer... but the only professional assassins he knew about, other than one that Davenport had tangled with, were like copycat killers on television.
Sanderson's house was an 1890s cream-and-teal clapboard near-mansion that had been reworked into a duplex, set back and screened from the street by a hedge of ancient lilacs. A scaffold was hung on one side of the house, with a pile of boards set up on 2x6s, and covered with a plastic sheet, on the ground below it.
As they passed the driveway on the way to the front walk, Virgil could see a pickup truck, and behind it, the dark rounded shape of a fishing boat. A Stillwater cop answered the doorbell. They stepped inside to heavy-duty air conditioning that made the hair prickle on Virgil's forearms.
Sally Owen was sitting on a bar chair, next to a work island in the kitchen. The kitchen had been recently refurbished with European appliances with a deep red finish and blackgranite counter tops. Virgil could smell fresh drywall, and the maple flooring was shiny and unblemished by sand or age.
"Miz Owen," Brandt said, "This is Virgil Flowers, he's with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, he's going to be handling this... incident. Uh, he wanted to chat with you..."
"You don't look like an police officer," Owen said, with a small sad smile. "You look like a hippie."
"I was out dancing last night," Virgil said. "I came on the run."
"I'll leave you to it," Brandt said. "I gotta get back..."
When he'd gone, Owen said, "So. You're telling me that you got rhythm?"
"Hard to believe, huh?" Virgil said. There was another bar chair across the counter from her, and he pulled it out, and slid onto it.
"Hard to believe," she said, and then she turned half-away and her eyes defocused, and Virgil had the feeling that he wasn't really talking to her at that instant; she'd gone somewhere else. Owen had short brown hair with filaments of grey, and deep brown eyes. She'd never been a beautiful woman, but now she was getting a late-life revenge on her contemporaries who had been: she had porcelain-smooth skin, with a soft summer tan; slender face and arms, like a bike-rider, an attractive square-chinned smile.
Virgil let her go for a moment, to wherever she'd gone, then brought her back. "Did you know that Bobby took a gun with him tonight?"
Brown eyes snapped back: "No... are you sure?"
"Yes. You knew he had a gun?"
She nodded. "He has some hunting rifles, but there's only one pistol... it was a pistol? It must have been."
She stood up. "Let me look." She led him back through the house, to the bedroom, a neat, compact cubicle with a queen-sized bed, covered only with sheets, with a quilt folded back to its foot; two chests of drawers, and a closet with folding doors. Owen knelt next to one of the bureaus, pulled out the bottom drawer, pushed a hand under a pile of sweatshirts, and said, "It's gone."
She stood up, and shook her head: "He never took it before. I would have known."
"Chief Mattson said you had a story about Bobby," Virgil said. He drifted back toward the kitchen, pulling her along as if by gravity. "What happened the other night?"
She busied herself, getting coffee. "All I've got is instant... I told him not to go out."
"Instant's fine," Virgil said. "Why shouldn't he walk the dog?"
"Something was going on, and he wouldn't tell me about it. Two nights ago, some men came to see him they were talking in the street. Arguing."
"Was he afraid of them?"
She paused with a jar of instant coffee, a puzzled look on her face. "No, no he wasn't afraid of them. Whatever it was, whatever they were talking about, that's why he took the gun with him. He was really upset when he came back in."
"What did the guys look like?" Virgil asked.
"I only saw one of them, clearly I didn't know him, but he looked like a cop," Owen said. "Like a policeman. He had that attitude. He was always hooking one thumb in his belt, like you see cops do. I don't know I thought he was a cop."
Virgil took his notebook out of his jacket pocket. It was a black European-style notebook called a Moleskine, with an elastic band to keep it closed. He bought them a dozen at a time, one for each heavy case he worked. When he was done with a case, he put the notebook or several of them, sometimes on a bookshelf, a vein to be mined if he ever started writing fiction.
He slipped the elastic on the cover, flipped open the notebook, wrote, 'cop.'
