Dead Air


One of the world's most intrepid journalists, Charles Jaco has risked his life reporting from behind the borders of more than forty countries. Jaco knows firsthand the shady politics that often hide the truth from the public. Now, in Dead Air, his first novel, he blends international intrigue with a chillingly plausible plot to create the most action-packed thriller of the year.

Summer 1990. Saddam Hussein is stockpiling an arsenal of terror. ...
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1998 Paperback Grade: B Catalog: Fiction Thriller General Synopsis: 292 pages. Veteran TV correspondent Peter Dees-hard-living, wisecracking, hungry for a scoop-seizes upon a ... story that could rock the world. Deep... Read more Show Less

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One of the world's most intrepid journalists, Charles Jaco has risked his life reporting from behind the borders of more than forty countries. Jaco knows firsthand the shady politics that often hide the truth from the public. Now, in Dead Air, his first novel, he blends international intrigue with a chillingly plausible plot to create the most action-packed thriller of the year.

Summer 1990. Saddam Hussein is stockpiling an arsenal of terror. Someone is covertly selling him the chemicals needed to make deadly biological weapons. Veteran TV correspondent Peter Dees—hard-living, wisecracking, eager for a break—seizes the story. But his sources, many of them his friends, are dying one by one, shot in the head execution-style.

Determined to uncover the truth behind these slayings, Dees himself becomes a target in an insidious emerging plot. From Port-au-Prince and Cairo to the scorched deserts of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Dees finds the conspiracy much deeper than he ever imagined as he discovers a shocking secret hidden inside a murdered producer's computer file. Then, along with the sassy, canny, and beautiful TV producer Melinda Adams, Dees's search for answers propels him into the very heart of a death-charred war zone.

Yet as Dees scrambles to piece together a story that could rock the world, he senses powerful forces closing in on him. For it seems that everyone—even the U.S. government—masks deep, damning secrets. And the closer Dees gets to the truth, the likelier it becomes that he will never get out of the country alive.

In his riveting novel of suspense, laced through with biting humor and a breakneck pace, Jaco captures the spirit ofthe men and women who report—and sometimes shape—the major events of the world in a novel you will never forget.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Someone is secretly selling chemical and biological weapons to Saddam Hussein, and it's up to big-time TV war correspondent Peter Dees to make the story headlines.
Kirkus Reviews
First-timer Jaco, a former CNN reporter now with his own St. Louis-based radio program, is one among the many journalists lately turning to fictionþin his case, not with great success. Veteran TV correspondent Peter Dees suddenly finds himself in possession of explosive information involving an international conspiracyþat the center of which is none other than Saddam Hussein. Itþs no secret that this figure out of the universal nightmare has been stockpiling weapons of mass you-know-what. But now Dees learns that a villainous American company has been working hand in glove with the Iraqi dictator, that certain senior officials in the US government have been steadfastly looking the other way, and that friends and colleagues Dees thought trustworthy are hiding agendas of a most nefarious kind. As for Dees himself, what heþs got is a disk containing enough hot information to incinerate a variety of ardently regarded vested interests. To lay hold of it, enemies shoot at Dees, beat him up, and attempt in various ways to suborn and corrupt him. But who is Peter Dees? What manner of man is he? Is "the big story" all he ever yearns for? In short, where is the fleshing out that might have distinguished him from any other standard-issue thriller-protagonist? These answers the author keeps to himself. Jaco collected the basic ingredients, mixed them in the pot, added dollops of gore, tinctures of clinical sex, stirred vigorously, and brought to a boil. And another potboiler is what we get. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345421845
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/1/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: 1 MASS MKT
  • Pages: 292
  • Product dimensions: 4.23 (w) x 6.93 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Jaco gained worldwide fame with his reports of SCUD attacks on Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. During a career with NBC, CNN, and CBS, Jaco has covered nine wars, a half-dozen riots, and countless earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. He has also covered Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and various intelligence agencies. He was declared an Enemy of the State by Manuel Noriega, and persona non grata by regimes in Iraq and the Sudan. He has won two Edward R. Murrow awards, six National Headliner awards, and two dozen other national and international journalism awards; two programs on which he worked have received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. He has written for dozens of publications, including Rolling Stone, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and the Miami Herald. He currently hosts his own radio show on KMOX in St. Louis. This is his first novel.
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Read an Excerpt

Richard Marmelstein's voice had a gasping urgency to it, even over the
scratchy Haitian phone line.

