Up Country


By Nelson DeMille

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“Much more than a blood-and-guts thriller…An insightful, moving, and sensitive look at what the war did to a country, its people, and its enemies.” – Orlando Sentinel

Former army homicide investigator Paul Brenner has just gotten used to the early retirement forced on him after the disastrous end of his last case when his old commanding officer asks him to return for one final mission: investigate a murder that took place in wartime Vietnam thirty years before. Brenner reluctantly accepts out of curiosity and loyalty…and maybe a touch of boredom. He won’t be bored for long.

Back in Vietnam, Brenner meets expatriate Susan Weber, a woman as exotic, sensual, and dangerous as the nation of her voluntary exile. Brenner is plunged into a world of corruption, lethal double cross, and haunted memories-as he’s suddenly thrust back into a war that neither he nor his country ever really stopped fighting.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of The Panther

A Preview of The Quest


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Author's Note

Contemporary Vietnam, as represented in this book, is based partly on my experiences of January and February 1997, when I returned to Vietnam after a twenty-nine-year absence. Places such as restaurants, hotels, the former United States embassy, and other locales were in existence and as described as of 1997, which is the time period of this story.

Truth exists; only falsehood has to be invented.


Washington, D.C.


Bad things come in threes.

The first bad thing was a voice mail from Cynthia Sunhill, my former partner in the army's Criminal Investigation Division. Cynthia is still with the CID, and she is also my significant other, though we were having some difficulties with that job description.

The message said, "Paul, I need to talk to you. Call me tonight, no matter how late. I just got called on a case, and I have to leave tomorrow morning. We need to talk."

"Okay." I looked at the mantel clock in my small den. It was just 10 P.M., or twenty-two hundred hours, as I used to say when I was in the army not so long ago.

I live in a stone farmhouse outside Falls Church, Virginia, less than a half-hour drive to CID Headquarters. The commute time is actually irrelevant because I don't work for the CID any longer. In fact, I don't work for anyone. I'm retired, or maybe fired.

In any case, it had been about six months since my separation from the army, and I was getting bored, and I had twenty or thirty years to go.

As for Ms. Sunhill, she was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, about a fourteen-hour drive from Falls Church, or twelve if I'm very excited. Her caseload is heavy, and weekends in the army are often normal duty days. The last six months had not been easy on our relatively new relationship, and with her interesting career and my growing addiction to afternoon talk shows, we don't have a lot to talk about.

Anyway, bad thing number two. I checked my e-mail, and there was a message that said simply, 1600 hrs, tomorrow, the Wall. It was signed, K.

K is Colonel Karl Hellmann, my former boss at Headquarters, and Cynthia's present commanding officer. That much was clear. What wasn't clear was why Hellmann wanted to meet me at the Vietnam War Memorial. But instinctively, I put this under the category of "bad things."

I considered several equally terse replies, none of them very positive. Of course, I didn't have to respond at all; I was retired. But, in contrast to civilian careers, a military career does not completely end. The expression is, "Once an officer, always an officer." And I had been a warrant officer by rank, and a criminal investigator by occupation.

Fact is, they still have some kind of legal hold on you, though I'm not really sure what it is. If nothing else, they can screw up your PX privileges for a year.

I stared at Karl's message again and noticed it was addressed to Mr. Brenner. Warrant officers are addressed as Mister, so this salutation was a reminder of my past—or perhaps present—army rank, not a celebration of my civilian status. Karl is not subtle. I held off on my reply.

And, last but not least, the third bad thing. I'd apparently forgotten to send in my response to my book club, and in my mail was a Danielle Steel novel. Should I return it? Or give it to my mother next Christmas? Maybe she had a birthday coming up.

Okay, I couldn't postpone the Cynthia call any longer, so I sat at my desk and dialed. I looked out the window as the phone rang at the other end. It was a cold January night in northern Virginia, and a light snow was falling.

Cynthia answered, "Hello."

"Hi," I said.

A half-second of silence, then, "Hi, Paul. How are you?"

We were off on the wrong foot already, so I said, "Let's cut to the chase, Cynthia."

She hesitated, then said, "Well… Can I first ask you how your day was?"

"I had a great day. An old mess sergeant gave me his recipe for chili—I didn't realize it fed two hundred, and I made it all. I froze it in Ziploc bags. I'll send you some. Then I went to the gym, played a basketball game against a wheelchair team—beat them big time—then off to the local tavern for beer and hamburgers with the boys. How about your day?"

