When Otto Lidke got a tryout in pro football, he hired a lawyer friend named Jim Raiford to handle his contract. The negotiations were bungled, forcing both men into a career change. Trying to start a pro wrestling circuit in Denver, Lidke runs afoul of the national federation, which does everything it can—legal and otherwise—to stamp out his new venture. When shady business practices escalate into threats on his life, Lidke calls on Raiford, now a private investigator, to dig up some dirt on the men who are trying to put him out of business.
But instead he gets Raiford’s daughter, Julie—a whip-smart sleuth looking to prove she’s every bit as savvy as her father. As Julie and her dad dig into the vicious world of small-time wrestling, they find that though the fights may be fixed, the danger is all too real.
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.
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A Touchstone Agency Mystery
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2014 Rex Burns
All rights reserved.
A hooded fluorescent light over the elevated ring glared down on two beefy guys who lunged at each other. Hands slapped loudly as they parried grabs for an arm or neck. Suddenly, one of the men jabbed a hand under his opponent's jaw and dropped in one smooth move to scissor his legs and smack them into the thick calves of the other. Roaring in anger, the victim landed facedown, and hard. The crash filled the room like half a ton of washers dumped on sheet iron and made the following silence even deeper. Breaths rasping, they lay on the stained canvas, which still bounced gently. The odors of liniment, sweat, something like onion, and something else indefinable that may have been oily dirt mixed in the thick air. In the gloom beyond the ropes, a line of folding chairs was crammed between the platform and the yellow wall. Their backs caught the ring light like a row of bared teeth. One of the teeth was blacked out by a shirtless man who wore a towel draped over heavy, sloping shoulders.
"You feel that?" He wiped his face with the towel. "You feel that deck pop when you went down?"
One of the men in the ring stirred and grunted. The other muttered as he pulled his legs up and flopped over on his back, arms spread wide to cool.
"What? What you say?"
"I said it fucking knocked the wind out of me!"
"Maybe it'll knock some of the crap out of you, too—teach you what wrestling's all about. Do it again—hand signs: babyface gives the stiff-arm, heel does the scissor kick and layout. Get the timing down—get the goddamn timing down!" He added, "And remember: we got kids in the audience. In the ring you watch your goddamn language or we'll lose the little bastards to the Christian Wrestling League!"
The two men hauled themselves to their feet wearily, thumbs hoisting the tops of their sweat-splotched tights, and began to circle each other again.
"Mr. Lidke?" the representative of the Touchstone Agency, Inc., stepped through the open door cut into the side of the steel building. "Otto Lidke?"
A telephone call had brought her from LoDo, gleaming with its shiny new high-rises and transportation hub, to this prefabricated box of the Rocky Ringside Gym. The building was similar to the other small manufactories, ranks of storage lockers, metalsmith shops, and salvage offices that lined the grimy spur of Denver's Umatilla Street hiding under elevated I-25.
Squinting toward the glare of the doorway, the man stood. But he didn't gain height so much as width. A barrel-shaped body pushed his arms out at the elbows, and slabs of hairy flesh formed his chest and belly. A bald head the size of a cannonball sat on the heave of trapezius muscles that served as a neck. "I'm him. What're you selling?"
"My name's Julie Campbell. You phoned our agency. You wanted to discuss some urgent business with us."
Eyes squeezed by high cheekbones blinked twice. "I wanted Jim Raiford. I asked him to come over."
"He's my dad. He's tied up on another job right now. Perhaps I can help you."
"Raiford's your old man?" Lidke studied the tall woman: somewhere in her mid-twenties maybe, attractive and healthy looking, light brownish blonde hair pulled back behind the collar of her tan business jacket. Jaw was a little too long, and that seemed to be the only thing in her face of the Jim Raiford he remembered. "You don't look like a PI." In fact, she looked like window dressing—what was it called? The self-confident "Colorado Look"?— for a corporate office.
Julie smiled politely. One of the things a private detective wanted to achieve was not looking like a private eye. "But I am."
