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FIRST OF STATE

The C. J. Floyd Mysteries

Robert Greer

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Dedication

For who else but Phyllis

Author’s Note

The characters, events, and places that are depicted in First of State are spawned from the author’s imagination. Certain Denver and Western locales are used fictitiously and any resemblance between the novel’s fictional inhabitants and actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.

—Will Durant

Acknowledgments

I remain grateful for the support and dedication of my editor, Emily Boyd, and the very professional staff at North Atlantic Books. As always, I owe a special debt of gratitude to my secretary, Kathleen Woodley, who completed the final typed draft of First of State while burdened with a terrible cold and the recent death of her mother. I am appreciative of the help of Kathleen Deckler, who stepped in to help with the typing of the manuscript, while trying at the same time to decipher my cryptic handwriting. As always, Connie Oehring and Adrienne Armstrong both did first-rate jobs of copyediting.

My final heartfelt thanks are reserved for Jim Gummoe, whose knowledge about the world of collectible, and not so collectible, license plates is unsurpassed.

Portions of First of State appeared in much abbreviated form in the following copyrighted short stories by Robert Greer: “A Matter of Policy,” first published in Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stones by African-American Writers; and “Something in Common,” first published in the Rocky Mountain News in the collection of stories A Dozen on Denver.

Prologue

AN ORDINANCE CONCERNING MOTORIZED VEHICLES

Be it ordained by the Board of Trustees of the Town of Monte Vista, Colorado

SECTION 6: Every owner of an automobile used in the town of Monte Vista, except persons visiting with such machine for a period not exceeding one (1) week, shall register his name and address with the Town Recorder, and shall obtain from him a number, which shall be displayed from the rear of his automobile in a conspicuous place. The said number shall be furnished at the expense of the town of Monte Vista, and be composed of figures not less than three (3) inches high, and over or near the number shall be placed the initials “M.V.” Upon such registration the Town Recorder shall collect a fee of Two Dollars ($2.00), and shall issue to such owner a license to drive said automobile within said town, and shall also furnish such owner with a number to be displayed from his automobile as hereinbefore provided. Upon the transfer of ownership of any such automobile, the transferee shall likewise register with the Town Recorder, the same as the original owner, and shall pay to said Recorder the sum of Two Dollars ($2.00) for such registration, which registry shall include the name of the owner and the number and name of such automobile.

Passed and approved this 4th day of March, 1909, James H. Neeley, Mayor Pro. Tem.

Part 1

Something in Common

AUTUMN 1971

Chapter 1

The mid-October Mile High City air was dry, crisp, and rich with the home-again smell of burning leaves and the barest hint of ponderosa pine. It was a scent that at least momentarily suppressed the lingering smells of napalm, machine-gun oil, and jungle rot that CJ Floyd had lived with for the past two years. Hours earlier, after rising from another sleepless night, the decorated Vietnam veteran had decided to retrieve something he’d left behind before going off to war. Something from the past that he hoped would help him build a bridge to the future and outrun his demons.

Three weeks earlier he’d returned to Denver after serving back-to-back one-year tours of duty as an aft-deck machine gunner on a 125-foot navy patrol boat in Vietnam. Like so many of his generation, he’d seen far too much of the dark side of life, even though he was barely twenty years old. He’d killed people and watched people being killed. He’d had time to think about what it would be like to die, had eaten more C rations than he cared to remember, and more than once, in the middle of some humid Mekong Delta estuary, had washed the U.S. Navy’s canned mystery-meat delicacy down with roasted swamp mushrooms and river rat.

While on R&R in Saigon he’d made love to delicate, beautiful, war-numbed women for less than the cost of a car wash in the States, often wondering as he did whether he would be the GI to finally crush what remained of his paid lover’s spirit. He’d thrown up at the horror that was war, and every day of his two years in country he’d prayed that he’d somehow make it home. Now at least the physical side of his ordeal was behind him. There would be no more search-and-destroy missions for onetime gunner’s mate Calvin Jefferson Floyd.

As he stepped off the number 15 RTD bus at the intersection of Colfax Avenue and Larimer Street to head for GI Joe’s, a Lower Downtown Denver pawnshop, he took a long, deep breath. When the word home briefly crossed his mind, he broke into a nervous, uneasy smile, teased a cheroot out of the soft pack he’d taken out of the pocket of his peacoat, and toyed with the miniature cigar. He hadn’t been a smoker when he’d left for Vietnam in the fall of 1969. Now he was. Slipping the cheroot loosely between his lips, he thought about the rare antique license plate he’d pilfered from a GI Joe’s display case two years earlier and hidden behind three loose wall tiles next to the grout-less seam of an electrical box. He’d uncharacteristically acted on this impulse three days before he’d shipped out for Vietnam, and he wondered if his hidden treasure would still be there.

He couldn’t be certain that the Larimer Street pawnshop would even still be standing; many Lower Downtown buildings and dozens of neighboring structures for blocks around had been bulldozed as part of Denver’s ongoing Skyline Urban Renewal Project while he’d been gone. But if the pawnshop was there, he had the feeling that the valuable porcelain license plate he’d stashed would still be there as well. There to soothe his fragile psyche, to offer him a belated welcome home.

