Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On With The Show!

Background! Action! Reset!
I just got home from another outing as a film extra over at Austin Studios. This time it was for the TV show "The Lying Game" for ABC Family network. Episode 19. It will be shown in a few weeks. I admit to being a bit nonplussed because the casting call was for patients for a nursing home. 
Hey, work is work! And this time it was a paying gig, not to mention getting lunch!
As my readers know I've done this before. The most recent one previously was the movie "Doonby" filmed in Smithville with John Schneider. That is due to be released in a couple of months as well. 
With the vagaries of Television Production, this episode of Lying Game will apparently make it out before that movie does. 

I had also previously done "The Magnificent Dead", a zombie/vampire western directed by Shane Scott a few years back. That one is still not out either. There was also a student film before that, never shown, with a name I don't recall. Perhaps all my work will come out within a few months and I'll be an "overnight" success!

Anyway, today was good fun. It's great to finally be paid. I was led to believe by someone that the "Doonby" gig would be paid as well, but that was bad information, I guess. Now if I can only get more of the same!

There was some costume consternation, since we had been told to come dressed as if for church, but we were mostly too well dressed initially for denizens of a nursing home. We all had to dress down for it. In addition, we were told we mostly looked "too young". I did suggest that we were all aging during the wait, and might possibly be old enough by the time we filmed the scene. That at least got laughs from the other extras, if not the PA's. 


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Azure Shade of the Bluebottle Tree : Chapter Three

Chapter 3

  County road 210 lay dark in the summer night. The cedar brakes on both sides buzzed with the night song of millions of unseen creatures, mostly insects. An armadillo rustled in the dry grass as a fox scurried across the road and under a fence.
  The man ran down the shoulder, looking for cover, there was none. The roadway was out of the question, the headlights would pin him like a bug on a specimen board. Both sides of the road were lined with ten foot high game fence. The right of way had been mowed fairly recently.  In the light from the stars and Shin Oak in the distance, he could see no culverts, no cover of any kind. He was confined to the roadside in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, and the car would round the corner soon. His skin was at least darker than his t-shirt, he started to yank it off, then he noticed that he was on the inside of a curve. In the dim light only one thing stood out between the dark pavement and the darker weeds, the white  gravel shoulder. He threw himself face down at the roadside, adjusted his position, and hoped. 
   He was barely in time, the dark pickup rounded the curve just as he settled. As it turned, the headlights passed over the outside of the curve, missing him. The truck slowly passed, he could swear he could feel eyes sweeping by him. It seemed to take hours, but was surely only seconds before the pickup passed and continued on.

   He held still for another minute, body aching. He listened for other traffic, or footsteps. None came. He slowly raised his head, looking around, nothing in sight. 
   It was hard to believe it had worked. Forty-odd years before in summer camp he had pulled the same trick during a night game of capture-the-flag. 
   Then as now he was beside a highway, trapped by the opposing team, most of his own team captured. In desperation he had lain down on the roadside, keeping his dark jeans on the grass, his light shirt and skin on the white gravel. They had overlooked him, walked right by. 
   The game was lost, but no one had captured him.  He had lain on the rocks and grass for half an hour, then crept up on the campfire by the old bridge. After lobbing a large rock into the creek to distract them, he’d appeared in the midst of the group, a soda in his hand. No one knew where he came from.

   No fire ants back then, he mused, as he rubbed a couple of stings. He continued to trot along the road, listening for other searchers. Back then the goal was a ragged neckerchief and bragging rights, tonight the stakes were a little higher. 
   He needed a place to hide but a better bet was town, lights, and people. The high bluff over the San Martin river was just ahead, there would be cedars to hide in, and  a good view of the road into town and nearby farms. 
   As he trotted down the shoulder of the road, he didn’t see the shadow detach itself from the tree line behind. Something slammed into his back and he felt himself fall, then blackness.

