Main The Deserter

The Deserter

A taut, psychologically suspenseful military thriller from #1 New York Times bestselling author Nelson DeMille—writing with his son, screenwriter Alex DeMille—about two army investigators on the hunt in Venezuela for an army deserter who might know too much about a secret Pentagon operation. When Captain Kyle Mercer of the Army’s elite Delta Force disappeared from his post in Afghanistan, a video released by his Taliban captors made international headlines. But circumstances were murky: Did Mercer desert before he was captured? Then a second video sent to Mercer’s Army commanders leaves no doubt: the trained assassin and keeper of classified Army intelligence has willfully disappeared. When Mercer is spotted a year later in Caracas, Venezuela by an old army buddy, top military brass task Scott Brodie and Maggie Taylor of the Criminal Investigation Division to fly to Venezuela and bring Mercer back to America—dead or alive. Brodie knows this is a difficult mission, made more difficult by his new partner’s inexperience and by his suspicion that Maggie Taylor is reporting to the CIA.
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To the memory of Sandy DeMille, wife, mother, sister





Kyle Mercer walked across the bare room. He had been on his feet for days, hiking across the tribal frontier, into the outskirts of this ancient city, down the canted streets of the old quarter, and into this empty apartment where the walls were covered with peeling paint and splotches of black mold.

A plastic tarp flapped against the third-story window, moved by the warm winds rolling down from the valley. The tarp flashed a sliver of hot sunlight; then the room was dark again. Outside he heard the bustle of the street market, the rapid-fire Pashto tongue that had become familiar to him over the years. But it was different here. Here there were more people, more tongues, the staccato voices overlapping and bouncing off the close mud-brick walls of the old city.

He wanted to walk now, down in the bazaar, past the piles of fruit and nuts and spices. To touch and taste and smell. He wanted to find a woman to fuck.

But instead he was here, in the bare room, in the dark. Here, he had work to do. Here, there was no one to fuck. Just someone to hurt.

The guy was still passed out, slumped in the wooden chair, hands tied behind him. His face was battered. He drooled a line of blood.

Mercer walked over to the man and slapped him across the face. The eyes fluttered open. The mouth moved, but no sound.

Mercer eyed the bloody pliers on the floor. He himself had once been threatened with them, but that felt like a long time ago. He had t; aken the pliers, and now they were his. But he did not use them to threaten. That wasn’t his way. He just acted. You pull out one fingernail and the guy understands that it could happen again, nine more times, and he knows exactly how it’s going to feel.

And that’s just what he’d done, all ten of them, because this guy was a tough son of a bitch. And that was fine. That was expected. The tougher the nut, the sweeter the meat.

Mercer swung his foot into the guy’s shin. The man yelped in pain. It wasn’t too loud, because he was spent. Probably no one heard. Probably no one cared.

Mercer leaned in. The man’s left eye was swollen shut, so he looked into the right eye, a sliver of hazel surrounded by swollen purple flesh. “Where is he?”

The man’s lips trembled. His teeth—he still had all his teeth; he should consider himself lucky—slipped over his chapped lower lip. “F-f-ffff…” His lips went slack.

“France? Fiji? Fresno? Where?”

“F-f-ffffu… fuck you…”

Mercer buried his fist in the man’s face and split his nose open. Blood gushed out as the chair toppled backward and crashed to the floor, crushing the man’s tied hands beneath the weight of his body. He moaned as the blood streamed from his face and pooled around his head on the concrete floor.

Mercer walked to the far end of the room and sat in a dark corner. He closed his eyes. He was there again. It was so easy to be back there, in that dark, fetid room, chained down like an animal. He didn’t care about the beatings, or the taunts. He could handle the captivity, the disorientation and uncertainty, losing track of time. He was trained for that.

The worst thing was watching his body wither away from captivity and malnutrition. His most reliable and powerful tool, becoming this limp and desiccated thing. He touched his left arm beneath the white tunic he was wearing. Already the muscle tone was coming back. It had never fully gone. He had just let them think it had; that his will was spent, that his body had become an impotent object, drained of its lethal venom. They were fooled, and it was the last mistake they ever made.

Mercer stood up, walked over to his captive, and looked down at him. Not long ago he’d been the one down on the floor, looking up. The one who didn’t get to decide what happened next.

He hadn’t wanted to play this card. He’d thought the pain would be enough. He’d thought it would be the right thing, given the game they were all playing. But he had to go the next step.

He crouched next to the man. The blood had stopped gushing from his nose. He was taking rapid, shallow breaths. “I’ve seen your house,” said Mercer in a low, soft tone. “Near the American Consulate. Nice two-story place, white stone. Tree out front, looked like a eucalyptus. Your wife has short brown hair, a little plain looking but she keeps herself in shape, tight ass. Your son is how old? Five? Six? Nice looking boy.”

The man glared at him through his one swollen eye.

“Give me what I want, and nothing will happen to them. Withhold from me, and something will. You have my word on that. This is your last opportunity. Tell me where he is.”

The man stared up at him, as though thinking. But not for long. He was going to protect his family. Any decent guy would. The man’s lips parted; he was trying to speak. His voice was low and raspy.

Mercer crouched lower so he could hear. “Tell me.”

The man told him. He spoke in little more than a whisper, but Mercer heard it. And once he heard it, he understood immediately. Of course that’s where the son of a bitch was. Just another turn of the wheel.

He pulled a combat knife from his belt and drew it across the man’s throat. Blood spurted from his jugular.

Mercer stood, wiped the blood from the blade on the dying man’s pants. He looked at the man’s shoes. Leather loafers. He hadn’t noticed them before. They were nice, better than the sandals he’d taken off the last guy he killed. He took them off the man’s feet and put them on.

The blood coming out of the man’s jugular slowed to a trickle, his chest stopped moving. He was dead.

Through the tarp, Mercer could hear the muezzin intone the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. The incantation was low and solemn, almost mournful. All across the city, people would now pause their lives to answer the call, to bow their bodies in a communal act of submission.

Kyle Mercer had once had something like that: common rituals, brotherhood. It had been the Army, and in a broader sense his country. Now all he had was a target. And a destination.





“Tell me something, Mr. Brodie. Wasn’t there some way you could have avoided shooting the mule?”

Chief Warrant Officer Scott Brodie could not believe he had been summoned to the general’s office to talk about the f-ing mule. There was nothing left to say about the mule. In fact, everything that could possibly be said about the mule had already been said.

Major General Stephen Hackett was the Provost Marshal General of the United States Army—the Army’s top cop—and Brodie was a Special Agent in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, the CID, which was the detective arm of the CIC, the Criminal Investigation Command. The CID was tasked with solving all the Army’s law enforcement problems, and on its seal was the motto “Do What Has to Be Done.” Brodie took that motto to heart. His critics might say he misinterpreted it to mean… well… do what has to be done.

The office of the Provost Marshal General was located in Quantico, Virginia, about forty miles south of Washington, DC. The Marine Corps had one of its largest bases at Quantico, and also headquartered there was the Naval Criminal Investigative Service—NCIS—of TV fame, and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Quantico was also home to the Drug Enforcement Administration Training Academy, the FBI Academy, and the FBI Laboratory. The government might have had synergy and cost savings in mind by co-locating all these law enforcement facilities, but knowing the government, it was probably accidental.

Also sitting in General Hackett’s office were Colonel Stanley Dombroski and Warrant Officer Maggie Taylor. Dombroski was the man who normally gave Brodie his assignments. Maggie Taylor was Brodie’s recently assigned partner.

Hackett looked like a general from central casting: He was six feet tall and had a full head of short gray hair, and his posture suggested he had a ramrod up his ass. Colonel Dombroski, by comparison, looked like a guy you’d see selling beer at Fenway. He was five foot eight, at least forty pounds overweight, mostly bald, and had a permanent six-o’clock shadow. He also looked as if he might not be the sharpest bayonet in the armory—but there was nothing dull about Stanley Dombroski. Brodie suspected that Dombroski would never rise above the rank of colonel. The Army, often to its own detriment, wants generals who look like generals.

The Army had no problem, however, with Maggie Taylor’s appearance, and if Brodie and Taylor weren’t frequently required to go undercover, the Army would have plastered Maggie Taylor’s photo on recruiting posters. She was five foot nine and had short blonde hair, a perfect nose, full lips, bright brown eyes that radiated intelligence, and a CrossFit body.

Brodie was tall with civilian-cut dark brown hair, and he considered himself a pretty good-looking guy, based on the unbiased testimony of former girlfriends and his mother. Today he was wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and a counterfeit Armani sports jacket that he had bought in Taiwan for twelve dollars. Army criminal investigators usually wore civilian clothing—unless they were undercover, posing as uniformed personnel. Today, however, Maggie Taylor was in uniform because that was the protocol upon being summoned by a general, as Dombroski—who was always in uniform—had reminded them in an e-mail that Brodie hadn’t read. He was sure he’d hear from Dombroski later about how he never checked his e-mail, which was true, because as far as Brodie was concerned most official Army e-mails should be classified as spam.

“Mr. Brodie?”

Male warrant officers are addressed as “Mr.” Female WOs are “Ms.” Warrant officers are not commissioned officers, as are lieutenants, captains, colonels, and generals, and they exist in a gray area between noncommissioned officers—meaning sergeants—and the commissioned officer corps. It was a nice rank, thought Brodie. You had no command responsibilities and no one called you “sir,” but you could still drink at the Officers’ Club.

The wall behind Hackett was covered with framed commendations and awards, as well as pictures of him with other generals and the current Secretary of Defense. Among them was a framed photo of Hackett in desert combat fatigues holding an M4 rifle, which Brodie suspected he’d only fired in training. General Hackett certainly had never had one fired at him by a methed-up redneck riding bareback on a charging mule in backwoods Kentucky.

Wasn’t there some way you could have avoided shooting the mule? The general’s question still hung in the air. And when a two-star general asks you a question, even a stupid one, you are expected to answer.

“I was aiming for the suspect on the mule, sir,” said Brodie. “Not the mule itself,” he added to be as clear as crystal meth.

Taylor stifled a laugh. They’d only worked this one case together, but Brodie was starting to notice that she found the wrong things funny, and at the wrong times. Also, Taylor was absolutely golden when it came to the mule. She’d saved its life.

Two months ago, Brodie and his new partner had been dispatched to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which was experiencing a major methamphetamine epidemic. Somebody on the base was selling crystal meth to a lot of soldiers, and an M4 rifle that fires seven hundred rounds per minute is not something you want in the hands of a guy flying high on crank. But Army CID agents at Fort Campbell, even with the assistance of the DEA, had had no luck in figuring out who was making and pushing the stuff. So they’d called Chief Warrant Officer Brodie.