There’s undoubtedly substantial truth to the saying that you can tell a lot about a man by what he reads. However, you could learn much more about a man like CJ Floyd by taking a long, hard look at the things he had little or no use for and the things he saved. CJ saved ticket stubs from plays and movies and every manner of game. He still had his ticket stub from the Denver Rockets’ inaugural ABA basketball game as well as two unused tickets to the 1969 Denver premiere of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Tickets he’d won by being the tenth caller to a local radio sports talk show but had never used because three days before the opening, and ten days before shipping out for his first tour of Vietnam, he’d come down with a flu that had kept him bedridden for a week.

The more than half-century-old Victorian home on Denver’s famed Bail Bondsman’s Row where he’d been raised by his alcoholic uncle had an earthen quarter-basement that he’d filled with coffee cans full of cat’s-eye marbles, jumbos, and scores of rare and valuable shooter steelies. Stacks of mint-condition 45s and pristine, unopened LPs stored in dusty-sheet-covered tomato crates filled every corner of the musty underground room.

For most of his teenage years CJ had been a gangly, standof-fish, six-foot-two-inch black kid with closely cropped hair and the merest hint of a mustache. A kid with a strange inner sadness and seemingly nowhere to light, an oddly out-of-place young man who spent most of his free time checking out estate liquidations, antiques auctions, and an endless string of garage sales.

A collector in the old-fashioned sense, CJ considered himself a guardian of precious things from the past. Conspicuously missing from his collectibles, however, were report cards, family-oriented board games, and those all-too-human, follow-the-leader possessions that required interacting with other people instead of going it alone. For CJ Floyd, there were no albums filled with Pop Warner football pictures, first swimming lessons, or photographs of grade school field trips to the zoo. No yearbooks or kindergarten finger paintings for relatives to gush over at holiday gatherings. No mementos from debutante balls or long-forgotten souvenirs from the senior prom. CJ’s collectibles were the ghostly, precious treasures of a loner, artifacts assembled by someone who’d spent his short lifetime honing a party-of-one image and running against the wind.

CJ’s collection of antique license plates, his equivalent of Olympic gold, said more about him than any of his other collections. He’d begun the collection during his early teens, when his Uncle Ike’s drinking had reached its peak and street rods and low riders had taken the place of family in CJ’s life.

The pride of his collection were his 1917 New Hampshire plate and his prized 1919 Denver municipal tag. Both had been fabricated using the long-abandoned process of overlaying porcelain onto iron. Although his collection was impressive, it remained incomplete, and Ike, one of the few people who’d seen it, suspected that like CJ, abandoned by his unmarried teenage mother just a few days after he turned two, the collection would remain forever less than whole.

Most of the buildings in the 2100 block of Larimer Street, including GI Joe’s, had escaped demolition during CJ’s absence, but scores of buildings to both the east and west had been leveled, leaving behind a landscape that looked almost war-torn.

The long-established pawnshop shared a white, two-story brick building, erected in 1893, with Lucero’s Furniture Store. The second-floor windows of the pawnshop had been bricked over and painted white, giving the building the neo-Gothic look of a mortuary. Harry Steed, a returning World War II veteran, had started the business in the late 1940s, and the shop, along with Pasternack’s, a pawnshop next door, had a reputation for selling everything from college scholastic honorary keys to microscopes for medical students.

World War II veteran Wiley Ames, a recovering alcoholic, former Denver skid row derelict, and Salvation Army reclamation project, had helped Harry Steed manage GI Joe’s for nearly two decades. Ames’s left arm, a casualty of the war, was nothing more than a ten-inch-long stump. Over the decades, with the help of Harry Steed, he’d exorcised his war demons and strangled his alcoholism. Now, at age forty-six, he was a teetotaling, nearly psychologically whole physical fitness devotee whose street reputation was that of a no-nonsense straight shooter with a soft spot for hard-luck stories.

The wind kicked up out of nowhere as CJ entered GI Joe’s. Uncertain exactly how to proceed with his mission of retrieval, he stood silently inside the entryway of the dimly lit establishment, thinking and waiting for his eyes to accommodate to what could best be described as a giant, larger-than-life-sized box of clutter.

Moving purposefully into the musty bowels of the store, past glass-topped display cabinets and row after row of shelves chock-full of everything from slide guitars to roller skates, he had the sense that he was back in the Mekong River Delta, cruising through enemy territory well beyond the safety of his 42nd River Patrol Group’s operations base.

His heart sank when he stopped to glance across the room for his remembered landmarks—the electrical box and a bank of loose tiles. Feeling suddenly defeated and, surprisingly, a little cheated, he sighed and took a hesitant step in the direction of what was no longer a wall of failing tile and cracking plaster but instead a whitewashed alcove, the back wall of which was filled with hanging art.

Hugging a photo album to his side with his stump, Ames, who’d watched his young customer’s every move since he’d entered the store, surprised CJ by calling out, “Help you with somethin’, son?” and quickly closing the gap between them.

“No. Just looking,” CJ said.

The seasoned veteran, who now stood just a few feet from CJ, nodded and took a long, hard look at his customer. Recognition crossed Wiley’s face as he took in the strangely vacant look in the young black man’s eyes.

“Well, look all you want, and let me know if you need some help. Been in before?” he asked as an afterthought, his eyes never moving off CJ.