* * *

   Pen was dreaming about dogs barking. The noise somehow became a ringing phone. Five a.m., Elena was calling.
"Wake up! There's been another shooting." 
   It took a moment for his mouth to work, along with his brain, at least he hoped it was working.
   "Where? Who?"
   "210, West of the river. Out near the old Smiley place. Pen, it's Charlie, Charlie Adams".
   Pen groaned, this was bad. Sara Beth was going to be crushed. Elena was waiting for his response. Instead Pen asked "Has Sarah Beth been called?"
   "I just called her, she told me to get you out here too. I was going to call you anyway."
   "Give me ten minutes!"
   Pen had fallen asleep in his chair, fully dressed. Bast had been sleeping above his head, but he had jumped down when Pen answered the phone.  It only took a moment to splash water on his face, throw on his gunbelt and jump in his truck.
   Sara Beth Adams was Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace. The Precinct 3 Contable and his deputies were, among other things, officers of her court. She was sweet, sharp, and easy to underestimate. The woman was tough, and she had plenty of friends in  the state capitol from her time there. She was also tight with all the Copete County Commissioners. When she chose to do so she had all the influence she needed to get things done her way. She rarely pushed things. Pen had an idea she would decide to push things now.
   Charlie Adams was Sarah Beth's brother-in-law. Her husband, Clyde, was killed in Vietnam. Clyde's two brothers, Gaylord and Charlie, had taken Sarah Beth under their wings ever since. Now Gaylord, or "Chick", was on the Shinoak Ridge City Council, Sarah Beth was JP, and Charlie was loan officer at First Fidelity.
   Sara Beth was going to be all over Sheriff Red Tucker, and everyone else, until Charlie's killer was found.

* * *

   County road 210 hadn't seen this much traffic in ages. Emergency vehicles clustered in one spot like buzzards on fresh road kill. Pen wished he hadn't thought of that comparison. The cars' spot lights were converging on the body on the ground. The flashers lit up the surrounding trees. Volunteer firemen were directing what little traffic there was. It was almost dawn. There was a big turn out from the sheriff's office. Sheriff Tucker himself had shown up. A shaken and tearful Sara Beth was talking to him. Buster saw Pen and tried to keep him away from the scene but Sara Beth's voice cut through the background noise.
   "I want Deputy Constable Sadler over here with me."
Buster and Red both tried to object, but Sara Beth wouldn't have it. She was obviously hurting, but she was determined.
   Buster looked apoplectic. Red tried again.
   "Sara Beth, there's no need. We have plenty of hands on this now. I don't want..."
   Sara Beth raised one hand and Red stopped in mid bluster. "You will keep my office informed and Deputy Sadler will join the investigation."
   Red glared at her, then walked away shaking his head as Pen walked up to Sara Beth.
   "I'm sorry about Charlie, Sara Beth. He was a good guy."
   Sara Beth gripped his arm hard. Pen could see she was close to breaking down. She still might if she met his eyes. She supported herself on his arm for a minute, then cleared her throat.
   "Looks like he was shot in the back, Pen, but I saw some bruises too. I think maybe he was beaten. We'll get the DPS lab to look him over."
   "We're going to get whoever did this, Sara Beth."
   "It was bad enough with Dub Holt getting killed. I want you on this, Pen, now."
   "Red and Buster..."
   "Red and Buster can't find their asses with both hands. They make the Three Stooges look like geniuses. I need you working on this. You know everybody and you know what you're doing. I'm not going to let them keep you out of it."
   Pen looked over at the Sheriff. He was looking sour. Behind him, Elena was giving him a discreet thumbs up. Red almost caught her at it, she scratched her nose and turned away.
   The EMT's were ready to move Charlie. Sara Beth asked them to hold off till Pen took a look around. He didn't push his luck with Red, he looked at positions and angles and told Sara Beth to go ahead. She formally declared Charlie dead, with only a little quaver in her voice, and they took him away. Pen knew he could get everything from Elena and the DPS even if Red tried to shut him out. 
   Pen drove Sara Beth home. She objected but she didn't mean it. Pen could tell she was badly shaken. She and Charlie went way back.
   "Do you want to call someone? A friend? Your pastor?"
   "I will. Oh God! I have to tell Chick his brother's..."
   "I'll do it. But, he probably already knows by now."
   "They were really close, they were the three musketeers growing up."
   They pulled up in the well kept yard Sara Beth's house. It had originally been a mail order Victorian style kit house back in the early nineteen hundreds. It was still in good shape and freshly painted. Pen walked Sara Beth to the door. Her friend, Mae Insall, was already there. Sara Beth held on to Pen for a minute, leaning on his shoulder. Then she straightened and went inside with Mae. Pen had never seen her look so lost.
   He headed back home and took care of Bast and Odin. It was nearly sunrise, so Pen just showered, dressed again, and went to Oso's for breakfast.

