A sullen wedge of gunmetal-colored clouds rolled in from the west, autumn's jackboot crunching down on the Twin Cities. A cold breeze sent fallen leaves skittering along the darkened October streets as a flash of blackbirds passed above the treetops, heading south.
Alex Sand was in the side yard with his boys, Blaine and Arthur, shooting baskets under a yard light. The storm was coming fast. They could smell it, taste it, they could hear the trees bending at the wind front; the falling temperature prickled their skin.
Arthur, the younger son, rolled behind his father who was throwing a pick at Blaine, but Blaine, instead of challenging the pick, rolled the other way and met Arthur coming around, stole the ball, dribbled it once and laid it into the basket.
He rebounded his own shot, made a face at Art and called, "Hey, piggy, piggy, piggy..."
Arthur, who still carried what the family called "baby fat," shouted, "Shut up, you fuck," and both boys took boxing stances, feigning an intention to duke it out right there, with bare fists.
Alex: "Hey, hey, hey... knock it off, both of you. If I hear that word again, Art, I will... tell your mother."
They all laughed at the toothless threat. Alex took the ball from his son, looked up at the darkening sky, and said, "We should get in. It's coming."
They hurried around to the front of the house, shoulders hunched against the first fat drops of cold rain, up the steps across the porch and inside.
They were trailed by the killer, who moved unseen from behind a privet hedge. The killer wore a dark hooded rain suit, glasses, a black Covid mask and thin vinyl gloves. Alex and the kids were only a dozen steps ahead as they went through the door.
The doorbell was right there, but... the door wasn't fully shut. The killer pushed it with a knuckle and as the door swung open, stepped inside. The gun was out and ready. With his off hand, he pushed the door closed behind him.
In the living room, Alex's back was to the killer. Arthur saw the intruder, eyes widened in what might have been recognition, as the killer lifted the gun and fired two shots into Alex's back. Alex staggered and went down.
The boys tried to run, twisting, screaming, stumbling but the gun was right there, only six feet away. The killer shot Arthur first, in the hip, and the boy fell, crying out; Blaine was a step farther away, running toward the kitchen, and the killer shot him in the neck.
Alex had been hit low, and lay face-down on the Persian carpet, one hand blindly groping toward the ebony leg of the grand piano. The killer moved close, and shot him twice more in the back, through the heart. The boys were next, one shot each, the gun dangling from the killer's hand, only eight or ten inches from the boys' heads.
In the deafening silence after the murders, the killer heard the baby begin to cry in a side room used as a day nursery. He went that way. The baby looked up from her bassinet, little blue eyes hazy, lips stretched open and wide, the better to scream, as the killer hovered over her...
Like another one, on the very same day, full of the thunder of guns and the scent of blood on the ground.
Lucas Davenport crashed through a hedge and fired two off-balance shots at a fleeing killer who was too far away for his shotgun. The killer stopped, turned, and fired a long fully automatic burst back at him and Lucas was not too far away for an AR-15.
A bullet hit Lucas's right arm like a blow from a baseball bat and he windmilled the arm backwards as he went down. He screamed, "I'm down, I'm hit." He struggled to get back up, but his right arm hung uselessly. Pushing up with his left, he put the butt of the shotgun on the snow and used his good hand to jack a shell into the chamber.
Virgil Flowers ran up and shouted, "How bad?" and Lucas shouted back, "Go get him . . ." Again on his feet, his right arm flopping at his side, Lucas went after the killer, following Virgil, heard Virgil's shotgun booming in the night, and he kept going, shouted, "Virgil! Coming up behind!"
Virgil shouted something at him and Lucas saw Virgil was bleeding from a head wound, but they both went on, encountered an FBI agent hovering over a wounded agent, kept going.
Virgil was dragging one leg. Lucas realized that he'd been hit there, too, and they went on and then the killer turned again and unloaded another full magazine at them and Lucas got hit in the chest and leg and went down again, and this time, he didn't try to get back up.
He heard more shooting, Virgil's shotgun once, twice, and he thought, Got him, and then blacked out for a moment, came back, looking up at the bare branches of an overhanging maple tree, and the pain came.
The pain came like an ocean wave and dimmed his sight. He groaned, once, and sputtered, and it occurred to him that he might be dying. There was a scuffling nearby, and he turned his head, and saw Virgil crawling across the thin, hard-crusted snow.
He said, he thought, "Help me," as Virgil's face loomed, close, inches above his eyes, and he saw that Virgil was bleeding heavily from the head wound, the blood rolling down his face and into his eyes.
Virgil's face hovered and he asked again, "How bad?"
"I dunno..." And... blackout.***
When Lucas opened his eyes, he was almost pain-free, though there was an ache in his right shoulder. He was lying on his own bed, in St. Paul. He was warm, safe.
Sweating. He could feel the sweat on his forehead and cheekbones without touching it. He groaned, "Jesus Christ."
