For six months, the Denver narcotics team and the DEA have built a case against a cocaine-dealing heavy named Farnsworth. When Detective Reitman makes the final buy, he runs a field test to make sure the package of powder he’s just purchased is really cocaine. The test is positive, and the bust goes down. Afterwards, the DEA’s lab says that Reitman was wrong—he’d just bought two and a half pounds of harmless, legal lactose. The case is thrown out, Reitman is busted down to uniform work, and Gabe Wager has to pick up the pieces. The department asks Detective Wager to go undercover and build a new case against Farnsworth. It has been years since Wager impersonated a drug addict, and undercover work’s heady mix of lies and fear has ceased to hold any appeal. Reluctantly, he dons his new identity, and hopes that his colleague’s screw-up doesn’t cost him his life.
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
The Farnsworth Score
A Gabe Wager Novel
By Rex Burns
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1977 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns
All rights reserved.
Gabriel Wager sensed something in the way Suzy, the secretary for the Organized Crime Division, glanced up as he came in.
"Have you seen Sergeant Johnston yet?" Her blue eyes were the only part of her face anyone would notice. Right now they were wide with excitement.
"Is he looking for me?"
"You, Ashcroft, Hansen—anybody!"
"He in here?" Wager started toward the plywood cubicle of the sergeant's office.
"No, he's with the inspector right now."
Wager glanced down the hall and saw that the inspector's door was closed. "What's the trouble?"
She peeked out and around the pale green plywood that screened the narcotics section from the other units in the division; throughout the cluttered second floor of the old brick building typewriters rattled with morning briskness; an occasional electronic snap opened the day's first radio traffic. "You know the Farnsworth case?"
"Was that the one Rietman was assigned to?"
"I think he blew it."
"Rietman?" That didn't sound right. "Why?"
"I'm not sure. When Inspector Sonnenberg came in this morning, he was mad! He asked for Detective Rietman's folder and called Sergeant Johnston in."
"Mad," she said firmly.
Rietman. In the year the young detective had been with the Organized Crime Division, he'd done a steady job, and it didn't sound like him to foul up. But it could happen—it did happen. God knows Wager had dropped his share of cases; it took some of that to train an officer. But it still wasn't pleasant to think of. "Well, if it's bad, we'll hear about it."
"You will." There were many things Suzy wasn't told.
Wager sat at his desk and read through last night's messages before turning to the unfinished reports and the queries from other agencies. He was in the middle of a modus operandi description on a series of drugstore robberies in neighboring Jefferson County when he heard Sergeant Johnston's voice say, "Yes, sir," at the inspector's door. Wager paused. If it was good news, Johnston would come to his desk; if it was bad, he'd phone. The telephone buzzed and Suzy said, "Gabe, for you."
"Good morning, Ed."
"How'd you know it was me?"
"I'm a detective."
"Oh. Can I see you for a minute?"
"Be right there." He went the five steps to the unit sergeant's office; behind his desk with its carefully stacked papers, Johnston sat, balding head sinking slightly in front of the round shoulders.
"Gabe, we've been thrown for a loss." Ed had recently become a Broncos fan and was replacing administrative jargon with football slang. He was the team quarterback; the inspector was the coach; Gabe, Rietman, Ashcroft, and Hansen were the front four. "You know anything about the Farnsworth case?"
"Only rumor, nothing official. The subject's cocaine, and the Drug Enforcement Administration's the primary agency."
"Right—D.E.A. was calling the signals. They borrowed Rietman to act as buyer. How well do you know him?"
"He's pretty new—we didn't work together. But I never heard anything against him, either."
Johnston nodded and gazed at the painted plywood that gave his desk a little privacy but blocked any fresh air that sneaked through the old square windows. Wager preferred his desk out in the open. Actually, he would prefer no desk at all; but half of a detective's job was keeping records and files, and what couldn't be kept in memory was stored in the desk—along with the piles of forms that someone kept manufacturing but no one seemed to care about. "Rietman set up the deal and it went down, and they made a clean bust—possession, conspiracy, and sale."
