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|The Prey Series|
The Kidd Series
The Singular Menace
From the boardroom windows, high atop the Pye Pinnacle, you could see almost nothing for a very long way. A white farmhouse, surrounded by a scattering of metal sheds, huddled in a fir-tree windbreak a half-mile out and thirty degrees to the right. Another farmhouse, with a red barn, sat three-quarters of a mile away and thirty degrees to the left. Straight north it was corn, beans and alfalfa, and after that, more corn, beans and alfalfa.
Somebody once claimed to have spotted a cow, but that had never been confirmed. The top floor was so high that the board members rarely even saw birds, though every September, a couple of dozen turkey vultures, at the far northern limit of their range, would gather above Pye Plaza and circle through the thermals rising off the concrete and glass.
There were rumors that the vultures so pissed off Willard Pye that he would go up to the roof, hiding in a blind disguised as an air conditioner vent, and try to blast them out of the sky with a twelve-gauge shotgun.
Angela (Jelly) Brown, Pye's executive assistant, didn't believe that rumor, though, she admitted to her husband, it sounded like something Pye would do. She knew he hated the buzzards, and the saucer-sized buzzard droppings that spotted the emerald-green glass of the Pinnacle.
But that was in the Autumn.
On a sunny Wednesday morning in the middle of May, Jelly Brown got to the boardroom early, pulled the drapes to let the light in, and opened four small vent windows for the fresh air. That done, she went around the board table, and at each chair put out three yellow #2 pencils, all finely sharpened and equipped with unused rubber erasers; a yellow legal pad; and a water glass on a PyeMart coaster. She checked the circuit breakers at the end of the table, to make sure that the laptop plug-ins were live.
As she did that, Sally Humboldt from food services brought in a tray covered with cookies, bagels and jelly doughnuts; two tanks of hot coffee, one each of regular and decaf; a pitcher of orange juice and one of cranberry juice.
The first board members began trickling in at 8:45. Instead of going to the board room, they stopped at the hospitality suite, where they could get something a little stronger than coffee and orange juice: V-8 Bloody Marys were a favorite, and Screwdrivers both excellent sources of vodka. The meeting itself would start around 9:30.
Jelly Brown had checked the consumables before the board members arrived. She'd put an extra bottle of Reyka in the hospitality suite, because the heavy drinkers from Texas and California were scheduled to show up.
A few minutes after nine o'clock, she went back to the board room to close the windows and turn on the air conditioning. Sally Humboldt had come back with a tray of miniature pumpkin pies, each with a little pig-tailed squirt of whipped cream and a birthday candle. They always had pie at a Pye board meeting, but these were special: Willard Pye would be 70 in three days, and the board members, who'd all grown either rich or richer because of Pye's entrepreneurial magic, would sing a hardy "Happy Birthday."
Jelly Brown had closed the last window when she noticed that somebody had switched chairs. Pye was a man of less than average height, dealing with men and even a couple of women on the tall side, so he liked his chair six inches higher than standard, even if his feet dangled a bit.
She said, "Oh, shit," to herself. Almost a bad mistake. Pye would have been mightily pissed if he'd had to trade chairs with somebody no graceful way to do that. She then made a much worse mistake: she pulled his chair out from the spot at the corner of the table and started dragging it around to the head of the table.
The bomb was in a cardboard box on the bottom shelf of a credenza on the side wall opposite the windows. When it detonated, Jelly Brown had just pulled the chair out away from the table, and that put her right next to the credenza. She never felt the explosion: never felt the blizzard of steel and wooden splinters that tore her body to pieces.
Sally Humboldt was bent over a serving table, at the far end of the room. Between her and the bomb were several heavy chairs, the four-inch thick table-top, and the four-foot-wide leg at the end of the table. All those barriers protected her from the blast wave that killed Jelly Brown and blew out the windows.
The blast did flatten her, and broken glass rained on her stunned, upturned face. She didn't actually hear the bomb go off had no sense of that and remembered Pye screaming orders, but she really wasn't herself until she woke up in the hospital in Grand Rapids, and found her face and upper body wrapped in bandages.
The bandages covered her eyes, so she couldn't see anything, and she couldn't hear anything except the drone of words, and a persistent, loud, high-pitched ringing. For a moment she thought she might be dead and buried, except that she found she could move her hands, and when she did, she felt the bandages.
And she blurted, "God help me, where am I? Am I blind?"
There were some word-like noises, but she couldn't make the individual words, and then, after a confusing few seconds, somebody took a bandage pad off her left eye. She could see okay, with that eye, anyway, and found herself looking at a nurse, and then what she assumed was a doctor.
The doctor spoke to her, and she said, "I can't hear," and he nodded, and held up a finger, meaning, "One moment," and then he came back with a yellow legal pad and a wide tipped marker and wrote in oversized block letters, "You were injured in an explosion. Do you understand?"
She said, "Yes, I do. "
He held up a finger again, and wrote, "You have temporarily lost your hearing because of the blast." Another page: "You have many little cuts from glass fragments." Turned the page: "Your other eyelid is badly cut, but not the eye itself." Another page: "Your vision should be fine." Another: "You also suffered a minor concussion and perhaps other impact injuries." Finally: "Your vital signs are excellent."
"What time is it?" she asked. The light in the room looked odd.
