Deep Freeze

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Class reunions: a time for memories--good, bad, and, as Virgil Flowers is about to find out, deadly--in the thrilling new novel in the #1 New York Times-bestselling series

Virgil knows the town of Trippton, Minnesota, a little too well. A few years back, with the help of a retired schoolteacher, he investigated the corrupt--and as it turned out, homicidal--local school board, and now the teacher's back with even more alarming news: Somebody is killing "her girls." Over the past year, three women from the same high school class of twenty years ago have been found dead in unusual circumstances, and now that there's a mid-winter reunion coming up, she doesn't know what might happen. Neither does Virgil, but as he wraps his coat a little tighter and begins to dig into twenty years' worth of traumas, feuds, and bad blood, one thing becomes increasingly clear to him. It's true what they say: High school is murder.

Praise

Praise for Escape Clause:

"You can't make this stuff up, but, thankfully, Sandford can. Imaginative, funny, and thoroughly engaging."--Booklist (starred review)

"An outstanding novel." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Perfect entertainment for readers whose hearts skip a beat when they worry that the hero won't be in time." --Kirkus Reviews

"The funny, smart, and always entertaining Virgil Flower is back....Some writers get better with age while others get worse. Sandford is like fine wine. The more he ages, the better he is. Escape Clause proves it." --The Huffington Post

"One of the keys to John Sandford's success as an author is his ability to take us inside the twisted psyches of his villains." --Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Excerpt

Chapter One
 
 
David Birkmann sat in his living room with an empty beer can in his hand and stared sadly at his bachelor’s oversized television, which wasn’t turned on. A light winter wind was blowing a soft, lovely snow into the storm windows. He needed to get out to plow the drive in the morning. He wasn’t thinking about that, or the winter, or the storm.
            He’d gotten away with it, he thought. That didn’t make him much happier.
            David – he thought of himself as David, rather than Big Dave, Daveareeno, Daveissimo, D-Man, Chips or Bug Boy– didn’t consider himself a killer. Not a real killer.
            He was simply accident-prone. Always had been.
            Accidents were one reason he’d been elected as Class of ’92 funniest boy, like the totally unfunny time when he hadn’t gotten the corn chips out of the vending machine in the school’s junk-food niche. He’d tried to shake the bag loose and the machine had tipped over on him, pinning him to the cold ceramic tiles of Trippton High School.
            Everybody who’d seen it had laughed – the fat boy pinned like a spider under a can of peas – even before they were sure he wasn’t injured.
            Even George Marx, the assistant principal in charge of discipline, had laughed. He had, nevertheless, given David fifteen days of detention, plus the additional unwanted nickname of Chips, a nickname that had hung on like a bad stink for twenty-five years.
            His own father had laughed after he found out that Trippton High School wouldn’t make him pay for the damage to the vending machine.
            Big Dave, Daveareeno, Daveissimo, D-Man... Bug Boy... squashed like a bug.
 
 
The latest accident had occurred that night, though David thought it was all perfectly explainable, if you understood the history and the overall situation. He knew that the cops wouldn’t buy it.
            The history:
            First, his father was the Bug Man of Trippton, the leading pest exterminator in Buchanan County. For nine months of the year, the brightly-colored Bug Man vans were seen everywhere you’d find a bug. For the other three months, in the heart of winter, even the bugs took time off.
            David had never been the most popular kid in school and because of his father’s rep, had been told to bug off or bug out when he tried to hang with the popular kids, even in elementary school. That’d become a tired thirteen-year-long joke in the trek between kindergarten and twelfth grade. He’d always laughed about it, trying to ingratiate himself with the Populars.
            He wasn’t laughing, now.
 