   Oso's Hula Hut was on the highway that bypassed old town. Oso is Spanish for Bear. It fit Max Lesak well. Max was an old biker with an appreciation of food and it showed. He wore Hawaiian shirts so he didn't have to tuck them in. Max's wife, Teresa, was a darn good cook who insisted on cooking healthy. The Hula Hut served an odd mix of Czech and Mexican food customized by Teresa to be yummy but low fat. Somehow Max's belly was holding it's own, but he was looking healthier somehow.
   This morning, coffee and gluten-free kolaches sounded like just the thing.
  The morning coffee crowd had already heard about Charlie. Everyone seemed equally shocked by the news. Pen took the time to eat, savoring the food and the familiar talk around him for a bit before he pulled up his belt, paid his tab, and went to the car to report in.

* * *

   The constable offices for Copete County Precinct 3 were located in one end of the precinct equipment barns near Blue Hole, 8 miles from Shin Oak. Karen Toomey was the office manager and dispatcher of sorts. She was pretty broken up at the news of Charlie's murder. Karen worked for Sara Beth also and knew the whole family well.
   "Who'd ever want to hurt Charlie?" she asked around the tissues Pen had handed her. She'd always worn a lot of mascara, but she'd cried it all off.
   "I don't know, but I'll do my best to find out. You've known the whole family a long time. Have you ever heard of any trouble he might have had with anyone?"
"No, nothing. I thought he got along with everyone. I wonder if it had something to do with the bank. I mean after Dub getting killed too..."
   "Sara Beth wants me to work on it, the sheriff isn't going to be happy about it."
   That got him a half smile.
   "Red? Happy about that? He'll be as mad as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs! He won't like that one little bit!"
   "Well, he heard it directly from her at the scene this morning."
   "Good for her, she'll make it stick, too! Where will you start?"
   "I need to talk to Stan. Is he around?"
   "Sara Beth called him to come over first thing. He should be back soon."
   "Let me know when he gets here, okay?"
   "Of course, where will you be?"
   Pen looked toward his desk and sighed.
   "Karen, my love, we'll always have paperwork."
   Karen mopped her eyes.
   "Ain't that the truth?"

   Pen stuck his head in Esau Culver's office to say hello. There were four Culver brothers in that generation. Jacob, Joseph, Ben and Esau. The Culver family went way back in this part of the county, Pen wasn't too fond of some of them. However, Esau was a good guy. He'd been Precinct 3 County Commisioner for nearly fifty years. Pen couldn't remember when anyone had even run against him. Esau made sure the roads around the precinct were well maintained, and you often saw him driving the grader. He made sure the road to his ranch was taken care of as well, but only after the rest of them were done. In most precincts it was a common joke that the commissioner's own road was always the best kept in the precinct, not so in Precinct 3.
   Esau was sincere in his regrets about Charlie and Dub. They talked a little about it. Like Karen, he couldn't imagine anyone hurting either of them. He only had one suggestion.
   "Well, after all, they were both bankers. Dub and Charlie were both good guys, pillars of the community and all that. Folks tend to view bankers with suspicion. They have ever since the Great Depression. It all got stirred up again recently with the savings and loan scandals, and now all the foreclosures going on. Maybe that had something to do with it, but I never heard of anything in particular."
   Pen agreed with Esau. The bank was a starting point, that was all.
   The window unit in Esau's office was on the blink. He told Karen to call the repairman again and he left to check on the road crews. Pen couldn't blame him. At least in Esau's car the a/c was working.
   Pen continued on to his desk.

