Joe Pickett's outlaw falconer companion, Nate Romanowski, faces the battle of his life and one he may very likely lose. His mysterious past comes back in the form of his former special forces colleague, an utterly ruthless soldier/homeland security official who knows his rise through the military and intelligence community will be derailed if Nate ever tells what he knows about their time together in Afghanistan in 1995.After years of dispatching fellow special forces team members to take him out, Nate's nemesis decides the time has come to end the threat to him once and for all. And he does it by incorporating many of the same tactics that served their unique and secret unit well in the Middle East: by recruiting locals. Nate can trust no one except Joe Pickett, who is constrained by his oath and duty to the law and the state.But Nate must involve Joe because he knows his enemy will strike at his friends in order to draw him out and the entire Pickett family will be a target. Because of Nate's fugitive status he can only fight back outside the law, and Joe must make a choice: help his friend or adhere to his principles?
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C. J. Box is the winner of the Anthony Award, the Prix Calibre .38 (France), the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award, the Barry Award, the Edgar Award and an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist. He has even been nominated for the IMPAC prize. His novels are US bestsellers and have been translated into 21 languages. Box lives with his family outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ALSO BY C. J. BOX
THE JOE PICKETT NOVELS
Nowhere to Run
In Plain Sight
Out of Range
THE STAND-ALONE NOVELS
Back of Beyond
Three Weeks to Say Goodbye
For Gordon Crawford, falconer
And Laurie, always ...
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Table of Contents
THE MORNING AFTER
HIS NAME WAS Dave Farkus, and he’d recently taken up fly-fishing as a way to meet girls. So far, it hadn’t worked out very well.
It was late October, one of those wild fall days containing a fifty-five-degree swing from dawn to dusk, and Farkus stood mid-thigh in waders in the Twelve Sleep River that coursed through the town of Saddlestring, Wyoming. River cottonwoods were so drunk with color the leaves hurt his eyes.
Farkus was short and wiry, with muttonchop sideburns and a slack expression on his face. He’d parked his pickup under the bridge and waded out into the river at mid-morning just as a late-fall Trico hatch created clouds of insects that billowed like terrestrial clouds along the surface of the water. A few trout were rising for them, slurping them down, but he hadn’t hooked one yet. Trico flies were not only tiny and hard to tie on his line, they were difficult to see on the water.
He was at wits’ end since he’d relocated to the Twelve Sleep Valley from southern Wyoming.
He’d landed in Saddlestring with no job, and he didn’t intend to look for one, except the damned natural-gas pipeline company was challenging his disability payments, claiming he’d never really been injured. And his ex-wife, Ardith, had contacted a lawyer about several missed alimony payments and was threatening to take him back to court.
FARKUS WAS intently aware of each car that sizzled by on the bridge over his shoulder. When he heard a car slow down to look at him, he made a long useless cast that, he hoped, looked practiced and elegant, as though he was Brad Pitt’s double in the movie A River Runs Through It. He wondered how long it would be before a pretty doe-eyed twentysomething tourist would come down to the river and ask for a lesson. But he was starting to believe it would never happen.
He tied on a new fly—something puffy and white that he could see on the water—and felt the power of the current push against his legs.
That’s when he heard, upriver, the distinctive hollow pock sound of a drift boat striking a rock.
He barely looked up, so intent was he on tying the nearly invisible thin tippet through the loop of his fly. Drift boats filled with fishermen were common on the river. There were several commercial guide operations in town, and it seemed like every other home in Saddle-string had a drift boat on a trailer parked in front of it. The river was shallow because it was late fall and water was at a premium, and it wasn’t unusual for guides to miscalculate and hit a rock.
But when he heard a series of mishaps—pock-pock-pock, rock-rock-rock—he glanced up from his knot.
The white fiberglass drift boat was coming right at him, sidewise, bumping along the river rocks in a shallow current. No one was at the oars. In fact, no one seemed to be in the boat at all.
Farkus squinted and cursed. If the boat continued on its path it would hit him, maybe knock him right off his feet. Farkus couldn’t swim, and if his waders filled with water and he was sucked into that deep pool under the bridge ...
He uneasily shuffled a few steps back. The river rocks were slick and the current pushed steadily at his legs. The boat kept coming and seemed to pick up speed. He looked around at the bank, then at the bridge, hoping someone would be there to help. But no one was there.
