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The Deceivers (A John Wells Novel) Hardcover – February 6, 2018
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About the Author
This is Alex Berenson's twelfth novel featuring John Wells. As a reporter for The New York Times, Berenson covered topics ranging from the occupation of Iraq--where he was stationed for three months--to the flooding of New Orleans, to the world pharmaceutical industry, to the financial crimes of Bernard Madoff. He graduated from Yale University in 1994 with degrees in history and economics, and lives in New York City. The Faithful Spy won the 2007 Edgar Award for best first novel.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Waffle House lay on Victory Drive, close by Commando Military Supply and the gates to Fort Benning, the two-hundred-eighty-square-mile base where the Army made soldiers into Rangers. John Wells remembered the restaurant from his own training, more than two decades before.
Back then, he’d still basically been a Montana boy. He’d come to Dartmouth for college, been shocked by the superior attitude so many East Coast kids put on. But Georgia had held its own surprises. At least Montana and New Hampshire both had mountains, even if the Bitterroots were bigger. Down here, the land was slap flat and swamp-cut.
Anyway, as far as Wells could tell, the Waffle House hadn’t changed. Not the waitresses, not the plastic booths, maybe not the fryer grease.
The Ranger instructors eating one booth over looked the same, too. Square-jawed and narrow-eyed. Mostly white. Maybe a few more tattoos. They shoveled scrambled eggs in their mouths like they were machines for the ingestion of food. Cut, chew, swallow. Cut, chew, swallow. Wash it all down with the black liquid that Waffle House called coffee. They were almost too tired to speak, Wells saw.
Though not as tired as the soldiers they were training. Nothing in peacetime replicated combat, but Ranger School tried. Rangers lead the way, the unit’s motto went. The training program was meant to weed out any soldier who couldn’t. It was famously tough, especially at the beginning. Candidates were deprived of sleep and food while facing timed marches and the Darby Queen, a barbed-wire-studded obstacle course. Soldiers qualified through airborne training and a four-week starter course before they even had a chance at Fort Benning. Still, about sixty percent failed. Many who did pass had to repeat at least one part of the three-phase program.
Not Wells. He’d gone through in the minimum sixty-two days. He was made for soldiering. Not just because he was strong and lean and quick. Because he knew intuitively how to survive, to narrow his focus. Not to think ahead, not to promise himself that he’d get through this day or week but simply to get through.
A most un-Buddhist form of mindfulness.
So Wells went from Dartmouth to the Rangers, the Rangers to the Central Intelligence Agency, Langley to the Hindu Kush, the Kush back to the United States. Only the start of his travels. Two decades of spying and fighting, killing and not quite dying. He’d resigned from the agency but discovered he needed it as much as it seemed to need him. He’d become a Muslim, too, finding comfort, of sorts, in a faith not his own. And why not? All faiths were foreign in the end, walks through dark woods.
Had he changed? He supposed he must have. From the start, he’d been unafraid to kill, to take what he could never give back. Yet his dreams troubled him more than they once had—
“Need anything?” The waitress’s smoke-roughened voice. Meaning: You’ve been sitting in this booth a while, time to order more or move on. Hungry soldiers waited by the door. Wells hadn’t woolgathered this way twenty years ago, that he knew.
“Scrambled eggs with cheese. Triple order hash browns.”
“Triple? Coming up.” She offered him a broke-down smile and turned away. The United States had two thousand Waffle Houses, not one in the Northeast or on the West Coast. Places for working people who needed quick food cheap and cheap food quick. The eggs were iffy, but the hash browns were delicious, as long as Wells didn’t think about what they were doing to his arteries.
He was waiting for his son. Evan. Though Evan didn’t think of Wells as his father. Another man had raised the boy while Wells snaked the world’s drains. Yet Evan, a grown man now, had decided to become a Ranger. Wells wasn’t quite sure why. He was proud, but he feared Evan didn’t understand the choice he’d made.
Evan had been one of the first-week Fort Benning failures. Not his fault. He’d blown his Achilles tendon eleven miles into the twelve-mile road march, the week’s concluding exercise. Twelve miles didn’t sound like much, except the candidates carried close to a hundred pounds of gear. Because Evan had failed for medical reasons, he could rehab here while he waited for another chance. If he wanted.
He’d called Wells the day before, two days after the injury, asked him to come to Georgia.
“Something like that.”
