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Authors: John Sandford

Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller

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BOOK: Invisible Prey
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“He’s had a lot of trouble,” Schuber said.

“He’s a jerk,” Ronnie said, and Lucas laughed in spite of himself. The kid sounded like a middle-aged golfer.

Smith persisted: “But you don’t hang with Weldon or any of his friends?”

“No. My ma would kill me if I did,” Ronnie said. He twisted and untwisted his bony fingers, and leaned forward. “Ever since I heard Aunt Sugar was murdered, I knew you’d want to talk to me about it. It’d be easy to say, ‘Here’s this black kid, he’s a gang kid, he set this up.’ Well, I didn’t.”

“Ronnie, we don’t…”

“Don’t lie to me, sir,” Ronnie said. “This is too serious.”

Smith nodded: “Okay.”

“You were saying…” Lucas prompted.

“I was saying, I really loved Aunt Sugar and I really liked Mrs. Bucher.” A tear started down one cheek, and he let it go. “Aunt Sugar brought me up, just like my ma. When Ma was going to school, Aunt Sugar was my full-time babysitter. When Aunt Sugar got a job with Mrs. B, and I started going to Catholic school, I started coming over here, and Mrs. B gave me money for doing odd jobs. Gave me more money than she had to and she told me that if she lived long enough, she’d help me with college. No way I want those people to get hurt. I wouldn’t put the finger on them for anybody, no matter how much they stole.”

Lucas bought it. If the kid was lying, and could consciously generate those tears, then he was a natural little psychopath. Which, of course, was possible.

Lucas felt John Smith sign off, Schuber shrugged, and Lucas jumped in: “So what’d they steal, kid?”

“I don’t know. Nobody would let me look,” Lash said.

Lucas to Smith: “Can I drag him around the house one time?”

Smith nodded. “Go ahead. Get back to me.”

“We all done?” Ronnie asked.

“For now,” Smith said, showing a first smile. “Don’t book any trips to South America.”

Ronnie’s face was dead serious. “No sir.”

 

O
UT IN
the hallway, Mrs. Lash was standing with her back to the wall, staring at the door. As soon as Lucas stepped through, she asked, “What?”

Lucas shrugged. “Ronnie’s offered to show me around the house.”

She asked Ronnie, “They say anything to you?”

“No. They don’t think I did it,” Lash said.

To Lucas: “Is that right?”

Lucas said, “We never really did. But we have to check. Is it all right if he shows me around?”

She eyed him for a moment, an always present skepticism that Lucas saw when he dealt with blacks, as a white cop. Her eyes shifted to her son, and she said, “I’ve got to talk to the police about Sugar. About the funeral arrangements. You help this man, and if he starts putting anything on you, you shut up and we’ll get a lawyer.”

 

“W
HAT
I
WANT
to know, is what these people took,” Lucas told Lash. “We know they took some electronics…a game machine, probably a DVD. What else?”

They started with the TV room. “Took a DVD and an Xbox and a CD player—Mrs. B liked to sit in here and listen to her albums and she figured out how to run the CD player with the remote, and also, it was off here, to the side, so she didn’t have to bend over to put a CD in. The DVD was on the shelf below the TV and she couldn’t get up if she bent over that far, Aunt Sugar had to do that,” Lash said. He looked in the closet: “Huh. Didn’t take the games.” He seemed to look inward, to some other Ronnie Lash, who knew about the streets, and muttered to himself, “Games is same as cash.”

“Your games?” Lucas asked.

“Yes. But why didn’t they take them?”

Lucas scratched his nose. “What else?”

“There was a money jar in the butler’s pantry.” Lash led the way to the small kitchen where Lucas had run into Rose Marie and the weeping politician.

“This is a butler’s pantry?” Lucas asked, looking around. “What the hell is that?”

“The real kitchen is down the basement. When you had a big dinner, the food would get done down there, and then it’d come on this little elevator—it’s called a dumbwaiter.” Lash opened a panel to show off an open shaft going down. “The servants would get it here and take it to the table. But for just every day, Mrs. B had the pantry remodeled into a kitchen.”

“Okay.”

An orange ceramic jar, molded to look like a pumpkin, with the word “Cookies” on the side, sat against a wall on the kitchen counter. Lash reached for it but Lucas caught his arm. “Don’t touch,” he said. He got a paper towel from a rack, put his hand behind the jar, and pushed it toward the edge of the countertop. When it was close enough to look into, he took the lid off, gripping the lid by its edges. “Fingerprints.”

