Twisted Prey

John Sandford

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Twisted Prey, a new political thriller from John Sandford (the pseudonym for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp). Sandford/Camp is the internationally bestselling author of the Prey series, the Kidd series, and the Virgil Flowers series, as well as several stand-alones and three YA novels co-written with his wife.


Porter Smalls looked across the front seat at the driver. The summer foliage was dark around the Cadillac Escalade as they rolled up the dirt lane. The South Branch of the Potomac River snaked along below them; the windows were down, and the muddy/fishy odor of the river filled the car.

“A bit—in a good way,” Cecily Whitehead said.

Whitehead had taken a cold shower in the cabin’s well water shortly before they left, and dabbed on a touch of Chanel No. 5 as she dressed. The combined odor of the two scents was more than pleasant, it was positively erotic.

“I’ll drive, if you want,” Smalls offered. He was a small man, like his name, thin and fit, looked like he might have spent time on a mountain bike. He had white hair that curled down over the collar of his golf shirt, too-white veneered teeth, and rimless made-for-television glasses over pale blue eyes.

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“No, I’m fine,” Whitehead said. She buckled her seat belt over her shimmery slip dress that in earlier days might have gotten her arrested if she’d worn it out of the bedroom. “You finished the wine—if we got stopped for some reason . . .”

Above them, in the trees, a man had been watching with binoculars.

“Right,” Smalls said.

He kicked the seat back another couple of inches, crossed his hands across his stomach, and closed his eyes.

ABOVE THEM, in the trees, a man had been watching with binoculars. When the silver SUV rolled down the driveway, past the mailbox, and made the left turn onto the dirt lane, he lifted a walkie-talkie to his face and said, “I’ll be home for dinner.”

A walkie-talkie, because if nobody within three miles was on exactly the same channel at exactly the right time, there’d be no trace of the call; nothing for even the NSA to latch onto. Nor would there be any trace of the five rapid clicks he got back, acknowledging the message.

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He was on foot, with his pickup spot a half mile away. He’d walked in on a game trail, and he walked out the same way, moving slowly, stopping every hundred feet to watch and listen. He’d never sat down while on watch, and had remained standing, next to the gnarly gray bark of an aging ash: there’d be no observation post for anyone to find, no discarded cigarette butts or candy wrappers with DNA on them. He’d worn smooth-soled boots: no tread marks in the soft earth.

He was a professional.

U.S. SENATOR PORTER SMALLS owned a cabin in the hills of West Virginia, two and a half hours from Washington, D.C.—close enough to be an easy drive, far enough to obscure activities that might need to be obscured.

He and Whitehead, one of his wife’s best friends—his wife was back in Minnesota—had locked up the place and headed back to D.C. as the sun wedged itself below the horizon on a hot Sunday afternoon. The timing was deliberate: they would enjoy the cover of darkness when she dropped him off at his Watergate condo.

Smalls and Whitehead had spent an invigorating two days talking, about political philosophy, history, horses, money, life, and mutual friends, while they worked their way through Smalls’s battered ’80s paperback copy of The Joy of Sex.

Smalls was married, Whitehead not, but she drove the car because of a kind of Washington logic concerning sex and alcohol. A little light adultery, while not considered a necessarily positive thing in Washington, was certainly not to be compared, as a criminal offense, with a DWI. Banging an adult male or live woman might—maybe—get you a paragraph on a Washington Post blog. God help you if Mothers Against Drunk Driving jumped your elective ass.

A little light adultery, while not considered a necessarily positive thing in Washington, was certainly not to be compared, as a criminal offense, with a DWI.

So Whitehead drove.

A fifty-year-old political junkie and Republican Party money-woman, Cecily Whitehead was thin and tanned and freckled, with short dark hair so expertly colored you  couldn’t  tell that it had been, the occasional strands of gray lending it a sly verisimilitude. She had a square chin, making her look a bit like Amelia Earhart. Like Earhart, she flew her own plane—in Whitehead’s case, a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air. She owned a mansion on one of Minneapolis’s lakes, and a two-thousand-acre farm south of the Twin Cities on which she raised Tennessee Walkers.

Smalls’s wife didn’t know for sure that Whitehead was sleeping with her husband, and the topic had never come up. For the past four years, Smalls’s wife had been living with her Lithuanian lover, in a loft in downtown Minneapolis, a topic that had come up between them any number of times.

Lithuanians were known as the sexual athletes of Northern Europe. Smalls was aware of that fact but no longer cared what his wife did as long as she didn’t do it in the streets. Actually, he hoped she was happy, because he was still fond of her, the mother of his children. He made a mental note to take her to dinner the next time he was in the Twin Cities.

“BE THERE BY TEN,” Whitehead said.

“I’ve got that dimwit Clancy at noon,” Smalls said, not opening his eyes.

