Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Steele is too honest for Washington. If any other Marine Corps investigator had noticed a congressman’s corruption, he might have kept his mouth shut. But Steele knows his ultimate duty and blows the whistle on a treasonous lawmaker, earning himself a pat on the back and a swift kick out the door. Steele returns to his hometown of San Diego, hoping for a quiet retirement. Instead he finds a chilling mystery that will make him question everything about the country he spent so long trying to protect. While helping a friend search for his missing granddaughter, Steele makes his way to Colorado. There he uncovers a sinister satanic cult, whose acolytes relish sacrificial death, and who won’t think twice about trying to take out an honorable ex-marine.
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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
When Reason Sleeps
By Rex Burns
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Tom Sehler
All rights reserved.
Whistle-blowing is suspect behavior in any government agency. Forget all the crap you read about letters of commendation for honesty or awards for public-spiritedness. The whistle-blower is someone who can no longer be trusted by those who want to take advantage of someone else's trust. What made it worse for this whistle-blower was that I was a mere lieutenant-colonel, USMC, and the whistlee was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A senior member who served on the Armed Services Committee. Over the years in Washington, he'd traded for a roster of cronies and debtors that read like a lobbyist's "A" list. I suppose it was that cushion of contacts and connections that made the good congressman believe he could do whatever the hell he wanted to—up to and including actions that for a mere citizen would have been treason. Or maybe he just had a severe case of Potomac fever. It affects most congressmen and senators sooner or later: an atrophy of the sense of humility, a swelling of the glands of arrogance. As one of the saltier NCOs had muttered behind the back of the commandant of the Eighth and Eye Barracks, Your ass gets kissed long enough, pretty soon you want it kissed all the time. And everything in Washington, D.C., is designed to make each senator and congressman think his posterior deserves to be caressed by the world's puckered lips.
But nowhere among a congressman's long list of franks, privileges, medical care, retirement pay, and other perks was the right to peddle national secrets to a foreign government. At the time, a big part of my job was to catch those who were endangering national security, so I did my job.
I've been asked if I would do the same thing again. I've got to admit I had no idea the congressman would be able to pull me down with him—I thought I was protected by the evidence, by my orders, and by those who issued them. But there were those who were afraid I'd prove embarrassing not only to an august body of state but, more importantly, to the Navy Department, whose budget was scrutinized by cronies of the man who suddenly retired from office "for reasons of health."
An officer with more than twenty years in is vulnerable.
And an officer who makes waves is even more vulnerable.
An officer who splashes those waves on a congressman is most vulnerable of all.
Yet this officer wouldn't have done a damn thing different.
Still, I was glad Eleanor's death had come before she had to suffer additional pain—the sudden fading voices, the sliding glances of strangers who had heard about me, the false heartiness of a grinning hypocrite embarrassed to bump into me at an official function. The subtle distancing of those who had once called themselves friends. It would have hurt her as much as the cancer. She would not have found an answer to her statement that I did my duty. Ollie North had put his loyalty to the President above his sworn loyalty to the Constitution. I did what I pledged to do when I received my commission: uphold the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. North became a hero; I was ordered to step down. All very politely and according to protocol. Even sugared by a graveyard promotion to colonel and, thanks to a few remaining friends, the opportunity of a job on the West Coast with the Osiris Foundation—if we found ourselves mutually compatible after the six-month probationary period.
Therefore I have sailed the seas and come ... not to a holy city or to Byzantium, but simply to my home of record, San Diego. Accumulated leave and travel time before reporting in to Osiris: forty-three days. Of which only five had been used and now the remaining time stretched ahead like a desert watered by self-pity. I'd written both Karen and Becky, telling my daughters only that I'd been placed on the inactive list and that I was looking at a job in Southern California. I'd get in touch with them as soon as things settled down. Karen, newly married and, with her husband, just starting her career as a lawyer in Sacramento, had tracked me down and surprised me with a telephone call last night. And, God, it was good to hear her voice; I didn't have to force any excitement and pleasure into mine, but I did gloss over the reasons for my unexpected retirement. Becky was taking her junior year abroad at Bordeaux and I didn't know if my letter'd even arrived there yet. Karen said she thought her sister was on one of those lengthy vacations European universities seem to have a lot of.
Was I planning on staying in San Diego? Karen asked. It looked like it; I had a job offer with a group whose national headquarters were in San Diego, so that worked out fine. What kind of job? Oh, defense contracts, providing services to military commands—the kind of thing retired officers do when they're still too young to quit working. But what about all your friends? What about the house in Fairfax? I'd had to sell that house to afford the new one in Coronado. She and Chuck would have to come down as soon as they had time; I was sure they and Becky would enjoy the new place. As for friends, she knew how it was in the Corps: the world was a network of duty stations where the same faces showed up sooner or later. As a matter of fact, I'd already been in touch with a couple of old friends.
