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|The Prey Series|
Field of Prey
Field of Prey
The fifth woman was a blond waitress who enhanced her income by staying late to do kitchen clean-up at Aunties, a diner in Faribault, a small city on Interstate-35 south of the Twin Cities. The diner had excellent qualities for a kidnapping. The blacktopped parking lot was wide and deep in front, shallow and pitted in back, which meant that nobody parked there. When the fifth woman finished her cleanup, at midnight, she'd haul garbage bags to a dumpster out back.
In the dark.
She was out there alone, sweating in the summer heat, sickened by the odor from the dumpster, with no light except what came through the diner's open rear door and two pole lights in the front lot.
R-A waited for her there, hidden behind the dumpster. He was carrying an old canvas postal bag, of the kind once used to carry heavy loads of mail in cross-country trucks. The bags, forty-eight inches long and more than two feet in diameter, had eyelets around the mouth, with a rope running through the eyelets. The rope could be cinched tight with heavy metal clasp.
R-A also carried a leather wrapped, shot-filled sap, in case something went wrong with the bag.
Horn sat in his truck, in an adjacent parking lot, no more than a hundred feet away, where he could see the action at the dumpster, and warn against any on-coming cop cars. When the waitress came out with her second load of garbage bags, R-A waited until she was standing on tiptoe, off-balance throwing one of the bags into the dumpster. He stepped out behind her, unseen, and dropped the canvas bag over her head, like a butterfly in a net.
The woman struggled and fought, and screamed, but the screams were muffled by the heavy bag, and two seconds after he took her to the ground, R-A slipped the locking clasp tight around her legs.
Horn was coming, in the truck. He stopped beside them, blocking the view from the street. Together, Horn and R-A lifted her and threw her in the back of Horn's extended cab truck. Horn climbed in on top of her with a roll of duct tape, and threw a half-dozen fast wraps around the woman's ankles. Sort of like calf-roping, he thought.
As he did that, R-A jogged a half-block down the street to where he'd parked his own truck. When Horn had finished taping the woman's ankles, he jumped out and slammed the narrow door, ran around the back of the truck and climbed into the driver's seat, and they were gone, Horn a half-block ahead of R-A.
The system had worked again.
In three minutes, they'd gotten to the edge of town, and were starting cross-country toward a hunter's shack in the backwaters of a Mississippi River impoundment. There, they'd rape the waitress and kill her.
R-A trailed a half-mile behind Horn. That was part of the system, too. If a cop car came along, and showed any interest at all in Horn's truck, R-A could provide warning, and support. If worst came to worst, R-A would drive recklessly and way too fast past the cop, provoking a chase, while Horn would re-route.
The system had worked before, and would have worked again, except that Heather Jorgenson had always worried about being alone in that parking lot in the night. She she carried a Leatherman multi-tool, which included a three-inch-long serrated blade, in the pocket of her waitress uniform, and while her feet were restricted by the locked bag and the duct tape, her hands were free.
For the first minute or so of the truck ride, she fought with a panic-stricken violence against the heavy bag, without making any progress at all. In the thrashing, her hand slapped against the Leatherman.
She fumbled it out and broke a nail trying to get it open, but hardly noticed; three minutes into the ride, she had the knife out and open. Jorgenson knew she'd only have one chance at it, so she continued to shout and scream, and thrash with one hand, as the truck drove through town. At the same time, she slit the bag with the razor-sharp blade, and at the bottom end, cut the binding rope around her legs. Finally, she carefully sliced through the duct tape at her ankles.
She took a moment to get her courage up, then pushed herself up in the back of the truck, and screaming, "You sonofabitch," she stabbed Horn in the neck, and then stabbed him again, in the back, in the spine, and then in the arms, and in the neck again, and Horn was shouting, screaming, trying to swat her away, while struggling to control the truck. He failed, and the truck swerved to the left edge of the road, two wheels dropping off the tarmac. They ran along like that for a hundred feet, then the truck began to tip, and finally rolled over into the ditch.
Jorgenson, in the back, felt the truck going. A former cheerleader, still with a cheerleader's suppleness, despite the extra pounds she'd picked up in the diner, she braced her feet against the roof of the truck, and locked herself in place as it went over. When it settled, driver's side down, she found the handle on the back door, unlocked it, shoved it open and crawled out.
She ran across the roadside ditch, tumbled over a barbed-wire fence, ripping her clothes and hands, into a cornfield she was afraid to run down the road, because the kidnapper could see her, might come after her.
They'd just left town, and there were house lights no more than four or five hundred yards away. She ran as hard as she could, choking with fear, through the knee-high corn, then fell again and found herself in a mid-field swale, a seasonal creek, dry now.
Breathing hard, she crouched for a moment, listening, fearing that the kidnapper was right behind her. When she heard nothing, she got to her feet, stooped over so far that her hands touched the ground, and groped forward in the dark, toward the house lights.
She had no idea how long she'd been in the field when she made it into a tree line, the branches of the saplings slapping her in the face and chest. She crossed another fence and a ditch, out onto a road, then ran across the road toward the house lights. She was now so frightened and exhausted that she took no care about waking the house. She leaned on the lighted doorbell and pounded on the door while screaming, "Help! Help me!"
The cops were there in five minutes.
They found an upside-down truck with lots of blood in the front seat, and the cut-open mail sack in the back. They traced the truck in another five minutes, and were on their way to Horn's house in ten.
When R-A got to Horn's truck, the woman was gone.
Horn groaned, "I'm hurt, man, I'm hurt bad."
"Where is she?" R-A asked.
"She ran off, she's gone, man, we gotta get out of here." Horn was crumbled onto the driver's side window of the truck. R-A was kneeling on the narrow back door on the passenger side, looking down into the truck, the front door propped half open. "Help me out, help me."
Horn was covered with blood, down to his waist. R-A pulled him out of the truck, but Horn couldn't walk: "Did something to my legs, they don't work..."
R-A carried him to his own truck, put him in the back and told him to stay down. "The hospital..."
"Fuck that. Fuck the hospital," Horn said. "They're gonna find my truck. The bitch knows my face, from the scouting trips. She'll pick me out."
"Your place," Horn groaned. "They'll be at my place, sure as shit."
R-A got him back to his place, managed to half-drag, half-carry him down to the basement bomb shelter. Put him on a cot, plastered his wounds the best he could.
Thought about killing him. Horn's legs didn't work, he could never be anything but a liability. But R-A couldn't do it: Horn was the closest thing he'd ever had to a friend.
Horn made the TV the next morning: Heather Jorgenson, according to police reports, said she'd been attacked by a man in the parking lot behind Auntie's, and had stabbed him. The police were looking for Jack Horn, of Holbein. Jack Horn, singular. No mention of two men. R-A cruised by his house, and the cops were all over it.
Horn himself, down in the bomb shelter, was drifting in and out of consciousness. In one of his lucid moments, he saw R-A staring at him.
"What're you staring at?" he mumbled. And, "Water. I need a drink. Need some... medicine."
R-A ran a country hardware store, with veterinary medicine in a locked cabinet at the back. Horn was out of it, so never felt the horse-sized needle that R-A used to give him the penicillin.
Horn was still in-and-out. During one of his lucid moments, R-A told Horn that the cops had taken his truck away, and that there was a warrant out for him, for kidnapping. "They're looking for you everywhere between Chicago and Billings. You can't look at the TV without seeing your ugly face."
"Water," said Horn. R-A went away and came back with a glass of water, but Horn found he couldn't even lift his hand. R-A poured it awkwardly into Horn's open, trembling mouth.
"How long?" he said, when he found his voice again.
"You've been up and down for two days," R-A said. A pause. "Mostly down."
"No hospital..." Horn said.
