Endangered (A Joe Pickett Novel)

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9780399160776: Endangered (A Joe Pickett Novel)

In this New York Times bestseller, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is determined to find out who put his daughter’s life in danger—even if it kills him.
 
Joe Pickett had good reason to dislike Dallas Cates, and now he has even more—Joe’s eighteen-year-old daughter, April, has run off with him. And then comes even worse news: She has been found in a ditch along the highway—alive, but just barely, the victim of blunt force trauma. Cates denies having anything to do with it, but Joe knows in his gut who’s responsible. What he doesn’t know is the kind of danger he’s about to encounter. Cates is bad enough, but Cates’s family is like none Joe has ever met.

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About the Author:

C. J. Box is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Joe Pickett series, five stand-alone novels, and the story collection Shots Fired. He has won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe, and two Barry awards, as well as the French Prix Calibre .38 and a French Elle magazine literary award. His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages. He and his wife Laurie split their time between their home and ranch in Wyoming.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
When Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett received the call
every parent dreads, he was standing knee-high in thick
sagebrush, counting the carcasses of sage grouse. He was up
to twenty-one.

Feathers carpeted the dry soil and clung to the waxy blue-green
leaves of the sagebrush within a fifty-foot radius. The air smelled of
dust, sage, and blood.

It was late morning in mid-March on a vast brush-covered flat
managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. There wasn’t
a single tree for eighteen miles to the west on the BLM land until
the rolling hills rocked back on their heels and began their sharp
ascent into the snow-covered Bighorn Mountains, which were managed
by the U.S. Forest Service. The summits of the mountains were
obscured by a sudden late-season snowstorm, and the sky was leaden
and close. Joe’s green Game and Fish Ford pickup straddled the ancient
two-track road that had brought him up there, the engine
idling and the front driver’s door still open from when he’d leapt
out. His yellow Labrador, Daisy, was trembling in the bed of the
truck, her front paws poised on the top of the bed wall as she stared
out at the expanse of land. Twin strings of drool hung from her
mouth. She smelled the carnage out on the flat, and she wanted to
be a part of it.

“Stay,” Joe commanded.

Daisy moaned, reset her paws, and trembled some more.

Joe wore his red uniform shirt with the pronghorn patch on the
sleeve, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, and a Filson vest against the
chill. His worn gray Stetson was clamped on tight. A rarely drawn .40
Glock semiauto was on his hip.

Twenty-one dead sage grouse.

In his youth, everyone called them “prairie chickens,” and he
knew the young ones were good to eat when roasted because they’d
been a staple in his poverty-filled college days. They were odd birds:
chicken-sized, pear-shaped, ungainly when flying. They were the
largest of the grouse species, and their habitat once included most
of the western United States and Canada. Wyoming contained one
hundred thousand of them, forty percent of the North American
population.

Of this flock, he’d noted only three survivors: all three with injuries.
He’d seen their teardrop-shaped forms ghosting from brush to
brush on the periphery of the location. They didn’t fly away, he
knew, because they couldn’t yet.

It was obvious what had happened.

Fat tire tracks churned through the sagebrush, crushing some
plants and snapping others at their woody stalks. Spent 12-gauge
shotgun shells littered the ground: Federal four-shot. He speared
one through its open end with his pen and sniffed. It still smelled of
gunpowder. He retrieved eighteen spent shells and bagged them.
Later, after he’d sealed the evidence bag, he found two more shells.
Since eighteen shells were more than a representative sample, he
tossed the two errant casings into the back of his pickup.

There was a single empty Coors Light can on the northeast corner
of the site. He bagged it and tagged it, and hoped the forensics lab in
Laramie could pull prints from the outside or DNA from the lip.
Problem was, the can looked much older than the spent shotgun
shells and he couldn’t determine if it hadn’t simply been discarded
along the road a few weeks prior to the slaughter.

Joe guessed that the incident had occurred either the night or
day before, because the exploded carcasses hadn’t yet been picked
over by predators. Small spoors of blood in the dirt had not yet dried
black. Whoever had done it had shot them “on the lek,” a lek being
an annual gathering of the birds where the males strutted and
clucked to attract females for breeding. The lek was a concentric
circle of birds with the strutting male grouse in the center of it. Some
leks were so large and predictable that locals would drive out to the
location to watch the avian meat market in action.

The birds bred in mid-March, nested, and produced chicks in
June. If someone was to choose the most opportune time to slaughter
an entire flock, this was it, Joe knew.

So “Lek 64,” as it had been designated by a multiagency team of
biologists charged with counting the number of healthy groupings
within the state, was no more.