“A couple of times,” CJ said quickly, fearful that anything but the truth might expose his motives.

“Well, go on with your lookin’. I’m around if you need me.”

CJ continued staring at the wall of art, taking in the simple beauty of the black-and-white photographs, watercolors, and pastels, most of them depicting classic Western themes. There were scenes of rodeo cowboys, a photograph of two ranch hands on horseback chasing a steer, a painting of an angler shaded by a cottonwood canopy fishing in a remote mountain stream, and near the center of the collection a photo of a startled hunter, shotgun at the ready, mouth agape, watching half-a-dozen sage grouse flush. Once again the word home wove its way through CJ’s subconscious. Remembering his purpose, he walked over to the spot where the electrical box and loose tiles should have been. As he reached out to adjust one of the photographs, as if to make certain he wasn’t looking at a mirage, Wiley Ames, ghost-like and silent, reappeared.

“So, whatta ya think?” Ames asked, beaming.

“Nice.”

“I like to think so. I call it my Wall of the West. The boss let me do it. Said it gave the place a sense of character, and wouldn’t you know it, the damn wall even faces west.” He watched CJ’s eyes dart from photograph to photograph. “They’re not for sale if you’re lookin’ to buy. All of ’em are by local artists, most of ’em down on their luck. Mostly they’re here for the enjoyin’. Sorta like life.”

“They’re great. How’d you get the idea?” CJ asked, thinking primarily about the missing license plate and electrical box.

Wiley chuckled. “DURA, them urban redevelopment folks, gave the idea to me a year or so back when they blew the Cooper Building over on Seventeenth Street to smithereens. The explosion nearly took down that wall you’re eyein’. Had to just about rebuild the sucker. Bricks, mortar, a hell of a lot of tuckpointin’, and of course new drywall and electrical.”

“I see,” said CJ, imagining the hidden license plate flying out from behind the tiles and crashing to the floor, its delicate porcelain face cracking into a hundred pieces. “Find anything behind the wall?”

“Not really.” Ames cocked an eyebrow and looked CJ up and down. “Least, not anything of importance. Sure you don’t need my help with anything?” he asked, a sudden hint of suspicion evident in his tone.

“Nope.”

“Well, then, admire my wall as long as you like. After a while it sorta grows on you. I’m around if you need me.” Wiley sauntered back toward the store’s only cash register on the counter up front. Halfway there, he glanced back at CJ, eyed the spot on the sleeve of CJ’s peacoat where the first-class gunner’s-mate stripes had once been, and thought, Boy’s got damage for sure.

Realizing that the license plate was lost to him forever, CJ locked his gaze on a painting of two cowboys branding a calf. One cowboy had the calf’s head pinned to the dirt with a knee while the other, smoke rising from his branding iron, seared the calf’s right hindquarter. Thinking that all some people might see in the photo was brutality, unless of course they’d been to war, he turned to leave. As he pivoted, he caught a glimpse of a grainy black-and-white photograph near the bottom of the wall. Bending to take a closer look, he realized that the strangely out-of-place photo was the image of a World War II–vintage Sherman tank. Three American soldiers stood beside the tank’s turret, one smoking a cigarette, one staring aimlessly into space, and one drinking coffee. Even after more than two decades, there could be no mistaking the face of the man staring into space. It was a slightly thinner, gaunt-looking Wiley Ames.

CJ stared at the photo for several more seconds before shrugging and walking toward the front of the store. When he reached the checkout counter, where Ames stood organizing a handful of receipts, he asked, “That you in that tank photo on the wall?”

“Yep,” Ames said in response to a question he’d been asked hundreds of times.

“Thought so.”

“Long time ago,” said Ames.

“Bet it never goes away.”

“Not really. But you move on.”

“Guess so,” a suddenly glassy-eyed CJ said, offering Ames a hesitant two-fingered, mission-accomplished salute and heading toward the door. “See ya around.”

CJ was six blocks away when Ames left his post behind the cash register and headed toward a glassed-in display case near the center of the store. He wasn’t certain why he’d made a bee-line for that particular case except that CJ’s words, “Find anything behind the wall?” continued to resonate in his head. As he stooped to open one of the case’s misaligned rear doors, intent on retrieving the 1918 California porcelain license plate that had been coughed up from behind his Wall of the West the day DURA had blown up the Cooper Building a year and a half earlier, he found himself shaking his head. Eyeing the flawless antique license plate, he had the strange sense that he and the young black man who’d just left were somehow connected. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly why or how or for what reason, but he knew it had something to do with his wall of art and the look he’d seen in the young man’s eyes when he’d first walked into the store. A lost, hollow look yearning for explanation. A look identical to the look in his own eyes all those years ago when he’d stood next to a tank turret, oblivious to the falling snow in a German forest, just hours before losing his left arm in the Battle of the Bulge. A look that told him he and the young black man had something very much in common.

Chapter 2

After a fitful night’s sleep that included waking up drenched in sweat just before 3 a.m. to the sounds of what he thought was small-arms fire dinging off the hull of the Cape Star, the patrol boat he’d served aboard in Vietnam, CJ stood red-eyed and rest-broken in front of GI Joe’s the next morning, a few minutes before nine. The sleep-sapping noises he’d heard the previous night had turned out to be several loose roof shingles rat-a-tat-tatting in the wind against the roof of the turn-of-the-century home he still shared with his bail bondsman uncle, Ike Floyd.