"You couldn't see the other guy?" he asked.
"No. Not very well. But I got the feeling that he might have been an Indian."
"You mean like, a dot on the forehead? Or an American Indian?"
"American Indian," Owen said. "I couldn't see him very well, but he was stocky, and had short hair, but there was something about the way he dressed that made me think Indian. He was wearing a jean jacket and Levis and I think he came on a motorcycle and walked down here, because I heard a motorcycle before Bobby went out, and then, when he came back in, I heard a motorcycle pulling away. The cop guy came in a car."
"What kind of car?"
She showed a small smile. She knew the answer to this one: "A Jeep. I had one just like it, my all-time favorite. A red Jeep Cherokee." Then she turned away from him again, like the first time he lost her, and she said, "God, why did this happen?" and she shook a little, standing there with the coffee in her hands.
"You okay?" Virgil asked after a moment. He wrote 'red Cherokee' in his notebook, and 'Indian/motorcycle'.
"No, I'm not," she said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You okay for a couple more questions?"
"Yeah, let me get this coffee going." She spooned coffee into two china mugs, filled them with water, stirred, and stuck them in a microwave; the whole procedure so practiced that Virgil would have bet she did it every morning with Sanderson. "Something else," she said. "It's possible that the Indian's name is Ray. I don't know that, but it could be."
"Why Ray?" The microwave beeped and she took the cups out, and slid one across to Virgil. They both took a sip, the coffee strong and boiling hot, and Virgil said again, "Ray?"
Ray was an Indian, an Ojibwe, a Chippewa, from Red Lake. She'd never met him, but he was an old pal of Sanderson's Bobby never explained how they met and the past three weeks they'd been going to vet meetings in St. Paul.
Virgil perked up. "Vet meetings?"
"Yes. Bobby didn't tell me about those either. I mean, it's starting to sound like he didn't tell me about anything, but that's not true. He could be a talkative man. But these men in the street, these meetings... it's like he couldn't talk to a woman about them. This was man stuff, like maybe it went back a long time."
Virgil wrote 'Ray/Indian' in his book, and 'vet meetings.'
"When you say vet meetings," he asked, "Did you get the impression it was just a bunch of guys, a bull session, or was it more like group therapy or what?" Virgil asked.
"Group therapy. Maybe not exactly that, but more than a bull session." She squinted at him across the work island. "I don't know why Bobby would need vet's therapy, though. He worked in a motor pool for some obsolete missile battalion. He said they'd shoot off their missiles, for practice, and they couldn't hit this mountain that they used as a target."
"Yes. Someplace up in the hills," she said. "Chunchon? Something like that."
"You know which vet center?" Virgil asked.
"I don't know exactly, but it's on University Avenue in St. Paul. He said something about parking off University."
The meeting in the street, she said, had involved the cop-looking guy, the Indian, Sanderson, and a man who never got out of the car.
"The weird thing about that was, he was sitting in the back seat. Like the cop-guy had chauffeured him out here. Like he was some big shot. Anyway, at one point, the window rolled down, the back window, and the cop guy got Bobby's arm and tried to pull him over there, and the Indian guy pushed the cop guy away," she said.
She was becoming animated as she remembered: "I thought there was going to be a fight, for a minute; but then, they all quieted down and they were looking around like they were worried that they disturbed somebody. Then they finished up and the Indian man went down the street, and the cop got back in the car and Bobby came in, and I said, 'What the heck was all that?' and he said, 'Nothing. Some old bullshit. I don't want to talk about it. Tell you some other time.' That's what he said, exactly. He was harsh about it, so I didn't want to push him about it. I should of pushed."
Virgil wrote it down, exactly.
Owen had an extra photograph of Sanderson, taken standing next to his boat, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. "I don't need it back," she said.
They talked for a few more minutes, but she had only one more thing, having to do with the bowel regularity of the dog. "It was like the train coming through town," Owen said. "They were out the door every night, same time, within five minutes. Walked the same route. If you knew him, if you wanted to kill him..."
