Mad river vf 6, p.1

Mad River vf-6, page 1

 part  #6 of  Virgin Flowers Series


Mad River vf-6

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Mad River vf-6

  Mad River

  ( Virgin Flowers - 6 )

  John Sandford

  John Sandford

  Mad River


  Jimmy Sharp stepped back from the curb and impatiently waved the car by, waved it by like a big shot, like he couldn’t be bothered to assert his rights to the pedestrian crosswalk.

  “We shoulda parked closer,” Tom McCall said. “I’m freezing my ass off.”

  As the car went by, a woman driver peered out at the three of them. The overhead reading light was on, and she was wearing an overcoat, wool hat, and one black glove. Her bare hand was holding a cell phone to her ear, and she was talking as she looked at them. A multitasker, headed for a three-car smashup somewhere down the line.

  “One big problem there-somebody would have seen it, and put two and two together, and then we got a witness,” Jimmy said. “Besides, the walk will warm you up.”

  “Glad I got the gloves,” McCall said.

  Becky Welsh said, “It’s April, you fool. You don’t need gloves for the cold. Just walk.”

  Jimmy had smoked a Marlboro down to the filter, and he snapped it into the street and bent into the task of climbing the hill, Tom and Becky on his heels, the three of them throwing splashy shadows in the pale April moonlight. Halfway up, Jimmy stopped to catch his breath, turned, and said, “That’s a pretty sight of the town.”

  They all turned to look, the Bigham business district spread out below them, the county courthouse with its eternal flame, a few cars turning corners, flashing red lights on an ambulance heading into the hospital. The Minnesota River was down there, a black ribbon at the foot of downtown, not much more than a creek, really. They’d left Jimmy’s Firebird in an apartment parking lot at the base of the hill, where they could get to it in a hurry.

  “It is pretty,” Tom agreed. Puffs of steam came out of their mouths, dissipating in the night air.

  Jimmy took another cigarette out of the pack and tapped the tobacco end on a thumbnail, then cupped his hands to his mouth and lit it with an old Zippo lighter that left behind the stink of lighter fluid when he sparked it off. His square jaw looked yellow in the light of the flame; the trace of a ladder-stitched scar showed up on his chin, from the bad old hay-humping days down in Shinder, when a piece of wire from an ancient baling machine lashed him like a whip.

  He was wearing a green army field jacket that he’d bought at a flea market, with the collar up under his ears, and a blue Dodgers baseball cap with a big white LA on the front. He’d never been to LA, but he planned to go, someday soon. He’d manage Becky’s career, and they’d both get rich and buy a Winnebago and tour around the country.

  “Diamonds tonight,” Becky said.

  Tom said, “I don’t know about this. It don’t feel entirely right to me.”

  Tom was tall and wiry, and wore silver-rimmed glasses that he got from the three weeks he was in the navy. At the end of three weeks, one of the RDCs noticed the scale on his arms and asked, “Is that the heartbreak of psoriasis I see there?” It was, and Tom was out.

  On this cold night, the psoriasis was concealed by a thin blue work shirt and an uninsulated leather jacket, the sleeves too short to cover Tom’s bony wrists. With his black jacket and black jeans and black hair and glasses and big nose, he hovered around Jimmy and Becky like a cartoon crow.

  “Don’t be a pussy,” Becky said.

  “It’s diamonds,” Jimmy said. He rolled the words around the cigarette as he studied Tom’s pinched face. “What’s the matter with you? You look nervous. You nervous?”

  “Naw, I’m not nervous, I just want things to go right,” Tom said.

  They crossed the top of the hill, heads down, hands in their pockets, around the curve and past George, past Arroyo. They were in the dark, with nobody around, a quarter to two o’clock in the morning, a sharp eye out for prowling cops. Jimmy had a pistol stuck in his waistband at the small of his back, and he reached back under his coat and touched it from time to time, a talisman of power. He’d never had one of those.

  “Getting close,” Becky said. Now she sounded nervous. They passed a streetlight, and in the pool of light, which fell on them like a mist, she said, “Stop a minute, Jimmy.” She caught his arm and pulled his cigarette hand out to one side, and kissed him, and put her tongue in his mouth, and pressed her pelvis against him. He tasted like nicotine and french fries.

