Masked Prey
by Sandford, John






"Lucas Davenport investigates a vitriolic blog that seems to be targeting the children of U.S. politicians in the latest thriller by #1 New York Times-bestselling author John Sandford"-





John Sandford is the pseudonym for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp. He is the author of twenty-nine Prey novels; four Kidd novels; twelve Virgil Flowers novels; three YA novels coauthored with his wife, Michele Cook; and three other books.





U.S. Marshal Lucas Davenport is home in Minnesota, recovering from a chest wound sustained in his last case, when he gets a call from a U.S. senator from Minnesota. A teenage girl, the daughter of another senator, has inadvertently come across a website that seems to be a repository of violent right-wing rhetoric and also contains current photos of school-age children of prominent congressional officeholders. There is no exhortation to violence, but the information is described as "a message in a bottle." Davenport and his team trace the site to a privacy-protected server in Sweden. The legwork follows, with the team interviewing members of the right wing in the Washington, DC, area. Some are cooperative, others aggressively resistant, but none of them connects to the site. Then a teenage boy, mistaken for the son of a senator, is killed by a sniper. Davenport, a hunter beyond all else, is on it. This entry in the phenomenally popular Prey series will engage longtime fans with its intricate plot and have new readers backtracking through the entire series. Thoroughly involving and very timely. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.





Chapter

One

Audrey Coil and Blake Winston had been sexting each other for weeks.

Winston's penis, of which Coil had seen perhaps seven or eight iPhone views in a variety of penile moods, was not clearly different than the penises of a dozen other classmates that Coil had seen, circulated through the smartphones operated by girls in their final year at The Claridge School-a school with a capital-T in "The," so it wasn't some Claridge School, it was The Claridge School, of Reston, Virginia.

And Coil suspected that images of her breasts wouldn't exactly be breaking news among selected males of The Claridge School's senior class. She was correct in that. Neither Coil nor Winston was a virgin, having dispensed with that handicap in the fifth form, known in less snotty schools as eleventh grade. They hadn't yet fully engaged with each other, but were edging toward it . . . though, not yet.

All of that was neither here nor there. Right now, Coil's main preoccupation wasn't with Winston's junk, but with his totally erect Nikon Z6 camera.

There were LED light panels to her left and right, dimmed by photo umbrellas that would kill any harsh shadows. A smaller light sat directly behind her, braced on a toilet seat, providing a rim light that gave a soft glow to her auburn hair. The camera sat on a tripod in the bathroom doorway, with Winston behind it.

Winston, who was seventeen, would someday inherit a bazillion dollars; his father ran a hedge fund with offices in Birmingham, Alabama, and Manhattan. In addition, Winston was good-looking, with dark eyes and dark hair, a square chin, and a pale, flawless complexion. He was further distinguished by the fact that he was already operating a profitable after-school business in video production.

At the moment, they were jammed into Coil's bathroom on the second floor of the Coil house in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, DC.

Coil was dressed in a pale blue translucent chemise that revealed a slice of boob but-carefully-no nipple, because of the Puritan constraints of Instagram. Coil carried the fleshy pink face and body of a post-pubescent party chick, a tease and a promise, a girl that former President Bill Clinton would have instantly accepted as an intern. The daughter of U.S. Senator Roberta J. "Bob" Coil of Georgia, she was another budding entrepreneur and ran her own blog, which was spread across a number of social media outlets. The blog was called Young'nHot'nDC.

She had four paying sponsors: Macon Cosmo, a line of girly cosmetics out of Macon, Georgia; Sandy Silks, an Atlanta lingerie manufacturer marketing to richie-rich teens and college-age women; LA Psyche, a maker of dance-influenced tops and bottoms for young women, based in Paris (Texas); and Anshiser Aerospace, a defense company that simply wanted to encourage young entrepreneurs with no thought about influencing her mother, a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Coil turned away from a lighted makeup mirror, looked into the camera lens, smiled, and said, "Honest to God, I wouldn't bullshit you girls: this line from Macon blows everything else out of the water. Why? Because the colors are gorgeous and smooth and best of all, they stay put no matter what you do to them." She stuck out a long pink tongue, nearly touched her nose with it, then drew it back over her full upper lip, gave the lens a toothy smile, and asked, "Get it?"

ÒDone,Ó Winston said. ÒWe got it.Ó

"About time," Coil said. That had been the fourth take for two minutes of video.

They went into her bedroom and Coil put on her glasses-she never wore them in public-sat cross-legged on her bed, and reviewed the video on Winston's MacBook Pro. Coil, eyes narrowed in thought, said finally, "Y-e-a-a-a-ah, I think that's got it."

