“We’re going to murder people who need to be murdered.”
So begins a press release from a mysterious group known only as “The Five,” shortly after a vicious predator is murdered in San Francisco. The Five is made up of vigilante killers who are very bored…and very rich. They target the worst of society—rapists, murderers, and thieves—and then use their unlimited resources to offset the damage done by those who they’ve killed, donating untraceable Bitcoin to charities and victims via the dark net. The Five soon become popular figures in the media …though their motives may not be entirely pure.
After The Five strike again in the Twin Cities, Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport are sent in to investigate. And they soon have their hands fullthe killings are smart and carefully choreographed, and with no apparent direct connection to the victims, the killers are virtually untraceable. But if anyone can destroy this group, it will be the dynamic team of Davenport and Flowers.
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About the Author
Hometown:St. Paul, Minnesota
Date of Birth:February 23, 1944
Place of Birth:Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Education:State University of Iowa, Iowa City: B.A., American History; M.A., Journalism
Read an Excerpt
Bitcoin billionaire, amateur art historian, onetime farm boy George Sonnewell sat on a concrete abutment in a sour-milk-smelling alley near Union Square in San Francisco, the cement rough against his jean-clad butt.
The night was chilly, a good excuse for the long-sleeved work shirt and nylon Air Force jacket, heavy jeans, and boots, although a neutral observer might have been puzzled by the translucent vinyl gloves he wore on his hands.
The clothing had been worn only this once, the better to minimize the transfer of DNA to a murder victim.
And he waited, a predator in plaid.
Overhead, between the buildings, he could see exactly one star, surrounded by roiling purple nighttime clouds that reflected the kaleidoscope of city lights back to earth. Though he rarely used alcohol, Sonnewell had three-fourths of a jug of Burnett's peach vodka by his hip.
His hands trembled. Nerves, he thought. He was scared, but he was going for it.
And here came Duck Wiggins, right on schedule, down the alley that he considered his alley. He spotted Sonnewell and the jug. Wiggins was a battered man, his face a collection of fleshly crevasses, eroded by his years on the street. His beard might almost have been mistaken for religious expression, so twisted and solid with filth it was.
Wiggins said, "Hey! This is my street, bitch!" and a moment later, "Whatchagot there?"
Sonnewell, matching the aggression: "What the fuck is it to you?"
"Gimme a taste."
"Why should I?"
Wiggins: "Give me a taste and I'll blow you. Later." He was lying. He was the top of the food chain, not this dweeb sitting on the wall like Humpty Dumpty.
Sonnewell pretended to think about it: "Bite me and I'll kill you."
"I don't bite."
Sonnewell pretended to think about it some more: "Okay."
They sat together, a yard apart on the abutment, silent except for the steady gurgling of the vodka-Wiggins got on it and never let up. It occurred to him at one point that the other man was neither drinking nor complaining, but if he wasn't complaining, then Wiggins wasn't complaining.
Sonnewell turned as if to say something, but instead cocked his arm and struck Wiggins at the base of the skull with a scything forearm blow, knocking the other man off the wall, facedown in the alley. The bottle fell backward, still on the wall, but didn't break.
As Wiggins hit the ground, Sonnewell dropped all his two hundred and twenty pounds on his back. Too drunk to fight, Wiggins tried to push up and then to roll, but the other man forced him down to the broken concrete.
Wiggins, face to the side, mumbling into the dirt: "Wha . . . t' . . . fuck?"
Sonnewell pulled a short hard-finished nylon rope from his hip pocket. The ends of the rope were knotted around four-inch lengths of dowel, like an old-fashioned lawnmower starter rope, the better to grip it. He dragged the rope past Wiggins' forehead, nose, lips, and chin to his neck, and pulled on the dowels for a long three minutes as Wiggins thrashed and kicked and pounded the concrete with his fists.
Sonnewell cursed and looked up and down the alley as he rode the other man, fearing a witness, but he'd chosen the kill site carefully and there were no other eyes. The alcohol was too much for Wiggins to overcome; Sonnewell won in the end.
When he was sure Wiggins was dead, Sonnewell untangled the rope from his victim's neck, put it back in his hip pocket, looked up and down the alley. Then he crossed Wiggins' feet and turned them, rolling the dead man onto his back.
Wiggins' forehead was wet with sweat and maybe vodka, and air burped from his lungs, creating a stench compounded of alcohol and old meat. Sonnewell took a black Sharpie from his shirt pocket and wrote a careful "1" on Wiggins' forehead. He retraced the "1" three times, to make sure it was perfectly clear. When he was satisfied, he stood, looked both ways, and left Wiggins as he lay.
Sonnewell was a half mile from his car and it was dark, and the San Francisco streets were mean. He touched his hip, where he'd tucked a compact nine-millimeter handgun. He was not to be fucked with, not on this night. Before he left the alley, he pulled on a dark blue Covid mask; he shouldn't get close enough to anyone to get Covid, but it was a useful disguise.
