Golden Prey – John Sandford

GARVIN POOLE slipped out of bed, got his lighter off the fireplace mantel, and walked in his underwear through the dark house to the kitchen, where he took a joint out of a sugar jar, then continued to the garden door. He opened it as quietly as he could, but it chimed once, not an alarm so much as a notification. He stepped out onto the patio and continued along the flagstone walk to his work shed. Poole was an inch shy of six feet, with the broad shoulders and big hands of a high school wrestler, which he’d never been, and now, a hint of a hard beer gut. He still had thick reddish-brown hair over blue eyes and used a beard trimmer for the three-day look. Women liked him: he couldn’t go to Whole Foods without picking up a conversation. The flagstones underfoot were cool but dry; not much rain this year. The moon was up high and bright over the garden wall, and he could hear, faintly, from well off in the distance, the stuttering midnight sound of Rihanna singing “Work.” He opened the shed door, turned on the light, sat down in the office chair, fired up the joint, and looked at the guitar he was building. He’d been sitting there for a half minute or so when Dora Box said, “Gar?” She stepped through the open door, buck naked, the way she slept. “Whatcha doin’?” He said, “Come on, sit down.” She sat in a wooden chair and didn’t cross her legs and he took a long look and then said, “I’m going back to work. One time.” “Oh, boy.” Now she crossed her legs.

Box had a hard time getting through the day without being rubbed or squeezed, but business was business. “It might have been a mistake, coming here,” he said, waving the joint at the workshop. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, for the last month or so. I like it, but we should have left the country. Gotten out completely.” “There’s no other place you like that we could go,” Box said. “Costa Rica was supposed to be the best, but you thought it sucked. Snakes. Oh, God, snakes. Anyway, you don’t even like most of the States, Gar.

Where’d we go that we’d like?” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Someplace crookeder than here.” “You know a place crookeder than Dallas?” “Sure. There are places in this world where you can pay the cops to kill people for you,” he said. His voice squeaked as he simultaneously tried to talk and to hold the smoke in his lungs. “Where you can do anything you want.” “You wouldn’t want to live in those places. What brought this on?” Poole took a drag on the joint and said, “I put ten years of money into gold, and now I go around trying to cash the gold out and there aren’t enough places to do that, not inside a day’s drive. Every time I cash a coin, the guys are giving me looks, you know? I’ve been back too many times.

They know what I’m doing, that I’m cashing out hot money. They don’t say anything, but they know.” “We could drive somewhere else,” Box suggested. “Oklahoma City, Houston . ” “Basically the same problem. People looking at you, remembering you,” Poole said. Silence for a while, then Box said, “I thought the gold was smart.” “I did, too, back at the start. The cops were tearing up everything south of Kentucky, looking for me, and gold seemed . flexible.

Good anywhere. Maybe I was thinking about it too much.” They’d had variations of the talk before. Gold coins were anonymous, portable, no serial numbers. He could get small bills for gold, it kept its value over time, and it was salable almost anywhere. He hadn’t seen the problem with being looked at and remembered. “I didn’t see that coming, cashing out month after month. We need ten thousand a month to keep our heads above water, that’s nine or ten coins a month right now,” he said. “If we were in the right country, we could cash it all out at once, set up a phony company. Pretend we earned the money, give ourselves salaries, pay taxes, and maybe someday come back to the States under different names.

” “Sounds sketchy,” she said, and, “Gimme a hit.” He passed the joint, and she took a hit, held it, breathed out, bit off another one, passed it back, uncrossed her legs, and unconsciously trailed her fingers across her pussy. The soft smell of marijuana went well with the fleshy damp odor of the nighttime garden. “If you’re thinking about moving us out of the country, then why are you thinking about taking a job?” “Because I really don’t want to leave here. The job’s an alternative,” Poole said. “Tell me.” “Sturgill called. He sees an opportunity.” “How much?” “Can’t tell from a distance, but he thinks at least Two or Three. Maybe more.

