Garvin Poole slipped out of bed, got his lighter off the fireplace mantel, and walked in his underwear through the dark house to the kitchen, where he took a joint out of a sugar jar, then continued to the garden door.
He opened it as quietly as he could, but it chimed once, not an alarm so much as a notification. He stepped out onto the patio and continued along the flagstone walk to his work shed.
Poole was an inch shy of six feet, with the broad shoulders and big hands of a high school wrestler, which he’d never been, and now, a hint of a hard beer gut. He still had thick reddish-brown hair over blue eyes and used a beard trimmer for the three-day look. Women liked him: he couldn’t go to Whole Foods without picking up a conversation.
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The flagstones underfoot were cool but dry; not much rain this year. The moon was up high and bright over the garden wall, and he could hear, faintly, from well off in the distance, the stuttering midnight sound of Rihanna singing “Work.” He opened the shed door, turned on the light, sat down in the office chair, fired up the joint, and looked at the guitar he was building.
He’d been sitting there for a half minute or so when Dora Box said, “Gar?” She stepped through the open door, buck naked, the way she slept. “Whatcha doin’?”
He said, “Come on, sit down.” She sat in a wooden chair and didn’t cross her legs and he took a long look and then said, “I’m going back to work. One time.”
“Oh, boy.” Now she crossed her legs. Box had a hard time getting through the day without being rubbed or squeezed, but business was business.
“It might have been a mistake, coming here,” he said, waving the joint at the workshop. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, for the last month or so. I like it, but we should have left the country. Gotten out completely.”
“There’s no other place you like that we could go,” Box said. “Costa Rica was supposed to be the best, but you thought it sucked. Snakes. Oh, God, snakes. Anyway, you don’t even like most of the States, Gar. Where’d we go that we’d like?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Someplace crookeder than here.”
“You know a place crookeder than Dallas?”
“Sure. There are places in this world where you can pay the cops to kill people for you,” he said. His voice squeaked as he simultaneously tried to talk and to hold the smoke in his lungs. “Where you can do anything you want.”
“You wouldn’t want to live in those places. What brought this on?”
Poole took a drag on the joint and said, “I put ten years of money into gold, and now I go around trying to cash the gold out and there aren’t enough places to do that, not inside a day’s drive. Every time I cash a coin, the guys are giving me looks, you know? I’ve been back too many times. They know what I’m doing, that I’m cashing out hot money. They don’t say anything, but they know.”
“We could drive somewhere else,” Box suggested. “Oklahoma City, Houston . . .”
“Basically the same problem. People looking at you, remembering you,” Poole said.
Silence for a while, then Box said, “I thought the gold was smart.”
“I did, too, back at the start. The cops were tearing up everything south of Kentucky, looking for me, and gold seemed . . . flexible. Good anywhere. Maybe I was thinking about it too much.”
They’d had variations of the talk before. Gold coins were anonymous, portable, no serial numbers. He could get small bills for gold, it kept its value over time, and it was salable almost anywhere. He hadn’t seen the problem with being looked at and remembered.
“I didn’t see that coming, cashing out month after month. We need ten thousand a month to keep our heads above water, that’s nine or ten coins a month right now,” he said. “If we were in the right country, we could cash it all out at once, set up a phony company. Pretend we earned the money, give ourselves salaries, pay taxes, and maybe someday come back to the States under different names.”
“Sounds sketchy,” she said, and, “Gimme a hit.” He passed the joint, and she took a hit, held it, breathed out, bit off another one, passed it back, uncrossed her legs, and unconsciously trailed her fingers across her pussy. The soft smell of marijuana went well with the fleshy damp odor of the nighttime garden. “If you’re thinking about moving us out of the country, then why are you thinking about taking a job?”
“Because I really don’t want to leave here. The job’s an alternative,” Poole said.
“Sturgill called. He sees an opportunity.”
“Can’t tell from a distance, but he thinks at least Two or Three. Maybe more. Maybe a lot more.” He orally capitalized the numbers. “Two” meant two million. “Three” meant three million.
Box shook her head. “That much, it’s gotta be risky.”
