Hunting 'Prey' On The Streets Of The Twin Cities

Author John Sandford i i

hide captionAuthor John Sandford worked as a crime reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press before trying his hand at fiction.

John Earle
Author John Sandford

Author John Sandford worked as a crime reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press before trying his hand at fiction.

John Earle

Even in some of its more dicey neighborhoods, St. Paul, Minn., has the old-fashioned American look of an Edward Hopper painting. It's not particularly threatening looking, but for crime writer John Sandford, this is the territory of tough thugs, like the red-haired paraplegic pimp Randy Whitcomb in his latest book, Wicked Prey.

Sandford, a genial man who seems at ease in the world, is the author of more than two dozen crime novels, including the Prey series, featuring fictional detective Lucas Davenport.

Like the man who created him, Davenport is comfortable in his own skin. He is not, says Sandford, a "noir " kind of guy:

Read An Excerpt of Wicked Prey.

"He has a very domestic element in him," says Sandford of his fictional detective. "One of Davenport's idiosyncrasies is that he's a clothes horse, he likes to dress up."

When Davenport's work day is over and he's captured his prey — often in a blaze of gunfire — he retires to the arms of his wife and children in a posh neighborhood overlooking the Mississippi River. It's not the type of place you might expect a tough cop to live, but then again, Davenport isn't like most fictional cops. For one thing, he's not one of those depressive types who struggle with existential angst; rather, Sandford's hero likes his job.

"He likes to hunt people, he likes confrontations, he will get tough with people even if they don't deserve it because he likes that kind of thing. And this is actually based on cops I've known," says Sandford.

Sandford learned a lot about cops when he worked as a reporter at the Pioneer Press. He spent time hanging out with cops, and listening to how they talk, and he's still well known to many of the police officers at the St. Paul police department.

One of Sandford's long-time friends is Police Chief John Harrington, who he's known since Harrington worked undercover on city buses. Sandford doesn't ask his old friend for advice about his books, but Harrington says the attitude and police work in Sandford's prose are spot on.

"He gets [the details of police work] better than anyone else I've ever read," says Harrington. "It's the communication of how cops talk to each other, how cops think of each other and how we think about the world that he gets just right on."

Sandford looks for those telling details wherever he may be, whether it's prowling the city's streets or on a hunting trip with his buddies. On one particular hunting trip, Sandford's friend, writer Chuck Logan, shot a deer and the two men followed the wounded animal's trail of blood.

"All of a sudden you've got this whole thing that you know about tracking a blood wound through the woods," says Sanford. "That just showed up in a novel I wrote a couple of years ago about my other character Virgil Flowers, when they are tracking a blood trail from a guy who got shot in the woods. So I have a reference to what it actually looks like."

Fiction, Sandford says, works best when grounded in reality. Perhaps that's why the roots he planted in the Twin Cities more than 30 years ago remain so strong.

"Most people who are trying to write kind of sit in their basements and pull it out of their imaginations. It would be so much better if they just [went] outside and looked," says Sandford. "It doesn't have to be in the same neighborhood, it just has to be credible for that neighborhood. Just go outside and look at something and write it down and you'll find it is a very nice piece of writing."

Excerpt: 'Wicked Prey'

Cover: 'Wicked Prey'
Wicked Prey
By John Sandford
Hardcover, 416 pages
Putnam
List Price: $27.95
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

Randy Whitcomb was a human stinkpot, a red-haired cripple with a permanent cloud over his head; a gap-toothed, pock-faced, paraplegic crank freak, six weeks out of the Lino Lakes medium- security prison. He hurtled past the luggage carousels at Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport, pumping the wheels of his cheap non-motorized state-bought wheelchair, his coarse red hair a wild halo around his head.

"Get out of the way, you little motherfucker," he snarled at a blond child of three or four years. He zipped past the gawking mother and tired travelers and nearly across the elegant cordovan shoe tips of a tall bearded man. "Out of the way, fuckhead," and he was through the door, the anger streaming behind him like coal smoke from a power plant.

The bearded man with the elegant cordovan shoes, which came from a shop in Jermyn Street in London, leaned close to his companion, a dark-haired woman who wore blue jeans and a black blouse, running shoes, and cheap oversized sunglasses with unfashionable plastic rims. He said, quietly, in a cool Alabama accent, "If we see yon bugger again, remind me to crack his skinny handicapped neck."

The woman smiled and said, "Yon bugger? You were in England way too long."

Brutus Cohn, traveling under the passport name of John Lamb, tracked the wheelchair down the sidewalk. There was no humor in his cold blue eyes. "Aye, I was that," he said. "But now I'm back."

Cohn and the woman, who called herself Rosie Cruz, walked underground to the short-term parking structure, trailing Cohn's single piece of wheeled luggage. As they went out the door, the heat hit them like a hand in the face. Not as bad as Alabama heat, but dense, and sticky, smelling of burned transmission fluid, spoiled fruit, and bubble gum. Cruz pushed the trunk button on the remote key and the taillights blinked on a beige Toyota Camry.

"Ugly car," he said, as he lifted the suitcase into the trunk. Cohn disliked ugly cars, ugly clothes, ugly houses.

"The best-selling car in America, in the least attention-getting color," Cruz said. She was a good-looking woman of no particularly identifiable age, who'd taken care to make herself mousy. She wore no makeup, had done nothing with her hair.

