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Authors: John Sandford

Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller

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CHAPTER
TWO

Virgil Flowers walked out of a café in Blue Earth, Minnesota, slightly bilious after a dinner of brown slices of beef and brown gravy over brown potatoes and dead green beans, coconut cream pie on the side, with a pointless Diet Coke. He had to quit all that; he knew it, but hadn’t yet done it. He burped and the burp tasted . . . brown.

He’d taken three steps out the door before he noticed a motley group of twenty people standing in the parking lot, staring up at the sky to the south. When he turned to look, he saw the UFO.

There was no question about it, really.

The alien craft was obviously far away, but still appeared to be more than half the size of a full moon. It was motionless, hovering over the countryside like a polished dime, brilliantly lit, alternating gold and white light, almost as bright as the setting sun, and hard to look at without squinting.

A man dressed like a farmer, in mud-spattered jeans and muddier gum boots, said wisely, “It only
appears
to be motionless. It’s
probably a jumbo jet headed into the Twin Cities, flying low and right toward us. The sun’s hitting it at just the right angle, and we’re getting a reflection.”

A pale woman with orange-blond dreadlocks, and the voice of a high school teacher, said, “No, it’s not a jet. It’s not moving. Line it up with that phone pole and you see it’s not moving.”

Virgil and the farmer edged sideways to line the UFO up with the telephone pole, and the woman was right; the UFO wasn’t moving. The farmer exhaled heavily, and said, “Okay. I got nothin’.”

More people were coming out of the café, attracted by the crowd in the parking lot.

A man in a plaid sport jacket said, “This could be the start of something big.”

“Like an invasion,” the dreadlocks lady said. She mimed a shudder. “Like in
Cloverfield
. You don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s coming and it’s bad.”

“Wouldn’t they invade Washington or someplace like that?” a thin man asked. “Why would they invade Iowa?”

A jocko-looking guy said, “Not because they’re recruiting for a pro football team,” and he and a jocko friend, who was wearing a red University of Minnesota jacket, exchanged high fives.

Somebody said, “I left my camera at home. Wouldn’t you know it? Probably see Bigfoot on the way back.”

A short, fat mail carrier: “I saw a show where the aliens completely wasted LA, but it turned out everything was being controlled from one central bunker, and when the Army hit that, all the aliens’ tanks and shit quit working.”


Independence Day
,” somebody said. “Where they nuked the mother ship, and then the fighters could get through the force fields?”

“No, I saw that one, too, but this was a different movie,” the letter carrier said. “Ground troops in LA. Got the aliens with a bazooka or something.”

A young man with black-rimmed glasses and slicked-back dark hair said, with the voice of authority, “
Battle: Los Angeles.
Thirty-five percent on the Tomatometer. The ground squad lit them up with a laser indicator so American fighters could target the alien HQ. Or maybe they called in the artillery, I don’t precisely recall.”

A young woman in a jewel-blue nylon letter jacket that matched her eyes said, “I hope they don’t get us pregnant with those monster things like in
Aliens
. You know, that ate their way out of your womb when they hatched.”

“I don’t think that was
Aliens
,” the authoritative young man said. “But just in case, maybe you oughta get a lotta good lovin’ before they arrive.”

Jewel Blue, the voice of scorn: “Dream on, Poindexter.”


Virgil scratched his chin, momentarily at a loss. He was a tall, thin, blue-eyed man, with blond hair curling well down over his ears. He was wearing a canvas sport coat over a “Moon Taxi” T-shirt and jeans, with cowboy boots and a blue ball cap. As an official law enforcement officer of the state of Minnesota—L’Étoile du Nord—he thought he should do something about an alien invasion but didn’t know exactly what. Call it in maybe?

He watched the thing for another moment, the flickering light, then walked over to his truck and dug out a pair of Canon 10-power image-stabilizing binoculars for a closer look. He saw a teardrop-shaped research balloon, several stories high, probably made of translucent polyethylene film. The low-angle sunlight
was refracting through it. Most likely flown out of Iowa State University in Ames, he thought, which was more or less directly to the south.

“What do you see?” asked the woman with the dreadlocks.

“Weather balloon,” Virgil said.

“That’s what they always call it. A weather balloon. Next thing you know, you got an alien probe up your ass,” somebody said.