"Well… I just wrapped up the rape case I told you about. But instead of time off, I have to go to Fort Rucker for a sexual harassment investigation, which looks tricky. I'll be there until it's concluded. Maybe a few weeks. I'll be in Bachelor Officers Quarters if you want to call me."

I didn't reply.

She said, "Hey, I still think about Christmas."

"Me, too." That was a month ago, and I hadn't seen her since. "How's Easter look?"

"You know, Paul… you could move here."

"But you could be reassigned anytime. Then I'd wind up following your career moves. Didn't we discuss this?"

"Yes, but…"

"I like it here. You could get stationed here."

"Is that an offer?"

Whoops. I replied, "It would be good for your career. Headquarters."

"Let me worry about my career. And I really don't want a staff job. I'm an investigator. Just like you were. I want to go where I can be useful."

I said, "Well, I can't be following you around like a puppy dog, or hanging around your apartment when you're away on assignment. It's not good for my ego."

"You could get a job here in law enforcement."

"I'm working on that. Here in Virginia."

And so on. It's tough when the guy's not working and the woman has a traveling career. To make matters worse, the army likes to change your permanent duty station as soon as you're comfortable, which calls into question the army's definition of permanent. On top of that, there are a lot of temporary duty assignments these days—places like Bosnia, Somalia, South America—where you could be gone for up to a year, which pushes the definition of temporary. Bottom line, Cynthia and I were what's called these days GU—geographically unsuitable.

The military, as I've always said, is tough on relationships; it's not a job, it's a calling, a commitment that makes other commitments really difficult. Sometimes impossible.

"Are you there?" she asked.

"I'm here."

"We can't go on like this, Paul. It hurts."

"I know."

"What should we do?"

I think she was willing to resign and forfeit a lot of her pension, in exchange for the M word. Then we'd decide where to live, find jobs, and live happily ever after. And why not? We were in love.


"Yeah… I'm thinking."

"You should have already thought about all of this."

"Right. Look, I think we should talk about this in person. Face-to-face."

"The only thing we do face-to-face is fuck."

"That's not… well, we'll talk over dinner. In a restaurant."

"Okay. I'll call you when I get back from Rucker. I'll come there, or you come here."

"Okay. Hey, how's your divorce coming?"

"It's almost final."

"Good." Regarding her loving husband, I asked, "Do you see much of Major Nut Case?"

"Not much. At the O Club once in a while. Can't avoid those situations."

"Does he still want you back?"

"Don't try to complicate a simple situation."

"I'm not. I'm just concerned that he might try to kill me again."

"He never tried to kill you, Paul."

"I must have misinterpreted his reason for pointing a loaded pistol at me."

"Can we change the subject?"

"Sure. Hey, do you read Danielle Steel?"

"No, why?"

"I bought her latest book. I'll send it to you."

"Maybe your mother would like it. It's her birthday, February 10. Don't forget."

"I have it memorized. By the way, I got an e-mail from Karl. He wants to meet me tomorrow."


"I thought maybe you knew."

"No, I don't," she said. "Maybe he just wants to have a drink, talk about old times."

"He wants me to meet him at the Vietnam Memorial."

"Really? That's odd."

"Yeah. And he never mentioned anything to you?"

"No," she replied. "Why should he?"

"I don't know. I can't figure out what he's up to."

"Why do you think he's up to anything? You two worked together for years. He likes you."

"No, he doesn't," I said. "He hates me."

"He does not hate you. But you're a difficult man to work with. Actually, you're difficult to love."

"My mother loves me."

"You should re-check that. Regarding Karl, he respects you, and he knows just how brilliant you are. He either needs some advice, or he needs some information about an old case."

"Why the Wall?"

"Well… I don't know. You'll find out when you meet him."

"It's cold here. How's it there?"


"It's snowing here."

"Be careful driving."

"Yeah." We both stayed silent for a while, during which time I thought of our history. We'd met at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. She was engaged to Major What's-His-Name, a Special Forces guy, we got involved, he got pissed, pulled the aforementioned gun on me, I backed off, they got married, and a year later Cynthia and I bumped into each other again.

It was in the Officers Club at Fort Hadley, Georgia, and we were both on assignment. I was undercover, investigating the theft and sale of army weapons, she was wrapping up a rape case. That's her specialty. Sexual crimes. I'd rather be in combat again than have that job. But someone's got to do it, and she's good at it. More important, she can compartmentalize, and she seems to be unaffected by her work, though sometimes I wonder.

