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Scott McKay


NextImg:The Pepper-Pot President: King of the Jungle, Episode 3

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of Scott McKay’s new novel, King of the Jungle, which is being released exclusively at The American Spectator in 10 episodes each weekend in February, March, and early April, before its full publication on Amazon later this spring.

So far in the story, our narrator Mike Holman, an independent media man and podcaster, has just agreed to write a biography and work as a public-relations consultant with his friend and old college roommate, the billionaire industrialist Pierce Polk — only to find that Polk has built a small city in the jungles of Guyana as a redoubt away from the corrupt Joe Deadhorse administration back home in America.

Holman visits Liberty Point, Polk’s sanctuary under construction, and then joins him in Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, for a meeting with the country’s president…

April 30, 2024, Georgetown, Guyana

Mathilda took me up the elevator to the top floor of the Marriott, and there I found the presidential suite.

Which really was the presidential suite, of sorts, because apparently it was permanently rented out for the president.

And when we arrived, I met a pot-bellied little guy with a droopy face wearing a seersucker suit and — I’m not kidding — a sash draped across his body from one shoulder.

“Mike Holman,” said Pierce, “this is President Mahandas Ishgan.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Holman,” Ishgan said. “I’m a fan.”

“That’s quite a compliment, sir,” I said. “I had no idea my little podcast had an audience all the way down here.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Yes, indeed.”

I knew he was lying. He was a politician, after all. But as lying politicians went, he was one of the most polite.

“Shall we adjourn to the dining area?” asked Ishgan. “We’ve much to discuss.”

“Of course,” said Pierce. “But wait. Don’t we have one more coming?”

“We do,” said Ishgan, rolling his eyes. “The Prime Minister will be here … when he gets here. We can begin without him.”

“The Prime Minister and the President are political enemies,” Polk explained. “It’s fun watching them hate on each other.”

“He was once President,” said Ishgan. “He was removed in a corruption scandal. But he’s in the middle of a comeback and he’ll run against me in the next election.”

“Then why is he invited to this meeting?” I said as we sat down at the dining table set out on a large balcony covered by an awning. A couple of servers brought glasses of beer and chilled shrimp with a red sauce.

Ishgan looked at Pierce.

“It’s Banks Beer,” Pierce said. “Stuff is terrific. It’s becoming my favorite.”

“So Pierce invited your PM,” I chuckled. “Always ask for forgiveness rather than permission, right Pierce?”

“The things we’re going to talk about, everybody in Guyana will need to be engaged in them,” he said. “It’s only fair.”

Just then an elegant, but quite old, bald-headed man with a caramel complexion and a thin gray moustache made his way to the table.

“I apologize for my tardiness,” he said as we all stood. “You must be Mr. Holman. It is nice to meet you, Sir. I am Moses Jaganoo.”

I shook his hand and then we all sat down. Ishgan was glaring at Jaganoo, who was ignoring the politician who was, at least nominally, his boss.

Gonna be one hell of an election, I thought to myself.

“Your meeting, Mr. Polk,” said Ishgan.

“All right,” Pierce said. “Listen, first of all, I should explain that Mike is here as an advisor. His company is consulting with Sentinel Holdings about our public relations, but he’s also probably the smartest guy in the room and I want him to give us something of an outside opinion about what we’re going to discuss. Are you guys OK with that?”

“Naturally,” said Ishgan. Jaganoo waved his hand in acquiescence.

“Then fine. So as you’ve likely heard by now, I’m going to set up residence as a Guyanese pretty much permanently owing to the…”

“Outrageous,” said Jaganoo.

“I must believe it will be sorted out in time,” said Ishgan. “You surely have access to the finest legal counsel.”

“You’d think so,” said Pierce. “But something interesting is happening, which is that we’re finding ourselves being turned down by a lot of the big New York law firms. It seems they’ve put the word out that I’m untouchable. And not in a good way.”

“Well, that’s news,” I said.

“I’ll find somebody,” said Pierce. “But it seems like I’m not in very good odor with the people who run my country at the moment.”

“Again, outrageous,” said Jaganoo.

“I believe we can get our parliament to extend Guyanese citizenship to any of your men and their families who desire it,” said Ishgan. “We would be delighted to have you.”

“Given the contributions Sentinel has already made and will be making to our economy,” said Jaganoo. Ishgan nodded enthusiastically.

Pierce shot me a sideways look, and it dawned on me at that point that he’d bribed the shit out of both of these guys.

“So the thought is this,” said Pierce. “Mike, what do you think of us putting up a website that would process applications for Guyanese citizenship to any American who wants to come and then advertising it on independent media all over the country?”

“Depends,” I said. “Who and how many are you looking for?”

“We’ve got room for 10,000 at Liberty Point right now,” he said, “or at least we’ll have it inside of six weeks or so. Construction’s going really well. Better than we expected when you were last down here.”

“I imagine you’re going to want folks who are, sort of, hardier souls,” I said.

