Thu
Jul 16 2015 2:00pm

Badlands: New Excerpt

C. J. Box

Badlands by C.J. Box is a new-age Western set in a North Dakota city that has suddenly become the state's oil capital, a title that brings with it drugs and organized crime (available July 28, 2015).

Read this exclusive excerpt from Chapters 1 and 2 of Badlands! And then comment for a chance to win a copy of C.J. Box's Western thriller!

Twenty miles across the North Dakota border, where the scenery goes from rolling grass prairie to pipeline fields, detective Cassie Dewell has been assigned as the new deputy sheriff of Grimstad—a place people used to be from, but were never headed to—now the oil capital of North Dakota. With oil comes money, with money comes drugs, and with drugs comes the dirtiest criminals wanting to corner the market.

In the same small town resides twelve-year-old Kyle Westergaard. Even though Kyle has been written off as the “slow” kid, he has dreams deeper than anyone can imagine. While delivering newspapers, he witnesses a car accident and now has a lot of money and packets of white powder in his possession.

When the temperature drops to 30 below and a gang war heats up, Cassie finds that the key to it all might come in the most unlikely form: an undersized boy on a bike who keeps showing up where he doesn't belong.

PART ONE
DAY ONE
2014

Chapter One
Grimstad, North Dakota

Twelve-year-old Kyle Westergaard was halfway through his route delivering the Grimstad Tribune when he heard the high whine of car engines out on the highway in the dark. He eased his bike to a stop—never easy with the bulging canvas newspaper panniers hanging down on either side of the front wheel—and squinted south across the dark prairie. There were a lot of hot cars around town these days, and these particular cars were screaming. Kyle wanted to see them before they had to slow down to enter the town of Grimstad.

He liked this view from the chalky bluff and he looked forward to it every morning. It was the only thing on his route he looked forward to. His newspaper route was the worst one in town and the farthest one from the Tribune dock. It was assigned to him because he was the newest carrier. His mom had said she’d drive him when he signed up for the job and he handed over his signing bonus of $250, but after his first day on the job two weeks ago she’d never been able to get up on time. Instead he pedaled his bike to the Tribune and got in line behind the other carriers, most of whom were older and had cars. His route included all the new houses they were building on the south side of town and the homes that got the newspaper were few and far between. Kyle spent a lot of time and effort riding his bike around mounds of dirt, fresh concrete curbs, and piles of lumber and building materials to locate the subscribers. Most of the people who lived in the new part of town were from somewhere else and couldn’t care less about local news so they didn’t subscribe to the paper yet. At least that’s what Alf Pedersen, the old gnome in charge of deliveries, told Kyle at the newspaper building.

Although he had no trouble locating the houses for subscribers—he was good with street numbers and numbers in general—he was still having trouble keeping track of all the special requests. Some people wanted their paper placed inside the storm door, some wanted it on their front porch, and one lady wanted it in her mailbox. He got confused over who wanted what, and he heard about it when the angry customers called Alf to complain about him. Too many had called, Alf said. Kyle’s job was on thin ice.

He paused and listened as the car engines got louder. He still couldn’t see them. It was unusual to be able to hear them. On most days there was an endless stream of heavy trucks on the highway to Watson City, and the usual traffic noise would have drowned out the sound and impeded the car race.

*   *   *

It was another cold morning in the town of Grimstad in western North Dakota. Condensation billowed around his face and his lungs stung from the cold. Frost clung to the metal frame of his bike and the seat felt like a block of ice. His feet and hands were cold because he’d outgrown his boots over the summer and he couldn’t find his gloves that morning. Kyle liked to V his fingers and draw them to his mouth as if holding a cigarette, then exhale breath that looked like smoke. He did it now while he waited. It made him feel sophisticated.

The prairie, as far as he could see, was punctuated by natural gas glares next to oil pumper units. The pumpers had heads like grasshoppers and they bobbed up and down. The flares made what was once grassland look like a big city, although Kyle chose to think of those flames out there as Indian campfires. He liked that idea—that the prairie looked the same as it had when the Sioux and Cheyenne were around.

Between where Kyle was on the bluff and the flares out on the prairie was the Missouri Breaks. The iced-over river steamed in the cold. Kyle had a plan and it involved that big river.

*   *   *

Two sets of headlights blasted out of the darkness to the south on the highway from Watson City. At first, they looked joined together—nose to tail. Then the second car swung alongside the first car and they were neck and neck. The headlights of the outside car were bright white halogens. Kyle thought, It is a race!

The two hot cars stayed like that for a quarter of a mile, their engines wrapped up. There was a bang and squeal of tires and the inside car suddenly veered off the road. Kyle could hear the crashing of glass and metal, and the headlights made circle after circle. Something small and white shot through the beam of the rotating headlights and vanished. The car stopped rolling and Kyle couldn’t tell if it was on its wheels or on its roof.

He realized he’d been holding his breath the whole time and exhaled with a puh sound.

The driver of the second car on the road below hit the brakes. Kyle saw the car fishtail on the highway before it came to a stop. After a few seconds, it reversed to where the first car had gone off the road.

Kyle turned his front wheel toward the lip of the bluff and pushed off. There was a trail there that would take him to the basin where the crash had occurred. He knew about the trail because he took it home when his route was complete. He didn’t even think about what he was doing.

*   *   *

The wrecked car was upside down. Its motor was no longer running but the headlights were still on. Dust swirled through the beams.

