Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Summer 2000, Volume 18.0



Rex Burnsphoto of Rex Burns.

(From a new, unpublished Gabe Wager novel.)



Rex Burns received his AB from Stanford University, and after serving in the Marine Corps, his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of numerous books, articles, reviews and stories. The first in his series of police procedurals, The Alvarez Journal, won an Edgar for Best First Mystery and introduced the hard-boiled Denver homicide detective Gabriel Villanueva Wager. Another, The Avenging Angel, was made into a feature movie starring Charles Bronson. With Suicide Season, Burns introduced Devlin Kirk, a Denver private detective specializing in industrial security. The Thirteenth Gabe Wager yarn, The Leaning Land, was published by Walker and Company in August, 1997. Retired from the English Department of the University of Colorado at Denver, he lives and writes in Denver.  Read the interview with Rex Burns by A. Robert Lee in this volume of Weber Studies.


Gabe Wager's grandmother used to say that she liked funerals better than weddings. Weddings were full of promises that were supposed to be kept no matter how bad a marriage turned out. Then, after solemn pronouncements, everybody got drunk and acted foolish. At funerals, the preacher had nothing but nice things to say about the deceased and, unlike Denver's Irish, its Hispanics tended to be a lot better behaved at their funerals than at their weddings.

That thought crossed Wager's mind as the homicide detective shook the rain off the plastic cover of his garrison cap and opened the car door for Elizabeth Voss. Certainly, Patrol Sergeant Paul Rutherford, Denver Police Department, had behaved a hell of a lot better at his funeral than he behaved when he was alive. Killed in the line of duty, he had been honored by representatives from police agencies all over Colorado, and some from neighboring states as well. Had he been alive, Rutherford—"Ruthie" as his few friends called him, "Ruthless" to the rest of the department—would have sneered at the ceremony just as he sneered at almost every other tradition and regulation the department inflicted on him. But being the guest of honor, he had maintained a gentle smile until the coffin lid was closed and had mumbled no unseemly remarks as it had been lowered into the grave. In fact, to Wager, standing in silence with the others as the widow tossed a handful of earth on the coffin, it seemed as if the trees, the overcast sky, the distant snow-whitened peaks of the Front Range that could be seen through the trees and mist, gave dignity to the dead and even a sense of loss. But all that came from the scene, Wager reminded himself, not from the man.

Rutherford had been one of those admitted to the police academy under the new rules of a few years back, when the Screening Board, by direction of a new police chief and city council ally, had waived a wide spectrum of disqualifiers. The booming Colorado economy made it hard to get enough applicants in competition with good paying jobs in business and industry. The argument had been that applicants were being held to now-unreal standards of past behavior. That the police were losing recruits because of minor prior convictions. Wager wasn't sure who had pulled what strings to have Rutherford's several convictions waived. But he was sure that Rutherford, like some others who had the odor of political appointees, had become a cop because the uniform gave him power. Wager had heard the man brag about his use of it.

Like all policemen, Wager learned early that The Book was a game and that life on the streets wasn't. There, you faced people who respected no rule but that of force. From the mayor on down, it was understood that the police did what was necessary to maintain law and order, even if that meant sometimes bending the law. But a cop better not be caught doing it. Most police officers shrugged and accepted that bit of hypocrisy, and did what they had to when they had to—but only by way of business. Rutherford had liked it. Wager had seen the bloodied results of his pleasure dragged in from Denver's grimy corners where no witness would step forward to testify to what had happened. A few of his victims had filed complaints. They were duly noted in the man's record and nothing came of them. Most of his victims had held their silence but added their latest hurts to the hatred they already felt for all cops. Apparently, one of them had finally had enough, and now it was Wager's job to hunt him.

Bringing himself back from his own thoughts, Wager finally noticed Elizabeth's silence. "What's the matter?

Her head was turned as she stared through the rain-streaked window at the soggy grass and trees of Fairmount Cemetery, at the crosses and columns and angels that, under the huge trees that formed a canopy over the old section, made row after row of dark and wet stone. "I feel empty."

Wager guided the vehicle around a patch of asphalt broken by the thrusting roots of the spreading limbs they glided under. He had advised Elizabeth against attending the funeral but she insisted. As a city council member, it was her duty, she'd said; and as the friend of a policeman, she felt she needed to.

"It happens Liz. It goes with the job."

"That doesn't mean I have to like it." The corner of Kleenex showed just past her cheek. "I know it happens, damn it. But I don't want it to happen to anyone. Especially not to you."

