Authors: C. J. Box
Tags: #Conspiracies, #Mystery & Detective, #Environmentalists, #Wyoming, #Fiction, #Literary, #Pickett; Joe (Fictitious character), #Mystery Fiction, #Game wardens, #General, #Explosions
"What happened to you?" Sandvick asked, his eyes widening as he looked at Joe's torn shirt, bloody hand, and crushed hat.
Joe tried to think of something snappy to say but couldn't think of anything.
"Fell out of a tree." Joe said, smiling with a hint of embarrassment.
Sandvick stifled a laugh. "Okay," he said, drawing the word out to indicate disbelief.
"Getting ready for hunting season?" Joe asked in a neighborly way
"Always," Sandvick nodded. "Things are slowing down around here. A few fish is all. A nice twenty-two-inch cutthroat trout back there. You want to look at it?"
Joe shook his head no. He agreed that 22 inches was big for a cutthroat. Matt, Joe thought, I'm sorry for what I'm about to do.
Then: "You know that big bull elk you did for Jim Finotta last year? Was that an eight-by-eight?" "Nine-by-seven," Sandvick corrected. "The only one I've ever seen."
"I would have sworn it had eight on each side." Joe said, looking quizzically at Sandvick. "I saw it just a few weeks ago in his office."
"Nope," Sandvick countered, "I'll prove it to you." Sandvick pushed his glasses up on his nose and studied the photos under the glass on the counter. He settled his index finger on a shot of Finotta's bull elk
mount while it was still in the studio. Joe bent, a little stiffly, to get a better look.
"You Okay?" Sandvick asked.
"My back hurts from that fall," Joe said, distracted. He studied the photo. There were nine tines on one antler and seven on the other, just like Sandvick said. There was also a very small LCD date stamp on the bottom right of the photograph that read "9-2 1."
"That's it, all right," Joe conceded. "You were absolutely right."
"That was a damned big elk," Sandvick said, but there was something different about his voice. Joe looked up to see that Sandvick was studying him intently, practically squinting. There was fear in Sandvick's eyes.
"You had this mount finished by the twenty-first of September," Joe said. "And rifle hunting season doesn't open until the fifteenth of October. You say in your brochure that it takes about six to eight weeks to finish a mount. So when did he bring it in? June or July?"
Sandvick's face drained of color and his eyes widened. He was caught. A taxidermist who worked on a game animal that wasn't accompanied by paperwork to prove it was properly taken could not only get his license revoked and be put out of business, but he could be jailed or fined. Matt Sandvick was well aware of that. So was Joe Pickett.
"June or July?" Joe asked, not unkindly
"Maybe I ought to call my lawyer or something," Sandvick said weakly, then swallowed, "Except I don't have a lawyer."
"I'll tell you what, Matt," Joe said, feeling ashamed of his trick but pleased with his discovery, "if you agree to sign an affidavit stating that Jim Finotta brought that animal in to you out of season I won't ask the County Attorney to prosecute you. I'll even argue against it if he brings it up. But I can't promise that he won't do it anyway"
Sandvick brought both of his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes. "Finotta didn't bring it in himself. His ranch hand brought it in."
"I think it was June," Sandvick said. "I could check my records for the exact date. I talked to him on the phone. Finotta offered me one of his new lots for it. That was kind of hard to pass up. Plus I didn't want to piss the man off."
Sandvick continued to rub his eyes, then his face. It was painful for Joe to watch.
"You do good work," Joe said. "Finotta told me he had that mount done in Jackson Hole, but everybody knows you're the best around and you're right here in town. So it makes sense he would come to you."
"He said he had it done in Jackson?" Sandvick asked, clearly hurt by that.
Joe nodded. "I'll leave you alone now But I'll be in touch about that affidavit, okay?" "That's really an insult. Jack son?"
Before Joe left the studio, he reached across the counter and patted Sandvick on the shoulder. "You're a good guy, Matt, but don't ever do that again."
Sandvick didn't need to be told. He was still trembling.
"The thing was," Joe explained, "they left the meat. Finotta shot it, probably got his flunky to cape it and take the head off, and they left the body to rot."
Sandvick said nothing. He lowered his hands to grip the counter and steady himself.
