For three years, Investigator Cassie Dewell has been on the hunt for a serial killer known as the Lizard King, whose hunting grounds are the highways and truck stops where runaways and prostitutes are most likely to vanish. Now, working for the Bakken County, North Dakota sheriff's department, Cassie has set what she believes is the perfect trap for the Lizard King—and she has lured him and his truck to a depot. But the plan goes horribly wrong…and Cassie loses her job, her reputation, and her hope for justice.
At the same time, Kyle Westergaard, a troubled kid whom Cassie has taken under her wing, has disappeared after telling people that he’s going off on a long-planned adventure. But Kyle's disappearance may have a more sinister meaning than anyone realizes…Now Cassie must track down Kyle and take down a killer who is as ruthless as he is cunning. But can she do it alone, without losing her own humanity—or her own life?
Paradise Valley continues the Highway Quartet series from bestselling author C. J. Box.
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"THE TRAP IS SET and he's on his way," Cassie Dewell said to Sheriff Jon Kirkbride. She was out of breath from mounting the stairs to the third floor instead of waiting for the elevator.
Kirkbride leaned back from his desk and cocked an eyebrow. His thick gunfighter's mustache obscured the expression on his lips, but his eyes narrowed. "The Lizard King?"
Cassie nodded her head furiously. She was both excited and scared. She was also hot and she peeled off her Bakken County Sheriff's Department fleece.
"You're sure it's him?"
She said, "I sent you a video link in an e-mail five minutes ago."
He frowned. The sheriff disliked communicating by e-mail. "What's in it?" he asked.
"Let me show you," she said. She shed the fleece in a chair and quickly advanced around the desk, and he rolled his chair back to accommodate her. She reached across him to toggle the space key on the keyboard to wake his computer up. She was aware that her hip was pressed against his right shoulder but she didn't care. Not now.
IT WAS TUESDAY, September fifteenth. Cassie had left the first set of footprints in the frost across the still-green grass of the Law Enforcement Center that morning. She hadn't even heard the loud honking from a V of geese descending through the river cottonwoods to the Missouri River. All indications were of an early winter.
Thirty-nine-year-old Cassandra "Cassie" Dewell was the Chief Investigator for the BCSD, and she knew the sheriff would be in his office early. He always was. Even though he had horses to feed and stalls to clean out, he was at his desk hours before the morning shift showed up. Judy Banister, Kirkbride's office administrator and the only other female within the agency, hovered just outside the door.
Cassie had been three years on the job. The apartment unit she'd first moved into when she arrived was in view outside Kirkbride's window, although it was now occupied by a deputy hired straight out of the law enforcement academy in Minnesota.
Kirkbride had been the sheriff when Grimstad had 8,000 residents and was losing population every year. The demographics of western North Dakota at that time were a mix of German and Scandinavian farmers and a few Scot ranchers. That was before hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken Formation produced twenty percent of the nation's oil and the county boomed beyond anyone's imagination. He was still the sheriff when the unofficial census swelled to 45,000 in town and 80,000 in the county, and his department had grown from four deputies to forty.
The sheriff had hired Cassie away from the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Department in Helena, Montana, and had made her promise she would stay with him until his official retirement at the end of the year — three and a half months away. Since his announcement, he'd made it clear to anyone who would listen that he wanted her to be his hand-picked successor. What he'd not done was ask Cassie what she thought about that.
Recently, she'd let her short brown hair grow to her shoulders and was debating with herself whether to color it to hide the gray strands that seemed to have shown up overnight. That, along with fifteen pounds that strained at her underwear and once-tailored uniform. Her own body, she thought, had recently conspired to make her unattractive and uncomfortable. Just in time for her wedding.
That's why she had sat down at her home computer that morning: to compose an e-mail to the dress shop in Bismarck asking them to delay sending her wedding dress until she could get up there and get re-measured. It was a miserable admission to make. But before she keyed in the request an incoming e-mail arrived.
It was from Wilson, North Carolina.
When she opened it an electrical charge shot through her.
Then her cell phone lit up. The call was from Wilson County Prosecutor Leslie Behaunek.
"It's him," Behaunek said. She was calling from her cell phone and Cassie imagined her walking fast down the courthouse hallway. "We've got him this time ..."
Cassie forwarded the e-mail to her address at work as well as to Kirkbride.
THE SHERIFF HAD 198 unopened e-mails on his computer. Cassie guessed that was fewer than usual. She scrolled to the top of the list until she found her own address as sender. She clicked on the file.
It took a few seconds to load.
"I really need to get Judy to weed through those e-mails," Kirkbride grumbled. Then, "Okay, what are we looking at?"
The view was of dozens of tractor-trailers parked shoulder-to-shoulder in a lot. It was obviously nighttime. The viewing angle was from above the vehicles. The video feed was dark and grainy, and it appeared at first to be a still photograph. After watching it for a few seconds, though, exhaust from the stacks of the trucks curled up into the night air and occasionally a curtain would part from one of the sleeper cabs. There was no audio. The timestamp in the bottom right-hand corner said 10:53 PM.
