The Bomb Shelter: A David Mapstone Mystery #9

The Bomb Shelter: A David Mapstone Mystery #9

The past never rests easy in Arizona. Forty years ago, a Phoenix reporter was killed by a car bomb in one of America's most notorious crimes. Three men went to ...

About The Author

Jon Talton

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan, the author of 12 novels, and a former columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton now ...

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Chapter One

 

At 11:10 on the morning of Friday, June 2nd, 1978, Charles Page spun the platen knob of the Smith Corona Classic 12 typewriter on his desk at the Arizona State Capitol pressroom. It advanced a roll of gray newsprint that fed in from the back. He pecked out a short sentence and spun the knob again so the words were visible above the paper holder. They read:

Mark Reid, 11:30 a.m., Clarendon House.

Page slid a reporter’s notebook in his back pocket, picked up his briefcase, and walked a block to his car.    A mile away at the newspaper building, the presses were about to start their run, putting out his afternoon paper, the Phoenix Gazette. He didn’t have a story in today’s edition. The committee hearing he covered this morning hadn’t produced news.

Outside, the temperature was already more than a hundred degrees, headed to a forecast high of 103. After stopping to make small talk with a state senator, he walked quickly across the plaza that separated the two chambers of the Legislature.

Page was a good-looking man, six-foot-two, still as slender at age forty-eight as he had been at twenty. His wavy hair was light brown, styled in an old-fashioned pompadour with more trendy sideburns. He favored leisure suits.

It couldn’t have taken him more than five minutes to reach the parking lot, where his nine-year-old red GTO was parked in a space reserved for the press.

His mother and father called him Charlie. But when he flew for the Air Force in Korea, he gained the nickname Buzz. This had less to do with being a pilot of F-86 Saber fighter jets than the fact that his squadron already had two other men named Charlie. One stayed Charlie, the second became Chuck, and he was christened Buzz. Charlie and Chuck were later shot down in dogfights against Russian-piloted MiGs near the Yalu River, both killed. He survived fifty-six combat missions, came home, graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and, after working at some small papers, found his spot at the Gazette.

There he made a name writing stories on land fraud and organized crime. He regularly scooped the bigger morning paper, the Arizona Republic. Even though both newspapers were owned by the Pulliam family, each competed fiercely against the other. His success on the land-fraud beat and the other prominent stories he wrote earned him another nickname, “Front Page,” from admiring colleagues. In recent years, he delved into RaceCo, a sports concession that ran the state’s greyhound dog racing tracks and had connections to organized crime. And in 1975, he produced “Strangers Among Us,” a five-day series of stories on the two hundred Mafia figures who had relocated to Phoenix in recent years. He named names, and how some were close to political leaders. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and enhanced Page’s national standing among his peers.

He wore the acclaim lightly. Buzz was unassuming, a good listener who seemed shy outside his circle of friends who knew him for his loud laugh and practical jokes. This caused the targets of his investigations to underestimate him, which was an advantage. But the results he got made him enemies. All the years of going through documents and sitting at a typewriter also cost him his fighter pilot eyesight. As a result, he wore black, horn-rimmed glasses. Women liked him.

Then the bosses suddenly moved him to cover the Legislature. That had been a year ago. The demands of investigative reporting cost him his first marriage. People who didn’t know him well believed he was happier to be out of the pressure cooker and the regular threatening phone calls and letters that came with his old beat. He stopped his ritual of putting scotch tape where the GTO’s hood met the fender—if the tape was broken, someone might have tampered with the engine, even placed a bomb there. Or that was what he told his friends and colleagues.

In fact, he hated the change. He was mostly bored. Nor did the capitol job keep him out of controversy. When the governor named the wealthy rancher Freeman Burke, Sr., to the state Racing Commission in 1977, Page wrote several stories on Burke’s unsavory past and how he had been the biggest contributor to the governor’s campaign. The Legislature refused to approve Burke for the board that regulated, among other things, dog racing.

I would learn later that “Front Page” was quietly working on a project that would get him back as the Gazette’s top investigative reporter. The week before, he had run into a colleague at a grocery store. He told her he was wrapping up “the story that will bring it all together, blow the lid off this town, finally.” Page was not given to bragging or superlatives. I would also learn that he was keeping a sheaf of sensitive material, too hot to keep in his desk at the capitol bureau or in the Gazette newsroom, much less unattended in his apartment. He moved it around, to hiding places only he knew.