  Pen had worked through at least half of his inbox when Stan returned. Stan Hart was fifty years old, he'd been the constable for Precinct 3 for more than half of his life. Like Esau Culver, Stan had been re-elected every term over the years. He and Pen had become friends when Pen was with the sheriff's department. After Red Tucker had taken over, Stan took Sara Beth's advice and offered Pen the deputy position. The pay wasn't as good, but they both knew it wasn't about that. Pen was still able to do what he liked best, and doing it where he wanted to be.
   Stan came straight over to Pen's desk.
   "I just left Sara Beth."
   "How's she doing?"
   "Still pretty torn up. She told me about Charlie, and that she wanted you to work on it."
   "I agreed with her. You're a better investigator than anyone Red has now. He was an idiot to dump you!"
   "Go ahead, tell me how you really feel!"
   Stan grinned at Pen, clapped his shoulder.
   "Go on, run with it. Who knows, maybe Red will solve it just to get rid of you!"

   Good enough, Pen thought.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Azure Shade of the Bluebottle Tree : Chapter Two

Chapter 2

Copete County is in Central Texas on what is called the Balcones Escarpment, about an hour's drive north of Austin. Roughly half the county is rocky brush country, the rest is fairly worn out farm land. The county seat is Cedar City, about twelve miles to the southeast. Roughly four hundred thousand people live in Copete County, about ten percent of those live in Cedar City, the largest town. On the map the county looks a bit like a frog about to jump. Old timers would call it a hop-toad. Cedar City would be around the heart of the toad. The small town of Shin Oak is close to the neck. As deputy constable of Precinct 3, Pen was responsible for patroling the toad's head and shoulders, the limestone and brush country part.
As a resident of Shin Oak, Pen was also the closest law enforcement for the town most of the time.
The town of Shin Oak boasts a population of a thousand or so. It was finally incorporated in the 1980's in a viciously contested election. The town hadn't gotten around to getting their own police yet. The city had a contract with the county to provide law enforcement. Usually that meant Deputy Constable Penrod Sadler, at least until something like Dub's murder got the attention of the sheriff's department.
As a deputy constable Pen serves warrants, chases runaways, performs all the law enforcement tasks related to the Justice of the Peace court for the precinct. A typical day found him driving all over the precinct, other parts of the county, sometimes even outside the county.
Today was fairly typical, travel-wise. Pen almost made it back into town by dark.

[ScID:4]That night Cindy's Bar was fairly busy. Pen had a beer with Cindy Taylor and Melvin Insall at their usual table by the kitchen. All the talk was about Dub Holt. When Cindy found out that Pen didn't know anything she didn't she changed the subject.
"How are things with Esme?"
"I think we're on a break right now."
 Esmeralda Hernandez was a young widow. Pen liked her a lot, and she liked him, but she was cautious about how a romantic relationship would affect her daughters. Their relationship was on and off. It was a puzzle to Pen and a complete mystery to others, including Cindy.
“How long will you let her use you for a piñata? Let me fix you up, I have some cute friends.”
“Thanks, Cindy, not right now.”
Mel got one of his thoughtful looks, “Hey, that’s a good line, can I use it?”
“Not right now?”
“No, that “use you for a piñata” line! Cindy? That was yours.”
“Go on, be my guest.” 
Mel scribbled it down as he walked away, mumbling. Cindy said, “well, he’s gone for awhile, he shifted to writer mode. I have to be careful what I say around him, except when I want to get him out of my hair for awhile!”
"Knowing that can be a good thing, when you need it."
"You're pretty smart for a deputy constable. You oughta be sheriff!"
"Tell that to the voters!"
"They'll know better next time! Red hasn't made too many friends since he got elected. The ones he did have sure won't vote for him again. Everyone is wiser to his dirty tricks now."
"We'll see, I'm not sure I'd want to run again, though."
"Do it, one term of Red is all anyone can stand!"
"You gonna vote for me?"
"I hadn't been back here long enough last time, but if you run I might just register so I can!"
Two years previously the then county sheriff had self-destructed; too many episodes of public intoxication. Pen had been chief deputy, as well as filling in as captain of criminal investigations. He was appointed acting sheriff till a new sheriff was elected. Pen ran for the position at election time, but Red Tucker had done everything he could to link Pen to the previous sheriff's problems. Red's cronies managed to get him elected. After he won, Red fired Pen from the department and moved Buster up to his spot.
Pen didn't fight it. Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace, Sarah Beth Adams, had gotten him hired as a deputy constable soon after that. The constable, Stan Hart, and Pen had been fishing buddies, so it was a good fit.
Cindy had moved back into town about the same time. She was Faye and Elmo Taylor's daughter. She'd gone off to college after high school. Everyone heard she had been in the Army, then they hadn't heard from her for quite awhile. Cindy came home, bought an old gas station and converted it into a bar. No one knew what had happened between her and her parents but they rarely spoke to each other.
Cindy was different temperamentaly.  The Taylor's were always fighting with someone, Cindy was more laid back, but she had a core of steel that earned her respect.

