These Mortal Remains: A Mystery

These Mortal Remains: A Mystery

by Milton T. Burton

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250006387
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/16/2013
Series: Texas Mysteries Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

MILTON T. BURTON was variously a cattleman, a political consultant, and a college history teacher. He is the author of The Rogues' Game, The Sweet and the Dead, Nights of the Red Moon, and The Devil's Odds, all of which were published by Minotaur Books. He lived in Tyler, Texas, prior to his death in late 2011.

Read an Excerpt

These Mortal Remains

A Mystery


By Milton T. Burton

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Milton T. Burton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03029-0


CHAPTER 1

No one ever understood their reasons for picking the Royal. It had a brisk trade, but there were other places nearby that would have been more lucrative. Whatever their logic, it was a very unwise move on their part. According to witnesses, they burst through the door a little after seven-thirty that morning, wild-eyed and with their pistols already in hand.

"On the floor, assholes!" Topper Smith yelled.

Customers and staff alike stared at him without comprehension.

"Goddamn, am I going to have to kill somebody for you morons to figure it out? This is a robbery, so get moving!"

That got people's attention. Everybody quickly hit the deck except an elderly man named Dual Driggers who sat in the second booth back from the cash register.

"I said get down!" Topper bellowed.

"Piss on you, punk," Dual said. "I got arthritis, and I ain't getting on no damn floor."

Both bandits gaped at Dual in amazement. What they saw was a skinny, shriveled-up old geezer with bright eyes and a face that made people think of biting into persimmons. This was the first time they'd encountered resistance, and they were baffled by it. Things were at an impasse. Dean Bean apparently thought he could get the situation unstuck by firing into the ceiling three times. The little German-made .32 caliber pistol was loud in the confined space of the diner, but it wasn't nearly as loud as the .45 Colt automatic that materialized in Dual's right hand a moment later.

"Where the hell did that thing come from?" Bean asked, ogling the heavy gun with his speed-crazed eyes. He was never to learn the answer to his question. The autopsy would reveal that Dual's bullet hit him squarely in the heart and ripped it to shreds, thereby proving that Mean Dean Bean wasn't really so mean after all.

"Holy shit!" Topper Smith said as he stared down at his now defunct buddy. He looked up at Dual, and when he spoke his voice was full of childish petulance. "What did you do that for, you old son of a bitch?"

Instead of answering, Dual gave him a smile the waitress later said reminded her of something out of Tales from the Crypt and squeezed the trigger a second time.

This bullet missed its mark by a few inches, which was forgivable since Dual was eighty-four years old with fading eyesight. Instead of hitting the center of Topper's chest, it went through his right lung and severed a fair-sized artery. A moment later a very confused Topper dropped to the floor, his eyes beginning to glaze with shock.

The diner was dead quiet for a few seconds except for a mild gurgling sound coming from the hole in the robber's chest. Dual rose ponderously to his feet and hobbled over to where the young hoodlum lay. Topper looked up at the old man and raised his .38 snub-nose and tried to pull the trigger. Dual made two attempts to kick the gun out of the punk's hand and missed both times, almost falling on the second try. "Aw, screw it," he said, and put a bullet right between Topper's eyebrows.

A 230-grain Norma hollow-point at point-blank range has approximately the same effect on a human cranium that a cherry bomb has on a watermelon, which made the end of Topper's short and remarkably unproductive life an extremely messy affair. Not that Dual gave a damn.

Patrons and employees both began to slowly get to their feet. The cook peeped over the counter, then stood. Everybody except Dual looked dazed. "Call the sheriff," he said.

"Huh?" the counterman asked.

"Call the sheriff, fool!" Dual yelled impatiently.

As the man reached for the phone and began dialing, a nice-looking young college girl walked up beside Dual, peered down at the remnants of Topper's head, and clapped her hand to her mouth.

"I've seen lots worse than this," Dual said. "You ought to been at Omaha Beach."

The girl stared at him for a moment in horror and then bolted through the front door. A few seconds later retching sounds came from outside the building. Dual shrugged, then announced to no one in particular, "I think I'll finish my breakfast before the cops get here."

Slipping his pistol into the waistband of his pants, he hobbled back over to his table. The waitress stood gaping at the old man, her eyes enormous. Dual gave her another gruesome smile and said, "Honey, if you don't mind, bring me a couple more of them sausages."


* * *

My name is Beauregard "Bo" Handel, and I've been sheriff of Caddo County in central East Texas for almost three decades. Early one Friday morning last November, two Houston meth heads known on the street as Topper Smith and Mean Dean Bean tried to rob the Royal Coffee Shop, a new joint just beyond the city limit on the south side of Sequoya, our county seat. Subsequent investigation revealed that the Royal was only the latest stop in a crime spree that began two days earlier when the pair decided to knock over two liquor stores and a neighborhood grocery in the same evening. I use the word "decided" loosely because meth freaks don't really decide anything. In their world, action proceeds from impulse without any intervention by the frontal lobes, which are usually too fried to be of use, anyway.

The three jobs that inaugurated their odyssey brought them a combined take of something over five thousand dollars, a sum that was probably more money than either had ever seen at any one time in their lives. For reasons known only to themselves, they decided to abandon Houston that same night. After stocking up on crystal, they stole a car and headed northward into East Texas. Before they landed in Caddo County, they robbed seven more business establishments and killed two people. Their victims were an elderly lady buying cat food at a mom-and-pop store near Woodville and a Korean immigrant who owned a video rental business in Lufkin. Witnesses said both were murdered for no apparent reason.

Soon after each robbery the pair ditched their getaway vehicle and stole another, no doubt seeing this strategy as the key to a successful criminal career. What they didn't know was that the car they were currently driving was on a quad-state felony alert hot sheet, and that a deputy constable in the middle of a drunk driving arrest had spotted it fifteen miles back down the road and radioed the highway patrol.

It was all over long before I received word in the form of a phone call, which was picked up by my chief deputy, Toby Parsons.

Here's how it played out in the aftermath of Dual Drigger's run-in with Topper Smith and Mean Dean Bean.

CHAPTER 2

"He did what?" I asked.

"He killed both of them," Toby Parsons said as he hung up the phone. "At least that's what the manager claims."

Toby was a thirty-five-year-old café au lait African American who'd been a U.S. Army Special Forces career noncom serving in Iraq until a chunk of car bomb shrapnel cut his military career short.

"Both of them, you say?"

"That's right, Bo. According to the manager, he just whipped out a great big pistol and blew 'em right out of their damn shoes. He's got a concealed carry permit, you know."

"Who killed who?" Deputy Linda Willis asked as she entered the room still limping a little from the bullet she'd taken in her right foot during a shootout back in September. Linda was thirty, a bit plump and very pretty, with a tart mouth and a cheeky attitude. I put up with her sass and her occasional attempts to kick me in the shins when I annoyed her because, aside from being fun to work with, she was one of the best deputies I'd ever had — smart, persistent, and willing to charge hell with a bucket of water.

"Dual Driggers," Toby said. "The word is that he killed two thugs who tried to rob that new coffee shop out on Highway Nine South a few minutes ago."

"I just love that old man," Linda gushed.

"I don't," Toby said. "He doesn't like black people."

"Or white people," I said. "Or Mexicans or Chinamen or anybody else. He's just negative about the human race in general."

"I wonder why he's that way?"

"D-day," I replied. "The Normandy landing."

"I had no idea," Toby said.

"I don't get it," Linda said.

"Dual was in the second wave ashore at Omaha Beach and fought all the way through to the end of the war. Later analysis showed that there hadn't been nearly enough naval bombardment of the Germans' coastal fortifications in the Omaha sector. The landing was bloody hell. The experience left him impatient with his fellow man." I rose from behind my desk. "Let's go, kiddies. We need to get out there."

"You mean you're putting me on field duty?" Linda asked.

"I've got no choice," I said. "That place has been busy every morning since it opened, and that means there are going to be too many witnesses for me and Toby to interview by ourselves."

"Yahoo!" she yelled. "Back in the saddle again."


* * *

A highway patrol cruiser already sat in the parking lot when we arrived at the Royal. Inside the café, we found a very perplexed young trooper.

"I pulled in when I noticed that black Nissan parked right outside the front of the building," he said. "It's on the hot sheet. Right after I radioed for backup, a young lady came out and barfed into the shrubbery. I asked her what was wrong and she told me an old man had just killed two armed robbers. The manager said he'd called you, so I decided I'd better secure the scene and wait for you to sort it all out."

"You did good," I said.

He pointed at Dual. "That's the old man sitting right there, and I guess he's still got the gun. That concerns me a little."

"Don't worry," I said. "He won't shoot you unless you aggravate him."

"You know him?"

"Sure. All my life. You let me handle this. If you want to help, roll out the crime scene tape and keep anybody else from coming in until I get some more people on the ground."

His backup arrived a few minutes later in the person of Bob Thornton, the Texas Ranger who covered Caddo, Nacogdoches, and Angelina counties. I called in two more of my deputies to help take statements, but Thornton and I interviewed Dual ourselves.

"I heard on the ten o'clock news last night about that poor feller that got shot down in Lufkin," Dual explained. "The TV said there were two of them, so when they first come in the door and I seen them guns I figured they were the ones that done it. Spree killers, like that Charlie Starkweather back in the fifties. I slipped my old pistol out of my pants and held it under the table. They told everybody to get on the floor. I got contrary with them, and that's when the shooting started."

"They fired first, right?" Thornton asked. "Not that it really makes any difference."

"Yeah, but he put his shots into the ceiling. They never did actually shoot at me."

"But the second one was trying to raise his gun after you put him on the floor?" I asked.

"He'd done raised it and was trying to pull the trigger, but he didn't have enough steam left. See, he didn't have it cocked, and some them little old revolvers are pretty hard to pull through on the double-action cycle. Especially when you've got a forty-five bullet in the lung."

"And that was the reason you shot him a second time?" I asked. "He was attempting to shoot you?"

"Damn right he was. I tried to kick it out of his hand, but it looks like my kicking days are over. I'm not going to have any trouble over this, am I?"

Thornton folded up his notebook and shook his head. "I don't see why you would. According to the statute, the use of deadly force is permissible to prevent murder, rape, kidnapping, or armed robbery, and in cases of self-defense, which this situation clearly was with him pointing that damn thirty-eight at you. So you've got all the bases covered."

"I thought I was on solid ground," Dual said. "The instructor went over all that stuff when I got my permit."

Thornton stood and slipped his pen back into his shirt pocket. "The state mental health department has free psychological counseling for violent crime victims," he said. "You sure qualify if you want it."

Dual's eyes were bright but his smile was sad. "I've sat and eat hot chow within smelling distance of hundreds of dead Krauts and been damn glad to get it. What could some peckerwood shrink say that would make me feel any better?"

"These people are trained for this very thing," I said. "You might consider it, Dual."

The old man shook his head firmly. "I slept well enough last night, and I expect to do the same again tonight. But I do thank you both for your kind thoughts."


* * *

Two weeks later District Judge Leander MacGregor convened a hearing in which he took testimony from the investigators, the available witnesses, and from Dual. Thornton and I testified that the physical evidence at the scene was in perfect alignment with the witnesses' accounts, and Thornton confirmed that the guns Smith and Bean were carrying matched the ballistics of the bullets taken from the old woman in Livingston and the video store owner in Lufkin. Far from trying to get an indictment, it was District Attorney Tom Waller himself who moved that the judge rule that the pair had died as a result of justifiable homicide. MacGregor didn't even leave the bench to review his notes before granting Tom's motion. I thought that was the end of the incident, but I was wrong. As things turned out, it was just the beginning.

CHAPTER 3

Time marched on, as the old newsreels used to say. Thanksgiving came and went, and November gave way to December. Christmas loomed on the horizon with the New Year not far behind. It was a gray, overcast morning toward the end of the first week of the month.

"Bo's got a birthday coming up in February," Linda Willis said as she dropped a thick stack of papers into the in-box on my desk.

"I know," said my niece, Sheila Warbeck. "He's getting positively ancient." Auburn haired, slim, and very pretty, Sheila was a thirty-three-year-old reporter for the Daily Sentinel in nearby Nacogdoches whose occasional feature articles had appeared in a number of major magazines including Texas Monthly. Sheila's dad had died when she was ten, and I'd helped my sister raise her — which meant that I was the subject of all the manipulations a man would expect from a mischievous daughter. I allowed her free run of my office and access to the daily crime reports, but that morning, "ray-por-tage," as Truman Capote always called it, seemed to be the furthest thing from her mind. As far as I could see, she had nothing on her agenda beyond teaming up with Linda to see how much the two of them could pester me.

"Give us some wisdom, boss," Linda said. "Tell us all the groovy insights about life you've learned in those years."

I eyed her skeptically over the tops of my reading glasses. "If you want wisdom, you need to talk to a preacher or a professor. I'm just a country lawman."

"Yeah, right," Linda said. "A country lawman with a Phi Beta Kappa key from Rice University. Lots of those running around East Texas."

"I studied music, not philosophy. Besides, I never even finished my degree."

"Why not?" Linda asked.

"My dad died in the middle of my senior year and I had to come home and take over the family's timber business to support my mother. She had MS."

"Okay," Linda said. "That gives you academic experience plus immersion in the real world. A combination that should have caused you to do a little reflecting on the nature of things in such a long, turbulent life."

"Who says my life's been turbulent? And I don't know that being sixty-three puts me in the antique bin."

"Don't change the subject, Bo," Sheila said. "We want wisdom. Pontificate for us. Give us something profound we can tell our grandkids when you're long gone."

"Would you two please vanish? I've got work to do."

"Wisdom. Wisdom. Wisdom," Linda chanted. "Let's hear wisdom."

"Okay, okay," I said with a defeated sigh. I leaned back in my big leather chair and composed myself in order to sound suitably magisterial. "This is the personal philosophy of Beauregard Handel: I believe in common prudence, common sense, and common decency, even though all three seem to be in short supply these days. I believe in close families, loyal friends, and small communities like ours. I believe in good country cooking, sexy women, fine-blooded quarter horses, and slow rains after long droughts. I believe an occasional dram of aged whiskey is a healing balm for the troubled soul. I believe —"


(Continues...)

Excerpted from These Mortal Remains by Milton T. Burton. Copyright © 2013 Milton T. Burton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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