Kyle was about fifty yards away from the wreck when he looked up toward the highway and saw that the second car had come back and was now pulled to the near shoulder of the road. The driver’s and passenger doors opened at the same time and the dome light came on inside. Two bulky men stepped out. One was bald and the other wore a stocking cap. Kyle was too far away to see their faces, but by the way they moved they looked determined to do something. Kyle heard a shout and couldn’t make out the words except for the word “fuck” several times. Something about that word just cut through the air.

He slowed his bike on the trail, not sure whether to proceed to the wreck or wait for the men to hike down to it from the road. Crashed cars always blew up on TV, and Kyle had no idea if that happened in real life. He could smell gasoline fumes from the wreck, and green smoke was now rolling skyward from the undercarriage.

Kyle thought there was someone in that wrecked car who might be hurt or dead. Maybe even more than one person. There was no light from inside the car so he couldn’t tell.

He walked his bike back a few feet so he could hide behind a tall, skeletal, Russian olive bush. From there he could see the well-illuminated scene in front of him but he doubted he could be seen himself. As he backed up, his rear tire thumped against something in the trail that stopped his progress. He assumed it was a rock at first but when he pulled on his handlebars for leverage the rear wheel didn’t climb over it. It wasn’t a rock because it had some give to it.

Kyle twisted around and looked behind him. He remembered he’d seen something small and white eject from the rolling car. It was bigger than he’d thought, though: a thick bundle of something.

He wasn’t sure what to do. Leave it there behind the bush? Or take it?

While he was trying to make up his mind, he looked up and saw the two big men start to walk down toward the wreck. One of them had a flashlight. The beam illuminated the wrecked car and Kyle could see inside briefly for the first time. A man—Kyle guessed it was a man—was partially extended out the driver’s side window clawing desperately at the ground like a dog digging a hole. But the poor guy couldn’t get out of the wreck because the lower half of his body was pinned between the frame of the car and the crushed roof. The man glistened because the light reflected off the blood and the pieces of glass embedded in his face and hair.

There was a roar of an oncoming vehicle and a sweep of headlights and the flashlight in the field went off. Kyle turned his head toward town and saw a big SUV speeding up the road. The car was coming fast but it would still be several minutes before it got here. Kyle guessed the driver of the SUV had seen the wreck happen and was coming to help whoever was in the rolled car.

He heard that word again from the two men, who had turned on their heels and were climbing back up the ditch toward their car. It took less than a minute for the two men to throw themselves inside, do a three-point turn, and roar back the way they’d come.

Kyle wondered if the driver of the SUV would pursue the fleeing vehicle or stop at the crash. His question was answered when the SUV slowed at the place in the road where the car started rolling. It was easy to find because the earth was churned up.

He winced when bright spotlights bathed the wreck in white. Kyle could see that the driver of the wrecked car was still and was no longer trying to claw his way out. The driver had either passed out or died. Kyle knew the image of that man trying to crawl out of the car would stay in his mind for a long time, like when that Nazi’s face melted off in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He still had dreams about that. Kyle was sickened by what he’d seen but fascinated at the same time.

A second SUV had now joined the parked one and suddenly the dark prairie was psychedelic with multicolored lights from the roof of the second SUV. Kyle could now see that both vehicles belonged to cops. Both had Bakken County decals on their doors.

He didn’t know what to do so he stayed there on his bike and pushed back a foot or two around the bundle. Watching. Not moving.

*   *   *

Two sheriff's deputies approached the crash with their flashlights. The first one to arrive rounded the rear bumper of the upside-down wreck and shined his light on the driver. The deputy was a big man with a big gut and a handlebar mustache. He limped when he walked.

“Oh man, he’s gutted.”

“Should we call the ambulance?” the other deputy asked.

“Maybe two—one for each half.” The man laughed harshly.

“Anyone else inside?”

“Not that I can see. But I haven’t checked around yet to see if anyone was ejected.”

“Do you know who he is?”

The flashlight choked down and illuminated the bloody head of the driver. Kyle could see jet-black hair, blood, and winking glass in his scalp.

“Don’t know him, but he looks like a Mex. Got a bunch of unattractive neck tattoos.”

The second deputy shined his light on the back bumper. “Arizona plates.”

“‘Land of Enchantment,’” the first deputy said and he dropped to all fours and shined his light inside the vehicle.

“That’s New Mexico. Arizona is ‘The Grand Canyon State.’”

“Oh. My mistake.” Kyle thought the deputy seemed to be looking for something inside. “I would have guessed he was an Idahole. Either that or a Utard or Washingturd.”

“Did you see anything? You seemed to be all over this.”

“Yeah,” the first deputy said. “I had a speed trap set up on Everett Street so I was watching the highway. Then I saw this guy driving his car like his hair was on fire when he went off the road. I hit the gas and I was the first on the scene. How did you get here so fast?” The tone was accusatory.

“I just punched out and was heading home when I saw you peel out. I’m surprised you didn’t hit your lights, but I thought I’d head over here to see if you needed a hand.”

“Yeah, I appreciate that. I guess I was just so surprised to see the wreck I didn’t think about my siren or lights. Don’t tell anyone.”

The second deputy laughed, and said, “I won’t.”

The first deputy said, “One car rollover at five thirty in the morning. Want to lay odds on what this guy has in his system?”

Kyle thought, One car? Had the deputy not seen the race with the second car?

“No bet,” the second deputy said. He turned away from the first deputy and spoke into a microphone attached to his left shoulder. “This is BCS thirty-two requesting an ambulance for a deceased subject and an evidence tech for a one-car rollover on highway…”

While he made the call, the first deputy stood back up at full height and swept his beam across the brown tall grass around the wreck.

