When a woman from a community where he exposed school-board corruption years earlier is found dead, Virgil Flowers identifies clues linking the case to a 20-year high school reunion and its related traumas, dramas and rivalries. By the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Prey series.
John Sandford is the pseudonym for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp. He is the author of twenty-seven Prey novels, most recently Golden Prey; four Kidd novels, ten Virgil Flowers novels, and six other books, including three YA novels co-authored with his wife Michele Cook.
*Starred Review* Gina Hemming, the best-looking girl in Trippton, Minnesota's Class of '92, is rich and arrogant, thanks both to her beauty but also to inheriting the local bank from her father. On a cold January night, she gathers a group of classmates at her home to plan their twenty-fifth high-school anniversary. Among the attendees is David Brinkmann, the class clown. David had carried a torch for Gina since the summer after sixth grade. Now that he and Gina were both divorced . . . well, that plan went to hell in no time. Gina is found dead floating in the river, and Virgil Flowers from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is assigned the case. Virgil has worked another case in Trippton and reconnects with his old pal Johnson Johnson (not a typo), who becomes Virgil's unofficial assistant. There's also a parallel plot in which some unknown citizens are turning Ken and Barbie dolls into sex toys. The tenth Flowers novel is a knowing portrait of small-town life layered into a very well plotted mystery. Virgil understands that, in small towns, no one ever outgrows high school, and he uses that knowledge to unravel both mysteries by dissecting the relationships and economic realities in the town. One of the very best novels in a superior series. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.
Virgil Flowers, of Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, works an altogether unremarkable murder and a surprisingly inventive case on the side.The night before Gina Hemming is fished from a frozen river, someone bashes her in the head with a champagne bottle shortly after a meeting of the committee to organize her 25th high school reunion. Since Gina holds the power of the purse over virtually everyone in Trippton—she inherited the town's bank on her father's death—and the bruises on her body suggest habitual S&M play, there are lots of suspects, from Lucy and Elroy Cheever, whose business loan application she was about to deny, to heavy-equipment operator Corbel Cain, her sometime lover, to Fred Fitzgerald, who recently purchased a whip from Bernie's Books, Candles 'n More. But none of them murdered Gina; the opening chapter shows lovelorn exterminator David Birkmann, who's been carrying a torch for her since their school days, killing her when she ind icates in the most direct way possible that she doesn't return his interest. The investigation is every bit as routine as it sounds, and it's nice for Virgil that Sandford has thrown in an unrelated complication: the arrival of LA gumshoe Margaret Griffin, who's gotten the Minnesota governor's support in serving a federal cease and desist order against Virgil's classmate Jesse McGovern, who's been doing a brisk mail-order business hawking her X-rated creations, Barbie O and Boner Ken. On second thought—since the Barbie knockoffs get Virgil beaten up by four oversized females and his truck burned to the ground—it may be less nice for Virgil than for his fan base. As so often in Sandford's small-town adventures (Escape Clause, 2016, etc.), the greatest pleasures here are incidental: clipped conversations, quietly loopy humor, locals mouthing off to and about each other. Pull up a seat, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy. Copyright Kirkus 2017 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
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.
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.
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...