Maybe a lot more.” He orally capitalized the numbers. “Two” meant two million. “Three” meant three million. Box shook her head. “That much, it’s gotta be risky.” “Sturg says it’s pretty soft.” “Sturg . Sturg always knows what he’s talking about,” Box conceded. “When would you do it?” “Either one week, or a month and a week.

The money’s there one day a month,” Poole said. “Where?” “Biloxi.” “Mmm. I like Biloxi. Like that jambalaya. Pass the joint.” He passed it over and she bit off some smoke, played it through her nose. She handed the joint back and rubbed her arms: goose bumps in the cool night. “The thing is, we’d get cash. All cash.

We could spend it without anybody looking at us or looking for us,” Poole said. “Stay here, figure out a way to move the gold. We get a couple mil out of Biloxi, we could take eight or ten years to liquidate the gold and when that’s done, we got a lifetime.” “I don’t like you going back to work, but it’s better’n moving to Russia, or some weird foreign shit like that,” Box said. She stood up and stretched: she had the body for it, too, long, lanky, lightly freckled, a dishwater blonde with small pink nipples and only a wispy trace of pubic hair. “I’m going back to bed. Don’t stay up too late.” — POOLE BOUGHT high-quality guitar parts, assembled them, then began meticulously carving and staining the surfaces, creating comic-book-like custom scenes. He’d learned woodworking at what Tennessee called, with a straight face, a Youth Development Center. Prison for kids, was what it was.

When Box was gone, he sat looking at his latest work, a bass-fishing comic being done for a pro fisherman who was also a guitar collector. It needed another two weeks; he’d have to put it aside, for now. He reached across the shed and picked up a twenty-year-old Les Paul, touched the power switch on an amp with his big toe, pulled some quiet blues out of the guitar. He liked the music, liked the woodwork, liked the smell of the lacquer. If he’d made a business of it, he figured he’d make almost half as much as an elementary school teacher. He went to Biloxi. — BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI, and the smell of the sea. Sturgill Darling was sitting at a round corner table in the oyster bar, a block off the Gulf of Mexico, amid the steam and sour stinks of both raw and cooking seafood. He looked like a slow, lazy hick, and stupid, too, with his farm-work forearms, bowl-cut brown hair, and worn, loose-cut jeans. He wore a floppy plaid shirt and yellow work boots, and sprawled back in the chair, knees locked and feet straight out in front of him, grinning at the passing crowd with teeth as yellow as his boots.

A dumbass, for sure; an ignorant peckerwood. A mistake that any number of people had made to their lasting regret. Poole took the chair beside him, held up a finger to a barmaid, and pointed at Darling’s glass and said, “Give me one of those.” When she’d gone, Darling asked, “What do you think?” Poole was wearing sunglasses over a gray-flecked-red week-old beard, and under a long-billed fishing hat, the better to defeat surveillance cameras. He’d spent most of the day scouting the scene of the would-be job. “We can do it, if it’s no more guys than you say. How in the hell did you find this?” “I knew the blow was coming in through Galveston but I couldn’t see any money going out. They’re bringing in anything up to five hundred kilos at a time, that’s, let’s see, about eleven hundred pounds, off big game fishing boats that meet with these boats from Honduras. Anyway, I found a guy in Houston who could sell me an ounce, and then I watched. Watched him, watched the guy he got his product from, and watched the guy he got his product from, and by the time I got to the end of the line, I was watching guys who could sell you a hundred kilos if you had the cash.

Then I watched them backwards, watched the wholesalers paying the money guys—the money guys never touch the dope— and watched the money guys move it to the pickup guys, who travel up and down the coast from Charleston around to Galveston, with Biloxi in the middle. Watched it come down here, to the bank.” Poole thought about that, admitted to himself that Darling had a talent that he, Poole, barely understood, the ability to uncover the footprints that could lead to a treasure; but Poole also understood that he had a talent that Darling didn’t: the will to act. Darling could uncover all the dope banks he wished, but he’d never go into a robbery as the leader, the designated shooter. That took somebody like Poole. “How do they move the dope?” Poole asked. “RV. Couple of middle-aged lesbo chicks, got some prison tats on them. They look . competent.

