A terrifying Lucas Davenport thriller from #1 New York Times–bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize–winner John Sandford.
They call them Travelers. They move from city to city, panhandling, committing no crimes—they just like to stay on the move. And now somebody is killing them.
Lucas Davenport’s adopted daughter, Letty, is home from college when she gets a phone call from a woman Traveler she’d befriended in San Francisco. The woman thinks somebody’s killing her friends, she’s afraid she knows who it is, and now her male companion has gone missing. She’s hiding out in North Dakota, and she doesn’t know what to do.
Letty tells Lucas she’s going to get her, and, though he suspects Letty’s getting played, he volunteers to go with her. When he hears the woman’s story, though, he begins to think there’s something in it. Little does he know. In the days to come, he will embark upon an odyssey through a subculture unlike any he has ever seen, a trip that will not only put the two of them in danger—but just may change the course of his life.
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John Sandford is the author of twenty-five Prey novels; eight Virgil Flowers novels, most recently Deadline; and seven other books. He lives in New Mexico.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Skye and Henry stood on a corner of Union Square on a fading San Francisco afternoon in early June, the occasional odor of popcorn swirling through, trying to busk up a few dollars. Skye saw the devil go by in his black ’85 T-top, crooked smile, ponytail, twisty little braids in his beard. His skinny blond girlfriend sat beside him, tats running across her bare shoulders like grapevines, front teeth filed to tiny sharp points. Skye turned away, a chill running down her back.
Henry was strumming on a fifty-dollar acoustic guitar he’d bought at a pawn shop. Skye played her harmonica and kept time with a half-tambourine strapped to one foot, jangling out into the evening, doing their version of St. James Infirmary, Henry banging between chords and struggling through,
When I die, bury me in a high-topped Stetson hat...
He did not sound like any kind of black blues singer from the Mississippi Delta. He sounded like a white punk from Johnson City, Texas, which he was.
Skye was stocky with high cheekbones and green eyes. She wore an earth-colored loose knit wrap over a Sixties’ olive-drab Army shirt, corporal’s stripes still on the sleeves, and gray cargo pants over combat boots. Her hair was apricot-colored and tangled, with a scraggly braid hanging down her back.
Henry was a tall apple-cheeked man/boy with a perpetually smiley face, dressed in a navy blue Mao jacket, buttoned to the throat, and matching slacks, and high-topped sneakers. Their packs sat against the wall of the building behind them, big, capable nylon bags, with a peeled-pine walking stick attached to one side of hers.
Put a ten-piece jazz band on my tail-gate to raise hell as we roll along...
They both smelled bad. They washed themselves every morning in public bathrooms, but that didn’t eliminate the musty stink of their clothes. A laundromat cost money, which they didn’t have at the moment. A cigar box on the sidewalk held five dollar bills and a handful of change. They’d put in two of the dollar bills themselves, to encourage contributions, to suggest that their music might be worth listening to.
They weren’t the worst of the buskers on the square, but they were not nearly the best, and in terms of volume, they couldn’t compete with the horn players.
As Henry wound down through the song, his shaky baritone breaking from time to time, Skye noticed the young woman leaning on a fire hydrant, watching them.
Was she with the devil? She was the kind he went for. Thin but hot. Not blonde, though. The devil went for blondes.
The young woman casually dressed in a loose, multi-colored blouse, jeans, and sneakers, each of those separate components suggested money: the blouse looked as though it might be real silk, the jeans fit perfectly, and even the sneakers suggested a secret sneaker store, one that only rich people knew about.
Her dark hair had been styled by somebody with talent.
Skye thought, Maybe with the devil – but if not, maybe good for a five? Even a ten? A ten would buy dinner and a cup of coffee in the morning...
Henry gave up on the St. James Infirmary, said, “Fuck this. We ain’t doing no good.”
“Don’t have enough cash to eat. Let’s give it another ten minutes. How about that Keb’ Mo’ thing?”
“Don’t know the words yet...” He looked around the square. “We should have gone up to the park. Can’t fight these fuckin’ horns.”
The young woman, who’d been leaning against the fire hydrant, ambled up to them. She smiled and nodded to Henry, but spoke to Skye. “I don’t give money to buskers...or panhandlers...because I’m afraid they’ll spend it on dope. I got better things to do with it.”
“Well, thank you very fucking much,” Skye said. Her voice was harshed by smoke and a good bit of that had been weed.
“You’re a traveler,” the woman said, showing no offense.
“You know about us?”
“Enough to pick you out,” the woman said. “My name’s Letty. What’s yours?”
“Skye. My friend is Henry.” Skye was calculating: This woman was either with the devil, or...she could be worked. And Skye was hungry.
“Let’s go up to the park,” Henry said.
“Hang on,” Skye said. Back to the young woman: “If you won’t give us money, could you get us a bite?”
“There’s a McDonald’s a couple blocks from here,” Letty said. “I’ll buy you as much as you can eat.”
“Them’s the magic words,” Henry said, suddenly enthusiastic, his pink face going even pinker.
