Lethal Agent (Mitch Rapp #18)

It couldn’t end this way. God wouldn’t allow it. He wouldn’t allow his faithful disciple to die at the hands of Satan’s representative on earth. Not before His work was done.

A test. That had to be the explanation. It was a test of his strength. His worthiness. His devotion.

Bolstered by that realization, Halabi managed to drag himself from beneath his man. The darkness was now absolute, but he was able to find the back wall of the cave and feel along it as the last weak shouts around him fell silent. Finally, he located the narrow opening he was looking for and, by the grace of God, it was still passable.

Reports were that it was six hundred meters long and varied from three meters in diameter to barely wide enough for a full-grown man. He dragged himself through the broken rock, feeling his way forward. In places the passage seemed blocked, but after a few moments of blind exploration, he always managed to progress a few more meters.

Finally the walls narrowed to the point that it was impossible to continue. He tried to retreat but found himself trapped.

The world seemed to disappear, adding to his confusion and amplifying the pain that racked his body. For a time, there was little else. No sound that wasn’t produced by him. No light that his eyes could process. Only the pain, the taste of earth, and the swirl of his own thoughts.

The elation he’d felt when he’d concluded this was a test became lost in the realization that what he was experiencing felt more like a punishment. What had he done to deserve Allah’s wrath?

He slipped in and out of consciousness, though in the darkness it was difficult to differentiate the two. He saw America. The gleaming buildings. The mass of humanity pursuing pleasure and comfort as a replacement for God. He saw the glorious collapse of the World Trade Center and the horror and vulnerability that attack had instilled in the American people. An incredible victory wasted by Osama bin Laden, who had turned to blithering endlessly about Islam on hazy video.

He saw the rise of ISIS fueled by its grasp of social media and intimate understanding of what motivated young men throughout the world. And, finally, he saw its battlefield victories and ability to terrify the Americans in a way that even September 11 hadn’t.

He tried to pull himself forward again and again collapsed into the bed of shattered rock beneath him. The darkness and silence was deeper than anything he’d ever experienced. It blurred not only the lines between consciousness and lucidity but between life and death. Only the pain and sound of his own breathing assured him that he hadn’t crossed over.

He didn’t know how long he lay there but finally the darkness began to recede. He opened his eyes but didn’t see the earthen tunnel around him. Only the blinding white light of God. It was then that he understood. It was his own arrogance that had brought him to this place. He had allowed his own hate and thirst for victory to deflect him from the work God had charged him with. He had become seduced by the power he wielded over his followers and the fear he commanded from his enemies. By visions of a new caliphate with him at its head, locked in righteous battle with the forces of the West.

He felt the panic rising in him, growing to a level that was nearly unbearable. The life he’d lived was a lie and God had finally shown him that fact. He had served only himself. Only his own vanity and hate.

Halabi clawed at the walls around him, unwilling to die in this graceless state. He felt something in his shoulder tear, but ignored it and was finally rewarded with a cascade of rock that created a path forward.

He was free.





CHAPTER 1


SOUTHWEST OF THAMUD

YEMEN

MITCH Rapp started to move again, weaving through an expansive boulder field before dropping to his stomach at its edge. A quick scan of the terrain through his binoculars provided the same result it had every time before: reddish dirt covering an endless series of pronounced ridges. No water. No plant life. A burned-out sky starting to turn orange in the west. If it were ninety-five below zero instead of ninety-five above, he could have been on Mars.

Rapp shifted his gaze to the right, concentrating for a good fifteen seconds before spotting a flash of movement that was either Scott Coleman or one of his men. All were wearing camo made from cloth specifically selected and dyed for this op by Charlie Wicker’s girlfriend. She was a professional textile designer and a flat-out genius at matching colors and textures. If you gave her a few decent photos of your operating theater, she’d make you disappear.

A couple of contrails appeared above and he followed them with his eyes. Saudi jets on their way to bomb urban targets to the west. This sparsely populated part of Yemen had become the exclusive territory of ISIS and al Qaeda, but the Saudis largely ignored it. Viable targets were hard to engage from the air and the Kingdom didn’t have the stomach to get bloody on the ground. That job had once again landed in his lap.

Satisfied they weren’t being watched, Rapp started forward in a crouch. Coleman and his team would follow, watching his back at perfect intervals like they had in Iraq. And Afghanistan. And Syria. And just about every other shithole the planet had to offer.

The Yemeni civil war had broken out in 2015 between Houthi rebels and government forces. Predictably, other regional powers had been drawn in, most notably Iran backing the rebels and Saudi Arabia getting behind the government. The involvement of those countries had intensified the conflict, creating a humanitarian disaster impressive even by Middle Eastern standards.

In many ways, it was a forgotten war. The world’s dirty little secret. Even among U.S. government officials and military commanders, it would be hard to find anyone aware that two-thirds of Yemen’s population was surviving on foreign aid and another eight million were slowly starving. They also wouldn’t be able to tell you that hunger and the loss of basic services were causing disease to run rampant through the country. Cholera, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and even diphtheria were surging to levels unheard-of in the modern era.

And anyplace that could be described using words like “forgotten,” “rampant,” and “war” eventually became a magnet for terrorists. They were yet another disease that infected the weakened and wounded.

An unusually high ridge became visible to the northwest, and Rapp dropped to the ground again, studying it through his lenses. He could make out a gap just large enough for a human about three hundred yards away.

“Whatcha got?” Coleman said over his earpiece.

“The cave entrance. Right where they said it would be.”

“Are we moving?”

“No, it’s backlit. We’ll let the sun drop over the horizon.”

“Roger that. Everybody copy?”

Bruno McGraw, Joe Maslick, and Charlie Wicker all acknowledged. The four men made up about half the people in the world Rapp trusted. Probably a sad state of affairs, but one that had kept him alive for a lot longer than anyone would have predicted.

He fine-tuned the focus on his binoculars, refining his view of the dark hole in the cliff face. It was hard to believe that Sayid Halabi was still alive. If Rapp had been any closer with that grenade, it would have gotten jammed in the ISIS leader’s throat. But even if his aim had been way off, it shouldn’t have mattered. The blast had brought down a significant portion of the cavern he’d been hiding out in.

The collapse had been extensive enough that Rapp himself had been trapped in it. In fact, he’d have died slowly in the darkness if Joe Maslick wasn’t a human wrecking ball who had spent much of his youth digging ditches on a landscaping crew. Oxygen had been getting pretty scarce when Mas finally broke through and dragged him from the grave he’d made for himself.

Despite all that, the intel on Halabi seemed reasonably solid. A while back, someone at NSA had decrypted a scrambled Internet video showing the man standing in the background at an al Qaeda meeting. The initial take had been that it was archival footage dredged up to keep the troops motivated. Deeper analysis, though, suggested that the images may have been taken six months after the night Rapp thought he’d finally ground his boot into that ISIS cockroach.

The video had led to the capture of one of the people at that meeting, and his interrogation led Rapp to this burned-out plain. The story was that Halabi had been severely injured by that grenade and was hiding out here convalescing. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question was whether it was true. And if it was true, was he still here. Clearly, he was healthy enough to be going to meetings and starting the process of rebuilding ISIS after the beating it had taken in his absence.

The sun finally hit the horizon, causing an immediate drop in temperature and improvement in visibility. Waiting for full darkness was an option, but it seemed unnecessary. He hadn’t seen any sign of exterior guards and night versus day would have little meaning once he passed into that cave.

“We’re on,” he said into his throat mike.

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