Who killed Edgar Bristow, millionaire philanthropist and war hero? In a small Texas town where everyone knows everyone else, the list of suspects can be every person you meet. What dark secrets wait for the man who is unafraid to turn over any stone? And will the killer strike again before Bill can get to the truth?
This is the fifth installment of The Bill Travis Mysteries.
The body was brought out of the hangar on a stretcher by a uniformed paramedic doing double-duty as a deputy coroner. That’s sometimes the way it’s done in the hinterlands, where demand crosses swords with budget and the tax base is more of a tax ditch. A gray blanket covered the large mass. One stray finger was there beneath the edge, the hand threatening to fall from the jostling it was taking as the stretcher trundled past us.
“You’re the closest thing to family here,” Deputy Ladd Ross told Denise Lipscomb, who stood beside me in a state of shock. “You can ride with me. We’ll follow Burt’s ambulance.” The deputy and the paramedic exchanged nods of agreement.
“Nice to meet you, Burt,” I told the paramedic, who gave me no more than a curt nod.
“What about Bill here?” Denise asked.
“I’ll ride with Burt,” I volunteered.
“Fine,” Burt and the deputy said simultaneously, and I would have laughed aloud but for the intensity of the moment.
“How did he die?” Denise asked the deputy as Burt began to make a great ruckus with loading the stretcher, so much so that I decided to help him.
“Crowbar to the face,” the deputy said. “Repeatedly.”
For me it always begins when I least expect it. One time it started while I was driving to work one gorgeous morning and on another occasion it was in the middle of a meeting with a client. Regardless of when, they all have one common element: I’ll get the call from an old friend who has fallen hip deep in the proverbial, doesn’t know which way to turn and desperately needs a certain old friend with certain known special skills—or, one of my clients has rubbed the wrong person the wrong way and needs me to smooth everything out come hell or high water. Whatever the situation, I wind up interposing myself between destruction and the seemingly innocent and after that it’s all like one long train-wreck that lasts for hours, or days, or even longer.
But that’s me.
I’m Bill Travis. The name alone should tell you something.
And it always begins with a feeling in the gut, with a nervous prickle among the small hairs on the nape of my neck, with a parched throat and a black gulf somewhere in the area near to my feet as if the ground underfoot is astride a crevasse of amazing dimension. And it means little sleep and guesses in the dark to come.
My regular workaday job in the real world is as a financial consultant. I developed the knack early on in life of making money make more money, and with my degree from the University of Houston, the state and federal certification allowing me to roll investments over, around and generally through the hoops, both for myself and for my clients, I’m pretty well set. But on occasion I am confronted with something that no one else—including, in many instances, the local law—is able to handle, and it’s then that I step up and take a hand. Usually, in those cases, the problem has little to do with balance sheets or figures or tax shelters. Those times are just—trouble. And it’s not that I like trouble, particularly, it’s just that I have found that trouble has always had a way of finding me. So I keep an office for my business just west of downtown Austin on San Antonio Street in an old Greek Revival home built in the 1890s. I wouldn’t dream of working anywhere else. My partner is Nathaniel Bierstone, Texas’ Lieutenant Governor as well as my wife’s uncle. As far as family is concerned, there’s my wife Julie, our adopted daughter, Jessica, and our two beautiful little miscreants, Jennifer and Megan. I spend a great deal of my life energy supporting them. But when trouble comes calling it’s like anything else—it’s by degrees, one step after the other until my toes are mired in it up to my collar bone.
Here’s how it all got going this time, innocently enough.
“Are you ready?” she asked me.
“Let’s go, then. Throttle full. Release the brakes.”
The cockpit rumbled, setting up a vibration throughout my entire body. That same feeling came back to me, that sensation I recognized from age seventeen when I taxied my first airplane down a runway and took to the skies.
We began to pick up speed. From memory, I used the foot pedals to keep the nose of the Cessna as close to the center stripe as possible. The brownish, dying grass by the side of the runway flashed past as we gained speed. I glanced at my instructor, gave her a quizzical look: Is everything right, here? She gave me a curt nod.
