***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 James Abel
Kyle Utley received the first threat outside the new Post Pub, in Washington, a dark, cool bar on L Street near 15th, popular with National Geographic editors and local softball teams. Inside, on July 10, the White House National Security Team was celebrating a victory over the Senate Committee on Intelligence when the stranger appeared. The “Protectors” had overcome a 4–1 deficit to win the division championship. Twelve sweaty men and women sat drinking cold draft beer and eating the pub’s famed Diplomat Burgers, reliving the game. Their come-from-behind victory had been so satisfying that for once no one talked shop.
Nothing about this morning’s raid by FBI agents in Miami, where a gun battle and explosion had destroyed a small home. Three “foreign males,” as neighbors described them, had rented the house, barricaded themselves inside, and blown themselves up rather than surrender. “All evidence was obliterated,” the FBI report said.
Nothing about jihadist branches popping up in South America. Or the U.S./China face-off in the South China Sea. Just softball and gossip, until the cute Thai waitress bent over and told Deputy Assistant National Secretary Advisor Kyle Utley that a man needed to speak to him, outside.
“Tell him to come in.”
“He says it is too noisy in here.”
“Who is he?” Kyle asked, only half paying attention.
“He says he has big news,” the waitress said.
Kyle left his cell phone on the table—mistake—and walked out of the bar. On humid L Street waited a trim, white, neatly bearded stranger wearing a wide-brimmed red Nats cap, blue tennis shirt, and Adidas. Utley, a former Army Ranger, noted the lower end of a Special Forces tattoo on the right bicep: a coiled snake on a knife hilt. Above that, but hidden beneath the sleeve, would be the skull, beret, and snake head on the muscled arm.
“Sorry to interrupt the party,” the stranger said, not looking that way at all. “Nice home run in the seventh, by the way.”
“What do you want?” Kyle was irritated at the coy, I-know-things-you-don’t attitude, and the fact that the guy had been watching him. He noted the southwestern twang, alert posture, and smile that did not reach the mud-colored eyes. The man’s slim frame rose to wide shoulders. He radiated fitness.
“Kyle, you have instant access to the President’s Security Advisor. You’re not important enough to have a bodyguard. Pass along a message, will you?”
“What message?” Utley asked, chilled despite the heat and understanding that a threat was coming. All threats—he knew—were to be taken seriously.
“That slush fund you guys run out of Ankara, Turkey? To pay off friendly warlords across the border? We’re going to kill several hundred Americans in seventy-two hours if your bosses don’t divert that money. On this paper is a list of charities. Three hundred million dollars is not a lot. Imagine if a few hundred million would have averted the World Trade Center attack. That cost trillions and the bill keeps rising. Pay and everyone stays safe. Plus”—he winked—“it all stays secret, with the convention coming up. Hey, the money’s there already! Easy access!”
Utley stared into the eyes and saw intelligence and calm. His pulse had risen. His combat time in Afghanistan had destroyed any illusions about the depths of human violence. The stranger seemed rational, if that word could be applied to threats. Kyle eyed the paper and thin rubber gloves on the stranger, meaning no fingerprints.
“You sound American,” Utley said.
“Then my language lessons were good.”
“If you have a gripe about something, let’s talk.”
“What’s the money for?” Kyle asked, trying to delay, thinking, five foot ten, mid to late twenties, no visible scars, gap in the front teeth, three freckles on the right lower lip. He felt sweat on the back of his neck.
The man said, “Consider the payments reparations for Tol-e-Khomri.”
“What was that name again?”
Darkness had fallen. Kyle had never heard of Tol-e-Khomri. A lone Volkswagen Jetta cruised past. Two wilted-looking National Geographic writers—the only other people on the block—brushed past, into the bar. Air-conditioning blasted out into the ninety-degree night.
Kyle held out the paper. “These organizations are not charities. They’re fronts for terrorists.”
The man smiled. “That can’t possibly be right.”
“You’ll stop making demands if you get the money?” Utley said, not negotiating, just trying to keep the man there while he took mental notes, figured out what to do.
“Give us what we want and we go somewhere else.”
“What exactly will happen if we don’t pay?”
“Something terrible and unprecedented. Bombs, but not bombs. Panic, but no one will understand at first. It will occur in three cities. It will turn your world upside down. When America learns this warning was ignored, there will be consequences for your bosses. The third coming of wrath.”
“You’re not being clear.”
“I think I am.”
“I don’t believe you.”
The man shrugged. “Then wait seventy-two hours.”
“How about if I call someone more senior than me.” Kyle gathered himself to attack. He’d been trained in close combat, but that was years ago. These days he didn’t even have time to work out in a gym. He said, changing stance so he could move fast, “This is not my area and I’m sure . . .”
“Stop!” the man hissed.
He’d stepped back. “I’m faster than you, Kyle. You’ve been out of the service awhile. Just call your boss. That’s all you have to do. Then your part is over.”
The man smiled. What could be easier? he seemed to suggest. Left-winger? Right? Veteran who had suffered some injury and blamed the government? Kyle had been schooled in what to say if a threat ever came, although the lessons had always assumed a phone call, not a personal confrontation. Try to control the situation. What a laugh. He might as well try to fly.
The man said, “On 9/11 you had no warning. This time you have a choice.” He turned and limped briskly up the block toward 15th. Utley began to follow. The man spun and raised an index finger. Kyle halted.
