Cover image for The wheat field
The wheat field
Thayer, Steve.
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[Large print edition].
Publication Information:
Waterville, Me. : Thorndike Press, [2002]

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373 pages ; 23 cm
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X Adult Large Print Large Print

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Maggie and Michael Butler are found naked and very dead in a Wisconsin wheat field, murdered by two vicious shotgun blasts. No one ever gets murdered in Kickapoo Falls, and it is up to Deputy Pennington, the trusted number-two man in the Sheriff's Department, to find the killer. Pennington had loved Maggie from afar ever since high school, but he has a hard time holding on to his fantasy when he discovers what the real Maggie was mixed up in. The town's ruling elite close ranks as Pennington zeros in on the truth. He is convinced the answer lies back in the wheat field, and in a missing reel of movie film that will shut the door on the murder investigation but open another into a far-reaching assassination plot set for election night. Steve Thayer saves the best for last, standing the plot on its head with a twist that readers will never see coming -and will never forget.

Author Notes

Steve Thayer was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on March 23, 1953. He graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, California in 1976. He started writing his first book, Saint Mudd, in 1982. His other works include The Weatherman and Wheat Field.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

There's something about murder in Wisconsin, Thayer contends, that brings shivers to the public spine like nothing else. Thayer's fifth novel is nothing if not tingle-inducing. Thayer's new hero, a retired deputy in the Kickapoo Falls sheriff's department, ponders a 40-year-old case, hoping to make some sort of sense out of the double murder that has made his life a waking nightmare ever since. In 1960, young deputy Pennington is called to a wheat field at whose center, in a ritual-like circle, are two shotgun-blasted bodies. One of the victims is a woman he has loved, forlornly and secretly, since high school, in 1941. His investigation spins into a world of Kickapoo Falls secrets, even spiraling into a presidential assassination plot. Thayer masterfully blends atmosphere (his description of the Wisconsin Dells before tourism is wonderful), a plot full of shocks, and deeply realized characterization. A full-throttle suspense tale. --Connie Fletcher

