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
The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight,gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-upsweat socks spilling from a basket. A chilly wind knockedleaves from the elms, oaks, and maples at the water’sedge. The white phlox and black-eyed Susans bowedtheir heads before it.
The end of summer; too soon.
John Mail walked down the floating dock at Irv’s BoatWorks, through the scents of premix gasoline, dead, dryingminnows and moss, the old man trailing behind withhis hands in the pockets of his worn gabardines. JohnMail didn’t know about old-style machinery—chokes,priming bulbs, carburetors, all that. He knew diodes andresistors, the strengths of one chip and the weaknesses ofanother. But in Minnesota, boat lore is considered part ofthe genetic pattern: he had no trouble renting a fourteenfootLund with a 9.9 Johnson outboard. A driver’s licenseand a twenty-dollar deposit were all he needed at Irv’s.
Mail stepped down into the boat, and with an openhand wiped a film of water from the bench seat and satdown. Irv squatted beside the boat and showed him howto start the motor and kill it, how to steer it and accelerate.The lesson took thirty seconds. Then John Mail, withhis cheap Zebco rod and reel and empty, red-plastic tacklebox, put out on Lake Minnetonka.
“Back before dark,” Irv hollered after him. The whitehairedman stood on the dock and watched John Mailputter away.
When Mail left Irv’s dock, the sky was clear, the airlimpid and summery, if a little nervous in the west. Somethingwas coming, he thought. Something was hiding belowthe treeline. But no matter. This was just a look, justa taste.
He followed the shoreline east and north for threemiles. Big houses were elbow to elbow, millions of dollars’worth of stone and brick with manicured lawns runningdown to the water. Professionally tended flowerbeds were stuck on the lawns like postage stamps, withfaux-cobblestone walks snaking between them. Stoneswans and plaster ducks paddled across the grass.
Everything looked different from the water side. Mailthought he’d gone too far, but he still hadn’t picked outthe house. He stopped and went back, then circled. Finally,much farther north than he thought it would be, hespotted the weird-looking tower house, a local landmark.And down the shore, one-two-three, yes, there it was,stone, glass and cedar, red shingles, and, barely visible onthe far side of the roof, the tips of the huge blue sprucesthat lined the street. A bed of petunias, large swirls of red,white, and blue, glowed patriotically from the top of aflagstone wall set into the slope of the lawn. An opencruiser crouched on a boat lift next to the floating dock.
Mail killed the outboard and let the boat drift to a stop.The storm was still below the trees, the wind was dyingdown. He picked up the fishing rod, pulled line off thereel and threaded it through the guides and out the tip.Then he took a handful of line and threw it overboard,hookless and weightless. The rat’s-nest of monofilamentdrifted on the surface, but that was good enough. Helooked like he was fishing.
Settling on the hard bench seat, Mail hunched hisshoulders and watched the house. Nothing moved. Aftera few minutes, he began to manufacture fantasies.
He was good at this: a specialist, in a way. There weretimes when he’d been locked up as punishment, was allowedno books, no games, no TV. A claustrophobic—and they knew he was claustrophobic, that was part ofthe punishment—he’d escaped into fantasy to preservehis mind, sat on his bunk and turned to the blank facingwall and played his own mind-films, dancing dreams ofsex and fire.
Andi Manette starred in the early mind-films; fewerlater on, almost none in the past two years. He’d almostforgotten her. Then the calls came, and she was back.
Andi Manette. Her perfume could arouse the dead.She had a long, slender body, with a small waist andlarge, pale breasts, a graceful neckline, when seen fromthe back with her dark hair up over her small ears.
Mail stared at the water, eyes open, fishing rod droopingover the gunwales, and watched, in his mind, as shewalked across a dark chamber toward him, peeling off asilken robe. He smiled. When he touched her, her fleshwas warm and smooth, unblemished. He could feel heron his fingertips. “Do this,” he’d say, out loud; and thenhe’d giggle. “Down here,” he’d say . . .
He sat for an hour, for two, talking occasionally, thenhe sighed and shivered, and woke from the daydream.The world had changed.
The sky was gray, angry, the low clouds rolling in. Awind whipped around the boat, blowing the rat’s-nest ofmonofilament across the water like a tumbleweed. Acrossthe fattest part of the lake, he could see the breaking curlof a whitecap.
Time to go.
He reached back to crank the outboard and saw her.She stood in the bay window, wearing a white dress—though she was three hundred yards away, he knew thefigure, and the unique, attentive stillness. He could feelthe eye contact. Andi Manette was psychic. She couldlook right into your brain and say the words you weretrying to hide.
John Mail looked away, to protect himself.