At fifty knots I pulled back gently on the yoke and the front of the plane came up. Within a few heartbeats the ground was dropping away beneath us and there was nothing but blue sky with distant, puffy clouds ahead.
I had been promising myself I would return to flying lessons in the nebulous future, in that mythical time when there was time. Time enough to devote to it. Time enough away from other pursuits. No such continuum, I have found, truly exists. We have to make our time right now, or else it will never be.
“Good, Bill,” Denise Lipscomb said over the roar of the engine. “You’re a natural.”
I gave her a faint smile and made sure both the altimeter and the airspeed were increasing at approximately the same rate.
When I was seventeen I took flying lessons for awhile. I never fully completed the training, however, never got a certificate to fly solo. And since then I had regretted it. The feeling of total freedom that flying affords had been just out of my reach since. It felt a little too much like taking a prisoner from his cell for a day, taking him out to the wide-open outdoors, giving him the feel of the wind and the sight of mountains in the distance, and then locking him away again when darkness fell once more. I vowed then and there, as we reached and passed a thousand feet in altitude, to make sure my kids would enjoy this same feeling of freedom in the sky. I would teach them myself.
I leveled us off at five thousand feet and flew west. We were flying to Trantor’s Crossing, a rustic little berg nestled in the rocky, rolling hills fifty miles due west of Austin, to do touch-and-go practice landings at the small municipal airport there, then back home.
“Trim us up a bit,” Denise said.
I adjusted the elevator trim tab and eased back on the power. The only real difference between flying and driving is the added dimension of up and down. While you correct your right and left attitude by moving the yoke like a steering wheel—which moves the ailerons on the wings and banks you the desired direction—controlling up and down is accomplished by a pull or a push on the yoke. The trim tab on a plane is a fine-tuning control which makes constant up- and-down correction unnecessary and makes for a much smoother flight. Picture the wheel tab for channel-tuning or volume control on any old radio, make it as big as small coffee-cup saucer and you got it. What I know about flying you could probably write on a yellow sticky note, but I got that much from ground school.
Below us the city played out to the brown hills west of Austin. And then I had twenty minutes of flight which seemed no longer than about two.
When I lined up for the runway at the Trantor’s Crossing Municipal Airport I saw flashing red and blue lights in the distance, over by an aircraft hanger. Police and emergency vehicles.
“Um…” Denise began. “Set us down, Bill. I know people here. I want to see what’s going on.”
“You’re the boss.”
I concentrated on the upcoming approach and landing. A landing is, after all, no more than a controlled crash on a smooth surface. And prior flying time and the ground school instruction looked like it was paying its dividend. Flaps at full, keep the plane lined up, watch the whisper of a cross-wind, crab into that wind a bit, reduce power down to about a quarter, nose up, come in gently on the numbers. It’s really a piece of cake, except, of course, when it’s not.
For me a good landing is like a perfect golf putt or making the basketball shot with nothing but net. And that’s what happened. We landed like a leaf sighing down from a tree.
“Perfect,” Denise said.
Power back up, I rolled us on down the runway and taxied in, already missing the feeling of flight. I guided us over to the edge of the tarmac and killed the engine, turned the magnetos and radio off.
We watched the tableau unfold before us in front of the hangar.
There were four county deputy sheriff’s cruisers, a City of Trantor’s Crossing black and white police cruiser, an ambulance, a fire department vehicle and half a dozen uniformed men and women milling around outside the open hangar doors. Whatever was going on, it was a big to-do. The municipal airport lay five miles from the town on a long, narrow plateau in the Texas Hill Country, and it wouldn’t be a usual event to have representatives of all local law enforcement so far away from town unless something terrible had occurred. I couldn’t help the cold place I felt blossom and expand deep down in my gut.
“What do you think—” I began, but Denise cut me off.
“Bad. Something bad. I hope it’s not—”
“Somebody you know?”
“Let’s go see,” I said.
We climbed out of the aircraft and walked across fifty yards of tarmac. A sheriff’s deputy glanced our way and then went back to his discussion with another deputy.
As we walked up, the deputy gave us his full attention. “You can’t go in there,” he said.
