Authors: C. J. Box
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Police Procedural, #Thrillers
For T. Jefferson Parker, Brian Wiprud, and Ken Wilson (The Gauntlet) … and Laurie, always
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed
—Canto 56, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s
In Memoriam A. H. H.
The night before Cody Hoyt
shot the county coroner, he was driving without a purpose in his county Ford Expedition as he often did these days. He was agitated and restless, chain-smoking cigarettes until his throat was raw and sore. He drove right by the rural bars he used to frequent, not going in. Then the call came from dispatch on his cell phone: hikers claimed they found a burned-out cabin in the Big Belt Mountains to the northeast with maybe a dead body inside.
Even though it was the end of June the weather was unseasonably cold and it had rained in the valley for three straight days. That evening, before the clouds finally lifted and the sun died, he’d seen a dusting of snow on the tops of the Big Belts to the north and the Elkhorn Mountains to the south.
“Patrol has been sent up there,” Edna the dispatcher said. He liked Edna even though she’d decided she was his surrogate mother and gave him pies and casseroles and tried to fix him up with Helena divorcees. She said, “My list says you’re the one on call tonight.”
“Yeah,” he said. Cody was a Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Department investigator. Detectives were automatically called to investigate any “unattended death,” meaning accidents, suicides, or in the rare instance, homicides.
“Because you have nothing else to do,” she said, mock joking.
“Not a damned thing,” he said, deadly serious.
“Are you at home?”
“Yeah,” he lied. “Watching the game on TV. Just a second, let me grab something to write on.” He knew if Edna wanted to she could fire up the tracking screen in the dispatch center and find the location of his vehicle out in the county because of the GPS unit mounted under the front bumper. Or she could have at one time, before he dismantled it the month before because he didn’t want anyone knowing where he’d been going or that he spent his other nights driving, driving, driving.
He pulled to the side of the road into the rough parking area in front of the Gem State Bar, the tires popping on the wet gravel. A single mercury vapor light on a pole threw dark shadows across the parking area. Pools of standing water from the recent rain reflected the light and the few stars that had appeared between night thunderheads. There were five other parked vehicles in front of the bar, all pickups. His pen was somewhere in the ashtray, which was spilling over with butts. As he pulled it out he noted the plastic barrel of the pen was rough with burn marks.
“Okay,” he said.
“The cabin is located past Vigilante Campground on Highway 280, eight miles up Trout Creek on County Road 124. The map shows it’s in the Helena National Forest, but maybe there’s a private place up there.”
He lowered the phone and sat back and closed his eyes without writing anything down. Outside his driver’s side window, two men wearing dirty jeans and hoodies and ball caps pushed their way out the door of the bar. He recognized them as sapphire miners. Sapphire mining was a small industry in the county, and there were scores of one- and two-man claims that had been worked for years and still produced. The miner in the gray hoodie was practically as wide as he was tall. The one in the yellow hoodie was gaunt and skeletal with eyes sunk deep in their sockets. They were laughing and shoving each other. Yellow Hoodie had a twelve-pack of Coors Light under his arm for the road and he’d no doubt leave a trail of empties all the way up into the Big Belts to his little one-man mine. They looked up and saw him parked but didn’t straighten up or try to act sober. He was just a guy in a muddy SUV to them because the vehicle was unmarked. Even the plates didn’t give him away because they were skip plates. If anyone ran a check on them, they’d come back to a fictitious address and company name.
“Cody?” Edna asked.
“Did you get that?”
“The complainants called from the York Bar. They agreed to stay there until they met the officer so they could guide him to where the cabin is. Officer Dougherty was dispatched to the scene and he is there with them now taking their statement. Should I ask them to stay until you get there?”
“Not necessary,” he said, “I know the cabin. Tell Dougherty to proceed—I’ll meet him there. What did they say about a body?”
“Not much really. They said they thought it was an old place by the look of it and they poked around inside a little. They said that they think there’s a body there because of the smell and what looked like a human hand, but they didn’t actually see the body. They said it was raining hard and getting dark and they just wanted to get out of there.”
“Male or female body?”
“They don’t know. They said the hand might have been a glove or the arm from a dummy because it didn’t look real.”
He nodded to himself. Fire turned human bodies into sexless grotesques. He’d been on the scene where the fire was so hot the dead muscles of the arms and legs cooked and roasted and contracted the body into a fighter’s stance: arms curled against the chest and knees bent, like a boxer in the ring. And the smell, like charred pork.…
Outside in the parking lot, the two miners put the twelve-pack on the hood of a pickup and pulled out two cans and opened them. The spray from a can hit Fat Gray Hoodie in the face and he bellowed a laugh as he took the beer.