Kyle lowered his profile until his chin rested on the top of his handlebars. They didn’t know he was there. Should he tell them about the second car? How the second car had two men inside and it had forced the other car off the road? He knew what he should do but something held him back.

Then he pushed his bike out from behind the Russian olive bush until he was in plain sight on the trail. The deputy’s flashlight hit Kyle in the eyes and blinded him.

“Stay right where you are, son,” the first deputy said. “There’s something here you don’t want to see.”

“Who is that kid?” the second deputy asked after finishing up his request.

“Paperboy.”

“What’s he doing out here?”

“Delivering papers, I’d guess.”

“Ha!”

Kyle stopped and held his hand up against the flashlight to shade his eyes.

“What’s your name, boy?” the fat deputy asked.

Kyle didn’t answer.

“Ask him if he saw anything,” the second deputy said as if Kyle weren’t there.

“Look, see his face? He won’t be any help.”

“What do you mean?”

“Now I recognize him,” the first deputy said. “It’s the Westergaard boy.”

Kyle opened his fingers and peeked through them to see the first deputy gesture by rotating his index finger in a circle around his right ear. The other deputy nodded, then looked back at Kyle with sympathy on his face.

He said, “Poor kid. But at least he’s got a work ethic.”

“You would too at that age if the newspaper was offering a signing bonus,” the first deputy said with a chuckle. “It ain’t like when you and me were kids.”

Then, more gently, “Son, turn that bike around. Go finish your route. There might be someone out there stupid enough to want to read the Grimstad Tribune.”

The second deputy laughed at that.

Kyle didn’t respond, and he clumsily turned his bike around in the trail. He felt the light on his back and saw his long shadow out ahead of him. Then the light went out.

“You want to go meet the ambulance up on the road?” the first deputy asked the second. “I’ll keep looking around here in case there’s another victim.”

*   *   *

Kyle was hurt by that index-finger-in-a-circle thing. Of course, he’d seen it before. But he was even more hurt by that look the second deputy gave him, that look of pity. It wasn’t fair, but it somehow made him invisible.

And he was confused by the conversation between the fat older deputy and the younger one. There had been two cars. How could the fat deputy not have seen the second car take off?

He stopped at the bundle and lowered his kickstand. After transferring all of the papers from the right pannier into the ink-stained left pannier, he lifted the bundle and dropped it in the empty bag. It felt like there were bags of sand inside. The bundle outweighed the newspapers and would make his bike list, but it wasn’t as clumsy as he thought it might be if he stood on the pedals and shifted his weight to the left.

Then he started pedaling back up the trail. The incline would make it hard work but it would also warm him up, he hoped.

He still had a lot of newspapers to deliver before six thirty or angry subscribers would start calling the gnome Alf Pedersen and complaining about him. If he got many more complaints, Alf had said, he would lose the job and have to return the signing bonus. Kyle knew it was already spent, so that wouldn’t work. His mom had bought a new HD TV at ALCO with the money.

Kyle’s hands were freezing.

And that bundle was heavy.

 

Chapter Two
Wilson, North Carolina

As soon as the airplane door was opened to the exit ramp at the Raleigh-Durham Airport, Investigator Cassie Dewell felt her hair begin to frizz. It was subtle at first, and it reminded her of a self-inflating sleeping pad she’d once seen unfurled in a dome tent on a camping trip in the Crazy Mountains.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

She wore the dark blue suit she reserved for funerals and for testifying in court, a white blouse with a string of fake pearls, and low heels. She’d received a few compliments on the outfit that might have been perfunctory but had cheered her nevertheless. Of course, on the occasions she received the compliments she was back in Montana, not the South, and her hair wasn’t frizzing out due to the sudden humidity and looking like an oversized helmet made of fur like it was now.

Cassie stood and retrieved her garment bag from the overhead compartment and a bulging black fabric briefcase that weighed more than her clothes.

Inside the terminal, Cassie stepped aside and let the other passengers proceed in front of her toward baggage claim. They all seemed to be in a hurry. She wasn’t, although she’d waited two years for what was about to happen. Two years of scanning the ViCAP and RIMN law-enforcement databases every morning for an arrest or verified sighting. Two years of waiting for her cell phone to ring.

Now that it had finally come to pass, she was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. Her heart raced and she gasped for air. She knew the locals waiting for her in the terminal would start to wonder if she was ever coming out.

The case file in her briefcase consisted solely of reports, affidavits, and testimony concerning one man: Ronald Pergram, aka the Lizard King.

Within a few hours, she would be face-to-face with him—or someone the localsthought was him—in the interrogation room of the Wilson County jail.

*   *   *

Cassie was thirty-six years old with short brown hair and large brown eyes. She’d lost twenty pounds twice in two years and gained it right back, plus a few. She was self-conscious about being heavy and thought that her suit felt and looked like a sausage casing.

But she didn’t care how she felt or looked if she could help put Pergram in a cage for the rest of his life or, better yet, into the ground. Before she boarded her flight in Helena, she’d Googled “North Carolina death penalty” on her iPhone and was reassured to find out the state had put more than forty-three murderers to death since 1977. She wanted the Lizard King to be number forty-four.

The Lizard King had haunted a large part of her life since he’d been unmasked near Park County, Montana, by her former partner Cody Hoyt. Cody paid for the discovery with his life. At the time, Cody had no idea that Pergram, a long-haul trucker, was a serial killer likely responsible for the disappearances of scores of truck-stop prostitutes known as “lot lizards,” or that Pergram had local associates who were involved in the torture and murder of the women. Pergram had also likely abducted victims whose cars had broken down on the highways across the nation. Although entire cars had been unearthed where they’d been buried in a high mountain valley, not a single body had ever been found. Cassie uncovered the associates and shot one of them to death in a highly publicized shoot-out. But the Lizard King himself vanished in his truck.