“What’s happened?” Denise asked.
“Who are you folks?” the deputy asked us.
“I’m Bill Travis,” I said and stuck out my hand. When you do that, they have to take your hand and act neighborly, or refuse, and end up looking like a jerk. The deputy, to his credit, shook my hand.
“This is Denise Lipscomb,” I said.
“I’m Ladd Ross. Sheriff’s deputy. You two just up and flew in here?”
“Yes, sir. I’m from Austin. Denise is teaching me how to fly.”
“Whatever in the world for?” he asked.
“Well. Because, you see—it’s there. And I already know how to drive and how to dive. In water, that is. Flying is all that’s left.”
“What’s happened here?” Denise asked again.
“A killing,” Deputy Ross said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Somebody killed old Edgar Bristow, that’s who.”
“Oh no!” Denise said. The shock was evident on her face. I put out my arm behind her, just in case she was about to faint. Denise was about my own size and if she went down I wanted to be ready. Clearly, she knew the deceased. Or, what’s the word they use nowadays? Decedent. A cold word, that one.
I had known Denise for no more than a couple of months. She had come highly recommended by a good friend of mine. Also, her fees were nominal compared to that of the large, corporate-scale flight training schools. During our first meeting at an old hangar where she kept her plane, I found myself instantly liking her.
I waited until the shock was replaced by grief, which is ten times better than shock, and far more safe. People have been known to drop dead from receiving bad news.
“Who was this fellow to you, Denise?” I asked.
“He was like the father I never had,” she said.
I rode shotgun with Burt from the Trantor’s Crossing Municipal Airport as we had decided while Denise and Deputy Ladd Ross followed as the sun climbed to the uppermost arch of the sky. It was a hot day. A desiccated, brown day. And death not only followed, it was company that had come home to roost.
“Who was he?” I asked Burt.
“Edgar Bristow? A legend. A friend to Man. You’ve never heard of him?”
“No,” I said. “Sorry. What can you tell me about him, and about how he died?”
I looked at the driver. Burt was a middle-aged fellow, busily going prematurely bald, thin, bored with life. The kind of fellow that daily dreams of taking a month off to a dude ranch in Montana or a trek across the Matto Grasso in search of the world’s largest anaconda. But mostly, given an appearance of chronic ill-health and ensuing weakness, I was sure he dreamed of the women he would never have.
From the I.D. tag hanging from the rearview mirror I saw that his name was Burt Sanderson. Burt looked very much like a Burt. He shrugged, yawned, blinked his eyes at the highway before us, and then, in a tone reminiscent of a story told too many times, proceeded to educate me.
Edgar Bristow came to Texas to stay at the end of World War II. He had walked into an enlistment office in Orangeburg, South Carolina in February of 1942, told a lie to the recruiter there with regard to his majority at the not-so-tender age of sixteen, and after six weeks of boot camp was headed for Europe with a gleam in his eye and bound by a personal oath to find Adolph Hitler and put a bullet between his eyes. Bristow had been a tall, strapping fellow with prominent features even then, so it was no mystery that the recruiter didn’t question him about his age.
Over the course of the war he had been in one of General George S. Patton’s tank divisions, had fought Erwin Rommel in North Africa, Italy and France, survived and was decorated after the war for single-handedly destroying a line of Rommel’s crack Panzers who were shelling a squadron of pinned-down infantrymen. He won the battle, all on his own: Bristow had not only driven the tank himself after his commander was wounded at the outset of the battle but had sighted-in on each enemy tank in turn, loaded each forty-pound shell himself, fired, then moved and dodged the tanks and fire coming at him, only to then stop and repeat the procedure, hitting the mark each time. The fact that his tank commander survived, along with more than ninety percent of the pinned infantrymen, had made Edgar Bristow an instant war hero, another Audey Murphy.
