Sabotage threatens the profits of industrial giant McAllister Enterprises. Twice already, accounting errors have forced the company to drop out of $100 million deals, and both times a competing firm, the Aegis Group, swooped in to take over. The CEO suspects industrial espionage, and the obvious suspect is division director Austin Haas, who declined a job offer from Aegis six months ago but may be working for them from the inside. Before firing Haas, the CEO wants to be sure. In this industry, when you want to be sure, you call Devlin Kirk. Kirk, an ex-Secret Service agent, is struggling to establish his new private security agency. He doesn’t like McAllister and he doesn’t like the case, but debts are mounting against his small firm, and his client list is too short to say no. When Haas is found shot in an apparent suicide, things move from legal to lethal.
About the Author
Once a monthly mystery review columnist in the Rocky Mountain News, Burns has also written nonfiction and hosted the Mystery Channel’s Anatomy of a Mystery. He lives and writes in Boulder, Colorado.
Read an Excerpt
A Devlin Kirk Mystery
By Rex Burns
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns
All rights reserved.
Michael Loomis—professor Loomis—shut down his Audi Quattro with the same precision he used to dismember critics of his theory on short-range economic growth: first the windshield wipers and lights to leave us in the dark, then he choked off the radio's voice, killed the throb of the motor, and gave a hefty pull on the emergency brake to leave nothing to chance.
"Please realize, Devlin," his face was a blurry shadow as he turned toward me. "This could be a very big opportunity for you."
"I appreciate that, Professor. But I'd like to meet the client and hear what he wants before taking the job."
"You won't be judging Mr. McAllister. He will judge you." The shadow turned into a profile and stared through the windshield. "And please understand, my boy: I'm not doing this just because your father and I were friends, but because I know that despite your youth and relative inexperience, you are very capable at your—ah—profession."
Outside, the darkness was made blacker by the steady drizzle of an early September rain that threatened to congeal into sleet, and through it I made out the scattered lights of a sprawling mansion. My apartment would probably fit into one of its rooms and still leave space to park my rebuilt Austin-Healy 3000. And in fact, the 3000 would probably be more at home here than anything else in my rooms, including me. It promised to be the kind of job most security agencies would drool over, the kind a new agency like Kirk and Associates could only dream about for that mythical time called Someday. Yet here I was, and I wasn't all that happy; the professor had a way of making it seem like I would owe him if McAllister hired me. We needed the work—any new agency needed anything it could get. But I didn't need one with strings, and the reservations I'd felt earlier when I talked to Loomis on the telephone came back stronger as I stared through the rain.
A pair of electric carriage lamps flicked on to show a semicircular porch penning the doorway behind an arc of columns. The porch roof was too high to keep the rain from blowing in but it wasn't built for practicality, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see a Truman balcony nesting somewhere in those tall columns. It was no surprise at all to find a screaming eagle pinched between the wooden horns of the door's scrolled pediment. "I won't embarrass you by washing my socks in the punch bowl. But I want to make up my own mind about who I work for, Professor. That's one of the reasons I'm in this racket."
The glow from the porch lights deepened the two lines that ran down from the corners of his mouth toward his chin. They made his jaw seem to move with the stiff mobility of a ventriloquist's dummy. "You could have had the same freedom by being an attorney, as your father wanted."
Leave it to Loomis to bring up my father and that whole wad of soreness and regret about law school and his dream for me. I'd dropped out because of boredom, but my father never really understood that. He worked too hard to know what boredom was; his life had been one of early struggle and long and careful effort to give his only son all those things he never had. But he couldn't give me what I really wanted: something called adventure. How to say that my life felt dry and wasted when I faced another mountain of books? How to put that restless aching, that yearning to be out from under into words that wouldn't sound trite and corny? Or, worse, immature. It sounded as impractical as that time in high school when I loaded up a backpack and started to walk east across America because it hurt with a deep pang to know there were all those places to see and I hadn't been there yet.
"It's the age, Devlin," my father had said. "All the turmoil, the chaos in the streets and on television. You were at the top of your college class—you're in a first rate law school. Just finish your degree—three short years—then you can do what you want to and you'll have a career to fall back on."
But I hadn't. Instead I applied to the FBI, who wouldn't have me—no law degree—and the Secret Service, and while I was waiting to hear, I became a cop. To get law-enforcement experience, I told my father, and—though I didn't admit it aloud—to do some good for somebody. The waiting turned into three years during which time I did what good I could, but it wasn't much. And though I had spurned my father's dream for me, he never reminded me that I could have finished law school by the time the Service accepted me. But he didn't have to, and after that it was too late. I wasn't home often, after that. I wasn't home when he needed me most.
"I like being disreputable. That's a kind of freedom no lawyer can afford."