He'd never quite pooh-poohed the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder and the flashbacks that came with it, but somewhere in the back of his hockey defenseman brain, he really thought PTSD mostly applied to guys who weren't quite tough enough.
He no longer thought that.***
He lay in bed for a while, angry at himself for the flashback. He should, he believed, be able to get past them, if only he had the willpower. He also knew he was wrong about that, but couldn’t help believing it anyway.
His wife, Weather Karkinnen, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, had gone to work before dawn, as she usually did, leaving behind a stack of pillows that smelled lightly of her overnight lotion, a floral scent, maybe wild roses.
He sighed, rolled over, winced as his weight pressed on his injured shoulder, patted Weather's pillow for reassurance that everything was okay. With his feet on the floor, he sat checking for chest pain-almost gone, unless he put pressure on his rib cage-and leg pain. A series of X-rays the previous month confirmed that the leg bone had healed, with a slight deformity that the docs said wasn't important. Lucas wasn't sure he agreed: it still hurt when he jogged.
In the bathroom, he showered, shaved, and inspected himself in the mirror. He was a tall, square-shouldered man, two inches over six feet, with crystalline blue eyes and dark hair now threaded with gray. The gray was gaining but was not yet dominant.
He could see a fresh puckered scar from a bullet wound outside his right nipple, and another bullet scar in the muscle of his right arm, and a pink, six-inch-long surgical scar up the ball of his right shoulder. He had exit wounds on the back of his arm and on his right shoulder blade, another two bullet scars and a surgical scar on his lower right leg, but couldn't see those, only feel them.
He looked too thin. Lucas had two basic body styles: the square, two-hundred-pound light heavyweight boxer style, and the thinner, hundred-and-ninety-pound iron-man style. Usually, when he looked thin, he also looked tough, leathery, because he was training hard. Nothing like a fast, hard five miles before breakfast, his thinner self believed.
Now, at a hundred and eighty-five pounds, he looked too thin, and yet, puffy. Too much time on a couch, watching CNN or clicking through the streaming videos, eating Wheat Thins. He enjoyed working out, running hard, sweating hard, and had, all of his life. He hadn't been able to do either for almost nine months. In late July, with approval from the docs, he'd joined a local gym, started doing some lifting and treadmill work.
It helped, and it hurt.***
This morning, after he’d cleaned up, he dressed in jeans, a University of Minnesota sweatshirt, and cross-training shoes. He ate a bowl of microwave oatmeal with a shot of whey protein, spent an hour reading five online newspapers and checking his stock portfolio on Morningstar. When he finished the last of the papers, he went for a walk to a Target store, as much for human contact as for the shopping. He carried an old-fashioned wooden-crook cane that he’d bought at a drugstore, just in case.
A deputy U.S. Marshal, Lucas had been shot the previous winter, during a chase through a fashionable suburb on Long Island. He couldn’t believe his luck-both the good and the bad.
The shooter had been using solid core military ammunition, probably because his target would be standing behind triple-pane glass, and he'd worried that the instant expansion of hunting or defensive ammunition might deflect after the initial impact on the windows. Whether he was right or wrong about that, he'd efficiently killed the man standing behind the glass.
In the subsequent chase, he'd shot Lucas three times, using an AR-15 equipped with a bump stock, which effectively made it into a fully automatic weapon-a machine gun.
The first shot had hit Lucas's right arm and gone cleanly through, knocking him down in the process. The docs at the Long Island hospital had told him that when he was hit, he'd probably windmilled his arm backwards to break the fall and protect his head, and the impact with the frozen ground, not the bullet itself, had caused the bone to snap below his shoulder. That break was fixed in an operation that fitted a titanium collar around the bone, the collar held in place with eleven titanium screws.
So, three bullet wounds and a broken arm. Bad luck that he'd been shot at all; good luck that the slugs were solid, and the wounds hadn't been more serious. If he'd been hit with expanding hunting or defensive rounds, he most likely would have been killed or crippled.
Bad luck again that all three wounds were on the same side of his body. He hadn't been able to comfortably use crutches on that side, where he most needed the support, and he'd spent three weeks in a wheelchair.
The shooter himself was dead, having been shot by both Lucas and by Lucas's partner, Virgil Flowers. Virgil had been shot as well, hit in the thigh, but hadn't been hurt as badly as Lucas.
Good luck again, for them, anyway.
The shooter had killed a right-wing radio talk-show host, and two FBI agents. He'd wounded a third agent, a woman who'd been hit in the stomach, and who'd retired with a permanent disability. That's what a machine gun will do, when you don't know it's coming, and you get too close. Lucas and Virgil had gotten off easy, compared to the others.