Scott Brodie, age thirty-eight, had enlisted when he was twenty-one. He’d been a CID agent for twelve years. In those years he’d apprehended murderers, rapists, Pentagon embezzlers, and people trying to sell military hardware to terrorists. He’d worked hard to establish himself as the guy you send in when the other guys can’t solve a case, and the meth case was one of those times.

He and Taylor had gone undercover posing as clerks in the adjutant general’s office, and in less than two months they had managed to identify all the members of a small cartel. The ringleader was a master sergeant named Enos Hadley who worked at the base National Guard armory, and his cousin cooked the meth out in some backwoods holler. Sergeant Hadley had a dozen guys on the base, some military, some civilian, who acted as his corner boys.

The day the CID was planning to make all the apprehensions, somebody had tipped Hadley that they were coming for him, so he’d left the base in his pickup, taking with him an M4 and enough ammunition to invade North Korea. Brodie and Taylor went after him in an unmarked car.

They hadn’t bothered to notify the Kentucky State Police because the Army likes to solve its own problems. They also hadn’t radioed any MPs for backup, over Taylor’s protests, because, as Brodie explained to her, he hadn’t just spent seven weeks in Deliverance country to let someone else get the glory.

“Brodie,” Taylor had cautioned, “these guys are crazy.”

And Taylor would know. She was from this part of the world—the strip of rugged country that snaked from southern New York to northern Alabama known as Appalachia. It was full of famously short-tempered Scots-Irish descendants, such as one Enos Hadley, who was currently following the genetic imperative of his ancestors and fleeing to the Highlands—or, in his case, the back hills.

“We can handle it,” Brodie had assured her.

And that was the end of it. Brodie outranked her. He was a Chief Warrant Officer Four; Taylor—five years his junior and with only a year in CID under her belt—was a One. He was sure that if she kept at it she’d eventually make Chief Warrant Officer Five, the highest rank. He was less sure about his own prospects. And behavior such as this was a large part of the reason for his uncertainty.

They’d chased Hadley into the hills where he’d been raised, and by the time he got to his backwoods ancestral shack, Brodie and Taylor were less than a quarter mile behind him and saw him run into a barn. Brodie figured he’d barricade himself inside, which would force them to call the local sheriff and tell him to bring a SWAT team and wait the guy out until he either surrendered or blew his tiny brains out.

But that wasn’t what happened. Just as they got out of their car with their 9mm Glock pistols drawn, Hadley burst out of the barn on a mule, which they’d learn later was in such fine and fit shape from spending the last fourteen months carting supplies up to the meth lab.

Hadley charged them like a hillbilly Geronimo, M4 firing on full auto, and it was a minor miracle he didn’t hit either of them. Their car wasn’t so lucky.

Brodie returned fire, trying to kill the guy trying to kill him, which is what they teach you in Basic Combat Training. But it’s a challenge to hit a guy bouncing on a mule, firing a submachine gun at you, while you’re trying to find cover and shoot at the same time. Brodie missed Hadley and shot the mule in the ass.

The mule bucked and Hadley fell off. He rolled once and came up firing. Taylor shot him, hitting him in the right shoulder. She claimed later that she aimed to wound him, which Brodie knew was complete bullshit since the military does not train you to aim to wound. But as they say in the Army, “Whatever I hit is what I was aiming for.”

In the end, both the mule and Hadley survived. Brodie disarmed Hadley and then used a compress bandage to keep him from bleeding to death, while Taylor did her best Dr. Dolittle on the mule, cooing soothingly to the beast while pressing a bandage against its wound. She said, “Jesus, Brodie! Did you have to shoot the mule?” That was the first but obviously not the last time he would hear that question.

The mule shooting made the papers, and it went viral on the Internet. PETA protested, and a lot of people pointed out that a mule happened to be the West Point mascot. Have you no shame, Brodie?

A Pentagon spokeswoman apologized for the mule shooting, the Army paid its veterinary bills, and it made a full recovery. To compensate Hadley’s half-wit wife for the mental anguish she claimed to have suffered when she saw the poor animal at the vet hospital, the Army gave her enough money to buy a Kentucky thoroughbred.

The only good news was that Brodie’s name and photo were withheld from the media, which was vital, considering the kinds of assignments he was often given. Same with Taylor, though within the CIC she became the hero, the one who’d shot Hadley and therefore saved their lives, and the one who’d saved the mule’s life. It was not lost on Brodie that if he had just killed Hadley, no one would have cared and it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

Hackett shuffled some papers on his desk. “The mule isn’t the reason I called you here today.” He looked at Brodie and Taylor, and paused for effect. “This is about Kyle Mercer.”

Kyle Mercer. The most famous Army deserter since Private Eddie Slovik, a World War II soldier and the last man executed for desertion.

Brodie suddenly got interested in the meeting.


Brodie tried to recall what he knew about this case. Captain Kyle Mercer had been a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, more famously known as Delta Force. He was the elite of the elite, one of the most potent weapons in the military’s arsenal, and the tip of the spear in the counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. One night three years earlier, while stationed with a small team at a remote combat outpost in the rugged Hindu Kush, he walked off. According to his teammates, Captain Mercer must have left sometime after midnight. He took all his field gear with him, along with night vision goggles and his M4 rifle, but no one had actually seen him leave the outpost, and no one noticed he was missing until first light. Conclusion: He’d deserted.

Desertion is rare. Desertion in a war zone like Afghanistan even rarer. And desertion in a war zone by an officer in an elite unit, unheard-of. Captain Mercer’s desertion was a public relations nightmare that the Army was desperate to get control of.

It was also a major security risk, given Mercer’s unique role as a Special Ops officer. He held highly classified Intel that could fall into the hands of the Taliban or al Qaeda if he were captured. If anyone was going to hold the line under torture, it would be an officer in Delta Force. But every man has his limits.

All Brodie knew about Mercer’s mission in Afghanistan was what was known to the public through news media reporting, which meant he didn’t know much. Delta Force fell under the purview of Joint Special Operations Command—JSOC—which controlled elite special mission units within the Army, Navy, and Air Force. And the full list of what units JSOC controlled, and what those units’ duties were, remained classified. The command had been formed in 1980, but it wasn’t really taken off the leash until after 9/11, when the Pentagon sought to take a more aggressive counterterrorism posture, as well as assert control over covert operations that had long been the purview of the CIA. The very existence of JSOC’s special mission units had not even been acknowledged until the late Nineties. So Captain Mercer was an enigma even before he walked off in the night into a rugged mountain range in one of the most dangerous and godforsaken corners of the earth.

Whatever Mercer’s team’s mission was, it was too critical to send his teammates out on patrols to find their missing comrade. Instead, patrols from a Stryker brigade operating in the area were deployed as soon as Mercer was reported missing, and helicopters and spotter aircraft joined in the search.

Mercer’s outpost was near the Pakistan border where the Taliban took sanctuary, then crossed back into Afghanistan to engage American and Afghan forces. The rough terrain was thick with IEDs—improvised explosive devices—the ultimate expression of workplace violence.

During the search for Captain Mercer, two soldiers were killed in separate incidents, one by ambush and one by a roadside IED. The media did not make the connection, but Brodie and others within the military were well aware that those soldiers—regular infantry—would never have been patrolling so close to the border of Pakistan’s tribal territories had they not been searching for Captain Mercer. The deserter now had blood on his hands.

It was decided, at the highest Pentagon level, to inform Mercer’s parents that their son had gone AWOL—absent without leave—which was better than telling the conservative couple from San Diego that their son was a deserter, subject to a long R&R in Leavenworth, or even the death penalty.

War today, thought Brodie, was as much about public relations and spin as it was about war. American soldiers don’t surrender. They are captured. And they don’t retreat. They redeploy rearward. And they don’t desert. They go AWOL.

As a criminal investigator, Brodie was very familiar with this last distinction. The difference between desertion and AWOL is primarily one of intent, duration, and duty. The law, as covered by Article 85 (Desertion) and Article 86 (Absence Without Leave) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, states that if a soldier intends to remain away from the Army permanently, and if the reason the soldier abandoned his post was to avoid important duty, the soldier could be court-martialed for desertion. Conversely, if the soldier did not intend to stay away permanently and/or didn’t leave to avoid an important duty, then he would be considered AWOL.

In one classroom example that Brodie recalled, a soldier working in the motor pool at Fort Sam Houston in Texas decides one day he’s tired of fixing broken-down Humvees and would rather be in Arkansas screwing his girlfriend. First, the Army would give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was not planning to stay away permanently, that maybe one day soon he’d come to his senses and return to Fort Sam. Also, as essential as draining the crankcase oil out of a Humvee might be, this is not considered important duty.

Combat is important duty. Defusing IEDs is important duty. Escorting a convoy through hostile territory occupied by guys who have rocket-propelled grenades is important duty. Basically, any job that is hazardous and that a rational human being would prefer not to do because he might get killed is considered important duty. So when the soldier from the Fort Sam Houston motor pool finally comes back to base, or if he happens to get picked up by the MPs, he’d be disciplined for being AWOL as opposed to being a deserter.

For being AWOL, he might be reduced in rank, forfeit some pay, and spend a few days in the stockade or confined to barracks, but he’d still be allowed to stay in the Army.

For desertion, the maximum penalty still carried on the books is death.

But Brodie knew the death penalty was unlikely unless after you deserted you did something particularly heinous, like help the enemy kill your fellow soldiers, or give aid and comfort to the enemy. A deserter had not been executed since World War II, when Private Eddie Slovik stood in front of a firing squad in 1945. The most likely penalty for desertion today would be a dishonorable discharge from the Army, being stripped of any back pay you were owed, and jail time of no longer than five years.

Mercer’s case, however, was different. He wasn’t some newly deployed PFC. He was a commissioned officer, and the commanding officer of a team located deep in hostile territory. The disruption in command brought about by his sudden absence could have put his men in greater danger. Also, he possessed valuable Intel about American counterinsurgency operations that could be used against his fellow soldiers. And finally, there were the two guys who’d got killed looking for him. That was a biggie, and the Army was not going to go easy on Captain Kyle Mercer. Especially if he’d deserted to join up with the enemy—which was unlikely, but nevertheless possible.

Three months after Mercer walked off, the Army’s worst fears were realized: The Taliban released a hostage video—distributed across jihadist websites and covered by every mainstream media outlet—showing Mercer kneeling in the dirt in front of five Taliban fighters. So obviously Mercer was not there voluntarily—or his offer to become a jihadist had been rejected. He looked bad: sunken cheeks, hollow eyes, a scraggly beard. He wore a white tunic and baggy white pants. His captors all wore black and held AK-47 rifles across their chests. This was in May of 2015, after the public had already been subjected to a grisly parade of ISIS hostage videos that all followed the same tragic script: unrealistic and impossible demands, followed by Western inaction and, ultimately, a beheading. But it was the Taliban, not ISIS, who held Mercer, and they wanted to make a deal. One of the captors read off a list of six Taliban commanders currently held at Guantánamo Bay whom they wanted released in exchange for Captain Mercer. Mercer himself said nothing in the video. He just stared blankly ahead, showing no emotion. No fear. After the Taliban fighter gave his demands, he grabbed Mercer by the nape of his neck and said into the camera, in Pashto: “This is one of your greatest warriors, America. We found him running away like a coward. We would like to shoot him like a dog, but our mujahideen brothers are more important. We are loyal to our soldiers. Are you?” Then the video ended.