“You’ve got to be outdoorsy to really enjoy Liberty Point,” Pierce said. “These guys are gonna be hunters, gun owners and, we hope, military vets.”

“Venezuela,” I said. “Are you still thinking they’re not coming?”

“The threat is not diminishing,” said Ishgan.

“Which is why we’re going to need to get Guyana caught up,” said Pierce.

“Meaning weapons?”

“We have no air defense capability,” said Jaganoo. “And our naval capacity is quite meager.”

“OK, let me get my head around this,” I said, “because I’ve not done my research on this situation. The Venezuelans want to annex Essequibo, which is, what? The western two-thirds of the country?”

“That’s correct,” said Jaganoo. “They would have everything west of the Essequibo River.”

“So across the river from here would be Venezuela, or … no, that’s wrong.”

“That is the Demerara River,” said Ishgan, pointing out of the window to the mouth of the river just west of the hotel. “The Essequibo is not far to the west of here, though.”

“OK. And if they came, they’d be rolling tanks in?”

“Helicopters,” Pierce said.

“It’s all jungle in Essequibo,” said Ishgan. “There are very few roads. In fact, there are no roads from Guyana to Venezuela other than the one which runs south through Brazil.”

“So they’d be air-dropping troops in.”

“And it’s likely a naval invasion,” said Jaganoo. “They would bring troops on boats along the Atlantic coast and into the Essequibo and land along the western shore.”

I nodded.

“I’m not a military expert,” I said, “but I’ve covered a few conflicts. It would seem like they’d turn this place into a very nasty battlefield.”

“We are poorly poised for defense,” Ishgan said.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “There is no way Venezuela invades here without drawing the U.S. in. Right? Isn’t that what’s stopping them?”

“They don’t fear American involvement,” said Jaganoo.

“They don’t think it’s coming, Mike,” said Pierce.

“That’s insane,” I said. “Doesn’t Exoil have a pretty massive drilling complex off the coast?”

“We’re going to meet Exoil’s guy running their operations here later today,” said Pierce.

“Yeah, but the Navy would shut down any move they’d make on Exoil’s assets, right?”

“They didn’t when the Venezuelans nationalized all of their assets in that country about 10 years ago.”

“Yeah, but this is an actual invasion of another country,” I said. “If Deadhorse and his gang would throw a hundred billion dollars into stopping the Russians in Ukraine, they’d have to help here.”

“We’ve received no guarantees,” said Ishgan. “In fact, your State Department is telling us that it is not confident that the legalities of the 1899 treaty are fully sustainable.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“The border between our two countries were established in negotiations between Great Britain, Russia and the United States,” said Jaganoo. “The British negotiated on behalf of Guyana while the Americans negotiated on behalf of Venezuela, with Russia as the intermediary. The Venezuelans have long since complained that your country sold them out.”

“Did we?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” said Pierce, “or at least it shouldn’t. The reality is that Guyana is a free country and Venezuela is a communist dictatorship. And this is right in our back yard.”

“Hmmm. Wait, I remember reading not long ago that you guys were doing joint exercises with the Air Force, or the Marines, or somebody.”

“We did,” said Ishgan. “But in the last month, it seems that American cooperation has simply evaporated.”

“That’s concerning.”

“So the plan is, we need to make this the hardest target we can,” Pierce said. “That’s why Sentinel Security is busy recruiting.”

“Mercenaries?”

“And we’ve opened up procurement offices in Belgium and Colombia,” he said, nodding. “MANPADs, small arms, mortars, artillery, choppers where we can. Plus the Argentines are kicking in with a bunch of their surplus gear.”

“How soon is this invasion coming?” I asked.

“We do not have a military intelligence capability,” said Ishgan. “We do not know for certain.”

I looked at Pierce, who smiled.

“They’re training troops just across the border,” Pierce said. “We’ve got a satellite kicking down real-time imagery.”

It struck me that Pierce had more or less assumed control of the country. Ishgan and Jaganoo might have been nice guys, but clearly neither one of them had the first idea how to handle any of this, and they were both looking at Pierce with every question.

Maybe as a means of keeping from looking at each other.

“When it comes, if it comes,” Pierce said, “it’s going to be helicopters dropping troops in villages all around west of the Essequibo. We need to be able to shoot them down, so we’re trying to get trained shooters placed in all those places. And…”

“Wait,” I said. “Mr. President, do you have a general in command of your army? And is he going to join this meeting, or…”

Ishgan gave me a look I couldn’t discern.

“There’s concern Brigadier Darke is, er, compromised,” Jaganoo said. “As such, our strategic discussions are being held at a level above his pay grade.”

“Perhaps you should do more than that,” I said. “Compromised how?”

“China,” said Jaganoo. “And perhaps Venezuela as well.”

“I don’t understand.”

“China is behind all of this,” said Pierce. “They want Essequibo, and they’ve already bought Venezuela to get it.”

“And Brigadier Darke is bought off?”

“I don’t know,” said Pierce.

