What a pleasure to find a novel with an upbeat hero paired with a reader who is more interested in telling a story well than in demonstrating the outer limits of his vocal range. Far from the usual cynical, borderline-depressed investigator, Virgil Flowers is a likable, hang-loose sort of sleuth who enjoys life and seems to relish handling the "hard stuff" for his boss, Lucas Davenport (Sandford's Preyseries hero makes a brief cameo). Flowers's assignment is to investigate several gruesome murders in a small town. Unlike the harder-edged Preyseries, Moonis more of an entertainment, allowing Flowers to supplement his determined quest for justice with witty conversation and several romantic interludes. Conger matches the lighter moods with a mellow, almost mesmerizing matter-of-fact delivery, adjusting his vocal range just slightly to differentiate speakers. But when the action demands it-such as the grim opening murder scene or the suspenseful storming of the cult leader's encampment-Conger's voice takes on a properly hardboiled intensity. Simultaneous release with the Putnam hardcover (Reviews, July 23). (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
From the #1 bestselling author, a dramatic new crime novel of old hate and fresh murder.
Read an Excerpt
DARK OF THE MOON
ALSO BY JOHN SANDFORD
Rules of Prey
Eyes of Prey
The Night Crew
The Fool’s Run
The Empress File
The Devil’s Code
The Hanged Man’s Song
DARK OF THE MOON
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS NEW YORK
This book was written in cooperation with my friend Larry Millett, an architectural writer (The Curve of the Arch, Lost Twin Cities), local historian (Strange Days, Dangerous Nights), and occasional novelist (Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon and four other tales featuring Holmes and Irish barkeep Shadwell Rafferty). Millett was recently described in a general-circulation magazine as “handsome,” which threw me into paroxysms of jealousy, but which, in the end, did not deflect us from our appointed deadline….
SIX GARBAGE BAGS full of red cedar shavings, purchased two at a time for a dollar a bag, at midnight, at the self-serve shed at Dunstead & Daughter Custom Furniture, serving your fine cabinetry needs since 1986. No cameras, no lights, no attendant, no theft, no problem.
Moonie stacked the bags in the basement, Cross Canadian Ragweed pounding through the iPod ear-buds, singing about those dead-red lips; then up the stairs, pulling the ear-buds, to where the old man lay facedown on the rug, shaking, kicking, crying, trying to get free. Tied with cheap hemp rope, but no matter. The old man was so old and so feeble that string would have worked as well as rope.
“Please,” he groaned, “don’t hurt me.”
Moonie laughed, a long singing rock ’n’ roll laugh, and at the end of it, said, “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to kill you.”
“What do you want? I can tell you where the money is.”
“The money’s not what I want. I’ve got what I want.” Moonie gripped the rope between the old man’s ankles and dragged him to the basement stairs, and then down the stairs, the old man’s face banging down each tread as they went.
“Oh my Jesus, help me,” the old man wept through his bloody lips, his fractured face. “Help me, Jesus.”
Thump! Thump! Thump! Nine times.
“Jesus isn’t going to help,” Moonie said.
The old man pulled it together for a second. “He can send you to hell,” he snarled.
“Where do you think I am, old man?”
“Shut up. I’m working.”
GETTING THE OLD MAN onto the bags was the hardest part. Moonie first threw him facedown on the topmost bag, then heaved his feet up. The old man was tall, but frail; eighty-two years old and sedentary and semi-senile, though not so senile that he didn’t know what was happening now. He sank down into the bags of wood shavings and thrashed there, got halfway off, then sank down between them, thrashed some more, then quit. Wood shavings made for the most intense fire, and left no obvious residue; or so the arson fans theorized on the Internet.
Moonie got busy with the first five-gallon can of gasoline, pouring it around the basement, around the bags, soaking the old man with it, the unused wooden canning racks, the seldom used workbench, the stack of aging wooden lawn chairs, and then up the stairs. The old man began thrashing again. Moaning, “Please…”
The first few splashes of gasoline smelled good, like the shot you got when you were pumping gas into your car; but down in the enclosed space, five gallons of gas, the fumes got stiff in a hurry.
