Safe and Sound

by J.D. Rhoades

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

2007, 228 pages

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Hearts of Darkness

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone

The title of J.D. Rhoades’ third Jackson Keller novel, Safe and Sound, conveys a state of being that runs counter to what really lies at it’s core: the horrible, dark acts that human beings -- especially the central characters here -- are capable of perpetrating. While Keller’s main goal is to rescue and protect those he loves from one of crime fiction’s more ruthless killers, the cost of “safe and sound” is enormous. This is a trip down the murkier passages of the soul, a terrain that philosophers and religionists warn against. No one comes out unscathed -- least of all Keller. Rhoades’ commanding writing will leave readers simultaneously disturbed and hugely enthralled.

After chasing down two ex-cons -- while fending off a homicidal drug dealer -- in The Devil’s Right Hand (2004), and then hunting a mass-killing duo in A Good Day in Hell (2006), Keller is in a psychological no-man’s land at the start of this new novel. The North Carolina bounty hunter is still involved with ex-cop and now current private investigator Marie Jones. Keller wants to have a normal-enough relationship, but the thoughts and images running through his mind make this likelihood a crapshoot. Keller’s inner demons took their twisted shape back when he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and witnessed the death of his men on a hot night in the Saudi desert. His Bradley fighting vehicle was mistaken for an enemy tank, and if not for happenstance, Keller would have been incinerated along with his men.

Keller saw the trail of the missile’s rocket motor like a bolt of white light from the sky. It touched the Bradley and the world seemed to explode. Keller was knocked to the ground by the blast. Then he heard the screaming as the Bradley caught fire.

Instead of dying, Keller was left with survivor’s guilt, a psychological stressor many enlisted men bring back home from war. The army sought to cover up what really happened, and it tried forcing Keller to go along. The outrage Keller endured was a ripening worm in his psyche for the first two books, and in this one, it begins to rear its ugly head.

Finding men is Keller’s one redeeming asset, and he lends his expertise to Jones on her newest case. Local attorney Tammy Healy hires Jones to find a missing child, Alyssa Fedder. The girl is believed to have been taken by her father, David Lundgren, a sergeant with the army’s Special Forces. Healy is frustrated because the army won’t tell her Lundgren’s current location. Keller knows better than anyone that the army is Machiavellian in nature and loath to impart any aspect of its business.

“Well, that’s it, then,” Keller said. “You won’t find him. It’s like pulling teeth to even get the Army to acknowledge there is such a thing as Delta, let alone tell you where any of their people are.”

Jones’ early investigation of the mother, Carly Fedder, indicates that she may be considerably less than stellar as a parent. And, as predicted, Keller is stonewalled by the army. By all accounts, though, Lundgren is a caring father, and it appears the missing girl might not be in any real danger. Although this case may initially seem like a matter of two parents fighting over child custody, it quickly spirals outward and intersects with another more sinister story line in Safe and Sound. Lundgren is AWOL -- and he has a killer on his trail. The direction of the book shifts here, as Keller and Jones are sucked into a vortex of horrific dimensions.

The main villain in this novel is an Afrikaner mercenary-for-hire, named De Groot. The South African’s skill lies in extracting information, using various forms of torture (“A couple of Agency guys told us he was a ‘humint specialist’”). Like any diligent craftsman, De Groot is practiced at what he does, and he has an assortment of tools useful to his trade. He is coldly efficient.

He stood up and approached the man in the chair, the electrodes clenched open in his hands. “Don’t feel bad about screaming,” he said. “It’s not like anyone can hear you, way out here.”

De Groot’s motivations are very simple -- he has no compunction against torturing and killing to get what he wants, and he wants to retire rich. He has figured out a means to the latter, and it involves David Lundgren and two of Lundgren’s fellow special ops soldiers, Mike Riggio and Bobby Powell. De Groot and the soldiers initially crossed paths in Afghanistan (“There were all sorts of people crawling all over those fucking mountains”), and while torturing a suspected terrorist, De Groot extracts information about a bank account holding tens of millions of dollars. De Groot needs partners to raid the account, and he forms an alliance with the Delta commandos. That alliance eventually deteriorates, though, and one of the “keys” to the account is taken by Lundgren. De Groot wants it back.

Safe and Sound takes on a survivalist sensibility, as the locale switches to the rural Blue Ridge Parkway, in the southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Keller and Jones find Alyssa Fedder in the safe care there of commandos Powell and Riggio, the child given to them by the now not-heard-from Lundgren. They have an initial confrontation with De Groot, but the mercenary eventually escapes. Recognizing that De Groot will stop at nothing (“He’s after anyone he thinks might know something”), Keller, James and the commandos form an alliance. This group eventually bunkers down at a nearby safe house, until members can sort things out, and perhaps bring in federal help. (Note to readers: See how many names of real crime-fiction authors you notice are given by Rhoades to his FBI agents.)

De Groot finds them, however -- and he has with him a team of professional killers. What follows is a confrontation of visceral carnage by men who have honed the art of killing, mainly through skills learned in battle.

As it was, the enormous projectile blasted Danny Patrick’s head into bloody mist before blowing out the back passenger window. Blood gouted from the stump of Patrick’s neck and sprayed all over the inside of the car. His body bowed backward, then slumped forward onto the wheel.

By the novel’s end, children are traumatized, adults have lost their lives and Keller’s sanity is on the line.

Darkness rose in him like a tide. He had fought it for so long, the black rage that had pulled at him like an undertow. He had spent so much of the last fifteen years fighting it, trying to keep the rage at bay. Now he opened himself to it, letting it take him. He had always thought of it as an ocean trying to drown him, to drag him away from himself. But this was like a homecoming. And home was a yawning abyss of dark fire. He knew the fire would consume him, leaving nothing behind. But that was all right.

There are no winners at the conclusion of Safe and Sound. There is no happy ending. Yet, this book demands to be read. Safe and Sound is a tour-de-force, diabolical thriller. Rhoades is courageous, and he navigates this black passage with considerable skill. It paints how real evil in the world works -- when things that go bump in the night stare you in the face. You might be surprised at how you react, and what you are capable of doing. Keller found out, and we can only hope he returns from the pale. | July 2007

Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine, a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet, and the author of a blog called Anthony Rainone’s Criminal Thoughts.