  Jimmy said, “Baby,” and stepped back, and took a drag and tipped his head into a dark side street and said, “Let’s go.”

  They were going over to Lincoln, to a dark wood-frame house with a wide front porch and bridal wreath bushes down the sides: good cover. They’d scouted it earlier in the day, Jimmy and Becky, arm in arm down the sidewalk, Becky spitting, “Fuckin’ Hogans, they think they’re so hot-shit. Like, not.”

  “O’Learys,” Jimmy said. “O’Learys, now.”

  Marsha Hogan had grown up in Shinder, out on the prairie, her father the town pharmacist. Hogan had sent his virgin daughter up to St. Kate’s, the big Catholic girls’ college in St. Paul, and hoped for the best. A nice Catholic boy, he hoped, from St. Thomas, who might even be a. . pharmacist.

  He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Marsha had met John O’Leary, a biochemistry major who had ambitions in medicine. She’d married him a week after their graduation, lived with him in dark apartments as he worked through medical school at the University of Minnesota, and then through an internship in Milwaukee. Back in Bigham, John joined a prosperous practice and Marsha bore him two daughters, Mary, named after her mother, and Agatha, named after his, and four boys, John Jr., called Jack, and James, Robin, and Franklin.

  Marsha was fifty-three years old when she went back to Shinder for her thirty-fifth high school reunion. She’d been on the court of the homecoming queen, back when, and had been her homeroom representative to the student council, had organized a school-wide charity to help support the county animal-rescue program. She still had friends in Shinder, though they mostly saw her in Bigham, which was only thirteen miles away.

  For the reunion dance, she wore her twenty-fifth anniversary necklace, possibly the most expensive array of diamonds ever seen in Shinder. Everybody commented on it, both approvingly to her face, and jealously behind her back. The homecoming queen, who rumor said was an alcoholic down in Des Moines, didn’t show, so Marsha was the belle of the ball.

  And had been served a square of chocolate sheet cake by Becky Welsh, the prettiest and hottest girl ever to come from Shinder, a girl who’d never had a diamond, or much of anything else.

  Becky had seen Marsha O’Leary in a Snyders drugstore right after they hit town, had recognized her immediately, though Marsha hadn’t shown a flicker of interest in Becky. She mentioned the diamonds to Jimmy, but he hadn’t been interested until that night, when he showed her a gun and said, “Let’s go get you them stones.”

  Lincoln Avenue was quiet and dark. Jimmy, Becky, and Tom sauntered along, looking far too casual for people on a midnight stroll. If a cop car had come along, they might all have died, for Jimmy had said he’d never give himself up to the law, and he meant it, which Becky felt was one of the exciting things about him. He meant it. No cop car came.

  They slowed as they came up to the house, taking a last look around, then Jimmy said, in a whisper, “Quick now.”

  They crossed the lawn in single file, their feet crunching on the blades of grass that had stiffened in the night chill. They stepped between the bridal wreath bushes, now invisible to the street, took cowboy handkerchiefs from their pockets and tied them over their faces. Becky and Jimmy pulled on the same type of cheap brown cotton work gloves that Tom already wore. Jimmy took out his pocketknife and unfolded the main blade, and in the dim light from the st
reet, he led the way down the side of the house, checking out the windows.

  The windows were new, made of wood, some dark color that they couldn’t make out but that still smelled faintly of the paint. The house was old, and wood, and carefully preserved with its antique hardware, because the O’Learys were that kind of people, concerned with historical preservation. At the back of the house, Jimmy stopped at a window that was a little higher than the rest, and a little smaller. The blade went deep into the crack between the window and the sill and it lifted as though greased.

  Becky, surprised by the ease of it, said, “Whoa.”

  “I ain’t to be involved in anything but diamonds and cash, and gold rings,” Tom said, in a hoarse whisper that was way too loud.

  “Shut the fuck up,” Becky said.

  “Both of you shut up,” Jimmy said. “Give me a boost.”

