Authors: Ben Rehder
Tags: #Mystery, #Texas
Copyright © 2013 by Ben Rehder.
Cover art copyright © 2013 by Bijou Graphics & Design.
A Thirsty Mind
All rights reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
For my good friend Jim Lindeman,
with best wishes on his retirement.
I am very grateful to all of the people who helped with this novel. Their impact has been enormous. Special thanks to Jay Juba for answering dozens of questions. Much appreciation to Tommy Blackwell, Jim Lindeman, Becky Rehder, Helen Haught Fanick, Mary Summerall, Stacia Hernstrom, Marsha Moyer, Greg Rosen, John Grace, Martin Grantham, and Tony Turpin. All errors are my own, although I usually blame them on Red O’Brien.
On a muggy, moonless night in July, just before ten o’clock in the evening, one of the best running backs ever produced by the Texas high school football system plowed his recently acquired Kawasaki Ninja into the side of a four-hundred-pound feral hog. Sammy Beech was taken by surprise. The Ecstasy he’d swallowed several hours earlier, chased with vodka and Red Bull, surely couldn’t have helped. Besides, Sammy Beech had been more worried about the danger
him, emphasized by the occasional crack of a gunshot, rather than any potential danger in front of him.
It all happened so quickly.
One moment, Beech was zooming around a curve on a winding county road at just under eighty miles per hour. The next, a massive, dark, hairy, tusked behemoth loomed mere yards in front of the motorcycle, as suddenly and unexpectedly as a cop from behind a billboard.
Beech had no time to hit the brakes. He did have time, albeit less than a fifth of a second, as he hurtled through the air headfirst, to wish that he were wearing a helmet. And to wonder whether he would ever carry a football again.
Turned out the answer was no.
His obituary described him as a “fine young man” who had “overcome some hurdles” to “become one of the nation’s brightest college football prospects.” Understandably, it did not mention the unflattering toxicology report.
And because Sammy’s father was even better known, the hastily written headline in the
Blanco County Record
read SON OF BEECH KILLED IN HOG MISHAP.
There was no obituary for the pig.
What Game Warden John Marlin wanted to know was, how could anyone mistake a mockingbird for a white-winged dove? Yet here he was, standing on the edge of a sunflower field, speaking to a hunter who had done precisely that.
It had been a busy dove season so far. Abundant rain throughout the summer meant a healthy bird population. That, in turn, brought the hunters out in droves. Some of the more popular leases had sounded like a war zone for the past three weeks, shotguns booming from dawn till dusk, with only a slight let-up at mid-day. Not all of that birdshot hit the right target.
This particular hunter—a crisply dressed software engineer in his thirties—had pulled the dead mockingbird from his game bag and laid it out on the tailgate of his King Ranch edition Ford F-150. Marlin would bet that the man couldn’t find the King Ranch on a map.
“You ever hunted dove before?” Marlin asked, checking the man’s license. It had been purchased the previous day in Austin.
“This is the only bird you’ve gotten?”
The hunter grinned. “Only one I’ve been able to hit.”
“What kind of gun you using?”
“Remington twelve gauge.”
“Be honest. Did you practice with it at all before coming out today?”
The hunter looked nervous. Marlin sometimes forgot that his height—six foot four—could be intimidating. Other times, of course, he used that to his advantage.
“Uh...” the hunter said.
“That’s what I thought. You lease this place for the weekend?”
“No, for the year. I’ll be hunting deer out here in a couple of months.”
“Let me show you something.” Marlin waited—it didn’t take long—until a dove flew past. “See that there? Notice how it doesn’t fly like a mockingbird at all?”
“Well, in my defense, the mockingbird does have some white on its wings. Besides, it wasn’t flying.”
“What was it doing?”
The hunter pointed. “Sitting in that cedar tree.”
Marlin had to bite his lip to prevent himself from laughing in disgust. Shooting a bird on a limb was one of the most unsportsmanlike things you could do in the field. Besides, it wasn’t a cedar tree, it was an oak. The difference was, oh, night and day.
Marlin felt the cell phone vibrate in his pocket and it gave him a start. He still hadn’t gotten used to it. He’d resisted owning a cell phone for the longest time, but once he’d broken down and made the leap, he had to admit that it was a handy and practical tool. But he ignored the alert for now.
“You understand that the mockingbird is the state bird and it’s a protected species?”
“You gonna write me a ticket?”
Red O’Brien had just exited the Johnson City Quik-Pak with a case of Keystone Light and a king-sized package of jalapeño-flavored Corn Nuts when he saw something that caught his eye—a small poster tacked to the bulletin board just outside the store. The headline at the top?
Beneath that, a photo of a pig.
Whoa, hold on. That looks interesting.
Before he read further, Red had to wonder: What kind of idiot would pay fifty grand to find a lost pig? That had to be one hell of a swine, probably trained to perform some sort of special trick or marketable skill. Maybe it was like that swimming pig they’d had at Aquarena Springs way back when. Or it could be an actor-pig, like the one that had herded sheep in that movie.