It occurred to Brodie at the time that it was strange that Mercer did not speak. It is usually more effective—and demoralizing—to make the hostage deliver the demands. It was possible his captors had tried to get him to deliver the script and he’d refused, even under torture. So they did the talking as Captain Mercer knelt in the dirt on display, defiant in his silence and his fearless gaze.

After the hostage video was released, Mercer’s parents went public with their own video addressing their son’s captors. Brodie remembered seeing them on TV, looking like they hadn’t slept in weeks, shakily reading a prepared script to a band of fundamentalist crazies on the other side of the world.

Betty Mercer looked decidedly worse than her husband, ashen and trembling, and soon she stated why: She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only months to live. She pleaded for her son’s release, in the hope that she could see him one last time. She even quoted from the Quran, something about God’s mercy prevailing over His wrath.

But apparently the Taliban were not interested in mercy. Or maybe they didn’t appreciate their own book being read back to them by an Episcopalian from California. At any rate, there was no response. Six months later, Mrs. Mercer died. No one ever heard from Kyle Mercer or his captors again.

General Hackett, however, had some new and classified information. “We learned eight months ago that Captain Mercer escaped his captors, and presumably fled the region. That was all we had to go on until three days ago, when we received a report that an old Army buddy of his spotted him overseas.” He looked at Brodie and Taylor. “I want you two to locate and apprehend Captain Mercer and bring him home to face trial by court-martial.” Hackett remembered to add, “After an investigation, of course.”

Brodie thought about where he’d go if he’d done years of Special Ops duty in one of the most hostile places on earth, then been held captive by a ruthless enemy and subjected to years of physical and psychological torture, and then somehow managed to escape, with the knowledge that he would face a court-martial for desertion if he ever returned home. Mai Tais on the beach in Thailand sounded good. Brodie was ready to pack.

“He’s in Caracas, Venezuela,” said Hackett. He then added, just for fun: “Murder Capital of the World.”



While Hackett shuffled through some papers on his desk, Brodie looked over at his partner. She was looking at Hackett, or rather, looking through him with a kind of glazed-over expression that Brodie had come to recognize as a sign of deep concentration. She had gotten that look a couple of times down in Kentucky. Once was right before she made a big break in the case. The other was at the Fort Campbell mess hall, while assessing the edibility of the meat loaf.

Now Brodie wondered if she was thinking what he was thinking—that Venezuela had been in the news a lot lately, and not for anything good. Who in their right mind would escape one shithole for another?

“So here’s what we have,” Hackett said, looking up from his papers. “A former U.S. Army sergeant named Alfred Simpson saw Mercer in Caracas. Simpson and Mercer knew each other well. They were in basic training and advanced infantry training together before Mercer went to OCS at Fort Benning and Simpson was assigned to the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, at Fort Carson.

“Two weeks ago, Simpson was in Caracas on business. He now works as an oil industry consultant. One night, execs from the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, take him to the Marriott hotel lounge, and after a couple drinks he spots a guy sitting alone at the bar. He thinks it looks like his old buddy Kyle Mercer. Simpson, like most of America, knows that Mercer deserted, and he saw the Taliban video on TV. Simpson hesitates, then gets up to take a closer look. He says Mercer’s name, Mercer turns around, and they make eye contact. Mercer gets up and quickly walks out of the bar.” Hackett added, “Simpson now lives in New Jersey, so I had CID agents from Fort Dix interview him last night. Their interview is in the file.”

Brodie asked, “And Simpson was certain it was Mercer?”

“It’s all in the file,” Hackett repeated.

As much as Brodie relished the opportunity to wander aimlessly through the Murder Capital of the World, he really wished they had more to work with.

Reading his mind, Hackett said, “This is the first tip or clue we’ve had in three years. It’s what we’ve got.”

Right. When you’re clueless, you take what comes along.

Taylor asked General Hackett, “Sir, if this happened two weeks ago, why are we just acting on it?”

“Because we just heard about it yesterday. Simpson said he didn’t know what to do or who to contact while he was in Caracas.”

“How about the U.S. Embassy?” said Brodie. “Is he stupid?”

Hackett ignored that and continued, “Maybe he second-guessed his identification. Or maybe Mr. Simpson didn’t want to rat out his old friend, and he struggled with this. In any case, after Simpson returned to the States, he called an old Army friend who was still on active duty, and this individual, a Sergeant Bell, made a few calls and the tip went up the chain, eventually reaching General Mendoza, who called me yesterday. After I was notified, I had the agents from Dix interview Simpson.”

General Christopher Mendoza was no less than the highest-ranking officer in the United States Army. He had four stars and he was the Army Chief of Staff, and a member of the Joint Chiefs. In other words, he was God, and God had spoken directly to General Hackett, who was now speaking to them. Thou shalt not fuck this up, Brodie.

Hackett continued, “General Mendoza told me he wants Captain Mercer brought back to the United States, but he does not want this turned into a media circus.” He added, “While we technically have an extradition treaty with Venezuela, they have not honored it in some time.”

Which meant this was going to be a snatch job.

Hackett said, “So your mission is to locate Mercer in Venezuela and get him back home to face court-martial. Your mission is not to interrogate him or attempt to determine guilt, just get him in custody and back to Quantico. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” said Taylor with enthusiasm.

Kidnap the asshole if you have to was the subtext, though General Hackett would never say it. Brodie hoped that Taylor understood what she was signing on for. She’d only been a CID agent for a year, and he was certain she’d never dealt with anything like this. This was the kind of job that could land you in a foreign prison if things went wrong—after which your bosses back in the States would say you must have misunderstood your orders. Or maybe they’d say they’d never heard of you.

Over the years, Brodie had been involved in a couple of euphemistically labeled “extraordinary extractions”—a murderer who’d fled to Belgrade, and an embezzler he’d tracked to a Tunisian beach resort. In both cases they were schmucks, in way over their heads, whose one and only bright idea was to get themselves to a country without an extradition treaty. It didn’t work out for them. But then, they weren’t Delta Force.

Brodie thought back to Kyle Mercer’s face in the hostage video. No fear.

He still hadn’t responded to Hackett’s question. The general looked directly at him—he had eyes like stainless steel ball bearings—and said, “Do you understand, Mr. Brodie?”

“Yes, sir. I do.” But something was missing from this story, and he added, “You said Mercer escaped his captors eight months ago. How do you know that?”

Hackett and Dombroski exchanged a look, and something told Brodie they had finally reached the heart of the matter.

General Hackett said, “What you are about to see is classified.” Brodie was certain the man practiced saying that in front of a mirror every morning.

Hackett took a thumb drive out of his desk drawer and handed it to Dombroski, who plugged it into a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall across from Hackett’s desk.

Hackett continued, “Eight months ago, a SEAL team conducting a cross-border operation into the Pakistani tribal territories came across a former Taliban encampment. While they were inspecting the site, they were approached by a local goat herder who presented them with a note, written in English—and, as we discovered later, in Mercer’s handwriting—instructing any American military unit to pay the bearer of the note fifty dollars in exchange for valuable information. The SEAL team paid the goat herder and he handed them an SD memory card and then left. The card contained this footage.” He added, “It’s graphic.”

Dombroski pressed play, and they all watched the screen.

A stationary camera showed a burning tent in rugged mountain territory on a moonlit night. A figure was splayed out on the ground in front of the tent. It appeared to be a bearded man in dark clothing. He was sleeping. Or dead.

Another figure was hunched over in the distance, moving in quick repetitive motions. An arm, framed against the sky, raised a long knife and brought it down over and over.

The figure stood. It was a tall, thin man with a beard, his features etched in moonlight. He held the knife in his right hand, and a round object swayed from his clenched left hand.

A human head.

The man walked forward toward the burning tent, and as he got closer to the camera his head disappeared out of frame and his body could be seen approaching a sharp wooden pike staked in the sand. He dropped the knife on the ground and, with both hands, brought the head down onto the pike. A distinctive wet crunch could be heard over the wind and the crackling fire.

“Five men—apparently Taliban—were found like that,” said Hackett. “Decapitated, heads mounted on pikes in a circle around the encampment. Three of them, according to the SEAL team report, were killed by bullets. Two had their throats cut.”

The figure walked forward and crouched into frame. It was Kyle Mercer. His face looked frightening—gaunt, bloody, illuminated by moonlight and by another fire somewhere off camera. His blue eyes were wide open and alert as he stared into the lens. “I hereby resign my commission as an officer in the United States Army.”

He leaned forward and turned off the camera.

The screen went black, and for a moment they all stared at their own dull reflections.

Hackett broke the silence: “For the record, the Army does not accept Captain Mercer’s resignation. He is still subject to military justice.”

Right, thought Brodie. You are still one of us, and we will find you.

Hackett continued, “Captain Mercer was held for over two years by a ruthless and sadistic enemy, undoubtedly subjected to physical and psychological torture. It is remarkable that he was able to escape, and this speaks to his considerable abilities. It goes without saying that this man is dangerous, and unlikely to be taken into custody willingly.”

That, thought Brodie, may be an understatement.

Brodie understood something about the stress of war. Before joining the CIC, he’d served as a rifleman in the 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq and taken part in the successful drive to retake Fallujah from the insurgents in Operation Phantom Fury. He fought along dusty alleyways and sunbaked roofs and houses blown open by mortar shells. He saw people ripped apart by bullets and bombs and artillery. Most were the enemy. Some were civilians. A couple were his friends. He’d seen action before that, and he would again, but that battle had changed him.

He wondered what the war had done to Kyle Mercer, not to mention the years of captivity and torture. The Army had turned a kid from San Diego into a trained killer. But what was it that had turned him into a deserter who would abandon his own men? And what had he become when he not only killed his captors, but whacked off their heads and mounted them like trophies? Whatever it was, he must have known he’d crossed a threshold from which he could not come back.

Hackett stood, and they all followed suit. He looked between Brodie, Taylor, and Dombroski and said, “If you have any questions, Colonel Dombroski will answer them.” He added, “This meeting never took place.”

Brodie wished that were true.


Maggie Taylor was typing on her laptop. “Looks like we can get a cute Airbnb right in downtown Caracas for twelve bucks a night.”

