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The Highway



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About The Author

C. J. BoxC. J. Box

C.J. BOX is the bestselling author of Back of Beyond, Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, and sixteen other novels including the award-winning Joe Pickett series. Blue Heaven won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2009, and Box has won the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and the... More

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EXCERPT

1.
 

4:03 P.M., Tuesday, November 20
HE CALLED HIMSELF THE LIZARD King. The prostitutes known as lot lizards feared him. More precisely, they feared his legend, the idea of him. None of them who’d ever seen his face up close lived to describe it.
He was parked in the back row of trucks with his diesel engine idling, his running lights muted, his hair slicked back, and a bundle of tools on the floorboard on the right side of his seat within easy reach. He was hunting but there was no need to go after his prey. The lot lizards would come to him.
The truck stop was four miles west of Billings, Montana, off I-90. A cold mist hung in the air and moisture beaded on the windows and the paint jobs of more than seventy big trucks. The black asphalt lot shined as if freshly varnished between the rows of semis, reflecting the lighted highway signs and hundreds of streams of horizontal running lights from the parked trucks themselves. The air outside hummed with rumbling engines. Tendrils of steam rose from beneath the engines and combined with the undulating waves of heated exhaust that rose from beneath the big rigs.
From his high perch in the dry and warm cab, his sight lines were clear. The truck plaza itself was filled with activity and he noted it carefully. Vehicles entered and exited the long banks of fuel pumps in front of the garish low-slung building a hundred yards away. Professional truckers filled 150-gallon aluminum tanks with diesel fuel on one side of the lot, passenger cars and vans filled up with gasoline on the other.
Inside the truck stop restaurant, waitresses served the $10.95 T-bone special advertised on the marquee near the exit. Drivers lounged in the “trucker’s only” section checking e-mail, comparing road conditions, or drinking coffee. Truck stop employees cooked up fried chicken and potato wedges for the lighted bins at the front counter and manned the cash registers selling salted snacks, energy boosters, beef jerky, and drinks.
This was the way it was on the open road; islands of lighted activity in a sea of prairie darkness. Cars and families on one side, truckers on the other, but sharing the same facility. Two vastly different worlds that met only at places like this. Inside, truck drivers and citizens barely acknowledged each other and the modern truck stop was designed so there would be little interaction. Sure, the drivers would get on their radios and laugh at the rubes they’d run into inside and mock their looks or stupid conversations, but inside they were segregated between the amateurs and the professionals, the clueless consumers—the civilians, the amateurs—and the cloistered universe of the providers.
He was on the road so much his outlook on it had changed completely over the years. It no longer seemed like he was moving, for one thing. Now he felt as if he were stationary while the road rolled under him and the scenery flowed by. The world came to him.
Like the captain of a large ocean vessel, a large swath of the landscape was off-limits to him, as he was confined by the shipping lanes that were interstate highways. When he parked his truck at a rest area or truck stop for the night he couldn’t venture into town because he had no way to get there unless he walked. It was like a captain who had to anchor his boat and take a dinghy to shore.
Oh, how he resented the smug people in those towns. They thought their food, clothing, furniture, appliances, and electronics simply appeared at stores or on their front doorsteps. They didn’t stop to think that every item they ate or wore or used was likely transported across the nation in the trailer of his truck or those like him, or that the hardworking blue-collar rednecks they avoided in real life and despised on the road were the conduits of their comfort and the pipeline of their wealth.
*   *   *
It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, so there was more traffic on the highways than usual. It would be much worse the next day as families moved across the country with a lull on Thanksgiving and another spike on Sunday as people returned home. He was used to it. The rhythms of the road were like rivers that flooded and receded in perpetuity.
The Beartooth Mountains to the south were light blue with new snow and the lack of stars indicated heavy cloud cover. It was still warm enough on the valley floor that the moisture hadn’t turned to snowflakes, but there was a snap in the air outside and he watched as travelers left their cars and zipped up coats on their way into the truck stop. He snorted at an overweight family of fools wearing T-shirts and shorts who practically ran from their passenger van to the door that led to the restrooms. Fucking idiots. What if they broke down wearing clothes like that? Who would they look for to rescue them? Me, he thought. The invisible, faceless trucker.
In the darkened cab of his eighteen-speed Model 379 Peterbilt, the Lizard King was alone, quiet and still, the cab perched over 550 horses of steel muscle under the iconic squared-off snout. The truck was flat black, stripped of chrome, and as subtle as a fist. It was a trucker’s truck the way a Harley-Davidson was a biker’s bike. He’d even painted the twin stacks with black chimney paint to eliminate any hint of flash.