He’d grown up roaming the old painted lady’s dimly lit halls and high-ceilinged rooms. Played cops and robbers in its musty earthen basement and felt safe and secure in its arms during sweltering summers and subzero winters. As a child, he’d shared the first floor’s generous quarters with Ike—two bedrooms and the building’s bail bonding offices, which Ike had carved out of the original parlor and kitchen.

Ike Floyd had been a trailblazer in the Denver bail bonding game, the first black bail bondsman on the city’s notorious Bail Bondsman’s Row. It had taken him years filled with harassment by cops, threats from criminals, and a decade of being blackballed by the other bail bondsmen on the Row to establish himself as the city’s premier bail bondsman.

During CJ’s teenage years, Ike had given CJ the run of the building’s unused second floor, which now housed CJ’s apartment. Ever the loner, CJ had turned the then largely open space into his own separate world. The cherrywood-floored and vaulted-ceilinged getaway afforded him the chance to escape the sometimes harsh realities of the first floor. He’d tacked old cowboy-movie posters and a dozen or so Rio Grande & Santa Fe Railroad posters to just about every second-floor wall and covered the floors with threadbare Indian rugs that he’d picked up at garage sales for pennies on the dollar, using his Rocky Mountain News paper-route money or occasionally simply begged old ladies out of. However, none of those past comforts or the newer comfort of the apartment Ike had refurbished just before CJ’s return home were a match for the ghosts of Vietnam.

Sleep-deprived, cottonmouthed, and busy watching two city workers inspect a curbside storm drain several doors down from GI Joe’s, CJ didn’t see Wiley Ames remove the crayon-colored, dog-eared, yellow-and-green cardboard CLOSED sign from the front door of GI Joe’s and replace it with one that read OPEN. When Ames, raspy-voiced from a night of mouth-breathing and snoring, swung that door open, stepped outside, and said, “See you’re back,” CJ spun around and offered a startled “Yes.”

Ames, wearing a faded yoke-backed black-on-white cowboy shirt with two full sleeves, his armless left one flapping in the breeze, simply nodded, slipped the business end of the broom he was holding in his right hand down onto the sidewalk, and began sweeping. “First job of the day, every day—sweeping,” said Ames, moving briskly down the sidewalk in front of the store. Suddenly stopping his sweeping, he stared at CJ and said, “By the way, I’m Wiley Ames.”

“CJ Floyd,” came CJ’s clipped response.

“Initials stand for anything, Mr. Floyd?”

“Calvin Jefferson.”

“Well, it’s a pleasure, Calvin Jefferson. You back to have another gander at my wall?”

“Nope. Looking for something more specific this visit.”

“And that would be?”

“A license plate.”

Ames cocked a suspicious eyebrow and continued sweeping. “We’ve got quite a few sittin’ around.”

“The one I’m looking for would be porcelain.”

“Got a few of those rascals, too. You a collector?”

“Since I was a kid. But the hobby sorta got interrupted by a war.”

Ames stopped sweeping and tucked the broom handle under his stump. The look on his face said, Knew it. “War tends to do things like that.” He eyed his armless shirtsleeve. “Come on in the store. I’ll show you what we’ve got in the way of plates, and you can decide if they’re up to your standards. How long you been home from ’Nam?” he asked, pushing open the pawnshop’s front door.

“A couple of weeks,” said CJ, wondering how Ames had been able to peg him as a Vietnam vet so easily until he remembered that he’d been wearing his navy peacoat during his previous visit. “Did my peacoat give me away?”

“Nope.” Ames twisted the broomstick around beneath his armpit. “Wouldn’t say it was the peacoat at all.”

“What, then?”

Turning and staring directly into CJ’s eyes, Ames said, “The look on your face. It was the kinda look you see on the faces of folk who’ve been through hell. Yep, I’d say that look pretty much told me your tale.” He nodded and set the broom aside. “Enough about that though. Come on and let me take you through the shop.”

During the hour they walked the store together, and, uncertain exactly why he was doing so, CJ opened up to Ames. Told him about growing up on Bail Bondsman’s Row, about his passion for collecting antiques, even shared a few bits and pieces about his two gunboat tours of Vietnam with the antique-savvy amputee. Occasionally reflective and seemingly all ears, Ames said very little about himself.

In workman-like fashion, sometimes sounding like a docent at a museum, Ames walked CJ through the pawnshop’s eight hundred square feet of floor space, space often filled to the rafters with unclaimed possessions and the collateral of people’s lives. As they talked softly and undisturbed, CJ felt more and more at home, relaxed and amazingly in sync with a man who quite obviously shared his passion for collecting.

They spent several minutes at the Wall of the West, where Ames explained the history behind every photograph and painting. The artist who’d painted the branding scene, titled simply Property Tag, had enjoyed some degree of artistic success, according to Ames. Rights to the use of the image had been bought by a New York advertising agency that had for a time marketed the custom-made cowboy boots of a bookmaker client using the image. Problem was, Ames said dolefully, “the young man who painted the thing was pretty much a hippie strung totally out on weed. Died over on Arapahoe Street in the middle of winter a few years back from hypothermia. Shame. A god-awful shame.”