I looked at Ishgan, who was stone-faced. I got the impression he didn’t want to say anything in front of Jaganoo.

“It’s going to take some time to figure out who the patriots are,” said Pierce. “I’m sure we have some in this room.”

I noticed a very uncomfortable look coming from Jaganoo. Ishgan noticed it as well, and I think he noticed me noticing it, because he gave me a glance that said more than if he’d talked to me for a month.

Lunch came, and for the first time in a while I noticed that Pierce wasn’t eating steak. Instead, we were eating bowls of pepper pot, which I was told was the national Guyanese dish. It was a thick, dark stew with chunks of mutton and a variety of peppers. I thought I was going to have a heart attack over the spice.

“It’s pretty potent,” I said, downing the rest of my beer after the first bite.

“You’ll get used to it,” said Pierce. “This has some cinnamon and nutmeg in it? Fantastic!”

Ishgan agreed, slurping happily from his bowl.

The meal ended, and then the conversation turned to a host of economic projects that Pierce was initiating. He’d bought a small port facility in Georgetown just upriver from the Baker Hughes plant that was servicing the offshore rigs and that was going to be Sentinel Port Management’s facility until he could build the bigger port across the river that he’d planned. He said Liberty Point was going to be the site of a sizable network security hub and server farm. There was the Sentinel Construction facility upriver from where we were. They talked about the mall he was building. And he was snapping up real estate all over the country. Ishgan and Jaganoo were like a couple of fan-boys letting him run the meeting; I noticed about an hour later that neither had objected to anything he said.

“Well, fellas,” Pierce finally said, “I know I’ve monopolized your time this afternoon, and for that I’m sorry.”

“That’s quite all right,” Jaganoo said.

“A pleasure,” said Ishgan.

Then the president invited Pierce to address the parliament the next day. He thanked him for that, and then he essentially dismissed Ishgan and Jaganoo.

“Thanks, guys,” he said. “Let’s reconvene tomorrow. I’ll give that speech before I head back to Liberty Point.”

And at that they both shot up from the table and made their way out.

Then Pierce and I were alone.

“You’re a lot further along here than I expected,” I said.

“I’m an idiot, is what I am,” said Pierce. “Here I figured that this would be a great investment — it’s a free country, the locals are cooperative as hell…”

“For sale cheap, you mean.”

“Well yes, but it’s more than that. They like investment and they aren’t communists. You grease the wheels for ‘em, yes, but they’re actually interested in growing this place. And they know they have no idea what they’re doing.”

“What about this Ishgan versus Jaganoo thing?”

“Yeah, they hate each other and they’re going to run against each other next year. It doesn’t really matter who wins from our perspective.”

“You’ve got them both on the payroll.”

“I learned my lesson back in the States. If I’d been smart, I would have played both sides against the middle rather than going to war with Omobba, as disgusting as the thought of throwing in with communists is. I’m not making that mistake again down here.”

“So how do you keep the Venezuelans out?”

“I have no idea at this point. It’s like I said: it’s all China. The Chinese are in all those villages paying off Indian tribes, buying up mines and other stuff. They’re everywhere.”

“You think Jaganoo is bought by the Chinese? I can tell Ishgan does.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Ishgan was on their take too.”

“This is a hell of a fix you’ve gotten yourself into.”

“Not to mention I’m stuck here.”

“What? The indictment?”

“I have my suspicions about that. I think that’s also China.”

“Shit, Pierce.”

“Network security? We’re the only people who can consistently stop their hackers. Port management? We’re one of the last remaining competitors to the big Chinese firms. They’re trying to stop us from that interport rail project we’re working on in southern Mexico that would kill their investment in the Panama Canal. Telecom, construction … if they could get me out of the way they’d have a hell of a nice run.”

“You think they have the Southern District of New York?”

“I think they have Wall Street. And Wall Street wants me down for the count so I have no choice but to take Sentinel public and go away. So it’s hardball now.”

“I imagine so. They’re going to seize your assets for sure at this point.”

“They’ll try. We’ve done a pretty good job of offshoring everything that’s liquid, and most of our domestic assets are leased, rather than owned.”

“You have cutouts?”

“Yes, I do.”

A little later, Tom Burnham, who was Exoil’s Vice President in charge of Guyana operations, paid a call at the presidential suite. He came by for a meeting with Pierce.

“So you’re the new sheriff, I see,” said Burnham to Pierce, when we were sitting at the balcony table. “Regretting your new acquisition?”

“Not yet,” Pierce said, “but who knows? How goes your effort to keep Madiera’s greasy hands off your rigs?”

“We’re in a similar boat as you,” said Burnham. “We’re here and we’re committed, and that means we’re likely screwed.”

“Seems like Madiera is aiming to un-commit you,” said Pierce.

“We took on a Chinese partner. If nothing else, when the Venezuelans come we can sell out and recoup something.”

“But the payoff,” I said. “What are you turning, a million barrels a day out there?”

“Not quite yet. It’s about half that right now. But it’ll be a lot more than that when it’s fully developed. Twelve billion barrels, is the size of the reserve we’re looking at.”