"If I don't, I figure you'll die," said R-A said. "Then what'll I do?"
"No hospital..." Horn repeated. And then he was gone again.
It went like that for two more days; by the end of the second day, the bomb shelter smelled like an unclean hospital room, with the stink of human waste and corruption.
Then, on a Friday, R-A got back from the store, and found Horn deathly still, his face as pale and gray as newsprint. At first, R-A thought him dead. That would have... made things easier. He could get rid of the body, and still feel he'd filled the requirements of male comradeship.
Then Horn opened his eyes and said in a calm voice, "You been thinking about choking me out, haven't you?"
"The thought crossed my mind," R-A admitted.
"No need, now. Things are different now."
"I been thinking about it. This is the perfect place. You're going to have to start bringing the girls here."
"I... thought I might stop."
Horn grunted: "Roger you can't stop. But there's no more banging them out in the woods. That's all done... Now, you'll have to bring them down here. Look around. It's perfect. Down here, we can keep them for a while. Half the trouble, twice the fun."
And it'd worked. For a very long time.
There comes a crystalline moment in the lives of most young male virgins when they realize that they are about to get laid, and they will clutch that moment to their hearts for the rest of their days.
For some, maybe most, the realization comes nearly simultaneously with the moment. With others, not so much.
For Layton Burns, Jr., of Red Wing, Minnesota, a recent graduate of Red Wing High School (Go Wingers!), the moment arrived on the night of the Fourth of July. He and Ginger Childs were wrapped in a blanket and propped against a tree of some sort neither was a botanist in a park in Stillwater, Minnesota, looking down at the river, where the fireworks were going off.
Fireworks were not going off in Red Wing, because the city council was too cheap to pay for them.
In any case, Stillwater did have fireworks. Layton, a jock, had his muscular right arm wrapped around Ginger's back, then under her arm, and in past the unbuttoned second button on her blouse, where he was getting, in the approved parlance of the senior class at Red Wing High School, a bare tit. One of those hot, nipple-rolling bare tits. Not only a bare tit, but a semi-public one, which added to the frisson of the moment.
While intensely pleasant, this was not entirely a new development. They'd taken petting to a fever pitch, but Layton was the tiniest bit shy about asking for the Big One.
Ginger had her hand on Layton's thigh, where, despite his shyness, his interest was evident, and then as the final airbursts exploded in red-white-and-blue over the hundred boats in the harbor below, Ginger turned and bit him lightly on the earlobe and muttered, "Oh, God, if only you had some... protection."
Until that very moment, one of the few people in Red Wing who wasn't sure that Layton was going to get laid that summer was Layton himself. His parents knew, her parents knew, Ginger knew, all of Layton's friends knew, all of Ginger's friends knew and Ginger's youngest sister, who was nine, strongly suspected.
But Layton, there in the park, wasn't organized for the moment. He groaned and said, in words made memorable by thousands of impromptu daddies, "Nothin'll happen."
"Can't take a chance," said Ginger, who was no dummy, and for whom, not to put it too bluntly, Layton was more or less a passing bump in the night. "Do you think by tomorrow night?"
By the next night, Layton was organized.
He'd gotten the green light to borrow his mom's three-year-old Dodge Grand Caravan which had Super Stow 'n Go seating in the back, converting instantly into a mobile bedroom. He'd stashed a Target air mattress and a six-pack of Coors with a friend. And he'd stolen three, no make it four, lubricated condoms from a twelve-pack that his father had conveniently left unhidden in the second drawer of his bedroom bureau, for the very purpose of being stolen by his son, his wife being on the pill.
Layton also had the perfect spot, discovered a year earlier when he was detasselling corn. The perfect spot had once been a farmyard with a small woodlot on the north side. The farm had failed decades earlier. Most of the land had been sold off, and the house had fallen into ruin and had eventually been burned by the local volunteer fire department in a training exercise. The outbuildings had either been torn down or had simply rotted in place. Still, the home site had not yet been plowed under, though the cornfields were pressing close to the sides of the old yard.
A narrow track, once a driveway, led across a culvert into the site; and there were good level places to park. An hour before he was to pick up Ginger, Layton signed onto his computer and went out to his favorite porn site to review his knowledge of female anatomy; which also reminded him to put a flashlight in the car in case he wanted to... you know... watch.
Layton had built a sex machine, and it worked flawlessly.
He got the beer and air mattress from his friend, picked up Ginger, and they headed west on Highway 58, out of the Mississippi River Valley, up on top, then down through the Hay Creek Valley, up on top again, and out into farm country. The ride was short and sweet in the warm summer night, with fireflies in the ditches and Lil Wayne on the satellite radio, which was a good thing, because Ginger was hotter than a stove pipe, and had her hand in Layton's jeans before they even got off the main highway, and onto the back roads.
They found the turnoff into the farm lot on the first try, pushed aside some senile, overgrown lilacs as they wedged into a parking space, pumped up the air mattress with an air-pump powered through the cigarette lighter, and got right to it.
There was some confusion at the beginning, when Layton unrolled the first rubber, rather than rolling it down the erect appendage, and was reduced to trying to pull it on like a sock. A bit later, if Layton had been more attentive, he might have noticed that Ginger knew a good deal about technique and positioning, but he was not in a condition to notice; nor would he have given a rat's ass.
And it all went fine.
They did it twice, stopped for a beer, and then did it again, and stopped for another beer, and Layton was beginning to regret that he hadn't stolen five rubbers, when Ginger said, demurely, "I kinda got to go outside."
She had to pee. Layton finally got the message and Ginger disappeared into the dark, with the flashlight. She was back two minutes later.
"Boy, something smells really bad out there."
"Yeah?" He didn't care. She didn't care much either, especially as she'd reminded him about the flashlight.
So they messed around with the flashlight for a while, and Ginger, said, "You're really large," which made him feel pretty good, although he'd measured himself several dozen times and it always came out at six-and-one-quarter inches, which numerous Internet sources said was almost exactly average.
Anyway, the fourth condom got used and stuffed in the sack the beer had come in, and Layton began to see the limits of endurance even for an eighteen-year-old he probably wouldn't have needed the fifth one. They lay naked in each other's arms and drank the fifth and sixth beers and Ginger burped and said, "We probably ought to get back and establish our alibis," and Layton said, "Yeah, but... I kinda got to go outside."
Ginger laughed and said, "I wondered about that. You must have a bladder like an oil drum."
"I'm going," he said. He took the flashlight and moved off into the trees, wearing nothing but his Nike Airs, found a spot, and as he was taking the leak, smelled the smell: and Ginger was right. Something really stank.
It was impossible to grow up in the countryside and not know the odor of summertime road kill, and that's what it was. Something big was dead and rotting, and close-by.
He finished and went back to the car and found Ginger in her underpants, and getting into her jean shorts. "I want to go out and look around for a minute," he said. In the back of his mind he noticed his own sexual coolness. Even though her breasts were right there, and as attractive and pink and perky as they'd been fifteen minutes ago, he could have played chess, if he'd known how to play chess. "There's something dead out there."
"That's the stink I told you about."
"Not an ordinary stink," Layton said. "Whatever it is, is big."
She stopped dressing: "You mean... like a body?"
"Like something. Man, it really stinks."
When they were dressed, and with Ginger holding onto the back of Layton's belt, they walked into the woods as if neither one of them had ever seen a Halloween movie following the light of the flash. As they got deeper in, the smell seemed to fade. "Wrong way," Layton said.
They turned back and Ginger said, "Hope the light holds out."
"It's fine," Layton said. Fresh batteries: Layton had been ready.
They walked back toward the area where the house had been, and the smell grew stronger, until Ginger bent and gagged. "God... what is it?"
