Read an Excerpt
Prelude: SweetHeart Industries
Cavus, March 2009
Grady Anderson had no inkling of his future. He only knew that he was in Cavus, Montana, doing what he was being paid to do, and there was a body in front of him.
He gave the body another little poke with his toe, and this time the corpse stayed resting on its side. Wasn’t it interesting, the way you could position them like that? Really interesting. Grady kneeled beside the man and stared into what was left of his face. “Shouldn’t have f***ed with me, boy-o. Should not have messed with Mr. Graham’s business.”
He tried the name out loud, liking the weight of “Graham” in the silence of the air around him. They were inside the only remaining building of the old coal mine, which had been shut down since the big fire of 1937. The building wasn’t anything more than a shaft covering, a wood box about the size and shape of two outhouses stuck together. Over the floor, where the opening to the shaft was, somebody had placed a wooden board with a black X marked across it. Grady could feel a cool breeze coming up from it, and he didn’t take his chances standing on it. Who knew how far down that shaft went, or how old the board was. The rest of the building was empty, with a few hooks on the walls, rusted to a dirty orange. Sun leaked in through the cracks of the roof’s shingles, but not enough to see much by. Grady’d stumbled into the building when the unexpected downpour began.
He’d answered all the questions Mr. Graham had left for him in the packet he’d handed over at their meeting. Most of the questions were pretty straightforward:
“What’s the nearest house and how far away is it?” (Half a mile.)
“What is the condition of the soil?” (Grady’s impression, and then he was to collect a sample in a small test tube provided.)
“How easy was access from the main road?” (Grady answered that one with a “not f***ing easy at all.”)
He’d been careful, as Mr. Graham had wanted him to be, to make sure that no one saw him coming out this way, but there weren’t any main roads even into Cavus, and getting around the town without anyone seeing him go up to this secluded place had been a real bitch indeed. There were a few old dirt roads that the mining company had used, but these had fallen into disrepair. Grady’d put the poor little Nissan they’d rented to him in Billings through hell and back. He doubted there’d be much of his deposit left by the time the kind folks at Avis deducted for the dings and dirt bath he’d given her.
So no, it wasn’t easy getting up here, but it could be. That was clear enough. The outlines of the old road were here, and if somebody wanted to pump a little money into cleaning them up, this stretch of land could be connected to the town, and then to I-94 easy-peasy, Japaneasy. And from I-94, well, the world. The last question required the most stealth on Grady’s part. He was to find out how much the parcel of land was going for, and then see if he could talk the seller down, pretend that he was a bachelor who just wanted an out-of-the-way place. Grady thought he could do that pretty well. He’d spend the night back in Billings and then drive to Cavus the next morning to meet with the real estate agent. He was about to do just that, when the downpour started.
With his car a good twenty-minute hike away, Grady didn’t have any choice but that little building over the shaft, and he ran to it, the rain soaking his clothes all the way through. But when he opened the door, he got a wicked surprise. Someone had gotten there before him.
In the corner, shivering, stood a little man in a yellow slicker with a rabbity-thin face, wearing wire-rimmed glasses.
“What the f***?” Grady said, surprised enough to strike up a conversational tone. “The hell are you?”
The man in the corner was shivering, which Grady thought was odd because even in the rain it really wasn’t that cold. “Hello.” The man stuck his hand out. “Fancy fortune throwing us together like this. I was out for a bit of fishing, and then, wham, wouldn’t you know it, down comes the rain.” He chuckled, his hand still extended. When Grady didn’t take it, the man dropped it back to his side.
“Fishing, eh?” If there was one thing Grady didn’t like, it was people taking him for stupid. ’Cause he wasn’t. He’d been a real good student, even, when he put his mind to it, and once, a poem he wrote for a sixth-grade English assignment got picked as one of two from the whole school to be sent over to their “sister school” in China. Grady Anderson was not f***ing stupid.
“Why’re you wearing them slacks, then, huh? Seems like a fellow going out fishing might do better with a pair of waders or something.”
The man looked down, his rabbity face crinkling in bemusement, like maybe he’d never before seen the slacks he had on. “Oh! I just . . . I just got off work.” The man flashed Grady his smile again, and then seemed to ease back into himself, leaning his foot up against the rickety boards of the wall.
“Where you work?”
“Back in town.” The man hitched a thumb over his shoulder toward the wall behind him. The flashlight Grady had trained on him made the man look even paler than he was.
“In town, huh? What do you do?”
“I’m an accountant.” Grady saw that the whole time the man was talking, he was also kicking at something with his foot. He tried to do this very nonchalantly, to scoot the thing, then kick his heel back up against the wall like he was just trying to get comfortable, maybe . . . but . . . But. Grady Anderson was not f***ing stupid.
“What you got there?” He trained his light at the man’s foot, which froze midkick.
“N-nothing,” the man stammered. “Office papers.”
“That right? Brought your work out here with you, did ya?”
“Yes,” said the man, sounding relieved. “Yes, that’s just exactly right. You must be a working fellow yourself. It’s hard, isn’t it? Just letting go of everything. Enjoying yourself without worry.”
“It surely is,” said Grady. “Say, where did you say you were going fishing at?”
“A little river,” the man said. “Back that way.” He jerked his thumb to the same wall he’d pointed to for his work. “I like to walk up to it. Good exercise.”
“Isn’t it just,” said Grady, nodding.
“I think I’d better be going,” the man said.
“Don’t you know fish bite best in the rain?”
