Authors: Rex Burns
The Killing Zone
Open Road Integrated Media
To Drew Burns
THURSDAY, 12 JUNE, 1640 Hours
Jo was drowning. Wager knew it even as he fought to reach her outstretched hand and felt himself pushed and tumbled by the river’s violent and careless tumult. Behind her, a crest of foaming water plunged upstream into the glassy slickness of the suckhole’s current, drawing the raft’s debris: a splintered oar, a plastic jug, a shred of canvas, and Jo. She stared at him, her eyes wide with terror and unvoiced plea; and Wager, the current twisting his legs against themselves as he tried to kick, saw the wavering lip of the crest dip toward her even as he lunged for her hand. Then she was gone, a glimmer of orange life vest in the white foam, a flash of grasping hand, a final wide-eyed stare into the center of his screaming soul before blackness closed out the scene.
Detective Gabriel Wager stared at the Homicide office’s wall and blinked. The vision of Josephine Fabrizio’s death thinned to reveal the equally familiar paint, the scattered notices and calendars, the news photo of William Devine under the headline
OFFICER SLAYS SUSPECT
and the scrawled note, “Look Out Hoods, Devine’s Back on the Street.” He took a deep breath and held his gaze on the torn news clipping. Nine months since Jo had drowned and the nightmare memory still haunted him, bringing the same knotted anger and self-disgust that had drenched him as had the river. That feeling wouldn’t go away, and he didn’t want it to: He had earned it when unthinkingly he led her into the danger that claimed her. And God damn his eyes, he would take what he deserved.
Vaguely, he heard the steady pulse of telephones jingle in the office and saw the moving shades of men as they weaved between the desks. Somewhere at the edge of consciousness he heard Stubbs’s voice and noted a quick alertness in the man’s words. But his mind—his feelings—still lingered on the image that had risen in his imagination with even more intensity than the event itself. Then, he had struggled to stay afloat, and the shock of what was happening was cushioned by the effort to prevent it. Now, he knew it had not been prevented. Even if the stab of memory didn’t come as often as it used to, it remained as sharp. Instead of welling up only in those tossing sleepless hours between each midnight and dawn, it had begun to attack him randomly during the waking times. Summoned by some vague odor or phrase, by a half-familiar voice or even by the initials on a license plate, it came inevitably like a wave of nausea. He had learned to let it wash through him at its own pace, bowing to the justice of it and giving it the freedom to conquer the moment. Then it would ebb; and, trying to hide the involuntary shudder at what he had seen of himself, Wager would hunch tighter over his work and use that as a barrier against the emotional debris from the last assault and the threat of the next.
The memory tugged at him; the work anchored him. With an effort he held the two in a kind of equilibrium that allowed him to cling to a bit of self-respect for the job he did as a homicide detective. He did good work. He made certain that he did good work. And he even began to welcome the summonses that came pinched and nasal through the small speaker of the portable radio: “Any homicide detective … any homicide detective.”
“Wager—Wager!” Lester Stubbs, the new man, leaned down in front of Wager’s eyes and called his name, his breath a puff of perfume across Wager’s face. “We got a call, man, this fucking late! Can you believe it? Fifteen minutes before the end of the tour, I get my first meat call!”
“East side. Twenty-fifth Avenue. Fifteen goddamn minutes!”
“You’ll get comp time for it, Stubbs.”
“Yeah. Compensatory time instead of overtime pay. Big fucking deal.”
It was better than nothing, but Wager would have done it for that; a call this late kept him that much longer away from his silent and accusing apartment. “Let’s go, Stubbs. You wanted to be a detective—now you can earn the rank.”
They ran without lights or siren through downtown and its afternoon traffic that filled the summer streets with a hot flow of automobiles and buses. A sudden snarl of brakes and signal lights, trying to pinch into fewer lanes, told them they were getting near, and Wager lit the flashers and thumped the siren to cut through the knots of traffic. At the curb, a line of police vehicles, their glinting roof lights almost invisible in the sun’s glare, marked the weedy and deserted lot where the body had been found. Across the street on the boxy porches of a line of row houses, a crowd of black faces peered toward the excitement. It was a familiar neighborhood, a familiar scene, and a familiar reason for Wager to be there. Stubbs looked around at the gazing faces. “God, any more jigs and we’d have to get the riot squad out.”
Wager led Stubbs under a yellow tape that said
DENVER POLICE DO NOT CROSS LINE
, and in Spanish,
LA POLICIA DE DENVER NO CRUCES LA LINEA
. The overgrown corner was one of those forgotten plots sprinkled around every city. It was the kind of place bums ferreted into for cardboard refuge, and neighborhood kids prowled through, seeking adventure. Sandy trails tunneled beneath the growth with that vague ominousness of leading to places where people did things they didn’t want others to see. This time what someone had not wanted seen was a corpse.
Blue-clad figures of the uniformed division finished stretching the tape around the rear of the crime scene, looping it over the branches of scrawny shrubs and hackberry; Wager told Stubbs to step where he did and to be careful to avoid the already marked paths of freshly crushed grass that led to the center of the cordon. Then he circled toward a lumpy darkness almost as high as the knee-deep weeds.
Stubbs looked down at the dark bulges humming with flies. “Jesus. Do you ever get used to this?”
Wager, too, stared. What you got was interested. It wasn’t something you got used to, exactly, but after a while what you saw wasn’t a person but a problem: How did the victim die? How long ago? How did he get here? What evidence might tell who did it? Wager started to tell that to Stubbs, but the man had turned to lean against a stunted tree and vomit.