At the last second, before the boat hit him from the side, Farkus cursed again and managed to turn toward it and brace himself with both feet. His fly rod dropped into the water at his side as he reached out with both hands—“Goddammit!” he cried out—to grasp the gunwales of the oncoming boat and stop its momentum.
The boat thumped heavily against his palms and he felt the soles of his boots slip and he was pushed a few feet backward. Somehow, though, his right boot wedged between two heavy rocks and stopped fast. So did the boat, although he could feel the pressure of it building, wanting to knock him down. He was sick about his lost fly rod, and thought that if nothing else he could wrestle the boat to shore and sell it for three or four grand, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to return it to the idiot who let it get away from him in the first place.
As he stood there in the river, straining against the pressure, he realized it was harder work than it should have been. There was real weight inside the boat, but he was at an angle, bent forward with his head down and his arms straining and outstretched, so he couldn’t rise up and look inside without losing his balance and his footing.
Over the next ten minutes, muscles trembling, he worked the boat downstream and closer to the bank. Finally, he stepped into a back eddy of calmer water with a sandy bottom and pulled the boat into it as well. Sweat coursed down his neck, and his thigh muscles twitched with pain.
Then he looked over the gunwale into the bottom of the boat and said, “Jesus Christ!”
He’d never seen so much blood.
THE EVENING BEFORE
NATE ROMANOWSKI approached the stand of willows from the north with a grim set to his face and a falcon on his fist. Something was going to die.
It was an hour until dusk in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, near the North Fork of the Twelve Sleep River. Storm clouds that had scudded across the big sky all day now bunched to the southeast as if they’d been herded, and they squeezed out intermittent waves of snow pellets that rattled across the dry grass and shivered the dead leaves. A slight breeze hung low to the ground and ferried both the scent of sage and the watery smell of the river through the lowland brush.
The peregrine falcon was blinded with a leather hood topped by a stiff white bristle of pronghorn antelope hair. The bird sat still and upright, secured to the falconer’s hand by thin leather jesses tied to its talons and looped through his gloved fingers. The falcon, Nate thought, was still and regal and hungry—tightly packed natural explosives encased by feathers, just waiting for a fuse to be lit.
Although slightly less than twenty-four inches tall, the female he held, once released, was the fastest species on the planet, capable of speeds during its hunting dive of more than two hundred miles an hour. When it balled its talons and struck a bird in flight with that velocity, the result was a concussive explosion of blood, bones, and feathers that still took Nate’s breath away.
The falcon, like all his raptors over the years, had no name. And every time he released one to hunt there was a chance she would fly away and simply never return.
He slowed his pace and listened as he approached the wall of willows. Through the brush was a shallow, spring-fed pond not more than three acres across. It was hard to see from the ground but was obvious from the air, and it was the only substantial body of water for miles around except for the river itself. Therefore, it attracted passing waterfowl. And when the breeze shifted he could hear them: the rhythmic, almost subsonic clucking of paddling ducks. The peregrine heard them, too, and responded with an instinctive tightening of her talons on his hand.
Nate raised the bird so he could whisper directly into her hood, “They’re here.”
NATE WAS TALL and ropy, with long limbs and icy blue eyes set in a hawklike wind-burned face. The hair he’d cut and dyed months before was growing back long and blond but hadn’t reached its customary ponytail length. He wore stained camo cargo pants, laced outfitter boots, a faded U.S. Air Force Academy hooded sweatshirt, and a thick canvas Carhartt vest. Strapped to his rib cage on his left side, between the sweatshirt and the vest, was a scoped five-shot .500 Wyoming Express revolver. A three-inch braid of jet-black human hair was attached to the thick muzzle by a leather string.
He reached across his body with his right hand and gently untied the falcon’s hood and slipped it off. The peregrine cocked her head at him for a moment, then returned to profile. The single eye he could see was black, piercing, and soulless—the amoral eye of a killer.
Nate opened his left hand to free the jesses, and raised her up. Her wings unfurled and stretched out for a moment, then her talons bunched and pushed off his glove. He turned his face away as he was pummeled with thumping blasts of air from her beating wings and brushes of her wingtips. The first moment of flight was ungainly; she dropped slightly and thrashed to the left, the jesses swinging through the air, her feet long and extended, until she found invisible purchase and began to rise. She cleared the tops of the willows ahead by inches.