"If they don't get the point from that, they won't get it at all," Winston said. He was standing behind her, looking down at the screen. "The big question is, you're showing quite a bit of titty. Is it gonna pass with Senator Mom?"

"She doesn't care what I show as long as I don't do it in blackface," Coil said. "And how come you say titty? Everybody else says tits or boobs. Titty sounds like an old man."

Winston deepened his Southern accent: "That's what you say when you're from Alabama."

"Oh, yeah," Coil said. "That whole sweet-home thing."

"Mmm. Listen, I need to clean the video up, put a credit on it," Winston said. "I'll email the file to you tonight."

Coil nodded, then frowned and said, "I've been meaning to ask you something. The other day you and Danny were talking about that photo-matching app. I was wondering if my stuff is getting around the 'net. You know, outside my own blog. Could you . . ."

"Yeah, take about twelve seconds," Winston said. He sat next to her, took the laptop, grabbed a bunch of frames from the photo shoot that showed Coil's head from different angles, including four that were almost head-on, but with varying expressions. He went to a website called Da'Guerre, dragged the photos into an open window, and pressed Return.

He handed the laptop back to Coil as it busied itself with whatever computers do. Winston stood and eased up behind Coil, who leaned the back of her head against his crotch and started slowly rubbing. In one minute, which was about two minutes too soon for Winston, the computer produced a hundred photos of young women who looked an awful lot like Coil, including six that were Coil.

"Are they all mine?" Winston asked. He leaned over her shoulder and touched the screen with a fingernail. "Wait. Not this one . . . I think that's the yearbook photo from last year. Didn't you put that up on the blog?"

"Yes-when I was bitching about how bad they make you look in yearbooks . . . but what's this?" Coil asked. She reached out at the screen, pointing at one of the photos. "That's me with Molly. We're walking out of school. Where did that come from?"

"We shot that for the blog post about the see-through yoga pants, remember? You guys were talking about seeing some fat chick's ass crack in the yoga class. It was only up for a day or two."

"Yeah, but . . . what's this link . . ."

They followed the link out to a blog called 1919, a primitive piece of work that featured candid photos of what looked like kids walking along different streets, or standing outside what appeared to be schools. A single column of type ran down the left side of the screen, which they ignored for the moment.

Winston said, "What the hell?"

"Yeah, what the hell? How'd that get over here?"

"Who are these other people?" Winston asked.

Coil tapped a different photo and said, "I know that kid. That little kid, that's Senator Cherry's daughter, that's Mrs. Cherry with her. And this one . . ."

She tapped another photo. "I don't know that kid's name, but his dad is a political big shot. Maybe in the House. I talked to him at the congressional baseball game, he was sitting with the families."

"Did you blow him?" A continuing joke; he always asked, she always temporized, as if it were a possibility.

"Not yet," she said.

"Here we go . . . here's their names . . ." Winston pointed at an awkwardly placed block of type.

Then they heard, from down below, a garage door rolling up. Coil looked up from the screen and said, ÒShit! ThatÕs Mom. Open the door a crack.Ó

She pulled off the chemise and Winston took a few seconds to appreciate her breasts as he was opening the bedroom door. They disappeared as she pulled a black T-shirt over her head, tucked it into her jeans, and said, "Go on over and start taking down the lights. Don't take them all down until she comes in. Let her see you doing it, packing up. Try to do something about your hard-on."

She checked herself for propriety. Then, when they heard a door open at the other end of the house, she shouted, "Mom! Blake and I are in my bedroom."

Senator Coil, a tall, thin, over-caffeinated woman in a blue suit, stuck her head in the bedroom door a moment later. She looked at Winston and then at her daughter, suspicion in her eyes and tone: "What's going on here?"

"Doing a lipstick ad for the blog. We needed to shoot into my makeup mirror. But! We found something really weird . . ."

The elder Coil may have had more questions about the photo shoot, and more specifically about the rapidly wilting remnants of Winston's erection, if she'd noticed that, but she shut up when Audrey Coil began pointing out the photos on the 1919 blog.

"What the heck . . . and look at this," Audrey Coil said.

The senator tapped the computer screen, the column of type. "These people . . . these people are . . . oh, no."

As the senator from Georgia and her daughter were looking at the photographs, Randy Stokes rolled his broken-ass 2002 Pontiac Firebird into the graveled parking lot of ChuckÕs Wagon, a crappy country music grill outside of Warrenton, Virginia, an hourÕs drive west of Arlington.