Joe took a deep breath and put his hands on his hips. He was
angry, and he worked his jaw. It would take hours to photograph the
carcasses and measure and photograph the tire tracks. He knew he’d
have to do it himself because the county forensics tech was an hour
away—provided the tech was on call and would even respond to a
game violation. Joe knew he was responsible for the gathering of all
evidence to send to the state lab in Laramie, and it would have to get
done before the snow that was falling on top of the mountains
worked its way east and obscured the evidence. Since it was Friday
and the lab technicians didn’t work over the weekend, at best he’d
hear something by the end of next week.

He’d find whoever did this, he thought. It might take time, but
he’d find the shooter or shooters. Fingerprints on the brass of the
shells, tire analysis, the beer can, gossipy neighbors, or a drunken
boast would lead him to the bad guys. Sometimes it was ridiculously
easy to solve these kinds of crimes because the kind of person who
would leave such a naked scene often wasn’t very smart. Joe had
apprehended poachers in the past by finding photos of them posing
with dead game on Facebook posts or by looking at the taxidermy
mounts in their homes. Or by simply going to their front door,
knocking, and saying, “I guess you know why I’m here.”

It had been amazing what kinds of answers that inquiry sometimes
brought.

But he wasn’t angry because of the work ahead of him. There was
also that special directive recently put out by Governor Rulon and
his agency director about sage grouse. Preserving them, that is.
Game and Fish biologists and wardens had been ordered to pay special
attention to where the grouse were located and how many there
were. The status of the sage grouse population, according to Rulon,
was “pivotal” to the future economic well-being of the state.

Sage grouse in Wyoming had shifted from the status of a game
bird regulated by the state into politics and economics on a national
level. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was threatening to list the
bird as an endangered species because the overall population had
declined, and if they did, it would remove hundreds of thousands of
acres from any kind of use, including energy development—whether
gas and oil, wind, hydrothermal, or solar. The federal government
proposed mandating an off-limits zone consisting of one to four
miles for every lek found. That would impact ranchers, developers,
and everyone else.

That was the reason Joe had been on the old two-track in the first
place and stumbled onto the killing ground. During the winter, he’d
seen the flock more than once from the window of his pickup, and
sage grouse didn’t range far. Sage grouse did not exhibit the brightest
of bird behavior. He recalled an incident from the year before,
when a big male—called a “bomber” by hunters—flew into the passenger
door of his pickup and bounced off, killing itself in the
process. Joe’s truck hadn’t been moving at the time.

Years before, prior to the national decline in the sage grouse population,
Joe had accompanied outlaw falconer Nate Romanowski to
this very sagebrush bench. At the time, Nate flew a prairie falcon
and a red-tailed hawk. Joe and Nate served as bird dogs, walking
through the brush to dislodge the grouse while the raptors hunted
from the air. Grouse defended themselves against the falcons by
flopping over onto their backs and windmilling their sharp claws,
but the raptors got them anyway, in an explosion of feathers.

Joe wondered if he’d ever hunt with Nate again, and not just because
of the sage grouse problem. With a half-dozen serious allegations
hanging over his head by the feds, Nate had agreed to turn
state’s witness against his former employer, a high-society killer for
hire. Nate had not touched base with Joe, or Marybeth, or their
daughter Sheridan in months. Joe had no idea if Nate’s long-ago
pledge to protect the Pickett family still held. And Joe was still angry
with him for getting mixed up in a murder-for-hire operation, even
if the targets richly deserved killing.

Joe shook his head to clear it, and looked at the carnage. Half
a year after being named “Special Liaison to the Executive Branch”
by Rulon himself, in the middle of Joe’s own five-thousand-squaremile
district, he’d discovered the site of the wanton destruction of
twenty-one rare game birds whose deaths could bring down the state
of Wyoming.

That’s when the call came. And suddenly he was no longer thinking
about birds.

The display said mike reed.

Reed was sheriff of Twelve Sleep County, and had been for two
years. He was a personal friend of Joe’s and had cleaned up the department,
ridding it of the old cronies and flunkies who had been
collected by the previous chief, Kyle McLanahan. Reed was a paraplegic
due to gunshot wounds he’d received in the line of duty and
he traveled in a specially outfitted van. His injuries had never prevented
him from getting around or performing his job.

Reed’s voice was tense. Joe could hear the sound of a motor in
the background. He was speeding somewhere in his van.

Reed said, “Joe, we’ve got a situation. Are you in a place where
you can sit down?”

“No, but go ahead.”

“I’m running out to meet my deputy on Dunbar Road. He responded
to a call from a couple of hunters this morning. They
claimed they found a victim in a ditch.”

Joe knew Dunbar Road. It was south of Saddlestring, an obscure
county road that ended up at a couple of old reservoirs in the break-
lands. It was a road to nowhere, really, used only by hunters, anglers,
and people who were lost.

“The victim is a young woman, Joe,” Reed said. “She was found
by Deputy Boner.”