The two travelers shouldered their packs and Henry carried his guitar case and they started down Geary, walking toward Market Street, weaving through the tourists. “Where are you coming from and where are you going?” Letty asked.
Skye said, “We were in Santa Monica for the winter, then we started up here a couple weeks ago, when June Gloom got to L.A. Planning to be here for a couple of weeks, get some money, then go on up to Eugene, and maybe Seattle.”
Henry said to Skye, “I could have sworn I saw Pilot go by a few minutes ago. I heard they were traveling this summer.”
“We stay away from that asshole,” Skye said. “He’s the devil.”
“Is not,” Henry said. “He’s cool.”
“He’s not cool, Henry. He’s a crazy motherfucker.”
“Been in movies, man,” Henry said. “He said he might be able to get me a part.”
Skye grabbed his shirt sleeve, turning him: “Henry. He’ll kill you.”
“Ah, bullshit.” Henry started walking again and they could see the McDonald’s sign beyond him. He looked back at the two women. “You don’t know a chance when you see one, Skye. He could get me a part. I’d like to be in a movie. I’d really like that.”
“Why? So you know you’re alive? You’re alive, Henry. Let’s try to keep it that way.”
Henry shut up and they got to the McDonalds.
Inside, the two travelers loaded up on calories: Henry ordered a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries, chocolate shake. Letty said, “Get a couple burgers, if you want.”
“You serious?” Henry asked.
They did – two sandwiches, two fries, and a shake for each of them. Letty got a fish sandwich and Diet Coke. When they’d spread out at a table, Letty asked Skye, “So...you feel safe when you’re on the road?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty safe,” Skye said. She took a big bite of the first burger and said, “I’m usually with somebody. Which helps. When I’m alone, getting ready to move, I’ll find a festival, or something like that, where there are a lot of people. You can ask around, find somebody going in your direction. Check up on him. Or her. Sometimes, when I got the money, I’ll ride the dog. One time, I met this guy in San Antonio, he was a dope dealer but, you know, he was okay. He bought me a ticket on the train to Los Angeles. More than three hundred dollars. And he didn’t want anything for it.”
“They usually want something for it?” Letty asked.
“Oh, sometimes they think they might get something...but they don’t,” Skye said. “If they’re the kind of guy who’s going to push it, I can usually figure that out ahead of time and I don’t go.”
“Ever make a mistake?” Letty asked.
Skye grinned at her, showing her yellow teeth, and said, “You’re kinda snoopy, aren’t you?”
Letty smiled back and said, “I used to work at a TV news station.”
Skye bobbed her head and took another bite of the sandwich. Eventually she said, “I made a couple of mistakes.”
“What’d you do about it?” Letty asked.
“Nothing. What could I do?”
“I would have killed them,” Letty said.
Henry was examining the side of his sandwich, and his eyes cut over to her and he said, “Easy to say, not so easy to do.”
“Not that hard,” Letty said.
Skye and Letty locked eyes for a few seconds, then Skye said, “Jesus.” She swallowed and said, “You’re with Pilot, aren’t you?”
Henry brightened up: “Hey, really? You’re with Pilot?”
“I don’t know who Pilot is,” Letty said. “I’m a student. At Stanford. I’m meeting friends in fifteen minutes, back at the square. We’re on a last shopping trip before summer vacation.”
Skye looked at her for another moment and then said, “Yeah. I can see that. You don’t know Pilot? He likes college girls. Or at least, college-girl types.”
“No. Who is he?”
“He’s an asshole,” Skye said. “Maybe the biggest asshole in California. Travels around with his disciples, he calls them. Fucks them all, men and women alike.”
“Does not,” Henry said. “Nothing queer about Pilot.”
“You hang with him, you’ll find out, little pink cheeks,” Skye said. She reached out and pinched his cheek. “And I’m not talking about these cheeks, either.”
“Fuck you, Skye.” He didn’t sound like he meant it, though.
“’Biggest asshole in California’ would put him in the running for the national title,” Letty said. “What’d he do?”
Skye looked at her steadily for a moment, then said, “Might be a little more than college girl would want to know,” she said.
Letty said, “I’m not the standard-issue college girl. What’s he do? Besides being hot for Henry?”
“Shut up,” Henry said.
“Hot for Henry – we ought to write a song,” Skye said to Henry.
Henry knew the two women were teasing, and said again, “Shut up,” and, “You want all them fries?”
“Yes, I do,” Skye said. “So: Pilot. Pilot has these people he calls disciples, and they steal for him, the men do, and the women give him their paychecks and sometimes he sells them, the women. He peddles dope to TV people and sometimes these TV guys need to hustle a deal or hustle up some money, and Pilot’s women will go over and do whatever the money-men want.”
“Nasty,” Letty said.
“That’s not even the bad stuff,” Skye said. “There are probably twenty guys in Hollywood doing that. Pilot’s like one of those cult guys. He says the end of the world’s coming – he calls it the Fall – and the only thing that’ll be left are the outlaws. Like him and the disciples, and the dope gangs and bikers and Juggalos and the skinheads and like that. He believes that the groups need to bind themselves together with blood. By killing people. We both heard that he’s killed people. That the whole gang has.”