He did not say it would never happen to him. It could—that's what every uniform standing at attention during the salute and taps knew. After a while, it was a knowledge that was always with you and it was what made you sit in restaurants with your back to a wall, or automatically scan a pedestrian's hands for what they might hold or hide, or note without even thinking where you might jump for cover when you entered someplace new. It was what made you always aware of the underside of life in Denver.

"Hey, I'm not worried. You shouldn't be, either. Besides, that's what my big paycheck is for, Council Person."

"It's not enough."

"I'll tell the union negotiators you said that."

She wasn't ready to laugh it off. "I couldn't help staring at his family."

The widow and her children—a boy about fifteen and a girl a couple of years younger—had held the tri-corner flag as the coffin was lowered. The mother and daughter were dressed in black; the boy looked uncomfortable in a dark blue suit stiff with newness. Although Rutherford's widow cried, the two children had not. But their faces were bloodless, almost as gray and cold as the rows of flat markers that made little squares in the mowed grass of the newer section of the cemetery. "It's tough. It is that. At least she'll have his pension and some life insurance."

"Why do you reduce everything to money?"

He did not realize he had. It was just something to say. But he should have learned by now that words did not work well for him. He concentrated on the driving, waiting for a break in the long line of cars passing the cemetery gates at Quebec Street. One of those crosstown arteries that had earlier been a country lane, Quebec had led funeral processions and even picnickers from downtown to the shady groves and tended grass of Fairmount Cemetery. Now, as Denver and its surrounding suburbs developed new housing tracts, shopping centers, and apartment clusters, the old cemetery had become a historic landmark, and Quebec was burdened with more traffic than its two lanes could handle. Wager concentrated on a small opening between oncoming cars, then stepped hard on the gas to squeal his tires and enter the flow.

"If you're angry with me, don't take it out on the car."

"I'm not angry with you—I was trying to get into traffic."

"And don't sulk."

He did not know he was. It just seemed that if he couldn't say something right, it was better to say nothing. "I'm not sulking. I'm being quiet."

"It's hard to tell the difference."

"You want sulk? I'll give you sulk." He shoved his lower lip out as far as he could. "There."

"How can you joke at a time like this?"

"Who said I'm joking? Besides, what else is there to do: cry? I don't cry. Get mad? If I do that, I'll screw up my work." He added, "And I don't feel like being bitchy."

It was her turn to be silent. "That was bitchy."

A deep sigh. "All right. Look, Liz, the guy's dead. I'm sorry for his family that he's dead. I'm glad that it wasn't me or somebody like Max Axton, who's a hell of a lot better cop. But the only thing I can do about Rutherford now is find his killer—and I'll do that. Not so much for him as for the rest of us."

"I thought he was a friend of yours."

They crossed Alameda Boulevard and entered the newest housing development in the city, the hundreds of acres that had once made up the decommissioned Lowry Air Force Base. Half-completed homes of four stories crowded lots of one-fourth acre, duplexes and condominiums lined the main streets, scattered office buildings rose unfinished in open lattices of metal framework, scraped sand awaited rolls of sod and landscaping. Over the last five years, Wager reflected, the pace of Denver's growth and change had increased like a movie run at double speed. But some things—things like that which had brought Wager and Liz to the cemetery—seemed never to change.

"`Ruthless'? No—he tried to be. He thought I admired his work, I think. To tell you the truth, Liz, if anybody in uniform deserved it, I think he did. He had his fun on the job, and that made it a hell of a lot harder for the rest of us. So don't waste your tears on him."

"I wasn't thinking of Rutherford, Gabe."

Back to square one. That was the way it always was with these kinds of conversations, and Wager felt a twitch of irritation at what struck him as saying the same things over and over. Which irritation, he quickly reminded himself, was one of the reasons his wife left him. And if he valued Elizabeth—and he did—he'd better try to say something right. "I promise you, Liz, I'm not going to take any chances and I'm not going to be careless."

"Were any of the others who have been killed?"

"Yes. Some. They didn't follow procedure. They let their guard down on a routine arrest. They turned their backs on a suspect."

"Did Rutherford?"

He reached to hold her cold hand. "That's one of the things I have to find out."