“Sturg says it’s pretty soft.”
“Sturg . . . Sturg always knows what he’s talking about,” Box conceded. “When would you do it?”
“Either one week, or a month and a week. The money’s there one day a month,” Poole said.
“Mmm. I like Biloxi. Like that jambalaya. Pass the joint.” He passed it over and she bit off some smoke, played it through her nose. She handed the joint back and rubbed her arms: goose bumps in the cool night.
“The thing is, we’d get cash. All cash. We could spend it without anybody looking at us or looking for us,” Poole said. “Stay here, figure out a way to move the gold. We get a couple mil out of Biloxi, we could take eight or ten years to liquidate the gold and when that’s done, we got a lifetime.”
“I don’t like you going back to work, but it’s better’n moving to Russia, or some weird foreign shit like that,” Box said. She stood up and stretched: she had the body for it, too, long, lanky, lightly freckled, a dishwater blonde with small pink nipples and only a wispy trace of pubic hair. “I’m going back to bed. Don’t stay up too late.”
Poole bought high-quality guitar parts, assembled them, then began meticulously carving and staining the surfaces, creating comic-book-like custom scenes. He’d learned woodworking at what Tennessee called, with a straight face, a Youth Development Center. Prison for kids, was what it was.
When Box was gone, he sat looking at his latest work, a bass-fishing comic being done for a pro fisherman who was also a guitar collector. It needed another two weeks; he’d have to put it aside, for now. He reached across the shed and picked up a twenty-year-old Les Paul, touched the power switch on an amp with his big toe, pulled some quiet blues out of the guitar. He liked the music, liked the woodwork, liked the smell of the lacquer. If he’d made a business of it, he figured he’d make almost half as much as an elementary school teacher.
He went to Biloxi.
Biloxi, Mississippi, and the smell of the sea.
Sturgill Darling was sitting at a round corner table in the oyster bar, a block off the Gulf of Mexico, amid the steam and sour stinks of both raw and cooking seafood. He looked like a slow, lazy hick, and stupid, too, with his farm-work forearms, bowl-cut brown hair, and worn, loose-cut jeans. He wore a floppy plaid shirt and yellow work boots, and sprawled back in the chair, knees locked and feet straight out in front of him, grinning at the passing crowd with teeth as yellow as his boots. A dumbass, for sure; an ignorant peckerwood. A mistake that any number of people had made to their lasting regret.
Poole took the chair beside him, held up a finger to a barmaid, and pointed at Darling’s glass and said, “Give me one of those.”
When she’d gone, Darling asked, “What do you think?”
Poole was wearing sunglasses over a gray-flecked-red week-old beard, and under a long-billed fishing hat, the better to defeat surveillance cameras. He’d spent most of the day scouting the scene of the would-be job. “We can do it, if it’s no more guys than you say. How in the hell did you find this?”
“I knew the blow was coming in through Galveston but I couldn’t see any money going out. They’re bringing in anything up to five hundred kilos at a time, that’s, let’s see, about eleven hundred pounds, off big game fishing boats that meet with these boats from Honduras. Anyway, I found a guy in Houston who could sell me an ounce, and then I watched. Watched him, watched the guy he got his product from, and watched the guy he got his product from, and by the time I got to the end of the line, I was watching guys who could sell you a hundred kilos if you had the cash. Then I watched them backwards, watched the wholesalers paying the money guys—the money guys never touch the dope—and watched the money guys move it to the pickup guys, who travel up and down the coast from Charleston around to Galveston, with Biloxi in the middle. Watched it come down here, to the bank.”
Poole thought about that, admitted to himself that Darling had a talent that he, Poole, barely understood, the ability to uncover the footprints that could lead to a treasure; but Poole also understood that he had a talent that Darling didn’t: the will to act. Darling could uncover all the dope banks he wished, but he’d never go into a robbery as the leader, the designated shooter. That took somebody like Poole.
“How do they move the dope?” Poole asked.
“RV. Couple of middle-aged lesbo chicks, got some prison tats on them. They look . . . competent. They got double-load tires on the truck, I believe there might be some armor on it. These girls got a look about them—I believe they’re carrying some artillery.”
