Hunting an old friend’s killers, a professor-turned-spook unearths a conspiracy that threatens every person on Earth
An American op is murdered somewhere in the dusty wastelands of southern Colombia. His final transmission: a desperate warning that whatever he had stumbled upon is worth taking seriously. It is called Tantalus, and in two weeks it will be unleashed on the world. Washington could dispatch the army, the commandos, or the CIA, but professional action will only send the men behind Tantalus under deeper cover. Instead, the State Department chooses Christopher Locke, an old friend of the deceased. Once the Academy’s brightest prospect, he’s an unemployed professor with crushing bills, three children, and no prospects. These are problems the government can solve. All he has to do is get on a plane—and take his vengeance. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Jon Land including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
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By Jon Land
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Jon Land
All rights reserved.
BRIAN CHARNEY LOWERED his glass of Chivas Regal on the rocks to the coffee table, neglecting to use the coaster. Leaning forward off the couch, he grabbed the cassette tape and fingered it.
Its contents held the reason for one man's death. Its existence almost surely held the basis for a second's. Charney had been part of that death sentence, and the Chivas couldn't change that no matter how smoothly it went down.
Charney drained the glass anyway.
He had walked back to his brownstone apartment from the State Department, hoping the walk would clear his head. Instead it only clouded it further. He had turned on only one light in the brownstone and didn't raise the shades, keeping the early-spring sun beyond the windows so he might lose himself in the dimness. But the dimness did not blot out the effect of the apartment. It was expensively and exquisitely furnished. Charney much preferred the house in Arlington, but the divorce settlement had given that to Karen and their two boys. He saw them on alternate weekends. Sometimes.
Charney refilled his glass and ran the events of the day through his head yet again. Of the two best friends in his life, one was dead and the other had been chosen to follow him. Charney had come home early because the job was everything and the job had made him do it. God, how he hated the damn job, but he had to admit he'd be lost without it.
He had waited outside Undersecretary of State Calvin Roy's office for only ten minutes that morning before being ushered in. Roy was his liaison in affairs of intelligence.
"I hope this is important," Roy said in his southern drawl, offering Charney the usual seat before his cluttered desk.
"It is," Charney assured him.
"I cancelled a full block of appointments to see you, son. There'll be some people mighty upset over that. They came a long way to see me."
"So did this," Charney said, producing the tape.
Roy rose slightly out of his chair to look at it. He was a diminutive, balding man with a wry smile that expressed his uncompromising, often cynical approach to his position and politics in general. He would probably never rise beyond the post he held now, nor did he aspire to. Working behind the scenes suited him just fine, providing room to maneuver and breathe. A native Texan who had grown up amid much wealth but enjoyed little himself, Roy owed no one anything—a trait rare enough in Washington to make him a man to be both respected and avoided. He had nothing to lose. Stepping on toes didn't faze him, even if it meant crushing them.
"It contains Alvin Lubeck's last report," Charney continued, popping the cassette into the recorder on the edge of Roy's desk. "Rather incomplete but interesting all the same."
Charney pressed PLAY. Lubeck's voice filled the room, intermixed with static. The fear was obvious and, in his final words, the panic.
"San Sebastian was a farming community. I'm in a position overlooking the fields now. It appears that ... Oh, my God, this can't be. It can't be! I'm looking out at—"
Charney pressed STOP. "That's it."
Roy's face had sombered. "You mind tellin' me where San Sebastian is?"
"Colombia. Deep in the southeast."
"So Lubeck transmitted this to the Bogotá station. They send someone in after him?"
"Yes, but the team couldn't get into San Sebastian or even close to it. The whole area's on fire and all they can do down there is pray for rain."
Roy nodded. "So whatever it was Lubeck saw ain't there no more."
"That's right," Charney acknowledged.
"What do you make of that, son?"
"Somebody started the fire to cover something up. And they took Lubeck out for the same reason."
"Lubeck wouldn't go out easily," Roy muttered nervously. "You mind tellin' me how he ended up at a giant barbecue in a South American piss country?"
"Following a trail he picked up in London."
"We assigned him to run interference for the World Hunger Conference scheduled for two weeks from now in Geneva."
Roy considered the words. "Sounds like he was addin' manure to a fallow field."
"He was past his prime," Charney said painfully. "We wanted to ease him out, but he wasn't ready to go."
"And set out to prove you wrong. Looks like he did a pretty decent job. You boys gotta let me in on your methods for personnel evaluation." Roy hesitated, shook his head. "God damn, what'd he find down there that was worth murderin' a whole town over? He file any other reports?"
Charney shook his head. "This was the first we heard from him officially. Wanted to be sure, I guess. If he was onto something big, he wouldn't want us to pull him off or send in the cavalry."
"Whole mess stinks to high heaven," Roy muttered. Then his eyes sharpened. "We gotta find out what he saw down there, son, gotta find out what he knew."
"But you didn't go to Langley with this, you came to me. Musta had a reason."
"Lubeck was working out of State on this assignment. I figured you should be the first to know."
"Don't bullshit a bullshitter."
