Holy Ghost – John Sandford

Wardell Holland, the mayor of Wheatfield, Minnesota, was sitting in the double-wide he rented from his mother, a Daisy Match Grade pellet rifle in his hands, shooting flies. His mother suspected he let the flies in on purpose so he could shoot at them. He denied it, but he was lying. He was tracking a bull-sized bluebottle when the doorbell croaked. Like most other things in the place, there was something not quite right with it, but not quite wrong enough to fix. In this case, the bell probably indicated that the beer had arrived. The kid had taken his own sweet time about it; school had been out for an hour. “Come in,” Holland shouted. The fly tracked out of the bedroom and lazily circled through the living room and toward the kitchen. He picked it up with the sight, and the kid outside yelled, “Don’t go shooting—” POP! A clear miss. The fly juked as the pellet whipped past, then circled around the sink and out of sight. The pellet ricocheted once and stuck in the fiberboard closet door by the entrance. “Hey! Hey! You crazy fuckin’ pillhead, you’re gonna put my eye out.” Holland shouted, “He’s gone, you can come in.” John Jacob Skinner edged through the door, keeping an eye on Holland, who was sprawled on the couch, his prosthetic foot propped up on the arm, the rifle lying across his stomach.

Skinner, who was seventeen, said, “Goddamnit, Wardell . ” “I won’t shoot, even if I see him . though he is a trophy-sized beast.” Skinner eased into the room, carrying a six-pack of Coors Light. “You want one now or you want it in the refrigerator? They’re cold.” “Now, of course. I shoot better with a little alcohol in me.” “Right.” Skinner pulled loose two cans, tossed one to Holland, put four in the refrigerator, popped the top on the last one, and took a drink. Skinner resembled his name: he was six foot three, skinny, with long red hair that never seemed overly clean, a razor-thin face, prominent Adam’s apple, and bony shoulders and hips.

He had about a billion freckles. He’d shown a minor talent for basketball in junior high but had quit the game when he’d went to high school. He’d told friends that he needed nonschool time to think since it was impossible to think when he was actually in school. The coach had asked, “Now, what in the Sam Hill do you want to think for, Skinner? Where’s that gonna get you?” He didn’t know the answer to that question, but he did know that being the second man on the lowest level, the 1-A Border Conference would get him nowhere at all. He’d thought at least that far ahead. “One of these days,” Skinner said to Holland, “you’re gonna catch a ricochet in the dick. Then what? Army gonna give you a wooden cock?” “Shut up,” Holland said. — Holland had been elected mayor as a gag played by the voters of Wheatfield on the town’s stuffed shirts. What made it even funnier was that after an unsuccessful first term, Holland was reelected in a landslide. He’d run for office on a variety of slogans his minions had spray-painted on walls around town: “No More Bullshit: We’re Fucked,” “Beer Sales on Sunday,” “I’ll Do What I Can.

” All of which outshone his opponent’s “A Bright Future for Wheatfield,” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” This, in a town whose population had fallen from 829 in 2000 to 721 in the last census, and now probably hovered around 650, leaving behind twenty or thirty empty houses and a bunch of empty apartments over the downtown stores. Half the stores were themselves shuttered, and some had been simply abandoned by their owners, eventually—and pointlessly—taken by the county due to lack of property tax payments. This, in a town where fifteen years earlier the city council had purchased in a corrupt deal from the then mayor a forty-acre tract on the edge of town. The town had run water and an electric cable out to it, and advertised it on a lonely I-90 billboard as the “Wheatfield Industrial Park.” In fifteen years, it had not attracted a single business, and, in the estimation of voters, never would. Therefore, Holland. Holland, a former first lieutenant in the Army, had lost a foot in Afghanistan and lived on a military disability pension, which, in Wheatfield, was good enough. He’d refused the thirty-dollarsper-meeting mayor’s salary, and had rented out the industrial park to a local corn farmer, so the forty acres was finally producing a bit of money. Sixty-eight hundred dollars a year, to be exact.

