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Vicious circle, p.1
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       Vicious Circle, p.1

           C. J. Box
 
Vicious Circle


  ALSO BY C. J. BOX

  THE JOE PICKETT NOVELS

  Off the Grid

  Endangered

  Stone Cold

  Breaking Point

  Force of Nature

  Cold Wind

  Nowhere to Run

  Below Zero

  Blood Trail

  Free Fire

  In Plain Sight

  Out of Range

  Trophy Hunt

  Winterkill

  Savage Run

  Open Season

  THE STAND-ALONE NOVELS

  Badlands

  The Highway

  Back of Beyond

  Three Weeks to Say Goodbye

  Blue Heaven

  SHORT FICTION

  Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett Country

  G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS

  Publishers Since 1838

  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, New York 10014

  Copyright © 2017 by C. J. Box

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Box, C. J., author.

  Title: Vicious circle : a Joe Pickett novel / C. J. Box.

  Description: New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2016046699 (print) | LCCN 2016056038 (ebook) | ISBN 9780399176616 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780698410077 (epub)

  Subjects: LCSH: Pickett, Joe (Fictitious character)—Fiction. | Game Wardens—Wyoming—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Crime. | FICTION / Suspense. | FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General. | GSAFD: Suspense fiction.

  Classification: LCC PS3552.O87658 V57 2017 (print) | LCC PS3552.O87658 (ebook) | DDC 813/.54—dc23

  LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016046699.

  p. cm.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Version_1

  To the Budd family, and to Laurie, always

  Contents

  Also by C. J. Box

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  PART ONE Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  PART TWO Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  PART THREE Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  vi·cious cir·cle

  noun

  1. a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect in which two or more elements intensify and aggravate each other, leading inexorably to a worsening of the situation.

  PART ONE

  There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

  —Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

  1

  Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett flicked his eyes between the screen of the iPad mounted in front of him and the side window, as the vast dark pine forest spooled out below the Cessna Turbo 206. He tried to keep his eyes wide open so he wouldn’t miss anything, but he fought against his instinctive reaction to close them tightly in anticipation of the inevitable engine failure that would result in his quick and fiery death in the Bighorn Mountains.

  For the first time in his life, he understood the desire for the fidgety solace of a set of prayer beads, and he wished he had some.

  It was Halloween night, and the pilot, John Wilson “Bill” Slaughter, a stout and compact man in his early sixties with an aluminum-colored crew cut, eased down the nose of the small plane. Black timber filled the windscreen. Joe tried to breathe.

  “Twelve hundred feet,” Slaughter said through the headset to both his copilot, Gail Herdt, and to Joe, who was looped in.

  “Roger,” Gail said.

  Both Slaughter and Herdt were retired from the military, as well as members of the Wyoming Wing Civil Air Patrol. Herdt was an art teacher at Pinedale Middle School, and Slaughter had a small Angus cattle operation near Torrington.

  “Why twelve hundred feet?” Joe asked, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.

  “We normally don’t drop below two thousand feet at night,” Herdt said calmly. “It’s not considered very safe.”

  “So don’t tell anyone,” Slaughter said.

  Joe asked, “Then why are we doing it?”

  She looked over her shoulder at him alone in the backseat. “To see better,” she said, matter-of-fact.

  Joe nodded. His mouth was dry and he felt like he would throw up at any second. He’d been gripping an overhead strap so hard with his right hand, he’d lost all feeling in his fingers. His stomach surged with every turn, drop, and climb.

  “Is he okay?” Slaughter asked Herdt.

  “Are you okay?” she asked Joe directly.

  “Dandy,” he lied.

  The crowns of lodgepole pines shot by below them so quickly it was mesmerizing. The crowns of the trees rose from the inky forest and were illuminated light blue by the slice of moon and the hard white stars. The visual maelstrom of passing treetops reminded Joe of snow blowing through his headlights in a blizzard. The trees seemed to be so close he could reach out and touch them.

  “We hardly ever crash,” Bill Slaughter said.

  Herdt laughed and told him to stop it.

  Joe stared at the back of Slaughter’s round head and tried to burn two holes in it with his eyes. Although he appreciated the time and effort that went into being members of the Civil Air Patrol, he didn’t appreciate their black humor at the moment.

  —

  “SO WHAT’S THIS GUY LIKELY to do if he finds himself lost?” Slaughter asked Joe through the headset.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Is he the kind of guy who panics?”

  Joe thought about it. “No. He’s too dumb to panic. And he does know these mountains pretty well. He used to guide hunters up here.”

  Slaughter said, “The reason I asked is that we’ve learned over the last few years, if the lost person is young, they start climbing to try to find a cell signal on the top of a mountain. If they’re older, they tend to walk down along a creek or stream.”

