Out of Range, p.25C. J. Box
As Birdy talked, Joe began to relax. Birdy had made his sales pitch often enough that he sounded comfortable. Joe could imagine Ennis's mind racing with the possibilities of what he was being told.
"Of course," Pi interjected, "that means ninety-five percent of the photos aren't sold to anyone. Sometimes, they turn out to be the most interesting shots taken."
Stop there, Joe gestured to her.
"What the fuck?" Ennis said. "What are you telling me exactly?"
"Just that we get a lot of pictures we don't quite know what to do with," Birdy said.
Pi leaned forward, and Joe mouthed, No! She sat back, pouting.
"So," Ennis said, his voice hushed, "are you telling me your cameras shot all of the rafters on the river today?"
Birdy looked at Joe, fear in his eyes. He obviously didn't know how to answer the question, how to parse his words so he wasn't lying. The fact was, Birdy's cameras shot only rafts for companies that enrolled in his program and agreed to tape photocells on their rafts that would signal the remote cameras to work. All the other rafts, including the Ennis raft, would have passed by unnoticed.
"Mr. Ennis," Pi said, while Joe cringed in anticipation, "what we're saying is that we got a lot of pictures we just hate to see go to waste. Some real prize-winners."
Okay, Joe thought, signaling her. That was vague enough.
"Jesus Fucking Christ," Ennis growled.
"We thought you'd find that interesting," Pi said, beaming at Joe and yanking an imaginary hangman's noose above her head.
"Would you consider possibly selling the photos you took today?" Ennis asked.
"Sell them?" Pi said innocently.
"You know what I'm talking about," Ennis said. "Quit fucking around. I want to look at them, and maybe I could buy some of them. I want you to bring them to me."
Tassell's deputy sneezed in the back of the room.
Ennis went silent.
Joe covered his face with his hands.
"Who was that?" Ennis asked.
Birdy looked stricken. His wide forehead was beaded with sweat. Pi, for the first time, looked scared.
Then Joe mouthed, The dog.
"Just the dog," Pi said to the phone.
"Pi feeds the dog a vegan diet," Birdy said, running with it. "He doesn't get enough protein so he catches a lot of colds. I keep telling her that dogs need to eat meat, even if people don't."
"Dogs can survive perfectly well without meat," Pi said heatedly, meaning it. "They can get their protein from soy and other natural products."
"Jesus, you people," Ennis said disgustedly.
Again, Joe relaxed.
"Mr. Ennis," Birdy said, "we can't bring the pictures there. They're here on the computer. But if you want to, you can come look at them at the shop."
Again, silence. Joe guessed Ennis was deliberating what to do.
"Has anyone else seen the photos?" Ennis asked.
"Does anyone else know about the photos?"
"Not yet, sir," Birdy said, hanging the yet out there.
"Sit tight. What's the address?" Ennis barked. "I'll be there in thirty minutes."
WHEN THE CALL was concluded, Birdy flopped forward into his arms as if completely spent, and Pi pumped her fist in the air and screamed, "Yes!"
Joe turned and looked at the sneezing deputy, who was beet red. Then to Pi and Birdy: "Great job."
Randy Pope arrived at the photography shop as the sheriff and his deputy were hiding their vehicles on adjacent streets. Pi and Birdy stood around nervously near the counter, waiting for Don Ennis to arrive. Joe and Trey Crump were behind the curtain in the darkroom, and Trey motioned to Pope to join them so he couldn't be seen if Ennis drove by and looked through the front window.
"The director doesn't like it," Pope said, as Joe slid the curtain closed behind him. "He's ordering you to pull the plug on this before we all wind up in court for entrapment."
Joe was thankful for the darkness because the look he gave Pope could have resulted in a charge of insubordination.
"We're too far along for that," Trey said in defense. "We can't stop anything now. Ennis is on his way."