Now, in early October, Lucas still hurt, especially at night. He'd had three months of physical therapy following the shooting, but didn't yet have full range of motion in his right arm, and he'd lost muscle from lack of exercise. The broken arm bone itself was largely healed, though he had continuous, nagging shoulder pain where the surgeons had cut through muscle to fix the bone. He'd played senior hockey for years, but now he couldn't skate, he had no slap shot.
He had additional significant pain in his upper right rib cage, especially when he lay down and his rib cage flexed. In the days after the gunfight, it had hurt simply to breathe; his breathing was now mostly pain-free, but sleeping wasn't, nor was anything but the most careful sex.
His lower leg was healed, but still complained when he tried to jog more than a few blocks. He was pushing that, both on the gym's treadmills and on the street.
Because he couldn't help himself.***
Almost as troubling as the pain was the depression that came with the long recovery and confinement. At night, slipping in and out of a restless sleep, he would dream-or sometimes, he thought, simply remember-Virgil looking down at him as he lay on the ground, not knowing if he was dying.
Virgil's head wound, and blood-covered face, was the result of a slug that had hit a tree branch a half-inch above his head, blowing splinters into his scalp. The wound had bled like crazy but turned out to be not serious, although, Virgil told him, it had itched ferociously for two months. Lucas didn't know at the time that the wound wasn't serious, and he didn't know it in his flashbacks or dreams, either, and reexperienced the fear that Virgil had been shot in the head.
At the Target store, he browsed grooming supplies, lotions, and disposable razors. When he returned home, he popped a Vicodin and hobbled back to the TV room, where he dropped onto the couch, put his legs up on an ottoman-Weather refused to allow a La-Z-Boy in the house-and called up the streaming series called Justified
. The main character was a deputy U.S. Marshal named Raylan Givens, who was apparently in the process of shooting everybody.
More interesting, for Lucas, was that he was close to an actual deputy U.S. Marshal named Rae Givens, though she'd never be mistaken for Raylan, as she was taller, black, and female. Lucas shared his interest in the streaming series with his adoptive daughter, Letty, who worked with the Department of Homeland Security as an investigator. They were texting daily, both appreciations and criticisms. He was still on the couch, watching a third consecutive episode, when Weather called.
"I've got a problem," she said.***
As Lucas was sinking into the couch, a six-year-old first-grader at St. Paul's Friedrich Nietzsche Elementary School had fibbed about his urgent need to visit the boys' room. Although his newly minted teacher had suspected that he was plotting to get out of the phonics lesson, she'd been so harried that she let him go with a stern warning to return as soon as he'd completed his mission.
He’d taken his time getting down the hall, taken his time using the low-hung urinal, carefully zipped up afterwards – he’d already experienced the male affliction of an overly-hasty zip-up – and on the way back to his classroom, poked his head into the open door of the teacher’s prep room. There was a lot of interesting stuff in the prep room, including, unfortunately, a fascinating guillotine-style paper cutter.
That morning, Weather had done a rhinoplasty, which she would not allow Lucas to call a "nose job." From her office window at the University of Minnesota hospitals, she’d seen the hints of the incoming storm, not dangerous billowing orange clouds, like a summer thunderstorm, that might be hiding a tornado, but dark and murky, the arrival of autumn, several weeks late.
After lunch she’d harvested skin from a man’s thigh and moved it to his forearm, to cover up the excision of cancer tissue that had been taken out earlier.
The skin graft was the last op on her schedule. That done, she’d changed out of her scrubs, into street dress, and returned to her office. Her assistant, Alice, was in her cubicle, on the phone to a prospective patient, while Weather met with a friend, an associate professor of history, about the pros and cons of breast-reduction surgery.
They’d gotten to the question of whether the professor’s husband’s desires were relevant, when a plastic surgery resident knocked twice, hard, on the office door then burst in without waiting to be invited.
"We got a good one," he crowed, excited, his voice like a truck horn, urgent, hoarse, too loud. "Elementary school kid chopped off three fingers of his dominant hand with a paper cutter. A teacher’s aide picked up the fingers and iced them. Happened a half-hour ago. They’re on the way. Bulthorpe told me to get you. He’s putting together a team, whoever he can find. I’m on it."
Weather said, "Oh, shit," and to the associate professor, "We'll continue this later, Marie, but my bottom line is, you wouldn’t regret it."
The prof said, "Go! Go!"
Weather went. Not to her first rodeo. On the way to the OR, she called Lucas, to tell him that she wouldn’t be home for dinner, and probably not until after midnight.
As she talked, she could hear the television in the background: More Justified
. She told him what she knew about the incoming emergency, as briefly as she could. She added: "How bad are you?"
"Not bad," Lucas said.
"On a one-to-ten scale?"
"Nagging. Maybe a two. I’m going to push it a little," he said.
"Not too much. Don’t hurt yourself,” Weather warned.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go take care of the kid."
"You know where the Vicodin is.” And she was gone, dropping down a stairwell to the women’s locker room.
Copyright © 2023 by John Sandford. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.