The Crazy Mountains were on fire and Cassie Dewell sat alone in her car at night on McLeod Street across from the Grand Hotel in Big Timber, Montana, looking for a twenty-four-year-old reprobate known as Antlerhead.
That’s when the call she’d been dreading came on her cell phone.
It was from Rachel Mitchell, the primary defense attorney in the firm of Mitchell-Estrella in Bozeman. It was from Rachel’s personal cell phone rather than from her office, which was unusual in itself. The attorney was working late and it meant a chit had come due.
The call created a stab of cold dread in Cassie’s gut. She didn’t need the distraction of a call from Rachel Mitchell at that moment. A call from her meant Cassie’s life could be altered one way or another. She declined to answer and let it go to voice mail so she could return it later.
* * *
She brushed crumbs from a half-dozen chocolate-covered mini-donuts from her lap and lifted her gaze from the empty sidewalk that led to the front door of the hotel to the fire on the distant mountain. It was mesmerizing and officially out of control.
The long fire line extended across the entire southern face of the range like an orange zipper. It dipped into canyons and emerged on the other side. It raced down over meadows and plateaus in spots but never broke contact with the extended fire line itself.
Because it was dark, there was no delineation between the fresh fuel in front of the blaze and the smoking cinders behind it. The fire seemed like a living thing, a snake, a nocturnal beast more alive at night than during the day. It burned bright enough that it stained the bellies of low-hanging clouds with pink hues. When Cassie closed her eyes, the fire lingered as if imprinted inside her eyelids.
She could imagine the line of fire eating its way down through the timber and eventually consuming the grassland of the prairie all the way to I-90 and Big Timber itself unless the wind turned it west or south.
Like most of the summer, the September air was thick with smoke. It haloed the few downtown streetlights and she could smell it on her clothing. She had a sore throat from breathing it in all day. On some mornings, she brushed a thin film of white ash from the hood and windshield of her Jeep Cherokee as if it were snow in the winter.
It had been the Summer of Fire in Montana, and it wasn’t over yet.
She thought about how many fires there were—seventeen at last count throughout the state—and how they’d likely keep burning until the snow finally put them out. They could be seen from space. Both the state and federal budget for fighting them had run out of funds in mid-August.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of timber had burned. So much that the numbers no longer had meaning. Several hundred mountain cabins and homes were destroyed and dozens of towns had been evacuated more than once.
Against the backdrop of the Summer of Fire the case for finding Antlerhead seemed very small in the grand scheme of things. She felt small as well.
The phone in her lap chimed and lit up again and Cassie was afraid it was Rachel again. Instead, it was a text message from her fourteen-year-old son Ben, who was home in Bozeman, sixty-one miles to the west.
When R U home?
She replied that it would be a few hours, that he needed to do his homework and go to bed and to not wait up for her.
She’s feeding me brown rice again.
She meaning Cassie’s mother, Isabel, a free spirit and self-proclaimed progressive who had recently returned from North Dakota where she’d been participating in protests against an oil pipeline opposed by indigenous people. Since getting back she’d refused to cook or serve anything white.
Cassie pondered her response. At least Ben was getting dinner when his own mother wasn’t home to prepare a meal. There was that.
Before she could tap something out Ben asked,
Can I ride my bike to McD’s?
It was warm enough outside and Bozeman was safe enough to say yes. McDonald’s was three blocks away. But giving Ben permission to skip Isabel’s meal would undermine her mother’s authority. It would fan the flames on the tension between them that was already smoldering like one of the fires in the mountains.
We’ll go there tomorrow.
Ben replied with:
Like U’ll be home for once.
It was followed by an angry face emoji.
Good night. I love you.
The words “I love you too, Mom, and I realize you have to work late so we have a nice home to live in and food on the table” didn’t appear on her phone.
In fact, Ben didn’t text back at all and Cassie sighed and swallowed a lump in her throat. She could stare at the screen and wish for those words to appear but this was Ben’s way when he was angry with her. He knew that the meanest thing he could do to her was to withhold his affection. That it would hurt her more than anything he said.
When she looked up, she saw a rail-thin form emerge from the alley behind the Grand and dart back into the shadows to avoid being seen by a passing car.
She’d guessed right.