"I need to meet you now. The casino bar in the El Rancho. How fast can you
get here?"

Peter Dees said he could make it in five minutes. In the three years he
and Marmelstein had worked together as a reporter-producer team in network
television—from being shot down in a Salvadoran army helicopter to
talking their way past bandits in Afghanistan—his producer had never
sounded panicked, until now.

"In the bar?" Dees asked. Marmelstein had been a legendary drunk in the
press corps until a year ago, when he'd staggered to his room at the
Managua Intercon with two hookers and passed out with them in the
oversized bathtub. The overflowing water caused the ceiling in the room
below to collapse, leaving GlobeStar Television—known universally as
GTV—with a bill for ten thousand dollars.

Dees had spent the better part of a day explaining to corporate
headquarters in Phoenix why Marmelstein had emerged from his room stark
naked and tried to brain a Nicaraguan security guard with a champagne

Marmelstein had almost been fired. In the year since then, he had dried
out, drank nothing stronger than club soda, and avoided bars like the

"Yeah, in the bar," Marmelstein said to Dees now. "I'll feel safer there."

"Safer? Dick, what—" The line went dead.

Dees quickly pulled on his threadbare khaki sport coat, with its three
hiddenpockets inside, and raced out of his hotel room.

The sinking orange sun softened the vividly colored riot of soggy flowers
and greenery, jet-black faces, and displays of primitive street paintings
into a pastel haze. As Dees ground the gears of the Diahatsu, his throat
tickled from the miasma of burning vegetation, rotting garbage, human
feces, and diesel fumes that hung over Port-au-Prince like a damp wool
blanket. He glanced in his rearview mirror. Three weeks in Haiti, and so
far only his nose was suffering—both from the odors and from being
moderately sunburned. He pulled into the casino parking lot, locked the
car, then walked through the entrance into the bar.

Scanning the room for Marmelstein, he saw the dwarf. His name tag said
Emile Pluvius, but everyone called him Tigwo—in Creole, "Little Big."
Dark as the mahogany tables, Tigwo was discreetly adjusting a
nine-millimeter pistol inside his waistband; finished, he gave his white
waiter's jacket a precise tug.

As the dwarf started to turn he caught sight of Dees and a lopsided smile
cracked his face. "Monsieur Peter," he said, advancing.

"Tigwo." Dees nodded. "Seen Monsieur Richard?"

"No, mon cher. But I just came on duty."

"I see your brother and ten cousins are doing well." Dees nodded toward
the gun and ten-shell clip in the bulging cummerbund.

Tigwo looked grave. "As Baby Doc used to say, 'Strong and firm as a
monkey's tail.'"

Dees spotted Marmelstein at a table in the corner. His green shirt was
soaked with sweat, and he stared at the ice in his club soda.

"Drink?" Tigwo asked.

"You still cutting the Barbancourt with formaldehyde?"

"Not me personally." Tigwo shrugged. "Some of our custom-ers like the
effect. But we do have a few bottles of trois etoile untouched."

Dees held three fingers together. "Straight. I'll be with Monsieur Richard
over there."

As Dees walked to the table, Marmelstein looked up. His brown eyes were
ringed with dark circles, and worry creases ran halfway up his almost bald
skull. "Peter. You're here."

Dees sat. "Now that you've disposed of the obvious, are you okay?"

"No." Marmelstein shook his head. "No. Somebody's trying to kill me."

"What? When?"

