Once, Denver's small-time pushers sold nothing harder than dime bags of bad California grass. But in the last year, heroin has appeared on the streets of the Mile High City.
Detective Gabe Wager and his rookie partner spend their nights trailing dealers, making buys, and acquiring informants. After months picking up scraps, a stray piece of information is about to put Wager on to the biggest bust of his career. A letter from the Seattle DEA puts him on the hunt for nearly a thousand pounds of smuggled marijuana. The case could make Wager's careerif the smugglers don't kill him first.
About the Author
Rex Burns is the author of more than a dozen mystery novels. He has worked for the District Attorney's office in Denver, and the Denver Police Force aided him in his research for this novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Alvarez Journal
A Gabe Wager Novel
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1975 Rex Burns
All rights reserved.
"For you Gabe." Suzy pressed the hold button. "Line two."
Gabriel Wager nodded to the secretary and continued filling in the form as he picked up the telephone. "Detective Wager speaking."
A familiar voice asked, "Who was that there?"
"We have a secretary now—Suzy."
"You getting mighty big time."
"She's all right. What do you have for me?" He winked at the girl, who, halfway between plain and ugly, smiled back uncertainly. Sergeant Johnston had turned down all the good-looking applicants when he smiled at them; but it was just as well—good-looking broads didn't work as hard.
"Listen, them two mamas I told you about ..." The black voice trailed off.
"Pat and Mike?"
"Ha, yeah. I set a deal on some heroin with them."
A year ago it would have been just grass; now Denver was getting its share of hard stuff, and this new group, the Organized Crime Division, was supposed to be the answer. Like hell it would be the answer. Wager pulled a legal pad over and began taking notes. "Where and when, Fat Willy?"
"Tonight at the Landing Pad. A balloon."
Another long day. "Time?"
"The alley out back."
"Can you bring a friend?"
"Naw, man, it's my first score."
There was a long silence before Wager finally gave in. "I guess you'll need some bread."
"It's just a balloon, but it's more than I got right now."
"I wondered why you called me on the first score."
"Aw, man, us minorities got to play each other straight!"
"You're always straighter when you're broke, Willy." And up yours with that soul-brother crap.
"Ha, ain't that the truth."
"I'll meet you at the Frontier about"—he checked his watch—"six o'clock."
He hung up and turned back to the preliminary he was working on: Robbins, Roland—aka Spider. Type of request, grounds for suspicion, qualifications of informants and their depositions, exchange of information with other agencies, results of preliminary investigation. He was on that last part now, checking the key dates against the contact cards and case journal.
"It's for you again, Gabe."
"Jesus Christ!" He punched the lit button. "Detective Wager speaking."
"Johnston here. Did you get the word Simpson's quitting?"
The sergeant's office was ten feet away. If it was good news, he walked to Wager's desk; if it was bad, he phoned. "No shit! What for?"
"He got that sergeant's job in Littleton."
Wager gazed at the stack of pending cases on his desk. "When do we get his replacement?"
"We just got Denby."
"That was for Billington!" And they had to wait three months for that one.
"I know that, Gabe, but the Inspector told me not to count on any new personnel this fiscal year."
Wager's voice gained the Spanish accent that came when he was angry: "I hope he's not counting on many busts this fiscal year."
"We're doing what we can, Gabe."
"Yeah." He hung up and gazed out the window at the distant mountains, hazy and dry through the city's heat and smog. Damn Simpson and damn Littleton for hiring him away. He'd almost damn Billington for going, too, except he knew how much his ex-partner had worried over the decision. And how much it had cost him to urge Billy to take the better job. Nobody in his right mind turned down a federal job, and Billy deserved the break. He was a good cop, a good man; he had a family and needed the pay. Still, Wager and Billy had been partners, had come as a team from the Crimes Against Persons Division when Johnston set up the Special Narcotics Section of the OCD. Now Wager was still here and Billy had moved on. And now Simpson. Crap.