Brodie still couldn’t tell when his new partner was joking, though he hoped this was a skill he’d pick up over time.

They were sitting in their small shared office on the second floor of an administrative building about a ten-minute walk from Hackett’s office. Quantico was their permanent duty station, though they were hardly ever there. Their office walls were bare except for a bulletin board thick with layers of official notices and takeout menus. Brodie’s gray metal desk was covered in piles of dusty incident reports that were supposed to be filed somewhere, and the whole place smelled stale. Brodie’s last partner, a humorless guy named Spencer from Chicago, was constantly annoyed with the state of Brodie’s side of the office. Dave Spencer was a former infantry NCO, but he had spent all of his time stateside, and Brodie suspected he put more care and attention into folding the perfect military corners on his bedsheets than he did into getting his soldiers battle-ready. Scott Brodie had no patience for the finer points of military discipline and etiquette, and he’d noticed that some of the most useless guys in his old infantry battalion had the crispest uniforms, while many of the bravest soldiers he’d ever known couldn’t even keep their footlockers organized. So the CID suited him well. He could be an officer without worrying about being a gentleman.

When Dave Spencer was promoted to Warrant Officer Four, he’d jumped at the opportunity to get a new office and find his own lower-ranking partner to boss around, leaving Brodie alone with more room to spread his mess. Then Maggie Taylor came along, fresh off a six-month stint with the CID at Fort Bragg, and as far as Brodie could tell she hadn’t even noticed the mess, or the smell. She tended to become manically focused on whatever she was doing, oblivious to everything else. At the moment, her task was making arrangements with the travel office, and Brodie decided he ought to clarify the objective before she found them a room share in the Caracas slums.

“We need a modern hotel. Preferably one that employs private security.” He added, “Cost is no object.”

Taylor didn’t reply, and Brodie took a look at Captain Kyle Mercer’s confidential file, which Dombroski had handed him after their meeting with Hackett. Mercer was thirty-three years old, born and raised in San Diego. Mercer’s father, Peter, was an accountant, and his late mother, Betty, had managed a clothing store. Kyle Mercer did well in school and earned a scholarship to UCLA. After college he enlisted, and after basic and advanced infantry training he attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he excelled and graduated at the top of his class. Afterward he received airborne training at Benning, then applied for and was accepted into the Special Forces Qualification Course. He trained at the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, where he was ultimately recruited into Delta Force. At this point the specifics of his file became murky, with mission reports full of redactions. What Brodie did see was the impressive pedigree of an elite solider and no red flags prior to his desertion. Among his many listed skills was fluency in Spanish, which he’d studied in high school and college. Kyle Mercer also spoke Pashto, the result of a three-month stint at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. That skill, thought Brodie, must have come in handy during his captivity, and probably kept him alive.

Brodie recalled an old joke: “Join the Army, see the world, meet new people, and kill them.”

He returned his attention to the report, which included testimonials from Mercer’s Delta teammates. To a man, they described Captain Mercer as a capable, competent, and brave commanding officer. No one remarked on behavior that was out of the ordinary in the days or hours preceding his desertion. The only thing of note about the testimonials was that the names of every man interviewed, and the names of any other person or place they mentioned, were redacted.

Brodie also looked over the report of the Fort Dix CID’s interview with Simpson, which was brief and mostly useless. The only new details he learned were that Simpson had had a productive and lucrative meeting with the Venezuelan state oil execs before getting sloshed on rum, and that Simpson was sure it was Mercer because of a distinctive tattoo on Mercer’s arm of an ouroboros—the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. Also, according to Simpson, Mercer had a trimmed beard and appeared to have gained about thirty pounds, mostly muscle, since his infamous hostage video seen by most of America on the nightly news.

Brodie asked his partner, “Why does a guy who’s in hiding, and whose face has been on TV, sit in a high-traffic hotel bar frequented by Americans who might recognize him?”

“There aren’t too many Americans in Caracas these days,” replied Taylor.

“Right, but the few that are there, like Simpson, are almost guaranteed to be at a place like the Marriott.”

“You think Simpson is lying?”

Brodie opened his laptop and pulled up pictures of the Caracas Marriott’s lobby lounge. It was a comfortable-looking, no-frills modern hotel bar with lounge seating located on a mezzanine level above the checkin desks. A wide stairway led up to the lounge, and the bar ran along the left wall as you entered. The bar, notably, had no mirrors along its back wall.

“Simpson said Mercer was sitting at the bar, while he was sitting in the lounge area with his Venezuelan oil company pals. Simpson noticed the tattoo first, which is on Mercer’s right biceps, and only positively IDed Mercer when Simpson said his name and Mercer turned around.” Brodie spun his laptop around to show Taylor a picture of the bar and lounge.

“No way,” said Taylor.


“Situational awareness” is a familiar concept to anyone in the military, and second nature to a well-trained officer. In short, it means not having your head up your ass in a given situation—be aware of your physical surroundings, the context in which you are existing in them, and the multitude of potential consequences of your actions or the possible actions of others. No officer—let alone one in Delta Force—who was a fugitive from military justice would sit at that bar with an entire room full of people at his back.

Brodie’s cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked it and saw a text from Dombroski: Meet me at the O Club in 15. Alone.

The Officers’ Club at Quantico was Colonel Dombroski’s preferred venue for conducting business. It was also his favorite place to drink. These two activities often occurred at the same time.

Brodie got up from his desk. “I need to take care of some personal business; then we’ll pay Mr. Simpson another visit. Get us the last flight out of Newark tonight, and adjoining rooms at the Marriott.”

Taylor clicked on something, furrowed her brow. “Looks like gunmen shot up the Marriott lobby two days ago. How about the El Dorado?”

“When’s the scheduled shoot-out there?”

“Doesn’t say.”

“Do the best you can.”

Brodie left the office.


The Officers’ Club at Quantico was a nice enough place. Large windows admitted the morning sun, and it had an elegant bar with high-backed stools and a couple dozen tables with comfortable chairs. Mounted above the bar were plaques for military units stationed at Quantico as well as an old wooden propeller that maybe came off the plane of the guy who shot down the Red Baron.

Brodie and Dombroski sat at the mostly empty bar. Since it was just past ten, they showed restraint and ordered pilsners.

Dombroski looked around. “This place looks like a goddamn Applebee’s.”

Brodie had heard this complaint before from his superior, and he hoped it wasn’t a warm-up to another lengthy diatribe about the changing culture of the military. The O Clubs where Dombroski had caroused and drunk to excess in his misspent youth had been housed in grand buildings containing ballrooms and dining rooms staffed by uniformed stewards. The reason for the decline in these magnificent old facilities was partly economic and partly social. The Army was trying to “deglamorize” alcohol, and didn’t want the liability of an officer leaving a club and plowing into a family in a station wagon. But Brodie had seen Dombroski drive, and a couple of beers could only improve his performance.

Dombroski raised his glass to Brodie. “I stopped believing in luck or God, so I’ll just say watch your ass and come home safe. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir.”

They drank.

Dombroski said, “I’m in touch with a Defense Intelligence guy who’s posted at our embassy in Caracas, Colonel Brendan Worley. He’ll be your logistical support on the ground. He’s an Army attaché, been in country a few years so he knows the place well. He’s aware of the broad details of your mission, that you’re there to track down and apprehend Captain Mercer. You can share additional details with him as necessary, on a need-to-know basis. He’ll meet you in your hotel lobby when you check in, and he’ll give you your kit.”

Brodie nodded. He was glad to hear they’d have some support on the ground. And some tools of the trade they’d never be able to get past Caracas airport security.

Dombroski added, “He’ll also supply you with paper currency. It’s hard to bring in cash without getting a shakedown at the airport, and your plastic will be no good there. He’s sending a car and driver to meet you and take you to your hotel.”

“We’ll take a taxi. Less conspicuous.”

Dombroski shrugged. “That’s what I thought too. He said you’ll stick out just by virtue of being Americans these days. His driver knows the ropes, he’ll be armed and make sure you don’t get robbed or kidnapped on the way to the hotel.”

“I feel safer already,” said Brodie. “What about getting Mercer out?”

“Colonel Worley will be able to help with those arrangements too.”

Taylor was booking them round-trip tickets for the sake of appearances, but once Mercer was in custody their flight home would be via private charter. Brodie wasn’t too worried about this part of the mission. Over the decades, America’s intelligence agencies had gained a lot of relevant experience in how to sneak people in and out of Latin America.

Dombroski pulled an envelope from his jacket and handed it to Brodie. “Your tourist travel visas. They’re legit, with your real names and to be used to travel under your regular civilian passports, so if they are entered into a central database at Caracas passport control you’ll be fine. Normally takes months to get these and you have to send in your passport book, but it looks like Hackett’s people have a guy at the Venezuelan Embassy in their pocket and he expedited them yesterday. On paper, you’ve been vaccinated for yellow fever, though you’ll want to do that for real if you end up needing to head to the interior of the country. Also, although you have different last names, you’re married to each other—good luck with that—and you both work as life insurance agents in Alexandria.”

“Do we share a room?”

“That’s up to you and Ms. Taylor. But you’ll book two rooms.”

“Right. And why are we visiting Venezuela?”

“Because you’re stupid.”

Brodie opened the envelope and looked at their visas. They used the same photos that Brodie and Taylor had on their military IDs, but with a combination of cropping and photoshopping to obscure their uniforms. He closed the envelope and slipped it into the pocket of his faux Armani sports coat.

On that subject, Dombroski said, “You’re supposed to be in uniform when reporting to a general in his office.”

Maybe, Brodie thought, he should have worn his uniform to remind General Hackett—and Dombroski—that he’d been an infantryman before this gig, and that he’d been awarded the Bronze Star for valor, the Purple Heart for too much valor, and the Combat Infantry Badge for being there. Even generals showed you a bit more respect when they saw the CIB on your uniform—which neither Hackett nor Dombroski was authorized to wear.


“This is my uniform.”

“You make me look bad.”

“If I come back with Mercer in cuffs, you’ll look fine, Colonel.”

Dombroski changed the subject. “You and Taylor worked well together in Kentucky.”

Brodie couldn’t tell if this was a statement or a question. “We did.”

“Except for shooting the mule. But I think we can all agree that was entirely your fault.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You know Taylor was CA in Afghanistan.”

CA meant Civil Affairs, specifically the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade out of Fort Bragg. Civil Affairs was the Army’s soft power on the ground, interfacing with the local populace, overseeing public works projects, and, in the case of Afghanistan, navigating the delicate and often messy business of tribal politics. It was tough, dangerous work, and confirmed the old adage that it is harder to build than to destroy.

Brodie, of course, knew Taylor’s history. He wished his superior would get to the point.

“Sometimes,” said Dombroski, “these Stability Ops people get recruited by the Company.”

