Authors: John Sandford
Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller
“Okay…Any other last thoughts?”
Ronnie said to Lucas, “‘The love of money is the root of all evils.’ Timothy, six-ten.”
The little asshole was getting on top of him.
Lucas said, “‘Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.’ Woody Allen.”
His mother cracked a smile, but Ronnie said, “I’ll go with Timothy.”
Smith and another cop came rolling down the hall, picking up their feet, in a jacket-flapping, gun-flashing hurry.
“Got a break,” Smith said, coming up to Lucas. “Let’s go.”
Lucas started walking. “What happened?”
“Guy showed up at Rhodes’s with some jewelry in a jewelry box. Jewelry was cheap but the box was terrific. Our guys turned it over, it’s inscribed ‘Bucher’ on the back.”
Rhodes’s was a pawnshop. Lucas asked, “Do they know who brought it in?”
“That’s the weird thing,” Smith said. “They
“Where’re we going?” Lucas asked.
“Six-twelve Hay. It’s off Payne, nine blocks north of Seventh. SWAT is setting up in the parking lot behind the Minnesota Music Café.”
“See you there.”
one of the signature drags across St. Paul’s east side, once the Archie Bunker bastion of the city’s white working class. The neighborhood had been in transition for decades, reliable old employers leaving, a new mix of Southeast Asians and blacks moving in. Lucas dropped past the cathedral, onto I-94 in a minute or so, up the hill to Mounds Boulevard, left and left again.
The café was an old hangout of his, at the corner of East Seventh and Payne, with a graveled parking lot in back, and inside, the best music in town. A dozen cars were in the lot, cops pulling on body armor. A half-dozen civilians were watching from the street. Smith arrived ten seconds after Lucas, and they walked over to Andy Landis, the SWAT squad commander.
“What you got?” Smith asked.
“We’re in the house behind him and on both sides,” Landis said. “Name is Nathan Brown. Don’t have anything local on him, but the people in the house behind him say he moved here from Chicago four or five years ago. There’re about fifty Nathan and Nate Browns with files down in Chicago, so we don’t know who he is.”
“Got the warrant?” Smith asked.
“On the way. Two minutes,” Landis said.
“Love this shit,” Smith said to Lucas.
“You ever been on the SWAT squad?”
“Ten years, until the old lady nagged me out of it,” Smith said. “Turned my crank.”
“Wasn’t it called something else? They called you the ‘breath mint’?”
“CIRT,” Smith said. “Critical Incident Response Team.”
“SWAT’s better,” Lucas said.
HE WARRANT ARRIVED
and the SWAT squad moved out in three groups. Lucas and Smith tagged behind.
“The couple who found the bodies…did they notice anything missing around the house?” Lucas asked.
Smith shook his head. “Not that they mentioned. But they weren’t housekeepers—the wife does the cooking, the husband did maintenance and gardening and the lawn. And with shit thrown all over the place like it was…The niece is on the way from California. She’ll probably know something.”
came in three groups: a blocking group at the back door, and two at the front of the house, one from each side. They came across the neighboring lawns, armored, face shields, carrying long arms. Moved diagonally across the lawn of the target house, quietly swarming the porch, doing a peek at the window, then kicking the front door in.
Nathan Brown, as it happened, was asleep in a downstairs bedroom. His girlfriend was feeding her kids grilled-cheese sandwiches in the kitchen, and began screaming when the cops came through, had the phone in her hand screaming “Nine-one-one, nine-one-one,” and the kids were screaming, and then the cops were in the bedroom on top of Brown.
Brown was yelling, “Hey…hey…hey,” like a stuck record.
Lucas came in as they rolled him and cuffed him; his room smelled of old wallpaper, sweat, and booze. Brown was shirtless, dazed, wearing boxer shorts. He’d left a damp sweat stain on the sheet of the queen-sized bed.
After some thrashing around, the freaked-out girlfriend sat in a corner sobbing, her two children crying with her. The cops found a plastic baggie with an assortment of earrings on the floor by Brown’s pants. Asked where he got them, Brown roused himself to semicoherence, and said, “I shoulda known, there ain’t no fuckin’ toot’ fairy.”