"Didn't you hear me?" Pope asked. "I said the director doesn't want us involved with this. He thinks the governor may have already heard from Ennis about Joe assaulting him. It looks like a vendetta by the agency against one of the governor's biggest supporters."
"It's my vendetta," Joe said, "against a guy who caused the death of a game warden as well as his own wife."
Pope turned on Joe, prodding him in the chest. "You shouldn't even be here. You're officially suspended for the shooting. You're so far over the line I can't even see you. And you can forget about taking over this district."
"Touch me again with that finger," Joe said, "and I'll break it off."
Trey shouldered his way between them, and Joe stepped back, trying to calm down. Despite the darkness of the room, he saw orange spangles flash in his vision and knew he was seconds away from lashing out at Pope.
"Randy," Trey said in a calming voice, "Ennis all but admitted he killed her. He's coming here to try to buy the pictures so he can't be implicated. Everything is on tape, and even Tassell thinks it's clean and legal."
"But there aren't any pictures," Pope said. "The poor guy probably thinks he's being framed by those nuts out there, and he doesn't know what to do."
Beyond the curtain, Joe heard Tassell, his deputy, and the owner of Radio Shack enter the shop and assemble behind the closed office door. The stage was now set for Ennis.
"You weren't here," Trey said. "They never told Ennis they had pictures of him murdering his wife. Ennis just assumed they did, and he's coming here. Once he's in the shop, he'll say something that incriminates him. Then the sheriff will arrest him. If he doesn't incriminate himself, he walks away."
"I don't like it," Pope said. "And the director ordered us to back off."
"He can order whatever he likes," Trey said with an edge Joe had rarely heard. "He's out in two months, and we'll have a new governor. Maybe we'll even get someone who cares more about arresting a murderer than kissing up to his contributors."
Joe heard Pope spin away and start for the curtain to leave.
"Stay here," Trey said, and Joe could see the faint outline of Trey reaching up and grabbing the assistant director by the arm. Pope stopped.
"When this is over," Pope hissed, "and Don Ennis walks out of here, I'm going to suspend your asses."
"I'm already suspended," Joe whispered. "Are you going to double suspend me?"
Pope started to talk when a bell tinkled out in the shop and someone pushed the door open with enough force that it banged against the wall.
Joe leaned toward the curtain and cocked his head so he could hear what was going on. He hoped the video camera on the shelf was working, and that Tassell was watching on the monitor.
Joe heard the shuffling of several sets of feet, thinking Don had brought support. The bell tinkled again as the door shut, and there was the sound of the lock being thrown.
"You're Pi Stevenson?" It was Ennis.
"Yes, I am." She didn't sound as nervous as Joe felt.
"What was your name again?"
"What the hell kind of name is 'Birdy'? Jesus, you people."
"Don, let's just get what we came for." Joe recognized the voice of Pete Illoway.
Ennis: "Right. First, have any copies been made?"
Birdy: "No. No copies."
Ennis: "Is anything still in the cameras on the river?"
Birdy: "No. They've all been downloaded to the computer."
Ennis: "Then I'll pay you for the computer. Shane, grab that thing and we can go."
Shane Suhn, Joe recalled, Ennis's chief of staff.
Suhn: "That's just the monitor, Don. That won't help us. You don't know anything about computers."
Birdy: "Hold it. I never said you could have my computer. I need to make a living."
Pi: "Damn right. And what are you going to pay us? We aren't just going to give you Birdy's equipment and you go home. Maybe we should just call the sheriff after all."
Ennis: "You shut the fuck up, lady. You're playing in the big leagues, and you don't even know it."
Illoway: "Don ..."
Pi: "You don't have any intention of paying us, do you? You're going to do something to us so we don't talk."
Ennis: "Tell me what you saw in the photos."
Pi: "Not until you tell us what you're planning to do."
Ennis: "Shane, remember what we discussed on the drive over?"
Suhn: "You want me to do it here? Now? If somebody looked in the window they could see us."
