Hell Is Empty
A Walt Longmire Mystery
Walt faces an icy hell in this New York Times bestseller from the author of The Cold Dish and As the Crow Flies, the seventh novel in the Walt Longmire Mystery Series, the basis for LONGMIRE, the hit A&E original drama series
Fans of Ace Atkins, Nevada Barr and Robert B. Parker will love this seventh novel from Craig Johnson, the New York Times bestselling author of The Cold Dish and As the Crow Flies. Well-read and world-weary, Sheriff Walt Longmire has been maintaining order in Wyoming's Absaroka County for more than thirty years, but in this riveting seventh outing, he is pushed to his limits.
Raynaud Shade, an adopted Crow Indian rumored to be one of the country's most dangerous sociopaths, has just confessed to murdering a boy ten years ago and burying him deep within the Bighorn Mountains. Walt is asked to transport Shade through a blizzard to the site, but what begins as a typical criminal transport turns personal when the veteran lawman learns that he knows the dead boy's family. Guided only by Indian mysticism and a battered paperback of Dante's Inferno, Walt braves the icy hell of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, cheating death to ensure that justice—both civil and spiritual—is served.
The Walt Longmire mystery series is the basis for Longmire, the hit original drama series from A&E.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full?”
I tried to focus on one of my favorite skies—the silver-dollar one with the peach-colored banding that seriates into a paler frosty blue the old-timers said was an omen of bad times ahead—as I stuffed a third of a bacon cheeseburger into Marcel Popp’s mouth in an attempt to silence the most recent of his promises that he was, indeed, going to kill me.
At last count he’d made this statement twenty-seven times to me, eight to other members of the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, and seventeen to Santiago “Sancho” Saizarbitoria, who was dragging a few french fries through his ketchup as his eyes stayed trained on a paperback in his left hand.
I looked at Sancho. “That was twenty-eight.”
The sun reﬂected through the western window and struck my face like a ray gun. I was tempted to close my eyes and soak in the warmth of the early afternoon, but I couldn’t afford the luxury. I hadn’t allowed any silverware at the table and Marcel Popp was manacled, but I still warned him that if he bit either Sancho or me he’d go without food.
The Basquo tilted his head from the book. “Do dirty looks count?”
Popp glanced at Santiago, who was watching the other two convicts quietly eating their lunches, and we could only guess what his words would’ve been as he chewed.
“No.” I placed the rest of the convict’s burger on his plate and looked back out the window as the sunshine took another dying shot at my face.
Sancho and I had been amusing ourselves by keeping score, and even though the Basquo was down by eleven, he had made a fourth-quarter comeback with a tirade he’d received as we’d unloaded the transported prisoners at South Fork Lodge in the heart of the Bighorn Mountains. The Basquo’d apologized for handling Marcel’s head into the top of the door while getting him out of the vehicle; I still wasn’t sure if it had been entirely innocent.
I glanced at Santiago and then risked closing my eyes for just a second. Even with present company, I had enjoyed my own Absaroka burger and fries. South Fork was my favorite of the lodges, with the best menu and a river-stone ﬁreplace in the dining room that owners Holli and Wayne Jones kept roaring when the temperature was under ﬁfty degrees. It was a year-round, full-service lodge nestled away in one of the southside canyons, with snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, trout ﬁshing, and hunting in season.
It was early May, and the summer crowds hadn’t arrived yet. With the outside temperature in the high thirties not including windchill, I was afraid we still had a few shots of winter left.
Despite the weather, there was a comfortable, close quality to the lodge, and I fantasized about reserving one of the rustic cabins by the partially ice-covered creek and calling Victoria Moretti, another of my deputies, to see what she was up to this weekend. Vic had just bought a new house, and she’d invited me and my best friend, Henry Standing Bear, over for dinner tonight. I was still thinking about the cabin when Popp spoke again.
“I’m going to kill every single one of you motherfuckers.”
It was a general statement, but he’d been looking at me. “Twenty-nine.”