"I understand the dog was security trained," Virgil said.
"Sort of. You know, one of those Wisconsin places where they say their dogs are all this great, but you think, if they're so great, why are they so cheap? I liked him, he was a good dog, but he wasn't exactly a wolf."
He left her in the kitchen, staring at the future, went out the side door; took a look at the boat. Boats had always been big in Virgil's life, and this was a nice one, a Lund Pro-V 2025, with a 200-horse Yamaha hanging on the back, Eagle trailer, Lowrance electronics, the ones with the integrated map and GPS. Sanderson had fitted it with a couple of Wave Whackers, so he did some back-trolling; walleye fisherman, probably. Nice rig, well-kept, well-used.
Seemed like Sanderson had a nice life going for himself; nice lady, nice job, nice truck, nice fishing rig.
Virgil moved back toward the front of the house, saw a big man in a Hawaiian shirt, coming along the street, limping a little. "Shrake?"
The big man stopped, peered into the dark. "Virgil?"
"You're limping," Virgil said, moving into the light.
"Ah, man." Shrake was a BCA agent, one of the agency's two official thugs. He liked nothing more than running into a bad bar, jerking some dickweed off a barstool in mid-sentence, and dragging his ass past his pals and into the waiting cop car. "I think I pulled a muscle in my butt."
"Christ, you smell like somebody poured a bottle of Jim Beam on your head," Virgil said.
"That fuckin' Jenkins..."
Virgil started to laugh.
"That fuckin' Jenkins set me up with a hot date," Shrake said, hitching up his pants. "She was already out of control when I picked her up. Smelled like she'd been brushing her teeth with bourbon. She drank while she danced... Then she fell down and I stupidly tried to catch her... Anyway what should I do?"
"I don't know," Virgil said. And, "Why are you out here?"
"Davenport called me up, said you might need some backup." Shrake cocked his head: "He said you were banging Janey Carter when he called."
"Actually, it's Janey Small... ah, never mind. Listen, there's not much to do. The locals are knocking the doors, we're waiting for the ME..."
"The ME's here," Shrake said.
"Okay. But to tell you the truth, and I hate to say it, it looks professional," Virgil said. "There ain't gonna be much."
"Yeah?" Shrake was interested. "Same guy as that New Ulm killing, you think?"
"Same guy," Virgil said. "From looking at it, I'd say our best hope is that he only had two targets. I've got some stuff to check out in the morning, but this is gonna be tough."
"Well, you know what they say," Shrake said. "When the going get tough, try to unload it on that fuckin' Flowers."
The problem with a pro was that there'd be none of the usual skein of connections that tied a killer to a victim. The crime scene would be useless, because a pro wouldn't leave anything behind. If a bunch of bodies added up to a motive for some particular person the person who hired the pro that person would have an alibi for the time of the killings, and could stand silent when questioned. The pro, in the meantime, might have come from anywhere, and might have gone anywhere after the killings. With hundreds of thousands of people moving through the metro area on any given day, how did you pick the murderous needle out of the innocent haystack?
Virgil and Shrake walked together back to the veterans memorial. The TV trucks had all come in, and Mattson was standing in a pool of light, talking to three reporters. Brandt came over, and asked, "You done with Miz Owen?"
"For tonight. If you could find a friend..."
"Got her sister coming over. She lives in Eagan, it'll take a while, but she's coming," Brandt said.
"Good," Virgil said. He nodded toward the monument. "The ME's guys say anything?"
"Yeah. He was shot twice. In the head."
"Well, shit, what more do you want?" Shrake asked. Brandt's nosed twitched, picking up Shrake's bourbon bouquet, and Shrake sidled away.
Brandt said to Virgil, "The mayor would like to talk to you."
"Sure," Virgil said. "Where is he?"