Without looking down, he let his right hand slip down on the side of the seat until he could find the string that held his bundle together. He pulled the cord and the bundle unrolled. His fingertips traced each item. Everything had been wiped clean and sterilized since its last use: the tire thumper, which was a short lead-filled wooden baton used to check the pressure of his eighteen wheels, the pliers and wire cutters, two pairs of handcuffs, four knives—the heavy hunting Buck, the short folding Spyderco, the long thin filet knife, and the stainless-steel hatchet. His lightweight Taurus 738 TCP semiauto in .380 ACP. In an oblong, hard, and hinged box once used for sunglasses was a syringe filled with Rohypnol. And his vintage fourteen-inch long Knapp butcher saw with the aluminum T-grip and both bone and wood teeth on opposite sides of the blade. It was designed for the rapid field butchering of big game. He ran his thumb gently along the bone teeth.
Satisfied that everything was in order, he removed the tire thumper and placed it on the dashboard next to his roll of one hundred-mile-an-hour brown Gorilla tape. Both were standard items used by every trucker and they wouldn’t draw a second glance. He bundled the rest of the tools and reached under his seat for the satchel, which contained heavy plastic bags, the wire ties, his folding shovel, the 300,000 volt Stun Master stun gun, and the three-inch-wide roll of duct tape. He put the bundle of tools back into the satchel and zipped it closed.
If things went well, he wouldn’t even need to reach for the satchel. If things went well …
*   *   *
The Lizard King glanced around the cab to make sure he’d completed all the items on his mental checklist. The carpeted floormats had been pulled and stashed, leaving a bare metal floor. Both seats were fitted with clear plastic covers. All logbooks, maps, and other paperwork—anything that could absorb fluid—had been stashed away. He turned in his seat. The cloth drapes separating the cab from the sleeping cabin had long ago been replaced by clear shower curtains that allowed him to see clearly into the back. On his bunk was a specially adapted cover made from blue tarpaulin, and plastic sheeting lined the walls. The single small window of the sleeper was blacked out.
He’d forgotten nothing. There was no cloth or porous surface for blood, hair, or fiber to cling to inside, and the cab and cabin could be hosed clean in a few minutes by a power washer.
He was ready.
*   *   *
He waited for the segregation between the professionals and the amateurs to breach. It did when a rusted-out van cruised the trucking lanes and parked in shadow on the side of the truck stop. North Dakota plates.
Two lot lizards got out and the van drove away. That meant they had thumbed a ride or made arrangements for a pickup later. Meaning there would be no telltale vehicle left at the truck stop to raise any alarm. That was good.
What wasn’t so good was that there were two of them. It wasn’t unusual; they tended to partner up to some extent. Which meant if one of them vanished the other would know.
One lot lizard, who was short and heavy and dark—maybe an Indian from the res to the south—started off for the far corner of the lot. She’d work that side first, he guessed. He breathed a sigh of relief.
The other one put her hands on her hips and looked in his direction.
She looked thin and gaunt and had long stringy blondish hair haloed by the blue overhead lamps and the mist. He couldn’t see her face yet because of the darkness. A long sweater or shawl-like cape hid her figure, which was one of the tricks of the trade. She teetered on high heels and held her hands out to her sides as if for balance and she baby-stepped toward the parked lines of trucks.
Perfect.
He stubbed his cigarette out and squinted through the curl of smoke and the rain-smeared windshield. He could feel his insides start to knot.
*   *   *
Since that morning outside of Chicago the Lizard King had been planning the hunt. He’d awakened in his bunk thinking about it, and at breakfast he’d gone through his mental checklist. It had been several weeks, and he was due.
He pulled a fifty-three-foot trailer known as a “reefer,” meaning the inside of the box was controlled by a separate diesel refrigeration-slash-heating unit mounted on the front. Depending on the contents of his load, he could keep the box cool to freezing, and his loads were primarily pallets of fresh or frozen food. He ran coast-to-coast, picking up apples in Yakima, Washington, and delivering them to Boston, and completing the circuit with yogurt from Connecticut or potatoes from New Jersey to be delivered in the west. The loads and destinations varied from circuit to circuit, and sometimes he forgot what he was hauling. It took him four and a half days to run from one coast to the other, and he generally completed two full laps of the nation before returning home. His life was a rhythm of three weeks on the road, a week at home to recuperate and get repairs, then three more weeks of running. He was on his way home after nineteen straight days on the road; meaning no more than eleven hours of driving in any fourteen-hour period, and ten hours of rest in order to legally drive another eleven.