Kyle watched the man disappear around the corner. Kyle went to the corner. Somehow, the man was gone. That he could disappear so fast made his threat seem more real.
Kyle went back into the pub, where his teammates realized from his expression that something bad had happened. He retrieved his phone, walked back outside, and punched in the emergency number for the President’s National Security Advisor, who picked up immediately. He was at a barbecue in Potomac. Kyle heard men and women laughing in the background. Someone had made a joke.
“A nut,” the National Security Advisor said, after hearing the story, but they both knew this was hope, not analysis.
After a beat, the NSA asked, “He actually said Tol-e-Khomri? Those exact words?”
“Never mind. Special Forces, you say? An American?”
“He had the tattoo. But anyone could have that.”
“He knew about the special fund, eh?”
“Sir, everyone over there knows. It’s the worst-kept secret in the Mideast.”
“There’s never been a situation where someone just walked up and made a threat outside a bar. And bombastic rhetoric is par for the course. They talk big. They bluff.”
An hour later Kyle was at the barbecue, too, at the home of the White House Chief of Staff, on the patio, where a strategy session—how to handle soft-on-terror charges before the national political convention—had just been interrupted. He recounted the story, ice cubes melting in the tumbler of Maker’s Mark in his hand.
By midnight, the heads of all major security agencies were on a conference call with the President, answering questions about ongoing alerts. There were no specific threats being investigated at this time. The three terrorists in Miami were dead. Nothing alarming intercepted over the past few days on monitored phone or e-mails. No particularly important national events scheduled within the next seventy-two hours. They tried to figure out what “bombs, but not bombs” meant.
“Like I said, someone wants to rattle us. If they really had something, they wouldn’t give us a heads-up,” said the head of the CIA.
“The third coming of wrath? Churchill called the nuclear bomb the second. What’s the third?” That from the FBI.
“Pretty damn confident, bragging that they’re here already. Usually they claim credit after,” Kyle fretted.
“The Tol-e-Khomri reference bothers me the most,” the National Security Advisor said.
The decision was not to pay, of course, or announce a potential threat days before the national political convention, but relevant agencies would try to track all spending by the “charities” overseas, even though the guess was, money trails would be dead ends, a traceless series of transfers, cash disappearing into black holes.
The national terrorism threat level was raised to red that night, but Homeland Security announced it was a drill. Police around the country increased patrols around public facilities. Army Reserve copters flew over major harbors. Homeland Security added staff at airports. The cost drained hundreds of millions of dollars, as usual.
“We don’t bow to threats,” the National Security Advisor told Kyle boldly, after the meeting.
We just did, he thought, at home on Calvert Street, unable to sleep. The seventy-two-hour deadline had shrunk to sixty-six. He had not told his wife what happened. On TV, sound off to let her sleep, he watched a firefight between U.S. Rangers and ISIS troops. Then came a segment about veterans being mistreated in VA hospitals. Is it about this? Utley wondered, each time the announcer detailed another gripe.
At that moment Amtrak’s regularly scheduled Patriot Express pulled into Pennsylvania Station in New York City, and the fourth man who exited the quiet car no longer looked as he had at the New Post Pub. The blond wig was gone. The hair was short, thick, black, and curly. The limp was absent, the tattoo and freckles washed off. The man stood just on the tall side of average. The face, without beard or cheek plugs, seemed rounder, and the eyes, contact lenses out, were almost azure blue, with a slight bulge that made him look less intelligent. The look was deceptive.
Tom Fargo transferred to the New York City subway Two train, heading south, downtown. Even at this hour people were moving around the great city. College boys coming back from having sex with girlfriends. Pissed-off Yankees fans who had closed a Chelsea bar after the fiasco with the Red Sox tonight. A homeless man who snored and stank of urine. A Japanese tourist, too shy to ask directions. Any of them, Tom speculated, might be dead by next week, and the subway filled with panic-stricken people trying to flee the metropolis any way they could.
Tom Fargo looked around the car and hated these people with a vast, steady drumbeat that pulsed through his veins. You are of them but not one of them, Dr. Cardozo had said. He had fought them overseas, in dry wadis and wet melon fields. He’d assassinated an American diplomat in a Rio shopping mall. Now he was back home.
The subway rocked, and he smelled cologne and garlicky sweat, French fries and cleaned-away vomit. These people lived in filth. They were so fat that they actually paid others to help them become thin, the natural hungry state of millions elsewhere. Their armies slaughtered while they occupied themselves with subway advertisements to cure toenail fungus. These people were as oblivious as the old fool who had taught him what to do tonight.
When you make a threat, Hobart Haines had told him, long ago, you need to back it up with action. Hook them with easy cooperation. Then nail them to the wall.
Tom Fargo was not afraid. Running over what was to happen next, he recalled that before boarding Amtrak he’d made a phone call from outside Union Station, used an encrypted cell, punched in a twenty-digit number, and the signal had joined a hundred thousand other calls shot gunning into space at that moment, to bounce off a commercial satellite in a flood of talk that overwhelmed monitoring. Even if listeners broke the encryption, which was virtually impossible, he spoke in code. He and Dr. Cardozo traded comments about soccer. Hundreds of miles above earth, words lived, money moved, plans coalesced. Their coded words had meant:
“Think they’ll go for it?”
“Makes no difference. We do the same either way.”
