Authors: C. J. Box
Tags: #Conspiracies, #Mystery & Detective, #Environmentalists, #Wyoming, #Fiction, #Literary, #Pickett; Joe (Fictitious character), #Mystery Fiction, #Game wardens, #General, #Explosions
The rumor was that his next book would be titled Screwing Up the West and was a vicious indictment of corporations, landowners, and politicians. Excerpts had been published in magazines and journals. Powell was in big trouble, though. The SEC was investigating the software company and investors who Powell had recruited--many of whom had sunk millions into the company--were furious. There had been death threats made against Powell, which he duly reported to the SEC and the FBI. Powell had even been quoted as saying that he looked forward to going to jail, where he would feel safer.
And now the Old Man and Charlie were here to kill him--but not because of the failing software company Charlie had said it needed to look as if an angry investor had done it or had it done. There should be absolutely no link to the upcoming book
The Old Man had not been told what the details of the plan would be. He was uncomfortable, and scared. He wasn't like Charlie-these things didn't come naturally to him. He did not want to disappoint either Charlie or his employers, but this thing was getting bigger and
more complicated than he had thought it would be. What was he supposed to do, run across the grass and hit Powell in the back of the head with a hammer? Shoot the guy in the dark? What?
"He's up and he's in," Charlie said, lowering the binoculars.
The Old Man watched as the porch light went on. They followed Powell's drunken progress through his house as he switched on lights. First the kitchen, then the bathroom, then the living room. They waited.
"He's probably passed out on his couch," Charlie whispered after nearly an hour.
"What is the plan?" the Old Man asked, trying to suppress the panic he felt rising up in him.
Oddly Charlie Tibbs smiled, showing his perfect teeth, and turned in his seat. The smile made the Old Man fee! better, but it also disturbed him in a way he couldn't put his finger on.
"Later .. . ," Charlie began, the word drowned out by the ram. "I'll tell you later when you need to know."
wearing A rain suit with a hood that slipped over his clothes and covered his face, the Old Man waited in the soaking undergrowth until Charlie Tibbs reached the front door. When Charlie signaled him, the Old Man raised his scoped and silenced .22 rifle and shot out the back porch light with a sound no louder than a cough. The Old Man had shot from an angle so the bullet would pass cleanly through the lamp and lightbulb and off into the night. It would not be wise to leave a bullet lodged in the siding that might be found by investigators. Now the outside of the expensive home of Hayden Powell was once again dark. With a tiny flashlight in his mouth, the Old Man located the spent brass casing that had been ejected from the rifle into the mud. He pocketed it while he walked across the lawn toward the darkened back door. While the tire tracks and footprints would be washed away in the driving rain, bullet casings could be recovered.
Careful to not lose his footing on the ram-slick steps, the Old Man entered the house. Charlie had been right about Powell not locking the back door after him.
Inside it was warm and dry The Old Man stood in the kitchen by the back door and concentrated on regulating his breathing. He did not want to be heard. The pounding of the ram was muffled inside the house. As he stood, a puddle formed near his boots from the wet rain suit.
The Old Man surveyed the room and then positioned himself behind the kitchen island with his back to the door he had entered. The kitchen island was built so that the end of it pointed to the living room. His job was to block the back door while Charlie entered the front. From where the Old Man stood he could see down a hallway into a sunken living room sparsely filled with leather furniture. A television set was on and the channel tuned to what looked like the local news. He could see half of the front doorway, and clearly heard Charlie knock on it.
The Old Man swallowed and readied his rifle. He was instructed not to use it unless absolutely necessary. According to Charlie, Powell would never even make it out of the living room, much less into the kitchen.
Charlie knocked again, this time louder. The Old Man heard a couch squeak and the back of Hayden Powell came into view. Powell was younger and more powerfully built than the Old Man had guessed. Powell's hair was awry and he shuffled to the front door in his socks. He had been sleeping on the couch. Once again, Charlie had been exactly right.
Powell asked who was at the door. The Old Man couldn't hear what Charlie shouted back. Powell squinted into the peephole and the Old Man could only imagine what Powell was thinking: There is an old cowboy standing on my front porch.