“Losing that would be a major hit,” said Pierce. “I noticed that your stock is losing altitude.”

“We’ve definitely got some exposure,” said Burnham. “Houston is under pressure to negotiate an exit, but dumping these assets at a fire sale price would be tantamount to surrendering our status as the big dog on the porch in our own hemisphere.”

“To the Chinese,” I said.

Burnham looked at me and nodded.

“And Madiera’s people are demanding that we license the whole block through their government if we want to continue producing. Which we won’t do. But it does create a problem if and when they come. They’re warning us we’ll be considered as pirates and they’ll confiscate our end of the block.”

“I can’t understand why Deadhorse isn’t standing in the way of this,” I said.

“It’s oil. His people won’t lift a finger to help an oil company,” said Burnham. “And we’ve fought off the institutional money demanding that we join the ESG cult, which makes us only slightly less objectionable than Pierce here.”

“And it’s China,” said Pierce.

“What, you think Deadhorse is bought on this?”

“All those business deals with the idiot son of his?” said Burnham. “They were energy deals.”

“All right,” Pierce said, pulling out a sheet of paper and handing it to Burnham, “Hal had me put this together for you. Try to get back to me with how much of this you guys can pull together.”

“Who’s Hal?” I asked.

“Colonel Hal Gibson, retired, United States Marine Corps, and head of security at Liberty Point,” said Pierce.

I knew who Hal Gibson was.

“And effective commander of the defense of Guyana, I assume.”

“How many has he got, Pierce?” Burnham asked.

“All told, like about 6,500. And counting.”

“That’s half again what the Guyanese have.”

Pierce nodded.

“And a hundred times the capability.”

“Pierce,” said Burnham, as he perused the document, “what kind of Navy contacts does Hal have?”

“You mean the submarines,” Pierce said.

“You’re getting a sub?” I asked.

“We’re trying.”

May 3, 2024, Liberty Point, Guyana

It turned out that while I was in Georgetown the FBI had paid a visit to Holman Media. Tom had called Morris, who in his polite, old-school way, had shooed the agents out of the office. Then he’d recommended the attorney for the company to hire — a New York ball-buster by the name of Karen Lugowski who didn’t agree with a damn thing on our websites or podcasts, but hated the feds a lot more than she disliked us.

I’d had to sign her retainer agreement via email while I was in Georgetown. I got Pierce to agree to foot her bill in person; he was in the room with me when the document arrived in my inbox. And when I came home, Karen had already flown in and was waiting in my office.

“Lookit,” she said, “as your attorney I’m going to recommend that you stay far away from Pierce Polk. He’s on the list, and you’re going to be on it as well.”

“The list? What list?”

“Enemies. People who need to have bad things happen to them. He took off down to the jungle for a reason, you know. They aren’t going to let him back in, not while this gang is in office. And now you’re part of Polk’s crew so you’re a suspect.”

“For what?”

“It doesn’t matter for what.”

“You’re a criminal defense lawyer. There has to be a charge.”

She looked at me like I was a moron.

I’d read online on the flight back that the feds had raided Pierce’s place in Telluride. It had been completely cleaned out but for a velvet painting of Elvis on the wall above the big fireplace in the den. And Pierce was not an Elvis fan, so that gives you an idea of just how much contempt he had going for these people.

I’d also read that Joe Deadhorse’s approval rating had dived to 32 percent in one poll and 28 percent in another. A major airline, which had launched a TV ad campaign touting its diversity hiring for pilots, had just had a major crash on a runway in a big midwestern city in which a pilot, promoted from flight attendant and on her maiden commercial voyage flying a Boeing 787, overshot the runway and rolled the plane. Sixty people were dead and the airline’s stock had crashed 40 percent before it was backstopped by a huge buy-in from RedGuard Capital.

“The real tragedy of this crash would be if it were to harm our commitment to diversity,” the airline’s CEO said. Less than six hours later a video of him posing naked with an alpaca made the rounds on Twitter; it had originally been posted at the OnlyFur fetish site.

The guys at the website were all over this stuff, and Billy Ray had dropped a half-dozen hilarious memes about the CEO. It struck me that we were a little close to the edge making jokes after a deadly plane crash, and I planned on saying something about that with my team.

We had a quick business meeting after I told Karen that my relationship with Pierce was a commitment made and not soon broken, and if that meant she’d be scoring with the big leaguers on fees, then so be it.

At the meeting, I noticed that my folks were all smiles. They were energized. I cautioned the group that we really did want to take the high road, or at least try to, on our coverage of current events. But it was clear nobody was hearing that.

The FBI’s visit had changed a lot of attitudes in that room. They were ready for war.

“Last week’s podcast with Polk was the top traffic-getter in the history of Rumble,” said Colby. “Site traffic is absolutely on fire. And you’ve got three of your old books in the Amazon top 20 in the American Politics category. You’re a bigger deal now than you were when you did the ANN show.”