Johnston paused for effect. "And they lost the ball on the one-yard line!"
Wager blinked; it wouldn't be thrown out of court for a half-assed reason. The D.E.A. people were experienced agents and would have noted the chain of evidence, exact times and locations of contacts, key conversations that revealed the suspect's intent to sell narcotics. And they had all testified enough not to try any nonsense on the witness stand. "Why?"
"The D.E.A. people say that Rietman messed up on the field test. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation's lab reported that the stuff was lactose. So no case. D.E.A. thinks that the suspects were setting a phony deal to find out if the buyers were straight, and that Rietman ran a bad test, thought it was presumptive positive, and gave the bust sign. Six months they been trying to lay a deal on Farnsworth. And when they finally get it ..." The balding head dipped and wagged again.
"Did he what?"
"The field test—did Rietman run a bad one?"
"The agents ended up with two and a half pounds of lactose. It ain't against the law to sell lactose."
"What's Rietman say?"
"He swears he did it right. He said he'd take a lie-detector test."
"That won't mean a thing if he really thinks he did it right."
"I know. But D.E.A.'s been all over us about it; the inspector's already put Rietman back in uniform."
"That's pretty heavy for Rietman."
"Tell that to D.E.A. They think he should of been canned." Johnston picked up a leaf of paper from one neat pile and placed it on another, neater pile. "The inspector feels that since it was our man, our agency's responsible."
"Oh?" Wager smelled it coming, "And now he wants us to sweep up the shit?"
Ed patted the few pale red hairs into place on the center of his freckled scalp. "D.E.A.'s handed us the ball. Let's see if the inspector's free."
He was. Wager trailed after Sergeant Johnston into the tiny office crowded with captain's chairs and a large clean desk; one wall held a hundred or so green volumes of the Modern Federal Practice Digest. It was the only office on the O.C.D. floor with a door and without a coffee cup; instead of the usual comic signs and posters about pigs and complaint forms, it had organization charts on the wall: "The Chicago Family," "The Miami Family." But there was one other desk without cartoons and jokes on the walls: Wager's. Inspector Sonnenberg licked a dark brown cigar and lit it with one of the fireplace matches sprouting from a water glass on his desk. "Did Sergeant Johnston tell you about the famous Farnsworth fiasco?"
He rolled the cigar slightly for an even burn; the inspector seemed to get more pleasure from lighting one than from smoking it. "Farnsworth's still working in Boulder County. He thinks nobody can touch him.'
Wager was silent. Beside him, he heard Sergeant Johnston shift slightly on the unpadded wooden chair.
"I just came from a meeting with the D.E.A. people and the District Attorney. D.E.A.'s laying all sorts of nonsense at our door—they're using Rietman as an excuse to cover some of their own foul-ups. And they told the D.A. that they're pulling back from Farnsworth because of us."
"The D.A. wants us to go after him." One puff. Two. "To save face. If we can get him, we'll have some leverage where we need it."
"You're right, Inspector," said Johnston. "If we could score on this one ...!"
Wager listened and nodded and hoped it wouldn't be him. It had been a long time since he had gone undercover, but just the memory still wearied him. And that was three—Lord, four—years ago. He was getting too old for that kind of crap; there was too much crap an undercover man had to swallow. He hoped to God it wouldn't be him.
"Does anybody up in Boulder or Nederland know you?"
It was him. Wager slid the faces, names, aliases he'd dealt with in the past five or six years through his memory. None of them hung up on either town's name. But the inspector wouldn't know that; neither would Johnston. He could just say yes and it would be someone else. All it took was a little lie that would never be found out. It would be so easy just to nod yes. "Not that I know of."
Sonnenberg's cigar glowed slightly. "Do you want to go under?"