  Tom made a stirrup with his hands. Jimmy disappeared through the window headfirst and found himself on a kitchen counter. The kitchen was not quite dark, with bare illumination coming from a variety of LEDs on the refrigerator, stove, clock, coffeemaker, and dishwasher and a hard-wired telephone. The granite counter was slick under the cotton gloves, but solid, and he levered himself the rest of the way through the window, to his knees, and then cautiously lowered himself to the wood floor. The kitchen smelled of stew meat; he stood in the dark for a moment, letting his eyes adjust. When he could see again, he leaned across the counter and whispered, “Back door,” then made his way to the back door and unlatched it.

  Becky and Tom, waiting there, followed him into the house.

  Jimmy had a flashlight he’d brought from the car, but didn’t need it yet, as the streetlight shone through the lacy curtains over the front windows into the dining room, and the front room on the other side of the center hall. The light threw bent shadows of armchairs across the soft thick carpet underfoot, and Becky noticed that the smell of the place had changed, from food to floor wax and fabric. The staircase going up to the bedrooms was on the other side of the front room. As they were crossing it, a grandfather clock struck two, soft gongs from a bell that shocked all three of them, Jimmy dropping into a fighter’s stance, Tom and Becky freezing.

  Jimmy breathed, “Shit,” and Becky giggled.

  Tom said, “Just the diamonds now.”

  Jimmy waved a hand, hushing him, and they began climbing the carpeted staircase, feeling with their feet the slightly worn area at the center of each tread. In front of the window at the landing, Jimmy took the pistol out of his belt and continued up. The pistol was an old.38 Smith amp; Wesson Hand Ejector, Military amp; Police, with a six-inch barrel, once a good gun, but now a corroded piece of shit; and the only gun they had.

  Jimmy turned to the front of the house. The carpet had ended with the stairs, and he was on a wooden floor now, and it creaked under their weight as they made their way down the hall. There was a door at the end, which couldn’t be anything but a bedroom, and as he came up, he saw a darker edge, and realized that the door was open just a bit.

  And then he heard a female voice, in an urgent half-whisper, half-cry.

  “Ag, Ag, get up. There’s somebody in the house.”

  “You’re dreaming,” another voice said. “Go back to sleep.”

  “No, Ag, there’s somebody in the house.” Then, louder, “Is that you, Jack? Are you messing with us?”

  Ag. That would be Agatha O’Leary.

  Jimmy pushed open the bedroom door, into a rush of girl-smell, perfume and powder and clean bedclothes. He put his flashlight up, next to the barrel of his gun, clicked it on. There were two beds, side by side, a girl sitting up in one, the other still lying flat, eyes open but sleepy, now widening quickly.

  “It ain’t Jack,” Jimmy said quietly. “You two keep your traps shut. We’re only here to do a little stealing. You scream, you’re dead.”

  “Jesus, God, please, Jack!” It was a little girl’s voice, with nothing behind it.

  “I told you, it ain’t Jack. Now shut up. Are you Ag?”

  Tom said, “Let’s get out of here.”

  The larger of the two girls, the sleepy one, rose out of her bed and shouted, “Get out of here. Get. .!”

  Jimmy reached out with the flashlight and cracked her across the head, and she went down.

  Mary said, “Please, please, don’t hurt us.” She reached toward the girl on the floor. “Oh, my God, Ag. .”

  Tom said, “It’s gone wrong, let’s get out of here,” and he turned and ran, pounding down the hallway to the stairs.

  Becky said, urgently, to Jimmy, “I hear somebody.”

  Jimmy said, “Shit,” looked down at Ag, who’d gotten to her knees. He could have changed his mind then, and everything that came after would have been different. He hesitated, then pointed the gun at Ag’s head and pulled the trigger.

  The Smith flashed in the dark, Ag went down, and Jimmy ran after the others.

  Tom and Becky had already gone through the front door, which stood open to the streetlight, and as Jimmy crossed the front porch he heard the other sister scream, “Mama! Mama! He killed Ag, he killed Ag.”

  The three of them ran across the lawn and across the street in the still night, another block, then across Dannon Avenue and down the hill, through the park, following a gravel track barely visible as a dark thread in the moonlight, then heard the first of the sirens, another block in another thirty seconds, across White Street, running hard, single file, into the parking lot, into the Firebird. Jimmy jammed the key in the ignition and turned it, and nothing happened.