“Your suggestions were smart, Tom. You suggested sending two separate groups to America. You said to make the demands first, not after. You know how to talk to them.”
“I had a good teacher.”
At Brooklyn Borough Hall, Tom Fargo exited the train and walked up top and into an area housing century-old municipal buildings. He headed toward Brooklyn Heights. The night was sultry, the air so saturated with moisture that a light mist coated cars, the hulking courthouse, a neon-smeared falafel shop window. The city smelled of baking tar, coal oven pizza, hundred-year-old brick, diesel fuel. At 3:45 a.m. even the muggers were asleep. The neighborhood was a high-income area filled with young professionals. His rented co-op was in a converted potato chip factory, across from the Brooklyn Bridge, down the cobblestone street from the popular River Café.
Tom Fargo pushed through a polished glass revolving door to enter the sparkling lobby, where the night doorman sat behind a large post, eyeing a portable TV, on which a White House spokesman was telling a news announcer, “The President has kept us safe for four years.”
“Good morning, sir,” the doorman said.
“Call me Tom.”
“Been clubbing again in Manhattan?”
Tom Fargo grinned and rubbed his thick hair as if happily woozy from drink. “The shop doesn’t open until noon. Might as well have some fun before that.”
The doorman sat beneath a framed black-and-white 1950s photo of Christmas shoppers on 5th Avenue: sleekly dressed executives, upscale tourists, wealthy leisure seekers. The shot caught the casual power and confidence at the heart of a great empire. People who knew they were safe. But Tom knew that within days the looks on those faces would change. It was too late to stop his first attack. He’d set it in motion before going to Washington. There was no way the Americans would capitulate to demands at this stage without proof.
The doorman was a forty-year-old Dominican, nine years in the union. He lowered his voice, as if to reveal a secret. He was a tall man with a tough face and sensitive disposition. He wrote poetry lyrics late at night, and listened to biographies of singing stars on DVDs.
“It happened again, sir.”
Tom Fargo stiffened.
“She came down to walk the dog. Her face, sir. It was black and blue. It’s not right.”
Tom Fargo relaxed, because this wasn’t about the FBI. But he was angry. The doorman was hoping Tom would call the cops on his next-door neighbor, a big, loudmouthed architect who chaired the building co-op board and relished his nickname, “Captain,” and lived with his girlfriend. The doorman wouldn’t make the call, fearing that if he did, he’d lose his job.
“Someone ought to stop it, sir.”
Stay out of it, Tom Fargo told himself. What happens to Rebeca is none of your business.
“You’re a good guy, Mauricio,” he said.
Mauricio, disappointed, went back to his book.
The elevator had a TV in the wall—Americans needed them like drugs—that showed CNN news, something about an explosion in Miami. Four stories up the door opened into a freshly painted semi-private foyer providing entry to only two apartments. There were framed lithographs of British jockeys and barristers on the wall, his neighbor’s idea of class. He slipped the key into his top lock, then the dead bolt. Inside, the polished concrete floor threw back moonlight flooding in through floor-to-ceiling windows. The view of the Brooklyn Bridge was close and magnificent. The lights of Manhattan—even from across the river—drenched exotic artwork on his walls: jaguar head Day of the Dead mask from southern Mexico; tropical hardwood crucifix inlaid with Spanish gold links, from Peru; lacquerware bowl, 1859, Guatemala; Chacala rosary necklace that Tom’s mother had picked up on a buying trip south, fifteen years ago, when she only owned one shop, not fourteen, scattered around the U.S., and an online shopping site, too.
Just the art that a spoiled trust fund artist wannabe—as his neighbors believed him to be—might display.
Forget Rebeca. Check the darkroom, he thought.
The darkroom—ground zero—had been installed by the owner, a photographer who was in China on assignment, and who had sublet the place to Tom for cash. He’d installed extra locks. Tom stood in a red glow, excitement building. The room was hot and moist. He could almost feel the vibration coming off the terrariums on the shelves, from a thousand particles, as he thought of them. He’d learned about particles from Hobart Haines when he was a teenager, in the high mountains, under a clear blue sky.
Bombs, but not bombs.
There was also $30,000 in cash here, and two perfectly good credit cards in other names. There were pistols and explosives, a microscope, a laptop, medicines and Clorox wipes, and, in a rack on the wall, bulb-shaped glass containers clasped upside down, and, stretched across each top, a thin membrane of elastic covering.
He was startled when his encrypted phone rang. It was not supposed to ring unless there was an emergency. His heart seized up. “Hi there,” he answered, casually.
A half-drunken voice slurred, “Felix? Felix! It’s Marty, man! Marty Bolton!”
“There’s no Felix here.”
The caller hung up, and Tom Fargo—in shock—took the SIM card from the phone. He smashed the card and phone with a hammer. He tried to control his racing heart. His plan had just changed almost before it started. Felix—said twice—meant bad news. Bolton made it worse. Marty was a worst-case scenario. He understood instantly that the CNN report, the Miami explosion, meant that the other team here to carry out attacks was all dead.
Shocked, he went back into the living room, with its view of the high-rises, power centers, and apartments across the river, filled with enemy. Enemy extending across a continent; 350 million of them. He had always dreamed of facing long odds. Now he faced the longest.
The message had been: You are the last one left. They will kill you if they find you. Good luck.