When he was feeling industrious, Holland would limp around town with a Weedwacker, trimming grass and brush from around stop signs, fire hydrants, and drainage ditches. Once a month or so, he’d run the town’s riding lawn mower around the local park and Little League ball field, which was more than any other mayor had done. None of that took too long in a metropolis of 650 souls. Skinner asked Holland, “Remember how you said you were gonna do what you can for the town? When you were elected?” “I was deeply sincere,” Holland said, insincerely. “I know.” Skinner dragged a chair around from the breakfast bar, straddled it backwards, facing Holland on the couch, and said, “I was walking by the Catholic church last night.” “Good,” Holland said. And, “Why don’t you open the door and let a couple more flies in? I’m running out of game, and that big bastard’s hiding.” “There was some Mexicans coming out of the church,” Skinner continued. “They’re meeting there on Wednesday nights.

Praying and shit.” “I know that,” Holland said. He was distracted as the bull bluebottle hove into view. He lifted the rifle. Skinner said, “Honest to God, Holland, you shoot that rifle, I’m gonna take this fuckin’ can of beer and I’m gonna sink it in your fuckin’ forehead. Put that rifle down and listen to what I’m saying.” The fly reversed itself and disappeared, and Holland took the rifle down. “You were walking by the Catholic church . ” The church had been all but abandoned by the archdiocese. Not enough Catholics to keep it going and not enough local hippies to buy it as a dance studio or enough prostitutes to buy it as a massage parlor.

There was a packing plant forty miles down the Interstate, though, with lots of Mexican workers, and the housing was cheap enough in Wheatfield that it had lately attracted two dozen of the larger Mexican families. The diocese had given a key to the church to a representative of the Wheatfield Mexicans, who were doing a bit to maintain it and to pay the liability insurance. Every once in a while, a Spanishspeaking priest from Minneapolis would drop by to say a Mass. Skinner: “I got to thinking . ” “Man, that always makes me nervous,” Holland said. “Know what I’m saying?” “What I thought of was, how to make Wheatfield the busiest town on the prairie. Big money for everybody. For a long time. We could get a cut ourselves, if we could buy out Henry Morganstat. Could we get a mortgage, you think?” Holland sighed.

“I got no idea how a seventeen-year-old high school kid could be so full of shit as you are. A hundred and sixty pounds of shit in a twelve-pound bag. So tell me, then finish your beer and go away and leave me with my fly.” Skinner told him. — Holland had nothing to say for a long time. He just stared across the space between them. Then he finally said, “Jesus Christ, that could work, J.J. You say it’d cost six hundred dollars? I mean, I got six hundred dollars. I’d have to look some stuff up on the internet.

And that thing about buying out Henry . I think he’d take twenty grand for the place. I got the GI Bill and my mother would probably loan me enough for the rest—at nine percent, the miserable bitch—but . Jesus Christ . ” “I’d want a piece of the action,” Skinner said. “Well, of course. You came up with the idea, I’ll come up with the money. We go fifty-fifty,” Holland said. “That’s good. I’d hate to get everything in place and then have to blackmail you for my share,” Skinner said.

Holland’s eyes narrowed: “We gotta talk to some guys . ” Skinner said, “We can’t talk to any guys. This is you and me . If we . ” He realized that Holland’s eyes were tracking past him and he turned and saw the fly headed back to the kitchen. “Goddamnit, Holland, look at me. We’re talking here about saving the town. Making big money, too.” Holland said, “We’ll have to tell at least one more person. We need a woman.

” Skinner scratched his nose. “Yeah, I thought of that. There’s Jennie. She can keep her mouth shut.” “You still nailin’ her?” “From time to time, yeah, when Larry isn’t around.” “You know, you’re gonna knock her up sooner or later,” Holland said. “She’s ripe as a plum, and I’d guess her baby clock is about to go off. What is she anyway, thirty-three? When that red-haired bun pops outta the oven, you best be on a Greyhound to Hawaii.” “Yeah, yeah, maybe, but she’d do this, and she’d be perfect. Who else would we get anyway?” “I dunno, I .

