Dull Knife, p.1C. J. Box
C. J. Box
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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
The Master Falconer
WHEN IT’S twenty-two degrees below zero on a high mountain lake, the cracking of the ice makes an unearthly howling bellow that chills the blood and makes hearts skip a beat. The crack itself, looking like a jagged bolt of crystal-white lightning, zips across the ice with the flick of a lizard’s tongue. But it is the sound of the crack, the plaintive, anguished moan, that penetrates a man and makes his skin crawl, reminding him that if the earth wanted to swallow him up, well, it could. And no one could stop it.
Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett froze with the sound and looked down at his feet as the crack shot between them. The sound washed over and through him. The crack itself was no danger to him. Ice shifted and buckled all the time. Nevertheless, he sidestepped over the crack before continuing.
The ice fishermen were still a quarter of a mile away across the surface of Dull Knife Reservoir in the Bighorn Mountains. Four fishermen, two sitting on upturned plastic buckets, two standing near their holes in the ice. All bundled up like black snowmen, their shapes rounded and without angles because of the thick winter parkas and insulated coveralls they wore. Snippets of their conversation carried crisply over the distance: a growl, a laugh, a bark. They were obviously watching him approach, and were amused when he froze and altered course.
In January, Joe had little to do besides paperwork, reports, and repairs. All of the hunting seasons were closed, and the streams and lakes were frozen. Except for a few goose hunters who had pits on the southeastern corner of his district, checking the licenses of ice fishermen was the only game in town. Even though it was nearing dusk and he could literally feel the temperature dropping as the sun gave up, defeated, and slipped behind the western mountains, he had decided to park his truck and walk across the ice to check the fishermen out. Well, not really a walk. More like a shuffle.
Joe admired ice fishermen, although he thought they were crazy. To stand around on the surface of a lake, fishing through a hole that had been augured through fourteen inches of ice, took a special breed. To fish when it was twenty-two below took a particular kind of dedication, or madness. Joe often thought that if he caught an ice fisherman without a license, the violator should be sentenced to more ice fishing for punishment.
“Hey, Joe,” one of the fishermen called out. “Fine weather we’re having.” The other three laughed. Joe smiled. He recognized the fisherman to be Hans, a retired Saddlestring cop who now worked part-time as a janitor for Barrett’s Pharmacy. Jack, his partner for hunting and fishing, was a retired schoolteacher. The other two fishermen were their sons.
“How’s fishing?” Joe asked.
Jack opened a cooler and displayed a dozen fat rainbow trout and two dozen silvery cans of beer. “Fishing’s been good,” Jack said. “You can make up for every fish you lost in the summer by fishing in the winter.”
Joe admired the big fish, oohing and aahing. “Since I walked out all of this way . . .” he started to say.
“You want to check our licenses,” Hans finished for him. All four men started unzipping and unsnapping their coats, digging through layers to find their wallets.
“Do you know anything about that light under the ice over there?” Hans’ son asked as he handed his license to Joe.
Hans pointed across the lake. “We noticed it this morning when we came out,” he said. “It was still dark, and it looked like it was lit up under the ice. It was kind of creepy.”
Joe looked where Hans was pointing, and he could see it. On the far shore, beneath the black wooded bluff of the shoreline, was a faint yellow glow.
“Are you sure it’s not a reflection from somewhere?” Joe asked.
“Where?” Hans asked back.
Joe squinted. “How could there be a light under the ice?”
“That’s what we were wondering,” Jack said. “We were going to walk over there and check it out, but the fish started hitting and, well, you know.”
Joe nodded, handing back all of the licenses, but continued to look across the lake. As it got darker, the glow became more pronounced.
Hans’ son said, “Jesus, it’s getting cold all of a sudden.”
“We’d best head back,” Jack said, reaching down to clear a skin of ice from the top of his fishing hole so he could reel in.
“Let me know what you find over there,” Hans said to Joe. “I’d go with you, but my feet are starting to freeze.”
“That’s because you have old feet,” Hans’ son said, cracking open a beer.
“Not so old I can’t kick your ass with one of ’em,” Hans said.
Joe smiled and left.
HE SHUFFLED across the lake as the sun set. Hard white stars flickered in the sky, followed by a thin slice of moon that seemed too cold to bloom full. Joe felt icy fingers of cold probing into his collar, and up his sleeves. He knew his feet would freeze, even in his thick Sorel pac boots, the moment he stopped walking.
There was no doubt that there was light under the surface of the lake. It now illuminated the very ice he was walking on, so his feet looked like black silhouettes. It reminded him of being on a hip dance floor once when he was in college. He remembered dancing very badly on it. Another crack on the lake brought a moan that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The moan echoed softly back and forth across the lake.
