Two people are found hanging naked from a tree in the woods of northern Minnesota. What makes the situation particularly sensitive is the bodies are of a black man and a white woman. Lynching is the word everyone’s trying not to say, but as Lucas Davenport begins to discover, the murders are not at all what they appear to be. And there is worse to come—much, much worse.
“All but impossible to put down.”—The Washington Post
“Fast paced and full of surprises, this may be Sandford’s best novel yet.”—Library Journal
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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
1Thursday night, pitch black, blowing snow.Heavy clouds, no moon behind them.
The Buick disappeared into the garage and the doorstarted down. The big man, rolling down the highway ina battered Cherokee, killed his lights, pulled into thedriveway, and took the shotgun off the car seat. Thesnow crunched underfoot as he stepped out; the snowwas coming down in pellets, rather than flakes, and theystung as they slapped his warm face.
He loped up the driveway, fully exposed for a moment,and stopped just at the corner of the garage, in ashadow beneath the security light.
Jane Warr opened the side door and steppedthrough, her back turned to him as she pulled the doorclosed behind her.
He said, “Jane.”
She jumped, her hand at her throat, choking down ascream as she pivoted, and shrank against the door. Takingin the muzzle of the shotgun, and the large manwith the beard and the stocking cap, she screeched:“What? Who’re you? Get away . . .” A jumble of panicwords.
He stayed with her, tracking her with the shotgun,and he said, slowly, as if speaking to a child, “Jane, this isa shotgun. If you scream, I will blow your heart out.”
She looked, and it was a shotgun all right, a twelvegaugepump, and it was pointing at her heart. She madeherself be still, thought of Deon in the house. If Deonlooked out and saw them . . . Deon would take care ofhimself. “What do you want?”
They stood for two or three seconds, the snow pelletspeppering the garage, the big man’s beard goingwhite with it. Then, “Joe’s not here.” A hint of assertionin her voice—this didn’t involve her, this shotgun.
“Bullshit,” the big man said. He twitched the muzzleto the left, toward the house. “We’re going inside to talkto him, and he’s gonna pay me some money. I don’twant to hurt you or anybody else, but I’m gonna talk toJoe. If I have to hurt the whole bunch of you, I will.”
He sounded familiar, she thought. Maybe one of theguys from Missouri, from Kansas City? “Are you one ofthe Kansas City people? Because we’re not . . .”
“Shut up,” the big man said. “Get your ass up thesteps and into the house. Keep your mouth shut.”
She did what he told her. This was not the first timeshe’d been present when an unfriendly man flashed agun—not even the second or third time—but she wasworried. On the other hand, he said he was looking forJoe. When he found out Joe wasn’t here, he’d go. Maybe.
“Joe’s not here,” she said, as she went up the steps.
“Quiet!” The man’s voice dropped. “One thing Ilearned down in Kansas City—I’ll share this with you—is that when trouble starts, you pull the trigger. Don’tfigure anything out, just pull the trigger. If Joe or Deontry anything on me, you can kiss your butt good- bye.”
“All right,” she said. Her voice had dropped with his.Now she was on the stranger’s side. She’d be okay, shetold herself, as long as Deon didn’t do anything. Butthere was something too weird about this guy. I’ll sharethis with you?—she’d never heard a serious asshole sayanything like that.
They went up the stairs onto a back porch, thenthrough the porch into a mudroom, then through anotherdoor into the kitchen. None of the doors waslocked. Broderick was a small town, and it doesn’t takelong to pick up small- town habits. As they clunked intothe kitchen, which smelled like micro wave popcorn andweek- old carrot peels, Deon Cash called from the livingroom, “Hey,” and they heard his feet hit the floor. A secondlater he stepped into the kitchen, scowling aboutsomething, a thin, five- foot- ten- inch black man in anIndian- print fleece pullover and jeans, with a can of Budweiserin one hand.
He saw Warr, the big man behind her, and then, aninstant later, registered the shotgun. By that time, thebig man had shifted the barrel of the shotgun and itwas pointing at Cash’s head. “Don’t even think aboutmoving.”