Lash peered inside. “Nope. Cleaned it out. There was usually a couple of hundred bucks in here. Sometimes more and sometimes less.”

“Slush fund.”

“Yes. For errands and when deliverymen came,” Lash said. “Mostly twenties, and some smaller bills and change. Though…I wonder what happened to the change barrel?”

“What’s that?” Lucas asked.

“It’s upstairs. I’ll show you.”

Lucas called a crime-scene tech, who’d stretch warning tape around the kitchen counter. Then they walked through the house, and Lash mentioned a half-dozen items: a laptop computer was missing, mostly used by the housekeeping couple, but also by Lash for his schoolwork. A Dell, Lash said, and he pointed to a file drawer with the warranty papers.

Lucas copied down the relevant information and the serial number. Also missing: a computer printer, binoculars, an old Nikon spotting scope that Bucher had once used for birding, two older film cameras, a compact stereo. “Stamps,” Lash said. “There was a big roll of stamps in the desk drawer…”

The drawer had been dumped.

“How big was the printer?” Lucas asked.

“An HP LaserJet, about so big,” Lash said, gesturing with his hands, indicating a two-foot square.

“Heavy?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t put it in. But pretty heavy, I think,” Lash said. “It looked heavy. It was more like a business machine, than like a home printer.”

“Huh.”

“What means ‘huh’?” Lash asked.

Lucas said, “You think they put all this stuff in a bag and went running down the street?”

Lash looked at him for a minute, then said, “They had a car.” He looked toward the back of the house, his fingers tapping his lower lip. “But Detective Smith said they probably came in through the back, up the hill.”

“Well?”

Lash shrugged: “He was wrong.”

 

I
N THE
upstairs hallway, a brass vase—or something like a vase, but four feet tall—lay on its side. Lucas had noticed it among the other litter on his first trip through the house, but had just seen it as another random piece of vandalism.

Lash lifted it by the lip: “Got it,” he said. To Lucas: “Every night, Mrs. B put the change she got in here. Everything but pennies. She said someday, she was going to call the Salvation Army at Christmas, and have them send a bell ringer around, and she’d give, like, the whole vase full of coins.”

“How much was in there?”

Lash shook his head: “Who knows? It was too heavy to move. I couldn’t even tip it.”

“So hundreds of dollars.”

“I don’t know. It was all nickels, dimes, and quarters, so, quite a bit,” Lash said. “Maybe thousands, when you think about it.”

On the rest of the floor, Lash couldn’t pick out anything that Lucas didn’t already suspect: the jewelry, the drugs. Maybe something hidden in the dressers, but Lash had never looked inside of them, he said, so he didn’t know what might be missing.

On the third floor, they had a moment: Lash had spent some time on the third floor, sorting and straightening under Bucher’s direction. “Sugar said Mrs. B was getting ready to die,” Lash said.

They’d looked into a half-dozen rooms, when Lash said, suddenly, “Wait a minute.” He walked back to the room they’d just left, which had been stacked with furniture and a number of cardboard boxes; a broken lamp stuck out of one of them. Lash said, “Where’re the chairs?”

“The chairs?”

“Yeah. There were two old chairs in here. One was turned upside down on the other one, like in a restaurant when it’s closing. At least…” He touched his chin. “Maybe they were in the next one.”

They stepped down to the next room. Several chairs, but not, Lash said, the two he was thinking of. They went back to the first room. “They were right here.”

“When did you last see them?”

Lash put a finger in his ear, rolled it for a moment, thinking, then said, “Well, it’s been a while. I was cleaning this room out…gosh, Christmas vacation. Six months.”

“Two old chairs,” Lucas said.

“Yeah.”

“Maybe Mrs. Bucher got rid of them?”

Lash shrugged. “I suppose. She never said anything. I don’t think she thought about them.”

“Really old, like French antiques or something?” Lucas asked.

“No, no,” Lash said. “More like my mom’s age. Or maybe your age.”

“How do you know?”

“Because they were like…swoopy. Like one big swoop was the back and the other swoop was the seat. They were like, you know, what’d you see on old TV—
Star Trek,
like that. Or maybe chairs at the Goodwill store.”

“Huh. So you couldn’t mistake them,” Lucas said.

“No. They’re not here.”