So she wouldn’t know he was coming.Andi Manette stood in the bay window andwatched the rain sweep across the water toward the house,and the darkness coming behind. At the concave drop ofthe lawn, at the water’s edge, the tall heads of the whitephlox bobbed in the wind. They’d be gone by the weekend.Beyond them, a lone fisherman sat in one of theorange-tipped rental boats from Irv’s. He’d been outthere since five o’clock and, as far as she could tell, hadn’tcaught a thing. She could’ve told him that the bottomwas mostly sterile muck, that she’d never caught a fishfrom the dock.
As she watched, he turned to start the outboard. Andihad been around boats all of her life, and somethingabout the way the man moved suggested that he didn’tknow about outboards—how to sit down and crank atthe same time.
When he turned toward her, she felt his eyes—andthought, ridiculously, that she might know him. He wasso far away that she couldn’t even make out the shape ofhis face. But still, the total package—head, eyes, shoulders,movement—seemed familiar . . .
Then he yanked the starter cord again, and a few secondslater he was on his way down the shoreline, onehand holding his hat on his head, the other hand on theoutboard tiller. He’d never seen her, she thought. Therain swept in behind him.
And she thought: the clouds come in, the leaves fallingdown.
The end of summer.
Too soon.Andi stepped away from the window and movedthrough the living room, turning on the lamps. Theroom was furnished with warmth and a sure touch: heavycountry couches and chairs, craftsman tables, lamps andrugs. A hint of Shaker there in the corner, lots of naturalwood and fabric, subdued, but with a subtle, occasionallybold, touch of color—a flash of red in the rug that wentwith the antique maple table, a streak of blue that hintedof the sky outside the bay windows.
The house, always warm in the past, felt cold withGeorge gone.
With what George had done.
George was movement and intensity and argument,and even a sense of protection, with his burliness and aggression,his tough face, intelligent eyes. Now . . . this.
Andi was a slender woman, tall, dark-haired, unconsciouslydignified. She often seemed posed, although shewas unaware of it. Her limbs simply fell into arrangements,her head cocked for a portrait. Her hair-do and pearl earringssaid horses and sailboats and vacations in Greece.
She couldn’t help it. She wouldn’t change it if she could.
With the living room lights cutting the growinggloom, Andi climbed the stairs, to get the girls organized:first day of school, clothes to choose, early to bed.
At the top of the stairs, she started right, toward thegirls’ room—then heard the tinny music of a bad moviecoming from the opposite direction.
They were watching television in the master bedroomsuite. As she walked down the hall, she heard the suddendisconnect of a channel change. By the time she got tothe bedroom, the girls were engrossed in a CNN newscast,with a couple of talking heads rambling on aboutthe Consumer Price Index.
“Hi, Mom,” Genevieve said cheerfully. And Gracelooked up and smiled, a bit too pleased to see her.
“Hi,” Andi said. She looked around. “Where’s the remote?”
Grace said, unconcernedly, “Over on the bed.”
The remote was a long way from either of the girls,halfway across the room in the middle of the bedspread.Hastily thrown, Andi thought. She picked it up, said,“Excuse me,” and backtracked through the channels. Onone of the premiums, she found a clinch scene, fullynude, still in progress.
“You guys,” she said, reproachfully.
“It’s good for us,” the younger one protested, notbothering with denials. “We gotta find things out.”
“This is not the way to do it,” Andi said, punching outthe channel. “Come talk to me.” She looked at Grace, buther older daughter was looking away—a little angry,maybe, and embarrassed. “Come on,” Andi said. “Let’severybody organize our school stuff and take our baths.”
“We’re talking like a doctor again, Mom,” Grace said.
On the way down to the girls’ bedrooms, Genevieveblurted, “God, that guy was really hung.”
After a second of shocked silence, Grace started togiggle, and two seconds later Andi started, and five sec-onds after that all three of them sprawled on the carpet inthe hallway, laughing until the tears ran down their faces.The rain fell steadily through the night, stoppedfor a few hours in the morning, then started again.
Andi got the girls on the bus, arrived at work ten minutesearly, and worked efficiently through her patient list,listening carefully, smiling encouragement, occasionallytalking with some intensity. To a woman who could notescape thoughts of suicide; to another who felt she wasmale, trapped in a female body; to a man who was obsessedby a need to control the smallest details of his family’slife—he knew he was wrong but couldn’t stop.
At noon, she walked two blocks out to a deli andbrought a bag lunch back for herself and her partner.They spent the lunch hour talking about Social Securityand worker compensation taxes with the bookkeeper.
