Chapter 1

Monday, September 23, Predawn, Savage.

Jack McGregor pumped hard through the bike’s lowest gear, his thighs burning. He neared the top of his quarter-mile climb, maintaining steady progress up this last steep grade. The black coffee he’d finished before 6 a.m. was finally kicking in. He glanced at his heart monitor and watched the numbers tick up from 156 to 157. Sweat dampened his yellow bike shirt.

Twenty yards, he thought, which was about all he could manage, trying to steady his ragged breathing. He rabbit-pedaled through the last short rise and crested the hill.

He appreciated the quiet half hour before dawn when the world slept and the autumn air hung still and pungent. His heart rate peaked at 164 and he managed a stiff grin.

He took in a long breath and smelled witch hazel, he guessed; the odor of weeds heavy with seedpods and a faint wisp of river more than a mile below. It was a wet, metallic smell. And maybe there was the trace of something fetid beneath it: a car-struck deer decaying in a ditch, or a snake flattened across the blacktop? Something …

For a few days he had felt uneasy. He assumed it was his pending business deal. But there was something else, the vague feeling he needed to be vigilant or wary or just plain cautious. It was annoying, because Jack McGregor, the 51-year-old owner, president and chief executive officer of McGregor Industries, was a stranger to unease.

Chester Drive formed a T at the top of Wannamake Circle. The hill dropped down into Savage and the Minnesota River Valley, where it connected with Highway 13 more than a mile below. In another hour the blacktop would be busy with morning commuters, emptying the exclusive neighborhoods up on the hill. But at this time of morning, Jack had the road almost entirely to himself.

He turned onto Chester and crouched low, reducing his wind resistance so the air coming out of the valley wouldn’t pick him up like a sail. Jack McGregor liked to feel aerodynamic. He liked to travel fast. As his bike picked up speed, he put his nagging doubts behind him and peered ahead, grinning down the dark thoroughfare.

•••

Jack’s Cannondale RZ 140 mountain bike had been a birthday present this year. His wife, Carla, accused him of a midlife crisis, before finally accepting and then indulging his effort to stay fit. She bought him the most expensive bike she could find, making a big deal about its carbon alloy frame and phenomenal suspension. No doubt about it, the bike could fly.

Carla was 37, and a mix of fortuitous genes, hard exercise and no children kept her in the kind of shape Jack liked to see and feel in a woman. And the seasoning she’d experienced through her 20s, when she’d married one creep and then another, helped cultivate in her a particular appreciation for Jack.

The speedometer hit 22. He looked up and saw the road was empty all the way to Highway 13, not a car in sight. When he glanced down again, the speedometer read 25.

It was still too early for predawn light, and Jack squinted down the path in front of him. At this speed, traveling near the tree edge, it was foolhardy to look anywhere but directly ahead. Deer frequented the wilder parts of Chester Hill. Plenty of nocturnal animals chose this final hour of darkness to seek out a safe place to bed down for the day.

The wild country was one of the features that drew the McGregors to Savage. Jack and Carla could have chosen a big house in Edina, Excelsior, Shorewood or just about any other place they wanted. But Carla liked the unpretentiousness of Savage. She appreciated the secluded, country feel of their remote cul-de-sac on Wannamake Circle, where she wouldn’t run into anyone from The Club and where she could buy milk at the local Cub grocery without having to dress up.

Speedometer: 27.

Up ahead, something stirred. Under a sumac patch. Not a deer; the movement was too furtive and close to the ground. Whatever it was would soon be right in Jack’s path.

He yelled and the dark creature froze as Jack hurtled by in a blast. He glimpsed a skunk, hunkered down in the grass.

Focus on the tree edge, he reminded himself. It was a brief section of the road and he watched as its shadows flew by and opened onto empty pasture. His near brush with calamity rocketed his pulse. His bike speed climbed to 33. He glanced in front of him. The pools of light from the gentrified street lamps shone clear to the road, and Jack McGregor flew.

•••

The white Ford Focus, a rental car from Brooklyn Center, approached the entrance to the dirt road.

“Here’s the turn,” Benedict said.

“I know,” John said, tired of taking orders.

They wore dark camo, head to foot. John’s baseball hat had “Cabela’s” emblazoned above the bill. Benedict wore one of those pull-down hats with a ruffled two-inch brim. They were edgy in the pre-dawn.

John did what he often did when there was bad business ahead. He put himself past it. In two hours I will be back at my place … showering … getting ready for work. Just another day.

But given their task, focusing was difficult.

