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An “outstanding” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) blistering thriller featuring a brilliant and unorthodox Army investigator, his enigmatic female partner, and their hunt for the Army’s most notorious–and dangerous–deserter from #1 New York Times bestselling author Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille.
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–preferably alive. Brodie knows this is a difficult mission, made more difficult by his new partner’s inexperience, by their undeniable chemistry, and by Brodie’s suspicion that Maggie Taylor is reporting to the CIA.
With ripped-from-the-headlines appeal, an exotic and dangerous locale, and the hairpin twists and inimitable humor that are signature DeMille, The Deserter is the first in a timely and thrilling new series from an unbeatable team of True Masters: the #1 New York Times bestseller Nelson DeMille and his son, award-winning screenwriter Alex DeMille.
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 taken 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.
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.
- On Sale
- Oct 22, 2019
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Hachette Book Group