John Wells enters new territory, as he goes underground in East Africa to track four kidnapped Americans and the Somali bandits who snatched them, in the tough, thoughtful, electrifying new novel from the #1 New York Times-bestselling author.
Four friends, recent college graduates, travel to Kenya to work at a giant refugee camp for Somalis. Two men, two women, each with their own reasons for being there. But after twelve weeks, they’re ready for a break and pile into a Land Cruiser for an adventure.
They get more than they bargained for. Bandits hijack them. They wake up in a hut, hooded, bound, no food or water. Hostages. As a personal favor, John Wells is asked to try to find them, but he does so reluctantly. East Africa isn’t his usual playing field. And when he arrives, he finds that the truth behind the kidnappings is far more complex than he imagined.
The clock is ticking. The White House is edging closer to an invasion of Somalia. Wells has a unique ability to go undercover, and to make things happen, but if he can’t find the hostages soon, they’ll be dead – and the U.S. may be in a war it never should have begun.
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As a reporter for The New York Times, ALEX BERENSON covered topics ranging from the occupation of Iraq to the crimes of Bernie Madoff. His six previous John Wells novels include The Faithful Spy, winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for best first novel. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Not that Gwen Murphy would tell anyone. She pushed the idea away as soon as it came. But the refugees were starting to creep her out.
Gwen lay on her cot, pretending to sleep. Outside the walls of the trailer she shared with Hailey Barnes, the Hagadera refugee camp was coming to life. Diesel engines rumbled in the distance as the morning’s first supply convoy arrived. Closer, two men shouted to each other in their clicking African language. “Happy Birthday,” Gwen murmured to herself. Her twenty-third. The first she’d spent outside the United States, much less in Africa.
For twelve weeks Gwen had volunteered for WorldCares/ChildrenFirst, an aid agency that offered food and medical care to Somali refugees. The Somalis came to Kenya to escape famine and war. Hundreds of thousands lived in Hagadera and other camps around the town of Dadaab in eastern Kenya. At first the mission had seemed simple to Gwen. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, protect the innocent. But the longer she stayed, the less she understood this place.
She tried not to think about that, either.
Her alarm beeped. She gave up the charade of sleep, opened her eyes. Seven-thirty a.m. Rise and shine. Across the trailer, Hailey’s cot was empty. Hailey always left before Gwen. She claimed she liked to watch the sun rise. Gwen thought she might have something going with Jasper, the ex-Marine who ran security at their compound, but Hailey denied they were anything but friends. I just like the place when it’s quiet, she said.
Gwen wrapped herself in her thin cotton blanket, reached for her laptop. WorldCares housed its workers in a walled compound at the edge of the Hagadera camp. The compound had its own electricity and water and wireless service, not great but enough to download email.
She found twenty-two new messages on her Gmail account, mainly birthday greetings. Her little sister Catelyn had sent a picture of them by the Golden Gate Bridge, one of Gwen’s favorites, from a trip to California the year before.
Only four more weeks of do-gooding! Can’t wait for you to get home so I can buy you a 3 a.m. Egg McMuffin—hinting at an epic night on that trip. Tell Hailey The Heartbreaker I said hi! Owen and Scott too! Happy 23rd! XOXO C
Next up, from her mom:
Daddy and I will call today but if you’re busy or we don’t get through I want you to know how much we love, love, LOVE you! And we’re so proud of you, what you’re doing over there is so great . . .
So great. If they only knew. Gwen signed off, pulled on sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt for the walk to the bathroom trailer. On her first morning here, she’d made the mistake of stepping out in boyshorts and a thin cotton tee. She hadn’t gotten ten steps before a crusty forty-something woman intercepted her.
“This is a refugee camp, not a gentlemen’s club,” the woman barked in a thick British accent. “We respect local sensitivities. As I don’t doubt you’re aware, you have a very pleasant body”—somehow “pleasant” sounded like an accusation—“but if you want to dress like a Russian whore I suggest Moscow. You’d do well.”
Whore? Moscow? Gwen wanted to argue but instead hustled back to her trailer. She later learned the woman was Moss Laughton, the logistics director for WorldCares. Moss’s moods ranged from bad to worse. Still, Gwen had grown to like her after that initial run-in. Maybe because they couldn’t be more different. The British woman had short spiky hair and was shaped like a potato. She didn’t care how she looked or what people said about her. And she wasn’t afraid to yell. She once described her job to Gwen as trying to keep the stealing to a reasonable level. And failing.
Gwen decided to give herself an extra-long, extra-hot shower this morning. Moss wouldn’t be amused. Moss said any shower more than three minutes long was a waste of time and water. But it wasn’t Moss’s birthday, was it?