She said, "This is from a closed-circuit security camera at a truck stop outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, last night."
Kirkbride was still. He was concentrating on the monitor.
"Watch the top left," Cassie said, pressing the tip of her index finger on the screen on a distant truck cab. Beneath her finger the passenger door opened and there were a few seconds of illumination from the inside dome lights as a thin woman appeared, framed by the door. She wore a short skirt that hiked up her thighs as she climbed down from the cab. In the harsh half-light her pencil-like legs looked as white as chalk. She vanished in the shadows between the trucks for a moment. A meaty naked arm appeared from the sleeper section of the cab and shut the door behind her.
"She's a truck-stop prostitute," Cassie said.
"They call them lot lizards."
"Got it," Kirkbride said. "That's where the guy gets his name."
"Right," she said. "Now I'm going to speed it up a little."
She clicked on fast-forward and the prostitute appeared to comically teeter from truck to truck on high heels. One by one, she sidled up to the driver's side of each vehicle and apparently knocked on the doors. The driver in the first truck didn't respond. The second driver flashed on his lights, saw who was out there, and turned them off again.
Before the prostitute could approach the side of the third truck someone — either a wife or companion driver — apparently saw the prostitute coming and unfurled a brassiere out the driver's side window and pinned it in place by rolling the window back up.
"That means, 'Beat it, lot lizard, there's a woman at home,'" Cassie explained.
"Three refusals," Cassie said. "But now watch."
The prostitute moved parallel to the front bumper of the truck with the bra in the window and turned and walked between the third and fourth trucks. She was blocked from camera view by the side of the fourth truck.
"We can't see her, but we can assume she's standing between the two trucks negotiating with the driver in the fourth truck. If you watch closely, you can see the curtains rustle in the sleeper cab." Cassie pointed it out. "He's going to invite her in," Cassie said.
There was a glimpse of the prostitute through the passenger window — just a smudge of white — as she entered the cab and turned toward the sleeper cab.
"I couldn't see her very well," Kirkbride said.
"That's because he must have disconnected his dome light so none of the other truckers could see her get in. Why do you suppose he did that?"
Kirkbride didn't answer. He didn't need to.
"Note the time," Cassie said, pointing toward the time stamp. "It reads 10:58 PM."
"I'm going to fast-forward again but it doesn't matter. You can see that nothing happens ... until 11:17."
The only movement in the nineteen minutes was the crazy swirling of exhaust from the stacks of the idling trucks, a cat that seemed to skip across the pavement going left to right, and a vibration in the curtains of the sleeper cab.
Cassie poked the icon to slow the video to normal speed.
At 11:18, the headlights came on from the fourth semi followed by its running lights. The truck slowly pulled out of the slot, turned sharply, and drove out of camera view.
The space left by the departing truck was empty.
"She didn't get out," Kirkbride said. "She's still inside."
"We know his MO," Cassie said. "He's done this dozens of times — maybe hundreds of times. He gets them inside his truck and injects them with a syringe filled with Rohypnol. When she's comatose, he binds her up and drives her away. Either that, or he stashes them in the kill room he's built in his trailer that we discovered in North Carolina. But in this case, he can't risk taking her outside to put her in there ... So he drives down the highway to a pull-out or rural road and then stashes her.
"It's his truck," she said. "Bright yellow Peterbilt 389 with a Unibilt Ultracab pulling a reefer trailer. North Dakota plates. It's him all right."
"Where did you get this clip?"
"Her name is Leslie Behaunek," Cassie said. "She's the county prosecutor in Wilson County, North Carolina. I met her last year when they flew me there to try and identify the Lizard King. Leslie felt guilty that he got away on a technicality and she blamed herself. Since then, Leslie and I made a pact to stay in touch and to finally get this guy. She's made contacts with law enforcement and truck-stop owners across the country. Her contact in Eau Claire sent her this just a couple of hours ago."
Kirkbride shook his head. "Why didn't this contact call the Wisconsin Highway Patrol?"
"Because by the time he saw this clip he knew the Lizard King was likely out of the state and hundreds of miles away. That's the thing — he's always moving. He's five states away by the time anyone realizes a prostitute didn't come home. That's why he's been impossible to catch."
"Do you think she's still alive?"
"I do," Cassie said. "He doesn't kill them right away. He likes to make videos of himself while he does it to watch later. The videos are his trophies. He assaults them, sometimes for weeks. That's his history. Then they disappear."
"And he's headed here to Grimstad?"
"What's his ETA?"
She shot out her arm and checked her wristwatch. "Three hours, fifteen minutes. He should be here by eleven this morning."
"How do you know that?"