“Ad revenues are way up, too,” said Megan. “Especially since we just nailed down three new deals — the Dodge City Steak Company, Patrick Henry Rifle, and El Dorado Boots.”

Those were pretty good accounts. Megan was beaming.

“Where’s all this coming from?” I asked. “Did something happen that I missed?”

“It’s Pierce Polk,” said Tom. “He’s rapidly turning into a folk hero. And the more they do to him the more the public is taking his side.”

Lindzey Luger, who had the early prime slot on ANN and was a hard-core partisan Democrat, had uncovered some video of Pierce at a party somewhere yukking it up with Donny Trumbull, and she’d played it while declaring this was proof there was a “right-wing conspiracy to destroy our democracy” in advance of the 2024 election.

And somebody had put a microphone in front of Trumbull, who was heading into a courthouse in Chicago where he’d been sued for defamation of some woman that he’d been acquitted of sexually assaulting two decades earlier.

Asked about the old video, Trumbull didn’t deny he knew Pierce.

“He’s a hell of a guy,” he said, “and it’s a travesty what Deadhorse and Omobba are doing to him. You know this is all Omobba, right? Deadhorse doesn’t go to the bathroom without Omobba’s say-so.”

Naturally, Trumbull saying that sparked the legacy corporate media into full outrage at the idea Deadhorse wasn’t his own man, and there were plaudits and kudos heaped on Lindzey for having uncovered the “cabal” that Trumbull and Pierce were forming to destroy our democracy.

Every time any of these people said “our democracy,” it launched Colby into a furious diatribe. “That term describes nothing we Americans recognize!” he’d sputter. “And it definitely isn’t democracy any honest person would accept!”

Boy, was Colby in high dudgeon over Lindzey Luger at our staff meeting. We all sat there smirking while the steam came out of his ears.

All of this seemed like a pretty normal Monday in 2024 to me.

Somehow, though, this media frenzy was turning me into a star. Tom told me 60 Minutes had called asking to interview me as “Pierce Polk’s last remaining link to the real world.”

“Well,” I said after the buzz around the conference table died down, “I guess the next podcast will be a big deal then.”

“What are we doing?” asked Melissa.

“We’re going to show Liberty Point to the world, and we’re going to interview the folks building it.”

“We’re OK to do that?” asked Kaylee. “Pierce is good with it? I thought it was a secret.”

“Not anymore it’s not. And you and Melissa are coming, plus we’re taking Craig Clifford and his good video camera.”

I’d wrangled Craig for the trip over the phone while flying in. That didn’t take much effort. Free-lance videographers tended to make themselves available whenever there was payment involved.

“This’ll be big,” said Tom.

“Huge,” said Colby.

Then came a depressing night alone in my house, complete with a decision that I’d sell the place and just rent an apartment somewhere for a while. My next door neighbor had just sold her three-bedroom cottage for $1.2 million, which was double what I’d paid for mine 15 years before, and I figured that was a sign I should cash out.

Besides, Buckhead was turning into a shooting gallery. A couple of days before I left for Georgetown, a couple of ballers decided to trade lead in the parking lot of the strip mall down the street. The ambulances managed to take them both to Grady before they bled out, but it was nonetheless enough to put the neighborhood on a hair-trigger.

The next morning a car picked me up and Kaylee, Melissa, Craig, yours truly and an astonishing amount of luggage were flying out of Fulton County Airport on another private jet, this one a Bombardier Challenger 3500 owned by Leighton Industries — they were the manufacturer of Sentinel Telecommunications’ satellites, and Tom Leighton had openly come out to defend Pierce and decry the feds’ efforts to prosecute him.

A few hours later, we landed at Connor Polk International Airfield in the middle of a torrential downpour. That was a little surprising given that the rainy season wasn’t supposed to start for another month. The plane taxied into a big hangar that hadn’t been there the last time I’d been to Liberty Point.

“This place is a lot nicer than I thought it would be,” said Melissa, as we descended the little jetway and made for a picnic table at the far corner where snacks were laid out and a bartender was waiting to mix us drinks.

“Oh, wait until you see the town,” I said. “You’re going to think you’re in Barcelona or Genoa. They did a great job with it.”

I noticed that the Challenger shared the hangar with a couple of planes that looked a good bit like Predator drones. I decided to file that bit of data away for later inquiry — and when Craig asked if I wanted him to film that, I shook my head.

“I’m imagining that has to do with Venezuela,” I said. “I don’t want it on my conscience if we give away any state secrets.”

“Understood,” he said.

The rain mercifully petered out while we sipped on capirinhas, and then a couple of Grand Cherokees rolled up into the hangar to fetch us.

And soon after, I noticed that the road from the airstrip into the town looked a lot different this time.

They’d landscaped it. The trees were cut quite a bit back, and somebody had planted shrubs off the shoulder of the road, I assume so as to serve as a barrier to the underbrush growing back. Plus, there were streetlights now.

“Looks like America,” said Kaylee.

