Everything about the rich stranger is a mystery: the massive, isolated ranch in the remote Black Hills of Wyoming, the women who live with him, the secret philanthropies, the private airstrip, the sudden disappearances. And especially the persistent rumors that the man’s wealth comes from killing people.
Joe Pickett, still officially a game warden but now mostly a troubleshooter for the governor, is assigned to find out the truth. But he finds out a lot more than he bargained for. There are two other men living up at that ranch. One is a stone-cold killer who takes an instant dislike to Joe. He doesn’t frighten Joe at all. The other man is another story...
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Fort Smith, Montana
Nate Romanowski pushed the drift boat onto the Bighorn River at three-thirty in the morning on a Sunday in early October and let the silent muscle of the current pull him away from the grassy bank. Eight miles downriver was the fortified and opulent vacation home of the notorious man he was going to kill.
It was twenty-four degrees and steam rose from the surface of the black water in thick tendrils, and he was soon enveloped in it. The craft floated quietly and he manned the long oars to keep the upswept bow pointing forward. Gnarled walls of river cottonwoods closed him in, their bare branches reaching overhead from both banks as if to try and join hands. For ten minutes between Third Island and Dag’s Run, he couldn’t see a damned thing and operated exclusively on feel and sound and experience. He kept to the main channel and avoided the shallows so he wouldn’t scrape bottom and could float as swiftly as possible.
He’d made the run before in preparation—so many times, in fact, that the rhythm, mood, and temperament of the river was as familiar to him as his falcons, his weapons, and his code. Or what was left of his code, anyway, he thought, and grinned bitterly to himself in the dark.
While doing night reconnaissance, he’d worn the narrow compression pack on his back that he wore now, and he was so used to the dead weight of the gear inside that he almost forgot it was there. His .500 Wyoming Express five-shot revolver, the most powerful handgun on earth, hung grip-out from its shoulder holster below his left ribs, its security tether unsnapped.
Over his shoulder, the massive concrete spillway of the Yellowtail Dam glowed light blue in the muted light of the stars and the scythelike slice of moon. A single cumulus cloud, its rounded edges highlighted by starlight, moved from north to south, blotting out the continuity of the brilliant Milky Way. It would be hours before fly-fishing guides and anglers—men, women, but mostly men—arrived at the launch near the dam and started their half-day or daylong drift floats down the legendary Bighorn. Nate slipped a cell phone from his breast pocket and powered it on. When he had a signal and the screen glowed, he called up the only number stored in it and texted: It’s a go. And sent the message.
Within a minute, there was a response: Go do some good.
Nate turned off the phone and slipped it back into his pocket.
• • •
NATE WAS TALL, angular, and rangy. He didn’t row with the oars but used them to steer the boat by lowering one or the other into the current to bring the bow around. He had worked on his technique so it was smooth and he wouldn’t splash. The oars were an extension of his arms, and his movements were smooth and unhurried.
His friend Joe Pickett had once described his face and eyes as “hawklike.” His blond ponytail, constrained by leather falcon jesses, had grown to midway between his shoulders. It was tucked into the collar of his tactical sweater so it wouldn’t be noticed. His eyes were blue and piercing, and the planes of his face were flat, severe, and aerodynamic. He wore a dark camo slouch hat, and his sharp cheekbones were darkened with soot so the moonlight, such as it was, wouldn’t reflect.
• • •
THERE WAS NO DOUBT, Nate had been told, that the world would be a better place without Henry P. Scoggins III in it.
Scoggins was short, fleshy, stooped, and walleyed, and was the last direct heir of the Scoggins pharmaceutical empire of Newark, New Jersey. Unlike his grandfather, the senator and ambassador, or his father, the well-intentioned philanthropist, Henry the Third, as he was known, used his billions to manipulate monetary currencies around the world, corner the market on fourteen of seventeen rare earth metals, and lavishly fund activist groups that advocated legalized prostitution, drug use, and polygamy. He enjoyed the company of corrupt machine politicians, gangsta rap artists, foreign dictators, and domestic organized-crime figures. Several of his lurid divorce proceedings were front-page news over the years, as well as the Los Angeles murder trial where he’d been accused of shooting a hooker in the face and killing her on the front porch of his mansion. He had been found innocent when the jury bought his lawyer’s claim that Scoggins mistook her for a homicidal home invader threatening his Beverly Hills neighborhood at the time.
In video clips, Scoggins spoke in a deliberate mid-register timbre that belied his habit of constantly and furtively looking over the heads of the listeners, as if searching for someone more worthwhile, better-looking, or less threatening in the room. He had the arrogant look of a bully who had insulated himself so he’d never have to directly confront a challenge, the kind of man comfortable with rewarding his friends in person and punishing his enemies from a distance.
Isolating the man was the problem. Scoggins surrounded himself with armed bodyguards, and his five U.S.-based homes—Newark, Manhattan, Aspen, Palm Beach, and the infamous Beverly Hills manse—were set up with elaborate security systems. His overseas properties in Caracas, Abu Dhabi, and Grand Cayman were protected by security contractors who were ex–Black Ops.
Few people were aware of the six-million-dollar log home Scoggins had recently purchased through a holding company on the bank of the Bighorn River. The reason: he wanted to learn to fly-fish. The rumor was that Scoggins thought he was buying the river itself.
• • •
FOR THE PAST WEEK, in addition to the late-night reconnaissance floats, Nate had scouted the Scoggins property on the ground by trespassing through an adjoining landholding and avoiding the caretaker. There were very few private residences in the river valley, and the few that were there were massive and expensive. They were accessed by a private road that paralleled the bends of the river. Only a couple of the structures could be seen from the road itself, due to high stone walls and steel security gates. The Scoggins property had not only a swinging gate operated by remote control but also a small guardhouse manned by an armed employee during daylight hours. At night, visitors—mostly delivery trucks—had to identify themselves via the closed-circuit camera at the gate to be buzzed in. Additional closed-circuit cameras that swept the grounds were mounted on poles within the compound, and Nate counted two men—one openly armed with a combat shotgun—lazily patrolling the grounds. He had dubbed the gate operator Thug Two, and the men on patrol Thug Three and Thug Four. All wore loose-fitting untucked shirts and cargo pants.
Nate noted the disparity between the massive homes built of logs, stone, and glass, complete with guesthouses and outbuildings and sweeping manicured lawns, and the utter squalor of the Crow Indian Reservation just beyond the fence.
On Friday he’d caught a glimpse of Scoggins in person. He’d been glassing the grounds through his spotting scope, memorizing the layout of the buildings and internalizing the contours of the ground, when a thick metal door opened and two women tumbled out. They had long brown legs and jet-black hair and they were wearing only lingerie. As Nate focused in, he felt the hair on the nape of his neck rise. They were Indians, likely Crows from the reservation. They wore too much makeup and they clutched bundles of their clothing under their arms, as if they’d been in a hurry to gather it up before they were thrown out of the house. The taller one reminded him of a woman he’d once loved named Alisha, who was a Shoshone and a teacher on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. It jolted him to his core. She wasn’t Alisha but a prostitute, obviously, and she was being unceremoniously kicked out of the house before she could even get dressed.
The shorter of the two women spun on her heel and shouted something Nate couldn’t hear at someone out of view inside the house. The taller woman paused, dropped her head in fear or panic, and reached out to the shorter woman to urge her on.
Then Scoggins appeared, flanked by a barrel-chested younger man who had the build of a weight lifter and a smirk on his face. He also wore an oversized shirt and cargo pants. Nate had deemed him Thug One because he rarely left Scoggins’s side.
Scoggins wore a loose-fitting robe and oversized slippers on his feet. Two thin white naked ankles could be seen beneath the hem of the robe. Maybe it was Scoggins’s hunched slouch and widespread eyes that, even at that distance, reminded Nate of a toad. He was smirking as well, but also flipping his fingers at the women, obviously urging them to go away.
When the shorter woman kept talking and gesticulating and wouldn’t leave, Thug One shouldered around Scoggins and rushed her with three long and quick strides. As she turned to run, the big man kicked her hard enough beneath her buttocks to lift her off the ground and send her sprawling. When she scrambled to retrieve the clothes that had flown into the air, the thug wound up for another kick and the taller hooker yanked the shorter one down the pathway, leaving the clothes strewn on the grass.
Nate could only guess the cause of the altercation. Maybe the hookers had objected to what they were asked to do, or they’d tried and didn’t satisfy their customer. Maybe one of them got mouthy or tried to steal something. Or maybe Scoggins decided to throw them out instead of pay them. Nate planned to find out.
What he did know was that the altercation made his blood boil. It wasn’t Alisha, of course, because Alisha had been murdered. A lock of her hair hung from a beaded band on the barrel of his .50 caliber revolver. But she looked like Alisha and it brought back a wave of guilt, shame, and lethal rage. And when the thug kicked the girl hard enough to send her flying, Nate barely resisted drawing his weapon and charging down the hill to what would likely have been his certain death.
Later, he watched through his spotting scope as Thug One came back out of the house and gathered the scraps of clothing the prostitute had left behind. He walked them over to a trash barrel behind a storage shed and burned them.
“You bastard,” Nate whispered.
• • •
HE CAUGHT UP with the two prostitutes walking up the middle of the narrow two-lane highway in their bare feet. The taller one dangled a pair of spike heels from her index finger. The women were cold and disheveled, and when they heard him approach in his rented SUV, they turned and grinned desperately, hoping for a ride. Nate slowed and drove around them and signaled them in.
“Car break down?” he asked.
“Something like that,” the shorter one said, taking the backseat.
“You are a sight for sore eyes,” the taller one said, jumping up into the passenger seat and dropping her shoes on the floorboard. The interior of his vehicle was suddenly filled with a combination of sweet perfume and musky sweat.
The short one was named Candy Alexander and the tall one who looked less like Alisha than he thought previously said her name was D. Anita LittleWolf. Both were from Crow Agency on the reservation, but they wanted to get to Hardin to the north because that’s where they’d left LittleWolf’s pickup.
“It’s parked on the side of a bar,” LittleWolf said. “I’m really happy you picked us up. Thank you.”
“Yes, thank you,” Alexander said from the back. He glanced up and saw her dark eyes in the rearview mirror. Streaks of black mascara ran down her face from her lashes and she rubbed it clean with the heel of her hand.
As he drove to Hardin, he made small talk with them about the weather, about fishing, about how odd it was to find two women in their underwear walking up a deserted highway in southern Montana. Although they didn’t get specific, they said they’d been invited to “party down” at a big house on the river, but the host had kicked them out and not even offered to drive them back to where they’d been picked up. Alexander was still fuming about it, but LittleWolf was serene and seemed to take it in stride.
“So the owner of the house invited you to his place and then kicked you out?”
“It wasn’t the owner who took us out there,” Alexander said, and described Thug One. “We didn’t meet the owner until we got there.”
“He said he doesn’t like dark meat,” LittleWolf said without a hint of irony.
“He sounds like a jerk,” Nate said.
“He’s an asshole,” Alexander said, nodding. “They’re both assholes. I’d like to round up some friends of mine and go back there . . .”
“Forget about it,” LittleWolf said. “You’d never get in that place again.”
Nate feigned ignorance and asked her why she said that.
After putting on clothes from overnight bags they’d left in their vehicle, LittleWolf and Alexander loosened up over beers in the bar and told Nate about their adventure, from being contacted by Thug One to being met by him at the bar and transported to the big house on the Bighorn River. How the man asked the gate guard to buzz him in. How he punched a keypad on the front door to unlock it. How the owner of the house had come down the staircase and disapproved of their looks and sent them away, the scene Nate had witnessed. Now that they were safe and warm and their pickup was just outside, they laughed about the details. LittleWolf said she was glad they were gone, because the owner of the place gave her the creeps.