"Five o'clock. You've been coming and going for almost eight hours. That's the concussion."
There was some more back and forth, and finally she asked, "Was it a gas leak?"
The doctor wrote, "The police believe it was a bomb. They want to talk to you as soon as you are able."
"What about Jelly? She was in the room with me."
The doctor, his expression grim, wrote, "I'm sorry. She wasn't as lucky as you."
More-or-less the same thing happened all over again, three weeks later and four hundred and fifty miles to the west, in Butternut Falls, Minnesota. Gilbert Kingsley, the construction superintendent, and Mike Sullivan, a civil engineer, arrived early Monday morning at the construction trailer at a new PyeMart site just inside the Butternut Falls city limits.
Kingsley, unfortunately for him, had the key, and walked up the metal steps to the trailer door, while Sullivan yawned into the back of his hand three steps below. Kingsley turned and said, "If we can get the grade..."
He was rudely interrupted by the bomb. Parts of the top half of Kingsley's body were blown right back over Sullivan's head, while the lower half, and what was left of the top, plastered itself to Sullivan and knocked him flat.
Sullivan sat up, then rolled onto his hands and knees, and then pushed up to his knees, and scraped blood and flesh from his eyes. He saw a man running toward him from the crew's parking area, and off to his left, a round thing that he realized had Kingsley's face on it, and he started retching, and turned and saw more people running...
He couldn't hear a thing, and never again could hear very well.
But like Sally Humboldt, he was alive to tell the tale.
The ATF its full name, seldom used, was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instantly got involved. An ATF supervisor in Washington called the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and asked for a local liaison in Butternut Falls.
The request got booted around, and at an afternoon meeting at BCA headquarters in St. Paul, Lucas Davenport, a senior agent, said, "Let's send that fuckin' Flowers up there. He hasn't done anything for us lately."
"He's off today," somebody said.
Davenport said, "So what?"
Virgil Flowers was sitting on a bale of hay on a jacked-up snowmobile trailer behind Bob's Bad Boy Barbeque & Bar in North Mankato, Minnesota, watching four Minnesota farm girls duke it out in the semi-finals of the 5B's Third International Beach Volleyball tournament.
The contestants were not the skinny, sun-blasted beach-blanket-bingo chicks who played in places like Venice Beach, or down below the bluffs at Laguna and La Jolla. Not at all. These women were white as paper in January, six-three and six-four, and ran close to two hundred pounds each, in their plus-sized bikinis. They'd spent the early parts of their lives carrying heifers around barnyards, and jumping up and down from haylofts; they could get up in the air.
And when they spiked the ball, the ball didn't just amble across the net like a balloon; the ball shrieked. And the guys watching, with their beers, didn't call out sissy stuff like, Good one! or No way! They moaned: Whoa, doggy! and "Let that ball live. Have mercy!"
Of course, they were mostly dead drunk.
Sitting there in the mixed odors of sawdust and wet sand, sweaty female flesh and beer, Virgil thought the world felt perfect. If it needed anything at all, nose-wise, it'd be a whiff of two-stroke oil-and-gas mixture from a twenty-five-horse outboard. That'd be heaven.
Johnson Johnson, sitting on the next bale over, leaned toward Virgil, his forehead damp with beer sweat, and said, "I'm going for it. She wants me."
"She does want you," Virgil agreed. They both looked at one of the bigger women on the sand; she'd been sneaking glances at Johnson. "But you're gonna be helpless putty in her hands, man. Whatever she wants to do, you're gonna have to do, or she'll pull your arms off."
"I'll take the chance of that," Johnson said. "I can handle it." He was a dark-complected man, heavily muscled, like a guy who moved timber around which he did. Johnson ran a custom sawmill in the hardwood hills of southeast Minnesota. He'd taken his t-shirt off, so the girls could see his tattoos: A screaming eagle on one arm, its mouth open, carrying a ribbon that said not E Pluribus Unum, but Bite Me; and on the other arm, an outboard motor schematic, with the name "Johnson Johnson" proudly scrawled on its cowling.
"Personally, I'd say your chances of handling it are slim and none, and slim is outa town," Virgil said. "She's gonna eat you alive. But, you got no choice. The honor of the Johnsons is at stake. The honor of the Johnsons. "
Virgil was thinner, taller and fairer, with blond surfer-boy hair curling down over his ears and falling onto the back of his neck. He was wearing Aviator sun glasses, a pink Freelance Whales t-shirt, faded jeans and sandals.
They were just coming up to game point when his cell phone rang, playing the opening bars of Nouvelle Vague's "Ever Fallen in Love." He took the phone out of his pocket, looked at it, and carefully slipped it back in his pocket. It stopped after four bars, then started again a minute later.
"Work?" Johnson asked.
"Looks like," Virgil said.
"But you're off."
"That's true," Virgil said. "Hang on here, while I go lock the thing in the truck."
Johnson tipped the beer bottle toward him: "Good thinkin'," he said. And, "Man, that's a lotta woman, right there."
The woman hit the volley ball with a smack that sounded like a short-track race-car collision, and Virgil flinched. "Be right back," he said.
As he walked down the side road to his truck, carefully stepping around the patches of sand-burrs, he was tempted to call Davenport. That would have been the right thing to do, he thought. But the day was hot, and the women too, and the beer was cold and the world smelled so damn good on a great summer day... And he was off.
