Two bodies in two days. One is murder. The other is suicide. Virgil Flowers never imagined that discovering the connection would lead him into the perverse history of the Minnesota farm community, and almost unimaginable darkness.
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About the Author
Hometown:St. Paul, Minnesota
Date of Birth:February 23, 1944
Place of Birth:Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Education:State University of Iowa, Iowa City: B.A., American History; M.A., Journalism
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Table of Contents
ALSO BY JOHN SANDFORD
Rules of Prey
The Fool’s Run
VIRGIL FLOWERS NOVELS
Dark of the Moon
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sandford, John, date.
1. Flowers, Virgil (Fictitious character)—Fiction.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
I wrote this novel in cooperation with Mike Sweeney, a fine reporter and longtime leader of the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild. We’ve been friends for thirty years and more, and Sweeney’s the one who led me on a long, wild canoe trip down the St. Croix River, only to be ultimately defeated by raccoons. But, like, they were big, vicious raccoons. And really big.
One of those days: late fall, bare black tree branches scratching at a churning gray sky, days cold, nights colder. The harvest was very late—record late—and moving fast. The soybean crop had been delayed because of a cold summer, and then in the middle of October, with half the crop in, rain began to fall, a couple of inches a week, and didn’t quit for a month. Now it was dry again, but a landslide of bad weather hovered over the western horizon, and the combines were working twenty hours a day, bringing in the last of the beans and corn.
Bob Tripp leaned against the highway-side wall at the Battenberg Farmer’s Co-op grain elevator, knowing that Jacob Flood was on his way.
You could not only see the harvest—the working lights in the fields at night, the tractors and wagons on the roads—but you could hear it, and smell it, and even taste it in the air. Tasted like grain, and a little like dust, Tripp thought. His favorite time of year for the outdoors: regular deer season just over, muzzleloader coming up, snowmobiles ready to go.
Flood had called from his field in the early afternoon: “I need to get in and out fast. You open?”
“I got two wagons being weighed right now,” Tripp had said. “John McGuire’s coming in probably twenty minutes, nothing after that. If you can get here in an hour or so, we should be open. People have been calling to check, nobody’s called about coming in after John.”
“Put me down for three,” Flood said. “And goldarnit, I gotta get in and out.”
“Help you the best we can,” Tripp said.
Tripp was nineteen, a high school jock who should have been playing freshman football at a state college. An automobile accident in June, which had broken his left leg, had put that off for a year. The leg had mostly healed by September, and he’d taken the temporary clerk’s job at the co-op, where the leg hadn’t been too important. He was getting along well, doing rehab exercises every night. The doc said he’d be as good as ever by spring.
Maybe he would be, he thought. Maybe not.
He looked at his watch. Five minutes to three. Nobody coming in. He walked back to the small elevator office, worked the combination on his locker, and popped it open. He wore coveralls on the job, kept his civilian clothes in the locker. He pushed them aside, took out the aluminum T-ball bat he’d hidden there.
He’d had the bat since he was five years old, even then a budding star. He swung it a few times, getting reacquainted with its weight, and thought about what he was going to do. He might get caught, but he’d do it anyway. He looked at himself the way athletes do, spotted the fear, the trepidation, and the anger, and let them percolate through his muscles, jacking himself up for the battle.
RUNNING LATE AND barely able to keep his eyes open, Jacob Flood leaned on the truck’s horn as he nudged the old Chevy up to the edge of the scales. He’d been working since early Wednesday morning, with four hours of sleep in the middle of it. He was beat, and not done yet.
The clerk came out in gray coveralls and a feed cap worn backward, over long hair. The kid knew his business: weighed the truck, helped guide it as Flood backed it through the elevator’s twenty-foot-high receiving doors. The fit was tight, with just enough room for a man to pass on either side. Flood watched in his rearview mirror until the kid waved at him to stop.
The kid moved onto the dump grate to open the hatches in the middle and at the bottom of the truck’s larger dump doors. The hatches needed to be opened first, to start the grain flow and ease the pressure on the main doors. Once that was done, Flood would engage the hydraulics and tilt the bed for the dump, overloaded to about thirty tons of soybeans.
Flood heard the dump start, and then the kid yelled something and waved, and he engaged the hydraulics. When the truck bed stopped rising, he leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. If he could get just an hour . . .
