There's a big stink in Blacklin County, and everyone seems to think Sheriff Dan Rhodes should do something about it. The smell is coming from the giant chicken farm owned by Lester Hamilton. Rhodes sees this as a matter for the state's air-quality enforcement agency, not the county sheriff. That all changes, however, when Hamilton is found dead, floating in an old rock pit not far from the town of Clearview. Hamilton had probably been engaged in the act of noodling for catfish, which is not only highly dangerous but illegal in Texas.
Rhodes suspects that Hamilton didn't die by accident, though. There are plenty of suspects, including an eccentric community college professor and one of his colleagues, who lives near the chicken farm and has to wear a respirator mask to ward off the smell. Also, someone known in the county as Robin Hood is going around shooting arrows into utility poles as a protest. When semi-nude protestors arrive at the chicken farm, things really begin to get out of hand.
Filled with fun, mayhem, and memorable characters, Murder in the Air is a wonderful addition to this very excellent series. Award-winning author Bill Crider shows again that he is one of the most talented and entertaining mystery writers around.
About the Author
Bill Crider is the winner of two Anthony Awards and an Edgar Award finalist. He lives with his wife in Alvin, Texas.
Bill Crider is the winner of two Anthony Awards and an Edgar Award finalist. An English college professor for many years, he’s published more than seventy-five crime, Western, and horror novels, including Compound Murder, Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen, Wild Hog Murder and Murder in the Air. In 2010, he was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. He lives with his wife in Alvin, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Murder in the Air
By Bill Crider
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Bill Crider
All rights reserved.
Sheriff Dan Rhodes wasn't sure just why the Blacklin County Sheriff's Department needed an M-16.
Commissioner Mikey Burns was happy to explain. "Firepower," he said. His eyes gleamed. "Nine hundred and fifty rounds a minute. The bullets travel at twenty-nine hundred feet per second. Can you believe that? Punch a hole in a tank with something like that."
Burns didn't look like a man who'd be so interested in so much firepower. He was the most informal of the county commissioners and always wore an aloha shirt to work. The one he wore today had a navy blue background decorated with red and white airplanes, some of which appeared to be flying upside down, and palm trees with waving green leaves. Some of the palm trees were upside down, too.
Even Burns's name was informal. He was actually Michael Burns, but his brother had tagged him Mikey because, unlike some child actor in a nearly forgotten TV commercial, he'd eat anything, even, according to one account, a piece of bicycle tire. Rhodes wasn't sure if that was true, but he had to admit that it made a good story.
"Firepower for what?" Rhodes asked. "I can't remember a single time we've had to take out a tank."
"There are other things to worry about," Burns said.
"Water moccasins?" Rhodes asked. "They're about the most dangerous things in the county, but I don't think we'd need nine hundred and fifty rounds a minute at nearly three thousand feet per second for a snake."
"Not water moccasins," Burns said. "Something a lot worse. Terrorists."
Burns and Rhodes were in Burns's office at the precinct barn. It was a barebones place, with a couple of wooden folding chairs, an old desk, and two dark green metal filing cabinets with long scratches on the sides. They looked as if they came from an army surplus store.
"Terrorists?" Rhodes asked. "You think they'd consider Blacklin County a prime target?"
He tried to think of what the terrorists would hit. The only thing that came to mind was the coal-powered electricity plant on the far eastern side of the county, and even if that were to be destroyed, it wouldn't exactly cripple the United States.
"Maybe we're not a prime target," Burns said. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his desk chair. "Think of it like this, though. We have a highway passing right through Clearview."
Clearview was the largest town in the county, but the highway wasn't a main thoroughfare. It didn't connect to any of the state's large cities.
"So much the better for the terrorists," Burns said when Rhodes brought up the point. "Let's say they come into the country from the south. It'd be easy. They'd go to somewhere like Cuba, take a boat to Mexico, and come up through Texas. They'd use the less-traveled highways because that way they wouldn't be as likely to get caught. Check with Clyde Ballinger. He could tell you all about it."
