“A violent, tension-packed, well-written thriller spiced with Box’s vivid portrayal of the Western landscape.” — Associated Press
When two sisters set out across a remote stretch of Montana road to visit their friend, little do they know it will be the last time anyone might ever hear from them again. The girls—and their car—simply vanish. Former police investigator Cody Hoyt has just lost his job and has fallen off the wagon after a long stretch of sobriety. Convinced by his son and his former rookie partner, Cassie Dewell, he begins the drive south to the girls' last known location.
As Cody makes his way to the lonely stretch of Montana highway where they went missing, Cassie discovers that Gracie and Danielle Sullivan aren't the first girls who have disappeared in this area. This majestic landscape is the hunting ground for a killer whose viciousness is outmatched only by his intelligence. And he might not be working alone. Time is running out for Gracie and Danielle…Can Cassie overcome her doubts and lack of experience and use her innate skill? Can Cody Hoyt battle his own demons and find this killer before another victim vanishes on the highway?
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By C. J. Box
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 C. J. Box
All rights reserved.
4:03 P.M., Tuesday, November 20
He called himself the Lizard King. The prostitutes known as lot lizards feared him. More precisely, they feared his legend, the idea of him. None of them who'd ever seen his face up close lived to describe it.
He was parked in the back row of trucks with his diesel engine idling, his running lights muted, his hair slicked back, and a bundle of tools on the floorboard on the right side of his seat within easy reach. He was hunting but there was no need to go after his prey. The lot lizards would come to him.
The truck stop was four miles west of Billings, Montana, off I-90. A cold mist hung in the air and moisture beaded on the windows and the paint jobs of more than seventy big trucks. The black asphalt lot shined as if freshly varnished between the rows of semis, reflecting the lighted highway signs and hundreds of streams of horizontal running lights from the parked trucks themselves. The air outside hummed with rumbling engines. Tendrils of steam rose from beneath the engines and combined with the undulating waves of heated exhaust that rose from beneath the big rigs.
From his high perch in the dry and warm cab, his sight lines were clear. The truck plaza itself was filled with activity and he noted it carefully. Vehicles entered and exited the long banks of fuel pumps in front of the garish low-slung building a hundred yards away. Professional truckers filled 150-gallon aluminum tanks with diesel fuel on one side of the lot, passenger cars and vans filled up with gasoline on the other.
Inside the truck stop restaurant, waitresses served the $10.95 T-bone special advertised on the marquee near the exit. Drivers lounged in the "trucker's only" section checking e-mail, comparing road conditions, or drinking coffee. Truck stop employees cooked up fried chicken and potato wedges for the lighted bins at the front counter and manned the cash registers selling salted snacks, energy boosters, beef jerky, and drinks.
This was the way it was on the open road; islands of lighted activity in a sea of prairie darkness. Cars and families on one side, truckers on the other, but sharing the same facility. Two vastly different worlds that met only at places like this. Inside, truck drivers and citizens barely acknowledged each other and the modern truck stop was designed so there would be little interaction. Sure, the drivers would get on their radios and laugh at the rubes they'd run into inside and mock their looks or stupid conversations, but inside they were segregated between the amateurs and the professionals, the clueless consumers — the civilians, the amateurs — and the cloistered universe of the providers.
He was on the road so much his outlook on it had changed completely over the years. It no longer seemed like he was moving, for one thing. Now he felt as if he were stationary while the road rolled under him and the scenery flowed by. The world came to him.
Like the captain of a large ocean vessel, a large swath of the landscape was off-limits to him, as he was confined by the shipping lanes that were interstate highways. When he parked his truck at a rest area or truck stop for the night he couldn't venture into town because he had no way to get there unless he walked. It was like a captain who had to anchor his boat and take a dinghy to shore.
Oh, how he resented the smug people in those towns. They thought their food, clothing, furniture, appliances, and electronics simply appeared at stores or on their front doorsteps. They didn't stop to think that every item they ate or wore or used was likely transported across the nation in the trailer of his truck or those like him, or that the hardworking blue-collar rednecks they avoided in real life and despised on the road were the conduits of their comfort and the pipeline of their wealth.
* * *
It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, so there was more traffic on the highways than usual. It would be much worse the next day as families moved across the country with a lull on Thanksgiving and another spike on Sunday as people returned home. He was used to it. The rhythms of the road were like rivers that flooded and receded in perpetuity.
The Beartooth Mountains to the south were light blue with new snow and the lack of stars indicated heavy cloud cover. It was still warm enough on the valley floor that the moisture hadn't turned to snowflakes, but there was a snap in the air outside and he watched as travelers left their cars and zipped up coats on their way into the truck stop. He snorted at an overweight family of fools wearing T-shirts and shorts who practically ran from their passenger van to the door that led to the restrooms. Fucking idiots. What if they broke down wearing clothes like that? Who would they look for to rescue them? Me, he thought. The invisible, faceless trucker.
