Thursday night, pitch black, blowing snow. Heavy clouds, no
moon behind them.
The Buick disappeared into the garage and the door started down.
The big man, rolling down the highway in a battered Cherokee,
killed his lights, pulled into the driveway and took the shotgun
off the car seat. The snow crunched underfoot as he stepped out;
the snow was coming down in pellets, rather than flakes, and they
stung as they slapped his warm face.
He loped up the driveway, fully exposed for a moment, and stopped
just at the corner of the garage, in a shadow beneath the security
Jane Warr opened the side door and stepped through, her back turned
to him as she pulled the door closed behind her.
He said, "Jane."
She jumped, her hand at her throat, choking down a scream as she
pivoted, shrank against the door. Taking in the muzzle of the
shotgun, and the large man with the beard and the stocking cap, she
screeched: "What? Who're you? Get away..." a jumble of panic
He stayed with her, tracking her with the shotgun, and he said,
slowly, as if speaking to a child, "Jane, this is a shotgun. If you
scream, I will blow your heart out."
She looked, and it was a shotgun, all right, a twelve-gauge pump,
and it was pointing at her heart. She made herself be still,
thought of Deon in the house. If Deon looked out and saw
them...Deon would take care of himself. "What do you want?"
They stood for two or three seconds, the snow pellets peppering the
garage, the big man's beard going white with it. Then, "Joe's not
here." A hint of assertion in her voice – this didn't involve
her, this shotgun.
"Bullshit," the big man said. He twitched the muzzle to the left,
toward the house. "We're going inside to talk to him, and he's
gonna pay me some money. I don't want to hurt you or anybody else,
but I'm gonna talk to Joe. If I have to hurt the whole bunch of
you, I'll hurt you."
He sounded familiar, she thought. Maybe one of the guys from
Missouri, from Kansas City? "Are you one of the Kansas City people?
Because we're not..."
"Shut up," the big man said. "Get your ass up the steps and into
the house. Keep your mouth shut."
She did what he told her. This was not the first time she'd been
present when an unfriendly man flashed a gun – not even the
second or third time – but she was worried. On the other
hand, he said he was looking for Joe. When he found out Joe wasn't
here, he'd go. Maybe.
"Joe's not here," she said as she went up the steps.
"Quiet!" The man's voice dropped. "One thing I learned down in
Kansas City – I'll share this with you – is that when
trouble starts, you pull the trigger. Don't figure anything out,
just pull the trigger. If Joe or Deon try anything on me, you can
kiss your butt good-bye."
"All right," she said. Her voice had dropped with his. Now she was
on the stranger's side. She'd be okay, she told herself, as long as
Deon didn't do anything. But there was something too weird about
this guy. I'll share this with you? – she'd never
heard a serious asshole say anything like that.
They went up the stairs onto a back porch, then through the porch
into a mudroom, then through another door into the kitchen. None of
the doors were locked. Broderick was a small town, and it doesn't
take long to pick up small-town habits. As they clunked into the
kitchen, which smelled like microwave popcorn and week-old carrot
peels, Cash called from the living room, "Hey," and they heard his
feet hit the floor and a second later he stepped into the kitchen,
scowling about something, a thin, five-foot-ten-inch black man in
an Indian-print fleece pullover and jeans, with a can of Budweiser
in one hand.
He saw Warr, the big man behind her, and then, an instant later,
registered the shotgun. By that time, the big man had shifted the
barrel of the shotgun and it was pointing at Cash's head. "Don't
even think about moving."
"Easy," Cash said. He put the can of Budweiser on a kitchen
counter, freeing his hands.
Cash looked puzzled for a second, then said, "Joe ain't
"Call him," the big man said. He'd thought about this, about all
Cash shrugged. "HEY JOE," he shouted.
Nothing. After a long moment, the man with the shotgun said,
"Goddamnit, where is he?"
"He went away last month. He ain't been back. We don't know where
he is," Warr said. "Told you he wasn't here."
"Go stand next to Deon." Warr stepped over next to Cash, and the
big man dipped his left hand into his parka pocket and pulled out a
clump of chain. Handcuffs. He tossed them on the floor and looked
at Warr. "Put them on Deon. Deon, turn around."
"It's up to you," the big man said. "Joe took seventy thousand off
me in Vegas. Took it and ran. I want my money. I don't want to hurt
you two, but I will. We're gonna wait for him if it takes all
"In Vegas?" Cash blurted. "You saw him in Vegas?"
"He ain't here, he's probably still out there somewhere,"
Warr said in exasperation. "He ain't coming back."
"Cuffs," the big man said. "I know what it sounds like when cuffs
"C'mon." The shotgun moved to Cash's head, and Warr bent over and
picked up one set of cuffs and the big man said, "Turn around so I
can see it," and Warr clicked the cuffs in place, pinning Cash's
hands behind him.
The big man dipped his hand into his pocket again and came up with
a roll of strapping tape. "Tape his feet together."
"Man, you startin' to piss me off," Cash said. Even with his hands
cuffed, he managed to look stupidly fierce.
