They say dead men tell no tales. That sure comes in handy sometimes.
Los Angeles newspaper columnist Johnny Rose has barely begun looking into the discovery of a dead body in the middle of the Mojave Desert when a phone call sidelines him. A Vietnamese immigrant friend named Pham is positive he has just seen an American pilot missing since the war. Skeptical, Johnny agrees to meet Pham, but arrives moments after his friend has been murdered. . .and in time to be caught by the police covered in blood, weapon in hand.
Shut down by his bosses, Johnny keeps the dual investigations going on his own. What he finds is the story of a lifetime: a chilling conspiracy reaching from an old war to a new battlefield. . .With a deadline that's getting tighter every minute.
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Chuck Freadhoff lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For twenty-five years, he has been a newspaper reporter in the United States and Europe. He is a commentator on "Marketplace," the daily business program on Public Radio International.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In the distance Johnny could see the flashing lights atop a sheriff's car at the edge of the two-lane dirt road. Filtered through the heat waves rising off the desert floor, the alternating red and white flashes seemed to waver and had none of the urgency they command in the city's penned-in concrete streets. Out here miles from the nearest paved road, the lights seemed languid, almost lazy. He could make out a few people, too, although they were little more than blurry outlines standing in a cluster at the side of a van out of the direct sun.
Inside Johnny's aging 240Z the temperature was rising as the air conditioner struggled against the desert heat. Last spring his mechanic had said something about the Freon needing to be recharged, but Johnny hadn't done it, and now he cursed himself for ignoring the advice. Sweat trickled from his armpits down the sides of his body, and even with the AC on high his back stuck to the seat. He drove slowly, but the car still jolted over the ruts and the tires slipped on the rocks and sand. Johnny eased off the accelerator for a moment, then drove on, keeping the Z in first gear.
It was a strange place to find a body. Over the years, Johnny had seen bodies in many places: sprawled in garbage-strewn alleys behind working-class bars; locked in the twisted wreckage of cars as firemen worked methodically to cut away the steel tomb; in body bags being loaded on gurneys and wheeled out of the charred remains of houses; and once he'd even been there when the cops popped the trunk of a car and found a mob enforcer who had been missing for ten days. But he'd never been to the desert to cover a story like this.
The road crested a small rise, and he could see the yellow police tape flapping in the breeze perhaps fifty yards or so off the dirt road. He could see the van better. It was a white television vehicle with a small disk antenna mounted on the top. He also saw a black-and-white patrol car and a copper-colored Chevy Caprice, all parked at the edge of the road. He eased his car down an incline and a few minutes later pulled to a stop behind the last car in the line. The heat and wind hit him as he stepped from the car. He blinked and turned his head for a moment, turned back and walked slowly up to the group of three men and a woman standing beside the TV news van.
The woman was dressed in a V-necked white blouse and black slacks. Johnny recognized her as a reporter for one of L.A.'s independent television stations. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her cameraman, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and floppy hat, stood at her side. The other two men wore deputy sheriff's uniforms. The van blocked the wind, and Johnny understood why they were clustered together at its side.
He looked at the taller of the two deputy sheriffs. "Hi, I'm Johnny Rose. I'm with the Chronicle."
"Hi." The deputy nodded back. He was taller even than Johnny, and thin with a long face and a small black mustache. Half-moons of sweat had soaked through his uniform at the armpits and his face glistened. Johnny guessed he was about thirty, no older.
"I'm surprised you guys are still here. I figured by the time I drove out from L.A. you'd be long gone."
"Coroner's wagon broke down. It'll be here soon. At least they keep telling us that."
"You catch the call?" Johnny asked.
"Who found the body?"
"Couple of guys in a dune buggy. Just out banging around the desert. Almost ran over the guy."
"So who's running the show?"
"Sergeant Martinez." The deputy cocked his head toward the waving yellow plastic tape. Johnny looked and saw two men in street clothes, one standing behind the yellow tape watching a second man who was kneeling in the dirt inside the roped-off area.
Johnny stepped out from the van's protected side and was hit with a sudden gust of wind. A moment later the wind died to a steady breeze and the heat seemed to jump immediately. In mid-September, while the rest of the nation was raking autumn leaves, enjoying Indian summer and thinking of putting on snow tires, nothing much changed in the desert north and east of Los Angeles. The heat could top 100 degrees and rain was as rare as meteors.
The yellow police tape was strung in a loose triangle between two yucca trees and a pile of rocks. Johnny recognized the man standing at one point of the triangle even before he turned around. It was Steve Hounds, an AP reporter. In his mid-fifties, he had a barrel chest and thinning reddish-gray hair. They'd covered the same stories and shared beers after deadlines off and on for more than twenty years. He glanced over his shoulder as Johnny walked up.
"Who'd you piss off?" Hounds asked.
"No one drives out to the Mojave in the middle of the day this time of year unless they have to."
Johnny shook his head. "No. It was my idea." He looked past Hounds to where the other man was kneeling in the sand, then looked back at the AP reporter. "Thought this might turn out to be Billy Osborne. Could make a good column."
"Osborne? That missing stockbroker?"
"Well, I hate to break this to you, Johnny, but Osborne took off with his clients' money and his wife's best friend and I can pretty much guaran-damn-tee you he didn't come out here. As I remember it, you did a couple of columns on it yourself."
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