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Out of range, p.14
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       Out of Range, p.14

           C. J. Box
 
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  Illoway nodded. "Not many people have the experience you have with beef, so they're blown away by this. And very few contemporary Americans know what a chicken can taste like that's been raised naturally, with a free-range lifestyle with no hormones or chemicals introduced."

  "Here we go with the lecture," Ennis sighed. Joe smiled at that.

  Illoway cut another piece of beef and stabbed it with his fork, then pointed the fork toward Joe. "Modern Americans have almost totally lost touch with the natural world," he said. "They don't know where their food comes from. They think their meat comes from a Styrofoam package wrapped with plastic or from the kitchen of a restaurant. This has been one of the most fundamental and harmful shifts that has ever taken place in our culture. The connection between our food source and ourselves has been lost, and we're not the better for it.

  "Think about it, Joe," Illoway continued. "For centuries, human beings have interacted with their source of food. We herded animals, cared for them, bred them to be stronger and better suited for the world. Or we hunted them in their own environment, and therefore had to learn about them and appreciate them. In turn, we learned from our animals that there is a circle of life, interconnectivity with nature and our environment. This was hard-wired into our souls, this synchronicity of coexistence. We depended on our animals to provide us with nourishment and health; they depended on us for shelter and protection.

  "Enlightened people are becoming aware of how unethical, how soulless, our farms and ranches have become—if you can even call them farms and ranches." Illoway paused dramatically. "They're really just meat factories, where animals are packed together, force-fed and filled with growth hormones, then killed without ever living a natural life. Chickens have their beaks snipped off so they can't hurt each other. Cattle are crammed into stalls and fattened. Modern hog farms are worse than any concentration camp ever even conceived by man." To illustrate his point, Illoway advanced through a series of grotesque black-and-white photos of hogs festering with sores, beakless chickens, rivers of black blood coursing through troughs at a cattle slaughterhouse. At last, Joe thought, the photos ran out and the screen was filled with pure blue.

  Illoway jabbed the piece of meat into his mouth and reached into a folder in front of him, producing the World's First Sustainable Good Meat Community brochure Joe had seen earlier. He slid it across the table. Joe nearly missed it, thinking how odd it was that Illoway was capable of eating after showing those pictures.

  "This explains the philosophy of Beargrass Village in detail," Illoway said. "I really urge you to read it. I've also got two books and a website."

  Joe put the brochure in his file.

  "The idea here," Illoway said, "is to create an environment where families can regain their connection to the natural world, to the food they eat. They'll be able to participate in the birthing of the animals, the care of the animals, even the eventual slaughter of the animals. We'll have our own organic slaughterhouse on-site with viewing windows."

  Joe winced.

  "I know it sounds crazy," Ennis said, noting Joe's reaction, "but these people do this. I saw it in upstate New York a few years ago. Some friends of mine—wealthy Manhattanites who had gone the vegan route for a while until they were too lethargic to stand, then did all kinds of stupid diets and eating programs—took me to a farm in Connecticut. They called it a 'pure meat farm.' You know, all of the animals were raised in a pasture, eating natural stuff, even the goddamned chickens were running around. It was like something out of the eighteen eighties up there. And these friends of mine were just ecstatic. They named the cows they were going to have slaughtered, and got all emotional when they were killed and butchered, but they told me that for the first time in their lives they were connected to the real world. So I looked into it, and met Pete here, who started the whole idea. This was about the time of the first mad cow scare in the U.S. So I hired him as my consultant and brought him out here to help us plan the village."

  "I do seminars in California and New York," Illoway said. "Hundreds of people pay eight hundred dollars each to come hear about Good Meat and come with me to visit our farms."

  "And now you have a place for them to live," Joe said.

  "Right!" Ennis cried. "We've created the first of its kind. Now I want to build it. All that stands in my way is you, frankly. So I hope to hell you're friendly, and not like that goddamned Will Jensen."

  Several moments passed. Joe felt the eyes of Illoway, Ennis, and Suhn on him, waiting for his reaction.