Currently, Marcel wasn’t a happy camper. I hadn’t released either him or the other two murderers from their traveling chains in order to eat. Marcel had already killed two Winnemucca, Nevada, city policemen and a South Dakota highway patrolman in an attempt to escape a year back. That and his limited vocabulary had endeared him to the entire Absaroka County staff. We would be just as happy to be rid of him when we met up with the Big Horn and Washakie counties’ sheriff’s departments, the FBI, and the Ameri-Trans van near Meadowlark Lodge in less than an hour.
Ameri-Trans was a private ﬁrm that contracted with law enforcement to transport prisoners, but they had no contract with us; I didn’t like the fact that they had a record high percentage of escapees and wouldn’t allow them in my jurisdiction, so we’d made a little jaunt into the mountains this afternoon with the prisoners.
I’d asked the FBI agent in charge over the phone what all this was about but had been told that the details would be made clear when we delivered the convicts to the multiagency task force that awaited us a little farther up the road. I didn’t like his answer, but for now that was my problem.
I glanced at Raynaud Shade, the prisoner who worried me most, the one who continued to look at his plate as he chewed. I didn’t know why the Crow-adopted Canadian Indian was being transported but would be just as glad when he was no longer my responsibility. He hardly ever spoke, but in my estimation it was the quiet ones you really had to worry about. I’d been distracted by my thoughts for only a second, but when I paid attention again his pale eyes were studying me from under the dark hair. He had this unnerving ability that whenever you refocused your eyes on him, he was there with you—like a cat in a cage.
“I’m going to kill you, you little Basque prick. I’m gonna kill your big boss here—I’m gonna fuckin’ kill all of you.”
I picked up the rest of the burger and pushed another third into Marcel’s mouth.
Sancho stuffed the paperback under his arm, looked at the stack of books at his elbow, and smiled a wayward, electric smile that made the women in the county give him that second look, or even a third. “That was a triple.”
“Almost an in-the-park home run.” I frowned at him. “That was one for you, one for me, and a general score we can share.”
I tallied it up. “Thirty to nineteen.”
He sighed and resumed reading Dante’s Inferno as I reached over and slid Les Misérables off the top of the pile to reveal Les Trois Mousquetaires—both in the original French. The Bas-quo, regretting a stint in higher education devoted almost exclusively to criminal justice, was attempting to ﬁll in some of the literary gaps. We had all made lists for him, including Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee from Henry and of all things, Concrete Charlie: The Story of Philatelphia Football Legend Chuck Bednarik from Vic, but my dispatcher Ruby’s list, which included Crime and Punishment and The Pilgrim’s Progress as well as the Inferno, had been the most daunting, so the Basquo had started with it. I, taking pity on the poor kid, had included To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, and the aforesaid Musketeers.
“How’s it going, troop?”
He peeled a thumb against the sides of the prodigious paperbacks, especially Inferno. “Slow.”
“Hey, I am God-damned starving here.”
Popp was a monster, just the kind of obstacle you didn’t want to meet in a dark or otherwise illuminated alley. Roughly my size, he was already in shape when he’d gone into the South Dakota Maximum Security Facility in Sioux Falls, and four hours of weight lifting a day over the last year hadn’t allowed him to exactly winnow away.
“And fucking dying of thirst, you assholes.”
Or improved his vocabulary.
Hector Otero, the third of our terrible trio, smiled at the latest of Popp’s outbursts, and I wondered what wrong turns had resulted in the scam artist killing two people on Houston’s south side. The ever-smiling Latino had been shocked when Santiago had spoken to him in ﬂuent Spanish. I’d understood only a percentage of the conversation, but the Basquo had rolled his eyes afterward, putting the street hood’s intelligence in question. “Who wrote that anyway?”
Sancho regarded the Latino with one eye. “What?”
The gangbanger seemed actually interested, his eyes like drips of crude oil ﬂicking between Sancho and me. “That book, that Dante’s Inferno; who wrote that?”
