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Authors: John Sandford

Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller

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BOOK: Invisible Prey
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“Shoot, Kidd makes that much,” Lauren said. “He’s not even dead.”

“Not for one painting,” Kidd said.

“Not yet…”

“Jeez, I was gonna ask you how much you’d charge to paint my kid’s bedroom,” Lucas said, waving at the walls of the room. “Sorta be out of my range, huh?”

“Maybe,” Kidd said. “From what I’ve read, your range is pretty big.”

 

L
UCAS WROTE
Stanley Reckless
and
$415,000
in his notebook as they drifted out toward the door. “You know,” Lauren said, squinting at him. “I think I met you once, a long time ago, out at the track. You gave me a tip on a horse. This must have been…what? Seven or eight years ago?”

Lucas studied her face for a minute, then said, “You were wearing cowboy boots?”

“Yes! I went off to place the bet, and when I got back, you were gone,” Lauren said. She touched his arm. “I never got to thank you.”

“Well…”

“Enough of that,” Kidd said, and they all laughed.

“You know, these killings…they might be art pros, but they aren’t professional thieves,” Lauren said. “A pro would have gone in there, taken what he wanted, maybe trashed the place to cover up. But he wouldn’t have killed anybody. You guys would have sent some new detective over there to write everything down, and he would have come back with a notebook that said, ‘Maybe pots stolen,’ and nobody would care.”

Lucas shrugged.

“Come on. Tell the truth. Would they care? Would anybody really care if some old bat got her pots stolen, and nobody got hurt? Especially if she didn’t even know which pots they were?”

“Probably not,” Lucas said.

“So they might be art pros, but they weren’t professional burglars,” Lauren said. “If you kill an old lady, everybody gets excited. Though, I suppose, it could be a couple of goofy little amateur crackheads. Or maybe acquaintances or relatives, who
had
to kill them.”

Lucas’s forehead wrinkled. “What do you do, Lauren? You weren’t a cop?”

“No, no,” she said. “I’m trying to be a writer.”

“Novels?”

“No. I don’t have a fictive imagination. Is that a word?
Fictive?”

“I don’t know,” Lucas said.

She bounced the baby a couple of times; stronger than she looked, Lucas thought. “No,” she said. “If I can get something published, it’ll probably be more on the order of true crime.”

 

W
HEN
L
UCAS LEFT,
Lauren and Kidd came to the door with the baby, and Lauren took the baby’s hand and said, “Wave goodbye to the man, wave goodbye…”

Lucas thought, hmm. A rivulet of testosterone had run into his bloodstream. She was the kind of skinny, cowgirl-looking woman who could make you breathe a little harder; and she did. Something about the tilt of her eyes, as well as her name, reminded him of Lauren Hutton, the best-looking woman in the world. And finally, she made him think about the killers. Her argument was made from common sense, but then, like most writers, she probably knew jack-shit about burglars.

 

T
HERE WERE
a half-dozen cops at Bucher’s, mostly doing clerical work—checking out phone books and answering-machine logs, looking at checks and credit cards, trying to put together a picture of Bucher’s financial and social life.

Lucas found Smith in the music room. He was talking to a woman dressed from head to toe in black, and a large man in a blue seersucker suit with a too-small bow tie under his round chin.

Smith introduced them, Leslie and Jane Little Widdler, antique experts who ran a shop in Edina. They all shook hands; Leslie was six-seven and fleshy, with fat hands and transparent braces on his teeth. Jane was small, had a short, tight haircut, bony cold hands, and a strangely stolid expression.

“Figure anything out yet?” Lucas asked.

“Just getting started,” Jane Widdler said. “There are some very nice things here. These damn vandals…they surely don’t realize the damage they’ve done.”

“To say nothing of the killings,” Lucas said.

“Oh, well,” Jane said, and waved a hand. She somehow mirrored Lucas’s guilty attitude: old ladies came and went, but a Louis XVI gilt-bronze commode went on forever.

Lucas asked Smith, “Get the insurance papers?”

“Yeah.” Smith dipped into his briefcase and handed Lucas a sheaf of papers. “Your copy.”

Lucas told him about Kidd’s take on Stanley Reckless. “Between the jewelry and this one painting, we’re talking big money, John. We don’t even know what else is missing. I’m thinking, man, this is way out of Nate Brown’s league.”

Smith said, “Ah, Brown didn’t do it. I don’t think he’s bright enough to resist the way he has been. And I don’t think he’s mean enough to kill old ladies. He’s sort of an old hangout guy.”