The fact was, the only reason that Davenport would call was that somebody had gotten his or her ass murdered somewhere. Virgil was already late getting there he was always the last to know so another few hours wouldn't make any difference. The powers-that-be in St. Paul would want him to go anyway, because it'd look good.
He popped the door on the truck, dropped the phone on the front seat, locked the door and went back to the 5B.
Virgil was based in Mankato, Minnesota, two hours southwest of St. Paul, depending on road conditions and the thickness of the highway patrol. He routinely covered the southern part of the state. On non-routine cases, he'd be picked up by Davenport's team, and moved to wherever Davenport thought he should go.
A couple of hours after Davenport first called, he left Johnson at the 5B, romancing the volleyball player. Their attachment was such that Virgil would not be required to drive Johnson back to his truck, so Virgil headed home, across the river into Mankato.
Once on the road, he picked up his phone and pushed the "call" button, and two seconds later, was talking to Davenport.
"We got a bomb early this morning," Davenport said. "One killed, one injured, in Butternut Falls. We need you to get up there."
"What's the deal?"
Davenport told him about the explosion and the casualties, and said that the ATF would be on the scene now, or shortly.
"I'll be on my way in an hour," Virgil said. "Wasn't there another PyeMart bomb, killed somebody in Michigan a couple weeks back?"
"Yeah. Killed one, injured one. If it'd gone off twenty minutes later, it would have taken out the board of directors along with Pye himself," Davenport said. "This guy is serious, whoever he is."
"But if he started in Michigan, he could be a traveler. Unless we've got fingerprints or DNA..."
"We've got two things on that," Davenport said. "The first thing is, the explosives are tagged by the manufacturer. The ATF has already identified the tags in the Michigan bomb as Pelex, which is TNT mixed with some other stuff, and is mostly used in quarries. In April, somebody cracked a quarry shed up by Cold Spring that's about an hour northeast of Butternut Falls and two boxes of Pelex were taken. Other than the theft in Cold Spring, the ATF doesn't have any other reports of Pelex theft in the last couple of years. So, the bomber's probably local."
"Okay," Virgil said. "What's the other thing?"
"Butternut is having a civil war over the PyeMart. People are saying the mayor and city council were bought, and the DNR is being sued by a trout-fishing group that says some trout stream is going to be hurt by the runoff. Lot of angry stuff going on. Over-the-top stuff. Threats."
"There's runoff going into the Butternut? Man, that's not just a crime, that's a mortal sin," Virgil said.
"Whatever," Davenport said. "In any case, the DNR okayed their environmental impact statement. I guess they're already building the store."
"That's all I got," Davenport said. "Interesting case, though. I didn't want to take you away from your sheriff..."
"Ah, she's out in L.A., being a consultant," Virgil said. "Having dinner with producers. Guys with suits like yours."
"Sounds like the bloom has gone off the rose," Davenport said.
"Maybe," Virgil conceded.
"I can hear your heart breaking from here," Davenport said. "Have a good time in Butternut."
Virgil lived in a small white house in Mankato, two bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, not far from the state university. He traveled a lot, and so was almost always ready to go. He told the old lady who lived next door that he'd be leaving again, asked her to keep an eye on the place, and gave her a six-pack of Leinies for her trouble. He packed a week's clothes into his travel bag, mostly t-shirts and jeans, put a cased shotgun on the floor of his 4Runner, along with a couple boxes of 00 shells, and stuck his pistol in a custom gun safe under the passenger seat, along with two spare magazines and a box of 9-millimeter.
A quick Google check said that Butternut Falls would be two hours away. He printed out a map of the town, and while it was printing, turned the air conditioning off, checked the doors to make sure they were locked, and turned on the alarm system. On the way out, he thought, with his last look, that the house looked lonely; too quiet, with dust motes floating in the sunlight over the kitchen sink. Nothing to disturb them. He needed... what? A wife? Kids? More insurance policies? Maybe a dog?
When the truck was loaded and the house secure, Virgil pulled out of the driveway into the street, reversed, and backed up in front of his boat, which had been parked on the other side of the driveway. His fishing gear was already aboard. But then, it was always aboard. After a quick look at the tires, he hitched up the trailer, folded up the trailer jack, and took off.
He got fifty feet, pulled over, jogged back to the garage, opened a locker, took out a pile of fly-fishing gear, including a vest, chest waders, rod case and tackle box, and carried them back to the truck.
Better to have a fly rod, and not need it, than to need a fly rod and not have it. He climbed back in the truck, and took off again.
Packing up and getting out of town took an hour, just as he told Davenport it would. The sun was still high in the sky, and he'd be in Butternut well before sundown, he thought. The longest day of the year was just around the corner, and those days, in Minnesota, were long.
And he thought a little about the sheriff out in L.A., Lee Coakley. She was still warm enough on the telephone, but she'd been infected by show business. She'd gone out as a consultant on a made-for-TV movie, based on one of her cases, and had been asked to consult on another. And then another. Women cops were hot in the movies and on TV, and there was work to be had. Her kids liked it out there, the whole surfer thing. Just yesterday, she'd had lunch in Malibu...
Once you'd seen Malibu, would you come back to Minnesota? To the Butternut Falls of the world? To Butternut cops?
"Ah, poop," Virgil said out loud, his heart cracked, if not yet broken.