Joe felt himself squeezing his cell phone as if to kill it.

“My deputy thinks she looks a lot like April. He says he knew
April from when she worked at Welton’s Western Wear, and it might
be her.”

Joe’s knees weakened, and he took a step back. April was their
eighteen-year-old adopted daughter. She’d disappeared the previous
November with a professional rodeo cowboy and they’d only heard
from her two or three times. Each time she called, she said not to
worry about her. She was, she said, “having the time of her life.”

Because she’d turned eighteen, there was little Joe or Marybeth
could do, except encourage her to come home.

“She’s alive?” Joe asked, his mouth dry.

“Maybe. Barely. We’re not sure. It might not be her, Joe. There’s
no ID on her.”

“Where is she now?”

“In the backseat of my deputy’s cruiser,” Reed said. “He didn’t
want to wait for the EMTs to get out there. He said it looks touch
and go whether she’ll even make it as far as the hospital.”

Joe took a quivering breath. The storm cloud was moving down
the face of the mountains, the snow blotting out the blue-black
forest of pine trees.

“Whether it’s April or not,” Reed said, “it’s a terrible thing.”

“Mike, was she in an accident?”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Reed said. “There was no vehicle around.
It looks like she was dumped there.”

“Dumped?” Joe asked. “Why didn’t she walk toward town?”

“She’s been beaten,” Reed said. “Man, I hate to be the one telling
you this. But my guy says it looks like she was beaten to a pulp and
dumped. Whoever did it might have thought she was already dead.
Obviously, I don’t know the extent of her injuries, how long she’s
been there, or if there was, you know, a sexual assault.”

Joe leaned against the front fender of his pickup. He couldn’t recall
walking back to his truck, but there he was. The phone was
pressed so tightly against his face, it hurt.

March and April were usually the snowiest months in high-country
Wyoming, when huge dumps of spring snow arrived between short
bursts of false spring. The last week had been unseasonably warm, so
he was grateful she hadn’t died of exposure.

Joe said, “So you’re going to meet your deputy and escort him to
the hospital?”

“Roger that,” Reed said. “How quick can you get there? I’m
about to scramble Life Flight and get them down here so they can
transport her to the trauma center in Billings. These injuries are
beyond what our clinic can handle. Can you get there and . . .
identify her?”

“I’m twenty miles out on bad roads, but yes, I’ll be there,” Joe
said, motioning for Daisy to leap down from the bed of the truck
and take her usual spot on the passenger seat. He followed her in
and slammed the door. “Does Marybeth know?”

Marybeth was now the director of the Twelve Sleep County Library.
She’d be at the building until five-thirty p.m., but she was
known to monitor the police band.

“I haven’t told her,” Reed said, “and I asked my guys to keep a lid
on this until I reached you. I thought maybe you’d want to tell her.”

Joe engaged the transmission and roared down the old two-track.

“I’ll call her,” Joe said, raising his voice because the road was
rough and the cab was rattling with vibration. Citation books, maps,
and assorted paperwork fluttered down through the cab from where
they had been parked beneath the sun visors. “We’ll meet you there.”

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Reed said with pain in his voice. “But keep in
mind we don’t know for sure it’s her.”

Joe said, “It’s her,” and punched off.

He called Marybeth’s cell phone. When she answered, he
slowed down enough so that he could hear her.

“Mike Reed just told me they’re transporting a female victim to
the hospital,” he said. “She was found dumped south of town. Mike
says there’s a possibility the girl could be—”

“April,” Marybeth said, finishing the sentence for him. “How bad
is she?”

“Bad,” Joe said, and he told her about the Life Flight helicopter en
route to the hospital from Billings.

“I’ll meet you there,” she said.

Before he could agree, she said, “I’ve had nightmares about this
for months. Ever since she left with that cowboy.” Joe thought, She
can’t even say his name.

Joe disconnected the call, dropped his phone into his breast
pocket, and jammed down on the accelerator. Twin plumes of dust
from his back tires filled the rearview mirror.

“Hang on,” he said to Daisy.

Then: “I’m going to kill Dallas Cates.”

Daisy looked back as if to say We’ll kill him together.
2
After what seemed like the longest forty-five minutes of his life,
Joe arrived at the Twelve Sleep County Hospital and found
Marybeth in the emergency entrance lobby. Sheriff Mike
Reed was with her, as was Deputy Edgar Jess Boner, who had found
the victim and transported her into town.

Marybeth was calm and in control, but her face was drained of
color. She had the ability to shift into a cool and pragmatic demeanor
when a situation was at its worst. She was blond with green eyes, and
was wearing a skirt, blazer, and pumps: her library director’s outfit.

She turned to him as he walked in and said, “Sorry that took so
long.”

He was unsettled...

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