Friday, April 20, 2012

The Azure Shade of the Bluebottle Tree - Chapter Four

Chapter Four

The Sheriff hadn't liked it a bit that Pen was looking into Charlie's death. He liked it even less that Pen was looking at Dub Holt's murder as well. He tried to say the two weren't connected, but he couldn't even sell that idea to himself. They'd managed to find the bullet that killed Charlie. It had gone straight through, back to front. It had been found in a cedar fence post across the road. Ballistics revealed another .222 caliber slug, no rifling. What had seemed pretty likely now seemed definite. Bits of some sort of plastic had also been found in Charlie's wound.
Red threatened bodily harm if Pen didn't share everything he found out. He then assigned Elena Delgado to be Pen's liason with the department. Pen was surprised. He would have expected to be saddled with someone like Bud. He tried hard not to show his elation. 
Since Pen was part of the investigation now, he could go back and make his "official" survey of the crime scenes with Elena. They walked the Dub Holt scene first. They spiraled out from the bottle tree, foot by foot without finding anything till they reached a point roughly halfway to the stock tank dam. Pen hadn't told Elena what he suspected, but she was the one who found it. She waved him over, and Pen looked down. A white plastic cylinder, opened a bit on one end like a flower. Elena pushed it into an evidence bag with her pen.
"A sabot. Looks like .30 caliber, there's our rifling, the other end looks like it could fit a .222 slug."
"Well, that explains it. How many .30 calibers of different kinds are there around here?"
Elena looked thoughtful. "Probably a bolt action with a clip feed, though. Not a Winchester 30-30, for instance."
"Yeah. it wouldn't feed through a tubular magazine. Definitely a clip."
"30-06 or .308 maybe."
"Maybe. We'll see what the lab says."
Sometimes varmint hunters will use a sabot load to shoot a smaller caliber slug in a larger rifle. It was a way to use one rifle for both large and small game and retain reasonable accuracy. It also meant that, for evidence purposes, there were no rifling marks on the bullet. An added complication for a jury to consider. At least now they had the plastic sabot to help.
Now that the general direction of the shot was established, Pen and Elena continued their search toward the dam.
Closer inspection of the top of the dam revealed two circular depressions where the shooter's elbows may have rested and some scuff marks a short distance away. Pen carefully assumed a prone position near the marks. The shooter would have been close to Pen's height, six feet tall.
There was nothing else at the dam. They drove over to County Road 210.

     Pen pulled over on the shoulder of  210 where he'd parked before. Elena parked behind him. They walked to the spot Charlie's body had been found and stopped. Neither felt a need to break the silence as they stood and looked around.
It was Pen who finally spoke.
"What was he doing here on foot?"
"Nobody seems to know. No driveways anywhere close. His car is still at his house."
They could see the tag a deputy had put on the fence post where the slug was found. They turned and looked in the other direction. The line made by the fence post and the body's position continued to a grove of oak and cedar just over the fence about fifty yards beyond. Elena said, "they found a spot by that oak where the shooter probably stood."
"Pretty good shot in the dark. Low light scope, maybe. No moon last night, clear, starlight."
Elena thought a moment. "And the white road gravel behind Charlie, too. That would help."
Pen looked at his notebook. "Preliminary report from the coroner shows restraint marks on Charlie's wrists. Somebody had him tied up somewhere. A few bruises too. Maybe he was beaten, maybe bruised while escaping."
"Who'd do that to Charlie Adams? And why?"
Pen put his notebook away. "That's what we have to find out. It is no coincidence that two officers of First Fidelity State Bank would be shot by a similar weapon and just a few days apart."
El checked her watch. "The bank is closed by now if it wasn't already."
"Tandy McAlister is the senior vice-president there now. We'll see when we can talk to him. I think we've done all we can today."
When they returned to their units the seats were already blistering hot. They started the engines and waited for the interiors to become bearable again. Elena returned to the sheriff's office and Pen continued to town.

