Authors: C. J. Box
Tags: #Conspiracies, #Mystery & Detective, #Environmentalists, #Wyoming, #Fiction, #Literary, #Pickett; Joe (Fictitious character), #Mystery Fiction, #Game wardens, #General, #Explosions
What little daylight was left was quickly disappearing, and Joe clicked on his flashlight as they slowly circled the crater. Barnum and McLanahan followed suit, and the pools of light illuminated the twisted roots and lacy pale yellow undergrowth in the crater.
The rest of the herd, apparently unhurt, stood as silent shadows just beyond Joe's flashlight. He could see dark heavy shapes and hear the sound of chewing, and a pair of eyes reflected back blue as a cow raised its head to look at him. He approached the nearest cow and shined the flashlight on its haunch to see the brand. It was the letter V with a U underneath, divided by a single line--the Vee Bar U Ranch. These were Jim Finotta's cows.
McLanahan suddenly yelped in alarm, and Joe raised his flashlight to see the deputy in a wild, self-slapping panic, dancing away from the rim of the crater and ripping off his jacket as quickly as he could. He threw it violently to the ground in a heap and stood over it, staring.
"What in the hell is wrong with you'" Barnum barked, annoyed.
"Something landed on my shoulder. Something heavy and wet," McLanahan said, his face contorted. "I thought it was somebody's hand grabbing me. It scared me half to death."
McLanahan had dropped his flashlight, so from across the crater, Joe lowered his light and focused a tight beam on the deputy's jacket. McLanahan bent down into the light and gingerly unfolded the jacket, poised to jump back if whatever had fallen on him was still in his clothing. He threw back a fold and cursed. Joe couldn't see for sure what McLanahan was looking at, but he could make out that the object was dark and moist.
"What is it?" Barum asked.
"It looks like ... well... it looks like a piece of meat." McLanahan looked up at Joe vacantly The flashlight reflected in his eyes.
Slowly Joe raised his flashlight, sweeping upward over McLanahan and then up the trunk of a lodgepole pine and into the branches. What Joe saw, he knew he would never forget.
Part of it was simply the initial shock. Part of it was seeing it in the harsh beam of a flashlight that lit up the texture, colors, and shapes and threw misshapen shadows about in unnatural and unsettling ways. He was not expecting--and could never have imagined--what it would look like to see the whole of a half-ton creature exploded into a thousand shards of different lengths, hanging down from branches like icicles, as high as his flashlight's beam would reach. Entrails looped across the branches like popcorn strings on a Christmas tree.
He gagged as he swept the flashlight from tree to tree on McLanahan's side of the crater. McLanahan retrieved his own flashlight and started sweeping the trees with the beam as well.
"I want to go home and take a shower," McLanahan said. "The trees are covered with this shit."
"How about you go back to the Blazer and get the crime-scene tape and your camera instead," Barnum barked. Barnum's voice startled Joe. The sheriff had been so quiet that Joe had almost forgotten he was there. He looked over to where Barnum stood, several yards away, his
flashlight pointed down near his feet. "There's a pair of big-ass hiking boots sitting right here. The laces are popped open."
The sheriff paused and looked at Joe. "I think the poor dumb son-of a-bitch who was wearing these got blown right out of them."
they weren't finished taping off the area until well after ten. The clouds that had covered the mountains and kept the sky closed like a lid on a kettle had dissipated, leaving a gauze of brilliant blue white stars, like a million pinpricks in a dark cloth. The moon was barely more than a thin slash in the sky, providing a scant amount of light to see, so McLanahan and Joe, their flashlights clamped under their arms, fumbled clumsily through and around trees with rolls of the plastic band reading crime scene crime scene crime scene while Barnum tried in vain to maintain radio contact. Joe wondered how much evidence they were crushing or disturbing as they wound the plastic through the timber. He mentioned this to Barnum, but Barnum was busy trying to contact the Sheriffs Department dispatcher via his radio and just waved him off.
"We started with an explosion called in by the fire lookout and now we've got us a full-fledged murder investigation," Barnum growled into his handheld between ferocious bouts of static. "We need state forensics as fast as they can get here and we'll need the coroner and a photographer out here at dawn. We can't see a goddamn thing."
