Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
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.