Nate asked them to back up to when they entered the main house.
“There was a keypad?” he asked, and slipped his notebook out from his pocket.
Nate asked D. Anita LittleWolf and Candy Alexander to close their eyes and recall what Thug One had done when he opened the door while it was still very fresh in their memory. LittleWolf said she couldn’t see the pad from where she had stood on the porch, but Alexander smiled and described the scene. The keypad was metal and had three rows of numbers: one-two-three on top, four-five-six in the middle, seven-eight-nine on the third row, and a single zero button on the bottom. Nate had sketched out the sequence of the pad on a napkin and handed it over. Alexander closed her eyes in recall, and punched 4-2-2 and another button in the third row. It was either an eight or a nine, she said. She wasn’t sure.
When Nate asked her how she could recall the sequence, she said she learned it by looking over the shoulders of rubes using the ATM at the convenience store on the reservation across from the Custer Battlefield, where she used to work. Both women collapsed in laughter.
“It eventually got me fired,” Alexander squealed. “But not before I scored a few hundred dollars from turistas.”
Later, after two more rounds, LittleWolf invited him to follow them back to Crow Agency. “We’ve got a place where we can party,” she said. She looked into his eyes without a hint of guile, and for a moment he saw Alisha again.
“I’ll have to pass,” he said.
“You don’t like dark meat, either?” Alexander said, teasing him.
“Actually, I do,” Nate said. “But I don’t like that term. There’s no dignity in it.”
Chastened, they gathered their purses and shoes. He saw them to their pickup but didn’t follow.
• • •
THE PREVIOUS NIGHT, Saturday, he’d stayed hidden with his spotting scope and noted the routine of the Scoggins compound. There had been no more women brought in, and there were no outside visitors. The three outside thugs went into the main house as the sun set, and apparently had dinner at the same time as Scoggins and Thug One. They remained there for an hour, then drifted away one by one to a guesthouse located between the main house and the gate. The lights remained on in the guesthouse until twelve-fifteen a.m.
Not surprisingly, there were two house staff who exited the main house after the three thugs had gone. A middle-aged man and woman crossed the grounds from the house to a tiny cottage on the edge of the property. Nate guessed by their dress that the woman was the cook and the man was her assistant, and possibly an all-around maintenance staffer for the property. They held hands as they walked under an overhead light. Nate was charmed, and vowed to himself that no harm would come to them.
It took longer for Scoggins and Thug One to go to sleep. Light from the second-floor windows—Nate guessed it was Scoggins’s room, since it took up the entire floor—remained on until one-thirty. A ground-floor light in the corner was off at midnight. It made sense that the primary bodyguard, Thug One, would be located between the front door and the stairs to Scoggins’s floor. On the other corner of the main house opposite from Thug One, a dim light remained on the entire night. Nate guessed it was the security center, where someone sat awake with the CC monitors flickering from all the cameras on the grounds. He wondered about motion detectors, and assumed they were there somewhere.
With a choked-down mini Maglite clenched between his teeth, Nate drew a sketch on a fresh page of his notebook. He outlined the main house, the outbuildings, the guesthouse, the cottage, the wall, and the gate. Within the grounds, he drew circles with a CC inside to designate each camera. Then he scratched three large X’s to symbolize the three thugs in the guesthouse, two more for Thug One and the security administrator in the main house, and a dollar sign for Scoggins himself.
• • •
NATE HAD DETERMINED by his surveillance there was no way to access the Scoggins property from the road without a small army, which he didn’t have and didn’t want. And there was no way to sneak across it in the dark without being captured by video or confronted by bodyguards. If motion detectors were installed, Nate guessed they’d be concentrated between the wall and gate and the compound.
But like the other huge homes along the small strip of private land, Scoggins’s home fronted the water. That way, he could sit inside with a drink behind car-sized sheets of glass and see the river as the sun set or rose. Guided fly fishermen could look at his place with envy and wonder as they floated by. The ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING, DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT GETTING OUT OF YOUR BOAT and VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED signs—plus the rotating closed-circuit video camera and five-strand razor-wire fence—kept them out.
Having the magnificent log house on open display to the river was an act of vanity.
And it was Nate’s means of accessing the property.
Or, as his employer would say, Go do some good.
• • •
NATE MANEUVERED THE DRIFT BOAT into the slow current that hugged the right bank of the river as he approached the Scoggins compound. Thick willows bent overhead and created a black shadow that he floated through. His senses were tuned up high, and he felt more than saw or heard the presence of the compound around the next slight bend to his right. He eased the boat against the willows until the hull thumped against the grassy bank and he reached up and grabbed a handful of branches to pull him in tighter. Slowly, quietly, he grasped the rope between his feet and lowered the anchor in back until it held and stopped the boat. He swung his boots over the gunwale and stood in the cold water. It was knee-deep.
He stayed hard against the wall of willows as he waded silently downstream. After no more than a dozen steps, lights from the compound strobed through the brush and he knew that the stand of willows would end to reveal a long grassy slope all the way up to the log home. He was already behind the river fence. If he walked out in the clear, he could be seen by the closed-circuit camera that swept back and forth along the bank. It was mounted on the side of a river cottonwood and accompanied by a motion detector. Because of the roaming wildlife that hugged the river, Nate guessed the motion detector sounded off periodically throughout the night and would likely not alarm the technician inside. But a screen shot of him on a monitor certainly would.
In the shadows, Nate unbuckled his compression pack and reversed it so it covered his chest. He unzipped the top. For easy access, the items inside had been packed in the reverse order they were to be used.
For seven full minutes, Nate stood hidden in the river with his eyes closed, going over his plan. Not that something wouldn’t go wrong—it always did. The trick was to try and anticipate the surprise problems as best he could and come up with options on the fly. His assignment was to kill Henry P. Scoggins III, but with a twist of his own. The twist was important to him.