“Don’t die on me. Wait for the fire,” Moonie called, backing up the stairs, splashing gas along the steps. The second can was poured more judiciously around the first floor, soaking into the Persian carpets, leaking around the legs of the Steinway grand piano, flowing into the closets. When two-thirds of it was gone, Moonie backed through the kitchen, where the first can, now empty, waited. Moonie would take them. No point in making the arson obvious, though the police would probably figure it out soon enough.
A driving rain beat against the kitchen windows. Ideally, Moonie would have preferred to trail the gas out into the yard, and to touch it off from a distance. With the rain, though, that would be difficult. The rain would wash the gas away as quickly as it was poured. So it would have to be kept inside. A small risk…the fumes boiled unseen around the killer’s ankles, flowing into every nook and cranny.
At the kitchen door, Moonie splashed out a final pool of gas; stopped and looked into the house. The place was huge, expensive, and a wreck. The old man’s housekeeper came in twice a week, did some dishes, washed some clothes; but she didn’t do carpentry, wiring, or plumbing, and the house needed all of it, along with a wide-spectrum exterminator. There were bugs in the basement and bats in the belfry, the killer thought, and then, giggling now, a nut in the kitchen.
The old man cried a last time, faintly audible against the sound of the rain and wind…
“Please, God help me…”
Good to know he was still alive—the old man would get the full experience.
Moonie stepped through the kitchen door onto the back porch, took out a book of matches, scratched one, used that one to set off the entire book. The book cover caught, and Moonie played with it, enjoying the liquid flow of the flame, getting it right, then threw the book toward the pool of gas in the kitchen, turned, and ran out into the rain.
The fire popped to the top of the pool of gasoline, flickered across it, snaked one way into the living room, under the shambles of the once grand piano, and the other way, like a living thing, down the stairs into the basement.
The fumes in the basement were not quite thick enough for a real explosion. The old man, surrounded by bags of wood shavings, heard a whump and felt the sudden searing heat of a blowtorch that burned away all feeling in an instant, and killed in the next.
That was all for him.
Coming Up on Midnight
THE RAIN WAS POUNDING down from a wedge of thunderstorms, and Virgil Flowers was running west on I-90, trying to hold the truck against the angling wind. He’d been due in Bluestem before the courthouse closed, but he’d had a deposition with a defense attorney in Mankato. The attorney, a month out of law school with his first criminal case, had left no stone unturned and no verb unconjugated. Not that Virgil blamed him. The guy was trying to do right by his client.
Yes, the gun had been found in that dumpster. The dumpster had not been hauled before Wednesday, June 30, even though it was normally dumped on Tuesday, but everything had been pushed back by Memorial Day. The pizza guy had seen the defendant on the 29th, and not the 28th, because the pizza parlor, as patriotic as any Italian-food outlet anywhere, had been closed on Memorial Day, and the pizza guy hadn’t been working.
Three hours of it: Blah, blah, blah…
By the time he got out of the lawyer’s office it was five o’clock, too late to get to Bluestem while the courthouse was open. Walking along with Lannie McCoy, the prosecutor in the case, they’d decided that the wise course would be to get sandwiches and beer at Cat’s Cradle, a downtown bar.
They did that, and some cops showed up and that all turned into an enjoyable nachos, cheeseburger, and beer snack. One of the cops was very good-looking, and at one juncture, had rested her hand on Virgil’s thigh; perfect, if her wedding ring hadn’t shown up so well in the bar light.
A sad country song.
HE LEFT the Cradle at six-thirty, went home, dumped a load of laundry in the washing machine. With the washer rattling in the background, he sat on a rocking chair in his bedroom and finished sewing a torn seam on a photography vest. Sat in a cone of light from his bedside reading lamp, sewing, and wondering about the married cop who’d come on to him; thinking a bit about loyalty and its implications, and the trouble it could bring you.
Feeling a little lonely. He liked women, and it had been some time since the last one.
When he finished with the vest, he hung it in his gear closet—guns, bows, fishing and photography equipment—took a shotgun and two boxes of shells out of his gun safe, laid them beside an empty duffel bag. He half filled the duffel bag with underwear, socks, and T-shirts, three pairs of jeans. Still waiting for the washer to quit, he went out on the Internet, looking for a letter from a magazine publisher. A letter was supposed to be waiting for him, but was not.