* * *
Antlerhead’s given name was Jerry Allen. He’d received his nickname several years before while on work release from the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge after his conviction for a series of house and cabin burglaries. Allen was assigned part-time at a wild game processing facility outside of Anaconda during hunting season. That’s where he hefted the newly delivered severed head and the set of six-by-six antlers onto his shoulders and said to his coworkers and fellow inmates, “Look at me—I’m an elk!” seconds before he slipped on a smear of blood and his strength and balance gave out. A hundred and twenty pounds of antlers crashed down on top of him and laid him out on the loading dock. One of the sharp tines entered his skull just above his right eyebrow and another halved his clavicle and punctured a lung.
His next job, once he was released from the hospital after a two-month stay and ten months of physical rehab courtesy of Montana taxpayers, was in the prison laundry.
Antlerhead later went on to become one of the most inept heroin dealers in Gallatin County. He’d been arrested along with two others for selling heroin laced with fentanyl to three male Montana State University students in Bozeman. All three Bobcats were rushed to the emergency room at Bozeman Health Deaconess. While two recovered, the third went into a coma and lingered for months before regaining consciousness.
That the third student survived meant Allen avoided additional homicide charges to those already levied against him: felony charges of criminal possession of dangerous drugs, criminal manufacture of dangerous drugs, criminal possession with intent to distribute dangerous drugs, and conspiracy.
The recent arrest photos of him showed a rail-thin, gaunt-faced man with a mop of brown hair, a long crooked nose, and dull feral eyes. Above his right eyebrow was a sunken red dent of a scar that was no doubt the spot where the antler tine had penetrated his skull that resulted in his nickname.
Cassie was reminded that in just about every instance losers looked like losers. Allen was a poster child for losers.
Antlerhead Allen was going to go back to prison in Deer Lodge for a very long time, which was fine with Cassie. That’s where he belonged.
Except that following his arraignment hearing two days before, after his parents scraped together the $150,000 bond that allowed him to walk out of the county jail until his criminal trial, Antlerhead had vanished.
And his parents were on the hook for the money.
* * *
Cassie shifted her weight on the seat and winced. She’d been sitting in her car so long that her right butt cheek had gone numb. Her stomach rumbled from her dinner that consisted of a box of Hostess chocolate-covered donuts and an energy drink from a convenience store. She’d vowed to stop eating like that until she dropped twenty pounds. Unlike Ben, who wore slim-fit jeans and didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, Cassie should be eating Isabel’s brown rice.
Like always when she was on the job, she wore her unofficial Montana PI uniform: jeans with enough play in them that she wasn’t uncomfortable sitting in a car for long hours, a roomy blouse, and a tunic or jacket. She always wore her tooled cowboy boots for a couple of reasons. One was a nod to her state and her upbringing. The other was that she could tuck a backup weapon into the shaft of her right boot. Plus, she never stood out in Montana because of her clothing.
She’d kept a close eye on the alley behind the Grand Hotel for another glimpse of Antlerhead. She didn’t want to try and go after him if he was there in the dark. Instead, she wanted him to appear on the illuminated sidewalk and his identification could be confirmed before she took any kind of action.
Several people had left the Grand, climbed into their vehicles, and driven away. There were now five autos parked diagonally at the front of the hotel—a sedan, a crossover, and three pickups. All had Montana plates. She knew from walking around the block before dark that employee parking was next to the building on a gravel lot. There were four cars in the lot. From where Cassie had strategically parked her Jeep, she could see the front and side doors of the hotel as well as the employee lot.
If Antlerhead was lurking in the alley as Cassie suspected he was, he would be blocked from viewing any activity from the front and side doors. But he’d have a clear angle on the employee parking from the back corner of the building.
Which, if her working theory was correct, would be what Antlerhead cared about most.
Nayna Byers. The waitress Cassie had met who worked at the Grand.
* * *
To find Antlerhead, Cassie had placed a call to the administration office of the Montana State Prison and asked for Johnny Ortiz. She’d worked with him when they were both deputies at the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office in Helena. Since then, she’d moved to North Dakota and Ortiz had taken a job with the Department of Corrections.
Ortiz had provided background and unofficial intel to her before, and in turn Cassie always left a dozen cinnamon rolls from Wheat Montana at the front desk for him every time she passed through Deer Lodge.