When CJ asked, “Who took the tank photo?” hoping to find out a little more about Ames, a mournful sounding Ames answered, “A friend of mine. He’s dead. So are the other two fellows up there on that turret. All of ’em killed just a couple of days after that picture was taken.” Ames eyed his shirtsleeve and shook his head. “Least all I lost was a partial piece of redundant equipment.”

CJ nodded understandingly. “Ever wonder why you got to come home and your buddies didn’t?”

“For a good long while I did. Don’t much matter now, though. Life’s ups and downs tend to make a man forget about the past.”

“Ever have night sweats and problems sleeping after you came home?”

“I had ’em, sure. Flashbacks, nightmares, and whatever else I suspect a man’s mind is capable of conjurin’ up. They lessen with time. Yours will, too,” he said, patting CJ reassuringly on the shoulder.

“What did you do about the flashbacks before they calmed down?”

“Drank myself silly, for the most part. Don’t advise doin’ that.”

CJ swallowed hard and eyed the floor. “You ever go to the VA for, ahhh …”

“Professional help?” said Ames. “Nope, but I probably should’ve. What I did mostly was drink. Drank enough to float a boat to China, I’d guess. And I would’ve gone on drinkin’ if I hadn’t met the man who owns this place. Turns out he was a World War II vet, just like me. Never turned himself inside out the way I had, though, thank God. Name’s Harry Steed. He got me hooked up with the Salvation Army. Started me to dryin’ out, servin’ folks in a lot worse shape than me meals, and hangin’ out in, of all places, a damn soup kitchen. More important than all those things, though, he gave me a job. Let me know that he trusted me and that he cared.” Ames eyed CJ thoughtfully. “Hope you got people around you like that, too.”

“I’ve got an uncle and a bunch of friends.”

“Then stick with ’em, the way I’ve stuck with Harry Steed. Set some goals for yourself, and maybe even dream.”

Thinking, Easier said than done, CJ simply nodded.

Sensing from the look on CJ’s face that he’d made his point, Ames shifted gears. “Whatta you collect besides license plates?”

“Just about anything to do with the West,” CJ said, glancing up toward a dust-covered skylight. “Spurs, bits, cattle-brand books, chaps.”

“Got a favorite among any of those that you’d never part with?”

“My 1906 Colorado brand book, I suppose,” CJ said, continuing to eye the skylight.

“Good,” said Ames, aware that turn-of-the-century brand books from just about any Western state were not only collectible but quite valuable. Smiling and nodding to himself as if he’d discovered a much-needed piece of a puzzle, he said, “Then you’ve got yourself a cornerstone for one of your passions. Somethin’ to help move you ahead. You tuck that brand book away in the safest place you can, then go out and find yourself another brand book. One that’s older and rarer. There’re rarer ones out there, aren’t there?”

“Sure. The first one issued in Colorado was in 1883.”

“Then look for that book and every one in between it and your 1906 cornerstone. Make it your life’s quest if you have to, but keep on lookin’ ’til you find every book out there from A to fuckin’ Z. It’s a little mind-occupyin’ trick that Harry Steed taught me.”

“That could take years.”

“That’s my point. More than anything else, a man needs a mission in life. No different from the missions the navy assigned to you durin’ Vietnam, except this time around there’s no killin’ involved.” Noting the quizzical look on CJ’s face, Ames said, “I know what you’re thinkin’—Old Wiley’s a little touched. But look at it this way. I’m twenty-five years or so down the road from where you’re standin’. Give my methods a shot. Won’t hurt one bit to try.”

“Okay,” CJ said with a shrug.

Sensing that he needed to gain the young black man’s full trust if he expected to move him ahead, and uncertain why he was about to take someone he’d met only twice into his confidence, although he’d realized the first time they’d met that they had something strangely in common, Ames said, “Why don’t we have a gander at some license plates and a few other things I think are worth your seein’?” Moving to lock the front door and placing the CLOSED sign back in place, he waved for CJ to follow him toward the rear of the pawnshop. “I think you’ll like what you see.”

When they reached the back of the store, CJ noticed a doorway he hadn’t seen the previous day. Framed in white and just barely set back into the wall, the five-foot-high, three-foot-wide door had a security lock and a large wood screw in place of a doorknob.

When Ames pulled out a key, slipped it into the lock, turned the key, and pushed the door inward, motioning for CJ to follow him, CJ had the sense that he might be stepping into some kind of lost world.

Grunting as he stooped, Ames flipped on a forty-watt light-bulb and stepped down into a catacomb-like space no more than three feet high. “You gotta squat a bit at first, but it opens up,” he said, moving deeper into what CJ suspected might once have been a crawl space. A few seconds later Ames stood erect in a twelve-by-twelve-foot room framed by cinder-block walls. Realizing as he also stood up in the dimly lit, confined space and stared at Ames that the World War II vet’s head seemed far too large for the rest of his noticeably slender body and that his broken-veined drinker’s nose seemed even more bulbous than it had earlier, CJ found himself thinking he’d stumbled into the land of Oz.

When he caught sight of three four-foot-long display cases similar to those in the main store hugging the walls, each stocked to the gills with antiques, he whispered, “Damn.” A padlocked, drab green wooden army footlocker with the name Ames stenciled in orange on its face hugged the fourth wall.

