The thrilling new novel in the #1 New York Times–bestselling series.
In Southeast Minnesota, down on the Mississippi, a school board meeting is coming to an end. The board chairman announces that the rest of the meeting will be closed, due to personnel issues. “Issues” is correct. The proposal up for a vote before them is whether to authorize the killing of a local reporter. The vote is four to one in favor.
Meanwhile, not far away, Virgil Flowers is helping out a friend by looking into a dognapping, which seems to be turning into something much bigger and uglier—a team of dognappers supplying medical labs—when he gets a call from Lucas Davenport. A murdered body has been found—and the victim is a local reporter. . . .
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John Sandford is the author of twenty-four Prey novels; the Virgil Flowers novels, most recently Storm Front; and six other books. He lives in New Mexico.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
Dark, moonless night, in the dog days of early August.
A funky warm drizzle kept the world quiet and wet and close.
D. Wayne Sharf slid across Winky Butterfield’s pasture like a
greased weasel headed for a chicken house. He carried two heavy
nylon leashes with choke-chain collars, two nylon muzzles with
Velcro straps, and a center-cut pork chop.
The target was Butterfield’s kennel, a chain-link enclosure in the
backyard, where Butterfield kept his two black Labs, one young,
one older. The pork chop would be used to make friends.
D. Wayne was wearing camo, head to foot, which was no change:
he always wore camo, head to foot. So did his children.
His ex-wife, Truly, whom he still occasionally visited, wore various
pieces of camo, depending on daily fashion demands—more at
Walmart, less at Target. She also had eight pairs of camo under
pants, size 4XL and 5XL, which she wore on a rotating basis: two
each of Mossy Oak, Realtree, Legend, and God’s Country, which
prompted D. Wayne to tell her one night, as he peeled them off,
“This really is God’s country, know what I’m sayin’, honeybunch?”
His new, alternative honeybunch wore black cotton, which she
called “panties,” and which didn’t do much for D. Wayne. Just some
thing hot about camo.
A few thousand cells in the back of his brain were sifting through
all of that as D. Wayne crossed a split-rail fence into Butterfield’s
yard, and one of the dogs, the young one, barked twice. There were
no lights in the house, and none came on. D. Wayne paused in his
approach, watching, then slipped the pork chop out of its plastic
bag. He sat for a couple of minutes, giving the dogs a chance to smell
the meat; while he waited, his own odor caught up with him, a combination
of sweat and whiskey-blend Copenhagen. If Butterfield
had the nose of a deer or a wolf, he would have been worried.
But Butterfield didn’t, and D. Wayne started moving again. He
got to the kennel, where the dogs were waiting, slobbering like
hounds . . . because they were hounds. He turned on the hunter’s
red, low-illumination LED lights mounted in his hat brim, ripped
the pork chop in half, held the pieces three feet apart, and pushed
them through the chain link. The dogs were all over the meat: and
while they were choking it down, he flipped the latch on the kennel
gate and duckwalked inside.
“Here you go, boys, good boys,” he muttered. The dogs came
over to lick his face and look for more pork chop, the young dog
prancing around him, and he slipped the choke collars over their
heads, one at a time. The young one took the muzzle okay—the
muzzle was meant to prevent barking, not biting—but the older
one resisted, growled, and then barked, twice, three times. A light
came on in the back of the Butterfield house.
D. Wayne said, “Uh-oh,” dropped the big dog’s muzzle, and
dragged the two dogs out of the kennel toward the fence. Again,
the younger one came without much resistance at first, but the
older one dug in. Another light came on, this one by the Butterfield
side door, and D. Wayne said, “Shit,” and he picked up the bigger
dog, two arms under its belly, and yanking the other one along on
the leash, cleared the fence and headed across the pasture at an
The side door opened on Butterfield’s house, and D. Wayne,
having forgotten about the red LEDs on his hat brim, made the mistake
of looking back. Butterfield was standing under the porch
light, and saw him. Butterfield shouted, “Hey! Hey!” and “Carol,
somebody’s took the dogs,” and then, improbably, he went back
inside the house and D. Wayne thought for seven or eight seconds
that he’d caught a break. His truck was only forty yards or so away
now, and he was moving as fast as he could while carrying the
bigger dog, which must’ve weighed eighty pounds.
Then Butterfield reappeared and this time he was carrying a
gun. He yelled again, “Hey! Hey!” and let off a half-dozen rounds,
and D. Wayne said, “My gosh,” and threw the big dog through the
back door of his truck topper and then hoisted the smaller dog up
by his neck and threw him inside after the bigger one.
Another volley of bullets cracked overhead, making a truly unpleasant
whip-snap sound, but well off to one side. D. Wayne realized
that Butterfield couldn’t actually see the truck in the dark of
the night, and through the mist. Since D. Wayne was a semi-pro dog
snatcher, he had the truck’s interior and taillights on a cut-off
switch, and when he got in and fired that mother up, none of the
lights came on.
