Talk:I: The Noonday Gun
I : The Noonday Gun
TUESDAY, JULY 7, 1987
Another sweltering Denver summer. A faded poster was stapled crookedly to the plywood door of an abandoned fast-food joint at the corner of Colfax and York:
CLOSED BY ORDER OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT
The Secretary of Energy Has Determined That This Unit
Represents An Unjustifiable Expenditure of Our Nation’s
Precious And Dwindling Energy Reserves. DOE 568-90-3041
Through its soot-grimy windows, I could see them stirring sluggishly—panhandlers keeping out of the sun. Me, I was roasting in the parking lot, my battered department-issue Plymouth settling slowly to its hubcaps in the hot asphalt. Pushing a flavorless brown-bag lunch into my face, I wished vainly for a cigar and rehearsed my vast repertoire of excuses.
Things had started out rotten, breakfast interrupted by a call to a dilapidated Emerson Street garage. Somebody had strung up a corpse from the rafters, gutted and skinned it like a deer. The carcass had bled into a galvanized bucket on the floor and the skin was folded neatly over a straight-backed kitchen chair, the kind you usually find in garages, missing two rungs and held together with picture wire. The morning air had that breathless, anticipatory feel, promising a hundred degrees or more. It had made a fair start in that garage, the usual cobwebs and motor oil rapidly losing out to a cloying slaughter-house odor.
This afternoon would be even more fun, explaining to the News-Post and assorted microphones—not to mention my division chief—why the patrolmen who had found the body during a routine curfew bust had puked all over the evidence. Shit, I’d almost done it myself.
I looked down at my sandwich and shuddered.
My stomach was giving me hell, anyway. Twenty-seven years on the force, and now the pain was creeping down my left arm into the wrist. Maybe it was the crummy hours, the awful food. Maybe it was worrying all the time: cancer; minipox; encountering an old friend in a packet of blackmarket lunch meat. Maybe it was a depression they wouldn’t call by its right name, or seeing old folks begging in the streets. Maybe I just watched too many doctor shows.
Forty-eight was the right age to worry, though, especially for a cop. Oh, I’d tried keeping in shape: diets, exercise, vitamins before they got too risky. But after Evelyn had split, it just seemed like a lot of trouble. I did manage to stay off coffee, quite a feat in a line of work that revolves around a station-house urn.
Nineteen years in homicide and the sight of human intestines piled on a gritty concrete floor could still turn me inside out. Well, it’s better than getting callous. Now as the sun baked my car top, fumes from a beat-up city bus were ruining what little appetite I had left. I missed my mealtime cigars, and couldn’t quite tell whether the little carton of milk in my hand was starting to sour. Somehow it’s worse, not knowing.
Most of all I longed to take off my sodden jacket, but the public’s supposed to panic at the sight of a shoulder holster. I knew that sweat was eating at the worn, nonregulation Smith & Wesson .41 Magnum jammed into my left armpit. The leather harness was soaked, the dingy elastic cross-strap slowly rasping through the heat rash on the back of my neck.
If it were only—hell, make that five years ago. A man could enjoy a sanitary lunch in an air-conditioned booth. Now, CLOSED BY ORDER signs flapped on half the doors downtown; the other half, it seemed, had been shut by “economic readjustment.” And unlicensed air conditioning was a stiffer rap than hoarding silver.
The bus at the corner gasped to a start, filling my car with blue smoke. Shouldn’t have parked so near the street, damn it. I’d had my choice in the empty, litter-strewn lot. I gave up on lunch, wadding up the wrappers, when the radio, its jabber ignored until now, began talking about me:
“Five Charlie Nineteen, respond Code Three, possible homicide, southwest corner of Sixteenth and Gaylord.” That’s me, of course, better known to everybody but dispatchers as Lieutenant Edward W. Bear. The W is for William, but thanks to that son-of-a-bitch A. A. Milne and a world full of funny-people, I settle for Win.