Back in the darkroom the red light seemed to come from inside him now, pulsing into the air to saturate the glass containers and water pans, plastic cassettes, steel tweezers, and glass pipettes. As if fission was produced by intent, and will answered a scientific question, will was a formula that Dr. Cardozo jotted on his blue board. Will = energy. Energy = destruction.
Tom, filled with will, thought, I can do it. He was hot with rage but not fear. He’d lost that capacity some time ago. I can fool them. I will make them think there are many groups here. I will finish this thing even if I have to do it alone.
No one at the gold rush was interested in the missing American. They were too busy to care about my best friend. They were used to men being present one day, disappeared the next; dead from illness or murder, accidents or suicide. Miners died when rusty anchor cables snapped and their boats swept into jungle rapids. Rival crews cut cables on boats at 2 a.m., and turgid currents finished the job. Divers fought with knives in the darkness below the surface, sliced one another’s air hoses and died clutching rubber tubing. Some got dengue fever, or keeled over in the 110-degree heat. They killed one another over prostitutes and $4 beer tabs. One man liked samba on a jukebox. Another wanted heavy metal. In the end, a body floated on the Madeira. Caimans ate it.
“The captain says that Dr. Nakamura was very sick,” the translator told me. “Your friend was shaking with malaria. He was advised to go to the hospital in town, and Senhor Edward said he would. This is what the police told us also. I am sorry. The police gave up the search.”
“Eddie never reached the hospital or our hotel.”
“This happens,” said Anasasio sadly.
“If he was going to town someone must have taken him. If we find that person we’ll learn more,” I insisted.
“Here, no one ever learns more.”
Here was the Madeira River, forty miles from the Brazilian Amazon city of Porto Velho. From the deck of the mining boat I saw a ragged moonscape of bad possibilities: red mud that bred malarial mosquitoes, tin-roofed shanty bars where knives flashed at night, thick jungle. Rickety docks sagged in brown water. In mid channel were anchored two dozen mining boats, dragas, in calm areas between rapids. They were big as 1850s Mississippi riverboats, two-story-high herds of dumb animals belching smoke, pumps roaring, decks crawling with poor men come to seek their fortunes. They slept on hammocks on deck.
“Dr. Nakamura is tough,” I said. “He would have found a way back.”
The captain of the boat said something in Portuguese, and Anasasio nodded with sympathy. “Tough is nothing against illness. He says sick men can be robbed or killed. They are weak and cannot defend themselves. They have hallucinations and wander into the jungle. The police said this same thing, Joe.”
“Let’s try the next boat.”
“We’ve been here for seven hours.”
“The police kept me in town for two days!”
“They checked your story thoroughly.”
“You mean they grilled me. Are you really a doctor? Are you involved in transporting drugs?”
I’d told the Federal Police major, over and over, back in town, that we were here for pure research, science, a joint humanitarian project with their government and not any secret reason.
Which was a lie.
Eddie and I had been friends for over twenty years. We met in Marine Corps ROTC at UMass and went through boot camp together. I was best man at his wedding and godfather to his daughters. We served together in Iraq and shared more memories than a married couple. I was sick with apprehension. Eddie and I had split up three days ago for a day of studying new malarias. I’d stayed in town, interviewing sick people in slum areas. Eddie was supposed to take a translator with him to the gold rush, but had not told me that the translator was sick, so he’d gone alone, hoping that his California Spanish might get him by, that he wouldn’t lose a day of work. He’d planned to go out in the morning and come back at night. He had a road map and a rented jeep, which he’d paid a man to watch as he went out to the dragas. The police had found the jeep onshore.
“Where can I get a gun?” I asked Anasasio now.
“You cannot have one. I explained this. You are a foreigner. It is against the law.”
“You said no one around here obeys laws.”
“If the police know I gave you a gun, I will be arrested,” he said stubbornly, in heavily nasal-accented English, reflecting the rough local Portuguese called língua geral. Anasasio looked like a cross between a thug and a dandy, tall and leanly muscled with a brush mustache—1950s Madison Avenue style—and gleaming slicked-back hair. His shirt was blue silk, open to a St. Christopher medal. His pleated Italian trousers were creased, but he’d rolled them up past his hairy knees, making them shorts against the heat. Baby blue hospital booties protected his loafers from mud, and a Beretta 9mm rode at his belt. He worked for the miners’ union, a local partner for our health project with Columbia University. I was liking him less and less by the hour.
“We’ve visited ten boats already, Joe. Maybe Eddie fell out of a launch and drowned. On the highway are many accidents, not reported. Nothing here is reported. Give up.”
But Eddie wouldn’t have given up on me. He would have torn this place apart. I leaned over the gunwale and waved to hail a small passing outboard. These one-man ferries carried miners from dragas to shore, to bars, or for supplies: potatoes, meat, bullets, medicines.
Anasasio sighed, his ferret face shiny with sweat. “This is a tragedy.”
“Not yet it isn’t.”
Anasasio had been confident when we left this morning. “I am a human lie detector,” he’d bragged. “We will get to the bottom of things!”
Now he mopped his brow with a soiled handkerchief and said, “This place eats men.”
My name is Joe Rush, and I grew up in the hamlet of Smith Falls, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Hills, where there was no gold rush or malaria or 110-degree heat, not ten miles south of the Vermont line. My problem then was lack of challenge. There was nothing to do for a restless kid.