But back to Fort Hadley, last summer. While we were both there, the post commander's daughter, Captain Ann Campbell, was found on a rifle range, staked out, naked, strangled, and apparently raped. So, I'm asked to drop my little arms deal case, and Cynthia is asked to assist me. We solved the murder case, then tried to solve our own case, which is proving more difficult. At least she got rid of Major Nut Job.

"Paul, why don't we put this on hold until we can meet? Is that okay?"

"Sounds okay." In fact, it was my suggestion. But why point that out? "Good idea."

"We both need to think about how much we have to give up and how much we stand to gain."

"Did you rehearse that line?"

"Yes. But it's true. Look, I love you—"

"And I love you."

"I know. That's why this is difficult." Neither of us spoke for a while, then she said, "I'm younger than you—"

"But I'm more immature."

"Please shut up. And I like what I do, I like my life, my career, my independence. But… I'd give it up if I thought…"

"I hear you. That's a big responsibility for me."

"I'm not pressuring you, Paul. I'm not even sure I want what I think I want."

I'm a bright guy, but I get confused when I talk to women. Rather than ask for a clarification, I said, "I understand."

"Do you?"

"Absolutely." Totally clueless.

"Do you miss me?"

"Every day," I said.

"I miss you. I really do. I'm looking forward to seeing you again. I'll take some leave time. I promise."

"I'll take some leave time, too."

"You're not working."

"Right. But if I was, I'd take a leave to be with you. I'll come to you this time. It's warmer there."

"Okay. That would be nice."

"You like chili?"


"I thought you liked chili. Okay, good luck with the case. Give me a day's notice, and I'll be there."

"It'll be about two weeks. Maybe three. I'll let you know when I get into the case."


"Say hello to Karl for me. Let me know what he wanted."

"Maybe he wants to tell me about his alien abduction."

She laughed.

So, just as we were about to end on a happy note, she said, "You know, Paul, you didn't have to resign."

"Is that a fact?" The case of the general's daughter had been trouble from minute one, a political, emotional, and professional minefield, and I stepped right into it. I would have been better off not solving the case because the solution turned out to be about things no one wanted to know. I said to Cynthia, "A letter of reprimand in my file is the army's way of saying, 'Call your pension officer.' A little subtle, perhaps, but—"

"I think you misinterpreted what was happening. You were scolded, you got all huffy, and you acted impulsively because your ego was bruised."

"Is that so? Well, thank you for informing me that I threw away a thirty-year career because I had a temper tantrum."

"You should come to terms with that. I'll tell you something else—unless you find something equally important and challenging to do, you're going to get depressed—"

"I'm depressed now. You just made me depressed. Thanks."

"Sorry, but I know you. You were not as burned out as you thought you were. The Campbell case just got to you. That's okay. It got to everyone. Even me. It was the saddest, most depressing case—"

"I don't want to talk about that."

"Okay. But what you needed was a thirty-day leave, not a permanent vacation. You're still young—"

"You're younger."

"You've got a lot of energy left, a lot to give, but you need to write a second act, Paul."

"Thank you. I'm exploring my options." It had gotten noticeably cooler in the room and on the phone.

"Are you angry?"

"No. If you were here, you'd see me smiling. I'm smiling."

"Well, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't be saying these things."

"I'm still smiling."

"See you in a few weeks." She said, "Take care of yourself."

"You, too."

Silence, then, "Good night."


We both hung up. I stood, went to the bar, and made a drink. Scotch, splash of soda, ice.

I sat in my den, my feet on the desk, watching the snow outside. The Scotch smelled good.

So, there I was with a Danielle Steel novel on my desk, an unpleasant phone call still ringing in my ears, and an ominous message from Karl Hellmann on my computer screen.

Sometimes things that seem unconnected are actually part of a larger plan. Not your plan, to be sure, but someone else's plan. I was supposed to believe that Karl and Cynthia were not talking about me, but Mrs. Brenner didn't raise an idiot.

I should be pissed off when people underestimate my intelligence, though in truth, I affect a certain macho idiocy that encourages people to underestimate my brilliance. I've put a lot of people in jail that way.

I looked at the message again. 1600 hrs, tomorrow, the Wall. Not even "please." Colonel Karl Gustav Hellmann can be a bit arrogant. He's German-born, as the name suggests, whereas Paul Xavier Brenner is a typical Irish lad, from South Boston, charmingly irresponsible, and delightfully smart-assed. Herr Hellmann is quite the opposite. Yet, on some strange level, we got along. He was a good commander, strict but fair, and highly motivated. I just never trusted his motives.