Whatever it was, they couldn't find it. Layton marched back and forth over the old farmstead, shining the light into the underbrush and even up into the trees. They found nothing.
"Don't ghosts smell?" Ginger said. "I saw it on one of those British ghost-hunter shows, that sometimes ghosts make a bad smell."
Every hair on Layton's neck stood up: "Let's get out of here," he said.
They start walking back to the car, but by the time they got back, they were running. They jumped in, slammed the doors, clicked the locks, backed out of the parking place, and blasted off down the gravel road, not slowing until they got to the highway. The bag with the used condoms and the empty beer cans went into an overgrown ditch, and fifteen minutes later, they were headed down the hill into the welcoming lights of Red Wing.
Layton lay in bed that night and thought about it all mostly the sex, but also about Ginger's best friend, Lauren, and what a wicked threesome that would be, and about that awful odor. Ginger called him the next morning to say it had been the most wonderful night of her life; and he told her that it had been the most wonderful night of his.
The night had been wonderful, but not quite perfect. There'd been that smell.
Layton's best friend's older brother was a Goodhue County deputy named Randy Lipsky, who was only six or eight years older than Layton. If not quite a friend, he was something more than an acquaintance.
Layton got up late, shaved, ate some Cheerios, and still not sure if he was doing the right thing, called the sheriff's office and asked if Lipsky was around. He was.
"I need to talk to you for a minute, if I could run over there," Layton said.
So he went over to the law enforcement center, found Lipsky, and they walked around the block.
Layton said, "Just between you and me."
"Depending on what it is," Lipsky said. "I'm a cop."
"Well, I didn't do anything," Layton said.
"What is it?" Lipsky asked.
"Last night, my girlfriend and I went up to this old farm place, out in the country, and parked for a while."
"She's pretty hot. You nail her?"
"Hey... But, yeah, as a matter of fact." He was so cool about it that ice cubes could have rolled out of his ears.
"Anyway, there's something dead up there. Something big. I never smelled anything like it. I thought it was a cow or a pig. The weird thing is, we couldn't find anything, and there aren't any dairies or pig farms around there. We could smell it, like it was right there: like we were standing on it. It made Ginger throw up, it was so strong. I was thinking last night, what if we couldn't find it because... somebody buried something?"
"You mean..." Lipsky stopped and looked at Layton. Layton was a jock, but not an idiot.
"Yeah. I thought I should ask," Layton said. "Now you can tell me I'm a whiny little girl, and we can forget about it."
Lipsky said: "I'll tell you something, Layton: Ninety-five percent it's nothing. Probably somebody shot a buck out of season, and you were smelling the gut dump. Those can be pretty hard to see in the dark, once they go gray. But, five percent, we gotta go look."
Lipsky went to get a patrol car and Layton called Ginger and told her what he'd done. "Well, God, don't mention me," she said.
"If it's something, I'll probably have to," he said.
"Well, if it's something... sure. I worried about it, too, last night," She said. "Like you were saying, it smelled big. What if it's a dead body?"
"I'll call you when we get back," Layton said.
The drive in the daytime was even faster than the drive the night before, out into the countryside and the hot July sun. Layton pointed Lipsky into the abandoned farm lot and Lipsky said, "What a great place to park."
"Yeah, it'd be okay, if it didn't stink so bad," Layton said. "Over here."
He led the way back where the old house had been, and the smell was like a wall. They hit it and Lipsky's face crinkled and he said, "Jesus Christ on a crutch."
"I told you," Layton said.
"Where's it coming from?" Lipsky asked.
They quartered the area, kicking through the underbrush, and eventually always came back to the yard where the house had been, and finally Lipsky pointed to the edge of the clearing and said, "Go over and pull out that old fence post, and bring it back here."
The fence post was a rusting length of steel still attached to a single strand of barbed wire. Layton wrenched it loose, pulled the barbed wire off, and carried it back to Lipsky. Lipsky was walking around a patch of fescue grass twenty feet across, a distracted look on his face.
"What do you think?" Layton asked.
"Might be an old cistern here, or an old well," Lipsky said. "You see that line in the grass?"
Lipsky took the fence post from Layton and began probing the patch of grass. He'd done it four times when, on the fifth, there was a hollow thunk.
"There it is," Lipsky said. "Should have been filled in, doesn't sound like it was."
He scraped around with the fence post and found the edge of the cistern cover, which was a circular piece of concrete. A whole pad of fescue lifted off it, in one piece, and Lipsky said, "Just between you and me, I don't think we're the first ones to do this."
"Maybe we ought to call the cops," Layton said. Lipsky gave him a look, and Layton said, "You know what I mean. More cops."
"Let's just take a look," Lipsky said.
They pulled the grass off, and Lipsky said, "Check this out."
One edge of the concrete cover showed what seemed to be recent scrapes, perhaps made with a pick, or a crow bar; and all around the edges, older scrapes. Lots of them. Lipsky found a place where he could get the good end of the fence post under the rim of the cistern cover, and pried. There was a pop when it came loose, and the gas hit them and they both reeled away, gagging, vomiting into the grass away from the cistern.
When they'd vomited everything in their stomachs Lipsky had gone to his hands and knees they went back and looked into the cistern, but all they saw was darkness.
"Let me get a flash," Lipsky said. "Don't fall in." He spit into the weeds as he went, and then spit again, and Layton spit a couple times himself, his mouth sour from the vomit.
Lipsky got the flashlight and walked back to where Layton was standing, his forearm bent over his nose.
They looked into the hole and Lipsky turned on the six-cell Maglite, and they first saw the two white ovals.
"Is that...?" Layton asked.
"What?" Lipsky looked like he didn't want to hear it.
"Feet? It looks like the bottoms of somebody's feet," Layton said.
Lipsky turned back toward the squad car.
"Where're you going?" Layton asked.
"To call the cops," Lipsky said. "More cops. Lotsa cops."
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is housed in a modern red-brick-and-glass building in St. Paul, Minnesota. Lucas Davenport had once explained the somewhat odd name to an agent of Federal Bureau of Investigation this way: "In Minnesota, see, we actually apprehend the assholes, instead of just investigating them."
The fed said, "Really? Doesn't that get you in trouble? I'd think the paperwork would be a nightmare."
Lucas parked his Porsche 911 in the lot below his office window, where he could keep an eye on it. The last time he'd parked it out of eye-sight, somebody had stuck a vegan bumper sticker on it that said, "Beef: It's What's Rotting In Your Colon."
He hadn't found it until he pulled off the Interstate, wondering why other drivers were honking at him: a tire problem? Something about to fall off? When he saw the sticker, he crawled home in shame, through the back streets, and then spent a half-hour peeling it off, cursing the rotten bastard who'd stuck it there.
Today, he would park within pistol range.
His office was on the second floor, in a corner, and when he got there... there was nobody home. He walked back out to a conference room, where the door was open. One of his agents, Del Capslock, was sitting at the conference table, looking solemn, part of a crowd of solemn agents. Lucas was sure he hadn't missed a scheduled meeting, so...
Del looked out through the door, saw Lucas, and crooked a finger at him.
Lucas had been out of the office since the previous afternoon. Before leaving, he'd heard that the BCA crime scene crew was leaving for a murder site west of Red Wing, a small Mississippi River town something less than an hour south of St. Paul, famous for boots and country crocks and the state reform school: "If you don't eat your Cap'n Crunch, the cops will send you to Red Wing."
Something about a cistern, with a body in it.
Lucas slipped into the conference room. All the chairs were full, so he propped himself in a corner. Henry Sands, a bald man of limited emotional dimension, sat at the head of the table, the flats of his hand pressed to his temples, as though he were trying to hold his head together. Not a good sign, since Sands was the director of the BCA.