 

A
S THEY WENT
through the last few rooms, Lash said, finally, “You know, I’m not sure, but it seems like somebody’s been poking around up here. Things are not quite like it was. It seems like stuff has been moved.”

“Like what?”

Lash pointed across the room, to a battered wooden rocking chair with a torn soft seat. Behind the rocker, four framed paintings were stacked against the wall. “Like somebody moved that rocker. When the old lady wanted something moved, she usually got me to do it.”

“Was there something back there?”

Lash had to think about it for a moment, then went and looked in another room, and came back and looked at the old rocker and said, “There might have been more pictures than that. Behind the rocker.”

“How many?” Lucas asked.

“I don’t know, but the stack was thicker. Maybe six? Maybe five. Or maybe seven. But the stack was thicker. One of the frames was gold colored, but all covered with dust. I don’t see that one. Let me see, one said ‘reckless’ on the back…”

“Reckless?”

“Yeah, somebody had painted ‘reckless’ on it,” Lash said. “Just that one word. On the back of the painting, not the picture side. In dark gray paint. Big letters.”

“Portrait, landscape…?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t look at the front, I just remember that word on the back. There are a couple of paintings gone. At least two.”

“There were some pictures down the hall in that third room, the one with the ironing boards,” Lucas said.

“No, no, I know about those,” Lash said. “These up here had frames that were, like, carved with flowers and grapes and stuff. And the gold one. Those other ones are just plain.”

“Chairs that weren’t very old, and maybe some paintings,” Lucas said.

“Yeah.” They stood in silence for a moment, then Lash added, “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Davenport, Weldon Godfrey didn’t steal any chairs and paintings. Or maybe he’d take the chairs, because his house never had much furniture. But Weldon wouldn’t give you a dollar for any painting I can think of. Unless it was like a blond woman with big boobs.”

They tramped back through the house, and on the way, Lash’s pocket started to play a rock version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He took a cell phone out of his pocket, looked at it, pushed a button, and stuck it back in his pocket.

“You’ve got a cell phone,” Lucas said.

“Everybody’s got a cell phone. Mom’n me, we don’t have a regular phone anymore.”

 

B
ACK ON
the first floor, they ran into Smith again. Smith’s left eyebrow went up, a question.

“Maybe something,” Lucas said. “Ronnie thinks a few things may have been taken. Can’t nail it down, but stuff looks like it’s been moved on the third floor. Couple of chairs may be missing, maybe a painting or two.”

“Tell him about the car,” Lash said.

“Oh yeah,” Lucas said. “They used a car to move the stuff. Or a van or a truck.”

Lucas explained and Smith said, “The Hill House has a security system with cameras looking out at the street. Maybe we’ll see something on the tapes.”

“If they took those chairs, it’d have to be pretty good-sized,” Lash said. “Not a car. A truck.”

“Maybe they’ll turn up on
Antiques Roadshow?”
Smith said.

“Maybe. But we’re not sure what’s missing,” Lucas said. “Ronnie’s not even sure that Bucher didn’t get rid of the chairs herself.”

Mrs. Lash was sitting in the foyer, waiting for her son. When Lucas brought him back, she asked Ronnie, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. But just wait here for one minute, I want to look at something. I noticed it when the police brought us in…” He went back down the hall and into the music room, his feet cracking through bits and pieces of broken glass.

“He’s been a big help,” Lucas said to Mrs. Lash. “We appreciate it.”

“I’m sure,” she said. Then, “I’ve seen you at Hennepin General. I used to work over there.”

“My wife’s a surgeon, she’s on staff at Hennepin,” Lucas said. “I’d hang out sometimes.”

“What’s her name?” Lash asked.

“Weather Karkinnen.”

Lash brightened: “Oh, I know Dr. Karkinnen. She’s really good.”

“Yeah, I know.” He touched a scar at his throat, made by Weather with a jackknife. Ronnie came back, gestured toward the music room with his thumb.

“There’s a cabinet in there with a glass front. It used to be full of old vases and dishes and bowls. One of them had Chinese coins in it. I’m not sure, because some of it’s broken, but I don’t think there are as many pieces as there used to be. It looks too…loose.”

“Could you identify any of it? If we came up with some stuff?”

Lash shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t know anything about it. I never really looked at it, except, one time when Mrs. Bucher showed me the coins. It just looks too loose. It used to be jammed with vases and bowls. Coins are all over the floor now, so they didn’t take those.”

BOOK: Invisible Prey
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