I was bored with our school board squabbles and Labor Day parades and hot dog cookouts. Bored even with my friends. I thrilled to commercials showing U.S. Marines storming ashore in foreign lands, saving lives, having adventures. So I left my girlfriend and parents and enrolled in Marine ROTC in college. I met Eddie Nakamura there. We competed—between us—to win best recruit, obstacle course, map use, range contest, until I edged him out and Eddie started calling us One and Two. As young lieutenants, in Iraq, we led our squads down a hidden tunnel and into a biolab where Saddam Hussein’s scientists were experimenting on monkeys, trying to weaponize disease.
The experience changed our lives. The Corps paid for med school, and later we were seconded to a small, secret bioterror unit. Our records were sheep dipped, falsified so that even most high-level Marines never knew what we really did. The sections labeled expert marksman and combat experience and ability to run field hospitals remained; all true. But new parts, the killing of eight innocent Marines to save a thousand, the cooperation with an unfriendly intelligence service to murder a terrorist . . . were left out.
Eddie and I were sworn to secrecy without understanding what that meant. I don’t think anyone understands the price of secrecy, even after you pay. I’m talking about more than the healed shotgun scars on my back, or my two amputated toes from a mission in northern Alaska. I’m talking about my wrecked marriage, and the way, a year later, my work led to the violent death of someone I loved very much.
These days, looking back at age forty-three, I realize that I would have made the same decisions. Looking forward, I’ve resolved to never put another loved one in danger again.
“How will you do that?” Eddie asked me on the plane that took us from New York to Brazil, three weeks ago.
“George Washington said it. No foreign entanglements.”
“You can’t spend your life alone.”
“I’m not talking about forever. Just now.”
Now Eddie lives in Boston with his wife and daughters. I live in the Berkshire Hills, back in Smith Falls, a tranquil place that I appreciate more than when I’d grown up. Eddie and I have quit government employ and own a two-man biocure company, looking for microbes in the wild to help cure diseases. Good bacteria for a change, not bad. Little one-celled missiles to kill pancreatic cancers, or AIDS. We also work with the Columbia University Wilderness Medicine Program, heading down to New York on Amtrak two days a week to consult. And it was at Columbia, two months back, that I’d made the decision that led to Eddie disappearing now.
“You don’t have to do what he wants,” our boss, Dr. Stuart Harris, had griped that morning, glancing at his unwanted guest. He’d moved us from Harvard to Columbia some months before.
I pictured it as Anasasio and I rode a flying boat toward the last draga. I saw Stuart’s cramped office two stories above Broadway, three blocks from Columbia’s campus, where Wilderness Medicine shared a floor with researchers from NASA. The outer-space guys were addicted to popcorn, and the hallway smelled of butter. I saw the well-groomed, gray-suited man who occupied the steel chair by Stuart’s desk, eyeing me with a businesslike smile. Eddie stiffened at the sight of the man.
“You know Ray Havlicek from the FBI,” Stuart said.
Yes, I thought. Ray thinks his fiancée is in love with me, and her daughter told me he’s right.
“Nice to see you, Joe,” the new FBI assistant director said. “You’re looking fit. Eddie, too.”
“Whatever you need, the answer is no,” Eddie said. Stuart brightened at that, but Ray concentrated on me.
“I understand you two are headed to Brazil to study frontier malaria,” Ray said, crossing his legs.
Wilderness medicine means providing care to people in hard-to-reach corners of earth. Sometimes they are wealthy adventure seekers: shark divers in Ecuador, or bungee jumpers in Malawi. But more often they are the poor: impoverished settlers pushed from third-world cities into jungles where they have no experience with diseases, or natural disaster. Indonesian fishing villagers after a cyclone. Haitian cholera victims. Columbian peasants after an earthquake.
And frontier malaria is a new, resistant variety exploding through Amazon settlements. The mosquitoes that carry the disease have evolved to survive pesticides. The parasite is growing hardier, which makes mosquitoes the most deadly animal on earth; a nuisance in the United States, a tragedy overseas. Worldwide, fifty thousand people die of snake bites a year. Twenty-five thousand die of rabies. Two hundred fourteen million people caught malaria last year, and five hundred thousand died. So it was good to be working on preventing disease, instead of on weapons.
Ray said that day, “As long as you’re going anyway, how about doing your old friends a little favor?”
I’d waited for more. Ray, Eddie, and I had served on a bio-attack task force a couple years back. Ray was now promoted. And the bioterror world is small. The same people stay at the same hotel in Zurich, drink at the same bar in Port-au-Prince, run into one another at Defense Department conferences, birthday parties, or war games. Sometimes they fall in love. Ray was engaged to a woman we’d both worked with, and who had rejected him earlier. I had feelings for Chris Vekey but had never acted on them. Her daughter was my sixteen-year-old summer intern. I warned you that our world is incestuous. “Mom went back to Ray, on the rebound from you,” Aya Vekey had told me, two months back.
“Nothing happened between your mom and me, so how could there be any rebound, Aya?”
She’d answered with a teenager’s irritating mix of innocence and objectivity. “When nothing happens between two people who like each other, they imagine the best. You only see bad stuff after you get to know someone.”
“You’re too young to be a cynic.”
“Why? You’re a cynic so it must be right. You should have tried with Mom. She gave up on love after you.”
“There wasn’t any after, Aya.”
Eddie didn’t trust Ray. I just felt sorry for him. It’s tough to be the one in a relationship who loves the other person more. It wears you down. That wasn’t my problem, though. It was Ray’s.
But in Stuart’s office Ray had remained professional, on the surface at least, as he unrolled a map of Brazil, the diamond-shaped fourth-largest nation on earth, after China. Most of the country was solid green Amazon, with the megalopolis cities Rio and São Paulo far to the east. Ray’s finger had poked down near the border with Bolivia . . . on the thin Madiera River in the west.
“We don’t care about the malaria,” he said.
“What do you care about, Ray?”
“Al Qaeda, ISIS. New fringe groups active there. We’ve heard rumors that they’re planning something, possibly a run on a U.S. embassy in South America.”
“Rumors? From who?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Then we can’t do it, Ray.”
“Brazilian Federal Police,” Ray said smoothly, as if he’d not refused to answer seconds before, “recovered a laptop in a raid in Rio, while arresting gold smugglers. Hezbollah and Al Qaeda are not listed as terrorist organizations in Brazil, and they’re active in smuggling there. In the laptop was a file referring to a project in the Amazon, probably a training camp. Problem is, we can’t send people officially because Brazil is touchy about interference. They claim they’ll take care of it. But their Federal Police are riddled with corruption. Their own people in Brasília don’t trust the ones out west.”
It made sense to me. The Amazon was far from the Mideast, but the whole modus of terrorist organizations is that they pop up where you don’t expect them. Hunt them in Syria and they show up in Yemen. Send agents to Yemen and next thing you know, they’re in Brazil.
“The world is crisscrossed by invisible highways,” Ray continued, sensing a more receptive audience. “Don’t think of them as routes for specific items but as toll roads. The road for illegal migrants will be used one day by arms merchants. Then cocaine mules. Cargo is interchangeable. Once a road exists, anyone can use it. If you’re looking on Highway 90, they’ll be moving on Route 66, and 66 goes through the Amazon. You’ve got new airports there. New cities going up. A population of millions. Think Wild West. Gold rush. Arms. Loose law enforcement.”
What Ray wanted, he explained, Stuart having been asked to leave, was for us to pay attention in case anything looked off, ask casually about the presence of Muslim groups, steer talks with officials, look for any thread that might lead to a terrorist training camp in the jungle.
“You know how to do it, boys,” Ray said.
“You’ve got a million other people to ask,” Eddie said.
“But you two are the best,” Ray said, concentrating on me. “You’ll have my phone number, and I’ll be available twenty-four hours a day. Ask a few questions. I trust your instinct. Just sign the nondisclosure agreement and . . .”
“No signatures,” I interrupted.
“But Joe . . .”
“Last time we signed something you guys almost locked me away in Leavenworth,” I said, aware, with a sinking feeling, that I’d started negotiating. “You want a favor? Then if I want to pick up the phone and call the Times right now and tell them about the rumor, I’ll do it. No lawyers. No signatures. We’re civilians now. So our rules.”
Eddie looked up at me, and you had to know him to see that his straight-on stare meant he was feeling betrayed. One, you said we were finished with this stuff. It’s not even an emergency, just a rumor. I don’t trust Ray.
My own look back meant, I know. But what are we supposed to do if there’s really a training camp there?
Ray saw the looks. “Good. So you’ll sign?”
“What did I just tell you?”
Ray stood and announced that would not do. We had to sign. If we wouldn’t, his hands were tied. He shrugged and shook hands with Stuart, who had come back in, nervous, and with Eddie, who relaxed, and me. Ray and I experienced one of those who-has-the-stronger-grip moments, which guys do even if they are presidents. Vladimir Putin shakes Trump’s hand. He squeezes. So does Trump. They both smile. Babies”R”Us.
Ray walked to the door. He turned back around, grinning. I had a feeling he’d just won some private bet.
“I told them you’d never sign. It’s a deal,” he said.
I snapped back to the present. Our outboard boat was closing the last ten feet toward the next draga, last chance to learn on the water about Eddie. The gunwale rode inches from the water. The temperature had to be 105. Sweat soaked my shirt, cargo shorts, armpits. I’ll never be finished with secrets, I thought. In the water floated debris: soiled paper plates, floating orange peels, a splintery log, but as we drew abreast the log had eyes. The eyes blinked. The log dived, showing a nine-foot tail. Caiman.
“People come here with big ideas. They never last,” Anasasio said, nodding as if he’d just imparted great and historic wisdom. His bottom front tooth gleamed, gold.
As we pulled up, Anasasio waved to the raggedy crew of six glaring down at us. They were a tough-looking bunch in cutoffs, sweat-stained black and white logo Botafogo team soccer shirts, and grimy tractor caps. Their bellies were swollen from beer or amoebas. The captain was an Asian Indian, with thick gray-flecked hair, goatee, and massive forearms. They all radiated antagonism, Stay away.
Anasasio called up to the crew, and I recognized Portuguese words for doctor, important, and missing. The captain shook his head. I heard ouro, which means gold, and mercúrio, which means mercury. Anasasio snapped a threat back. The argument raged as the crew stared. The captain fell silent, and Anasasio turned to me with a broad smile.
“He says we are very welcome aboard.”
“That’s not what it sounded like.”