Ennis: "I don't give a shit. She won't shut up."
Illoway: "Look, how much do you want for the computer? Give us a number."
Ennis: "You're spending my money, Illoway."
Illoway: "Give us a number."
Suhn: "Maybe we ought to see the pictures first. Maybe there's nothing on them. Maybe it's just a bunch of us having a fun time on the river, and somebody falls in. That won't prove anything."
There was a long silence. Joe was tempted to inch the curtain back to see what was taking place.
Illoway: "Shane's right, Don. The photos may not prove a thing."
Ennis: "Fire up that computer and let's have a look at them."
Birdy said, "It's on," and Joe could feel the terror in his voice.
When would Tassell decide he had heard enough, Joe wondered, and come out? How far would Tassell let Pi and Birdy go, searching for photos that didn't exist on the computer?
Ennis: "Where are the photos?"
Birdy: "Give me a minute. The computer was sleeping and it'll take a second to boot up."
Ennis: "What's that?"
Birdy: "It's asking for my password."
Ennis: "Hurry up, goddamnit."
Then Pi spoke. Her voice was strong, challenging. "What are you guys thinking?" she asked. "Are you thinking that you can't see when Don here cuts the straps of her life vest? Or that you can't see it when he shoves her out of the boat just as you enter the whitewater? Or that you can't see when he hits her with his oar to keep her from crawling back in the boat?"
Ennis: "I never hit her with my fucking oar!"
Now, Joe thought. Tassell needs to come out now.
Pi: "Maybe it was Pete Illoway, the eating consultant, who was whacking at her with his oar. I'm not sure."
Illoway: "We're fucked, Don."
Suhn: "Okay, you two, step away from the counter."
"There's no need for guns here," Pi said frantically, shouting out the word guns. "We can work something out. Really, we can."
Ennis: "It's too fucking late for that, girlie."
Joe was about to rip the curtain aside and hurl himself into the shop when he heard the office door open and Tassell say, "HANDS ON THE COUNTER! All of you! NOW!"
Joe didn't have a weapon, so he stepped aside so Trey could push through the curtain with his Beretta drawn. Joe saw Ennis look up, his face pinched and white. Illoway was looking at the door. Shane Suhn had a semiautomatic pistol pointed at Pi.
"Drop that," Tassell hollered at Suhn, who quickly lowered the weapon and dropped it with a clunk on the floor.
"I thought you were never going to come out," Pi said angrily.
"Keep your hands in view on top of the counter," Tassell said.
"Including us?" Birdy asked.
"Step away from them," Tassell said, and Birdy and Pi scrambled out of the way.
"You set us up, you bastard," Ennis said finally, glaring at Tassell. Ennis had two black eyes and white tape across his nose. Joe had done more damage the night before than he realized. When Ennis saw Joe, the developer's eyes narrowed further.
"You," was all he said.
Tassell announced that all three were under arrest for the murder of Stella Ennis.
"Don't forget Will Jensen," Trey said.
"That comes later," Tassell said.
Illoway, Joe thought, looked like he was about to cry. Instead, he screwed up his face, glanced for a moment at Ennis, and said, "Don did it."
Ennis turned on Illoway. "You fuck—"
"We didn't even know he planned to throw her out of the boat until he did it," Illoway said. "Maybe Shane did, but I didn't."
Suhn acted like he'd been slapped. "I didn't know about Stella," he said. "But I can tell you all you want to know about the game warden."
Joe felt a release inside, and exchanged glances with Trey.
Ennis was livid. "Jesus, you guys. Just shut up! Where's your loyalty?"
"My loyalty is to the Good Meat Movement," Illoway said. "That's more important than one developer."
"I'll get us out of this," Ennis said. "Just shut up!"
"Get yourself out of it," Suhn said. "You don't pay me enough to go to prison for you."