“All bullshit,” Henry said.
The women ignored him and Letty asked, “Why don’t you call the cops?”
“Nothing to call them about,” Skye said. “We say, ‘We heard he’s killed someone.’ They go, ‘Who? ‘We don’t know.’ ‘When?’ ‘We don’t know that, either.’ ‘Who told you?’ ‘We don’t know. Some street guy.’ The cops say, ‘Uh-huh, we’ll get right on it’ and hang up.”
Letty said, “Huh.”
Skye: “He’d snatch you off the street in a minute.”
Letty showed some teeth in what wasn’t exactly a smile. “He’d get his throat cut.”
Henry swallowed a smile and said, “Yeah, right. Pilot eat you right up...”
Letty stared at him until he turned his eyes away. Skye squinted at her: “Where’d you get that mean streak?”
“I grew up dirt poor out on the prairie in northern Minnesota,” Letty said. “My old man dumped us and my mom was a drunk. I kept us going by trapping muskrats and coons, wandering around in the snow with a bunch of leg-hold traps and a .22. Must’ve killed a thousand rats with that gun. Pilot’s just another rat to me.”
“Bet you had to trap a lot of coons to get into Stanford,” Skye said.
Letty smiled again, and said, “Well, my mom got murdered and the cop who was investigating, he and his wife adopted me. They’re my real mom and dad. It was like winning the lottery.”
Skye: “For real?”
“For real,” Letty said.
Skye said, “Huh. How about your real pop?”
“Never really knew him,” Letty said. “He’s a shadow way back there.”
“He never...messed with you, or anything?”
“No, nothing like that,” Letty said.
“Sorry about your mom,” Skye said.
“Yeah, thanks. She...couldn’t deal with it. With anything.”
Skye nodded. “My mom is like that. She didn’t get murdered or anything – as far as I know, she’s still living in her old trailer.”
“What about your dad?”
“He’s probably still around, too. Probably messing with my little sister, if she hasn’t taken off already.”
Letty didn’t ask the obvious question; the little sister comment made it unnecessary.
Skye felt that and bent the conversation in another direction. “What’s that little teeny watch you’re wearing?” she asked, poking a finger at the red band around Letty’s wrist.
“Ah, it’s one of those athlete things. Not a watch. Tells you how many steps you’ve taken in a day, and how high your heart rate got, and all of that.”
Skye held up a wrist. A piece of dark brown, elaborately braided leather was wrapped around it, and she said, “My bracelet doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Yours has more magic,” Letty said.
Letty’s eyebrows went up. “Are you serious? It isn’t important to you?”
“Nah. I buy the leather in craft shops, we go in and ask if they’ve got any scraps, and I make these up, then we sell them, when we can.”
“Even up,” Letty said. She peeled the band off her wrist, and Skye did it with hers, and they traded.
“If this Pilot guy is such an asshole, why does Henry like him so much?” Letty asked.
Henry: “He’s a movie guy.”
Skye turned on him: “You know, I don’t usually think you’re stupid, but you’re stupid about Pilot. He tells you he was on TV and you believe him. If he’s on TV, why’s he driving around in a piece-of-shit Pontiac? That thing is fifteen years older than you are, Henry...”
“It’s a cool car, man...”
“It’s a piece of shit.” Skye turned back to Letty. “We made the mistake of hanging round with some of the disciples for a while. If you’re on the street, down in L.A., if you’re around the beaches, you’ll run into them.”
“If you hate him so much, why’d you hang with them?” Letty asked.
“They share,” Henry said.
Skye nodded. “They do. That’s one thing about them. They’ll feed you if you’re willing to listen to Pilot talk about the Fall. You get hungry enough, you’ll listen.”
“Huh. I would have been curious to meet him,” Letty said.
Skye said, “Not unless you’re crazier than you look. I’m not kiddin’ you: he is an evil motherfucker.”
They talked for a few minutes more, then Letty checked the time on her cell phone. “I’ve got to go.”
“Where’s your home?” Skye asked.
“Really? Maybe I’ll see you there. Henry and I are gonna hit the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, the bikers are usually good for something. Problem is, Pilot’s going there, too. To Sturgis, to sell dope. That’s what he told a friend of ours, anyway. ”
Letty took a miniature legal pad out of her shoulder bag, and scribbled a phone number on the page, with her first name only. “If you make it to Minneapolis, give me a call, I’ll buy you another cheeseburger,” she said. She took a fifty out of her purse, folded it to the same dimensions as the note and pushed it across the table. “Emergency money.”
“Thanks. I mean really, thanks.” Skye took it and asked, “Do you really think you could kill somebody?”
Letty nodded: “I have.”
Skye cocked her head: “Really?”
“Really. Believe me, Skye, when it’s you or them, you tend to choose them. And not feel bad about it.”
Skye said, “If you say so. If we get there, I’ll call. In fact, I...
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