Virgil took US 14 out of town, back through North Mankato and past the 5B, resisting the temptation to stop and see if Johnson Johnson was still alive. He went through the town of New Ulm, which once was and maybe still was the most ethnically homogeneous town in the nation, being 99% German; then took State 15 north to US 212, and 212 west past Buffalo Lake, Hector, Bird Island and Olivia, then US 71 north into Butternut Falls.
Butternut was built at the point where the Butternut River, formerly Butternut Creek, ran into a big depression and filled it up, to form the southern-most lake in a chain that stretched off to the north. Butternut's Lake was called Dance Lake, after a man named Frederick Dance, who ran the first railroad depot in town, back in the 1800s.
The railroad was still big in town, and included a switching yard. The tracks ran parallel to US 12, which ran through the town east to west, crossing US 71 right downtown. Butternut, with about 18,000 people, was the county seat of Kandiyohi County, which was pronounced Candy-Oh'-Hi.
Virgil knew some of that and would get the rest out of Google because he had, at one time or another, been in and out of most of the county seats in the state, also because he'd played Legion ball against the Butternut Woodpeckers, more commonly referred to, outside Butternut, and sometimes inside, as the wooden peckers.
Virgil drove into Butternut at half-past six o'clock in the evening, in full daylight, and checked into the Holiday Inn. He got directions out to the PyeMart site from a notably insouciant desk clerk, a blond kid, and drove west on US 12 to the edge of town. He passed what looked like an industrial area on the south side of the highway, crossed the Butternut River a small, cold stream no more than fifty feet wide where it ran into the lake on the north side of the highway then past a transmission shop. After the transmission shop, there were fields, corn, beans, oats and alfalfa.
Most people, he thought, didn't know that alfalfa was a word of Arabic derivation...
He was beginning to think that he'd missed the PyeMart site when he rolled over a low hill and saw the plot of raw earth on the south side of the highway, along with some concrete pilings sticking out of the ground. When he got closer, he saw the pilings were on the edges and down the middle of two huge concrete pads.
Everything else, including the soon-to-be parking lot, was raw dirt. A couple of bulldozers were parked at one edge of the site, and to the left, as he went in, he saw the construction trailer. There was a ring of yellow crime scene tape around it, tied to rebar poles stuck upright in the dirt, to make a fence. Two sheriff's deputies, one of each sex, sat on metal chairs, just outside the tape, in the sun, and watched Virgil's truck bouncing across the site.
Trailers, on the plains, are sometimes called 'tornado bait,' and this one look like it'd taken a direct hit. Virgil had seen a lot of tornado damage, and several trailer fires: one thing he realized before he'd gotten out of the truck was that as hard as this trailer had been hit, there'd been no fire. In another minute, he was picking out the difference between a bomb blast and a tornado hit.
A tornado would shred a trailer, twisting it like an empty beer can in the hands of a redneck. This trailer looked like a full beer can that had been left outside in a blizzard to freeze: everything about it looked swollen. A door had been mostly blown off, and was hanging from a twisted hinge.
He climbed out of the truck and walked up to the trailer, and as he did that, the female deputy, who wore sergeant's stripes, asked, "Where do you think you're going?"
"Well, right here," Virgil said. He was still in the pink t-shirt and jeans, although he'd traded his sandals for cowboy boots. He had a sport coat in the car, but the day was too warm to put it on. "I'm Virgil Flowers, with the BCA, up here to arrest your bomber."
Both deputies frowned, as though they suspected there were being put on. "You got an ID?" the woman asked. She was a redhead, with freckles, and a narrow, almost-cute diastema between her two front teeth. One eyelid twitched every few seconds, as though she were over-caffeinated.
"I do, in my truck, if you want to see it," Virgil said. "Though to tell you the truth, I thought I was so famous I didn't need it."
"It was a Virgil Flowers killed those Vietnamese up north," the male deputy said.
"I didn't kill anybody, but I was there," Virgil said. "The sheriff around? I thought this place would be crawling with feds."
"There're two crime scene guys in the trailer," the female deputy said, poking a thumb back over his shoulder. "There rest of them are at the courthouse they should be back out here any minute. The chief left us out here to keep an eye on things. I should have been off three hours ago."
"I was having a beer when they called me," Virgil said. "Watching some young women playing beach volleyball."
"That's better'n what I was going to do," the male said. "I was just gonna mow my yard."
They still seemed a little standoffish, so Virgil said, "Let me get you that ID."
He went back to the truck, got his ID case, came over, and flipped it open to show the woman, who seemed to be the senior cop. She nodded and said her name was something O'Hara, and that the other deputy was Tom Mack. Virgil stuck the case in his back pocket and asked, "So where'd this guy get killed? Right here?"
Mack nodded, and faced off to his left, pointed behind the yellow tape. "Right over there. You can still see a little blood. That's where most of him was. His head was over there popped right off, like they do. There were other pieces around. The guy who was wounded, he soaked up quite a bit of the body..."
"He still in the hospital?" Virgil asked.
"Yeah, he was crazy hysterical, I guess," O'Hara said. "He's not right yet. They gave him a bunch of drugs, trying to straighten him out. Not hurt bad. Can't hear anything, but there're no holes in him."
At that moment, a business jet flew overhead, low, and Mack said, "That must be Pye. Willard T. Pye. They said he was coming in."