“Yep,” said Craig, who had his video camera out and was shooting.

And then we passed through the big wooden gate and the girls gasped.

“I told you,” I said. “It’s got a European feel to it, dontcha think?”

“I’d say it’s like New Orleans,” said Kaylee, “but then I’ve never been to New Orleans.”

“I know it’s new,” said Melissa as we turned onto the main drag, which the newly-installed street signs identified as Sentinel Boulevard, “but it looks and feels old, like it’s been here for centuries.”

“Maybe it has been,” said Kaylee, “in a sense. And maybe Pierce just brought it out.”

“Probably unlikely, K,” I said. Melissa laughed.

“OK, OK,” Kaylee whined. “Sorry.”

A right and a left later, and our Cherokee brought us to the same building I’d stayed in on my previous trip. But it didn’t look the same; this time I noticed they’d planted trees and bushes everywhere, and there were canvas awnings set up like the tops of tents — I immediately knew those were rain shelters — at intervals on the sidewalks.

And people. Liberty Point hadn’t had nearly this many people the last time. I asked the driver, a new arrival from Chicago named Bill, if he knew what the population of the place was now.

“They announced it yesterday we just passed six thousand,” he said. “Most everybody’s here working for Sentinel Construction. There’s great money in it. So that’s why they’re all in work clothes.”

“How many are staying when the project is finished?” Kaylee asked.

“Probably everybody,” said Bill. “No taxes? No stupid government? This place is just going to grow and grow.”

We parked, and I led my little team through the same entrance to the concierge that I’d seen before.

“Welcome back to Liberty Lodge, Senor Holman,” said the pretty concierge lady that I remembered from my last trip.

“Hey, Consuela!” I said. “This is Melissa Swindell, Kaylee Russo and Craig Clifford. They’re here with me to make this place famous.”

“I heard,” she said. “Everyone here is talking about it.”

A couple of bellmen, who I found out were members of the Patamona tribe who lived a few miles away in the village of Micobie, brought us up to what was Pierce’s suite the last time I’d been in Liberty Point.

“Wait,” I said, “where’s Pierce?”

Aimu’nang Waica?” said the taller guy, whose name was Sam. “He’s at the new place.”

“What’s the new place? And Eye-moon-ang Wa-ee-ka?”

“It means White Warrior,” said Sam. “We gave him an honorary title.”

“Well, that was nice of you.”

“It was the least we could do,” said Lenny, the other guy. “He hooked up the whole village with cell service and satellite TV.”

“It sounds like he’s spoiled your pristine tribal lifestyle,” Kaylee said, half joking.

“Is this lady kidding me right now?” said Lenny, looking at me.

“Yes, she is,” I said quickly.

“OK, then,” he said, smiling at us. And Sam and Lenny set our bags down and waved goodbye as they took off.

“Kaylee,” I said, “come on.”

“Hey, I went to Dartmouth,” she said, “and I had a humanities class all about how European encroachment on native tribes is destroying their culture, and…”

“And you believed that bullshit?”

“You believe it if you want the ‘A,’” said Melissa.

“OK, well, this isn’t college. But yeah, we’ll take a ride to Micobie and Mahdia and a couple of the other places around here and you guys can see what the indigenous folks think of their culture getting destroyed.”

We got situated, then I recorded a couple of takes for an open of the podcast. I then got a message from Pierce inviting me to a meeting at his new place, which he said was a couple of blocks away along the Essequibo. I made my excuses to the rest of the team, as they were going to head out and explore Liberty Point and have Craig shoot a bunch of B-roll, and suggested that maybe we’d reconvene for dinner and go over our plans for podcast interviews we’d do the next day.

Consuela hooked me up with a golf cart ride to the new place, which she said was the Grand Waica. A little guy who said his name was Earl — he was an Arawak from Campbelltown, a few miles west — was my driver.

“Love your podcast,” he said as we took off.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “How do you even know about it?”

“Because we’re fans of everything Pierce Polk, and you’re part of that. Anything you need, you just call.”

And he gave me a business card. It said Earl Roberts, Toshao Region Eight, Construction; Mining; Communications.

“You’re a man of many talents,” I said. “Why are you driving a golf cart?”

“Because the work’s easy and Pierce pays big. I also do drywall and some plumbing, too.”

“What’s a toshao?”

“Like a town captain, or maybe a mini-mayor, I guess.”

“Got it.”

Then we pulled up to a stately five-story building that looked like a hotel, which it was. “The Grand Waica” was chiseled above the large glass revolving door, and as I hustled inside I felt like I was transported to the Drake or the Plaza.

I could see along the far wall, which was mostly glass, that some of the building laid over the Essequibo. There was a mini-marina of sorts were people could park boats in the shade of the Grand Waica.

“Pretty cool, right?” said a friendly voice. I turned, and there was Roman Jefferson, the private security guy I’d met on my last trip.

“Definitely. Hey, Roman, how’s it going?”