"Come again?" the dispatcher asked through more static.
"She can't hear a word I'm saying," Barnum declared angrily
"Why don't you wait and try her again from the radio in the Blazer?" McLanahan asked. Joe was thinking the same thing.
Barnum cursed and holstered his radio. "I need to take a leak and then let's get out of here." Barnum turned and limped away into the dark brush.
Joe tied off the tape on a tree trunk sticky with pine sap and took
his flashlight from where he had been holding it steady under his arm. He slimed it on his boots. They -were slick with blood.
"Jesus Christ!" Barnum yelled from the darkness. "We've got a body Or at least half of one. It's a girl. A woman, I mean."
"Which half?" McLanahan asked stupidly
"Shut the fuck up." Barnum answered bluntly
Joe didn't want to look. He had seen enough for one night. The fact that Barnum was coming toward him, limping as quickly as he could around the crime scene tape, didn't even register with Joe until Barnum stopped two feet in front of him and waved his finger in Joe's face. Joe couldn't tell if the sheriff was really angry or he was watching another display of Barnum's famous bluster. Either way being this close reminded Joe of how formidable Barnum still was, even after twenty six years as Twelve Sleep County sheriff.
"Why is it, Game Warden Pickett, that we rarely if ever have any trouble in my county" the sheriffs voice rising as he spoke, "but every goddamned time we find dead bodies strewn about you seem to be standing there in the middle of them?"
Joe was taken aback by Barnum's sudden outrage. It was now obvious to Joe that Barnum had been harboring resentment for quite some time because Joe had solved the outfitter murders. Joe could not come up with a good response. He felt his cheeks flush red in the dark.
"Sheriff, you called me to the scene, remember?"
Barnum sneered. "But I thought we had a bunch of dead elk."
Abruptly Barnum turned and began to limp in the direction of his Blazer. McLanahan dutifully fell in behind him after giving Joe a look of superior satisfaction. Joe wondered just what it was he had done to arouse Barnum. He guessed it was exactly what Barnum had said: that he was there was enough. The new game warden, two years in the Saddlestring District, still wet behind the ears, who was now right square in the middle of another homicide. Or suicide. Or something.
There had been few violent deaths in Twelve Sleep County in the past two years aside from the outfitter murders. The only one of note
was the rancher's wife who killed her husband by burying a hay hook into his skull, straight through his Stetson, pinning his hat to his head. In one version of the story that Joe had heard, the wife had gone home after the incident, mixed herself a pitcher of vodka martinis, and then called the sheriff to turn herself in. The pitcher was nearly empty when they arrived a short time later.
Before following the sheriff and his deputy, Joe stood quietly in the dark. He could hear the rest of the herd of cows grazing closer to the crater. In the distance, a squirrel chirred a message. The wildlife was cautiously moving back in. But there was something else.
A tremor quickly ran the length of his spine, and he felt the hairs prick on his forearms and neck. He looked straight up at the cold stars, then swept his eyes through the black pine branches. He knew that the fire lookout station was out of range. The black humps of the Bighorn Mountains did not show a single twinkling light of a cabin or a headlight. So why did he feel like someone or something was there with him, watching him?
driving back on the interstate toward Saddlestring, Joe watched the little screen on his cell phone until it indicated he was finally receiving a signal. As he had guessed, Marybeth was still awake and waiting to hear from him. He gave her a quick summary of what they had found.
She asked if the victim was someone local.
"We have no idea," Joe said. "At this point we don't even know if we've got one body or two. Or more."
She was silent for a long time.
"A cow exploded?" she finally asked, incredulous.
"That's what it looks like."
"So now we've got exploding cows to worry about?"
"Yup," Joe said, his voice gently teasing. "As if there weren't enough things to worry about with three little girls, now we need to keep
them away from cows. And they're everywhere, those cows. In all of the fields and in all of the pastures. It's like there are ten thousand ticking time bombs all around us just waiting to explode."
She told him he was not very funny
"It's been a bad night," he said. "Barnum asked me to notify the rancher who owns the cows tomorrow, which I'll do. He said that beyond that, he really doesn't need my help on the investigation. Hell, he was upset with me just because I was there. He's calling in the state crime boys tonight."