He’d take an hour when he got home, he decided. But if that incoming storm turned to bad snow, he’d leave a few tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of beans out in the fields. He’d hire another combine in, but everybody from the Missouri line to central Minnesota was going hell for leather, and there was no reliable equipment to be had.
But—he’d get it in, if the weather held. If he could stay awake.
FLOOD HAD ALMOST fallen asleep when there was a sharp rap on the glass next to his face, and he jumped. “What?”
“I can’t get the main door open,” the kid said. “The handle’s stuck. Gimme a hand?”
Flood climbed down from the truck. He wasn’t a big man, but he had the hard muscles of a forty-year-old who’d spent his life doing heavy labor. He was wearing OshKosh overalls and a hat with a front label that said “John 3:16.”
He walked around the back of the truck and stepped onto the grate. Beans trickled from the larger door’s open hatch. The farmer leaned in and grabbed the handle and pushed up hard, expecting resistance. There was none, and the bar slipped out of its slot and the doors swung open. Beans flowed out in a wide, fast stream.
Surprised, Flood hopped back a few feet to the edge of the grate, and turned to where the kid had been. “What the hell . . .”
The kid wasn’t there. He was behind Flood, with the T-ball bat, light and fast in his athletic hands. Flood never saw it coming.
THE BAT CRACKED into the back of the farmer’s head and Flood went down like a sack of dry cement. “Fuck you,” Tripp said. He spat on the body. “You sick fuckin’ prick. . . .”
Then the fear lanced through him, and he looked up, guilty, expecting to see somebody watching: nobody there. He walked around to the edge of the building, peered down the highway. Nobody coming. A pigeon flew out of the rafters up above, and he jumped, stepped back, and looked down the road again.
“Nobody there, man, nobody there. Don’t be a pussy,” Tripp said aloud, to himself, for the simple reassurance of his own voice.
He went back to the body, watched the flow of grain coming out of the truck. Already half of it was gone: he stirred himself, said, “Move, you dumbass.”
He bent over the older man, lifted his head and slammed the back of it against the grate, hard as he could, as though trying to crack open a coconut, and at the same time, trying to hit at the precise point where the bat had. He’d thought about this, had lain in bed and planned it out, visualized it, the way he would a pass pattern. He was right on schedule.
With Flood profoundly unconscious, or maybe already dead, Tripp lifted the man and pushed him into the grain flow, face up, reached out, and pulled his mouth open. Soybeans were spilling from the truck like water from a pitcher, flowing around the unconscious farmer, filling his mouth, nose, ears. They gathered in his eye sockets, and in his shirt pockets, and in the John 3:16 hat. They squirted down into his overalls, slipping through the folds of his boxer shorts, hard and round, looking for a resting place in a navel or a fold of skin.
Tripp watched for a minute, then hurried back to the side of the elevator to make sure there were no more trucks coming, then went inside, washed the bat, stuck it under the mat in the trunk of his car. Back inside, he filled out the paperwork on Flood’s visit. Five minutes passed.
Had to be dead, Tripp thought. He went outside and looked at the man on the grate. His eyes were open, but there was nothing going on. Tripp leaned forward and put his hand over Flood’s mouth, and pinched his nose with the other hand. No reaction. Held them for a minute. Nothing. He was dead. He hadn’t seen many dead bodies that he could remember: his grandfather, but he’d been in a coffin and looked more waxed than dead. He’d gone to a couple more funerals when he was a kid, but he could hardly remember them.
But this guy was dead.
Tripp stood, caught sight of the hat, said out loud, “Three:sixteen, my ass.” He knew what it meant—“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life.”
He knew what it meant, but it didn’t apply to Flood. Tripp bent over, grabbed the farmer by the feet, and dragged him off the grate. Watched him for another moment, thought, Shit, if he’s not dead, he’s Lazarus.
He called 911 from the old Western Electric dial phone in the office. He’d been frightened by the killing, by even the thought of the killing, and he’d known that he would be, and he’d known there’d be a use for his fear and anguish: he let it spill out when the cop answered.
“Man, man, this is Bob Tripp, there’s been a bad accident at the Battenberg elevator,” he shouted into the phone. “We need somebody here, we need an ambulance, man, I think he’s dead. . . .”
THE NEXT SATURDAY. End of the golf season.