Rutherford had been discovered lying beside his patrol car. He had not made his one a.m. check with the dispatcher, and duty cars had roamed all night through the central district of Denver looking for the missing patrolman. But it had not been until around nine the next morning when daylight revealed the DPD cruiser to a sheriff's officer alerted to the missing car. It was parked, with the doors closed, on a spur of dirt track that led off Packinghouse Road through vacant weeds and scrub brush to dead end at the South Platte River. Nearby, a Burlington Northern railroad bridge crossed that neglected part of the stream. That was a puzzle in itself, since Rutherford was not only outside his car, he was also half-a-mile outside his assigned district—the central downtown area. He had been in uniform, on duty, and had not informed his dispatcher of his location or that he would be leaving his vehicle. Which, of course, he would not have done if he was up to something the department might frown upon.

That last thought had been the main point that Chief of Police Gartland, newly appointed by the mayor, had stressed to the chief of Criminal Investigations, Captain Valdez, newly promoted by the chief. He, in turn, passed it down to Captain Kozachek of Crimes Against Persons. Kozachek, who had been low enough in the hierarchy that neither his head rolled nor was he promoted to a chief, was the one who had to find an "Indian" to do the work. Wager was the choice and the captain emphasized the political delicacy of finding out why Rutherford had been where he was and what he might have been doing there.

"I don't need to go over the problems the department's had in the last couple of years, Wager. Lax discipline at the top filters down to become lax discipline on the beat. And when a chief of police is asked by the mayor to step down, that's just the tip of the iceberg."

The captain was not asking for Wager's opinion on city politics or those fired senior officers' performances of duty, so he did not give one.

"The trouble is to find out how big that iceberg is." He paused. "Suffice it to say that damage was done, and now we're trying to rebuild this department into something we can all be proud of."

That didn't call for an answer, either. Wager only nodded.

Which, for some reason, seemed to irritate Kozachek. Maybe he wanted Wager to give him a series of "yessirs" and a big fat kiss. The captain frowned and leaned forward over his desk. "Look, Detective Wager, I've gone over Rutherford's file. How well did you know the man?"

"Enough to know he wasn't a good cop."

The captain's black eyebrows lifted. "That's blunt."

Wager stared back. If Kozachek did not want to know, he should not have asked.

"Well," The captain seemed to study one of the papers catching the glow of the desk lamp. "I agree. He has some very questionable entries in his file, and somebody let him slide. But department morale is pretty low right now, Detective Wager. It could go down further if it turns out that Rutherford—ah—violated departmental rules and was—ah—abetted in this by some fellow officer or two." He tapped a finger. "Your job's the homicide, of course. But if you come across the slightest hint that Internal Affairs should be brought in, do not hesitate to let me know at once. My belief—and that of Chief Gartland—is that our departmental morale is better served by rigorously upholding the highest standards of conduct and weeding out those officers who cannot meet those standards, than by trying to hide breaches of discipline."

Wager had no trouble saying "yessir" to that.

"At the same time," his voice dropped, "an aggressive and widespread witch hunt by Internal Affairs could be a disaster right now. A lot of the rules change when a new chief takes the helm, and the officers on the street can't help being somewhat nervous and unsure about their careers until they feel comfortable with the new ways of doing things. So do your job, Detective Wager—I know you will—but proceed with caution and keep me informed at all times."

But to keep Kozachek informed, Wager had to inform himself first. The photographs of the crime scene, Wager's notes, the lab reports all said that the victim's weapon was still in his holster, that he had been shot three times in the torso from a distance close enough to collect burned gunpowder in the dark cloth of his uniform, and that he had died almost instantly from the first round, which had ruptured his heart. All of which immediately suggested that Rutherford had gone to meet someone he knew in a place they both thought would be safe from observation.

According to the forensic pathologist, the body's temperature and ocular fluid, the weather conditions, degree of rigor mortis, and the absence of maggot eggs placed the time of death at between midnight and six a.m. Plaster casts had been made of all tire tracks at the site. Baird, one of the DPD lab technicians, concluded that at least one and perhaps two sets of tires had left ridges in the dust and clay within hours of the time of death. The marks were from the treads of popular brands of tires and would most likely be of little use for finding a vehicle. If they were lucky, the tire tracks would come in later to show the court that a certain vehicle, if found, had been in the vicinity at the time of the crime. Provided, of course, that the suspect tires had not been driven too much before being found, or that the accused hadn't bought new tires for his car.

Beyond that, the evidence consisted of scraps of trash, most appearing to antedate the time of the murder, and trace materials vacuumed from the seats of Rutherford's cruiser but offering no leads. What it all added up to was the familiar process of rebuilding a victim's life in order to discover why he was killed and which of his acquaintances was most likely to have done it.


Back to Top