Home > Righteous Prey (Lucas Davenport #32)

Righteous Prey (Lucas Davenport #32)
Author: John Sandford

 


ONE


   Bitcoin billionaire, amateur art historian, onetime farm boy George Sonnewell sat on a concrete abutment in a sour-milk-smelling alley near Union Square in San Francisco, the cement rough against his jean-clad butt.

   The night was chilly, a good excuse for the long-sleeved work shirt and nylon Air Force jacket, heavy jeans, and boots, although a neutral observer might have been puzzled by the translucent vinyl gloves he wore on his hands.

   The clothing had been worn only this once, the better to minimize the transfer of DNA to a murder victim.

   And he waited, a predator in plaid.

   Overhead, between the buildings, he could see exactly one star, surrounded by roiling purple nighttime clouds that reflected the kaleidoscope of city lights back to earth. Though he rarely used alcohol, Sonnewell had three-fourths of a jug of Burnett’s peach vodka by his hip.

   Bait.

   His hands trembled. Nerves, he thought. He was scared, but he was going for it.

   And here came Duck Wiggins, right on schedule, down the alley that he considered his alley. He spotted Sonnewell and the jug. Wiggins was a battered man, his face a collection of fleshly crevasses, eroded by his years on the street. His beard might almost have been mistaken for religious expression, so twisted and solid with filth it was.

   Wiggins said, “Hey! This is my street, bitch!” and a moment later, “Whatchagot there?”

   Sonnewell, matching the aggression: “What the fuck is it to you?”

   “Gimme a taste.”

   “Why should I?”

   Wiggins: “Give me a taste and I’ll blow you. Later.” He was lying. He was the top of the food chain, not this dweeb sitting on the wall like Humpty Dumpty.

   Sonnewell pretended to think about it: “Bite me and I’ll kill you.”

   “I don’t bite.”

   Sonnewell pretended to think about it some more: “Okay.”

   They sat together, a yard apart on the abutment, silent except for the steady gurgling of the vodka—Wiggins got on it and never let up. It occurred to him at one point that the other man was neither drinking nor complaining, but if he wasn’t complaining, then Wiggins wasn’t complaining.

   Sonnewell turned as if to say something, but instead cocked his arm and struck Wiggins at the base of the skull with a scything forearm blow, knocking the other man off the wall, facedown in the alley. The bottle fell backward, still on the wall, but didn’t break.

   As Wiggins hit the ground, Sonnewell dropped all his two hundred and twenty pounds on his back. Too drunk to fight, Wiggins tried to push up and then to roll, but the other man forced him down to the broken concrete.

   Wiggins, face to the side, mumbling into the dirt: “Wha . . . t’ . . . fuck?”

   Sonnewell pulled a short hard-finished nylon rope from his hip pocket. The ends of the rope were knotted around four-inch lengths of dowel, like an old-fashioned lawnmower starter rope, the better to grip it. He dragged the rope past Wiggins’ forehead, nose, lips, and chin to his neck, and pulled on the dowels for a long three minutes as Wiggins thrashed and kicked and pounded the concrete with his fists.

   Sonnewell cursed and looked up and down the alley as he rode the other man, fearing a witness, but he’d chosen the kill site carefully and there were no other eyes. The alcohol was too much for Wiggins to overcome; Sonnewell won in the end.

   When he was sure Wiggins was dead, Sonnewell untangled the rope from his victim’s neck, put it back in his hip pocket, looked up and down the alley. Then he crossed Wiggins’ feet and turned them, rolling the dead man onto his back.

   Wiggins’ forehead was wet with sweat and maybe vodka, and air burped from his lungs, creating a stench compounded of alcohol and old meat. Sonnewell took a black Sharpie from his shirt pocket and wrote a careful “1” on Wiggins’ forehead. He retraced the “1” three times, to make sure it was perfectly clear. When he was satisfied, he stood, looked both ways, and left Wiggins as he lay.

   Sonnewell was a half mile from his car and it was dark, and the San Francisco streets were mean. He touched his hip, where he’d tucked a compact nine-millimeter handgun. He was not to be fucked with, not on this night. Before he left the alley, he pulled on a dark blue Covid mask; he shouldn’t get close enough to anyone to get Covid, but it was a useful disguise.

   As he walked back to his car, he passed a row of tents inhabited by homeless people. He left the remains of the vodka there, next to a tattered plastic POW flag planted in a bucket of dirt.

   When he got to his Mercedes SUV, unharmed, he locked himself inside, took out a burner phone, and called a memorized number. The phone call was answered by a woman. Her name was Vivian Zhao. She lived somewhere in Southern California, but he wasn’t sure where. One thing he did know for sure: she was crazier than a shithouse mouse, and smart.

   “How did it go?” she asked.

   “Done. Alley near Union Square. As we discussed.”

   “You’re my hero,” she said. “Don’t forget to throw the phone away. And your rope.”

   She hung up.

   On the way out of town—Sonnewell lived south down the peninsula, in Palo Alto—he asked himself how he felt about killing a man. He was interested, but not surprised, to find that he was now genuinely frightened.

   He would be frightened for a while, he thought. Accompanying the fear was an unfamiliar and growing exhilaration.

   Sonnewell had grown up on a Central Valley corn farm, one of the four abused children of a hard-faced descendant of Okies who’d actually made it in California. His father believed, as his parents and grandparents had, in the fist and the razor strop. Sonnewell, his two brothers and his sister, lying on the banks of a local creek, had talked of killing the old man. They’d never done it, or even tried, though the talk had been serious.

   Through strange and unrepeatable circumstances, Sonnewell had once invested fifty thousand dollars in a thing called Bitcoin. When he’d sold out, with Bitcoin at $46,000 per coin, he was a billionaire. He’d ripped off ten million dollars for each for his siblings and they unanimously told their father that he and his farm could go fuck themselves.

   Yet, in his heart, Sonnewell was still an American farm boy, and believed in an America he saw dissolving around him. Half the people in the Central Valley couldn’t speak English; the crazies who ran the California government had jacked taxes so high that ordinary hardworking people could hardly make it without abasing themselves before the assholes in the statehouse. The assholes who stood by as the great coastal cities of California were swarmed under by the unclean, the unhealthy, the addicted, the grasping.

   Like Duck Wiggins.

   The product of beatings since he was a toddler, Sonnewell was not quite right in the head.

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