The Basquo and I traded a look, and I waited to see how my deputy was going to play it.
“Hector, do you know who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”
Saizarbitoria went back to his Penguin Classic. “Didn’t think so. Just be glad we’re letting you eat at the big-person table.”
Otero, aware that he was being made the butt of a joke, clicked his eyes to me so I’d know that he wasn’t up to anything and then raised in his chair just enough to see the other titles in Saizarbitoria’s pile. “Yeah, well, at least I’m not reading a book by Alexander Dumb-ass.”
Hector was grinning when Raynaud Shade sucked the air out of the room.
“Shut up, Hector.”
If anybody had ever said that to Hector Otero in the outside world, they might’ve gotten more than a couple of ounces of lead in response, but not Shade. The smaller man looked at the Indian but said nothing.
When I looked at Shade, he was staring at me again.
His features were ﬂat, his nose spread across his face like a battering ram had been used one time too many, the bones of his brow and cheeks prominent. He was an average height, but his chest, shoulders, and bull neck let you know that if something were to start, Raynaud Shade would get his share. You wouldn’t have thought him capable at twenty-seven of the rap sheet he carried—but when you looked into his outlandish eyes, it was all there. His irises were the same washed-out blue as the winter Wyoming sky and just as cold.
At least one was. Raynaud’s left eye was a replacement, and whoever had done the work had failed to capture the exact color. The shade, no pun intended, was an elusive one reﬂecting an altitude where humanity could not survive.
I’d read about him—he must have been the one the Feds were really interested in. He was on the express back to Draper, Utah, to either a lethal injection or a ﬁring squad, which meant that he was a dead man walking and, as long as he walked in my county, he would walk in chains.
He looked at me through the hood his dark hair formed and spoke in an empty, halting voice. “Thank you.”
It was the sixth time he’d communicated since we’d been responsible for him, coming up on seventy-two hours. “For?”
His eye stayed with mine for a second—it was as if he was half paying attention—then panned around the café like a searchlight. “For allowing us to eat in a restaurant.” He smiled as though he didn’t know how, and I ﬁgured it was the only one he had—the one with a lot of teeth and no warmth. “I imagine this will be my last time to do something normal.”
He spoke in the cadence of the Yukon Territory where he’d been born, and his voice carried—one of those you could hear from a hundred feet away even when he was whispering. His eye went back to his plate, and his hair fell forward, again covering his face. “I gotta go to the john.”
I studied him. “In a minute.”
He nodded and raised his cuffed hands, putting the ﬁngertips on the table at its edge, his thumbs underneath. I watched as the ﬁngers bent backward with the pressure of his grip.
“Me too, I gotta take a fucking piss.”
Popp made a clicking noise as he spoke, and I could tell he was thinking of spitting again. He’d spit on Sancho as we were unloading him, at which point I’d grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled his face in close to mine, making it clear that if he spat again he’d go without lunch. My ﬁngerprints were still on his neck; I was feeling bad about that.
“I’ve been here before.”
I turned back to Shade. “Excuse me?”
“First kill outside of my family.”
He said it like they didn’t count.
“I gave one of his bones to two other men who sent it back to me in the mail in an attempt to get some money I have put away—that’s why they’re meeting us.”
He had ﬁnished his meal and carefully pushed his plate back a couple of inches, his thumbs still under the table, his hair still covering his face. “There is an FBI psychologist that I’ve been seeing; her name is Pfaff. I told her about where the body is buried.” He was suddenly silent, aware that everyone had been listening to him, but then stared directly at me. “I just thought you might be curious.”
The waitress interrupted the little breakthrough and squelched my hopes of extending Shade’s confession. “Would you like some more coffee, Sheriff?”
It took me a second to come back; Shade’s dead eye was like that—it drew you into the cold.