He pulled up a half-finished article on bow hunting for wild turkeys, dinked with it until the washer finished the spin cycle, then closed down the computer, threw the wet clothes in the dryer, and took a nap. The clock woke him. After a shower, as he was brushing his teeth, he heard the dryer stop running. His timing was exquisite.
He took the clothes out of the dryer, folded them, put some of them away, and some of them in the duffel bag. He threw the bag in the back of his truck, locked the shotgun in a toolbox, stuck a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol under the front seat, and at ten minutes after ten o’clock, he was out of town, headed southwest down Highway 60.
An hour out of town, he could see the clouds bunching up in the west, lightning jumping around the horizon, while a new crescent moon still showed in his rearview mirror. He hit Windom as the wind front from the first squall line skittered through town, throwing up scrap paper and dead leaves. July was the second-best time on the prairie, right after August; the world began to smell of grain and the harvest to come.
He stopped at a convenience store for coffee. The long-haired clerk said, “Gonna rain like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock,” and Virgil said, “You betcha.” He took a leak himself, got back in the truck as the first fat drops of rain hit the windshield, still moving southwest. He cut I-90 at Worthington, got another cup of coffee, and headed west.
Into the Old West, he thought.
The real Old West. The Old West of the Sioux, of the high, dry prairie, of the range, of horse and buffalo country, got started somewhere between Worthington and Bluestem. By the time he got there, to the Old West, the rain was thrashing the 4Runner; another deluge in what was already a record-wet summer.
There weren’t many lights this far out, but with the storm, I-90 closed down to a tunnel, nothing ahead, only a dim set of headlights behind him, and an occasional car or truck in the eastbound lane. He kept one eye on the white line on the right, aimed the car into his headlights, and hoped he didn’t run off the road.
Listening to satellite radio, Outlaw Country. Switched over to jazz, rotated into hard rock, and then back to country.
THINKING ABOUT IT LATER, he didn’t really know when he first became aware of the spark.
The spark started as a mote in his eye, above the right headlight, deep in the rain. Then it took on a more graphic quality, and he noticed it, and noticed at the same time that it had been out there for a while. The spark was a bright, golden hue, and unmoving. Another three miles and he identified it: a fire. A big one. He’d seen a few of them at night, but this was up in the sky .
How could it be up in the sky, and not move?
He flashed by an overpass, then caught, a half mile to his right, the red lights of the Jesus Christ radio station: a five-hundred-foot tower—they build them low on the prairie—with red lights that blinked Jesus, then went black, then Christ, and then black, and then quickly, JesusChrist-JesusChrist-JesusChrist.
If he was at Jesus Christ radio, Virgil thought, the spark wasn’t in the sky—it was six miles ahead, north of Bluestem on Buffalo Ridge. There was only one thing that could make a spark that big, from this far away, on Buffalo Ridge: Bill Judd’s house. The most expensive house for a hundred and fifty miles around, and it was burning like a barn full of hay.
“That’s not something you see every night,” he said to Marta Gomez, who was singing “The Circle” on the satellite radio.
He got off at the Highway 75 exit, the rain still pounding down, and went straight past the Holiday Inn, following the line of the highway toward the fire up on the ridge.
BUFFALO RIDGE was a geological curiosity, a rock-strewn quartzite plateau rising three hundred feet above the surrounding landscape. Too rocky to farm, the mound had kept its mantle of virgin prairie, the last wild ground in Stark County.
Sometime in the early sixties, Virgil had been told, Judd built his house on the eastern slope of the mound, most of which later became a state park. Judd was all by himself out there, after his wife died, and his son moved out.
He was sexually predatory, if not a sexual predator. There were rumors of local women making a little on the side, rumors of strange women from big cities, and of races not normally encountered in the countryside; rumors of midnight orgies and screams in the dark—rumors of a Dracula’s castle amid the big bluestem.
They were the rumors that might follow any rich man who stayed to himself, Virgil thought, and who at the same time was thoroughly hated.
JUDD HAD STARTED as a civil lawyer, representing the big grain dealers in local lawsuits. Then he’d branched into commodities trading, real estate development, and banking. He’d made his first million before he was thirty.
In the early eighties, already rich, when most men would have been thinking of retirement, he’d been a promoter of the Jerusalem artichoke. Not actually an artichoke, but a variety of sunflower, the plant was hustled to desperate farmers as an endless wonder: a food stock like a potato, a source of ethanol as a biofuel, and best of all, a weedlike plant that would grow anywhere.