As their eyes adjusted to the light, Ames pointed at the footlocker. “Dragged that government-issued piece of kindling across most of Germany and half of France back in ’44.” He knelt and ran a hand across the footlocker’s badly splintered, dusty top.

A look of amazement crossed CJ’s face as he tried to imagine how something so fragile-looking could have been transported across half a continent during a war and survived intact.

Ames dusted off his hands. “Never really brought anyone back here before except for Harry, the electrician Harry had do the wiring and lighting, and a couple of women, of course.” He winked and smiled.

“Your inner sanctum?”

“You might say that. I come back here to think off and on, but mainly it’s just a place where I keep my important stuff.”

“I’ve got a place like that myself,” said CJ, feeling more and more convinced that he and Wiley Ames had a lot more in common than the killing fields of war.

Nodding as if he’d half expected CJ’s response, Ames slipped a key out of one of his pockets, inserted it into the footlocker’s padlock, removed the lock, and lifted the lid.

CJ was so busy looking at the contents of one of the display cases that he missed the fact that Ames had started laying antique inkwells, spurs, bits, miniature Indian pots, and even a few license plates out on the tiled floor. As he continued eyeing what was in the display case, he could hardly believe his eyes. There were rare books by the dozen, including pristine-looking hardback copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. “Are the books in the case first editions?” he asked.

“Every one of ’em. And every one’s signed.”

“Damn,” said CJ, counting off titles on the spines of an additional twenty rare books.

“Nice collection, don’t you think?” Ames said proudly.

“Absolutely.” It was the only word CJ seemed able to dredge up right then. When he turned away from the display case to see what Ames had spread out on the floor, he asked, “How long did it take you to collect everything?”

“Most of my life,” Ames said with a wink. “Took me forty years, drunk and sober, to collect the spurs.” He pointed at several sets of rare August Buermann spurs he’d lined up on the floor. “Not another six pair like ’em in the world.”

“Hell of a stash.”

“Not many license plates here to show you, but I’ve got a few,” Ames said, handing CJ a 1958 Colorado plate, the only Colorado plate to ever feature a downhill skier.

Admiring the plate, which was in reasonably good condition but not nearly as good as the one he owned, CJ said, “Nice.”

“Got a lot more here for us to look at,” said Ames, digging back into the footlocker. Eyeing the display cases, CJ said, “Let’s do it, then.”

For the next hour and a half the two war veterans examined most of Wiley’s collection of prizes, with Wiley recounting in detail how he’d hunted down the rarest of them.

They also talked about war. About their close shaves with death, about friends who’d died, and about the luck involved in making it home. They spoke in hushed, almost reverent tones about burning Vietnamese villages and destroying German towns, and when it was clear to both of them that there was no more right then to talk about or tell, Ames packed everything he’d taken out of the footlocker and display cases back into its proper place. Snapping the footlocker’s lock closed and moving over to one of the display cases, he said, “You take what I’ve said to you to heart, you hear me, son?”

He didn’t wait for CJ’s response but instead slid the back door to the display case open and reached deep inside. “Got one last thing for you to look at. Ain’t really that rare, but it is one of my favorites.” He slipped a porcelain plate that had been pretty much hidden off the shelf, rubbed the dust off on his shirtsleeve, and handed the plate to CJ. “Rare but not so rare, as they say in the trade.”

He watched CJ study the plate for a good half minute before saying, “It’s a Colorado municipal plate from the town of Monte Vista. Issued around 1909.”

The plate, which clearly wasn’t mint, had several nicks in the porcelain near the top right-hand corner, but in CJ’s eyes it was absolutely flawless. The number 87 sat squarely in the middle of the plate, flanked on the right by two small letters, an M over a V.

As CJ continued to stare at the plate, Ames said, “It’s the equivalent of that brand book of yours from 1906. My cornerstone of sorts. I come look at it from time to time, generally when I feel like I’ve been runnin’ against the wind.”

Handing the Monte Vista plate back to Ames, CJ said, “I’ll remember that the next time I’m up against it.”

“You do that,” said Ames, putting the plate back in its place on the shelf. “Now, how about we go?” he said, flashing CJ a final satisfied wink. “I’m thinkin’ we’ve had ourselves enough fun for one day.”

Chapter 3

“You’re a stubborn man, Ames. Stubborn, above it all, and when you get right down to it, just plain funny-acting. And you’re a thief.” The person talking long-distance to Wiley Ames checked the clock on the wall. “Should be just about sundown there in Denver. Sunset in the Rockies. Pretty as a postcard, I bet. So how about it, Ames? You playing ball or not?”

“I’ve told you before. The only thing I’ll be playing as far as you’re concerned will be ‘Taps,’ or maybe ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ at your funeral.”

“Funny, Ames. Real funny. Now, here’s a little something less rib-tickling for you to think about. Deliver the goods you and your Chinese buddy Chin promised, or you’ll both be too dead to be sorry you didn’t. And remember, I’m never more than a few minutes from your doorstep, old chap.”

“Go pick your nose and look for your brains in the snot, asshole.” Ames slammed down the receiver, gritted his teeth, and nervously rubbed the end of his stump. His lip quivered as he rose from the pressback wooden chair behind his desk and walked from the small study in his Congress Park condominium to his living room, where he stared out the bay window.