    Pen thanked Cindy for the beer and her concern. After leaving he went by his place and socialized a bit with Mau and Odin. Mau was a blue/gray tom cat who'd moved in and allowed Pen to live with him. He'd been in his share of fights before Pen had had him neutered, and he'd kept the attitude. Odin was a German Shepherd mix, also rendered neutral late in life. Elena Delgado and Pen had found Odin in a meth lab bust a couple of years previously. Somehow Elena had talked Pen into taking the dog. Odin and Mau were good company.
That night Pen talked to both of them, made sure they both had food and water, and headed over to the Godmall for his security gig.
An oil bust followed by a savings and loan scandal had knocked the bottom out of the economy five years ago. The nearly finished shopping mall was closed before it opened. It fell to Realtor Jerry Patton to find a buyer for the huge white elephant. Jerry got the idea to offer the site to the Copete County Council of Churches. Many of the larger churches around the area were suffering growing pains. The mall offered access to plentiful space, three large meeting halls, tasteful surroundings, and shared bills. The center now boasted at least one each of all the major churches, protestant and Catholic.
The sign out front said "Copete County Religious Center". Most of the locals simply called it "The Godmall".
There were a few holdouts, locally known as "non-mall" churches, including some of the smaller and perhaps more fundamentalist sects. Old time religion was still alive and well in Shin Oak.  There were even pagans. Surprisingly they were pretty much ignored. There were enough of them in the open like Pen himself. Some were from the old-line families and they were just considered eccentric.
Nobody talked much about it. 
The Godmall was dark. There were no special events or services tonight, in fact there hadn't been for several days. Convenience aside, the mall was a beast to cool in the middle of the summer.
While most of the larger churches in this end of Copete County were part of the mall, air conditioning the whole thing full time ran way over budget. So did security, but a few bouts of vandalism and break-ins convinced them of the necessity.
Deputy constable doesn't pay so much that a little part-time work doesn't help out the pocket book now and then. The regular security guard wanted to cut back to part-time, the JP, Sarah Beth, suggested Pen to the facility manager, who just happened to be her cousin. Small towns, if you don't work with relatives, you don't work!

 Elena dropped by the mall. She brought a thermos of coffee and some of Oso's kolaches.
"Thanks for pointing out the shot direction. Buster thought that was pretty smart, for a girl!" She rolled her eyes.
Pen grinned at her. "Glad I could help. Anything else turn up?" 
"Not really, no shells on the ground. The wound looked like fairly small caliber, but high velocity. Maybe a .223."
"No hunting going on now, somebody should have heard a shot. Mostly .30 caliber rifles around here, though."
"No one has reported hearing it so far."
Elena didn't have anything else to share. They drank coffee together for a bit, easy together. El and Pen went back a long time. They'd dated now and then,  covertly back when they were co-workers. Somehow they'd stayed friends. They finished the thermos, she gave him a kiss and headed home, it was time for him to punch the time clock again to show he was on the job.

