“I would say that C. J. Box is at the top of his form, but the top just keeps moving ever upward...A nonstop thrill ride not to be missed!”—Bookpage
When Earl Alden is found dead, dangling from a wind turbine, his wife, Missy, is arrested. Unfortunately for Joe Pickett, Missy is his much-disliked mother-in-law, and he’s not sure what to do—especially since it looks like Missy is guilty as sin.
But then things happen to make Joe wonder: Is Earl's death what it appears to be? Is Missy being set up? He has the county DA and sheriff on one side, his wife on the other, his estranged friend Nate on a lethal mission of his own, and some powerful interests breathing down his neck. Whichever way this goes, it’s not going to be good...
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ALSO BY C. J. BOX
THE JOE PICKETT NOVELS
Nowhere to Run
In Plain Sight
Out of Range
THE STAND-ALONE NOVELS
Three Weeks to Say Goodbye
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Box, C. J.
1. Pickett, Joe (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Game wardens—Fiction.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To the memory of David Thompson . . . and Laurie, always
When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.
He set out after breakfast on what would be his last day on earth.
He was an old man, but like many men of his generation with his wealth and station, he refused to think of himself that way. Deep in his heart, he honestly entertained the possibility he would never break down and perhaps live forever, while those less driven and less successful around him dropped away.
In fact, he’d recently taken to riding a horse over vast stretches of his landholdings when the weather was good. He rode a leggy black Tennessee walker; sixteen and a half hands in height, tall enough that he called for a mounting block in order to climb into the saddle. The horse seemed to glide over the sagebrush flats and wooded Rocky Mountain juniper-dotted foothills like a ghost, as if the gelding strode on a cushion of air. The gait spared his knees and lower back, and it allowed him to appreciate the ranch itself without constantly being interrupted by the stabs of pain that came from six and a half decades of not sitting a horse.
Riding got him closer to the land, which, like the horse, was his. He owned the sandy and chalky soil itself and the thousands of Black Angus that ate the same grass as herds of buffalo had once grazed. He owned the water that flowed through it and the minerals beneath it and the air that coursed over it. The very air.
Although he was a man who’d always owned big things—homes, boats, aircraft, cars, buildings, large and small corporations, race horses, oil wells, and for a while a small island off the coast of North Carolina—he loved this land most of all because unlike everything else in his life, it would not submit to him (well, that and his woman, but that was a different story). Therefore, he didn’t hold it in contempt.
So he rode over his ranch and beheld it and talked to it out loud, saying, “How about if we compromise and agree that, for the time being, we own each other?”
As the old man rode, he wore a 40X beaver silverbelly short-brimmed Stetson, a long-sleeved yoked shirt with snap buttons, relaxed-fit Wranglers, and cowboy boots. He wasn’t stupid and he always packed a cell phone and a satellite phone for those locations on his ranch where there was no signal. Just in case.
He’d asked one of his employees, an Ecuadoran named José Maria, to go to town and buy him an iPod and load it up with a playlist he’d entitled “Ranch Music.” It consisted largely of film scores. Cuts from Ennio Morricone like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” the theme from A Fistful of Dollars, “L’Estasi Dell’oro (The Ecstasy of Gold),” and “La Resa dei Conti (For a Few Dollars More),” Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Magnificent Seven, “The Journey,” and “Calvera’s Return,” and Jerome Moross’ theme from The Big Country. Big, wonderful, rousing, swelling, sweeping, triumphalist music from another era. It was music that simply wasn’t made anymore. The pieces were about tough (but fair) men under big skies on horseback, their women waiting for them at home, and bad guys—usually Mexicans—to be vanquished.
In fact, they’d vanquished some Mexicans of their own off the ranch in the last two months, the result of a surreptitious phone call to ICE placed by his wife. Although the Mexican ranch hands worked hard and were great stockmen, she could document how many times they’d refused to show her respect. She blamed their ingrained macho culture. So the immigration folks rounded them up and shipped them away. Their jobs had recently been filled by Ecuadorans like José Maria who were not as accomplished with cattle but were more deferential to his wife.
