In the small town of Bluestem a house explodes into flames, its elderly owner trapped inside. Following up rumours of financial scams plus some very dodgy activities with other men's wives, Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension discovers several reasons why the victim was so hated.
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John Sandford is the pseudonym of Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist John Camp. He is the author of the Prey novels, the Kidd novels, the Virgil Flowers novels, The Night Crew, and Dead Watch. He lives in New Mexico.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
DARK OF THE MOON
ALSO BY JOHN SANDFORD
Rules of Prey
Eyes of Prey
The Night Crew
The Fool’s Run
The Empress File
The Devil’s Code
The Hanged Man’s Song
DARK OF THE MOON
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS NEW YORK
This book was written in cooperation with my friend Larry Millett, an architectural writer (The Curve of the Arch, Lost Twin Cities), local historian (Strange Days, Dangerous Nights), and occasional novelist (Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon and four other tales featuring Holmes and Irish barkeep Shadwell Rafferty). Millett was recently described in a general-circulation magazine as “handsome,” which threw me into paroxysms of jealousy, but which, in the end, did not deflect us from our appointed deadline….
SIX GARBAGE BAGS full of red cedar shavings, purchased two at a time for a dollar a bag, at midnight, at the self-serve shed at Dunstead & Daughter Custom Furniture, serving your fine cabinetry needs since 1986. No cameras, no lights, no attendant, no theft, no problem.
Moonie stacked the bags in the basement, Cross Canadian Ragweed pounding through the iPod ear-buds, singing about those dead-red lips; then up the stairs, pulling the ear-buds, to where the old man lay facedown on the rug, shaking, kicking, crying, trying to get free. Tied with cheap hemp rope, but no matter. The old man was so old and so feeble that string would have worked as well as rope.
“Please,” he groaned, “don’t hurt me.”
Moonie laughed, a long singing rock ’n’ roll laugh, and at the end of it, said, “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to kill you.”
“What do you want? I can tell you where the money is.”
“The money’s not what I want. I’ve got what I want.” Moonie gripped the rope between the old man’s ankles and dragged him to the basement stairs, and then down the stairs, the old man’s face banging down each tread as they went.
“Oh my Jesus, help me,” the old man wept through his bloody lips, his fractured face. “Help me, Jesus.”
Thump! Thump! Thump! Nine times.
“Jesus isn’t going to help,” Moonie said.
The old man pulled it together for a second. “He can send you to hell,” he snarled.
“Where do you think I am, old man?”
“Shut up. I’m working.”
GETTING THE OLD MAN onto the bags was the hardest part. Moonie first threw him facedown on the topmost bag, then heaved his feet up. The old man was tall, but frail; eighty-two years old and sedentary and semi-senile, though not so senile that he didn’t know what was happening now. He sank down into the bags of wood shavings and thrashed there, got halfway off, then sank down between them, thrashed some more, then quit. Wood shavings made for the most intense fire, and left no obvious residue; or so the arson fans theorized on the Internet.
Moonie got busy with the first five-gallon can of gasoline, pouring it around the basement, around the bags, soaking the old man with it, the unused wooden canning racks, the seldom used workbench, the stack of aging wooden lawn chairs, and then up the stairs. The old man began thrashing again. Moaning, “Please…”
The first few splashes of gasoline smelled good, like the shot you got when you were pumping gas into your car; but down in the enclosed space, five gallons of gas, the fumes got stiff in a hurry.
“Don’t die on me. Wait for the fire,” Moonie called, backing up the stairs, splashing gas along the steps. The second can was poured more judiciously around the first floor, soaking into the Persian carpets, leaking around the legs of the Steinway grand piano, flowing into the closets. When two-thirds of it was gone, Moonie backed through the kitchen, where the first can, now empty, waited. Moonie would take them. No point in making the arson obvious, though the police would probably figure it out soon enough.
A driving rain beat against the kitchen windows. Ideally, Moonie would have preferred to trail the gas out into the yard, and to touch it off from a distance. With the rain, though, that would be difficult. The rain would wash the gas away as quickly as it was poured. So it would have to be kept inside. A small risk…the fumes boiled unseen around the killer’s ankles, flowing into every nook and cranny.