"About half an hour ago. I'm in my room, the one with the red bathtub that
looks like an Asbury Park whorehouse. I bend over to pick up some dirty
socks, and wham." He slapped his palm on the table, rattling the ice in
the club soda. "Three bullets come busting through the window and blow the
shit outta the mirror. I flatten. Nothing. I call you."

Dees's mind raced across the stories they had filed from Haiti—a profile
on the post-Baby Doc president Ertha Troulott, two pieces on radical
priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his chances in December's elections, a
voodoo feature, and a piece questioning U.S. complicity with the
pro-Duvalier thugs who ran commerce at the city's port. Those stories
alone, he figured, had probably made them enough enemies to last a

"So who? The Macutes? Stray shots?"

Marmelstein shook his head vigorously. "No. I got a phone call about half
an hour before."

Puzzled, Dees ran his fingers over his brush-cut hair. "And ..." he

Tigwo delivered Dees's drink and glanced at Marmelstein, who held his palm
over the top of the club soda. As Dees handed the dwarf a filthy
fifty-gourde note, he thought he saw the waiter shoot Marmelstein an acid
glance, and decided he was getting paranoid.

Tigwo walked off. Marmelstein stared at Dees. "And I taped the call. It's
not Macutes. It's—" He stopped, then abruptly said, "Look, the tape's in
my room. You still carry that microcassette recorder?"

Dees nodded.

With his foot, Marmelstein shoved something against Dees's leg. "That's my
laptop. Hold on to it until I get back. It's very important."

"Get back?"

"Yeah. I'm gonna get the tape for you. You listen. Tell me what you think."

Dees downed the rum. No embalming fluid. "I think I'd better go with you.
If somebody's trying to shoot—"

"No. I figure I'm okay now that the place is jumping and there are people
around. Just sit tight. And don't let that computer get out of your sight.
There's something in my files you need to see." Marmelstein got up and
loped off.

He had been protective of the laptop ever since he received it via air
freight from Phoenix two weeks before. His old laptop had died in the
Managua hotel flood, and he'd been requesting a replacement for months,
without success.

That, Dees had reasoned, might have been because McKinley Burke,
pharmaceutical magnate turned global broadcast mogul, had frozen the GTV
capital budget due to some unspecified difficulties in buying his very own
satellite from the Indonesians.

Since receiving the computer, though, his producer had seemed distracted,
Dees thought. Marmelstein would either vanish to his room for hours or sit
by the direct phone line to the U.S. During the occasional call,
Marmelstein would talk quietly and scribble furiously. Dees had asked if
something was up, and was told only that it might be another story, a big
one, that they could work on if they ever got out of this shithole.

Dees watched Marmelstein disappear into the now dark courtyard, headed for
a facing building where the stairs ran up to his second-floor room.

Tigwo set his tray on a table and walked through a side door. As soon as
he was outside he moved fast, scurrying around the far side of the casino.
He saw Marmelstein standing by the courtyard fountain and realized the
white man was pissing into it.

Marmelstein zipped up and walked toward the stairway. He had just placed
his right hand on the handrail and begun to climb the steps when Tigwo ran
to the shadowed stairs, pulled his pistol from his crimson cummerbund, and
fired. The light craacck from the nine-millimeter disappeared amid the
casino and traffic noise.

Marmelstein's hand slapped the back of his head as if swatting a giant
mosquito. The slug had already burrowed through the cerebral cortex,
heaving torn gray matter and blood vessels out of its way like a mole
attacking a vegetable garden. It stopped just short of exiting, lodging
behind the occipital bone on the right side of his forehead. Marmelstein
landed on his back with a surprisingly soft plop.

Tigwo's crepe-soled shoes squeaked on the step. His victim was still
breathing, but in ragged gasps. The dwarf stood over him, and Marmelstein
twitched, as if trying to get out of the way.