Rose Marie Roux, the Commissioner of Public Safety, and Sands' boss, whose office was in a different building entirely, was sitting at one corner of the table, rubbing her forehead with the tips of her fingers. Another bad sign.
Almost everyone else a dozen people, ten male, two female were staring at them, waiting, or looking at a variety of yellow legal pads, laptops and iPads. When nobody else spoke, Lucas did. "How bad is it?"
Roux looked up and said, "Lucas. Good morning. They've got fifteen skulls. They don't have them all, yet. They're not even sure that they've got most of them. We just had Beatrice Sawyer on the phone, and she said it's like excavating ten feet of cold bean soup. She says there might be four feet of bones at the bottom."
"That's the prevailing sentiment," Roux said. She was a heavy-set woman with a notorious smoking habit and hair of an ever-changing color. A politician and former prosecutor, Minneapolis police chief and, briefly, a street cop, she was one of Lucas' oldest friends and a long-time ally.
"Have they identified anyone?" Lucas asked.
Sands said, "Mary Lynn Carpenter. She disappeared from Durand, Wisconsin, two weeks ago. They found her car at the Diamond Bluff cemetery, across the river from Red Wing. She'd go there every once in a while to clean up her grandparents' graves. The cemetery's on the Mississippi, above a slough. They'd been looking for her body in the river."
"Who else?" Lucas asked.
Sands shook his head. "Don't know, but Beatrice said that judging from the skulls, they're all women. Carpenter had been strangled with a piece of nylon rope. It's still around her neck. What's left of her neck. She's probably been in the well for two weeks."
"Cistern," somebody said.
"Can't they pump it out?" Lucas asked.
"They're trying, but the bottom of the cistern is cracked and the crack's below the water table," Sand said. "Water seeps back in almost as fast as they can pump it out. They can't pump too fast, because they don't want to lose any of the... material."
"What towns are down there? Besides Red Wing?" Roux asked.
One of the agents was looking at a laptop and said, "Not much closest town, besides Red Wing, is Diamond Bluff, across the river in Wisconsin, less than five hundred people. That's where Carpenter was when she disappeared. Ellsworth is fourteen miles away, also in Wisconsin, three thousand people. In Minnesota, there's Lake City, seventeen miles south of Red Wing, Holbein, fourteen miles southwest, Zumbrota, eight miles past Holbein, Hastings, more or less twenty-five miles north, and Cannon Falls, twenty miles west. The cistern is eight miles from Red Wing, nine miles from Holbein, eleven from Lake City, quite a bit further from Cannon Falls and Hastings..."
"Are we talking to the Wisconsin DCI?" Lucas asked.
"We are," Sands said. "They already had an agent involved, on the Carpenter disappearance. He's down at the scene now."
Another agent, a woman, jumped in: "On a sheer numbers basis, the killer's probably from Red Wing. Next most likely is that he's from here in the Cities we're fifty miles from the cistern. But if you were originally from that area, and knew about the cistern, and you were living up here and needed a body dump..."
A third agent: "We don't have the facts. We've got to identify more of the bodies, before we can start talking about where the killer's from. Right now, with one identifiable body, picked up in that area, I'm betting he's from down there. If we find a couple more from down there..."
That set off a round of squabbling, until Roux held up a hand and said, "Okay, okay, okay. You guys can do the numbers later. Henry, we need a structure here. We need the most intense investigation we've ever run, because, my friends, this is pretty much it. You are all standing in front of the fan that the shit just hit. They'll be screaming about this from every TV station in the nation tonight and they will continue screaming until we get the killer. Is that perfectly clear to everyone?"
Sands said, "Bob Shaffer will run the investigation. There'll be a lot of ins and outs to the case, so he'll need a lot of guys. Anybody who isn't closing out a case, Bob'll be talking to you. The only exemptions are Lucas' crew..."
He looked over at Lucas: "Can you switch off the Bryan case?"
Lucas shook his head. "Not really. We still haven't figured out whether he's dead."
"He's dead," somebody said.
Somebody else disagreed: "No, he's not. Ten-to-one he's in Honduras, or someplace like it."
Lucas said, "I just don't know."
"What's Flowers doing?" Roux asked.
Lucas said, "Vacation, down in New Mexico. He left two days ago, pulling his boat. He won't be back for three weeks."
"New Mexico's a fuckin' desert," somebody offered.
"He says there's a musky lake." Lucas said. "He said he's gonna clean it out."
"He ought to bring the boat back. We could use it in the cistern," Roux said. And: "All right. Bob, get your crew together and get going."
Shaffer, who had been sitting silently taking notes, nodded and stood up and said, "I want to talk to Jon and Sandy right now, my office. Everybody else, we'll meet back here in a half hour."
Roux stood up and said, "Lucas, I want you to take a look at whatever Bob comes up with. Henry, I want updates every couple of hours today, and then every morning and evening until we close this out. Let's get this done, guys. Let's get it done in one big hurry."
While they were all there together, so they'd all hear it at once, Lucas pushed away from the wall and said, "I don't think that's going to happen, Rose Marie. If there are really that many dead women, and we didn't know about it, didn't connect the disappearances, then the killer is smart and careful. I mean, really careful. This could take time."
"I don't want to hear that," Roux snapped.
"You need to," Lucas snapped back. He looked around. "We don't want anyone hinting to the media that this is gonna be a walk in the park, that we'll get the guy next week. If we do, that's fine. But if we don't, the media's gonna be a hair shirt, and we're all gonna be wearing it."
All the cops looked at him for a moment, then Roux said, "Okay. He's right. So: we have one guy talking to the media. Anybody else talks, you'll be manning the new bureau down in Bumfuck, Minn. Everybody understand?"
Lucas spoke to Shaffer for a few moments after the meeting broke up, with Del orbiting around them. Shaffer and Lucas didn't particularly like each other, but had worked several ugly cases together, with good results. They agreed that Lucas would be on the distribution list for everything coming out of the investigation, but would stay away from the main case.
"I might talk to a few people, if I come across any that are interesting," Lucas said.
"That's fine," Shaffer said. "If you get anything, be sure to update the files."
"I will do that," Lucas said.
Shaffer started to step away, then said, "Lucas: I appreciate what you said to Rose Marie. This could take a while. You were the right guy to tell her that."
Lucas nodded: "Had to be said."
Lucas and Shaffer had been successful, when they worked together, precisely because they were so radically different in style.
Shaffer was a data collector and a grinder: with enough data, he believed, you could solve anything. His files were wonders, his spreadsheets were remarkable, his decision matrices were monuments to game theory. And they worked. Anytime his agents could collect enough relevant data, his clearance rate was exceptional.
Shaffer looked like a grinder: neatly dressed at all times, in short-sleeved shirts in the summer, blue or white Oxford cloth in winter, with bland neckties, wrinkle-free khaki trousers from Macy's, and blue blazers. He exercised extensively and efficiently, ate right, didn't drink or smoke. Married to his high school sweetheart, he was slender, of average height, with pale brown hair.
He'd had come up the hard way: a patrol officer in Duluth, then a detective, then up through the ranks at the BCA, until he'd become one of the go-to investigators. He knew statistics: he'd taken college courses in statistics and geography at the University of Minnesota's extension school. He'd kept his nose clean.
Lucas was a connection collector, an investigator who liked to knit people together, to put one source with another and let them fight it out. He thrived on mysteries.
A tall, brooding man with dark hair, friendly blue eyes and a sometimes-frightening smile, Lucas was hawk-faced and heavy in the shoulders, and scarred from encounters with the misbegotten. Like Shaffer, he'd gone to the University of Minnesota, where instead of statistics, he'd studied hockey and women.
He'd never had to work his way up: He'd spent a short time on patrol, and then jumped over three dozen senior men to becomes a Minneapolis detective. Nor had he tried very hard to keep his nose clean. He'd been pushed out of the Minneapolis police department after beating up a pimp who'd church-keyed one of his sources.