The Hagadera camp was one of three giant refugee centers near Dadaab, an overgrown village on the dusty plains of eastern Kenya. The camps opened in 1991, when Somalia’s government first collapsed. For most of their existence they’d held fewer than one hundred thousand refugees. But since 2009, drought and war had caused hundreds of thousands of Somalis to flee their homes. With nowhere else to go, they trekked west across the desert toward Kenya. Along the way, bandits stole from them and raped them. If they were too weak to walk, they got left behind. And not for the Rapture. They died of dehydration or starvation. Hyenas and lions dragged away their corpses. Even when they reached Kenya, they weren’t safe. The Kenyan police demanded bribes and threw the Somalis back over the border if they didn’t pay. But enough refugees got through that half a million now lived in the camps, in endless rows of tents that studded the land like anthills. Some received sturdy white tents that looked like they belonged in an upscale camping expedition. Abercrombie and Kent: Journey to Dadaab. The others built their own shelters out of plastic sheets and scraps of wood. Vast open plains surrounded the camps, but the Kenyan government refused to expand them. So the tents were crammed into ever-smaller plots as new refugees arrived. Each was a miniature city of refugees, with a city’s problems.
Gwen hadn’t known any of this when she’d come to Dadaab three months before, with Hailey and Owen Broder and Scott Thompson. The four of them had just graduated from the University of Montana, in Missoula. Gwen had grown up in western Montana, lived there her whole life. She was ready for a change. An adventure.
Then Scott said he might go to Kenya to work for his uncle James helping refugees. Gwen was surprised. Scott had never struck her as caring. In fact, when it came to women, she knew firsthand he was exactly the opposite. But he told her that James ran a charity called WorldCares. “We can go to Africa for a few months. Beats hanging around here,” he said. “Plus when we’re done, we’ll go on a safari. Watch lions getting it on. You know they have sex for like two days straight.” Scott sounded at least as enthusiastic about the lions as the refugees.
That night she Googled Dadaab. The pictures shocked her. She couldn’t believe people still starved to death. Of course, anorexia, but that was different. Anyway, the point was that the refugees were starving. United Nations says 750,000 Somalis at risk from famine, the headlines said. Worst food shortage since 1991. Babies with bellies swollen from hunger. Women with arms like sticks. Gwen decided right then that she’d go. Do whatever it was that aid workers did.
When she told her family about her plan, she figured her mom—and certainly her dad—would put up a fight. Aside from a few weekends in Canada, she’d only been out of the United States once, on a spring break trip to Cancún. But they didn’t. “It’ll be good for you,” her mom said. “Broaden your horizons.”
Then Hailey decided to come, too. She told Gwen she wanted a better shot at med school. She’d applied her senior year, but her test scores weren’t great and the only place that accepted her was in the Caribbean. “This stuff looks great on your résumé,” Hailey said. “In the interviews, too. ‘When I saw little Dikembe come back to life, I knew I wanted to be a healer.’ I don’t have to tell them that the kind of healing I’m talking about is dermatology. Laser skin peels for five hundred dollars a pop.”
“Isn’t that a little cynical?”
“It’s a lot cynical. But doctors make mucho dinero and, unlike you, I can’t afford the luxury of being an idealist.”
“I’m not rich.”
“Gwennie, rich people always say that.”
Finally, Owen joined up. He didn’t have to explain why. Gwen knew. He’d had a terrible crush on her for two years. Though he wasn’t a stalker. More a hopeless romantic. He gave her longing looks when he thought she wouldn’t notice. She wished she found him attractive. But he was curly-haired, soulful. Gwen didn’t go for soulful. Gwen went for jocks. Jerks. Like Scott. Scott was about six-two, two-fifteen, with sandy blond hair and broad shoulders and a ridiculous six-pack. Scott could dunk. Gwen had seen him. When Scott wrapped an arm around her, she felt held. She was starting to rethink Scott and all the Scotts of the world. One had given her a bad herpes scare a few months back. But for now she was still in the jock-jerk camp.
Back in her trailer, post-shower, Gwen tugged on cargo pants and boots and a black T-shirt that she knew flattered her. Though, in truth, she would have looked good in sackcloth. She had the honey-blond hair and long lean legs of a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. She stood out absurdly in the camp’s crowds, an alien from Planet Beautiful.
But her looks hardly mattered here. The refugee kids wanted to touch her hair, sure. Their parents wanted more rations, a chance for an American visa. When they realized she couldn’t help, they moved on. She was just another aid worker here, unworthy of special attention. The realization unsettled her. She wondered if she was seeing what life would be like when she was sixty.
She walked to the WorldCares canteen, a concrete room with a gas-fired stove and two oversized refrigerators. Posters of missions covered the walls, smiling black and brown children surrounding white volunteers. Owen and Scott sat at a wooden table, spooning up oatmeal from chipped bowls.
“Oatmeal?” They hadn’t had any yesterday. Gwen poured a cup of coffee, busied herself brewing a fresh pot. Leaving the coffeemaker empty was a great sin at WorldCares. As Moss had made sure she learned.
