When a stripper is murdered, Gabe Wager turns the red-light district inside out
More than any other establishment on Denver’s red-light strip, the Cinnamon Club has taken advantage of the new law allowing all-nude dancing. What was once confined to back rooms now takes center stage, and the activities in the club’s private section grow ever more depraved. Annette Sheldon is the Cinnamon Club’s rising star until her body is found dumped in an alley, eyes pecked out by scavenging magpies. Homicide detective Gabe Wager and his partner pull Annette’s husband in for questioning, and though they don’t think he killed her, they do think he’s lying about something. When a second dancer is murdered, Wager goes undercover on the strip, searching for the man with the violent fetish. The more questions he asks, though, the more he risks becoming the killer’s next target.
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 Gabe Wager Novel
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1984 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns
All rights reserved.
"Mr. Sheldon, if you have need of an attorney, you can call one."
Max Axton's voice rumbled like distant thunder. From down the carpeted hall came the muffled ring of a telephone and the mutter of the duty watch answering. Like Max's voice, the sound deepened the silence of the almost empty Homicide offices.
Sheldon, his eyes blurry behind thick lenses, looked from Axton to homicide detective Gabe Wager, then back to the big man who rested his elbows on the desk.
"You think I did it? You think I killed my own wife?"
Wager shifted his gaze from Sheldon and the mustache that straggled across his suddenly gray and vulnerable face. In the daylight, the office windows looked out over southwest Denver toward Pikes Peak some sixty miles away. On good days you could see its humped outline, powder-blue snowfields, and rock against the slightly darker horizon. Ten, maybe twenty times a year, you could see it sharply etched with its own glow; most of the time you couldn't because of the smog. Now, you could only see the freckled lights of office towers thrusting up at the south edge of Denver—the other downtown, local boosters liked to call it. Even this late, there were those columns of glowing dots. Cleaning crews, probably.
"I didn't! For God's sake, I loved her! I been nearly crazy—she didn't come home from work and I called and then I called you guys, the cops, and for five days.... I didn't kill her! I loved her!"
"All right, Mr. Sheldon. All right, now." Axton's voice didn't rise or accuse. It stayed as calm as a stone—like, Wager thought, Axton himself. "All right, we're not saying you did anything. We're only saying you can have an attorney if you want one."
"But then why—"
"Because the law says so, Mr. Sheldon. If, while we interview you, something comes up that might possibly incriminate you, then the law entitles you to have a lawyer present."
That wasn't quite accurate, Wager knew. Sheldon wasn't under arrest, so he didn't need the Miranda warning. But it sometimes shook information out of people who confused the warning with an accusation, and it covered anything let slip by a witness-turned-suspect. It was a good idea, and he guessed that Axton felt the same way Wager did: this grieving husband wasn't telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.
"If you can prove indigence, Mr. Sheldon, then a public defender will be provided for you. Do you understand?"
"I understand." The man's cheeks pulsed with weak anger as he tugged at the few hairs that formed the corner of his mustache. "'Indigence'? That's 'poor'? I ain't poor! And what I don't understand is why you guys are laying it on me! Why don't you look for the son of a bitch that did it!"
That's what they were doing. When a husband was killed, you looked at the wife; when the wife was blown away, you looked at the husband. He or she didn't always turn out to be the murderer, but the odds were in your favor.
Wager flipped open the new manila folder labeled SHELDON, ANNETTE E., and glanced at the crime report sheet. The victim had been found at twilight by one Marie Voiatsi, who had returned home from a week-long business trip to Omaha, Topeka, and Kansas City. She decided to look around her backyard before dark—check on the irises and tomatoes and hollyhocks that grew tall along the waist-high fence lining the back alley. But she found more than aphids. She found a hole mashed in the hollyhocks, and, filling that hole, the sprawled, half-nude body of a female: Caucasian, twenty to twenty-five years old, long bleached-blond hair, eyes of unknown color because the magpies had eaten them. By late evening, Ross and Devereaux—the two detectives on the four-to-midnight shift—had surveyed the crime scene, interviewed the neighbors, and finally got a lead on the victim from the Missing Persons file. Official identification came just before midnight when Kenneth Sheldon was taken to the morgue, where he named the victim as his wife, Annette. When Wager and Axton reported in for the midnight tour, they found Mr. Sheldon sitting alone, bent under the weight of the cold fluorescent lights.
"That's the victim's husband," muttered Devereaux. "We just brought him from the morgue and haven't asked him a thing yet. He needed some time to settle down."
"Thanks." Under the new team concept in the Homicide Division, cases were no longer assigned exclusively to individual detectives, but were worked by each shift in the division. It was supposed to provide more continuous coverage of the cases. Maybe it did. But to Wager's mind, something was lost: the tenacity that a detective brought to "his" case. Some detectives, anyway. A lot of people liked the new system because it helped ensure a forty-hour week. When quitting time rolled around, you just turned to the oncoming shift and said, "It's all yours."