“Where’d you get them?
He shook his head, not in refusal, but knowing the reaction he’d get: “I got them off a bus bench.”
That was stupid enough that it stopped everybody. “Off a bus bench?” Smith said.
“Off a bus bunch. Up at…up at Dale. Dale and Grand,” Brown said. His eyes tended to wander in his head. “Friday night. Midnight. Lookin’ for a bus so I don’t got to walk downtown. The box was sittin’ right there, like the toot’ fairy left it.”
“Full of jewelry,” said one of the cops.
“Not full. Only a little in there.” He craned his neck toward the door. He could hear the children, still screaming, and their mother now trying to calm them down. Cops were starting to prop themselves in the doorway, to listen to what Brown was saying. “Did you knock the door down?” Brown asked. “Why the kids crying? Are the kids okay?”
“The kids are okay…” The air was going out of the SWAT guys.
“Is the house hurt?” There was a pleading note in Brown’s voice.
Smith stepped away, put a radio to his face. Lucas asked, “Anybody see you pick this box up?”
Brown said, “Not that I seen. I just seen the box, thought somebody left it, opened it up, didn’t see no name.”
“There was a name on the bottom of the box.”
“Didn’t look on the bottom of the box,” Brown said helplessly.
Lucas didn’t take long to make up his mind. Smith was uncertain, but after talking to Brown, and then to Brown’s girlfriend, Lucas was pretty sure that Brown was telling the truth about the jewelry box.
Smith served the search warrant on the woman, who owned the house, and the cops started tearing it apart.
UCAS WENT BACK
to his car alone, rolled down Payne to the café, got a notebook from behind the car seat, took a table on the sidewalk out in front of the place, bought a beer, and started doodling his way through the killings.
The murders of Bucher and Peebles looked like a gang-related home invasion. Two or three assholes would bust a house, tape up the occupants—most often older people, scouted in advance—and then take their time cleaning the house out. Easier, safer, and often more lucrative than going into liquor or convenience stores, which had hardened themselves with cameras, safes, and even bulletproof screens.
But with Bucher and Peebles, the robbers had not taken credit cards or ATM cards. In most house invasions, those would be the first targets, because they’d yield cash. Bucher and Peebles appeared to have been killed quickly, before they could resist. Most home invaders, even if they were planning to kill the victims, would keep them alive long enough to squeeze out the PIN numbers for the ATM cards.
ATMs had cameras, but it was easy enough to put a rag over your face. They might not have intended to kill. Say they came onto Peebles, somebody got excited and swatted her with a pipe. Then they’d have to kill Bucher just to clean up.
But there was no sign that Peebles resisted…
The halfway house was becoming more interesting. Lucas made up a scenario and played it through his head: suppose you had a couple of real hard guys in the halfway house, looking out the second-floor windows, watching the housekeepers come and go, the two old ladies in the garden during the day, the one or two bedroom lights at night, one light going out, then the other.
They’d be in a perfect spot to watch, sitting in a bedroom all evening, nothing to do, making notes, counting heads, thinking about what must be inside.
Get a car, roll down there during a storm. Real hard guys, knowing in advance what they were doing, knowing they were going to kill, maybe drinking a little bit, but wearing gloves, knowing about DNA…
But why would they take a bunch of junk? Stereos and game machines? The stuff they’d taken, as far as Lucas knew of it, wouldn’t be worth more than several hundred dollars on the street, not counting the cash, stamps, the vase full of change, and any jewelry they might have gotten. If they’d kept the old ladies alive long enough to get PINs, they could have probably taken down a thousand dollars a day, Friday through Sunday, all cash,
killed them and run with a car full of stuff.
Maybe, though, there was something else in the house. What happened to those chairs? The paintings? Were those figments of Ronnie Lash’s imagination? How much could a couple of swoopy chairs be worth, anyway?
E TOOK OUT
his cell phone and called home: the housekeeper answered. “Could you get the address book off Weather’s desk, and bring it to the phone?” The housekeeper put down the phone, and was back a minute later. “There should be a listing for a cell phone for a Shelley Miller.”
