Virgil Flowers investigates a miracleand a murderin the wickedly entertaining new thriller from the master of "pure reading pleasure" (Booklist).
Wheatfield, Minnesota: a metropolis of six hundred souls and change, for which the word "moribund" might have been invented. Nothing ever happened there and nothing ever woulduntil the mayor of sorts (campaign slogan: "I'll Do What I Can") and his precocious teenage buddy come up with a scheme to put Wheatfield on the map. Should something dramatic occursay, that the apparition of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared at the local Catholic Churchthe whole town would be turned into a shrine, attracting thousands of pilgrims. And all those pilgrims needed food, shelter, all kinds of crazy things. The town would get rich! What could go wrong?
Then the shootings begin. And as theyand Virgil Flowersare about to discover, that's only the beginning of their troubles. . . .
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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
Read an Excerpt
Wardell Holland, the mayor of Wheatfield, Minnesota, was sitting in the doublewide he rented from his mother, a Daisy match-grade pellet rifle in his hands, shooting flies. His mother suspected he let the flies in on purpose, so he could shoot at them. He denied it, but he was lying.
He was tracking a bull-sized bluebottle when the doorbell croaked. Like most other things in the place, there was something not quite right with the doorbell, but not quite wrong enough to fix. In this case, the doorbell probably indicated that the beer had arrived. The kid had taken his own sweet time about it; school had been out for an hour.
“Come in,” he shouted.
The fly tracked out of the bedroom and lazily circled through the living room and toward the kitchen. He picked it up over the sights and the kid outside yelled, “Don’t go shooting—”
POP! A clear miss. The fly juked as the pellet whipped past, then circled around the sink and out of sight. The pellet ricocheted once and stuck in the fiberboard closet door by the entrance.
“Hey! Hey! You crazy fuckin’ pillhead, you’re gonna put my eye out.”
Holland shouted, “He’s gone, you can come in.”
John Jacob Skinner edged through the door, keeping an eye on Holland, who was sprawled on the couch, his prosthetic foot propped up on the arm, the rifle lying across his stomach. Skinner, who was seventeen, said, “Goddamnit, Wardell...”
“I won’t shoot, even if I see him... though he is a trophy-sized beast.”
Skinner eased into the room, carrying a six-pack of Coors Light. “You want one now or you want it in the refrigerator? They’re cold.”
“Now, of course. I shoot better with a little alcohol in me.”
“Right.” Skinner pulled loose two cans, tossed one to Holland, put four in the refrigerator, popped the top on the last one, and took a drink.
Skinner resembled his name: he was six-foot-three, skinny, with long red hair that never seemed overly clean, a razor-thin face, prominent Adam’s apple, and bony shoulders and hips. He had about a billion freckles.
He’d shown a minor talent for basketball in junior high, but had quit the game when he’d went to high school. He’d told friends that he needed non-school time to think, since it was impossible to think when he was actually in school.
The coach had asked, “Now what in the Sam Hill do you want to think for, Skinner? Where’s that gonna get you?”
He didn’t know the answer to that question, but he did know that being the second man on the lowest level, 1-A Border Conference would get him nowhere at all. He’d thought at least that far.
“One of these days,” Skinner said to Holland, “You’re gonna catch a ricochet in the dick. Then what? Army gonna give you a wooden cock?”
“Shut up,” Holland said.
Holland had been elected mayor as a gag played by the voters of Wheatfield on the town’s stuffed shirts. What made it even funnier was that after an unsuccessful first term, Holland was re-elected in a landslide. He’d run for office on a variety of slogans his minions had spray-painted on walls around town: “No more bullshit: we’re fucked,” “Beer Sales on Sunday,” “I’ll do what I can.”
All of which outshone his opponent’s “A Bright Future for Wheatfield,” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
This, in a town whose population had fallen from 829 in 2000 to 721 in the last census and now probably hovered around 650, leaving behind twenty or thirty empty houses and a bunch of empty apartments over the downtown stores. Half the stores were themselves shuttered and some had been simply abandoned by their owners, eventually and pointlessly taken by the county for lack of property tax payments.
This, in a town where, fifteen years earlier, the city council had purchased from the then-mayor, in a corrupt deal, a forty-acre tract on the edge of town. The town had run water and an electric cable out to it and advertised it on a lonely I-90 billboard as the Wheatfield Industrial Park. In fifteen years, it had not attracted a single business, and, in the estimation of voters, never would.
Holland, a former first lieutenant in the Army, had lost a foot in Afghanistan and lived on a military disability pension, which, in Wheatfield, was good enough. He’d refused the thirty-dollar-per-meeting mayor’s salary and had rented out the industrial park to a local corn farmer, so the forty acres was finally producing a bit of money. Sixty-eight hundred dollars a year, to be exact.