It might have been all of that, but the early-eighties fad, promoted by Judd and others, basically had been an intricate pyramid scheme, leveraged through the commodities markets. Farmers would grow seed tubers and sell them to other farmers, who’d grow seed tubers and sell them to more farmers, and eventually somebody, somewhere, would make them into fuel.
They ran out of farmers before they got to the fuel makers; and it turned out that oil would have to cost more than $50 a barrel for fuel makers to break even, and in the early eighties, oil was running at half that. The people who’d staked their futures on the Jerusalem artichoke lost their futures.
Judd was more prosperous than ever.
Hated enough, even, to be murdered. Nobody knew where the Jerusalem artichoke money had gone—Judd said it all went for lobbying, for getting bills passed in St. Paul and Washington, for preliminary planning and architectural work on an ethanol plant, and loan service—but most people thought that it went into speculative stocks, and then a bank account somewhere, probably with a number on it, rather than a name.
The Stark County sheriff at the time, a man named Russell Copes, had been elected on a ticket of putting Judd in jail. He hadn’t gotten the job done, and had shortly thereafter moved to Montana. The state attorney general took a halfhearted run at Judd, on the evidence developed by Copes, and there’d been a trial in St. Paul. Judd had been acquitted by a confused jury, and had moved back to his house on Buffalo Ridge.
That was a greater mystery than even the Jerusalem artichoke business: why did he stay?
Stark County was a raw, windy corner of the Great Plains that had been losing population for half a century, bitterly cold in winter, hot and dry in the summer, with nothing much in the way of diversion for a rich man.
Now his mansion was burning down.
Everybody in town would know about the fire; even with the thunderstorm coming through, a half-hundred souls had come out to take a look at it.
When Buffalo Ridge became a state park, Judd had donated two hundred acres of prairie, which had been expansively appraised and provided a nice tax deduction. As part of the deal, the state built an approach road to the top of the hill, where an observation platform was built, so tourists could look at the park’s buffalo herd. Judd’s driveway came off the road. The way the locals figured it, he not only got a tax deduction for donating two hundred acres of unfarmable rock, he also got the state to maintain his driveway, and plow it in the winter.
Virgil had been to the park a dozen times, and knew his way in, threading past a line of cars and trucks pulled to the edge of County Road 8. A sheriff’s squad car blocked the park road up the hill, and a crowd of gawkers stood just below it. Even from a half mile away, the fire looked enormous. He eased the truck past the rubberneckers and up to the squad. A cop in a slicker walked up and Virgil rolled down the window and said, “Virgil Flowers, BCA. Is Stryker up there?”
“Hey, heard you were coming,” the cop said. “I’m Little Curly. Yeah, he’s up there. Let me get my car out of the way.”
“What about Judd?”
Little Curly shook his head: “From what I hear, they can’t find him. His housekeeper says he was up there this afternoon. He’s senile and don’t drive himself anymore…so he might still be in there.”
“Burning pretty good,” Virgil observed.
“It’s a fuckin’ tornado,” Little Curly said. He walked back to his car, climbed into the driver’s seat, and pulled it through the fence. A woman with a beer can in her hand flipped back her rain-suit hood and peered through the driver’s-side window at Virgil. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and good-looking, and she grinned at him and twiddled the fingers on her beer-free hand. Virgil grinned back, gave her a thumbs-up, and went on by Little Curly’s car and followed the blacktop up the hill.
At the house, the first thing he noticed was that the firefighters weren’t fighting the fire. No point. The rain meant that the fire wasn’t going anywhere, and when Little Curly called it a tornado, he hadn’t been joking. Throwing a few tons of foam on the burning house would have been a waste of good foam.
The cop cars were parked behind the fire trucks, and Virgil moved into last place. He unbelted, knelt on the seat, and dug his rain suit out of the gear bag in the back. The suit had been made for October muskie fishing and New England sailing; not much got through it. He pulled it on, climbed out of the truck.
The sheriff’s name was Jimmy Stryker, whom Virgil had more or less known since Stryker had pitched for the Bluestem Whippets in high school; but everybody on the hill was an anonymous clump of waterproofed nylon, and Virgil had to ask three times before he found him.
“THAT YOU, JIMMY?”