"Good, that'll help," Virgil said.
O'Hara showed a hint of a smile and said, "Nothing like a multi-billionaire looking over your shoulder, when you're trying to work."
"So, you said the guy's head popped off, like they do," Virgil said to Mack. "You know about bombs or something? I don't know anything."
Mack shrugged. "I did two tours in Iraq with the Guard. That's what you always heard about suicide bombers they'd pull the trigger, and their heads would go straight up, like basketballs. Think if there's a big blast, and you're close to it, well, your skull is a pretty solid unit, and it hangs together, but it comes loose of your neck. So... that's what I heard. But I don't really know." He looked at O'Hara. "You hear that?"
"Yeah, I think everybody did. But, maybe it was from some movie. I don't know that it's a fact."
"You in the Guard, too?" Virgil asked.
She nodded. "Yeah, I did a tour with a Blackhawk unit; I was a crew chief and door gunner."
"I did some time in the Army, but I was a cop, and never had much to do with bombs..." Virgil said. They traded a few war stories, and then Mack nodded toward the road. "Here comes the VIP convoy. That'd be the sheriff in front, and that big black Tahoe is the ATF, and I don't know who-all behind that. They've been having a meeting at the courthouse."
"Good thing I'm late," Virgil said. "I might've had to go to it... You got media?"
"Yeah, and there they are," O'Hara said. "Right behind the convoy. Tell you what, and don't mention I said it, but you don't want to be standing between the sheriff and a TV camera, unless you want cleat marks up your ass."
Virgil saw a white truck, followed by another white truck, and then a third one. "Ah, man. I forgot to wash my hair this morning."
"Forgot to bring your gun, too," Mack said.
"Oh, I got a gun," Virgil said. "I just forgot where it is."
The Kandiyohi County sheriff was a tall beefy Swede named Earl Ahlquist, a known imperialist. Four years past, he'd pointed out to a money-desperate city council that there was a lot of police-work duplication in Kandiyohi County, and they could cut their policing costs in half by firing their own department and hiring him to do the city's police work. There was some jumping up and down, but when the dust settled, the two departments had merged and Ahlquist was king.
Ahlquist climbed out of his car, nodded at Virgil and said, "I hate that shirt."
"It's what I wear on my day off," Virgil said. "How you doing, Earl?"
"Other than the fact that a guy got murdered this morning, and we got a mad bomber roaming around loose, and I missed both lunch and dinner, and I'm running on three Snickers bars and some Ding Dongs, I'm just fine."
"I had some pretty good barbeque and a few beers this afternoon, before I was called on my day off," Virgil said. "I was watching some good-looking women play beach volleyball."
"Yeah, yeah, I got it. This is your day off. Tough titty," Ahlquist said. He turned to the crowd coming up behind him. "You know Jack LeCourt? He's our top man here in the city; Jack, this is Virgil Flowers from the BCA, and Virgil, this is Jim Barlow, he's with the ATF outa the Grand Rapids field office, he's been working the first bomb up in Michigan... This is Geraldine Gore, the mayor..."
The sheriff made all the introductions and they all shook hands and had something to say about Virgil's pink shirt, and then O'Hara said, "We got a jet just landed at the airport, chief. I think Pye's here."
"Aw, man," Barlow said. He was a tall dark man, with hooded dark-brown eyes, salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly trimmed black mustache. He was wearing khaki slacks, a blue button-down shirt and dark blue blazer.
"He hasn't been that much help? Virgil asked.
"First thing he did was offer a one-million-dollar reward leading to the arrest and conviction," Barlow said. "Then he gave his secretary's family a two-million-dollar gift from the company, and gave the food-service lady, who was cut up, a quarter-million-dollar bonus. All the millions flying around meant he got wall-to-wall TV, and every time he went on, he bitched about progress. When we told him what we were doing, he leaked it. When I heard about this bomb, I thought, 'Now we're getting somewhere. At least we know where the guy's from.' But you watch: it'll be wall-to-wall TV here, too, in about fifteen minutes."
"I can handle that. No need for you to get involved," Ahlquist said, and from behind his back, O'Hara winked at Virgil.
Virgil said, "So, as the humblest of the investigators here... can somebody tell me what happened?"
The mayor unselfconsciously scratched her ass and said, "I'd like to know that myself."
Barlow knew his bombs.
The explosive, he said, had the same characteristics as the first one, so he was assuming that it was again the stuff called Pelex, as in the Michigan bomb. "That's basically TNT, which is 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene. To make Pelex, they mixed in about fifteen percent aluminum powder, which makes the TNT faster increases the speed with which it develops its maximum pressure."
"To give you a bigger pop," Virgil said.
"Exactly. The bomber put this stuff, I think, inside a good-sized galvanized steel plumbing pipe," Barlow said. "The pipe was sitting on the floor, just inside the door. The trigger could have been something as simple as a string down from the handle to a mousetrap."
"Yes." Barlow gestured at the techs working inside the trailer. "We found a wire spring that looks like it came from an ordinary mousetrap. We don' t know if there were mousetraps set inside the trailer to catch mice, but it would have been an effective way to fire the switch on the bomb. You get a battery, an electric blasting cap, a switch worked through the mousetrap, and there you go. Move the door, fire the mousetrap and boom."