Lee Coakley collected twelve dollars, her biggest score of the year, and almost enough to get her even. She had a last Sprite, and looked at the gray wall of clouds in the western sky, and said to the others, “I’ll see you girls on April Fools’ Day, if I’ve spent all this money by then. It’s such a bunch, I probably won’t.”
“Stay out of Victoria’s Secret,” one of them said.
“Right. I’ll remember that.” Walking with a grin through an indelicate stream of scornful comments, she carried her golf bag out to her car and threw it in the trunk, with only a mild pang of regret. She’d been golfed-out for a month, and though she’d be right back at it in the spring, the winter break was always a relief. When she took her two weeks in Florida, the clubs would stay at home.
In the driver’s seat, she opened the center console and checked her cell phone: two calls, one from Darrell Martin, her private attorney, who was, she thought, looking to assuage her grief over the divorce—probably at the Holiday Inn in Rochester, far enough away that his wife wouldn’t hear about it—and one from Ike Patras, the medical examiner in Mankato. The call had come in forty minutes earlier, about when she’d been standing on the eighteenth green, waiting to putt out.
Coakley thought, Huh. Working on a Saturday.
She punched redial, and a woman answered, and she said, “This is Lee Coakley down in Warren County. I’m returning a call from Ike.”
“Yeah, just a minute, Lee,” the woman said. She added, “This is Martha, Ike’s in the back. I’m gonna put the phone down—”
“What’re you doing working on a Saturday? Something happen?”
“I think so,” Martha said. “Let me get Ike.”
And Coakley thought, Uh-oh.
PATRAS CAME UP a minute later and said, “There’s something fishy in Battenberg, and it ain’t the lutefisk.”
“What happened?” Coakley asked.
“I looked at Flood. The back of his head had two deep cuts and impact impressions like you’d expect from a grate. Same pattern as the grate. But there was another blow, before those two. Hit him right in the back of the head, and it came before his head hit the grate.”
“Like something from the truck hit him?”
“Well, something hit him, but I don’t think it was the truck,” Patras said.
“What was it?” Coakley asked, with a bad feeling about the question.
“I think the boy there might have hit him. I don’t know with what. A big pipe, a baseball bat, something on that order. The boy says he was the only other one there . . . and I think somebody hit Flood on the head.”
“He’s a pretty good kid, Ike,” Coakley said. “Bobby Tripp, I know him and his folks.”
“Well, something happened, good kid or not,” Patras said. “Let me give you a couple items. I did some dissection around the wound. The grate cut sliced through a small artery in his scalp. It bled some, but not nearly enough.”
“So his heart wasn’t pumping.”
“That’s right. He was already dead when his head hit the grate. If he’d been hit by a truck, and if he’d fallen straight down and landed on the grate, his heart would have kept pumping for a minute or two, even with a fatal brain injury. Sometimes, the heart keeps going for a long time after a fatal brain trauma, depending on what it is. But even if it was the kind of thing that would cause almost instant death, there was hardly any way it could stop that quick. There should have been a lot of blood. There wasn’t. That suggests to me that the grate wound came at least a minute or two after the original wound. Also, the original wound was cup-shaped, and the grid of the grate doesn’t show in the middle of the cup, which means that the cup-shaped wound came first.”
Coakley closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Okay. What else?”
“The guy was full of soybeans. The goddamn things are like ball bearings, Lee. He had them up his nose, he had them in his ears, he had them in his throat, he had them in his navel, he had a few where the sun don’t shine. But he didn’t breathe any in. I should have found some in his lungs, like water in a drowning man, but I didn’t. When the beans hit him, he wasn’t breathing.”
“Ah, shoot,” she said. “No chance that some of the other damage got done when Bobby hauled him out of the bean pile?”
“No. The sequence is clear. A heavy hit, followed some time later—minutes later—by impact on the grate, a very heavy, deliberate impact, on exactly the same site as the original impact. To me, that suggests intention. And then the beans. The very least the kid did was fake the accident. It didn’t happen the way he says it did.”
“He says he didn’t witness the actual accident—”
“Lee, I’m telling you. It’s not right. I believe Flood was murdered, with maybe a one percent chance of an accident of some weird kind.”
“All right. I hear you, Ike,” Coakley said. “I’ll get my guys together, we’ll work it over. Damnit, he really is a good kid.”