    Pen's duties led him all over precinct 3 the next week.
There was nothing much new on Dub's shooting. The ruling was death by homicide, no surprise. One bullet had been found still in Dub's body. Elena had been close, it was a .222 slug, pretty deformed after hitting the bottles and a couple of ribs but still identifiable. It was a bit odd that the slug had no rifling marks on it. That would make it hard to match to a rifle.
Dub's funeral was held at the old McAlister family cemetery. There was a good turnout. Charlie Adams had driven Dolly from Pilgrim's Rest. Charllie had worked with Dub a long time, and was Sara Beth's brother in law.
Dolly was looking pretty good, considering her reason for being there. Pen went over to speak to Dolly and Charlie after the service. He overheard Faye Taylor speaking to Dolly.
"It's a terrible thing when children to pass before their parents."
Dolly's sharp glance was visible through the dark veil.
"I'm sure you're right. I hope you're not suggesting I should have died sooner!"
"Well, no, of course not" I only meant ..."
"I love Dub, and I hate that he's gone. But, none of us know when we'll pass."
Faye made a hasty retreat, "No, of course Miz Dolly. If there's anything I can do..."
Dolly ignored her and turned to Pen as he approached. She nodded as  he expressed sympathy.
"I hope you'll find whoever did this, Pen Sadler."
"The sheriff is working on it, Miz Holt."
Dolly snorted, "The sheriff! There's a reason I didn't vote for him. Don't thank me, I didn't vote for you either. I remember you stealing peaches from my orchard!"
Pen flushed, "That was a really long time ago, Miz Holt."
"I expect so. Charlie says you've changed. He says if anyone catches that murderer it will be you."
The piercing blue eyes regarded Pen through the veil. Charlie patted her on the shoulder.
Like Faye, Pen knew when he was overmatched.
"I'll guess I'll just have to do that for you then, Miz Holt."
The two dismissed Pen with a nod and turned to accept more good wishes.

It was Friday before Pen made it back to Cindy's.
He walked in and asked Rudy for a soft drink. Mel was in the middle of his set. His songs were usually a mix of standard country and folk-rock. The regulars liked a lot of Merle Haggard and Waylon and Willie, but they didn’t mind if he threw in his own songs now and then as long as the couples could keep moving to it. Mel’s folks were well off, but he had gone native. He preferred to spend time with the Mexican hired hands at the ranch and the lumber yard.
Mel learned to understand Tex-Mex early, and his own taste in music was bilingual. He loved the corridas and could shift gears in an instant, going from “Okie from Muskogee” directly into “Volver” with hardly a pause in between.  The clientele at Cindy’s didn’t care, the dancers could dance cumbias as well as two-steps, and the drinkers could drink in all languages. If anyone was bigoted enough to complain, Cindy was quick to suggest they leave and drink elsewhere.

Mel ended his version of “Night Life”, and took a drink of bottled water. He played a couple of tentative chords to check his tuning, then went into the lead of something different, probably an original, Pen thought.
The guitar chords held a bit of border ballad flavor. Mel's voice seemed to ache as he sang:

You see this heart, upon its string?
It cannot hide from you.
You stepped on up and took your shot
And broke it all in two.

You didn’t have to break it, dear
To reach the love inside
Your love and trust is all it needs
To make it open wide.

This heart was made of potter’s clay
And shaped with sun and rain
It’s filled with love and all my dreams
And fired with joy and pain

Here it lies in pieces now
The shards are scattered wide
The love it held has scattered far
There’s nothing left inside.

There’s nothing left to mend, my dear
Without the missing part
Bring back the love you took away
And mend my broken heart.

Piñatas have no use when they
Are broken all apart
Come back, come back and help me mend
My poor Piñata Heart."

Mel finished the song, the last chord died away to near silence, and the crowd applauded, not wildly, but enough. You could tell they liked it. It was a song that might grow on you. He put the guitar down, “Time for a break,  I’ll be back. Thank you.”. He moved among the tables, speaking to everyone, and sat on the stool next to Pen.
“I hate you,” Pen said, but grinned. “My social life sucks and you get applause for it!”  
Mel took a drink from his Budweiser, “Hey, what are friends for? How are things?” 
“Why? Need a flip side?”
“Only if it’s good!”
“Not so much. A drive-off at the Stop and Save. Stan has me tracking down the owner of the truck.”
“Hey, not bad, I can rhyme truck!”
“Sure, but will Cindy let you sing it?”
“Probably not.”
"Yeah, probably. That one sounded good, though. A keeper."
"Thanks, Pen. Staying awhile?"
"Going home, see you later." A nod to Cindy, and Pen was out the door. He was bemused as he walked out to the truck. Mel had real talent, it felt a bit odd to know Pen had inspired one of his songs, but, on the other hand, it was a good one. Oh well! No security work tonight. No social life. A good night for a carton of ice cream and a good book.

