The employees at the Advantage Company have started to steal. They are angrier than they used to be, and also clumsier—accident reports have spiked. To Devlin Kirk, these are telltale signs of on-the-job drug abuse. Hired by Advantage to smash the drug ring that’s sprung up inside its factory, Kirk sends his newest employee, earnest farm boy Chris Newman, to infiltrate the company. Newman sees suspicious activity everywhere, but lacks the experience to find hard evidence. Only when Newman is tortured to death is Kirk sure that the kid was on to something. Meanwhile, Kirk’s partner, Bunch, takes a job working as a bodyguard for a man who claims to be hunted by Japanese assassins. Kirk & Associates has a reputation of doing anything for its clients. In these two cases, the job wants blood.
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
A Devlin Kirk Mystery
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1991 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns
All rights reserved.
The advantage case was Kirk and Associates' first big job in three months. Based on growing pilferage and theft, an increasing number of behavior problems, and especially a rapid climb in the accident rate—the classic indicators of substance abuse on the job— Advantage Corporation's management suspected that a worker in the warehouse or assembly area was peddling dope to the employees. Because Kirk and Associates was hungry, Devlin took a chance and put in the new kid, Chris Newman. Having come to Denver in search of bright lights and excitement, he'd wandered into Kirk's office looking for work. With his long hair and struggling mustache, Chris looked like a seventeen-year-old trying to act old enough to drink; and except for his lack of experience, he was a good choice. Unlike Bunchcroft or Kirk, he was new to Denver and passed easily as a young kid on his first job because that's just what he was. He'd recently moved from the Western Slope. Growing up on his parents' ranch near Creede, Colorado, he'd learned how to handle himself around heavy equipment as well as in the woods. Like farm kids everywhere, he knew a lot about tools and machinery. That made him a quick study for the various blue-collar jobs that provided cover for agents. It was a month or so later that Devlin told Reznick, the regional manager for Advantage Corp., that, sure, Kirk and Associates could handle the case.
Like the rest of us in this racket, Chris got his training on the job. He started with the usual surveillance and paper serving which was routine and whose profits just about covered his salary. He did well. In fact, he found excitement and pleasure in the daily variation of assignments and the different people he ran across. It was, he told Bunch once, a lot like working on the ranch because no two chores were exactly the same. And a lot of times he was on his own to solve problems that came up. Bunch had told Chris when he was hired that he was getting a front-row seat at the greatest show on earth, and so far Chris thought the job lived up to its billing. But this was his first undercover work and his first solo, as well. Usually, Devlin said, he would have placed Chris on the job with an experienced operative so they could work together and Chris could pick up pointers. On this assignment, however, two new employees would stand out like a fart in church. But the job was too important for the agency to let it go by. Would he be interested?
Chris reckoned he would be.
If his inexperience worked against him, the fact that he looked like anything but an agent worked for him. Kirk told Bunch he thought the kid's skills with people and his native wit would get him through. Bunch told Chris that it was just a routine gig and he'd get used to it. All he was supposed to do was be a pair of eyes. No buys, no infiltration, no evidence gathering, no contact with suspects. Chris figured he could manage that much. Ten years ago, when he was thirteen, he'd started running cows alone up in the San Juans. The towering ice- and rock-capped mountains formed a wall around Creede and provided summer pasture for the ranch. There, the ability to look and listen meant survival, and that was no different from what he was supposed to do here in Denver. Besides, he hadn't yet met a townie who was as wild and mean as some of the drunk cowboys he'd tangled with as a high school kid. Not that he'd won any fights with those hot-eyed yahoos. But he had been able to talk his way out of most of them, and people were people all over. Just look and listen and phone in a report to Devlin once a day.
That's what Bunch and Devlin were waiting for that afternoon as the September sun stretched through the large arched window of their office and the grumble of casters rolled across the ceiling. For some reason, the sculptress in the room above moved her epoxy creations here and there about this time of day. The sound grated on Bunch's nerves like a knife blade over bone. Usually it didn't bother him, but he was still pissed that Kirk had given the undercover assignment to Chris instead of to him.
"I mean, for Christ's sake, Dev, it's been almost three weeks the kid's been in there. I know—so do you—that things are happening right under his nose and he doesn't even know what to look for."
The reason Chris rather than Bunch had been placed was because Bunch was too well known. And he was too big: he'd look like an elephant at a pony show. Average height, average looks, above-average intelligence—that's what you wanted in an undercover agent, and that's what they had with Chris. Bunch's real problem, besides being too tall, too ugly, and too dumb, Devlin said, was boredom. Bunch agreed with the boredom part of it: he was sick of sitting on insurance cases. That was half of Kirk and Associates' work nowadays—watching people who claimed disabilities or loss so insurance companies would make them rich. The other half was process serving and sitting around the office waiting for that magic call from someone who needed their specialty: industrial security.