When he arrived stateside in the Summer of ‘45, he headed to Texas and a job with his Uncle Latimer Bristow, a lumber supply yard owner in the sleepy little town of Trantor’s Crossing, Texas. Surrounded by peach groves, the hot summer sun, and bored girls looking for a new last name that didn’t brutally rattle the ear with a Germanic timbre—in a town where the population was over seventy percent German immigrant descendant—Edgar played the field, slew one heart after another, drank beer, and worked his backside off. He took over the lumber yard after his Uncle was run over by a lumber truck driver, and proceeded to go after and win a number of lucrative state and government builder contracts. He was a millionaire at age twenty-one, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell it to look at him, a tall, rangy fellow with his sleeves rolled up, his stringy muscles corded about his spare frame like bass piano wire, and his perpetually sun-baked countenance etched with a constant sardonic shit-eating grin.
It was the summer of 1949 when Edgar Bristow began to show evidence of being one of the genuine good guys. He began giving away money by the sackful.
This began when a tent revival came to town. The preacher, a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal, had a healing service in which a child with polio and steel braces bound about each stick-like leg was brought up and hands laid upon her frightened head. After the “healing” the girl took off her braces, took two steps, and fell into the arms of her weeping mother. She was pronounced “cured” by the Holy Ghost. The following Monday her braces were back on. The story goes that Bristow was there at the edge of the crowd during the healing and the next morning he was on his way to work when he saw the girl trudging to the covered bus stop her father had built for her at the end of their long, kalechi driveway, her braces gleaming in the sunlight.
That evening Bristow assembled a number of community doctors in a local tavern, handed them a hurriedly-drawn rough sketch for a hospital and wrote a check for half a million dollars with which to begin construction.
Whether this particular story was true or not, then and there as the coroner’s wagon passed the City Limits of Trantor’s Crossing, a certain knowledge came over me. Over the next few hours, days, and perhaps weeks, I would come to know Edgar Bristow like a long-lost friend, and I would, as if I had been standing there when it happened, come to know the circumstances of his untimely demise.
“That’s just one,” Burt said.
“One little story. The start. There are a whole bunch of them.”
“You knew him?” I asked.
Burt took his eyes off the road for about five seconds for a very long look at me. A significant look, then said: “Everybody knew him. And, I guess, no one knew him. A guy like that, larger than life—how could anybody know him? It’s my personal philosophy that nobody really knows anybody else anyway.”
Well, maybe, I thought. And maybe not.
I would get Denise’s part in the story much later on, after it was all settled out. At age seventeen her parents were killed in an underground gas explosion from one of the few hundred or so cavernous salt domes where the petrochemical companies keep their more dangerous inventories in East Texas. Denise’s then youthful features, nicked here and there from the flying debris—not yet lined with oncoming middle age as when we first met—were indelicately splashed across newspapers state-wide the way only newspapers can-–in grisly detail and complete with the tears of her tragic loss. The picture had gotten the attention of a wealthy Texan who interceded with enough money to secure a future for her, a future which came quicky into focus when, at the aforementioned Texan’s bidding, a high-powered Dallas law firm with an eye toward class-action lawsuits came calling. The firm easily took in the families of all twenty-eight who died in the blast, but they came knocking on Denise’s door first.
From a formative age Denise Lipscomb’s lifelong dreams had been dreams of flight. Before the explosion that claimed the lives of her parents and most of her neighbors, the walls of her video-home bedroom had been covered with every type of airplane to emerge from an assembly line. Over time the pasted-up magazine cutouts grew from a series of separate pictures to become one continuous collage that encompassed the four walls and three doors of her postage stamp-sized room and threatened the narrow hallway leading to the rest of the house. P-51 Mustangs, Corsairs, World War I biplanes, Messherschmidts, C47s, B52s, C141 Starlifters, Harrier AV8s, Piper Cubs, Cessnas, Beeches, Lears—all of them. The airplanes, seemingly, grew like ivy.
A little girl’s dreams. Dreams of flight.
For weeks and months after the disaster, follow-up stories about Denise and a scant number of other survivors made their way onto page two of most newspapers throughout the southwestern United States. Those stories which included Denise invariably mentioned her love affair with flight, a dream that had never been accomplished. One of those stories had even been entitled “The Girl Who Never Flew.”