He'd gotten back into the department when Roux, the new chief, made him a deputy chief, a political appointment. That job ended when Roux quit to become the state's Commissioner of Public Safety. But as soon as she reasonably could, Roux had dropped Lucas into the BCA, right into a top slot.
His clearance rate, like Shaffer's, was excellent. Lucas exercised, but inefficiently: running frequently, but not every day, playing basketball and senior hockey. Lucas had once had a reputation for chasing skirts; and catching them. He had a daughter out of wedlock, two children from his only marriage, and an adopted daughter. He'd drink a beer in the evening, and knew his barbecue.
With all their natural differences, in career path and personality, Shaffer and Lucas were never going to be close: but with all the important differences, their real distaste for each other came on relatively minor issues. Shaffer was a natural socialist, who'd grown up in an Iron Range union family. He didn't like rich people, not even self-made rich people.
Lucas was self-made rich.
Even worse than the money, was Lucas' whole life-style: the Porsche, his history with women, the wardrobe. Lucas bought his working clothes in men's boutiques, and every couple of years, went to New York.
Lucas thought of Shaffer, when he thought of Shaffer at all, as a clerk.
Shaffer knew it.
When he'd finished talking to Shaffer, Lucas and Del went down to his office, where Shrake and Jenkins were waiting. They were both big men, in suits that were too sharp; as though they'd fallen off a truck in Brooklyn. Both had even, extra-white teeth, and for the same reason: their real, natural, yellower teeth had been knocked out at one time or another.Lucas told them about the find at Red Wing.
"We're throwing Bryan out the window?" Shrake blurted.
"No, Shaffer's doing the work," Lucas said. "We'll be mostly talking."
"I hate to see that officious prick get all the glory," Jenkins said. "He's the kind of guy who wouldn't give you a six-inch putt."
"He does good records," Del said.
"He's also exactly the right guy to run this case," Lucas said. "It's gonna be all sorting bones and extracting DNA and running the spreadsheets."
"Still wouldn't give you a putt," Jenkins said.
"Probably because he's not fuckin' stupid enough to play golf," Lucas said. "Anyway, if Shaffer doesn't find this killer in a hurry, they'll be sniffing around our asses, looking for help. Let's close out Bryan."
Bryan had run a St. Paul investment company that turned out to be a ponzi scheme, a scheme that had eventually come up a couple of ponzis short. He'd been arrested and the state attorney general's office was trying to get back the thirty-one million dollars that had been entrusted to him by 1,691 small investors, most of them elderly. Bryan said the money was gone spent on fast Italian cars, slow Kentucky horses and hot Russian women, along with a $250,000 RV, which lost half its value when he turned the key on it, and an unprofitable ostrich ranch in Wyoming. Rumor said that a good deal more of the cash had gone up his nose.
There were doubters.
Bryan had divorced three years earlier, and his ex-wife, Bloomie, now lived in a house very near, but not quite on, the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach. According to the local conspiracy theorists, Bryan had seen the trouble coming, had given an overly generous divorce settlement to his wife, who would support him when the problems became public and the company went broke. There was also talk that he owned a Cabo San Lucas estate under a Mexican corporate shadow.
That may have been true, but apparently had become irrelevant when Bryan's court-ordered ankle monitor went dead, and his BMW M6 convertible had been found parked near the St. Croix gorge at Taylor's Falls with the front seat soaked in his blood. No body had been found. There were, at latest count, 1,691 suspects in Bryan's disappearance.
"Well, we've already interviewed twelve of them, so that only leaves 1,679 to go. We should have that done by 2020," Jenkins said.
"Start with the ones young enough to move a body," Lucas suggested. "That'll cut the workload by ninety-eight percent."
"Are you gonna help?" Shrake asked.
"First, I'm gonna go down and take a look at this cistern, this well, where they found all the bodies," Lucas said. "Then this evening, I'll be talking to the beautiful Carrie Lee Pitt, about Bryan's missing clothes. I'm hoping she'll let me peek in her closet."
"How come we're not talking to Carrie Lee Pitt?" Jenkins asked.
"Because that will take some savoir-faire, which you don't got any of," Lucas said.
Jenkins looked offended, lifted an arm and sniffed his armpit, and said, "Yes, I do."
Jenkins and Shrake left, and Lucas turned to Del, who had taken Lucas' visitor's chair and put his feet up on a file cabinet.
Del was a thin man, with a sun-darkened face of knobs and wrinkled plains, a little more than average height: a dusty guy in his mid-fifties, who looked like he lived on the street. He was wearing a long-sleeved turquoise cowboy shirt and faded jeans over hiking boots. "We're going down to the well?"
"Cistern," Lucas said. "Yeah, I guess we better. But Jesus, that shirt makes me want to pluck my eyeballs out. You been hanging out at Goodwill again?"
"From what I hear, if we're going down to the well the cistern we're gonna want to burn the clothes afterwards," Del said. "I'd rather burn a polyester shirt than a two-thousand dollar Italian suit. Or three-thousand dollar Rumanian shoes."
"British shoes. And when you're right, you're right." Lucas pushed himself out of his chair. "We'll stop at my place on the way out. You ready?"
"Fifteen skulls so far," Lucas said, as he turned off the office lights. "And there are more down the well."
"Somebody's been a bad, bad boy," Del said.
On the way out of the building, they ran into Sands, the BCA director. He was looking harried, and said, as they walked down the stairs to the first floor, "This can come to no good end. Remember I said that."
"It already did, for at least fifteen women," Del said. "But we'll get him."
"Not soon enough," Sand said. He breathed in Lucas' direction, and Lucas had to fight an impulse to step back: Sands' breath was notorious. "It's already not soon enough. Charlie's already getting calls from the Today Show."
Charlie handled the BCA's media relations.
At home, Lucas changed to worn Levis 505s and a blue chambray work shirt from Façionnable; he let the shirt hang loose to cover the .45 in his beltline.
He and Del loaded an Igloo cooler into the back of his black Mercedes SUV, and Lucas threw a nylon daypack on top of the cooler. On the way out of town, they stopped at a BP station for gas, and picked up ice, bottled water, Coke and Diet Coke, and headed south across the Mississippi.
"I have a psychological observation," Del said, as they crossed the water.
"Nobody's more qualified to make one," Lucas said.
"It's just this. You say, 'fifteen skulls,' and I say, 'Somebody's been a bad, bad boy.' If an outsider had heard that, they'd think we had no feelings at all. I'd have sounded like an asshole."
A Prius passed Lucas, doing ninety, and then cut in front of him and slowed. Lucas tapped the brakes and said, "Blow me." And to Del, "Not you, the Prius. And what you say is true. Not a new experience, for you, though."
"Or you. We sit around and bullshit about this stuff, like we're reading a bus ticket, but when we start finding out about the victims, we're gonna get pissed," Del said. "We're not pissed now, but we will be. We'll find out about their lives, about what they wanted to do, and all the misery this killer caused, we'll start brooding about it, and we'll get pissed."
"Get to the point; I want to put on my Pink album."
"The point is this Henry and Rose Marie are already pissed. They're pissed because the politics might hurt them. They're not pissed about fifteen women down the well, they're pissed about how they're going to look on TV. You know, the big-shot cops who let this happen right here in River City."
"In the interest of your continuing employment," Lucas said, "Let's keep this psychological observation between you and I."
"You know what I'm saying," Del said.
"I do," Lucas said. "It's the way of the world, man. There are the worker bees, and the manager bees. The worker bees take care of the work, the manager bees take care of themselves."