 
Because, second, Birkmann had fallen in love with Gina Hemming in the summer after sixth grade, when the first freshet of testosterone hit. He’d loved her all through school, and for that matter, for his entire life. How, he wondered, could that love have put him here, empty beer can in his hand, a hole in his heart?
            Hemming had been one of the Populars – too smart and arrogant to be the most popular, but right up there, with her gold locket, cashmere sweaters and low-rise fashion jeans. She had a silver ring, with a pearl, in her navel. Her father owned the largest bank in Trippton, which placed her in the local aristocracy.
            She was pretty, if not the prettiest; she had a great body, if not the greatest; and was one of two National Merit Scholars in their class, selected 1992’s girl most likely to succeed. People expected great things from her, but, in the way of many small-town girls, the great things hadn’t quite come true.
            After college, at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul, she’d gone to work in Washington, D.C., as an aide to a Minnesota congressman. There she learned that being the heiress of Trippton’s richest banker didn’t cut a whole lot of ice in the nation’s capital. Plus, in Washington, she was only in the top twenty percent of pretty, and maybe – maybe – the top twenty-five percent of good bodies. Those clipboard-carrying aides tended to spend time in the gym, and when that didn’t work, on the operating table, getting enhanced.
            After two years in Washington, she’d moved to New York, as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins, and where she needed a solid input of daddy’s money to rent a barely livable apartment on the Upper West Side. One day, she was assaulted on a subway to work, or at least that was the way she thought of it, though the guy had only pushed her, probably accidentally.
            Five years after graduation from college, she’d had been back in Trippton, working at daddy’s bank. Two years later, she married the scion of the Trippton real estate dynasty, such as it was, in a beautiful eight-bridesmaid ceremony at Trippton National Golf Club, to which David hadn’t been invited.
            With her good marriage, her father’s support, her Washington line of bullshit and New York hair styling, she’d advanced quickly enough, from loan officer to vice-president and then to President. When Daddy choked to death on an overcooked slab of roast beef, she got, at age thirty-seven, the whole enchilada.
            And at forty-two, had filed for divorce, for reasons not disclosed in the Trippton Republican-River. Rumor had it that the real estate guy, Justin Hart, had taken to wearing nylons and referring to himself as Justine. That would be fine in Washington, New York or L.A., but not so good in Trippton. There were no children.
            There she was, David’s first and truest love.
            Available.
            What did he love about her? Everything. He loved to hear her talk, he loved to hear her laugh, he loved to watch her walk, he loved the brains and the self-confidence and her whole... gestalt.
 
 
David’s own divorce had taken place two years earlier. His ex had promptly moved to Dallas – or maybe San Antonio, he got them confused – with her lover, to start over with a fresh Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. She hadn’t asked for alimony, only that David purchase her adulterous lover’s local Dunkin’ Donuts store. David had sold off the land on the old family farm, which he’d rented out anyway, to get the $250,000 he needed.
            His ex had taken the cashier’s check at a joint meeting with their attorneys, clipped it into her purse, and snarled, “I never even liked you, Bug Boy.” Then she’d looked around the faux-walnut paneling in the law office conference room and asked, “How’d I ever get stuck in this freezin’ fuckin’ mudhole? I must’ve been out of my goddamn mind.”
 
 
While all that was going on, David had inherited the Bug Man business from his father, who’d died of several different kinds of cancer. During most of his career, the old man had considered chlordane, which even smelled kinda good, to be the answer to a bug man’s prayers. Turned out, it wasn’t. Turned out it was a multi-faceted carcinogen.
            After his father’s death, David bought out a rival business that had employees trained in the elimination of pest animals – rats, skunks and squirrels, mostly, with the occasional raccoon – and had changed the company name to GetOut!
            At forty-two, he was the undisputed pest-elimination king of Trippton, as well the owner of the only local Dunkin’ Donuts. There were some in town who considered that a salubrious combination. Others were not so sure; or at least, they hoped he frequently washed his hands.
            And he was still the Bug Boy.
 
 
All of that had set up the situation that left David crying in front of a blank-screen TV.
            Gina Hemming, the rich, arrogant, divorced bank Chairwoman of the Board and President of the Second National Bank, and Class of ’92 girl most likely to succeed, and David Birkmann, financially-okay divorced owner of GetOut! and a Main Street donut shop, ’92 funniest boy.
            On that cold Thursday night in January, they met at Gina’s house with a group of Populars from the class of ’92, including the class president, homecoming king and queen, the boy and girl most likely to succeed, most athletic boy and girl and funniest boy and girl. A few of the most popular kids had left Trippton and had never returned; they’d been invited to the meeting, but had unanimously declined.
            The group that met Thursday night was to begin working out the mechanisms of the upcoming Twenty-Fifth Reunion of the Trippton High School Class of ’92 (“Go Otters.”)
 
