Read an Excerpt
A Gabe Wager Novel
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1993 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns
All rights reserved.
"The fire fighters found it. After cool-down they could go through the rooms." Rodriguez, a barrel-shaped man, wore a slicker striped with silver reflective tape that made him look even broader through the chest. He wore a large helmet and flash mask too, and all the equipment added authority to a posture that said the firemen had done their job right, and it wasn't their fault somebody died. Homicide Detective Gabriel Wager nodded and added to his notes. The pumper crew had received the call at 0312. By the time they arrived, less than eight minutes later, the small frame house on Wyandot Street was a flare of orange and red, and every window belched fire. None of the wide-eyed and disheveled neighbors, awed by the roar and heat, could tell the fire fighters if anyone was in the building. "It wouldn't have made any difference anyway," said Rodriguez. "The place was gone." They set up containment and began pouring water over the roof and walls. There was no possible way to get through the searing flame that spiraled out of every doorway, and little hope for finding anything alive if they could.
"Look like a homicide?" Wager followed the glare of Rodriguez's flashlight and stepped where the fire fighter's boots smeared ash and mud into the soggy carpet. The floor, like the rest of the structure, was wood, and in places it had burned through. Under his feet, the weakened joists were quivering beneath the weight of bulky firemen, their equipment, and the first wave of official investigators.
"Can't tell. But it was found curled up in a closet."
Which was probably the sign of a futile attempt to escape the flames. But whether accident, suicide, or murder, it was an unnatural death, and unnatural death meant a police report. Wager was the homicide detective on call when the body was found. "Male or female?"
The smell of wet, charred wood and burned cloth mingled with the heat of still-smoking embers and fire-blued metal. And another smell too: that of newly burned flesh, a greasy, sweet-fried odor that made Wager breathe shallowly through pinched nostrils. They crowded into a bedroom where the remnant of a door hung open to the black and glistening insides of a gutted closet. Huddled against the indignity of the flashlight's beam, and at the foot of one of the wet and steaming walls, was a cramped shape. In the pitiless circle of pale glare, it was mostly black, like the charred studs surrounding. But here and there splits of pink and white erupted through the baked crust. Wager could see, a darker circle against the flaking ash of the cheek, the socket of one eye. "The medical examiner been called?"
"Yeah." Rodriguez looked up from the tangle of heat-twisted wire hangers and the fallen clothes bar that lay atop the figure. "There's not much to work with."
He nodded agreement. The closet had been a trap rather than a refuge. Disoriented, blinded, choking, the victim could have groped for the bedroom door in the other wall, stumbled across the closet door instead, and, overcome, collapsed to smother in the heavy smoke instead of finding his way out. "How'd the fire start?"
"Don't know yet. Arson won't get here until morning." The fire fighter glanced at the heavy wristwatch under the cuff of his glove. "Which won't be too goddamn long. You can't see that much at night anyway."
Wager gazed around the once-private room, now invaded by disorder and by figures lumpy with protective gear and bulky equipment. A platform of scorched slats held a futon that had charred and split to spill wads of water-soaked cotton. A broken lamp and a burned and overturned end table had been kicked into a corner. The sheathing had burned off two of the walls, to show fire-blackened two-by-fours that glittered and dripped as if a summer shower had passed over. Through glassless windows and ragged gaps in the outside wall, floodlights from the fire trucks threw streaks and patches of light. He could hear a thunk and creak as fire axes dug for hot spots in the smoldering debris somewhere in the back rooms. There wasn't much he could do in the dark, except to tell Rodriguez to keep everyone away from the closet until the forensics team arrived, which should be soon. He followed the high boots that mashed their way back through the small living room cluttered with fragments of plasterboard from the ceiling and a soggy, half-burned sofa that had been ripped apart in the search for remaining sparks.
Wager crossed the small wooden porch and went down the three steps to the cramped front yard. A clutch of neighbors huddled against the night's chill in robes and blankets and watched in silence. Wager used his GE radio pack to ask the dispatcher for a deputy DA to bring a warrant—the body was on private property, and any possible evidence gathered there had to be legally covered. Then he went over to the knot of silent people.
"Does anyone know who lived here?"
A man whose beard stubble looked like a dark smear of ash on his pale skin glanced at the woman standing beside him. Then he cleared his throat. "Told me his name's John."
Wager had his small green notebook out. "John? Did he give you a last name?"
"No. Hasn't been here long—rented maybe a month ago. John."
That was a problem: Wager wouldn't be able to notify the next of kin until he could identify the victim. "Can I have your name, sir?"
"I guess." The man told him and gave Wager his address. It was the house next door, a small frame building like the burned one, and the rounded eyes of the man and woman said they were staring at the sudden nightmare vision of their own home. The curtained windows behind them reflected the erratic flash of emergency lights as an unmarked official car pulled up. Probably forensics. "My wife saw the fire. Got up to go to the bathroom and saw it and called me. I called the fire engines." His voice dropped. "Seemed like they took a hell of a long time to get here."
The woman, brightly flowered robe gripped tightly at her throat, nodded and spoke in a puff of frosty breath. "Virgil got the garden hose out of the shed and started wetting down our roof. He had time to do all that before they got here."
"Yes, ma'am. Is this John the only person living there?"
This time the woman answered first. "He has some people stay with him now and then. Young people, you know. Visiting him, I think."
"Some? How many?"
"Sometimes one, sometimes two or three—wouldn't you say, Virgil?"
Virgil nodded. "Hard to say for sure. They come and go, and they're quiet. I mean, it's not like one of these party houses or crack houses or whatever you call them. But there's been maybe half a dozen people there one time or another." He added, "A lot of times from out of state. Arizona plates, and Oregon, I remember. Some others too."
Wager glanced up at Virgil. "You go out and look at their license plates?"
The man got defensive. "Sometimes they park their cars in front of our house. You got to park on the street in this neighborhood, and sometimes parking's hard to find."
"Were the cars there this evening?"
The man's fingernails scratched in his whiskers. "Not when the fire was going. Didn't look like nobody was home." He glanced at the curb where the pumper truck made a steady clatter with its auxiliary engines. Another unmarked automobile was waved past the orange police tape by a uniformed officer. This would be the medical examiner, to say the corpse was a corpse. "There's no cars parked now. Maybe earlier. I can't remember, tell you the truth."
"What about John's car? Do you see it?"
Another squint. "No. Might be down the block—dark car, blue, I think. Like I say, parking's hard to find." The man looked again at the smoking hulk whose roof was half-eaten away. "You telling me he was in there?"
One of the woman's hands went to her mouth. "Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord, that poor man!"
Virgil cleared his throat. "I—ah—I yelled 'fire.' I couldn't get near the place—it was too hot, and the sparks was coming down on my place. But if I'd of known somebody was in there ..."
"He was probably dead by the time you saw the fire. Do you know the name of the realtor who rented the house?"
Virgil looked at his wife again. "Miller? Milton? Red-and-blue sign—Milltown Realty?"
"McMillan," said his wife. "McMillan—that was it. Had the sign up for the longest time. Big red 'McMillan Realty.'"
The post office could give Wager a name to go with the address, but most rental agreements also listed the name and address of the nearest relative. Wager elicited enough description of John to help verify the corpse—white male, about six one, maybe one hundred eighty pounds, in his midthirties—and went to the next group of staring figures. They lived on the other side of the burned house and told him pretty much the same thing, except that they didn't even know the occupant's first name. But they had heard a fireman say someone had been found inside, and no one wanted to say anything bad about the dead. "He was friendly and all; he waved whenever we saw each other. But we didn't have any reason to talk much."
Wager was finishing with the last of the neighbors when the ambulance team brought the body bag across the small wooden porch and down the steps to lay it on a gurney for the short ride to the vehicle. A few minutes later, one of the forensics people, Archy Douglas, followed. He paused to blow his nose into a wad of handkerchief and glance at the sooty results. Then he stuffed it back in his hip pocket. "Only one thing worse than bloaters or floaters: crispy critters."
"What's it look like to you?"
Douglas shook his head; his strip of balding scalp caught the red and blue of the flashers as the ambulance pulled out for Denver General. "Can't tell. I just had Lincoln take some pictures, and I marked the scene. If we have to, we'll come back tomorrow when there's better light."
The tall, lanky photographer—Lincoln Jones—came down the steps and rubbed wearily at bloodshot eyes. A still camera hung over one shoulder; on the other he balanced a video camera. Nodding to Wager, he told Douglas, "I'm done. Anytime you're ready...."
"See you later, Gabe."
Wager, too, was done—for a while. The search for identity and next of kin could start in a few hours, when the various offices and bureaus opened. Now there was only an hour or so left of the night, not enough for sleep, maybe, but at least enough for a shave and a long, hot shower to wash his skin and hair clean of the clinging smell of smoke and other odors.
He could have gone back to Elizabeth's to clean up. After their first three or four months of going together, she had bought him a toothbrush and a razor as an indication that he was welcome to stay at her place. But there was no sense waking her up again by clattering around in her house. Besides, he should check the telephone recorder and yesterday's mail at his apartment. He didn't expect anything—the dispatcher had Elizabeth's number for emergencies, and the mail was never anything but bills and ads. Still, it was his habit to look.