"How long you been working for him?"
"With him. I've been his associate for over two years. If you prefer to talk to him, he'll be back this evening."
With him. One of those ballbusters. Raiford's kid despite her looks. "How late?"
"Six or seven. He may be able to come over in the morning. But you said you were an old acquaintance and you said it was urgent. So here I am."
Another loud crash shuddered the ring and Lidke shook his head. "Meatballs. Want to be wrestlers—don't know crap about the game. You know anything about wrestling?"
She'd had to do her share, but not the kind he was talking about. "Just what I see on television."
"That ain't wrestling! That's crap, what that is. Bunch of candy-assed ..." He caught himself. "Bunch of steroid suckers know how to wiggle their butts around the ring but don't know nothing about wrestling." Lidke scrubbed the towel angrily over his face: lumps of brow shading pale gray eyes, jaw like the scoop of a steam shovel. His nose was broken and flat except for the button of pockmarked flesh that bulged at its tip. "They put on all these smoke and strobe lights and bare-assed Jell-O matches that belong in the X-rated joints and call it wrestling. Put it on television where kids can see that crap! I'm talking old-time professional stuff. Real wrestling—you ever see that?"
Julie had cheered at wrestling matches in high school and college. But that wasn't what Lidke wanted to hear. "I guess not. Just what kind of problem are you facing, Mr. Lidke?"
He glared up at the tall woman for a moment. Then the plates of muscle on chest and shoulders lifted and fell in a deep, almost defeated sigh. "Yeah—why would you know anything about it? Nobody else does either. Goddamn sport's being lost. Come on to the office, Raiford's kid."
He opened a door to a smaller and even stuffier room painted the same yellow color. Another crash from the ring caught his attention and he leaned out to call, "OK, OK—that's enough! Do some sit-outs—take turns being on top, and put some speed in the moves! Speed—speed—speed!" He added to Julie, "Wrestling's more speed than muscle, but you can't tell these meatheads that. They already know it all—they seen it on television, too."
The tiny office was filled by a desk and two more folding metal chairs, one behind the desk and one in front. The one behind sagged like a weary tongue depressor and dipped even farther when Lidke sat in it. The visitors' chair had a string of dried yellow paint dripped across its back, the careless flick of some overfull brush. Lidke tugged on a dark blue warm-up jacket but left it open halfway down his hairy chest. The musty smell of tangled odors permeated the plywood walls.
"I got enemies."
Julie nodded. Most of the people she knew had enemies. But that alone wasn't reason to call a private investigator. "You've been threatened?"
Lidke's almost hairless eyebrows lifted with surprise above their ledges of bone and scar tissue. "Yeah!" He took a piece of paper from one of the drawers and looked at it for a moment. "This came in the mail yesterday." He shoved it across the gray compound of the desktop. Here and there, the rubbery surface was sliced or pitted where sharp metal had dug in: the gouging tip of a ballpoint pen, the nervous worry of a paper clip, an idle blade of some kind.
The edge of the paper scraped up a ridge of dust as it came to rest. It was, Julie figured, a third- or fourth-hand desk, seldom used for paperwork. She turned the creased sheet to read it. A newspaper headline, "Bomb Kills Man," was followed by "Salvador Pomarico, 43, was killed last night when a bomb exploded in his car. The explosion occurred in front of the Neapolis Social Club on West 48th Avenue. Witnesses said Pomarico left the club at about eleven p.m. and walked to his car. Seconds later, the blast rocked the neighborhood."
The edges of the clipping were straight, trimmed precisely. A furred corner showed where it had been tugged gently to release the cut portion from the page. Three even lines of glue held the clipping, one at the top, one at the bottom, and one precisely across the middle.
"Do you have the envelope it came in?"
The large, shaved head shook no. "Threw it away. All it had on it was my name and the address here. I should've kept it?"
"Maybe for the postmark." Julie read the clipping again and studied the type. "This isn't from a Denver paper."