On a clear Christmas morning not long after, a Beech aircraft touched down at the Conroe, Texas airport, five miles from where Denise lived with her drunken uncle, Ralph Lipscomb. At ten o’clock that morning a rented limousine pulled up outside the front door of her uncle’s ramshackle apartment, and at ten-thirty Denise Lipscomb took her first flight.
That dream, like many others yet to come, had been handed to her by her new benefactor. She went from having no driver’s license to the possession of a twin-engine rating in six months. By the time we met she was thirty-eight and had her own small flight school. There’s success for you.
Success had a name: Edgar Bristow.
I stood there outside the coroner’s office trying to breathe. There are some smells that work their way into the sinus membranes and no amount of wind can get rid of them. The mixed odor of coppery blood, entrails, offal and decomposition is one of them. The breeze was good and stiff, if hot, and I drew it in deeply.
A Sheriff stepped around the corner of the graystone architecture and regarded me. You can always tell a Sheriff at first glance, especially in rural Texas.
“Who the hell are you?” the fellow asked.
“Bill Travis,” I said. “No relation.”
“Fine,” he said, then his bushy gray eyebrows furrowed. “What?”
“Bill Travis,” I repeated. “You know, Commander at the Alamo. Some people think we’re related. I actually don’t know.”
“Oh. I’m Buster LeRoy, County Sheriff.” He held out one rough and meaty paw and I shook it.
“Good to meet you,” I said.
“Are you here regarding Edgar Bristow?” he asked.
The English language is funny. At first I thought he was using the “looking” definition of “regarding.” I almost answered: “Hell no, you can go regard him all you want, please leave me out of it.” But then I got what he’d meant.
“Uh, you might say that,” I said. “I’m with a young lady, Denise Lipscomb. She and Mr. Bristow were close. We flew into the airport where he was found.”
“Got it,” the Sheriff said. “Well, then, if you’ll excuse me.”
I nodded and he stepped around me and through the glass door. I clamped down on my nose until the door closed again. You can never be too careful.
“All business,” I mumbled to myself. “That’s a plus.”
I waited for five minutes and was about to go back inside when Sheriff LeRoy held the door open for Denise and the two of them stepped out into the wind.
I noticed how they both breathed—in gulps. Maybe I wasn’t so oddball after all.
Denise’s eyes were puffy and red, but her tears were dry. She held a shredded and wadded-up kleenex in one hand, grasping it for dear life.
“Where to?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I have an idea,” Sheriff LeRoy said. “I’ll take Miss Lipscomb over to visit with my wife for a spell. Then you and I can go for a little ride, Mr. Travis.”
“Alright,” I agreed.
Sheriff LeRoy lived in an ancient many-gabled home a mile outside of town. The structure was tilted out of true and bore a girdle of cracked and chipped asbestos shingles that revealed old tar-paper beneath. There were stacks of the dingy broken-off squares with parched and desiccated weeds growing up around them scattered hither and yon about the yard.
“I always feel like I should apologize when anyone sees my place,” Sheriff LeRoy said. “We’re in the process of re-siding the house, but the truth is Samantha and I are doing the labor ourselves. I can’t see paying someone to do something that I know I can do much better myself.”
“I understand,” I said. “Your home is fine by me.”
A screen door banged shut and a young woman stepped down from the front porch. Sheriff LeRoy’s wife was twenty or so years his junior, and she was a looker.
“Denise!” she cried, and I looked to see first surprise and then joy spread across my instructor’s face as she opened the cruiser door and stepped into the arms of Sheriff LeRoy’s wife for a tight embrace.
“We were suite-mates at Mary-Hardin Baylor,” Mrs. LeRoy said over Denise’s shoulder.
“Small world,” Sheriff LeRoy said, and grinned.
The first thing I noted inside Buster and Samantha LeRoy’s home, apart from the odor of aging pine-tar wafting in from the front yard, was the smell of latex paint. Second, just underneath this sharp smell was the clean scent of oil soap, the kind used to make hardwood floors glow as if with an inner light, which the floors of the LeRoy home certainly did. They also creaked the way old hardwood floors in old houses should—for me a satisfying sound. The walls were freshly painted an antique-white in an orange-peel texture and the entryways and windows were faced out in bright white high-glass oil-base. Samantha LeRoy had a penchant for colorful impressionist paintings as evidenced by one of the lesser-known but still magnificent Matisse reprints donning the foyer wall. The painting set the tone for the whole house: light and airy. The small table beneath the painting was made in the Shaker style, whether original or a copy. Nice.