"Better'n being dead. Sit down and stick your feet out so she can
tape you up."
Still grumbling, Cash sat down and Warr crouched beside him and
said, "I'm pretty scared," and Cash said, "We gonna be all right.
The masked-man can go look at Joe's stuff, see he ain't
The big man made her take eight tight winds of tape around Cash's
ankles. Then he ordered Warr to take off her parka and cuff her own
hands. She got one cuff, but fumbled with the other, and the man
with the shotgun told her to turn and back toward him, and when she
did, clicked the second cuff in place. He then ordered both of them
to lie on their stomachs, and with the shotgun pointed at them, he
checked Cash's cuffs and then Warr's, just to make sure. When he
was satisfied, he pulled on a pair of cotton gloves, knelt beside
Warr and taped her ankles, then moved over to Cash and put the rest
of the roll of tape around his.
When he was done, Cash said, "So go look. Joe ain't here."
"I believe you," the big man said, standing up. They looked so
helpless that he almost backed out. He steadied himself. "I know
where Joe is."
After a moment's silence, Cash asked, "Where is he?"
"In a hole in the ground, a couple miles south of Terrebonne. Don't
think I could find it myself, anymore," the big man said. "I just
asked you about him so you'd think that..." He shrugged. "That you
had a chance."
Another moment's silence, and then Warr, "Ah, God, Deon. Listen to
Cash put the pieces together, then said, loud, croaking, but not
yet screaming, "We didn't do nothin', man. We didn't do
"I know what you did," the big man said.
"Don't hurt us," Warr said. She flopped against the vinyl, tried to
get over on her back. "Please don't hurt us. I'll tell the cops
whatever you want."
"We get a trial," Cash said. He twisted around, the better
to see the man's face, and to test the tape on his legs. "We
innocent until we proved guilty."
"Innocent." The big man spat it out.
"We didn't do nothin'," Cash screamed at him.
"I know what you did." The crust on his wounds had broken, and the
big man began kicking Cash in the back, in the kidneys, in the butt
and the back of his head and Cash rolled around the narrow kitchen
floor trying to escape, screaming, the big man wailing like a man
dying of a knife wound, like a man watching the blood running out
of his neck, and he kicked and booted Cash in the back, and when
Cash flopped over, in the face; Cash's nose broke with the sound of
a saltine cracker being stepped on and he sputtered blood out over
the floor. Across the kitchen, Warr struggled against the tape and
the handcuffs and half-rolled under the kitchen table and got
tangled up in the chairs, and their wooden legs clunked and pounded
and clattered on the floor as she tried to inch-worm through them,
Cash screaming all the while, sputtering blood.
Cash finally stopped rolling, exhausted, blood pouring out of his
nose, smearing in arcs across the vinyl floor. The big man backed
away from him, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then took a utility
knife out of his pocket and stalked across the room to Warr,
grabbed the tape around her ankles, and pulled her out from under
the table. Warr cried, "Jesus, don't cut me!"
He didn't. He began slicing though her clothing, pulling it away in
rags. She began to cry as he cut the clothing away. The big man
closed his mind to it, finished, leaving her nude on the floor,
except for the rags under the tape on her ankles, and began cutting
the clothing off Cash.
"What're you doing, man? What're you doing?" Cash began flopping
again, rolling. Finally, frustrated with Cash's struggles, the big
man backed away and again kicked him in the face. Cash moaned, and
the big man rolled him onto his stomach and knelt between his
shoulder blades and patiently sliced at Cash's shirt and jeans
until he was as naked as Warr.
"What're you doing?" Warr asked. Now there was a note of curiosity
in her voice, showing through the fear.
"Fuckin' kill ya," Cash groaned, still bubbling blood from his
broken nose. "Fuckin' cut ya fuckin' head off..."
The big man ignored him. He closed the knife, caught Cash by the
ankles, and dragged him toward the door. Cash, nearly exhausted
from flopping on the floor, began flopping again, but it did no
good. He was dragged flopping through the mudroom, leaving a trail
of blood, onto the porch, and then down the steps to the lawn, his
head banging on the steps as they went down. "Mother, mother," Cash
There wasn't much snow on the ground – hadn't been much snow
all winter – but Cash's head cut a groove in the inch or so
that there was, spotted with more blood. When they got to the Jeep,
the big man popped open the back, lifted Cash by the neck and hips,
and threw him inside.
Back in the house, he picked up Warr and carried her out to the
truck like a sack of flour and tossed her on top of Cash and
slammed the lid.
Before leaving, he carefully scanned the house for anything that he
might have touched that would carry a fingerprint. Finding nothing,
he picked up the shotgun and went back outside.
"Where're we going?" Warr shouted at him. "I'm freezing."