No. The playacting took too much patience, too much energy. It was too hard to pretend any more. He was a cop and he liked it that way. "Do you really need me?"
"I understand that Farnsworth likes to work with Chicanos. He plays at being a revolutionary type. His mistress is a Chicano."
Chicana—the female form was Chicana. And there was nothing that wore on Wager more than a kid who had all the answers and no sense. "I've got a few things that'll have to be covered."
"No problem, Gabe," said Johnston. "We can split your load between Ashcroft and Hansen. Hell, you've substituted for them enough times."
"And I want somebody who can build a good case," said Sonnenberg.
The inspector was right: he was good. Wager nodded.
"Fine. Sergeant, let's make up a jacket for him—make him from, ah ..."
"Texas. A lot of Hispanos come up from Texas."
"Good thinking. That's far enough away to be safe. I'll have to clear the Boulder County authorities, and you'll need a new government vehicle, as well as—" Sonnenberg cut himself short with a wave of the cigar, "You know your work."
Johnston said, "I'll take care of everything, sir."
Back at his desk, Wager told Suzy to say he was on assignment and to transfer routine calls to the sergeant. Then he dialed the D.E.A. number, asking for his ex-partner of a couple years past. Wager was grateful that the federal agency had left a local man in the region; usually they transferred their agents to distant stations "for security reasons." When Billy did go, there wouldn't be anyone left in D.E.A. he could talk with.
"Gabe? How the hell are you doing?"
"Fine, Billy. How're the boys—Erik and Chris?"
"Bigger and sassier. When do we get together for that beer?"
"Anytime. Say, I need information on the Farnsworth case."
"Hey, man, what's happened to the old O.C.D? That kind of stuff didn't used to go down. Who is this Rietman guy?"
Wager shrugged. "He claims it tested positive."
"Too bad the lab said something else. I wasn't on the case, but I heard it was a bad scene. You picking it up?"
"I'm just trying to get a little information. You know how it is."
"Ha—yeah. I know you're a goddamn Chicano clam."
"That's my barrio training; I don't spill to the fuzz."
"Ha. I'll see what I can do. You want the surveillance reports, too?"
"I'll phone you when I get it together."
His next call was to the Denver Police Department. Mark Rietman was on the street. Wager waited for the dispatcher to give him the message to call the O.C.D. number.
"This is Gabe, Mark. Can we meet somewhere?"
A brief silence. "I guess it's about that Farnsworth shit."
"What the hell's your angle?"
His angle was that he was a cop; Wager stifled his quick anger, but the lilt of his accent grew heavier. "The inspector, he wants us to keep on Farnsworth. How about meeting me at the Frontier when you go off duty?"
"Ah, shit on it. Yeah—O.K. I'll see you there around five." He hung up.
"Gabe? If you have a minute, Sergeant Johnston wants to see you."
"Here's what I've got so far," the sergeant held out a folder for him to study; the label made use of his middle name: Villanueva, Gabriel. Johnston's penciled script outlined a history as close as possible to fact—place of birth, Houston, Texas; age, thirty-six; occupation, plasterer; marital status, separated; police record, one conviction in Brownsville, Texas, possession of marijuana. "What do you want for a place of residence?"
Already he felt it starting to close around him like the stiff manila of the folder; already the weariness of constantly remembering, of smiling when he wanted to puke, of betting his life he could make scum think he liked them. "My address."
Johnston wrote it down. "Anything else?"
He sighed and thought back to other undercover assignments, to other lives and pretenses of lives, dredging up the suspicions and questions, the assurances that had been bought in the past and those that hadn't been. "Better put me down as a burned-out junkie."
Johnston raised his eyebrows.
"That way I have an excuse for not shooting up if anybody tries to call me out."
"Right—good." He jotted it down.
"I'll need the right kind of vehicle, too. How about a VW or one of those Toyota pickups?"
