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Certain Preyby John Sandford
Of the three unluckiest days in Barbara Allen’s life, the first was the day Clara Rinker was raped behind a St. Louis nudie bar called Zanadu, which was located west of the city in a dusty checkerboard of truck terminals, warehouses and light assembly plants. Zanadu, as its chrome-yellow I-70 billboard proclaimed, was E-Z On, E-Z Off. The same was not true of Clara Rinker, despite what Zanadu’s customers thought.
Rinker was sixteen when she was raped, a small athletic girl, a dancer, an Ozarks runaway. She had bottle-blond hair that showed darker roots, and a body that looked wonderful in V-necked, red-polka-dotted, thin cotton dresses from Kmart. A body that drew the attention of cowboys, truckers and other men who dreamt of Nashville.
Rinker had taken up nude dancing because she could. It was that, fuck for money or go hungry. The rape took place at two o’clock in the morning on an otherwise delightful April night, the kind of night when midwestern kids are allowed to stay out late and play war, when cicadas hum down from their elm-bark hideaways. Rinker had closed the bar that night; she was the last dancer up.
Four men were still drinking when she finished. Three were hound-faced long-distance truckers who had nowhere to go but the short beds in their various Kenworths, Freightliners and Peterbilts; and one was a Norwegian exotic-animal dealer drowning the sorrows of a recent mishap involving a box of boa constrictors and thirty-six thousand dollars’ worth of illegal tropical birds.
A fifth man, a slope-shouldered gorilla named Dale-Something, had walked out of the bar halfway through Rinker’s last grind. He left behind twelve dollars in crumpled ones and two small sweat rings where his forearms had been propped on the bar. Rinker had worked down the bar-top, stopping for ten seconds in front of each man for what the girls called a crack shot. Dale-Something had gotten the first shot, and he had stood up and walked out as soon as she moved to the next guy. When she was done, Rinker hopped off the end of the bar and headed for the back to get into her street clothes.
A few minutes later, the bartender, a University of Missouri wrestler named Rick, knocked on the dressing-room door and said, “Clara? Will you close up the back?”
“I’ll get it,” she said, pulling a fuzzy pink tube top over her head, shaking her ass to get it down. Rick respected the dancers’ privacy, which they appreciated; it was purely a psychological thing, since he worked behind the bar, and spent half his night looking up their . . .
Anyway, he respected their privacy.
When she was dressed, Rinker killed the lights in the dressing room, walked down to the ladies’ room, checked to make sure it was empty, which it always was, and then did the same for the men’s room, which was also empty, except for the ineradicable odor of beer-flavored urine. At the back door, she snapped out the hall lights, released the bolt on the lock and stepped outside into the soft evening air. She pulled the door shut, heard the bolt snap, rattled the door handle to make sure that it was locked and headed for her car.
A rusted-out Dodge pickup crouched on the lot, two-thirds of the way down to her car. A battered aluminum camper slumped on the back, with curtains tangled in the windows. Every once in a while, somebody would drink too much and would wind up sleeping in his car behind the place; so the truck was not exactly unprecedented. Still, Rinker got a bad vibe from it. She almost walked back around the building to see if she could catch Rick before he went out the front.
Almost. But that was too far and she was probably being silly and Rick was probably in a hurry and the truck was dark, nothing moving . . .
Dale-Something was sitting on the far side of it, hunkered down in the pea gravel, his back against the driver’s-side door. He’d been waiting for twenty minutes with decreasing patience, chewing breath mints, thinking about her. Somewhere, in the deep recesses of his mind, breath mints were a concession to gentility, as regarded women. He chewed them as a favor to her.
When he heard the back door closing, he levered his butt off the ground, peeked through a car window, saw her coming, alone. He waited, crouched behind the car: he was a big guy, much of his bigness in fat, but he took pride in his size anyway.
And he was quick: Rinker never had a chance.
When she stepped around the truck, keys rattling in her hand, he came out of the dark and hit her like an NFL tackle. The impact knocked her breath out; she lay beneath him, gasping, the gravel cutting her bare shoulders. He flipped her over, twisting her arms, clamping both of her skinny wrists in one hand and the back of her neck in the other.
And he said, his minty breath next to her ear, “You fuckin’ scream and I’ll break your fuckin’ neck.”
She didn’t fuckin’ scream because something like this had happened before, with her stepfather. She had screamed and he almost had broken her fuckin’ neck. Instead of screaming, Rinker struggled violently, thrashing, spitting, kicking, swinging, twisting, trying to get loose.
But Dale-Something’s hand was like a vise on her neck, and he dragged her to the camper, pulled open the door, pushed her inside, ripped her pants off and did what he was going to do in the flickering yellow illumination of the dome light.
