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.

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