In the darkened cab of his eighteen-speed Model 379 Peterbilt, the Lizard King was alone, quiet and still, the cab perched over 550 horses of steel muscle under the iconic squared-off snout. The truck was flat black, stripped of chrome, and as subtle as a fist. It was a trucker's truck the way a Harley-Davidson was a biker's bike. He'd even painted the twin stacks with black chimney paint to eliminate any hint of flash.
Without looking down, he let his right hand slip down on the side of the seat until he could find the string that held his bundle together. He pulled the cord and the bundle unrolled. His fingertips traced each item. Everything had been wiped clean and sterilized since its last use: the tire thumper, which was a short lead-filled wooden baton used to check the pressure of his eighteen wheels, the pliers and wire cutters, two pairs of handcuffs, four knives — the heavy hunting Buck, the short folding Spyderco, the long thin filet knife, and the stainless-steel hatchet. His lightweight Taurus 738 TCP semiauto in .380 ACP. In an oblong, hard, and hinged box once used for sunglasses was a syringe filled with Rohypnol. And his vintage fourteen-inch long Knapp butcher saw with the aluminum T-grip and both bone and wood teeth on opposite sides of the blade. It was designed for the rapid field butchering of big game. He ran his thumb gently along the bone teeth.
Satisfied that everything was in order, he removed the tire thumper and placed it on the dashboard next to his roll of one hundred-mile-an-hour brown Gorilla tape. Both were standard items used by every trucker and they wouldn't draw a second glance. He bundled the rest of the tools and reached under his seat for the satchel, which contained heavy plastic bags, the wire ties, his folding shovel, the 300,000 volt Stun Master stun gun, and the three-inch-wide roll of duct tape. He put the bundle of tools back into the satchel and zipped it closed.
If things went well, he wouldn't even need to reach for the satchel. If things went well ...
* * *
The Lizard King glanced around the cab to make sure he'd completed all the items on his mental checklist. The carpeted floormats had been pulled and stashed, leaving a bare metal floor. Both seats were fitted with clear plastic covers. All logbooks, maps, and other paperwork — anything that could absorb fluid — had been stashed away. He turned in his seat. The cloth drapes separating the cab from the sleeping cabin had long ago been replaced by clear shower curtains that allowed him to see clearly into the back. On his bunk was a specially adapted cover made from blue tarpaulin, and plastic sheeting lined the walls. The single small window of the sleeper was blacked out.
He'd forgotten nothing. There was no cloth or porous surface for blood, hair, or fiber to cling to inside, and the cab and cabin could be hosed clean in a few minutes by a power washer.
He was ready.
* * *
He waited for the segregation between the professionals and the amateurs to breach. It did when a rusted-out van cruised the trucking lanes and parked in shadow on the side of the truck stop. North Dakota plates.
Two lot lizards got out and the van drove away. That meant they had thumbed a ride or made arrangements for a pickup later. Meaning there would be no telltale vehicle left at the truck stop to raise any alarm. That was good.
What wasn't so good was that there were two of them. It wasn't unusual; they tended to partner up to some extent. Which meant if one of them vanished the other would know.
One lot lizard, who was short and heavy and dark — maybe an Indian from the res to the south — started off for the far corner of the lot. She'd work that side first, he guessed. He breathed a sigh of relief.
The other one put her hands on her hips and looked in his direction.
She looked thin and gaunt and had long stringy blondish hair haloed by the blue overhead lamps and the mist. He couldn't see her face yet because of the darkness. A long sweater or shawl-like cape hid her figure, which was one of the tricks of the trade. She teetered on high heels and held her hands out to her sides as if for balance and she baby-stepped toward the parked lines of trucks.
He stubbed his cigarette out and squinted through the curl of smoke and the rain-smeared windshield. He could feel his insides start to knot.
* * *
Since that morning outside of Chicago the Lizard King had been planning the hunt. He'd awakened in his bunk thinking about it, and at breakfast he'd gone through his mental checklist. It had been several weeks, and he was due.
He pulled a fifty-three-foot trailer known as a "reefer," meaning the inside of the box was controlled by a separate diesel refrigeration-slash-heating unit mounted on the front. Depending on the contents of his load, he could keep the box cool to freezing, and his loads were primarily pallets of fresh or frozen food. He ran coast-to-coast, picking up apples in Yakima, Washington, and delivering them to Boston, and completing the circuit with yogurt from Connecticut or potatoes from New Jersey to be delivered in the west. The loads and destinations varied from circuit to circuit, and sometimes he forgot what he was hauling. It took him four and a half days to run from one coast to the other, and he generally completed two full laps of the nation before returning home. His life was a rhythm of three weeks on the road, a week at home to recuperate and get repairs, then three more weeks of running. He was on his way home after nineteen straight days on the road; meaning no more than eleven hours of driving in any fourteen-hour period, and ten hours of rest in order to legally drive another eleven.
The Lizard King knew mileposts on every highway in America and knew which truck stops to fuel up and which ones to avoid. He timed his routes to avoid as many weigh scales — called "chicken coops" — as possible and he'd rather use his piss-jug than be forced to stop at highway rest areas frequented by homosexuals known as "pickle parks." Like all truckers, he did his best to avoid states with overbearing troopers and stupid regulations like Minnesota, Ohio, California, Oregon, and Washington, and he gave a wide berth to other trucks from companies known for poorly trained drivers.