In his truck. It was still incomprehensible to her as well as members of the FBI’s Highway Serial Killers Initiative how Pergram and his massive Peterbilt and trailer had simply disappeared. The only evidence they had that he still might be out there was the increase in the estimate of missing lot lizards, from seven hundred to more than a thousand.

Cassie had never seen Pergram in person, but she’d gathered the few photos she could find of him, including his high school yearbook photo from Livingston High and two commercial driver’s license (CDL) head shots. Those photos of a doughy and unremarkable man in his midfifties with wavy ginger hair and sullen eyes had in fact been flashed across television screens throughout the nation. His face, as dull and pedestrian as it was, was the cause of parents’ nightmares as well as the working girls who crawled from truck to truck at nights.

That face had been in Cassie’s nightmares as well, since it was very likely he had seen her even if she hadn’t seen him.

Which was why she’d left her six-year-old son Ben in the care of her mother Isabel and had flown to North Carolina. Her idea had been to review the thick file on the airplane. But when she opened it up, she realized she’d practically memorized every page: every documented missing victim’s profile and photo, every newspaper or Internet clipping, and every printed report from the FBI on the twenty to twenty-four suspected serial killers who drove long-haul trucks.

*   *   *

Meeting her in the lobby of the airport near baggage claim were Wilson County Sheriff Eric Ernest Puente, County Prosecutor Leslie Behaunek, and FBI task force liaison Special Agent Craig Rhodine.

They stood in an obvious huddle and were easy to spot. Sheriff Puente was round and short in his uniform, and had an easy smile. Behaunek wore a dark suit similar to Cassie’s, although it fit her better. She had dark red hair and was tall and lean with a long, almost horselike face. Agent Rhodine looked like every FBI field agent Cassie had ever met: fit, intense, clean-cut, and dressed in a sports coat, tie, and slacks. He looked ex-military even if he wasn’t. Any other time, Cassie would have been a sucker for that look. Not now.

“Are you Investigator Dewell?” the sheriff asked, who stepped out, removed his hat, and extended his hand.

“I am,” she said, shaking his hand.

“We’re glad you could come on such short notice. And bless your heart, I guess I expected some kind of Montana cowgirl in cowboy boots and a hat,” he said in a soft Carolina accent. “‘An Angel with a Lariat,’ as k.d. lang once sang. Do you know the song?”

Cassie noticed that Behaunek rolled her eyes in embarrassment at the comment.

“Yes,” Cassie said, “I’ve been known to wear boots. I haven’t gotten around to the hat and the rope, though. And I don’t know what to tell you about my hair. It’s the humidity, I guess.”

“You think this is humidity?” The sheriff laughed. “My lord, you should come back in August.”

“Our car is outside,” Behaunek said after introductions were made. “It takes an hour to get to Wilson and we can go over everything on the way there.”

Agent Rhodine tilted his chin up. “We think we just might have our man.”

Cassie nodded grimly.

“There’s something we want to show you on the way, Miss Cassie,” Sheriff Puente said. Cassie knew “Miss Cassie” was a Southern thing and she overlooked how condescending it came across to one not used to it.

“What’s that?”

“His truck.”

*   *   *

December in North Carolina was brown and gray but not white. Light rain fell from a close granite sky. The hardwood trees were tall and skeletal and a thick brown carpet of leaves covered the forest floor. The walls of pine were so close to the highway she could see nothing through them. It was like driving through a tunnel, and she wondered how anyone who lived there knew where anything was if they couldn’t even see forty feet in any direction. She’d grown up in Montana and was used to big skies and vistas.

Back in Montana, snow was on the ground and had been since October and the mountains were snowcapped.

An FBI agent drove the black SUV with U.S. Government plates and merged onto I-40. Rhodine occupied the passenger seat. Cassie sat next to Sheriff Puente in the second row, and Behaunek sat alone in the back. Upon entering the Ford Expedition, Behaunek opened her briefcase and shuffled through documents.

*   *   *

Rhodine turned and draped his arm over the front seat so he could face her. He smiled as if to reassure her, but she read it as “Aren’t I a good-looking man?” He said, “I don’t know how much you know but I wanted to brief you on everything before you actually meet him. I know you talked to Sheriff Puente and County Prosecutor Leslie Behaunek yesterday, but I don’t know if they stressed what an important role you have to play if we want to hold this guy.”

“We did,” Behaunek said wearily from the backseat.

Rhodine ignored her. Cassie could already discern the tension that had developed between the locals and the FBI. It wasn’t unusual when the feds moved into a local jurisdiction to assist, because “assist” was often defined by the FBI as “take over from the stupid locals.”

“Basically,” Rhodine said, “law enforcement was first tipped off regarding the subject two days ago by a loading supervisor at a grocery warehouse distributor in Raleigh. The supervisor said he’d posted a full load from Raleigh that needed to get to Virginia Beach the next day. I don’t know if you know about the system independent truckers use, do you?”

Cassie said, “Yes, I know about it. When someone needs a truckload of something delivered, they post the contents and the weight on a national computer network that is displayed on screens in most big truck stops. If drivers are close, they’ll call the customer and make the deal. It’s completely different from trucking companies that haul the same freight for the same companies most of the time.”