He stopped and stared. Something was sticking up through the surface of ice in the middle of the glow; something thin, spindly, and black. His first thought was that it was a tree branch.
The surface of the ice changed as he walked. There was a rim of broken ice plates, then a slick surface. Ice told stories, Joe knew. Whatever happened could be seen and felt by examining the ice. Something had crashed through here, and the water had recently frozen back over.
It was a frozen human hand, reaching up through the ice, not a branch. As he stood above it, he could see the body below, and the source of the glow beneath the surface: headlights. He felt his heart race as he stared, and a line of sweat broke across his forehead, beneath his wool cap. He could see her face beneath the ice, despite the bolts of thick black hair that slowly whorled around it in the current. Her eyes were open, looking upward, her mouth set in a pout. She wore dark clothing. There was a light band of flesh between the top of her black jeans and the bottom of her coat. Her name was Jessica Lynn Antelope, and she had been a basketball star.
THE STORY the ice told him was this:
The night before, the pickup truck that was now on the bottom of the lake had gone off of the old two-track road that rimmed the bluff. It must have been going fast, he thought, to have launched this far into the lake. The truck had crashed through the ice and had settled on the deep floor of the lake, with its rear end down first so the headlights pointed up. The engine was obviously killed in the water, but the battery held enough of a charge to power the lights a day later.
Jessica Lynn Antelope had been in the pickup, either as the driver or a passenger. She had attempted to swim to the surface toward the hole the truck had made. Whether she’d drowned before she froze to death would be a tossup. Joe wondered if she realized, before she died, that her grasping hand had broken through the rapidly forming new skin of ice into the twenty-below air. As the water froze, it had trapped her arm and held it fast in its grip. Now, her body swayed slowly in the current, her hair sweeping across her face in a fan dance.
He said, “Jesus,” and dug in his parka for his cell phone to call the sheriff.
JOE WAITED in his pickup on the shore of the lake—engine running, heater blowing full blast—for Sheriff McLanahan and the tow truck to arrive. His toes in his boots burned as they thawed out. He was still annoyed at the tone of the conversation he had had with McLanahan.
“You found her, huh?” McLanahan had said with a heavy sigh.
“I think it’s her,” Joe had said, remembering her from seeing her on the basketball court. She had gained weight since those days, her face was round, like a hubcap.
“Her mother called this morning, said she hadn’t shown up this morning. We always give missing person calls a few days if they come from the res, since those people vanish for days on end most of the time.”
“‘Those people’?” Joe repeated.
“You know what I’m talking about,” McLanahan said.”They operate on Indian time. If they say they’ll be someplace at nine, there’s no reason to worry until one or two. Same thing with the missing person calls. They always show up somewhere eventually, usually hungover.”
“This is Jessica Antelope we’re talking about,” Joe said.
“I know, I know. But she hasn’t played in five years. You know about her.”
Joe did. He had heard. And he had seen her a few times since. But he chose to remember her from the basketball court, when he and his daughter Sheridan would drive to the reservation simply to watch her play. Sheridan had idolized Jessica Antelope, studied her, tried to emulate her on the court. But despite Sheridan’s grit and determination, she could not run as fast, pass as cleanly, or score 40 points a game. Jessica had a blinding crossover dribble that compared legitimately to those of the great NBA point guards as she brought the ball down the court, and she left opponents flailing at air in her wake, and fans gasping. Joe had never seen a girl play basketball with so much natural grace and style, and neither had anyone else. Sheridan still had photos of Jessica Antelope, clipped from the Saddlestring Roundup, taped to her wall. Jessica had led the Wyoming Indian Lady Warriors, made up of only seven Northern Arapaho girls, to the state championship game, where they had lost 77–75 against Cheyenne, a much larger school. Jessica had scored 52 points in the loss.
But the scouts didn’t care about the loss. Jessica Antelope had been offered full-ride scholarships to over twenty universities, including Duke and Tennessee, the national powers. Instead, Jessica stayed on the reservation to take care of an ailing grandmother, she claimed. Then she gained weight, a lot of it. She drank beer and liquor with her friends. She took crystal meth, the scourge of the reservation, and was arrested for dealing it. Joe had seen her several times in the elk camps of out-of-state hunters, where she’d been hired as a camp cook. Joe suspected she was chosen for other services as well, and it pained him. Those hunters had no idea that the chubby twenty-two-year-old Northern Arapaho scrambling their eggs was once the greatest basketball player in the state of Wyoming.
