The Mystery of Red Mercury

Safi al-Safi, an unaffiliated rebel and small-time smuggler specializing in weapons, antiquities and forged documents, sat in an open-air cafe beside the Syrian-Turkish border. He was smoking scented tobacco from a water pipe while discussing the cross-border mercury trade. ‘‘Red mercury has a red color, and there is mercury that has the color of dark blood,’’ he said. ‘‘And there is green mercury, which is used for sexual enhancement, and silver mercury is used for medical purposes. The most expensive type is called Blood of the Slaves, which is the darkest type. Magicians use it to summon jinni.’’

The Doomsday Scam by C.J. Chivers in The New York Times.

On the borderline between science and magic is a mythical substance called Red Mercury, which displays the most convenient problem-solving characteristics of both: It can be combined with conventional fissile materials to create a miniaturized atomic bomb, but it can also be used as an aphrodisiac. If you paint it on the side of an aircraft, that plane becomes a undetectable to radar. Worn as a charm, it protects against the evil eye, but it can also be used in conjuration. What can’t it do?

Chivers’ article discusses the history of this completely made-up substance while cutting back and forth to an unscrupulous smuggler who’s been asked to obtain some for a group of well-known terrorists.

I vaguely remember something called Red Mercury being used a Macguffin in some video game or other, but I didn’t realize just how common a device it was.