 
One of the committee members, Ryan Harney, a physician, had looked at the faces gathered in Hemming’s living room and said, “Man – the more things change, the more the stay the same, huh?” whatever that meant, and later said, “Isn’t it weird that we’re all still here after twenty-five years?”
            Nobody seemed to know what that meant, either. Where else would they be?
            The committee sorted through the usual bullshit and passed out assignments: Lucy Cheever, the homecoming queen, now owner of a Chevrolet dealership, agreed to have her computer assistant track down members of the class to get addresses, emails and cell phone numbers; Gina would arrange to get the tent at Trippton National Golf Club for the big second evening reunion; George Brown, the most athletic boy, now owner of a bowling alley, would provide dancing and free beer at the bowling alley on the first “fun meet-up” night; Birkmann was friendly with the leader of the Dog Butt dance band, which also played softer, more romantic music as June Moon, and agreed to pick up the cost of the band for both nights. Somebody else agreed to collect home movie film and convert it to video for the “fun meet-up,” and so on.
            Around eight-thirty, the committee members started drifting away. Ten o’clock was bedtime in Trippton, if you wanted to get a good start on the next day. Birkmann, though, had other plans.
            He’d gotten ready for the night by dressing carefully, but casually: tan Dockers slacks, high-polished cordovan penny loafers, a button-down checked shirt and green boat-neck sweater, both of the latter from Nordstrom’s Rack up at the Mall of America.
            As he was leaving the house, he’d picked up his regular red company hat, but noticed that it had gotten brushed with something black and sticky; no matter, he had a box of them in a variety of colors. He picked a yellow GetOut! baseball cap sprinkled with black dots that, when you looked closely, were deer ticks. Not everybody liked them, but David thought they were cool. And the yellow coordinated nicely with the green sweater and tan Dockers.
 
 
Anyway, he’d been looking good; casual, but businesslike. When everybody but three committee members had gone, David had gotten his coat and slipped into Hemming’s kitchen and out the back door. His truck was parked in the street, with a layer of snow on the windshield.
            He had stashed a bottle of Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee in his truck, and it was now nice and cold. He’d watched the last three members depart, all in the group, saying goodbye to Hemming at the front door. When the last one was gone, he’d hustled back up the driveway and in the back door, the bottle of champagne in his hand.
            He’d had something casual and sophisticated in mind, but it had all gone bad.
 
 
Cut to the action:
            “Get away from me, you fat fuck!” Hemming screamed. She was wearing a burgundy-colored jacket and skirt, with a pale pink blouse and high heels. “You’re disgusting... you... fuckin’... Bug Boy!’”
            Hemming wasn’t satisfied with humiliating him, screaming at him and calling him a hated name, she had to go one step further. He’d spread his arms, embarrassed enough, trying to quiet her, and she’d stepped right up to him and slapped him on the side of the head, raking him with her fingernails. Really put some weight behind it.
            Stunned, he’d swung back... not really thinking.
            He’d swung with the hand that held the bottle. In the movies, if you hit somebody with a bottle of wine, the bottle broke, and the person went down, and a moment later got up, maybe with a little trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.
            When he’d hit Hemming, the bottle went CLUNK, as though he’d hit her with a pipe. The bottle hadn’t broken. Hadn’t even cracked. Hemming dropped like a head-shot deer.
            For the next couple of minutes, there was a lot of calling, pleading and shaking – “Gina, come on, I didn’t mean it, get up. Come on, Gina, get up” – but the fact was, Gina Hemming was deader than the aforesaid deer, looking up at him with blank gray eyes, half open. Gina wouldn’t be coming back until she marched in with Jesus and all the saints.
 