I caught her looking at the convicts and ﬁgured it was to be expected. If they’re lucky, most people in the private sector never get to meet someone like Marcel Popp, Hector Otero, or especially Raynaud Shade, but with our little road show of recidivism, prurient curiosity was to be expected.
She poured in a distracted manner. “Do you get the check?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I looked at her. “I don’t know you, do I?”
Her eyes slid away. “No, I’m new.”
“Hi, New. I’m Walt Longmire.”
I held out my hand, and she took it as she held the coffee urn out of the way. “Beatrice, Beatrice Linwood.”
I listened to the way she rounded her vowels. “Minnesota?”
She nodded without enthusiasm and took a second to respond. “Yah, Wacouta.”
I smiled. “Well, you don’t have to be ashamed about it. What’s that near?”
“Where they make the work boots?”
I sipped my coffee in appreciation and studied her for a moment; midforties, she was too thin and a little mousy, but it was a nice smile. Something else there, though, something that reminded me of my late wife. Her hair was thin, and she looked like she might’ve undergone some form of chemotherapy recently.
“What brings you out this way this time of year?”
She shrugged and pushed her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose, and I noticed her rubbing her ﬁnger where a wedding ring might’ve once been.
I should’ve ﬁgured. Most of the ﬂatlanders got tired of doing a hundred miles an hour on the ice of the ten thousand lakes and eventually wanted to try their hand at the mountain trails. A lot of them ended up buried in the snow or running into trees. I’d tried the power sport once with the Ferg, my part-time deputy, but didn’t like the noise or the sensation that my crotch was on ﬁre.
“Holli and Wayne treating you well?”
She glanced toward the opening where the smiling head of ﬂamboyant chef Alfredo Coda had appeared from the kitchen, and then turned back to me. “Yah, they’ve all been great.”
“I don’t mean to break up old home week, but could I get something to fucking eat and drink?”
I tipped my fawn-colored hat back and looked at Marcel, but Saizarbitoria was faster. Holding a portion of The Divine Comedy in one hand and picking up the remainder of the prisoner’s burger in the other, he gave him the last bite. I noticed Sancho was even less gentle than I’d been, and his voice was a little irritated. “Anything to shut you up.”
I reached over to take the coffeepot from Beatrice so that she wouldn’t have to get in arm’s reach of the prisoners. “Here, I’ll take that.”
She pulled away, just slightly. “No, I’ll get it.”
I took the coffeepot anyway and tested the temperature. “That’s all right.” To a desperate man, anything was a weapon. I poured a round for the chain gang and one for the Basquo. “Can’t be too careful.”
She smiled up at me. “They don’t look all that dangerous.”
“Well.” I stood and returned the pot to her. “I’ll take that check now.”
She put it facedown alongside my empty plate.
“Shade? Let’s go.” I glanced at Sancho, making sure we made eye contact, and left him with the other two.
The convict stood and then rounded the table toward me. I glanced at Saizarbitoria one more time. He rested the paperback on the table and nodded. I took Shade’s arm, and he began a shufﬂing, manacled gait past the front counter, through the gift shop, and around the corner to the communal sink and the
two doors that led to the bathrooms.
Shade paused. “Do you need to come in with me?”
I glanced into the small stall that said BUCKS and noted the only egress was a seven-inch vent in the ceiling. “Not unless you’re planning on turning into a ﬁeld mouse and crawling up that pipe.”
“No.” He stared at me. “Not a mouse.”
“Leave the door ajar.”
He did as I asked, and as he busied himself I remembered how he had stumbled in the dining room as we’d gone past the last table where they had been rolling silverware, bumping it with his hip and pausing for only an instant.
There were small alarms going off in my head as he came out a few moments later, turned his back to me, and began washing his hands. After a few seconds he raised his head, and the eye studied me in the mirror. “I’m sorry if I seem preoccupied, but it is difﬁcult to see you.”
Aware of his disability, I nodded as he lifted his cuffed hands with the traveling chains that led to the manacles at his feet and tore a paper towel from the dispenser. “It’s the snow.” He tossed the towel into a trash can in the corner and stepped toward me. “It’s difﬁcult to see you because of the snow; surely I’m not the ﬁrst one to tell you that?”