The Lizard King knew mileposts on every highway in America and knew which truck stops to fuel up and which ones to avoid. He timed his routes to avoid as many weigh scales—called “chicken coops”—as possible and he’d rather use his piss-jug than be forced to stop at highway rest areas frequented by homosexuals known as “pickle parks.” Like all truckers, he did his best to avoid states with overbearing troopers and stupid regulations like Minnesota, Ohio, California, Oregon, and Washington, and he gave a wide berth to other trucks from companies known for poorly trained drivers.
*   *   *
It had taken just one glimpse of a young woman the night before, red-haired and college-age, her car filled with boxes and clothes she was taking home for Thanksgiving break, who passed him on an incline and swung back into his lane so recklessly that he had to tap his brakes and lean on his horn. When he was able to catch back up with her in the passing lane she looked up and their eyes met for a brief second. Then she flipped him off with dismissive contempt. That’s all it took. Rage blasted through him and orange spangles erupted in front of his eyes.
Before he could swing his rig over into her lane and force her off the highway she stomped on her accelerator and shot ahead. Their bumpers almost kissed but she gained distance. He cursed the half-load in his trailer that held him back. It was like dragging an anchor behind him. He cursed that red-haired girl until her taillights faded away in the dark.
He’d kept an eye out for her all the way to Janesville, Wisconsin. But by the time he got to Chippewa Falls he’d lost her somewhere. She’d either continued to speed home straight ahead or she’d taken an exit off the interstate.
She had no idea, he thought, how lucky she was. Outside West Fargo, he’d barely slept and he thought of what she’d look like bound in cuffs and tape with a whole new attitude toward him.
So after breakfast, in light rain outside of Mandan, he parked at a rest area and pulled on his raincoat. The first thing to do was to make his loaded eighty-thousand-pound truck invisible. He did it by covering the transmittal dome of his Qualcomm unit with a shower cap lined with aluminum foil and sealing the bottom with tape. This way, neither his employers nor curious troopers could track his movements or his speed.
His anticipation built throughout the day as he rolled west. He paid special attention to the radio and slowed in advance of the speed traps or scales outside Wibaux and Bad Route, Montana, and he didn’t stop for lunch or mandatory rest periods although he lied in his logs to say he did. He shot across I-94 in Montana maintaining the perfect speed of sixty-three miles per hour for maximum fuel efficiency for his Caterpillar C15 motor to get as far ahead of schedule as possible. They shouldn’t expect him before 10:00 P.M. If the dispatcher, that bitch, said she had trouble tracking him via his Qualcomm, he’d curse and say it must have malfunctioned again like the last time.
He gained four hours, he figured, by the time he hit Miles City, Montana. Four hours of free time, where no one would be watching. He’d carry that four free hours with him as he pounded west, and not withdraw a minute of it until he got to the truck stop outside Billings.
Four hours was more than enough time to do what he needed to do. He’d done it in two, so he was sure of it.
*   *   *
He’d arrived early to the truck stop, an hour before dark. At that time there was plenty of room in the back row of the trucker’s lot when he arrived, and he took a middle space without neighbors on either side.
Choosing the back row meant something to other truckers. Either the driver wanted to get some real sleep in his cabin behind the seat, or he wanted privacy to rest or do paperwork, or, in this case, he was sending a signal that he was available to the truck stop prostitutes who worked the facility. The lot lizards.
He carried a duffel bag across the lot in the dusk and went straight to the trucker’s entrance of the building. Inside, he paid eleven dollars for a shower. He shaved and changed into a disposable one-piece Tyvek jumpsuit with elastic bands on the sleeves and cuffs. The jumpsuit got no strange looks in the trucker’s lounge because truckers wore all kinds of strange clothing. A driver with a full beard, a multicolored serape, and flip-flops sat at a table reviewing his logbook. The man didn’t even look up. One driver he knew drove in his underwear with the heat on high.
Still, though, when he became the Lizard King he knew his presence made a statement. People shied away from him when they saw him coming. Conversations stopped as he passed by, like there was some kind of malevolent black cloud hanging over his head. And when he stared at others they tended to quickly look away. It used to bother him, but now he took a kind of perverse pride in it. He didn’t want to make new friends, anyway. What was the point?
The Lizard King had never felt brotherhood toward other drivers. In fact, he found many of them as disgusting as the amateurs on the road. He noted how many piss-jars and urine bombs had been tossed on the side of the road, how many Walmart bags of feces. He’d seen the cutaways in the floorboards of some trucks, and he cringed when he witnessed fat truckers parking as close as possible to the truck stop restaurant so they wouldn’t have to waddle far to eat. And then there were the Bible-thumpers …
He avoided the public retail section of the truck stop, and took a long route back to his Peterbilt through dozens of idling trucks so no one would track where he went. As he passed between two semis in the first row he was dismayed to find a small knot of five drivers shooting the breeze back and forth. Three men leaned against the fuel tank of a blue Mack on the left and two others mirrored their posture against a red Kenworth on the right. He had no choice but to walk right through them and to betray no surprise or caution. To his chagrin, they were arguing about a Bible passage.
“That ain’t what it means,” one of them said. The man was tall and well built and clean-shaven. He wore a yellow chamois shirt and a ball cap that read TRUCKING FOR JESUS. His Mack truck had the same logo painted on its door behind him. He said, “Listen: ‘The discretion of a man defers his anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.’ That’s in Proverbs. It means look the other way.”
The driver he was arguing with leaning against the Kenworth had bushy muttonchop sideburns and wore a cowboy hat. He shook his head and said, “No, you listen. Romans 12:20 says, ‘If your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink; for in doing so you shall heap coals of fire on his head.’ That says to me God will get your revenge for you so you don’t need to do any thumpin’. That says God don’t look the other way but you should.”
“God doesn’t do revenge,” the man in the chamois shirt said, rolling his eyes. “He does love and forgiveness. Maybe you ought to do the same.”
“And I will if I know God will do the thumpin’. But if he’s just going to let the bad man get away with it—naw, that don’t seem right.”
“You’re readin’ it wrong, friend,” Chamois said. “Remember that later in Proverbs…”
“Excuse me,” the Lizard King said, “just passing through.” He wanted to get by them as quickly as possible. He hoped they were so deep into their discussion they wouldn’t even recall him later if asked. The front row truckers weren’t all Christians, but many of them were. They’d park next to each other in their sanctimony and self-righteousness and spout verses and lessons to each other while looking down on people like him. He avoided them whenever possible.
The Bible-thumpers sometimes hung bras out their drivers’ side windows at night as a way of warding off the prostitutes since it suggested a husband and wife driving team inside. It was a message known well among truckers, but not all the whores knew what it meant, which caused great consternation among the faithful.
“Hey, you look familiar,” the muttonchop driver said to the Lizard King.
Since he couldn’t just charge through now without making more of an impression than he wanted to, he glanced up at Muttonchops and said, “Sorry, I don’t recall.”
But he did. The truck stop out of Amarillo. Muttonchips had been down there, parked in his Kenworth the row in front of the Lizard King, when that fat lot lizard in the Ugg boots and micromini waddled her way to his Peterbilt. The Lizard King was ready—oh, he was ready—but as he reached down to let her in he looked up to see Muttonchops watching him through his side sleeper window.
It ruined the moment, and destroyed his plans. If Muttonchops was later questioned and could say he saw the fat lizard get into the Peterbilt …
So instead of inviting her in and starting the process, he’d opened the door and as she reached up for his hand to climb inside greeted her face with a kick from his size twelve hunting boot. She fell in a heap on the pavement, blood streaming out of her nose. She was angry but not nearly as angry as he was as he slammed the door shut. He hoped like hell Muttonchops didn’t get a clear look at his face that night when he opened his door.
“McAllen, Texas, then?” Muttonchops said, not sure. “The Flying J down there?”
The Lizard King shrugged. “Nope,” he lied. “I ain’t been down there in years.”
The McAllen truck stop was one of the better locations for lot lizards in the country. It ranked right up there with the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike or any truck stop in Gary, Indiana. Other infamous lot lizard high spots included El Paso, Detroit, and the Port of Albany in New York. Although truckers rarely used CB radios anymore, they still had them. Lot lizards knew it, and he’d hear his radio crackle with, “Anybody need company tonight? If you do, take it to 21. This is Barbie Doll…”
Once the lot lizard and the trucker switched to the other channel—along with everyone else parked at the stop who wanted to listen in—there would be a discussion of services, prices, and the location of the man who wanted company. The Lizard King didn’t ever respond. He waited for them to come to his door.
“Feel free to join us, brother,” Chamois said. “You’re more’n welcome. You don’t have to know nothing about the Bible. My friend here doesn’t, either.”
Muttonchops said, “Hey,” as if offended and a couple of the others laughed.
“Thanks,” the Lizard King said, waving over his shoulder but not looking back.
“You a Christian, son?” Chamois asked.
“Sure,” he said without conviction.
“God bless you, buddy,” Chamois said. “Whatever you are. Whatever the deal is with you.”
And one of the others said, “He needs it.”
The Lizard King didn’t stop or turn around to see who said it. Was it Muttonchops? Did Muttonchops just remember where they’d met and what nearly happened?
