BY: BRUCE W. MOST
When Joe Stryker, a burned-out, disgraced 1949 Denver street cop, discovers a body on the railroad tracks with a crushed skull and missing hands, he sees his shot at redemption. He believes the body is linked to the murder of his partner two years before, a murder for which Joe blames himself. But seeking redemption can come at a high price. Joe must not only hunt down a ruthless killer but tangle with Denver’s wealthy and powerful, a wannabe mobster, and his own police department, at the risk of his career, his marriage—and his life.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Murder on the Tracks by Bruce W. Most, Joe Stryker is a beat cop in 1949 Denver. He’s suffering from PTSD because his partner was killed two years before when Joe failed to act in time. Since then Joe has been determined to catch the killer. He knows who it is, but he doesn’t know where he is. Then Joe and his new partner find a body on the railroad tracks and that leads Joe back to the murder of his old partner. He doesn’t know how the two cases connect, but he is sure they do.
Most spins a very good tale, taking you back to a time when police work was done by old-fashioned investigation, knocking on doors, and questioning suspects. The story is well written, the plot strong and exciting. This one will keep you glued to the pages from beginning to end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Murder on the Tracks by Bruce Most is a historical mystery of the first order. Our protagonist, Joe Stryker, walks a beat on Larimer Street in Denver. Although he is not a detective, he is investigating one case on his own—the murder of his old partner who was killed two years earlier. Joe blames himself for his partner’s death and he’s determined to bring the killer to justice. When he and his new partner discover a body of a man on the railroad tracks, Joe learns that the man who killed his old partner most likely killed the man on the tracks. Even more determined to bring the killer to justice, Joe goes off on his own, against his captain’s orders, and uncovers a whole can of worms, involving corruption at the highest levels in Denver.
I like the way Most writes. His voice is refreshing and unique, like his story, and reminiscent of a simpler time. The plot is full of surprises as poor Joe just can’t get a break. You’ll be hooked from the very first word.
Larimer Street was where lost souls went to stay lost. It was why I liked walking beat there.
Outsiders found Larimer frighteningly chaotic and foreign. When they drove through in their De Soto coupes or step-down Hudsons, it was only by accident or forced circumstances. They drove with their eyes hard on the road, never looking to one side or the other–and never, never stopping. They didn’t see the winos drinking Sweet Lucy in the doorways, or the beggar kids handing over their hard-earned quarters to drunken fathers shadowed in the darkness of alleys. They didn’t see the twenty-five-cent flophouses and pawnshops and pool halls and soup kitchens. They averted their eyes from the war veteran who lost his legs to an artillery shell in the battle of Arnhem and who pushed himself in and out of gin mills on a roller board. They were oblivious to the other down-and-out vets who, like me, came out of the war with their legs intact but not their minds. They missed the pushcart vendor selling the best tamales in town, made by his wife from real hog’s head and served wrapped in steaming cornhusks. Stuffed in your duty coat on a cold January night, the tamales kept you warm as you walked beat on Larimer Street. The outsiders didn’t see or understand, any more than my wife Paula did, that a kind of social order existed amid this chaos of Larimer Street. A social order–as ugly and as violent as it was and as duty-bound as I was as a police officer to extinguish it–that I’d rarely seen since I quit chasing Krauts across Europe.
“Think we’ll find that Roadmaster down here, Joe?” my rookie partner asked as we walked our late evening rounds. He asked the question with the irritating eagerness only rookies possessed.
“What Roadmaster?” My mind was on a fight two nights ago in a Larimer Street alley between a Mexican and a Negro. The Mex had ended up running a shiv between the Negro’s third and fourth rib. Nothing unusual about that, except people on the street were keeping tight-lipped about this particular fight. I wanted to know why.
“The one that belongs to that rich banker,” the rookie said. “The guy who’s missing.”
“Oh, yeah.” A prominent banker had been missing for over a week, and every cop in Denver was hunting for him, as if he came with a finder’s fee.
The rookie hunched his muscular shoulders and flipped through his notebook filled with neat rookie notes from roll call. “A 1949 Buick Roadmaster Riviera. Black, two-door hardtop coupe, whitewall tires.” His baby face looked up from his notes. “These Roadmasters have a Dynaflow automatic transmission and them new VentiPorts. You seen them? The mouseholes on the sides of the engine?”
“Haven’t paid attention,” I said. Paula and I were doing good to afford the pre-war Nash I had picked up cheap from a loan shark who had acquired it as payment for a debt, its “Class A” gas-rationing sticker from the war still pasted in the right corner of the windshield.
“Sporty looking for a big fancy car,” the rookie said. He returned to his notes. “License AP thirty-eight eighty. The owner is Seth Fitzgerald Rawlins. Read he’s one of the richest guys in the state. Tighter ’n Jack Benny with a buck, is what I hear.”
I rubbed my left shoulder. The June night was warm and humid, and my old wound always ached shortly before a rain. “We ain’t gonna find a shiny new Roadmaster on Larimer Street, kid. Leastways, not one in its original condition.”