Virgil Flowers was winterizing on his boat: time to get it done, since there was almost a foot of snow in the yard. Despite the cold, he worked with the garage door open, for the light. He added stabilizer to the remaining gas, checked the grease levels in the Bearing Buddys, yanked all three batteries, hauled them into the house, into the mudroom, and stuck them on the auto-conditioners.
He was back in the garage, removing the bow and stern lines—best to buy disposables in the fall, when the sales were on, than in the spring—when a white SUV pulled into the driveway. A tall blond woman got out of the driver’s side; she was thin, with a bony face and nose, and the nose looked like it had been broken sometime in the past. She wore her hair pulled back in a short ponytail, and plain gold-rimmed glasses, a hip-length canvas car coat, black gloves, and cowboy boots that pushed her total height to six feet.
She had a wintry look: a few unhidden strands of gray showed in her hair. Her face was a bit weathered around her pale eyes. She walked up the driveway and took off her gloves and asked, “Are you Virgil Flowers?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
She said, “You don’t look much like a law enforcement officer.”
“Just because you’re a cop, doesn’t mean you can’t be good-looking,” Virgil said.
She cracked a thin smile, then stuck out her hand and said, “I’m Lee Coakley, from Warren County.”
“Oh, hey, Sheriff, pleased to meet you,” Virgil said. He wiped his right hand on his pants and shook. “I’ve been meaning to get down there to talk to you, but I’ve been busier’n heck.”
“I’ve come over to ask for your help. Or to find out who I talk to, to get your help,” she said. She had a dry, crisp voice, something you’d expect from a green apple, if green apples could talk.
“I’m the guy you talk to,” Virgil said. “Come on in. I’ll get you a cup of coffee or a Diet Coke. I’m about done here.”
“Pushing the season a little,” Coakley said, looking at the boat.
“I was,” Virgil agreed. “I’d be back out there tomorrow, if it wasn’t fifteen degrees out.”
“Tomorrow’s a workday,” Coakley said.
“Well, except for that,” Virgil said. He thought she might have been joking, but her tone was flat, and he wasn’t sure. “Come on in.”
SHE TOOK COFFEE, and instant microwave was fine, she said, but she could use an extra shot of coffee crystals: “I’m so tired I can’t see straight.”
Virgil got her the coffee and dug a Diet Coke out of the refrigerator. He was a tall man himself, tall enough that he could still look a bit down at her eyes, cowboy boots and all. He had unruly blond hair that hung down over his ears, and was slender enough that, except for her red hair, people might mistake them for brother and sister.
“So what’s up?” he asked.
She’d been sleepily checking out the house—bachelor neat, not fussy, furnished for comfort. She sighed, brushed a vagrant lobe of hair from her eyes, turned back to him and said, “I’ve been in office for less than a month and I have the biggest problem our office has ever run into,” she said. “At least, if Ike Patras is right. Ike’s the one who told me how to get to your house.”
“Ike doesn’t make many mistakes,” Virgil said. He knew Patras well. “You had a kid hang himself in the jail. I heard about that.”
“That’s part of it,” she said. “But there’s more.”
THE TROUBLE STARTED, she said, with an apparent accident at a grain elevator in Battenberg the previous Thursday. A kid named Robert Tripp, called Bob or B.J. by his friends, had phoned 911 to say that a farmer named Flood had apparently fallen on a grate and knocked himself out, and then drowned in the beans that poured on him.
“We shipped the victim’s body up to Ike, and Ike decided it was no accident. He said it was about ninety-nine percent that it was a murder, that Flood was dead before he ever hit the grate. Probably killed by a blow to the head with something like a pipe, or a baseball bat. The Tripp boy already said there’d been no one else there but he and the farmer, so . . .”
“He had to be the one,” Virgil said.
She nodded. “You could think of other scenarios, but it was pretty thin. So Ike called it a murder, and another deputy and I went over to interview the boy. Read him his rights, pushed on him, he started crying. He didn’t actually confess, but it was close. This is a kid I’ve known since he was born. Know his parents. Really nice people, really nice kid,” she said.
“Anyway, he said enough that we thought we had to hold him. Took him down to the jail, processed him in, went back to his house with a search warrant, looked in his room, looked around the house. Out in the garage, among a bunch of really dusty, unused stuff, we found a clean aluminum T-ball bat. Cleaner than it should have been—you could smell the gasoline on it. Looked in the trash, found some paper towels that smelled of gas, had a few hairs on them . . .”