The front door was not open three inches before Charlie's fist, wrapped in thick brass knuckles beaded with rain, smashed through
the opening, flush into Hayden Powell's face. The power of the blow threw Powell straight back and he slid along the hardwood floor. The Old Man tensed and raised his rifle, keeping the barrel pointed at the hallway. Charlie entered the house and closed the front door behind him; his fnghtemngly intense eyes fixed on the crumpled form of Hayden Powell.
The Old Man let out a deep breath. It was already over.
But suddenly it wasn't, as Powell scrambled to his hands and knees with sudden sobriety and shot away from Charlie, straight toward the kitchen. The Old Man caught a glimpse of Powell's wide, bloodied face and frightened eyes and he raised his rifle just as Powell ducked below the kitchen island out of sight. Charlie yelled, "Get him!" and the Old Man kicked the back door shut a second before Powell slammed into it.
Powell was thrown backward again and was writhing on the kitchen floor between the island and a huge walk-in freezer. What the Old Man saw next reminded him much more of a hunter dispatching a wounded animal than a man killing another man. Charlie Tibbs mounted the three steps from the living room and pinned Powell to the floor with his knees. Powell struggled and tried to throw Charlie off, but after taking a half-dozen powerful and methodic blows with the brass knuckles, Powell was still.
Charlie Tibbs slowly got to his feet. The Old Man could hear Char he's knees creak and his back pop. Charlie's face was flushed from the exertion and his right arm, from the elbow down, was soaked in blood.
"You almost let him go," Charlie barked, glaring at the Old Man.
"You did, too," the Old Man countered, instantly regretting that he said it. For the first time, the Old Man saw the chilling, ice-blue stare directed at him. But like a storm cloud passing, Charlie's eyes softened and the Old Man found that he could breathe again.
"It's done now," Charlie said softly. "Grab a foot and help me drag him back out into the living room."
The Old Man put the rifle down on the counter and rounded the island. He turned his head so he wouldn't see the mess that Charlie had made of Powell's face and head. He caught Charlie looking at him, sizing him up, as they dragged the body through the kitchen and down the stairs.
I HEY TOOK THE MICROCASSETTE TAPE from Powell's answering machine because Charlie had called the house earlier in the afternoon to hear Hayden Powell's recorded voice and confirm they had the right address. Although no message was left, the ambient traffic sounds in the background might provide a clue for investigators that someone had called to check an occupancy The old man pocketed the microcassette. They found Powell's Macintosh computer in the home office and ripped it from the wall. The computer, files, and a box of disks and zip drives were all thrown into the back of the pickup. Charlie placed incendiary bombs in all four corners of the first floor of the house and splashed five gallons of gasoline through the kitchen and living room. As they left, the Old Man lit a traffic flare and tossed it through the back door. The mighty whoosh of the fire sucked the air out of the Old Man's lungs and left him gasping for the cold, moist air.
As they drove through Bremerton toward the highway Charlie dutifully pulled over as each fire truck passed them, their sirens whooping and flashing lights reflecting back from rain-slicked streets and buildings.
At the scene the firefighters would find a $1.7 million home burned to the ground. Later, tomorrow, a charred body would be found. An autopsy would show that the skull was crushed, probably by huge vaulted beams that crashed down from the second floor during the fire. The autopsy would also show that Powell's blood-alcohol level was far past the legal limit. Why and how the fire got started would be subject to debate. Speculation about whether one of his declared investor
enemies had something to do with it or whether Hayden Powell lit the fire himself in a drunken fit of rage and depression would probably go on for months.
"I'm not sure I like this close-in work," the Old Man said as they approached the egress to the highway "And I sure as hell don't like all this ram and jungle out here."
Charlie ignored the Old Man and asked him if he had picked up his shell casing. The Old Man sighed and showed it to him. Charlie was nothing if not thorough. And, in the Old Man's opinion, thoroughly efficient and coolly heartless.
"Where is the next project?" the Old Man asked.
"I was kind of hoping we'd get some time off. We've been going nonstop. I've seen the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean in the last four days. That's more miles than I want to think about."
This was the first time the Old Man had complained about their work. The result of his complaint was a pained squint from Charlie Tibbs as he drove.