"That just makes me mad," Joe explained. Then he tipped his bent hat brim at Sandvick and left the shop.
I think I GOT HIM," Joe told Marybeth when he entered the house, tossing his misshapen hat through his office doorway
She looked him over carefully her eyes widening in alarm at his appearance.
"I'm fine," Joe said. "I think I've nailed Jim Finotta."
"I heard you," she said, approaching him and fingering a tear in his shirtsleeve.
In his excited state, he blurted: "Marybeth, we have to talk." She probed his eyes with hers, then patted his cheek. "Soon," she said.
MARY BETH PICKETT WAS REPLACING videotapes in the shelves behind the checkin desk when she heard the door to the library open and close. It was weekend procedure to try to keep count of the people in the library because of the early afternoon closing. Several months before, one of the other volunteers had inadvertently locked a patron who was in the bathroom inside the building. The man locked inside had to call the sheriff and wait for someone with a key to be tracked down.
Marybeth glanced around the video shelf at a shrunken woman in a wheelchair being pushed by a dark man who had a toothpick in his mouth. The man saw her, tipped the brim of his dirty ball cap, and looked Marybeth over as he walked past. Marybeth nodded cryptically and continued to replace the videos. Since the Twelve Sleep County Library had started renting movies for $2 each a year ago, the
librarians fretted over the fact that books would become an afterthought in the community. That had happened, to some degree.
When she was done with the videos, she returned to the front counter to find the man there. He was leaning forward on the counter resting on his elbows, and chewing his toothpick. He had dark eyes and rough skin, and the expression on his face was a self-satisfied leer.
"May I help you find something?" she asked coolly.
He grinned at that, showing a mouthful of broken yellow teeth, and when he did the toothpick danced.
"I just love it when pretty ladies ask me that question."
Marybeth shook her head. It wasn't often that a man was so pathetically transparent. She had no desire to engage in any kind of banter with him.
"Was that your mother you brought in here?"
He chortled. "Shit, no. That's Miss Ginger."
"Should I know her?"
"I'm surprised you don't. I bring her to the library once or twice a week. She's doing some kind of research for a book she claims she's writing."
Marybeth looked beyond the man. The woman in the wheelchair, Miss Ginger, was parked in an aisle in the western history section. She had pulled a book from the shelf that was now on her lap. It was obvious to Marybeth that the woman wanted to go to one of the tables to read it, but didn't have the strength to push herself there.
"I think she needs your help."
"She can wait," the man snorted. "My name's Buster, by the by I work out on the Vee Bar U for the boss. But instead of workin', I have to bring her into town and sit around on my ass in this place while she does research for a book she's never going to finish. I guess we've never been in here before when you were working."
Marybeth nodded, ignoring the opening provided to reveal her schedule to Buster. She did her best to keep her reaction in check. "You work for Jim Finotta, then?"
"Yup," Buster said proudly
"Then she's Jim Finotta's mother?"
"She's his wife, for Christ's sake." Buster laughed. "Not his ma."
Marybeth recalled Joe telling her about an old woman at the house, as well as about the stupid ranch hand who she now knew as Buster.
"What is wrong with her?" Marybeth asked gently
"You mean besides the fact that she's a crabby old bitch?" Buster asked, raising his eyebrows. He actually seemed to think he was charming her, Marybeth thought in amazement. "She's got Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS or ACS or something like that. She's getting worse all of the time. Pretty soon, she'll be flat on her back and her speech will go away completely"
"Are you going to help her?" Marybeth asked archly.
Buster rolled his eyes. "Eventually, yeah. When we're done here."
Marybeth looked at him coldly "We are done here," she said, and left him leaning on the counter while she approached Ginger Finotta.
Ginger Finotta's face was contorted and her lips were pressed together in a kind of sour pucker. Her eyes were rheumy with fluid, but they welcomed Marybeth as she approached. Marybeth removed one of the straight-backed chairs at the nearest table and wheeled Ginger into the empty space.
"Did you find everything you need?" Marybeth asked over Ginger Finotta's shoulder. Marybeth noted the stiff helmet of hair and the woman's skeletal neck and shoulders, which couldn't be hidden by her high-necked print dress.
"Isn't Buster an awful man?" Ginger Finotta asked in a scratchy voice.