Cohn had once seen her in Dallas, where women dressed up, and she'd astonished him with her authentic Texas vibe: moderately big hair, modestly big lipstick, two-inch heels, stockings with seams down the back; her twice-great-grand-uncle might have died at the Alamo. Cruz, when working, dressed for invisibility. She fit in Dallas, she fit in Minnesota, she fit wherever they worked-she was wallpaper, she was background. She took the driver's side, and he sat on the passenger side, fiddling with the seat controls to push it all the way back. At six-foot-six, he needed the legroom.

"Give me your passport and documents," Cruz said, when the air conditioning was going.

He took a wallet out of his breast pocket and handed it over. Inside were a hundred pounds, fifty euros, fifty dollars, an American passport, a New York State driver's license, two credit cards, a building security card with a magnetic strip, and a variety of wallet detritus.

The whole lot, except for the passport and currency, had been taken from the home of the real John Lamb by his building superintendent, who was a crook. Since the credit cards would never be used, no one would be the wiser. The passport had been more complicated, but not too-a stand-in had applied by mail, submitting a photograph of Cohn, and when it came to Lamb's apartment, it had been stolen from the mailbox. As long as the real Lamb didn't apply for another one, they were good.

Cruz took out the currency and handed it back to Cohn, tucked the wallet under the car seat and handed over another one, thick with cash. "William Joseph Wakefield-Billy Joe. Everything's real, except the picture on the driver's license. Don't use the credit cards unless it's an emergency."

"Billy Joe." Cohn thumbed through the cash. "Two thousand dollars. Three nights at a decent hotel."

"We're not staying at a decent hotel," Cruz said. She reached into the backseat, picked up a baseball cap with a Minnesota Twins logo, and said, "Put this on and pull it down over your eyes."

He did, and with his careful British suit, it made him look a bit foolish. She wouldn't have given it to him without a reason, so he put it on, and asked, "Where're we set up?"

She backed carefully out of the parking space and turned for the exit. "At the HomTel in Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the state line from here. Thirty miles. Two hundred and twenty dollars a night, for two rooms for you, adjoining, which is twice as much as they're worth, but with the convention in town, you get what you can. I'm upstairs and on the other side of the motel."

"Where're the boys?"

"Jesse's across the street at the Windmill, Tate is at the Cross Motel, Jack is at a mom-and-pop called Wakefield Inn, all in Hudson. All within easy walking distance from the HomTel." Multiple nearby rooms in different hotels made it easier to get together, and also easier to find an emergency hideout if the cops made one or another of them. They could be off the street in minutes, in a motel where they'd never been seen by the management.

Standard operating procedure, worked out and talked over in prisons across the country. Cohn nodded and said, "Okay."

"I almost went home when you invited Jack back in," Cruz said, threading her way through the concrete pillars of the parking ramp.

"Better to have him inside the tent pissin' out, than outside the tent pissin' in," Cohn said.

"I don't know what that means," she said.

"It means that when he gets picked up-and I do mean when, it's only a matter of time-he'll try to cut a deal," Cohn said. "We're one of the things he's got. I need to talk to him."

"He'd cut a deal whatever we do."

"No. Not really. I've thought on that," he said, in an accent that spoke of the deep southern part of Yorkshire. "There are circumstances in which he would not cut a deal, no matter what the coppers might have offered to him."

"You've got to lose that bullshit British syntax, right now," Cruz said. "You're Billy Joe Wakefield from Birmingham, Alabama. You need khakis and golf shirts."

"Give me two minutes listening to country music," Cohn said. "That'll get 'er done."

"Anyway, about Jack . . ."

"Let it go," he said. "I'll take care of Jack."

"Okay," she said. "Put your sunglasses on."

At seven o'clock, the sky was still bright. Cohn took a pair of wraparound sunglasses from his jacket pocket and slipped them on. At the pay booth, Cruz dropped the window and handed ten dollars to a Somali woman in a shawl. Cruz got the change from the ten, and a receipt, rolled the window back up, pulled away from the booth, and handed the receipt to Cohn.

"Check it out," she said.

He looked at the receipt, said, "Huh. The tag number's on it."

"There's a scanning camera at the entrance," Cruz said. "I'm wondering if it might digitize faces at the same time that it picks up the license plates-hook them together, then run them through a facial recognition program."

"Would that be a problem?"

"Not as long as somebody doesn't put your face in the car with your face in the FBI fi les," she said. "That's not a question with me, of course."

"Got the beard, now," he said. "And the hat and glasses. I cut the beard off square to give my chin a different line. I was wondering about the baseball hat . . ."

They rode along for a minute or two, as she got off the airport and headed into St. Paul, past the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Even in the middle of a big urban area, the river valleys had a wildness that reminded him of home in Alabama. In Britain, even the wild areas had a groomed look.

"Jack, I can't get him off my mind. I'm sorry . . ."

"Never mind Jack." He was looking out the window. "You almost went home, huh? That'd be . . . Zihuatanejo?"

"Never been to Mexico in my life, Brute," she said with a grin. "Give it up."

"With a name like Cruz, you gotta have been in Mexico."

Her eyes flicked to him. "Why would you think my name is Cruz?"

He laughed and said, "Okay." But she looked like a Cruz.

She clicked on the radio, dialed around, found a country station.

"Instead of worrying about where I'm from, see if you can get the Alabama accent going."

The first song up was Sawyer Brown singing "Some Girls Do," and Cohn sang along with it, all the way to the end, and then shouted, "Jesus Christ, it's good to be back in the States. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland can go fuck itself."

Reprinted from Wicked Prey, by John Sandford with permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by John Sandford.

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