He threaded his horse up through gnarled bell-shaped stands of juniper. The trees were heavy with clusters of green buds, and the scent within the stand was sweet and heavy and it reminded him of a gin martini. His horse spooked rabbits that shot out from bunches of tall grass like squeezed grapefruit seeds, and he pushed a small herd of mule deer out ahead of him. It had warmed to the mid-seventies, and as the temperature raised so did the insect hum from the ankle-high grass. He hummed, too, along with the theme from The Big Country. He tried to remember the movie itself—Gregory Peck or William Holden?—but that was beyond his recollection. He made a note to himself to ask José Maria to order it from Netflix.
He paused the iPod and stuffed the earbuds and cord into his breast pocket as he urged his horse up the gentle slope. The thrumming of insects gave way to the watery sound of wind in the tops of the trees. The transition from an earth sound to the sounds of the sky thrilled him every time, but not nearly as much as what he knew he’d see when he crested the hill.
Clamping his Stetson tight on his head with his free right hand as he cleared the timber, the old man urged his horse to step lively to the top. Now the only sound was the full-throated Class Five wind, but there was something folded inside it, almost on another auditory level, that was high-pitched, rhythmic, and purposeful. He had once heard José Maria describe the sound as similar to a mallard drake in flight along the surface of a river: a furious beating of wings punctuated by a high-pitched but breathy squeak-squeak-squeak that meant the bird was getting closer.
From the crown of the hill, he looked down at the sagebrush prairie that stretched out as far as his eyes could see until it bumped up against the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. And it was all his.
From the gray and gold of the prairie floor, across five thousand acres, on a high ridge, sprung a hundred wind turbines in various stages of construction where just a year ago there had been nothing but wind-sculpted rock poking out of the surface like dry land coral. A fresh network of straight-line dirt roads connected them all. The finished turbines—and there were only ten of them operational—climbed two hundred fifty feet into the sky. He loved the fact that each tower was a hundred feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. And they were lined up tall and white and perfect in a straight line along the humpbacked spine of a ridge in the basin. All ten working turbines had blades attached. The blades spun, slicing through the Wyoming sky, making that unique whistling sound that was . . . the sound of money.
And he thought: Ninety more to go.
Behind the row of turbines was another row of towers only, and another, then seven more rows of ten each in different stages of construction. The rows were miles apart from each other, but he was far enough away on the top of the hill to see the whole of it, from the gaping drill-holes at the rear where the hundreds of tons of concrete would be poured into the ground to the bolted foundations of the towers and finally to the turbines and blades that would be built on top. They reminded him of perfectly white shoots of grass in various stages of growth, sprouting from the dirt straight into the sky.
The blades on the completed turbines had a diameter of forty-four meters or one hundred forty-four feet each. They would spin at close to one hundred miles per hour. Semi-trucks had delivered huge stacks of the blades and they lay on the sagebrush surface like long white whale bones left by ships.
He was so far away from his wind farm that the construction equipment, the pickups and cranes and earth-moving equipment, looked like miniatures.
That first line of almost-completed turbines stood like soldiers, his soldiers, facing straight into the teeth of the wind. They spun with defiance and strength, transforming the wind that had denuded the basin of humans and homesteads more than a hundred years ago into power and wealth.
And he waved his hat and whooped at the sheer massive scale of it.
Meeting the supplier-slash-general-contractor for the project the year before had been a spectacular stroke of luck, one of many in his life. Here was a man, a desperate man, with a dream and connections and, most of all, a line on a supply of turbines at a time when the manufacturers couldn’t turn out enough of them. This desperate man appeared at the right place and right time and had been literally days away from ruin. And the old man stumbled upon him and seized the opportunity, as he’d seized opportunities before, while those around him dithered and stuttered and consulted their attorneys, chief financial officers, and legislators. That chance meeting and the opportunity that came because of it had saved the old man a million dollars a turbine, or $100 million total. The old man had gone with his gut and made the deal, and here in front of him was the result of his unerring instinct.
Funny thing was, the old man thought, it wasn’t the wind farm that would really make him the big money. For that, he would look eastward toward Washington, D.C. That was the epicenter of the breached dam that was sending cash flooding west across the country like waves from a tsunami.
When he heard a rumble of a vehicle motor, he instinctively swept his eyes over the wind farm for the source of the noise, but he quickly decided he was too far away to discern individual sounds.