“Exactly,” Rhodine said. “Independent drivers compete with each other for work and they make the deals themselves directly with the distributor. There are no dispatchers or trucking companies doing it for them. We’ve been thinking for some time that Pergram likely went that route once he vanished. It’s easier for a man like that to hide in plain sight if he’s not working for any one company. And lord knows, we sent his photo to every trucking company in the country. When we never heard anything, we figured he’d likely gone indie.

“So anyway, this warehouse guy gets a call from a trucker who says his name is Dale Spradley and he’s just a couple of hours away. The warehouse guy says he asks Spradley if his truck can handle a full load, and Spradley tells him he just made a delivery and he’s got a refrigerated trailer and he’s rolling empty at the moment.”

Cassie knew truckers referred to those trailers as “reefers,” but she didn’t interrupt.

“So Spradley shows up and backs up to the delivery dock and the warehouse guys start loading the empty trailer with pallets of frozen food while they work out the paperwork. Just about when they’re through with the contracts, a guy notices something odd about the trailer of the truck.”

“Odd how?” Cassie asked.

“Sheriff, why don’t you tell her the rest?” Rhodine said.

Puente cleared his throat. “We got an old boy named Lightning Bates who works at the warehouse. He’s a young fellow, and they call him ‘Lightning’ because he’s anything but. It’s kind of mean but he don’t seem to mind. Anyway, Lightning is pretty dim but when it comes to patterns and numbers he’s kind of a genius. When he was in high school here he went to a swim meet at the brand-new pool and afterwards he told the principal the pool wasn’t long enough for the races. Keep in mind they’d just constructed that pool and it cost an arm and a leg of taxpayer money. But Lightninginsisted it wasn’t fifty meters. Finally, they measured it just to shut him up and it turned out to be forty-nine point eight meters. You can imagine how that caused a stink.”

“Lightning Bates is an autistic savant,” Behaunek said crisply from the back as if to urge Sheriff Puente on with his story.

“Yeah,” Puente said, “like that. Anyway, Lightning helped fill that trailer at the warehouse but when they were done and closing it up he was real upset. He told his supervisor they’d just filled a fifty-three-foot standard trailer with a forty-eight-foot load. As you know, a trailer is either forty-eight feet or fifty-three feet. Those are the standard sizes in the trucking industry.”

“I’m aware,” Cassie said. “I’ve learned a lot about the ins and outs of trucking. My dad was a trucker. He had a forty-eight footer, too.”

She was intrigued. She said, “It takes a very trained eye to tell the difference.”

“Unless you’re Lightning Bates, I guess,” Sheriff Puente noted. He obviously wanted to credit one of his own constituents for what happened next.

“Yes,” Rhodine said, “so this Bates and the supervisor discussed the discrepancy after the truck pulled away. They started talking about the alerts they’d received urging everyone to be on the lookout for the Lizard King. That guy has become kind of a legend, even though Spradley didn’t exactly fit the description of Ronald Pergram. But the supervisor trusted Lightning Bates, and he thought it was suspicious that a forty-eight-foot load fit perfectly into a fifty-three-foot trailer. That made him wonder why five feet of space inside was unaccounted for. So he called the state police. Spradley was pulled over just inside the Wilson county line by a North Carolina trooper and asked to account for the misunderstanding.”

“Hold it,” Cassie said, raising her hand. “The police responded because a warehouse supervisor had a suspicion?”

Sheriff Puente said, “The supervisor’s on the county commission. Some of them guys like to throw their weight around.”

Cassie nodded but didn’t approve. She’d had it with local politicians influencing county law enforcement. It was no solace that it occurred in other states.

Rhodine said, “But Spradley made a big mistake. He got belligerent with the trooper and refused to open up his trailer. He claimed his load was frozen—which it was—but said if he opened it up and anything thawed he’d take a financial hit. Spradley said he was being railroaded by a bunch of Southern rednecks and worse.”

Cassie nodded. She hated to agree with Spradley, but …

“The trooper called in backup, which happened to be the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department,” Rhodine said.

“My guys,” Sheriff Puente said. “This Spradley or whoever he is called them every name in the book. They charged him with noncooperation and threw cuffs on him and hauled him in. By the time he got to county lockup, he was going berserk. We had to pepper spray his fat ass just to calm him down.”

Cassie asked the sheriff, “When did you suspect Dale Spradley was Ronald Pergram?”

Puente said solemnly, “Not until we opened up that truck just up ahead. That’s when we called in the FBI.”

As he spoke the words, the SUV slowed down and took an exit to a service road that paralleled the interstate. Through the trees, Cassie saw high chain-link fencing and a weathered sign that read:

MISSING YOUR CAR?

ALL VISITORS MUST CHECK IN AT THE OFFICE.

WILSON COUNTY IMPOUND LOT.

Then she saw the huge eighteen-wheel truck and trailer on the lot.

She said, “That’s not it.”

Agent Rhodine’s formerly confident face went slack.

*   *   *

“Pergram drove a black Peterbilt Model 379,” Cassie said as they approached the big rig. Pallets of once-frozen food were stacked unceremoniously on the asphalt. The smell of rotting meat hung low in the air. Cassie wondered who would cover the loss when something like this happened, but she didn’t ask.

The driver slowed to a stop with the shiny grille of the big truck filling the windshield.

Rhodine leapt out, followed by Cassie and Sheriff Puente. Behaunek stayed in the SUV with her files.

Cassie said, “I saw his rig once even though I didn’t get a clear look at the driver. But I never forgot the truck. He’d stripped all the chrome off it and had even blackened the exhaust stacks with some kind of heat-resistant paint. It was blacker than black.”