  “That makes sense,” Joe said. “My guy would walk down. My guess is he’d follow a spring creek until it joined one of the forks of the Powder River. Then he’
d find a ranch or another hunting camp. I could also see him breaking into a cabin or hunting trailer and going to sleep without even imagining that someone might be looking for him.”

  “Oh great,” Herdt said.

  “What doesn’t make any sense, though,” said Joe, “is why he’d just walk away from his elk camp in the first place.”

  “I hope we find out what made him leave,” Herdt said. “I’m always curious to find out how people get lost.”

  “It adds to our experience bank,” Slaughter added. “We’re constantly learning, all of us. The biggest thing I’ve learned is, people do stupid things for not very good reasons.”

  “Sounds like him,” Joe said.

  Herdt chuckled.

  “Hold it—what’s that?” Joe asked when the iPad screen suddenly filled with what looked like white upright sticks or chalk marks on a blackboard—scores of them.

  —

  THEY WERE LOOKING for a missing hunter named Dave Farkus. Farkus was a former energy worker, former hunting outfitter, former fishing guide, and was currently an unemployed layabout collecting dubious disability checks. He’d been missing from his elk camp since twelve hours before. Because of a forecast of a massive fall blizzard on the way, the available window to search for him was closing.

  Farkus’s hunting partner, Cotton Anderson—a welder who’d recently lost his job due to the energy bust—had called in the incident to Twelve Sleep County Sheriff Mike Reed, who in turn called the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, who called the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, who called the Joint Operations Center, who called the Wyoming Wing Civil Air Patrol, a part of the National Guard, to look for the missing hunter.

  Sheriff Reed told Joe that, according to Anderson, he’d returned to their camp the night before to find Farkus gone. Farkus’s pickup was there, a fire had been built, and steaks were thawing on top of the cooler. Farkus’s hunting rifle was leaning against a tree trunk and his holster and backup handgun hung from a branch. A nest of empty Coors cans lay at the base of a camp chair and an opened can of beer was in the armrest. But no Farkus.

  Joe knew no normal hunter would go out without his rifle. And Farkus would never leave a full beer unless he had a desperate reason to do so.

  Anderson tried to reach Farkus on his cell phone but there was no signal. Then he tried to radio him on his cheap Motorola walkie-talkie and finally received a reply.

  At least he thought it was Farkus’s scratchy voice that replied, twenty minutes after the first shout-out, “They’re after me . . .”

  But Anderson couldn’t swear it was his buddy’s voice. And he couldn’t swear that the words weren’t actually “Bear with me,” or “I have to pee.”

  Anderson had stayed up late drinking Jim Beam and fired a series of three rifle shots—the universal signal for Come back to camp, you fool—but Farkus never responded with three shots of his own.

  When Cotton Anderson emerged bleary-eyed from his tent at midmorning and confirmed that Farkus hadn’t come back during the night, he drove his pickup to the Crazy Woman Creek campground, where he received a cell phone signal and reported Dave Farkus missing to the sheriff’s department.

  Joe had been drafted to accompany the Civil Air Patrol because of his familiarity with the missing hunter. That Farkus had antagonized Joe for years was not apparently a consideration.

  Joe was scared to fly in small planes. He preferred to conduct searches for missing hunters by horseback or ATV.

  So when, during its run-up, the Cessna shivered and trembled on the concrete like his Labrador, Daisy, when she spied a pheasant, Joe silently prayed for his life and cursed Sheriff Reed for suggesting he be the one to go on the air search, and at the same time cursed Dave Farkus for getting lost.

  —

  NOT THAT JOE DIDN’T WANT to locate Dave Farkus and talk to the man. He did. He’d been trying to reach him after Farkus left a very late-night message on his cell phone two nights before. The call had come from a phone with an UNKNOWN NUMBER designation, which was strange in itself.

  An obviously inebriated Farkus had slurred a long but troubling voice message that had curdled Joe’s stomach.

  “Joe, this is Dave. Farkus. Dave Farkus. Dave fuckin’ Farkus, your pal from many an adventure.

  “Anyway, I was closin’ down the Stockman’s Bar tonight and I heard something—overheard a conversation, I guess you’d say—that you would definitely be interested in, because it was about you and your family. At least I’m pretty sure it was . . .”

  The message was long and rambling. At the end of it, in the background, at the last few seconds of the voicemail, Joe heard a female voice say, “Okay, that’s enough, damn you,” and the call was abruptly terminated.

  The message was still on his phone, and Joe had listened to it three times with his wife, Marybeth.