"This is not a subject for levity, Devlin. You have the same stubbornness as your father. If he'd listened to me, your future would have been far more secure than it is, and he would ... well, that unfortunate business wouldn't have occurred."
"My father was a good man. And he did the best he could with what life dealt him." With the windshield washers stopped, the little semicircles of cleared glass began to fill up first with the flattened explosions of heavy raindrops and then with the jerky, zigzag tracks of the fragments. "He gave me a fine education and he didn't complain when I went my own way. We'd better go in—I see Big Mac waiting for us."
Loomis, like a lot of professional talkers, wanted the last word, and through the crackle of rain and the slam of car doors, I heard something muttered about the younger generation's disrespect for older and wiser heads. It brought a short-lived prick of remorse—the good professor was only trying to help the son of his ex-partner, and the son didn't seem at all grateful. But I was sick and tired of the awkwardness and hesitation that came when my father's death was mentioned. Which, with Loomis, seemed often.
It wasn't McAllister who waited in the cold for us, but his man: a proper butler trained in the British manner but with an American accent. Living expenses, fringes, and a salary probably above forty thousand a year. That was a lot to pay for an automatic door opener, and I nudged my sliding scale to the top. Despite the brave words to Loomis—and as Bunch had reminded me earlier—we needed at least one client who would pay his bill with more than promises. And the professor was right: with or without strings, this was a big opportunity. Not only would the pay be good, but it was also the kind of job that could lead to work for other major businesses and corporations. And the bigger the corporation, the bigger their need for security.
The butler led us through an anteroom into a dimly lit inner sanctum whose dominant feature was a fireplace large enough for even me to stand in. A single heavy log smoldered against the sooty back wall while a forest of smaller trees crackled in front and, in a deep chair set for pensive contemplation of the fire, sat a stocky man. He seemed to be in his fifties, but when he stood to shake hands, he had an energy and force that belied the graying hair and the carved wrinkles in his neck and at the corners of his eyes.
"Mike! Good to see you. Sorry about the weather—that's the one thing I can't control. Not yet, anyway." He turned from Loomis to squeeze my hand in a brief test of strength. "And you're Mr. Devlin."
"Kirk, sir. Devlin's my first name."
"Ah, sorry, young man."
"It's a common mistake."
"I don't make common mistakes, Kirk. When I make them, I make uncommonly big ones." He waved toward another pair of chairs, less thronelike than his own. The butler, efficient and silent, was rolling a portable bar from a far corner of the room. "Sit, gentlemen. A bit of pleasure before business?"
If I'd been wrong in expecting McAllister to be reedy and tweedy because he had a butler, I wasn't wrong about the purpose of this pause for hospitality. He measured me while the butler quickly served Loomis his usual Scotch and asked what I would have. The drinks came from unmarked decanters, but my tongue recognized the smooth, buttery heat of Wild Turkey, and I chewed it for a long, pleasant minute before swallowing. Unlike a lot of people who used anonymity to get by with something, McAllister apparently wanted his ostentation based on fact, and he had the money and the pride to do it right.
"How tall are you, Kirk?"
"Mike tells me you went to Stanford. What'd you study there?"
"History, sir. I was pre-law."
"But you don't have your law degree?"
"Not my interest."
"I see. Play football there?"
He didn't try to hide his disappointment. "You should have. You look big enough."
"I was on the crew."
"Oh. Rowing." He waved the butler away with a tiny gesture and toyed a moment with his glass of plain soda water. "Has the professor said anything to you? About what I'm after?"
"You asked me not to, Owen."
"Yes, yes—I know." He leaned forward into the glow of the fire, silent for a moment and staring at the slow waver of the flames. A spray of raindrops rattled across a bank of french doors that, I guessed, opened to a patio outside. At one of the far walls, made larger by the low light from the fireplace, stood a scattering of bookshelves and hunting trophies. The books were broad bands of colorful matched sets with gilt titles that caught the firelight; the trophies included a massive, waxy trout curved in a frozen leap, an elk head's spreading antlers and glassy gaze, the entire lean shape of a pronghorn poised to run. McAllister, it seemed, was a collector: trophies, mansions, companies, and all the people he needed to serve them.
"How old are you, Kirk?"
"What's your experience? How long have you been in private security?"
"I'm just getting started with my own agency. But I've had extensive training as a Secret Service agent, and before that three years in public law enforcement. As I'm sure Professor Loomis has told you."
"Devlin tends to be a bit abrupt, Owen. It's a young man's impatience. But he does know his—"
"That's okay, Mike. He's right. I just wanted to hear it from you, Kirk. If I didn't have a problem, I wouldn't need a detective. And I wouldn't call one without learning something about him first. The main thing—not that experience doesn't count—but the main thing is that the professor says he trusts you. Trust is damned important to me." He sipped his drink and held it in his mouth a second or two. "In this instance, trust is also vital. That, and discretion. It's an extremely sensitive issue."