Charney took a deep breath. He hated himself for what he was about to do. "I don't think Langley is the way to go with this. I want to keep all the three-letter people out of it for a while."
"Got your reasons, I suppose."
"Plenty of them. To begin with, we don't know where to start a full-scale field case with what we've got. We send the Company or NSA out on Lubeck's trail and all of a sudden the trail disappears. It's happened before. I don't think Lubeck changed the plans of whoever took him out in San Sebastian. I think he just hit on something and was killed for it. So the opposition has no call to change their plans and cover their tracks unless we give it to them by sending in the troops. The problem is time. We've got to figure that whatever Lubeck was on to has something to do with the hunger conference that begins in two weeks."
"You sound pretty sure of that connection."
Charney swallowed hard. "Lubeck and I went back a long time. He was a pro all the way, by the book. Never strayed from his assignment. We sent him on a goddamn throwaway mission and he came up with something."
"So what do we do?"
"Send one man to retrace his steps. Maybe we'll get lucky."
"Son, I don't fancy anything that depends on luck."
"It's a random factor just like everything else."
Roy's eyebrows flickered. "So it's a one-man game. What players are available?"
Now it was time. "I want to stay away from the pros altogether. I want to use an amateur."
"Son, you're talkin' crazy to me."
"I don't think so. Let's look at some obvious ramifications of San Sebastian. Whatever Lubeck uncovered is big and whoever's behind it is big—organized too. They'd make a pro in no time. They'd know Lubeck put us on to something and cover their tracks."
"So let's assume they're not even sure Lubeck got through to Bogotá or transmitted anything we could make sense of. They would stay in their original pattern, the pattern Lubeck uncovered and a pattern an amateur would fare far better in picking up again."
Roy regarded Charney with a taut smile and a slight squint in his eyes. "Back where I come from, they say you can always tell when a bull's got somethin' on his mind, even though he don't say much. You got it all figured, don't ya?"
Charney leaned back. "You know about Lubeck's steel pincers?"
"Never would arm wrestle with him...."
"Ever hear how he lost his hand?"
"Crushed or something, right?"
"The circumstances, I mean."
"Not that I recall, son."
"Then let me tell you a story, Cal." Charney squirmed in his chair, fighting for comfort. The upholstery seemed to be tearing at him. "Twenty years ago, I went to college with Lubeck. Brown University up in Providence, Rhode Island. We met during freshman week. Both of us were football players. There was a kid who tried to make the team as a walk-on but couldn't. He did end up as our friend, though, and for much of the next four years the three of us were best friends."
"Should I get out my handkerchief for this one, son?"
"His name is Christopher Locke and at present he's an English professor at Georgetown."
"Flunked his final tenure hearing. This is his last semester."
"I suppose this is all leadin' us somewhere."
Charney's expression looked pained. "Locke was responsible for Lubeck losing his hand. It was an accident. Happened at the Academy six months into our training; we all joined up together, you see. The Three Musketeers," Charney added cynically. "Anyway, the details of the accident don't matter now."
Roy wet his lips. "Then this Locke's not an amateur, after all...."
"He dropped out of the Academy a week after it happened. The ironic thing was that he was the best in our class. As far as skills went, there were none better. But something was missing even before the ... accident. Locke had the stomach; he didn't have the heart."
"You think that's changed now?"
"One thing hasn't: his guilt. Locke ran away from the Academy into academia and he's been running ever since. Georgetown isn't the first school he's quit or been released from. The accident with Lubeck seemed to set a tone for his entire life, a string of failures and incompletions. I guess he never got over it. Whoever said that time heals all wounds was full of crap. It didn't heal this one." Charney paused. "We can offer to help him heal it now."
"By sending him into the field?"
"By sending him after the men who killed Lubeck."
Roy hedged. "He's still an amateur, son."
"And the only thing that stopped him from becoming a pro and a damn good one was that he lacked motivation, a clear sense of why. He'll have that now. Flushing out Lubeck's killers will more than provide it. Locke could never face the Luber because those damn steel pincers wouldn't let him. That's not a problem anymore. Lubeck's dead. Finding out who did it will give Locke a chance to finally finish something, maybe the most important thing he never completed and ran away from: his friendship with the Luber ... and me. The guilt's been bottled up in him long enough. We can give him a vent for it."
"How generous of us...."
"Locke's the human option," Charney continued. "In this case, infinitely preferable to any other that presents itself given the time frame."
"And how much do we tell this human option of yours?"
"As much as he needs to know." Charney paused. "That includes nothing about the massacre."
"So we just drop him blindly in the field and tell him to run."
"I'll be his contact, his eyes," Charney said softly. "I'll shadow him everywhere he goes. The relays, the codes, the contacts—he drilled with similar ones before. All in an afternoon's work. When the time comes, Langley's only a phone call away."
"You've thought this thing out."
Calvin Roy's eyes wandered briefly. "I come from farm country, son, and still I didn't understand why you needed shit to make things grow until I got to Washington. This hasn't been easy for you, has it, Brian?"
Charney just looked at him.
