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John Sandford

Phantom prey


SOMETHING WRONG HERE, a cold whisper of evil. The house was a modernist relic, glass and stone and redwood, sixty years old and gone creaky; not all haunted houses were Victorian. Sometimes at night, when she was alone, she’d feel a sudden coolness, as though somebody, or some thing, had just slipped by. This was different. She couldn’t pin it down, but it was palpable.

She thought about stepping back into the garage. “Who’s there?” she called. She got nothing back but an echo.

THE HOUSE WAS DARK, except for desk lamps in the front room and in the study, which were triggered by photocells at dusk. She could hear the furnace running. Nothing else-but the hair on her forearms and the back of her neck stood upright. Some atavistic sense was picking up a threat.

She looked to her right. The arming light on the security panel was steady, so the security system had been disarmed. That was decisive. The house should be empty, the security system should be armed.

She stepped back, moving quickly, around the nose of the Jaguar to the Mercedes. She yanked open the driver’ s- side door, reached under the front seat to the storage bin, popped the lid, and lifted out the Ladysmith.38.

Stood listening again, the gun cool in her hand, and heavy. Couldn’t even hear the furnace, now. The Mercedes’s engine pinged, cooling down. The overhead garage lights were still on and she watched the door to the house. Something wrong, but the house felt empty.

Her nose twitched. She could smell exhaust from the car, but when she’d stepped through the door to the house, there’d been something else. A subtle stink that shouldn’t have been there. Not sweat, not body odor, not perfume, not flatulence, but something organic. Meat?

She had her purse over her shoulder, her cell phone right there. Call the police? What would she tell them? That something was not right? That something smelled a little funky? They’d think she was crazy.

She put her purse on the hood of the Jag, held the gun in front of her, like the handgun instructor had shown her. She was an athlete, and a professional athlete at that: swimming, dance, martial arts, weights, Pilates, yoga. The hard stuff: her body control was nearly perfect. She’d shot the eyes out of the gun- instructor’s bad-guy target.

He’d been mildly impressed, but only mildly. A cop for most of his life, he’d told her that every shooting he’d ever seen had been a screwup.

“The question is not whether you can hit something at seven yards. The question is whether you can sort out all the problems, when you’ve got a loaded gun in your hand,” he’d said, a rehearsed speech that might have been written on a 3x5 card. “You have no time, but you have to figure out what’s happening-what’s going on. To shoot or not to shoot: it all comes down to a tenth of a second, in the dark. You don’t want to shoot your kid or a neighbor. You don’t want to not shoot a junkie with a butcher knife coming for your throat.”

THERE WOULDN’T BE a neighbor in the house. The neighborhood was private, standoffish. People drew their friends from their businesses, from their schools, not from the street. The housekeeper was long gone.

Her daughter? Frances had the security code but she always called ahead.

She called out: “Francie?” No response. Again, louder. “Fran? Are you there?” Starting to feel foolish, now. Then she remembered what the gun instructor had told her. “About the time you start to feel like an idiot, that’s when they’ll get you. If you’re scared enough to have the gun out, then the situation is serious enough that you can’t be abashed.”

She remembered the word. Abashed. Was she abashed?

SHE WAS BACK at the door. Kept the muzzle of the gun pointing straight ahead, called out, “Frances, I’ve got a gun, because I’m scared. Don’t jump out, if this is a joke. Frances?”

She let go of the gun with her left hand, reached around the doorjamb and flicked on the lights. The entry was clear, and as far as she could see, the kitchen. She was inside now, the house still giving off the empty feel. Edged forward.

The hair on her arms was up again and she reached inside the kitchen door and hit another block of lights. They came on all at once, three circuits’ worth, fifteen lights in all, the kitchen as brightly lit as a stage. She glanced behind her, at the garage, then back toward the dark door beyond the kitchen.

Not right; a few lizard- brain cells were screaming at her. Not right. “Frances? Fran? Are you there? Helen? Are you still here, Helen?” Helen was the housekeeper. No answer. She let the gun drop to her side. Then, remembering what the cop said, brought it back up, and let the muzzle lead her through the house. Halfway through, she knew she was alone. There was no tension in the air, no vibration. She cleared the last bedroom, exhaled, smiled at her own foolishness.

This hadn’t happened before. There was something… She got to the kitchen, sniffed, and looked around. Put the gun on the counter, opened the refrigerator, pulled out the bag of pre- cut celery sticks, took out two and crunched them.


A LYSSA AUSTIN LEANED against the counter, a small woman, blond, fair- complected, but not delicate: she had a physical density to her face and hands that suggested the martial arts, or an extreme level of exercise. She looked at the gun on the counter, and half- smiled; it was dark and curved and weighted with presence, like a successful work of art.

She was finishing the second celery stick when she noticed the dark streaks on the wallpaper at the edge of the hall that led from the kitchen to the dining room. The streaks were broom- straw- length and -breadth, splaying out from a center, dark but not black, like flower petals, or a slash from a watercolor brush. Not knowing exactly why, she stepped over and touched them-and felt the tackiness under her finger.

Pulled her finger back and found a spot of crimson. She knew instantly and without a doubt that it was blood, and relatively fresh. Saw a small, thinner streak farther down the wall. Backed away…

SCARED NOW. Picked up the gun, backed into the kitchen, groped for the phone, punched in 9-1-1. She did it with a bloody finger, not realizing, leaving red dots on the keys.

The operator, an efficient- sounding woman, asked, “Is this an emergency?”

“There’s blood in my house,” she said. “Are you in danger?” the operator asked. “No, I don’t… I don’t…"

"Is this Mrs. Austin?"

"Yes.” She didn’t know how the operator had gotten her name, didn’t think about it. “I just came home."

"Go someplace safe, close by."

"I need the police."

"We are already on the way,” the operator said. “Officers will be there in about a minute. Are you safe?"

"I uh… don’t know.” She thought, The police. I should put the gun away. “Tell them… Tell them I’m going to the garage. I’m going to lock myself in the car. The garage door is up.”

“Okay. That would be good,” the operator said. “Don’t hang up. Just drop the phone and go to the car. We should be there in less than a minute now.”

She dropped the phone and backed toward the garage. She could hear sirens in the distance-and not another thing.

THE COPS WENT in with guns in their hands, cleared the house, looked at the blood and called for a crime- scene crew.

Alyssa went looking for her housekeeper, and found her. Helen was utterly confused by the blood; it hadn’t been there when she left.

The crime- scene crew, from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, spent two days in the house. They found more signs of blood, on the tiles in the kitchen and hallway, enough that it had apparently been mopped up. Alyssa and the cops spent the next two days looking for Frances. They found her car, found her last grocery list, but they never could find her. Then the blood tests came back from the lab: it was Frances’s blood, all right.



2011 - 2018