“So you had him,” Virgil said.
“Oh, yeah. He did it. Wouldn’t say why,” Coakley said. “He said he would talk, but only to one guy—a newspaper reporter. A gay newspaper reporter. I’m not sure if the gay part is important, but Bobby was a big jock, got a full ride over at Marshall starting next fall, could have slept with half the girls in town, but you didn’t hear about that. Maybe he was discreet, maybe he was shy.”
“Maybe he was gay.”
“Don’t know,” Coakley said. “But it was an odd request. His father said Bobby didn’t have any particular relationship with the reporter, except that he’d been interviewed for newspaper stories a few times. But he must have had some kind of relationship—Bobby told me, when I talked to him, that the reporter was the only person in town he would trust, outside of his family, and he wouldn’t talk to his folks about it.”
“Odd. Interesting,” Virgil said.
“So, I was going to set it up,” Coakley said. “But early the next morning, I got a call from the jail. He’d hanged himself. He was dead.”
“Nobody checking during the night?” Virgil asked.
“Oh, yeah. The overnight deputy. Jim Crocker. Jimmy Crocker. He said Bobby was fine at five A.M., dead at six o’clock.” She set her coffee cup down and looked away from him. “Just . . . appalling. I couldn’t believe it. But there he was. I went down and looked at him—Crocker didn’t touch him, because it was obvious that he was long dead when Crocker found him.”
“It happens,” Virgil said. He turned the Diet Coke can in his hands, rolling it between them. “I could come up with a bunch of theories about what could have happened, especially if the kid was gay. Gay people can have a pretty hard time when their situation starts becoming undeniable. Especially small-town kids. Especially small-town jocks. Willie Nelson even has a song about it.”
“‘Cowboys Frequently Secretly,’” she said. “I’ve heard it. Makes me laugh.”
“So are you looking for an outside opinion?” Virgil asked.
“No, I’m not. I’m looking for a hard-nosed investigation. See, we sent B.J.’s body up here to Ike and . . .” She stopped talking, looking for the thread of her story, and then said, “First, let me say that Jim Crocker used to be the chief deputy. When Harlan announced he was going to retire, Jim thought he’d automatically get elected to be the new sheriff. Well, he didn’t. I did.”
“You were a town cop in Homestead. . . .”
“Yes. I was the lead investigator for the city. Anyway, I got elected, Crocker didn’t. He said some things both before and after the election that made it impossible to keep him on as chief deputy. It wasn’t legal to fire him, and he’d always been a bureaucrat, more than a street cop or an investigator, so I moved him into a staff job. Anyway, he was working the overnight.
“We sent Bobby’s body up here for the autopsy, and that goddamn Patras—excuse my French—that goddamn Patras called me back and said it all looked like a suicide.”
She paused, and Virgil said, “Except . . .”
“Except for two things. Maybe three.” She scratched her eyebrow. “First: there was a bruise in the middle of Bobby’s back. A round bruise, almost like he’d been hit by a baseball. Maybe a little bigger than that. A softball. Hadn’t had time to develop much before the blood stopped, but it was there. Almost had to be incurred while he was in the cell. We took him in at four o’clock in the afternoon. Ike says if the impact that caused the bruise had happened before that, it would have been much more developed. The thing is, we couldn’t find anything in the cell that would make a bruise like that. You could almost say it looked like he had a knee in his back.”
“Okay. That’s one thing,” Virgil said.
“Two. He hanged himself with a strip of cloth he’d ripped off the end of a blanket. An acrylon blanket. Looped it around his neck.”
“His penis out of his pants?”
“No. Wasn’t sexual. Anyway, it looked all the world like he’d hanged himself, and Ike agrees. But Bobby had a broken fingernail, like he’d clawed at the cloth.”
“Changed his mind,” Virgil said. She shook her head, and he added, “Except . . .”
“Except that when they looked at the fibers under his nails, they were wool. Not acrylon. In fact, they were green wool. Our uniform pants are green wool. Ike says Bobby was scratching at green wool. And he says the way the blood from his nails mixed with the wool, there’s no doubt. He was alive when he was scratching at it.”
“What’s the third thing?”
Excerpted from "Bad Blood"
Copyright © 2011 John Sandford.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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