Song “Corazon de Piñata”, (Piñata Heart), copyright 2000 by William C. Seward.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Azure Shade of the Bluebottle Tree : Chapter One

Chapter 1

"It's them rustlers, Deputy."
Ben Culver had a missing cow.
Not the sort of crime Deputy Constable Pen Sadler thought he'd be handling when he'd gotten into law enforcement, but there you go. He spent more time keeping the electorate happy than actually solving crime. Even on a scorching July day.
Pen saw random tire tracks in the dust. They all appeared to be Ben's, but Pen put on a show of measuring them. He barely avoided letting Ben talk him into making plaster casts and convinced him finally that cedar posts really don't hold fingerprints well. Finally, Pen showed the nearsighted old gentleman that once again his fence had fallen down and his missing cow was in the next field over. Even worse, that field belonged to his brother Joseph. Ben and Joseph hadn't spoken in thirty years.
Stories varied as to the cause of the feud. It was a girl or it was livestock or it was some imagined slight. It didn't really matter, except to the brothers. Pen doubted they even knew how it started.
Ben Culver was a good sort, as curmudgeonly old bachelors went. He'd somehow missed out on the land and money of the rest of his family. Instead, he ran cattle all over Copete County on leased property. Nobody, including Ben, knew how many cattle he had. He didn't brand or tag any of them, he also never checked his fences. Everyone pretty much acknowledged that any loose cattle on the roads were probably Ben's. If there was ever an accident the cows must be someone else's.
This time the "rustled livestock" in question was quickly herded back through the fence and the rusty wire was tied back up in some sort of order. It wouldn't hold for long, but it actually looked better than most of Ben's fences.
Deputy Sadler was more than ready to leave when he heard the dispatcher's voice on the radio. It wasn't good news.
“Pen, better get over to Dolly Holt’s place. There's been a shooting.”
"I'm on my way."
Deputy Constable Penrod Sadler drove off through the dust devils.