The red light of the answerer gleamed for message waiting, and as he stripped off the smoke-tinged shirt and dropped it into the wicker hamper, he played back the tape. Elizabeth's sleepy voice said, "Hi. If you get this before you go to work, I'll be in meetings all day. If it's after work, give me a call. I don't know what my schedule is for tonight."
That's what he got for shacking up with a city councilperson: someone whose days were as busy and unpredictable as his own. But the warm, slightly husky voice brought an image of her face looking up at him through the half-light, dark hair curling out on the pillow, and the pale glimmer of her teeth between lips slightly swollen from kissing. The image tightened his groin with sudden yearning, and he had that hunger to cling to a living body, a feeling that often came after he'd seen death. Maybe he should go over there.... No, not stinking with the odor of smoke and burned flesh. And by the time he showered and shaved, it would be morning anyway.
They had talked about his moving into her home. It was a hell of a lot larger than his apartment, and he spent a lot of time there. But so far it was only talk, and casual at that; they had each lived alone so long that it was difficult to think of sharing all their space and time with someone else. And given the chaos of days that each of them faced, periods of isolation were a necessity.
His trousers had a black smear from brushing against something in the burned house; he set them aside for the cleaners. His sport coat he placed on a hanger, which he looped over the towel rack before stepping into the hot shower. The steam would loosen the smoky odor from the wool, and in a day or so he could wear it again without clamping his lips against the smell. It was a trick he'd learned while he was still in uniform and the cleaning bills ate deeply into his patrolman's pay. The maintenance allowance never had been enough to cover shoe repair and the various rips and stains from cleaning up others' messes. Now he made enough so the steam trick wasn't necessary, but old habits have long life, and that—in a roundabout way—was another reason why he and Elizabeth had decided to keep separate homes and why they steered away from any talk of marriage.
He washed his hair three times before trusting that the smell was gone, then boiled up a cup of coffee as he dressed. Twenty minutes across town, and he would walk in the door of the homicide offices, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Max Axton greeted Wager when he checked in for the regular shift. "Christ, Gabe, you look almost as good as dog puke." A wide finger tapped the brief notice of the unidentified body found in the fire. "You catch this one?"
Wager nodded and sipped at a mug of sour-smelling coffee. No matter how often the coffeemaker was washed out or what brand they changed to, it always smelled and tasted the same. And started each day with the same vicious bite. "Anything from the morgue yet?"
Axton shook his head. His heavy shoulders pushed his collar up a thick neck. "Homicide?"
"Don't know. Doesn't look like it."
"Let's hope not—I've got an interview lined up on Moralez this morning. I could use your help, partner."
Ray Moralez was the latest teenaged victim of the increasing gang violence over on the west side of town. Not too long ago, neighborhood gangs were just bunches of kids who hung around together, drank a little illegal beer, maybe had a few fights to show how tough they were. But west Denver's gangs were becoming big business, with cheap labor and high, tax-free profits from dope. Now there were ties between gangs in L.A. and Denver, Chicago, and Kansas City. There was a viciousness now that spread to younger and younger kids, along with a carelessness about life that, more and more, erupted in quick and deadly violence. The line had become thinner between a bunch of kids hanging out and acting tough and a criminal gang, and as a consequence the room for those kids to bend a few laws had become smaller, the results harsher. Wager didn't know the causes of it—maybe the feeling that the country is crumbling away and nobody gives a shit, maybe throwaway kids whose mothers had them when they were thirteen or fourteen years old, maybe so many people out of work or sweating their talangos off for nothing while they see people with connections and power steal millions with the blessings of Congress. Maybe it was from the river of drugs our own government had allowed in to pay for its illegal wars in Central America. Maybe it was the still-echoing effects of that decades-old turmoil called Vietnam. Whatever it was, a feeling of resentment and anger and frustration filled the streets like an evil odor and affected the kids who lived there.
With the Moralez shooting, no witnesses had been found, as usual, and no one wanted to talk to cops. Or at least to Anglos like Axton, and that was where Wager, with his roots in the barrio, came in. "Let me make a couple calls first."
Axton glanced at his watch. "Sure—take your time," he lied.
The first call was to the fire department's headquarters; the arson investigator hadn't reported in yet, but the woman who answered the telephone took Wager's name and number and told him the investigator would get in touch with Wager as soon as he had any conclusions about the fire's origins. The second call was to Denver General and the morgue. The secretary said the pathologist hadn't started yet on that case number. "Dr. Hefley will get to it as soon as he can, Detective Wager. It's the best I can tell you."
Excerpted from Endangered Species by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1993 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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