But none of that really mattered, did it? The important thing was that somebody’s pig was missing and they were offering a huge-ass reward to anyone who brought it back. Then Red studied the rest of the poster and saw that the situation wasn’t quite what he thought. Still good—very good—but different. The text said:
My fellow citizens
Central Texas is being overrun by feral hogs. The population is reaching catastrophic levels. Herds of pigs damage the environment, destroy crops, harm native wildlife, and worst of all, create a deadly traffic hazard. The state isn’t doing enough to address this issue, so I’m doing it myself. Recently, a wild pig was released here in the county with a fifteen-digit number tattooed inside one ear. The person to bring that pig to me—dead, not alive—will be presented with a certified cashier’s check for $50,000, no questions asked. There is no time limit on this offer. The pig in the photo is not the actual pig in question. The tattooed pig might be black, white, brown, or any combination thereof. It might be large or it might be small. Happy hunting. Please obey all applicable laws.
Double Eagle Ranch
Blanco County, Texas
Red could feel his heart rate picking up. Fifty thousand damn dollars. For a wild pig!
He read the poster again. Then a third time, just to make absolutely sure he understood correctly. Then he pulled the poster off the board, folded it up, and stuck it in his pocket. Why leave it up and let even more people know about this amazing opportunity? He looked around to make sure nobody was watching him. As was usual in his day-to-day existence, nobody was paying any attention to him whatsoever.
The call had come from Phil Colby, Marlin’s closest friend since childhood. Marlin dialed him back from his truck.
“You never answer the damn phone,” Colby said. “I’m starting to think you’re taking a nap or something.”
“Every chance I get.”
“You got a minute or are you conducting extremely important state bidness?”
“You heard this crazy stuff that Grady Beech is up to?”
Beech was a well-off real estate developer, originally from Wichita Falls, who had bought a two-thousand-acre ranch in Blanco County in the mid-nineties. At first it was simply a place for hunting excursions that generally devolved into wild parties, but Beech had eventually retired and moved in full-time with a lovely new bride named Leigh Anne. Much younger. Some would have called her a trophy wife if she’d been flashier, with lots of makeup and various enhanced body parts, but Leigh Anne’s was a wholesome girl-next-door type of beauty, and there was some substance to her. Just four years earlier, she had earned an MBA from a small private college in San Antonio. She was smart and friendly, but she also had a tendency to overdo that whole southern sorority girl persona, like she was always in the running for a Miss Congeniality Award, which could be annoying. Plus, there was the age gap, which sometimes made Marlin wonder what she and Grady talked about around the dinner table.
Not long after earning her master’s degree, Leigh Anne announced that she wanted to open a vineyard—apparently a pet project to put her education to use. And she believed her idea had a lot of potential. So Beech had dedicated about a hundred acres, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to getting the project off the ground. In the years since, the Double Eagle Vineyards, like a handful of other vineyards in central Texas, had become a modest success.
Marlin told Colby he hadn’t heard anything about Grady Beech recently.
Colby said, “You’re not gonna like this. Imagine how your average toothless banjo strummer would react to a wild pig with a fifty-thousand-dollar bounty on its head.”
“What are you babbling about?”
“Just what I said. We all know how Grady Beech feels about pigs, especially with Sammy and everything.”
Beech had always been very vocal about the need to control feral hogs, chiefly because of the damage they inflicted to grape crops. Even with an eight-foot-tall fence around the perimeter of the vineyard, the powerful pigs found ways through or under it. Beech allowed locals to hunt pigs at night with a spotlight on his ranch—including the vineyard, as needed—which was completely legal. In fact, since wild pigs were a non-game, non-indigenous species, you could hunt them around the clock, any time of year, with any type of weapon. In cases of depredation, you didn’t even need a hunting license. Still, the pig population was booming, on the vineyard, in Blanco County, and across the state. As the saying goes, a sow can have a litter of eight piglets and ten will survive. For a guy like Beech, trying to run a vineyard, pigs were a nightmare. And Beech’s disdain for hogs had grown even more intense after his son had died in a motorcycle collision with a huge boar two months earlier.
“What’s this about a bounty?” Marlin asked.
“Okay, I’m not positive this is true, but I heard it from Trey, and you know he’s not some old gossip. He said Grady had this idea about a way to get rid of all the pigs in the county. What Grady did was, he had his ranch foreman tranquilize a pig and tattoo a number on the inside of its ear. Then he turned it loose. That pig could be anywhere by now. The deal is whoever shoots that pig gets fifty thousand bucks. Beech’s way of making sure a whole bunch of pigs get annihilated.”
Marlin had to think for a second:
Does Phil have any reason to pull my leg?
He actually hoped the answer was “yes,” because if what Colby was saying was true, Marlin’s life was about to get a lot more complicated.