“What’s the Reckless painting?” Leslie Widdler asked, frowning. “It’s not on the insurance list.”

“Should it be?”

“Certainly. A genuine Stanley Reckless painting would be extremely valuable. Where was it hung? Did they take the frame, or…”

“Wasn’t hung,” Lucas said. “It would have been in storage.”

“In storage? You’re sure?”

“That’s what we’ve been told,” Lucas said. “Why?”

Widdler pursed his lips around his braces. “The thing is, some of these paintings here, I mean…frankly, there’s a lot of crap. I’m sure Mrs. Bucher had them hung for sentimental reasons.”

“Which are purely legitimate and understandable,” Jane Widdler said, while managing to imply that they weren’t.

“…but a genuine Reckless shouldn’t have been in storage. My goodness…” Widdler looked at the high ceiling, his lips moving, then down at Lucas: “A good Reckless painting, today, could be worth a half-million dollars.”

Smith to Lucas: “It’s piling up, isn’t it? A pro job.”

“I think so,” Lucas said. “Professional, but maybe a little nuts. No fight, no struggle, no sounds, no signs of panic. Whack. They’re dead. Then the killers take their time going through the house.”

“Pretty goddamned cold.”

“Pretty goddamned big money,” Lucas said. “We both know people who’ve killed somebody for thirty bucks and for no reason at all. But this…”

Smith nodded. “That Ignace guy from the
Star Tribune
really nailed us. We’ve got calls coming in from all over.”

“New York Times?”

“Not yet, but I’m waiting,” Smith said.

“Best find the killer, John,” Lucas said.

“I know.” Smith wasn’t happy: still didn’t have anything to work with, and the case was getting old. “By the way, Carol Ann Barker’s upstairs, checking out Bucher’s stuff.”

“Barker?” Lucas didn’t remember the name.

“The niece, from L.A.,” Smith said. “She’s the executor of the will. She’s, uh, an actress.”

“Yeah?”

“Character actress, I think. She’s got a funny nose.” He glanced at the Widdlers. “I didn’t actually mean that…”

“That’s all right,” Jane Widdler said, with a wooden smile. “Her nose
is
quite small.”

 

L
UCAS WANTED
to talk to Barker. On the way up the stairs, he thumbed through the insurance papers, which, in addition to the standard boilerplate, included a ten-page inventory of household items. Ten pages weren’t enough. He noticed that none of the furniture or paintings was valued at less than $10,000, which meant that a lot of stuff had been left off.

He counted paintings: ten, twelve, sixteen. There were at least thirty or forty in the house. Of course, if Widdler was right, many of them had only sentimental value. Lucas would have bet that none of the sentimental-value paintings were missing…

 

L
UCAS FOUND
Barker sitting on the floor of Bucher’s bedroom, sorting through family photo albums. She was a little too heavy, her hair was a little too big, and she had glasses that were three fashions ahead of anything seen in the Twin Cities.

The glasses were perched on one of the smallest noses Lucas had ever seen on an adult; its carefully sculpted edges suggested a major nose job. Weather would have been interested. She had a whole rap on rhinoplasties, their value, and the problems that come up. Barker had been ill served by her surgeon, Lucas thought.

She looked up when Lucas loomed over her. The glasses slipped a quarter inch, and she peered at him over the black plastic frames. “There are way too many pictures, but this should give us a start.”

“On what?” Lucas asked.

She pushed the glasses back up her tiny nose. “Oh, I’m sorry—you’re not with the police?”

“I’m with the state police, not St. Paul,” Lucas said. “Give us a start on what?”

She waved her hand at three stacks of leather-bound photo albums. “Aunt Connie used to have big Christmas and birthday parties. There were Easter-egg hunts both inside and outside, and a lot of pictures were taken,” Barker said. “We can probably get most of the furniture in one picture or another.”

“Great idea,” Lucas said, squatting next to her, picking up one of the photos. Connie Bucher, much younger, with a half-dozen people and a drinks cabinet in the background. “What about her jewelry?” Lucas asked. “One of her friends said even the bedside jewelry was worth a lot.”

“She’s right. Unfortunately, most of it was old, so there aren’t any microphotographs. All we have is descriptions in the insurance rider and those are essentially meaningless. If the thieves are sophisticated, the loose stones might already be in Amsterdam.”

“But we could probably find out weights and so on?” Lucas asked.

“I’m sure.”