When he was feeling industrious, Holland would limp around town with a weed-whacker, trimming weeds and brush from around stop signs, fire hydrants, and drainage ditches. Once a month or so, he’d run the town’s riding lawn mower around the local park and Little League ball field, which was more than any other mayor had done. None of that took too long in a metropolis of 650 souls.
Skinner asked Holland, “Remember how you said you were gonna do what you can, for the town? When you were elected?”
“I was deeply sincere,” Holland said, insincerely.
Skinner dragged a chair around from the breakfast bar, straddled it backwards, facing Holland on the couch, and said, “I was walking by the Catholic Church last night.”
“Good,” Holland said. And, “Why don’t you open the door and let a couple more flies in? I’m running out of game and that big bastard’s hiding.”
“There was some Mexicans coming out of the church,” Skinner continued. “They’re meeting there on Wednesday nights. Praying and shit.”
“I knew that,” Holland said. He was distracted, as the bull bluebottle hove into view. He lifted the rifle.
Skinner said, “Honest to God, Holland, you shoot that rifle, I’m gonna take this fuckin’ can of beer and I’m gonna sink it in your fuckin’ forehead. Put that rifle down and listen to what I’m saying.”
The fly reversed itself and disappeared and Holland took the rifle down. “You were walking by the Catholic Church...”
The church had been all but abandoned by the archdiocese. Not enough Catholics to keep it going and not enough local hippies to buy it as a dance studio or enough prostitutes to buy it as a massage parlor. There was a packing plant forty miles down the Interstate, though, with lots of Mexican workers, and the housing was cheap enough in Wheatfield that it had lately attracted two dozen of the larger Mexican families.
The diocese had given a key to the church to a representative of the Wheatfield Mexicans, who were doing a bit to maintain it and to pay the liability insurance. Every once in a while, a Spanish-speaking priest from Minneapolis would drop by to say a Mass.
Skinner: “I got to thinking...”
“Man, that always makes me nervous,” Holland said. “Know what I’m saying?”
“What I thought of was, how to make Wheatfield the busiest town on the prairie. Big money for everybody. For a long time. We could get a cut ourselves, if we could buy out Henry Morganstat. Could we get a mortgage, you think?”
Holland sighed. “I got no idea how a seventeen-year-old high school kid could be so full of shit as you are. A hundred and sixty pounds of shit in a twelve-pound bag. So tell me, then finish your beer, and go away, and leave me with my fly.”
Skinner told him.
Holland had nothing to say for a long time. He stared across the space between them and finally said, “Jesus Christ, that could work, J.J. You say it’d cost six hundred dollars? I mean, I got six hundred dollars. I’d have to look some stuff up on the Internet. And that thing about buying out Henry... I think he’d take twenty grand for the place. I got the GI Bill and my mother would probably loan me enough for the rest, at nine percent, the miserable bitch, but... Jesus Christ.”
“I’d want a piece of the action,” Skinner said.
“Well, of course. You came up with the idea, I’ll come up with the money. We go fifty-fifty,” Holland said.
“That’s good. I’d hate to get everything in place and then have to blackmail you for a share,” Skinner said.
Holland’s eyes narrowed: “We gotta talk to some guys...”
Skinner said, “We can’t talk to any guys. This is you and me... If we...” He realized that Holland’s eyes were tracking past him and he turned and saw the fly headed back to the kitchen. “Goddamnit, Holland, look at me. We’re talking about saving the town, here. Making big money, too.”
Holland said, “We’ll have to tell at least one more person. We need a woman.”
Skinner scratched his nose. “Yeah. I thought of that. There’s Jennie. She can keep her mouth shut.”
“You still nailin’ her?”
“From time to time, yeah, when Larry isn’t around.”
“You know, you’re gonna knock her up sooner or later,” Holland said. “She’s ripe as a plum and I’d guess her baby clock is about to go off. What is she, anyway, thirty-three? When that red-haired bun pops outa the oven, you best be on a Greyhound to Hawaii.”
“Yeah, yeah, maybe, but she’d do this, and she’d be perfect. Who else would we get, anyway?”
“I dunno, I...”
The fly tracked around the room again and Holland said, “Shhhh... he’s gonna land.” He lifted the rifle and pointed it over Skinner’s shoulder toward the sink. Skinner lurched forward onto the floor to get down and out of the way, as Holland pulled the trigger.
The fly disappeared in a puff of fly guts and broken wings.
Holland looked down at Skinner and whispered, “Got him. It’s like... it’s like some kinda sign.”