They got double-load tires on the truck, I believe there might be some armor on it. These girls got a look about them—I believe they’re carrying some artillery.” “Huh.” That’s the way Poole would have done it; he even liked the lesbo touch. Cops were usually too sexist and too lazy to pay much attention to a couple of chicks. And some of those goddamn dykes could take your face apart with their teeth. “But we don’t want the dope, even if we could take it,” Darling said. “We got no way to get rid of it. Not that much of it. And the dope handlers never see the cash, except at the lowest levels.

” “Just askin’. Five hundred kilos, what’s that . ” He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then said, “Twelve million, more or less, if it’s not stepped on too hard. What about the money?” “They take no chances with the money. They move it in increments. There are four bankers who travel around, meet the collectors who get the cash from the top-end retailers. The bankers and everybody else move in rental cars, I doubt they ever have as much as a quarter million in any one pickup. Then it comes together, down here, once a month. The people here bundle it and send it out on the last Sunday of the month,” Darling said. “Regular as a railroad.

Put it on a charter boat, drop it with a Honduran boat out in the Gulf. Whole operation is run by the Arce brothers, Hector and Simon, out of Puerto Cortés.” “Honduras?” “Yes. The brothers aren’t real big, not like the Mexican cartels, but they’re smart and mean. Keep their heads down and their mouths shut, nothing flashy about them. Pay off the Honduran cops and army, everybody’s cool.” Poole thought about that, in the silent, smiling, calculating way that Southerners had, and finally said, “Well. Looks like you found the honeypot, all right.” “Probably.” Darling gave Poole his lazy look.

“You sure you’re up for this? It’s been a while.” “Yup. I am.” “There’ll be one outside, three inside, they all got guns,” Darling said. “I’ve watched them for three months, always the same.” “We gunned up?” Poole asked. “Yeah. Got your favorites, bought out of Chicago brand-new, Glock 23s suppressed, loaded up with 180s. I did the reloads myself so they’ll be going out subsonic to kill some of the noise. I thought maybe .

Sam Brooks if you think we need another gun.” “Don’t need him and I don’t like him,” Poole said. “I’ll need a day to work with the guns. You got a place I can do that?” “Knew you’d ask,” Darling said. “I got a place so far out in the woods that the fuckin’ owls get lost.” The barmaid brought Poole’s beer and he thanked her and they waited until she moved away, then Poole said, “Shoot the next couple days, move Sunday night?” “Sounds good. About the cut? What do you think?” Poole grinned and tapped the beer, swallowed, and said, “I won’t argue with you.” “I’m thinking, sixty-forty, since I did all the setup,” Darling said. “Took me nine months. I started working on it way last winter.

” “Fair enough.” “Hot damn,” Darling said, with his yellow grin. “The Dixie Hicks are back in action. What’s left of them, anyway.” Poole laughed and kicked back and said, “You remember that time with Ronnie outside of Charleston . ” The Dixie Hicks had all kinds of war stories, some funny, some sad. In most of them, even the funny ones, somebody wound up dead. Like Ronnie, three Georgia state troopers hot on his ass, riding a stolen 2009, 556-horse Cadillac CTS-V down a rocky gulch in the Georgia Piedmont, rolling over and over and over until the car looked like a shiny sausage, thirty thousand dollars in bank money exploded all over the interior, along with Ronnie’s brains. Good old Ronnie. Too bad he killed himself.