  —

  TREETOPS CONTINUED to flash by below the Cessna. Joe found he started to get dizzy if he stared straight down too long, so he tried to focus more on the big picture. Although he had spent weeks and months in his district and these mountains, he was taken aback by how vast and complicated the terrain was.

  The forest was checkerboarded with mountain meadows and occasional timbered squares. The folds of the black velvet contours gave way to violent gashes where small streams tumbled white over rocks. The remnants of the first snows already clung to the alpine slopes that were exposed to the north and to draws that received very little sunlight.

  The only artificial lights they’d seen came from isolated hunting camps or campgrounds. Elk season had opened earlier in the week and hunters were out in force. Joe had been patrolling fourteen hours a day since the opener and had issued two citations for game violations.

  Adding to his normal duties was the distressing realization that a well-organized poaching ring was operating in his five-thousand-square-mile district, as well as in the adjoining districts to the east and west. Callers to dispatch had reported seeing up to three shooters killing multiple antelope, deer, and elk in areas that were not yet open for hunting or at night.

  Joe was particularly disturbed by the incidents because the killings seemed to be indiscriminate and the shooters atypical. Cow elk, calves, doe deer, and antelope—it didn’t seem to matter what species or sex were being targeted and taken. Usually, bad guys went after trophy animals, not anything and everything they came across. The evidence of illegal trophy hunting was a decapitated carcass, since the shooter was only interested in the antlers or horns.

  That wasn’t occurring with this poaching ring because they were apparently loading up their carcasses and hauling them away, instead of leaving the meat to rot in the field. That meant Joe couldn’t do field necropsies on the dead game to find spent bullets that could be matched with specific weapons.

  He’d traded notes with fellow game wardens in the adjoining districts and found out that similar reports had come in near Gillette to the east and Jackson Hole to the west. Vague descriptions of two different vehicles—an older-model red pickup and a white Chevrolet Suburban 4×4—had been described at the scenes, which matched what Joe had heard.

  Joe hated poachers and he wanted to find them and arrest them. He didn’t like the idea of criminals operating with impunity in his backyard. But he’d been stymied for the past two months. There had been no tips from citizens as to the identity of any members of the ring, and literally no evidence on the ground to follow up on besides gut piles. The shooters apparently picked up their shell casings from the ground after firing, because none had been found. They hadn’t opened themselves up to discovery, as often happened, by posting photos or videos of their crimes on the Internet. And because the poachers were targeting non-trophy game, no taxidermists could report receiving suspicious heads and horns. Joe was vexed by the crimes and clueless in regard to the identity or motivation of the poaching ring. Even his agency direct
or, Lisa Greene-Dempsey, had fired off several What are you doing about this problem? emails to him.

  His best chance to catch the criminals was to increase the odds that he’d stumble upon them while they were shooting their targets, or else that a legitimate hunter would see them in the act and call it in—and Joe could get to the location in time to arrest them. That was the main reason he’d been spending so much time on patrol, forgoing both weekends and the Labor Day holiday.

  The adrenaline pumping through his body, as well as the buzz of the engine, kept him from realizing how bone-tired he was.

  Or how cold. He wished now he’d accepted their offer of an insulated flight suit. Instead, he wore his red WG&F uniform shirt with the pronghorn antelope patch on the sleeve and his J. PICKETT, GAME WARDEN name tag and badge. He rubbed his hands briskly on his Wranglers to offset the icy leakage from the windows and a vent on the floor. He’d long before lost feeling in his feet.

  —

  SLAUGHTER HAD ANNOUNCED that there were a number of search patterns available—grid aligned, circle, creeping line, expanding square, parallel, route, and sector—but that they were going to be using the expanding square. They’d started with the approximate coordinates of Farkus and Anderson’s elk camp and were gradually flying farther from its apex, utilizing sharp left turns.

  “I wish more hunters carried PLBs,” Slaughter grumbled.

  “Personal locator beacons,” Herdt translated for Joe.

  “I know what they are,” he said. “We always recommend them to guys when they’re in the field. But you know how it is—no one ever thinks they’re going to get lost.”

  “Do you have one?” Slaughter asked Joe.

  Joe confessed that he had one but rarely remembered to take it along with him.

  “Maybe someday we’ll be searching for you,” Slaughter said.

  “Maybe,” Joe agreed.

  —

  THE CESSNA WAS EQUIPPED with a FLIR, which Joe had learned was an acronym for “forward looking infrared.” The football-shaped device was mounted to the aircraft under the left wing, which is why Slaughter kept banking left on the expanding square. The FLIR detected the heat signatures of living creatures on the ground below and broadcasted them to the mounted iPads inside the cockpit.

 
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