"If you went into that factory, Bunch, you'd scare every suspect into hiding. It's tricky enough planting somebody who looks like Chris. If we tried it with you—or me—nothing would move."
Bunch understood that, but it didn't help much. One of the reasons he'd quit being a cop was because of the dull bureaucratic routines that kept stifling the excitement he felt on the streets. That, and the convolutions of the laws, which had made enforcing them seem like bailing water with a sieve.
"Besides," said Kirk, "he told me yesterday he has a suspect."
"Yeah. Somebody might be peddling baggies. Wowee."
"It's a lead. It might turn into something."
Bunch slapped his stomach and watched the flesh jiggle. "My gut's turning into fat. Sitting in goddamn cars all goddamn day."
Kirk filed one bill under "Wait for payment" and another under "Pay as soon as possible." The criterion was the shade of pink tinting the past-due column. "You want to do skip tracing? Or hunt straying husbands like Vinny Landrum does? That'll give you a little exercise."
"I saw that scumbag the other day. He said business was never better." Bunch heaved to his feet and wandered over to stare out the single large window. A glass panel had been cranked open in the hope of snagging a little stray air. All it gathered was diesel fumes from the trucks in Wazee Street a floor below. He spit through the opening and watched the fleck of white drift away and disappear. "Asked how we're doing."
"I hope you didn't tell him."
"I lied. I said we were doing great."
"Well, I'm glad you brightened his day."
"He didn't believe me."
What Vinny Landrum believed or didn't believe wasn't important in God's scheme of things or Kirk's. He didn't really think Bunch cared that much either. But it gave the big man something else to grouse about. "What's new on Zell and Truman?"
Those were the two latest insurance cases. Garth Zell suffered a back injury when he slipped on a supermarket's wet floor. The insurance company suspected it was a pratfall, but his lawyer claimed permanent disability. Zell couldn't hold any kind of job; his connubial bliss had flown. His settlement from a teary-eyed jury had been almost one and a half million dollars. It was a type of injury and an amount that automatically called for an investigation—a point his lawyer had probably warned Zell about, because neither Kirk nor Bunch had yet seen anything suspicious. Truman's injury was a whiplash that, her lawyer told a jury, kept her in a neck brace twenty-four hours a day and gave her constant migraines. The insurance company's doctors testified that she didn't need to wear the brace, but they were the poorer liars. The result was a very nice piece of change to help cure the lady's alleged headache.
"Same thing. Same goddamned thing, Dev, and if I have to spend another week jammed in that Subaru with my knees up around my ears ..." He almost said it. He almost told Dev that his string was fraying out, and by God if something better didn't come along, he'd find another job with a hell of a lot more excitement. But he didn't. For one thing, Dev wouldn't believe him. They'd been through this before. For another, he knew he couldn't find a job he liked better. It had its stretches of boredom—Christ knew it had those. But there was always the possibility it could change quickly. And even if it didn't, Bunch liked the freedom. It was the closest he'd come to being his own boss and still letting someone else worry about the payroll. The electronic wheedle of the telephone saved him from answering Kirk's raised eyebrows. Devlin picked up the receiver, expecting Chris Newman. But it wasn't a familiar voice. Instead, a hesitant male asked if Kirk and Associates provided personal security.
"Do you mean 'personnel'? Employee screenings, background searches?"
"No—personal. Like, ah, bodyguards."
Kirk glanced at Bunch, who was lounging on the rail that protected the lower part of the office window and staring out moodily. Across the flat roofs of the district's old warehouses, the mountains formed a ragged horizon west of town. Bodyguard work wasn't something Kirk and Associates listed on its letterhead, but it was a task Devlin was familiar with. It had been one of his principal responsibilities as a Secret Service agent. And it could offer a welcome change from surveillance.
"Sometimes we do. Would you care to tell us what you need? That way you can find out if we're the agency for you."
The receiver was silent.
"No obligation, Mr.—?"
"Uh, Humphries. Roland Humphries. It's after five, now. How late is your office open?"
It sounded as if the voice hoped Kirk would say they were closed. "If you want to come by, I can wait for you, Mr. Humphries."
"No—no ... Maybe tomorrow. You're open in the morning?"
The voice said okay and verified the address in the Yellow Pages ad. Kirk told him about the free customer parking behind the building. When he hung up, Bunch looked back over his shoulder. "What was all that about?"
"Not more goddamn surveillance work!"
In a way it was, but before Kirk could explain, the telephone tweedled again and this time it was Newman.
"Dev? I really think I've got something. But I'm not sure what it all means. I'd like to talk with you about it." His tense voice sounded worried. Kirk mentioned a couple places where they could meet without seeming conspicuous. Chris chose the bowling alley.