Stryker turned. He was a tall man, square-chinned, with pale hair and hard jade-green eyes. Like most prairie males, he was weather-burnt and wore cowboy boots. “That you, Virgil?”
“Yeah. What happened?”
Stryker turned back to the fire. “Don’t know. I was down in my house, and one minute I looked out the window and didn’t see anything, and the next minute, I heard the siren going, looked out the window, and there it was. We got a guy who was driving through town, saw it happen: he said it just exploded.”
“What about Judd?”
Stryker nodded at the house. “I could be wrong, but I do believe he’s in there.”
Up closer to the fire, a man in a trench coat, carrying an umbrella, was standing with three firemen, waving his free hand at the fire, and at the trucks, jabbing a finger. In the light of the flames, Virgil could see his mouth working, but couldn’t hear what he was saying.
Stryker said, “That’s Bill Judd Jr. He’s pissed because they’re not putting out the fire.”
“The New York City Fire Department couldn’t put that out,” Virgil said. The heat came through the rain, hot as a hair dryer, even at fifty yards. “That thing is burning a hole in the storm.”
“Tell that to Junior.”
The fire stank: of burning fabrics and old wood and insulation and water and linoleum and oil and everything else that gets stuck in a house, and maybe a little flesh. They watched for another moment, feeling the heat on the fire side, the cool rain spattering off the hoods on their rain suits, down their backs and necks. Virgil asked, “Think he was smoking in bed?”
Stryker’s features were harsh in the firelight, and the corners of his mouth turned down at Virgil’s question. “Bill Parker, he’s a guy lives up in Lismore, was coming into town on Highway Eight. He saw the fire, mmm, must’ve been a few minutes after it started. He was driving toward it when a truck went by, moving fast. He figures it was going eighty, ninety miles an hour. And it was raining to beat the band. It took the turn on Highway Three, headed down to Ninety.”
“He see what kind of truck?”
“Nope. Not even sure it was a pickup. Might’ve been an SUV,” Stryker said. “All he could see was, the lights was set up high.”
They looked at the fire some more and then Virgil said, “Lot of people hated him.”
“Yup.” A few locals sidled past, grinning, hiding beer cans, having snuck past the cops below. Small town, you took care of yourself: Stryker told them, “You folks stay back out of the way.”
They watched for another minute, then Virgil yawned. “Well, good luck to you, Jimmy. I’m heading down to the Holiday Inn.”
“Why’d you come up?”
“Just rubbernecking,” Virgil said. “Saw the fire when I was coming down Ninety. Knew what it must be.”
“Goddamnedest thing,” Stryker said, peering into the flames. “I hope that old sonofabitch was dead before the fire got to him. Nobody needs to be burned to death.”
“If he did.”
“If he did.” Stryker frowned suddenly, again turned his green eyes to Virgil. “You don’t think he might’ve faked it? Skipped out to wherever he put that money?”
“I think the money might be a legend, is what I think,” Virgil said. He slapped Stryker on the shoulder. “You take it easy, Jimmy. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Not too early. I’ll be out here awhile.” As Virgil walked away, Stryker called, “That money wasn’t no legend, Virgil. He’s burnin’ because of that money.”
Behind him, up closer to the fire, Bill Judd Jr. was still screaming at the firemen, looking like he was one step from a heart attack.
THE HOLIDAY INN was smoke free, and Strictly No Pets, but Virgil’s room smelled of smoke and pets anyway—snuck cigarettes and cats in the night—as well as whatever kind of chemical they sprayed in the air to kill the smell of smoke and cat pee. You got two beds whether you wanted them or not. Virgil tossed his bag on one of them, pulled off the rain suit, and hung it over the showerhead to drip-dry.
He was a medium-tall man with blond hair and gray eyes, a half inch over six feet, lean, broad shouldered, long armed with big hands; his hair was way too long for a cop’s, but fell short of his shoulders. He’d played the big-three sports in high school, had lettered in all of them, a wide receiver in football, a guard in basketball, a third baseman in baseball. He wasn’t big enough or fast enough for college football, he was too short for basketball, and had the arm for college baseball, but couldn’t hit the pitching.
He drifted through a degree in ecological science, with a minor in creative writing, because it was easy and interesting and he liked the outdoors, the botany, and the girls in the writing classes. He joined the Army after graduation, got semicoerced into the military police, saw some trouble, but never fired his weapon in anger.
He came back home, found that there was no huge demand for bachelor-degree ecologists, and went off to the Police Academy. Got married, got divorced, got married, got divorced, got married, got divorced, and at the end of a five-year round of silliness, decided he didn’t want to be a four-time loser, so he stopped getting married.
He was working for the City of St. Paul as an investigator—eight years on the force, getting bored—when he was borrowed by a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) unit looking into a home-invasion ring. One thing led to another, and he moved to the BCA. There, he fell into the orbit of a political appointee named Lucas Davenport who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “We’ll only give you the hard stuff.”
HE’D BEEN DOING the hard stuff for three years, with a personal side-venture as an outdoor writer. He had credits at most of the magazines that still took freelance stuff, but he wasn’t going to make a living at it; not unless he got a staff job, and magazines weren’t looking real healthy.
Didn’t know if he wanted to, anyway.
Davenport had told him that smart crooks were the most interesting game, and Virgil sometimes agreed.
VIRGIL WORE native dress out on the prairie: faded jeans and scuffed cowboy boots and musical T-shirts, and because he was a cop, a sport coat. In the sun, in the summer, he wore a straw hat and sunglasses. He usually didn’t wear a gun, unless he was in St. Paul, where Davenport might see him. The law required him to go armed, but in Virgil’s opinion, handguns were just too goddamned heavy and uncomfortable, so he kept his under the seat of the car, or in his briefcase.
After hanging his rain suit in the shower, he got a laptop out of his briefcase, went online. In his personal e-mail, he found the note from Black Horizon, a Canadian outdoor magazine, that he’d been expecting for a couple of days. They were working late in Thunder Bay: “Virg, I had to take a couple graphs out of the section on the portage—nothing I could do about it, it’s all about the space. I tried not to hack it up too bad. Anyway, it works for us if it works for you. Get back to us, and I’ll stick a check in the mail.”
He was pleased. This was his third piece in BH. He was becoming a regular. He opened the attached Word document, looked through the edited section.
Good enough. He closed the document and sent a note to the editor: “Thanks, Henry. It’s fine. I’ll look for the check. Virgil.”
Whistling now, he went to the National Weather Service, typed in the zip code for Bluestem, got the week’s forecast: thunderstorms tonight—no shit—with fair skies and warm weather the next three or four days, thunderstorms possible in the afternoons. He checked Google News to make sure London hadn’t been nuked since he left Mankato; it hadn’t.
He shut down the computer, got undressed, shook the little remaining water off his rain suit, got in the shower, cranked the heat until he couldn’t stand it anymore, then turned it up one more notch. He got out, scalded half to death, crawled into bed, and thought about Bill Judd roasting like a bratwurst in the embers of his own home, and a truck speeding away in the night. That would be an interesting murder.
THEN HE THOUGHT about God for a while, as he did most nights.
The son of a Presbyterian minister and a professor of engineering, who saw in God the Great Engineer and believed as devoutly as her husband, Virgil had gotten down on his knees every night of his life, to pray before bed, until the first night he’d spent in the dorm at the University of Minnesota. That night, embarrassed, he hadn’t gotten down on his knees, and he’d shivered and shaken in fear that the world would end because he hadn’t said his prayers.
By Christmas, like most freshmen, he was done with religion, and he mooched around campus with a copy of The Stranger under his arm, hoping to impress women with long dark hair and mysteries that needed to be solved.
He’d never gotten back to religion, but he had gotten back some faith. It came all at once, in a bull session in an Army bachelor-officers’ quarters, when one of the guys professed to being an atheist. Another one, and one who wasn’t too bright, in Virgil’s estimation, had said, urgently, “Oh, but you’re wrong: look at all the wonders of the world. There are too many wonders.”
Virgil, having grown up in the countryside, where there were wonders, and having studied ecology, where he found even more, had been stricken by the correctness of that statement from the not-too-bright believer: there were too many wonders. Atheists, he came to believe, generally worked in man-made cubes, with blackboards and computers and fast food. They didn’t believe in wonders because they never saw any.