All his life, Evan had carried a golden ticket. Now defeat hung in his voice. Wells caught a dawn flight from Boston to Atlanta, rented a car for the easy hundred-mile drive to Columbus, on the Georgia–Alabama border. Eleven a.m., and here he was.
He watched Evan park his gray Toyota Highlander—the SUV too new, too nice, for a young soldier, a vehicle that would earn Evan scorn rather than respect. The door swung open, and Evan hobbled out, a heavy white boot on his ankle. Like Wells, he was tall, with brown hair and cool-brown eyes. Though Evan was slimmer than Wells, more lithe. He was a superb basketball player, just a half step slow for the NBA. He’d started at shooting guard for San Diego State’s nationally ranked team.
Wells met him at the door, gave him a hug that would have been awkward even if Evan hadn’t been wearing the boot.
“John.” Evan rarely called him Dad. “Couldn’t take me somewhere classy like Denny’s?”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“That’s what she said.” Evan banged his foot into the edge of a booth and grimaced.
“Maybe focus on walking.”
The hash browns beat them to the booth.
“If this is what getting old is like, I’ll skip it,” Evan said.
“You may reconsider.” Wells helped him sit.
“How’s Anne? You’re living together, right?”
So they were, in the farmhouse in New Hampshire that had become as much of a home as Wells expected to find. Anne was Wells’s girlfriend, partner—whatever term of art the kids used these days. Not wife, though. Wells had proposed and been refused twice now. She’d told him she didn’t want a ring, she wanted his heart, and she’d know when his heart was ready. Left unsaid were the words And it’s never gonna be. Though his unready heart hadn’t stopped them from having a daughter together. And now—
“Anne’s pregnant.” The first time he’d spoken the words aloud. He felt a swell of masculine pride despite the foolishness of having another child out of wedlock. But why not? He and Anne were good parents. And, truth, if anything happened to him, he’d put enough money aside to make sure the kids would have their educations paid for. Beyond that . . . Anne was smart and steady and he supposed he trusted she would find someone else. Evan had done all right without him.
“Seriously? Another half sister?”
“Sonogram says brother.”
“You know there are these things called condoms, John—” Evan grinned in genuine pleasure. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I’m telling you now.” What he wasn’t telling, and wouldn’t: Anne had miscarried three times since Emmie, their daughter. Wells hadn’t wanted to say anything until they were sure. But she was sixteen weeks along, and the sonogram and every genetic test ever invented said the baby was healthy.
“Glad one of us has good news, anyway.”
Evan grimaced, reliving the injury. “I felt the tendon getting super-tight, which used to happen at the end of games sometimes. Then Snap! I heard it even before I felt it. Then I was on my ass, like someone took a blowtorch to my leg. The other guys tried to help me. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I told them, Don’t stop, don’t mess up your march. Just waited for the NCOs. Man, it hurt. But that’s not the part that’s messed up.”
“Felt like I’d gotten a get-out-of-jail-free card.” Evan mumbled now as if the words burned his mouth. “I can’t stand these rules. Sergeants yelling at me. Surfer boy!Pretty boy! College boy! And the other soldiers, they’re barely eighteen, they all think it’s a big gym class. Jackasses.”
“If I recall, you engaged in a bit of jackassery in San Diego.”
“I don’t want to sound like a snob, but—”
“But you are, and you didn’t even know until you got here.”
“We barely get any sleep, anyway, and they won’t shut up all night. Talking about how much ass they’ll get when they tell girls they’re -Rangers. And when are they gonna blow claymores and try the 249.”
“You’re telling me you don’t want to shoot a machine gun?”
“Worst part is, all this crap about how they can’t wait to get deployed so they can start killing Arabs. Make them pay for what happened last week.” The funerals were still happening in Dallas, the flags still at half-staff. “Nuke Syria. They don’t even know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Remember a few years ago, in Missoula—”
At the time, Evan had accused Wells of being a psychopath, a contract killer whose sole client was the United States government.
“And you grew up.”
“I saw it was more complicated. But this takes me back to that, because that’s all these guys want. Was it like that when you were here?”
Wells nodded. Though, back then, the imagined targets had been the Russians and the Chinese. Chink-chonk-cho, I shoot you, ah-so. Fortunately, that guy had washed out. “They’re nervous. Trying to hide it.”
“They don’t sound nervous. They sound amped. If that’s what it takes to kill people, I don’t have it.”