“Dim but persistent,” Whitehead said. “He told Perez that if Medtronic gets the VA deal, Abbott will have to cut jobs in his district. Perez believes him. It might even be true.”

“Tough shit,” Smalls said. “If Abbott gets it, Medtronic might have to cut people. That ain’t gonna happen. Not when Porter Smalls knows that our beloved majority leader has that backdoor job at Rio Javelina.”

“If you ever mention that to him, he’ll find some way to stick something sharp and nasty up your rectum.”

Smalls smiled. “Why, CeeCee . . . you don’t think I’d ever actually mention it to him, do you?”

Whitehead squeezed his knee. “I hope to hell not. No, I don’t think you’d do that. How are you gonna let him know that you know?”

“Kitten will think of something,” Smalls said.

Whitehead smiled into the growing darkness, their headlights ricocheting through the roadside trees. Kitten Carter, Smalls’s chief of staff, would think of something. She and Whitehead talked a couple of times a week, plotting together the greater glory of the U.S.A. in general and Porter Smalls in particular.

Whitehead was a lifelong yoga enthusiast and show horse competitor. She had a strong body, strong legs and arms, and, for a woman, large, strong hands. She wheeled the Escalade up the track faster than most people might have, staining the evening air with dust and gravel. She’d spent much of her life on farms, shoveling horseshit with the best of them, driving trucks and tractors, and knew what she was doing, keeping the twenty-two-inch wheels solidly in the track’s twin ruts.

A half mile down the river, the track crossed a state-maintained gravel road, and with a bare glance to her left, she hooked the truck to the right and leaned on the gas pedal.

A FEW MINUTES LATER, they topped a hill, and in the distance, Whitehead could see a string of lights on a highway that would take them to the interstate that would take them into Washington. The river still unwound below them, below a long slope, the last fifty feet sharpening into a bluff.

A minute later, Whitehead said, “What an asshole. This jerk is all over me.”

“What?” Smalls had almost dozed off. Now he pushed himself up, aware that the SUV was flooded with light. He turned in his seat. A pickup—he thought it was a pickup, given the height of the headlights—wasn’t more than fifteen or twenty feet behind them, as they rolled along the gravel at fifty miles an hour.

He said, “I don’t like this.”

At the crest of the hill, the pickup truck swung out into the left lane and accelerated, and Smalls said, “Hey, hey!”

Whitehead floored the gas pedal, but too late. Too late. The truck swung into them, smashed the side of the Escalade, which went off the road, through roadside brush and trees, across a ditch and down the precipitous hillside. Instead of trying to pull the SUV back up the hillside, which would have caused it to roll sideways, Whitehead turned downhill for a second, then said, her voice sharp, “Hold on, Porter, I’m gonna try to hit a tree. Keep your arms up in case the air bag blows . . .”

Smalls lifted his arms, and the SUV bounced and bucked across the hill, heading sharply down toward the bluff below, as Whitehead pumped the brakes. He didn’t actually think it, but Smalls knew in his gut that they only had a few seconds to live.

They hit a row of saplings, plowed through them, hit a tree that must have been six inches in diameter, breaking it cleanly off. The impact caused the truck to skew sideways while plowing forward, and now Smalls felt Whitehead hit the accelerator. The engine screamed as the oversized tires tried to dig into the hillside, and he realized that she was barking with each impact: “Ay! Ay! Ay! Ay! . . .”

They were still angling downhill, but less steeply now. They hit another small tree, and the vehicle snapped around only to hit a bigger tree. The air bag exploded and hit Smalls in the face, yet he was aware that the truck was beginning to tilt downhill, toward the bluff. And suddenly the driver’s-side window blew in. They’d almost stopped, not thirty feet from the edge of the bluff, but were not quite settled, and they blundered another few lengths backward and smashed into a final tree, which pushed up the passenger side of the truck. The Escalade slowly, majestically, rolled over on its roof and came to a stop.

Smalls, hanging upside down from his seat belt, half blinded by blood rolling down into his eyes, felt no pain—not yet anyway—and cried, “I smell gas. We gotta get out of here. Get out! Get out!”

He looked sideways at Whitehead, who also was hanging upside down from her seat belt. The overhead light had come on when the door came loose, and her eyes were open, but blank, and blood was running from one ear into her hair.

He called, “CeeCee, CeeCee,” but got no response. Blood was still pouring down his face and into his eyes as he freed his seat belt and dropped onto the inside of the roof. He unlocked the door on his side and pushed it open a few inches, where it got stuck on a sapling. He kicked the door a half dozen times until it opened far enough that he could squeeze out.

Her scent, the Chanel No. 5 and the well water from the shower, now mixed with the coppery/ meaty odor of fresh blood.