"Barnum just wants everything to go smoothly until he retires," Marybeth said. "He just wants to cruise on out of here without a ripple. And he especially doesn't want you to steal his thunder in the meantime."
"Maybe," Joe said, knowing she was probably right.
"Who's the rancher?" Marybeth asked.
"Jim Rnotta. All the cattle had his Vee Bar U brand."
Marybeth paused. "Jim Finotta, the trial lawyer?" she asked warily Joe knew her antennae were up.
"I haven't heard many good things about him," she said .
"Maybe so," Joe said. "But you know how people like to talk. I've never met the man."
It was almost as if Joe could hear Marybeth thinking. Then she abruptly changed the subject. "I saved some dinner for you," Marybeth said as the highway straightened out and Saddlestring came into view The town at night looked like a handful of jewels scattered through a river valley
"What did you have?" Joe asked.
Marybeth paused. "Hamburgers."
Joe forced a bitter smile. "I'll have to pass. I'll grab some chicken at the Burg-OPardner."
"I understand. Please hose yourself off in the front yard before you come in."
One HOUR AFTER THE TAILLIGHTS of the law enforcement vehicles vanished down Hazelton Road to return to Saddlestring, two men emerged from the darkness of the forest on the other side of the mountain. In silence, they approached a sleek black pickup that was parked deep in the trees, away from the rough logging road they had used to access the area. Using mini-Mag lights with the beams choked down to dim, they repacked their equipment and electronics gear--optics, radios, the long-range transmitter, and unused packages of C-4 explosives --into brushed aluminum cases in the bed of the truck.
"Too bad about that woman," the Old Man said.
"Collateral damage," Charlie grunted. "Except for her, everything worked perfectly"
Charlie snapped the fasteners shut on the optics case and looked up at the Old Man. Tup."
THE OLD MAN had been stunned by the force of the explosion, even from the distance from which they had observed it. In rapid succession, he saw the flash as Charlie toggled the transmitter, felt a tremor surge through the ground, and heard the detonation as the sound rolled across the mountains. The booming rumble washed over them several times as it echoed like distant thunder.
The Old Man had lowered his binoculars and whistled. Charlie, who had been watching through his spotting scope as Stewie Woods and the woman worked their way up the mountain, clucked his tongue.
I hey HAD tracked Stewie Woods across three states, and Stewie had never known they were there. Even when he took up with the woman and switched vehicles, they had stayed close. He had been sloppy and more than a little preoccupied. When the judge in Ennis reported that they were headed to "somewhere near Saddlestring" in the Bighorn Mountains, Charlie had demonstrated to the Old Man, for the first time, why he was so good at what he did. When it came to hunting men, Charlie Tibbs was the best.
The national forest was huge, with dozens of access points. But Charlie anticipated exactly where Stewie Woods would end up, and they had beaten him there. From Charlie the Old Man learned that this part of the forest had been the subject of a dispute involving environmental groups, the U.S. Forest Service, and the local ranchers and loggers who had been leasing the area for years. The dispute had been used by the environmentalists as a test case, and they had thrown their best lawyers into it. They had wanted to end what they saw as sweetheart deals made to ranchers on public land. But, as Charlie explained to the Old Man, the ranchers and loggers won when the judge--once a rancher himself--ruled to continue the leases.
One Globe, Stewie Woods's organization, had been the most vocal in the dispute. Woods himself had been forcibly removed from the courtroom for acting out when the verdict was read. On the courthouse steps, in front of television cameras, Woods had proclaimed, "If we can't save the planet through the courts, we'll do it in the forests."
The tract that would lure Stewie Woods, Charlie guessed correctly, was the one most recently opened to both logging and grazing. The best access to the parcel was from a trailhead near Hazelton Road. From there, Charlie had determined, Woods would hike toward the peak where the trees to be logged would soon be marked. On the way Woods would undoubtedly run into the herd of cattle that had recently been moved into the high country The Old Man wasn't sure what they would have done if Woods had skirted the herd of cows, especially with the tethered heifer that had been strapped with the explosives and the detonation receiver. But even if Woods had taken another route and evaded their trap, the Old Man had no doubt that Charlie would have quickly come up with another plan. The man was relentless.