That wasn't quite true. All but a few of the "friends" in Washington greeted my absence with a sigh of relief. And my arrival in San Diego hadn't generated any kind of ceremony. But, I reassured her and maybe myself, I had run across an old high school buddy, Tom Jenkins, and a retired friend of my father's, Admiral Combs. In fact, the admiral had asked me to drop by his home.
"Dad," her voice was hesitant. "I don't know exactly what happened back there ... I read a little about it in Newsweek. But I want you to know I love you. And I'm very, very proud of you."
"That means a lot to me, Karen." And it did.
Admiral Dalton Combs (USN-Ret.) gripped my fingers with a hand that was still strong despite the years that had shrunk the flesh on his face and put a slight curve in a ramrod-stiff back. "We're damned glad to have you home, Jack." He closed the heavy door and guided me into a spacious living room that held few mementos of navy life. It was, he said, Jenny's doing. Since his wife had to look after the home for months and years while he was at sea, she got to choose the decor. The only military memento was a large portrait over the dark fireplace that showed the admiral in dress blues standing against an angry red background. "Retirement gift," Jenny explained. "When old shipmates drop by, they ought to see their gift." She, too, had grown thinner with age. An already small woman, she now seemed sparrowlike in both fragility and the quick pecking of her hands. "We're having our evening martini. I hope you'll join us."
"Sun's below the yardarm," said the admiral, pouring.
I sipped carefully at the unfamiliar drink and answered questions about my mother's health and welfare. It was generous of the admiral to invite me to his home—and perhaps even a bit brave, too, considering. But then my father's old friend had won a reputation for courage in two wars—make that one war and one "police action." I saw, and was grateful, that neither he nor Jenny was about to let what happened change their opinion of me.
"Well, hell, call it fortunes of war and let it go, Jack." That had been the advice from one of my own friends, just after; but I couldn't help remembering that he still held his commission. He had also held his tongue. But I realize now that it would have done no one any good if he or anyone else had spoken up. A command decision had been made and no one was looking back. That was the way I should take it, too. The admiral was right.
"So now you're going to work for the ... what do they call it, Jack?" Jenny offered another pass with the martini pitcher but I shook my head.
The admiral's cheeks fell in slightly as he sucked on his cigar. Its glow etched lines in a face that had clenched against tropic sun and ice-laden winds. His hair, still cropped in a crew cut, was as thick and white as Jenny's. Even though the man was a decade or so younger than my father, I thought of them as the same age—perhaps because the admiral, as my father's executive officer on the Saratoga and then later at NAS Jacksonville, had shared an adult world while I was still in short pants. "Why that name?"
"I don't think it has a meaning, sir—the usual security technique." Or because Osiris was king of the underworld. And as far as the Marine Corps was concerned I was paid off, dead, and buried.
Another puff of smoke, carefully directed toward the ceiling away from Jenny and me. "So if you take your punishment honorably, that's part of the payoff, eh? Well, the work will be in your line, anyway." The gray cloud rose against the patterned stucco. I had a feeling the admiral's words meant more than they said. Jenny, too, seemed to wait in silence for more. The whole spacious home, in fact, was poised and quiet despite the increased heavy traffic half a block away that had been created when the San Diego Bay Bridge was finally completed. It was still new to me; I hadn't spent any time in Coronado for several decades. I'd seen the bridge on brief trips through North Island or Camp Pendleton. But until moving back last week, I hadn't realized its effect on what had been quiet corners of a sleepy town. In a way I was glad Eleanor hadn't lived to see those changes. Yet her death was still a big hole in my life, and it was most poignantly felt in those blank times when there was no familiar voice to talk the changes over with. Or in moments like these, when I saw the admiral and his wife sharing the end of a long life together.
"Your youngest daughter has finished college now?" The gin had brought a spot of color into Jenny's cheeks. There was a slight deliberation in the lacing of fingers that had once been long and straight, but were now bent with arthritis.
"My elder has." As I brought them up to date on Karen and Rebecca, Jenny nodded. She was far more interested in news of my family than in my fortunes of war.
"I keep forgetting you're younger than our Margaret. Still, it's hard to think of you being almost a grandparent."
"Don't rush him, Jenny—he and the girls will get there soon enough."
She smiled somewhat sadly and started to say something, then thought better of it. The admiral spoke quickly. "This Osiris Corporation, it's a civilian outfit?"
"Entirely. That's its reason for existence."
"But it does contract work for the services."
"For the Navy Department, but not officially. The idea is to provide avenues and opportunities that military intelligence is restricted from taking."
"Um. Wasn't my area of operations. We appreciated good information, though." Another puff of smoke. "How's it funded?"