As he walked back to his car, he passed a row of tents inhabited by homeless people. He left the remains of the vodka there, next to a tattered plastic POW flag planted in a bucket of dirt.
When he got to his Mercedes SUV, unharmed, he locked himself inside, took out a burner phone, and called a memorized number. The phone call was answered by a woman. Her name was Vivian Zhao. She lived somewhere in Southern California, but he wasn't sure where. One thing he did know for sure: she was crazier than a shithouse mouse, and smart.
"How did it go?" she asked.
"Done. Alley near Union Square. As we discussed."
"You're my hero," she said. "Don't forget to throw the phone away. And your rope."
She hung up.
On the way out of town-Sonnewell lived south down the peninsula, in Palo Alto-he asked himself how he felt about killing a man. He was interested, but not surprised, to find that he was now genuinely frightened.
He would be frightened for a while, he thought. Accompanying the fear was an unfamiliar and growing exhilaration.
Sonnewell had grown up on a Central Valley corn farm, one of the four abused children of a hard-faced descendant of Okies who'd actually made it in California. His father believed, as his parents and grandparents had, in the fist and the razor strop. Sonnewell, his two brothers and his sister, lying on the banks of a local creek, had talked of killing the old man. They'd never done it, or even tried, though the talk had been serious.
Through strange and unrepeatable circumstances, Sonnewell had once invested fifty thousand dollars in a thing called Bitcoin. When he'd sold out, with Bitcoin at $46,000 per coin, he was a billionaire. He'd ripped off ten million dollars for each for his siblings and they unanimously told their father that he and his farm could go fuck themselves.
Yet, in his heart, Sonnewell was still an American farm boy, and believed in an America he saw dissolving around him. Half the people in the Central Valley couldn't speak English; the crazies who ran the California government had jacked taxes so high that ordinary hardworking people could hardly make it without abasing themselves before the assholes in the statehouse. The assholes who stood by as the great coastal cities of California were swarmed under by the unclean, the unhealthy, the addicted, the grasping.
Like Duck Wiggins.
The product of beatings since he was a toddler, Sonnewell was not quite right in the head.
He knew that. He was willing to use his difference.
As Sonnewell was pushing down the peninsula, U.S. Marshal Lucas Davenport was pulling into his driveway in St. Paul, Minnesota, half a continent away. Snow was falling: more than a flurry, less than a blizzard. There were two new inches of snow on the driveway, and he knew, as he drove across it, that he'd leave frozen tracks behind himself that wouldn't come off with a snowblower. He'd either have to laboriously scrape off the tracks in the morning, or they'd be there until February or March.
Though it was late, there were lights in the windows. He pulled into the garage, got out of the car, walked back outside and turned his face up to the snowflakes. They were like feathers, caressing his face; cold, tender, refreshing.
From well down the street, he could hear the faint tingling of recorded Christmas music coming from a house that must have had six hundred red, blue, and green lights hanging from it, and a sleigh with eight plastic reindeer in the front yard, along with a crche. It was far enough away that he didn't mind, but he suspected the nonstop jingles were driving the adjacent neighbors nuts. Christmas was two weeks gone. In his opinion, it was time to can the Christmas tunes.
As the snowflakes evolved from refreshing to cold and wet, he went back into the garage, dropped the overhead door, and walked through the access door into the house, where his wife, Weather, was burning toast.
"You're burning the toast," he called.
Weather ran back into the kitchen and popped up the toast. "Mmm," she said, "Peanut butter-covered charcoal."
"Do anything good today?" Lucas asked.
"Skin grafts on a guy who got fried trying to fix a high-tension wire," she said. She was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. Her tone was routine because the work had been routine; it was what she did. "Blew most of the fat off his body. He's got the face of a thirty-year-old angel, but everything below his neck is a mess of scar tissue."
"Nice image," Lucas said, shucking his coat. He hung it on a hook in the hallway between the kitchen and garage.
"How about you? You catch him?" she asked.
"No, but I've got a better idea where he might be hiding. Not that I care much. He's not exactly Al Capone."
"What are you going to do now?" Weather asked. She was a short slender woman, with blue eyes and an oversized, slightly bent nose, which Lucas had found instantly attractive when they first met: gave her a craggy aspect. Her hair, originally a dishwater blond, was showing the first hints of gray, and now was being managed by an enormously expensive hairdresser named Olaf, though only Lucas considered him enormously expensive.
"Get a beer, and either watch some basketball from the West Coast or roll around in the bed with my old lady," Lucas said.
"I'll meet you upstairs in fifteen minutes," Weather said. "My breath will smell like peanut butter and burnt toast."
"Mmm. Peanut butter." He patted her on the ass on his way to the refrigerator.
Lucas woke at ten o'clock the next morning, pleasantly relaxed after the moderately athletic sex. He got up, yawned, scratched his stomach and wandered downstairs in his undershorts and tee-shirt, made himself a cup of cocoa with tiny marshmallows, turned on his laptop and brought up the Google news feed.