That was the point. The CIA. That perennial bogeyman of the military and civilian worlds alike. The CIA was everything the Army was not—nebulous and nimble, with a loose command structure and a murky code of ethics. Not to mention a purposely confusing mission statement. This engendered a natural distrust and, in Brodie’s opinion, a lot of unhelpful scapegoating.

Brodie asked, “Are you questioning her loyalty?”

“Of course not. But there were rumors going around about her down at Bragg. About certain entanglements.”


“Like she was screwing a spook.”

Well, thought Brodie, a young unmarried woman ought to be able to screw whoever she wants. But the truth was, while the various military branches and intelligence services were all working toward a common purpose, each of them operated in its own insular world with its own culture, traditions, and prejudices—and when you engaged in extracurricular activities with a member of another tribe, people always noticed, and often judged.

Still, this innuendo was a bit disturbing.

“Colonel, I’m about to fly to a country that might not be a country when I land. I need someone I can count on. You want to assign me a new partner?”

Dombroski shook his head. “She’s fluent in Spanish and she’ll never sleep with you. We better keep her.”

Brodie downed the rest of his beer. “I should be hitting the road. It’s a long drive.”

“It’s less than an hour to Dulles.”

“We’re going to New Jersey to interview Al Simpson.”

“Someone already did that.”

“Not very well,” said Brodie.

Dombroski gave him a long look. Brodie didn’t exactly have a reputation for double-checking his parachute before he jumped.

“This one’s going to be a bitch,” said Dombroski.

“You picked the right man, Colonel.”

“Everybody else turned it down.”

“Anything further, Colonel?”

“Stay in touch with me.”

“I always do.”

“You never do.” He reminded Brodie, “Encrypted communication only. And keep in mind this case is a hot potato.”


“Captain Mercer is a U.S. citizen with constitutional rights, including the right to remain silent and to be represented by legal counsel.”

“I’ll inform him of that before I kick him in the nuts.”

Dombroski smiled, then continued, “Could be that he’s left the country after Simpson spotted him. Or he was just passing through.”

“Could be.”

“Or maybe he feels safe there. Maybe he has a business. Drugs. Arms. Maybe he’s a hit man for the government or the opposition.”

Brodie had thought about all this, and concluded that speculating without a clue was a waste of time. “I’ll let you know.”

“My point is, if Mercer has a business there, he’s got bodyguards like everyone else in Venezuela who has a few bucks.”

Brodie didn’t reply.

“Mercer by himself is a one-man army. Mercer with armed hombres is not going to be easy to apprehend.”

“I’ll figure it out.”

“Just so you understand… you need to make every effort to take him alive… but you are authorized to use deadly force if necessary.”

Brodie nodded, wondering if he understood the subtext.

“And don’t forget that the Venezuelan government is hostile to U.S. interests.”


“If you get arrested… you got a problem.”


“And do you understand that this assignment is voluntary?”

“I do, sir.” But Brodie also understood that Hackett’s office had secured their visas yesterday. Sometimes in the Army, volunteering was mandatory.

“You good to go?”

“Always good to go.”

“And make sure Ms. Taylor understands everything I just told you.”

“Will do.” He asked again, “Anything further?”

“No. Dismissed.”

Brodie walked away from the bar toward the double doors.

Colonel Dombroski called out, “Make me look good, Brodie.”

Well, he would find and apprehend Captain Mercer, and he’d let his boss take all the credit he wanted. But there were probably other people in the Army or the government who didn’t look forward to a soldier like Captain Kyle Mercer standing before a court-martial on trial for desertion. Bad optics. Bad publicity. Better if he stayed missing. Or turned up dead.

Brodie exited the Officers’ Club into the bright summer day.


They drove north along I-95 in Brodie’s 2014 Chevy Impala, which was functional and boring enough to be inconspicuous, but handled well at high speeds for the moments when his job got more interesting. The trunk was full of their hastily packed luggage. The drive from Quantico to West Orange, New Jersey, was a little over five hours, and they were already about four hours in.

Taylor had changed out of her uniform into jeans and a blouse, which was a better look when interviewing a voluntary civilian witness. She pulled up the Simpson home phone number that they’d gotten from the Fort Dix CID report and called on speaker.

A woman answered, and Taylor asked, “Is this Mrs. Simpson?”


“Mrs. Simpson, this is Warrant Officer Maggie Taylor from Fort Dix.”

A pause, then, “Yes?”

“May I speak to Mr. Simpson?”

“He’s at work.”

“I’ll be at your home in about an hour, Mrs. Simpson. It would be good if he was there waiting for me.”


“Or I’ll go to his place of work, which may not be convenient for him.”

“I’ll call him… to come home.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I won’t keep him more than half an hour.”

“All right…”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Taylor hung up.

Brodie said, “You told two lies. We’re not from Fort Dix, and we’ll keep him as long as we need to.” He added, “Also, you forgot to mention me.”

“Women are perceived as nonthreatening.”

“You threatened to bust into his place of employment.”

“Simpson is a voluntary witness, but he could decide to stop talking at any time.”

“His personnel file shows he served honorably.”

“And now he’s a civilian.”

“Old soldiers never die, and they do the right thing when the Army calls.”

“We’ll see.”

They rode in silence for a while. Brodie had learned early that Taylor wasn’t the sort for idle conversation, which was fine by him. She took out her tablet and started reading through articles about Venezuela that she had bookmarked. At some point she put on a playlist from her smartphone. An old fiddle scratched out an up-tempo folk tune as a man sang in a distant, high-pitched wail. Something about farm hogs and a deal with the devil.

“I discovered this on vinyl while cleaning out my grandpa’s basement,” said Taylor. “Some of these recordings date back to the Twenties.”

Throughout his military career, Brodie had met his share of hillbillies and country kids who had risen far above their station. The Army was good for that. But never had he met anyone like Maggie Taylor. She’d grown up in the hill country of eastern Tennessee, raised by her grandmother after her mother discovered her father with another woman and took care of them both with a double-barreled shotgun.

“Didn’t even need to reload,” Taylor had boasted during a disturbingly dispassionate recounting at the O Club after not nearly enough drinks. Either Taylor had buried it deep, or she was crazy. Probably both.

Mama went to prison, but Grandma taught her well, kept her away from the drunks and the crooks. Taylor had nurtured her natural intellect into a full ride at Georgetown, where she gained fluency in Arabic and became an Army Civil Affairs Specialist. She, like Brodie, had turned down Officer Candidate School. It was unusual for college grads to reject OCS, but Taylor, like Brodie, did not want the responsibilities or the privileges of commissioned officers; they both wanted to serve in the enlisted ranks, and to work their way up the promotion ladder. They were both promoted to Sergeant E-5, a three-striper, in their respective tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now as CID investigators, they were both Warrant Officers. This hybrid rank apparently suited Taylor as much as it suited Brodie: decent pay and a few privileges with none of the stress or command expectations of a commissioned officer. But, as Brodie had quickly learned, there were other stresses on this job.

Taylor had spent two years crisscrossing the tribal lands of Afghanistan in armored convoys, assessing construction projects, negotiating with village elders, and hoping the smiling warlords treating her to tea and kebabs didn’t sell her out to the Taliban up the road.

One time, they did. Her convoy got hit by IEDs, followed by an ambush. Her unit fought their way out, and Sergeant Taylor tended to some wounded along the way, all with a leg full of shrapnel. Half of her unit didn’t make it. She was awarded the Silver Star for her valor, and the Purple Heart for her bad luck, though Brodie only knew about that because someone else told him. Unlike her mother’s hillbilly justice, this was not a subject Maggie Taylor cared much to talk about.

The fiddler picked up the pace. The farmer, it seemed, had traded his wife’s soul to the devil in exchange for more hogs, which sounded like a bad deal regardless of what the man thought of his wife.

Brodie was sure this music sounded better while winding through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains than driving along the New Jersey Turnpike. Actually, this music was made for drinking corn likker.

“What do you think?” asked Taylor.

“He should have held out for more hogs.”

“The case, Brodie.”

Brodie thought on that. They were flying blind if Simpson didn’t give them more information. Shoe-leather detective work was fine in some places. But Caracas was probably not one of them.

Brodie hadn’t worked a case in South America in years, but he knew that the current situation in Venezuela was bad. While Venezuela was technically a democracy, the current President, Nicolás Maduro, had been taking increasingly authoritarian measures to marginalize political opponents and crack down on civil unrest. He had royally screwed up his nation’s economy, following in the fine tradition of his predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chávez, but Maduro lacked both Chávez’ intellect and his charisma. Most crucially, the price of oil had plummeted soon after Maduro took over, and oil production was the entire basis of Venezuela’s shaky economy. The state treasury emptied, putting an end to government goodies and exposing Chávez’ socialist revolution for the house of cards it was. Inflation skyrocketed, basic goods became scarce, and people were starving. In 2017 the Venezuelan people had taken to the streets demanding greater political freedom, but the movement was violently suppressed, and the opposition fractured.

These days, instead of demanding freedom, people were just trying to scrounge for bread and toilet paper. Despite all this, Maduro had recently won a second term in a highly suspect election with record low voter turnout in which he had either jailed or banned from the ballot all viable opposition candidates. The scary thing was that millions of people actually had voted for more of the same shit from this incompetent, autocratic asshole.

“What thrives in chaos?” asked Brodie.

“Crime,” replied Taylor. “Criminals and fugitives.”

“Is that why Mercer went to Venezuela?”

“That could be one reason. But not a good one.”

“Right. Why do most soldiers desert?”

“To avoid the rigors of military service. Including the risk of death.”

“Is that why Captain Kyle Mercer deserted?”

“I doubt it.”

“Me too.”

Someone knows why he deserted, thought Brodie. His Delta Force teammates, maybe. Or some higher-up at JSOC. As CID agents, he and Taylor were able to cross lines of rank and privilege that no one else in the Army could, so long as it was relevant to a criminal case. Justice knows no rank. But they were swimming up to the edge of murky waters here. JSOC. Delta. Black Ops. They couldn’t even get the names of Mercer’s Delta teammates, let alone interview them. Whatever answers they were going to find, the route of discovery ran through Venezuela. By way of Essex County, New Jersey.

Taylor said, “Here’s the exit.”

Brodie took the exit and followed a two-lane road bounded by commercial strips. The next song from Grandpa Taylor’s dusty basement collection came on, this one a fun little ditty about a prison chain gang.

“You got any Stones on there?”

“No. But I’ve got some underground Afghani hip-hop I picked up in Kabul.”

Brodie laughed, though he was pretty sure she was serious. Her Civil Affairs job had required her to be versed in all aspects of local culture, custom, and tradition. Taylor likely had taken this requirement fifteen steps too far and was now an expert in the ethnomusicology of all of Central Asia.