I stared back at him and dropped my hand to the Colt at my hip. “Snow.”
His face was impassive, and he gestured with one hand, the other along for the ride. “There is the outline of you, but inside is only snow—like an old TV.”
I watched as the one hand dragged the other over his shoulder. “You mean static?”
“Yes, but not exactly like that. It’s as if you carry the snow within you.” The pupil in the live eye stretched open while the dead one remained still. “When did this happen?”
I stood there for a long moment, studying him and trying to get a read on whether it was an act or if he was truly insane. I’d been around crazy people before, but none with the dedicated malice that this man seemed to exude. “We should get back to the others.”
He leaned in and whispered as his hands dropped and shifted to his side. “I didn’t have to go to the bathroom but wanted to speak to you alone about the snow and the voices.”
I didn’t say anything, and he stepped in closer.
“You see them and hear them, too.”
I countered and casually brought the large-frame Colt up, holding it loose at my hip. “Shade, you wouldn’t have palmed the steak knife from that table in the dining room?”
He said nothing, but the one eye slit. There was a slight twitch as his motor response was to try for it, but then he smiled with his wide, even-set teeth and brought the knife out, wrapped inside a ﬁst.
I turned so that he could see that the Colt was cocked and the safety was off. “Give it to me.”
He held back and regarded me for a long moment, letting the words settle between us like ash. “You don’t believe that they are near, do you?”
I didn’t move, didn’t even breathe. “Give me the knife.”
His other hand folded around it in a two-ﬁsted grip, the blade pointed directly toward me. “The Seldom Seen; they are
with you, but you pretend that they aren’t.”
I still didn’t move.
“When did they ﬁrst become known to you?” I could feel my breath becoming short as he continued. “They spoke to me infrequently after my ﬁrst kill, but now it’s constant—they talk to me night and day, many voices as one.” He shifted his shoulders the way you would if you were preparing to move. “Many voices as one.”
I raised the Colt and pointed it at the center of his chest.
“You have also killed, and they speak with you—we have something in common, Sheriff.”
I raised the sight to his head. “The knife.”
“We are pawns to these spirits, souls they play with for their own satisfaction like hand games.” He didn’t move, and we both knew that the next threatening shift, no matter how slight, would result in his death. He continued to show me his teeth. “It will be interesting to see how they respond to your disbelief, who it is that they will send for you.”
The tension went out of his body as he lowered the knife, and he drew back. Keeping the .45 trained on his face, I reached over with my other hand and took the knife, handle out.
Handle out—I’d never seen him ﬂip it.
I got my breath back and thought about the ghosts slamming about in the particular machine in front of me as I reholstered my sidearm and put the knife in my back pocket. “Let’s go.”
I guided him back through the gift shop, past the counter where Beatrice Linwood watched us.
Shade said nothing more as I seated him at the table, but he looked back up at me and stared as if we had shared something important. I stood there thinking about what he had said, then straightened and found my deputy studying me.
“You all right?”
It took a second for me to respond. “Yep.” I glanced back at Shade and shot another look at Sancho, who closed his book again, gave me an almost imperceptible nod, and turned to look at the prisoners like a red-tailed hawk regarded ﬁeld mice. I picked up the check and crossed the twelve steps back to the cash register, peeled off three twenties, and asked Beatrice for a receipt.
She held the money and glanced back as Holli entered behind her through the swinging door that led from the kitchen. The owner/operator paused at the register and looked past me toward the seated men. “What did they do?”
I thought about whether I really wanted to tell her, ﬁnally deciding that if she didn’t want to know, she wouldn’t have asked. “They’re murderers, all of them.” I waited a moment to see if the two women wanted me to continue, and they did. “The little guy with all the tattoos, his name is Hector Otero. He’s a credit card hustler and gangbanger from Houston. The big guy with the mouth is Marcel Popp, a methadonian who . . .”