"Subcontracts. Like a defense supplier or a university research contract."
"No line-item budget, then."
That was the idea. "No, sir."
He scraped a ragged fringe off his cigar into a large ceramic ashtray. "You know the CIA's hired a number of ex-military men who left the service for a variety of reasons. In fact, I hear it's part of the target profile."
"I'm not interested in them, Admiral." And I doubted that they would be interested in a whistle-blower.
"I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to tell you how badly we felt about Eleanor, Jack." Jenny's soft voice broke the silence as she steered the conversation back to family.
"Yes," the admiral added. "We were very sorry to learn of that. From what the skipper told us, she must have been a wonderful girl."
That's what the admiral still called my father: "the skipper."
I know my father wouldn't have said much to him or anyone else about his family life, but it was kind of the admiral to pretend differently. "Thank you," I said. I could have added that the girls and I still missed her deeply, that we probably always would. But people who had lived as long as the admiral and Jenny knew the meaning of loss. It would be an insult to imply that they didn't. "How are Margaret and her family?"
Jenny's face tightened slightly and the admiral wagged his head once. "We don't see too much of them."
"Have they moved from La Jolla, then?"
A shrug from the admiral. "No. They just don't have much time for us old folks."
Jenny looked up from swirling the olive in her drink. "Why don't you ask him, Dalton."
The words rang like a tiny bell in the quiet room, urgent and tense and timid. And they confirmed a growing feeling: that there had been another reason for the admiral's invitation. In the silence, the man heaved a long sigh through his nose. But he said nothing.
"Ask me what, Jenny?"
"She wants ..." The rigid man couldn't find the words.
"She's your granddaughter, too." She watched the admiral mash the cigar end between his teeth. Then she turned to me. "We want to ask your help, Jack. All of our friends our age ... Well, we're so out of touch with things. We thought perhaps you might know what to do."
"I'll sure help if I can. What do you need?"
The admiral jabbed his cigar into the large ashtray. "We didn't invite you over on false pretenses, Jack. We wanted to see you—to welcome you back. This" —his hand waved vaguely, the stone in the heavy Naval Academy ring glinting— "this came up ... we got a call this morning. And I swear to God, we don't know what to do about it."
"It's Dorcas. Our granddaughter. Margaret's worried she might be in some kind of trouble." Before I could ask what kind of trouble, she added, "Margaret wouldn't tell me much else ... She—Margaret—she's not well, Jack. Henry doesn't admit that anything's wrong with her, but ..."
"But their marriage has been lousy for years, Jenny. You know that. I don't know why Margaret married him in the first place, and I don't see why she stays with him."
They had brought the issue up and now circled around it, the admiral embarrassed to have to ask for help, his wife hesitant for some reason of her own. "Did Margaret say what kind of trouble?"
"Only that they don't know where she is."
"They're afraid she's run off," snorted the admiral. "Quit her job, left her house—run off."
Jenny added quickly, "They called the police—sheriff—whoever, but those people are no help. Dorcas is over twenty-one and Margaret has no evidence that she didn't leave willingly. No evidence of anything ... bad ... happening."
The admiral picked up his cigar to stare angrily at the crumpled and still smoldering tip. Then he tossed it back. "Theirs isn't a happy family, Jack. Never has been. But Margaret's got too damned much pride to call it quits. And she's a grown woman—it's not our place to butt in where we're not asked." He cleared his throat. The anger gave way to a worry that pinched his white eyebrows together. "And Dorcas's life hasn't been a happy one, from what I've seen. I don't know what the cause is; hell, I've been on sea duty most of the girl's life. But I remember her as a bright, laughing little thing. Just a beautiful little sprite who was into everything—just like Margaret used to be."
"How long has she been gone?"
"It's been over a week, now, I think."
"Margaret waited until today to tell you?"
The fragile woman looked even smaller. "She called to know if we'd heard from her. When I said no, she told me about it." Jenny studied her knotted fingers. "We—Margaret and I—were never as close as we should have been, Jack. There were so many things ... time passed so quickly, and then she was grown and gone ..."
"They've called her friends? Places where she might visit?"
"Henry did," said the admiral. "No one's heard anything from her."
"I'm not sure what you want me to do."
Jenny leaned to place her fingers with their swollen joints on my arm. "Can you talk to her? To Margaret? Dalton's told me something about the kind of work you've been doing. Maybe you can think of some way to help find out where Dorcas is, Jack. I know Margaret's worried about her. We are, too. But we don't know what else to do. We don't know who else to ask."
"Why don't you give me her address and number? I'll call and make an appointment to see her."
Excerpted from When Reason Sleeps by Rex Burns. Copyright © 1991 Tom Sehler. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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