In the afternoon, a bright spot: a police officer, deeplybound by the million threads of chronic depression,seemed to be responding to new medication. He was adour, pasty-faced man who reeked of nicotine, but todayhe smiled shyly at her and said, “My God, this was mybest week in five years: I was looking at women.”Andi left the office early, and drove through anannoying, mud-producing drizzle to the west side of theloop, to the rambling, white New England cottages andgreen playing fields of the Birches School. Hard maplesboxed the school parking lot; flames of red autumn colorwere stitched through their lush crowns. Toward theschool entrance, a grove of namesake birch had gone asunny gold, a brilliant greeting on a dismal day.
Andi left the car in the parking lot and hurried inside,the warm smell of a soaking rain hanging like a fog overthe wet asphalt.
The teacher-parent conferences were routine—Andiwent to them every year, the first day of school: meet theteachers, smile at everyone, agree to work on the Thanksgivingpageant, write a check to the strings program. Solooking forward to working with Grace, she’s a very brightchild, active, school leader, blah blah blah.
She was happy to go to them. Always happy whenthey were over.When they were done, she and the girls walkedback outside and found the rain had intensified, hissingdown from the crazy sky. “I’ll tell you what, Mom,”Grace said, as they stood in the school’s covered entry,watching a woman with a broken umbrella scurry downthe sidewalk. Grace was often very serious when talkingwith adults. “I’m in a very good dress, and it’s barelywrinkled, so I could wear it again. Why don’t you get thecar and pick me up here?”
“All right.” No point in all of them getting wet.
“I’m not afraid of the rain,” Genevieve said, pugnaciously.“Let’s go.”
“Why don’t you wait with Grace?” Andi asked.
“Nah. Grace is just afraid to get wet ’cause she’ll melt,the old witch,” Genevieve said.
Grace caught her sister’s eye and made a pinching signwith her thumb and forefinger.
“Mom,” Genevieve wailed.
“Grace,” Andi said, reprovingly.
“Tonight, when you’re almost asleep,” Grace muttered.She knew how to deal with her sister.
At twelve, Grace was the older and by far the taller ofthe two, gawky, but beginning to show the curves of adolescence.She was a serious girl, almost solemn, as thoughexpecting imminent unhappiness. Someday a doctor.
Genevieve, on the other hand, was competitive, frivolous,loud. Almost too pretty. Even at nine, everyonesaid, it was obvious that she’d be a trial to the boys. Towhole flocks of boys. But that was years away. Now shewas sitting on the concrete, messing with the sole of hertennis shoe, peeling the bottom layer off.
“Gen,” Andi said.
“It’s gonna come off anyway,” Genevieve said, notlooking up. “I told you I needed new shoes.”
A man in a raincoat hurried up the walk, hatless, headbowed in the rain. David Girdler, who called himself apsychotherapist and who was active in the Parent-Teacher Cooperative. He was a boring man, given to pronunciationsabout proper roles in life, and hard-wiredbehavior. There were rumors that he used tarot cards inhis work. He fawned on Andi. “Dr. Manette,” he said,nodding, slowing. “Nasty day.”
“Yes,” Andi said. But her breeding wouldn’t let herstop so curtly, even with a man she disliked. “It’s supposedto rain all night again.”
“That’s what I hear,” Girdler said. “Say, did you seethis month’s Therapodist? There’s an article on the structureof recovered memory . . .”
He rambled on for a moment, Andi smiling automatically,then Genevieve interrupted, loudly, “Mom, we’resuperlate,” and Andi said, “We’ve really got to go, David,”and then, because of the breeding, “But I’ll be sure to lookit up.”
“Sure, nice talking to you,” Girdler said.
When he’d gone inside, Genevieve said, looking afterhim, from the corner of her mouth like Bogart, “What dowe say, Mom?”
“Thank you, Gen,” Andi said, smiling.
“You’re welcome, Mom.”“Okay,” Andi said. “I’ll run for it.” She lookeddown the parking lot. A red van had parked on the driver’sside of her car and she’d have to run around the back of it.
“I’m coming, too,” Genevieve said.
“I get the front,” Grace said.
“I get the front . . .”
“You got the front on the way over, beetle,” Grace said.
“Mom, she called me . . .”
Grace made the pinching sign again, and Andi said,“You get in the back, Gen. You had the front on the wayover.”
“Or I’ll pinch you,” Grace added.
They half-ran through the rain, Andi in her low heels,Genevieve with her still-short legs, holding hands. Andireleased Gen’s hand as they crossed behind the Econolinevan. She pointed her key at the car and pushed the electroniclock button, heard the locks pop up over the hissingof the rain.
Head bent, she hurried down between the van and thecar, Gen a step behind her, and reached for the door handles.Andi heard the doors slide on the van behind her;felt the presence of the man, the motion. Automaticallybegan to smile, turning.
Heard Genevieve grunt, turned and saw the strangeround head coming for her, the mop of dirty-blond hair.