Holli looked puzzled. “A Methodist?”
I cleared my throat. “Sorry, it’s kind of an inside joke— heroin users who use methadone clinics to get high.”
Beatrice stiffened a little. “I don’t think that’s very funny.”
I thought of telling her about the dead ofﬁcers and Popp’s girlfriend, whom he’d strangled to death with an electrical cord, and how none of them had thought their situation very humorous, either.
I looked at the woman behind the counter. “Yes, ma’am.”
As I turned to go, her whisper came after me. “And that one?”
I stopped and stuffed a portion of the change into a tip jar and the receipt into my wallet without looking back at her. “Beatrice, you don’t want to know.”
“With Hell is Empty, Craig Johnson delivers an action-packed Western thriller, rife with evocative setting and literary allusion. This seventh novel featuring wise-cracking Sheriff Walt Longmire creeps stealthily out of the corral with an increasingly tense setup.” — The Boston Globe
“Johnson managed a rare feat: a mystery that is a literary novel. The story starts with a hilarious image: Longmire and his deputy sheriff, Santiago "Sancho" Saizarbitoria, hand-feeding a cheeseburger to a manacled prisoner. It gets infinitely more complex from there: an escaped prisoner with dead bodies in his wake; some unlikely unforeseen accomplices and hostages; and Longmire, never one to stand back and wait for help, tracking the criminals through the Bighorn Mountains.” — The Pittsburgh Tribune Review
“Johnson crafts a chilling allegorical tale of resolve and endurance…[and] uses his intimate knowledge of the landscape and wildlife of Wyoming to full advantage, making them characters in the action. Despite the dire situation, Johnson continues to employ gentle, wry humor and an authentic, no-nonsense Western voice in his dialogue, especially in Walt’s thoughts. And the immediacy of Walt’s peril pulls readers into the complex plot. Good stories that take place in the West are in short supply these days, and Johnson’s latest is the real deal with literary clout.” — Denver Post
“Truly great. Reading Craig Johnson is a treat…[He] tells great stories, casts wonderful characters and writes in a style that compels the reader forward…He has outdone himself with his newest book, Hell Is Empty…A piece of quality fiction that is built on so many levels that you could read it two or three times and not catch all that Johnson is trying to say…This book deserves the attention of more than just mystery readers. It is a top-notch novel. It is worth both your money and your time.” — Wyoming Tribune Eagle
“The story starts with a pitch-perfect piece of Johnson’s trademark scene-setting and then roars off into the wilderness, hardly leaving readers time to catch their breaths…In some ways, this reads like a book-length version of the haunting, harrowing final sequence of Johnson’s outstanding debut, The Cold Dish (2005). And when it comes to bad weather, western lore, and a chilling hint of the supernatural, few writers write it better. — Booklist
“Series fans and readers who enjoy C.J. Box and other authors of Western mysteries will be enthralled by this electrifying and intense work; a triumph.” — Library Journal (starred review)
“Stellar…When [Raynaud] Shade, who’s headed for death row in Utah, escapes and takes off into the wilderness with a blizzard threatening, Walt sets off alone on the killer’s trail…Soon Walt is past the point of no return as the snow and ice accumulate on a journey that evokes Dante’s Inferno.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“For Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, the pursuit of a vicious murderer through a killer ice storm in the Bighorn Moutnains adds up to a cold day in hell…Deft as always.” — Kirkus Reviews
“A muscular story of guns and grit, man against man and man against nature…the characters’ ascent is indeed hellish, pulling them deeper into a hypothermic fever dream where the line between the living and the dead blurs.” — ShelfAwareness.com
“Craig Johnson continues to crank out top-notch mystery novels featuring the adventures—and misadventures—of Walt Longmire, a modern-day Wymoning sheriff…Little wonder that he’s a winner of the Spur Award given by the Western Writers of America.” — The Charleston Gazette Mail
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