“Easy,” Cash said. He put the can of Budweiser on akitchen counter, freeing his hands.
Cash looked puzzled for a second, then said, “Joeain’t here.”
“Call him,” the big man said. He’d thought aboutthis, about all the calling.
Cash shrugged. “HEY JOE,” he shouted.
Nothing. After a long moment, the man with theshotgun said, “Goddamnit, where is he?”
“He went away last month. He ain’t been back. Wedon’t know where he is,” Warr said. “Told you he wasn’there.”
“Go stand next to Deon.” Warr stepped over next toCash, and the big man dipped his left hand into hisparka pocket and pulled out a clump of chain. Handcuffs.He tossed them on the floor and looked at Warr.“Put them on Deon. Deon, turn around.”
“Aw, man . . .”
“It’s up to you,” the big man said. “I don’t want tohurt you two, but I will. We’re gonna wait for him if ittakes all night.”
“He ain’t here,” Warr said in exasperation. “He ain’tcoming back.”
“Cuffs,” the big man said. “I know what it soundslike when cuffs lock up.”
“Aw man . . .”
“C’mon.” The shotgun moved to Cash’s head, andWarr bent over and picked up one set of cuffs and the bigman said, “Turn around so I can see it,” and Warr clickedthe cuffs in place, pinning Cash’s hands behind him.
The big man dipped his hand into his pocket againand came up with a roll of strapping tape. “Tape his feettogether.”
“Man, you startin’ to piss me off,” Cash said. Evenwith his hands cuffed, he managed to look stupidlyfierce.
“Better’n being dead. Sit down and stick your feetout so she can tape you up.”
Still grumbling, Cash sat down and Warr crouchedbeside him and said, “I’m pretty scared,” and Cash said,“We gonna be all right. The masked man can go look atJoe’s stuff, see he ain’t here.”
The big man made her take eight tight winds of tapearound Cash’s ankles. Then he ordered Warr to take offher parka and cuff her own hands. She got one cuff, butfumbled with the other, and the man with the shotguntold her to turn and back toward him, and when she did,clicked the second cuff in place. He then ordered both of them to lie on their stomachs, and with the shotgunpointed at them, he checked Cash’s cuffs and then Warr’s,just to make sure. When he was satisfied, he pulled on apair of cotton gloves, knelt beside Warr, and taped herankles, then moved over to Cash and put the rest of theroll of tape around his.
When he was done, Cash said, “So go look. Joe ain’there.”
“I believe you,” the big man said, standing up. Theylooked so helpless that he almost backed out. He steadiedhimself. “I know where Joe is.”
After a moment’s silence, Cash asked, “Where is he?”
“In a hole in the ground, a couple miles south ofTerre bonne. Don’t think I could find it myself, anymore,”the big man said. “I just asked you about him so you’dthink that . . .” He shrugged. “That you had a chance.”
Another moment’s silence, and then Warr said, “Aw,God, Deon. Listen to his voice.”
Cash put the pieces together, then said, loud, croaking,but not yet screaming, “We didn’t do nothin’, man.We didn’t do nothin’.”
“I know what you did,” the big man said.
“Don’t hurt us,” Warr said. She flopped against thevinyl, tried to get over on her back. “Please don’t hurtus. I’ll tell the cops what ever you want.”
“We get a trial,” Cash said. He twisted around, thebetter to see the man’s face, and to test the tape on hislegs. “We innocent until we proved guilty.”
“Innocent.” The big man spat it out.
“We didn’t do nothin’,” Cash screamed at him.