He was on his way to meet a source at the Clarendon House Hotel in Midtown Phoenix, a couple of blocks north of Park Central shopping center. Buzz Page didn’t know what to make of Mark Reid. He was cautious. Reid was an enforcer for his old nemesis, Ned Warren. Page’s stories helped put Warren in prison on multiple counts of land fraud and bribery. This after years of well-documented crimes and foot-dragging by the County Attorney. Another red flag was that Reid hung out at the dog tracks. Page was convinced that pressure and threats from RaceCo had forced his bosses to send him to the Siberia of the capitol bureau.

On the other hand, Reid promised Page a piece of information that was critical to his big story. If he never talked to riffraff, he wouldn’t have half as many sources.

Their relationship went back two weeks, when a source of Page’s at the courts connected him with Reid. They met at The Islands, a bar on Seventh Street in Uptown. Reid said he had evidence that would connect organized crime and RaceCo to prominent local leaders: Congressman Sam Steiger, Senator Barry Goldwater, and Harry Rosenzweig, a long-time Republican boss and businessman. Page was skeptical. Steiger had been a good source on his land-fraud stories. Goldwater had always been friendly.

But his gut told him to see what Reid had to say. That meeting provided little. Reid said he needed time. He would contact the reporter when a man from Los Angeles visited. The mystery man had the details Reid had dangled. More than that, Reid seemed clued in when Page asked vague questions about his current story. Not enough to show his hand, but to elicit more information from Reid than the reporter gave away. The strand seemed promising.

The call came that morning. “Meet me at the Clarendon.”

Page probably avoided the straight shot north. That held too many bad memories. Not long before, his girlfriend Cindy had been killed by a train at the railroad crossing west of the six-points of Grand Avenue, Nineteenth Avenue, and McDowell Road. Friends said he stayed away from that intersection as if it were radioactive. They didn’t know how he continued to work, he was so grief stricken over her death.

Instead, he went east to downtown, ran a quick errand, and then, back in the car, drove north on Third Avenue. It was a little more than a mile and a half to the Clarendon, through the old residential neighborhoods that were declining—at some point the Papago Freeway was coming through. Midtown, with its new high-rises along Central Avenue and busy Park Central mall, was vibrant, the place to be. Sometimes Page went to the Playboy Club, drank bourbon on the rocks and looked out at the lights of the city. More often, he had lunch at the Phoenix Press Club. Unless it was necessary to meet a source, he tended to stay away from the nearby bars where the mobsters and lawyers drank.

Around 11:30 a.m., Page swung the GTO into the second line of spaces behind the hotel and parked. It was an unshaded surface lot like most of those in Phoenix, no tree to keep the car cool as with his capitol parking spot, but nothing could be done. The asphalt lagoon was empty of people and only about one-third full of cars. No sign of Reid. The lunch crowd had yet to arrive.

Reid wasn’t inside, either.

Page waited inside the lobby for fifteen minutes and then heard his name being called from the front desk.  He picked up the white courtesy phone and heard Mark Reid’s voice.

“The meeting’s off for today,” Reid said. “The guy from LA chickened out. Maybe I can talk him into it later.”

“Well, thanks for calling at least. Let me know if he changes his mind.”

Page put the phone down and walked back out into the heat. There was time to have lunch at the Press Club. He slid into the GTO, started the car, and backed out. The car rolled fifteen feet in reverse when the explosion came. It ripped upward, slightly ahead of the driver’s seat, blowing out the glass of the driver’s side window.

The sharp sound could be heard a mile away. The explosion shattered all the windows on the Clarendon that faced the parking lot. Hubcaps and other auto parts were strewn across the asphalt, while a blue haze hung over the area. Witnesses recalled the blood, so much blood, a man calling, “Help me, help me!” and a hunk of bloodied flesh the size of a baseball lying twenty feet from the car.

Within ten minutes, fire trucks arrived, then an ambulance. Page was still conscious as they pulled him out and carefully placed him on a stretcher. His body below the waist was a mangle of burns and smashed bones in a soup of blood. His left arm was barely attached to his shoulder. His face was gray with ash and shock. His eyes were wide and unfocused. The EMTs and firefighters applied large trauma dressings and tried to stanch the bleeding.

St. Joseph’s Hospital was less than a half-mile away. As they laid him flat, trying to keep his limbs together, he screamed in pain. But words came, too, through clenched teeth. He fought to get every syllable out.

