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.
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.
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?”
"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.