There was still the rumble of the truck, though, and Butterfield
fired another volley, and then D. Wayne was gone up the nearly, but
not quite, invisible road. A half-mile along, he turned on his lights
and accelerated away, and at the top of the hill that overlooked the
Butterfield place, he looked back and saw headlights.
Butterfield was coming.
D. Wayne dropped the hammer. The chase was short, because
D. Wayne had made provisions. At the Paxton place, over the crest
of the third low hill in a roller-coaster stretch of seven hills, he
swerved off the road, down the drive, and around behind the Paxton
kids’ bus shack, where the kids waited for the school bus on
wintry days.Butterfield went past at a hundred miles an hour,
and fifteen seconds later D. Wayne was going the other way.
A clean getaway, but D. Wayne had about peed himself when
Butterfield started working that gun. Had to be a better way to
make a living, he thought, as he took a left on a winding road back
Not that he could easily think of one. There was stealing dogs,
cooking meth, and stripping copper wire and pipes out of unoccupied
That was about it, in D. Wayne’s world.
Virgil Flowers nearly fell off the bed when the phone began to
vibrate. The bed was narrow and Frankie Nobles was using up the
middle and the other side. Virgil had to crawl over her naked body
to get to the phone, not an entirely unpleasant process, and she
muttered, “What? Again?”
“Phone,” Virgil said. He groaned and added, “Can’t be anything
He looked at the face of the phone and said, “Johnson Johnson.”
At that moment the phone stopped ringing.
Frankie was up on her elbows, where she could see the clock,
and said, “At three in the morning? The dumbass has been arrested
“He wouldn’t call for that,” Virgil said. “And he’s not dumb.”
“There’s two kinds of dumb,” Frankie said. “Actual and deliberate.
Johnson’s the most deliberate dumbass I ever met. That whole
“Yeah, yeah, it was for a good cause.” Virgil touched the callback
tab, and Johnson picked up on the first ring.
“Virgil, Jesus, we got big trouble, man. You remember Winky
Butterfield?” Johnson sounded wide awake.
“No, I don’t believe so.”
After a moment of silence Johnson said, “Maybe I didn’t introduce
you, come to think of it. Maybe it was somebody else.”
“Good. Can I go back to sleep?”
“Virgil, this is serious shit. Somebody dognapped Winky’s black
Labs. You gotta get your ass over here, man, while the trail is fresh.”
“Jesus, Johnson . . . dogs? You called me at three in the morning
“They’re family, man . . . you gotta do something.”
At ten o’clock the next morning, Virgil kissed Frankie good-bye
and walked out to his truck, which was parked at the curb with the
boat already hooked up. Virgil was recently back from New Mexico,
where he’d caught and released every tiger musky in what he
suspected was the remotest musky lake in North America. Nice
fish, too, the biggest a finger-width short of fifty inches. He could
still smell them as he walked past the boat and climbed into the cab
of his 4Runner.
The day was warm, and promising hot. The sun was doing its
job out in front of the truck, but the sky had a sullen gray look
about it. There’d been a quarter-inch of rain over the past twenty-
four hours, and as he rolled out of Mankato, Minnesota, the countryside
looked notably damp. But it was August, the best time of the
year, and he was on the road, operating, elbow out the window,
pheasants running across the road in front of him . . . nothing to
As Virgil rode along, he thought about Frankie. He’d known her
as Ma Nobles before he’d fallen into bed with her, because she
had about a hundred children; or, at least, it felt that way. She was
a compelling armful, and Virgil’s thoughts had drifted again to
marriage, as they had three times before. The first three had been
disasters, because, he thought, he had poor taste in women. He
reconsidered: no, that wasn’t quite right. His three wives had all
been pretty decent women, but, he thought, he was simply a poor
judge of the prospects for compatibility.
He and Frankie did not have that problem; they just got along.
And Virgil thought about Lucas Davenport for a while—
Davenport was his boss at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension,
and not a bad guy, though a trifle intense. There was a distinct possibility
that he would not be pleased with the idea of Virgil working
a dognapping case. Especially since the shit had hit the fan up north,
where a couple of high school kids had tripped over an abandoned
farm cistern full of dead bodies.
But Johnson Johnson was a hard man to turn down. Virgil
thought he might be able to sneak in a couple good working days
before Davenport even found out what he was doing. A dognapping,
he thought, shouldn’t take too much time, one way or the
other. The dogs might already be in Texas, chasing armadillos, or
whatever it was they chased in Texas.
Dognapping. He’d had calls on it before, though he’d never investigated
one, and they’d always been during hunting season, or
shortly before. Didn’t usually see one this early in the year.
