Best of Texas Book Award for Amateur Sleuth: The Fifth Trumpet by Mark W. Stoub

Strange clues may uncover a plot to wipe out the human race.

The Fifth Trumpet: Fire in the Blood by Mark W. Stoub has received the Best in Texas Book Award for Amateur Sleuth. The award is presented by the Texas Association of Authors.

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Mark W. Stoub

The Story:

An old woman, the town “oddball,” dies in a horrible fire in the small town of Shoestring, Texas, and the local Police Chief, Hector Chavez, calls again on Presbyterian Cleric Angus McPherson to help sort out some strange clues that may lead the pair to uncover a plot to wipe out the human race.

Sampler from Chapter 1:

THE DRAGON IN THE BLAZE devoured flesh and bone, but more than that, it sucked the very life out of her in an instant. Although unnoticed most of her life, in death, she would become infamous in the small town of Shoestring, Texas. The blaze would shed light on far more than a simple house fire; it would also expose something unexpected, sinister, and twisted. As the house’s roof fell in upon itself, flames soared skyward and its explosive collapse could be heard from miles away.

Police Chief Hector Chavez had just finished his breakfast and poured a second cup of coffee when he thought he heard something in the distance. The scanner immediately squawked news of the fire, putting an end to the predawn quiet. He gulped one last mouthful of hot coffee, kissed his wife, and rushed out the back door. The words fully engulfed and resident unaccounted for made him cringe and whisper a string of expletives as he started his car and roared out of the driveway.

The scene of the fire sickened himHis sixth sense went into overdrive and he was on full alert. Something told him to hang around. He sat in his patrol car and watched as the fire department rushed to subdue the blaze.

Once the beast was under control, Hector climbed out of his car. Fire Chief Ralph Crenshaw turned as Hector approached the house. The two men had known each other since junior high, but only as mere acquaintances.

Ralph was a short man with red hair and a barrel chest. After purposely staring at the rising sun for an unusual amount of time, he huffed, “You do know that we won’t know anything for several hours. It’s too hot.” Refusing to meet Hector’s gaze, forever trying to make Hector seem smaller than he was, Ralph made no effort to conceal his disdain.

“Anybody inside? Any idea?”

“Like I said—”

Smiling slightly despite the cold reception, Hector replied, “Yeah, I know. It’s too hot. You won’t know for hours.”

“I’ll give you a call when we find something.”

“I think I’ll hang around.” Hector knew Ralph would try to one-up him and refuse to cooperate.

Ever polite on the surface, Ralph’s attitude roiled Hector. Ralph had some small town county clerk’s predilection for hoarding information and being utterly uncooperative—often doing more harm than good. The man had power issues and resented authority as much as he demanded others respect his.

Something was wrong with all of it. The intensity of the fire, for one, the fact that little evidence would remain. It was not a furnace fire or a chimney blaze. The house had been remodeled—it had to have smoke detectors. Lois Myers was the town oddball, but even so, Hector was certain the fire was deliberate. She was known for keeping unusual hours with strange company. The townspeople told stories for years about odd lights and noises, but most of it was chalked up to gossip. With that thought, he got out his cell phone and looked up Angus’ number. As soon as he could back up his suspicions, he’d get Angus’ opinion.

MY WIFE SAW the Realtor’s paperwork and the For Sale signs in the garage before I had time to tell her I’d listed the house. I meant to tell her last night, and then over coffee this morning, but I had honestly forgotten until she came storming back into the kitchen from the garage. Her eyes were ablaze and I knew what I was in for.

Angus! I am not moving! You listed the house, didn’t you? Without even talking to me? You can’t sell it without me. And my answer is no.”

“You don’t listen, Angelica. I don’t have any other choice and we’ve been having this same argument for a year.”

“I don’t listen? I don’t listen!” She was so angry she nearly levitated off the floor as she hissed the words at me.

I grabbed a yogurt out of the fridge to give myself a minute to think. “We have to sell the house, that’s final, and it is no easier—”

“No!” She shook her head. Her long brunette hair became a cascade of motion. “You are the one who isn’t listening. I can’t move!” I watched her plow her hand through her hair in exasperation.

“Christmas is coming, and that’s the best time to sell a house.” I knew I couldn’t win this argument, but I didn’t want to go down without a fight.

“It is not.” She turned her back on me. “No one wants to go house hunting during the holidays.”

“What better gift to give yourselves than a wonderful home to live in for the rest of your life.”

The knife the silence cut into me left a mark. The ache for her response was real.

She turned, straightened herself, smoothing the front of her white dress. “My point exactly. What better reason not to sell this house. I am done with this conversation and if you try and sell this house, I am done with you!”

Some say, “Silence is golden.” Now I felt totally impoverished as her anger escalated into a burst of tears. I knew it was anger and she had no intention of backing down. Even so, I hated to see her cry and took her in my arms. No matter how bitterly we disagreed, to me her hair smelled of sunshine and her scent struck the very fiber of my soul. Her tears always broke my heart.

Pulling away, still glaring at me, as she swiped at her tears she spewed, “Sometimes I hate you.”

I stood watching her as she slammed the door behind her on her way to work.

