On a hot, humid summer night in Minnesota, Virgil Flowers gets a call from Lucas Davenport. A body has been found near a veterans’ memorial in Stillwater with two shots to the head and a lemon in his mouth—exactly like the body they found two weeks ago.
Working the murders, Flowers becomes convinced that someone is keeping a list—with many more names on it. And when he discovers what connects them all, he’s almost sorry. Because if it’s true, then this whole thing leads down a lot more trails than he thought it did—and every one of them is booby-trapped.
About the Author
Hometown:St. Paul, Minnesota
Date of Birth:February 23, 1944
Place of Birth:Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Education:State University of Iowa, Iowa City: B.A., American History; M.A., Journalism
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ALSO BY JOHN SANDFORD Rules of Prey
G.P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Copyright © 2008 by John Sandford
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
1. Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Veterans—Crimes against—
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Heat Lightning was written in cooperation with my old friend and hunting partner Chuck Logan, the author of a terrific bunch of thrillers of his own—the latest being South of Shiloh from HarperCollins. Chuck and I have shared a number of adventures that later turned up in our books, and that taught us about things like tracking blood trails through the North Woods. . . .
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 twentieth 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.
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, illuminated by spotlights. 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, to the edge of the memorial. The brilliant spotlights 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.
“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 extract only 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 waterboards. 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.”
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 stepped back to the bedroom, as though he’d forgotten something, had taken the .38 out of a bedroom bureau and slipped it into 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-nine, 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.
He heard first 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 smoothly. . . .
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.
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 those names.
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 semiconscious 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. “Sally will be hurt.”
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.
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 the call 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 D.C. tomorrow for more convention stuff. Del’s going with me, the feds are briefing us on the counterculture 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.”
“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.”
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 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 wanted 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 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.
A lifelong 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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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. A space between the Cs 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 workingman’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 duckwalked 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.
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.”
Excerpted from "Heat Lightning"
Copyright © 2009 John Sandford.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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