“Okay,” Cody said to Edna.
He said, “Edna, call Larry. Tell him I need him.”
Larry Olson, the only other detective in the five-man Criminal Investigations Division whom Cody thought was worth a damn. Olson was short, solid, and shaved bald; a flesh-colored fire hydrant who entered a room like a quiet exclamation point. Larry Olson was a Montana legend. He’d solved crimes by careful observation and exhaustive investigation. He wore suspects down. He wore his fellow detectives down. When an unsolved crime went on too long anywhere in the state, the call went out to “borrow” Larry Olson. The word was the only reason he stayed in Helena instead of going state or federal was that he wanted to be there for his three boys who lived with their mother in town.
Edna said, “Larry’s not on call tonight.”
She waited for him to acknowledge, but he didn’t.
Finally, she said, “Cody?”
He held the phone out away from him at arm’s length and made a gargling sound in his throat that resembled static. He said, “I’m losing the signal right now. Call Larry. I’ll call back when I get a better signal,” and closed the phone and dropped it to the seat. Overwhelmed with a wave of nausea and needing air, he pushed open the door and stepped outside, his boots splashing in a deep puddle.
“Good one,” Skinny Yellow Hoodie said, laughing. “Right in the hole.”
Cody ignored them as he bent forward, grasping his knees with his hands. He breathed in the moist mountain air, filling his lungs with it. Mixing it with the smoke. His eyes watered and he stood and wiped at them. Cold water poured in over the top of his low boots, filling his socks. He wished he’d worn his cowboy boots instead.
“You okay?” Yellow Hoodie asked.
“Want another beer? You could probably use one now.”
“No,” he said. They assumed he’d been drinking. Or, he thought, they recognized him from when he haunted the bars.
“This fucking rain, eh? Day after day. My dad said never curse the rain in Montana, and I never have. But this is motherfucking
El Niño or some such thing. I heard the weatherman call it ‘The summer without a summer.’”
“Want a hit?” Fat Gray Hoodie asked in a voice indicating he was holding his breath in, and Cody realized the man was holding a joint between his fingers. Cody’s face must have cracked the miner up because he coughed and expelled the marijuana smoke in a cloud.
“Jesus Christ,” the skinny miner said to Cody. “Don’t mind him.”
“Just being friendly,” the second miner said, bringing the joint back up to his mouth.
Cody Hoyt was thirty-eight years old but often mistaken for being in his late forties. He had unkempt sandy hair, a square jaw, high cheekbones, a broken nose, brown eyes flecked with either gold or red depending on the circumstances and often described as either “mean” or “dead,” and a mouth that twisted naturally into a cop smirk even when he didn’t want it to. He wore jeans, boots, and a loose long-sleeved fishing shirt. Detectives didn’t wear uniforms and dressed to blend into the community. He reached down and pulled the hem of the shirt up so they could see the seven-point gold sheriff’s department badge on his belt.
“I got a card for this,” the smoking miner said quickly, nodding to the joint.
Practically every sapphire miner in the county had a card signed by a doctor for medical marijuana use, Cody had found. And many of them grew plants in quantities and potency well beyond simple home use. It wasn’t a coincidence that the miners used most of the same instruments—scales, small tools, hundreds of small Ziploc bags—dope merchants used.
Cody raised his .40 Sig Sauer in a shooter’s grip.
“Really,” Fat Gray Hoodie said, stepping back and dropping the joint, which extinguished with a hiss between his feet in the mud, “really, I got a card. I’ll show you. Shit, I know I’m not supposed to smoke in a public place, but damn, my back started hurting.…”
“Give me the rest of the beer,” Cody said.
Both miners froze, then shot glances at each other.
“You want the beer? You can have it,” Yellow Hoodie said. “Why the hell you want my beer? What kind of cop wants my fucking
“I don’t,” Cody said with a twisted smile. He holstered his weapon and climbed back into his Ford. He roared away, thinking he wanted that beer so goddamned bad right now he would have killed them both for it.
* * *
He’d heard a couple
of maxims from Larry after they’d danced around each other for three months. Larry had stopped by his desk one afternoon when no one else was in the office, paused, leaned over until his mouth was an inch from Cody’s ear, and said: