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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 bare-bones 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 M-16, 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."
Excerpted from Murder in The Air by Bill Crider.
Copyright 2010 by Bill Crider.
Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books A Thomas Dunne Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.