Stokes had had his problems-beer, wine, bourbon, weed, crack, methamphetamine, oxycodone, and a short but violent teenage romance with paint thinner-none of which he would have had if the country hadn't been overwhelmed with greedy, grasping blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, and a whole range of Asians who kept him from his rightful due as a white man. Except for them, he believed, he might have become a lawyer, or a golf pro.

Lately he'd been clean, back working construction; clean except for the beer and Old Crow Bourbon, $7.99 a bottle. Even the Old Crow had adopted the foreign, and therefore un-American, 750-milliliter bottle, which was probably invented by the French or some other faggots over there, instead of the traditional American fifth, which actually contained three-tenths of an ounce more whiskey than the 750-milliliter bottle, but at the same price, SO WE'RE BEING SCREWED by this foreign intrusion.

In his opinion.

He'd been told his opinions were stupid, often by people who were bigger, stronger, meaner, and smarter than he was, but this was still America, and he had a right to his opinions, didn't he?

Stokes was a short thin man, with short thinning brown hair that he cut himself with a home-barbering set that heÕd found at a garage sale for six dollars. It did a good enough job, he thought, but he only had one attachment head for the electric clipper, so his hair was exactly the same length all over his head, all the time. That gave him the aspect of a hedgehog when he took off his coiled-snake ÒDonÕt Tread On MeÓ ball cap, which he rarely did.

Other than that, he looked pretty normal, with brown eyes, a short button nose, and a small rosebud mouth that guarded the gray teeth left behind from his adventure with methamphetamine.

Before getting out of his car, Stokes collected the pile of Diet Pepsi bottles and Hostess Fruit Pie boxes from the floor of the passenger side, crushed them against his chest so he'd only have to make one trip, and deposited them in the trash can outside the Chuck's Wagon main door. Inside, in the dim light, he spotted Elias Dunn, sitting alone at the bar with a bottle of Budweiser, looking up at the Fox News program on the overhead TV.

"Hey, El," he said, as he slid onto a stool two down from the other man. He didn't sit right next to him because that'd seem a little queer.

Dunn looked over at him-was that a flash of disdain?-and said, "Stokes."

Stokes looked around. There were ten other people in the place, he and Dunn at the short bar, a dozen tables and booths, served by one slow-moving waitress. Chuck's Wagon smelled of microwave everything: barbeque, pasta, pizza, pot pies, anything that could be stored frozen and nuked.

Stokes and Dunn had met on a construction job. Dunn was a civil engineer, and had been leading a survey crew staking out the streets and drainage for a new subdivision over toward Gainesville. Stokes had been a shovel operator-the kind of shovel that had a wooden handle-and had peppered Dunn with questions about his thirteen-thousand-dollar surveyor's total station.

Stokes, it seemed, was an enthusiastic rifleman and was fascinated by the total station, which was an optically-linked computer on a tripod. With a scope and a laser range finder, the instruments had replaced the old surveyor transits. They could tell you that you were, say, four hundred and twenty-four yards, two feet, nine and three-eighths inches from your target and could tell you exactly how much higher or lower you were than your target.

After talking for a few minutes out on the job site, Dunn had concluded that even if Stokes could pull a trigger, the operation of a total station was beyond his intellectual reach.

Now Stokes waved at the bartender and said, ÒPBR,Ó and the bartender said, ÒNo offense, Randy, but you got the cash?Ó

"I do," Stokes said. He pulled a wad of sweaty one-dollar bills from his pocket and laid them on the bar, where they slowly uncurled. "That's eighteen dollars right there."

The bartender walked down the bar to get the beer, and Stokes said to Dunn, "I was over to my sister's place last night and she's got a computer and she showed me that, uh, computer place you were talking about. The one you wrote on the napkin."

Dunn looked back over at him, ran his tongue across the front of his teeth a couple of times, and said, "So, did you read it?" He was vaguely surprised that Stokes hadn't lost the napkin.

"One of the articles on it. I didn't understand it all and then my sister shoved the napkin in the garbage, by mistake, and got ketchup and shit all over it. But she'd printed the article so I could read it in bed, and she said we could type part of it back in and search for it. We did that, but the computer went to a whole different place. The article was there, and a whole bunch of other articles, but the biggest thing was pictures of kids walking on the street. Seemed weird to me."

Dunn, who'd only been about nine percent interested in anything Stokes might have to say, because Stokes was a dumbass, found his interest temporarily jacked up to thirty-five percent.






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