The eyebrows lifted in more surprise. "Yeah—come to think of it, I never saw it in the Post. But I read about it in People, Newsweek, one of them. It happened in New York."
"Did you know him?"
"Pomarico? Never heard of him. Ain't been to New York in years." Lidke leaned thick forearms on the creaking metal desk. His elbow nudged a small photograph of a wife and two children. The woman looked short, as did the boy. The daughter, older and taller, had inherited her father's shape. "Then I got a phone call. Last night around nine. Voice— some guy—asks if I got the letter. I says 'yeah' and he says 'that's what happens when people start'—uh—'screwing around with us.'" He tilted his head once. "Them's not the exact words, but you get what I mean."
She knew. "Anything else?"
"No. Just hung up." Lidke gazed toward the small window where a rectangle of blue September sky was pinched between concrete pillars that braced the freeway overhead. "So I called your old man. I want to know what the hell to do and I need to know soon."
"Do you owe money?"
"Who don't? But it's legitimate, you know? Got a mortgage on my house and a bank loan on this place. Our corporation borrowed it: Rocky Ringside Wrestling, Incorporated."
"Whose toes might you have stepped on?"
"Yeah." Lidke nodded. "You figure that, too. It's got to be Sid Chertok and his people—the FWO. After all the other crap's been happening, that's the only people it could be."
"What's the FWO, who's Sid Chertok, and what's the other crap?"
"The Federated Wrestling Organization. Chertok's their regional rep. Promotes FWO live events in the Rocky Mountain region—Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, you name it. All the places, you know, where they can get big enough audiences." The heavy shoulders rose and fell again. "I figure they want to wipe me out before I get started. Scare me off so I don't compete with them. And if that don't work—which by God it won't—well ..." A stream of angry air whistled through the scrambled cartilage of his nose. "That's why I wanted to talk to Jim. I heard he quit lawyering and went into the detective business. Figured maybe he could give me some ideas about what I should do. How to get my people in a ring and bring in some money so I don't go over there and kick the crap out of Chertok. Pull that little s.o.b.'s neck so hard he looks like a goddamn chicken!"
Julie nodded. Out of sight, behind the desk, a small recorder rested on her knee. Her dad had told her that one of the quickest ways to stifle the story offered by a client or a witness was to let them see you tape their words. "It would help if you start at the beginning, Mr. Lidke."
Like a lot of beginnings, this one started with a dream. "We—me and my partners, Rudy Towers and Joe Palombino—we wanted to bring back good professional wrestling. Take Greco-Roman, combine it with just enough high spots to put on a good show, and build a following. Make it regional based, that's why we call it 'Rocky Wrestling': the Front Range—Cheyenne down to Pueblo ... Albuquerque, maybe. You know, the kind of wrestling they had before these big national promotions took over and crapped up the sport with goddamn cartoon characters and freaks and soap opera story lines that make a porn star blush."
Julie did not know, but she nodded anyway. "And you think Sid Chertok doesn't want you to?"
"I don't think it—I know it." A thick, calloused knuckle made two muffled thumps on the piece of paper with its clipping. "He's got a monopoly, you know? Don't want any competition at all in the mountain region. Sewed up the arenas so people like me— independents, local promoters—can't get a venue nowhere." A sigh lifted sprigs of curly hair peeping out of his open jacket. "Hell, FWO's tied in with cable. They use TV to fill arenas all over the country for their goddamn gigantic closed-circuit grudge matches. But hey—that's fine. I don't want to go national anyways. My whole idea is a regional federation–. Put together a string of a couple dozen wrestlers who know what the sport's really about. Have weekly cards with some local wrestlers that fans can identify with. Bring in a few heels from outside to spice things up. Sure, some stunts and glitz, but give them legit wrestling that elevates the sport, you know? But when I try to get a venue—the Convention Center, the Coliseum—no deal. These guys tell me they got a exclusive contract with Chertok. His show or nobody's. So OK. I understand that: FWO's the big promoter around here. Closed-circuit stuff, three, four road shows a year. They fill maybe five, ten thousand seats every card. Not enough for the Pepsi Center—hell, that's almost twenty thousand—but a good deal for these guys. No way I'm going to compete there. So I go to the smaller places: Market Center, the Merchandise Mart, Temple Events Center, the Columbine Arena. Eight hundred seats, a thousand max, you know? They say yeah, fine, love to have my business." Lidke's tongue made a dry, spitting sound. "Twenty-four hours later they call back, say no deal. Can't do it. Already booked. Fine, I'll change the date. They're booked then, too. They're booked no matter what date I ask for. I even start looking around in, for God's sake, Brighton, Golden, Broomfield arena, suburbs close enough to Denver to draw a crowd. Same damn thing for three months, now, and Chertok knows I can't last much longer! Got twelve wrestlers ready to go—they're ready to wrestle, and he's trying to make it so I'll be lucky to get a goddamn American Legion smoker or a Hadassah stag night!"