Publisher's Weekly Review

Shockwaves rock a 1960s small town when the grisly shotgun murder of two leading citizens sets the town's deputy sheriff against the sheriff and the politically powerful Gunn Club set. Deputy Pliny Pennington has carried a torch for Maggie Butler since their Kickapoo Falls, Wis., high school days, though she scornfully rejected him in favor of boys higher up the social ladder. When she is found in the middle of a wheat field with her face blown off beside her dead husband, Michael, Pliney is assigned the case and is promptly targeted by sinister forces intent on framing him for the murders. Shaken by the killings, a state cop admits to joining Maggie and Michael in sex games; Senate candidate Webster Sprague and his wife, Caren, were involved, too. Events get complex when Caren, who's seemingly run away with lots of Webster's money, calls Pliny long distance and feeds him clues that lead to sex film tapes giving leverage over Webster and perhaps revealing the killer in the wheat field. But just as Pliny gets close to a solution, he finds himself set up to take the fall for an even more heinous crime than the double murder, one linked to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential race. Though the political connection is less than credible, Thayer has a knack for building tension and defining place, and his smalltown sinners are all too believable. The spectacular ending is only slightly marred by the questionable plot device that gets Pliny there. Agent, Elaine Koster. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter 1 Death in a Wheat Field The Dells were beautiful back then. In the years after the war. Before they turned the valley into a playground. Threw it wide open to tourists. And other monsters. I found Maggie Butler in a field of wheat. Her face was gone. A shotgun blast. Her husband of sixteen years was dead next to her. His groin was missing. Same shotgun. A farmer named Gutterman led me to the scene. "I was coming across the field in the combine," he told me, "when I saw the crows, and then this big open circle . . . strangest thing I've ever seen. So I climbed down to investigate. First I saw all this blood, and I thought . . . poachers . . . that they had skinned some deer. But then I saw that they were human bodies." It was a strange and horrifying sight, all right. The sun was just up. Soft yellow in a clear August sky. Laid out before me in golden shadows, completely naked and covered with blood, was one of the most prominent couples in the county. Karl Gutterman's farm sat off Old County Road C, south out of Kickapoo Falls. About halfway to Devil's Lake. A mile from the farmhouse, I left a dirt road and walked through virgin wheat up to my waist. Acres of endless gold. Then right in the middle of the field, in the middle of nowhere, I came to an open ring, as if the wheat had been steamrolled into a perfect circle. Almost like a stage in some theater in the round. A pagan worship circle. The ashen farmer pointed to the bodies. He was stuttering. "That's Michael Butler . . . and that . . . that must be Maggie." Yes, it was Maggie Butler. Even in unspeakable death, her body was beautiful. She was on her back. Naked to the sun. Her long legs were summer tan and crossed at the knees, as if to protect her dignity to the very end. Her breasts were bigger than I'd always imagined. Maybe it is sick to think sex thoughts like that at a murder scene, but I had those thoughts and more that day. Below the neck, she remained angelic. Almost peaceful. The shotgun that had probably killed her was next to her outstretched arm. "You went to school with them, didn't you?" "Yes," I muttered, surveying the scene. "Wasn't that right before the war?" Nearly twenty years had passed. But Maggie and Michael wouldn't make the reunion. I remember looking away. Staring up at the sky. God, what a beautiful day it was. A summer blue sky. Only a slight breeze was blowing. Not a cloud in sight. It was dog-day hot, but not unbearable. Sweat stuck to my armpits. Sweat ringed my Stetson. I could feel tears forming in my eyes. I took a deep breath. Regained my composure. Then I crouched down in that deathbed of wheat, hat in hand. At first glance, it appeared a murder-suicide. Maggie had blown her husband's balls off. Then she turned the gun on herself. Blew her brains out. But a closer examination suggested we had a double homicide on our hands. Michael Butler's bloody body was in a far different repose from that of his wife. He died scared. Where Maggie's beautiful face was gone, Michael's face was frozen in terror. His eyes were still open. Flies swarmed about his mouth and nostrils. He hadn't died fast, like Maggie. Most likely his wounds had sent him into shock. Then he slowly bled to death through the openings where his organs should have been. "Deputy Pennington?" "What is it?" Gutterman pointed to a white stub atop the crushed wheat, a few yards from the bodies, but equal distance to them both. It was a cigarette butt. A Lucky Strike. Somebody had smoked and watched. There were also holes pressed into the wheat. Three holes. Perfect little circles that might have been made by a cane, or maybe somebody leaning on the barrel of a gun. Gutterman shuffled around the circle of death like a chicken. There were two bloody bodies on his property. He was looking for answers. I was searching for clues. Gutterman was a fifty-five-year-old farmer with six kids. He'd probably never been out of Wisconsin. In his wheat field that day, he seemed stupefied. Flustered. I guess I should have felt sorry for the dumb bastard, but I remember his agitated presence was pissing me off. I wanted to be alone with Maggie. "Where are their clothes?" he demanded to know. "And their shoes?" "The killer took them." "But why . . . I mean, who would do something like this?" "Well, in a homicide case, we always start with the nearest and dearest. That's usually the spouse. Maybe Maggie did this, but I don't think so. Next on our list of suspects is the person who discovered the bodies. That would be you, Mr. Gutterman." He stared at me in disbelief. "I don't think that's funny, Mr. Pennington." "That's because I'm not joking." There aren't many men in Kickapoo County that I tower over, but I towered over farmer Gutterman. He hadn't served in the war: He was married with children. He was too old. He was needed on the farm. Excuse, excuse, excuse. I looked down at him. No, I didn't believe for a second that Gutterman, a simple farmer, was a murderer. But I couldn't help be curious about the secret showcase in the middle of his wheat field. So I threw the fear of God into the little son of a bitch. Or at least, the fear of the county sheriff. "One way or another, you're going to have to explain to Sheriff Fats how this circle got on your property." "Deputy, you've got no business accusing me of sordid things. I'm a hard-working, God-fearing Presbyterian. I pray to God it was some monster from Chicago did this. I hate to think it could have been one of our own." He was wearing a pair of dirty bib overalls with a nixon button incongruously pinned to one of the breast pockets. On the