What was left of the victim’s face bent back over his shoulder toward the sky: a black male in his mid-to-late thirties, medium build, nattily dressed in a three-piece gray suit. As Wager gazed the features under the wilting Afro seemed to fill in around the sun-dried, erupted pulp that had been the left eye and forehead; and as the glint of a fly suddenly buzzed away from the flesh Wager knew the face: “Councilman Green!”
Horace Green, city councilman from the predominantly black northeast corner of Denver. On the television a lot lately, as part of a coalition to end bussing while maintaining equal quality in the city’s schools. Also one of the loudest opponents of the mayor’s plan to redevelop the northern quadrant of the core city into another tourist center with its combination of specialty shops, restaurants, and hotels. It was a nice idea that would bring far greater revenue to the city than the existing blocks of run-down housing like that across the street. But Councilman Green had worried publicly about the tenants who would be pushed out of that housing. He had complained openly about the family neighborhoods that would be lost to more commerce. He had warned in the press against turning another area of Denver into a twelve-hour city. He had worried so loudly, in fact, that he’d been accused of starting his campaign for mayor in the upcoming elections. An accusation he answered only with a smile. Now he wasn’t running for anything.
Stubbs spit a little something from his teeth and shoved a stick of gum into his mouth. “I think we better give Lieutenant Wolfard a call.”
“Yeah.” Wager began filling out a Crime Scene Information sheet. “Give him a chance to crap his pants.”
Wolfard, too, was new to Homicide. The department had been restructured from four divisions to five in an effort to put more manpower on the streets. But the real effect was to create more supervisory positions, which was all right because a large number of recent promotions had given the department more administrators than there were openings. “People,” the argument went, “who had served the department long and well deserved to be rewarded.” Wolfard had never served in the detective division at all, but, with Chief Doyle on leave, there had been a temporary slot for one of the shiny new gold shields. Now he was supposed to tell Wager how to run a homicide investigation.
Stubbs was on the radio, talking to the duty watch, when a sweating Walt Adamo brought his forensics team into the protected area. Walt had finally made Plain Clothes by way of Burglary and Assault, then shifted over to the Police Lab because the pace was slower and promotions just as quick. The little rivalry between him and Wager—begun when Wager made detective grade and Adamo did not—had resurfaced in the more-or-less polite competition between forensics and the detectives. The lab people thought a case was theirs because they were responsible for the scientific collection of evidence at a crime scene. Wager, like other homicide dicks, knew a case was his because a law had been violated and it was his duty to locate and apprehend the criminal.
“We’re ready to work, Gabe. What’s the story?”
Wager gave a last look around the snarl of leathery shrubs and stunted trees before telling Adamo what the responding officer had reported. “We came in this way,” he finished up, pointing to the faint line of broken grass that caught the sunlight like a crooked seam. “McFadden and the kid who found the body came in that way.” Another vague line marked that approach to the corpse.
“That’s probably how the goddamned victim got there, too,” said a disgusted Adamo.
It was the most likely path from the pitted and tilted slabs of neglected sidewalk, and Wager could already hear the topic of the next in-service lecture on crime-scene preservation by responding officers: how to approach the site without destroying evidence, by avoiding the most likely avenues. “We just got the tape strung and took a look at the body.” He showed Adamo a brown envelope. “We took his wallet for identification.”
“Touch anything else?”
The inevitable forensics question. “What’s to touch?”
“Whatever there is, some cop will find it.” He finished jotting items on the sheet pinned to his clipboard. “McFadden, the responding officer; the kid who found him; you; Stubbs. Anybody else enter the crime scene?”
“Not since we’ve been here.”
“One round to the back of the head.”
“That’s definite.” Adamo nodded to the forensics photographer, a short, heavy-set man Wager did not know. He ducked under the tape to start making his record before the other lab specialists worked the scene. “Got a name for the victim?”
“City Councilman Horace Green.”
“Jesus H. Christ!” Walt leaned again to peer at the exploded features that had clenched and dried in the sun. “It sure as hell is. Any suspects? Witnesses?”
“Oh boy. We do this one by the book.” Adamo looked around the weedy lot. “Hell of a public place to kill somebody.”
The body, humped on its shoulder and hip, could almost be seen from the sidewalk. In fact, the kid who found it noticed it from about ten yards away, just this side of the walk, and thought at first it was only another drunk passed out. “Well, he was a public man.”
Wager turned to the uniformed officers who had now finished stringing the yellow tape and stood doing nothing while they stared at the body and the busy photographer. “How about moving those people along on the sidewalk. And make sure nobody gets down here—especially reporters.”
Adamo nodded. “It won’t take them long—and when they find out who it is …” The man stared at Wager for a long minute. “You know, Gabe—this is a riot waiting to happen.”
That would depend on who killed him, and why, and how the reporters handled the story. But it was a thought that crossed any cop’s mind. “Yeah.”
The photographer, a lone figure, bent in awkward positions while his strobe made tiny flashes in the mottled light. He shot and then paused to note the position, time, and angle of each picture before aiming again. Wager gazed with that half-detached and dreamy feeling and tried to see in his mind the victim and the killer as they stopped at the curb. Probably late last night—there where that patrol car sat. Then they walked into the snagging bushes and weeds. Two people? More? Green could have been killed here or somewhere else and dumped here. Pathology would tell them about that. The flicker of light from steady traffic going by. Someone must have seen the car parked at the curb. The killer had been willing to chance that—had been in such a hurry or had been too frightened and nervous to find a less public spot. Had perhaps chanced the noise of a weapon this close to houses. Maybe someone noticed two or more figures getting out of the car, plunging into the tangled black of the empty lot. Maybe someone had heard the shot. Or seen two or more go in, and then one less come out and drive away. Seen something, at least, from the corner of his eye as he flashed past the unlit block. The problem was, of course, to find that someone.