  "I looked at Will's file," Joe said. "The problem he seemed to have with the development has to do with the fact that by fencing it off you would shut down the traditional migration routes of grizzlies and moose."

  Ennis snorted. "That's ridiculous. I already told you that. We want bears and moose in our village."

  "But what about the fences?" Joe asked. "It seems to me, looking at your map, that you'd force the wildlife to cross the highway to get to winter ground."

  Don Ennis glared at Joe, his eyes bulging.

  "The fence does two things," Illoway interjected in his reasonable way. "One, it obviously protects the privacy of the residents. Two, it assures us that our population of stock and wildlife remains pure from disease and poaching. You should care that the wildlife and stock here is as genetically pure as possible."

  Joe said, "I'm well aware of the problem with brucellosis in the elk." It was a fact that most of the wild elk coming down from Yellowstone had the disease. Brucellosis was suspected of being passed from wildlife to domestic cattle and causing the cows to abort their fetuses. "But what you're talking about sounds to me like a game farm, and those are illegal in Wyoming."

  "It's not a game farm," Illoway said, while Ennis moaned. "It's a Good Meat community."

  "Let me study the file," Joe said, "and read all of the comments."

  "Here we go again," Ennis hissed.

  Joe wanted to reassure Ennis, but demurred. Like the name of Beargrass Village itself, there was a falseness to the whole concept, a structure being built on a poor foundation. He didn't want to think that. Joe admired many of Illoway's beliefs. He felt an urge to sign off on Beargrass and get it behind him. But he couldn't.

  "Sometimes," Illoway intoned, "we need to look past inane regulations toward the greater philosophical good. We need to step outside petty rules and see things for what they really are."

  "Yup." Joe nodded. "I'm willing to do that. And I've got to say that I agree with things that bring people closer to the real world. But we're also talking about homes being built in a natural wildlife migration route."

  "Jesus Christ!" Ennis said, slamming the table with the flat of his hand. "I thought you said you weren't against development."

  "I'm not," Joe said. "I just want to make sure I make a decision I can live with later. So I want to study the file, go over all the materials carefully, and maybe ask some questions."

  Illoway seemed to relax slightly, but Ennis did not.

  "How much money do you make?" Ennis asked bluntly.

  "Not much," Joe said, feeling his cheeks burn.

  "I didn't think so," he said. "I've done some checking."

  Was he going to offer him a bribe? Joe wondered.

  Ennis said firmly, "I will not let my project go under because of some state flunky who makes thirty-six thousand a year. That's just not going to happen."

  "Now, Don," Illoway cautioned, "I think Mr. Pickett here will be fair and reasonable."

  I can see why Will punched you, Joe thought, narrowing his eyes at Don Ennis.

  "Let's hope that's the case," Ennis said. Then, to Joe: "How soon can you make your decision?"

  "Give me a couple of weeks."

  Ennis clenched his jaw and looked away. "Two weeks? Two fucking weeks?"

  "Two weeks won't kill us," Jim Johnson, the contractor, said from across the table, speaking for the first time since the meeting started. "We've waited this long already."

  Ennis shot J
ohnson a look that made the contractor blanch. Illoway chose not to say anything.

  "I've got a lot to read here," Joe said, patting the file. "I'll want to talk with some of the experts who wrote opinions, and probably ride some of the perimeter of the property where those migration routes supposedly are."

  "Two weeks—no longer than that," Ennis said, turning to Joe in barely controlled fury. "And if you decide against us ..."

  "Don, "a woman's voice came clearly from the other side of the room. Joe turned his head to see Stella Ennis, who had apparently entered a few minutes before. Her tone was cautionary, not harsh.

  Then Joe looked back and saw something pass over Don Ennis's face as Ennis looked up and saw his wife—a shadow that washed over him as quickly as it came. It was a look of pure, naked, contemptuous hatred.