“Sammie, take them back to the kitchen,” Buster told his wife. The girls walked ahead of us, arm in arm, and we followed. “We’re re-painting the dining room,” he added by way of explanation.
We turned left into a long central hallway and passed an open doorway. A passing glance revealed the Sheriff’s study, a comfortable-looking room filled with leather furniture, old maps framed on the walls, and a drafting table that was being used to hold trophies. One of the trophies was a cowboy on a bucking bronc. At some time in Buster LeRoy’s past he’d been a rodeo rider.
The kitchen was as I expected it, new solid wood cabinets as yet unpainted and missing their knobs against light yellow, freshly painted walls. The LeRoy home, every square foot of it, was a work in progress, right down to the light switch plates—which, in the kitchen, were ceramic with an American Indian motif.
The kitchen table was a bit small for the four of us.
“Pull up a chair Bill, Denise,” Buster said as he placed his large hands on a hardwood chair and waited for us to sit. He turned to Samantha LeRoy. “How about some of those little finger sandwiches and some tea, darlin’?”
She smiled to us, her guests, but it was a bit of a painted-on smile—social entertainment only. I knew there were to be no serious discussions in this kitchen. Her rule, not his. And I was sure that between the four interior walls of this house, it was her rules that carried weight.
“A great idea,” Samantha said, and turned to begin fiddling with the tea kettle while Buster removed the bread from an old wooden box beside the refrigerator, which looked to be forty year or so old. My folks had a fridge like that when I was knee-high to a jackrabbit.
“Nice house,” Denise said, and her words hung in the air.
“Why, thank you,” Buster said. “Sammie does all the work. Inside, that is. I’m her foreman.”
Samantha LeRoy rolled her eyes.
“What’s next regarding Bristow?” I asked, and Denise gave me a hard look.
“I don’t rightly know,” Buster said. He took his gun belt off and laid it on the counter. “Besides that, you and I can cover all that after we have a bite. I’ll want you to take a ride with me, Bill.”
“Fine,” I said.
An hour passed in the LeRoy kitchen, and it was mostly the girls doing the talking. Every time the conversation edged over toward Buster and his Sheriff work, Samantha LeRoy guided it every so deftly back into some more pleasant zone. The whole while I sat there and watched I felt the unseen presence of something large, unpretty and carefully hidden from sight. For all the nest-feathering that appeared to be going on, Buster and Samantha LeRoy appeared to me to be about as well-matched in the couples department as an animal rights activist and a butcher.
And fortunately, that hour ended an eternity after we sat down. Finger sandwiches and tea, indeed.
As Sheriff LeRoy turned back onto the highway leading back to town, he let me have it with both barrels.
“First,” he said, “I had a talk with Burt while Denise and I were in the coroner’s office. He knows who you are, and so now I know.”
“Um,” I said, “who am I?”
“Don’t get smart. You’re the fellow who saved the Governor’s life. I’ve still got the issue of the Austin American-Statesman where you hung from that blimp during the UT-Tech game.”
“Good God,” I said. He was referring to an event a few years back where I found myself caught in the cross-fire between a certain Texas Ranger and an insurgent rebel group who wanted to overthrow the Texas government from within and secede from the United States of America. And they’d very nearly done it. I still had scars from that debacle.
“Also, you were the guy who pulled Texas Ranger Walt Cannon’s fat off the fire in the killing of that museum curator.”
“You know Walt?” I asked.
“Who doesn’t? So shut up and listen.”
“Fine,” I said.