"Where's Detective Denby, Suzy?"
"He's still going through orientation. I think he's supposed to be in district court now."
"Thanks." He finally finished the Robbins preliminary, penciled "Ed—please rush" across the blue cover, and handed it to Suzy. Then he filled out a contact card on Willy's tip and thumbed through the files for Pat and Mike: Browne, Labelle Carol; and Halsam, Ann Louise—aka Osborne. No file on Halsam (Osborne); he'd have to survey the central files in the Denver Police Department. Browne had a thin folder: "Negro female, b. 10 Nov. 1941, 5'4", prostitution arrest 1969, probation, no violations, rumored drug dealing 1971+." "Suzy—" He stopped at the look on her face. "What's the matter?"
"I was just leaving. It's after five."
"Well, why aren't you leaving, for God's sake? It's after five!"
She giggled, and said unconvincingly, "I can stay if you want."
"It's not that important." And sure as hell not worth the hassle that would come from asking a union member for ten minutes' overtime. "First thing tomorrow, see what DPD has on these names." He waved the file.
She was gone through the warren of small offices that cluttered the second floor of the old building. Wager listened for a moment to the heavy, almost airless pause of the waiting desks and typewriters, the silence of radio transmitters turned off against the constant tally of reports and queries, the distant music of a portable radio helping the duty watch pass the time. Add the smell of a little shoe polish and aftershave lotion, and it would be like a squad bay on a Sunday afternoon, the way he used to like them: no bustling pressures of people and only the quiet of the guard detail going its appointed rounds. A long time ago. He'd be at least a gunnery sergeant now if he'd stayed in. Or dead. You didn't get quick promotions without a few deaths. Still, no regrets; he had lousy pay, an insecure job, and hours longer than a whore's Saturday night, but it was his own time, and that made all the difference.
He relocked the file drawer and scribbled a note to remind Suzy: "Any DPD number on Halsam, Ann; any recent arrests on Browne, Labelle Carol," and anchored it under the roller of her typewriter. Five-fifteen; forty-five minutes to get to the Frontier and see Willy. Keying the GE radio pack on his belt, he called Denby and waited. Two clicks answered, and a few minutes later the new man's voice came through: "This is two-one-four. I was in the courtroom and couldn't talk."
"Two-one-two. Can you meet me at the Frontier at six?"
A pause. "I better call home. My wife usually holds supper for me."
"Ten-four." Wager slid the antenna into the radio and holstered it, frowning at Denby's hesitation but glad that he made the right choice. Time for one more item from the pending pile—an envelope opened, re-taped, his name scrawled over the original address in Sergeant Johnston's handwriting: "Gabe, check it out." Gabe, Simpson's quitting. Gabe, we don't have a replacement. Crap crap.
The letter was from the Seattle office of the Drug Enforcement Agency, stating that one Eddie Hart—busted in Seattle by DEA agents—named the Rare Things Import Shop, 1543 West Thirty-eighth Street, Denver, Colorado, as a front for smuggling marijuana into the United States at the rate of five hundred to a thousand pounds a week.
Staring out the window, Wager tried to recall the name of the import shop's owner, but there was no response, no little quiver of memory. Nothing that clustered a dozen other facts into something like a pattern that could be corroborated and gradually built into a case. And it was odd that the tip came in this fashion: usually such information came by telephone instead of mail. Either the DEA was stingier than the Denver Police Department or the transmitting agent didn't think much of the lead. Which was all right. There was always too much unsubstantiated information anyway: anonymous phone calls, a fellow detective's vague hunch, an unexplained contact, revenge tips, notes from distant agencies. Anything to do with narcotics was channeled onto Sergeant Ed Johnston's desk and unfailingly he assigned them—one, two, sometimes three at a time—to the detectives. If they rang a bell, they were priority. If not, you got to them when you could. Wager stuck another note on Suzy's typewriter: "See if licensing has anything on his business address," and jotted down the Thirty-eighth Street number. Then he headed for the Frontier Lounge.
In the late-afternoon heat, the Frontier Lounge was a hole of cool blackness smelling of stale beer and rustling with the tired but comfortable talk of a few hours after quitting time. Wager blinked away the purple sun blindness and, as his eyes began to pick out shapes against the shaded lights, groped through the scattered tables toward the row of booths. A curl of cigarette smoke rose over a high seat back and Wager glanced in. "Hello, Fat Willy."
The black's big round face, darker in the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, peeked rapidly past Wager, then grinned welcome. "You hot for this—what you call them?—Pat and Mike?"
"We've been hearing about them off and on. How'd you get on to it?"
A shrug. "Aw, you know, man; just around."
Wager nodded and signaled Rosy, the waitress. "What'll you have, Willy?"
"Vodka and Seven." Willy waited until Rosy had their orders and was gone. "They claim they can get as much stuff as I want."
"What's their source?"
"Come on, man!" Fat Willy threw back his head and laughed, teeth a white flash against his sweat-glinting face.
"If you knew, you'd tell me, wouldn't you, Willy?"
"Tell me this, then: have you ever heard of Eddie Hart?"
"Hart?" He flipped through his mental card-file of names, then shook his head. "No, what's his act?"
"How about the Rare Things Import Shop?"
This time, Fat Willy's answer came almost too quickly: "Naw, but if you feed my need, maybe, baby, I can dig a lead—ha!"
"And I heed!"
The drinks came and with them Denby, medium height, hair fashionably long and dry, moving awkwardly as he groped in the dimness and peered into one booth after another.
"Here we are."
"Jesus, I can't see a thing." Denby scrubbed his nose with a handkerchief.
"Hey, Wager, what's going on?"
"Take it easy, Willy. This is Detective Denby—he's just joined the division. I want to get him started with Pat and Mike."
"Man, you didn't tell me nothing about this dude. I don't dig this surprise shit!"
Wager forced patience into his voice. "Pat and Mike don't know Officer Denby. I helped bust one of them on a prostitution charge six years ago. If she recognizes me, your ass is peanut butter." He smoothed out five twenty-dollar bills and slid them across the table. "Here's for the balloon and a little extra."
Willy stared at the money and then at Denby and Wager; then he quickly folded it between his thick fingers and poked it into a coat pocket. "Well, I reckon it's all right. What's your name? Dumpy?"
"Denby. Phil Denby."
"Bring him in on your third or fourth score," said Wager. "We'll handle it from there."
Willy drained his glass. "Let's make it the fourth one."
The black slid heavily across the wooden seat and nodded at Denby. "Pleased to meet you."
"Pleased to meet you."
"I'll call you next week, Wager."
They watched the wide figure, draped in its white linen suit, disappear toward the door.
"He wasn't pleased to meet me."
"Don't get strung out over it. Did you see how fast the son of a bitch picked up that money? He'll get over his mad when he needs more."
"What's this Pat and Mike thing?"
Wager ordered two more beers from Rosy and, feeling out the younger detective's reactions, sketched what he knew of the lesbians' dealing.
"And I'm to be Willy's friend at the fourth meet?"
"Right. You make some buys on your own and then bring in another friend later on. When they get set up, your friend will run the buy and bust, and Willy keeps his cover. They'll think you're the snitch."
"Willy gets a lot of free dope out of this."
"It's his to keep if he doesn't get caught."
"It sure as hell seems funny to support his habit with tax money."
"Dinero llama dinero."
"Old Spanish saying. It takes money to make money."
"That's an old Spanish saying?"
They finished their beer and Wager asked the younger man if he wanted to cover Willy's meet tonight. Denby nodded glumly. "But I got to drop by home first. Helen was pissed off when I called. She had plans or something."
"She better get used to it. You'll be juggling maybe a dozen cases, and when a break comes, you can't leave it for the day shift. We don't have a day shift."
"I know, Gabe. No complaints about joining up. It's just that Helen ... Well, never mind."
He did not have to finish. Wager had seen too many policemen married to women who weren't really policemen's wives. Himself among them. A real cop found the right woman or did without. "I'll see you at the office lot around ten. And you better get some gum."
"You don't want to go home smelling of beer."
The Landing Pad's neon sign winked pink rotor blades over the door. Wager drove past slowly, checking the license plates and the cars nosed into the curb; silent beside him, Denby's head swiveled restlessly. Usually, each detective would be alone in his car, linked by the radio packs to half a dozen channels. Wager liked it better that way since Billy left. But Denby was new and it was wise to stay close to him. Wise until he knew more about the new man.
"There's a couple of out-of-state plates. Louisiana."
Nodding, Wager turned the corner and in to the alley; New Orleans was a major port of entry for heroin; hell, the whole Gulf Coast was open. Or they could be tourists looking for the gay life. He cruised past the lighted back door with its stack of dented garbage cans, looked for an empty lot to slide the car in, and found a narrow driveway between sagging fences; he backed in and turned off the motor. In the silence, the radio's constant traffic was loud with reports of District 2 pursuits, requests, notices. He reached beneath the seat for the power pack and turned down the volume.
"You ever hear of the Rare Things Import Shop?"
"Me? Naw. Where's it at?"
"Fifteen forty-three West Thirty-eighth Street."
"No. I must have been by it, but I don't remember it." Denby blew his nose savagely into a red handkerchief. "Something's in bloom."
"Why don't you get a prescription?"
"I don't like pills."
It figured. Since Denby had joined the unit, Wager had begun to think twice before taking even an aspirin. Maybe the health-food cult had something going for it.
"I was reading where even coffee was supposed to give you a heart attack," Denby said.
Wager thought of the gallons of coffee that went through him each day. "Maybe I better switch to tea."
"Some English doctor says tea makes birth defects—some kind of nervous disorder, he says. Helen told me about it."
"Christ, it's safer to starve to death."
They lapsed into one of those long silences that are so much a part of surveillance. Finally, the younger man asked, "What's in bloom?"
He blew again. "Wouldn't you know it. We just got rid of the Russian thistle in the back yard and now it's ragweed."
Another silence while they waited and stared at the closed back door of the Landing Pad, with its single bulb glowing on the scarred paint. Denby looked at his watch. "Quarter past. You think Willy was putting us on?"
"No. He's pretty legitimate."
Denby thought a few moments. "Then why are we here?"
"You never can tell. Besides, I want you to see the suspects."
"If we bust Pat and Mike, do you think one of them will turn informer?"
"Be worth a try. Female Concerned Individuals are hard to get."
"Yeah. I'd like to start building up a stable of CIs."
There was only one way to do it: be on call twenty-four hours a day. "They come and they go."
They listened to the muted radio naming the district's action. Denby checked his watch again. "I wish that bastard would hurry up."
Wager nodded and waited. Then, from the other end of the alley and walking slowly into the light of the doorway with a familiar roll of the shoulders, Fat Willy strolled past without pausing. Wager and Denby slid down in the car seat and watched the linen shadow. He walked toward them, stared hard at their car parked in the black of the narrow driveway, and disappeared around the corner.
"Did he see us?"
"I don't know. He's checking things out."
A few moments later, a dog barked behind them and the sound of slow footsteps came up to the car. Willy's face, a wide shadow beneath the hat, peered in the window. "My, oh my, the fuzz."
Wager tried to sound happier than he felt. "Hello, Willy."
"You going to bust them tonight? You want to blow my cover?"
Excerpted from The Alvarez Journal by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1975 Rex Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"There is a toughness in this book, a hard-core, basalt toughness, but there is also a leavening of human understanding." --The New Yorker
"Burns is one of our best writers of mysteries . . ." --Boston Globe