When he was done, he threw her out the back of the truck, spit on her, said, “Fuckin’ bitch, you tell anybody about this, and I’ll fuckin’ kill ya.” That was most of what she remembered about it later: lying naked on the gravel, and getting spit on; that, and all the wiry hair on Dale’s fat wobbling butt.
Rinker didn’t call the cops, because that would have been the end of her job. And, knowing cops, they probably would have sent her home to her step-dad. So she told Zanadu’s owners about the rape. The brothers Ernie and Ron Battaglia were concerned about both Rinker and their bar license. A nudie joint didn’t need sex crimes in the parking lot.
“Jeez,” Ron said when Rinker told him about the rape. “That’s terrible, Clara. You hurt? You oughta get yourself looked at, you know?”
Ernie took a roll of bills from his pocket, peeled off two hundreds, thought about it for a couple of seconds, peeled off a third and tucked the three hundred dollars into her backup tube top. “Get yourself looked at, kid.”
She nodded and said, “You know, I don’t wanna go to the cops. But this asshole should pay for what he did.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Ernie offered.
“Let me take care of it,” Rinker said.
Ron put up an eyebrow. “What do you want to do?”
“Just get him down the basement for me. He said something about being a roofer, once. He works with his hands. I’ll get a goddamn baseball bat and bust one of his arms.”
Ron looked at Ernie, who looked at Rinker and said, “That sounds about right. Next time he comes in, huh?”
They didn’t do it the next time he came in, which was a week later, looking nervous and shifty-eyed, like he might not be welcomed. Rinker refused to work with Dale-Something at the bar, and when she cornered Ernie in the kitchen, he told her that, goddamnit, they were right in the middle of tax season and neither he nor Ron had the emotional energy for a major confrontation.
Rinker kept working on them, and the second time Dale-Something showed up, which was two days after tax day, the brothers were feeling nasty. They fed him drinks and complimentary peanuts and kept him talking until after closing. Rick the bartender hustled the second-to-the-last guy out, and left himself, not looking back; he knew something was up.
Then Ron came around the bar, and Ernie got Dale-Something looking the other way, and Ron nailed him with a wild, out-of-the-blue roundhouse right that knocked Dale off the barstool. Ron landed on him, rolled him, and Ernie raced around the bar and threw on a pro-wrestling death lock. Together, they dragged a barely resisting Dale-Something down the basement stairs.
The brothers had him on his feet and fully conscious by the time Rinker came down, carrying her aluminum baseball bat; or rather, T-ball bat, which had a better swing-weight for a small woman.
“I’m gonna sue you fuckers for every fuckin’ dime you got,” Dale-Something said, sputtering blood through his split lip. “My fuckin’ lawyer is doin’ the money-dance right now, you fucks . . .”
“Fuck you, you ain’t doing shit,” Ron said. “You raped this little girl.”
“What do you want, Clara?” Ernie asked. He was standing behind Dale with his arms under Dale’s armpits, his hands locked behind Dale’s neck. “You wanna arm or a leg?”
Rinker was standing directly in front of Dale-Something, who glowered at her: “I’m gonna . . .” he started.
Rinker interrupted: “Fuck legs,” she said. She whipped the bat up, and then straight back down on the crown of Dale-Something’s head.
The impact sounded like a fat man stepping on an English walnut. Ernie, startled, lost his death grip and Dale-Something slipped to the floor like a two-hundred-pound blob of Jell-O.
“Holy shit,” Ron said, and crossed himself.
Ernie prodded Dale-Something with the toe of his desert boot, and Dale blew a bubble of blood. “He ain’t dead,” Ernie said.
Rinker’s bat came up, and she hit Dale again, this time in the mastoid process behind the left ear. She hit him hard; her step-dad used to make her chop wood for the furnace, and her swing had some weight and snap behind it. “That ought to do it,” she said.
Ernie nodded and said, “Yup.” Then they all looked at each other in the light of the single bare bulb, and Ron said to Rinker, “Some heavy shit, Clara. How do you feel about this?”
Clara looked at Dale-Something’s body, the little ring of black blood around his fat lips, and said, “He was a piece of garbage.”
“You don’t feel nothin’?” Ernie asked.
“Nothin’.” Her lips were set in a thin, grim line.
After a minute, Ron looked up the narrow wooden stairs and said, “Gonna be a load ’n’ a half getting his ass outa the basement.”
“You got that right,” Ernie said, adding, philosophically, “I coulda told him there ain’t no free pussy.”