“So I know you’re some hot-shot investigator—”
“Actually I’m a financial consultant. Buy stocks and securities cheap, sell them dear, build a portfolio—”
“Who’s doing the talking here?” he cut me off. “Alright. Now I know you had a Special Rangers commission from the Governor—”
“‘Had’ is the operative word,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I already put in a phone call to Ranger Cannon. He told me not only to cooperate with you, but that as far as he was concerned you are working as his deputy in the field as of right now.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” I said. There had been an ongoing plot among the powers that be to keep me in the Ranger Service. The real reason I hadn’t stuck it out had everything to do with the several women in my life, each of whom bore either my last name, my genes, or both. Having them in my life was terribly expensive and a Ranger’s pay, particularly that of a Special Ranger, could in no way cover the lifestyle to which they—or for that matter, yours truly—was accustomed.
“So,” Buster LeRoy said, “You’re here and you’re a hotshot and I’m in need of help. But, you see, I haven’t even asked for it.”
Oh yes you have, I thought. “But you’re about to,” I said instead.
“I’m about to.”
I discovered that for all of a minute I hadn’t been breathing. My lungs gulped in air.
“No,” I said. “Where I come from you just did.”
Buster LeRoy started to raise his hand but I held up a finger.
“No you don’t,” I said. “It’s my turn to talk. You ramble around a lot, Sheriff LeRoy. If you were interrogating me as a suspect I would have already given up and confessed out of sheer desperation just so I could keep two thoughts tied together. First, let’s go back to who I am. I’m just a family man, Sheriff. I live for my wife and my kids and not much else. So I’ve helped out a friend who happened to be a Texas Ranger—so what? I didn’t know he was a Ranger when I first met him and circumstances put me in a position where I had to help him. Circumstances also put me in that balloon where I nearly got myself killed and definitely my actions, or probably my inactions, got the sniper killed. There’s a great deal about that which never leaked to the press and never will. So, as you say, you have got a real problem here and for some reason you can’t solve it yourself. I’ll want to know why, but we’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s just say that I’ll see what I can do for you and your county, Sheriff.”
It was time to breathe again, and so I did.
“Well,” Sheriff LeRoy said as the town blurred by us on the hottest of all Texas days. He poked the brim of his gray Stetson and it settled back on his head, revealing a broad, gristled brow. Some county sheriffs I’d met were soft-spoken and seemingly benign while others bowled over everyone around them. Buster LeRoy was somewhere in between. While he calculatedly projected a rough exterior, I was certain there was coolness and quietness beneath, and if there were both time and opportunity I found myself hoping I’d get to know him better. Besides, doing the kinds of things I do it’s never a bad idea to have good friends in law enforcement, both far away and close to home.
“So,” he continued, but I cut him off.
“You say ‘so’ a lot.”
I noticed we were going seventy miles per hour in a forty zone. He saw me glance at his speedometer and eased off the gas.
“Yeah, I guess I do. So—”
“So,” I said, “You want me to help you find and bring in Edgar Bristow’s murderer, you want me to do it your way, you want to make sure you get all the credit for it if I can make everything go right and none of the blame if I can’t, and then you want me to disappear back into the blue sky from which I came. How am I doing so far?”
He nodded. “Not bad. Not bad at all. A little critical, maybe. A little unkind, but you got to the heart of it.”
“Understood,” I said. “Like I said, I’ll do it.”
He visibly relaxed.
“Bill,” he said, “I suppose maybe you’re alright.”
“My momma and my wife sometimes tell me that.”
“Well, there’s only the one thing you need to know.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“About Edgar Bristow.”
“Tell me,” I said.
He paused. We slowed for a traffic light in the heart of the town.
“Bristow. I couldn’t stand that sonuvabitch.”
I digested that. It took a moment.
“Does that make you any less able in your capacity as a law man?” I asked.
“It shouldn’t,” he said.
“Then what gives?” I asked.
“What gives is that I will be less able in my capacity, as you say, when the Feds come knocking, and they will come knocking.”
“Because,” Sheriff LeRoy said and swallowed, as if he were trying to wrestle a not very small frog down his throat, “I’ll be the prime suspect.”
“Did you kill Edgar Bristow?” I asked him. Thus far I was not missing a beat. That would likely change, however. I don’t know how I knew this, but how does anyone know anything?
“No,” he said, and looked hard
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