"One of your buddies is dead, son. You could leave it at that. You could turn the whole mess over to Langley."
"You want me to do that?"
Calvin Roy sighed. "Nah, I suppose I don't. But Lubeck was a pro and what he found out there ate him up alive. And I don't care 'bout Locke shinin' brighter than a baby's backside at the Academy twenty years ago, none of that's gonna get him very far against what Lubeck came up against."
"It'll get him far enough."
Roy nodded deliberately. "You got the ball, son. You're the one who's got to live with this in the long run."
Now, drinking his third Chivas Regal, Charney ran Roy's final words through his mind. He could live with himself, he supposed; he couldn't like himself any less anyway. He was doing what had to be done, what the job demanded of him. Maybe that was the problem; he had been in Washington too long, had let his role consume him until it deadened his conscience. Locke was the best man for this assignment, so he would make the offer too tempting for Locke to refuse. Charney was good at that.
He recalled his earliest impressions of Locke at double-session fall football practice at Brown. No one hit the bags harder, took the tires faster. Locke was a kid driven to make that team. In the end numbers had done him in. Faceless men had posted his name and that was that.
Charney shuddered at the thought he had become one of the faceless men, playing with numbers and making cuts of a different variety. He didn't relish that power but accepted it. It was part of the job and the job was him. He glanced at the phone on the coffee table in the gloomy room. One call and the wheels would be in motion, irrevocable from that point.
Christopher Locke had a wife and three kids. Charney wondered why Calvin Roy hadn't asked about that. Then he realized. Roy didn't want to know. The less said, the better. Charney glanced again at the phone. The choice, the decision, was his. He leaned back and squeezed his eyes closed, fighting back the pain that had started in his temples, only a dull throb now but certain to grow into a pounding ache.
I'm looking out at—
What had Lubeck seen?
Christopher Locke was the man to find out, Charney told himself as he poured another glass of Chivas.CHAPTER 2
"IN THE NEWS this afternoon—"
Christopher Locke turned the radio off. Traffic was backed up all the way along 16th Street and the LTD's air conditioner was on the blink as usual, leaving him a victim of the sweltering spring air.
Locke hit the horn out of sheer frustration.
The news from the tenure hearing shouldn't have surprised him. He'd seen it coming for months now. The signals were all there. The department chairman didn't like his methods, and popularity with the students didn't count for anything. Of course he was popular, they told him, his courses regularly produced the highest percentage of A's in the entire English department. Locke never cared much for grades. The academic pressure at Georgetown was sufficiently high without his adding to it. He wanted students in his classes to relax, to be able to learn and enjoy without worrying about their grade point average. So he was an easy grader, albeit a consistent one who never passed papers to his graduate assistants for marking.
But that apparently didn't help his cause with the tenure board. His philosophy was the exception, not the rule, and so he was out of a job again. He would certainly have time now to work on his novels. Why kid himself, though? The truth was that all the time in the world couldn't salvage them. He was a failure as a novelist and now, apparently, a failure as a professor as well.
A horn blared to his rear. Locke realized traffic was moving again. He waved an apologetic hand behind him and gave the LTD a little gas. His shirt was sticking to the upholstery now.
In the end, he thought, everything came down to security. You worked your whole life to reach a stage where worry was nonexistent, where the rudiments of happiness were available and, with a minimum of unpleasant effort, attainable. What would happen to that security now? Without the Georgetown salary and benefits, how would his family survive? Much of his savings would have to go toward the kids' educations, and there was still the mortgage on their home in Silver Spring to consider. The bills came in piles Chris just barely managed to lower with the help of the check his wife had started bringing home from her real estate job. It was life on a shoestring and now even that was about to be severed.
And how was he to tell his family of his dismissal? His wife Beth, he guessed, would calmly remind him of all the times in the past she had urged him to go into business. He had always shrugged her off, saying he preferred the academic life. Practical as she was, she could never really understand his refusal even to consider leaving college for a "real" job. His oldest children, a seventeen-year-old boy and fifteen-year-old girl he knew less and less everyday, would brush the news off casually, becoming concerned only after considering how the dismissal might affect them. Only his youngest son would show Locke the love and support he so sorely needed. Just past twelve, Greg was the pride of his life. Chris wanted to freeze the boy just as he was, keep him forever from middle adolescence when hugs disappear and soft smiles are replaced by impatient frowns.
Locke would like to have been a better father, just as he would like to have been a better writer, professor, and husband. It was easy to see how people could live their lives for their children: It blotted out their own failures and missed opportunities. But Locke wasn't going to fool himself. His oldest children were strangers and he couldn't expect to hold on to the youngest forever.
Those thoughts had tied a knot of anxiety in his stomach by the time he pulled into the driveway of his Silver Spring home. He lingered briefly before moving from the car. His heart was thumping crazily against his chest.
"Hi, Daddy!" Whitney greeted him with an affectionate hug as he stepped through the door, leaving the phone dangling by the front hall stairway.
Excerpted from Labyrinth by Jon Land. Copyright © 1986 Jon Land. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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