She gestured toward the truck in the lot. “This is a newer model Peterbilt 389 with an Ultracab Unibilt. And it’s bright yellow. This isn’t the truck or trailer I saw.”

“No one said it was,” Rhodine said through clenched teeth. “No one said he didn’t trade his old one in on a newer model.”

Cassie paused and looked it over. She’d long speculated that Pergram would stay in his profession but figure out a way to change his identity and his vehicle.

“It may be a new rig,” Puente said, “but wait until you see what we found inside.”

Cassie approached the open back of the trailer with the two men. An aluminum loading ramp was attached to the back floor of the trailer and sloped down to the asphalt.

Before entering, she looked inside. It was empty and cavernous. The inside walls were scarred from hundreds of skids that had been loaded and unloaded. On the far end of the trailer, on the other side of the wall and out of view, was the refrigerator unit to keep the temperature constant inside.

“Go to the front,” Puente said.

“Remember the length discrepancy,” Rhodine said in a tone that indicated he’d regained his confidence from learning it wasn’t the same truck. “Forty-eight versus fifty-three feet. The outside of this trailer is fifty-three feet on the nose. The inside measures forty-eight.”

Their shoes echoed inside the empty trailer and Cassie walked to the front of the trailer. She wondered what it was she was supposed to see. The front wall was made of sheet steel and scarred like the sidewalls. Mounted at eye level across the length of the front panel were a series of ringbolts. She knew they were used to secure netting over the top of cargo that might shift or fall. She pulled and twisted each one in turn. Nothing happened. She knocked. The wall seemed solid. With that in mind, she turned to the sheriff and Rhodine and said, “So?”

Sheriff Puente waggled his eyebrows in a gesture that suggested she look again. She got it. It wasn’t until she bent stiffly in her too-tight suit on the right side of the wall that she saw the nearly hidden hinges.

“There’s a room here,” she whispered.

“And we finally figured how to get it open,” Puente said, squatting clumsily to his haunches with a grunt. On the bottom of the sidewall, nearly flush with the floor, was an aluminum slide-out panel. When he opened the panel there was a single red button.

“Watch this, Miss Cassie,” he said, and pressed it. She was starting to like being called Miss Cassie.

There was a muffled click on the left side of the wall. Rhodine stepped around her and grasped one of the ringbolts and pulled.

She stepped back so the front wall wouldn’t hit her as it opened.

Behind the wall was an eight-foot-by-five-foot compartment lined with polished stainless-steel siding. It was lit inside by bright fluorescent tubes on the ceiling triggered on by the open door. A sheet metal conduit from the outside refrigeration unit stretched across the top of the room into the cargo area and there was a small adjustable vent on the bottom of it. This way, she thought with a chill, he could keep both his cargo and his victim cold. A steel-framed cot was bolted to the floor. Ringbolts were secured to the walls. Beneath the cot was a round stainless-steel drain.

Cassie felt a chill shoot through her, and for a moment she almost reached out to steady herself on Puente. He noticed and grasped her hand to steady her. “Bless your heart, Miss Cassie,” he said softly, “But it looks like your man took his show on the road.”

“Obviously,” Rhodine said, “you can’t touch anything.”

She swallowed hard and gently withdrew her hand from Sheriff Puente’s grasp. She appreciated his gesture, though.

“Have your evidence techs been through it?” she asked, wondering how many women had been in the secret room. Dozens? Hundreds? She couldn’t take her eyes off the drain.

“Nothing so far,” Rhodine said. “No hair, no fiber, no fingerprints, no DNA.”

“Nothing?” she echoed. “What about the drain?”

“We’ve swabbed it inside and out,” Rhodine said wearily. “We haven’t foundanything. This monster is thorough and he really thought this out. All he needed to do was wash it down with a high-pressure hose or steam cleaner. No doubt, he blasted the bottom of the drain under the truck as part of his routine. There’s nothing inside that room for any evidence or fluids to cling to.”

Cassie shook her head. “In Montana, he was known as a knife man. Did you find weapons?”

“Sure, plenty of them,” Rhodine said with a sigh. “Butcher knives, filet knives, even a bone saw—the kind big game hunters use in the field. Plus a Taser and a dozen zip ties.”

Cassie looked over and arched her eyebrows as if to say, Isn’t that enough?

“Clean,” Rhodine said. “Everything is meticulously clean. And it isn’t illegal to have a Taser. Anyone can buy one over the Internet.”

“Frustrating,” Cassie said. But her anger was starting to build up. “You guys have the best forensic technology in the world and you can’t come up with anything that will stick to him?”

“We’re waiting on a team of super techs to arrive from Washington tomorrow,” Rhodine said. “They may find something we missed on the first pass.”

“For the sake of those girls, I hope so,” Cassie said.

“For my sake, too,” Rhodine said. “I’ve got a lot riding on this.”

Both Cassie and Sheriff Puente glared at him but neither said anything. The man was ambitious, Cassie thought.

Sheriff Puente folded his arms across his chest and rested them on his belly. He said, “It pains me we can’t arrest him for driving around with this … torture chamber in his truck. But if we can’t find any evidence that it’s been used for what we know it’s been used for, there is no law against it. This is one of those situations where we’ve got the law on one side and doing what’s right—what we all know is right—on the other.”

Cassie nodded and looked at her shoes.

“Too bad we can’t have some kind of accident where he’s found hanging by his belt in his cell,” Puente said.