"That's sounds dangerous... to the bomber," Ahlquist said.
"You'd need good hands," Barlow agreed. "The bomb in Michigan used a cheap mechanical clock as a switch, and was a lot safer. But that was a time bomb, and this was a trigger-set. Of course, we haven't found all the pieces of the switch here... it might not have been all that dangerous. For example, there could be a safety switch in the circuit that wasn't as touchy as the mousetrap. So he'd set the trap, and then only close the safety switch when he was sure the mousetrap was solid, and he was on his way out."
"So is that sophisticated, or unsophisticated?" Virgil asked.
"Interesting question," Barlow said. "We occasionally run into guys who are bomb hobbyists and take a lot of pride in building clever detonation circuits. Using cell phones, and so on. They're nuts, basically, but their engineering can be pretty clever. These bombs look as if they're made by a guy working from first principles. That is, he doesn't know the sophisticated ways of wiring up a weapon like this, but he's smart enough to figure out some very effective ways of doing it. That means this is just my opinion that he's a guy who learned how to build bombs for this single mission. He's not bombing things to hear the boom and make his weenie hard, he's bombing PyeMart because he's got a grudge against PyeMart."
"How much of this Pelex stuff did he steal?" asked LeCourt, the chief of police. "Is he done now, or has he got more?"
"If he took it from the Cold Spring quarry, which we think he did, he's got enough to make maybe fifty or sixty of these," Barlow said.
"Oh my lord," said Ahlquist. He looked at Virgil. "You better get him in a hurry."
"What are the chances that he'll find out he likes it?" Virgil asked. "That he'll go from grudges, to getting his weenie hard?"
"That happens," Barlow said. "The thing is, he's nuts. Whether he's killing because he likes to kill, or because he's got a grudge, either way, he's nuts. And nuts tend to evolve toward greater violence."
Barlow had more to say about the bomb and the technique, and from what he said, Virgil came to two conclusions: a) building an effective bomb was not rocket science, once you had the explosive and some blasting caps; and b) the killer was smart.
They continued to talk for fifteen minutes or so, and stuck their heads inside the trailer, which looked as though somebody had attacked it with a sledge hammer and a lot of time. When Barlow began to run out of new information, Virgil drifted over to Ahlquist and said, "I'll buy you dinner if you're hungry."
"I'm starving to death. Let's go up to Mable Bunson's; today's Fish Monday."
Virgil got directions to the restaurant, and they were all about to get back in their trucks, leaving the trailer to the ATF technicians, when a white stretch limo eased out of the street and onto the beaten-down dirt track to the trailer.
"That's the prom limo," Ahlquist said.
"Gotta be Pye," said Gore. She added, "I've never seen that limousine in the daylight."
The limo bumped nervously over the last few feet, and then a short heavy-set man popped out of the second door behind the driver. He was wearing a blue chalk-stripe suit over a golf shirt, a Michigan Wolverines ball cap, and an angry look. One second later, the second door opened on the other side, and a tall, thin woman climbed out. She had honey-blond hair to her shoulders, worn loose, eyes that were either green or brown, was wearing a tweed suit and a tired look, and carried a notebook.
"That's Mr. Pye," Barlow said, and he went that way, and said, "Mr. Pye I didn't realize you were planning to come out."
"Of course I came, you damn fool. One of my people's dead," Pye snapped, as he walked up. His face appeared to be permanently red and frustrated. "When the hell are you gonna get this nut? It's been two weeks and we've seen nothing."
Barlow said, "We're focused on it, and this new bomb tells us a lot. We now believe we're dealing with a man from here in the Butternut Falls area. We're coordinating with the Kandiyohi sheriff's department and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation."
"Apprehension," Virgil said.
"Sounds like more bullshit to me," Pye interrupted. "Is this the trailer? Holy crap, it looks like the Nazis bombed it." He said gnat-zees. "Where's the hospital here? Is this boy Sullivan still there? Has Mrs. Kingsley got here yet? I hear she got hung up in Detroit, plane was delayed or she got bumped or some crap like that. I'm talking to the CEO of Delta, he's seeing what he can do, but it don't seem like much."
Barlow and Ahlquist took turns answering questions, and introduced LeCourt and Virgil; as they were doing that, Virgil noticed that the tall woman was taking notes, in what looked like shorthand; O'Hara was watching her with one eye closed, like a housewife in a butcher shop, inspecting a suspect pork chop. Pye looked at Virgil's shirt, and asked, "What the hell's these Freelance Whales?"
Ahlquist jumped in: "It's a band. Virgil rushed up here on his day off, didn't have time to change."
Pye turned back to Barlow and LeCourt, and the sheriff caught Virgil's eye and tipped his head toward the trucks. They started drifting that way, until Pye said, "Whoa, whoa, where're you going? We've got some planning to do."
"We're going to go investigate," Virgil said. "If I need to talk to you, I'll let you know."
"Hey: this is my goddamn building going up here, and my people got hurt and killed," Pye said. "I want to know what the crap is going on here, and you're gonna tell me, or I'll call somebody up and tell them I need a new investigator."
Virgil nodded, slipped his ID case out from his pocket, took out a business card and scrawled Davenport's office number on it. "This is my boss. Call him up and tell him you need a new investigator."
"That don't worry you, huh?" Pye cocked an eye at him.
