Cassie Dewell 01 - Badlands, p.1C. J. Box
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For the good people—old and new—of North Dakota
… and Laurie, always
After nightfall the face of the country seems to alter marvelously, and the clear moonlight only intensifies the change. The river gleams like running quicksilver, and the moonbeams play over the grassy stretches of the plateaus.… The Bad Lands seem to be stranger and wilder than ever.…
—THEODORE ROOSEVELT, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman
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
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.
“What’s he doing out here?”
“Delivering papers, I’d guess.”
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.
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.
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.
Cassie Dewell 01 - Badlands by C. J. Box / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes