Escape Clause by John Sandford


  Rules of Prey

  Shadow Prey

  Eyes of Prey

  Silent Prey

  Winter Prey

  Night Prey

  Mind Prey

  Sudden Prey

  Secret Prey

  Certain Prey

  Easy Prey

  Chosen Prey

  Mortal Prey

  Naked Prey

  Hidden Prey

  Broken Prey

  Invisible Prey

  Phantom Prey

  Wicked Prey

  Storm Prey

  Buried Prey

  Stolen Prey

  Silken Prey

  Field of Prey

  Gathering Prey

  Extreme Prey


  The Fool’s Run

  The Empress File

  The Devil’s Code

  The Hanged Man’s Song


  Dark of the Moon

  Heat Lightning

  Rough Country

  Bad Blood

  Shock Wave

  Mad River

  Storm Front



  Saturn Run

  The Night Crew

  Dead Watch


  Publishers Since 1838

  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, New York 10014

  Copyright © 2016 by John Sandford

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Ebook ISBN: 9780698152670

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Sandford, John, 1944 February 23– author.

  Title: Escape clause / John Sandford.

  Description: New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2016030850 | ISBN 9780399168918 (hardback)

  Subjects: LCSH: Flowers, Virgil (Fictitious character)—Fiction. | Government investigators—Minnesota—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Crime. | FICTION / Suspense. | FICTION / Thrillers. | GSAFD: Mystery fiction.

  Classification: LCC PS3569.A516 E83 2016 | DDC 813/.54—dc23

  LC record available at

  p. cm.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



  Also by John Sandford

  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  About the Author


  Peck popped a Xanax, screwed the cap back on the pill tube, peered over the top of the bush and through the chain-link fence, and in a hoarse whisper, asked, “You see the other one?”

  The big man with the rifle whispered, “Right by that tree, above the first one. She’s looking down at him.”

  “Get her.”

  The big man rested the muzzle of the rifle in the V of one of the chain links, pulled the trigger: the rifle made a pop sound, not much louder than a hand clap. They waited, staring into the darkness, then Peck said, “Ah, you dumb shit, you missed her. You missed her. She should be down, but she’s not. She’s moving.”

  “Might have hit that brush, deflected the shot . . .”

  “She’s moving out in the open. Reload,” Peck said.

  “I’m doing it. Get off my back, will ya?”

  “Can you see her now?” Peck asked. “She’s getting curious about why the guy’s just lying there.”


  “Got her. Saw it hit,” the big man said.

  “Sure she’s down? We don’t want to make a mistake.”

  “She’s going down now . . .” the big man whispered. “I’m pretty sure.”

  Peck could smell the nicotine and tar on the other man’s breath. The big guy was addicted to Akhtamar Black Flames and almost always had one stuck to his lower lip, but not now. Peck reached out and slapped him on the back of the head and said, “I don’t want to hear that ‘pretty sure.’ You know what happens if you’re wrong? We’re dead men.”

  “You fuckin’ slap me again and I’ll stick the gun butt up your ass and twist it sideways.”

  A small man, crouched on the other side of the rifleman, said, “I saw them get hit. I saw it, man. Both of them. But who knows if it was enough?”

  They all went silent for a moment, squinting into the dark. Two bodies lay in the short grass, unmoving. The fence was twenty feet high and stouter than a normal chain link—a prison fence. With no sign of movement on the other side, Peck said, “Hamlet: cut the fence.”

  “What if they’re faking?” The small guy had half circles under his eyes, so dark they looked like broken blue poker chips.

  “You’re the one who said they got hit,” Peck said. The soapy touch of Xanax was slipping into his brain.

  The small guy said, “Maybe we oughta split. I’m not feeling so sure about this.”

  “We’re here. It’s done. Cut the fuckin’ fence,” Peck said.


  Hamlet’s side-cutters made a grunt sound as he snipped each piece of wire. Grunt-grunt-grunt. They’d come well equipped: they wore rubber kitchen gloves and black clothing and trucker hats and, in addition to the gun, had brought a roll of black duct tape they’d use to put the fence back together when they left.

  Hamlet was cutting a wide oval in the fence, leaving it hinged on one side. He’d gotten halfway around the oval when the big man, Hayk, hissed and touched his brother’s arm and whispered, “Someone’s coming.”

  They sank into the brush and Hayk moved the muzzle of the rifle around until it pointed out at the perimeter road. Twenty seconds later, a man in a gray uniform ambled along the road, looking at nothing in particular, talking to himself.