And if his plans blew up once they were under way, he had to keep the endgame in mind. Even if the result was a bloodbath he hoped to avoid.
• • •
WHEN HE OPENED HIS EYES, the night seemed lighter, brighter, and suddenly charged with anticipation. The river sounds behind him were louder and more full-throated. He could distinctly smell the odors and perfumes of the world around him: the tinny smell of the moving river, the decayed mud that swirled in the current he’d stirred up along the bank, sage from the hills beyond the river, even cooking smells that lingered from the log house itself. He took a deep breath, held it, and slowly expelled it through his nostrils.
It was then he realized he was not alone in the stand of brush.
Less than three feet away was a heavy-bodied mule deer doe, her big eyes fixed on him and her large ears cupped in his direction. He instinctively reached across his body for his weapon, but paused as his hand gripped the butt of his revolver. Now that he saw her, he noticed he could smell her as well; musky, dank, sage on her breath. His movement had not spooked her out of the willows.
In falconry parlance, the state of yarak is definedas: “full of stamina, well muscled, alert, neither too fat nor too thin, perfect condition for hunting and killing prey. This state is rarely achieved but a wonder to behold when observed.”
Nate was as close to yarak as a human could be.
The mule deer could help him. She could be his partner. He noticed she was trembling, ready to spring away.
He whispered, “Go.”
She did, and with a crash of snapped willows the deer bounded from the brush into the clearing.
Nate moved swiftly, emerging from the brush right behind her, keeping the trunk of the tree between him and the CC camera. The boxy snout of the camera was pointed downriver but rotating in his direction as he approached it. The deer veered away from the tree and continued bouncing—boing-boing-boing—along the fence. As Nate ran straight toward the camera, he reached into the top of his pack and unfurled a black cloth sack that he threw over both the camera and mount before it could view him. It was like placing a hood over the head of a falcon, and he cinched the drawstring tight and stood back. The camera still rotated inside the sack, and it resembled the head of a man looking from side to side.
There was another distant snapping of willows and cattails as the mule deer vanished into the brush on the other side of the clearing. No doubt the motion detector had signaled the intrusion. Perhaps the camera had caught a fleeting look at the doe—his partner—as she bounded through its field of view.
“Thank you,” Nate said to the deer.
Then he stepped back into the shadows of the willows and checked his watch and waited.
• • •
IT TOOK TWENTY-TWO MINUTES, much longer than he had estimated, before he heard the slamming of a door at the log house and heavy footfalls on their way down to the river. That it had taken the technician so long to realize his riverside camera was out confirmed to Nate that the man wasn’t anticipating trouble. Or he was simply incompetent. That bodes well, Nate thought to himself. He hoped the other thugs would be as thick.
A harsh orb of white light from a flashlight moved down the sloping grass lawn in front of the technician. Nate squinted and turned his head and followed it in his peripheral vision. It was a trick he’d learned years before in the Third World for maintaining his night sight. A blast of the flashlight in his eyes would blind him momentarily if he let it happen, and he couldn’t risk it.
He heard the footfalls stop less than twelve feet away, and heard a man say to himself, “What the fuck?”
Meaning the technician was illuminating the black hood covering the camera with the beam of his flashlight and probably wondering what it was.
Nate hurled himself from the willows like a blitzing linebacker going after the quarterback on his blind side. He dived low so his full weight would take out the legs of the technician.
The man made an umpf sound as he was hit and his flashlight flew into the air. The butt of a shotgun grazed Nate’s shoulders as he took the man down, and he quickly turned and swarmed him and wrenched the long gun away and threw it aside.
Before the technician could cry out, Nate jammed a spare black hood into his mouth with his left hand and chopped hard across the bridge of the man’s nose with his right. He heard the muffled crack of bone and smelled the hot metallic flood of blood.
The technician didn’t put up much of a fight—that usually happened from the immediate result of a broken nose—and he went suddenly limp with shock and pain. Nate rolled the technician over on his stomach and bound his hands behind his back with one of the plastic zip-tie cuff restraints he kept in the side pocket of his pack. He pulled it tight. He did the same with the technician’s ankles, and used an additional thirty-inch zip tie to hog-tie the man so he couldn’t move. Nate had done it all very quickly, he thought, and with the speed and panache of a steer roper used to winning money at the rodeo.
Nate rifled through the technician’s cargo pants and baggy shirt. There weren’t any more weapons, and Nate found a cell phone, a small walkie-talkie (turned off), loose change, a billfold, two loose marijuana joints—the reason it had taken him so long to respond?—and tossed it all into the willows. The technician’s clothing and thick hair smelled of weed.
Nate rocked back on his haunches and surveyed the slope up to the log home and the outbuildings beyond it. There was no sound or movement, no lights suddenly coming on from Thug One’s level or from the guesthouse.
He dragged the limp body of the technician out of the moonlight and left him in the shadows of the willows, then ducked inside the cover to circumnavigate the compound from the wooded right side.
• • •
WHEN NATE REEMERGED from the tangle of downed timber and river cottonwoods, the guesthouse was before him. He paused and let his breathing slow, noting the lack of movement, sound, or lights from within the building. It was a log-constructed home in the same style of the main house, only much smaller and on one level. He kept the guesthouse between himself and one of the lawn-mounted cameras he’d noted during his reconnaissance and flattened himself against the exterior wall on the left side of the front door. It was a steel door in a steel frame but had been painted to look like wood. He could hear rhythmic snoring from inside.
He drew a glue gun with the long tube of aircraft adhesive from his pack and uncapped the nozzle. The substance was strong enough to be used to bond ceramic tiles to the space shuttle. He could smell a strong whiff of the quick-drying epoxy in the still night air as he carefully wedged the tip of the tube between the door and doorjamb, then worked a glistening bead of it across the top of the threshold and down the side of the door itself. He pumped a little extra near the latch and strike plate to figuratively weld the mechanism in place.