Anyway, I sat up and banged out an e-mail to Karl: See you there and then. I signed it, Paul Brenner, PFC, which, in this case, did not mean Private First Class, but meant, as Karl and I both knew, Private F-ing Civilian.



It was three o'clock, and I was at the National Mall, a park in Washington, D.C., a rectangular strip of grass and trees, running from the U.S. Capitol in the east to the Lincoln Memorial in the west, a distance of about two miles.

The Mall is a good place to jog, with nice vistas, so rather than waste a trip into the city just to see Karl Hellmann, I came dressed in a sweat suit and running shoes, and I wore a knit cap pulled over my ears.

I began my run around the Capitol reflecting pool and paced myself to arrive at the Wall at the appointed hour of 4 P.M., my time, 1600 hours, Karl's time.

It was cold, but the sun was still above the horizon, and there was no wind. The trees were all bare, and the grass was dusted with last night's snow.

I set off at a good pace, keeping to the south side of the Mall, past the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian, and other museums in between.

This is, as I said, officially a park, but it's also where everyone wants to erect something important; monuments, museums, memorials, and statues, and if this marble mania keeps up, the Mall will someday resemble the Roman Forum, packed full of temples to this and that. I'm not being judgmental—important people and events need a memorial or a monument. I've got my memorial: the Wall. It's a very good memorial because it doesn't have my name on it.

The sun was lower, the shadows were longer, and it was very still and quiet, except for the snow crunching under my feet.

I glanced at my watch and saw it was ten minutes to the appointed hour. Herr Hellmann, like many of his ethnic group, is fanatical about punctuality. I mean, I don't like to generalize about races, religions, and all that, but the Irish and the Germans don't share the same concept of time.

I picked up my pace and headed north around the reflecting pool. My butt was starting to drag, and the cold air was making my lungs ache.

As I crossed the landscape of Constitution Gardens, the Vietnam Women's Memorial statues came into view: three nurses clad in jungle fatigues, around some wounded guy I couldn't yet see.

About a hundred yards farther toward the Wall was the statue of the three servicemen—three bronze guys in jungle fatigues near a flagstaff.

Beyond the two groupings of bronze statues was the black wall itself, highly contrasted against the white snow.

The Wall is probably the most visited monument in Washington, but there weren't many people around on this cold weekday. As I got closer, I had the sense that the people who were there, staring hard at the Wall, were people who needed to be there.

A solitary man stood out from the sparse crowd; it was Colonel Karl Hellmann, dressed in a civilian trench coat, wearing a snap-brim hat, and, of course, looking at his watch, probably mumbling to himself in his slightly accented English, "Vhere is dis guy?"

I slowed my pace so as not to alarm my former boss with the sight of me running full tilt toward him, and when I was on the path that runs parallel to the Wall, about twenty yards from Herr Hellmann, a church bell chimed somewhere, then a second chime, and a third. I slowed to a walk and came up behind Karl Gustav Hellmann, just as the fourth bell chimed the hour.

He sensed my presence, or perhaps saw me in the reflection of the black wall, and without turning, he said, "Hello, Paul."

He seemed delighted to see me—or sense me—though you couldn't tell how thrilled he was. If nothing else, I was right on time, and this puts him in a good mood.

I didn't reply to his greeting, and we both stood, side by side, looking at the Wall. I really wanted to walk off the run, but I remained standing, trying to catch my breath, clouds of fog coming out of my nostrils like a horse, and the sweat starting to get cold on my face.

So, we stood there, silently getting to know each other again after a six-month separation, sort of like dogs sniffing each other to see who's top dog.

I noticed that the section of the Wall before which we were standing was marked 1968. This is the largest expanse of the Wall, 1968 being the unhappy year of the highest American casualties: the Tet Offensive, the Siege of Khe Sanh, the Battle of the A Shau Valley, and other lesser-known but no less terrifying engagements. Karl Hellmann, like me, was there in 1968, and he knew of some of these places and events firsthand.

The homefront wasn't so terrific in 1968 either: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the campus riots, the urban riots, and so forth. Bad year all around. I understood why Hellmann had put himself in front of 1968, though I didn't understand why we were here in the first place. But, old army guy that I am, I never speak to a superior officer until spoken to. Sometimes not even after I'm spoken to, like now. For all I gave a shit, we could stand there in complete silence until midnight.

Finally, Karl said, "Thank you for coming."

I replied, "It sounded like an order."

"But you're retired."

"Actually, I resigned."

"I don't care what you did. I made it a retirement. That's much more pleasant for everyone."