"Not unless we have one in seized property. Otherwise it's got to be American-made. If the department buys anything but American-made, the local car dealers really raise hell."
"Too goddam bad Farnsworth doesn't have to buy American-made cocaine. Make it a little Chevy pickup. A used one and nothing fancy on it." He thought a minute or two. "No radio jack; Denver plates. And put a rifle rack across the rear window."
"I'll get the garage on it now."
He gazed at the skeleton of his new identity lying on the spread wings of the folder. He would be issued a driver's license in Villanueva's name, a new Social Security card, Villaneuva's vehicle registration. On paper, it would be as complete as possible. But still the burden of fleshing out that skeleton weighed on him. Clothes. He'd have to get something convincing there, too. "What about contacts in Boulder? Who do I work with up there?"
"The inspector's making those arrangements. It'll be somebody in the sheriff's office."
"O.K." He bent the stiff folder closed. "Let me think things over. I'll let you know if I need anything else."
He sat at his desk and poured another cup of coffee from the tan thermos pitcher whose insides had gradually stained darker than the outer shell. And made the coffee taste stained, too. The folder, open again, gazed back at him; he let his mind pick here and there at the little pieces of flesh that would be molded into Gabriel Villanueva: dealer on the make, ex-Texas ranch hand, ex-plasterer, ex-husband; ex-cop, too, but that had to be buried very, very deep. He closed his eyes and pictured Villanueva, his clothes, his words, his manners. It was like pulling on a sweater that was too small, one that fit here and there but all too often caught at his freedom of motion and reminded him how tightly it bound. But it was he, and not the sweater, that had to adjust. It took a young excitement and eagerness to make that adjustment—eagerness, excitement, and youth that he no longer felt.
Suzy called to him, her hand across the telephone's mouthpiece: "Are you in? It's Agent Billington from D.E.A. He said you were expecting his call."
"Yes." He picked up his extension. "What do you have, Billy?"
"A half-inch pile of reports. Do you want me to send them over, or do you want to pick them up?"
"I'll be right there."
Billy was at his desk, a large figure sloping over the littered surface, lank blond hair dangling down to the coat collar that hitched up the back of his neck. He looked around as Wager came in.
"Hey, you tamale-rolling son of a bitch! Long time!"
"Up yours, too, gringo." Wager pumped his hand. It had been a long time.
"Here." Billy handed him a wad of legal-sized Xerox sheets. One group was labeled "SURVEILLANCE," the other "SPECIAL AGENTS REPORTS." "You want some lunch? You got time for that beer?"
The state legislature was still in session; every restaurant around Capitol Hill would be jammed—the clerks and secretaries in the cheaper ones, lawmakers and lobbyists in the more expensive ones. "I know a great little Mexican place out on East Colfax. You like Mexican food?"
"You've never had any real Mexican food, white-eye."
"Wait'll you taste this chili pecosa, you phony wetback."
Billington drove; Wager studied the stack of s.a. reports. When they were seated at the small teetering table with its checkered oilcloth cover, Billington finally broke the silence. "Is Sonnenberg going after Farnsworth?"
He poured a Coors. "Where do you fit?"
Wager couldn't help another sigh. "He wants me to make the contacts."
Billy whistled slightly. "You've been in the O.C.D. a long time. You're pretty well known."
Wager's shoulders bobbed. "Sonnenberg wants a solid case on him."
"Yeah, I see his point. Still." Billy sucked at the head on the beer. "Gabe, I'd be scared shitless if it was me. They ought to bring in a young guy, somebody from outside."
"That costs money. And I'm not a desk sergeant; it's part of the job."
"Still ..." Then he, too, shrugged and buried what he was going to say in a mouthful of smoking rice. Wager could see Billy's thought: Gabe had been around; Gabe would know whether he could handle it or not; it was Gabe's business and nobody else's. Wager still liked the way his ex-partner thought.
Excerpted from The Farnsworth Score by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1977 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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