"We took a job and we're going to finish it," Charlie said with finality His voice was so low that it could barely be heard over the ram sizzle of the tires.
The Old Man let it drop. He watched walls of dark wet trees strobe by in the headlights. The ram never stopped. The sky was close, seemingly at treetop level. It was as if they were going through a tunnel. He briefly closed his eyes to rest them.
When he opened them again his hands were still shaking. The big black pickup, like a land shark, was speeding east devouring miles of wet shining road. Heading east to Go West, the Old Man thought
MARY BETH SLAMMED DOWN the telephone receiver and, wideeyed, looked around her house to see if anyone was watching her. Of course, no one was. But she was shaking, scared, and angry nonetheless. And very self-conscious.
It was the same voice on the telephone from the day before. He had called at the same time: after the kids had left for school and Joe had gone to work, but before Marybeth left for the stables. He had either guessed very well when he could talk to her alone or knew her schedule. Either way, it was disconcerting.
"Is this Mary?" the man had asked. "Maiden name Harris?"
That was as far as it went yesterday before she hung up. When the telephone rang again this morning, she knew intuitively that it was
him. This time, she wanted more information about why he was calling, although she was afraid she already knew
"Who is this?" she asked.
He identified himself as a writer for Outside magazine. He said he was doing research for a story he was writing about deceased ecoterrorist Stewie Woods. "Why are you calling me?" she asked. "You should be talking instead to our sheriff or my husband. Would you like the sheriffs telephone number?"
The reporter paused. "You're Mary, aren't you?"
"Marybeth," she corrected. "Marybeth Pickett."
"Formerly known as Mary Harris?" he asked.
"My name has always been Marybeth," she insisted. This was not completely a l
Only two people had ever called her Mary
The reporter's voice was more tentative. "Maybe I've got the wrong person here, and if so, I apologize for wasting your time. But my research led me to you," he said. "Did you know Stewie Woods when you were growing up?"
She hung up on him.
IT HAD BEEN a wonderful summer. That summer, the one between high school and college, had been tucked away in her memory but still came back to her from time to time. She had fought it back successfully and never let it bloom. She had tamped that flower back into the earth with her heel. But when she read in the newspaper that Stewie Woods was dead it all came back. Even now, fifteen years later, the memory of it was still vibrant.
Back then, Stewie Woods was terribly homely but very charismatic, a gawky teenager turning into a fine but unpredictable athlete, who was already envisioning the building of an environmental terrorist organization that would rock the world. Hayden Powell was handsome, sardonic, and talented and vowed to make Stewie and their joint mission to Save the West famous. Although she never shared their radical passion for environmental causes, Marybeth's attraction to both rogues was exciting in the same way that it was exciting for other girls her age to hook up with rock stars or rodeo cowboys. Stewie and Hayden were bad boys, smart boys, wild boys, but they had good hearts. They were already wreaking havoc with environmental vandalism. An evening out with them generally involved pulling up survey stakes for a planned pipeline or letting the air out of bulldozer tires. Although there were several close calls, the three of them never got caught.
And they loved her. Stewie, especially He was so in love with her that it was as embarrassing as it was flattering. Once, after intercepting a pass for the Winchester Badgers and taking it into the end zone for a touchdown, Stewie had turned to the partisan Saddlestring crowd and spelled out "M-A-R-Y" with his long arms because he knew she was watching the game with her friends.
During the summer, the three of them spent nearly every evening together. They fished, they went to movies, they committed sabotage.
Hayden Powell went on to Iowa State for the writing program. Stewie got a football scholarship to Colorado. Marybeth went south to the University of Wyoming, intending to become a corporate lawyer. Instead, she met Joe Pickett, a gangly soft-spoken sophomore majoring in wildlife biology
She had not kept in touch with Stewie Woods or Hayden Powell because they were dangerous. With Joe's job as a fledgling game warden, they had moved six times in the first nine years and so it had been relatively easy for her to miss the telephone calls, letters, or Christmas cards they might have sent. With her name change and the fact that her mother remarried and moved to Arizona, she knew she would be difficult to track down. But she had read about Stewie's exploits and seen him on television. The biography had been published six years before, and had garnered minor critical attention but instant cult