As he reached the back bumper of the trucks and turned left, he shot a quick look over his shoulder at the Bible-thumpers. They were still looking in his direction, and Muttonchops was in the middle of them, talking low.
*   *   *
“He needs it” stuck in his craw as he watched the skinny blond lot lizard climb up into a cab ten trucks away. Who were they to judge him, those bastards? he thought. Weren’t they supposed to show some tolerance? Wasn’t their whole act about forgiveness?
She was making her way toward him, truck by truck. Most calls were refusals, but four trucks away he saw a hairy arm reach down from a cab and a big hand grasp hers and pull her up. The lights in the cab went out and he saw cheap curtains pulled sharply across the sleeper cab window. He’d gotten a glimpse of her thin and haggard face from the interior dome light of the cab before it went out, and it wasn’t a face to write home about. But it would do, he thought. He slid the elastic cuff up over his wristwatch and checked the time. In about five minutes she’d be done. It rarely took longer than that. Truckers wanted blow jobs and not much conversation. Rarely did they want anything else that would take more time. Five minutes tops, and the lot lizards backed out, usually grasping stained and crumpled tissue.
He hoped she had all her teeth but if she didn’t, he hoped she had none. He remembered that one in Utah after he’d knocked all her teeth out …
There were more and more semis entering the truck stop by the minute, and more cars. They were pouring in. He couldn’t account for the sudden traffic, but the more chaos and confusion on the lot, the better for hunting.
He sat back, trying to stay calm until she reached him.
He visualized the dispatcher, that dried-up old crow, trying to track him by his Qualcomm and flipping out because she couldn’t locate him or his truck.
His ears hummed with tension and he was so preoccupied he almost didn’t hear the rapping on his driver’s door. The sound jerked him out of his internal debate, and suddenly all was quiet and he was focused.
He wondered how the hell she’d gotten there so fast. Had everyone else rejected her? Or was there a new one, a new lot lizard he hadn’t seen?
He reached over and grasped the door handle and opened it a few inches. It was that damned Chamois and Muttonchop.
He didn’t open his door more than two inches, so they couldn’t see inside.
“Hey, buddy,” Chamois said, “We just heard I-90 West will likely be closed all night.”
“Why?”
“Big propane truck jackknifed a few miles past Laurel. The Montana State Patrol shut down both lanes.”
That explained the sudden arrival of traffic, he thought.
“No shit?” he said, angry they were there but assuming they’d interpret his curse being about the highway.
“Yeah,” Chamois said, “We’re likely to be here all night. The Montana state boys are taking every precaution that jackknifed truck don’t blow up.”
He looked down through the gap between the door and the frame. Muttonchop stood shoulder to shoulder with Chamois but he couldn’t see his face. The Lizard King wanted them to leave. Their presence might spook the lot lizard working her way to him. Or they might turn on her, the Bible-thumping bastards.
“Well,” the Lizard King said, “thanks for letting me know. I may give it a try later, though. I’m not that far from home base and there are a few other routes I can take.”
“Where’s home?” Chamois asked. “Livingston, Montana?”
He was taken aback that they knew, but then realized they’d read it on his door.
“Yeah.”
“That ain’t that far.”
“That’s what I’m sayin’.”
“Well,” Chamois said, as if killing time for a reason the Lizard King couldn’t discern, “you’ll have to decide for yourself which road you take.”
He said it in a way that caused the Lizard King to think it had nothing to do with the highway.
“That I’ll do,” he answered, trying to keep his rage from overtaking him. These bastards were mocking him. “In fact, I’ll do whatever the hell I want and I don’t need any help or advice from you,” he said, slamming the door shut.
As he watched them walk away toward their trucks in the front row, he saw Muttonchop playfully punch Chamois in the shoulder as if they were sharing a joke. He thought of shoving his gearshift into second and mowing them down.
Then he saw her, the blond one. She was descending from the cab four trucks away. The lights inside came back on. And she was teetering toward him on her high heels.
Everything was set up perfectly, but too many factors nagged at him. The closed road, for one. And all the attention the Bible-thumpers had paid him. One of the beauties of the road was its anonymity. The Bible-thumpers would likely be five states away by morning. Still, though, they’d seen his face. They knew his rig. If they were somehow found and questioned later …
A voice in the back of his head squawked: Abort-abort-abort.
But the closer she got, the more his entire body coursed with electricity and it seemed like his nerve endings were firing, shooting sparks. It had been so long, and he was ready to explode. He thought of that red-haired girl calling him a loser. Those Bible-thumpers mocking him. His perfect, perfect plan and preparation.
He almost felt sorry for the lot lizard because she had no idea what kind of hell she was getting herself into.

 
Copyright © 2013 by C. J. Box

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