 
Birkmann hadn’t really thought about what to do next, since it was all unplanned. He stared at her for a while, lying crumbled on the floor, then said, “Oh my God.” He thought about calling for an ambulance, but that would get him put in jail.
            He already knew he didn’t want to go to jail – didn’t deserve it. She’d started the fight, had struck out at him. He’d not even really swung the bottle, not really, he’d tried to block another blow, he thought, and the bottle sort of bumped her.
            Deep in his heart, though, he knew he’d killed her.
            He stood there and thought about it, turned looking around the room, noticed the blond wooden railing on the stairway that came down from the second floor.
            She’d tripped and fallen, he decided.
            He swallowed back his nausea, pulled her body over to the bottom of the stairs, spent a moment arranging it. When he’d hit her, he’d literally knocked her out of her high heels. He picked them up, stylish tan pumps, carried one halfway up the stairs, left it on a step, put the other one halfway on one of her feet.
            Got close enough to notice that she still smelled good. He started to cry, tears running helplessly and hopelessly down his cheeks. He brushed them off with the sleeve of the green sweater, but gasping with grief and fear and loathing, thought, what else?
            Nothing else. Nothing more he could do. Wait: fingerprints on the back door...
 
 
Two minutes later, he was out the back door again, having carefully wiped the door knob with a paper towel from the kitchen. He walked out to the van, settled into the seat, ran his hand through his hair... and it came away sticky with blood.
            She’d cut him when she hit him, raked him with her fingernails. He still had the paper towel in his hand and he used it to wipe his hair. More blood, but drying. He ran his fingers through his hair, found the cuts, two of them, a quarter-inch apart. Raw and stinging, now, but not bleeding much.
            Because of his jobs, he kept a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in the door pocket. He poured some of it on the paper towel and used it to clean up his hair as best he could. When he was done, he touched the cuts again, and came back with faint specks of red on his fingertips. Done bleeding, he thought.
            A car went by, and he turned his face away from the headlights.
            In another minute, he was driving out Maple, his mind churning. David knew his CSI shows: if the cops brought in somebody to check the DNA, they’d find his all over the place. And why not? He’d been at the meeting. He’d hugged Gina when he arrived. Well, he hadn’t, actually, but others had, and nobody would have noticed that he hadn’t. He was cool on the DNA.
            At the intersection of Maple and Main, he stopped and looked both ways. To the south he saw the glittery lights of Club Gold. He almost froze at that point; almost fled home, to bury his... what? Angst?
            He didn’t do that. He touched his hair again and this time, his fingertips came back clean. After a moment, he drove down to Club Gold, parked in back and walked over to the back door. The men’s room was there and he went inside. He looked at his hair in the mirror. The cuts were invisible. He peed, zipped up, turned on the sink water and waited.
            None of it was thought out: he was acting purely on instinct, and from information gleaned from the CSI shows.
            He waited some more, and after two or three minutes, heard cowboy boots coming down the hall. Here came a witness. He punched the soap dispenser and began washing his hands. Five seconds later, a guy named Cary Lowe bumped through the door, said, “Hey, Big Dave, how they hangin’?” and eased up to the urinal.
            “Free and easy,” Birkmann said, as he rinsed his hands and then dried them beneath a hot-air blower.
            As Lowe continued to pee, he asked, over the roar of the hot-air blower, “You singin’ tonight?”
            “Does the Pope shit in the woods?”
            “Good luck, then,” Lowe said. “You do have the voice, my man.”
            Karaoke every Thursday night at Club Gold. Karaoke, and a gold-plated alibi.
            Birkmann finished drying his hands, pushed out into the hallway, hung his parka on a coat peg and ambled out to the main room. He got a beer, signed up to sing. Twenty minutes later, Bob Hart said, “You’ve seen him before, you’ve heard him before, you’ve loved him before: You know what’s coming up now, folks. Here’s Big D, Daveareeno, Daveissimo, the Bug Boy, with Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman.’”
            David did a decent “Pretty Woman” and got a respectable round of applause from the... witnesses... and when he was off the stage, went and had another beer or two. He talked to lots of people, because everybody knew Bug Boy.
            Then he went home, sobbing against the steering wheel of his van. And at one o’clock in the morning, with a storm coming in, he sat in the living room armchair and drank a last beer of the night, staring at the blank screen on the television.
            Right into to those dead gray eyes.
            Dead. Gray. Eyes.

Chapter Two
 
 
Ben Potter was an old guy, unshaven half the time, occasionally walked around with his fly unzipped, smelling of fried eggs and something fishy – sardines? Mumbled to himself. His eyes were too pale, wandering and watery, half buried in the flesh of his eyelids. He was always heavily bundled against the winter cold, a tanker cap askew on his head, fleece ear flaps hanging loose. He’d inherited the cap from his older brother, now dead, who’d gotten it the ugly way, in Korea, during the war.
            Potter was pushing eighty, but got around all right on his two artificial hips. People paid no attention to him, except to say, “Hey, Ben,” or “Mr. Potter, how’s things?”
            Nobody really wanted to hear how things were.
            Potter didn’t have many years left, and he’d spend them alone.
            On Saturday afternoon, Potter collected his fishing gear and headed out to the sewage plant. The plant was on the river south of Trippton and he’d been told any number of times that the water coming out of the effluent canal was clean enough to drink.
            He was willing to believe that insofar as catfishing was concerned. He stopped at the Piggly Wiggly for a tub of chicken livers, to use as bait, and then drove out to the plant.
            There’d been a heavy snowstorm on Thursday night, followed by light but persistent snow all day Friday and Saturday morning. The sewage plant’s parking lot had been plowed clean, as he’d hoped, and he parked near the gate. He got his gear out of the back of the truck, pulled on his Sorels, insulated overalls and a parka. Years before, he’d epoxied a cheap thermometer to the back hatch of his camper. He peered at it now: five degrees above zero. He went back into the truck, found a face mask and stuck it in his pocket in case it got really cold.
            Headed down-river, a tough trek for an old guy, carrying poles in one hand, and a plastic fishing bucket, with a tackle box inside, in the other.
            There was normally a walked-in path through the snow, but he was breaking trail now. He could see where the path was, but not the individual ruts and rocks that littered it. He nearly fell twice, which he wanted to avoid at his age, because getting back up was so difficult. He took fifteen minutes to make the four hundred yards down to where the warm effluent stream cut into the river’s ice, leaving an oblong pool of open, steaming water.
            Too cold for fair-weather fishermen: Potter was by himself. Workers at the local tree service, who liked to fish, had set up a dozen cut-off cottonwood stumps around the outflow as chairs. Potter brushed the snow off one of them and sat down, to bait his hooks.
            That’s when he noticed the burgundy-colored cloth floating slowly in a wide circle around the open water. The cloth caught the eye, because... it was the size and shape of a body.
            A body?
            He kept looking, but the shape was partly submerged and what he could see was mostly bumps of fabric, pink against the black water. Was that a sleeve?
            Potter watched for a minute, then looked around. No help nearby. He hadn’t expected any, but he looked anyway. A body?
            He swallowed once or twice, then opened his tackle box and found a treble-hooked bucktail. He clipped it on, hands trembling with cold and foreboding, cast and watched the bucktail fall in the open water on the other side of the whatever-it-was. He reeled in carefully until the bucktail hit it. He set the hook and towed the thing over to his shore. There was weight to it; a lot of weight.
            The closer it got, the more it looked like a body.
            He got it right up to the narrow rim of ice around the open area, reached out with a bare hand, caught a bare foot, and dragged the body up on the rim of ice.
            “Oh, jeez,” he muttered. He was afraid, literally shaking in his boots, his hands trembling so violently that he dropped his fishing rod. He rolled the body over, to look at the face.
            His hook had gone into the woman’s cheek, a couple inches below her eye. He didn’t try to remove it. He simply gawked...
            Then, “Gina Hemming? Gina Hemming?”
            Horrified, he turned and shouted into the winter’s silence, “Help! Help me!”
            No response. There wouldn’t be one, he knew. He stepped away from the body, couldn’t help looking back, and then again, and then again, as he broke into a slow, stumbling old-man’s run back to the sewage plant...

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