“I know what you did.” The crust on his wounds hadbroken, and the big man began kicking Cash in theback, in the kidneys, in the butt and the back of hishead, and Cash rolled around the narrow kitchen floortrying to escape, screaming, the big man wailing like aman dying of a knife wound, like a man watching theblood running out of his neck, and he kicked andbooted Cash in the back, and when Cash flopped over,in the face; Cash’s nose broke with the sound of asaltine cracker being stepped on and he sputtered bloodout over the floor. Across the kitchen, Warr struggledagainst the tape and the handcuffs and half- rolled underthe kitchen table and got tangled up in the chairs, andtheir wooden legs clunked and pounded and clatteredon the floor as she tried to inchworm through them,Cash screaming all the while, sputtering blood.
Cash finally stopped rolling, exhausted, blood pouringout of his nose, smearing in arcs across the vinylfloor. The big man backed away from him, wiped hismouth on his sleeve, then took a utility knife out of hispocket and stalked across the room to Warr, grabbed thetape around her ankles, and pulled her out from underthe table. Warr cried, “Jesus, don’t cut me!”
He didn’t. He began slicing though her clothing,pulling it away in rags. She began to cry as he cut theclothing away. The big man closed his mind to it, finished,leaving her nude on the floor, except for the ragsunder the tape on her ankles, and began cutting theclothing off Cash.
“What’re you doing, man? What’re you doing?”Cash began flopping again, rolling. Finally, frustratedwith Cash’s struggles, the big man backed away andagain kicked him in the face. Cash moaned, and the bigman rolled him onto his stomach and knelt between hisshoulder blades and patiently sliced at Cash’s shirt andjeans until he was as naked as Warr.
“What’re you doing?” Warr asked. Now there was anote of curiosity in her voice, showing through the fear.
“Fuckin’ kill ya,” Cash groaned, still bubbling bloodfrom his broken nose. “Fuckin’ cut ya fuckin’ headoff . . .”
The big man ignored him. He closed the knife, caughtCash by the ankles, and dragged him toward the door.Cash, nearly exhausted from flopping on the floor, beganflopping again, but it did no good. He was draggedflopping through the mudroom, leaving a trail of blood,onto the porch, and then down the steps to the lawn, hishead banging on the steps as they went down. “Mother,mother,” Cash said. “God . . . mother.”
There wasn’t much snow on the ground—hadn’tbeen much snow all winter—but Cash’s head cut a groovein the inch or so that there was, spotted with moreblood. When they got to the Jeep, the big man poppedopen the back, lifted Cash by the neck and hips, andthrew him inside.
Back in the house, he picked up Warr and carried herout to the truck like a sack of flour and tossed her on topof Cash and slammed the lid.
Before leaving, he carefully scanned the house for anythingthat he might have touched that would carry a fingerprint.Finding nothing, he picked up the shotgunand went back outside.“Where’re we going?” Warr shouted at him.“I’m freezing.”
The big man paid no attention. A quarter- mile northof town, he began looking for the West Ditch Road, adirt track that led off to the east. He almost missed it inthe snow, stopped, backed up on the dark roadway, andturned down the track. He passed an old farm house thathe’d thought abandoned, but now, as he went by, he sawa single light glowing in a first- floor window, but noother sign of life. Too late to change plans now, hethought; besides, with this night . . .
The wind had picked up, ripping the snow off theground. He’d be far enough from the farm house that hecouldn’t be seen. He kept moving, the light in the farmhousewindow fading away behind him. In the dark, inthe snow, there were no distinctive landmarks at all.
He concentrated on the track and the odometer.Four- tenths of a mile after he turned off Highway 36,he slowed, looking out the left- side window. At first, hesaw nothing but snow. After a hundred feet or so, thetree loomed, and he pulled over, then carefully backed,pulled forward, and backed again until he was parkedacross the road.
“What?” Cash groaned, from the back. “What?”
The big man went around to the back of the truck,opened it, grabbed the thick wad of tape around Cash’slegs, and pulled him off the truck as if he were unloadinglumber. Cash’s shoulders hit the frozen earth with ameaty impact. The big man got him by the tape anddragged him past the first tree into what had been, fromthe car, in the dark, an invisible grove of trees.