“Have you ever heard of a painter called Stanley Reckless?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Huh. There supposedly was a painting up in the storage rooms that had ‘reckless’ written on the back,” Lucas said. “There’s an artist named Stanley Reckless, his paintings are worth a bundle.”

Barker shook her head: “It’s possible. But I don’t know of it. I could ask around the other kids.”

“If you would.”

A cop came in with a handful of photographs. “We’re missing one,” he said. “The photograph was taken in the music room, but I can’t find it anywhere.”

Lucas and Barker stood up, Barker took the photo and Lucas looked at it over her shoulder. The photo showed a diminutive brown table, just about square on top. The top was divided in half, either by an inlaid line or an actual division. Below the tabletop, they could make out a small drawer with a brass handle.

After looking at it for a moment, Barker said, “You know, I remember that. This was years and years ago, when I was a child. If you folded the top back, there was a checkerboard inside. I think it was a checkerboard. The kids thought it was a secret hiding place, but there was never anything hidden in it. The checkers were kept in the drawer.”

“Is it on the insurance list?” Lucas asked. “Any idea what it’s worth?” He thumbed his papers.

The cop shook his head: “I checked John’s list. Doesn’t look like there’s anything like it. Checkers isn’t mentioned, that’s for sure.”

“There are some antique experts downstairs,” Lucas said. “Maybe they’ll know.”

 

H
E AND
B
ARKER
took the photos down to the Widdlers. Barker coughed when they were introduced, and pressed her knuckles against her teeth for a moment, and said, “Oh, my. I think I swallowed a bug.”

“Protein,” Jane Widdler said. She added, still speaking to Barker, “That’s a lovely necklace…Tiffany?”

“I hope so,” Barker said, smiling.

Lucas said to the dealers, “We’ve got a missing table. Think it might be a folding checkerboard.” He handed the photograph of the table to Leslie Widdler, and asked, “Any idea what it’s worth?”

The two dealers looked at it for a moment, then at each other, then at the photograph again. Leslie Widdler said to his wife, “Fifty-one thousand, five hundred dollars?”

She ticked an index finger at him: “Exactly.”

“You can tell that closely?” Lucas asked.

Leslie Widdler handed the photograph back to Lucas. “Mrs. Bucher donated the table—it’s a China-trade backgammon table, not a checkerboard, late eighteenth century—to the Minnesota Orchestra Guild for a fund-raising auction, let’s see, must’ve been two Decembers ago. It was purchased by Mrs. Leon Cobler, of Cobler Candies, and she donated it to the Minneapolis Institute.” He stopped to take a breath, then finished, “Where it is today.”

“Shoot,” Lucas said.

 

T
HE GOVERNOR CALLED
and Lucas drifted down a hallway to take it. “Good job. Your man Flowers was here and gave an interesting presentation,” the governor said. His name was Elmer Henderson. He was two years into his first term, popular, and trying to put together a Democratic majority in both houses in the upcoming elections. “We pushed the Dakota County proposal and Flowers agreed that it might be feasible. We—you—could take the evidence to Dakota County and get them to convene a grand jury. Nice and tidy.”

“If it works.”

“Has to,” the governor said. “This girl…mmm…the evidentiary photos would suggest that she is not, uh, entirely undeveloped. I mean, as a woman.”

“Governor…sir…”

“Oh, come on, loosen up, Lucas. I’m not going to call her up,” Henderson said. “But that, ‘Oh God, lick my balls’—that does tend to attract one’s attention.”

“I’ll talk to Dakota County,” Lucas said.

“Do so. By the way, why does everybody call your man ‘that fuckin’ Flowers’?”

6

E
ARLIER THAT MORNING,
Leslie Widdler had been sitting on his marigold-rimmed flagstone patio eating toast with low-calorie butter substitute and Egg Beaters, looking out over the brook, enjoying the sun, unfolding the
Star Tribune
; his wife, Jane, was inside, humming along with Mozart on Minnesota Public Radio.

A butterfly flapped by, something gaudy, a tiger swallowtail, maybe, and Leslie followed it for a second with his eyes. This was typical, he thought, of the kind of wildlife experience you had along the creek—no, wait, it was the
brook;
he had to remember that—and he rather approved.

A butterfly wasn’t noisy, like, for instance, a crow or a blue jay; quite delicate and pretty and tasteful. A plane flew over, but well to the east, and he’d become accustomed to the sound. A little noise wasn’t significant if you lived on the brook. Right
on
the brook—it was right there in his backyard when he shook open the paper, and at night he could hear it burbling, when the air conditioner wasn’t running.

BOOK: Invisible Prey
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