This stretch of Highway 13 was mostly open country, separated by occasional storage facilities and grain elevators. Further north, Savage gave way to Burnsville and single-family homes, apartment complexes and a string of busy retail outlets. Travel south and you passed more open country until the Valley Fair Amusement Park and Shakopee, the next suburb over. But here, in between the park and Burnsville’s stores, the river bottom was vacant and wild, except for McGregor Industries and its potash and fertilizer facility.

John glanced in his rearview mirror. He saw one pair of headlights, a quarter of a mile behind him. He signaled, turning onto the narrow dirt lane. It was empty and dark and rose to a pair of unmarked railroad tracks. On either side, the weeds were high and overgrown and the car rumbled across, leaving a faint cloud of dust. John turned onto the frontage road, pulled over beside a stand of river maples and cut the engine. The headlights darkened.

They each glanced at their watches. They would sit in the car for exactly five minutes, waiting for the dust to settle and the crickets’ screedle-screedle to return in the dark.

•••

John had met Benedict a week ago Saturday at the Black Angus truck stop on Highway 169 outside Mankato.

John thought driving 60 miles south when they could have met anywhere in the Twin Cities was a stupid precaution. He’d entered the truck stop, glanced at the handful of customers, and picked out Benedict at the end of the counter, sipping coffee.

Benedict had said he would be dressed in green camo, like others in the diner — a hunter getting a jump on the grouse season. He wore his hat and dark aviator sunglasses and a bristly mustache John guessed was as fake as his name, but a good fake. His hair was loose and wild under his hat. John thought it, too, might be fake, but wasn’t sure.

John took a seat at the counter, keeping a stool between them. He was hungry for eggs, hash browns, buttered toast, extra bacon and maybe a side of medium-hot salsa. His normal custom would be to slip into some easy conversation, probably about the best-looking woman in the cafe, though this morning the selection was poor.

Benedict stared straight ahead into the mirror behind the counter. “You’re late,” he whispered, harsh.

A waitress approached.

“Coffee?” she asked.

“Why, thank you … Nancy,” John said, reading her name tag and flashing a smile. John had perfect teeth. His brown hair was short and carefully trimmed. He wore slick warm-ups and black tennis shoes that marked him as not from around here and not interested in fitting in. An old girlfriend once called him “smarmy.” After he looked it up, it ticked him off, because it was true.

Nancy smiled and poured his coffee. “Sure thing, sugar.”

He had that effect on certain women. Normally he would have told her his real name and kept up the banter. But the man sitting one stool over was making him edgy.

She passed him a menu and shoved off to fill more cups.

“Now get this,” Benedict whispered. “Next time you’re late, the deal’s off. I call the shots, and if you don’t like them, you know what you can do about it. Understood?” This was all said through lips that barely moved as he stared into his coffee cup.

John thought about telling him to kiss off, but he’d been told this was a guy you didn’t do that to. Benedict was opaque, a man of few words, a planner, a nitpicker, a detail guy … and when the plan wasn’t followed, a very bad man with a dangerous temper. So John shrugged, the way he’d seen Tony do it on “The Sopranos.”

“Got a name?” John asked, into the mirror.

“Benedict. You’re John. Our employer’s name is Urban. From now on those are the only names we use. I don’t know your real name, and I don’t want to. And you don’t know anything about me. We’ve got this job, John, and then after, nothing. After, if we run into each other on the Vail ski slopes — not saying I ski in Vail, that’s a for instance — don’t even look my way. Understood?”

John hesitated. It was a turning point. Continue, or get out. Everything in him screamed, “Leave and don’t look back.” But he was in too deep.

So he just shrugged, Tony-like.

After that first day, John was punctual. And he was careful about everything else, too: the gray-green camo, the hat, the cheap digital watch … everything.

Like now.

John popped the trunk and they got out of the car to get their tools.

It was a nondescript rental car, nothing that would draw attention. John had even been ordered to remove the light in the trunk, so it wouldn’t flash when he opened it. Benedict thought of everything. John guessed he should have felt happy about it, but all he wanted was to be done.

There was a small zippered travel kit on one side of the trunk. John picked it up and tucked it into the back of his pants. Then he hefted out a 20-pound bag of sand and an oddly fashioned pair of jaws. They were bound shut with a bungee cord, the substantial fangs as carefully fitted as though they were still embedded in a large cat’s skull. Benedict leaned in and pulled out four footpads. The large feet were attached to the ends of cedar poles using a spring-loaded industrial hinge. The poles could be easily swung and carried. The sharp claws extended, stiletto-like, out of the pads. The one time they’d tested the claws, Benedict had swung them across the leather face of a punching bag. The hinges sprang out like switchblades, leaving four evenly spaced, deep lacerations. Perfect.

Awkwardly, John positioned the sandbag so he could push the Day-Glo face of his cheap wristwatch. 6:12.