Dale-Something went into the Mississippi and his truck was parked across the river in Granite City, from which spot it disappeared in two days. Nobody ever asked about Dale, and Rinker went back to dancing. A few weeks later, Ernie asked her to sit with an older guy who came in for a beer. Rinker cocked her head and Ernie said, “No, it’s okay. You don’t have to do nothin’.”
So she got a longneck Bud and went to sit with the guy, who said he was Ernie’s aunt’s husband’s brother. He knew about Dale-Something. “You feeling bad about it yet?”
“Nope. I’m a little pissed that Ernie told you about it, though,” Rinker said, taking a hit on the Budweiser.
The older man smiled. He had very strong, white teeth to go with his black eyes and almost-feminine long lashes. Rinker had the sudden feeling that he might show a girl a pretty good time, although he must be over forty. “You ever shoot a gun?” he asked.
That’s how Rinker became a hit lady. She wasn’t spectacular, like the Jackal or one of those movie killers. She just took care of business, quietly and efficiently, using a variety of silenced pistols, mostly .22s. Careful, close-range killings became a trademark.
Rinker had never thought of herself as stupid, just as someone who hadn’t yet had her chance. When the money from the killings started coming in, she knew that she didn’t know how to handle it. So she went to the Intercontinental College of Business in the mornings, and took courses in bookkeeping and small business. When she was twenty, getting a little old for dancing nude, she got a job with the Mafia guy, working in a liquor warehouse. And when she was twenty-four, and knew a bit about the business, she bought a bar of her own in downtown Wichita, Kansas, and renamed it the Rink.
The bar did well. Still, a few times a year, Rinker’d go out of town with a gun and come back with a bundle of money. Some she spent, but most she hid, under a variety of names, in a variety of places. One thing her step-dad had taught her well: sooner or later, however comfortable you might be at the moment, you were gonna have to run.
Carmel was long, sleek and expensive, like a new Jaguar.
She had a small head, with a tidy nose, thin pale lips, a square chin and a small pointed tongue. She was a Swede, way back, and blond—one of the whippet Swedes with small breasts, narrow hips, and a long waist in between. She had the eyes of a bird of prey, a raptor. Carmel was a defense attorney in Minneapolis, one of the top two or three. Most years, she made comfortably more than a million dollars.
Carmel lived in a fabulously cool high-rise apartment in downtown Minneapolis, all blond-wood floors and white walls with black-and-white photos by Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus and Minor White, but nobody as gauche and come-lately as Robert Mapplethorpe. Amid all the black-and-white, there were perfect touches of bloody-murder-red in the furniture and carpets. Even her car, a Jaguar XK8, had a custom bloody-murder-red paint job.
On the second of the three unluckiest days in Barbara Allen’s life, Carmel Loan decided that she was truly, genuinely and forever in love with Hale Allen, Barbara Allen’s husband.
Hale Allen, a property and real estate attorney, was the definitive heartthrob. He had near-black hair that fell naturally over his forehead in little ringlets, warm brown eyes, a square chin with a dimple, wide shoulders, big hands and narrow hips. He was a perfect size forty-two, a little over six feet tall, with one slightly chipped front tooth. The knot of his tie was always askew, and women were always fixing it. Putting their hands on him. He had an easy jock-way with the women, chatting them up, playing with them.
Hale Allen liked women; and not just for sex. He liked to talk with them, shop with them, drink with them, jog with them—all without losing some essential lupine manliness. He had given Carmel reason to believe that he found her not unattractive. Whenever Carmel saw him, something deep inside her got plucked.
Despite his looks and easy manner with women, Hale Allen was not the sharpest knife in the dishwasher. He was content with boilerplate law, the arranging of routine contracts, and made nowhere near as much money as Carmel. That made little difference to a woman who’d found true love. Stupidity could be overlooked, Carmel thought, if a woman felt a genuine physical passion for a man. Besides, Hale would look very good standing next to the stone fireplace at her annual Christmas party, a scotch in hand, and perhaps a cheerful bloody-murder-red bow tie; she’d do the talking.
Unfortunately, Hale appeared to be permanently tied to his wife, Barbara.
By her money, Carmel thought. Barbara had a lot of it, through her family. And though Hale’s cerebral filament might not burn as brightly as others, he knew fifty million bucks when he saw them. He knew where that sixteen-hundred-dollar black cashmere Giorgio Armani sport coat came from.
Allen’s tie to his wife—or to her money, anyway—left few acceptable options for a woman of Carmel’s qualities.
She wouldn’t hang around and yearn, or get weepy and depressed, or drunk enough to throw herself at him. She’d do something.
Like kill the wife.