"Yes, he is," Marybeth agreed.
"He is an awful man."
Marybeth said "Mmmingmmm" and walked around to the other side of the table so they could see each other. It took a moment for Ginger Finotta's eyes to catch up. When they did, Marybeth sensed the immediate pain that the woman was in.
"I'm doing research for my book."
"That's what I understand from Buster."
"How much do you know about the history of Wyoming?" Ginger asked. Her voice was not well modulated, and questions sounded like statements.
Marybeth said she knew a little from school, but wasn't a scholar or historian by any means.
"Do you know about Tom Horn?" Ginger Finotta asked.
"A little, I guess," Marybeth said. "He was a so-called stock detective and he was hanged in Cheyenne for killing a fourteen-year-old boy"
Ginger Finotta nodded almost imperceptibly "But he didn't do it. He did so many other bad things, though, that it doesn't matter if he shot that boy or not."
Buster had finally left the counter and was approaching the table.
"Mrs. Finotta, do you need anything?" he asked, and shot Marybeth a conspiratorial wink that she ignored.
"I need you to go to some other part of this building. I'll call you when I want to go home."
Buster raised his palms and said "Whoa!" before departing with a smirk on his face.
Ginger Finotta's attention remained on Marybeth. Marybeth wondered if the woman knew anything about the situation between Jim Finotta and Joe. It was hard to guess how lucid she was. She was a prisoner of her twisted and contorted frame.
"You need to know about Tom Horn," Ginger Finotta said, tapping the book on the table. It was called The Life and Times of Tom Horn, Stock Detective.
"Why is that?"
The question hung in the air while Ginger's eyes closed, slowly at first and then so tightly that her face trembled. She seemed to be battling through something. When her eyes reopened they were almost blank.
"Because if you know about history, it's easier to understand the present. You know, why we do the things we're doing now:"
"What do you mean?" Marybeth asked softly
Ginger's eyes searched Marybeth's face. She clearly wanted to answer, but suddenly couldn't. Her face trembled, tiny muscles and tendons dancing under waxed-paper skin. She seemed to be concentrating on conquering the tics, trying to get her own body under some kind of control. But when she opened her mouth there was a bubble of spit, and the only sound she made was an angry hiss. Her eyes betrayed her immense disappointment.
Marybeth could not discern where this was headed, or if the woman truly needed help, but she did have to get back to the front counter. A woman with two children was waiting with an arm full of books to check out.
"Are you okay Miss Finotta?"
The woman nodded that she was.
"I'll read about Tom Horn when you're done with the book," Marybeth said with a forced smile. "I promise. But now I've got to get back. Please let me know if you need anything else while you're here."
As Marybeth started to turn there was a slight movement of Ginger Finotta's thin hands on the table. She 'was trying unsuccessfully to raise her hand and stop Marybeth from leaving.
"You don't understand!" Ginger Finotta squawked, finding her voice again.
Her voice made Marybeth freeze. It carried throughout the library Newspaper readers in the small lounge area lowered their papers. The woman at the counter and her children turned and stared at the trembling woman. Buster emerged from the periodical aisle with a sour look on his face.
"Are you all right?" Marybeth asked.
"Do I look all right to you?"
Marybeth was confused. "What don't I understand?"
Ginger Finotta's moist eyes swept the ceiling before once again settling on Marybeth. "I know who you are and I know who your husband is."
Marybeth felt a chill crawl up her spine and pull on the roots of her hair.
"That's why you need to know about Tom Horn," Ginger Finotta said, her voice shrill.
"Let's go," Buster spat, suddenly appearing behind Ginger Finotta's wheelchair. Roughly, he pulled the chair out from under the table and started for the front door. Ginger clutched the book to her shrunken breast, as if saving it from a fire.
"Sorry ladies," Buster called over his shoulder, his toothpick dancing. "Mrs. Finotta is having some trouble here and she needs her rest. Bye bye!"
Marybeth stood stock still, wondering what exactly had just happened. She watched as Buster pushed Mrs. Finotta down the sidewalk, much too fast, toward the handicappedaccessible van he had parked near the front door. Marybeth slowly unclenched her fists, and took a deep breath.
that evening, Marybeth told Joe about her experience at the library with Ginger Finotta.