At the kitchen door, Moonie splashed out a final pool of gas; stopped and looked into the house. The place was huge, expensive, and a wreck. The old man’s housekeeper came in twice a week, did some dishes, washed some clothes; but she didn’t do carpentry, wiring, or plumbing, and the house needed all of it, along with a wide-spectrum exterminator. There were bugs in the basement and bats in the belfry, the killer thought, and then, giggling now, a nut in the kitchen.
The old man cried a last time, faintly audible against the sound of the rain and wind…
“Please, God help me…”
Good to know he was still alive—the old man would get the full experience.
Moonie stepped through the kitchen door onto the back porch, took out a book of matches, scratched one, used that one to set off the entire book. The book cover caught, and Moonie played with it, enjoying the liquid flow of the flame, getting it right, then threw the book toward the pool of gas in the kitchen, turned, and ran out into the rain.
The fire popped to the top of the pool of gasoline, flickered across it, snaked one way into the living room, under the shambles of the once grand piano, and the other way, like a living thing, down the stairs into the basement.
The fumes in the basement were not quite thick enough for a real explosion. The old man, surrounded by bags of wood shavings, heard a whump and felt the sudden searing heat of a blowtorch that burned away all feeling in an instant, and killed in the next.
That was all for him.
Coming Up on Midnight
THE RAIN WAS POUNDING down from a wedge of thunderstorms, and Virgil Flowers was running west on I-90, trying to hold the truck against the angling wind. He’d been due in Bluestem before the courthouse closed, but he’d had a deposition with a defense attorney in Mankato. The attorney, a month out of law school with his first criminal case, had left no stone unturned and no verb unconjugated. Not that Virgil blamed him. The guy was trying to do right by his client.
Yes, the gun had been found in that dumpster. The dumpster had not been hauled before Wednesday, June 30, even though it was normally dumped on Tuesday, but everything had been pushed back by Memorial Day. The pizza guy had seen the defendant on the 29th, and not the 28th, because the pizza parlor, as patriotic as any Italian-food outlet anywhere, had been closed on Memorial Day, and the pizza guy hadn’t been working.
Three hours of it: Blah, blah, blah…
By the time he got out of the lawyer’s office it was five o’clock, too late to get to Bluestem while the courthouse was open. Walking along with Lannie McCoy, the prosecutor in the case, they’d decided that the wise course would be to get sandwiches and beer at Cat’s Cradle, a downtown bar.
They did that, and some cops showed up and that all turned into an enjoyable nachos, cheeseburger, and beer snack. One of the cops was very good-looking, and at one juncture, had rested her hand on Virgil’s thigh; perfect, if her wedding ring hadn’t shown up so well in the bar light.
A sad country song.
HE LEFT the Cradle at six-thirty, went home, dumped a load of laundry in the washing machine. With the washer rattling in the background, he sat on a rocking chair in his bedroom and finished sewing a torn seam on a photography vest. Sat in a cone of light from his bedside reading lamp, sewing, and wondering about the married cop who’d come on to him; thinking a bit about loyalty and its implications, and the trouble it could bring you.
Feeling a little lonely. He liked women, and it had been some time since the last one.
When he finished with the vest, he hung it in his gear closet—guns, bows, fishing and photography equipment—took a shotgun and two boxes of shells out of his gun safe, laid them beside an empty duffel bag. He half filled the duffel bag with underwear, socks, and T-shirts, three pairs of jeans. Still waiting for the washer to quit, he went out on the Internet, looking for a letter from a magazine publisher. A letter was supposed to be waiting for him, but was not.
He pulled up a half-finished article on bow hunting for wild turkeys, dinked with it until the washer finished the spin cycle, then closed down the computer, threw the wet clothes in the dryer, and took a nap. The clock woke him. After a shower, as he was brushing his teeth, he heard the dryer stop running. His timing was exquisite.
He took the clothes out of the dryer, folded them, put some of them away, and some of them in the duffel bag. He threw the bag in the back of his truck, locked the shotgun in a toolbox, stuck a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol under the front seat, and at ten minutes after ten o’clock, he was out of town, headed southwest down Highway 60.