” The fly tracked around the room again, and Holland said, “Shhhh . he’s gonna land.” He lifted the rifle and pointed it over Skinner’s shoulder toward the sink. Skinner lurched forward onto the floor to get down and out of the way as Holland pulled the trigger. The fly disappeared in a puff of guts and broken wings. Holland looked down at Skinner and whispered, “Got him. It’s like . It’s like some kinda sign.” 2 Five months later, Mayor Wardell Holland told Virgil Flowers that there weren’t any available motel rooms in Wheatfield, and not even over in Blue Earth, down I-90. He’d checked.

“Your best bet is Mankato. It’s an hour away.” “I live in Mankato,” Virgil said. “That’s my best shot?” “Well, we’ve only got one operating motel, the Tarweveld Inn. It’s booked solid five months out, with a waiting list. There’s a Motel 6 coming online in a couple of months, but that won’t help. You need to get down here. And, I mean, right now. Today!” “I didn’t know things were that tight,” Virgil said. “I can do it, but it’ll be a pain in the ass driving back and forth every day.

” “Okay, had a thought,” Holland said. “Let me make a call—gimme ten minutes.” Virgil hung up, dropped the phone in his pocket, dragged a spoon through the pot of Cream of Wheat on the stove, and shouted, “It’s ready.” At his knee, Honus, the yellow dog, looked up anxiously, always worried that he wouldn’t get his fair share, although he always did. A moment later, Frankie Nobles eased into the kitchen, barefoot, wearing a pink quilted housecoat straight out of Target. She was a short, blond woman, busty, with a slender waist, and normally rosycheeked. On this morning, her face was a greenish white, and she had one hand on her stomach. “Why don’t I remember these parts? Five kids, and I never remember.” Morning sickness. She burped, grimaced.

“Bad?” She thought for a second, said, “About a four on a scale of one to ten. That’s not too bad. When I get to a seven, you’ll know it.” Virgil was spooning the Cream of Wheat into a bowl. “Tell me when.” “Keep going,” she said, “I’m starving. At least I can keep that stuff down.” All three of them—Virgil, Frankie, and Honus the yellow dog—were eating Cream of Wheat, and two of them were reading different pieces of the Free Press, when Holland called back. “Okay, I got you a place. Mother-in-law apartment, the local hairdresser and her husband.

Nice folks. Separate entrance, and you get a refrigerator and a microwave. Fifty bucks a day. Extra ten for housekeeping, if you want it.” “Aw, jeez, I dunno,” Virgil said. “What happened to the mother-in-law?” “Dead. Choked to death on one of those vegan fake-meat burgers. That was a few years back. And listen, this place isn’t exactly what you might think—it’s not a dump in the basement. They fixed it up nice, been renting it out to pilgrims.

I’ve seen it. The only reason it’s available is, Roy’s picky about who they rent it to.” “All right, I’ll take it,” Virgil said. “I’ll be there by noon. Where will I find you?” “I run the local store,” the mayor said. “We’re a block north of downtown, across from the Catholic church. Skinner and Holland, Eats and Souvenirs. You can’t miss it.” — When will you be back?” Frankie asked when Virgil got off the phone. “Any time you need me—it’s only an hour from here,” Virgil said.

“With lights and siren, fifty minutes max.” “I’ll be out at the farm, the boys can take care of me,” she said. They were sitting in Virgil’s kitchen, the May sunlight streaming through the window over the sink, a pretty Sunday morning in Mankato. Less than a month away from summer and the longest day of the year, the spring so far had been cool and generously wet without being offensive, and through the window they could see the pink blossoms on the neighbor’s apple tree. “It’ll be a nice drive down there. You be careful. I always worry when you’re dealing with a nut.” “We don’t know he’s a nut,” Virgil said. “Or she. Could be a woman.