other pocket he had a sprague for senate button. I was in uniform. Our summer khakis. Otherwise, I'd've been wearing my kennedy button. The young senator from Massachusetts had given me the campaign button right after I shook his hand. Mostly, I wore it to antagonize people. There were times back then when I thought I was the only Catholic in Kickapoo County-and one of the few Democrats. The presidential election was still two months off. By today's muddy standards, it is considered a pretty civil affair. But I remember the contest of 1960 as bitter and divisive. I also remember being told to solve the wheat field murders before election day. Chapter 2 Sex Along the Road: Part One I remember the first time it happened to me. They were tearing up the bed of a Ford pickup. Never before had I watched two people having sex. This was years before the wheat field murders. Though a combat veteran, I was still quite young. Remember this about the war-a lot of us enlisted when we were only seventeen and eighteen years old. It sometimes seems in the movies that most soldiers spent World War II falling in and out of love. That wasn't the case. We spent four years at war and then we came home. We just didn't know that much about women. I'd venture to say that a lot of the boys killed in the war didn't live long enough to kiss a girl. Anyway, I'd only been with the sheriff's department a short time. I remember it was warm. Probably midsummer. A lot of tourists were in town. It was dogwatch and I was cruising the River Road, north on the Upper Dells. There was a big, bright moon hanging over the cliffs. You could read a book by it. I passed a pickup truck off to the side of the road. It was parked above the river, facing the western bluffs. It seemed suspicious. The area was not a common site for necking. The kids usually stayed closer to town. I doubled back with my lights off. Rolled to a stop about fifty yards away and cut the engine. I stepped from the squad, my trusty flashlight in hand. It was one of those heavy steel five-battery suckers. In those days our flashlights doubled as nightsticks. I never felt comfortable drawing my gun, but day or night, I always felt good with that flashlight in my hand. I kept the powerful light turned off. Just listened. Find them with your ears. Spot them with your eyes. Shoot them with your scope. My suspicions proved dead-on. As soon as I stepped from the squad, I heard a woman screaming. I was about halfway to the truck when I realized what kind of screaming it was. That's probably why he brought her so far out. She was a screamer. In fact, it wasn't until I got close enough to see into the back of the truck that I was sure somebody was back there with her. The moonlight threw deep shadows, and I moved into one. I could see but not be seen. One good thing about war, it does teach you how to sneak up on people in the dark. A good thing to know in combat. Or police work. And a good thing to know if you're into . . . The laws were different back then. If we caught them necking, we'd give them a verbal warning and send them on their way. If any of her clothes were off, we'd bring her in. Call her parents. Not his parents. Just hers. And if we caught them actually fucking, we were supposed to jail them both; most of us just chose to watch. This was a young couple. Almost too young. The truck was black. Their bodies were white. They both had long, athletic legs. I couldn't see their faces, but I pictured her as dark-haired and pretty, while he remained anonymous. What struck me the most was the needy way she clung to him. Naked. Uninhibited. Almost desperate. She had her legs wrapped around his waist, with her arms around his neck. She was pulling him into her. No, she was forcing him into her. At first I wondered if it was possible that he was really inside of her. Remember, I'd never seen such a thing. Then I watched as he extended his arms, like a pushup, so that he could stare between their legs and watch himself penetrating her. When he did this, she arched her back and I could see the nipples on her breasts. Beautifully rounded breasts, with thick, dark nipples. The three of us were in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night. Still, I kept glancing over my shoulder, afraid someone would see me seeing them. It wasn't what I saw that night that I remember as much as what I was feeling. I was the little altar boy committing the big sin. But is it a sin to watch? Or is it just a sin to enjoy watching? Hell, I felt cheated. Like I'd missed the beginning of a great movie. I wanted them to start over. I wanted to see him strip her. To drop her bra. To slip his hands beneath her ass and pull her panties off those long, gorgeous legs. I wanted to see the expression on her face when he first entered her. Her screams were reaching the point of ecstasy. I closed my eyes, because the sounds were more erotic than the sights. I sat on the ground. Imagined myself deep inside of her. Her tongue, deep inside my mouth. I was sweating. I brought my knees up to my chest. Wrapped my arms around my legs. Then I bowed my head and listened to the illicit lovemaking of this beautiful pair of strangers. I remember it as one of the most erotic nights of my life, and they didn't even know I was there. In the moonlight that summer night so many years ago, even my most jealous and murderous thoughts seemed sexual. Oh, how easily I could have killed that seductive young couple. Penetrated them with bullets. Walked up behind them with a spare revolver and executed them for fornicating in the back of a truck. In my county. On my shift. Two shots for him, right in the back. Then, as she scrambled to escape the dead lover on top of her, I'd shine my flashlight on her. Bang. Bang. One to her heart and one to her face. Some early morning farmer would find their bodies. Then I, their judge, their jury, and their executioner, would be the first police officer on the scene. Raising me above suspicion. Yes sirree, I had those sick thoughts and more as I sat crumpled on the ground that night. Never will I forget how my first act of sex left me feeling like an abandoned child, even though my participation in that act was secretive and from a distance. The young woman let out one last scream that I was sure could be heard throughout the valley. Years later, pornographers would refer to this as the cumshot. Then they were through. I pictured them lying together in the bed of the truck, their arms and legs intertwined. There were sounds of human whispers, of night owls and crickets, and of small creatures moving mysteriously through the woods. All of this beneath a full summer moon above the Wisconsin River. I watched them dress. Got a good look at their faces. She was as pretty as I had imagined. And just as young. I made a note of the spot. And the truck. In fact, I took down the license plate number. Our three paths would cross again. I watched them drive away. --from The Wheat Field by Steve Thayer, Copyright © February 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission. Excerpted from The Wheat Field by Steve Thayer All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.