“They finally got me,” he gasped. Then louder: “Reid, Mafia, RaceCo! Find Mark Reid…”

Then he passed out. But even unconscious, he twitched and moaned.

Later, a veteran Phoenix detective would say he had never seen a human being who suffered so much.

They finally got me. Reid, Mafia, RaceCo! Find Mark Reid.

Those were the last words he spoke.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

The weather is strange and a second lock is being installed on my office door.

“Give me an hour, at least,” the maintenance guy said. “County’s very picky about these doors, everything in the building, see? It’s historic. Plus, there’s other stuff….”

I asked him why I needed another lock. What was the “other stuff”?

“Work order.” He waved a piece of paper at me, as if that explained anything. When I didn’t take it, he turned to his tools, stored in a rolling rig like a suitcase.

I did feel proprietary about my space, even though  the taxpayers owned it. My office in the 1929 Maricopa County Courthouse was not the expansive room I had taken over when I first came back to the Sheriff’s Office. In those days, the building was largely empty, and I rather liked it that way, communing with the ghosts of old Phoenix a floor below the former jail. Among the former inmates: Ernesto Miranda.

When the county began an extensive remodeling a few years ago, the building was reclaimed and my old office became a courtroom. The replacement was decent, a fourth-floor room at the end of long mahogany hallway lit by hanging period lamps. It offered spacious ceilings and tall windows overlooking First Avenue. The door was crowned with a transom. I furnished it with a desk and swivel chair, two straight-backed chairs in front, and a six-foot-long lawyer’s table, all in dark cherry wood fitting the period. I added bookshelves, file cabinets, a small refrigerator, and a Bose speaker. The furniture was aged and dinged, scrounged from county storage, but it fit and I liked it. On one wall, I had a large combination cork-board and white board. And I had brought back my photograph of Sheriff Carl Hayden from 1909, placing  it squarely behind my desk. I could turn and look at him when I needed inspiration. Outside the door was a placard that read:

DEPUTY DAVID MAPSTONE
Sheriff’s Office Historian
Mike Peralta, Sheriff

Now I left the workman to his work order and singing drill. The hall opened onto the atrium and I took the curving staircase down, appreciating the Spanish tile, chandeliers, and carved ceilings, polished and restored   to their original grandeur. That was when Phoenix had a population of forty-eight thousand, and this was one of the most impressive results from a decade of building—a combination county courthouse and Phoenix City Hall. The staircase, like its companion on the opposite side of the tall atrium, rose against the walls like a necklace. When I reached the second floor, looking down into the ornate lobby, I saw a man with horns waiting to go through the metal detectors. Yes, horns. He was red. Red sleeveless T-shirt, reddish tint to his tan.

It wasn’t supposed to be this obvious. I remembered

Broadcast News. The devil would be attractive, nice, and helpful, dress well like William Hurt. Great movie, sad scene. And Baudelaire said the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. But subtlety didn’t play in Phoenix.

I studied the man. The horns protruded from beneath his shaved scalp, one on each side. Maybe they were a birth defect or perhaps they had been implanted from the same artist who had inked his muscled-up right arm. Another elaborate tat snaked up from inside the shirt onto his neck. Maybe he was the chief executive for a tech startup or maybe he was a defendant who had somehow made bail. One never knew today. I didn’t think he was an over-enthusiastic Sun Devils fan.

But the sight made me stop and tense. He was third  in a line of eight people, waiting to go through the metal detectors. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he kept nervously looking around. But he didn’t think to look up, so he didn’t see me.

Courthouse shootings were well established on the menu of national mayhem and I wondered if it was about to be our time. He wasn’t wearing a trench coat concealing a shotgun or an assault rifle, nothing that obvious. But would we be the mass shooting of the week? The deputies at the security checkpoint were watching him, too. I couldn’t see his left arm and hand. He seemed to be deliberately keeping them at his side, out of the deputies’ sight. Or he might have a gun tucked behind him in his waist- band. If things went sideways, I could probably get a good aim point. But the black, wrought-iron railing provided no cover. I would get one chance to drop him. I slowed my breathing but could feel my heart thudding and my mouth was dry.

Cops under stress were always in danger of tunnel vision, only seeing the threat immediately in front of them. He might have been a distraction. I scanned the lobby inside the front doors and the people waiting in line to get in the building. The woman behind him looked iffy, torn jeans and a zip-up hoodie. She swung down a backpack and reached inside. I was about to crouch and reach for my weapon when her hand came out and it only held an ID card on a lanyard, which she slipped over her hoodie. A county employee.