He loved his neighborhood, a place filled with Denver and Colorado political history, tree-lined streets, and a healthy mix of old wags like himself and energetic young people. He never could have afforded the remodeled, always shady northern half of what had once been a three-thousand-square-foot, craftsman-style home if it hadn’t been for his boss, Harry Steed, who’d lent him the money for the down payment. The only downside to the deal was that Steed, who understood more than any person he’d ever met about how to make money, had gotten to take the principal and interest stemming from the deal out of Ames’s paycheck every month.

Angry and shaking, Ames thought about having a drink, knowing full well that he couldn’t. There was no way he’d let Harry or himself down by jumping off the sobriety wagon he’d ridden on for so many years. His dealings with Chin, unfortunately, would eventually come out. There’d be no way of stopping that, and as the voice on the phone had said, he was, in fact, in a roundabout way, a thief. Even so, he’d been in worse straits before, and he expected he’d be able to weather the current storm. During his days as an alcoholic he’d slept beneath bridges, lived in taped-together cardboard refrigerator boxes, and once worn the same filthy clothes for a full winter. On top of that, he’d survived a war, and if push came to shove he expected that he’d be able to outrun allegations of being a thief.

From his bay window overlooking the park he could see people jogging and a woman pushing a stroller. Just to the right of a towering maple tree he loved to watch, especially during the change of seasons, were several young men, college boys, he suspected, playing Frisbee.

He watched the activity in the park for several more minutes before walking back to his bedroom. Stepping inside and kneeling beside his bed, he thought about the advice he’d given young, war-damaged CJ Floyd earlier that day and wondered whether that advice would be enough to sustain the young man through the bumpy readjustment period that was facing him. Hoping it would be, he stretched an arm beneath the bed to grab hold of the duffel bag. Grunting as he pulled it toward him, he let out a truncated sneeze triggered by the thick layer of dust that covered the long-undisturbed bag. He sneezed again as he unzipped the army-surplus bag, fumbled around inside, and extracted two boxes of shotgun shells and a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun. Laying the shotgun aside on the floor, he reached back inside the bag and pulled out a .38 long-barrel, the kind big-city police departments had been so fond of in the 1940s and early 1950s. He set the .38 aside and zipped the duffel bag back up. It had been a long time since he’d held a weapon. Longer still since he’d killed someone. But if forced to kill, he knew he still could.

Shoving the duffel bag back beneath the bed, he rose with both weapons cradled securely under his amputation stump, then released them onto his bed. He thought about returning to his bay window to catch a final glimpse of the sunset, but when he craned to look beyond his bedroom doorway, he could see that it was already too late. Congress Park was on the downside of darkness. He’d have to enjoy the sunset view another day.

CJ hadn’t had as restful a night’s sleep as the one he’d just awakened from in weeks. Uncertain exactly what had precipitated the full night of slumber, free of the flashbacks and energy-expending tossing and turning, he simply thanked his lucky stars. He thought the luxury might be in part due to the fact that he’d gone to bed earlier than usual after passing on a trip to Trundle’s Pool Hall for some eight ball with his best friend, Roosevelt Weeks. He suspected that the uninterrupted night of rest was also linked to the fact that his Uncle Ike had informed him as they’d polished off a dinner of ham hocks, French-fried sweet potatoes, cornbread, and collard greens the previous evening that he wanted CJ to join him in the bail bonding business.

It wasn’t a job CJ had lobbied for. In fact, he’d been toying with the idea of starting college, but by throwing in with his uncle, a man whom CJ idolized in spite of his imperfections, he’d at least have an immediate paycheck and some job stability.

The one thing he was certain had sparked his night of unbroken rest, however, was his encounter with the positive-thinking Wiley Ames. As Ames had said succinctly during their discussions the previous day, whether he became a bail bondsman, a teacher, a lawyer, or a mechanic, he’d never again have to start each day knowing that his mission would be to seek out and kill his fellow man.

Wiley Ames watched a street sweeper swish its way south down Larimer Street before turning west on Twenty-first Street and heading toward the mountains. It was just past 5:30 a.m., and only quietness was left in the sweeper’s wake. Letting himself in the front door of GI Joe’s, Ames tugged at one of the straps on the backpack he was wearing, then walked in the semidarkness toward the rear of the pawnshop. Glancing briefly toward his Wall of the West, he jiggled the backpack off, catching it one-handed before it hit the floor.

Frustrated and sleepy-eyed, he was responding to a 4 a.m. page. He’d been carrying the doctor’s-style pager for nearly a year, and although he often cursed the device, he’d come to realize that it helped with his business dealings. He’d been the one who’d initially set up the pager-first communication system with his business partner, Quan Lee Chin, telling Chin that he was never to contact Ames by phone without paging him first.

Ames had known the gangly, six-foot-six-inch, sunken-cheeked Chin, a refugee from the homeland that he doggedly insisted Ames call Taiwan, not Formosa, since Chin had first appeared at GI Joe’s one winter afternoon two years earlier, looking for old movie posters. Three visits later and after considerable probing from Ames, Chin had admitted that from his very first visit to the pawnshop, he’d been looking not for movie posters but for rare Chinese artifacts. What could only loosely be described as a friendship grew between the two men, and when Ames somehow learned that Chin was a concert cellist who, during his first visit to GI Joe’s, had been in Denver unsuccessfully auditioning for a seat with the Denver Symphony, he had Chin bring in his cello and play for him.