“Oh, that is because they are about to make the gold. But I said you would not interrupt. I said you are not here about the use of illegal mercury. In fact you will find this very fascinating. You will see the gold made.”
“I’m not interested in gold.”
“Everyone is interested in gold,” Anasasio said, paying our driver in reals, reaching for the rope ladder. “Watch your step. I would not want you to fall into the river. Piranhas have an undeserved reputation. Usually they do not bother people. But here they have had a taste of men.”
“Every day, we get gold,” the captain bragged.
I tried to hold in my impatience. I was in an agony of waiting and couldn’t care less about stupid gold. It was almost impossible to hear him and Anasasio talking over the roaring of the pump. We stood on the vibrating aft deck, the captain pointing with pride to a python-thick rubber air hose snaking over the side and into the brown water. Thirty feet down, he explained while I pretended to pay attention, Miguel, the diver, wore a dry suit and helmet and stood on the bottom and held a vacuum attachment that sucked up mud.
“Professor Miguel taught math at the university. Here he earns one hundred times what he made in a month,” Anasasio said.
Was Eddie here earlier?
The mud sprayed out behind us onto a floor-to-ceiling wooden sluice box, its ramplike surface covered by a thick synthetic carpet. “The carpet traps gold and allows lighter water to run back into the river,” Anasasio translated, as delighted as a boy at an ice cream factory, all thoughts of Eddie wiped away by proximity to gold. “They do this twenty-four hours a day. But now we will see what they have found.”
Questions multiplied in my head as two twentysomething crew members stepped up to the sluice box. The engine stopped. The black water ceased pouring onto the carpet.
Is Anasasio eager to go back to town because he’s tired, or involved? What if Eddie was taken because he asked questions about the wrong thing? What if there’s really a training camp in the jungle, and he is a prisoner there?
“Two dragas can be next to each other,” Anasasio explained as the deck rocked from a drill smacking into rock far below. “One brings up three kilos, worth one hundred twenty thousand U.S. dollars. The other . . . nothing. It is a miracle.”
From the stories I heard, it’s probable that Eddie caught malaria. He and I are taking different preventatives because he’s allergic to one. He must have contracted a resistant strain.
Shirtless from the heat, a chubby, intent-looking redheaded man in a soiled floral print shirt—unbuttoned to fat—waddled up with a glass jar, “filled with liquid mercury,” Anasasio said. “This man is named Rooster.” Rooster poured the silvery stuff into a cut-off oil drum as diesel smoke from the pump blew into our faces. “The mercury fuses with the gold,” Anasasio said excitedly, over the roar.
Shoulders jerking like a pneumatic drill operator’s, Rooster used a long-handled electric mixer to churn up the mercury, silt, and gold. The sense of movement never stopped. The deck rocked as the drill operator below punched into river bottom. The river rushed into rapids eighty yards away. The anchor cable quivered from the current as more “flying boats,” as Anasasio called them, brought crewmen from the bars or whorehouses onshore to other dragas.
“Anasasio, ask the captain if . . .”
The captain snarled at me in Portuguese. I didn’t need translation. “Wait for the gold!”
The redheaded crewman, Rooster, inserted a garden hose into the bucket. The water washed excess sand onto the deck and, through gaps in the planking, into the river. The crew stood transfixed. Anasasio had grown unnaturally still.
Gold fever was the paramount disease here for ten thousand miners. Rooster poured the gold/mercury mix onto an old T-shirt and used the fabric as a strainer. He squeezed out the T-shirt, and silvery mercury ran out, into a flat pan. Anasasio said, “They will reuse the mercury.”
When Rooster opened the shirt, an irregular ball, the size of a large marble, lay inside. It looked like clay, not like anything worth money.
“Now the best part,” Anasasio breathed.
Get this over so I can ask about Eddie.
The pudgy crewman carried the ball into a closet on deck and waddled out carrying a small portable oven on a tripod, with a spigot jutting out the top. He put the mud ball in a tin pan and the pan in the oven, and shut the door. He lit a fire with a match beneath the tripod. After two minutes steam oozed from the spigot.
“Mercury flies away,” said Anasasio. “It will come back as rain.”
Rooster opened the oven and, hands protected by thick mitts, pulled out the pan. The mud ball was gone. In the pan lay a pool of molten gold, with rainbow colors: crimson and emerald and cobalt rippling across the surface in the seconds it took to dry. The hardened mass was the diameter of a coffee cup and as thick and pitted as a potato pancake. Sunlight brightened the surface. It looked pure and clean. Rooster placed it in my palm. It was cool to the touch, heavier than it looked.
Anasasio told me, “Okay, Joe. Ask about Eddie now!”
Three minutes later—after the captain finished his story—Anasasio turned to me, looking stricken. He said too softly, “I think we have the answer.”
His expression filled me with an agony of fear.
“The captain says that Dr. Nakamura was here. He was shivering, but working, asking about malaria. He left to go to another draga, the Santa Catarina. Many men were sick there. But Joe . . .” He laid a hand on my shoulder. “The Santa Catarina is no more. Its anchor cable snapped. It went into the rapids. All aboard died.”
I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. The heat filled my head and my vision shrank. I gazed toward the turgid foam marking the narrow rapids. There, on muddy shore, lay wooden debris left by smashed, destroyed dragas, pieces of boat, clothing, and cutlery that had washed up.
I’m going to have to phone Eddie’s family.