* * *
It had taken just one glimpse of a young woman the night before, red-haired and college-age, her car filled with boxes and clothes she was taking home for Thanksgiving break, who passed him on an incline and swung back into his lane so recklessly that he had to tap his brakes and lean on his horn. When he was able to catch back up with her in the passing lane she looked up and their eyes met for a brief second. Then she flipped him off with dismissive contempt. That's all it took. Rage blasted through him and orange spangles erupted in front of his eyes.
Before he could swing his rig over into her lane and force her off the highway she stomped on her accelerator and shot ahead. Their bumpers almost kissed but she gained distance. He cursed the half-load in his trailer that held him back. It was like dragging an anchor behind him. He cursed that red-haired girl until her taillights faded away in the dark.
He'd kept an eye out for her all the way to Janesville, Wisconsin. But by the time he got to Chippewa Falls he'd lost her somewhere. She'd either continued to speed home straight ahead or she'd taken an exit off the interstate.
She had no idea, he thought, how lucky she was. Outside West Fargo, he'd barely slept and he thought of what she'd look like bound in cuffs and tape with a whole new attitude toward him.
So after breakfast, in light rain outside of Mandan, he parked at a rest area and pulled on his raincoat. The first thing to do was to make his loaded eighty-thousand-pound truck invisible. He did it by covering the transmittal dome of his Qualcomm unit with a shower cap lined with aluminum foil and sealing the bottom with tape. This way, neither his employers nor curious troopers could track his movements or his speed.
His anticipation built throughout the day as he rolled west. He paid special attention to the radio and slowed in advance of the speed traps or scales outside Wibaux and Bad Route, Montana, and he didn't stop for lunch or mandatory rest periods although he lied in his logs to say he did. He shot across I-94 in Montana maintaining the perfect speed of sixty-three miles per hour for maximum fuel efficiency for his Caterpillar C15 motor to get as far ahead of schedule as possible. They shouldn't expect him before 10:00 P.M. If the dispatcher, that bitch, said she had trouble tracking him via his Qualcomm, he'd curse and say it must have malfunctioned again like the last time.
He gained four hours, he figured, by the time he hit Miles City, Montana. Four hours of free time, where no one would be watching. He'd carry that four free hours with him as he pounded west, and not withdraw a minute of it until he got to the truck stop outside Billings.
Four hours was more than enough time to do what he needed to do. He'd done it in two, so he was sure of it.
* * *
He'd arrived early to the truck stop, an hour before dark. At that time there was plenty of room in the back row of the trucker's lot when he arrived, and he took a middle space without neighbors on either side.
Choosing the back row meant something to other truckers. Either the driver wanted to get some real sleep in his cabin behind the seat, or he wanted privacy to rest or do paperwork, or, in this case, he was sending a signal that he was available to the truck stop prostitutes who worked the facility. The lot lizards.
He carried a duffel bag across the lot in the dusk and went straight to the trucker's entrance of the building. Inside, he paid eleven dollars for a shower. He shaved and changed into a disposable one-piece Tyvek jumpsuit with elastic bands on the sleeves and cuffs. The jumpsuit got no strange looks in the trucker's lounge because truckers wore all kinds of strange clothing. A driver with a full beard, a multicolored serape, and flip-flops sat at a table reviewing his logbook. The man didn't even look up. One driver he knew drove in his underwear with the heat on high.
Still, though, when he became the Lizard King he knew his presence made a statement. People shied away from him when they saw him coming. Conversations stopped as he passed by, like there was some kind of malevolent black cloud hanging over his head. And when he stared at others they tended to quickly look away. It used to bother him, but now he took a kind of perverse pride in it. He didn't want to make new friends, anyway. What was the point?
The Lizard King had never felt brotherhood toward other drivers. In fact, he found many of them as disgusting as the amateurs on the road. He noted how many piss-jars and urine bombs had been tossed on the side of the road, how many Walmart bags of feces. He'd seen the cutaways in the floorboards of some trucks, and he cringed when he witnessed fat truckers parking as close as possible to the truck stop restaurant so they wouldn't have to waddle far to eat. And then there were the Bible-thumpers ...
He avoided the public retail section of the truck stop, and took a long route back to his Peterbilt through dozens of idling trucks so no one would track where he went. As he passed between two semis in the first row he was dismayed to find a small knot of five drivers shooting the breeze back and forth. Three men leaned against the fuel tank of a blue Mack on the left and two others mirrored their posture against a red Kenworth on the right. He had no choice but to walk right through them and to betray no surprise or caution. To his chagrin, they were arguing about a Bible passage.
Excerpted from The Highway by C. J. Box. Copyright © 2013 C. J. Box. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Night Before,
Tuesday, November 20,
Wednesday, November 21,
Thursday, November 22,
Friday, December 7,
Also by C. J. Box,
About the Author,