"Not much," Virgil said. "Davenport will either tell you to kiss his ass, or, if you're important enough, he'll pass you on to the governor, who'll tell you to kiss his ass. So either way, somebody'll tell you to kiss his ass, and I'll keep investigating."
Pye frowned. "Huh. Your goldanged governor's got almost as much money as I do, and it's older." He scratched his head, then asked, "How long will it take you to catch this nut?"
He and Virgil were now almost toe to toe, and the woman was still taking notes, writing at such a pace that it had to be verbatim.
Virgil looked at his watch, scratched his cheek, then said, "I can't see it going much more than a week."
Pye nodded. "All right. You get me this guy in a week, and I will kiss your ass." To the woman, he said, "You got that? One week and I kiss his ass."
"I got it," she said. Her eyes flicked to Virgil: "Good luck, Mr. Flowers. I'll prepare an appropriate ceremony."
Virgil thought, Hmm. But then, his sheriff had been in Hollywood for a while.
Ahlquist and Virgil went on to their trucks, and Virgil followed the sheriff out of the parking lot. Virgil had worked with Ahlquist a couple of times, to their mutual satisfaction. A former highway patrolman turned to politics, Ahlquist probably knew half the people in the county on sight, and, since the sheriff's department ran the jail, all of the bad ones. As a politician, he'd know all about any local pissing matches over the PyeMart site.
Mable Bunson's Restaurant and Cheesery was on the other side of the Butternut downtown from the highway, all the way through the business district to the lake, and then a couple blocks down the waterfront. A solid brick building with a peaked roof and small windows, it looked as though it might have been a rehabbed train station; it turned out, when Virgil asked the hostess, that it was a rehabbed bank.
Ahlquist got a booth in the back, a couple places away from the nearest other customers. Ahlquist ordered a bourbon and water, Virgil got a Leinie's, and as they started through the menu, Virgil said, "I hear you're still fighting over the PyeMart."
"I'm not fighting over it," Ahlquist said. "But there's sure as shit some questions floating around. The mayor was against it, but then she says she saw the youth unemployment figures, and she does an about-face and now she's all for it. We got seven city councilmen, six against and one in favor, and somehow, time passes, and four are in favor and only three against."
"You're saying that they might have been encouraged to change their positions."
"I'm not saying that, but some people are. And not in private. One of the councilmen, Arnold Martin, lived here all his life, doesn't have a pot to piss in. Never has had. He's worked retail since he got out of high school, he's now a stock manager out at a car-parts place. Him and his wife took a winter vacation last February, took off in their car and went to Florida, Arnold says. The Redneck Riviera. But the rumor is, they went to Tortola and took sailing lessons, and this spring they've got a nice little sailboat out on the lake. Not a big one, and it was used, but, it's a sailboat."
"You look into it?"
"Not the Tortola part. But I was chatting with a guy over at Eddie's Marine, and he said the former owner wanted fourteen grand for the boat. It's called a Flying Scot, it's two years old, and I'm told it's got a high-end racing rig. I had one of my deputies, who can keep his mouth shut, talk to the former owner, and he said Arnold financed it through the Wells Fargo. I got a friend there, and I found out Arnold did finance half of it, over three years, and he's been making regular cash payments on the deal."
"So what does that make you think?" Virgil asked.
"What it made me think was, Arnold got some money from somewhere, but wasn't dumb enough to just go plop it down on a boat," Ahlquist said. "He financed the boat, and is making payments out of the stash."
"That's not very charitable of you," Virgil said. "Maybe he saved the money."
"And maybe the mold on my basement door will turn out to be a miracle image of Jesus Christ, but I doubt it," Ahlquist said.
A waitress dropped a basket of bread on the table, took their orders, and Ahlquist got another bourbon.
Virgil said, "So there might be a little informal economic assistance going on... but the bombs wouldn't be coming from those guys. The bombs would be coming from somebody who doesn't like those guys. So who would that be?'
"If I knew, I'd be on them like lips on a chicken but I don't know," Ahlquist said. "There's always been rumors that this-or-that councilman or country commissioner took a little money under the table, for doing this-or-that. Who knows if it's true? Impossible to prove."
"But this is different..."
Ahlquist nodded. "It is. See, Virgil, you know about these big box stores all over the place. You get a bunch of them in a small town, and it can wreck the place. Drive out half the merchants, and their families, who always made decent livings, and the downtown dies. In exchange you get a bunch of minimum wage jobs. You hollow out the town. Well, we're big enough that we could take a WalMart and a Home Depot. It hurt, but we took it. People adjusted. You throw in a PyeMart, which is a little more up-scale, and it doesn't leave people with anywhere to adjust..."
He shook his head. "A lot of these folks are going to lose their businesses. Going to lose their livelihoods. Some of them have been here a hundred years, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers started their companies. They're bitter, they're angry, they've said some crazy things."
"Crazy enough that there might be a bomber amongst them?"
"Yeah, that's one place he could be coming from," Ahlquist said. "Then, there's the trout-fishing cranks."
"Careful," Virgil said.
Ahlquist grinned at him. "I know. I see you're dragging your boat. Anyway, the Butternut runs a half-mile or so behind the PyeMart site, and then makes a big loop down to the south, and then comes back north and runs into town. Some people think that the runoff from the PyeMart parking lot is going to pollute their precious crick. If it does, it'd be the whole bottom two miles, before it runs into the lake. That's the best part, I'm told. Some of the trout guys, they were screaming at the council meetings. They were completely out of control."