Saw the road-map lines buried in a face much tooyoung for them.
Saw the teeth, and the spit, and the hands like clubs.
Andi screamed, “Run.”
And the man hit her in the face.
She saw the blow coming but was unable to turnaway. The impact smashed her against her car door, andshe slid down it, her knees going out.
She didn’t feel the blow as pain, only as impact, the fiston her face, the car on her back. She felt the man turning,felt blood on her skin, smelled the worms of the pavementas she hit it, the rough, wet blacktop on the palmsof her hands, thought crazily—for just the torn half of aninstant—about ruining her suit, felt the man step away.
She tried to scream “Run” again, but the word cameout as a groan, and she felt—maybe saw, maybe not—theman moving on Genevieve, and she tried to scream again,to say something, anything, and blood bubbled out ofher nose and the pain hit her, a blinding, wrenching painlike fire on her face.
And in the distance, she heard Genevieve scream, andshe tried to push up. A hand pulled at her coat, liftingher, and she flew through the air, to crash against a sheetof metal. She rolled again, facedown, tried to get herknees beneath her, and heard a car door slam.
Half-sensible, Andi rolled, eyes wild, saw Genevievein a heap, and bloody from head to toe. She reached outto her daughter, who sat up, eyes bright. Andi tried tostop her, then realized that it wasn’t blood that stainedher red, it was something else: and Genevieve, inchesaway, screamed, “Momma, you’re bleeding . . .”
Van, she thought.
They were in the van. She figured that out, pulled herselfto her knees, and was thrown back down as the vanscreeched out of the parking place.
Grace will see us, she thought.
She struggled up again, and again was knocked down,this time as the van swung left and braked. The driver’sdoor opened and light flooded in, and she heard a shout,and the doors opened on the side of the truck, and Gracecame headlong through the opening, landing on Genevieve,her white dress stained the same rusty red as the truck.
The doors slammed again; and the van roared out ofthe parking lot.
Andi got to her knees, arms flailing, trying to makesense of it: Grace screaming, Genevieve wailing, the redstuff all over them.
And she knew from the smell and taste of it that shewas bleeding. She turned and saw the bulk of the man inthe driver’s seat behind a chain-link mesh. She shouted athim, “Stop, stop it. Stop it,” but the driver paid no attention,took a corner, took another.
“Momma, I’m hurt,” Genevieve said. Andi turnedback to her daughters, who were on their hands andknees. Grace had a sad, hound-dog look on her face; she’dknown this man would come for her someday.
Andi looked at the van doors, for a way out, but metalplates had been screwed over the spot where the handlesmust’ve been. She rolled back and kicked at the door withall her strength, but the door wouldn’t budge. She kickedagain, and again, her long legs lashing out. Then Gracekicked and Genevieve kicked and nothing moved, andGenevieve began screeching, screeching. Andi kicked untilshe felt faint from the effort, and she said to Grace,panting, three or four times, “We’ve got to get out, we’vegot to get out, get out, get out . . .”
And the man in the front seat began to laugh, a loud,carnival-ride laughter that rolled over Genevieve’s screams;the laughter eventually silenced them and they saw hiseyes in the rearview mirror and he said, “You won’t getout. I made sure of that. I know all about doors withouthandles.”
That was the first time they’d heard his voice, and thegirls shrank back from it. Andi swayed to her feet, crouchedunder the low roof, realized that she’d lost her shoes—andher purse. Her purse was there on the passenger seat, infront. How had it gotten there? She tried to steady herselfby clinging to the mesh screen, and kicked at the side window.Her heel connected and the glass cracked.
The van swerved to the side, braking, and the man infront turned, violent anger in his voice, and held up ablack .45 and said, “You break my fuckin’ window and I’llkill the fuckin’ kids.”
She could only see the side of his face, but suddenlythought: I know him. But he looks different. From where?Where? Andi sank back to the floor of the van and theman in front turned back to the wheel and then pulledaway from the curb, muttering, “Break my fuckin’ window?Break my fuckin’ window?”
“Who are you?” Andi asked.
That seemed to make him even angrier. Who was he?
“John,” he said harshly.
“John who? What do you want?”John Who? John the Fuck Who ? “You know John theFuck Who.”
Grace was bleeding from her nose, her eyes wild;Genevieve was huddled in the corner, and Andi saidagain, helplessly, “John who?”
He looked over his shoulder, a spark of hate in hiseyes, reached up and pulled a blond wig off his head.
Andi, a half-second later, said, “Oh, no. No. Not JohnMail.”
What People are Saying About This
"Among Sandford's most chilling." San Francisco Examiner
"His seventh, and best, outing in the acclaimed Prey suspense series." People