Benedict did the same. “Let’s hustle,” he said.

They turned and started off through the dark, walking along the dirt road beside the railroad tracks in silence, thinking about what must be done. The eastern light was hardly a trace, but it would come on fast. They hurried 50 yards to the minimum-maintenance road with a rusted gate. There was a shot-up “No Trespassing, Private Property” sign wired across the bars. A small path wound around the right side of the gate and they followed it, quickening their pace.

“Keep an eye out,” John said.

“Just keep your eyes on the prize,” Benedict said.

Like most of his partner’s comments, it ticked John off. But he shut up and kept walking through the dark, telling himself, In two hours, I’ll be someplace else and Pope Benedict will be gone.

•••

It took less than two minutes for Jack McGregor to rocket down Chester Drive. At Highway 13 he pedaled easily across the blacktop, biked 50 yards up the shoulder and turned onto the frontage road.

He was still a mile from the plant and a little farther to the minimum-maintenance road. The faintest start of light brushed the eastern sky. He liked hitting the river bottom in that special half-light of dawn. Judging from what he saw off the horizon, he was right on schedule.

Jack took it easy during this part of his ride, saving himself for the hard exercise of the river bottom. He had paid Mountain Cross Bikes to build several private trails that wound past McGregor Industries’ low-hung trees and along the small ravines leading to the river. Once you entered the trails, staying on your bike required unwavering concentration. If you weren’t focused, you could end up with your torso wrapped around a tree trunk or face down in the dirt. It was the kind of challenge Jack liked, because it kept him feeling alert and alive.

But here, along the quiet, flat dirt road, he could ease up and contemplate his day.

It had been an intense six months for McGregor Industries. In less than two weeks its sale to GroTon would be final and Jack would have a lot more time for mountain biking. And just about anything else he’d postponed because of work, which was plenty. Best of all, he was selling the company on his terms. He was getting out from under a business that had occupied him 60-plus hours a week for almost 30 years. Jack wasn’t looking back. First up: a round-the-world trip he’d been holding so close to his vest not even Carla knew about it. They were going to become reacquainted in some of the finest hotels and biggest beds across five continents.

Jack kept his bike centered on the poorly lit gravel road. The insects chirruped in the dark. The frontage road was bordered on two sides by heavy bushes and occasional trees. You never knew when another critter might scamper out of the weeds, so it was best to keep to the road’s center.

Only five insiders knew about the company’s pending sale and none of them liked the idea. CFO Spencer Higgins and Treasurer Phil Traub had to know. No way around it. Jack had needed their help. They would both benefit from the sale, Spencer more than Phil.

Madeline Baxter, the vice president of human relations, had to know. Maddy had been around since Jack was a kid. He suspected she was once his father’s plaything and he kept the wire-haired witch around only because his father had made him promise. But once he was out from under the business, she’d have to fend for herself, and Jack was pretty sure GroTon would cut her loose.

A year ago, Jack had asked Spencer Higgins to give Susan Connelly a job.

Lots of people knew Jack had a problem with women. Sometimes he made bad choices and worse passes. When Susan threatened a lawsuit, he’d reached out to Spence and told him to promote her. You could do that kind of thing when you owned the company.

Spence made the long-haired blonde a financial analyst. She was good with numbers. When Spence requested several out-of-season profit-and-loss statements, Susan figured out about the pending sale and had to be brought in on it.

The only other person who knew about the transaction was Angie Sweet, assistant treasurer under Phil Traub. Like Susan, she took note of the extra financial work and made a rare visit to Jack’s office and confronted him.

You had to admire Angie. If she wanted something, she pursued it. Jack misread her ambition and made a play for her in the corporate boardroom. Angie let him know less discreet women could use that kind of thing to file a lawsuit or make a stink. Jack let her know it would be her word against his. But to placate her, he’d brought her into the fold, with assurances she would benefit like the others from the sale. Not much, but enough to purchase cooperation and silence.

Business.

If Carla knew about Jack’s indiscretions, she was too savvy to say anything. On the other hand, Jack had been lucky. He’d never had to deal with tears, incriminations or finger-pointing.

The truth was, Carla had all the right curves in the best places and even after seven years of marriage she still set his limbs on fire. That was why they were going to celebrate her 38th birthday in Bali. It seemed a fitting place for the woman who had agreed to be his permanent concubine.

•••

Jack McGregor kept pedaling easy.