“Please,” Rhodine said sharply, “I don’t want to hear any more of that. We need to nail this guy by the book and we need to do it this afternoon or we’ll have to cut him loose.“

He turned to Cassie. “That’s why it’s so important that you’re here.”

She understood. And she didn’t know if she was up to the task.

*   *   *

Back in the SUV on the way into Wilson, Rhodine said to Cassie, “So have you done a lot of interviews with suspects?”

“What kind of question is that?” she snapped back.

“No offense,” he said, raising his palms to her in a gesture that read, “Calm down, lady.” She hated when men did that to her.

“I read up on her,” Behaunek said to Rhodine from the backseat. She had a pair of reading glasses perched halfway on her nose and looked over them at the FBI agent. “Dewell here put down the Lizard King’s partner in a shoot-out. Hit him six times and killed him dead. I think she can handle an interview.”

Cassie appreciated the defense. But the fact was she hadn’t done more than a dozen interviews in her career, and none as important as this.

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Rhodine said to Behaunek with mock sincerity. “I just want to make sure she’s comfortable with this.”

“You two talk like I’m not sitting right here,” Cassie said. “I know the situation we’re in.”

*   *   *

The situation was dire, as Behaunek had explained to her the day before on the phone. They couldn’t prove that Dale Spradley was, in fact, Ronald Pergram, aka the Lizard King. Spradley was approximately the same size, shape, and age. He had the same profession and he had a kill room in his truck. But he didn’t look the same in the photo Behaunek had e-mailed her of the suspect in custody.

Dale Spradley had jet-black hair, a thick Fu Manchu mustache, and horn-rimmed glasses. He had heavy jowls and was thirty to forty pounds heavier than Ronald Pergram’s most recent commercial driver’s license shot. Still, Cassie could see a resemblance that couldn’t be disguised: the wide Slavic face, the flat expression, the soulless eyes.

It didn’t help that Dale E. Spradley had what appeared to be proper documentation proving who he was, including a valid CDL, a social security card, load insurance, a medical examiner’s report, and a federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) score sheet that showed he had a clean record.

Cassie had asked Behaunek if Spradley’s DNA matched that of Pergram and the answer dismayed her. There was no Pergram DNA to match. None had ever been taken and since he’d burned his childhood home and all of his possessions to the ground when he left Montana, there was no way to get any. The only blood relative Pergram had that could have produced similar DNA was his mother who had died in the fire. No sample was taken of her remains. The same with fingerprints or dental charts: no record of Pergram.

But there was a hole in Spradley’s story, Behaunek said. It wasn’t enough to invalidate his identity but it was enough to hold him in custody until Cassie could arrive. No one in Oakes, North Dakota, could be found who could corroborate Spradley’s claim that he was from there. It was thin, but it was something. Spradley claimed that he’d always kept to himself and had long ago left Oakes for a nomad’s existence on the nation’s highways, but not a single person could remember him in a small farm town of less than two thousand people?

So, Cassie was told, they had to tie Spradley to Montana and to the events that took place there two years before. If Cassie could get him to admit he lived there, get him to react in a way that would break character, they could arrest him and hold him long enough, they hoped, that the FBI super techs could come through with damning evidence of what Spradley-Pergram had done in the secret room of his semi-trailer. Additional time and publicity might even produce a witness who could place Spradley in Montana, or better yet connect him to the abduction of a truck stop prostitute.

*   *   *

”Does he know I’m coming?” Cassie asked as the SUV pulled in front of the impressive and ancient county courthouse on Nash Street. The building was massive and gleaming with ornate fluted Corinthian columns and a recessed porch. It seemed to Cassie to be more courthouse than Wilson needed.

“No,” Rhodine said. “He doesn’t know we suspect he’s the Lizard King. At this point, he’s being held for interfering with a police officer. We’re hoping that when he sees you—the one person who knows more about him than anyone else who is still alive—it’ll shake him. He’ll know what we suspect the second you walk into that room.”

“Good.”

“And he’s waived his right to a lawyer at least for now,” Behaunek said from behind her.

“That fits,” Cassie said. “He thinks he’s smarter than anyone else. He thinks he’ll never get caught.”

“So far, he’s been right,” Puente said.

Cassie tried to swallow but her mouth was dry.

Behaunek said, “So it will just be you and him in the room. I imagine he’ll be quite surprised to see you in North Carolina.”

Cassie nodded. Her hands were cold and her palms sweaty. She flexed her fingers in and out at her sides but kept her hands low so no one could see how nervous she was. “You’ll be watching everything?”

“Of course,” Sheriff Puente said. “We’ll have a deputy right outside on the other side of the one-way mirror. The rest of us will be a few steps down the hall watching the monitors. We’ll have one camera tight on his face to record his reaction to seeing you the first time. The other one will be a two-shot of you both.”

Behaunek said, “We discussed how far you should go, and you need to be careful. We can’t have anything on that video defense counsel can point to later and claim illegal coercion. If you start to go over the line, I’m going to open the door and break it up.”

“Got it,” Cassie said.

“Do you need anything before you go in there?” Sheriff Puente asked. “Water, or to use the bathroom?”

“I need to check messages and use the bathroom,” she said.

“Put on your game face,” Rhodine said as he opened the door for her. “We’re all counting on you. We know you won’t let us down.”

“Gee, thanks,” she said, fighting an urge to slap him.

*   *   *

Cassie tried to tame her hair in the mirror and failed, then drew her cell phone from her purse. No messages from her mother about Ben, which was good. Isabel didn’t text or e-mail—she called. If Cassie didn’t answer immediately, she kept calling. Cassie hoped she could get through the interview without hearing from her mother.