Virgil passed the binoculars around, and they all looked. And then they all went home, disappointed. A UFO invasion would have been a hell of a lot more interesting than Spam ’n’ Eggs for dinner. He took the binoculars back to his truck, noticed that he hadn’t pulled the plug out of the boat, pulled it, and water started running down into the parking lot.

On his way out of Blue Earth, Virgil saw more groups of people standing in parking lots, watching the UFO. If he wasn’t careful, he could wind up investigating a balloon.


Jon Duncan, a supervising agent at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, called as Virgil crossed I-90, heading north on Highway 169. “We need you to investigate a murder.”

“Where at?”

“University of Minnesota,” Duncan said.

“What happened?” Virgil asked. “And why me?”

“A professor got murdered. Head bashed in,” Duncan said.

“Again?”

“What?”

“A professor got murdered there two weeks ago,” Virgil said. “Is this another one?”

“No, no. Same one,” Duncan said. “Minneapolis Homicide is
working it, but they got nothing. Turns out the professor was the brother of this rich woman—Boopsie, or Bunny, or Biffy, something like that, last name Quill—who gave a lot of money to the governor’s campaign. And you know what the governor thinks of you . . .”

“Ah, Jesus, I hate that guy,” Virgil said. “Why doesn’t he leave me alone?”

“Because you’re good at doing favors for people like him and he’s good at doing favors for rich people,” Duncan said. “You brought it on yourself, with that school board thing.”

With Virgil investigating, the state attorney general (at the time) had managed to send most of a school board to prison for murder; the attorney general, who’d actually done nothing but look good on TV, had taken full credit for the investigation and subsequent prosecution and was now the governor. He did have broad shoulders, a baritone voice, and extra-white teeth.

“You know it’ll piss off the Minneapolis cops,” Virgil said.

“Does that bother you?”

Virgil said, “Well, yeah, it does, as a matter of fact.”

“Huh. Too bad. Doesn’t bother me at all, since I won’t be there,” Duncan said. “Anyway, I have a name for you: Margaret Trane. A sergeant with Minneapolis Homicide. Known as Maggie. She’s leading the investigation, coordinating with the campus cops.”

“Don’t know her,” Virgil said. “She any good?”

“Can’t say,” Duncan said. “I judge women by their looks and the size of their breasts, not whether they’re competent detectives.” After a moment of empty air, Duncan blurted, “For Christ’s sakes, don’t tell anybody I said that. I mean, I was joking, okay? Big joke. Maybe a little insensitive . . .”

“I’m not recording you,” Virgil said.

“Yeah, but somebody might be, you never know,” Duncan said. Virgil could imagine him looking over his shoulder. “We have the most amazing surveillance stuff now, right here at BCA. I’ve been messing with it all week. Anyway, get your ass up here tomorrow. The governor would like to see this solved by the end of the week.”

“It’s already Thursday,” Virgil said.

“Better get moving, then,” Duncan said.

Virgil didn’t want to go to the Twin Cities to mess around in a Minneapolis murder investigation. The cops there handled more murders in a year than the BCA did. And they were good at it.

Virgil tried to tap-dance. “You know, I’m supposed to be working that thing in Fulda . . . There are some pretty influential religious groups—”

Duncan interrupted. “Are you towing a boat?”

“A boat?” Virgil could see the Ranger Angler, riding high and still damp, in the rearview mirror.

“Don’t bullshit me, Virgie. That thing in Fulda is weird, but it’s basically chasing chickens. And you’re towing your boat, which means you don’t care about Fulda any more than I do. Get your ass to Minneapolis. I got you a room at the Graduate, by the U. It’s your dream hotel—it’s got a beer joint, a Starbucks, and, the pièce de résistance, an Applebee’s. Mmm-mmm.”

“Does sound good,” Virgil admitted.

“The kind of place I’d stay. Any questions?”

“All kinds of them, but you won’t have the answers,” Virgil said. “Talk to Trane before I get up there so she’ll know I’m coming and it’s not my fault.”

“I can do that,” Duncan said. “I’ll blame it on the governor. Anything else I should know?”

“There’s a UFO hovering over Iowa, due south of Blue Earth,” Virgil said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Duncan said. “So, I’ll email the media coverage of this killing. You’ll have it before you get home.”

“I’ll be home in about five minutes.”

“No you won’t—you just crossed I-90 heading north. We got a new toy, and I’m tracking your cell phone. Have been ever since you pulled your goddamn boat off the goddamn Mississippi.”