The sun-blistered bowling pin looked like a tilted exclamation mark against the darkening sky. Kirk scooted his Austin-Healey 3000 across oncoming traffic into the dusty gravel of an almost empty parking lot.
Chris sat at the four-stool bar beyond the white fluorescent glare of the rental shelves and sipped a beer. A few bowlers slid along the lanes. The evening crowd—if there was one—hadn't arrived yet, and the periodic rumble and crash echoed hollowly under the girders lacing the tin roof. He finally saw the two large men come in and turned away from them as they settled onto stools next to him. Devlin was big in a rangy sort of way, tall and slender. Chris hadn't been surprised to learn that he had been a rower at college. But Bunch reminded him of one of his father's prize Charolais bulls—the biggest ones, which moved with that stiff delicacy large animals have. Chris had seen one of those bulls pull up a tether stake with a shrug as if the seven-foot-long pole had been a rotten weed. He figured Bunch could do the same. Right now the bigger man was complaining about being cramped in the Healey's cockpit and asking Devlin why he would waste money to rebuild a piece of crap like that.
"Because it's the only sports car that fits me," said Devlin. He ordered two beers from the woman who wandered down from the rental shelves to ask them what they wanted.
"Well, it sure as hell doesn't fit the two of us," said Bunch.
"That's another reason."
Chris had a good start on size, but he knew he would never grow as big as either Bunch or Devlin. Still, he wondered if in time he could gain the kind of easy comfort they carried with them wherever they went. He'd seen it on a couple of people around Creede, weather-toughened men who knew they could handle themselves no matter what. Not that he felt himself awkward or inept—he wasn't, not in a lot of situations. But there were times and places around this city when he didn't quite feel he understood what was going on. He knew it was mostly a matter of time and that a man could do a lot worse than have Devlin and Bunch showing him the ropes. In fact, he'd found himself more than once in front of the long mirror on the bathroom door of that dumpy little apartment of his, standing the way he remembered Devlin standing, or turning with the whole upper body the way Bunch did.
The woman brought the two draft beers and took the money down to the cash register to ring up the sale. When she was out of hearing, Devlin's voice murmured, "What do you have for us, Chris?"
Keeping his face toward the bowlers, Chris scratched at the mustache he'd struggled to grow for this job. "I think I have a lead on a dealer. But I don't know if he's working alone or with somebody."
A question came back. "Name?"
"Dennis Porter. He's in assembly. I haven't seen him sell anything, but he hangs around his locker a lot—just what you told me to look for. And yesterday I heard a couple guys joke about going past the candy store."
Kirk drank deeply and wiped the foam from his lip with his thumb. "I'll check the company records tomorrow. What do you think his action is?"
The excitement of hunting a real-life dealer—of discovering one himself—was still in Chris's voice, though he tried to make it sound as if it was no big thrill. "I think it's pot. Maybe some pills. But like I say, I'm not sure. I didn't want to move too close without talking to you first."
"That's fine, Chris. You just keep playing it cool. Bunch or I will handle any contacts. Anything else?"
There was. He turned back to the bar and waited until a pair of bowlers passed in the aisle before answering. "I got this feeling about a couple other guys. That's why I wanted to talk to you."
Kirk knew that sometimes those feelings were truer than evidence. "Where do they work?"
"Over in shipping. Like I say, it's nothing I can pin down." Chris had been trying to define it himself, but couldn't. That was why he wanted to test his reaction against Devlin's opinion. "There're three guys always hanging around together. Warehouse crew, real standoffish. Everybody else, you know, they joke around, say 'How you doing.' Not these guys."
"Do they seem to be into anything?"
"Kind of. It's like they got some business going that they don't want anybody else to know about, so they're playing cool about it."
"Are they homos?"
Chris hadn't thought of that. "I don't think so. I don't think that's it." What he didn't add was that since coming to Denver, he had run across a couple. Their eager interest in him still made the flesh on his back crawl with embarrassment. But the men at the plant didn't have that about them.
"Have they done anything suspicious?"
"Well, last week during the lunch break I saw them in the warehouse—the receiving section."
"They're not supposed to be there?"
"Oh yeah, that's where they work. But it was lunch hour, and they went in and out three or four times, like they were busy at something."
"Was the supervisor around?"
"Not on lunch break."
"Nothing I could see. That's the problem." Newman ran a hand through his rat -tail of long hair, another touch to his disguise. "You think they might be stealing stuff?"
"What's there to steal?"
That was another puzzle, because most of the units that came into receiving were in sealed canisters: large electronics components from the East Coast plant shipped here to be assembled with the components that came in from the West Coast. He explained that to Devlin.
Kirk was silent. He jotted a few words down in a small notebook. The woman pushed her folded arms off the glass top of the glowing rental shelf and came back to find out if they would like a refill. When she left again, Kirk asked Chris, "Any names?"
Excerpted from Body Guard by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1991 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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