As soon as he was free, he wiped the blood from his eyes, realized that it actually had been coming from his nose. As he cleared his eyes, he stumbled around to the back of the SUV, popped the lid, found his canvas overnight bag, and took out the chrome .357 Magnum he kept there. He tucked the gun in his belt and looked uphill: no sign of anyone. No headlights, no brake lights, nothing but the gathering dusk, the knee-high weeds and the broken trees, the natural silence pierced by the numerous warning and alarm beeps and buzzes from the Cadillac.

He hurried to the driver’s side of the truck, wedged the door open as far as he could, unhooked Whitehead’s seat belt, and let her drop into his arms. He had to struggle to get her out of the truck, but the odor of gas gave him the strength of desperation.

When she was out, he picked her up and carried her fifty feet across the hillside, then lowered her into the weeds, knelt beside her, and listened for a moment. Her scent, the Chanel No. 5 and the well water from the shower, now mixed with the coppery/ meaty odor of fresh blood.

He heard and saw nothing: nobody on the hillside. The truck that had hit them had vanished.

He whispered, “CeeCee. CeeCee, can you hear me?” No answer.

One headlight was still glowing from the SUV, and he dug out his cell phone and called the local sheriff’s department—he had them on his contact list. He identified himself, told the dispatcher what had happened and that the incident might well have been a deliberate attack.

The dispatcher said deputies would be there in five minutes. “Be sure the emergency flashers are on,” Smalls told the dispatcher. “I’m not coming out of the weeds until I’m sure I’m talking to the right guys. We’ll need an ambulance; my friend’s hurt bad.”

When he got off the phone, he cradled Whitehead on his lap. The ambulance, he thought, wouldn’t be in time: it was, in fact, already too late for Cecily Whitehead.

THE COPS CAME, and an ambulance, and when Smalls was sure of who he was dealing with, he called to them from the hiding place in the weeds. They told him what he already knew: Whitehead was dead, had sustained a killing blow to the left side of her head, probably a tree branch coming through the driver’s-side window.

Smalls retrieved his government paper from the Cadillac as the cops and the EMTs took Whitehead up the hill in a black plastic body bag. Whitehead was put in the ambulance, but Smalls said he didn’t need one. “A bloody nose, nothing worse. Give me something to wash my face.”

The lead deputy asked who’d been driving, and Smalls said, “CeeCee was.”

“We need to give you a quick Breathalyzer anyway,” the dep- uty said.

“Yes, fine,” Smalls said. “I had a glass of wine before we left my cabin, CeeCee didn’t have anything at all.”

The test took two minutes. Smalls blew a 0.02, well below the drunk-driving limit of 0.08, although Smalls was an older man, and older men were hit harder by alcohol than younger men.

“Be sure that’s all recorded,” Smalls told the cop. “I want this nailed down.”

“Don’t need to worry,” the deputy said. “We’ll get it right for you, Senator. Now . . . did you see the truck?”

Smalls shook his head. “He had his high beams on, and they were burning right through the back window of my Caddy. It was like getting caught in a searchlight. I couldn’t see anything . . . And he hit us.”

The deputy looked down the hill. “She did a heck of a job driving. Another twenty, thirty feet, and you’d have gone over the edge and hit that gravel bar like you’d jumped out of a five-story building. Makes me kind of nervous even standing here.”

 It had been no accident. It had been an assassination attempt, and he thought he knew who was behind it. Justice, if not in a court of law, would come.

THE AMBULANCE LEFT for the Winchester Medical Center, Smalls following in a state police car. Whitehead’s death was confirmed, and Smalls was treated for the impact on his nose. It had continued to bleed, but a doc used what he called a chemical cautery on it, which stopped the bleeding immediately. The doctor gave him some pain pills. Smalls said, “I don’t need the pills.”

“Not yet,” the doc said. “You will.”

When he was released, the deputies took him aside for an extended statement, and told him that the Cadillac would be left where it had landed until a state accident investigator could get to the scene.

When he was done with the interview, Smalls called chief of staff Kitten Carter and arranged to have her drive to the hospital to pick him up. She said she would notify Whitehead’s mother and father of her death.

And when there was nothing left to do, Smalls asked to be taken to the hospital’s chapel. The police left him there, and Smalls, a lifelong Episcopalian, knelt and prayed for Cecily Whitehead’s soul. Less charitably, he had a word with the Lord about finding the people who’d murdered her. Then he cried. He finally pulled himself together after a while and began thinking seriously about the accident.

It had been no accident.

It had been an assassination attempt, and he thought he knew who was behind it. Justice, if not in a court of law, would come.

He said it aloud, to Whitehead: “I swear, CeeCee, I will get them. I’ll get every one of those motherfuckers.”

Whitehead hadn’t been particularly delicate, nor particularly forgiving: if she were already experiencing the afterlife, he had no doubt that she would be looking forward to any revenge—and the colder, the better.


From Twisted Prey by John Sandford, to be published on April 24, 2018 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by John Sandford.

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