Chapter 1 Excerpt – VICIOUS CIRCLE by C.J. Box
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.
“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.