In the runup to the war in Iraq, dozens of intelligence operatives watched their careers evaporate when they spoke candidly about Saddam’s lack of weapons of mass destruction. One such case officer, now unwillingly retired and living in Las Vegas, finds himself a target for assassination.
The Last Days of Las Vegas is the story of Ashor dur-Shamshi, a powerful military exile from Iraq who pulls the strings of an international conspiracy that will return him as Iraq’s new dictator, and of Charles Remly, who struggles to dismantle the centerpiece of the ex-general’s conspiracy. Fueled with billions of dollars from Saddam’s looted fortune, the tentacles of Ashor’s plot reach from his war-torn homeland to the glittery streets of Las Vegas, and much of the world in between. At the heart of the plan is an event that will wake up the American people and confront the power brokers inside the Beltway with two grim alternatives: Reinstitute the military draft, or help install a military government in Baghdad that will end Iraq’s expanding conflict, while searching for the bogus terrorist organization that has created a mini-Chernobyl in Las Vegas.
The ragtag team that defends Vegas against a nuclear meltdown is led by Remly, a middle-aged spook who was forced into early retirement during the runup to the war against Iraq because he insisted on sending proof to his headquarters in Virginia that Saddam had no N-B-C weapons. Cynical and burned out, Remly has a serious heart condition and is a significantly less-than-heroic hero. Spiritually and philosophically Remly is closer to Leamas of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—and perhaps Meursault of The Stranger—than he is to the macho characters of modern spy fiction. He’s not entirely disconnected, but he is devious, seemingly unprincipled, and isn’t above shooting an adversary in the back. Best illustrating Remly’s take on the world is the opening of Chapter 10:
“Reality is negotiable, or so Remly was given to understand his first week on the Campus in Virginia. By the time he retired and moved to Las Vegas he concluded that reality was merely optional, and Vegas did nothing to disabuse him of the idea.”
Similarly betrayed, two old men on the team—retired from the upper echelons of the nameless intell agency in Virginia—were denied follow-on consultancy contracts because they refused to drink the Koolaid coming from inside the Beltway. One of them—an amateur magician—has a bit of a drinking problem … Leopold Gourmel cognac, not Koolaid. The other—a cranky old black-ops and regime-change specialist— has spinal disc damage and needs a walker to get around.
Another intelligence operative, described as being “a little light in his loafers,” was fired because of his sexual orientation, despite Remly’s defense of him. Then there’s a voodooman—an electronics genius also retired from the agency—who verges on a paranoid breakdown toward the end, when he’s strung out on sleep deprivation and gets wired on uppers. Rounding out the group are three sociopathic thugs from South Boston—”Neanderthals” the voodooman calls them—recruited for their black-bag skills.
Obviously, this is not a team of super-heroes.
Complicating Remly’s task are the alliances that Ashor forms with K Street lobbyists, pols on the Hill, and a cabal within the agency in Virginia – thus turning Virginia, which should be resisting Ashor, against Remly’s team. And so The Last Days of Las Vegas is as much a political thriller as it is an espionage caper.
Remly’s adversaries are equally complex and dysfunctional. Ashor is a loving husband, father, and grandfather who decides to nuke Las Vegas without a moment’s hesitation. The coördinator of the strike against Vegas is a pious, one-time Dzerzhinsky Square black-arts cadet, rumored to have chosen the Service over the Seminary on the flip of a coin, his piety no obstacle to his job of bringing death and disaster to thousands of people. Then there’s a flashy Crimean remote-control assassin, another Dzerzhinsky Square cadet, who trolls the vodka bars of Moscow in his Student Prince parade-ground uniform looking for casual sex. And an Iraqi pilot with little if any religious conviction, driven to this suicide mission by a military strike against his family at a wedding party.
The important conflict in The Last Days of Las Vegas doesn’t come from people shooting each other. Oh, there are gunfights and bombings and whole buildings destroyed, and all sorts of similar derring-do, but the real conflict comes from people trying to overcome one another through a sort-of mental kung fu— each trying to bring down his adversary with ideas and working deviously to sandbag the other’s emotions —something at which Remly excels. He likes to think of it as “manipulative empathy.” (Some might call it “mind ****ing” – though you and I and Remly never would!)
Roy Hayes is the author of The Hungarian Game, which sold just under 520,000 copies in 6 languages worldwide.