  NINETEEN

  I apologize for Don," Stella told Joe as she walked him across the parking lot toward his pickup after the meeting had ended and he left Don, Illoway, Suhn, and Johnson at the table. "He gets so forceful at times he doesn't realize how he's coming across to people who don't know him."

  "No need to apologize," Joe said, still a little stunned by his glimpse into Don's soul. He wondered if Stella had seen it, if she was used to her husband looking at her like that. He searched for something to say, feeling a bit flustered by Stella's presence.

  "Thank you again for your help the other night," Joe said.

  "You already thanked me."

  She was wearing an oxblood turtleneck sweater and black slacks. The color of the sweater made her lips look even more striking than he remembered, like overripe fruit. She walked with a dancer's grace, as if her shoes didn't really touch the ground.

  "Don's just not happy when he's not doing something really big," Stella explained, a little sadly. "I thought we were moving out here to retire, to ride horses and go rafting. I love to go whitewater rafting."

  "This is a good place for it," Joe said, trying to make conversation, knowing how lame his response sounded.

  "Please don't patronize me."

  "Sorry." Joe felt his ears begin to burn.

  Stella smiled slightly, and a little sadly. "The deal was that when Don sold his companies in New York and Pennsylvania, we would buy out here and really live. It was a choice between going to Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Sun Valley, Santa Fe, or here. We both liked the Tetons, so Wyoming was the winner. Your governor was one of the first people Don met, and we are among his biggest contributors. Don probably told you that."

  "He left that part out," Joe said.

  "I'm surprised. He usually leads with it."

  "He told me about the vice president, though."

  "Ah," she said. "I don't know why I'm telling you all of this. It's odd; it seems comfortable to talk to you. It's like I've known you."

  Joe stopped at his pickup. The easy familiarity of their conversation had him flummoxed, and slightly alarmed. He felt comfortable with her, as if they had history together.

  "Don's just frustrated," she said.

  "Yup, I understand that."

  Stella's black Lincoln Navigator was parked on the other side of Joe's pickup.

  Joe said, "What I'm not sure I understand is the way he looked at you when you spoke up." He couldn't believe he said it, and felt immediately that he shouldn't have.

  Stella paused, looked at Joe quizzically. "I don't know what you mean."

  "For a second there," Joe said, treading into water he wasn't sure he belonged in, "he looked like some kind of reptile."

  She smiled at Joe, a dazzle of white teeth framed by those lips. Her smile triggered something in him, and he knew he reacted to it.

  "What?" she asked.

  "It's kind of ridiculous," he said. "I just thought of something I hadn't thought of in a long time. In college there was this song I really liked called 'Stella's Smile.'"

  "It was about me," she said.

  "Really?"

  "What, do you think I've spent my life married to Don Ennis? I'm just his most recent. I had a life, you know. I was in the music business in LA. Everybody in my crowd was in the business when I was in high school. I met the lead singer and he wrote that song."

  "Really?"

  "Yes, really," she said, a little exasperated. "Some people went to college, some of us went on the road. Some of us grew up real fast, Joe."

  He stared at her.

  "The lead singer originally called it 'Stella's Lips,' but luckily his manager talked him out of that, thank God."

  "I've never met anyone who had a song written about them," Joe said.

  "Now you have," she said dismissively. But he thought she was pleased that he knew. "I have a question for you. You said Don looked like a reptile. Do you use animal metaphors often when describing people?" She looked straight at him, with boldness, as she had in the restaurant when he first saw her.

  "I've never really thought about it," Joe said, "but I guess I do."

  "Someone else I knew did that," she said, and her recollection brought out an almost imperceptible flinch in her eyes. "I think it's kind of charming."

  Joe grunted, wondering but not asking if she was referring to Will.

  "What kind of animal would Pete Illoway be?"

  Joe thought about it for a moment. "A wolf."

  She laughed, apparently delighted. "Jim Johnson?"

  "Bear."

  Joe knew what was coming next.

  "What animal would you say would describe me?"

  He felt his face flush. "Can I get back to you on that?" he asked.

  She smiled at him knowingly. "But will you?"