After small talk about the fires, Ortiz tapped on his keyboard and told Cassie that during Antlerhead’s incarceration he had only four names on his approved visitor list: his parents Buford and Nadine Allen, his defense attorney, and Nayna Byers of Big Timber.
Cassie wrote down the name and thanked Johnny for his help. She could tell from his hearty, “You bet, Cassie,” that he was grateful she hadn’t asked him for anything dubious or untoward. Visitor lists for prisoners were public records.
It took less than two minutes on the internet to find her.
* * *
Apprehending Antlerhead and delivering him back to his parents’ house could get tricky. Cassie couldn’t legally arrest him or detain him without cause and Antlerhead hadn’t actually broken any laws that she was aware of.
She’d notified the Big Timber PD via email from her phone of her presence there earlier in the afternoon but she hadn’t said what she was doing other than “investigating a case.” She’d done it as a courtesy. There was no requirement to alert the locals but it was good policy if things went haywire or if she was questioned by the police as to why she was in their town with an array of equipment and weapons.
She didn’t want to call them now. A police car might spook Antlerhead and she might lose him. Or the cops might provoke him into doing something stupid like resisting arrest that would result in another charge and another bail for his parents.
* * *
Her strategy was simple: confront him and firmly persuade him to go back to his home with her. She would tell him about the financial consequences his parents faced if he refused to come with her and she hoped he’d feel some guilt about that. Additionally, she’d let him know that she was duty-bound to inform the court that he’d disregarded the judge’s instructions to stay home. Which meant he’d go back to lockup.
She knew Antlerhead was not a smart person. She could only hope he was smart enough to realize that the best thing he could do for himself was to let her take him back.
Nevertheless, Cassie patted herself down to check her gear and weapons. Her .40 Glock 27 was on her hip and her five-shot .38 snub-nosed Smith & Wesson was in an ankle holster. There was a Taser in her large handbag on the passenger seat as well a canister of pepper spray, a Vipertek mini stun gun, and several pairs of zip ties.
Since she’d opened her agency she’d never once been in a situation where it was necessary to draw any of her lethal or nonlethal weapons. She hoped the streak would continue.
The most important tool she had on her person was the most innocuous—her cell phone. She’d activate the recording app before leaving her Jeep and keep it running during her confrontation and conversation with Allen. Digital audio records had come in handy dozens of times in her career when it came to proving what had actually transpired. If nothing else, she could play it back for the Allens to prove that she’d earned her fee if Antlerhead didn’t bite.
* * *
Cassie caught a glimpse of yellow light from the shadowed side of the Grand as a side door opened and someone exited. It wasn’t one of the public doors and Cassie assumed it accessed the kitchen. When it closed she couldn’t see the figure well.
Cassie had a night vision scope in the back of the Jeep but she didn’t want to call attention to herself by climbing out to get it. So she waited, narrowing her eyes and hoping they’d adjust to the dark or that the person would move into the light.
It wasn’t necessary, though, because Nayna Beyers thumbed a lighter and raised it to the tip of a cigarette in her mouth. Cassie could identify her clearly.
The flame went out and was replaced by the lone red cherry of Nayna’s smoke.
The cherry on the end of Nayna’s cigarette was suddenly bobbing up and down and advancing down the sidewalk. Then Nayna appeared in a pool of yellow from the streetlight near the front of the Grand. She was walking quickly and looking over her shoulder toward the back.
Antlerhead was right behind her, loping from the alley. Apparently, he’d seen her come out for her smoke break as well and when he caught up with her, he grabbed her by her arms and spun her around to face him. Her cigarette dropped into the gutter with a display of sparks.
Cassie cursed herself for not seeing it coming and she opened the door of the Jeep and pushed herself out. The call from Rachel had thrown off her concentration. She fumbled for the recording app on her phone as she walked quickly across the street toward Nayna and Antlerhead. Nayna struggled to break his grip.
Cassie took a deep breath to calm herself. She hadn’t expected Antlerhead to escalate the situation so quickly.
“I just want to talk to you,” Antlerhead said.
“Let me go, you asshole.”
“Nayna, please. I just want to talk.”
“There’s nothing to say. Let me go or I’ll call the cops. I’ll start screaming.”