"Clyde Ballinger?" Rhodes asked. "He's a funeral director. What does he know about terrorism?"
"It's all in a book he read. He told me about it yesterday. You'll have to ask him."
Rhodes knew what kind of books Ballinger read: old paperback crime novels that he picked up at garage sales or thrift stores. He'd probably never read a book less than twenty-five years old. Certainly he wasn't likely to have read anything about terrorism. Not anything factual, anyway.
Rhodes must have looked skeptical because Burns said, "I'm not kidding, Sheriff. You ask Clyde. You'll see."
"All right," Rhodes said. "I'll ask him if I think of it, but I still don't think we need an M-16. Even if we needed one, I don't think the county could afford it."
"We can use drug seizure money," Burns said.
Rhodes's department had closed down a few dozen meth labs, but the labs had all been in dilapidated trailers and tumbledown shacks that lumped all together wouldn't have sold for enough to buy an M-16.
"Or we can get a grant," Burns said. "The Feds know that small-town law enforcement teams are the eyes and ears of the country in these troubled times."
Burns must have read that somewhere, Rhodes thought. It wasn't the kind of thing that anybody in Clearview or the surrounding area would have come up with.
"Yes, sir," Burns said. "You don't have to worry about the Feds. They'll come through for us."
The Feds, as Rhodes recalled, hadn't come through on Burns's previous grant request. The commissioner had hoped to get the county a really up-to-date crime lab, state of the art, something on a par with the one on some TV show that he watched. It hadn't worked out.
"Or if they don't come through," Burns continued, "we'll find some way to put it into the county budget. You'll need special training to use an automatic rifle, but you'll catch on quick, I'll bet."
One thing Rhodes knew for sure, and that was if the county really did get an M16, he wouldn't be the one to use it. That would be Deputy Ruth Grady's job. She was a good shot with a pistol, and Rhodes knew she'd be good with an automatic rifle, too. Even if she wasn't a crack shot, she'd be better than he would.
Not that you'd have to be a crack shot with an M-16. If you were firing off nine hundred and fifty rounds in under a minute, you were bound to hit something or other. Maybe you'd even hit what you were aiming at. Or maybe not.
"Anyway," Burns said, "we can use a rifle like that. If you don't believe what Ballinger has to say, you can talk to those two women who write those books about you."
Rhodes repressed a sigh. Two women named Claudia and Jan had come to the county to attend a writing workshop held on an old college campus in the little town of Obert. Their plan had been to write nonfiction articles, but after they'd met Rhodes, they'd changed their minds. Instead of nonfiction, they wrote a novel about a handsome, crime-busting sheriff named Sage Barton, a former Navy SEAL who'd retired to a small town and entered law enforcement. Sage Barton was a two-fisted action hero about as different from Rhodes as a hamburger patty was from prime rib. To Rhodes's surprise, the book had been a success, and the happy authors had recently followed it with a sequel called The Doomsday Plan, in which Sage Barton, armed with a pair of Colt .45 revolvers, and maybe even an M-16, had single-handedly foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a nuclear power plant.
"Those books aren't about me," Rhodes said. "That sheriff is nothing like me, and there's no nuclear power plant within two hundred miles of here."
"Sage Barton has a cat," Burns said. "A black one. So do you."
That was a pretty slim connection if you asked Rhodes.
"I don't own the cat by choice," he said. "Ivy took him in, not me. I'm allergic to him."
Burns smiled and said nothing. He rocked a little in his chair.
"We don't have a nuclear plant around here," Rhodes said, "and I don't have any .45 revolvers. I've never been a Navy SEAL, and I've never fired an M-16."
"I'll take care of the M-16," Burns said. "You can see about getting yourself some revolvers."
Even if he'd had the revolvers, Rhodes couldn't have fired them both at the same time the way Sage Barton did. Nobody could have, but that didn't seem to bother the people who read The Doomsday Plan. It was selling even better than Claudia and Jan's first book.
"Think about this," Burns said. "A nice photo spread in the Clearview Herald, you standing in front of an American flag, holding an M-16. You'll be a shoo-in at the election this fall."
Rhodes was about to remind Burns that he didn't have an opponent in the upcoming election, so he was a shoo-in even without any photo. He didn't get a chance to say anything because the phone on Burns's desk rang.
"I'll let Mrs. Wilkie take it," Burns said. "We don't need to be interrupted when we're talking about the security of the nation."
Mrs. Wilkie was Burns's secretary, or executive assistant. Rhodes wasn't sure of the proper term these days. For a good while, Mrs. Wilkie had had a crush on Rhodes, and his marriage to Ivy Daniel hadn't entirely discouraged her. Lately, however, she and Burns appeared to have developed a relationship that extended beyond the office and into the social area. Rhodes didn't know any more about it than that, and he didn't want to know.
He could hear Mrs. Wilkie's voice through the hollow-core door between the offices. Then it stopped, and the phone on Burns's desk buzzed.
"Must be pretty important for her to interrupt us," Burns said. "I'd better take it."
He learned forward, picked up the phone, and listened. After a second, he glanced at Rhodes. He listened some more, then offered the phone to Rhodes. "It's for you."
Rhodes got up and took the phone. "Hello, this is Sheriff Rhodes."
"I know who it is," Hack Jensen said. Hack was the dispatcher at the jail. "You think I don't know your voice after all these years?"
Hack and his friend Lawton, the jailer, weren't fond of getting to the point. Even when the matter was urgent, they liked to take the long way around, so conversations with them could occasionally be aggravating. That was one of the reasons the county paid Rhodes the big bucks, he supposed.
"What's up?" Rhodes asked, ignoring Hack's gambit in hopes that he would get to the point quickly, though Rhodes knew the chances of that were slim.
"Nothin' much," Hack said. "Just the usual this and that. Miz Stubbs called about somebody's hog bein' loose. I sent Alton Boyd over to her house to see about it."
Boyd was the county's animal control officer. He could handle an alligator, as Rhodes knew from experience, so he should be able to handle a hog with ease.
"Might not be a loose hog," Hack said. "Might be one of those feral hogs that wandered onto her place."
Feral hogs were a plague on much of Texas. They roamed the farms and ranches, churning up the soil, scattering weed and brush seeds in their profuse droppings, and generally wreaking havoc. Rhodes didn't think they'd be on Mrs. Stubbs's place, however. They hadn't gotten into town. Not yet.
"You didn't call me about a hog," he said.
"What did you call about, then?"
"Lester Hamilton. You been lookin' for him for a day or so."
"I know I have. What about him?"
"Somebody's found him."
"Good," Rhodes said. "Where is he?"
"Murdock's rock pit. You know where that is?"
Rhodes knew. Long ago he'd done some fishing there, but he hadn't visited it in years.
"It's on County Road 36," Hack said, before Rhodes could answer. "That's the one with the old wooden bridge that crosses the river."
There was only one river that flowed through Blacklin County, and it fed all three of the county's man-made lakes. It was about a quarter of a mile down the road from the rock pit. Rhodes wondered what Les had been doing at the rock pit, but then it occurred to him.
"They catch him noodling?" he asked.
"Nope," Hack said. "They caught him dead."
"That's right," Hack said. "Dead. No Les, no more."CHAPTER 2
Lester Hamilton was, or had been if he was really the one who'd been found in Murdock's rock pit, the most hated man in Blacklin County. He'd claimed it was because of his success, but everyone knew better than that.
His success, and all that went with it, had to do with chickens.
Before Lester had come on the scene, there had already been some chicken trouble in Clearview. Some people in town had objected to the keeping of chickens within the city limits, saying they were a health hazard. They complained that the roosters crowed early in the morning and woke people up. The chickens clucked and scratched all day.
After a while, however, things had calmed down. The complaints stopped, and people pretty much forgot about the problem. No one had expected what was about to happen thanks to Lester Hamilton.
Hamilton owned some land east of Clearview in a small community called Mount Industry. Rhodes had no idea where the name had come from. Lester's land was on a little rise, hardly even enough of a rise to be called a hill, but it was the closest thing to a mountain in sight. As for the industry, Rhodes didn't recall that there had ever been an industry of any kind around the place until Lester got his big idea, not unless you counted orchards of peaches and persimmons, and Rhodes didn't think you could call orchards an industry.
Lester's big idea was chickens. Not just a few of them, like the numbers kept in town. Lester thought bigger than that. His chickens numbered in the thousands, so many thousands that Rhodes had trouble thinking about that many chickens.
Hamilton had thirty long metal buildings full of them, twenty-five thousand chickens in each one. Seven hundred and fifty thousand chickens, give or take. That was a lot of chickens, all right, but Hamilton already had plans to build a dozen or so more houses and supply even more chickens to a country that thought of grilled chicken breast as a healthy alternative to red meat.
Empty trucks came down the highway to Clearview and drove on out to Mount Industry five or six times a year. After they were loaded, the trucks drove away, taking their cackling burden to the big chicken-processing plant in East Texas, trailing chicken feathers and a powerful stink in their wakes.
Nobody objected to the feathers, as far as Rhodes knew. It was aggravating to find them on the lawn or to have them waft into the house through an open window, but that was the kind of thing that people could put up with.
What folks living in Mount Industry couldn't stand was the odor. It wasn't just a smell. It was a potent stench, an almost physical thing that hung in the air like a mist that had to be brushed aside when you walked, or so the nearby residents claimed. Depending on the direction and strength of the wind, the smell could sometimes even make its way into Clearview, three miles away.
The stink didn't bother Lester, though, or that's what he told everyone. "Smells like money," he said when people complained. Then he'd laugh, a hearty, openmouthed bellow. The laugh didn't make anyone feel any better, except maybe Lester.
Of course, Lester didn't live in Mount Industry. He'd inherited his land there from his grandfather, and he'd lived there for years while he tried a little farming and a little cattle raising, none of which paid off for him.
As soon as the chicken farm became a reality, he moved away. He lived now just outside Clearview on the opposite side of town in a big new house that he'd built with what just about everyone in Mount Industry considered to be his ill-gotten gains.
There was more to the problem than just the smell and Lester's being an absentee landlord, however. A lot of the nearby residents complained that the chicken houses posed a serious health hazard, and some people were irate because they believed Hamilton had destroyed not just the air quality but their entire reason for living in Mount Industry. They'd escaped the smells and pollution of the city, and now they were suffering from something just as bad, if not worse.
So as a result of his thousands of chickens and their by-product, Lester had many enemies. His chickens were the talk of the county, but the fact that he had broken no laws made it impossible for anyone to do anything about them other than to complain.
Ten or twelve people, not quite the entire population of Mount Industry, but most of it, had written scalding letters to the Clearview Herald about the problem. Rhodes averaged a couple of calls of complaint every week, usually from the same people, who nearly always wound up yelling at him as if everything were his fault when he explained for the second or third time that there was nothing he could do. It was a good thing he was running for office unopposed this year. Otherwise, Lester's chickens might have been the issue that defeated him, though Rhodes didn't know what anyone could have done about them, short of getting rid of their owner.
Maybe someone else had come up with the same idea, Rhodes thought as he drove along the gravel road that passed by the land where the rock pit was located. It was mid-October, and the trees that grew along each side of the road had begun to lose their leaves, but on most days the weather was still warm enough for short sleeves.
Excerpted from Murder in the Air by Bill Crider. Copyright © 2010 Bill Crider. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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