Tigwo fired the pistol again, shooting out Marmelstein's left eye. Blood
and viscera erupted from the socket like a tiny volcano. He picked up the
two spent shell casings, jammed his hand into Marmelstein's right pocket,
and took out his room key and a wad of bills, both U.S. and Haitian. He
removed Marmelstein's chunky Tag Heuer watch, then sprinted up the stairs
to room 209.

After opening the door with the key, he found the tape lyingon the
dresser, took it, and rushed back downstairs. Tigwo tugged onthe body
then, grunting as he dragged it from the steps to a deep and darkly
recessed doorway that led from the courtyard to the outside. He paused,
wiped the sweat from his forehead, took deep breaths, then managed to get
the body through the door and across a walkway to the edge of a small
gully that ran parallel to the hotel.

He gave it a heave. Marmelstein's body rolled three times before hanging
up on a datura bush about ten feet down the slope.

Tigwo smiled.

It was ten minutes before the son of a Haitian army general, home from
college in Montreal, decided he wanted head from a Dominican hooker who
was willing to fellate, nothing more, for twenty dollars.

He pulled her by her arm toward the bushes at the top of the dark slope,
where neither of them would have to waste too much time before getting
back to business inside. She was hoping to turn a trick with one of the
American periodistas, or relief workers, or at worst, one of the French
diplomats. He wanted to return to the roulette table to recoup some of his
three-hundred-dollar loss, but before that he wanted something to take the
edge off the combination of a noseful of blow and three shots of
preservative-laced rum.

He saw Marmelstein before the hooker did, and stopped cold, blinking his
eyes and rocking unsteadily on the balls of his feet. She spotted the body
then and screamed, then screamed again, and again, until he turned and hit
her with the back of his hand. The blow caused her to howl even more,
which finally brought two security guards at a run. When they saw the
body, they stood rock still for a moment before gesticulating wildly and
arguing loudly about whether to call the police or the army first.

Dees had been sitting in the bar, drumming his fingers, waiting, when he
heard the screams. He looked straight ahead, at where the bar emptied into
the casino, and saw three blue-uniformed police officers wearing
olive-colored U.S. surplus helmets. They stormed past a roulette table,
then through sliding plate-glass doors that opened onto the courtyard.

Standing up, Dees reached down and grabbed the faded blue, soft-sided
computer case. He dashed after the police, elbowing his way through the
gathering crowd of casino workers and customers. At the edge of the gully,
his worst fear confirmed, he dropped the laptop and slid down the incline.
Marmelstein's face was lit by pale yellow beams from the police
flashlights. Dees shuddered and tried to speak, but could only gasp. His
hand was shaking too hard to close the remaining eye.

As he climbed back up the rocky slope on all fours, he heard a distinctly
American-accented voice. "... avec l'embassade americain. Un americain
mort, la juridiction americain, mon cher."

The American was imperially slim, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, his
black hair and eyebrows framing an aquiline nose. Behind him were two
other Americans, beefy, with sunburns and bristly military-style haircuts.
The thin one was Dennis Kingen; the other two were identified as embassy

Kingen aimed his flashlight down the gully at Marmelstein.

"Except for that mess over his eye, he looks almost natural."

Dees realized the shaking had spread from his hand to his entire body. He
sat heavily on the ground and fished a Marlboro from his pocket. It took
three tries before the brass Zippo stopped shaking enough to light the
cigarette. He gulped in air and tobacco smoke.

"I met his mother last year," he said, glancing up at Kingen, then back
down at the body. "We went to her place in Union City ... in New Jersey.
She told me she was glad he had a friend like me to help him stop
drinking. ... Oh shit."

Kingen pursed his lips. Two days before, driving an embassy car, he'd
pulled Dees and Marmelstein from a crowd of a dozen dockside thugs who
were unhappy with the GTV crew shooting them. That night, over drinks,
Dees had thanked him and told him his title as trade attache was as
transparent as gin.

"I'm one of the duty officers tonight," Kingen said, not looking down at
Dees. "We picked up the Haitian police radio traffic. What happened?"