The big man paid no attention. A quarter mile north of town, he
began looking for the West Ditch Road, a dirt track that led off to
the east. He almost missed it in the snow, stopped, backed up on
the dark roadway, and turned down the track. He passed an old farm
house that he'd thought abandoned, but now, as he went by, he saw a
single light glowing in a first-floor window, but no other sign of
life. Too late to change plans now, he thought; besides, with this
The wind had picked up, ripping the snow off the ground. He'd be
far enough from the farmhouse that he couldn't be seen. He kept
moving, the light in the farmhouse window fading away behind him.
In the dark, in the snow, there were no distinctive landmarks at
He concentrated on the track and the odometer. Four-tenths of a
mile after he turned off Highway 36, he slowed, looking out the
left-side window. At first, he saw nothing but snow. After a
hundred feet or so, the tree loomed, and he pulled over, then
carefully backed, pulled forward, and backed again until he was
parked across the road.
"What?" Cash groaned, from the back. "What?"
The big man went around to the back of the truck, opened it,
grabbed the thick wad of tape around Cash's legs, and pulled him
off the truck as if he were unloading lumber. Cash's shoulders hit
the frozen earth with a meaty impact. The big man got him by the
tape and dragged him past the first tree into what had been, from
the car, in the dark, an invisible grove of trees.
One of the trees, a pin oak, loomed at the very edge of the
illumination thrown by the car's headlights. Ropes were slung over
a heavy branch fifteen feet above the ground. The big man,
staggering under Cash's weight, dropped him by one of the ropes,
then went back for Warr. When he got her to the hanging tree,
struggling and kicking against him, he dropped her beside
"Can't do this, man," Cash screamed. "This is murder." The
storm around them quieted for a moment, but the snow pellets still
whipped through the trees, stinging like so many BBs.
"Please help me," Warr called to Cash. "Please, please..."
"Murder?" The big man shouted back at Cash, raising his voice above
the wind. He broke away from them, toward a tree branch that was
sticking up out of the snow, ripped it off the frozen ground and
staggered back to Cash. "Murder?" He began beating Cash
with the long stick, ripping strips of skin off Cash's back and
legs, as the black man thrashed on the ground, gophering through
the snow, trying to get away. "Murder, you fuckin' animal,
He stopped after a while, too tired to continue, threw the stick
back into the trees. "Murder," he said to Cash. "I'll show you
The big man led one of the ropes over to Cash, tied a single loop
around his neck, tight, with strong knots. He did the same with the
second rope, around Warr's neck. Warr was now shivering violently
in the cold.
When he was done, the big man stood back, looked at the two of
them, said, "God damn your immortal souls," and began hauling on
the rope tied to Cash. Cash stopped screaming as the rope bit into
his neck. He was heavy, and the big man had to struggle against his
weight, and against the raw friction of the rope over the tree
limb. Finally, unable to get him in the air, the big man lifted him
and pulled the rope at the same time, and Cash's feet cleared the
ground by a meager six inches. He didn't struggle. He simply hung.
The big man tied the lower end of the rope around the tree trunk,
and tested it for weight. It held.
Warr pleaded, but the big man couldn't hear her – later
couldn't remember anything she said, except that there were a lot
of whispered Pleases. Didn't do her any good. Didn't do
her any good when she fought him, either, though it might have
given her a brief thirty seconds of satisfaction.
He couldn't get her high enough to get her feet off the ground, and
as he struggled to do it, a space opened between the bottom of his
coat sleeve and the glove on his right hand. The space, the warm
flesh, bumped against her face, and quick as cat, she sank her
teeth into his arm, biting ferociously, twisting her head against
his arm. He let go of the rope and she fell, holding on with her
teeth, pulling him down, and he hammered at the side of her head
until she let go.
She was groaning when he boosted her back up, and she ground out,
"We're not the only ones."
That stopped him for a moment: "What?"
"They'll be coming for you, you cocksucker." She spit at him, from
three inches away, hit him in the face. He flinched, grabbed her
around the waist and boosted her higher, his gloves slippery with
blood, and then he had her high enough and he stepped away, holding
tight to the rope, and she swung free and her groaning stopped. He
managed to pull her up another four inches, then tied the rope off
on the trunk.
He watched them for a few minutes, swinging in the snow, in the dim
light, their heads bent, their bodies violently elongated like
martyrs in an El Greco painting...
Then he turned and left them.
They may have been dead then, or it might have taken a few minutes.
He didn't care, and it didn't matter. He rolled slowly, carefully,
out of the side road, down through Broderick and on south. He was
miles away before he became aware of the pain in his wrist, and the
blood flowing down his sleeve toward his elbow. When he turned his
arm over in the dim light of the car, he found that she'd bitten a
chunk of flesh out of his wrist, a lemon-wedge that was still
If a cop stopped him and saw it...
He pulled over in the dark, wrapped his wrist with a pad of paper
towels and a length of duct tape, stepped out of the truck, washed
his hand and arm in snow, tossed the bloody jacket in the back of
the truck and dug out a lighter coat from the bag in back.
Get home, he thought. Burn the coat, dump the truck.
Excerpted from NAKED PREY © Copyright 2003 by John
Sandford. Reprinted with permission by Putnam. All rights