I nodded and waited. Measured in dollars, McAllister's importance was probably as big as he thought it was. Certainly, he spent a lot to impress his interests on others. And, after all, I had accepted the man's whiskey.
"Do you work alone?"
"I have an associate. He's an experienced and capable man."
McAllister glanced at Loomis, his red, shaggy eyebrows lifting slightly to show the gleam of pale eyes. "Know anything about him?"
"Homer Bunchcroft. I believe he spent some time in local law enforcement. I've never met the man, but neither have I heard any adverse commentary about him."
"He prefers 'Bunch' and he was a Denver police detective for eight years."
"Devlin assures me that he, and not this 'Bunch,' will be in charge, Owen."
"Why don't you just tell me what the problem is, Mr. McAllister. I'll be the one to tell you whether or not I accept the job."
Another burst of rain crackled across the glass and McAllister's mouth tightened as his eyes settled on mine in a spurt of quick anger. Beside me, I heard Loomis give a muted groan and the only other sound was the flutter of the fire. Then, unsmiling, McAllister nodded. "All right—let's get to business, then. I've heard a few things about one of my division managers. I want him investigated. But I want it accomplished very quietly so that if the rumors are false, no harm's been done."
"What kind of rumors?"
McAllister hesitated. "I don't want to say too much if you're not interested."
Bunch had told me he'd wad me up like an outhouse catalogue if I let this one get away. "We specialize in company security and executive protection. Is this a security issue?"
"Security? It sure as hell is a security issue. Yes, sir."
"Then it sounds like our kind of job. We're interested."
"All right." He lifted his glass in a brief toast. "That's fine. Now, what's happened—and if I leave anything out, Mike, you tell me—is that in the past six months, two major proposals have been torpedoed. The Lake Center development project, and the Columbine Industrial Park project. These were big deals, Kirk, even for me. Each one was a hundred-million proposition. It cost a hell of a lot just to get the proposals done, let alone what the start-up costs would have been. Of course McAllister Enterprises would have made a bundle or two once the projects were rolling, but that's what America's all about, right? Or damn well should be. Anyway, the damned things never got off the ground." His eyes turned to mine, telling me to ask what happened.
So I did.
"Each proposal had a major computation error. The result was that the costs were underestimated by a couple million each. That would have been all right—we would have caught it soon enough and factored it in later in the project. You work on deals this involved and mistakes get made, computers or no computers. Right, Professor?"
"That seems to be the case, Owen. Though it's not my field of expertise."
"Right. But what shot us out of the saddle, Devlin, was an outfit called the Aegis Group. Each time, exactly one day after our proposals were submitted, they stepped in with theirs—and without the computation error. Their final figures were higher, but they—or somebody—pointed out the errors in ours. Aegis got both those projects. They've already broken ground on both of them. Each one's going to make a fortune—a bunch of fortunes!" McAllister dipped his head to the glass and sipped and I saw that he was pressing his arm against the chair to keep it from quivering. He turned his eyes from the fire to me, the reflection of the flame still in them. "I don't know where those people came from. But I know goddamned well where they got their data. After it happened a second time, I managed to get a copy of their Columbine proposal, Kirk. It's ours. Our figures, touched up here and there. Our categories, our numbers, our everything except that goddamned error. They stole our work, and the bastards stole our projects."
A proposal that complex would be as individual as a fingerprint, and McAllister was right to suspect espionage. "How did you get their proposal?"
"Never mind. I got it, that's all."
"And you think the false figures were fed in on purpose?"
"Don't you? When I saw the Aegis proposal, I had a team of accountants go over our own with a microscope, and it still took us two days to find it. Aegis knew where to take it out and where to plug in the right figures and run off a new computation. And somebody knew enough to tell the lenders where to look. Hell yes, it was on purpose—it was sabotage!"
"I take it the proposals were drawn up on your corporate computers?"
"Right. Combine the best equipment and the best people, you get the best work."
"The copyright laws on intangible property—and that includes software—are pretty vague, Mr. McAllister. Even if we do find something, that's no guarantee you'll have a court case."
"Let's leave that part of it to my lawyers, Kirk. You find the evidence of Aegis poking around in my business and who the hell let them poke around. I'll take care of the litigation end."
"Don't forget the telephone call, Owen."
"Yeah. Right. This morning I got a call—my assistant got a call—saying that one of my division directors, Austin Haas, had been approached by an Aegis representative about six months ago."
"And nothing. That's all. Christ, what else do I need?"
"No time of meeting or evidence? Nothing more than an anonymous call about Haas?"
Excerpted from Suicide Season by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1987 Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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