“Huh.” That’s the way Poole would have done it; he even liked the lesbo touch. Cops were usually too sexist and too lazy to pay much attention to a couple of chicks. And some of those goddamn dykes could take your face apart with their teeth.
“But we don’t want the dope, even if we could take it,” Darling said. “We got no way to get rid of it. Not that much of it. And the dope handlers never see the cash, except at the lowest levels.”
“Just askin’. Five hundred kilos, what’s that . . .” He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then said, “Twelve million, more or less, if it’s not stepped on too hard. What about the money?”
“They take no chances with the money. They move it in increments. There are four bankers who travel around, meet the collectors who get the cash from the top-end retailers. The bankers and everybody else move in rental cars, I doubt they ever have as much as a quarter million in any one pickup. Then it comes together, down here, once a month. The people here bundle it and send it out on the last Sunday of the month,” Darling said. “Regular as a railroad. Put it on a charter boat, drop it with a Honduran boat out in the Gulf. Whole operation is run by the Arce brothers, Hector and Simon, out of Puerto Cortés.”
“Yes. The brothers aren’t real big, not like the Mexican cartels, but they’re smart and mean. Keep their heads down and their mouths shut, nothing flashy about them. Pay off the Honduran cops and army, everybody’s cool.”
Poole thought about that, in the silent, smiling, calculating way that Southerners had, and finally said, “Well. Looks like you found the honeypot, all right.”
“Probably.” Darling gave Poole his lazy look. “You sure you’re up for this? It’s been a while.”
“Yup. I am.”
“There’ll be one outside, three inside, they all got guns,” Darling said. “I’ve watched them for three months, always the same.”
“We gunned up?” Poole asked.
“Yeah. Got your favorites, bought out of Chicago brand-new, Glock 23s suppressed, loaded up with 180s. I did the reloads myself so they’ll be going out subsonic to kill some of the noise. I thought maybe . . . Sam Brooks if you think we need another gun.”
“Don’t need him and I don’t like him,” Poole said. “I’ll need a day to work with the guns. You got a place I can do that?”
“Knew you’d ask,” Darling said. “I got a place so far out in the woods that the fuckin’ owls get lost.”
The barmaid brought Poole’s beer and he thanked her and they waited until she moved away, then Poole said, “Shoot the next couple days, move Sunday night?”
“Sounds good. About the cut? What do you think?”
Poole grinned and tapped the beer, swallowed, and said, “I won’t argue with you.”
“I’m thinking, sixty-forty, since I did all the setup,” Darling said. “Took me nine months. I started working on it way last winter.”
“Hot damn,” Darling said, with his yellow grin. “The Dixie Hicks are back in action. What’s left of them, anyway.”
Poole laughed and kicked back and said, “You remember that time with Ronnie outside of Charleston . . .”
The Dixie Hicks had all kinds of war stories, some funny, some sad. In most of them, even the funny ones, somebody wound up dead. Like Ronnie, three Georgia state troopers hot on his ass, riding a stolen 2009, 556-horse Cadillac CTS-V down a rocky gulch in the Georgia Piedmont, rolling over and over and over until the car looked like a shiny sausage, thirty thousand dollars in bank money exploded all over the interior, along with Ronnie’s brains.
Good old Ronnie. Too bad he killed himself.
Poole and Darling drove north into the trees on the following day and Poole went to work with the guns. He’d laid off for a while, but killing is like riding a bicycle: once you got it, you got it.
Darling had gotten inside the counting house one dark night when the bankers weren’t there, and said they counted at a table about thirty-two feet from the door in the outer wall—he’d checked it with a tape measure. At thirty-two feet, or any shorter distance, Poole wouldn’t have to worry about where to shoot: he’d hold dead-on and pull the trigger. They set up some human-shaped paper targets out in the woods, stapled to pine trees, and Poole worked at it, getting back in the rhythm. From the first shots, he was accurate enough, but he had to work on speed.
Excerpted from Golden Prey by John Sandford. Copyright © 2017 by John Sandford. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.