"I really wanted to resign."

"Then we couldn't have had that nice party—the one where you read your letter of reprimand to everyone."

"You asked me to say a few words."

Hellmann didn't respond, but said, "So, you look very fit."

"I should. I've been jogging all over Washington, meeting people at monuments. You're the third today."

Hellmann lit a cigarette and observed, "Your sarcasm and bad sense of humor haven't changed."

"Good. So, if I may ask, what's up?"

"First, we need to exchange pleasantries and news. How have you been?"

"Terrific. Catching up on a lot of reading. Hey, do you read Danielle Steel?"


"I'm going to send you a book. You like chili?"

Hellmann drew on his cigarette, probably wondering what possessed him to contact me.

"Let me ask you, Paul, do you think you've been unfairly treated by the army?"

"No more so than a few million other guys, Colonel."

"I think the pleasantries are finished."


"Two administrative things. First, your letter of reprimand. This can be removed from your file. Second, your retirement pay. This can be computed differently, which could be a considerable amount of money over your expected life span."

"Actually, my expected life span got longer when I left the army, so the smaller amount works out okay."

"Do you want to know more about these two items?"

"No. I smell trouble."

So, we both stood there in the cold, sniffing the air, thinking five or six moves ahead. I'm good at this, but Karl is better. He's not quite as bright as I am, certainly not as glib, but he thinks deep and long.

I actually like the guy. I really do. In fact, to be honest, I was a little hurt when I never heard from him. Maybe he was annoyed over my silliness at the retirement party. I'd had a couple, but I vaguely remember doing an impression of a Prussian field marshal named, I think, von Hellmann.

Finally, Karl said, "There is a name on this wall of a man who was not killed in action. A man, who was, in fact, murdered."

I did not reply to that startling statement.

Karl asked me, "How many men do you know on this wall?"

I stayed silent for a moment, then replied, "Too many." I asked him, "How many guys do you know here?"

"The same. You had two tours of duty in Vietnam. Correct?"

"Correct. The '68 tour, then again in '72, but by that time, I was an MP, and most of my fighting was with drunken soldiers outside Bien Hoa Airbase."

"But the first time… you were a frontline infantryman… You saw a good deal of combat. Did you enjoy it?"

This is the kind of question that only combat veterans could understand. It occurred to me that in all the years I've known Karl, we never spoke much about our combat experiences. This is not unusual. I looked at him and said, "It was the ultimate high. The first few times. Then… I became used to it, accepted it as the norm… then, in the last few months before I went home, I got very paranoid, like they were trying to kill me personally, like they weren't going to let me go home. I don't think I slept the last two months in-country." We made eye contact.

Karl nodded. "That was my experience as well." He stepped closer to the Wall, focusing on individual names. "We were young then, Paul. These men are forever young." He touched one of the names. "I knew this man."

Hellmann seemed unusually pensive, almost morose. I guess it had something to do with where we were, the season, the twilight and all that. I wasn't particularly chipper myself.

He took out a gold cigarette case and matching lighter. "Would you like one?"

"No, thanks. You just had one."

He ignored me, the way smokers do, and lit up another.

Karl Gustav Hellmann. I didn't know much about his personal life, but I knew that he grew up in the ruins of postwar Germany. I've known a few other German-American soldiers over the years, and they were mostly officers, and mostly retired by now. The usual biography of these galvanized Yankees was that they were fatherless or orphaned, and they did chores for the American Army of Occupation to survive. At eighteen, they enlisted in the U.S. Army at some military post in Germany, as a way out of the squalor of the defeated nation. There were a good number of such men in the army once, and Karl was probably one of the last.

I wasn't sure how much of this specific biography applied to Karl Hellmann, but he must be very close to mandatory retirement, unless there was a general's star in his immediate future, in which case he could stay on. I had the thought that this meeting had something to do with that.

He said to me, or maybe to himself, "It's been a long time. Yet sometimes it seems like yesterday." He looked at the Wall, then at me. "Do you agree?"


On Sale
Nov 6, 2007
Page Count
736 pages

Nelson DeMille

About the Author

Nelson DeMille is a former U.S. Army lieutenant who served in Vietnam and is the author of nineteen acclaimed novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers Night Fall, Plum Island, The Gate House, The Lion, The Panther and Radiant Angel. His other New York Times bestsellers include The Charm School, Word of Honor, The Gold Coast, Spencerville, The Lion’s Game, Up Country, Wild Fire, and The General’s Daughter, the last of which was a major motion picture.

Learn more about this author