Since there weren’t any cows to move or fences to fix behind him, he doubted it was José Maria or his fellow Ecuadorans coming out his way. He turned in the saddle and squinted back down the hill he had come, but could see nothing.
The old man clicked his tongue and turned his horse back down the hill. As he rode down through the junipers, the harsh winds from on top began to mute, although they didn’t quell into silence. They never would.
Again, he heard a motor coming, and he rode right toward it.
When he emerged from the heavy-scented timber, he smiled when he recognized the vehicle and the driver. The four-wheel drive was on an ancient two-track coming in his direction. He could hear the grinding of the motor as well as the spiny high-pitched scraping of sagebrush from beneath the undercarriage. Twin plumes of dust from the tires were snatched away by the wind.
He waved when he was a hundred feet from the vehicle, and was still waving when the driver braked and got out holding a rifle.
“Oh, come on,” the old man said, but suddenly he could see everything in absolute gut-wrenching clarity.
The first bullet hit him square in the chest with the impact of a hitter swinging for the upper deck. Shattered his iPod.
If a man does not know what port he is steering for, no wind is favorable to him.
An hour before dawn broke on Monday, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett backed his green Ford pickup down his driveway and called dispatch in Cheyenne.
“This is GF53 heading out,” he said. The pickup was less than a year old but the new-car feel of the suspension had long been pounded out of it on rugged two-track roads, through grille-high sagebrush, and another hard winter’s worth of snowdrifts. As always, he was crowded inside the cab by clothing, maps, gear, weapons, and electronics. The department refused to buy or provide standard crew-cab trucks for the fifty-four wardens in Wyoming for fear taxpayers would object to the showy extravagance, even though new single-cab pickups were so rare they needed to be special-ordered. Inside the cab it smelled of fresh coffee from his travel mug and an unusually flatulent Tube, his male corgi/Labrador mix, who was already curling up on the passenger seat. The newest addition to his standard arsenal was the Ruger .204 rifle mounted to the top of his cab for dispatching wounded or maimed game animals with a minimum of sound or impact. Since Joe’s record with departmental vehicles was by far the worst in the agency, he’d vowed to baby this pickup until it hit maximum mileage, something that had not yet happened in his career.
“Good morning, Joe,” the dispatcher said, with a lilt. The dispatchers found that phrase amusing and never got tired of saying it.
“Morning,” he said. “I’ll be in the east break lands in areas twenty-one and twenty-two this morning, checking antelope hunters.”
“Ten-four.” She paused, no doubt checking her manual. Then: “That would be the Middle Fork and Crazy Woman areas?”
As he began to sign off, she asked, “How are you doing? You had to take your daughter to college yesterday, right? How did it go?”
“Don’t ask. GF53 out.”
The day before, Sunday, Joe had been out of uniform, out of sorts, and nearly out of gas as he approached Laramie from the north in his wife Marybeth’s aging minivan. It was the last week of August, but a front had moved in from the northwest, and thin waves of snow buffeted the van and shoved it toward the shoulder of the two-lane highway.
“Oh my God, is that snow?” sixteen-year-old foster daughter April said with contemptuous incredulity in a speech pattern she’d mastered that emphasized every third or fourth word. “It can’t snow in friggin’ August!” April was slight but tough, and she had a hard edge to her look and style that seemed provocative even when it likely wasn’t intended to be. As she matured, she looked frighteningly like her mother Jeannie, who had never made it to forty. Same light blonde hair. Same accusing narrow eyes.
Joe and Marybeth exchanged glances. They’d had a discussion with no conclusion about whether frigging was an acceptable word in their family.
April said, “When I go to college, I want someplace warm. Someplace way far away from here.”
“What makes you think you’ll go to college?” Lucy, their fourteen-year-old said just soft enough that perhaps her parents in the front seat wouldn’t hear. Joe thought Lucy’s mutter had been below the belt, even if possibly true. Lucy was usually more diplomatic and nonconfrontational, so when she did unleash a zinger, it hit twice as hard as if one of the other girls had said it. Lucy was small herself, but not angular like April. Lucy was rounded in perfect proportion, and had blonde hair and striking features and the grace of a cat. Strangers were beginning to stare, Joe had noticed. He didn’t like that.
Marybeth heard everything going on in the backseat, and turned to try to head off what could come next. Joe checked his rearview mirror for April’s reaction and saw she was coiled and close to violence. Her face was drawn and red, her nostrils flared, and she was focused completely on Lucy sitting next to her.
“Girls, please,” Marybeth said.
“Did you hear what she friggin’ said?” April hissed.
“Yes, and it was inappropriate,” Marybeth said. “Wasn’t it, Lucy?”
A beat, then Lucy said, “Yes.”
“So apologize already,” April said. “I always have to friggin’ apologize when I say something stupid.”
“Sorry,” Lucy whispered.
“This is an emotional day,” Marybeth said, turning back around in her seat.
Joe shifted his gaze in the mirror and caught Lucy silently mouthing, “But it’s true.”
And April leaned into Lucy and ran a finger across her throat as if it were a knife. Lucy shrugged it away, but Joe felt a chill go up his back from the gesture.
“I hope we can get through this day without fireworks,” Marybeth said, missing what was going on in the backseat. “Waterworks is another thing.”
Her phone rang in her purse, and she retrieved it and looked at the display and put it back. “My mother,” she said. “She has a knack for calling me at just the wrong time.”
“We need to get some gas,” Joe said. “We’re running on empty.”
A gas station, announced by a green sign that read:
ROCK RIVER POPULATION 235
. . . was just ahead.
Sheridan, their nineteen-year-old daughter, was going to college. The University of Wyoming in Laramie was forty-five minutes to the south on the hump of the high plains. She followed them on the exit ramp in their newly acquired fifteen-year-old Ford Ranger pickup with the bed filled with cardboard boxes of everything she owned. Joe had lashed a tarp over the load before they left Saddlestring four hours before, but the wind had ripped long rents into it. Luckily, the rope held the shards down. He’d spent most of the trip worrying about it.
Marybeth either didn’t notice the ruined tarp or more likely didn’t think about it while staring out the window and dabbing her eyes with dozens of tissues that were now crumpled near her shoes on the floorboards like a bird’s nest.
Joe wished he’d brought his winter coat against the wind and cold. This was a place where the wind always blew. The trees, as sparse as they were on top, were gnarled and twisted like high country gargoyles. Both sides of the highway were bordered with a long ten-foot-high snow fence. It howled from the north, rocking both the van and Sheridan’s pickup as he filled the tanks with gasoline.
He tightened the ropes across the bed of her pickup and checked to make sure none of her boxes had opened. Joe imagined her clothes blowing out and rocketing across the terrain until they snagged on bits of sagebrush.
Joe Pickett was in his mid-forties, slim, of medium height and build, with brown eyes and a perpetual squint, as if he was always assessing even the simplest things. He wore old Cinch jeans, worn Ariat cowboy boots, a long-sleeved yoked collar shirt with snap buttons, and a tooled belt that read JOE. Under the seat of the van were his holstered .40 Glock 23 semi-automatic service weapon, bear spray, cuffs, and a citation book. There had been a time when mixing his family and his weapons had struck him as discordant. But over the years, he’d made some enemies and he’d come to accept, if not embrace, his innate ability to so often find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d learned to accept suspicion and not feel guilty about checking over his shoulder. Even on freshman move-in day at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Sheridan watched him fill her tank and secure the load and gave him a little wave of thanks from inside the cab. He tried to grin back. Sheridan had blonde hair and green eyes like Marybeth and Lucy. She was mature beyond her years, but to Joe she looked vulnerable and frail, like a little girl. She wore a gray SADDLESTRING LADY WRANGLERS hoodie and had her hair tied back. When he looked at her behind the steering wheel, he saw her at seven years old, trying again and again with skinned knees and epic determination to ride her bike more than ten feet down the road without crashing. Until that moment, that very moment when they exchanged glances, it hadn’t hit him she was leaving them.
Sheridan, after all, was his buddy. Apprentice falconer, struggling athlete, first child, big sister. She was the one who would come out into the garage and hand him tools while he tried to repair his pickup or snow machine. She was the one who really wanted to ride along with him on patrol, and she made valiant, if vain, attempts to try to get him interested in new music and social media. She wouldn’t go far away, he hoped. She’d be back for summer and the holidays.
Joe swung into the van and struggled to close the door against the wind. When it latched, there was a charged silence inside. Marybeth took him in and said, “Are you all right?”
He wiped his eyes dry with his sleeve. “The wind,” he said.
Four hours later, having gotten Sheridan settled in at her dorm room in Laramie, met her roommate, had a final meal together at Washakie Center, shed more tears, and dodged two more phone calls from Marybeth’s mother, they were on their way back to Saddlestring. No words were spoken in the van. Everyone was consumed with his or her own thoughts, and the situation reminded Joe of the ride home from a memorial service. Well, maybe not that bad . . .
Marybeth’s phone burred again in her purse, and she grabbed it. Joe could tell from her expression she was both hopeful and fearful that it would be Sheridan calling.
Marybeth sighed deeply. “Mom again,” she sighed. “Maybe I ought to take it.”
After a moment, Marybeth said, “What do you mean, he’s gone?”
Marybeth’s mother, Missy, was back on the ranch near Saddlestring she shared with her new husband, the multi-millionaire developer and media mogul Earl Alden. He was known as The Earl of Lexington, because that’s where he’d originally come from when he was a mere millionaire. Between them, Marybeth’s mother—Missy Vankueren Longbrake Alden—and The Earl were the largest landholders in northern Wyoming now that they’d married and combined ranches. Missy had acquired her spread by divorcing a third-generation landowner named Bud Longbrake, who’d discovered during the divorce proceedings what the pre-nup she had him sign actually said.
The Earl was Missy’s fifth husband. She’d traded up with each one after her first (and Marybeth’s realtor father) died young in a car wreck. After a five-month mourning period, Missy married a doctor the day his divorce papers were finalized, then an Arizona developer and U.S. Congressman who was later convicted of fraud, then rancher Bud Longbrake. The Earl was her greatest triumph. Joe couldn’t imagine a sixth wedding. Missy was in her mid-sixties. Although she was still a stunner—given the right light and enough time to prepare—she’d met The Earl as her string was running out. Luckily for Missy, she took—and made—her last desperate shot just as her biological buzzer went off. Joe and Missy had a complicated relationship, as she put it. Joe couldn’t stand her, and she still wondered out loud why her favorite daughter—the one with pluck and promise—had stuck with that game warden all these years.
Marybeth said to her mother, “I’ll ask Joe what he thinks and call you back, okay?” Then, after a pause, she said irritably, “Well, I care. Good-bye.”
Joe snorted, but kept his eyes on the road.
“Mom says Earl went out riding this morning and hasn’t come back. He was supposed to be home for lunch. She’s worried something happened to him—an accident or something.”
He glanced at his wristwatch. “So he’s three hours late.”
“Has she done anything about it besides call you over and over?”
Marybeth sighed. “She asked José Maria to take a truck out and look for him.”
“She says Earl isn’t a very good rider, even though he thinks he is. She’s worried the horse took off on him or bucked him off somewhere.”
“As you know, that can happen with horses,” Joe said.
“She’s getting really worked up. He’s supposed to have his phone with him, but he hasn’t called, and when she tries him, he doesn’t pick up. I can tell from her voice she’s starting to panic.”
Joe said, “Maybe he got clear of her and just kept riding to freedom. I could understand that.”
“I don’t find that very funny.”
The small house was on two levels, with three bedrooms and a detached garage and a loafing shed barn in the back. Joe sighed with relief when they pulled up in front of it, but if he thought he was done with drama for the day, he was mistaken. The House of Feelings, as Joe called it, had been percolating at a rolling boil ever since. First, April moved into Sheridan’s old bedroom—she’d been sharing a room with Lucy the same way rival armies “shared” a battlefield. Lucy, giddy with pent-up gratitude, helped move April out, and Marybeth showed up just in time to spot the corner of a bag of marijuana in April’s near-empty dresser drawer. Marybeth was stunned and angry at the revelation, April was defensive and even more angry she’d been found out, and Lucy managed to slip away and vanish somewhere in the small house to avoid the fight.
Excerpted from "Cold Wind"
Copyright © 2012 C. J. Box.
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