* * *

Dolly Holt’s place fit the stereotype of an old rundown ranch. Today it was showing more activity than it had in years. Pen drove up and stopped by the yard fence. Sheriff's deputies were already there clustered around the bluebottle tree. Dozens of cobalt blue patent medicine bottles, from laxative to squat salve jars, were placed over the end of every bare branch of a dead fig tree. Not an uncommon sight, especially on the older homesteads. The mottled blue shade gave a softly clownish appearance to the body beneath the tree.
There was nothing humorous about the situation. An imposing man in life, Dub Holt was sprawled like a discarded scarecrow, a few sheriff's deputies recording the evidence of death. As president of First Fidelity, Holt had been respected. He inspired trust in his patrons, but the hole in his chest, and the blood soaked dirt around him, made it clear that he had inspired someone to much worse. Blue glass shards around him and a couple of bare limbs gave Pen a rough idea of the direction at least one shot had come.
This was as much as Pen had taken in before Buster Coleman saw him.
"Traffic detail, deputy constable."
He turned away, clearly Pen had been dismissed. Pen walked out the yard gate, the counterweight rising and falling as he passed through. Elena Delgado let her “cop-face” slip a bit, winking at him behind Buster’s back. The big boys were on the job and they enjoyed putting him in his place. Pen had once been Buster's boss. Now Pen was here for traffic detail. Traffic, on a dusty farm road and a hot July afternoon, was not a problem.
Pen ignored the snub and surveyed the place from outside the fence. It was all a bit run-down, but clean. Dub had paid Tupper Roundtree to paint the house fairly recently. It certainly didn’t look like the home of a banker’s mom. Dub’s own house was a couple of miles away on the other side of Shin Oak. Willie Nelson had one of his first picnics out there. Dub's house had acres of lawn and sprinklers. Dolly’s had a bare dirt yard like most old-timers. They still remembered having to haul water and watch out for snakes.
Dolly McAllister Holt had grown up on this farm and had intended to die here till a stroke had put her in Pilgrim’s Rest nursing home. Dub hired Tina Herrera to clean and check on the place in the meantime. According to the dispatcher, Tina had found Dub's body around noon, called it in, and here they all were.
Pen watched Elena interview an obviously shaken Tina. El was doing her usual best to put her at ease. Pen heard the melody of mixed Spanish and English. He knew Elena would fill him in later, if only to spite Buster. Pen heard a truck coming on the gravel road.
A rusty gray Ford came rattling around the corner, faded lettering reading “The Feed Store” on the driver’s door, bales of hay in the back. The truck wheezed to a stop. The white dust cloud caught up and passed before the door opened.
Pen waved. “You’re late, Faye! I thought you’d beat me here!” Faye Taylor ignored him and headed for the gate, her camera in her hand. Pen stopped her.
“Crime scene, Faye, you have to stay outside the fence.”
“C’mon, Pen, I left my long lens at home!”
“Sorry, Faye. You know the rules!”
Faye glared at him, the same way she’d glared at him since grade school. She only came to his shoulder, a weathered wildcat, looking exactly as ancient as she had when Pen was about ten.
Faye and Elmo Taylor ran The Feed Store. Faye was also on the City Council and sometime reporter for the Shin Oak Stump, the “other” weekly paper. Shin Oak Ridge is a small town. The active people have a lot of horseshoes on the anvil.
Faye fussed and took pictures near the fence. Pen heard gravel crunch again and turned to see Anna Patton’s florist van pull up. Pen waved her over toward Faye. Anna often covered stories for the Shin Oak Guardian since she was usually out making deliveries anyway. She always carried her camera along. Pen kept an eye on the two of them to make sure they didn’t start flinging cow patties at each other. For the moment they ignored each other after Faye’s envious look at Anna’s telephoto lens. 
Pen left Shin Oak’s own media circus do their thing. He moved around and visually lined up the body and the broken bottles. Looking beyond, Pen could see that the bullets could have come from the dam of the stock tank, about seventy yards away. It was a shot any of the numerous deer hunters in the area could have made. Pen started to say something to the deputies, but stopped himself. Buster had made it plain that he didn’t want his advice.
Robbie Metcalfe came out to his van and stopped to chat. Robbie was young but he had been one of Shin Oak's first EMT's after the volunteer fire department formed. He really wasn't too concerned about Buster's attitude.
"Terrible about old Dub. Looks like a bullet through the heart."
Pen mentioned what he had noticed about probable direction. When Robbie went back into the yard he passed a private word to Elena. She spoke to Buster. Pen figured she'd find a way to let Buster think it was his own idea. Buster tolerated a smart hispanic woman only slightly more than he did a deputy constable. He would let her check it out, though, if it saved him some effort. Finally Justice of the Peace Sarah Beth Adams got there to declare Dub legally dead and things got busier. She conferred with Robbie and Buster. Pen knew she would keep him in the loop regardless.
 The sheriff's deputies had pretty much recorded everything by the time the JP arrived. Other than Faye and Anna the only traffic to control was the county cars and the ambulance leaving the scene. Buster gave a short statement to the reporters and sent them away. Pen had to stay with "traffic control" until everyone had left. That didn't take much longer.
Pen stepped past the yellow tape and looked around the yard before he left. Nothing he hadn't already seen. The packed earth barely even showed anyone had passed. Blue glass shards and Dub's bloodstain were the only evidence anything had happened. When the rains came the blood would be gone.
Maybe flowers would grow.
Pen took a walk over to the nearly dry stock tank. Some of the dried grass was pushed down, but feral pigs were everywhere, so that may not have meant anything. He could clearly see the bottle tree from there, whatever that was worth.
For now, it was the sheriff's case.
Pen would see what happened. Sarah Beth didn't like him stepping on anyone's toes if it wasn't necessary. It wasn't in his job description.
Besides, Pen had stayed long enough, the radio was squawking.
Pen had other fish to fry, as his old Uncle Hub used to say.