Ennis was red and trembling with rage. He fixed on Pi, who didn't even try to contain her glee. "Those fucking pictures," he said.
"What pictures?" Pi grinned.
Joe waited for Mary to conclude a telephone conversation while he stood at the front counter holding a box with his possessions in it. When she hung up and looked up at him, he extended his hand.
"Thank you for everything, Mary," he said. "You made me feel welcome here."
She blushed as she briefly shook his hand, then looked away.
"I just got off the phone with Susan Jensen," Joe said. "I was a little surprised by her reaction."
"How much did you tell her?" Mary asked.
Joe thought about his answer. "I told her that Don Ennis had been drugging her husband, which led to his death. And I told her I scattered Will's ashes on Two Ocean Pass. She didn't seem as relieved as I thought she'd be."
"Nothing about Stella?" she asked. Joe wondered about Mary's exact meaning for a second, then decided Mary didn't know about Will's last seconds.
Joe shook his head. "That didn't seem necessary. Stella didn't enter the picture until after Susan had left with the boys anyway."
Mary arched her eyebrows in a way that told Joe he was wrong about that. But she didn't pursue it.
"You probably heard that Don Ennis hired Marcus Hand as his defense lawyer," Mary said. Hand was a flamboyant attorney who lived in Jackson and was nationally famous for freeing guilty clients.
"Hand's already claiming it was entrapment," Mary said. "And that Pete Illoway and Shane Suhn are lying to keep themselves out of jail. If they don't find Stella's body soon, he'll claim Ennis didn't even murder her."
Joe nodded. He could only imagine how the recorded words and images from the studio would be twisted and reinterpreted for a jury. He tried not to think of what Stella's body would look like when it was finally found. The image made him shiver. The condition of her body would likely be beyond any possibility of providing evidence that she had been injured before drowning, and Hand would no doubt make an issue of that.
Tassell's men had found a receiver in Shane Suhn's office at Beargrass Village that was tuned to the transmitter in Will's truck, as well as cassette tapes of Jensen's radio communications. They also brought back the developer's telephone log, which Joe got a look at. The most interesting thing on the log was a call to Ennis immediately following Pi and Birdy's call. It was from Randy Pope, urging Ennis to contact him immediately. Luckily, Ennis had already left for Wildwater Photography and hadn't been warned off.
"Don Ennis will be out on the street within a year, is my prediction," Mary said.
Joe shrugged in a "what can you do?" gesture.
"But it looks like there won't be any Beargrass Village," she said, her expression of relief revealing, for the first time, what she thought of the project. "Not with P
Joe wasn't sure what to say next. He picked up his box. "I rented a car until they replace my pickup," he said. "The county attorney will need Will's truck for evidence at the trial."
She looked up. "Will you be coming back?"
"Do you mean for the trial, or for good?"
He looked away. "I don't know where I'll be," he said, thinking of Pope's threats, knowing his career probably hinged on who was elected governor. "I'm still suspended."
"I hope you come back," Mary said, a softness around her eyes Joe found touching. "I think you're a good man."
Not as good as you think, Joe thought but didn't say.
"Right now, I need to get home," he said, and carried his box out the door.
IT FELT STRANGE to be in a compact rental car instead of a high-profile pickup, he thought, as the National Elk Refuge passed by his window. It felt like he was sitting on the pavement as he drove, and when he looked in his rearview mirror he saw the grilles and headlights of vehicles behind him, not the drivers.
While he drove, Joe reviewed what had taken place in Jackson. He had been instrumental in bringing down a multimillionaire and stopping a Good Meat development, and in the process had partially avenged a game warden's reputation. He had also killed a man he had no ill feelings toward. Now, Joe was returning to Saddlestring under suspension, with a cloud of guilt still hovering over him in regard to his feelings for Stella, in a compact car with a motor already struggling with the ascent into the mountains. But he couldn't wait to get home. It felt like he'd been gone a year.
Out of Range by C. J. Box / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes