Book excerpt

Nights of the Red Moon

Texas Mysteries

Milton T. Burton

St. Martin's Press

Shortly before sunup on a hot, dry morning in early September of this past year, Amanda Twiller, the local Methodist preacher’s wife, was slaughtered and then dumped in front of the church parsonage. My name is Bo Handel, and as it turned out, this was to be one of my most trying cases in almost thirty years as sheriff of Caddo County, Texas.
I was enjoying a third cup of coffee and trying to dig my way through the Houston Chronicle when I heard a loud knock at my front door. I padded up the hall barefoot and in my bathrobe to find my chief deputy, Toby Parsons, standing on the porch. Toby is a midthirties African-American ex–Special Forces sergeant with a keen mind and a calm, even temperament. But he looked anything but calm and even that morning.
I motioned him inside. “From your expression I conclude that either the courthouse has gone missing or we have a body on our hands. Which is it?”
“A body.”
“Any idea whose?”
He nodded. “Afraid so, Bo. It’s Reverend Twiller’s wife.”
I grimaced. “This would be a murder, I assume?”
“Unless she found some way to shoot herself three times in the back. Her husband found her in their front yard just a little while ago, but it looks like she was killed somewhere else because there’s hardly any blood at the scene.”
“It’s inside the city limits. Doesn’t the police department want primary jurisdiction?”
“No. Chief Ogilvie and his wife are on vacation up in Virginia. With him out of town, the city PD doesn’t have anybody with homicide experience except Clyde Morgan, and he’s filling in as acting chief. He requested that you take over the investigation since he’s busy with administrative duties.”
“Of course he would,” I said, shaking my head with mild exasperation. “Clyde’s too damn lazy to cast a shadow.” I led the way back to the kitchen and motioned to the percolator. “Go ahead and have a cup of coffee while I get dressed.”
I went upstairs to the bedroom I had shared with my wife until she died of cancer five years earlier. I pulled out a fresh pair of dark Wrangler dress jeans and a starched white Western shirt and climbed into them. Once I got my Tony Lama boots situated on my feet and my cream-colored Western summer hat mounted on my head, I went down the stairs. I didn’t bother to take a look in the hall mirror before leaving the house, the way I always did in my younger years. By now I was reconciled to what I’d see looking back at me—a weathered, sun-darkened face that would never make women swoon. But neither would it make little kids run screeching for their mothers, so I was pretty sure I could live with it one more day, just as I’d been doing for the past sixty-two years.
*   *   *
A half dozen cops, including two of my deputies, milled around in the front yard of the Twiller house, and an ambulance from the hospital in nearby Nacogdoches was already on site. Much to my relief, only a few of the more curious neighbors had gathered. I also spotted two eager-looking young fellows in summer-weight suits and sunglasses who’d no doubt come in the white Ford sedan that screamed federal government. I had no idea what they wanted, but their presence told me this was destined to be something more than a simple murder case.
We ducked under the crime scene tape and walked over to where the body lay sprawled on the greenbelt between the sidewalk and the street.
“You didn’t sound surprised when I told you she was dead,” Toby said softly.
“I wasn’t. The woman has been out of control for months.”
“What’s the story on her?”
A good question. What was the story? I knew that she was the wife of the Reverend Bobby Joe Twiller, pastor of Sequoya’s First United Methodist Church, and that they’d been in town about three years. The morning he preached his first sermon, Twiller stressed that he hoped to become a refuge and safe harbor to anyone in spiritual need. How successful he was in this endeavor is for others besides myself to decide, but it is a matter of public record that after ten years of marriage, his wife had found his gentle presence in her life so burdensome that she’d begun an affair with the owner of a local liquor store, and then run off to Houston with the man a few weeks later.
Initially, the Twillers’ arrival in town had generated quite a splash with the congregation. As time wore on, they had come to be well liked in the community, and with Reverend Twiller at the helm the membership of the old, almost moribund church quadrupled. Along the way a full-time educational director had been hired, and a large and popular Sunday school class for adult singles was added. Then at the beginning of the summer, Twiller announced the creation of a youth ministry that featured a week’s encampment on Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
Back in the spring a friend of mine, a sweet, vaguely frayed female social worker for the Texas child welfare department, insisted that I accompany her and her husband to church to hear this paragon expound his doctrines from the pulpit. And hear them I did. Indeed, Reverend Twiller droned on for over half an hour, virtually burying us under an avalanche of pious nonsense, no single sentence of which seemed to bear any logical relation to the others. It was as though he had written the thing by pouring a box of modern Protestant catchphrases into the top of a word processor and then pushing the print button. As I left the church that day, I could only reflect that God’s taste in servants had changed dramatically since the days of Jeremiah.
Yet his accomplishments must have seemed meaningless to him that Sunday morning back in late July when his conscience compelled him to reveal his wife’s adultery to his congregation, something he saw as rooted in his own failures as a husband. The clear-eyed businessmen on his board of stewards were aware of one fact that was lost on their pastor: Amanda Twiller was a nervous, erratic individual who had been a very poor choice as a minister’s wife. They refused to accept his resignation and asked him to stay on. He did, though only as a shadow of his former self. But if the church hadn’t given up on Reverend Twiller, then neither had he given up on his wife. At least not until that grim morning when he found her body.
“She was a misfit, Toby,” I said under my breath. “And I’ve heard she had a problem with prescription drugs. You know the pattern. Complaints of chronic pain, doctor hopping … About two months ago she left her husband and son and took up with Emmet Zorn, that guy who owns the Pak-a-Sak.”
“Ahhh, I got it.”
I quickly determined that adequate crime scene photos had been taken, that the area around the body had been fine-combed, and that the only physical evidence that might have been related to the murder was a beer can in the gutter a few feet from the body.
“It needs to go to the Department of Public Safety lab down in Houston,” I told the young city cop who had bagged it. “I want it checked for both prints and DNA. And where are Reverend Twiller and his son? I’ll need to talk to them.”
“Twiller went to pieces and they took him to the hospital,” Toby said. “Is he a suspect?”
I shook my head. “Not hardly. If Bobby Joe Twiller was getting mugged, he’d try to convene a seminar on anger management. But I’ll need to have a few words with him anyway. How about the boy?”
“Somebody from the church came and got him.”
“Good enough.”
I turned to the two government boys and gave them a bland smile. “What can you do for me?” I asked.
“Muldoon and Hotchkiss, FBI,” the larger of the two said, holding out his hand. “I’m Muldoon, and isn’t it customary for an officeholder to ask, ‘What can I do for you?’ ”
“I’m the one that needs help. And I’m a little curious about why you’re here this morning. I don’t quite see the Federal connection.”
Muldoon answered, “This woman has been involved with a man we’ve had our eye on for some time.”
“You must mean Emmet Zorn. What’s your interest in him?”
Muldoon’s voice fell to a near whisper. “Sheriff, that’s something we ought to talk about someplace where it’s a little more private.”
One of the city policemen came over and handed me Amanda Twiller’s purse, a large shoulder bag of quilted suede that was found beside her body. I peeked in the top and saw a jumbo-size prescription bottle. “Look at this,” I said.
“What?” Muldoon asked.
“Vicodin, the big, two-hundred-milligram tablets.” I squinted for a moment at the label. “The prescription calls for sixty of these damn things, and it’s only two days old. One every six hours…”
I took my pen and jiggled the bottle around sideways so I could see inside it. “Only about a half dozen left. Looks like the lady got way ahead of herself on her medication.” I peered closely at the label. “It was filled at a Houston pharmacy, and the doctor’s name is Kane. Wilton Kane. Either of you ever heard of him?”
Both men nodded. “Yeah,” Muldoon said. “Kane is real popular with high-strung rich ladies. Specializes in tranquilizers and painkillers. He’s been skirting on the edge of losing his narcotics permit for the last couple of years.”
A new Chevy pickup glided up to the curb, and Meg McCorkle, Precinct One justice of the peace vaulted out and hurried toward us. In Texas counties that are too small in population to warrant a full-time coroner, the local JP handles this function. It would be Meg who would have to sign the order for an autopsy and authorize the removal of the body from the scene. She was a tall, midthirtyish woman with a merry face and a pair of long, well-tanned legs that came out of her dark green Bermuda shorts and seemed to go on forever.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get here,” she said. “Jeff is out of town, and I had to get the kids off to school.”
“Don’t fret about it,” I said. I turned and introduced her to the two Bureau men.
“Autopsy in Houston?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No, I want it done over in Nacogdoches.”
“You sure? The Harris County medical examiner’s office is a lot cheaper.”
“That takes too long, and I want one of the bullets out of the corpse this afternoon so these young Federal friends of ours can run it through the national computer.” I looked at them and smiled. “Right?”
“Sure,” Muldoon said.
“The county commissioners aren’t going to like it,” Meg said.
I smiled at her. “Now, Meg, do you think I really care about that?”
“Okay, just so I can lay the blame on you. I’m hoping to get a raise out of them.”
I knew she was as likely to get a raise out of that quartet of penny-pinching jackasses as it was to rain in the next ten minutes, but I didn’t say so. Instead I said, “Be my guest. Just please move things along and get the body out of this heat.”
“They can go ahead and load it now,” she said. “I’ll get the particulars from your deputies.”
I turned to Toby. “Linda Willis was scheduled to be on duty today. Get on the radio or call her on her cell phone or something, and tell her to meet this ambulance over in Nacogdoches. She’s got an autopsy to watch. She knows what questions to ask, but tell her to make sure they do a vaginal swab, and have her get those bullets back up here as quick as you can. Have them take samples of anything they find under the victim’s fingernails. I also want blood tests done for every drug they can think of. And send this bag on down to Houston for a complete examination. Fingerprints, the works.”
I motioned to the two Bureau men. “You gentlemen come on and follow me and I’ll buy you some breakfast. I’ve got to get something to eat pretty quick or I’ll play out before noon.”
They headed for their car while I stood for a moment surveying the scene. I shuddered a little as I watched the attendants slide the body-laden stretcher into the back of the ambulance. We were in the second week of a mercilessly hot September, and East Texas had been more than two months without rain. The heat and drought were taking their toll. Violent crime was up all across the eastern part of the state, and cops were facing the weekends with dread. When the sun set, the bars and clubs came alive with fights and brawls. The past week had seen two stabbings in my own county, and in Nacogdoches a well-liked fertilizer plant foreman shot his wife four times and then turned the gun on himself. Their sixteen-year-old daughter said they had been arguing over the electric bill.
I’m not superstitious by nature, but there is one piece of local folklore I have come to accept completely in the years since I first heard it as a child from the old people in my family, who’d gotten it from their ancestors, who in turn had learned it from the Indians. It was something that had lain heavy on my mind the last few days, especially when darkness fell. The air was laden with dust and the moon was beginning its second quarter. Each night it rose crimson on the eastern horizon, and even at its highest point in the middle of the night it was still a reddish orange. Back in frontier times when a summer drought lingered on toward the fall equinox, the Cherokees called it the Season of the Blood Moon, and feared it as a time of madness and death.

Copyright © 2010 by Milton T. Burton MILTON T. BURTON is the author of two previous crime novels. He has been variously a cattleman, a political consultant, and a college history teacher. Burton lives in Jacksonville, Texas.