"Could I get some names?" Virgil asked.
"Sure. I can get you a list. People you can go around and talk to."
"If I'm gonna handle this fast enough to get my ass kissed, I'll need the list pretty quick."
Ahlquist nodded, fished in his over-sized uniform shirt pocket, and pulled out a black Moleskine reporter's notebook. "I can give you a good part of it right now. I'll think about it overnight, and give you the rest tomorrow."
"Works for me," Virgil said. He slid down in the booth a bit, yawned, and asked, "So how's your old lady?"
"Pretty damn unhappy right now, since the housing bust," Ahlquist said. He wrote a couple names in his notebook. "She can find people who want to buy, and people who want to sell, but the buyers are having a hell of a time getting loans. Goddamn banks."
"Maybe she could just find a place to sit down and chill out for a while," Virgil suggested. He'd eaten several partial dinners with Ahlquist's wife; she was eternally on her way to somewhere else.
Ahlquist snorted: "Like that's going to happen. Woman hasn't sat down for fifteen minutes since she got her real estate license. Five years ago, it was glory days. You could sell a shack on the lake for the price of a castle. Now you can't sell a castle on the lake for the price of a shack."
"Somebody's going to make money out of that situation," Virgil said.
"You're right," Ahlquist said. "Just not none of us."
They spent the rest of the meal chatting about life, speculating about the bomber and the nuts Ahlquist knew, and which of them had both the brains and the motive to get into, and then blow up the boardroom at the Pye Pinnacle. "That there's a tough question," Ahlquist said. "I was talking to Barlow about that, and he said that penetrating that building took time, planning, and maybe an insider."
"You give a list like this to Barlow?" Virgil asked.
"No, and he hasn't actually asked for one. He's more of a technical guy, going at it from the computer end. He cross-references stuff. That could work; and maybe not. He's not so much of a social investigator, like you," Ahlquist said.
"I didn't even know that's what I was," Virgil said.
Virgil got back to the Holiday Inn after dark. He unloaded the loose stuff in his boat, locked it in the back of the truck, dug his pistol out of his gun safe, and carried both the pistol and the shotgun into the motel room. A pistol was as good as money on the street; he was determined not to contribute.
When he was settled in, he looked at the clock nearly ten and called Lee Coakley, in Los Angeles. He and Coakley had been conducting a romance for six months or so, until a production company began making a TV movie about Coakley's part in breaking up a huge, multi-generational child-abuse ring in southern Minnesota. Coakley, as the local sheriff, had been the media face on the whole episode.
The production company had rented an apartment for her in West Hollywood, for the duration of the shoot. The duration had recently lengthened, and Coakley had grown evasive on the exact time of her return.
So Virgil called, and her oldest son, David, answered the phone. "Uh, hi, Virg, mom's, uh, at a meeting of some kind. I don't know when she's getting home."
He was lying through his teeth, Virgil thought; he was not a good liar. Mom was somewhere with somebody, and you probably wouldn't go too far wrong if you called it a date. "Okay. I've got a deal I'm working on, out of town a bomb thing. I'm going to bed. Tell her I'll try to give her a call tomorrow."
"Yeah, uh, okay."
Virgil hung up. Little rat. Of course, she was his mother. If you wouldn't lie for your mom, who would you lie for?
Virgil took off his boots, shut off all the lights except the one in the bathroom, lay on his bed and thought about his conversation with Ahlquist. The bomber almost certainly had a direct tie to some of the protesters either the people whose livelihoods were threatened by the PyeMart, or the trout freaks.
Of the two, he thought the businessmen were more likely to produce a killer. Some of the people who'd lose out to PyeMart would move from prosperity to poverty, and virtually overnight. Businesses, homes, college plans, comfortable retirements, all gone. How far would somebody go to protect his family? Most people wouldn't even shoplift, much less kill. But to protect his family... and all you needed was one.
And then the environmentalists...
Virgil had a degree in ecological science, and was a committed green. But he'd met quite a few people over the years who'd come into the green movement from other, more ideologically violent movements people who'd started as anti-globalization protesters, or tree-spikers as opposed to tree sitters, who thought that trashing a McDonalds was a good day's work, people who talked about Marx and Greenpeace in the same sentence.
The greenest people Virgil knew were hunters and fishermen, with Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society, and the Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation and all the rest, people who put their money and their time where their mouths were; but these others...
There could be a radical somewhere in the mix, somebody who had twisted a bunch of ideologies all together, and decided that bombs were an ethical statement.
A guy sitting home alone, the blue glow of the internet on his face, getting all tangled up with the other nuts out there, honing himself...
Again, all it took was one.
Before he went to sleep, Virgil spent a few minutes thinking about God, and why he'd let a bomber run around killing people, although he was afraid that he knew the reason: because the small affairs of man were of not much concern to the All-Seeing, All-knowing. Everybody on earth would die, sooner or later, there was no question about that: the only question was the timing, and what would time mean to a timeless Being?
But a bomb brought misery. A nice quiet death at age eighty-eight, with the family gathered around, not so much.
He'd have to read Job again, he thought; not that Job seemed to have many answers.
Then he got up, peed, dropped on the bed and was gone.
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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