— POOLE AND DARLING drove north into the trees on the following day and Poole went to work with the guns. He’d laid off for a while, but killing is like riding a bicycle: once you got it, you got it. Darling had gotten inside the counting house one dark night when the bankers weren’t there, and said they counted at a table about thirty-two feet from the door in the outer wall—he’d checked it with a tape measure. At thirty-two feet, or any shorter distance, Poole wouldn’t have to worry about where to shoot: he’d hold dead-on and pull the trigger. They set up some human-shaped paper targets out in the woods, stapled to pine trees, and Poole worked at it, getting back in the rhythm. From the first shots, he was accurate enough, but he had to work on speed. He did that, and he knew how to do it: slow at first, feeling the weapons, feeling the rounds going out, feeling the recoil. Then a little quicker and a little quicker, Darling looking at a stopwatch. Darling was almost scholarly about it: “You’re at less than half a second,” he said, holding a stopwatch. “You know better than me, but it looks like you’re still trying to be too fast.

You over-aim, then you’ve got to correct.” Poole nodded: “I can feel that.” He would shoot a box of .40s, the same stuff he’d use for the real thing, and then take a break, walk around, shake out his hands. At the end of the day, he could get off four accurate, killing shots in a little more than a fifth of a second. Good enough. — IN 2005, Hurricane Katrina went through Biloxi like an H-bomb, a thirty-foot storm surge taking out a good part of the town. North of the main harbor was mostly bare ground that once had houses. Here and there a building remained, but not in its original state; and there weren’t a lot of people around. Grace Baptist Church once had a fieldstone foundation up over head height, with a white clapboard structure above that, dating back to the 1890s.

The frame structure, if it hadn’t been atomized, was probably somewhere up in the Kentucky woods, having ridden away on Katrina’s winds like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz. The bottom of the church, the shoulder-high fieldstone foundation, remained in place, its original floor, now covered with tar paper, serving as the roof. The church, foundation and floor only, had been sold to a man who collected antique cars and needed a place to store them. When the Honduras cartel was looking for a place to put their bank, they made the car collector an offer he didn’t even think of refusing. Not that he was frightened: he was simply greedy and the offer was that good. The spot had two great benefits: there were never any cops around, because there was nothing to steal, vandalize, or hang out at, and you could walk down to your boat in five minutes. — SUNDAY NIGHT was outgoing only, with four men doing the work. For most of the evening, two of the four men would be posted at opposite corners of the former church, seated between carefully placed Limelight hydrangeas. They both were carrying guns; at least two each, Darling thought, probably high-capacity semiautos with suppressors, and were linked with radio headsets. Late in the evening, Darling said, one would go inside with the other two, while one remained outside, seated behind a bush by a door in the old church’s basement.

He thought the three were probably packing the money, after the first two had counted and bundled it. Around midnight, the outside guard would go inside, and a few minutes later they’d all walk out of the building, carrying at least one and often two suitcases each. The walk down to the waterfront took five minutes. There, they’d get on a fishing boat. Two or three minutes later, they’d be off the boat and strolling through the quiet Sunday night back to the old church building. Three of them would wait there while the fourth man went out to a black Lincoln Navigator that they’d parked behind a building a few hundred yards away. He’d pick up the other three, and they’d drive over to the Hampton Inn, where they’d stay overnight before dispersing to wherever they lived. The boat with the money would ease out of the marina in the early morning hours and disappear over the southern horizon. Darling had considered the possibility of robbing the boat, but thought the money might be inside a safe, or otherwise hard to get at; taking it could get complicated and they didn’t have the time or the organization for that. — AT TEN O’CLOCK Sunday night, Poole and Darling slipped out of an abandoned FEMA trailer where they’d spent most of the afternoon and evening, eating Subway sandwiches and drinking Smartwater and pissing in the no-longer-connected toilet at the other end of the trailer.