  He hesitated. He liked being with her, liked watching her talk. She was an exotic species, charming and attractive, yet dangerous somehow. He was drawn to her, despite himself. He said, "I'm bound to see you again. This isn't that big a place."

  "I've found it's as big or as small as you want it to be," she said. "Jackson is unique that way."

  Joe reshuffled the files in his hands.

  "You don't need to do that," she said. "I saw your ring last night. You saw mine. Is your wife here with you?"

  "No, she's not," Joe said, "but she might as well be."

  "Good answer," she said. Stella Ennis lowered her eyes and her lips tugged into a mischievous smile. It was as if she didn't quite know where to put them, Joe thought. "Stella's Lips."

  "I had better be going."

  "Yes, you had better be going," she said, agreeing with him.

  Joe swung into the cab of his pickup, and when he looked back she was still there, beside his truck, looking like she wanted to say something else. He rolled the window down.

  "Have you found the file on me in Will Jensen's desk?" she asked.

  "File?"

  "I assume there's a file." She nodded. "I had to sign a release form with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in order to go on ride-alongs. You know, agreeing not to sue the state in case a horse bucked me off or a bear bit my leg."

  "You went out with Will?" Joe asked, his tone more urgent than he wanted it to be.

  "Not my choice of words exactly" she said. "I accompanied him on a few elk trend counts, and once to check an outfitter camp. I absolutely loved it."

  If possible, Joe felt even more flushed than he had a moment before.

  "I loved the realness of it," she said. "The rawness and the danger. I'm a junkie for authenticity, if there is such a term."

  Joe swallowed, looked at her. "I saw you at the funeral."

  She nodded.

  "You knew Will pretty well, then? Were you and Will..."

  "Yes, Joe," she said. "We were."

  He tried to picture Will and Stella together. He could only picture Stella. He felt a surprising rush of jealousy.

  She crossed her arms defensively. "I admired him. He was real. I thought he had a quiet honesty and dignity about him, unlike most of the species. He was straightforward and unpretentious. People mistook his earnestness for lack of intelligence, which was a t
ragedy. I respected him very much. You remind me of him."

  Joe wasn't sure he bought it, but she seemed sincere. "Even though your husband didn't respect him?" he asked, deliberately not addressing the last part of her statement.

  "Believe it or not, we don't think alike," she said, "much to Don's chagrin. Actually, he prefers it if I don't think at all, except to think about how much I admire him."

  Joe was on thin ice and tried to think of a way off it.

  "Do you have any idea why Will chose to kill himself?"

  She stared at Joe for a long time, pursing her lips. He found himself staring at them, again.

  "Maybe he didn't like what he'd become," she said vaguely.

  "Meaning what?"

  "Meaning," she said, "that I'll need to decide what I should share with you and what I shouldn't."

  "I'd like to know," Joe said.

  "You had better be going," she said again, and displayed a little wave.

  Joe fumbled in his breast pocket for a business card and handed one to her. She took it and slipped it into the pocket of her slacks in one quick movement, as if she didn't want anyone to see. Joe glanced toward the building. Don was standing at the sliding glass door watching them.

  Joe looked back at Stella, wondered if she'd seen Don watching them, if she cared.

  "You felt it too?" she said. "When we met."

  He knew exactly what she meant, but feigned confusion. She smiled. "I thought so."

  HE DROVE OUT of the lot into the sun-dappled trees. At the moment before the road curled into the timber, he chanced a look in his rearview mirror. She was at her car, opening the door, but looking back at him.

  "MARYBETH!" HE HEARD himself shout into his cell phone.

  "Joe, why are you calling now?" She sounded annoyed, her voice a loud whisper. "I'm in the middle of the audit at Barrett's I told you about. So unless this is an emergency, I can't talk."

  Was it? he asked himself. Yes! "No, no emergency."

  "Then call tonight, like we agreed."

  "Okay."

  "Joe, are you all right?"

  "Dandy," he said, feeling as if he were telling a lie.

 
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