Wager studied the slumped figure sitting beside one of the half-dozen metal desks that the homicide detectives shared. The man was just out of earshot, but judging from the unblinking way he stared at the floor, he wouldn't have heard them anyway. "How'd she get it?"
"Back of the head. Small caliber; .22's my guess." Wager nodded once at the seated man. "Suspect?" Devereaux half-shrugged. "Looks like a rape-and-dump. But he is the husband. And he's all yours. Ciao."
"When was the last time you saw your wife, Mr. Sheldon?"
He looked at Axton, and his watery blue eyes blinked back the feeble anger that had stirred him a moment before; then they shifted to the flat white of the wall. It was as if Sheldon preferred to talk to that blank surface than to the man who loomed patient and massive across the desk. "Saturday night. Last Saturday. She went to work like always." His gaze dropped to the carpet—the gray color and pattern were designed to hide dirt but couldn't quite manage it. "I told her I'd see her after work. She never came back."
"She worked nights? Where'd she work?"
"The Cinnamon Club." Wager caught a faint lift of pride in his voice. "She was a dancer there."
The Cinnamon Club was the latest name of a topless-bottomless joint on the East Colfax strip. Wager knew it under three or four earlier names from as long as ten years ago when he worked Assault. That was before exotic nude dancing was legal, but the owners had provided equally suitable entertainment in the back rooms. Now it was done up front.
"How long had she worked there, Mr. Sheldon?" Max asked.
"A year and a half. She was good. She was real popular. One of the stars in the revue."
"Do you know of anyone who ever threatened her?"
He quickly shook his head and Wager saw Max's eyelids drop just a shade. "No. She was popular," he said again. "She made more money than any of the other girls. The owner, he was always saying what a good dancer she was."
Axton's voice softened. "Did she have any male friends that you know of, Mr. Sheldon?"
"Male friends? You mean was she"—he groped for the polite term—"seeing other men?"
"Hell no! She was my wife! What kind of question is that? What are you trying to say, man!"
"All exotic dancers get asked, Mr. Sheldon. You know that."
"Not Annette! I mean, she got asked, sure. Like you say, they all do. But she didn't go down for nobody. She was clean. She did her sets and came straight home after the last one. She was a dancer—legitimate—you can ask anybody!"
They would. Axton shifted the topic. "What time did she usually get home?"
"Two-thirty or so. I always waited up for her and we'd have some tea and she'd unwind." His gaze moved away again. "When she wasn't home by three, I knew something was wrong." After a short silence, he said, "Do you know that the people in Missing Persons don't even take messages until eight in the morning?"
"Did she have a car? How did she get to work?"
"She drove. She had her own car." Again that little swelled note. "We got two cars. Both paid for."
"The car disappeared, too?"
"Can you describe it?"
"A Ford Mustang. Black with red stripes. A year old." He added, "It had a stereo, too. A good one."
He pulled it out of his memory. "CB 4827. I told the Missing Persons lady all this."
With one ear Wager listened to Axton go through the series of questions that would fill in as much as possible about the victim's life, her routines and acquaintances, her actions on that last day. And, through constant oblique probing, her husband's attitude toward his wife and especially her job, toward the people she worked for and those she danced in front of, trying to find out what was behind that little odor of mendacity that had come again when Axton asked if she had been threatened by anyone.
The reports and photographs in the folder told Wager what the actual scene had told Devereaux: the woman had probably been killed elsewhere and dumped over the fence into the yard. The autopsy wouldn't be held until tomorrow morning, but from the corpse's lividity, from the absence of a footpath leading to the body among the blossoming stalks, from the nearby residents who, in that quiet neighborhood, told Devereaux they'd heard nothing, Wager was pretty sure what had happened: she had been raped, shot, and driven down an alley to be tossed. As Devereaux said, it wasn't the kind of murder a husband would do—not the rape, anyway. Maybe one of her admirers got a little too heated up and just had to have the girl of his dreams—and then was afraid of being recognized by his victim or her husband.
He studied one of the large black-and-white glossies. There was also a small plastic case holding a videotape of the location in sound and more-or-less living color. It was a new technique the department was trying out, along with the team approach—one that gave a better overall depiction of the site. It was good, but it was expensive, and storage was a problem. Wager didn't know how long the department could afford it. He and Axton would wait until Sheldon was gone to view the film. When the hand-held television camera played over what was left of a loved one while the flat voice of a narrator described the scene and the corpse, relatives tended to get hysterical.
From the contorted sprawl in the still photo, Wager could not tell if she had been attractive. She was female and did not seem overweight. The half-unbuttoned blouse showed one breast that had deflated like the rest of her body into that vagueness of detail that death brought. Her long hair was snarled among the broken stalks and half-tangled under one shoulder. Her face, with its ragged, empty sockets, had begun to decay, and even the harsh glare of the camera's flashbulb could not bring sharpness to those surrendering features.