Nate left the porch and kept his head down as he circled the house, leaving snail tracks of epoxy along the bottom of all the closed windows in their frames. He replicated the procedure on the back door, and waited a few minutes for the glue to dry. He risked tugging on the back door and found it bound tight.
He capped the glue gun and stowed it away in his pack and turned toward the main house. Nate had decided to not worry about the older couple in the bungalow.
• • •
ALTHOUGH HE APPROACHED the front door of the main log house by zigzagging from tree to tree across the lawn, Nate had no doubt that his image was being captured by video sweeps from the closed-circuit cameras, and that additional motion detectors were noting his movements. But since the technician was bound up near the river and there was no clicking on of lights or discernible movement from within the main house, he banked on the assumption that the technician had been alone with no backup.
Nate paused at the heavy front door and stared at the keypad. A wrong combination might trigger an additional alarm that could wake Thug One and Scoggins inside.
He reached down and punched 4-2-2-8.
A tiny red light pulsed on the side of the keypad, but there was no internal sound that indicated the door had unlocked. He could hear no alarm inside.
Nate drew his .500 Wyoming Express with his right hand and held the long-barreled weapon tight against his right thigh and punched 4-2-2-9 with his left index finger. There was a thunk from the locking mechanism, and Nate pushed the door open as a single high chime rang out inside.
He entered quickly and eased the door shut behind him and raised his weapon. He hadn’t been able to see inside the home before, and had only guessed at its layout. He found himself in a dark vestibule at the mouth of a great room. Coats and jackets hung from pegs on the vestibule wall, and there was a neat row of shoes and boots.
Because of the chime, his senses were on high alert. Who would have guessed a chime would ring out when the door was opened?
Nate entered the great room and felt it open up above his head. There were sconces on the walls emitting very dim light, and he took it in: heavy leather furniture draped with Navajo rugs, pine interior walls, framed paintings of fish and wildlife, a huge hoary bison head above the fireplace—all very western chic. A wide carpeted staircase rose up from the ground floor to the second, and on the second level a railed walkway rimmed the opening. A massive elk antler chandelier dropped from the roof in the center of the opening.
He glanced right and saw light leaking out from under a door at the end of a hallway: the technician’s security room. Then he glanced left, where he had guessed Thug One slept. But instead of a closed door at the end of the hallway, he saw one that was ajar.
Nate swung in that direction and cocked the hammer of his gun with a single upward motion. Would he be able to close the door and seal it with the man sleeping inside?
That’s when he heard the slap of bare feet on the other side of the great room, where the kitchen was. And a growling, “Who the fuck is coming in here for a midnight snack?”
Thug One stood in the entryway of the kitchen, naked except for boxer shorts and a shoulder holster, with a bottle of beer in one hand and a pork chop in the other. His hair was matted on the right side of his head from sleeping, but it took only half a second for him to realize what was happening.
Thug One threw the chop one way and the bottle of beer the other and went for his pistol. No Who are you? or What are you doing here? The beer bottle smashed against the stone of the fireplace.
Nate said, “Don’t do it.”
Thug One froze, his fingertips an inch from the butt of his pistol. He was in a slight crouch, his thigh muscles taut, his eyes locked with Nate’s.
“If you pull the weapon, I’ll blow your head off,” Nate said softly.
Thug One blinked, and Nate sensed the man had made the right decision.
“Take off the holster and lower it to the carpet.”
Thug One stood up straight and glared at Nate, his head cocked slightly to the side, his face hard. His eyes shifted from Nate to the gaping hole of the muzzle.
“Why are you here?” Thug One asked. He had a saw-blade Boston accent: Why ah you he-ah?
“I’m here for your boss. He’s all I want.”
“How’d you get in?”
“Through the door.”
Thug One shot an inadvertent glance down the hallway toward the closed security room door, then made a face.
“Fuck you,” the man said, turning back. “You ain’t gettin’ back out.”
Nate sighed, tired of the game. He chinned up toward the second floor, said, “Are you willing to lose your life to save his?”
Thug One didn’t answer.
“Two seconds,” Nate said in a whisper.
Just as Nate began to repeat himself, the man slipped the leather strap off his shoulder and let it slide down his arm so he caught it in his hand. He bent and put the gun on the floor.
Nate gestured with his weapon toward Thug One’s open bedroom door.
After a glower that seemed more obligatory than dangerous, the man did a shoulder roll and padded down the hallway with Nate behind him. “He’s an asshole, anyway,” the man said.
“I’m going to close your door,” Nate said. “Stay inside and you’ll keep breathing. Open it and you won’t.”
Thug One walked to the foot of the rumpled bed and stood with his back to Nate.
“Put your hands behind your back and don’t turn around,” Nate said.
Because he was so muscle-bound through the shoulders and lats, Thug One could barely reach backward. Nate looped a zip tie around Thug One’s wrists and wrenched it tight, pulling the man’s hands together.
“That hurts,” Thug One said through clenched teeth.
“It’s supposed to,” Nate said, backing away and closing the door tight. He slid the glue gun out of his pack and sealed it. The fumes were sharp and acrid in the closed hallway.
Nate grimaced and thought, Boxer shorts and a shoulder holster?
He paused before going back into the great room, listening closely for any stirring upstairs. How could Scoggins have slept through the door chime, the broken bottle, and the conversation?
• • •
NATE WORKED FAST, cognizant of the three sleeping thugs in the guesthouse, the couple in the cottage, and Thug One fuming in his room. He ran down the hallway into the security room and located the Mac Pro server the technician used for the outside surveillance network. After yanking out all of the cords, he carried the machine back into the great room and unfurled a military-style body bag from his pack and stuffed it inside.
He left the body bag open.
Nate stood in the middle of the room and looked up at the four closed doors along the walkway and wondered which one Henry Scoggins slept behind. He could try them one by one.
Or . . .
The incredible BOOM of Nate’s gun was concussive in the closed house. The .50 caliber slug blew through the chain that held the elk antler chandelier aloft, and he stepped aside as it crashed to the floor.