“Bunch of Quaker Instant came in yesterday,” Owen said. “All kinds. Apples and cinnamon, brown sugar and whatever—”
“Pepsi’s getting a nice tax deduction on that, I’ll bet,” Scott said.
“Pepsi?” Gwen didn’t get it.
“They own Quaker. Stuff’s about to expire, they can’t sell it, so they give it to us, write it off at full price. Everybody wins.”
“I get it.” Just because she didn’t know that Pepsi owned Quaker didn’t make her stupid. Or did it? Other people always seemed to know things she didn’t. But then, she’d never tried very hard in school. Around sixth grade, she’d realized that boys would do her homework. She didn’t even have to fool around with them unless she wanted to. They were happy to be near her. This band, the Hold Steady, had a song called “You Can Make Him Like You.” And it was true. All the way through college, where she’d barely graduated with a 2.1 in sociology. Even that had required her to flirt with a professor senior year so he would let her retake her final. Not that she’d slept with him. He was old. And married. But she’d gone to his study hours dressed in her cutest gray yoga pants, the ones that cupped her ass perfectly, and made sure to lean over his desk and let him see the black thong poking out where her T-shirt didn’t reach. She knew that her moves were obvious, and she knew he knew too. But she’d learned that men didn’t care. They could be fully aware they were being played and still enjoy the game. No doubt he was filing her image away for later, when he was having boring sex with his wife for the millionth time.
So she’d gotten her C’s, and she was a college graduate, nobody could take that away. But she wondered if she should have studied a little harder. For this trip she’d bought a Kindle, loaded it with a bunch of famous books she hadn’t read, The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man and whatever. She’d forced her way through them, too. But she had to admit she didn’t really enjoy them. Maybe she should have tried Twilight and The Hunger Games; a lot of her friends liked those.
“What’s happening today?” Gwen said. Besides my birthday. She wondered if they’d forgotten.
“I’m meeting with James about that reporter coming next week,” Owen said.
“Yeah, from Houston. He wants a list of talking points for everybody, make sure we’re all on message about the mission. Talk about our local partners, how we do more than just hand out food, all that stuff.”
“Spin, in other words,” Scott said. “Make sure WorldCares gets mentioned along with CARE and MSF and the big boys. Publicity means donations. So if you have any questions about what we’re doing over here, keep them to yourself.”
Gwen had come to Dadaab imagining herself hand-feeding starving kids, handing out bowls of soup to grateful villagers. She saw now that she hadn’t had a clue how refugee camps operated. Only the most recent arrivals were hungry. A massive operation existed precisely to keep the refugees from starving. In that narrow sense, the camps worked. The Somalis who lived here ate better than their countrymen across the border—or the Kenyan villagers who lived nearby. Many refugees sold portions of their food rations in local markets.
At the same time, the refugees were stuck in legal limbo. Kenyans didn’t want Somalis any more than most Americans wanted Mexican immigrants. As far as the Kenyan government was concerned, the camps were too large and had been open too long. So Kenya didn’t allow the refugees to own land or work legally. They weren’t even supposed to leave the camps, although as a practical matter the Kenyan police couldn’t stop them. Most of all, the government didn’t want the refugees organizing for political rights or citizenship.
So the refugees couldn’t work or farm. They were warehoused in relative safety, and they would never starve. But they were basically prisoners. Like prisoners, they spent much of their time chasing freebies. Their requests ranged from the petty—My ration of cooking oil was short last week—to the heartbreaking—My brother disappeared at the border two months ago. Can you help me find him? If you weren’t a doctor, opportunities for genuine heroism were few and far between at Dadaab.
Recently, Gwen had been spending her time with kids. The average Somali woman had six children, and the camps didn’t have nearly enough schools to accommodate them. The girls stayed close by their mothers. The boys played with raggedy soccer balls and pretended to shoot one another. WorldCares had boxes of donated children’s books stored in the back of its warehouse. They’d arrived a few months before, but no one knew what to do with them. The kids couldn’t speak English, much less read it. The boxes sat untouched as the food deliveries came and went. Just thinking about them depressed Gwen, made her think of all the books she hadn’t read.
About a month before, she had gone into the warehouse and grabbed the first book she found, a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. She took the choice as a sign. All the books she could have picked, and she’d come up with one she remembered. She took it to the front gate and stood outside reading until a boy wandered over to listen to her. Since then she’d come out every day, picking a different book each time. Some days only a couple kids showed up. Some days, twenty or so. Only one, a tiny boy named Joseph who had the whitest teeth Gwen had ever seen, understood more than a few words of English. He had taken upon himself the role of translator. Gwen figured he was adding his own commentary, because he often had the kids laughing at stuff that wasn’t supposed to be funny.
“How about you?” Owen said, back in the canteen. “Any big plans today?”
“Joseph gonna be helping you with your reading again?” Scott said. “He told me last week that you got through The Cat in the Hat all on your own.”
Gwen didn’t bother answering. Scott had come by her trailer two nights before for a...
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