” “Not likely. When was the last time you heard of a random sniper who was female?” “Don’t even know he’s a sniper,” Virgil said. “There might be a motive that ties the two shootings together. That would make him a shooter but not a random sniper.” “You just said ‘he’ and ‘him,’” Frankie pointed out. “That’s because you’re right,” Virgil said. “It’s a guy.” — Frankie went to shower and get dressed while Virgil got his traveling gear together, which, as usual, bummed out Honus. Honus was a dog of no specific breed, although there had to be some Labrador DNA in the mix: he loved to go out to the swimming hole. That wouldn’t happen for another few weeks, as the water coming out of the spring uphill from the hole was essentially liquid ice.

Virgil gave him a scratch, then roughed up his head. He was getting neurotic about the dog, which the dog took advantage of. Frankie never made him feel bad about going out on a case, and she loved to hear about them afterwards. Honus, on the other hand, always acted like this was it: Virgil was ditching him, never to play baseball again. The dog could chase down grounders forever. — Virgil was a tall man, thin, athletic, with longish blond hair and an easy smile. He was wearing a “got mule?” T-shirt, purchased in the parking lot at a Gov’t Mule show a year earlier in Des Moines, an inky-blue corduroy sport coat, and bootcut blue jeans over cordovan cowboy boots. As an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, he should have been wearing a suit with a blue or white oxford cloth shirt, a dull but coordinated nylon necktie, and high-polished black wingtips. What the BCA didn’t know, he figured, couldn’t hurt him. Since he’d be close to home, he packed only one extra pair of jeans, with five days’ worth of everything else.

To the clothing, he added a pump shotgun and a box of shells. A Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol went in his Tahoe’s gun safe with two extra magazines. If he needed more than fifty-one shots at somebody, he deserved to die. When he was packed, he considered the boat. He rarely went anywhere in Minnesota without towing the boat in case an emergency fishing opportunity should jump out in front of him. This time, though, he decided to leave it. There wasn’t fishable water anywhere near Wheatfield, unless you liked carp and bullheads. And he was only an hour from home, so, if he needed to, he could always come and get the boat. Frankie reappeared to kiss him good-bye and give him a few more minutes of essential advice: “Don’t get shot. With your rug rat chewing on my ankles, I’m gonna need your help.

” “I’ll be back for the ultrasound, even if I haven’t gotten anywhere on the shooting.” “Better be,” she said. The ultrasound was scheduled for the following week. Virgil rubbed his chin on Honus the yellow dog’s forehead and then he was on his way, turning south down Highway 169 and out of town. — Virgil had passed through Wheatfield a couple of times but had never stopped. He knew little about the place, other than what he’d read in the newspaper stories, of which there had been many in the past few months. It had been settled by Dutch pioneers in the nineteenth century, who gave the town the name Tarweveld, which means “wheatfield.” The Dutch were followed by a bunch of Bavarians, then finally the Irish, few of whom could pronounce the town’s name. By 1900, even the Americanized inhabitants were stumbling over it, and, in 1902, the name was officially changed to Wheatfield. But the Dutch influence remained: just about every other lawn had a miniature windmill on it, the product of a manic carpenter who loved building them and insisted on doing it.

Like a lot of prairie towns, Wheatfield had been dying. Minnesota and the surrounding states had plenty of jobs—Minnesota’s unemployment rate was three percent, and Iowa’s was even lower, down in the two’s. The problem was, the jobs were in the larger towns, the smaller towns having less and less to offer their residents, especially the younger ones. Wheatfield had reached its peak population of 1,500 as a farm service center after World War II. The Interstate had severely damaged its businesses—it was too easy to get to the larger towns—and a regional Walmart had pretty much finished them off. There was still a cafe and a gas station and a hardware store, and a couple of other businesses, but they’d been moribund as well. Not anymore, thanks be to God.

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