    Pen thought about the bank as he followed County Road 210 through Shin Oak. The streets were quiet, not much activity except for the guys on the spit 'n whittle bench by the domino parlor. He drove on to State Highway 411. First Federal State Bank was located on the north side of the intersection. From the highway he could see the large black wreath fluttering on the door. He drove into the tastefully landscaped parking lot and saw Patricia Belmont's blue Mustang convertible parked next to Morgan Culver's red Porsche. The two women were standing by the cars and finished their conversation as he stepped out of the car.
Patricia had obviously been crying. "This is so awful, Pen. How's Sara Beth holding up?"
"She's  holding up pretty well. I haven't heard from her this afternoon."
Patricia Belmont was a puzzle. She'd been Parr Culver's first wife. She'd been secretary to Principal Ted Stokely at the high school five years ago when they had both been fired from the school district for mishandling funds. She and Parr had gotten divorced about the same time. Patricia had taken back her maiden name and somehow had gotten a responsible position at First Federal.
Morgan Culver was married to Parr's cousin, Bobby Lee. She was a good ten years older than her husband, and the subject of more than her share of talk. Her straightforward attitude had won many supporters, including Pen. He wondered what the two had been talking about. Other than the family connection they didn't seem to have much in common. He let it pass, though, that wasn't why he was here. He turned to Patricia.
"Is Tandy around?"
Patricia looked at the bank, then back to Pen as she wiped her eyes and got into her car. "No, the bank was closed today because of Charlie. I just came in to do some paperwork. Tandy came by for a few minutes earlier, though. You could probably catch him at home."
"Will the bank be open tomorrow?"
"I'm sure it will. I'm sure we'll close for the funeral. Any word when it will be?"
"I haven't heard anything. I'm sure Jo Ellen will put up the notice at the post office when it's set."
Patricia lifted her left hand in goodby as she drove away. Morgan had stood by quietly as they were talking.
"You two never went out, did you?"
"We never really hit it off. Why?"
"I don't know. You're both single, close in age." Morgan laughed. "That seems to matter a lot in Shin Oak."
"Age isn't everything, Morgan. I think I've heard you say that a few times."
She chuckled again. She was a lovely, intelligent woman, and one of Pen's best friends.
"Will we see you at the ritual, Morgan?"
"I wouldn't miss it. Steve coming?"
Since my brother Sam had died twelve years ago I'd been keeping a close relationship with my nephew Steve. He was now sixteen and thinking about driving and girls. He'd always liked coming to the pagan circle and often volunteered to handle some of the supporting functions.
"Sure. He'll be tending fire, if we have one!"
Morgan smiled. "We'll see you then."

     The ritual was a bit subdued. Lammas is one of the eight traditional sabbats but it is sometimes skipped, at least in Central Texas. Seasonally, it was a bit out of place. Back in Celtic times and places, the first of August was indeed a time for harvest of grains and all that, but here in Texas it was just darn hot. Sometimes the festivals that were designed for places with one growing season were an odd fit for a place with two, or sometimes three. It's also a "fire" festival. There was no fire this time, for the sake of the temperature and the county-wide fire ban that was in its sixty-third day.
Pen thought it was wishful thinking to celebrate the "end" of summer when they wouldn't be seeing cooler days for several months. He looked forward to the Fall equinox, Mabon, and then October's Samhain, the witch's new year, and the really kick-ass ritual. That aside, Owl and Lisa Garrison had done a great job on Lammas. Owl was the name Oso's wife Teresa used for magickal work. Some pagans used their own names, as Pen and Lisa Garrison did. Others chose names that suited them or represented a totem animal or interest.
As always the fellowship after the ritual was fun. Sharing bread, fruit, and wine with the others was always a treat. Pen looked around at this, his community of friends, his family of choice. Lisa was there, and Elena. Oso and Owl brought kolaches. Esme had brought pan dulce. Morgan's ice-cold sangria was fruity and refreshing.
It was a good turn out considering the heat. For the past several years the circle had met here on Lisa Garrison's property. She had a perfect oak grove, open in the center, shady with a good breeze even now. A spring fed creek ran nearby with a small pool to cool off in. The circle took turns keeping it neat for meetings. It was one of Pen's favorite places. There were a couple of permanent altars near, one to Diana, another to Green Man.
Even better, there was a view of Cedar Knob. On a moonlit night it was a magical sight. The hill loomed in the distance, the highest feature around, the top flattened as if a mesa had been transplanted from Anasazi country. Something about it made the viewer feel adrift in space and time.
For ritual purposes the sight was almost as mystical as Stonehenge.

As things wound down, everyone hugged, kissed, and made their various ways home. Pen and his nephew Steve helped Owl and Lisa clean up the last few things and they started home themselves. Pen dropped Steve off at the house Steve shared with his mom, Renee. Steve barely remembered his dad. Pen's brother Sam had died when Steve was four. He was now sixteen and growing up fast. Renee had been living with Darnell Culver for several years now. Steve never talked about him. Pen was uncomfortable about Darnell. He really had no good reason for it.
Now Steve took Pen around and showed him Sam's old '55 Chevy BelAir he was restoring. The work was coming along. It even looked as if the car might be finished by the time Steve got his driver's license.
Pen admired the car and left for home. He didn't see Renee or Darnell around.
Steve was a cool kid and it was great sharing the ritual, but Pen felt a bit down going home alone after dropping him off. It would have been good to have someone to come home with. Esme had been in one of her distant moods, friendly, but not encouraging. Pen sorely felt the lack of a loving partner.
Nothing seemed amiss on the back roads from Renee's place. Pen reached his yard, fed Mau and Odin and unloaded the truck. He thought about the ritual and the conversations. No one had much to say about Dub Holt or Charlie. The murders were still too close in time.
The classical radio station was playing Albinoni's Adagio for strings. A favorite, but a bit blue, Pen turned it off and popped "Hondo" into the VHS. Bed claimed him before the credits rolled.

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