SHERIFF MAX MANVILLE was, for the moment, a happy man. Lounging at a breakfast of coffee and croissants from the old bakery, his office seemed a place of ease and serenity with a springtime dawn just over. The three day-shift deputies laughed outside his office at a report from last night. A drunken cowboy had driven his pickup backward down Main Street with the driver’s door open, and since his clothes had gotten lost during the evening, the spectacle had shocked several elderly matrons on their way back from quilting at the church. Since he was driving at five miles per hour and had conveniently stopped with his trailer hitch against the jail, there was no harm done, and he was sleeping it off in the tank in back. The sheriff smiled and thought, In this job, you see everything sooner or later.
Being sheriff of Macone County in central Texas, with its one town called Bencher’s Crossing of about a thousand souls, was a relatively boring job, except when it was time for the yearly budget. Macone County was one of the poorest counties in Texas, where you budgeted fifty acres per cow if you wanted any weight gain, and the soil supported only mesquite and cedar trees, with an occasional prickly pear cactus thrown in. He frowned down at that particular document, describing the next year. Even at the princely salary of twelve grand a year, there was no way he could keep five deputies on the payroll.
He sighed, remembering the million-dollar payrolls of the Fort Worth Police Department, where he had started as a patrolman so many years ago. Given his last name, it was unavoidable that he gained the nickname of “the Man,” but after ten years he gave in to the inevitable fact that he was never going to get above sergeant in the force and moved to central Texas to start over again. A few years as deputy, and then old Baskin retired as sheriff, and he slipped into the job unopposed.
That had led to the current situation, with only semicompetent county commissioners, and not enough tax base to spit at. He decided not to spoil his pleasant mood; there were still two months left in the current year, and decisions could be avoided for now.
The phone on his desk rang, and he remembered the volunteer dispatcher wouldn’t be in until eight, and was unreliable, anyway. The clock said 7:45 a.m. He lifted the phone and said, “Sheriff’s Department, Max speaking.”
“Sheriff, this is Bea Carruthers,” the voice from the receiver said, and Max placed the name with a widow, probably one of the matrons offended by the cowboy last night.
“Good morning, ma’am, what can we do for you?”
“I was walking Foncie down in Riverside Park a few minutes ago, and down at the end, under the pecan trees, someone has left an expensive-looking backpack at the edge of the thicket. Foncie didn’t like it, and he barked and barked at it. I left it alone, but thought someone ought to know about it.” Foncie, an unpleasant gray-white ball of fur associated with various miniature breeds, was a yappy little dog that accompanied his mistress everywhere. He would yap at a butterfly, so his demonstration did not prove very much.
“Thank you very much for calling, ma’am. I will send a man out right away.”
“It’s just my duty as a concerned citizen,” she said. “People nowadays are so careless with their things. If there is a reward, I want it.”
“You’re absolutely right about the carelessness of people, and thanks again.” He hung up the phone and thought for a moment. “Clint! Haul it in here!” he cried, loudly enough to be heard outside.
Deputy Clinton Greengrass looked in the door. Clint was enough American Indian to have the name, and enough white to be vaguely disturbed by it. He was the youngest deputy on the force, and therefore the one most in danger in the upcoming budget.
“Widow Carruthers and your buddy Foncie saw a backpack down by the river in the park’s pecan grove by the thicket. It’s probably some kids knocking off a little before school, but go and look at it, if it’s still there.” The reference to the bond between the officer and the dog went back to a great investigation, when the widow’s mailbox had been vandalized last year on July 3 by the expedient of inserting of a row of firecrackers and then lighting the fuse.
The widow had been incensed, repeating incessantly, “It’s a federal crime, you know,” and Deputy Greengrass, as the lead officer, became the focus of intense hatred from the dog, Foncie. The deputy, toward the end of the initial investigation, expressed a desire to go over there and clean his gun by the fence, hoping for an accidental discharge in the direction of Foncie. The postal authorities were not impressed, since the box only lost a little paint and still remained capable of performing its duties, and the investigation remained open.
The sheriff’s somewhat vulgar reference to the thicket had ample historical precedent. The thicket was a densely packed group of mesquite trees with various trails running through it and soft grass underneath the trees, and it was a favorite lover’s trysting spot. Half the county claimed to be thicket-bred, that being an inside joke on one’s parents, or just as often from the parents to the children.
Clint shook his head, moving his slightly longer than necessary straight black hair around, his dark eyes providing a contrast to his khaki uniform.
“What a way to start a Monday morning! Maybe I can get them to name it after me.”
Deputy Greengrass went out to his official vehicle, a fourteen-year-old Chevy pickup hand-painted black and white by the deputies, but it did sport a rack of red and blue lights, an actual radio that Clint had bought secondhand, and a siren that had the hiccups but generally brought malefactors some awareness of the presence of the law. He started the motor—an event heralded by a puff of black smoke—put it in reverse, and very gently eased out the clutch, a frail, feeble, elderly thing often unaware of its function of transferring power from the motor to the transmission. It responded to his coaxing, and he left the lot of the sheriff’s station.
Main Street of Bencher’s Crossing, down which Clint now proceeded, consisted mostly of boarded-up and abandoned buildings representing faded dreams of commerce. The only buildings still active were the grocery store/post office/bakery/video rental emporium, the First National Bank, housed in a cut-stone building with some gravity befitting its solid nature, and Kajun Blue’s Café. This latter establishment, along with the Dairy Prince out on the highway, provided both food for the hungry and the social life of the town. Add in seven churches, and you had Bencher’s Crossing in its totality.
As he drove along, Clint thought about his situation. He was aware of the fiscal crisis, and his delicate position in the sheriff’s department. His life so far had consisted of graduation from high school and an Army enlistment in lieu of the job he could not find. The Army had initially assigned him to the tank corps, but mild claustrophobia had made this position troublesome for him, so he had applied for MP school, and had spent his last two years patrolling the woods and forests of an Alaskan base. This MP experience and the unfortunate passing of a deputy, due to a fondness for fatty foods and a dislike of exercise, two weeks after Clint’s return had combined to provide him with his present job.
He turned into the park, a pleasant grove of trees with concrete picnic tables scattered around, and crossed the low-water bridge over the Rio Macone. In this part of Texas, any body of water that pretended a year-round flow of water was called a river, as opposed to a creek, which might be dry at least half the time. There was a larger pool just upstream from the bridge, maintained by the small dam/bridge built in the thirties by the WPA, which served the various recreational needs of the community. He followed the curve around for about a hundred yards, and then was underneath the friendly shade of the pecan trees, which were nurtured by the river and whose meager annual crop of pecans was a major social event. Toward the back of the grove, he saw the backpack, sitting about ten feet away from the thicket. It being past the time students would have gone to school, the deputy was a little surprised it was still there. He reached the end of the road, parked, and got out. A few yards’ walk brought him to the backpack.
The Widow Carruthers had been correct, for this was no ordinary backpack. Made of beautifully tooled leather, with an expensive sheen and brass hardware, it stood proud and erect, facing the road. The deputy lifted the flap and found inside several rows of small glassine envelopes, each one fitted with an adhesive computer label announcing “Texas Topaz” as the contents, and visible through the envelopes were various small, oddly shaped crystalline pieces.
The deputy looked around for some clue as to ownership, with nothing immediately obvious. The most likely route was still the thicket, and he walked over to the edge of the mowed area closest to the backpack and peered in.
A body was lying spread-eagled on its back, somewhat obscured by the higher grass but with most details observable from the deputy’s position. The body was that of a young man wearing an expensive blue and white cowboy shirt with real mother-of-pearl buttons, a new pair of jeans, and expensive ostrich quill boots. The area of the face was mostly blood, with a few facial bones glistening in the morning sunlight. One eye, which had been blown out of the socket, dangled by muscles on the cheek. By craning his neck around, Clint could see an exit wound, too large to be consistent with a single shot, leaking brains on the ground. Despite these indications, the deputy took a single step in and touched the wrist nearest him. It was cold, and the morning dew’s moisture transferred to the deputy’s hand, and this was somehow the most horrible feeling of all. The slender habit of the body, and its frame, was familiar to the deputy, who ran back to his truck and scooped up the microphone on his radio.
“Max! Max! Are you there?”
A pause, and then the speaker crackled with the slow speech of the sheriff, “Well, where am I supposed to be?”
“Max! There’s a dead body just inside the thicket from where that backpack was, and I think it’s Pollie Northcross!”