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Rain Gods: A Novel

Burke, James Lee Author

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“America’s best novelist” (The Denver Post ) brings back one of his most fascinating characters— Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland, cousin to lawman Billy Bob Holland—in this heart-pounding bestseller.

In a heat-cracked border town, the bodies of nine illegal aliens—women and girls, killed execution-style—are unearthed in a shallow grave. Haunted by a past he can’t shake and his own private demons, Hack attempts to untangle the grisly case, which may lead to more bloodshed. Damaged young Iraq vet Pete Flores, who saw too much before fleeing the crime scene, and his girlfriend, Vikki Gaddis, are running for their lives. Sorting through the lowlifes who are hunting down Pete, and with Preacher Jack Collins, a Godfearing serial killer for hire, in the mix, Hack is caught up in a terrifying race for survival—for Pete, Vikki, and himself.

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About the Author:

James Lee Burke, a rare winner of two Edgar Awards, and named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, is the author of thirty previous novels and two collections of short stories, including such New York Times bestsellers as  The Glass RainbowSwan Peak, The Tin Roof Blowdown, Last Car to Elysian Fields and Rain Gods. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Ï»¿ 1

ON THE BURNT-OUT end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic's shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tires. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.

The young man entered a phone booth and wiped his face slick with the flat of his hand. His denim shirt was stiff with salt and open on his chest, his hair mowed into the scalp, GI€‘style. He pulled an unlabeled pint bottle from the front of his jeans and unscrewed the cap. Down the right side of his face was a swollen pink scar that was as bright and shiny as plastic and looked pasted onto the skin rather than part of it. The mescal in the bottle was yellow and thick with threadworms that seemed to light against the sunset when he tipped the neck to his mouth. Inside the booth, he could feel his heart quickening and lines of sweat running down from his armpits into the waistband of his undershorts. His index finger trembled as he punched in the numbers on the phone's console.

"What's your emergency?" a woman dispatcher asked.

The rolling countryside was the color of a browned biscuit, stretching away endlessly, the monotony of rocks and creosote brush and grit and mesquite trees interrupted only by an occasional windmill rattling in the breeze.

"Last night there was some shooting here. A lot of it," he said. "I heard it in the dark and saw the flashes."

"Shooting where?"

"By that old church. I think that's what happened. I was drinking. I saw it from down the road. It scared the doo-doo out of me."

There was a pause. "Are you drinking now, sir?"

"Not really. I mean, not much. Just a few hits of Mexican worm juice."

"Tell us where you are, and we'll send out a cruiser. Will you wait there for a cruiser to come out?"

"This doesn't have anything to do with me. A lot of wets go through here. There's oceans of trash down by the border. Dirty diapers and moldy clothes and rotted food and tennis shoes without strings in them. Why would they take the strings out of their tennis shoes?"

"Is this about illegals?"

"I said I heard somebody busting caps. That's all I'm reporting. Maybe I heard a tailgate drop. I'm sure I did. It clanked in the dark."

"Sir, where are you calling from?"

"The same place I heard all that shooting."

"Give me your name, please."

"What name they got for a guy so dumb he thinks doing the right thing is the right thing? Answer me that, please, ma'am."

He tried to slam down the receiver on the hook but missed. The phone receiver swung back and forth from the phone box as the young man with the welted pink scar on his face drove away, road dust sucking back through the glassless windows of his car.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER, at sunset, the sky turned to turquoise; then the strips of black cloud along the horizon were backlit by a red brilliance that was like the glow of a forge, as though the cooling of the day were about to be set into abeyance so the sun's heat could prevail through the night into the following dawn. Across the street from the abandoned filling station, a tall man in his seventies, wearing westerncut khakis and hand-tooled boots and an old-fashioned gun belt and a dove-colored Stetson, parked his truck in front of what appeared to be the shell of a Spanish mission. The roof had caved onto the floor, and the doors had been twisted off the hinges and carried inside and broken up and used for firewood by homeless people or teenage vandals. The only tree in the crossroads community was a giant willow; it shaded one side of the church and created a strange effect of shadow and red light on the stucco walls, as though a grass fire were approaching the structure and about to consume it.

In reality, the church had been built not by Spaniards or Mexicans but by an industrialist who had become the most hated man in America after his company security forces and members of the Colorado militia massacred eleven children and two women during a miners' strike in 1914. Later, the industrialist reinvented himself as a philanthropist and humanitarian and rehabilitated his family name by building churches around the country. But the miners did not get their union, and this particular church became a scorched cipher that few associate with the two women and eleven children who had tried to hide in a root cellar while the canvas tent above them rained ash and flame upon their heads.

