A year ago, Marco Scorvelli was murdered while picking up his morning paper. A sawed-off shotgun put a hole in his stomach, and streaked the inside of his sports coat with the mob boss’s innards. As Scorvelli crawled towards his front door, the killer left the shotgun angled neatly on the sidewalk. No prints were recovered, and no headway was ever made on the case. Now a reliable underworld source passes a message to homicide detective Gabe Wager. The killing wasn’t ordered by a rival family, but by Scorvelli’s brother, in an attempt to take control of the organization. After a year of peace, a war is about to erupt between Denver’s Italian and Hispanic crime syndicates, and Gabe Wager will be in the middle, trying to keep the city from burning to the ground.
About the Author
Once a monthly mystery review columnist in the Rocky Mountain News, Burns has also written nonfiction and hosted the Mystery Channel’s Anatomy of a Mystery. He lives and writes in Boulder, Colorado.
Read an Excerpt
Angle of Attack
A Gabe Wager Novel
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1979 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns
All rights reserved.
It came like a whiff of sewer gas on a cold night: "Do you remember that Marco Scorvelli thing? The guy that got aced nine months, maybe a year ago?"
Homicide Detective Gabriel Wager set his beer down and peered at Tony-O through the dim lights of the Frontier Bar and Grill. The lines across the old man's face always made it hard to tell whether he was ready to smile or ready to frown. "We never got a thing on that one," said Wager.
"Everybody in Denver knows that. But maybe I heard a little something."
Wager raised his empty glass and held up two fingers. Rosie, rushed by the Sunday-afternoon crowd, bustled past with a row of dirty dishes on her sweating arm and nodded an answer.
"You want to tell me, Tony?"
That was the way the testy old man liked it: first you asked him if he wanted to, then he always said "Yes," then you let him give it at his own speed. If you tried to push him, he'd tell you to go to hell.
"Yeah. But it ain't much."
Something where there was nothing was always much; Wager split the beer remaining in his bottle between their glasses. Marco Scorvelli had been found in his front yard by a milkman on his morning delivery. A shotgun blast hit him at the navel and angled upward to unzip his belly and spread his intestines over his new raw silk sports coat. The sawed-off shotgun, clean of prints, was left lying like a message squarely across the sidewalk; somehow Scorvelli lived long enough to crawl fifteen feet toward the front door before dying. Neither Scorvelli's widow nor the neighbors in the surrounding split-levels reported hearing a thing. Except for the carcass of a justly suspect member of a local crime family, there was nothing to build a case on.
Rosie came back with two bottles of Coors and Tony-O waited until the head on his refill settled back below the glass's rim before speaking.
"What I heard was the hit didn't come from outside. It was made to look that way—the shotgun on the sidewalk and all."
The shooting had taken place before Wager joined homicide, but the news of anything involving one of the Scorvellis went through every division of the police department faster than a list of new promotions. At the time, there was little doubt it was a gang killing; but oddly, nothing ever came after it—none of the muted, vicious squabbles over territory, none of the bloody advertisements of revenge or triumph. Marco Scorvelli had been killed for a reason, but that, like everything else in the case, remained hidden. "We figured that if it was local, it would have been followed by a little more action. We figured it was a revenge hit for something Scorvelli did in Vegas or Chicago," said Wager.
Tony-O shrugged. "I'm only telling you what I heard, Wager. If you heard something better, then you tell me."
Gabe let the old man have a minute or two to cool off, but Tony-O didn't continue. "Can I ask you where you got it?"
"Sure. You can ask." Tony-O's tone said he might or might not answer. He studied the long neck of his beer glass, rubbing a wrinkled thumb up and down its smooth curve and watching the strings of bubbles rise like points of light from the bottom. The old man had become the neighborhood jefe about the time Wager reached nine or ten years old, and his air of power and mystery used to awe Wager and the other kids who ran up and down streets and alleys that had since disappeared into freeway interchanges, industrial parks, and a new university campus. For a long time after he grew out of short pants, Wager had felt uncomfortable calling him Tony-O instead of Mr. Ojala. But that was the way the jefe wanted it, so that was the way it was—to adults he was Tony-O, to children he was Mr. Ojala, only because children should develop respect for their elders. If a family in the old neighborhood had trouble with city hall, they talked to Tony-O and he would call someone; if a son or brother or father was picked up by the police, Tony-O could tell the worried women what the charges and bail were—and, more importantly, how badly the accused was tangled in the mysteries of the legal web. When election time came around, Tony-O rode in the same convertible as the alderman; and whenever the mayor marched down Larimer Street, Tony-O was just one pace behind him all the way from Seventeenth to Ninth Street. If the election was going to be a close one, he even walked beside the mayor. For those who had the money, he could arrange purchases that the Anglos officially frowned on but unofficially sold—a little marijuana for the nerves, a safe corner to have a cockfight for some excitement at fiesta time. There were rumors that he could do other things, too, through connections from the old Prohibition days; and if a man wanted to lay some of his paycheck on the horses or the Lotería Nacional, Tony-O could fix him up for a small percentage. Wager remembered him best from the war, when, if the price was right, he was good for whatever the black market was handling; and if a family had a son or husband in the service, they'd find a few extra ration coupons in the mail at Easter or Natividad, free. Tony-O was the neighborhood jefe, and he looked after his people.