A deputy stepped forward and stopped the reddish man before he went through the metal detector. He ran a wand over each horn. The nervous head finally looked up and gave me a prison-yard glare. A dyed blond scraggly goatee hung from his chin like a tumbleweed. I stared back.

These days, I looked like the freak. No ink-slinger  had touched my skin. I was wearing a navy pinstripe  suit, starched white dress shirt, and the Ben Silver Old Albanians regimental tie, that one a gift from Lindsey this past Christmas. I was a living anachronism. Virginia Woolf said that “on or about December 1910, human character changed.” I couldn’t pinpoint a date. Maybe it was September 11th, 2001, or the presidential election  of 2016, or when smartphones ate an entire generation’s brain, when the joylessness of post-modern American life locked into place. But I felt the same, despite my historian training that nothing was new under the sun. Human character had changed, at least for Americans.

The suitcoat was cut roomy, so he couldn’t see my semi-automatic pistol. I had reluctantly put my Colt Python .357 magnum revolver in storage at home. It was too damned heavy. The new gun, a Springfield Armory XD, was small enough to fit in my hand or pocket, although I kept it in a Galco Summer Comfort holster on my belt. A gift from the demand generated by the “concealed-carry movement.” I had abandoned my fear of a semi-auto jamming at the wrong moment. Chambered for .45 caliber, the new pistol had as much stopping power as the big Colt plus more ammo: nine rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. He also couldn’t detect the Smith & Wesson Airweight .38 revolver, strapped in an ankle holster, my backup gun. The suitcoat concealed the gold deputy’s star on my belt, too. Accessories make the man, but to anyone looking up, I appeared to be an overly formal lawyer.

The horned man stepped through the metal detector without incident. The devil was in the building. I took the last flight of stairs and walked through the lobby.

Outside, it was in the high seventies. In Phoenix. The first week of June. If this was climate change, count me in. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was for an unseasonably warm 110 degrees or hotter later in the week.

I enjoyed being outside while I could, sitting on the ledge of the Jack Swilling fountain and listening to the trickle of water. I had a stack of unsolved homicides on my desk, each case compiled in the binders called murder books. I could have brought one. Instead, I unfolded the Arizona Republic and scanned the newspaper. There was less and less to it, short articles, reporters with millennial first names, journalists that I didn’t know. Things were so crazy in the nation and world, it was painful to read the paper now. Things in Phoenix seemed normal.

Over in Maryvale, seven killings were linked to the same perpetrator. Phoenix PD was reluctant to say they had another serial killer. A couple in the San Tan area, southeast of Phoenix, had been arrested for abandoning their baby while they played Pokemon Go. An angry husband in Glendale burned down his house, with his wife and baby inside.

Another day in paradise.

Next I read a story about an event last night to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the car-bombing death of Phoenix Gazette reporter Charles Page. This made me feel old. I couldn’t believe it had been forty years. The Gazette was the afternoon newspaper with a focus on the city. Page was a famous investigative reporter. The assassination briefly exposed the city’s extensive underworld. Then life went on. Millions more people came from the Midwest and probably few had heard of the Page murder.

I wondered if the case were still open.

Reviews of

The Bomb Shelter: A David Mapstone Mystery #9

“Talton celebrates investigative reporting and deplores the real-estate development that has damaged Phoenix as he delves into the dirty past and politics of the city. The ninth entry in a justly praised series.”

Booklist

“As noted in an introduction, the real-life case of Arizona reporter Don Bolles, one of only a few American journalists murdered in the U.S. in modern times, is the inspiration for Talton’s lively ninth mystery featuring former history professor turned Phoenix sheriff’s deputy David Mapstone (after 2015’s High Country Nocturne). After attending an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of reporter Charles Page, blown up by a car bomb in 1978, Sheriff Mike Peralta, Mapstone’s boss, receives a threatening text: solve the unsolved Page case or your family will suffer the consequences. Peralta asks Mapstone to investigate, and soon he’s on the trail of a series of brutal murders of people who are in some way involved with the decades-old case. Through Mapstone’s wryly witty first-person narrative, Talton expresses his genuine love of Phoenix as it once was, as well as his exasperated but tolerant attachment to the city as it is today. Clear writing, an intricate plot, and credible characters make this entry a winner.”

Publishers Weekly

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