They drove on, passing gated communities labeled Cherry Ridge and Cedar Grove. Brodie wondered whether these names were the pretentious brain farts of real estate developers or memorials to the natural beauty they had paved over.

Eventually they found Simpson’s development—Hidden Springs—and pulled up to a small guard booth where a rent-a-cop was watching TV.

They handed over their driver’s licenses and the guard called the Simpsons, read their names, and then punched a button to open an agonizingly slow gate.

Brodie thought back to the many times he’d waited at the entrance gates to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where the blast walls grew higher and thicker every time insurgents decided to set off a car bomb. Sometimes the illusion of security was the best you could hope for. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

They drove through rows of densely packed McMansions and pulled into the Simpsons’ drive, behind a black Hummer. Maybe the guy missed his Army days, thought Brodie. Or maybe he was an asshole.

They got out and rang the bell. Nora Simpson, a petite, mousy woman, answered the door. She did not look particularly happy to see them. They showed their military IDs and Mrs. Simpson led them into an overly decorated family room with a big flat-screen TV and too many couches.

Al Simpson was deep in a recliner chair that was probably as comfortable as it was ugly, watching a baseball game. A little girl who looked to be about four was playing on the floor. She gave Brodie and Taylor a big gap-toothed grin.

Simpson rose from the chair. He had an average build except for the paunch under his oversize polo shirt. He switched off the TV.

“Just in time,” he said with faux nonchalance. “Mets are blowing it.”

Simpson’s eyes darted to Taylor. His wife’s too. Uncommonly beautiful women tend to have that effect, though Taylor was also uncommonly oblivious when it came to her assets.

“Sadie, sweetie,” said Nora. “Take Mr. Bickles and Princess Moon to your room, okay?”

“She’s a queen now, Mama.”

“Well, congratulations to her. Upstairs.”

Sadie picked up her toys and walked out of the room, looking up at Brodie and Taylor as she passed. “Are you married?”

“Sadie,” chided Nora.

“No,” said Brodie, “but I keep asking. Should I try again?”

“Yeah!” Sadie giggled as she ran out of the room.

They all made introductions, shook hands, and took seats around the coffee table. Taylor said, “Thank you for your help.”

Simpson nodded and said, “I told the other guys everything. So I’m not sure what you’re looking for.”

“Something we may have missed,” said Brodie, meaning, Something you may have missed.

Simpson did not reply, and Brodie thought that the former NCO was not completely comfortable talking to two officers who were also cops. So Brodie reassured him of his civilian status by saying, “Mr. Simpson, just tell us what you told the other two men.” He added, “The Army is grateful for your assistance.”

Simpson nodded again, and began to recount the same story they’d read in the report, that he was sitting in the Marriott lounge with his American colleague and a group of reps from the state oil company when he spotted Kyle Mercer at the bar.

“How did he look?” asked Brodie.

“A hell of a lot better than the last time I saw him on TV, kneeling in the dirt in front of a line of ragheads. He’d bulked up. Ripped, like how I remembered him from training. He had a beard, but it was trimmed.”

“Okay,” said Brodie. “So you’re sitting with these clients, you look up and see him at the bar. And he sees you.”

“Yeah,” said Simpson. “I knew it was him, he’s staring at me. And I said his name.”

“Did you say his name while still sitting with the other guys in the lounge?” asked Brodie. “Or did you get up and approach first?”

Simpson hesitated, realizing that his story wasn’t matching up with what he’d told the other CID guys. He glanced at his wife, who put a supportive hand on his shoulder.

“Wait. Sorry. It’s been a couple weeks. He didn’t see me at first, actually. Because he wasn’t facing me. He was facing away, at the bar. I saw his tattoo first. Of the snake.”

Brodie had caught him—and importantly, Simpson knew he’d been caught. He proceeded to tell the same story he’d told the other agents, that he saw Mercer from behind, recognized the tattoo, approached the bar, and said his name. Then they made eye contact. Brodie decided to proceed as if nothing had happened, rather than call him out in front of his wife. “So now you’re looking at each other,” said Brodie. “Then what happened?”

“He just kinda stared at me. Cold. Pissed, maybe. My colleague, Pete, and the oil guys were looking at me, and then back at Mercer, and it felt kind of awkward and tense. Then Kyle just gets up and walks out of the bar.”

“That’s it?” asked Taylor. “You just let him walk off?”

“What was I supposed to do? We’d just closed this big deal, we were celebrating. That’s where my head was at.”

“Did Pete ask you about who you saw?” asked Taylor.

“No… yes, and I said case of mistaken identity, or something.”

“Okay,” said Brodie. “And what was he wearing?”

Simpson thought a moment. “A dark T-shirt and jeans.”

“What was he drinking?” asked Taylor.

“I don’t know. I didn’t look.”

“Where were you before the hotel?” asked Brodie.

“A restaurant in the area.”

“What was it called?”

“I don’t remember. Spanish name.”

“How many drinks did you have before seeing Mercer?” asked Taylor.

Simpson again looked at his wife. This was taking on the tempo of an interrogation, not a friendly and voluntary interview. Brodie needed to pump the brakes.

“Let’s step back a minute,” he said. “How well did you know Kyle Mercer?”

“We went through basic and advanced infantry training together,” replied Simpson. “So, I’d say well, but it’s been awhile. Kinda lost touch after he went to OCS and I got assigned to the Fourth Brigade at Fort Carson.”

“What kind of man was he?”

Simpson thought on this. “Kyle was intense. Some guys grew up hunting, some came from military families, but he was none of that. I mean, he didn’t know shit about how to shoot a rifle or follow orders. But he was jacked, you know, really strong and fit, like he’d been training for this. This kid from SoCal who’d lifted weights every day and learned everything he thought he knew about war from watching movies and playing Call of Duty.”

“This doesn’t sound like the makings of an elite soldier,” suggested Brodie.

“You don’t understand,” said Simpson. “He wanted to be that elite soldier, more than anyone I’ve ever met before or since. In his mind, he already was. What I’m saying is, he had the will. So, Delta Force? No surprise there. No surprise at all.”

There was a silence in the room. Brodie thought about the redacted mission details in Mercer’s file. Just who was this guy? What had he done, and what was he capable of? Well, he was capable of five decapitations, which meant he was capable of anything. Brodie looked at Simpson and asked, “Why do you think a man with Captain Mercer’s survival skills… a man who is a wanted fugitive all over the world… would be sitting in the bar of a hotel frequented by an international clientele?”

Simpson understood that this was not a rhetorical question. In fact, he understood that Brodie was calling him on his bullshit story.

Simpson stood. He shot Brodie a look. “I think I need a cigarette.”

“I’ll join you.”

Brodie didn’t smoke, but that wasn’t the point. He got up and followed Simpson to the back deck, which overlooked an artificial lake. Simpson shook out a cigarette from his pack and offered one to Brodie, who took it to share the bond of the addicted.

Simpson lit him up, and Brodie watched him as he lit his, hands unsteady, and took a deep drag.

Simpson said, “I didn’t know what to say.”

Brodie didn’t reply. When a man’s about to confess something, it’s best to keep quiet.

“I mean, I wasn’t going to say anything. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the two guys who got killed looking for him. I spoke to my wife… she said I had to do the right thing.”

Brodie regarded Al Simpson, who’d joined the Army, like Brodie himself, in the aftermath of 9/11. He did his service, did well in the private sector, settled down, and put on twenty pounds. But the war that was now just a memory to Simpson was still going on, and in another year or so they’d be sending soldiers over who weren’t even alive on 9/11.

“Al, where did you actually see Kyle Mercer?”

Simpson looked at him, took a deep breath. “My partner, Pete, and I had signed this lucrative contract, everyone was happy, some of the execs took us out, like I said. It started out well enough, they took us to this expensive restaurant. Ate a lot, got drunk, hopped between a few bars and clubs. We did go to the Marriott bar… then we got in a car and headed to the outskirts…”

Brodie nodded encouragingly.

“We start driving up into the hillside slums, along these narrow, winding roads. We get to this building… some piece of shit place like everywhere else around there, but bigger than the rest. I was kinda creeped out, as drunk as I was, I knew something wasn’t right. Pete, he’s a real dirtbag, nothing’s going to stop him. They reassured me, we go in. And…”

Simpson trailed off. Brodie was pretty sure he knew where this was going, but he let Simpson take his time.

Simpson continued, “The place was dark, with couches all around, a bar. Naked girls, like, everywhere. Guys too, all locals as far as I could tell, getting grinded on, drinking, some getting led into back rooms. I didn’t want to… but I mean, these guys were important to our business, and I didn’t know what to do.”

“Al, look at me.”

Simpson looked at him, a tortured look on his face.

“I’m not your priest,” said Brodie. “I’ve got a soldier out there who has a lot to answer for, and I need to find him.”

Simpson nodded, swallowed hard. “I should have said something sooner.”

“Maybe you held back because you’re not sure what you saw.”

“No,” said Simpson. “I’m sure. It was Kyle. He was alone at this table in the back, just sitting there. Looking nowhere. It seemed like, I don’t know, like maybe he ran the place.”

This surprised Brodie. “Why would you think that?”

“The way he carried himself. He just seemed comfortable. The girls stayed away from him, and he seemed just fine with that. If he didn’t run it, he at least was there for some reason other than to dip his wick, you know?”

“And he saw you?”

“Yeah. He was watching me. It was crazy. I mean, that’s the last place you think you’re going to run into someone you know.”

“I’m sure he thought the same thing.”

Simpson forced a smile. “Yeah… but I’m not sure he actually recognized me, it’s just that me and Pete were the only other gringos there. I don’t think Pete even noticed him, he was too busy staring at tits. I stood and moved towards him and said his name, and he’s looking at me in this weird way, and, yeah, I saw the snake tattoo on his arm. He got that after we finished basic.”

“What did he do?”

“He got up, I thought maybe he was going to walk towards me, but instead he turns and goes through this side door. And this big bouncer gets in my way, makes it clear I shouldn’t follow. And then Pete pulls me away.”

“To get you safely away from the bouncer.”

Another long pause. Simpson took a drag, stubbed his cigarette on the porch railing, and flicked it into the reeds below. The sun was setting, lights flicking on in the houses around the lake. Across the water, a family was setting up for a barbecue.

Simpson took a deep breath, then said, “If I have to testify about this, my marriage is in trouble.”

“Only if you admit to getting laid.”

Simpson didn’t respond to that. He stared out at the lake. “Something else you need to know… the girls were young. Some of them.”

“How young?”

“Too young.”

Brodie nodded. That put this place, and this witness, in a whole new category of sleaze. “Well… we’ll work out your testimony if the time comes.” He asked, “What was the name of this place?”

“Don’t know if it even had a name.”

“Okay, can you describe the exterior?”

“Just what I told you.”