“Five Charlie Nineteen …” I threw the papers on the backseat and started the engine. It coughed asthmatically and a surge of adrenalin washed through me as it caught. Horn honking, I dipped and scraped into Colfax, spilling the half-empty milk carton on the floor. I cut across sparse traffic—squealing brakes and cursing bicyclists—roared an illegal hundred yards the wrong way up York, swerved left through a parking lot to Gaylord, and tore away in a wake of siren wail and swirling red light.
It was only another block. Four scuffed black-and-whites straddled the street, their lightbars blinking round and round by a littered curb fronting a crumbling neighborhood mosque that had seen previous duty as a Mexican Catholic church. Short of wind, I shrugged out of the car.
A body lay half-propped against the wall, blood streaming across cracked cement into the gutter. “What do we have here?” I asked the patrol sergeant. “Another VN-Arab rumble?” He shook his head and I remembered with embarrassment that he was an Arab himself. “Sorry, Moghrabi—just a bad day today.”
“Worse for him, Lieutenant.” The victim—late twenties—lay clutching his middle, as if to keep his guts from falling out. He had good reason to try, stitched from hip to shoulder the way he was. A gap in the closely grouped pockmarks on the wall above said he had fallen where he’d been shot. In one outstretched hand was a stainless-steel snubbie. No punk’s gun, anyway. A Bianchi holster identical to mine was exposed by his blood-soaked jacket.
I looked down at the curb. Sure enough, a brassy glittering in the windblown trash: two dozen spent cartridges. I levered one onto the end of a pencil: .380 Auto. That’d make it an Ingram machine pistol. Very fancy.
Lab people were arriving with evidence kits and VCR, uniforms herding up potential witnesses. I’d see their reports later, not that it would do much good: this wasn’t as down-and-out as Denver neighborhoods get, but the stiff against the wall was Mr. Collegiate Affluence, despite the gun in his hand, and that meant silence from the citizens. Or lies.
Moghrabi had been keeping busy, supplying translations. He nodded at a patrolman and jogged over. “We’ve got something, a late-model white station wagon, Brazilian make. Want an APB?”
“Better wait. Probably dozens of station wagons still running in this town. Anything else?”
“The car’s about the only thing they all agree on. You know witnesses. What about the victim?”
I shrugged. “They’re still preserving everything for posterity over there. Let me know if you get anything else.” He nodded, heading back where uniformed officers were trading broken Arabic for broken English. I got an okay from the video techs, bent over the body, and gently pried the revolver from its stiffening fingers. Ruger Security Six, like I’d figured. I opened the cylinder; dimples in four of the primers twinkled up at me. Four shots fired, Norma .357 hollowpoints. If any had connected, we’d be finding another corpse, possibly in worse shape than this one.
“Hey, Lieutenant?” A probationer hailed me from the middle of the street. On the other side, a meat wagon had joined the laboratory van. “Look what we found! We were measuring tire marks and spotted all this stuff …” I rose stiffly, trying to ignore my knees. “Hey, Lieutenant, do you think—”
“Not when I can avoid it.” It took an effort not to add “son.” His fresh-scrubbed eager-beaver looks clashed with the patched and faded department-issue hand-me-downs. I bent forward, grunting under my breath. Why does evidence always fall down? Then I remembered this morning’s ornament, hanging from a garage ceiling, and almost lost my spoiled-mayonnaise sandwich.
The sight in the street didn’t help: scattered glass; blood all over the fragments, splashed. Those hollowpoints had connected, all right. Might even be some brains scrambled into this mess if I looked hard enough. I resisted the urge. “Moghrabi!” I gestured that he should avoid walking through the evidence. “Sarge, you can have your APB, now. That station wagon’ll be missing windows.”
He nodded, heading for his radio. I went back to the body again, with a little more respect. His travel permit said he was one Meiss, Vaughn L., from Fort Collins, sixty miles to the north. His work assignment: Colorado State University As a Ph.D. on the Physics faculty, he rated his own wheels and the fuel to roll them. Car keys and parking lot receipt I handed to the sergeant, who would hand them to a patrolman who would dig up the heap and hand it to the lab people. It’s called “channels.”
They’d find candy wrappers, Kleenex, an ashtray full of illicit butts or roaches, probably not much else. They always had hopes, of course: half a ton of Laetrile or Ever-Clear.