The real reason Evan had called him. Wells let him eat for a minute and then leaned close.
“I don’t know if you have it. Or any of those other guys. Nobody knows. All those obstacle courses and live-fire exercises, they just tell you who can’t do it. You flinch here, then you’re probably gonna be no good in the real thing. But it doesn’t work the other way. Guys can roll through the Darby Queen because in the back of their minds they know it’s training. Combat’s different. It’s only when you’re up against people who want to kill you that you can be sure how you’ll react.”
“Kinda late by then.”
“You know what’s more like combat than anything else? Football.”
“Because of the hitting.”
“Because, in the moment, it’s you or them. And basketball’s not the same in terms of the physicality, but it takes that focus. If I had to bet, I’d bet on you.”
They were quiet for a minute.
“Say you’re right. What am I looking at? Months of rehab. Then years of taking orders from guys who barely got through high school.”
“On the bright side, by the time you’re done you’ll be a killing machine who can’t live normal civilian life.”
“You make it sound so appealing.”
“Know where we could have used a couple Rangers last week.”
Words that snapped up Evan’s head.
“I haven’t told you what to do this whole time. But I’m telling you now. Don’t quit. Not this way. It’ll feel good for a month and then it’ll haunt you.”
“And the knuckleheads?”
“Keep your mouth shut. If you can soldier, they’ll respect you soon enough. Maybe dump that forty-thousand-dollar station wagon outside, too, so it’s not so obvious you don’t fit in.”
“Mom’s gonna kill you. She told me not to call.” Heather, Wells’s ex-wife and Evan’s mom, hadn’t wanted Evan to sign up. To say the least. Evan had told Wells that she’d threatened to cut off his hands.
“Least you won’t be living in the basement like all the other millennials.” The waitress was coming their way. Wells fished for his wallet. “Come on. We stay much longer she’ll make us sign a lease.”
Wells called Anne as the Highlander swung out.
“Babe.” She’d started calling him that recently. “How’s Evan? What I thought?”
“Yeah. I told him not to.”
Silence. Anne told Wells not to argue if Evan wanted to quit. You need to let him find his own way.
“He wanted me to change his mind, Anne. Why he asked me to come.”
“Hope so,” she said, as his phone beeped with an incoming number, a 202 area code. Wells wanted to be surprised, but some part of him had expected this call since the first bulletins from Dallas.
“Call you back.” He clicked through.
“Mr. Wells?” A man. “President Duto would like you to come in. Are you in New Hampshire?”
A pause. Wells realized the man at the White House had never heard of Fort Benning. And civilians wondered why soldiers didn’t respect them. “Military base in Georgia. Has an airport.”
“I’ll call you back.”
The voice was gone. President Duto would like you to come in. Not a question. Wells called Anne.
“I have to stop in D.C.”
I’m pregnant, John. Or have you forgotten? Words she’d never say. “Tell the gang I said hi.”
Five hours later, Wells walked into the Oval Office to find Vinny Duto flipping through a briefing book in a black binder. Even when Wells had first met Duto a decade before, the bags under his eyes had been prominent. Now they sagged into his cheeks. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He probably hadn’t.
“John. Thanks for coming.”
Duto had been been justifiably proud of his record, Wells knew. Proud the country hadn’t suffered a major terrorist attack while he was director of the CIA or president. Until now. Four killers, three hundred dead, the Islamic State claiming credit.
Duto flipped through the binder. Wells glimpsed photos, pools of blood. He waited for Duto to explain what the agency and FBI knew and what they didn’t, what the next moves would be.
“Want a drink?” Duto said abruptly.
Wells didn’t. And it was barely 5 p.m. And Islam forbade alcohol, anyway. But he couldn’t make the President of the United States drink alone in the Oval Office. “Sure.”
Duto closed the binder and gave a low, grateful sigh, the sound of a dog kenneling itself under a porch on a hot day. He’d installed a chrome-and-leather bar cart by the Oval Office’s second door, the one that led to the bathroom and points beyond. He plucked a bottle, thick glass and a cork stopper, labeled with a hand-drawn cowboy sitting on a white horse. High West, yippee ki-yay. He poured himself half a highball glass. For Wells, barely a finger.
“To those pricks. May they rot in Hell.” Duto raised his glass, took a pull. Wells gave himself a mouthful. The stuff wasn’t bad, a little sweetness to hide the fire underneath. Duto’s face loosened as the liquor hit him.
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