“Is that right?” Grady stepped aside, allowing the man to pass by him, toward the door. He could see the rabbit face crinkle back over his teeth into a smile, the teeth pushing out his upper lip. The man was making a decided effort not to run, Grady saw, and this made him grin. The fellow was just past him, had his hand on the door, when Grady stopped him.
“Say, where did you say that river was again?”
“Just right around here,” the man said, his confidence sounding restored now that he’d made it past Grady and to the door. “Take care.”
“You never asked why I was here.”
“No.” Grady shook his head. He was enjoying this, by God. Enjoying it heartily. The little shit was trying to pull one over on him, and that just wasn’t going to happen. Grady judged the distance between him and the man, and then shot out an arm to grab the briefcase the man had been trying to hide earlier.
“Hey!” the man cried out, trying to beat Grady’s arm away from him. But Grady was twice his size, and threw the man off easily. He popped open the briefcase, and shook the papers onto the floor, shining the light on them.
“Sir, I’ll thank you to kindly return that,” said the man, bending to try to collect the briefcase. Grady pushed him away. “It’s none of your business,” said the man, his voice growing weaker. “None at all.”
The pictures were in black and white, most of them of the land, but the last ones were of Grady. Grady walking around looking at the ground, Grady bending to take samples. The last was a picture of Grady at the rental counter at the airport.
An anger, darker than any he’d ever known, welled up inside him. “Why, you little sneak.” He stood up, and now the man was scrambling backward, searching for the door handle behind him with a frantic hand.
Grady grabbed hold of the man’s yellow slicker and pulled the ugly rabbit face up to his own. “Who sent you!” he said. “You’d better spill it quick, or I’m going to spill you.”
“Nobody,” said the man, and by God if he didn’t even feel like a rabbit, his little bones trembling beneath the jacket like a rabbit in its skin.
“That right?” said Grady. Without warning, he shot his fist out hard and fast, burying it in the man’s stomach. The man let out a little “mmph,” then doubled over.
“Stop it. Please, please, stop it,” he pleaded, and Grady could feel a liquid, wet and hot, drop onto his hand where he held the man by his jacket. He was crying. For f***’s sake, the little shit was crying.
“That’s the problem with people today,” Grady said, feeling good. “No gumption. Just a bunch of stinkin’ cowards. STINKING COWARDS!” he finished, landing another blow to the man, this one across his face. He heard the crunch of bone, and saw blood spilling from the man’s nose.
“Stop!” the man said, holding his hands up in front of his face. “Please! For God’s sake!”
Grady lifted his fist in the air again, and the man tried to pull back, violently struggling against Grady’s grasp. “All right!” he choked, the blood spilling to the back of his throat slurring his words. “All right! I’ll tell you anything, just please stop.” The man was crying openly now, great big sobs, and for the briefest moment, Grady felt sorry for the guy.
“Who’re you working for?”
“Saul Pecking,” the man said, sounding defeated. “Saul Pecking. He found out about Mr. Graham wanting to buy the land, and he wanted to stop him. To get in first.”
“I bet I can just guess what Mr. Pecking’s business is,” said Grady, remembering his conversation earlier with Graham, and feeling very smart because of it. “I bet Mr. Pecking sells himself some corn syrup, isn’t that just about right?”
The man nodded, his head hung low, and his shoulders slumped. “He owns several plants that produce corn products, including corn syrup, yes.” He raised his head, and there was the last glimmer of defiance in his eyes.
“And if you think you can buy a piece of land and grow some beets and wipe out one of the largest industries in the nation . . .” Grady watched, amused, as the man practically transformed into a lecturer in front of his very eyes, his broken glasses wobbling on his little pink nose. “. . . an industry supported and encouraged by the government, you’ve . . .”
But Grady didn’t let him finish. He brought the weight of the flashlight down with its full force onto the man’s skull, feeling something give as metal connected with soft flesh. He brought it down again, and again, until the man slumped in front of him, a dead sack of flesh.
Grady kicked at the body, rolling it over onto the plank covering the shaft. The breeze that had earlier felt cool coming up from it now felt warm. Grady shone the bloody flashlight on the body. “Last time,” he said, but now he was grinning. “Maybe. Probably. Probably the last time.”
The warm air from the hole snaked up and around Grady. There was a sound, as if someone near him had inhaled, a great, gasping intake of air from the ground beneath him. The air from the hole rose, spilled out and up and into Grady. He breathed it in, inhaling deeply, watching the blood drip from the pulp of the man’s head onto the board, then seep through the cracks into the darkness. He inhaled and felt a great energy enter him. Grady lifted his head, listening to the pounding of water on the roof. It was still raining. A drop worked itself through the faulty roof and landed on Grady’s bare arm. He felt the drop with senses he’d never known he possessed before; he felt the drop with each hair on his arm, each pore of his flesh. He raised his arm to lick it away. The water was cool and delicious, a baptism. He had, he reflected, never felt better in his life.
Still raining. Grady bent down and carefully, tenderly, rolled the man over, then worked him out of his slicker. It would be a tight fit, but he’d make it work. Something about it just appealed to him, that yellow. The slick of it. The way liquids would just roll off it. Before standing again, he leaned over to whisper into what was left of the man’s ear, the appendage seeming to have shifted toward the bottom half of the man’s face.
“Piece of advice, friend,” he patted the man’s arm before letting go and letting the body thud back to the ground, “the next time you tell someone you’re going fishing, you’d better bring a pole.”