Once, after Chin had rummaged around the pawnshop for over an hour before finally leaving without making a purchase, Harry Steed pointedly said to Ames, “Your Chinaman friend sure looks around a lot to never spend a dime. What’s he after, anyway?”

“A big score,” Ames responded.

In the sixteen months since then Ames and Steed had sold the man who they now knew to have been a musical prodigy everything from Chinese sewing baskets to badly carved imitation-ivory elephant tusks. Only once during those visits had Chin shown up with anyone else. It had been a snowy early-spring visit when he’d purchased an 1899-vintage Oliver “standard visible” typewriter while the woman who had accompanied Chin never moved from just inside the pawnshop’s front door.

Grunting and kneeling, Ames unzipped his backpack and nervously fumbled through it. His hand shook as, clutching his .38, he called out in a surprisingly loud voice, “That you, Chin?” in response to three knocks at the back door.

“Yes,” came the barely audible reply.

“Step back from the door and I’ll let you in,” said Ames, walking to the back door, his .38 firmly in hand.

He swung the door open to a sudden burst of sunshine and the startled-looking Chin, who stood a few feet from the door clutching a toaster-oven-sized cardboard box under one arm. “What’s with the pistol?”

Ames ignored the question. “Move back a few steps and let me check out the alley.”

Chin took three steps backward into the alley as Ames stepped through the doorway. Scanning the alley and eyeing the box Chin was carrying, Ames said, “First time, last time, Chin. I don’t know how I ever let you talk me into this deal in the first place. Now, let’s get the hell back in the store. You can never be too careful. Besides—”

A single shot from a semiautomatic handgun cut Ames’s response short. Collapsing to his knees, he fell face forward into a pothole near the alley’s edge. The jagged asphalt edge cut a three-inch-long gash in his forehead as blood oozed from the pencil-eraser-sized entry wound in his neck and his lower jaw twitched. Eight seconds later both of his eyes rolled back in his head, and Wiley Ames gasped a final truncated breath.

Clutching the cardboard box like a football under his right arm, Chin had sprinted twenty-five yards up the alley when the shooter squeezed off a second round. The bullet found a home a little higher and more to the right than the shooter had expected, severing Quan Lee Chin’s right pulmonary artery. Chin took three final steps before he fell onto his side, grabbed his belly where the tumbling bullet had lodged in his duodenum, and expired in under a minute.

All in all, the killings had taken less than forty seconds. In less than another minute, the killer had Chin’s cardboard box securely in hand and had vanished from the alley, swallowed by an archway that framed the narrow passageway between two buildings that fronted Larimer Street’s neighbor to the west, Market Street. The day had become a little brighter, and the morning was silent once again.

“You lookin’ as spry as a cat on midsummer highway asphalt,” Ike Floyd said, looking up at CJ after stabbing his spoon into the wedge of cornbread he’d just plunked into a buttermilk-filled mason jar.

“I feel pretty good, for a change.” CJ stared at the piece of dry toast he’d just shoved aside on the kitchen table, then eyed the thick, grainy mixture in the mason jar. Stirring his spoon around in the unappealing concoction, Ike, a wiry-haired tree stump of a black man with salt-and-pepper hair and dark brown sunken eyes that matched the color of his skin, said, “You slept better ’cause you knew you had a job to look forward to?”

CJ simply nodded.

“Even so, it’s still awful early for you to be up.” Ike glanced across the room at the hand-carved school clock he’d brought back from Korea. The clock was the only souvenir he’d returned to the States with after serving fourteen months as a sergeant in the all-black 159th Field Artillery Battalion during the Korean War. “Ain’t but eight o’clock. You generally been sleepin’ in ’til ten.”

“Not today, and hopefully not tomorrow or the day after that,” said CJ.

“Good. ’Cause you’re gonna need all the rest you can muster when I put you out there on the street. I’ll start you out slow, hitchin’ up nickel-and-dime bonds and handlin’ baby skips—nothin’ too serious at first.”

“Fine by me,” said CJ. He was well schooled in the jargon, if not the nuts and bolts, of the bail bonding business, and he was aware that nickel-and-dime bonds were everyday postings that involved first-time petty offenses such as DUIs, minor property-damage cases, and thievery a notch or two above petty larceny. CJ figured he could handle those.

Bond-skip cases, whether the baby variety or not, were another matter, and contrary to his uncle’s assessment, as far as CJ was concerned, “baby” skips didn’t exist. He knew enough about the bail bonding business to know that bond-skip cases of any sort could turn deadly. Ike had even developed a ranking system for bond-skip cases. Baby skips involved arrogant first-time offenders, well-heeled drunks, or doped-out college kids without the street smarts to know they’d be hunted down by a pro if they skipped out on their bond. Smartmouths, no matter how minor the offense, always moved up a notch on Ike’s list.

“Yearling” skippers, a term Ike had borrowed from the cattle industry, were Ike’s equivalent of troublesome, rambunctious year-old cattle. Included in that category were people who had either the gall or the stupidity to skip out on bonds for more serious transgressions, including everything from minor assault to aggravated robbery.