“What color was the building?”

Simpson shrugged. “I think white. Like stucco or something.”

“One story? Two stories?”


“Roof? Windows?”

Simpson thought for a moment. “Flat roof, like most of the buildings up there. I don’t think there were windows.”


“Dark as hell. Like I said, there was a bar, couches, tables… hard to remember details.”

“How long a ride was it from the Marriott to this place?”

“About twenty, thirty minutes.”

“What about landmarks on the way from the Marriott?”

Simpson shook his head. “I was drunk, it was dark as shit. The city doesn’t even keep the streetlights on any more. The place is fucked.”

“Right.” Brodie took a drag on his cigarette. “I need to find this place, Al. I need to find Kyle Mercer.”

“You going there?”

Brodie didn’t reply, and he watched Simpson as he stared out at the water, thinking.

Simpson said, “I do remember there was an airstrip. It was one of the few things that was lit up, the runway lights. I don’t think we’d been on the road too long when I saw that. And we passed an old church when we were in the hills—it was tall and it stood out from all the low, shitty buildings.”

“What did the church look like?”

“Like it was old. Might have been pink. Like I said, it was dark.”

Brodie nodded. “Anything else?”

Simpson thought for a moment. “That’s all I’ve got.”

“Okay. I need Pete’s last name and contact info.”

Simpson shook his head. “He doesn’t remember shit. He couldn’t even remember if he got laid.”

“Okay, but you call Pete, and also see if you can get hold of those Venezuelan oil execs. I’d like to find that whorehouse.”

Simpson nodded, but Brodie didn’t think he’d be contacting anyone except maybe his lawyer. Nevertheless, Brodie gave him his card. “Leave a voice message if you have any luck.”

Simpson glanced at the card and again nodded.

“Thank you, Sergeant.”

Simpson forced a smile at the use of his old rank. “I shoulda remembered the first thing I learned in the Army—never volunteer for anything.”

“The first thing you learned was duty, honor, country.”

Simpson nodded again. “Kyle broke the oath. Kyle deserves to die.”

“Captain Mercer will be brought to justice.”

Simpson gave Brodie a look of appraisal. “You don’t capture a man like that. You kill him. Or he kills you.”

Brodie didn’t reply.

Simpson added, “The next day, after I sobered up, I realized Kyle could have killed me in a back room.”

Brodie nodded. He’d had the same thought. But maybe Kyle Mercer had experienced a moment of human feeling for his old Army buddy. If so, Brodie was sure that Mercer later regretted not eliminating a witness. And if he didn’t regret it then, he would when Brodie and Taylor caught up with him.

Simpson said, “That’s all I have to say.”

Brodie stubbed his cigarette and flicked it into the reeds. “Thank you for your time.”

Simpson nodded, lit another cigarette, and stared at the darkening horizon. Apparently he was not ready to face Mrs. Simpson.

Brodie went back into the house, wished Mrs. Simpson a good evening, and motioned to Taylor, and they left.

* * *

En route to Newark Airport, Brodie gave Taylor the rundown, including that the brothel trafficked in underage girls.

Taylor pointed out, “If Simpson had sex with one of them, that makes him a sex offender as well as an unreliable witness.”

“Let’s stick to the ID.”

“Okay, so he saw a bearded white guy in a dimly lit whorehouse while drunk. Great ID.”

“He seemed certain,” said Brodie. He reminded her, “The ouroboros tattoo.”

“That’s not an uncommon tattoo, but I guess that’s enough for a trip to Caracas.”

“I’ve gone to other shitholes on less.”

“What about this airstrip he saw? Did he pass it on his right or left?”

“I don’t know and I doubt he’d remember.”

“What did the brothel look like?”

“White, maybe stucco, one story.”

“Did he describe the area where the brothel was?”

“It was dark and he was drunk.”

“What were the other buildings in the area made out of? Cinder block? Brick? Stucco?”

“I didn’t think to ask specifically. Why?”

“In Caracas, according to what I read, different slums are made with different materials depending on when they were built. That could’ve helped us.”

“I think he said the surrounding buildings were made of gingerbread.”

Taylor looked out the window, frustrated. Brodie could appreciate why. She’d clearly already begun her obsessive dive into the finer points of Caracas’ urban topography, and the only reason she wasn’t present for the man-to-man interview with Al Simpson was that she was a woman. Also, Simpson’s original false statement threw his whole credibility into question, and maybe Taylor wasn’t keen to put so much faith in the rum-soaked memory of a married businessman who was trying to forget what he was asked to remember.

Brodie considered himself a rational man, but over the years he’d gained a certain respect for the value of hunches, gut instincts, and the certainty of a man’s sight through the dim, smoky light of a brothel. Sure, there were times when your sole witness was shit and unreliable, and you had to take a step back, reassess. But Kyle Mercer was out there, a fugitive with lethal skills, and he’d already gotten a couple of men killed and killed a few himself. This was the only lead they had, and you had to run down every lead, even if it took you to hell, or New Jersey, or Caracas.


They took the I-78 Expressway east toward Newark Liberty International Airport. It was a little past rush hour, and traffic wasn’t bad.

Taylor was scrolling through some articles on her tablet, reading up on their destination. She asked, “Did you pack toothpaste? First aid items? Literally anything and everything you could possibly need?”

Brodie flashed back to his rushed packing job after his meeting with Dombroski, which involved throwing things at an open suitcase and zipping up whatever made it in.

She continued, “We have to assume it will be hard to come by even basic items once we land. Shops are bare. Lines for the few items available can stretch for hours. It looks like a problem even money can’t solve.”

“Money solves everything.”

“Not where we’re going,” said Taylor. “Let’s stop at a pharmacy.”

“Let’s not.”

“We could also get an overnight bag and fill it with extra stuff. Food, first aid supplies. Might pay for a little goodwill on the streets of Caracas.”

Brodie thought about that. “Not a bad idea.”

“You might even say it’s a good idea.”

“You might.”

Brodie got off the expressway a few miles short of the airport, and their GPS found them a CVS drugstore in a shopping center near the exit. They stocked up on some essentials and found an overnight bag to fill with over-the-counter meds, bandages, batteries, canned goods, and snacks. They each took out four hundred dollars from the ATM in case they needed to bribe their way through passport control or customs when they landed in Caracas.

They paid with Brodie’s government credit card and left the drugstore. Brodie threw the overnight bag in the back seat and thought about the contents. Razors. Aspirin. Tissue packets and candy bars. It depressed him, this cheap drugstore haul three minutes off the expressway that would become precious cargo once they landed. He had come face to face with American poverty and misery in the course of his work, from trailer parks in Alabama to the worst housing projects the Bronx had to offer. But going abroad had exposed him to new depths, to places where civilization and human dignity struggled to exist. Places where there was no bottom.

As they got back on the expressway, Brodie thought about the man behind this mission. Kyle Mercer. Middle-class San Diego kid. Wannabe soldier who got to live out his military fantasies in the real world, and excelled. What did it mean, really, that trajectory? Aspiring to something like that, having an idea of the warrior you wanted to be, and then becoming it?

Brodie’s relationship with soldiering had been very different. He was raised in Liberty, New York, a historic small town west of the Hudson Valley. He was the only child of Clara and Arthur Brodie, a couple of hippie holdouts who bought an old farmhouse in the early Seventies and fixed it up themselves, then used the land to grow vegetables and raise chickens. They sold some produce to a local grocer and did odd jobs around town for cash or used clothing. “We came up here for Woodstock and never left” was a moldy old joke that Brodie heard from his father too many times throughout his childhood, though it really wasn’t far from the truth.

It was a pleasant and idyllic childhood in many ways. Collecting eggs from the chickens, harvesting vegetables in the morning that would find their way into a stew that night, playing on what felt like limitless land. They never had much money, but he didn’t know that.

By the time he came of age, he was growing tired of this semi-rural, semi-subsistence existence in a place that missed out on the gentrification of the Hudson Valley towns and that was growing increasingly underpopulated and poor. His parents had left Greenwich Village to reconnect with nature and, he would understand later, unplug from the political and spiritual battles of the 1960s, which they felt had been lost by the end of the decade. He wanted to make that journey in reverse, to engage with a world he felt isolated from.

With his parents’ blessing, and a combination of loans and scholarships, he moved to Manhattan and attended NYU, right in the middle of his parents’ old bohemian stomping ground of Greenwich Village. It was a world of exciting firsts. First girlfriend. First time trying drugs. First mugging. But there was something surprising and disappointing too, especially about those native to the city and the surrounding upscale suburbs—a kind of urban provincialism shared by many of his classmates, people who did not look beyond themselves because they thought they were the center of the world.

In his senior year, the world came to them. He was just waking up in his tiny fifth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side when the first plane hit the North Tower. He was down on the street with hundreds of onlookers when the second plane struck, and running from a wall of smoke, dust, and debris when both towers collapsed and blotted out the sun.

He went through the motions for the rest of his senior year and barely graduated. After a restless few months back home, he enlisted in the Army.

His parents were predictably devastated. The specter of Uncle Reggie, his father’s older brother who had died in Vietnam and was almost never spoken of, hung in the air. But his enlistment wasn’t an act of rebellion against his lefty parents, or even an act of revenge against the people who brought the towers down. He was just trying to make sense of things. And in that moment, the Army was what made sense.

He began basic training on the same day that Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a model vial of anthrax—one of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction—on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly. Four months later he was deployed to Fort Lewis in Washington State as part of the 2nd Infantry’s 3rd Stryker Brigade. About six months after that he was on patrols in downtown Baghdad. He recalled very clearly the first time he was shot at. He would never forget the first platoon-mate he saw killed.

They were approaching the exits for the terminals. Overhead, an Airbus roared across the washed-out sky, wheels down, coming in for a steady landing.

“Which airline?” asked Brodie.


“What the hell is that?”

“Panama’s national airline. And the only one available to take us from Newark to Caracas on a last-minute red-eye. We’ve got a three-hour layover in Panama City.”

“Next time book a private jet.”

“The travel office got us business class.”

Right. The Army only splurged on business-class travel when the place you were going to sucked. So that made it official.

Brodie saw the exit for long-term parking. If everything went right with this mission, they wouldn’t be coming back through this airport. And if everything went wrong, they wouldn’t be coming back at all. Who’d get his Chevy Impala? Probably Newark Airport, to pay for the long-term parking.

He pulled off the expressway.


They took the airport shuttle bus from the long-term parking lot to the terminal, checked in, dropped off their bags, and got through security with over an hour to kill before boarding. Copa Airlines was affiliated with United, so they headed toward the United Club Lounge.

It was a little past 10 P.M., and the terminal was quiet. At one gate a group of backpackers was camped out on the floor, waiting on a delayed flight to Barcelona, where Brodie wished he were going.