Five years earlier, Carmel had gone to court and had shredded the evidentiary procedures followed by a young St. Paul cop after a routine traffic stop had turned into a major drug bust.
Her client, Rolando (Rolo) D’Aquila, had walked on the drug charge, though the cops had taken ten kilos of cocaine from under the spare tire of his coffee-brown Continental. The cops had wound up keeping the car under the forfeiture law, but Rolo didn’t care about that. What he cared about was that he’d done exactly five hours in jail, which was the time it took for Carmel to organize the one point three million dollars in bail money.
And later, when they walked away from the courthouse after the acquittal, Rolo told her that if she ever needed a really serious favor—really serious—to come see him. Because of previous conversations, they both knew what he was talking about. “I owe you,” he said. She didn’t say no, because she never said no.
She said, “See ya.”
On a warm, rainy day in late May, Carmel drove her second car—an anonymous blue-black Volvo station wagon registered in her mother’s second-marriage name—to a ramshackle house in St. Paul’s Frogtown, eased to the curb, and looked out the passenger-side window.
The wooden-frame house was slowly settling into its overgrown lawn. Rainwater seeped over the edges of its leaf-clogged gutters, and peeling green paint showed patches of the previous color, a chalky blue. None of the windows or doors was quite level with the world, square with the house, or aligned with each other. Most of the windows showed glass; a few had black screens.
Carmel got a small travel umbrella from the backseat, pushed the car door open with her feet, popped the umbrella, and hurried up the sidewalk to the house. The inner door was open: she knocked twice on the screen door, which rattled in its frame, and she heard Rolo from the back: “Come on in, Carmel. I’m in the kitchen.”
The interior of the house was a match for the exterior. The carpets were twenty years old, with paths worn through the thin pile. The walls were a dingy yellow, the furniture a crappy collection of plastic-veneered plywood, chipped along the edges of the tabletops and down the legs. There were no pictures on the walls, no decoration of any kind. Nailheads poked from picture-hanging spots, where previous tenants had tried a little harder. Everything smelled like nicotine and tar.
The kitchen was improbably bright. There were no shades or curtains on the two windows that flanked the kitchen table, and only two chairs, one tucked tight to the table, another pulled out. Rolo, looking smaller than he had five years before, was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt that said, enigmatically, Jesus. He had both hands in the kitchen sink.
“Just cleaning up for the occasion,” he said.
He wasn’t embarrassed at being caught at house-cleaning, and a thought flicked through Carmel’s lawyer-head: He should be embarrassed.
“Sit down,” he said, nodding at the pulled-out chair. “I got some coffee going.”
“I’m sort of in a rush,” she started.
“You don’t have time for coffee with Rolando?” He was flicking water off his hands, and he ripped a paper towel off a roll that sat on the kitchen counter, wiped his hands dry, and tossed the balled-up towel toward a wastebasket in the corner. It hit the wall and ricocheted into the basket. “Two,” he said.
She glanced at her watch, and reversed herself on the coffee. “Sure, I’ve got a few minutes.”
“I’ve come a long way down, huh?”
She glanced once around the kitchen, shrugged and said, “You’ll be back.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I got my nose pretty deep in the shit.”
“So take a program.”
“Yeah, a program,” he said, and laughed. “Twelve steps to Jesus.” Then, apologetically, “I only got caffeinated.”
“Only kind I drink,” she said. And then, “So you made the call.” Not a question.
Rolo was pouring coffee into two yellow ceramic mugs, the kind Carmel associated with lake resorts in the North Woods. “Yes. And she’s still working, and she’ll take the job.”
“She? It’s a woman?”
“Yeah. I was surprised myself. I never asked, you know, I only knew who to call. But when I asked, my friend said, ‘She.’ ”
“She’s gotta be good,” Carmel said.
“She’s good. She has a reputation. Never misses. Very efficient, very fast. Always from very close range, so there’s no mistake.” Rolo put a mug of coffee in front of her, and she turned it with her fingertips, and picked it up.
“That’s what I need,” she said, and took a sip. Good coffee, very hot.
“You’re sure about this?” Rolo said. He leaned back against the kitchen counter, and gestured with his coffee mug. “Once I tell them ‘Yes,’ it’ll be hard to stop. This woman, the way she moves, nobody knows where she is, or what name she’s using. If you say, ‘Yes,’ she kills Barbara Allen.”
Carmel frowned at the sound of Barbara Allen’s name. She hadn’t really thought of the process as murder. She had considered it more abstractly, as the solution to an otherwise intractable problem. Of course, she had known it would be murder, she just hadn’t contemplated the fact. “I’m sure,” she said.
“You’ve got the money?”