Brandt took them over, Shrake staying downwind. The mayor was a short pudgy man, a professional smiler and a meet-your-eyes-with-compassion sort of guy, whose facial muscles were now misbehaving. He said to Virgil, "What-a, what-a, what-a..."
Virgil knew what he was trying to ask, and said, "This doesn't have anything to do with your town I think Mr. Sanderson was a specific target. The same man killed another victim down in New Ulm. That's what I think. You don't have much to worry about."
"Thank you for that," the mayor said. He rubbed his hands, nervously, peering about at the crime scene. "I feel so bad for Sally. Gosh, I hope she gets though this okay." He seemed to mean it, and Virgil nodded and said to Shrake, "We oughta head back. We need to get at some computers."
Shrake nodded. Virgil said a few more words to the mayor, gave his card, with a couple of spares, to Brandt, and told him to call if anything turned up. "The guy had to get here somehow. If anybody even thinks they might have seen a car, or a guy..."
"We're doing it all, man," Brandt said.
The mayor said to Brandt, "And good for you. Good for you, by golly."
On the way back to his car, Virgil asked Shrake if he knew anything about a veterans center on University Avenue.
"Sure. Something going on there?"
Virgil told Shrake about Sanderson and the therapy group, and Shrake said, "Sounds right. That's what they do there."
"E-mail me an address or something," Virgil said. "I gotta get some sleep before I go back out."
"Me too," Shrake yawned.
Virgil felt somebody step close behind him and then a small hand slipped into his back pocket, tight inside the jeans. He twisted and looked back over his shoulder: Daisy Jones, blond, slender, a little tattered around the eyes, glitter lipstick with tooth holes in it.
"Virgil Flowers, as I live and breathe," she said, moving close, letting the pheromones work on him. "I was laying in bed tonight..."
"Laying? Really? Not lying?" Virgil said. She did smell good. She only used the choicest French perfumes, which reached out like the softest of fingers.
She ignored him, continued: "... when I felt a kind of feminine orgasmic wave cross over the Metro area. I said to myself, 'Daisy, girl, that fuckin' Flowers must have come back to town.'"
"That was me," Virgil admitted.
"I got my sap," Shrake said to Virgil. "We could whack her, throw her body in the lilacs."
"Shrake, you gorgeous hunk, I get so aroused when you talk about my body," Jones said. She pressed her hand against Shrake's chest, lightly scratching with long nails, and made him smile. "Is it true that this murdered man had a lemon in his mouth, and was shot twice, an identical killing to the one in New Ulm?"
"Goddamnit, Daisy, we don't need that lemon stuff out there," Virgil said.
"Oh, horseshit," she said. "The killer knows he does it. You know he does it. I know he does it. The only people who don't know he does it, are the stupes. So, I'm going to put it on the air, unless you give me something better."
"Okay, here's something better," Virgil said. "Yes."
"The killings are virtually identical," he said. "The same guy did them both."
"Can I quote you?" she asked.
"You can say that you spoke to me briefly, and that I acknowledged that there were striking similarities between the two," Virgil said.
She stuck out a lower lip: "I'm not sure that's enough to kill the lemon angle. The lemon has a certain... interest about it."
"A lemon twist," Shrake offered.
"Oh, shit! That's my lead," Daisy said. "Thank you, Shrake."
"Okay. You're gonna use it," Virgil said. He stepped toward the TV lights. "I'll go over and go on camera with these other guys, and give them my opinion about the killings..."
"Virgil don't do that," she said, hooking his arm.
"All right. But if anybody else squeals lemon, I'll be five seconds behind them."
"If you use my name on the air," Virgil said, "Mention that thing about the orgasmic wave, huh?"
As they walked away from her, Shrake said, "I think she's getting better, as she gets older."
"Did you ever...?"
"No, I did not, for Christ's sakes. I don't... never mind."
"You mean, fuck everybody?" Shrake was enjoying himself.
"Davenport tried to do that, you know, before he got married. You guys are somewhat alike."
"Bullshit. I'm a lot better-looking."