And there was nothing yet from the sheriff of Grimstad, North Dakota, where she’d made the short list of applicants for a much better-paying job as chief investigator. The sheriff there had promised to let her know his decision by the end of the day. Cassie checked her watch. It was 2:00 P.M. in North Carolina, noon in Montana, and 1:00 P.M. in Grimstad. She had hours to wait.

Then she raised her head and looked into her own eyes in the mirror and tried to steel herself for what was to come. For two years, the Lizard King had been out there somewhere but still a constant part of her life. She despised him, and wished she could sever the link today, right now, by opening the door to his conviction and his death.

She said aloud, “Let’s go get this son of a bitch.”

Copyright © 2015 C.J. Box.

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C. J. Box is the bestselling author of The Highway, Back of Beyond, and eighteen other novels, including the award-winning Joe Pickett series. Blue Heaven won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2009, and Box has won the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and the Barry Award. His first novel, Open Season, was a New York Times Notable Book and an Edgar Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Box's work has been translated into twenty-seven languages. He lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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81 comments
1. DebP
It sounds like an exciting read. Please enter me in the contest.
Albert Tucher
2. Al Tucher
C.J. Box has maintained his high standard over the entire Joe Pickett series, and his other books hold up as well.
Gordon Bingham
4. gordonbingham
One of the best writers in the genre today...
Donna Watts
5. myddinc
I can't wait to read this....I've read all of the C.J. Box books and love them all.
6. Stephanie MacDonald
fingers crossed! thanks for the chance
Carl Ginger
7. cgin56
I have not read C.J. Box books, but these chapters show that I need to. This one starts off great!
Russell Moore
8. russrpm
The western genre is underused and under appreciated. Glad to see this type of update.
Sharon Kaminski
9. casaflamingos
I would love to read the book, sounds very interesting and a book that would be hard to put down.
Louise Setzer
11. txala1
Great writer, can't wait to read this one.
Joyce Beardslee
13. joyceb41
Sounds like a good one.Look forward to reading it.
17. beedyr
This would be the first non-Joe Pickett book for me. I have read all of the Joe P. books and love them. I'm interested in this departure story and would like to win it.
lynette thompson
19. LYNETTE52
Western Thriller, now that is different. Its a great book.
Joy Adams
20. joypig
I love westerns and mysteries.This is like getting two for one.
Cindy Hipolito
23. mysuccess
New to me but I am ready to get to know this author's work. Thank you.
Joyce Mitchell
24. JoyceLm
C.J. Box is one of my favorite authors - thanks for the chance to win his newest book.
25. Dawn K
looks great
28. Benita
This would be a good August read!
Sandy Klocinski
30. SKlocinski
I have read all of the C.J. Box books and have especially enjoyed the Joe Pickett series. I have not been able to stop reading his books.C.J. Box is a master of page-turning detective fiction
33. J P Coussoule
Interesting!!!!
Carol Lawman
34. juju2cat
Another adventure from C. J. Box! Can't wait to read this one :)
36. Tammy Evans
Looks like a great read!
Carl White
38. CarlWhiteEntry
Chapter Two
Wilson North Carolina

LOL, I bought my first car in Wilson.
39. kevin moore
Thanks CJ for another one!
LabRat517
40. LabRat517
I haven't read CJ Box yet but it looks like this might be a good place to start. Thanks Criminal Element!
Andra Dalton
44. andra77
Sounds like an intriguing read!!! My interest is definitely piqued!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
george ashmore
46. gtashmore
I could use a good summer read--lets hope.
Patrice Gottfried
48. pkg427
Love everything C. J. Box has written. This looks like another great story.
Linda Peters
49. linnett
would love to read this for the summer, thanks
Michael Carter
50. rubydog
Looks good!
Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks ---
Joyce Benzing
51. zsteelie
Need Chapter 3 now! Thanks for the contest!
Clydia DeFreese
52. clydia
C.J. Box has a unique style. I have enjoyed his books. The Joe Pickett series were different and entertaining. I look forward to his new book!
Thanks for having this sweepstakes.
53. Sallyw
This excerpt makes me wish I could finish this book tonight.
Louis Burklow
54. Nash62
I enjoyed the excerpt and hope to read the rest of this one soon.
Janice Santillo
56. themommazie
Very interesting. I would like to read the whole book.
Ellen
57. Neroon
I've wanted to try one of this author's books.
58. Kimberly M
I enjoyed what I've read so far!
peg nittskoff
61. pegni@aol.com
So nice to see something fresh and new! Would love to read the rest of this book!
Saundra K. Warren
62. shortiew
This is an author that I just started reading and so far I like him fine!!
Jim Belcher
65. librarypops
I love the Joe Pickett stories and it looks like this will match them for quality.
Susan Smoaks
67. susansmoaks
i would love to read this, i love joe pickett stories.
Brenda Elsner
68. brat52101
This sounds great!! Would love to read this book!!!
Sabine Blanch
72. Schlauberger
Would love to read this, thank you for the chance!
73. tallcapp
I have read a lot of the series by CJ Box, but would look forward to reading this standalone book. He is a fine writer.
Irene Menge
74. Goldenmane
Sounds like a good read. Love the West. Love thrillers. Am intrigued.
Betty Curran
79. willitara
One of my favorite radio show hosts recommends this author. I really need to read some of his books.
Joanne Mielczarski
80. jtmswim
Sounds like a great book - can't wait to read it!
Margot Core
81. AnnaZed
Small town mischief, big ideas - I'm there!
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