In this 21st outing of his awarding winning series featuring everyman hero, Joe Pickett, C.J. Box delivers “Dark Sky.” In the opening, Joe is not a very happy camper. It’s a cold, windy morning in October as he waits for the arrival of a private Gulfstream jet at his hometown Saddlestring airport.
Joe is a Wyoming game warden known for his professionalism and dedication to doing what’s right. He is also a devoted family man. Marybeth, Joe’s wife, is the director of the local library and is his personal internet sleuth when he needs critical information for his investigations. Oldest daughter, Sheridan, has been working for Joe’s best friend for a year. Nate Romanowski owns Yarak Inc., which uses falcons to rid properties of problem birds. This is the first time that Nate seems to be operating within the law, to the relief of the Pickett family. Nate’s past is checkered, to say the least. Joe’s other daughter, April, is just out of school while youngest daughter, Lucy, is a sophomore in college.
Joe has been drafted to do the bidding of the current and beleaguered governor, Colter Allen. Allen is trying to bolster his poor reputation by using Joe to guide a Silicon Valley billionaire on a “fair chase” hunt for an elk in the Bighorn Mountains. Allen hopes if the hunt goes well, Wyoming will get the nod to have the billionaire build his planned and largest server farm in their state. This would generate lots of jobs and good publicity for Allen’s campaign.
The CEO of Aloft Inc., Steven “Steve-2” Price, has created Confab, a social media site that brings to mind Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, etc., bringing friends together on their phones. But like Steve 1 (Jobs), this creative billionaire is eccentric as well. Each year, he picks a personal project and pursues it with high energy and enthusiasm. This year, it is growing and processing his own food, thus leading to this elk hunt.
The hunting party includes Joe; Brock, the horse wrangler and guide; Price; his flunky Tim; and Zsolt, his bodyguard. All are on horseback with an extra three packhorses. Even though the trip is supposed to be hush-hush, Price is committed to keeping his millions of “followers” up to date on his adventure. So there is a lot of baggage, especially electronics, to meet his goal. Joe is tasked to make the best of a bad situation.
On Day 1, events unknown to Joe and Price, lead to the hunt coming to a screeching halt. The Thomas clan, consisting of father Earl and sons Brad and Kirby, have other plans for Price and the others. Thus begins a desperate flight and fight for survival. The rest of the story in the mountains brings to mind the riveting action in 2010’s “Nowhere to Run,” book 10 in Box’s Joe Pickett series. The events in “Dark Sky” are equally grueling and life-threatening with a significant body count. Joe is challenged to use all of his wits to escape both the harsh Wyoming weather and having gone from hunting to being the hunted.
At the same time, Sheridan and Nate are dealing with another threat. While tethered up on a cliff face checking out falcon nests, she makes a dangerous and startling discovery. They are certain that someone is robbing nests of eggs and young birds and smuggling them out of the country for whopping profits. These unscrupulous felons, motivated by greed, won’t let anything or anybody get in the way of their inhumane deeds. Nate will not stand for this, and his response puts him and his new family in danger.
In “Dark Sky,” Box has created a remarkable and suspenseful story. The characters are multilayered and familiar. Wyoming in itself is a real character in the action. Box weaves together separate threads – the people in town, the life and death struggle on the mountain and the quest for rogue falconers. As is usual for him, Box always includes an issue that has impact on the American story. This time, it is social media and the effect it has on daily life. The most important aspect is the result of what can spread like wildfire across the globe. People are anonymous online making ruthless comments, comments that can lead to tragedies IRL – in real life. There’s a lesson here. “Dark Sky” is a great read.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.