The headlines weren't all bullshit, but most of them were; his eyes hooked on a short story about a man strangled in San Francisco, the strangulation having been announced in a press release by the killer. The press release was attached to the story as a sidebar.
A vertical wrinkle formed between Lucas' eyes. A killer was sending out press releases?
We are all, he thought, going to hell.
If you have money, a lot of money, as all of us do, how do you get your thrills? Skydiving? Fight clubs? Orgies? Gambling? Fly your own jet, sail your own super-yacht? Well, of course you do. All of that. But it gets old, doesn't it? It has for the Five.
So now, to liven our lives, we're going to murder people who need to be murdered. We're doing a service to the American culture at large, and at the same time, enjoying the extreme thrill of being hunted by the police, by the FBI, by whomever takes the time to chase us. Yes: we are going to help rid America of its assholes. We invite others to join in. Really. Please do. We can't get this done alone. So many assholes, so little time.
As for us, we've already killed the first of our designated victims, Duck Wiggins. Wiggins lived on the streets of San Francisco. He was a disgusting piece of human trash. He stole, he raped, he precipitated fights, he attacked innocent elderly Asians, and the San Francisco police believe he stabbed at least three of his fellow denizens of the gutters. And, of course, he defecated on the sidewalks whenever he felt the urge.
One of the Five strangled him this morning. We put a numeral "1" on his forehead and San Franciscans will no longer have to put up with Wiggins' vicious insanity.
To complicate the moral matters for all of you, each of the Five have put an anonymous, untraceable Bitcoin (worth $44,123.23 apiece at the instant of this writing) into a Bitcoin wallet whose address we've already sent to Street of Hope, a San Francisco organization dedicated to helping the homeless. Will Street of Hope accept the $220,616.15 (as of this instant) to do good? Or refuse to do $220,616.15 of good on grounds that it's blood money? We shall see, shan't we?
(Next up? A politician! Stay tuned to this station.)
A week after the Wiggins murder, an almost cartoonishly handsome dude-and a dude he was, with big shoulders, square teeth, a chin he could have used to chop wood, a thousand-dollar sport coat, loafers worn without socks-snuck out the back door of the Asiatic Hotel in Houston, Texas. He planned to walk around the corner to where he'd parked his car.
His simple plan was sidetracked by a bottle blonde, a beauty, maybe thirty, maybe a little older, medium tits, small waist, tight ass, the whole alluring package. She was leaning against the wall of the theater building across a narrow brick walkway from the good-looking guy, next to a door used by the stage talent. She was wearing a black silk blouse and dark skinny jeans. She was smoking a cigarette, like one of those '40s stunners in the black-and-white noir films.
The good-looking guy was not bashful. He pulled up, nearly stumbled, and said, "Whoa! Howya doing, girlie? All alone in the dark?"
"Taking a break between sets," she said. He could hear the faint sound of music behind her, coming from the partially open door. She frowned, stepped closer to him, said, "Say... are you Jack Daniels?"
He gave her his best whitened-tooth grin. "Maybe. You from around here, or are you traveling?"
"From Austin," she said. She looked out of the alley toward the street. They were alone. "Are you sure you're really... let me see your face."
She reached out a slender hand, as if to turn his head into the light. Daniels let her do it, the grin still on his face. She didn't touch him, though. She had the blade of a straight razor tight between two fingers, snatched her hand back toward herself, nothing gentle about it, and Daniels felt a streak of cold pain, like a lightning strike, across his neck.
The woman stepped away and he realized, as blood gushed across his thousand-dollar sport coat, that she was wearing translucent vinyl gloves.
Andi Carter’s father was the executive vice-president of the LaFitte National Bank in New Orleans. He’d never be president; nor would he ever be less than the exceptionally well-paid executive vice-president.
When Andi Carter’s father was thirty-eight, his wife had run off with a building contractor to begin a new and better life in the Florida Keys. Her father, in the meantime, was left in a middle-management bank job with not much in the way of prospects and with no notable assets…with one exception.
A smoking hot thirteen-year-old, she’d caught the eye of several LaFitte executives and board members. They’d collectively made a deal with her father, and thereafter taught Andi the ways of the world, along with several uncomfortable sexual acts.
They eventually (under some duress) pooled money to send her to Wharton, at eighteen, to study finance. Her father, in the meantime, had been promoted into the do-nothing executive vice-president position. From which he’d never be promoted or demoted. That’s just the way it was, in New Orleans, if you’d whored out your teen-aged daughter.
At Wharton, Carter had been told about this extraordinary investment opportunity in a thing called Bitcoin; all the smart kids were talking about it. She’d extracted the necessary money (under some duress) from the bank executives and board members, and though she’d gotten in a little late, it wasn’t too late. A few years later, she was worth more than all the executives and board members put together. She could have bought the bank, if she’d wanted it.