The Fulda incident.

A minister with the Universal Life Church—“Get Ordained Today!”—had married six people, three men and three women, to one another as a group, and they’d sent a nude photo off to
The New York Times
, which of course had published it on their “Vows” page, with the appropriate black rectangles covering the naughty bits, along with a narrative about the ceremony.

“We believe there should be no barrier whatsoever to personal sexual expression, in whatever combination the voluntary participants feel to be genuinely authentic,” blah, blah, blah.

If the group wedding had actually taken place, it violated Minnesota law. Various conservative ministerial associations had demanded action. Action required investigation to make sure that nobody in officialdom was getting his or her weenie pulled.

Virgil was the designated hitter, but when he got the assignment, his eyes had rolled so far up into his head that he could see his scalp. He had not yet begun to investigate, despite increasing pressure. When asked why, by an attractive, if somewhat hefty,
Rochester television reporter with whom he was sharing a bag of donuts in the Mankato Dunkin’ Donuts, he’d unwisely replied, “I had to wash my hair.”


He took the opportunity to negotiate with Jon Duncan. “If I investigate up in Minneapolis, I won’t have time for Fulda.”

“I understand that. If you’re out of pocket, I’ll pass the word to our new attorney general and get him to send one of his own dimwitted investigators out there.”

“Man, you’re developing the righteous bureaucratic chops,” Virgil said, impressed.

“I am, it’s true,” Duncan said. He’d once been a competent investigator. “I’ll call Trane and tell her you’ll be there by noon tomorrow.”


Virgil pulled into the farm an hour later, backed the boat into the barn next to the new used compact John Deere tractor they’d bought the previous autumn. They’d rigged it for plowing snow, as well as general farm utility use, and a good thing, too: the past winter had started off easy, but turned ugly in late January and stayed that way. By early March, they’d had a snowdrift in the side yard that reached up to the lowest wire on the clothesline. Then came April and thundersnow. Now, in early September, the snow was gone, barely, and the tractor was hooked up to an aging hay baler.

The farm belonged to Virgil’s pregnant girlfriend, Frankie, who was expecting twins sometime in the next couple of months. An ultrasound said they were getting one of each. Frankie, her blond hair done in a pigtail, waddled across the barnyard to meet him.

“Catch anything good?”

“Walleyes. Johnson Johnson’s going to clean and freeze them; we’ll have a fish fry the next time we go over.”

“Good. Listen, Rolf is baling tomorrow—it looks like it could rain Monday, so we got to get it in,” she said, squinting up into the UFO-free sky.

She was talking about hay, which was already cut and laying in windrows in the alfalfa field. Rolf was the oldest of her five sons.

“Aw, jeez, honey, Jon Duncan called—”

Fists on her hips. “You’re trying to slide out of it
again
?”

“Hey, c’mon, it’s work. That professor who got killed up in Minneapolis. Jon wants me up there by noon tomorrow . . .” He was tap-dancing like crazy.

“If you leave here at ten o’clock, you’ll get there in plenty of time. And if you get up at five, you could throw for four hours before you have to clean up.”

“Five o’clock? Mother of God, Frankie . . .”

“Well, I can’t do it. Goodyear called and offered me a hundred dollars to paint their logo on my stomach.” She
was
blimp-like. She’d started out short, slender, and busty but now sometimes seemed to Virgil to be wider than she was tall.

“Ah, well. Another couple of months, babe.”

She rubbed her stomach. “I don’t know. I’ve been through this a few times and I think it could be sooner. Hope so. This is getting to be a load.”


Virgil rolled out the driveway the next morning at ten-fifteen, having kissed both Frankie and his yellow dog, Honus, good-bye. He took two days’ worth of clothes, figuring he wouldn’t be
working on Sunday and would be back home. On the way out the door, Frankie called, “You wanna know what was the last thing Honus licked before he kissed you good-bye?”

Well, no, he didn’t, but he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, thinking, Probably his balls. I hope his balls.

Though the morning had been cool, Virgil’s aching arms and neck were covered with thin red scratches from the bales of dried alfalfa he’d been throwing; it would have been much worse if it’d been hot and he’d had to work in a T-shirt. They still hadn’t gotten in more than half the field, but Frankie’s second- and third-oldest boys, Tall Bear and Moses, would be throwing that afternoon.

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