One of the trees, a pin oak, loomed at the very edgeof the illumination thrown by the car’s headlights.Ropes were slung over a heavy branch fifteen feetabove the ground. The big man, staggering under Cash’sweight, dropped him by one of the ropes, then wentback for Warr. When he got her to the hanging tree,struggling and kicking against him, he dropped her besideCash.
“Can’t do this, man,” Cash screamed. “This is murder.”The storm around them quieted for a moment, butthe snow pellets still whipped through the trees, stinginglike so many BBs.
“Please help me,” Warr called to Cash. “Please,please . . .”
“Murder?” The big man shouted back at Cash, raisinghis voice above the wind. He broke away fromthem, toward a tree branch that was sticking up out ofthe snow, ripped it off the frozen ground and staggeredback to Cash. “Murder?” He began beating Cash withthe long stick, ripping strips of skin off Cash’s back andlegs, as the black man thrashed on the ground, gopheringthrough the snow, trying to get away. “Murder, youfuckin’ animal, murder . . .”
He stopped after a while, too tired to continue, threwthe stick back into the trees. “Murder,” he said to Cash.“I’ll show you murder.”
The big man led one of the ropes over to Cash, tied asingle loop around his neck, tight, with strong knots.He did the same with the second rope, around Warr’sneck. She was now shivering violently in the cold.
When he was done, the big man stood back, lookedat the two of them, said, “God damn your immortalsouls,” and began hauling on the rope tied to Cash.Cash stopped screaming as the rope bit into his neck.He was heavy, and the big man had to struggle againsthis weight, and against the raw friction of the rope overthe tree limb. Finally, unable to get him in the air, thebig man lifted him and pulled the rope at the same time,and Cash’s feet cleared the ground by a meager six inches.He didn’t struggle. He simply hung. The big man tiedthe lower end of the rope around the tree trunk, andtested it for weight. It held.
Warr pleaded, but the big man couldn’t hear her—later couldn’t remember anything she said, except thatthere were a lot of whispered Pleases. Didn’t do her anygood. Didn’t do her any good when she fought him, either,though it might have given her a brief thirty secondsof satisfaction.
He couldn’t get her high enough to get her feet off theground, and as he struggled to do it, a space opened betweenthe bottom of his coat sleeve and the glove on hisright hand. The space, the warm flesh, bumped againsther face, and quick as a cat, she sank her teeth into his arm,biting ferociously, twisting her head against his arm. Helet go of the rope and she fell, holding on with her teeth,pulling him down, and he hammered at the side of herhead until she let go.
She was groaning when he boosted her back up, andshe ground out, “We’re not the only ones.”That stopped him for a moment: “What?”
“They’ll be coming for you, you cocksucker.” She spatat him, from three inches away, and hit him in the face.He flinched, grabbed her around the waist and boostedher higher, his gloves slippery with blood, and then hehad her high enough and he stepped away, holding tightto the rope, and she swung free and her groaningstopped. He managed to pull her up another four inches,then tied the rope off on the trunk.
He watched them for a few minutes, swinging in thesnow, in the dim light, their heads bent, their bodies violentlyelongated like martyrs in an El Greco painting . . .
Then he turned and left them.
They may have been dead then, or it might have takena few minutes. He didn’t care, and it didn’t matter. Herolled slowly, carefully, out of the side road, down throughBroderick and on south. He was miles away before hebecame aware of the pain in his wrist, and the bloodflowing down his sleeve toward his elbow. When heturned his arm over in the dim light of the car, he foundthat she’d bitten a chunk of flesh out of his wrist, alemon- wedge that was still bleeding profusely.
If a cop stopped him and saw it . . .
He pulled over in the dark, wrapped his wrist with apad of paper towels and a length of duct tape, steppedout of the truck, washed his hand and arm in snow,tossed the bloody jacket in the back of the truck anddug out a lighter coat from the bag in back.
Get home, he thought. Burn the coat, dump the truck.
What People are Saying About This
"This one is vintage Sandford."—Publishers Weekly
"Sandford's best novel yet."—Library Journal
"All but impossible to put down."—Washington Post