The phone rang and I jumped. Ever since the events in Shoestring more than a year ago, I had developed a little tick where the phone was concerned. It always seemed to bring bad news. This time it was mixed, from Hector Chavez, the police chief of Shoestring.

“I haven’t heard from you in some time,” I said. “How are you doing?”

“Busy and about to get busier.” Hector told me about the fire and the human remains they found in the house. “We know who owned the house. We might get an ID on the victim from dental records, but that’s about it. It’s going to take some time.”

“But why call me?”

“It has to do with the homeowner.” There was a pause. “The fire looks to be arson and the homeowner was possibly involved in some shady stuff.”

“Well—”

“I need your help. I’d like you to see the house before they remove all the evidence. It’s important.”

“I’ll be there in an hour.”

I ALWAYS find myself in transition. At present, I am Angus McPherson, a Presbyterian minister who cares for the souls of south central Texas. I am what they call a General Presbyter.

I headed upstairs to change. As I looked in the mirror, I saw the same man staring back at me that’s been there for the last sixty-three years—tall, with black, stringy hair, graying at the temples. What troubled me sometimes was to look into those bleary, blue eyes. On the face of things, I had every reason to be happy. But to look at my eyes, the evidence just wasn’t there.

I was in decent shape, although I needed to lay off the pancakes. It’s a curious American custom. In Scotland, the country of my birth, we made pancakes only to get rid of flour going bad, and ate them during Lent. Here, they’re served all the time.

I put on a new pair of jeans and a flannel shirt because, even though this is south central Texas, it can still get cold in early October. Not like my native Scotland. As much as I’ve found a home here, I am very much aware that I am a foreigner and that Texans, as a rule, “don’t take kindly” to foreigners.

IN THE TWO and a half hours it took to make sure the smoldering fire was out and would not rekindle, a crowd had begun to gather. Hector took control of the crowd, keeping them a safe distance away. He also studied that crowd because he knew that arsonists often returned to witness their handiwork.

He took note of each of the people and vehicles there. A man in a Houston Astros cap and blue jacket wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day was the first to attract his attention. He observed him watch the firefighters in action as they searched for any fire that might be lingering. Hector also noticed the man’s hand was bandaged, fairly recently by the look of it.

“What happened there?” Hector asked.

“None of your damned business. What’s it to you?” replied the man, jerking his hand away and wincing.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Hector Chavez, the chief of police here in Shoestring. I’d like to take a look at your hand.” Hector stared at him sternly.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize you were a cop.” The man sheepishly gave Hector his hand. Hector unwrapped the dirty, sloppy bandage and saw a hand that was a deep red with pale white striations.

“You need to get that looked at by a doctor.”

“Yessir, I will.”

“How did that happen?”

“Got too close to the grill; burned instantly. I just did a dumb thing—not paying attention I guess.” The man smiled weakly, showing two missing teeth.

Hector took his name, Doug Able, as well as his address and phone number and continued to monitor the crowd.

BY THE TIME I arrived, the house was reduced to a smoldering and blackened shell of its former self. The acrid smell assaulted my senses; the smoke-filled air felt heavy and made it difficult to breathe.

I met Hector outside the front door, which had been knocked in and was collapsed to one side. “CFI is already here,” he said.

“What?’

“Certified Fire Investigator, Miles Stone, from Austin. On fires, the first thing to check is for arson. I’ll introduce you later; he’s quite a fellow. Right now, I want to show you something we’ve already found. It’s why I asked you to come.”

I was very aware of my surroundings. As bad as the home’s exterior looked, it paled in comparison to the interior. Stepping inside was like entering an unlit cave. The utter blackness was overwhelming. Light coming through the windows was absorbed by the shroud of the burned-out interior. The floor was covered in a few inches of putrid water and debris from the fire. But what worried me most were the beams sticking out with nothing holding them up.

Hector motioned for me to follow him up the badly burned staircase. Now we were on top of those beams that had nothing to hold them up! It was amazingly reassuring, however, following beside Hector, who seemed to know what he was doing.

We went into a room to the right of the stairs which might once have been a bedroom. The roof was gone, exposing this present darkness to the light of day. Clouds passed by above, seemingly unconcerned about the destruction visited upon this lone, despairing house.

HECTOR KNELT DOWN carefully in the far corner of the room, looking at something and motioning for me to join him. When I knelt next to him, I saw a gold Celtic cross, tarnished by ash and soot, along with what appeared to be the remains of a charred clay sun with some writing on it I couldn’t make out.

Miles gave us permission to gather all the evidence in bags and bring them with us. Miles then stopped by the side of the burned-out bed.

“The fire started here,” said Miles.

“In the bedroom?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“How do you know for sure?” asked Hector.

“Because of the residue and the smell of gasoline near the door and window. So not only was there an accelerant, but the fire had multiple points of origin. Therefore it had to be arson.” His nose turned up slightly as he spoke. “It’s all too simple for words. Even you could have figured this out,” he said, looking over his glasses at Hector.

As we made our way carefully downstairs, seeing all this destruction and the ashes carried away on the breath of the breeze, I thought, how fragile life is. I pictured Angelica and the boys, and thanked God for them.

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