The tall man was wearing a holstered blue-black white-handled revolver. Unconsciously, he removed his hat when he entered the church, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the deep shadows inside the walls. The oak flooring had been ripped up and hauled away by a contractor, and the dirt underneath was green and cool with lack of sunlight, packed down hard, humped in places, smelling of dampness and the feces of field mice. Scattered about the church's interior, glinting like gold teeth, were dozens of brass shell casings.

The tall man squatted down, his gunbelt creaking, his knees popping. He picked up a casing on the end of a ballpoint pen. It, like all the others, was .45-caliber. He cleared his throat softly and spat to one side, unable to avoid the odor that the wind had just kicked up outside. He rose to his feet and walked out the back door and gazed at a field that had been raked by a bulldozer's blade, the cinnamon-colored dirt scrolled and stenciled by the dozer's steel treads.

The tall man returned to his pickup truck and removed a leaf rake and a long-handled shovel from the bed. He walked into the field and sank the steel tip of the shovel blade with the weight of his leg and haunch and struck a rock, then reset the blade in a different spot and tried again. This time the blade went deep, all the way up to his boot sole, as though it were cutting through compacted coffee grounds rather than dirt. When he pulled the shovel free, an odor rose into his nostrils that made his throat close against the bilious surge in his stomach. He soaked a bandana from a canteen in his truck and wrapped it around the lower half of his face and knotted it behind his head. Then he walked slowly across the field, jabbing the inverted half of the rake handle into the ground. Every three or four feet, at the same depth, he felt a soft form of resistance, like a sack of feed whose burlap has rotted and split, the dry dirt rilling back into the hole each time he pulled the wood shaft from the surface. The breeze had died completely. The air was green with the sun's last light, the sky dissected by birds, the air stained by a growing stench that seemed to rise from his boots into his clothes. The tall man inverted the rake, careful not to touch the tip that he had pushed below the soil, and began scraping at a depression that a feral animal had already crosshatched with claw marks.

The tall man had many memories from his early life that he seldom shared with others. They involved images of snowy hills south of the Yalu River, and dead Chinese troops in quilted uniforms scattered randomly across the slopes, and F€‘80 jets flying low out of the overcast sky, strafing the perimeter to push the Chinese mortar and automatic weapons teams back out of range. The wounds on the American dead piled in the backs of the six-bys looked like roses frozen inside snow.

In his sleep, the tall man still heard bugles blowing in the hills, echoing as coldly as brass ringing on stone.

The spidery tines of the rake pulled a lock of black hair free from the dirt. The tall man, whose name was Hackberry Holland, looked down into the depression. He touched the rake at the edges of the rounded shape he had uncovered. Then, because of either a lack of compaction around the figure or the fact that it lay on top of other bodies, the soil began to slide off the person's face and ears and neck and shoulders, down into a subterranean hole, exposing the waxy opalescence of a brow, the rictus that imitated surprise, one eye lidded, the other as bold as a child's marble, a ball of dirt clenched in the figure's palm.

She was thin-boned, a toy person, her black blouse a receptacle for heat and totally inappropriate for the climate. He guessed she was not over seventeen and that she had been alive when the dirt was pushed on top of her. She was also Asian, not Hispanic as he had expected.

For the next half hour, until the light had gone from the sky, he continued to rake and dig in the field that had obviously been scraped down to the hardpan by a dozer blade, then backfilled with the overburden and tamped down and graded as smoothly as if in preparation for construction of a home.

He went back to his truck and threw the rake and shovel in the bed, then lifted his handheld radio off the passenger seat. "Maydeen, this is Sheriff Holland," he said. "I'm behind the old church at Chapala Crossing. I've uncovered the burials of nine homicide victims so far, all female. Call the feds and also call both Brewster and Terrell counties and tell them we need their assistance."

"You're breaking up. Say again? Did I read you right? You said nine homicide -- "

"We've got a mass murder. The victims are all Asian, some of them hardly more than children."

"The guy who made the nine-one-one, he called a second time."

"What'd he say?"

"I don't think he just happened by the church site. I think he's dripping with guilt."

"Did you get his name?"

"He said it was Pete. No last name. Why didn't you call in? I could have sent help. You're ...

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