Cassie spoke fast. "He stopped at the weigh station in Hudson, Wisconsin at 1:10 AM. As you know, weigh stations are the bane of every trucker's existence and every state has to have them to make sure trucks are safe and overweight rigs don't pulverize their highways — and so they can check driver logs to make sure the truckers are in compliance and their log books are up to snuff. The truckers call them 'coops' like 'chicken coops' and the ones in Wisconsin are called 'badger coops.' Anyway, the station is unmanned that time of night but truckers have to drive through it and get weighed. When they're on the scales they get a photo of the DOT number of the truck on the door and the license plate and they go after the driver later if there's a weight issue."
She took a breath and tried to be calm. Kirkbride watched her warily.
"Anyway," she said, "it's ten hours from that weigh station to Grimstad. That puts him here at eleven."
"Assuming he drives the speed limit," the sheriff mused.
"Oh, he does," Cassie said. "And he never misses a weigh station, either. One thing we know about this guy is he's a stickler for rules and regulations because he doesn't want to get pulled over for something trivial. He knows that the only serial killer truck driver ever caught red-handed was when a state trooper in Arkansas pulled a guy over for a busted taillight and saw a human leg inside the cab. So our guy obeys every traffic law and regulation. When he drove through Hudson his gross vehicle weight was seventy thousand pounds. So he was ten thousand pounds light."
"And you know he's coming here?"
"Cassie, how do you know that?" Kirkbride said, genuinely puzzled. Then: "Oh yeah, I remember now. You set up a scheme to lure him in."
"And he finally bit," Cassie said. "I actually talked to him myself."
"Yesterday afternoon. He called from somewhere in Michigan. He said he was headed west. I didn't say anything to you at the time because there was no way to promise he'd follow through. Sometimes he's called — I recognized his voice — but he was shopping rates for the best deal and he never came. He's done the same to Leslie. But this time he texted a confirmation. He's coming. I alerted the highway patrol but told them not to intercede in any way. They're to report his progress only. He'll show up at Dakota Remanufacturing to pick up the load."
Kirkbride stroked his mustache. "If he texted you then we have his cell number. We can track down the location of the phone."
"No we can't," she said. "He uses burner phones he buys in bulk at truck stops. They don't have GPS chips. So when he calls the display reads UNKNOWN CALLER."
"I should have known," the sheriff said. "He's always a few steps ahead of us."
"Until now," she said.
"Have you called Tibbs?"
Avery Tibbs was the new county attorney. They both knew he might be a problem.
"Not yet. I just got that confirmation text from him ten minutes ago and I came straight to you."
Kirkbride thought about that for a moment. Then he reached forward and plucked the handset from his landline. Before he hit the speed dial, he said, "I'll handle Tibbs. You call your Fed."
"Special Agent Craig Rhodine," Cassie added.
"He's got a special team on call. I don't know how long it'll take him to get them geared up and on the plane."
"He's got a plane?" Kirkbride scoffed.
"A Boeing 727," Cassie said. "It's reserved for the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group."
His eyebrows rose. Kirkbride was always immediately suspicious of federal law enforcement intervention.
"The Critical Incident Response Group," she said. "From what I understand it's a group made up of a tactical assault squad, snipers, criminal profilers, attack dogs, and crisis managers. They show up in a 727 with blacked-out windows. Plus Rhodine himself, of course."
"Sounds like overkill," the sheriff said, more to himself than to Cassie.
"Don't forget who we're up against," she said.
"I haven't. How many years have you been after him?"
"Four," she said. "Well, three and a half."
"Will they get clearance at Sloukan?"
Sloukan Field Airport had once been located on the northeastern town limits of Grimstad before the growth of the community had overrun it. It was now in the middle of town surrounded by still-to-be-completed subdivisions.
"I don't know," she said, flustered. "I assume they'll take care of that themselves. I'll ask them."
"Don't forget we have commercial flights now," Kirkbride said.
She had no response. She had no idea why he was focusing on the flights that had been introduced to Bakken County by Delta and United to service the traffic generated by the oil boom when the Lizard King — also known as Ronald Pergram and Dale Spradley — was finally on his way directly to them.
"I know, I know," he said, holding up his left hand. "I just worry about logistics. That's a lot of firepower coming into my little town."
As Cassie strode to the door Kirkbride called out to her to stop.
When she paused in the doorway, he said, "I've got a bad feeling about this, Cassie."
"Please don't say that." It hurt that he said it.
"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I'm with you. I trust you. I've got your back all the way. But this is happening fast. You've told me the Lizard King is smart as hell and he's gotten away more than once. He knows the law and he knows how to hire the best defense lawyers to keep him out of jail. I worry about not building a careful box around this guy. We can't screw up. We can't let him escape again."
Cassie turned and narrowed her eyes. "He won't get away this time."
"How do you know that?"
"Because," she said, "we're going to kill him if we have to."
Kirkbride was still. The phone was still in his hand, still poised halfway between the handset and his ear.
"Good thing I didn't hear that," he said.
Excerpted from "Paradise Valley"
Copyright © 2017 C. J. Box.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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