Dees sketched his conversation with Marmelstein. Kingen raised his
eyebrows when Dees mentioned the tape.

"Taped it? A little paranoid?"

Dees felt himself flush. "Look," he snapped, "I'd say he had a goddamned
good reason for being paranoid. The phone call, whatever it was, scared
the shit out of him. Dick didn't scare easily."

Kingen aimed his flashlight back down the gully. "Looks like maybe he
should have."

He nodded at the other Americans, who began to scramble down the slope.

"Hold it!" Dees barked.

They turned and stared. Dees slid down the ravine on his butt. Ignoring
the two embassy guards, he gently placed one arm under Marmelstein's
knees, the other around his back. With a grunt, he forced his aching knees
up, holding the 180-pound body in his throbbing arms. The body swung from
side to side as he made his way up the slope, step by step. Dees was
gasping for air when he finally stood eye-to-eye with Kingen. As he hugged
the body close, Dees thought he could feel it starting to cool already.

"Where do you want to take him?" he asked.

"Canape Vert. We need to get the body away from here, out of the heat."

Without a word, Dees carried the body to the embassy's Chevy Suburban. The
two burly Americans opened the door, and he placed the body inside.

Walking back to the casino, he saw Kingen pick up the laptop. "Whoa," Dees
said, rushing over to grab the strap.

Kingen didn't release his grip. "Evidence in the murder of an American

Dees continued to clutch the strap. "Dick told me to keep an eye on it. If
there's anything in it that helps, I'll call."

Kingen released the strap as Tigwo pushed to the front of the crowd.
Kingen turned, seemed to study the dwarf briefly, looked out over the
gathered heads and barked, "Back! Stand back!"

The crowd thinned. Kingen turned back to Dees. "Seems to me you'd better
notify your people. Meet me at Canape Vert when you can."

Dees trudged inside, sat at the phone that provided a direct AT&T link to
the U.S., and called Phoenix. He gave the international desk the details,
and filed an ad-libbed telephone track. He was assured that it would not
air until Marmelstein's family in New Jersey had been notified.

A voice on the other end said, "Peter, hang on. Mac wants to talk to you."

Dees suddenly felt exhausted, dulled. Mac? Oh shit. McKinley Burke.
Broadcasting visionary, billionaire times two, mild psychotic, his boss.
Oh shit.

"Hello? Peter Dees?" A rumbling, clipped western accent. "This is Mac
Burke," he said needlessly. "I'm sending a charter jet to Haiti in two
days. I want you and your crew and the body—what was his name?"

"Dick. Richard. Marmelstein. He was from Union City. New Jersey."

"Right, Marmelstein. All of you are to be here in Phoenix in two days.
I've gotten clearance. Understand?"

"I need to be here for a while. I'm going to find out who killed—"

"Goddammit, I don't give a fuck about what you need!" Burke bellowed,
clearing the line's static for an instant. "I sign your fucking paycheck!
Get your ass here with the body or get fired! Got me?"

Dees stared at an ant struggling with a bread crumb on the mahogany
reception desk. "Look, I need to find—"

The phone clicked dead. What the hell, he thought, he hated long good-byes

Dees skidded the dented Diahatsu four-wheel-drive to a stop in the
courtyard of Canape Vert hospital. It was the only place where whites and
embassy people came when they were sick, the only place with a
refrigerated morgue. The embassy's Chevy Suburban was parked nearby.

He muscled his way past crowds of Haitians jamming the emergency room
area. As he flashed his press ID and passport, he spotted Kingen talking
to the pair of buzz-cut Americans who had driven the body to the morgue.

Kingen motioned to Dees, and opened the door of what was normally a
doctor's office, blessedly cool, thanks to a grinding window air

"What happened?" Dees asked flatly. He was too tired to yell.

Kingen eyed him for a moment, then took a plastic bag from his pocket and
tossed it on the metal desk with a thunk. It contained a misshapen piece
of metal, a little blood, three brown hairs, and flecks of ghastly gray
material that looked like uncooked sausage.