Out in the compound, he visualized the three other thugs awakening from their stupor, having heard the shot and the crash. He guessed the cook had rolled over in her bed and roused her husband at the sound. Thug One must be glaring at his closed door, guessing what had happened on the other side and wondering if he’d ever again land a personal security job.
Nate stepped back into the dark vestibule. What happened next was important. He couldn’t kill an unarmed man—that was the twist. It was the reason he’d created the distraction instead of searching for Scoggins room by room.
He expected Scoggins to come rushing through one of the doors. Instead, there was an angry shout.
“Jolovich, what the hell just happened?”
So Thug One was Jolovich, Nate thought.
“Jolovich, goddamn you—you woke me up. What were you doing? Cleaning your damned gun again?”
Nate determined the voice was coming from one of the doors on the east side.
“Jolovich?” This time, there was a hint of panic with the anger.
Scoggins threw open an east door and staggered out to the railing. His sleep mask was pushed up on his forehead and he was in the process of digging a foam earplug out of his right ear—the reason he hadn’t heard the door chime. He wore the open robe Nate had seen him in earlier, and his thin legs and basketball-sized naked belly were shockingly white.
As Scoggins clutched the railing, Nate noted how the robe sagged more on the right than the left because of something heavy in the pocket.
“Jolovich, where the hell are you? Peterson?”
The technician must be Peterson, Nate thought. He stepped out into the dim great room.
When Scoggins saw him, he instinctively did a little knee-dip of surprise.
Scoggins fired questions: “Who the hell are you? How did you get in here? Where’s Jolovich?”
“Nate Romanowski. Used the keypad. Hiding.”
“It’s tough to find good help these days.”
“But . . .” Scoggins sputtered, gesturing toward the security room down the hallway.
“Peterson isn’t doing so well, either,” Nate said.
Scoggins shook his head, puzzled. “Why are you here?”
Nate said, “Guess.” He raised his weapon and said, “Come with me.”
Scoggins shook his head. “No.”
“Then you’ll die where you stand.”
Scoggins started to argue, then narrowed his eyes and squinted down through the dim light. Nate guessed all he could see was the gun.
“I can pay you more than they pay you,” Scoggins said.
“I’m sure you can.”
“Are you a reasonable man?”
“Never have been,” Nate said. “Now come down.”
Scoggins sighed and groaned and slowly made his way down the stairs. He was wheezing from the exertion, and when he got close Nate was shocked by how small and froglike he was just a few feet away. The sleeves on Scoggins’s robe were long and hung past his hands, and he kept his arms at his sides. As the man passed, Nate again noted the weight pulling down the material of the robe from the right pocket.
“Are you going to let me get dressed, at least?”
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” Scoggins said, looking up toward the ceiling. “Which one of my enemies put you up to this?”
Nate ignored the question and prodded Scoggins with the muzzle of his gun, then followed him through the vestibule and outside. Nate paused on the porch while Scoggins walked a few steps ahead and fumbled for the ties of his robe against the night chill.
“It’s fuckin’ freezing out here,” Scoggins said, cinching his robe with his back to Nate, but actually reaching for his semiautomatic pistol in his pocket. He turned clumsily with the gun raised and Nate shot him in the heart. The impact lifted the man completely off his feet, and he collapsed in a half-naked tangle. The gun skittered across the flagstone portico.
• • •
HE DRAGGED THE BODY BAG with Scoggins, the server, and the pistol around the side of the house. Scoggins didn’t weigh as much as he looked, and the nylon of the bag sizzled along the manicured grass toward the river. In the distance behind him, Nate could hear shouting and pounding from the three thugs trying to get out of the guest cabin. Other voices—from the cook and her husband—melded with the noise. Jolovich remained in his room and stayed quiet.
“I can’t get the door open!” a man’s voice shouted from the compound.
“Don’t you think we know that, old man?” one of the thugs yelled back.
A woman’s voice: “Go find Jolovich, Ron.”
Ron: “You go find him. You know how he is.”
• • •
NATE LEFT THE BODY BAG on the bank and an opening in the wire fence. He splashed in the shallow water upriver to unanchor his boat. He pulled it behind him to the lawn, then lifted the body and the contents onto the floor of the boat and swung in.
Within a few minutes, river sounds overtook the shouting and thumping from the Scoggins compound. He withdrew his cell phone and powered it on again. When he had reception bars, he made the call.
It was answered after one ring. Nate could hear the whine of an engine in the background.
“Did you do some good?”
“Good man! How far out are you?”
“Splendid! Magnificent! I’ll be there.”
Nate punched off.
• • •
THE DRIFT BOAT was slightly more sluggish because of the dead weight inside, but he stuck to the swift channels. The eastern horizon was banded with a creamy rose color, and the stars in that quadrant of sky were fading in intensity.
The temperature dropped as he powered the boat downriver, and the steam got thicker. He could feel waning body heat on his legs from the bag at his feet.
Nate tried not to dwell on what had just happened at the compound. He could sort that out later. Leaving Peterson and Jolovich alive were wild cards.
• • •
AS HE CRUISED in a fast current that took him down the center of the river, he saw the falcon watching him from the gnarled dead branch of an ancient cottonwood. It was a peregrine with a mottled light breast and sharp black eyes. He knew how unusual it was to see a peregrine in the open, and it chilled him how the bird seemed to focus on him as he passed, as if assessing his worth. Peregrines, as Nate intimately knew, were killing machines—the fastest predators in the sky.
That bird, Nate thought, had no right to pass judgment on him. Peregrine falcons, unlike other raptors, would target any kind of prey, whether ducks, rabbits, geese, cats, or mice. They were stone-cold killers.
So what was he now? He had no idea anymore, and shoved the thought aside. Unbidden, the image of his friend Joe appeared, an unreadable expression on his face. He shoved that aside, too.
• • •
IN THE DISTANCE, he could hear the buzz of a small plane approaching. Right on time. The old asphalt airstrip was less than a half-mile downriver.