He prevented that by wheeling her around again so he could clamp her in a headlock with his left arm across her throat.
Cassie heard a muffled yell, and Antlerhead said, “Stop it, Nayna, goddamn you. I don’t want to hurt you. I fucking love you.”
Nayna’s eyes were wide open and panicked but they locked on Cassie’s approach. Antlerhead hadn’t seen her yet because he was so focused on getting Nayna to stop struggling.
Cassie gave up on turning on the recording app—too many wasted seconds, too many stupid swipes of the screen—and she thumbed the icon for her camera. A red dot appeared and she punched it. She was now recording video and she raised her phone to chest level and aimed it at Antlerhead and Nayna with her left hand while reaching back for the grip of her Glock with her right.
“Jerry, let her go.”
Antlerhead’s head bobbled at the sound of his name and he glared at Cassie. He kept Nayna in the chokehold. Cassie hoped the waitress could get enough air to stay conscious.
“Who in the hell are you? This is a private conversation.”
He even sounded dumb.
“It’s not a conversation, it’s an assault,” Cassie said. “Let her go right now or I’ll blow your stupid head off.”
She drew her gun as she said it and leveled it at Antlerhead. The front sight was aimed squarely at the dent above his eyebrow.
“Shit, man,” he said. He sounded offended. “Put that down and turn that camera off.”
Cassie steadied the weapon and hoped her hand wouldn’t tremble.
Then he relaxed his grip on Nayna and she twisted away. As soon as she got her balance she coughed, then turned on her heel and kicked Antlerhead so hard between his legs it lifted him off the ground. He wheezed—it was a pathetic sound—and he dropped to his knees.
Nayna cocked her leg back for another kick and Cassie said, “Back off, Nayna. It’s over.”
“It ain’t over,” Nayna said as she kicked him in his sternum. “He was choking me.”
Antlerhead moaned and fell over in slow motion.
“I’m not kidding,” Cassie said to her. “That’s enough or I’ll call the cops on both of you.”
“He’s supposed to be in jail anyway,” Nayna said. “He won’t leave me alone.”
“I get that.”
“Who are you anyway?” Nayna asked. Then: “Oh, I remember you from earlier. Are you some kind of cop?”
“I’m a licensed private investigator. My name is Cassie Dewell. I’m here to take our friend back to his parents’ house.”
“He ain’t my friend.”
“He used to be.”
“Well, he ain’t no more. He’s an asshole.”
“I’ll give you that.”
Cassie neared Antlerhead and holstered her weapon. He writhed on the asphalt with both of his hands clamped between his thighs. His clothing was white from the film of ash on the ground.
“Did you hear that, Jerry? It’s time to go home. We can do this without getting the police involved. How does that sound?”
“Just get him out of here,” Nayna said. “I don’t ever want to see his stupid fucking face again for the rest of my life.”
From Antlerhead, a childlike sob. His body shook as he cried.
“Come on, Jerry,” Cassie said. “Let’s go over to that Jeep across the street.”
“Nayna,” he cried. “Nayna.”
Cassie could see that Nayna was positioning herself for another kick so she stepped between them. The waitress backed away.
“Please get back to work,” Cassie told her.
* * *
Arm in arm, they staggered across the street toward her Jeep. Antlerhead was unsteady on his feet and he hadn’t stopped sobbing.
Cassie saw the Big Timber PD unit turn the corner and drive slowly down McLeod Street toward them.
“Straighten up,” Cassie said sharply. “Act like a man.”
She guided him into the passenger seat and closed the door. Antlerhead slumped forward and put his head in his hands. Cassie would have preferred to cuff him and stow him in the back for the drive to Laurel but she didn’t want to draw attention from the local cop who passed by.
“That was close,” she said as she climbed in and turned the key to the ignition.
“Oh, please,” Cassie said as she drove cautiously out of town toward I-90. “You’re not the victim here.”
“The hell I ain’t,” he said. “She told me she loved me once and now she kicks me in the nuts.”
That struck Cassie as funny and she looked away so he couldn’t see the expression on her face. The release of tension from the situation and Antlerhead’s perceived victimhood made her want to laugh out loud.
After a few minutes, she said, “Let me know when you stop crying and can hold it together long enough for me to return a phone call.”
Copyright © 2019 by C. J. Box