In the early 1950s, Tony-O was arrested for murder. But even with a change of city administration and a new look at all the people still voting from the cemetery, Tony-O had a few strings left to pull—and he used up the last ones to get the charge reduced to manslaughter. He came out of the penitentiary at Cañon City four years later, just as Pfc. Gabriel Wager came out of boot camp headed for Korea, and the only thing the ex-jefe had left was a tavern and its parking lot. Soon that, too, was gone like the whole Auraria neighborhood, because in those four years Tony-O's contacts dried up, and big money had come to buy and develop the twenty or so blocks that the new city planners labeled slums. After the forced sale of his property, and with social security, the old man got by. And people still talked to him who would not talk to Wager because he had turned cop.
Tony-O talked to Wager because he liked him, cop or not, and not just for the old days; he liked him because Wager had once looked out for his son, and that made Wager a lifelong friend. "Besides," the old man once told him with a dip of the wrinkled eyelid that drooped at the corner like a sad smile, "I had lots of cops for friends when I was jefe."
The old man looked up from watching the strings of bubbles wind through his beer. "You finished butting in?"
Wager sighed. "I'm listening, Tony-O."
"What I heard was, his own brother was behind it—Dominick. That's why nothing blew up when Marco was killed. Everything went straight to Dominick and there wasn't no waves, not even a ripple."
"I heard that Dominick put out a big reward."
"What else could he do? Hell, he'd never have to pay it off, would he?" Tony-O took a long drink and pinched the moisture from the deep creases at his mouth's corners. "I also heard a name for you." He took another drink.
Talking with Tony-O was a lot like a slow checker game; every sentence was studied from all sides before it came out. Wager sipped and waited.
"What's his connection?" asked Wager.
"I don't know. I just heard the name. Like I said, no vale mucho."
When Wager reported for duty Monday morning, he began thumbing through the "Cases Current" drawer for Marco Scorvelli's file. His partner found him ears deep in the diagrams of the scene, the police reports from the morning of June 4, the autopsy reports of the following day, and the glossy 5"X7" photographs of a figure whose nattiness was lost in the sprawl of death.
"Don't tell me it's slow enough for a little recreational reading?" said Maxwell T. Axton—inevitably called "Max the Ax," a nickname that pained him. ("I don't like hurting people. Civilians hear that name, and right away they start thinking police brutality. In my heart, I'm a pacifist; a cop's job is to prevent violence, not make it happen. So just call me Max. O.K., Gabe?") He stood six four and, in his mid thirties, was just beginning to struggle to stay as thin as a tree trunk. He was one of the few blue-eyed Anglos Wager had known whose gaze could seem deeply sad and concerned, and never more so than when he was quietly talking a murderer into confessing.
"Max, do you remember Marco Scorvelli? Whose case is it?"
"Sure—everybody remembers Marco. We all worked on that one. It was before you got here, when the cases weren't assigned to individuals but were carried over from shift to shift. I guess it's never been assigned to anybody. What the hell was there to assign?"
Wager told him.
"Frank Covino?" Max's fingernails scratched under his square chin. Wager had occasionally wondered if Axton's gentleness came from being big enough to worry about accidentally stepping on others. Just as his, Wager's, occasional mild abrasiveness came because he was short, and short cops were always called on to make up in deeds what they lacked in appearance. Max's large head wagged thoughtfully. "It doesn't ring a bell. Have you looked through the contact cards?"
"Be back in a minute."
He was, broad hands empty. "Nothing under Frank Covino. There's a Gerald Edward Covino, currently on vacation in Cañon City, but no mention of a Frank, and no aliases."
Wager folded the yellow manila cover over the thick pile of papers and photographs. Maybe he could get Tony-O to tell him a little more, maybe not. Probably not. They'd just have to keep their ears open, ask around, talk to fellow detectives and street cops and see if the name brought some nods. As always, there was the easy way to get information, and then there was the usual way. He dropped the file back into the "Current" drawer, where all the unsolved cases sat waiting for the time when something might break. Some had been waiting there for years.
The Homicide Division was on duty all hours, every day. When, as now, there were no murders or no weapons fired, the shift was to patrol likely trouble spots around the city. The first tour every morning for the day shift, just after the 8 A.M. traffic cleared, was past the trashy clutter of Spanish-named bars that made up Little Juarez, and then through its neighboring Asian section, clustered at the front of the pale tan tower of retirement apartments and fancy restaurants called Sakura Square. Inside the unmarked police sedan, the air was still stale with the breath of the preceding crews and of the hundreds of tours before that one; Wager rolled his window down halfway to let the cold air of early spring blow out the odor. In the glaring sunshine of a cloudless morning, and with the smog driven out by the westerlies of the last few days, even the tired brick walls along Larimer Street looked bright and warm and stood etched against the hard blue sky. It reminded Wager of one of those paintings his ex-wife had showed him: blank streets lined with aging buildings and vacant pavement, but full of a brittle light that made the colors solid and sharp. What was that painter's name? Hooper? Hopper? For some reason, his ex-wife had thought the paintings said something about him.