An hour out of town, he could see the clouds bunching up in the west, lightning jumping around the horizon, while a new crescent moon still showed in his rearview mirror. He hit Windom as the wind front from the first squall line skittered through town, throwing up scrap paper and dead leaves. July was the second-best time on the prairie, right after August; the world began to smell of grain and the harvest to come.
He stopped at a convenience store for coffee. The long-haired clerk said, “Gonna rain like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock,” and Virgil said, “You betcha.” He took a leak himself, got back in the truck as the first fat drops of rain hit the windshield, still moving southwest. He cut I-90 at Worthington, got another cup of coffee, and headed west.
Into the Old West, he thought.
The real Old West. The Old West of the Sioux, of the high, dry prairie, of the range, of horse and buffalo country, got started somewhere between Worthington and Bluestem. By the time he got there, to the Old West, the rain was thrashing the 4Runner; another deluge in what was already a record-wet summer.
There weren’t many lights this far out, but with the storm, I-90 closed down to a tunnel, nothing ahead, only a dim set of headlights behind him, and an occasional car or truck in the eastbound lane. He kept one eye on the white line on the right, aimed the car into his headlights, and hoped he didn’t run off the road.
Listening to satellite radio, Outlaw Country. Switched over to jazz, rotated into hard rock, and then back to country.
THINKING ABOUT IT LATER, he didn’t really know when he first became aware of the spark.
The spark started as a mote in his eye, above the right headlight, deep in the rain. Then it took on a more graphic quality, and he noticed it, and noticed at the same time that it had been out there for a while. The spark was a bright, golden hue, and unmoving. Another three miles and he identified it: a fire. A big one. He’d seen a few of them at night, but this was up in the sky .
How could it be up in the sky, and not move?
He flashed by an overpass, then caught, a half mile to his right, the red lights of the Jesus Christ radio station: a five-hundred-foot tower—they build them low on the prairie—with red lights that blinked Jesus, then went black, then Christ, and then black, and then quickly, JesusChrist-JesusChrist-JesusChrist.
If he was at Jesus Christ radio, Virgil thought, the spark wasn’t in the sky—it was six miles ahead, north of Bluestem on Buffalo Ridge. There was only one thing that could make a spark that big, from this far away, on Buffalo Ridge: Bill Judd’s house. The most expensive house for a hundred and fifty miles around, and it was burning like a barn full of hay.
“That’s not something you see every night,” he said to Marta Gomez, who was singing “The Circle” on the satellite radio.
He got off at the Highway 75 exit, the rain still pounding down, and went straight past the Holiday Inn, following the line of the highway toward the fire up on the ridge.
BUFFALO RIDGE was a geological curiosity, a rock-strewn quartzite plateau rising three hundred feet above the surrounding landscape. Too rocky to farm, the mound had kept its mantle of virgin prairie, the last wild ground in Stark County.
Sometime in the early sixties, Virgil had been told, Judd built his house on the eastern slope of the mound, most of which later became a state park. Judd was all by himself out there, after his wife died, and his son moved out.
He was sexually predatory, if not a sexual predator. There were rumors of local women making a little on the side, rumors of strange women from big cities, and of races not normally encountered in the countryside; rumors of midnight orgies and screams in the dark—rumors of a Dracula’s castle amid the big bluestem.
They were the rumors that might follow any rich man who stayed to himself, Virgil thought, and who at the same time was thoroughly hated.
JUDD HAD STARTED as a civil lawyer, representing the big grain dealers in local lawsuits. Then he’d branched into commodities trading, real estate development, and banking. He’d made his first million before he was thirty.
In the early eighties, already rich, when most men would have been thinking of retirement, he’d been a promoter of the Jerusalem artichoke. Not actually an artichoke, but a variety of sunflower, the plant was hustled to desperate farmers as an endless wonder: a food stock like a potato, a source of ethanol as a biofuel, and best of all, a weedlike plant that would grow anywhere.
It might have been all of that, but the early-eighties fad, promoted by Judd and others, basically had been an intricate pyramid scheme, leveraged through the commodities markets. Farmers would grow seed tubers and sell them to other farmers, who’d grow seed tubers and sell them to more farmers, and eventually somebody, somewhere, would make them into fuel.
They ran out of farmers before they got to the fuel makers; and it turned out that oil would have to cost more than $50 a barrel for ...
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