They were headed out on a good summer day, but hot, down Highway 52, through Cannon Falls, and on south. The cistern site was in rolling farm country west of the Mississippi River Valley, on a gravel road off Goodhue County 1. They spent a few minutes wandering around, after an off-map short-cut didn't work out, and so took an hour to find the site.
The road was blocked by two cop cars five hundred yards out, and a half-dozen TV vans were parked on the shoulder of the road, reporters and photographers clustered on the shady sides of the vans.
"Lot of TV," Del said. "It's been a while since I've seen this much."
"Gonna be rough," Lucas said. "Shaffer's gonna be hip-deep in bullshit before he's through."
"Better him, than us," Del said.
The cops at the roadblock, both sweating furiously in their long-sleeved uniforms, looked at Lucas' ID. Lucas said, "I got ice-cold Coke, Diet Coke and water in the back."
"Cokes," the cops said simultaneously, and Del dug them out of the cooler and passed them to Lucas who handed them through the window to the cops, and asked, "Who doesn't get speeding tickets in Goodhue County?"
"You're good up to ag assault, far as I'm concerned," the cop said, and they went on through.
"Too many people," Del said, as Lucas pulled onto the shoulder of the dusty road, fifty yards short of the site. The shoulder was filled with cop cars, civilian cars and trucks and vans, and an empty heavy-equipment trailer.
"Everybody's gonna want to be here, just to say they were," Lucas said.
They got out of the truck, into the hot mid-day air smelling of roadside weeds. Lucas stuffed Cokes and bottles of water into the daypack, and they ambled along the gravel road toward the farm turnoff. Halfway to the cistern site, they ran into a BCA agent named Don Buford, who saw them coming and said, "I don't suppose you got a beer in there?"
"Got a Coke or a Diet Coke," Lucas said. "Or a bottle of water."
"I'll give you ten dollars for a Diet Coke."
Lucas gave him the Coke and Buford looked around and said, "Ain't this a great day? Hot, sunny, no wind. Tell you what, when you get up there, you'll be praying for cold, wind and rain. The smell... half the guys up there have been pukin' their guts out."
"What's there to see?" Lucas asked.
Buford shrugged: "Just the site. They're calling it the Black Hole of Goodhue. You know, like..."
"... the Black Hole of Calcutta. We get it," Del said.
"The whole crime scene crew is up there," Buford said, rolling the cold Coke bottle across his forehead. "It's a nightmare. Got boxes of skulls. Nothing for me, though. I'd eat a sandwich, if I could keep it down."
"We're wasting our time?" Lucas asked.
"Oh... no. You gotta go look, and look around," Buford said. "Maybe tell you something about the guy who did this. Got to be some kind of crazy farmer. Somebody who butchers his own meat, or something. Some kinda..." Buford shuddered. "... monster."
They left Buford in the road and walked up a slight rise to the turnoff, showed their IDs to another cop, and walked up the grassy track into the heart of the old farmstead. There they found four people in hazmat suits peering into a hole in a concrete slab, and a dozen cops scattered through the trees and brush, watching.
A yellow front-end loader's lift bucket dangled over the hole, with a steel cable dropping into the hole itself. Off to one side was a stack of semi-transparent plastic tubs, the kind you can buy at Target, with paper stickers on the top-covers: human remains. A skull grinned out of one of them. A hundred feet from the hole, an air compressor was working, and in the other direction, a Honda generator. Power and air lines led to the hole. As they got closer, the stink hit them, and Lucas turned away.
"Buford was right," Del said. He dug into his pack and came up with a jar of Vicks VapoRub, opened it, and offered it to Lucas, who took out a bit on the end of a finger, and rubbed under his nose. Del did the same, and they walked up to the hole, and a woman standing next to it in a dark blue hazmat suit with the hood down. Beatrice Sawyer, head of the crime scene crew.
Lucas said, "Hey, Bea."
She turned and said, "Lucas, Del. Nice day, huh?"
Breathing through his mouth, Lucas peered into the cistern, which was illuminated with LED work lights. He could see another person in a hazmat suit, ten feet down, suspended on a wooden platform over a murky grey liquid that could hardly be called water. The suit was sealed, with air lines leading into the helmet.
"You've been down there?" he asked.
"Yeah. That's Hopping Crow down there now. We're trying to find a way to get the water out, without disturbing the remains too much," Sawyer said. "Larry's placing pump lines with filters that we got from a septic-supply place in Red Wing. We're improvising. Don't know if it'll work."
"Why wouldn't it?"
"Oh, we could get the water out with any pump that's large enough," she said. "Everything else would come, too. We need to gently remove it, with a flow fast enough to replace the inflow of groundwater. This cistern is essentially sitting on a spring."
"Hmm." Lucas didn't know about farm stuff.
"How's the skull count?" Del asked.
"Seventeen, now," Sawyer said. "There are more. We can feel them, but we can't see them, and we don't want to damage them. We need to see the dental work."
Del said, "Bobbing for Satan's apples."
"Pretty fuckin' poetic, Del," Sawyer said.
"Any more IDs?" Lucas asked.
"Yes. One. A probable, anyway. When we were using another pump, it got jammed up, and when we pulled it, we found it had sucked up a plastic Visa card, still readable, issued to a Janice Williams. A Janice Williams from Cannon Falls disappeared eight years ago. She was a student at Dakota technical college. Her friends thought she might have gone to Miami she knew some guy down there, and she'd talked about going down. Her parents thought she'd been kidnapped, and she's never been back in touch. That's all I know at this point, but I think it's likely her, down there."
"Will we screw anything up..." Lucas paused, when a man a few feet away suddenly bent over, then rapidly walked away, still bent, and began retching against a tree. They looked away and Lucas started again: "Will we screw anything up if we walk around here? To look the place over?"
"Possibly, but I wouldn't worry about it," she said. "There have been five hundred people here today, and if there's anything that hasn't been stepped on, I don't know what it would be."
Del asked, "Can you get DNA out of vomit?"
Sawyer nodded. "Sure."
"If the killer popped the top off this thing two weeks ago, when this last woman disappeared, it is possible that he puked into the dirt, right where we're standing?"
They all looked at their feet and Sawyer said, "I wish you'd asked that question yesterday afternoon."
Sawyer had been sweating heavily in the hazmat suit, and she greedily sucked down one of Lucas' Diet Cokes. A man stepped up behind them and said, "Hey, Lucas, Del. You guys got another Coke?"
Lucas turned: "Hey, Jimmy. We were told there was a Wisconsin guy here. Didn't know it was you."
"Yeah, I'd been poking around the Carpenter disappearance, over at Diamond Bluff." James Bole was an agent with Wisconsin's Division of Criminal Investigation, an earnest, square-shouldered, stocky man with strawberry blond hair and a neat strawberry blond mustache. He was familiar enough around the Minnesota BCA, working cross-river cases. He took one of Lucas' Cokes and said, "Don't have much. We didn't know whether she'd been kidnapped, or had gone down to the river and fallen in. Now she..." He gestured at the hole.
"We heard," Lucas said. "You take her car apart?"
"Yeah, but there was no sign that anything happened to her inside the car. Didn't find anybody's prints but hers and her mother's nothing was wiped so she probably drove it down there herself. One thing: when she was reported missing, her car was spotted by a Pierce County deputy. It'd rained not long before she disappeared, and when he found her car, he noticed that her tires had made tracks in the mud, and they were still pretty clear. He figured if she had been kidnapped, the kidnapper must've had a vehicle down there in the cemetery... otherwise, he would have had to carry her up a bluff, or down to a boat. There weren't that many other tracks around, so he had casts made of all the different tire tracks."
"Good move," Del said.
"It's thin, but it's what we got," Bole said. "All the tire tracks were probably made by trucks, all-weather tires, four different patterns, four different brands. I gave a list to Buford, he was here."