A month later, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett winced against an icy wind in his face as he stood with his hands jammed into his parka pockets on the top of a treeless mountain in the Bighorn Range.
“Come on,” he shouted to the tow truck driver, “you can do it.” He knew his words had been snatched away by the wind.
The driver was named Dave Farkus, and he’d had no idea when he took the part-time job at a local towing and recovery company in Saddlestring that it would mean taking his leased one-ton up a steep mountain switchback road to the very top as the first big snow of the winter rolled across the northern horizon, headed straight toward them. Farkus had managed to get his 1997 Ford F-450 truck turned around and had backed up to the edge of the snowfield, but he was obviously having second thoughts about trying to retrieve the vehicle that was buried deep seventy yards away. All that could be seen of the buried pickup—Joe’s departmental vehicle until he’d sunk it to the top of the wheel wells on an ill-fated run across the field two years before—was the dented top of its green cab and several radio antennas whipping back and forth in the wind. Farkus looked over at Joe through his closed passenger-side window and gestured with a what-can-I-possibly-do-now? shrug.
“Unwind the cable,” Joe shouted, using his hands to mimic the action so Farkus could understand. Farkus pretended he couldn’t and looked at Joe with the uncomprehending stare of Joe’s yellow Labrador, Daisy.
Joe and Farkus had spent the last hour digging with shovels through the hard crust of snow around the back of the pickup until they located the rear bumper. While Joe continued digging until he uncovered the rear wheel, Farkus had walked back to his truck to bring it closer. He had taken an inordinate amount of time while Joe labored. The snow beneath the crust was grainy and loose, and for every shovelful he threw out, a half-shovelful filled in the hole. Beneath his insulated Carhartt overalls, Wranglers, red uniform shirt, and parka, he was sweating hard by the time Farkus showed up. The wind was cutting through it all, though, and he was chilled as he waited for Farkus to do something. He was afraid the strong wind was sifting the snow back into the hole he’d dug and would fill it up, at the rate they were proceeding.
Joe groaned and made his way to the tow truck and climbed inside. It felt good to get out of the wind into the warm interior, although it smelled of fast-food wrappers, grease, diesel fuel, his own sweat, and Farkus.
The view through the windshield was stunning, now that he could look at it clearly without squinting his eyes against the wind. Frozen blue-black waves of mountain summits stretched as far as he could see at eye level. Many were topped with white skullcaps of snow that had not melted during the summer, and between the ranges were deep wooded ravines and canyons that dropped out of sight. They were at least nine and a half thousand feet in elevation, above the timberline, where the only life was the scaly blue-green lichen on the sides of exposed granite boulders. The approaching storm clouds, rolling from the north with black fists, looked ominous.
He pulled his parka hood back and said, “We’re going to need to take your hook and cable out there and wrap it around the rear axle. Then you can power up the winch to pull it out.”
“That truck is buried deep,” Farkus said, bugging his eyes with exasperation. “What if we try and it pulls my outfit into the snowfield with that storm coming? We might never get out.”
“There’s only one way we’ll find that out.”
Dave Farkus was fifty-eight and pear-shaped, with rheumy eyes, jowls, thick muttonchop sideburns that had birthed a full beard, and a bulbous nose. He worked hard at not working hard, but he’d shown an uncanny ability to get caught in the middle of several conflicts that had involved Joe as well. He wore a thick grease-stained down coat and a flocked bomber hat with earflaps that hung down on each side. Tributaries of frozen snot ran down his whiskers from his nostrils from helping Joe dig out the back of the truck.
“Joe . . . if I wreck this truck or leave it up here like you did . . .”
“No whining,” Joe said. “You owe me this, remember?”
“Aw, jeez,” Farkus said, sitting back and shaking his head. “That’s not even fair.”
Fifteen months before, Joe had helped Farkus by shepherding him out of Savage Run Canyon during an epic forest fire that had blackened thousands of acres of timber. Farkus had been injured at the time, and Joe’s actions had saved his life. Joe didn’t particularly like Farkus, and Farkus didn’t particularly like Joe. But in the hospital under sedation, Farkus had said to Joe, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you, just ask.”
And Joe had asked, once he found out Farkus had had to go back to work when his disability claims had finally been denied by the state workers’-compensation division.
“How long has the damn thing been up here?” Farkus asked.
“Two years,” Joe said. And one month.
“I’m sure the state has written it off by now. Who the hell cares if we even get it out?”
“I do,” Joe said.
Joe had been at the wheel, trying to drive across the perennial snowfield to connect with his friend Nate Romanowski when he’d buried his departmental vehicle. The ridge overlooked the South Fork of the Twelve Sleep River far below, where Nate was about to get into a gun battle that would change the course of his life. Joe had to abandon his vehicle and climb down the mountain on foot. The snows had come before he could convince a vehicle-recovery company to try and retrieve it. The summer before, another recovery company had made it as far as the summit before turning back, saying they couldn’t risk damaging their equipment on such a foolish mission. Joe had lost another entire year because the fire the summer before had blocked the access road and littered it with downed burned trees.
Joe wondered again, as he had constantly over the last year, where Nate was now, what he was doing. And whether he would ever see him again.
Farkus tried again: “Why don’t we say we tried and go home before this storm hits?”
“That wasn’t the deal.”
“Why in the hell do you care so much about a wreck on top of a mountain?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Joe said. He wasn’t willing to tell Farkus that he was on very thin ice with his new director, Lisa Greene-Dempsey, who never failed to mention that Joe Pickett was responsible for more real actual property damage than any other employee of the agency. She’d soon issue another year-end report with his name at the top of the list unless Joe could mitigate the cost by bringing back at least the last of his wrecked pickups.
“I’ll go with you, come on,” Joe said. “Let’s go hook that cable on and get it out of here. Then we can get off the top before the storm hits.”