The captain pulled at Anasasio’s arm and began another explanation, pointing at the gold ball. The gold that could not bring back Eddie. We’ll walk along the river. We’ll look for his body. I felt a nudge at my side and found myself looking into the dirty green eyes of the miner named Rooster. But what I saw wasn’t sympathy. It was something more urgent. The eyes slid left, toward the sluice boxes. Then Rooster moved that way—come with me—as the captain and Anasasio grew more animated in their talk. Eddie was forgotten. To them he was one more casualty of the rapids. The men would be on their favorite subject . . . gold.
Wait a minute! He knows I don’t speak Portuguese. Does Rooster speak English?
My pulse fluttered to life. Anasasio’s back was to us, as we moved to the smoke-spewing pump. It looked about a hundred years old, its pistons chugging like some factory engine in the year 1900. The whole contraption seemed to be straining so hard it might tear the ship apart. Water rushed from the hose again, gushed down the screens and into the sluice boxes in the perpetual hunt for gold. Rooster pretended to adjust the hose. His English, when it came, was so nasal that there was a lag time between my hearing and understanding. He seemed to be talking through his nose.
“Your translator is lying to you.”
I felt a surge of hope. “How do you speak English?”
“I worked as a tour guide in Bahia and came here when I lost my job. Those union people are thieves and liars. They take our dues and do nothing. They sell cocaine. That man is not telling you what the captain really says.”
“Which is what?”
“Your friend did not go to the Santa Catarina. He boarded a flying boat to go to the hospital. He was very ill, like the other men who have disappeared.”
“What other men?” Now my pulse sped up as I realized that the captain saw us talking. But the captain laid a hand on Anasasio’s shoulder to keep him from turning. The captain wanted my conversation with Rooster to continue.
But why? Because Anasasio lied to me? Or because these miners are the liars and want to steer me away?
Rooster said, “The sickest men have been disappearing. They leave their dragas for the hospital but do not reach Porto Velho. They are being taken. This happened to my brother. I think your friend went north.”
“Taken?” I stared into the chubby, earnest face and recognized fear and self-blame and saw that once again, retired or not, I had returned to my old haunt, the land of liars.
“Where are the missing people being taken?” I asked.
“Why kidnap sick people?”
“To sell them. I heard a story from the Indian who worked on the Muito Ouro and now is in town. He said there is a foreign doctor upriver, who lives on an island and pays money for sick men. He said the island has guards. But stories are easy to learn because half the time they are not true. Maybe you will find out if this one is.”
“Why buy sick people? It makes no sense.”
“The Indian said they keep them in a little house.”
“And the doctor is foreign? From where?”
A shrug. “He said the doctor came a year ago, to help the old one already there. He said at first the new doctor helped villagers and Indians, but then more foreigners arrived, with guns. Then the sick miners began to come.”
“How can I talk to this Indian?”
Rooster suddenly stepped back angrily, and his face told me to break off questions. Anasasio must have turned around. Rooster started yelling in Portuguese. He slammed his fist on the sluice box. He was a good actor. He shouted, “Perigoso,” which means dangerous, and he shoved me away from the apparatus. Then he spun and spat something at Anasasio. Can’t you control your gringo?
Anasasio’s eyes lingered on Rooster for a fraction of a second too long. Then they slid to me, and he said, shrewd speculation in his voice, “You got too close, Joe. You must not touch the machine, you know.”
One of the other crew members joined in with Rooster, poking his finger at my face. It hit me that they all knew I’d not touched the machinery. That—when they’d looked unfriendly as we approached the boat—the anger may not have been directed at me, but at Anasasio. Their union rep.
They are scared of him. But why?
I felt a familiar clenching in my belly. This is what always happens. You fly into the new place. You are surrounded by strangers. Some are lying but you can’t tell who. You can’t judge by clothing or by income level. The rich man could be the enemy. Or the poor one. Or the smiling child. You must make choices and make them fast. This was tough enough in the days when I could call Washington for help; from research people, search satellites, our embassy. I’d tried already with Ray Havlicek. I’d called him days ago. He’d been sympathetic, but impotent.
“My hands are tied, Joe. Officially, you’re not there. Maybe if you’d found the camp I might be able to push things, but Eddie getting sick is unrelated.”
“Ray, just say it’s related. Make up something!”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?”
Welcome to civilian life, I thought bitterly, free of high-level interference, but also of high-level help.
I will find you, Eddie.
Anasasio told me that we were leaving. He steered me to the gunwale, and the captain grunted good-bye. The crew went back to work. There was no way to ask more questions. Rooster’s back was to me. We might have never met.
“There are no more boats to visit, Joe. Let’s go home. You could use some sleep.”
I need a gun, I told myself. There must be a gun here.
My options had dwindled. I needed to find an Indian in town. If the guy even existed. But there were 400,000 people in town, and lots of them were probably Indians. “Town” consisted of at least fifteen square miles: slums, office buildings, shopping, a soccer stadium. I had no idea where to go, what to look for, if the Indian had gone back to his village, or what language he spoke. Or even his name. Rooster had called the Indian “he,” so it was a guy. Old guy? Young guy?
I’ll ask Anasasio to drop me off in town. I’ll get a car and come back here on my own, like Eddie did, and get back on that draga and look for more answers.
But then there was no need to do that.
Because, on the way to shore, in the little flying boat, I found a clue.