In the background he heard Axton's gently persistent questions and Sheldon's mumbling, groping replies. Once, the man's voice was squeezed thin and nasal as an answer carried a pang of memory, and he half-choked into a wet sob. Axton held out a box of tissues and Sheldon, blowing his nose, took half-a-dozen deep breaths before going on in his soft monotone.
Wager closed the file and telephoned the Traffic Division. If the car had not been found since the Missing Persons report was filed, then it was probably gone, cut up by a chop shop into parts and pieces that would be resold for three times its whole value. And absolutely untraceable.
A woman answered with one of those defensive voices that civil servants on the night shift seemed to share.
"This is Detective Wager in Homicide. Can you tell me if you have an abandoned vehicle report on a Ford Mustang, red on black, Colorado CB 4827?"
"Just a minute, sir." The line went blank for a short while, then the voice came back. "Nothing on the city-county list. I can't check the metro list until morning, sir. You want me to have the day watch do that?"
"That was CB 4827?"
"All right. I'll tell them."
Wager hung up and, catching Axton's glance, shook his head.
"Do you have a recent photograph of your wife, Mr. Sheldon?" Max asked. "It will help our investigation. We'll return it to you."
Sheldon hitched up on one thin ham and pulled out his wallet. Flipping through the plastic windows, he drew out a glossy square. It showed a statuesque woman nude from the waist up. Looking more closely, Wager saw that she wore a sequined G-string and a large, feathered headdress. Her slightly awkward arms were raised high, and she smiled over the camera as if she were a Las Vegas chorus girl. At one side of the photograph, almost trimmed out of the picture, the edge of a kitchen chair showed. "It's a publicity photo. It was her favorite." Sheldon gazed at it before handing it to Max. "I took it for her portfolio. She was beautiful. Really beautiful."
Wager put it on top of the victim's folder. "We'll make copies of it and get it back to you, Mr. Sheldon." Unless some horny bastard in the division lifted it for a pinup.
"Thank you, Mr. Sheldon." Axton heaved to his feet and Sheldon's head swayed back as he watched the man keep rising. "You've been very helpful. I hope we're soon able to catch the person who did it." He handed the slender man a business card. "If you think of anything that might help us—someone who might have threatened your wife in any way—please give us a call, any time of the day or night."
Sheldon held the card in both hands and stared at it before he, too, stood. "Is that it? You're not going after nobody?"
"We don't know who to go after, do we?" said Wager. "But if you have any ideas, tell us."
The man's mouth chewed for a minute, then clamped into bitter wrinkles. He shook his head and carefully put the card in his wallet. "It just seems ... I don't know.... It seems the cops—the police—somebody—should be doing something."
"We will do something. We'll be going over to the Cinnamon Club to ask questions. But if there's something you know," Wager insisted, "no matter how slight, and you don't tell us, then you're going to slow things down. Maybe enough to let the killer get away."
"I don't know anything, goddamn it!"
"Do you need a ride home?" Max asked.
"Ride? No. My car—it's out front."
Max's large hand brushed Sheldon's arm in a nudge. "Come on, I'll walk you down there."
Wager followed, pausing to lift a key ring from the transport board. He flipped the little slides by their names to show the duty watch where they were. The personnel board read In, On Patrol, In Court, Off Duty, and a few other less popular locations. It didn't seem necessary to Wager; all the detectives were tied by radio to the dispatcher, who could reach them anywhere in the city. But the board looked impressive and up-to-date and filled one wall. And they were ordered to use it. It was part of the team concept.
"I'll bring the car out," he told Max.CHAPTER 2
"What do you think, Gabe?"
Wager drove while Max shoved back hard against the passenger seat as he tried to find room for his legs in the small, underpowered sedan. The department saved money by buying year-old rental cars, the economy models. But no matter how well they were taken care of, the guts were always run out of the engine by the time the detectives got them. Fortunately, they were seldom involved in hot pursuits.
"I think he's lying about something."
Max grunted assent. "He's keeping something back, anyway. But I don't believe he killed her. I didn't get that feeling." He said after awhile, "He's not a good liar."
"He's what, ten, fifteen years older than she was? And she must have met a lot of men," said Wager. "A lot of men every night."
"Yeah, I understand that. But this doesn't look like a jealousy killing. Rape his own wife? Shoot her in the back of the head? And carry a picture like that! What kind of husband carries around that kind of picture of his wife?" Before Wager could reply, Max answered his own question. "Maybe he wants to brag about what he's got: money, new car, sexy wife. Things he never thought he'd have."
"Maybe he wants to show how jealous he's not," said Wager.
Max thought that one over and came up with some of the sociology crap that always irritated Wager. "That's convoluted psychology, partner. But it could be, I suppose. A defense mechanism that he doesn't even recognize." He gazed at the dim shine of the gold leaf on the state capitol dome, no longer illuminated in an effort to save energy. "Leave it to a Mex like you to come up with the jealousy motive. But still, it doesn't look like a jealousy killing."
Excerpted from Strip Search by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1984 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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