As he spoke, he felt the vibration of his cell phone deep in his breast pocket beneath the parka. Cell service was spotty in the mountains, and it surprised him. A few seconds later, there was another call. He didn’t want to take it, though, because he didn’t want to give Farkus another excuse to delay.
“If I wreck this truck, my boss will take it out of my hide,” Farkus said. “I could lose my job.”
“Since when have you wanted a job, anyway?” Joe asked. “Now, let’s go.”
“That was mean,” Farkus said.
• • •
IT TOOK NEARLY AN HOUR of winching, digging, repositioning the tow truck, and reattaching the hook and cable to free the pickup and drag it out of the snowfield and position it on the wheel lift of the truck.
Joe’s satisfaction on getting his old pickup out sank by degrees when he watched it get winched through the snowfield. The pickup was a wreck. The windows had been crushed inward by the weight and pressure of the snow, and the cab was packed with it. He couldn’t even see the steering wheel inside. The sidewalls were dented and the rear left tire was flat. He could only guess at the condition of the motor and drivetrain after being encased in ice for two years. If anything, the pickup might provide some parts, but it would likely never be put into service again. Meaning he’d still top the list.
Farkus cursed under his breath as they cinched the nylon web ties on the rear wheels of the pickup.
“Okay,” Farkus hollered, when the straps were tight. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Give me a minute,” Joe said, stepping back to the cab and opening the driver’s-side door.
“What in the hell are you doing?”
“Checking something,” Joe said, digging out handfuls of snow from inside until he could reach behind the bench seat and feel around. It was still there.
He closed the door and climbed back into the cab of the tow truck with Farkus.
“What was that all about?”
“Never mind,” Joe said, relieved.
“We’re getting off this damned mountain with our lives,” Farkus said.
“We’ve done it before,” Joe smiled.
“It’s barely November. And it’s snowing.”
“It always snows up here.”
“But I’m sick of it!” Farkus said, hitting the cracked dashboard with the heel of his hand in anger. “I want to move someplace where it’s warm and flat. I’m sick of mountains and this damned horrible weather. I want to see long-legged women in bikinis! Most of all, I’m sick of having guns pointed at me and animals falling out of the sky and nearly drowning. Do you know how much my hospital bills are?”
“No. But when did you start paying your bills?”
“Just stop it, Joe, goddamnit.”
As Joe scooped packed snow from his cuffs and the collar of his shirt, he remembered the calls he’d received earlier and dug out his phone.
One from Governor Rulon’s office. The other from his oldest daughter, Sheridan, a junior at the University of Wyoming. Rulon had left a message Joe wouldn’t be able to retrieve until they cleared the timber and got back on the highway, where there would be cell reception. Sheridan, typical of kids her age, hadn’t. In fact, Sheridan rarely used her phone as a phone. It was more of a texting device.
Both calls had come completely out of the blue.
• • •
THE FALLING SNOW lightened in volume as Farkus maneuvered the tow truck down the mountain. Because the wreck on the back made the truck longer, Farkus had to carefully negotiate sharp turns in the burned timber to stay on the road. Twice, Joe could hear the body of the old truck scraping against tree trunks and damaging it further. Because many of the trees were standing dead, Joe feared the impact might knock them over and crush the cab of the tow truck. He told Farkus to slow down and be more careful. Farkus threw up his hands and complained that they may not make it to the highway before it got dark.
“That’s why you have headlights,” Joe said.
“Still . . .”
“Try not to beat up that pickup or knock down any trees until we get on the road, please.”
“If you think it’s so damned easy, you can drive,” Farkus huffed.
Joe dismissed him and thought about Sheridan. For the past two months, she’d been the resident assistant at her dormitory at UW and they hadn’t heard much from her. She claimed to be wildly busy with school, activities, and managing a coed floor of freshmen. Sheridan’s tuition was paid by a trust established under duress by her grandmother Missy—Marybeth’s mother—although there were additional expenses Joe and Marybeth were responsible for. Sheridan communicated primarily through cryptic texts and cell phone photos of herself at football games and parties, which made Joe wince every time. It was unusual for her to actually call, and more unusual for her to call him.
“Finally, thank God,” Farkus muttered, as they turned from the rough mountain trail onto the two-lane state highway. “Where do we drop off this wreck?”
Joe lived in a small state-owned home on Bighorn Road, eight miles from Saddlestring. It was en route from the mountains.
“So who is going to pay me for this?”
Excerpted from "Stone Cold"
Copyright © 2015 C. J. Box.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for STONE COLD
“[A] superlative outing . . . Box gets everything right: believably real characters, a vivid setting, clear prose and ratcheting tension. Maintaining these standards over 14 novels is more than impressive.”—The Plain Dealer
“Stone Cold features carefully crafted characters who live in the wilds of Wyoming, a setting that Box uses to great effect . . . Box creates a story with an unique premise and takes readers along for a suspenseful, action-filled ride.”—The Denver Post
“Box weaves vivid descriptions of Wyoming’s landscape and the personal drama of Pickett’s family into a blistering page-turner.”—Arizona Republic
“In C.J. Box's thrillers, [Wyoming] is a featured character and you get to know its thickly forested mountains, its windy plains and its frontierlike towns . . . [a] fun read.”—Associated Press
“Another exciting read from crime fiction’s king of the great outdoors.”—Madison County Herald
“The author has proven that he can write good no, great – books.”—Wyoming Eagle Tribune
“With each book, Box just gets better. Nonstop action, a twisty plot, and great characters make his latest a must-read for fans of this series.”—Library Journal
“This marks a welcome return to the thing Box does best: putting family man Joe in a dicey situation where, despite his orders to merely observe, his own moral code means he can’t help but light the fuse and see where it leads. Being in unfamiliar territory is familiar territory for Pickett, and corrupt-town scenarios are as old as the hills, but Box uses the ploys for maximum suspense.”—Booklist
“Exhilarating . . . Canny Joe uses his wits, taking time to assess the literal and figurative lay of the land.”—Publishers Weekly