Dees fought off a wave of nausea. He eyed the wastebasket in the corner,
just in case.

Kingen leaned against the door, arms folded. "Nine-millimeter. Close
range. Seems like a robbery."

He looked quizzically at Dees, who stared back.

"Robbery? Robbery, my ass," Dees said. "We've done a series of stories
that've pissed off the bozos down at the docks, the Haitian military, the
embassy, and Christ knows who else. That's a pretty good suspect list to
start with."

"This slug was from the back, close range. His money and ID are gone. So
it's robbery."

"Robbery? What about the left eye? You tell me, Sherlock, why somebody
would do that."

Kingen shrugged. "Revenge? Voodoo?"

"And what about his call to me? And the tape. You find the tape?"

Kingen shook his head. "It may be political, but we won't know until we
shake some of the trees around here. To keep things simple, we put it on
paper as robbery."

Dees plopped into a metal office chair. "They don't kill white people in
this country. There's no street crime, at least the kind we're used to.
Voodoo means ceremonies of some sort, blood or entrails or feathers spread
around. So that leaves politics, and the stories we've done. What
happened? And who gave you permission to do an autopsy?"

"I gave permission. And I'm all the permission we need around here."

The two men glared at each other. The only noise was the bent fan blade
inside the a/c clattering against something.

"And," Kingen finally said, "it's probably a robbery." He paused.
"Anything in the computer that might help us?"

"You seem pretty concerned about a laptop. I haven't had a chance to look
yet. I've got a couple of days to check it. I've been ordered—"

"I know. Get Marmelstein's stuff, I've given the okay, and when your
boss's plane arrives, we'll help with the body, take it home. I'm heading
back to Washington next week, for good, I hope. My parting gift was to
clear the paperwork."

"How'd you know about the plane?"

A long pause. "I'm paid to know. Travel safely."

They shook hands, and Dees trudged to the Diahatsu, slapped it into gear,
and ground his way up Avenue John Brown toward the hotel.

He glanced at the computer that Marmelstein had gotten by accident. The
hotel fax had crashed, so Marmelstein had requested the home office to air
freight a bundle of clips on voodoo and Haitian politics to him. When he
opened the box, he discovered that he'd received a computer. A work slip
on the case indicated it had been repaired and was destined for the GTV
executive offices, no name attached.

Marmelstein had joked that some schmuck in the Phoenix executive suites
was waiting for a computer and instead ended up with a bundle of magazine
and newspaper articles on politics and voodoo in Haitian society. Too bad,
he'd told Dees, but if those cheap assholes didn't want to buy field crews
computers, he'd just keep this one and they could try to find it.

Traffic had stopped. Dees craned his neck to see what could be causing a
midnight jam. Then he began to inch forward, and as he crawled past a
large banyan tree by the roadside, he saw a crowd around a body, a black
body. A very short Haitian, he thought. A woman was screaming and crying
over it.

Great. Another dead Haitian. These poor bastards. The paramilitaries or
the Macutes or the army or some voodoo was always killing them. He glanced
again, and caught a glimpse of a familiar tiny jacket. He jerked to a stop
on the shoulder and got out.

He saw the lifeless eyes of the Haitian staring up at the banyan, a
splotch of red on his white waiter's jacket; Dees had heard that the
little man always carefully washed and pressed the jacket each day when he
got home from work. More red stained the face.

He'd been shot through the heart. A bloody, hollow socket where his left
eye had been was already attracting flies. His mother wailed over the
body. She was of normal size, but some genetic anomaly—or maybe the
voodoo loas that floated through the countryside—had decreed that she
would have only one child, and he would be a dwarf.

"Tigwo," she screamed, pressing her head to the matted blood on his chest.

The howl echoed off a stone wall across the road. It faded. Somewhere, a
rooster crowed, several hours ahead of the sunrise.
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