"Saw him down on the road..."
Shaffer showed up, spotted them, lifted a hand, talked to Sawyer for a moment, then walked over. "Isn't this something?"
"It is," Del said.
"Get anything at all?" Lucas asked.
Shaffer's crew had interviewed the owner of the farm that surrounded the site, a woman named James, and from her had gotten a number of ideas that might help located the people who'd known about the hidden cistern. Shaffer himself had interviewed the two kids who'd first smelled the decomposing body down the cistern, and the deputy who'd pried the lid off the hole.
"You can't see it now, but the whole site was covered with grass, with sod. The cistern was invisible: had to know it was here before you could put somebody into it, and not many people knew about it."
"That could help," Lucas said.
"Yeah. I hope. Have you seen... there they are. Gotta go talk to these guys."
He walked away, toward two guys who had a laptop propped against a tree trunk, entering... data.
They'd drifted away from the hole as they talked, mostly to get away from the stink. A squabble started at the hole, and they turned around to see Sawyer, in the hazmat suit, still holding the Diet Coke, faced-off with a woman in a Goodhue County deputy's uniform. The deputy was a tall and pretty enough, but rangy like a basketball or volleyball player, with wide shoulders and a small butt. She looked like she'd been in a few fights; her nose that wasn't quite on straight. She had one hand resting on her pistol, like she might have to shoot her way out of the farm site.
Sawyer was saying, "... everything does through our office, and if you want reports, you'll have to get them there. We can't get them out to every Tom, Dick and Harry..."
"I'm not every Tom, Dick and Harry this is my jurisdiction and my job," the deputy snarled. She'd come primed for a fight, Lucas thought, or perhaps spent her life angry. She was red-faced and angry now. "I want copies of everything, and I want them as soon as they come out."
Lucas stepped toward her and said, mildly enough, "Everything has to go through one system, or we'll all get confused. If you're authorized to get the reports, it's not a problem: we just make an extra set of copies."
"Who're you?" she asked, looking him up and down.
"I'm a BCA agent," Lucas said. "I've been assigned..."
"And we're second-class citizens?"
"Hey you'll get the crime scene stuff as fast as I do," Lucas said. "You need to talk to Bob Shaffer to get on the distribution list. He'll be the agent in charge. He's around, I just talked to him."
"Bob Shaffer?" She took out a notebook. "How do you spell that?"
Lucas said, slowly, "B-o-b..."
Her eyes snapped at him and he'd had the sense that she'd almost smiled. Instead, she rasped, "Are you giving me a hard time?"
"S-h-a-f-f-e-r," Lucas said. "He'll be happy to hear from you."
He backed away, to where Del and Bole were standing. She watched him go, then folded the notebook and stalked off across the farmyard, toward the cars.
"Wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley," Del said.
"Ah... Catrin Mattsson. She's okay. Well, some of the time," Bole said.
"You know her?" Lucas asked.
"Yeah, I run into her occasionally," Bole said. "She's the lead investigator for Goodhue. Pretty much known for her attitude. Not dumb, though. Good investigator. She just doesn't have a smooth, Del-like personality."
"It's a tragedy," Del said, as they watched her go.
"Yeah, well... her looks somewhat make up for it," Bole said. "The thing is, you BCA guys have a teensy-weensy tendency to throw your weight around on a deal like this. Busy, busy, busy. Don't have a lot of time for the local-yokels."
"Well, like I said, it's teensy-weensy."
All cases like the Black Hole murders start slow. The investigators needed to know what they had, before they could start working patterns, asking questions, figuring out who might be a person of interest.
Figuring out what they had was up to the crime scene people and the medical examiners. That would not happen on the first day. Lucas and Del hung around the hole for a while, watching, passing out Cokes, then walked across the old farm site, getting a feel for cover and dimensions and views.
The place was a perfect square, with the road at the south end. The other three sides were guarded by the remnants of a barbed-wire fence and a few old steel fence posts. The north side was covered with the remnants of a wood lot, and dozens of trees were scattered around the rest of the plot, apparently having grown up since the farm was abandoned. Everything else, except a thin clearing in the middle, was covered with a variety of brush and weeds.
A single track, probably along the old driveway, crossed the ditch over a rusting culvert. The spear-like tops of a few old iris grew along the edge of the ditch, and a line of ancient lilac bushes lay along the line of what had been the driveway.
There were probably a thousand identical plots in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
When they were done walking it, Del said, "You couldn't have invented a better place to get rid of bodies. Back country road, invisible cistern, nearest farmhouse a half-mile away. Roll in here at night, knowing where you're going, pop the lid, drop the body, put the lid back down, and roll on out. Knowing it ahead of time, you could be in and out in five minutes, with never a trace of what you'd been doing."
"But you'd have random kids coming up here to park, like the kids who found it," Lucas said. "It looks a little used, anyway. It's possible the killer ran into somebody up here, one time or another."
"If he did, he'd just back out... drive around, wait until they were gone."
"Yeah. Probably not much there," Lucas said. "If there's anything, Shaffer'll find it."
Del asked, "What do you want to do?"
"Go home," Lucas said. "But first, let's go talk to the farm lady."
Del took a last look around: "The asshole really did fuck up a great place to park. Did I ever tell you about the time Cheryl and me..."
The land around the Black Hole plot belonged to a farmer named Sally James, who'd inherited it from her father twelve years earlier. James was in her mid-fifties, a stout red-faced woman whose blue eyes carried the glazed look of someone who'd been whacked in the forehead with a board.
Lucas and Del found her at her own farmstead, a half-mile away, visiting with a couple of reddish-brown horses in a corral next to her barn. "I think they're called sorrels, but I'm not sure I'm pronouncing it right," Del muttered, as they walked up to her.
When Lucas introduced himself and Del, James said, "I've already been interviewed three times by the police. As soon as they take the roadblocks down, there'll be fifteen TV stations in here, knocking on the door. I don't know what more I can say."
Lucas explained that there were two teams of BCA agents working the case, as well as the sheriff's office and the Wisconsin DCI. Since the crimes had gone interstate, he expected that the FBI might take a look. "We like to talk to people in person, because something they say may ring a bell with something else that we find, later on," Lucas said.
"You don't think I had anything to do with it?"
"We don't think anything in particular," Lucas said. "We're just getting started."
"How many do they have now? It was sixteen this morning," she said.
"Seventeen, now," Del said. "There are more to come."
"My lord, my lord. Ah, come on in. We can sit in the kitchen."
The house was cool, a relief from the day's heat. The kitchen smelled like bread and cooked carrots, with an undertone of cabbage and pork chop. James fired up a coffee pot, and passed around thick china cups, and they drank coffee and talked about it.
James started by sketching out a history of the place: the previous owner had sold his land to James' father, but nobody wanted the house or outbuildings. Eventually, title to the land was taken by the county for back taxes. "The county tries to sell it every once in a while, but nobody wants it. Four acres in the middle of nowhere, old septic tanks in the ground, that cistern, old foundations... it'd probably take twenty grand to clean it up. So, it sits."
"Kids park there, to make out," Lucas said.
"From time to time, in the summer," James said. "We've had Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts do overnighters there. And corn detassellers, like the kid who found the bodies."
"Does everybody around here know about the cistern?" Lucas asked.
"No way," she said. "I didn't know about it. That cistern probably hadn't been used for sixty, seventy years."
"Then how would the killer find out about it?" Del asked.
"That's a puzzle, and I've been thinking about it," she said. "There are these guys, treasure hunters, they go around to these abandoned farm sites with metal detectors and such, looking for old junkyards and buried treasure. Somebody like that could have found it. When this all came up, a deputy took me down there to look at it. I'd been in there a hundred times, and it never occurred to me that the cistern was still there. You couldn't see it, all covered up with sod. Nobody found it by accident."