  When he was directly opposite them, forty feet away, they heard him say, “I told him not to give her the money. She’ll blow it on herself. That’s what she’ll do, and yo
u know it. It won’t get to your mom. She doesn’t care about your mom. . . .”

  Peck realized that the security guard was wearing an earpiece and was talking into a cell phone. He lost the thread of what the man was saying as he disappeared around the curve of the frontage road. When the guard was well out of earshot, Hamlet whispered, “I think he had a gun.”

  “No, he didn’t—I checked that out,” Peck said.

  “Not in the middle of the night.”

  “The guards are not armed,” Peck said.

  Hayk said, “Ham, keep cutting. We’re almost there.”

  Hamlet went back to cutting and, two minutes later, pulled open the cut curve of fencing, like a gate.

  Peck said, “Go on. Crawl through there.”

  “Why don’t you crawl there?” Hamlet asked.

  Peck had no immediate answer for that, and the Xanax now had a good grip on him, so he said, “All right, I will. Hold the fence.” Hamlet pulled the fence farther back. When Peck was through, he turned to Hayk and said, “Give me the gun.”

  “Not loaded.”

  “That’s okay, I’m gonna use it as a poker.”

  Hayk handed him the gun and Peck crawled fifteen feet to the first body and poked it with the gun’s muzzle. No reaction. That was a good thing. The other body was ten feet farther on. He poked that one, too, got no response.

  He turned around and whispered, “We’re good.”

  “Told ya,” Hamlet said, too loud.

  Peck whispered, “Shut up, you fuckin’ moron. Get the dollies in here.”


  Hayk pushed the dollies through the hole in the fence and rolled them over to the bodies. The dollies were the kind used by garden shops, with a flat bed and wide soft wheels.

  “Goddamn, heavier than hell,” Hayk said, as they lifted the first body onto a dolly. They couldn’t see much farther than fifteen or twenty feet away, and the moon didn’t help: it sat right on the western horizon and splashed a silvery light off the trees around them. The contrast made it hard to discern shapes and movement.

  “Gonna have to push them through the fence one at a time, right out to the perimeter,” Peck said. Despite the Xanax, he was sweating heavily, not from the hot summer night, but from fear. He could smell the stink of it on himself.

  They loaded the second body on the second dolly and pushed them one at a time through the fence. Then Peck and Hayk dragged the dollies through the brush to the edge of the perimeter road, while Hamlet pulled the fence back into its original configuration and taped some of the cut ends together with strips of the black duct tape. Five quick repairs and the fence looked like new, in the night, anyway.

  When Hamlet joined the others out at the perimeter road, Peck said, “I’m going to scout. When you see the laser, bring them.”


  They nodded and he moved slowly along the edge of the perimeter road, where he could quickly step into the brush if he needed to. Peck had planned the whole operation and he knew there were only a couple of night guards. From that point of view, having a guard pass by only minutes before was a good thing, if a little unnerving. That meant the other guard was a half mile away, and the one they’d seen probably wouldn’t be back around for an hour or more.

  The perimeter road curved gently to Peck’s right. When he’d gotten to the exit point and had seen nobody, he stepped out to the road’s edge, took a laser pointer from his chest pocket, aimed it back toward Hayk and Hamlet, and played the red dot across their hiding place.

  A minute later, in the ambient light from the parking lot, he saw them move out onto the road, pulling the dollies with their motionless loads. They moved slowly at first, and then more urgently, and finally began to trot.

  The tires were almost, but not quite, silent; there was no one but Peck to hear them. When Hayk and Hamlet came up, Peck led them across the road to another chain-link fence, which they’d already cut. They rolled the dollies through the fence, down a mild slope to the edge of a grassy yard, with a darkened house eighty feet away. They waited there while Hamlet repaired the second fence, this time with silver duct tape. A scummy pond lay off to their left, home to any number of green-and-black frogs. Earlier in the summer, when they were making scouting trips, the frogs had been croaking their froggy asses off. Now that Peck could use the covering noise, they were resolutely silent.

  Hamlet finished with the fence, and they eased the dollies across the yard to the back door of the garage, pushed the door open, pulled the dollies inside, and closed the door. Hayk took a flashlight out of a cargo pocket and turned it on.

  The van was ready, cargo doors open. They rolled the dollies up a wheelchair ramp into the back of the van, closed the doors. Hamlet and Hayk got into the van, Hayk as the wheelman, while Peck went to the door into the house, stepped inside, and looked out a kitchen window at the street.

  He was looking out at a suburban neighborhood, a bunch of three-bedroom houses where everybody worked day jobs and the kids went to school: the houses were almost all dark, and the street was empty.

  He hurried back to the garage, pulling the house door closed behind himself, and pushed the wall switch for the garage door opener. The garage door went up, but no light came on, because Peck had thought of everything: they’d loosened the garage light. Hayk drove the van out of the garage; Peck pushed the wall switch again and the door started down.

  There was an ankle-high infrared safety light that beamed across the door opening to keep the door from closing on children who might be standing beneath it. Peck stepped carefully over it—he really had groomed the plan, he thought, with nothing left to chance—went to the van, and climbed into the backseat.

  Hayk rolled it down to the street, took a right, and Hamlet said, “Made it.”


  The cloudless sky was blue, of course, but the pale blue that tended almost to green, if you were lying naked in a Minnesota swimming hole on a hot summer day, looking up through the branches of the creek-side cottonwoods, thinking about nothing much, except the prospect of lunch.

  Virgil Flowers was doing that, bathed in the cool spring water and the scent of fresh-mown hay. Frankie Nobles’s oldest son was windrowing the teddered hay, riding a ’70s International Harvester tractor, the all-original diesel engine clattering up and down the eighty-acre field on the other side of the crooked line of cottonwoods.

  Virgil usually managed to evade the whole haying process, pleading the exigencies of law enforcement, but with this last cut of the summer, Frankie had her eye on him. All her farm equipment was marginal, and though a neighbor would be over with his modern baler and wagon, two-thirds of the bales—the small rectangular ones—would be unloaded in the barnyard.

  From Virgil’s point of view, there was one good thing about this—the neighbor would keep a third of the hay for his trouble. The bad thing was, somebody would have to load the other two-thirds of the bales on Frankie’s ancient elevator, and somebody would have to stack it in the sweltering, wasp-infested barn loft.

  “Why,” Virgil asked, “are barn lofts always infested with wasps?”

  “Because that’s life,” Frankie said, back-floating past him on a pair of pink plastic water wings. She was unencumbered by clothing. They’d have the swimming hole to themselves until the tractor stopped running, and then the boys would take it over. For the time being, their privacy was assured by a sign at the beginning of the path through the woods that said “Occupied,” with newcomers required to call out before entering. “In the haylofts of life, there are always a few wasps.”

  “I’m allergic to wasps,” Virgil ventured. He was a tall blond man, his long hair now plastered like a yellow bowl over his head.

  “You’re allergic to haying,” Frankie said.

  “I can’t even believe you bother with it,” Virgil said. “You have to give a third of the hay to Carl, to pay for hi
s time and baling equipment. Whatever hay you manage to keep and sell, the feds and state take half the money. What’s the point?”

  “I feed the hay to my cattle,” she said. “We eat the cattle. There are no taxes.”

  “You don’t have any cattle,” Virgil said.

  “The feds and state don’t know that.” She was another blonde, short and fairly slender.

  “Please don’t tell me that,” Virgil said. “Your goddamn tax returns must read like a mystery novel.”

  “Shoulda seen my mortgage application,” Frankie said. “One of those ninja deals—no income, no job. Worked out for me, though.”

  Honus, a big yellow dog, lay soaking wet on the bank, in a spot of sunshine. He liked to swim, but he also liked to lie wet in the sun.


  Frankie kicked past and Virgil ducked under water and floated up between her legs. “You have a very attractive pussy,” he said.

  “I’ve been told that,” Frankie said. “I’ve been thinking of entering it in the state fair.”

  “I could be a judge,” Virgil offered.

  “You certainly have the necessary expertise,” she said.

  “Speaking of state fairs . . . Lucas should have been killed,” Virgil said, floating back a bit. “I can’t believe the stories coming out of Iowa. I talked to him about it last night; he’s up to his ass in bureaucrats, like nothing he’s ever seen. He said he’s been interviewed a half-dozen times by the FBI. The goddamn Purdys almost blew up the presidential election. Would have, if he hadn’t been there.”

  “Lucas is a crazy man,” Frankie said. “He chases crazy people. That’s what he does, and he likes it. Anyway, that’s the Iowa State Fair. I’d enter the Minnesota State Fair.”

  “Probably do better, as far as getting a ribbon,” Virgil said. Frankie’s knees folded over his shoulders. “Lucas said the Iowa blondes are really spectacular.”

  Frankie said, “Wait a minute, are you sayin’ that I’m not spec—”

  She stopped and they turned their faces toward the path. Somebody was scuffling down through the trees, in violation of the “Occupied” sign. Honus stood up and barked, two, three times, and Virgil and Frankie dropped their feet to the rocky bottom of the swimming hole, and Frankie called out: “Hey! Who’s there?”

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