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John Sandford

Sudden Prey

THROUGH THE SPEAKERS ABOVE HIS HEAD, LITTLE CHILDREN sang in sweet voices, O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of the dear Savior's birth…

The man who might kill Candy LaChaise stood in the cold and watched her through the glass doors. Sometimes he could see only the top of her head, and sometimes not even that, but he never lost track of her.

Candy, unaware, browsed through the lingerie, moving slowly from rack to rack.

She wasn't really interested in underwear: her attention was fixed on the back of the store, the appliance department. She stopped, pulled out a black bustier, held it up, cocked her head like women do. Put it back, turned toward the doors.

The man who might kill her stepped back, out of sight.

A minivan pulled to the curb and a chunky woman in an orange parka hopped out and pushed back the van's side door. An avalanche of dumplinglike children spilled onto the sidewalk. They were of both sexes, all blond, and of annual sizes: maybe four, five, six, seven, eight and nine years old. Thevan headed for a parking space, while the woman herded the kids toward the doors.

The man took a bottle from his pocket, stuck his tongue into the neck, tipped it up and faked a swallow or two. The woman hustled the kids past him, shielding them with her body, into the store and out of sight. That was what he wanted; he put the bottle away, and looked back through the doors.

THERE SHE WAS, STILL IN LINGERIE. HE LOOKED around, and cursed the season: the

Christmas decorations, the dirty piles of hard, frozen snow along the streets, the wind that cut through his woolen gloves. His face was thin, unshaven, the skin stretched like parchment on a tambourine. Nicotine had stained his teeth as yellow as old ivory. He lit a Camel, and when he put the cigarette to his lips, his hands trembled with the cold. When he exhaled, the wind snatched away the smoke and the steam of his breath, and made him feel even colder than he was.

AN OILY BARITONE, A MAN WHO'D NEVER BE BING Crosby:… Let nothing you dismaaay, Remember Christ our Sa-ay-vior was born on Christmas Day

He thought, ''Christ, if I could only stop the music…''

From where he stood, he could see the golden spire atop the state capitol; under the December overcast it looked like a bad piece of brass. Fucking Minnesota. He put the bottle to his lips, and this time let a little of the wine trickle down his throat. The harsh grape-juice taste cut into his tongue, but there was no warmth in the alcohol.

What in the hell was she doing?

She'd cruised Sears Brand Central, taking her time, looking at refrigerators, buying nothing. Then she strolled through the ladies' wear department, where she'd looked at blouses. Then she walked back through Brand Central, checking the cellular telephones.

Again she walked away: he'd been inside at the time, and she'd almost trapped him in the television display. He hit the doors, went through, outside into the wind… but she'd swerved toward the lingerie. Had she spotted him? A TV salesman had. Picking up his ragged coat and rotten shoes, the salesman had posted himself near the Toshiba widescreens, and was watching him like a hawk.

Maybe she…

There. She was on her way out.

When Candy walked out of Sears, he didn't look at her. He saw her, but he didn't move his head. He simply stood against the outside wall, rocked on his heels, mumbled into his parka and took another nip of the MD 20-20.

CANDY NEVER REALLY SAW HIM, NOT THEN. SHE HALFTURNED in his direction as she left the store, but her eyes skipped over him, like they might skip over a trash barrel or a fire hydrant. She bopped down the parking lot, not quite in a hurry, but not dawdling, either. Her step was light, athletic, confident, the step of a cheerful woman. She was pretty, in a thirty-something high-school cheerleader way, with natural blond hair, a round Wisconsin face and a clear Wisconsin complexion.

She walked halfway down the lot before she spotted the Chevy van and started toward it.

The man who might kill her, who still stood by the doors, said, ''She just walked past her car.''

A Republican state legislator in a wool Brooks Brothers overcoat heard the words and hurried into the store. No time for dialogue with a street schizo: you see them everywhere, mumbling into their wine-stained parkas.

''I think she's going for that van, dude.''

• • •

CANDY LIKED COUNTRY MUSIC AND SHIRT POCKETS that had arrows at the corners. She liked line-dancing and drinking Grain Belt. She liked roadhouses on country blacktop, pickup trucks and cowboy boots and small blue-eyed children and guns.

When she got to the Chevy van, she took out a two-inch key ring filled with keys and began running them through the lock. She hit it on the twelfth one, and popped the door.

The van belonged to a slightly ragged Sears washing machine salesman named

Larry. The last time she'd seen Larry, he was standing next to a seven-hundred-dollar Kenmore washer with Quiet Pak and Automatic Temperature

Control, repinning his name tag. He was about ten minutes late-late enough that she'd started to worry, as she browsed the blouses and underwear. Had the van broken down? That would be a major problem…

But then, there he was, breathing hard, face pink from the cold, leaning against the Kenmore. Larry was a wise guy, she knew, and she didn't care for wise guys.

She knew he was a wise guy because a bumper sticker on the back of his van said, in large letters, AGAINST ABORTION? And below that, in smaller letters, Then

Don't Have One. Abortion was not a topic for bumper-sticker humor.

the man who might kill her mumbled into his parka: ''She's in the van, she's moving.''

The voice that spoke back to him was not God: ''I got her.''

Great thing about parkas: nobody could see the commo gear, the microphones and earplugs. ''She's gonna do it,'' Del said. He put the bottle of Mogen David on the ground, carefully, so it wouldn't spill. He wouldn't need it again, but somebody might.

''Franklin says LaChaise and Cale just went into that pizza joint behind the parking ramp,'' said the voice in his ear. ''They went out the back of the ramp, through a hole in a hedge.''

''Scoping it out, one last time. That's where they'll dump the van,'' Del said.

''Get Davenport on the road.''

''Franklin called him. He's on the way. He's got Sloan and Sherrill with him.''

''All right,'' Del said, noncommittally. Not all right, he thought. Sherrill had been shot a little more than four months earlier. The slug had nicked an artery and she'd almost bled out before they got her to the hospital. Del had pinched the artery so hard that Sherrill had later joked that she felt fine, except for the massive bruise where Del had pinched her leg.

Putting Sherrill's face into this, so soon, might be too heavy, Del thought.

Sometimes Davenport showed all the common sense of a… Del couldn't think of anything. A trout, maybe.

''There she goes,'' said the voice in his ear.

THE SALESMAN'S VAN STANK OF CIGAR SMOKE. CANDY'S nose wrinkled at the smell, but she wouldn't have to tolerate it for long. She eased the van out of the parking space, and checked the gas: half a tank, more than enough. She drove slowly up the block, to Dale, down Dale and onto I-94 toward Minneapolis. Georgie and

Duane would be waiting at Ham's Pizza.

She looked at the speedometer: fifty-four. Perfect. Crooks mostly drove too fast. Dick said they didn't give a shit about the traffic laws or the other small stuff, and half the time they'd hit a bank, get away clean, then get caught because they were doing sixty-five in a fifty-five. She wouldn't make that mistake.

She tried to relax, checked all the mirrors. Nothing unusual. She took the P7 out of her coat pocket, slipped the magazine, pushed on the top shell with her thumb. She could tell by the pressure that she had a full clip.

Dick always made fun of the little bitty nine-millimeter shells, but she'd stick with them. The small gun felt right in her hand and the muzzle blast was easy to manage. The P7 held thirteen rounds. She could put nine or ten of the thirteen shots into the top of a Campbell's soup can at twenty-five feet, in less than seven seconds. A couple of times, she'd put all thirteen in.