None of the five liked the sale because they all feared the repercussions, and the only one making serious cash on the transaction was Jack. Spencer Higgins, Phil Traub and Maddy Baxter would all lose their jobs once GroTon took over. Angie Sweet and Susan Connelly were too good-looking, too young and too competent to do anything but land on their feet. But they’d no longer be in line to become officers of the company. Besides, GroTon wasn’t interested in the business end of the operation. It clearly wanted the storage and distribution network, particularly along the river.

Jack came up to the intersection and turned onto the minimum-maintenance road. There was a gate up ahead. It was getting light enough to see the shot-up sign, but Jack had been around it so many times he dodged right along the worn rut, turned around the steel post and kept pedaling.

•••

“Hurry up,” Benedict hissed.

“Just a minute.” John stepped onto the tree limb, unsteady in the near dark. Above him three huge oak branches stretched over the road.

“Give it to me,” he said.

Benedict reached up to hand him the 20-pound sandbag.

John took it and tried to get situated.

They knew their rider would be coming from the southeast, down the road they’d just hiked. There was a quarter-mile stretch before the ruts curved to the left, approaching the river. The road ran for another 200 yards before ending near the loading dock, the remote river pier and the start of the mountain bike trail.

Across the road the land dropped to the wooded river bottom. If you pushed through the briar and maple trunks another 50 yards you’d hit water. The late September foliage kept the river hidden, but they could smell the wet metallic odor and the faintest trace of rotting deer.

Once John was situated he nodded. “Ready.”

It was growing lighter. Benedict looked up and said, “Just make sure you hit him.”

“Get down and stay out of sight,” John answered, trying to make it sound like an order.

But they both knew Benedict was in charge.

Now that John was in the tree, he worried about everything that could go wrong. The rider could be too far over for a clean drop of the sandbag. If the bike was coming fast, timing would be difficult. And what if he missed? The jerk was fit and muscular, and his temper was legendary. There were two of them, so John felt confident they could finish the job. But his partner would have to be careful, coming in from behind. Unnatural contusions would make the death more suspicious.

They had discussed it. There could be no stand-up fight. Not with Jack McGregor.

John reminded himself the plan was a good one — they’d been over it a thousand times. He knew there was plenty of risk, but the reward was worth it. He watched Benedict move up the road another 20 or 30 feet before hustling across the narrow dirt rut and disappearing over the ravine edge.

Less than two hours, John thought, trying to focus beyond the bad part, when this would be behind him. But it faded like a whisper. Because now he was on edge, nervous and watching ... and trying to think about nothing.

Now they were both in position.

Now they waited.

•••

Jack McGregor came around the bend and was startled by a flock of grackles, which rose squawking from the tree edge. Overhead, geese were getting into formation for their southern migration. The dawn was light enough to discern the pier’s creosote pylons, more than 200 yards distant. After this, Jack’s day promised one meeting after another. He wouldn’t be home until after 7, so he reminded himself to enjoy the ride.

From the loading dock, the trail turned right, into the trees, dropping fast to the river bottom before making a snakelike oxbow through the woods.

Jack pedaled easily, trying to prepare himself for that first precipitous drop to the river, 15 feet straight down, when his stomach lifted and the air hung in his chest. He approached the huge oak and for the faintest second, in the half light of dawn, he felt something out of place, something wrong.

He was hit hard on the back of his neck and shoulder. He veered and, for one startled moment, as he started to go down, he wondered what in hell hit him. The road seemed to rise up and smack his head like an anvil.

Then the world turned black.

But only for a few seconds.

The ground twirled like a whirligig. He couldn’t move. He tasted bile and black coffee, but didn’t retch. His face was pressed against gritty earth and he saw something that didn’t make sense: a man climbing sideways down a tree. Jack blinked, still coming around, and realized it was the big oak almost 15 feet behind him. He still couldn’t figure out what had hit him, and he was having trouble getting up.

The figure dropped to the ground, and Jack realized that if he wanted to live he’d better get up. Fast.

The man was as startled to see him rise as Jack was at managing to do it. The muscular CEO’s assailant paused, uncertain. Jack shook off the blow and eyed the man in front of him, now holding what looked like a 20-pound sandbag.

“You!” Jack managed.

He was going to teach the man a lesson. First, he’d get the man to talk, providing he could check his rage long enough to keep from killing him. Jack took one step forward, like a fighter, raising his fists.

And that was his last thought before everything went black.

“Good thing he didn’t hear you,” John said, coming forward.

“Shut up! He’s still alive, you idiot. Get the jaws. Let’s finish it.”

Did you enjoy this chapter?

To read more, buy the e-book or follow the serial each day in the Variety section of the Star Tribune newspaper. The entire book “Savage Minnesota” can be purchased as an e-book – formatted for iPad, Kindle and Nook – through your device’s digital bookstore or at StarTribune.com/ebooks.