“Great, Mike. Just moved into my place, and my girl’s comin’ in on Monday to join me. We got a three-thousand square foot condo with a balcony up the street. But the bar here is where it’s at.”

“What exactly are you doing here?” I said. “Sorry if I’m being nosy.”

“Call it a semi-retirement. But I’m helpin’ with, ummm … contingencies.”

“Like the Venezuelans?”

“Like that.”

“Got it.”

I didn’t get the impression Roman was going to tell me more. Or that I wanted to know more.

So I found the elevator and rode it to the fifth floor, as Pierce’s text had instructed. When the door opened there was a huge guy in a tan suit waiting for me.

“Come on through, Mr. Holman,” said the guy.

He opened a door and there was Pierce, breaking off from a conversation with a group of people in a cavernous salon with windows overlooking the river. He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt with “WAICA” in a bold font on it, and he flashed me a big smile.

“Here he is!” said Pierce. “Everybody, meet Mike Holman!”

There were probably two dozen people in the room at this cocktail party, or whatever it was, and they actually started applauding. I didn’t know what to make of that.

Especially when I looked around and started recognizing some of the faces.

The two Guyanese politicos nominally in charge of the country, Ishgan and Jaganoo, were there. So was Burnham, the Exoil executive. I recognized Ravi Darke, who was Guyana’s head general, from his photo. Pierce introduced me to a guy from Raytheon and another one from General Dynamics. The Brazilian and Argentinian ambassadors were there.

And then there was Brienna Givens, the tennis player.

I knew — or I had heard — that Pierce was seeing her, or at least to the extent that people like Pierce and Brienna would “see” anybody. But I could tell this was a real thing. She was sticking to him like glue.

What a knockout she was. Easily my height, and I’m right at six feet, and athletic as hell. Brienna would have been a dead ringer for a young Elizabeth Hurley but for her lighter hair and the fact that she’s a little more masculine-looking, I guess. But wow. She’d done a lot of modeling, and she was good at it, but in the flesh Brienna was straight-up gorgeous.

At least, until she opened her mouth.

I didn’t get the idea that Brienna was all that excited to be at Liberty Point. She said in that half-reformed London cockney accent of hers that she was here because she had to be in Mexico in a few days, and that Pierce had insisted.

Then she introduced me to Sarah, her sister. Who was a little older, not as tall, not quite as glamorous, but definitely more of a willing conversationalist.

Maybe it was the fact that I’m somewhat famous, but I got the impression that Sarah was interested in me. I got that impression when, just after Brienna told her who I was, she leaned in and put her hand over my heart and said she could feel a good man was in there, deep down.

“Thanks, I guess,” I said.

She gave me a warm smile. I hadn’t gotten one like that since Ashley dumped me. At that point I was suddenly very curious about Sarah Givens.

And that was just fine with Sarah, because she was quite keen to tell me all about her exploits. She said she was a photojournalist and the director of a nonprofit called EarthChampions.

“Brienna is on the board,” Sarah said.

“Costs quite enough,” said Brienna, and then I realized that Brienna was the board of EarthChampions.

“Wait — your nonprofit is with the UN?” I asked. I remembered that there was something similar to the name that had to do with some climate change something-or-other.

“Oh, no, love,” she said. “You’re thinking of Champions of the Earth. We’re not the same.”

“Oh, you do something different?”

“We do champion the Earth,” she said.

“And how do you do that?”

“We inform the public about abuses of the ecology, air and water pollution, the climate, deforestation…”

“You’ve come to the right place, baby!” Pierce laughed. Sarah and Brienna gave him shitty looks for that.

“Don’t agitate her,” said Brienna.

“As I was saying,” Sarah said with an irritated tone, “I’m here to investigate the effect your Liberty Point is having on the rivers, the flora and fauna, and the culture of the indigenous people.”

“Interesting,” I said, thinking to myself that Sarah’s professional exploits weren’t very interesting at all.

“You know, the capitalists see pristine places like this one and insist on paving it over. I’ve seen it all over the world — Nigeria, Eritrea, Tajikistan, Vietnam…”

“Vietnam is communist, though,” said Pierce.

Sarah gave him a wicked side-eye.

“I should think this place is no different,” she said.

“Well, I’m sure you two will have lots to talk about,” Pierce said, leading Brienna off and giving me a devilish nod.

Thanks a lot, my look in response told him.

Sarah was saying that it was terrible that they’d disturbed the shore of the Potaro to build that hydroelectric power plant.

“Oh, you mean the converted land dredges along the riverfront?”

“Land dredges?”

I nodded. “Yep. They’d dug gravel pits all along the shoreline for mining purposes, and Pierce’s guys re-engineered those to set up the hydro plant.”

“Oh,” she said.

“That’s not all. There’s a gold mine upriver on the Potaro, and there was a stone quarry right at the mouth of the Potaro where it flows into the Essequibo that they filled in around to make the little marina where the Landing is.”

“It sounds as if you’ve been here before.”