  Nothing at all. “Motherfucker,” he groaned. The car started about half the time. Given a few minutes, he might have gotten it started. Now, half-panicked, he said, “Come on, come on. .”

  At that moment, Emmett Williams walked out of the side door of the apartment complex and, absently whistling an unrecognizable tune, strolled down the side of the building to the street, where he’d parked his brother-in-law’s Dodge Charger.

  Tom said, “Somebody’s coming.”

  Jimmy tried the ignition again. Nothing. He’d put the gun back in his pocket, but now he pulled it out again, said, “Come on.”

  Williams was walking away from them. He pointed the ignition key at the Charger, pushed a button, and the car’s light flashed back at him; the last light he’d see. Jimmy was leading the line of runners, and he ran straight at Williams and when Williams looked up, the pistol flashed again, from six feet, and Williams went down, and Jimmy dragged him around the front of the car and dumped his body on the grass next to the sidewalk, turned toward the car, turned back, took Williams’s wallet out of his back pocket. Becky piled into the passenger seat and Tom in the back. Jimmy took the wheel, and five minutes later they were headed out of town.

  “Where’re we going?” Becky asked.

  “Get the fuck far away from here,” Jimmy said. “Rest up, figure out what to do. Maybe head for LA, if we can get a car.”

  “That girl back there, is she hurt bad?” Tom asked.

  “She’s dead,” Jimmy said. “She should be dead, anyway. If she ain’t dead, I’ll go back and shoot the bitch again.”

  Tom looked out the back window and said, “I think the black guy is dead too.”

  Jimmy said, “Yeah?” He reached out and turned on the radio, and the satellite came up, Outlaw Country, Travis Tritt singing “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.”

  “Ain’t this some fuckin’ car?” Jimmy asked. “Ain’t this a ride?”


  Virgil Flowers was standing under a streetlight outside the Rooster Coop in Mankato, Minnesota, at the mouth of a long cobblestone alley that led down toward a curl in the Minnesota River. He was talking to Cornelius Cooper, the proprietor of the place, about who, exactly, was the best country singer in America, at that very moment.

  They agreed that while Ray Wylie Hubbard was a leading candidate, there was no question that it was not Ray Wylie but, in fact, Waylon Jennings, who wrote and sang the best
song ever written, which was “Good Hearted Woman.” How could you be the best country singer if you weren’t responsible for the best country song?

  Waylon was at a disadvantage, though, being dead.

  And then there was always Willie, who was the best country singer in a lot of years when Waylon wasn’t, but at that very moment?

  Ray Wylie had been around a long time, too, long enough to write the National Anthem-known to downtown cowboys as “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” That was good, but not nearly enough to make him the best country singer, but he’d followed that up, many years later, with stuff like “Wanna Rock and Roll,” and “The Messenger,” and “Resurrection,” and “Snake Farm,” some genuine poetry, with a taste of blues and the salt of humor.

  “But in fact, it is not Ray Wylie who sings ‘Wanna Rock and Roll’ the best,” Cooper said, “but Cross Canadian Ragweed.”

  “That’s true,” Virgil said. “But what song, right at this moment, is as good as ‘Resurrection’?”

  “But he didn’t write ‘Resurrection.’”

  Virgil said, “No, but he sings it, and he did write. .” He broke out in a gravelly baritone imitation of Ray Wylie’s “The Mission.”

  Cooper said, “Jesus Christ, keep it down. People will think you’re drunk. And what about Guy Clark?”

  Guy Clark. What could you say about “Rita Ballou” or “Homegrown Tomatoes” or “Texas 1947” or “Cold Dog Soup” or “L.A. Freeway”?

  But then, what about “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? And if “Sunday Morning” was that good, right up there at the top, and the same guy wrote “Me and Bobby McGee,” which actually was pretty good, despite being some sort of hippie shit, shouldn’t Kris Kristofferson be considered? They thought about that a minute, then simultaneously said, “No,” because, when everything was said and done, Kristofferson just wasn’t country enough, down in his heart.

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