So faith came back, but a strange one, with a God his father wouldn’t have recognized. Virgil thought about Him almost every night, about his sense of humor, and the apparent fact that He’d made rules that even He couldn’t bend…
Then at one o’clock in the morning, having thought of God, Virgil drifted off to sleep, and dreamt of men sitting in motel rooms, in the dark, secretly smoking Marlboros, watching their cats ghosting illegally around their rooms.
THE OLD TOWN of Bluestem, named for a prairie grass, lay almost a mile north of I-90. Over the years, the space between the old town had filled up with the standard franchise places—McDonald’s, Subway, Country Kitchen, Pizza Hut, Taco John’s; a Holiday Inn, a Comfort Inn, a Motel 6; four or five gas stations with convenience stores, the Ford dealership and two used-car lots. There were also a half-dozen farm and truck service shops, with worn tires stacked outside and muddy-yellow driveway puddles from the overnight rain.
The old town was prettier. The residential areas were dominated by early-twentieth-century homes, each one different than the next, and big, with porches and yards with swings. The shopping district, on Main Street, was four blocks long, yellow-brick two-and three-story buildings, including a prewar movie theater that still showed movies, and all the businesses left over after you took out a Wal-Mart: law firms, insurance agencies, too many gift shops and antique stores, a couple of small clothing stores, four restaurants, a drugstore.
The courthouse was built two blocks back from Main, and was still used as a courthouse. In most small towns, the old courthouses had been retired, to be replaced by anonymous county government buildings and law-enforcement centers built outside town.
VIRGIL PARKED in the courthouse lot, walked past the war memorial—thirteen Stark County boys lost in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq—and inside, down the long hall to the sheriff’s office.
Stryker’s secretary was a heavyset fiftyish woman with an elaborate pearly-blond hairdo, accented and bias-cut with a couple of tentative spikes sticking out the back like porcupine quills. She squinted at Virgil, took in the sunglasses and the Sheryl Crow T-shirt with the carp on the front, and asked, abruptly, “Who’re you?”
“Virgil Flowers. BCA.”
She looked him over again: “Really?”
“Sheriff said for you to go on back.” She half turned and gestured toward the back wall, which had a frosted-glass window set in a door that said SHERIFF JAMES J. STRYKER. Virgil nodded, and started past, and she asked, “How many times did you shoot at that man in Fairmont?”
Virgil paused. “Fourteen,” he said.
She looked pleased: “That’s what I heard. You never hit him?”
“Wasn’t particularly trying to,” Virgil said, though he’d just about given up on this argument.
“They say he was shooting at you,” she said.
“Ah, he didn’t want to hurt me,” Virgil said. “He was letting off some hot air, because he was pissed about being caught. Wasn’t really a bad guy, except for the fact that he held up gas stations. Had eight kids and a wife to feed.”
“Sort of his job, huh?”
“That was about it,” Virgil said. “Now he’s gonna be making snowplow blades for six years.”
“Huh,” she said. “Well, I think most of the boys around here would have shot him.”
“Must be pretty goddamn hard-hearted boys,” Virgil said, not liking her; and he went on back to Stryker’s office.
STRYKER WAS on the phone. Virgil knocked and Stryker called, “Come in,” and he waved Virgil to a chair and said into the phone, “I gotta go, but the first minute you find a toenail, I want to hear about it.” He rang off and shook his head and said, “Can’t find him. Judd.”
Virgil eased into the chair. “Nothing in the house?”
“I’ll tell you something. When most people build houses, there’s a whole bunch of stuff in it that just don’t burn too well,” Stryker said. He tapped his fingers on his desktop; anxiety. “Judd’s house was all wood—floors, paneling, bookcases—and a good amount of it was pine. Dry as a broom straw. There was nothing left up there this morning but the basement and a few pieces of metal and rock—refrigerator, stove, furnace, and even those are melted down into lumps. We think he was in there. But we haven’t found a thing.”
“I’ll tell you, Virgil. If we don’t find something, this is gonna plague me,” Stryker said. “And everybody in the county, for that matter. We won’t know if he went up in smoke, or if he’s down on some French island someplace. We won’t know if that truck last night didn’t have Bill Judd in it, heading for the West Indies.”
“Jesus, Jimmy, the guy’s what? Eighty?” Virgil said. “They were saying down at the Holiday that he’d been pretty sick. In and out of the hospital. Why in the hell would he sit here for eighty years, and then with six months to live, take off for the West Indies?”