“At the house. I brought your ten.”
She put the mug down, dug in her purse, pulled out a thin deck of currency and laid it on the table. Rolo picked it up, riffled it expertly with a thumb. “I’ll tell you this,” he said. “When they come and ask for it, pay every penny. Every penny. Don’t argue, just pay. If you don’t, they won’t try to collect. They’ll make an example out of you.”
“I know how it works,” Carmel said, with an edge of impatience. “They’ll get it. And nobody’ll be able to trace it, because I’ve had it stashed. It’s absolutely clean.”
Rolo shrugged: “Then if you say ‘Yes,’ I’ll call them tonight. And they’ll kill Barbara Allen.”
This time, she didn’t flinch when Rolo spoke the name. Carmel stood up: “Yes,” she said. “Do it.”
Rinker came to town three weeks later. She had driven her own car from Wichita, then rented two different-colored, different-make cars from Hertz and Avis, under two different names, using authentic Missouri driver’s licenses and perfectly good, paid-up credit cards.
She stalked Barbara Allen for a week, and finally decided to kill her on the interior steps of a downtown parking garage. In the week that Rinker trailed her, Allen had used the garage four times, and all four times had used the stairs to get to the skyway level. Once in the skyway, she’d gone straight to an office with the name “Star of the North Charities” on the door. When Rinker knew that Allen was not at Star of the North, she’d called and asked for her.
“I’m sorry, she’s not here.”
“Do you expect her?”
“She’s usually here for an hour or two in the morning, just before lunch.”
“Thanks, I’ll try again tomorrow.”
On the last of the three unluckiest days of her life, she got out of bed, showered, and ate a light breakfast of Raisin Bran and strawberries—with Hale for a husband, it paid to watch her figure. As the housekeeper cleared away the breakfast dishes, Allen turned on the television to check the Dow Jones opening numbers, sat at her desk and reviewed proposed charitable allocations from the Star of the North Charities trust, then, at nine-thirty, gathered her papers, pushed them into a tan Coach briefcase, and headed downtown.
Rinker, in a red Jeep Cherokee, followed her until she was sure that Allen was heading downtown, then passed her and hurried ahead. Allen was a slow, careful driver, but traffic and traffic lights were unpredictable, and Rinker wanted to be at least five minutes ahead of her by the time they got downtown.
Rinker had picked out another parking garage, also on the skyway system, a little less than a two-minute fast walk from the killing ground. She wheeled into the garage, parked, walked to her own car, which she’d parked in the garage earlier that morning, and climbed into the backseat. She glanced up and down the ramp, saw one man leaving, heading toward the doors. She reached down, grabbed the carpeting behind the passenger seat and popped open a shallow steel box, which held two Remington .22 semi-automatic pistols, silencers already attached, on a bed of foam peanuts.
Rinker was wearing a loose shift, with a homemade elastic girdle beneath it. She pushed the .22s into the wide pockets of the shift, through another slit cut through the insides of the pockets, and into the girdle. The .22s were held tight against her body, but she could get them out in a half-second. With the guns tucked away, Rinker hopped out of the car and headed for the skyway.
Barbara Allen, a sturdy, German blonde with short, expensively cut hair, a dab of lipstick, a crisp white cotton blouse, a navy skirt and matching navy low-heels, went into the stairwell of the Sixth Street parking garage at 9:58 a.m. Halfway down, she met a small woman coming up, a redhead. As she passed her, looking down, the other woman smiled, and Allen, who knew about such things, looked at the top of her head and thought, Wig.
That was the last thing she thought on the unluckiest day of her life.
Rinker, climbing the stairs, had mistimed it. She knew the lower ramp was clear, and wanted to take Allen low. But Allen came down the narrow steps slowly, and Rinker, now in plain sight, didn’t feel she should stop and wait for her. So she continued climbing. Allen smiled and nodded at her as they passed, and as they passed, Rinker pulled the right-hand .22, pivoted, and fired it into the back of Allen’s head from a range of two inches. Allen’s hair puffed out, as though somebody had blown on it, and she started to fall.
The silencers were good. The loudest noise in the stairwell was the cycling of the pistol’s action. Rinker got off a second shot before Allen fell too far, then stepped down to the sprawled body and fired five more shots into Allen’s temple.
As she stepped away from the body, ready to head down the stairs, a cop came through the door in the stairwell above them. He was in uniform, a heavy guy carrying a manila folder.
Rinker had thought about this possibility, a surprise from a cop, though she’d never experienced anything like it. Still, she’d rehearsed it in her mind.
“Hey,” the cop said. He put up a hand, and Rinker shot him.
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