He swung the car around the sterile concrete of the Sakura Square tower and down across the bumpy railroad tracks toward Union Station, cruising slowly beneath the grimy viaducts and along the unused and weedy rear doorways of warehouses and office buildings whose windows were painted over and blank. It was an area undecided whether to live or not, and it was here, especially on Sunday and Monday mornings, that the day shift would find the dead winos.
"Is that one?" Max pointed at a pair of legs lying toes down in the tall grass beneath the rotting timbers of a loading dock. Wager turned through the crackle of splintered bottles to park, and they got out, deliberately, two men beginning another long day and a bit reluctant to have it start so soon and in such a way.
Even before they poked through the screen of weeds to peer beneath the shelf of weathered wood, they could smell the sour bile and feces from the figure.
"Watch your shoes."
"Yeah." Wager hauled at the grime-slick coat and rolled the man's dark, seamed face from the stringy mud of his own vomit. A bubble of saliva broke in a large gap between his rotting teeth and his eyelid lifted once to show the yellow of an eyeball.
"No. Crawled under here to sleep it off."
"It's nice to see civic pride."
Wager used to be able to haul the drunks down to the station and lock them up for a day or two so they'd get a couple of good meals and a free delousing. Now a new city ordinance had given the winos their rights, and the cops were ordered to let them lie in their filth like the free citizens they were. He and Max went back to the cruiser, and Wager guided the car down one of the littered alleys that ran behind a row of weary flophouses, whose tilting, paintless back porches and rusted fire escapes held shapes that watched them in cautious silence. Near the alley's end, their radio popped: "Any homicide detective."
Wager answered, "X-85. Go ahead." "X" was the Detective Bureau designation; the 80 series meant the Homicide Division.
"Go to blue channel," said the dispatcher.
"Ten-four." He switched to the frequency that was secure from the police band scanners sitting in news rooms all over the city.
The dispatcher was waiting for his acknowledgment. "You got a body in the 2700 block of Denargo Street. Officers on the scene; Code Two."
Code Two: siren and lights at officer's discretion. "We're on our way."
Wager didn't bother with running hot; traffic was light and the victim wouldn't be going anywhere. Denargo was one of the nearby streets close to the South Platte River, and he reached it beneath the bridges and viaducts over the river's rubbish-filled flood plain. The street occasionally lost its outline in loading aprons and the snarl of bumpy railroad tracks, but half a block ahead, they saw the blue-and-white unit marking the site. Two uniformed officers had separated a pair of witnesses and were taking notes when Wager and Axton pulled up.
"Jesus, it didn't take you guys long."
Wager recognized the black corporal talking to the older of the two civilians. "We were just around the corner. What do you have for us, John?"
"This here's Mr. Walker. He called in the report about ten minutes ago. We haven't really gotten started yet."
Wager nodded good morning to a lanky man whose hair was combed straight back in oily flat grooves above his ears. "Why don't you answer Officer Blainey's questions, Mr. Walker, while I take a look at it?"
"Sure. But listen, I got a load of perishables to move. How long's this gonna take?"
"It won't be too long, Mr. Walker."
"It's over there, Gabe. Between the buildings." Blainey's Bic pen bobbed at a narrow gap between the long windowless walls of the brick warehouses.
"Don't know. We didn't move a thing. And Mr. Walker here says he and his buddy just took one look and called us. We ain't seen nobody else around."
"Well, I sure wasn't going to touch him. A guy with a hole like that in the top of his head...."
"You did the right thing, Mr. Walker." Wager motioned to Axton. He left off talking to the other officer, a young kid Wager didn't know, who frowned earnestly when he talked.
Careful where they put their feet in the pebbly soil, Wager and Axton stood at the alley between the chipped bricks of the close walls and stared into the narrow canyon which was about half as wide as a doorway. This body, too, lay toes down on the packed dirt and the sprouting clumps of grass between the walls. But unlike the drunk, there was no need to see if he was breathing; as Walker had said, a hole that size in his head left no doubt. The hard, blue-green glints of flies moved busily at the ragged edge of the slightly bloody hole with its eruption of gray brain. It was the kind of wound blown by a large-caliber dumdum or a shotgun. Wager keyed the GE radio pack on his belt and called for the lab people and the medical examiner.
"Looks like he's still got his wallet." Axton pointed to the bulge that had worn the rear pocket of the denim trousers pale in a square shape.
"See if you can reach it," said Wager. "My arms are too short."
Axton braced himself against the painted brick and stretched out to tug the wallet from the tight pocket. It was rubbed shiny and held the curve of the man's buttocks, and was cold to the touch.
"Money's here—twenty-eight bucks."
"Who is he?"
Axton flipped through small plastic windows that had two or three smiling pictures and various cards. In the front panel, he found the driver's license. Then he looked at Wager and blinked. "Frank Covino."
Excerpted from Angle of Attack by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1979 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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