The falcon climbed in circles that were tight at first and then larger as she rose above the treetops and found a current. Then, as if she’d burned through the first stage of a booster rocket, she catapulted into the sky.
THE PAST MONTH had been spent in a state of training and trepidation, ever since his longtime colleague Large Merle had shown up gutted at his front door. Nate had transported all seven feet and four hundred fifty pounds of Merle toward the town of Saddlestring in his Jeep, with his friend gasping for breath through chattering teeth. The last thing Large Merle had said before he collapsed was: “The Five. They’ve deployed.”
Nate knew exactly what that meant. The showdown he’d been anticipating for years was at hand, and Merle was the latest victim. Large Merle had died with a moaning death rattle five miles out of town, and Nate had flipped a U-turn and returned to his stone house on the banks of the North Fork. He’d said a few private words over the body and had it shipped via Freightliner to Merle’s only living relative, a sister in North Dakota. Then he began to prepare for visitors.
THE PEREGRINE FALCON was little more than a pinprick in the sky, a tiny black speck set against roiling thunderheads. Nate watched the bird circle in the ellipse of a lazy thermal spiral. The falcon was so high in the air it took a knowing eye to see it. But the ducks knew the falcon was there because none had attempted to fly.
Nate nodded to himself and tugged on the end of an empty burlap sack he’d tucked through his belt. He flipped the sack over his shoulder to keep it out of the way, and approached the willows in silence.
Before he entered the brush, he paused and looked over his shoulder and scanned the terrain. His small house was far below in the river valley, his Jeep parked next to it. The old structure was bordered by massive old river cottonwood trees with gnarled gray bark and skeletal limbs. Because most of the leaves were gone, he could see his clapboard mews for housing falcons, and an upturned flat-bottomed boat on the bank of the river he used for crossing. On the east side of the North Fork, a steep red wall rose sixty feet into the air. The top was flat and dotted with scrub. Beyond the flat the country rose at a gentle pitch in a series of waves and folds until it melded into the multicolor pockets of aspen and then the dark timber fringe of the mountains. Rounded peaks above the timberline were dusted with the fresh first snow of the fall.
To the west was an undulating treeless sagebrush flat that continued for miles. A single two-track road cut through the sagebrush and meandered its way through cuts and draws to the stone house. There was no other way in, and if someone was coming he could see them from miles away. On the sides of the sections of road out of his vision, he’d installed motion-detection sensors and hidden closed-circuit cameras that would broadcast images of visitors into his house well before he could see them with his naked eye or through his binoculars.
From his vantage point on the plateau where the willows hid the pond, Nate noted how the river had risen. Although there had been little rain and only a few bursts of fall snow, the thirst of the river cottonwoods for water had subsided as the trees withdrew their appetite and focused inward, preparing for winter. Without thousands of trees sucking water from the Twelve Sleep, the level of the river rose high enough to be navigable again.
All was quiet and still in every direction.
Nate turned back around, reached out and parted the stiff willow branches, and stepped inside.
AS THE BRUSH closed around him he could no longer see the peregrine, but he knew she was there by the nervous tittering of the ducks ahead. The ducks weren’t alarmed because of his presence or the noise he was making as he pushed through the willows, but because of the falcon in the sky.
He sensed an opening through the branches a moment before he was knee-deep in stagnant water. The bottom of the pond was silty beneath his boots but solid underneath, and with a few more steps he was waist-deep in the pond as mallard and teal ducks scattered in his path, motoring across the surface of the water and sending the alarm to the entire population of twenty or twenty-five ducks. The silt he’d disturbed underfoot plumed through the dark pond water and turned it the color of chocolate milk near his legs.
But not one of the ducks took flight. Nate smiled to himself as he beheld one of nature’s brilliant secrets.
For ducks, geese, and other waterfowl, the very silhouette of a peregrine falcon in the sky—even if they’d never encountered one before—was deeply imprinted into their collective psyche. They knew somehow the predator thousands of feet in the air would kill them in an instant if they became airborne, just like they somehow knew the falcon would not hit them on the ground or on the surface of the water. So as long as the du...
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