They were both dressed in dark clothes, but nothing unusual or too tactical—black Levi’s jeans and long-sleeved navy polo shirts. They were wearing ski masks, which weren’t often seen in Biloxi, the town being woefully short on ski slopes, and light blue surgeon’s gloves. Poole carried two pistols, Darling carried one, all suppressed, Nines for Darling, Forties for Poole. The guns, with the custom suppressors, were fourteen inches long in their hands. They were shooting wet, having sprayed water down the suppressors before screwing them back on the gun barrels, in the two minutes or so before they left the trailer. The suppressors would be even quieter wet than dry. — ONLY ONE GUARD remained outside. He was sitting behind a haggard pink rosebush adjacent to the door. They came in from the blind side of the foundation, Darling trailing as Poole led the way. At the corner, twenty feet from the access door, Poole peeked.

Because of the rosebush, he couldn’t see the guard; but neither could the guard see him. Moving with glacial slowness, he duckwalked down along the wall. Ten feet out, he could smell the other man, a smoker, but still not see him. When he was three feet out, Poole rose carefully to his feet, back against the stone wall, looked down. The guard never knew what hit him: Poole reached over the rosebush and shot him in the head, a golf-clap pop from the gun. Darling came up, quiet as Poole had been. Didn’t even glance at the dead man. Three more men inside. They needed instant control; couldn’t abide with chaos, with some crazy gunfight. Needed to get on top of the other three immediately.

Darling took the door: he breathed, “Ready?” The door would not be locked. They’d seen the guards go in and out without knocking or using keys. Poole got square to it, a gun in each hand. “Now,” Poole whispered. Darling reached one gloved hand out to the doorknob, turned it, pushed. It squeaked and then Poole was inside, both guns up. He could see the three men thirty feet away, sitting side by side at a table. They all looked up, maybe expecting to see their outside man, but all they saw was a stranger in black who said not a single word but simply opened fire. Darling was backup: Poole did the killing. Darling kicked the door shut as Poole shot each of the three men once, in a grand total of a half second, two shots from his right hand, one from his left, a little slower than he’d been on the paper targets.

A half second was almost fast enough but not quite. One of the men grabbed a Nine from the counting table and got off a single wild shot. The bullet pinched the underside of Poole’s left arm, but the man who fired it was already dead by the time Poole realized he’d been shot. He was striding toward the counting table when a young girl, maybe six years old, bolted toward the back of the building from where she’d been sitting on the floor with a golden-haired Barbie doll. She knew she wouldn’t make it, though, stopped, turned, and said, “You killed Grandpa.” “Sorry, kid,” Poole said, and shot her in the head. Darling, coming up from behind, said, the shock riding through his voice, “Fuckin’ A, Gar, did you have to do that?” “Yeah, I did. She was old enough to raise the cops,” Poole said. He felt nothing for the kid, but needed to mollify Darling. “If we tied her up, she might starve to death before somebody found her.

This was the best.” Darling stared at the Raggedy Ann body of the kid, wrapped in a white dress now spattered with blood that looked like red flowers woven into the pale fabric. “Fuckin’ A. We coulda called somebody . ” “Wake up, man! It’s done! Get the fuckin’ suitcases,” Poole said. “We gotta move! Motherfucker got lucky and hit me.” “Oh, Jesus. Bad?” “No, but I’ve got to look. Get the suitcases going.” — POOLE COULDN’T PUSH the shirtsleeve up high enough to see the wound, so he pulled the polo shirt over his head.

He found an inch-long groove on the underside of his arm; it was bleeding, but the bullet hadn’t actually penetrated. A flesh wound, as they said on the old TV Westerns. Darling was shoveling loose cash from the tabletop into a suitcase, stopping every few seconds to peer at the dead girl, as though hoping she’d show a sign of life. He brought himself back, glanced at Poole, and asked again, “How bad?” “Not bad. Need to rip up a shirt or something. Not much more than a Band-Aid job.” “We got a bunch of shirts, laying on the floor. Rip one up,” Darling said. Poole ripped a piece off the girl’s skirt, figuring that probably had the least body contact with its former owner, and was less likely to carry an infection: Poole thought of things like that, even under stress. He made a neat tie bandage out of it; it was really all he needed.

He pulled his shirt back over his head, and together he and Darling checked the take. Poole had nothing more to say except, “Holy shit.” “You got that right, brother,” Darling said. “Way more than I thought. Heavy, though. Can you carry?” “Hell, yes. It hurts, but it’s not bad.” He was wrong about carrying the money. The suitcases must have weighed forty or fifty pounds each, about like a deep-cycle bass boat battery, and there were six of them, instead of the three or four they’d expected. He could carry one with each hand, but not run with them; the one on his shot arm dragged him down, the grazing shot now burning like fire.

Darling, carrying four suitcases, one in each hand and one bundled under each armpit, hurried ahead and kept hissing back, “C’mon, c’mon.” The stolen truck was two hundred yards away. Darling loaded his suitcases and ran back to Poole, grabbed the suitcase on Poole’s bad side, and together they made it back to the truck. They drove slowly—they were professionals—out of Biloxi. They left the stolen truck at a rest area on I-10, transferring the cases to Darling’s long-bed Chevy. Darling had put a false floor in the camper and they emptied the cash through the concealed hatch, closed the hatch, and threw the suitcases on top of it. Heading west again, they stripped off the surgeon’s gloves and threw them out the windows as small rubber balls. The ski masks went after them, one at a time, miles apart. Twenty miles farther along, Darling took an exit that curled down a side road to a bridge. They threw the guns off the bridge into the narrow dark river and headed back to the interstate.

Farther up the way, they left the five suitcases sitting side by side on a sidewalk in Slidell, Louisiana, with a sign on top that said “Free.” A little more than an hour after killing the four men and the girl, they were out of Slidell, still moving west. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Poole asked, looking over at Darling, who was hunched over the steering wheel, his mouth in a fixed grimace. “I raised some girls. I can’t get that little girl out of my head,” Darling said. “C’mon, man. What difference does the age make? She’s just another witness.” “I know, I know. Just . skizzed me out, man.

I . keep seeing her. I’ll be okay.” Poole peered at him for a minute, then said, “Think about it this way—it’s done. Can’t be undone. It’s history.” — THEY STOPPED at a twenty-four-hour Walmart Supercenter in Baton Rouge, off to one side of the parking lot, between two other pickups, climbed into the back of the truck, and dug the money out from under the false floor. Most of it was in hundreds, well used and a little greasy, bundled into bricks of ten thousand dollars each. There was also a pile of loose money that Darling had scraped off the counting table. They counted out a few bundles, agreed that they were ten thousand dollars each, despite varying in size depending on the value of the individual bills in each bundle.

They counted the bundles. There were seven hundred and eighty of them. “Seven million, eight hundred thousand,” Darling breathed. “Man, those greasers are gonna be pissed when they hear about this.” “Fuck ’em,” Poole said, and he laughed aloud. Darling sat back on the truck floor and said, “Tell you what, man. Forget the sixty-forty. I never thought we’d get this much. Let’s cut it fifty-fifty and I’ll keep the loose change. Can’t be more than a couple hundred thousand there.

” “You are a fine and honorable man,” Poole said. “Let’s do it.” He held up a fist and Darling bumped it and they split up the money. — BOX WAS at a Baton Rouge Marriott. When the counting was done and the money repacked in two canvas duffel bags, Poole called her. “All done,” he said. “I been up for three hours, nervouser than a nun at a penguin shoot,” she said. “Where you at?” “Right where we’re supposed to be,” Poole said. “You do good?” she asked. “Better’n that,” Poole said.

“Ten minutes,” she said. She was twelve minutes. Darling went on his way, and five hours later, Poole and Box had cut I20 west of Shreveport and rolled across the Texas border on the way back home to Dallas, listening to Paul Thorn singing “Bull Mountain Bridge” on the Sirius satellite radio. A ton of money in the back. Money, Poole thought, that would last his entire life.

.

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