"This is good stuff," Lucas told her. "From what you've told us, the killer has to be somebody who's familiar with the place, and there aren't many."
Well..." There was doubt in her voice. "You know, this boy who found it, knew about the place because he was a detasseller."
Lucas smiled at her and said, "I was a city kid. I don't totally understand detasselling. I've heard of it."
James explained that corn plants have both mail and female parts, and are self-fertilizing. "When you're hybridizing corn cross-breeding it two varieties of corn will be planted in alternating strips. Because the corn is to be cross-bred, you don't want one strip of the corn self-fertilizing. Instead, you want it to be fertilized only by the second variety. To do that, the tassels from the target variety are removed from the corn stalks, by hand, by pulling them out of the top of the stalk."
"Like castrating the corn," Del said.
"Exactly," she said.
The work was short-term, hot, tedious and low-paid, usually done by high school kids sitting on detasselling machines that are driven up and down the rows of corn.
"Me and my dad have always contracted out part of the farm to grow hybrid seed, so there are detasselling crews taking breaks in that old Clemens place, eating lunch, every summer. That could be twenty or thirty people at a time, mostly boys. Over the years, there have been hundreds of them hardly anybody does detasselling for more than a year or two."
"Would the hybrid company have a list of employees?" Del asked.
"Mmm, probably not," she said. "The way it works is, you need a lot of kids for a real short time, and the work is nasty. So, the seed companies recruit people who can recruit kids and that usually means teachers. A teacher might contract to detassel, say, a hundred and twenty acres. Then he'll recruit a bunch of kids from his school, the company supplies the machine, and when the tassels start to pop, they go in and start pulling."
"Would the teachers have a list?" Lucas asked.
"Maybe... and it's the same teacher every year, usually. I'm sure the hybrid company would have that list, of the teachers. It's Marks' Best Seed Corn, over in Red Wing."
"Okay. That's a place to start," Lucas said.
"What good would it do you? You're going to investigate hundreds of people?"
"With this many dead, we might," Lucas said. "What you hope is, you punch the names into a computer, push a button, and your database kicks out names of sex offenders who match the names you put in."
"Ah," she said. "Of course. Computers."
That was all she had: Scouts, lovers, treasure hunters and detassellers. "Or teachers, I suppose. I'd go with the treasure-hunters, myself. You get these bottle-hunters, they love to find old outhouse pits. They'll get in there with a shovel and dig them right out. They can get a hundred bottles out of a good one, and they're worth some money."
"That happen over there?"
She shook her head: "Not that I've ever seen. But you know, those people can be sneaky. They find a good spot, get a friend to drop them off early in the morning, and they can dig out a whole pit in a day. Fill it back in, I might never know. I doubt that I'm in there twice a year, mostly during detasselling season. If somebody dug in there during the fall, I probably wouldn't go back in there until the next summer. It could be completely grown over."
"So... treasure hunters," Lucas said.
"Yup. Or a detasseller."
They pushed her a bit more, but she couldn't think of anyone else who'd be familiar with the place. She'd had a boyfriend for fifteen years, she said, but he lived in Holbein and rarely came out to the farm. "He's a city boy, like you. When we do an over-night, I've got to go to him. He doesn't like the quiet out here. I'll tell you though, he wouldn't hurt a flea."
"I'd like to get his name," Lucas said. "For the record, you know?"
Out in the car, Del said, "He's a city boy like you. Likes to hear them cars."
"Hey. She's right."
"Holbein, if I'm not mistaken, is about the size of my dick," Del said. "There's probably only one car."
"Let's go look," Lucas said. "It's not exactly on the way home, but it sort of is, and we're not wasting our time backtracking."
Holbein was larger than Del's dick, unless Del had been hiding his light. It was an older place, once a milling town on the East Fork of the Zumbro River, population now 5,706, according to a sign just outside of town. Driving through to the business district, the place seemed... usual.
White- and blue-pastel clapboard houses on small lawns, most of the houses built sometime not long after the turn of the 20th Century. As they drove through the older neighborhoods around the business district, they saw only a handful of houses, obviously in-fills, that might have been built after World War II.
The East Fork of the Zumbro twisted along one edge of town, piling up in a small lake, behind what had probably been a miller's dam a century and a half earlier. The dam was not original, and was now a heavy, inelegant chunk of mossy concrete. The lake was surrounded by the city park, with an unoccupied kids' play area and a band shell, and a thumb-like protrusion of dirt and grass that stuck out into the lake, with a sign that said, "Ol' Fishin' Hole."
"I could live here," Del said.
"No, you couldn't. You'd turn into a coot and hang out at the general store, with your fly down," Lucas said. "You'd be known for goosing middle-aged women. You'd be the town embarrassment."
Del nodded. "Yeah. You're probably right."
They did a loop through the business district, which covered maybe a dozen square blocks. As Lucas had noticed before in small-town Minnesota, there seemed to be one of everything. Not many choices, but one of everything: one car dealer, one farm implement dealer, one hardware store, one lumber yard, an off-brand cellphone store, a computer repair shop, a fern restaurant, one diner, a VFW for the Lutherans, a Knights of Columbus for the Catholics, and for those who preferred getting hammered in secular surroundings, a bar. Sometimes more than one bar, even in towns no bigger than Del's dick.
"Remember when Flowers did that survey in a small town, to see who they all thought might be the bomber?" Del said, as they cruised. "Maybe we could do something like that."
"It's a thought. Virgil will be back in three weeks, and if Shaffer doesn't have anything by then, we could ask him to set it up. The problem is, the killer probably isn't from here," Lucas looked out the window at the small, innocent houses. "He's probably from Red Wing. Red Wing has a lot bigger population, is closer to the cistern. A lot more of the detasseller kids would come from there, than from here."
"We gotta call the people at this Marks' Seed corn, see who's who," Del said.
Lucas shook his head: "No. That's not us. That's Shaffer, and I'd bet he's already all over it. He's got the clerks to handle it."
"What are we going to do?"
"Think about it, mostly. See what Shaffer gets, read the reports. What we really need to know, is, who the victims are. Where they came from, what's the earliest killing. The earliest killing is going to be close to the killer's home ground. It'll also give us some idea of how old he is now. He probably started as a young man, late teens, early twenties. If there are twenty dead, and he's doing four a year, then he's probably in his mid- to late-twenties. If he's doing one a year, he'd probably in his forties, or close to it."
"He's not dumb, he's been getting away with this for a long time, with nobody suspecting," Del said. "I think that means he probably wasn't a teenager when he started. He's not reckless; he's thought about it. And if he was doing four a year, and they're all local, we would have noticed. "
"So move the ages a little, make him a little older... We'll know, when we start putting names on the victims."
"A lot of names, man."
"Yeah." They'd made a circle though some of the back neighborhoods, with newer houses, then turned back onto Main Street, and rolled down the hill toward the business district. "You seen enough?"
"Mostly. And one of the things I've seen is that supermarket. I bet they got donuts. All these small-town markets got bakeries."
"Aw, for Christ sakes," Lucas said. He went on for a block, down a gentle hill, and turned into the supermarket parking lot. "Two cherry filled, if they've got them. Or raspberry."
"Don't let them know you're a cop," Lucas said. "It's embarrassing."
Del disappeared into the store, came back out with a white paper bag, and they sat in the parking lot for five minutes, eating the donuts, looking up the hill at the hardware store, and the lumber yard, and Sally's Paws and Claws, "For All Your Kitty and Doggy Needs."
Del said, thoughtfully, "I'd like a little pussy."
Lucas chewed and swallowed and said, "Yeah? Have you talked to Cheryl about it?"
13 August 2018
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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