In 1972, Mason Skiles is a U.S. diplomat in Lebanon living in Beirut with his Lebanese wife, Nadia. They have recently begun caring for Karim, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who claims he is without a family. While hosting a party, Skiles is confronted by his friend, CIA agent Cal Riley, who wishes to question Karim, whose brother Rafid Abu Rajal has been linked to the 1972 Munich massacre. The party is attacked by Karim’s brother, Rafid, who abducts Karim; in the ensuing gunfight, Nadia is killed.
Ten years later, Skiles has become an alcoholic and is working as a self-employed labor arbitrator in New England. While arbitrating a labor issue between particularly intransigent parties and struggling to keep his small firm afloat, he is approached by Sully, an old client, on behalf of the U.S. government. Sully discloses that Skiles has been requested for an academic lecture in Lebanon, and hands him money, a plane ticket, and a passport. Skiles is initially resistant but decides to travel to Beirut. He meets several government officials, including CIA agent Donald Gaines, CIA agent Sandy Crowder, Colonel Gary Ruzak of the NSA, and Ambassador Frank Whalen, and learns that Cal Riley was recently abducted in Lebanon. The kidnappers have specifically requested Skiles as the negotiator.