Lucas jotted the number in the palm of his hand, rang off, and dialed Miller, the woman he’d talked to at Oak Walk. The cops had been taking her inside when Lucas and Smith left for the raid.
She came up on the phone: “This is Shelley…”
“Shelley, this is Lucas. Anything?”
“Lucas, I’m not sure. There’s just too much stuff lying around. God, it makes me want to cry. You know, my great-uncle is in one of the portraits with Connie’s husband’s father…” She sniffed. “But…Connie always liked to wear nice earrings and I think she probably kept those at her bedside. She had diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, pearls…uh, probably a couple of more things. They weren’t small. For the single-stone earrings, I’d say two or three carats each. Then she had some dangly ones, with smaller stones; and she always wore them. I’d see her out working on the lawn, grubbing around in the dirt, and she’d have very nice earrings on. She also had a blue singleton diamond, a wedding gift from her husband, that she always wore around her neck on a platinum chain, probably eight or ten carats, and her engagement ring, also blue, a fragment of the neck stone, I think, probably another five carats. I really doubt that she locked them up every night.”
After digesting it for a moment, Lucas asked, “How much?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t. It would depend so much on quality—but the Buchers wouldn’t get cheap stones. I wouldn’t be surprised if, huh. I don’t know. A half million?”
“I thought you should know.”
HE CAFÉ’S OWNER,
Karen Palm, came by, patted him on the shoulder. She was a nice-looking woman, big smile and dark hair on her shoulders, an old pal; as many St. Paul cops hung out at the café as Minneapolis cops hung out at Sloan’s place on the other side of the river.
“Were you with the SWAT team?” she asked.
“Yeah. You heard about the Bucher thing.”
“Terrible. Did you get the guy?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” Lucas said. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time…”
They chatted for a minute, catching up, then Carol called and Palm went back to work. Carol said, “I’m switching you over to McMahon.”
McMahon was a BCA investigator. He came on and said, “I looked at the people from the halfway house. I’ve run them all against the feds and our own records, and it’s, uh, difficult.”
“What’s difficult?” Lucas asked.
“These guys were cherry-picked for their good behavior. That’s the most famous halfway house in the Cities. If that place flies, nobody can complain about one in their neighborhood. So, what you’ve got is a bunch of third-time DUI arrests and low-weight pot dealers from the university. No heavy hitters.”
“There can’t be
“Yes, there can,” McMahon said. “There’s not a single violent crime or sex crime against any of them. There’s not even a hit-and-run with the DUIs.”
“Not a lot of help,” Lucas said.
McMahon said, “The guy who runs the place is named Dan Westchester. He’s there every night until six. You could talk to him in person. I’ll run a few more levels on the records checks, but it doesn’t look like there’ll be much.”
a five-dollar bill on the table, stretched, thought about it, then drove back to Brown’s house. Brown was in the back of a squad, his girlfriend and her daughter sitting on a glider on the front porch, the girlfriend looking glumly at the busted door.
Smith was standing in the kitchen doorway and Lucas took him aside.
“I’ve got a friend who knew Bucher. She says Bucher used to wear some diamonds, big ones…” Lucas said. He explained about Miller, and her thoughts about the jewelry. Smith said, “A half million? If it’s a half million, no wonder they didn’t take the ATM cards. A half million could be pros.”
“Unless it was just a couple of dopers who got lucky,” Lucas said. “There could be some little dolly dancing on Hennepin Avenue with a ten-carat stone around her neck, thinking it’s glass.”
“These guys take the game box, but not the games. They take diamonds and swoopy chairs and a painting, but they also take a roll of stamps and a DVD player and a printer and a laptop. It’s not adding up, John.”
“Brown’s not adding up, either,” Smith said. “He’s an alcoholic, he’s on the bottle, really bad, and there’s a liquor cabinet full of the best stuff in the world back there, and it’s not touched.” Smith looked down to the squad where Brown was sitting. “Jesus. Why couldn’t it be easy?”
the raid site, headed back to the Bucher house and the halfway house. The crowd outside had gotten thinner—dinnertime, he thought—and what was left was coalescing around four TV trucks, where reporters were doing stand-ups for the evening news.