“Yeah,” I said. “This hasn’t been a pristine jungle for decades. Pierce just went ahead and built a town, but all around here there’s industry. I’m not sure Liberty Point isn’t a lot more environmentally sound than the mining operations they’ve had around here for a long time.”

“It seems like you aren’t very objective about this place.”

“Are you going to interview the people?” I asked.

“That is my plan,” Sarah nodded.

“Well then let’s do that together. My team and I are recording a documentary starting tomorrow, and that was part of our plan as well.”

“Is it dangerous, then?” Brienna, who had just returned, asked. “Tooling around in the bush with the natives?”

“Oh, the ones I’ve met are perfectly docile. And quite fond of Pierce, too.”

“I’m not sure I believe that,” Sarah said.

“Well, you’ll get to see for yourself,” I said. “Brienna, do you want to go and meet the locals with us tomorrow?”

I could instantly tell that she did not.

“Pierce said something about a waterfall,” she said. “I think I’m for that instead.”

Not long after, Burnham pulled me aside.

“You guys figure out how to dump your investment in Guyana yet?” I asked him.

“Nobody knows this,” he said, “but yesterday the Venezuelans detained a supply ship as it was heading into the offshore complex. They’re now demanding that all supply boats to the rigs have to come out of Venezuela.”

“Sounds like a job for the U.S. Navy.”

“Damn right it is. Know what the Navy is doing?”

“What’s that?”

“Watching.”

“What?”

“You heard me. They’re ‘observing.’ And we’ve had lots of contact with the captain of the frigate which hangs around our complex. He isn’t happy, but his orders are not to intervene.”

“I thought the Navy was doing patrol flights over Guyana now. I thought they’d been doing that since December.”

“They were. Not anymore. Stopped 10 days ago.”

“The hell?”

“This shit is about to get out of control, Mike. The Vinnies are coming.”

“The Vinnies?”

“Yeah. That’s our nickname for the Venezuelans.”

I considered that and nodded. It fit.

“This is all fun and games here now,” Burnham was saying, “but I’m telling you, get back to Atlanta as fast as you can and stay there.”

“That’s your plan? Pull out back to Houston?”

“I don’t know what my plan is. I know that you don’t want to be here when the balloon goes up.”

Then, as quickly as he’d pigeonholed me, Burnham gave me a smile and disappeared. I mingled for a while with the rest of the swells, and then Pierce collected me for a confab in a well-appointed private room off the salon.

There, I saw that Darke and Burnham were sitting at a table with Ishgan and Jaganoo. And an old guy built like a stone statue who had a handshake like a rock-crusher. I found that out when he introduced himself.

“Hal Gibson,” he said curtly, as I felt the bones in my right hand come under excruciating strain.

“You’re not the Hal Gibson who resigned from USMC over the COVID jab, are you?” I asked. “I think I remember you from Laura Ingraham’s show.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” he said. “That was my retirement after 20 years commanding men in battle. A vaccine shot is more important in the service now than competent leadership.”

“Hal is now the security coordinator for Liberty Point,” said Pierce. “He has lots of ideas on how to defend this place.”

“I assume that includes the Predators I saw in the hangar,” I said.

Gibson looked at me.

“I hope that won’t make it into your podcast,” he said.

“It will not.”

He nodded.

The meeting in the little side room didn’t last too long, but it was — what’s the word? — declarative.

Gibson got into Darke’s face and accused him of being a plant for the Vinnies. Darke hotly contested that and fingered Jaganoo. Things got ugly from there, and then Pierce stepped in and explained to the Guyanese that he was going to defend their country even if they wouldn’t.

Ishgan said he was fully committed and that he welcomed whatever help Pierce and Gibson and Sentinel and Exoil were willing to offer.

Darke echoed that. All eyes went to Jaganoo.

“I don’t understand why I am suspected,” he said. “I’ve only ever attempted cordial relations with our neighbors. It doesn’t make me a traitor.”

“We can’t afford traitors,” said Burnham.

“And we won’t have them,” said Gibson.

Jaganoo shrugged. He was uncomfortable, clearly, but he was slick. He admitted nothing. And yet you got the firm impression there was a lot he could admit.

I felt like that was true of Darke as well, but Pierce and Burnham seemed interested in giving him the benefit of the doubt. And Gibson backed off his initial accusations. Darke was strangely unbothered by those.

Regardless, the Americans didn’t talk very much about military hardware or strategy with the Guyanese bigwigs there. Which I understood, but it didn’t give me much in the way of a good feeling about the planned defense of Essequibo.

Then Sarah found me after it was over.

“What are you doing later?” she asked.

“Back to the lodge to get together with my crew, then we’ll get dinner,” I said. “Why? Are you trying to get out of playing third wheel to Pierce and your sister?”

She nodded.

“It’s boring,” she said. “They’re boring.”

They were two of the most famous human beings on the planet and she was telling me I was more interesting than them. I had trouble believing that, but then again it was fun to get attention from a beautiful girl again.

“Well then, come and join us,” I volunteered.

She nodded again.