They passed a currency exchange booth and Taylor wanted to change some dollars for Venezuela’s local currency, the bolívar. An LED screen was updating rates in real time, but the window that was supposed to display the exchange rate for Venezuela was blank.

Taylor said to the middle-aged guy behind the window, “I’d like to buy some Venezuelan bolívars.”

“Sorry, miss, we’re not dealing in bolívars any more. The market’s too unstable. You’ll have to take care of it on the other end.”

Brodie said to Taylor, “I told you this was a bad idea for our honeymoon.” He turned back to the guy. “I said, ‘Let’s go to Venice’; she says she misheard me.”

The man gave him a blank look, and Taylor pulled Brodie away from the window. “I hope you’re amusing yourself.”

“Someone has to.”

They found the United Club Lounge, which was not far from their gate. They showed their passports and business-class tickets to a young female receptionist at the front desk, signed in, and entered the club.

It was a nice space, especially considering it existed inside what is generally ranked as the nation’s worst airport after LaGuardia. It featured a well-stocked bar, a buffet table, and deep, comfortable chairs to fall asleep in and miss your flight.

“What are you drinking?” asked Brodie.

“Orange juice,” said Taylor as she settled into a chair and pulled out her tablet.

Brodie went to the bar and ordered her an OJ, and a scotch and soda for himself.

When he returned with the drinks, Taylor was reading something on her tablet. She said, “I downloaded some State Department info. The bolívar has become almost worthless in the time since Maduro took power in 2013. They’ve tried to artificially control the exchange rates, but since they import almost everything it doesn’t have much effect. You can spend a month’s wages on half a pound of chicken, that kind of thing.”

“We’ll skip the chicken. Meanwhile, what’s the security situation?”

“Precarious, but not chaotic. The opposition is in disarray and there’s not much in the way of civil unrest anymore.”

Well, that was good to hear. But given the state of affairs, that could change in an instant. Brodie had been to enough screwed-up places to understand the toxic brew of desperation, anger, and fear that runs through unstable societies. If no one’s out in the streets protesting, it just means that people woke up that morning more exhausted than angry, or more afraid than brave. But tomorrow might be different. A full civil war might make his and Taylor’s job a little tougher.

“Also,” said Taylor, “there’s a State Department travel warning. But that’s no surprise.”

The U.S. State Department issues two types of advisories for trouble spots: alerts and warnings. Alerts are short-term in nature, to apprise travelers of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, or upcoming political elections that might bring strikes and protests. Warnings, on the other hand, are for places that the U.S. government considers fucked-up on a more long-term basis. Venezuela fell into the latter category. A State Department warning was not good for tourism.

Brodie took a long drink and thought about their destination. Venezuela wasn’t yet a police state like Cuba, or a chaotic failed state like Somalia. But it was a country on the edge, economically desperate, with weak and corrupt institutions and a government openly hostile to American interests. It was a place where you could probably bend a lot of rules, especially with enough dough, but the guys trying to fuck up your day could bend them too.

He reached into his carry-on and pulled out a Venezuela guide book that Taylor had procured from the Quantico travel office. He flipped to the Caracas portion of the book, and to his favorite section: Dangers and Annoyances. These types of books usually tried to be a little PC and pull some punches when discussing the questionable locales their readers had chosen to travel to. Mogadishu has a rich and vibrant cultural heritage, but do your best to never leave your hotel. But the author did not mince words when it came to Caracas. Many neighborhoods were to be avoided entirely. The “safe” ones were only okay while the sun was shining, and even then, only inside of a vehicle. Murders and kidnappings were rampant, and the cops were no help. In fact, they were often more dangerous than the criminals. Every security apparatus in the country, including customs and passport control at the airport, ought to be considered criminally corrupt, and government officials were often looking to harass and extort foreign travelers. They especially didn’t like Americans.

On that subject, Brodie pulled out his laptop, started it up, and changed the settings so it would boot straight into a clean partition on his drive. That would probably be sufficient to protect any of his CID or other Army-related documents and e-mails from a cursory search at the Caracas airport. He advised Taylor to do the same and was not surprised to learn that she already had, and was also planning to wipe clean her tablet before they landed in Venezuela.

“Also,” said Brodie, “we’re supposed to be married as part of our cover. Send me a picture of you in a bikini so I can make it my desktop wallpaper.”

“Is that what married people do?”

“Well, we’re newlyweds. We don’t know how to be married yet.”

“Right,” said Taylor, smiling. “This is our honeymoon.”

“How do we explain the separate rooms?”

“I’m still a virgin.”

“Who’s gonna believe that?”

“My grandma.”

“Can’t wait to meet her.”

“You will. She’s moving in with us.”

“I want a divorce.”

Taylor laughed. They made eye contact, and she looked away.

When Brodie first met his new partner, he’d regarded her beauty as a potential occupational hazard. As a matter of principle, he rejected the idea that he would have trouble working with an attractive woman. Also, Taylor had proven herself to be a good partner, and sex was the surest way to mess up a successful working relationship. But buried in even the most well-intentioned modern man is an old pig fighting to get out, and Brodie had to remind himself to keep that porker in check.

He thought about what Dombroski had said about Taylor and her possible romantic entanglement with a CIA guy at Fort Bragg. He’d met more than a few Company men over the years. He liked one or two of them, but in his humble opinion, most of them were arrogant, dead-eyed pricks who would sell out their own mothers. He had a hard time imagining Taylor with someone like that, but then again, how well did he really know her? And even if she had been hitting the sack with a CIA officer, how was that enough to call her loyalty and motives into question? And then he remembered what Dombroski had said about Civil Affairs people in Afghanistan being recruited by the Company.

As with the Kyle Mercer file, Brodie had the feeling there were some things missing from his picture of Maggie Taylor, some black-ink redactions that he would need to find a way to read.


The plane to Panama City was about half-full, and of the sixteen seats in business class only three others were occupied.

Brodie said, “I usually snore on flights.”

“Even when you’re awake?”

He smiled.

“Just don’t drool.”

After takeoff Taylor took out her tablet and they both looked over a detailed map of Caracas that she had downloaded. The city ran along an east-west strip nestled in a narrow valley. Beyond the steep mountains to the north was the Caribbean coast, and to the south a vast stretch of hills and forests.

Kyle Mercer had been spotted by an unreliable witness in a sprawling metropolis of almost two million people, surrounded by rugged and sparsely populated terrain. But, as General Hackett said, they had what they had, and Brodie was confident that with some resourcefulness, a little luck, and maybe a lot of cash, they would find their man. Yet, as he looked at the map of the city and the surrounding countryside, the daunting nature of their task was coming into focus.

With Simpson’s recollection in mind, they scanned the map for airports and airstrips. Their final destination, Simón Bolívar International Airport, was right on the coast, separated from Caracas by the mountain range, so that couldn’t be the airport that Simpson had seen on his ride to the whorehouse. Taylor zoomed the map in to a tighter view of Caracas, and they located the Marriott in a neighborhood called El Rosal, which was east of downtown.

There was a small airport called Base Aérea Generalísimo Francisco de Miranda less than three miles farther east of the hotel, and it appeared to be the only airport or airstrip anywhere within the city proper. Taylor traced her finger along the road that ran past the airport. She tapped an area in the eastern hills.

“Petare,” said Taylor. “One of the largest and most dangerous slums in the world. This could be where Simpson saw Mercer.”

Brodie took a closer look. The map of Petare consisted of a sprawling network of winding roads snaking along the ridgelines—a complex web with sharp switchbacks and countless dead ends. The vast slum ran from the foothills of the coastal range in the north all the way south to a river called the Guaire, stretching the entire width of the city’s north-south axis.

“Could be,” Brodie agreed.

“Though it’s also the kind of place where an American would stick out like a turkey at a hog show.”

Brodie smiled. He liked it when Taylor reverted to her country roots. He said, “If Mercer is hanging around the most dangerous part of one of the most dangerous cities in the world, maybe he’s doing something other than hiding. Like working with a gang. Maybe even running a gang.” He reminded her, “This is a tough hombre.”

Taylor nodded.

Or maybe Mercer was there as briefly as Simpson, and for the same carnal reason. They were starting this case with only one thread of a clue to hang on to, and maybe it wasn’t as strong as they wanted it to be.

Hoping that they had at least narrowed down their search, they gave their drink orders to the flight attendant, read a little more on the current situation in Venezuela, then reclined their seats for a couple of hours’ sleep in the darkened cabin. Now he could tell Dombroski that he’d slept with her.

The flight to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport took a little over five hours, and they deplaned into a bright and bustling terminal. Their bags were checked through to Caracas and their connecting flight was in the same terminal, so they had a short walk to their connecting gate.

They took a seat at the Caracas departure gate, which was, unsurprisingly, almost empty.

There was a time, only a few years earlier, when the Caracas gate might have been full. Brodie had just read an article about a practice known as “currency tourism.” The Venezuelan government was selling U.S. dollars cheaply at their own artificially controlled exchange rate, but the demand was so high that they would only sell to Venezuelans who were traveling abroad and could present an international airline ticket. The farther you were traveling, the more dollars you could buy. So when this practice was at its peak back in 2013, someone could get a ticket to Los Angeles, buy dollars at a rate of about six bolívars to the dollar, have that money credited to their account, and then withdraw it in U.S. currency once they got to California. Then they brought that same money home, sold it back on the black market for an exchange rate of forty-five bolívars to the dollar, and made a nice profit. The clueless government finally caught wind of this scheme and started cracking down, restricting the sale of dollars even further. This, combined with airlines either canceling their flights in and out of Caracas, or refusing to sell airline tickets to anyone paying in bolívars, had led to a dramatic drop in the flow of native Venezuelans into and out of the country. They had become, quite literally, prisoners of their own shattered economy.

The bolívar had been in free fall ever since—by the end of July 2018 the black-market price for a U.S. dollar had ballooned from forty-five bolívars to over three and a half million.

Brodie said to Taylor, “We’ve been asking ourselves: Why Venezuela? The simplest motive is always money. You said goods are scarce, and it’s a problem that not even money can fix. That’s because they import everything, right?”

“Right,” said Taylor. “Except oil.”

Brodie nodded. Venezuela had the largest natural oil reserves in the world, surpassing even Saudi Arabia. “Oil is still cheap, especially with the power of Western currency. Are people smuggling it out of the country? Let’s say to Colombia?”

“I’m sure,” replied Taylor. “It’s a petro-state that’s bleeding out, so we have to assume there are enterprising vultures.”

“Maybe that’s why Mercer is there.”

“Here’s a simpler explanation: Mercer did something bad, and he is now hiding out in a hard-to-reach place that has no law and order, and that also happens to have great beaches and beautiful women.”

Venezuela did have the distinction of producing more international beauty pageant queens than any other nation. And