Johnson Johnson ran a lumber mill, specializing in hardwood
timber—three varieties of oak, bird’s-eye maple, butternut, hickory,
and some walnut and cherry—for flooring and cabinetry, with a
side business of providing specialty cuts for sculptors. He and Virgil
had met at the University of Minnesota, where they were studying
women and baseball. Virgil had been a fair third baseman for a
couple years, while Johnson was a better-than-fair catcher. He
might even have caught onto the bottom edge of the pros, if baseball
hadn’t bored him so badly. Johnson’s mill was a mile outside
Trippton, Minnesota, in Buchanan County, in the Driftless Area
along the Mississippi River.
The Driftless Area had always interested Virgil, who had taken
a degree in ecological science. Basically, the Driftless Area was a
chunk of territory in Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Iowa, and Illinois
that had escaped the last glaciation—the glaciers had simply
flowed around it, joining up again to the south, leaving the Driftless
Area as an island in an ocean of ice. When the glaciers melted, they
usually left behind loose dirt and rock, which was called drift. Not in
the Driftless Area . . .
Physically, the land was cut by steep valleys, up to six hundred feet
deep, running down to the Mississippi River. Compared to the farm-
lands all around it, the Driftless Area was less fertile, and covered
with hardwood forests. Towns were small and far between, set mostly
along the river. The whole area was reminiscent of the Appalachians.
Road time from Virgil’s home, in Mankato, to Trippton, on the
river, was two and a half hours.
For most of it Virgil put both the truck and his brain on cruise
control. He’d driven the route a few dozen times, and there was not
a lot to look at that he hadn’t seen before. Trippton was at the bottom
of a long hill, on a sandspit that stuck out into the Mississippi;
it was a religious town, with almost as many churches as bars. Virgil
arrived at lunchtime, got caught in a minor traffic jam between the
town’s three stoplights, and eventually wedged into a boat-sized
double-length parking lane behind Shanker’s Bar and Grill.
Johnson Johnson came rambling out the back door as Virgil
pulled in. Johnson Johnson’s father, Big Johnson, had been an
outboard-motor enthusiast who fairly well lived on the Mississippi.
He’d named his sons after outboard motors, and while Mercury
Johnson had gotten off fairly easy, Johnson Johnson had been stuck
with the odd double name. He was a large man, like his father, and
“I can smell them fuckin’ muskies from here,” he said, as Virgil
climbed out of the truck. He leaned into the boat and said, “I hope
you brought something besides those fuckin’ phone poles,” by
which he meant musky gear.
“Yeah, yeah, I got some of everything,” Virgil said. “What about
these dogs? You find them yet?”
“Not yet,” Johnson said. He was uncharacteristically grim.
“Come on inside. I got a whole bunch of ol’ boys and girls for you
to talk to.”
“We’re having a meeting?”
“We’re having a lynch mob,” Johnson said.
Virgil followed him in. One of the trucks he passed in the parking
lot had a bumper sticker that asked, “Got Hollow Points?” Another
said: “Heavily Armed . . . and easily pissed.” A third one: “Point and
Click . . . means you’re out of ammo.”
“Aw, jeez,” Virgil said.
Virgil was a tall man, made taller by his cowboy boots. He wore
his blond hair too long for a cop—but country-long like Waylon Jennings,
not sculptural long, like some New Jersey douche bag, so he
got along okay.
He dressed in jeans and band T-shirts, in this case, a rare pirated
“Dogs Die in Hot Cars” shirt, which he hoped the local ’necks
would take for a sign of solidarity. To his usual ensemble, he added
a black sport coat when he needed to hide a gun, which wasn’t
often. Most times, he left the guns in the truck.
He sometimes wore a straw cowboy hat, on hot days out in the
sun; at other times, a ball cap, his current favorite a black-on-black
Iowa Hawkeyes hat, given to him by a devout Iowegian.
Johnson led the way through the parking lot door, down a beer-
smelling corridor past the restrooms, which had signs that said
“Pointers” and “Setters,” to the back end of the bar, where twenty
or so large outdoorsy-looking men and women hunched over rickety
plastic tables, drinking beer and eating a variety of fried everything,
with link sausages on the side.
When Virgil caught up with him, Johnson said, in a loud voice,
without any sign of levity, “Okay, boys and girls. This here’s the cop
I was talking about, so put away your fuckin’ weed and methamphetamine,
those that has them, and pay attention. Virgil?”
Virgil said, “For those of you with meth, I’d like to speak to you
for a minute out back. . . .”
There were a few chuckles, and Virgil said, “I mostly came to
listen. What’s going on with these dogs? Somebody stand up so we
all can hear you, and tell us.”
A heavyset man heaved himself to his feet and said, “Well, I
thought Johnson would have told you, but somebody’s snatching
A drunk at the front of the bar, who’d turned around on his
barstool to watch the meeting, called, “Better’n having your snatch
The heavyset man shouted back, “Shut up, Eddy, or we’ll kick
your ass o...
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