Lidke wrapped one hand around his other fist. An angry popping of knuckles followed. "Sent Rudy over the edge," he said in a low voice. "Invested everything he owned in this place. Worked his ... Worked real hard to teach meatheads like those two"—he stabbed a finger at the ring—"what wrestling's really about. Then when we're ready to go, we can't go. Chertok."
"Over the edge?"
The man's baggy eyes studied something stuck in the gummy compound of the desktop. "Shot himself. Put every penny he had in this gym and the equipment. It's only secondhand crap—enough to get by with for now—but it still took all he had. Rudy believed in what we're doing, you know? And then we try and try, and not even a chance to show what we can do!" Another angry breath. "He went over the edge."
"When did this happen?"
"Two weeks ago. Three, now. Seems like yesterday. Up in Central City. He shouldn't've. We weren't at the end of our string then. And we ain't yet, but we're getting goddamn close. It ate on him, you know? We all figured that the business'd at least be breaking even by now. What with training fees and ticket sales, we'd have the equipment paid for and the loan payments covered. All we need is a venue, and we'd be there. But whoever we try, they just tell us no. And those goddamn moneylenders—those people break their butts to get you to take their money, but smell a little trouble, and they're first in line to suck your blood!"
A brief silence. Then Lidke swore and hammered his fist against the desktop. The loud bang sounded like a body slam in the ring next door. "Rudy put up everything he had for collateral. House, car, insurance policies. Then he went up to Central City to try his luck at blackjack. Thought he could get enough money that way to carry us another couple months. It was his game, he thought. A sure thing. Poor bastard never had a chance. And we're not getting a chance—Chertok!"
"You believe Chertok told the auditorium people to turn you down?"
"Who the hell else? Nobody says so—they give me this crap about conflicts and insurance problems and prior commitments. But who else wants to stop us if it ain't Chertok?" Another hiss of breath. "And then comes that letter and that phone call."
"But if everyone's already told you 'no,' why would he bother with a threat?"
"Because I'm not quitting! If I have to go as far as Cheyenne or Pueblo or goddamn Durango, I'm not going to quit! I'll find somebody who'll rent me space!" He added in a softer but no less intense voice, "Be harder than hell to fill even five hundred seats in places like that, but I owe that to Rudy—to his wife and kids." A thick, curved hand flapped toward the metal ceiling. "And I got to do it soon. This place, it's the only hope they got left. I mean, we don't owe Rudy's family nothing—not legally. I had his wife check with the gym's CPA to see if there was anything for her, but nothing—all the start-up money went into equipment and overhead, and we're going day-to-day on income."
"Who's the CPA?"
"Guy named Felsen. He don't think we're going to make it. He don't say so, but that's what he thinks. But we will!" He tapped the bulging sweat jacket. "I feel lousy about Rudy. He was part of this place—a partner. It's still part his dream and it can still work!"
Julie studied the hot eyes that glared at her. Their pale blue irises were tangled in a net of angry red veins. "What do you want us to do, Mr. Lidke?"
Excerpted from Body Slam by Rex Burns. Copyright © 2014 Rex Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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