I hated breaking in rookies. Especially a rookie like Moroni Perdue. A Mormon named after one of their angels. A rookie tight with our Mormon captain–a captain who for some damned reason had more faith in me these days than I did. The kid was no Jack Mormon, either. He didn’t smoke, didn’t swear, didn’t booze–hell, he didn’t even drink coffee. How was he gonna be a real cop if he didn’t swear and drink coffee!
The rookie put away the notebook and popped a yellow LifeSaver into his mouth. He consumed LifeSavers the way most people breathed. Must not be on the Mormon sin list. “What do you think happened to the guy?” he asked. “Kidnapped?”
“Probably took a long vacation with some skirt.”
“But if he was kidnapped, I bet you could find him. I hear you can find anyone.”
Perdue’s eagerness was beginning to grate. He reminded me of someone I knew a long time ago. Someone I’ve been trying to forget.
“I hear you had the best felon arrest record of any rookie in department history,” he went on, like a mosquito, buzzing in my ear. “The Denver Kid. Isn’t that what they called you?”
I turned angrily toward him. “You been reading the papers too much, kid.”
He flinched. “I–I heard it from other cops.”
“Trust them even less.”
We continued down the street, the rookie blessedly silent for a change, checking out the pool halls and gin mills. Most of the winos were already settled down for the night in the smelly shadows of vacant buildings with fancy window arches and huge signs painted on crumbling brick walls advertising Scotch and cigarettes. The few bums not already sucking their jug wine still lingered in the string of rescue missions, slurping bowls of chicken-neck soup for the price of an ear-banging. I checked in on the winos I knew and interrogated the ones I didn’t. Two of them were in such bad shape we dragged them into a rescue mission to sober up before they drank themselves to death.
“Shouldn’t we be getting back to the car?” the rookie said after a while.
He appeared puzzled, as if I had thrown him a trick question. “You know–to patrol.”
“Lesson number one, kid–ditch the fucking black-and-white whenever you can.”
“Because it’s a lame-ass idea bureaucrats cooked up. Every police department in the country is pushing out beat cops in favor of two-man patrol cars with two-way radios. You cruise around until you get a call that something bad’s gone down. But by that point, you’re just chasing ghosts. You can’t see anything from a car.”
A mongrel dog dashed by us. It still had its tail. No doubt new to the neighborhood.
“But we can cover more territory and respond faster from a car,” the rookie parroted the bureaucrats. “And it’s safer.”
“It’s not safer for the people. You walk beat, you see things. You meet the people. They see your uniform. They know you’re here for them–even if they don’t like you. You develop sources. You learn who the bad ones are you gotta watch and the good people who can help you watch the bad ones.” You talk to the lost souls like you.
The rookie didn’t take notes, but I saw a flicker of dubious acceptance behind his blinking eyes. Wisdom from his elders.
A few doors later, next to a Mexican bakery, we stopped in front of a bar, El Sótano–The Basement. It was one of the most popular Mexican dives on Larimer Street. Always packed. Always a place for trouble. The alley next to it was where the fight between the Negro and the Mex had occurred. We passed a sign reading No children after 4 p.m. and dropped into the bar, ducking the low pipes painted black, our feet crunching on butcher shop sawdust and peanut shells. We pushed through a blue cloud of cigarette smoke, the smell of spilled beer, and the sound of mariachi music blaring from a jukebox.
I pulled the plug on the jukebox and the music died. The room instantly fell silent. I strode into the center of the room and said, “Okay, who witnessed the fight in the alley two nights ago? Between the spic and the shine?”
A roomful of brown faces glared at me. Many of them knew me, or knew of me. They didn’t like cops. Especially gringo cops. I could feel the rookie beside me, as edgy as a three-legged mouse in a basement of four-legged cats.
“La lucha! Quién?” I said louder.
No one spoke. I didn’t expect anyone to. I didn’t expect someone to raise his hand like an eager first-grader in class yelling, “I saw it! I saw it!” What I was watching for was someone trying to sidle out of the bar or who looked especially uneasy. Someone I could corner. But everyone remained motionless, their faces full of wariness and fear.
I waited a beat longer then headed for a large mahogany bar at the far end of the room. People cleared away as we approached. Someone plugged in the jukebox and the music returned.
The man patrolling the bar, Ruben Castillo, the owner of the place, watched us with sullen eyes. He was a big man who had fought with the Marines in Guadalcanal. He looked as tired as the regulars. “Fightin’ them Japs weren’t half as tough as running a Larimer Street gin mill,” he had told me once.
“Evening, Officer Stryker,” Castillo said.
I leaned against the bar, one foot on the slippery rail, and nodded toward the rookie. “Ruben, this here’s Officer Perdue. First time ’round the block.”
The bartender gave the rookie a cursory nod then excused himself for a moment. He delivered a dark bottle of Negra Modelo to a bristle-faced old man who had shuffled away to the far end of the bar.
I quietly cautioned the rookie to turn around and watch for anyone making any suspicious moves. He faced the room and leaned back against the bar, trying to look casual. But I could hear his ragged breathing.
“Rookie lesson number two, kid,” I stage whispered. “Never let your fear show.”
The bartender returned. He swept away an empty beer glass with one hand and wiped a filthy rag across the counter with the other. “What can I do for you, Joe?”
“Gimme some cigarettes.”
His eyes held mine for a moment before he turned and rang up the old cash register guarded by a kneeling nude statue clutching her breasts. He took out some money, slammed the register drawer closed, and dug a pack of unbonded Chesterfields out of a box below a tin sign that said Celebren El Cinco de Mayo con Schlitz. He handed the pack of cigarettes to me. I felt the money tucked against the pack. I didn’t need to look to know it was a dog-eared sawbuck. Crisp tens never made it down to this part of town. I slipped the smokes and the cash into my pants pocket. I would let the sleazy bar and the penny-ante poker games upstairs survive another week. But I wanted more than money this time around.
“Who was the spic who carved up the shine the other night, Ruben?”
The bartender shrugged his broad shoulders. “Never saw who got into it.”
“You got ears.”
“They ain’t that big.”
I hadn’t been on duty that night. Rollo Dundee and his partner had caught the call and cleaned up the mess. At least, Dundee’s partner had. Dundee had this thing about administering first aid to sliced-up Negros. Claimed they all had syph and you got it from them if you had a cut on your hand. Let the meat-wagon boys handle it, was Dundee’s motto.
“The word is, the spic came outa here, Ruben, drunk and belligerent.”
He put his big hands up in protest. “Déme una rotura, Joe! I run a clean place.”
“Yeah, no more than a dozen fights a week. You oughta start charging ring fees, friend. Maybe take up managing. My captain doesn’t like those stats showing up on his morning report. Makes him grouchy, and I don’t like grouchy captains. Now who was it?”
“I told you, I ain’t seen the fight. And folks ain’t talkin’. Just know some niggers lookin’ for the cutter.”
“Why aren’t people talking? What’s so special about this fight?”
The bartender glanced to both sides of the bar to make sure no customers were in earshot. The rookie was preoccupied watching the bar crowd. Castillo said something to me in a hushed voice.
“What?” I replied, not quite catching it above the din of the place.
“Word is the cutter was one of the Lopez brothers.”
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe, as if a giant hand was squeezing my heart.
God, I hadn’t heard that name spoken in nearly two years. Not since the Fuller Hotel. Not since Derek’s death. A name I had hoped I would never hear again. Its very utterance dredged up a tangle of raw emotions: rage, guilt, sadness, revenge, failure, justice, shame–nightmares.
“You okay, Joe?” the bartender said.
I must have gone pale. I grasped for oxygen and finally found some. I restarted my heart. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I said. I hastily dug the keys to the patrol car out of my pocket and handed them to the rookie. “Get the car.”
He squinted at me in surprise. “Where we going?”
“Just get it!”
The rookie looked hurt at my abruptness. But I had no reason to tell him about Lopez and the Fuller Hotel, or that Castillo was one of my best street sources. Good snitches were more valuable to a cop than his gun. I would no more give a snitch away to another cop than I would give my wife away to another man.
The rookie hesitated then pushed on out of the bar, glancing warily as angry eyes followed him.
I turned back to the bartender. “You sure the cutter was one of the Lopez brothers?”
“No, I ain’t sure. Like I said, people ain’t talkin’ about it.”
“Which one? Angelo or Antonio?”
“Who knows? Their own fuckin’ mother can’t tell ’em apart under a noon sun.”
The Lopez brothers were identical twins. Purse snatching by age eleven, gang violence by age fifteen, burglaries and armed robberies by age seventeen. Both had served time, but it was nearly impossible to pin anything on them short of catching them in the act or getting fingerprints. They usually operated separately to avoid positive identification by their victims. Insolent bastards. Every cop on the force wanted their asses.
I wanted more than their asses. I wanted their souls. “What was the fight about?” I pressed.
“Dunno. Just heard he was lookin’ for someone.”
“Some boxer. Dunno the name.”
“A Negro boxer?” That might explain the fight with the other Negroes.
Castillo didn’t know if the boxer was Negro. He didn’t know why Lopez was looking for the boxer. “You can bet it weren’t to buy him a beer.”
“If someone knows where to find this guy Lopez is looking for, how do they get word to Lopez?”
Castillo shook his head. “This is a ghost you don’t want to find, Joe. Either of ’em.”
The bartender relented. “Sometimes you can find them at the Los Compadres Hotel. The manager lets the brothers hole up there.”
I exited the bar. When Perdue drove up in the black and white, I shooed him over and slid in on the driver’s side. Before I could put the vehicle into gear, however, the rookie said, “We got a call, Joe. Somebody reported a body on the tracks near the flour mill.”
© 2015 by Bruce W. Most
Author, Margaret Coel:
What a great read! Murder on the Tracks reimagines Denver as it was in 1949, with the sights, sounds and quirky characters that make the city hum. Bruce Most has served up a clever, engrossing mystery with twists and turns you never see coming but are thrilled when they arrive. ~ Margaret Coel, author of Night of the White Buffalo