“Probably because he’d think it was funny, fuckin’ everybody up one last time,” Stryker said. He was unsettled, mumbled, “Sonofabitch,” then sighed, looked at two fat file folders on his desktop, and pushed them across at Virgil.
“This is it. Everything we got. There’s also a DVD in there, all the same stuff, if you’d rather use a computer. You need Adobe Reader.”
“All right,” Virgil said. “But boil it down for me. What’d you get, and what are you looking at now?”
VIRGIL WASN’T in Bluestem for Bill Judd, though.
He was there for the Gleasons.
Russell Gleason had been a town doctor for fifty years, retired for ten. He and his wife, Anna, lived in an affluent enclave of businessmen and professionals on a hillock above the Stark River reservoir, a mile east of downtown and handy to the Bluestem Country Club. Anna had been a nurse for a while, when she was younger, and then had gotten elected to the county commission, where she served six terms and then retired for good. They had three children, but the children had gone, two to the Twin Cities, one to Sioux Falls.
Both were in their eighties and in good health. Russell still played nine holes a day at the club, in good weather, and Anna had her women’s groups. They had a housekeeper, a Mexican illegal named Mayahuel Diaz who was well liked by most everyone who knew her, and who came in on weekdays.
Three weeks and four days before Virgil came to town, Russell had played a round of golf on a Friday afternoon, the round cut short by rain. He had a few drinks with his golfing pals, then hooked up with his wife. They’d gone to the Holiday Inn for dinner. On the way back home, they stopped at a SuperAmerica—a credit card said it was twelve minutes after nine when they paid for the gas.
At eleven o’clock that rainy night, a neighbor had been sent to town by his wife to get a quart of milk. As he came past the Gleason place, he saw what looked like a strange sculpture, like a dummy or a scarecrow, sitting in the Gleasons’ backyard, bathed in yard lights.
He got a quart of milk and came back up the hill, drove past the Gleasons’ house, saw the scarecrow or whatever it was, got as far as his driveway, then said, the hell with it, that scarecrow was too strange. He’d just stop and ask if everything was okay.
The scarecrow was Russell Gleason, propped up with a stick, his eyes shot out.
THE SHOOTINGS had happened inside the house. Anna had been shot to death as she sat on a couch in the living room; shot once in the heart. Russell had been shot three times, once in the lower back, and once in each eye. Then his body had been dragged outside and propped up, staring gap mouthed and blank eyed into the dark.
“It looked like he tried to run, but he couldn’t,” Stryker said. “That the sequence was, that he was standing up, and Anna was sitting down. The killer shot her in the heart and Russell turned to run, and the killer shot him in the spine, from the back, just as he got to the dining room.”
“How far was that? How far did he run?”
“About three steps. I’ll get you the key to the house, on the way out the door, we’ve got a couple in evidence,” Stryker said. “Anyway, the dining room is connected to the living room, and it looks like he was shot as he started into the dining room. He went down, and rolled on his back, and the killer stood over him and shot him twice, once in each eye. Goddamnedest thing.”
The slugs were .357 hollow points, and exited the back of Gleason’s head into the floor, and were recovered, though in fragments.
“The eye thing, propping him up in the yard, in the lights—a ritual of some kind,” Virgil said.
“Looks like something, but I don’t know what,” Stryker said, shaking his head. “The second shot was a waste of good ammunition, I can tell you that. And the shooter took a risk—the Gleasons’ house is three hundred fifty feet from the nearest neighbor, and it was raining, so the houses were closed up with air-conditioning. Still, a .357 makes a damn loud bang. If somebody had been walking by…the third shot was an extra risk.”
“Excitement? I’ve seen that,” Virgil said. “Guy starts pulling the trigger and can’t stop.”
“One in each eye? He had to take his time,” Stryker said. “I mean, he fired from two feet away, straight down, but you still have to take your time to put it right through an eye.”
“So he’s nuts. A ritual, a revenge thing…Maybe a warning?”
Stryker sighed. “What the whole situation hints at, when you boil it down, is that it’s somebody from here, that we all know. Somebody who went to that specific house, at that specific time, to do the killing. Somebody that they let into the house. No sign of struggle by the entrance. There was a glass of water by Anna’s hand, on an end table, like she’d been sitting there awhile.”
“Was it dark?”
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