Presumably Meiss had parked nearby There was never any shortage of space these days, and it was too damned hot to walk very far, especially for a small-town boy visiting the Big Heatsink. Which brought up a question: why does a cow-college professor end up soaking his B-negative or whatever into a Denver sidewalk, a roscoe in his fist that would stop a small locomotive?
The ambulance was ready to take our client to the taxidermists downtown. One of the techs passed by with a collection of plastic baggies containing personal effects. “Hold on. Let me see that.” He handed over a bright golden disk, larger than the silver dollars I remembered from childhood, in deep relief a picture of a bald-headed old coot with ruffles at his throat:
REVOLUTIONIST, PRESIDENT, SCHOLAR OF LIBERTY
On the other side, an old-fashioned hillbilly whiskey jug, and forest-covered hills behind:
GOLD 999 FINE
Was this what the shooting was about—a couple thousand neobucks? Maybe if there were more … It felt cool in my hand, a solid, comforting weight. Gold, legally kosher a few brief years ago, was presently hotter than vitamin C, and—
“Coin collecting, Bear?” I jumped despite myself, jerked back nearly thirty years to the Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy I turned resignedly to confront Oscar Burgess, several years my senior and small-arms instructor during my academy days. While I had slogged from rookie to patrolman, from investigator to homicide lieutenant, he’d left CLETA for Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms during its heyday in the early eighties, and now was Denver station chief for the Federal Security Police.
The years had only refined our mutual distaste. Where I was … let’s say “heavy set,” he was gray and lean, cat-fast, with a frightening moon-map of a face, the hideous legacy of minipox. Behind him, his crew in fresh-creased jumpsuits brandished automatic shotguns. Their unit crest was emblazoned on the side of a black and scarlet van: a mailed fist grasping the naked edges of a dagger, blood creeping out between the fingers.
“I’ll take that!” he said. I handed him the coin, trying not to make it meekly. “Got a smoke?” he asked. I started to reach for my shirt pocket, but recovered quickly. It was an old BATF trick, getting a citizen to betray himself out of generous reflex. He leered knowingly at my reddening face.
“What brings SecPol into a simple street killing, Burgess?”
He hooked a negligent thumb toward the grisly symbol on the van. “You ought to know better than to ask foolish questions. We’re thinking about preempting this case—National Security. When the papers come through, you’ll have to turn everything over to us and go back to busting jaywalkers.” He grinned and watched his men confronting mine, knuckles white on holstered pistol grips all around.
“Didn’t realize there was a full moon last night, Oscar,” I said. He turned back, puzzled. I pointed to a tiny cut on his pockmarked forehead, dried blood at the edges. “Cut yourself shaving?”
He whitened. “Mind your own stinking business, Bear, or I’ll have you back working curfew violations!”
“You and whose army, Fed?”
“I don’t need an army, flatfoot!” I caught a glimpse of the ancient Luger he wore cross-draw at the waist. Then he let his jacket drop and flipped the coin at me as if tipping a bellboy. “Take good care of this. I’ll be looking for it when we take over. Withholding precious metals is antisocial … and good for about forty in Leavenworth!” He laughed and stalked off to gather up his thugs.
The technician gave me an argument, but I signed six different forms and took the coin, to be surrendered at Properties tomorrow, on pain of pain. Eventually it would wind up in some bureaucrat’s pocket, or melted down to feed a multi-quadrillion neobuck federal deficit. Probably the former.
Shuffling through the wallet contents, I also took a small brown textured business card like one I’d seen somewhere before, if I could only remember … of course, one of the computer people downtown. That department number-fumbler and the late Dr. Meiss were both genuine, card-carrying crackpots:
This card signifies that Vaughn L. Meiss is a Sustaining member of the COLORADO PROPERTARIAN PARTY, “The Party of Principle.” Issue date: December 16, 1985. Issuing officer: Jenny Noble, State Director.
The address where Meiss had been going? State Propertarian Headquarters, by odd coincidence just catty-corner from the asphalt desert where I’d lunched on Swiss cheese and diesel fumes not an hour earlier.