Joe had heard Jessica had fallen in with Darrell Heywood and his friends on the res as well, and he hoped it wasn’t true.
JOE STOOD on the shore of the lake with Sheriff McLanahan, two deputies, and the tow truck driver. The temperature was now thirty degrees below zero, and the exhaust from the tow truck engulfed them in a foul-smelling cloud.
“There’s no way we’ll get that truck out of there tonight,” the driver said. “We’d have to hire divers to hook up the cable, and nobody in their right mind would come out tonight to do it.”
“What about Jessica’s body?” Joe asked McLanahan.
The sheriff shrugged. “She’ll still be there tomorrow.”
“What if there’s someone else in the truck?” Joe asked, exasperated.
McLanahan shook his head. “They’ll keep,” he said. “They aren’t going nowhere.”
Joe shot him a look.
“Besides, we know who was in the truck with her,” McLanahan said. “There’s a guy in the clinic with hypothermia. It’s her brother, Alan Antelope. He’s called ‘Smudge’ on the res, I guess. He showed up last night—somebody dumped him at the emergency entrance and took off. He’s in a coma, and hasn’t said anything.”
“So it was Jessica and her brother,” Joe said. “Damn, what were they doing out here?”
McLanahan shrugged. “Why do Indians do anything they do?”
“Did you ever see her play basketball?” Joe asked.
The sheriff shook his head. “I heard she was pretty good,” he said.
“She was the best I ever saw,” Joe said.
“We used to play Wyoming Indian in high school,” McLanahan said, addressing the tow truck driver more than Joe, launching into one of his stories that were always about him. “Those fucking Indians could run the court like there was no tomorrow. Run and gun, no set plays. They’d just try to run you right out of the building. They’d score ninety or a hundred points a game, but they didn’t play defense so we’d score ninety against them. During time-outs they’d sit on the bench and light up cigarettes. I kid you not. Fucking cigarettes on the bench.”
Joe turned away, started walking back to his truck. He could hear McLanahan going on, the driver laughing.
“When we’d run against ’em in cross-country, they’d do the same damn thing. One of ’em ran until his heart exploded in his chest. Too much smoking and drinking. Shit, they’d have other Indians stationed at the finish line just to stop their runners so they wouldn’t keep running and end up in the next county . . .”
“DARRELL HEYWOOD,” Marybeth said to Joe at home in the bathroom. “You hate that guy, don’t you?”
Joe was soaking in the tub, trying to thaw himself out. Feeling in his legs and arms was returning under the steaming water, but it hurt. After his teeth stopped chattering, he’d told her about finding Jessica Lynn Antelope in the ice.
Marybeth leaned against the doorway, arms crossed, wearing a thick robe. She looked well scrubbed and attractive, he thought. Her blond hair was mussed from a pillow, and her legs, what he could see of them beneath the robe, were firm and white. Sheridan and Lucy had been in bed for hours, since it was after midnight when Joe had gotten home. Marybeth had stayed up for him, reading a novel in bed.
“I don’t know if ‘hate’ is the right word,” Joe said. “I don’t appreciate him. I don’t like what he stands for.”
“Hasn’t he given hundreds of thousands to the reservation?” Marybeth asked. “Out of some trust fund he’s got?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “But I don’t like his attitude. He pretends he’s an Indian. No, not that. He pretends he’s an Indian, but he thinks he’s better than them. Am I making sense?”
“Hardly,” Marybeth said, with a slight smile.
“He gives them money, but he doesn’t help them,” Joe said. “He likes the idea of being close to the Indians because it feeds his ego. But he preys on them, is what I think. They’re not stupid. He treats them like children, is what I’m trying to say. It’s that he doesn’t give them any credit that they’re real human beings. To him, they’re cartoon characters. People of the earth, or something.”
Joe remembered being in a small audience a couple of years ago, when Darrell Heywood gave the dedication for a new monument on the lawn of the Tribal Center. Heywood had designed the monument and, of course, paid for it. The granite
“So you think Jessica deteriorated because she hung out with Darrell Heywood?” she asked.
Joe thought for a moment. “Yup,” he said.
“But that didn’t put her in the lake, did it?”
“It might have been a factor,” Joe said. “He’s fairly well known for taking good care of his friends.”
“Meaning he supplied them with alcohol and drugs,” Marybeth said. “It’s so sad.”
“It is,” Joe said. “Giving alcohol to an alcoholic makes him happy, but it doesn’t help him. Buying stuff for people who won’t work makes you popular, but it doesn’t get them a job or any self-respect.”
Dull Knife by C. J. Box / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes