The Bitterroots

C.J. Box

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Bitterroots, the new thriller from C.J. Box. Cassie Dewell, a former sheriff’s investigator recovering from a traumatic few years, just wants her new private firm to take off. But when she’s asked by a friend to debunk an allegation of sexual assault, she must confront a world of sinister manipulation, revenge, and a powerful local family with an empire that they’ll do anything to maintain.

Everything that happened in western Montana happened in one of the valleys between mountain ranges. The towns, the roads, the rivers, and the railroads were all funneled into the valleys between the Absaroka and Beartooth Range to the southeast, the Gallatins and Crazies to the southwest, the Bridger, Big Belt, and Elkhorn ranges to the north, and the Bitterroots to the northwest.

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Cassie worked those valleys on a daily basis, and it wasn’t unusual for her to drive three hundred miles in a day as a private investigator working several different cases at once. She was the owner and principal of Dewell Investigations, LLC. She was a fully licensed private investigator and her services included skip tracing, asset searches, background checks, fraud, criminal defense investigations, domestic cases, and surveillance. Her Montana PI license number was number 7775.

After years of existing in the backstabbing bureaucracy of local law enforcement, she’d decided to strike out on her own. She thought it would be a good move for her and a good thing for Ben. Cassie liked the ideas of setting her own hours, choosing her own cases, and being her own boss.

After years of existing in the backstabbing bureaucracy of local law enforcement, she’d decided to strike out on her own.

Her career in law enforcement had been intense and tumultuous. She’d pursued and taken down Ronald Pergram, the infamous Lizard King, who was a serial rapist and murderer who operated as a long-haul trucker. He’d also become her obsession.

She’d also shot and killed Montana state trooper Rick Legerski who was a coconspirator of Pergram’s and the murderer of Cassie’s mentor, Cody Hoyt.

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Her work as chief investigator in North Dakota both saved the life of a then fourteen-year-old boy with fetal alcohol syndrome and dismantled a violent MS-13-financed drug ring.

But instead of kudos and promotions, Cassie had been made the scapegoat by a politically ambitious county attorney for a sting operation that went horribly wrong and resulted in the deaths of several fellow deputies including her fiancé at the time. She’d eventually been cleared and offered her job back, but she couldn’t make herself put on a badge again.

Although her sense of justice and respect for the law remained intact, her enthusiasm to “ride for the brand” had been crushed. There had been too many self-aggrandizing officials, too much misanthropy among the good old boys in the system, and too much politicization instead of investigation. She still wanted to put bad guys away and protect innocent people, but she could no longer fight the bureaucracy in order to do that.

It had all worked, sort of. Her idea of setting her own hours and not being beholden to a departmental superior had resulted in longer days, fewer vacations, and serving the toughest boss of all—herself.

Setting up shop had been more difficult than she thought it would be. She hadn’t given enough thought about how tough it was to deal with landlords or the city administration when it came to leasing space and setting up shop. There were so many taxes and fees it was as if the system was set up to make her fail.

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The hardest part, though, was overcoming her aversion to private investigators due to her years in local law enforcement in Montana and most recently North Dakota. Jon Kirkbride, the sheriff of Bakken County and her boss in NoDak, once told her, “TSA agents are folks who were too dumb to pass the test for a job at the post office, and private investigators are folks too dumb to qualify for the TSA.”

Nevertheless, she met the minimum license requirements in Montana and passed a background investigation and fingerprint check, she had the requisite experience in spades, and she could afford the two-hundred-fifty-dollar application fee and the premiums for a half-million-dollar commercial liability policy. Her references included cops she’d worked with in her native Montana as well as Kirkbride, who wished her well. She’d passed the examination for private investigators with the highest score ever recorded, according to the clerk who’d administered it. And for another fifty- dollar fee, she’d automatically received a firearms endorsement because of her previous qualification certificates on the range in both states.

She was a neophyte when it came to hiring competent clerical and administrative help. In the two years since she’d launched Dewell Investigations, she’d been through five administrative assistants. Two had left on their own and three had been fired for incompetence.

If it wasn’t for Isabel filling in—her mother justified the hours as “assisting the downtrodden of society”—Cassie might have given up or gone to work for someone else. Or even put aside her revulsion and applied with the local sheriff’s department or police department.

Income hadn’t been an issue after the first four months of her new enterprise. Word got around that she was professional, efficient, and honest. She had more work than she could handle and she had the luxury of not taking unsavory cases—usually.

She’d been told more times than she cared to be told that she “didn’t look like a private investigator” and she was never sure how to take the comment. Cassie was in her mid-thirties, five foot four, ten to fifteen pounds overweight, and her hair was thick and unruly. She didn’t have the commanding presence that would instantly bring a room to order, and she was more of a listener than a talker. Since she no longer wore a uniform, she was rarely taken for a cop. The only person in her life who thought otherwise was Ben, who said she had “cop eyes.” Whatever that meant.

Cassie had quickly become the PI of choice for several bail bondsmen, a half-dozen insurance companies, two car dealerships, the county realtors’ group, and one criminal defense firm: Mitchell-Estrella.

Mitchell-Estrella was gaining both prominence and notoriety in Montana legal circles. Although partners Rachel Mitchell and Jessica Estrella were Cassie’s age and the firm was less than ten years old and the majority of their clients were still lowlifes looking for plea deals, Mitchell-Estrella had recently won acquittals in several high-profile criminal trials. The most lurid case involved Monte Schreiner, the ex-governor of the state who’d been accused of hiring a transient to murder his mistress near his vacation cabin by hitting her over the head with an oar, loading her unconscious body in a drift boat, and pushing it out onto Flathead Lake where she was later found dead of exposure. Cassie had carefully followed the trial in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

The blustery Schreiner, who was known for his frequent appearances on cable television news shows wearing a bolo tie and who brought his dog along to every event, came across in news reports as likely guilty to most Montanans, Cassie included. In a state where nearly everyone had met the governor and seen him in action on a personal basis, it just seemed like the kind of thing he would do. Cassie had once seen the governor work a room and put his hands on every person in it, lingering just a little too long with the younger and attractive women whether they were married or not.

The transient, who admitted to the crime and agreed to turn state’s witness against Governor Schreiner, was shredded on the stand and caught in a half-dozen lies by attorney Rachel Mitchell. Mrs. Schreiner, who eagerly wanted to see her husband sent to prison and had agreed to testify against him, was forced to admit under Rachel’s cross-examination that she had conducted multiple affairs in the past and that she’d exchanged text messages with a fly-fishing guide promising to be with him if “she could just get rid of Monte.”

Monte Schreiner was found not guilty and Mrs. Schreiner had moved to Seattle.

After the verdict, Rachel gave a press conference on the court-house steps declaring that justice had been done.

Cassie saw the clip on the news and thought that a guilty man with a sharp and aggressive lawyer had beaten the system. Although the prosecution’s case had some holes in it—didn’t they all?—this was the kind of thing that had soured her about the criminal justice system in the first place. She’d vowed not to ever be a part of it.

But Cassie and Rachel Mitchell had history. Rachel’s father, Bull, had been a cantankerous outfitter who had guided both Cassie and her mentor Cody Hoyt into the Yellowstone wilderness. Cody had been in pursuit of a client on a multiday horse pack trip who was also a multiple murderer. Cassie had later hired Bull to go after the Lizard King.

Rachel had been in the middle of both situations, both trying to look out for her father’s welfare and providing local legal counsel.

Against her better judgment as well as Rachel’s admonitions, Cassie had persuaded Bull to come out of retirement one more time and even though he was excited to go and at the time was rejuvenated by the adventure, his physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly upon his return. Although still in Rachel’s home in his own special wing, Bull rarely ventured out of his recliner and frequently forgot the names of his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. He only came to life during prime time on Fox News, when he awoke to rail and shake his fist at liberals.

Although Rachel didn’t blame Cassie outright for Bull’s rapid decline, Cassie felt tremendous guilt for her direct role in it and she knew her requests of him had accelerated his physical and mental decline.

She felt she owed Bull and Rachel, but she’d also made it clear to Rachel that she didn’t like the idea of helping to exonerate Rachel’s criminal clients no matter who they were. Rachel had assured Cassie that she’d never ask her to do work that would “offend her sensibilities.” She’d said it in a wry and irritating way, Cassie thought.

Shortly after that conversation, the firm of Mitchell-Estrella sent the first monthly retainer check to Dewell Investigations. Cassie weighed the decision but cashed it. She needed the money to get started. By doing so she acknowledged her obligation.

Which was why the phone call the night before had thrown Cassie off her game. She knew at the time that Rachel was calling to collect.

Rachel Mitchell stood up from behind her desk as Cassie entered her office. Rachel was slim, stylish, and graceful—everything Cassie was not. The attorney had auburn hair, a sly smile, and green eyes. The credenza behind her desk was filled with framed photos of her teenage boys white-water rafting, fishing, and skiing at the local mountain called Bridger Bowl. There was a large shot of Rachel and her handsome husband waving from the basket of a hot air balloon taken somewhere tropical. A black-and-white still showed a much-younger Bull Mitchell astride a horse guiding a long string of pack horses into the Yellowstone Park wilderness.

“Cassie, you look tired,” Rachel said after grasping both of Cassie’s hands in hers in a firm greeting. Right to the point.

“You don’t,” Cassie replied. She knew Rachel either ran or swam every morning before coming to work to stay healthy and fit.

“I was up late on a case,” Cassie said as she sat down in one of two leather-bound chairs across from Rachel’s desk. She dropped her handbag on the surface of the other.

“Anything I should know about?”

“I don’t think so. A skip trace in Big Timber. He’s back home with his family for the moment awaiting trial.”

“Sounds like one of our clients,” Rachel said with a smile.

“I can’t say.” Cassie knew that Antlerhead’s attorney had been assigned through the public defender’s office for his new trial and that Rachel took fewer and fewer of those kind of charity cases. Either way, it was unprofessional for Cassie to discuss her clients.

“Well, I’m glad you’re in one piece,” Rachel said. “It can’t be fun going after desperate people.”

“It isn’t. But it’s part of the job.”

“You’re doing well for yourself,” Rachel said as she glided into her chair. “I’m very pleased to see how well you’ve done here.”

“Thank you.”

“I think it’s important that we stick together as much as we can, you know?”

Cassie had grown up there and was pleased to be back. But there was no doubt that prejudice and misogyny lingered in backwards pockets.

Cassie nodded her agreement. They’d had this conversation before. Like her own small private investigations firm, Mitchell- Estrella was owned solely by women. Rachel seemed to be more concerned about the fact than Cassie ever was, but it was certainly a bond between them and something Rachel often brought up. This was Montana, after all—the land of big skies, Gary Cooper, ranches the size of small countries, and barely a million people. Cassie had grown up there and was pleased to be back. But there was no doubt that prejudice and misogyny lingered in backwards pockets.

A criminal defense firm run by women was a rarity. Rachel had once told Cassie that when she got together with Jessica Estrella to form their partnership, they were both known by their middle name of Angela. Angela Estrella and Angela Mitchell. They’d agreed to change their professional names to avoid being marginalized and lumped together in the legal community and law enforcement as “the Angelas.”

“And how is Ben?”

“He seems to be doing all right,” Cassie said. “It’s hard for a teenager to fit into a new place and a new school but he seems to be doing fine.”

Rachel nodded her approval. She’d remembered Ben’s name and Cassie couldn’t recall any of the names of Rachel’s boys. She felt her neck flush red. Rachel had a way—whether intentional or not—of making Cassie feel inadequate. Cassie thought it might be one of Rachel’s techniques for getting what she wanted out of people, and it likely served her well with witnesses in the court-room.

“Jake, Van, and Andrew are doing well,” Rachel said breezily as if to bail her out. “They grow up so quickly, but I’d be lying if I said I wanted all my little boys back. Jake and Van have discovered girls and I’m lucky to see them at all. Andrew, though, is like a young Bull. All he wants to do is go up into the mountains to fish and kill animals. He’s been hardwired like that since he was a baby.”

“Ben’s a wrestler,” Cassie said. “He’s not very good but he’s trying.”

In fact, he’d lost every match thus far in the season. She hoped he’d stick with it. Isabel disliked sports and encouraged Ben to “find his passion,” whatever that was. It was one of several items of contention between Cassie and her mother in regard to raising Ben.

Cassie contemplated trying to get Ben together with Andrew Mitchell because Ben complained about never having the opportunity to go fishing. Cassie felt guilty about that but she didn’t know how to teach him and at the moment there wasn’t a man around who could. She wondered if Andrew would take Ben under his wing or if that was a disaster of an idea cooked up by a sometimes desperate single mother.

There was a pause and Rachel said, “We’ve got a new client and I’d like you to investigate the circumstances of his arrest.”

There it was.

Cassie raised her eyebrows. “The circumstances of his arrest?” “Everything about it. From the charge to the investigation to  the arrest. I’m very interested to hear what an experienced investigator like yourself thinks of everything that has happened to date.”

“Who are we talking about?” “Our client is Blake Kleinsasser.”

Cassie jumped in her chair as if poked from behind. “No way.

“Hear me out,” Rachel said without a smile.


From The Bitterroots, by C.J. Box. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur. Copyright © 2019 by C.J. Box.

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