Lethal Agent (Mitch Rapp #18)

“It’s not enough,” Halabi said. “The Americans are people of extremes, prone to fits of rage and self-destructiveness, but also in possession of an inner strength that no one in history has been able to overcome.”

The faces on the screens looked vaguely stunned at what they saw as adulation for their enemy. It was one of many lessons Halabi had learned in his time confined to a hospital bed deep underground: not to let hatred blind one to the strengths and virtues of one’s enemies.

“If no one has been able to overcome it,” the British man said, “how can we?”

It was the question that Halabi had been asking for almost his entire life. The question that God had finally answered.

“We’ll continue to distract them by fanning the flames of their fear and division,” he said.

“And after that?” the man pressed.

“After that we’ll strike at them in a way that no one in history has ever even conceived of.”





CHAPTER 3


AL HUDAYDAH

YEMEN

THE port city still had more than two million residents, but at this point it was just because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Some buildings remained untouched, but others had taken hits from the Saudi air force and were now in various states of ruin. Almost nightly, bombing runs rewrote the map of Al Hudaydah, strewing tons of rubble across some streets while blasting others clean.

Rapp walked around a burned-out car and turned onto a pitted road that was a bit more populated. Knots of men had formed around wooden carts, buying and trading for whatever was available. Women, covered from head to toe in traditional dress, dotted the crowd, but only sparsely. They tended to be kept squirreled away in this part of the world, adding to the dysfunction.

One was walking toward Rapp, clinging to the arm of a male relative whose function would normally have been to watch over her. In this case, the roles had been reversed. He was carrying the AK-47 and ceremonial dagger that were obligatory fashion accessories in Yemen, but also suffering from one of the severe illnesses unleashed by the war. The woman was the only thing keeping him upright.

He stumbled and Rapp caught him, supporting his weight until he could get his feet under him again. When the woman mumbled her thanks, Rapp figured he’d take advantage of her gratitude. The map he’d been given by the CIA wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

“Do you know where Café Pachachi is?”

Her eyes—the only part of her visible—widened and she took a hesitant step back.

It wasn’t surprising. As ISIS lost territory, a lot of its unpaid and leaderless fighters were turning to extortion, drug trafficking, and sexual slavery to make a living. Rapp’s physical appearance and Iraqi accent would likely mark him as one of those men.

“Café Pachachi?” he repeated.

She gave a jerky nod and a few brief instructions before skirting him and disappearing into the glare of the sun.

It took another thirty minutes, but he finally found it. The restaurant was housed in a mostly intact stone building with low plastic tables and chairs set up out front. A few makeshift awnings provided shade, and improvised barriers kept customers from falling into a bomb crater along the eastern edge.

Despite the war, business seemed good. The patio was filled with men leaning close to each other, speaking about politics, God, and death. Waiters hustled in and out of the open storefront, shuttling food and drinks, clearing dishes, and occasionally getting drawn into one of the passionate conversations going on around them.

It was hard to believe that this was pretty much the sum total of the CIA’s presence in Yemen. It was one of the most lawless, terrorist-ridden countries in the world, and the United States had ceded its interests to the Saudis.

America’s politicians were concerned with nothing but the perpetuation of their own power through the next election cycle. The sitting president was playing defense, trying not to do anything that could cause problems for his party in the upcoming presidential election. The primaries were in full swing, with the sleaziest, most destructive candidates on both sides in the lead. And the American people were laser-locked on all of it, goading the participants on like it was some kind of pro wrestling cage match.

With no one watching the store in Yemen, ISIS was starting to find its footing again—using the chaos as cover to regroup and evolve. It was a mistake the politicians couldn’t seem to stop making. Or maybe it wasn’t a mistake at all. Terrorism was great theater—full of sympathetic victims, courageous soldiers, and evil antagonists. It was the ultimate political prop. Perhaps America’s elected officials weren’t as anxious to give it up as their constituents thought. Solved problems didn’t get out the vote.

“Allah has delivered you safely!” Shamir Karman exclaimed, weaving through the busy tables to embrace him. “Welcome, my friend!”

Rapp didn’t immediately recognize the man. Karman always carried an extra twenty-five or so pounds in a gravity-defying ring around his waist. It was completely gone now and his bearded face looked drawn.

“It’s good to see you again,” Rapp said in the amiable tone expected by the diners around him.

“Come! There’s no reason for us to stand among this riffraff. I keep the good food and coffee in the back.”

Laughter rose up from his customers as he led Rapp into the dilapidated building. The human element had always been Karman’s genius. The native Yemeni had been recruited by the CIA years ago, but it had been clear from the beginning that he’d never be a shooter. No, his weapon was that he was likable as hell. The kind of guy you told your deepest secrets to. That you wanted in your wedding party. That you invited to come stay indefinitely at your house. All within the first ten minutes of meeting him.

“There was another bombing last night,” he said as they passed indoor tables that had been set aside for women to sit with their families.

“Did they get close?”

The Agency was working to keep the Saudis away from this neighborhood, but no one was anxious to tell them too much out of fear of a leak. It was the kind of tightrope walk that was Irene Kennedy’s bread and butter, but there were no guarantees. One arrogant commander or confused pilot could turn Karman and his operation into a pillar of fire.

“No. The bastards were just dropping random bombs to hide their real target.”

“Which was?”

“The sanitation facility we keep putting back together with spit and chewing gum. We’re already dealing with one of the deadliest outbreaks of cholera in history, and they want to make it worse. If they can’t bomb us into submission, they’ll kill us with disease and hunger.”

The anger in his voice wasn’t just for the benefit of his cover. In truth, Karman’s loyalties were a bit hard to pin down, but that’s what made him so good at his job. He sincerely cared about his country, and anyone who met him could feel that sincerity.

“Did you come with family?” the Yemeni said.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what he was asking. He was worried that Coleman and his men were in-country and would stand out like a sore thumb. Rapp shared that concern and had sent them to Riyadh. They were currently floating in the pool of a five-star resort at the American taxpayers’ expense.

“No. I’m alone.”

“You’ll stay with me, of course. I can’t offer you much luxury, but there’s not a lot of that to be had in Yemen anymore.”

“Thank you. You’re very generous, my friend.”

They entered the kitchen and instead of the pleasant odor of boiling saltah, Rapp was hit with the powerful stench of bleach.

“My success isn’t just about my skills as a chef and my consistent supply of food,” Karman said, reading his expression. “With the cholera outbreak, it’s all about cleanliness. No one has ever gotten sick eating at my establishment.” He increased the volume of his voice. “And no one ever will, right?”

The kitchen staff loudly assured him that was the case.

“Seriously,” he said, pushing through a door at the back. “Don’t put anything in your mouth that doesn’t come from here or you’ll find yourself shitting and vomiting your guts out. And you’ll be doing it on your own. The hospital’s been bombed three times and still has hundreds of new patients flooding in every day. The sick and dying are covering every centimeter of floor there and spilling out into the parking lot. I don’t know why. There’s no medicine. Hardly any staff. Nothing.”

The room they found themselves in was about eight feet square, illuminated by a bare bulb hanging from the celling. There was a folding table that served as a desk and a single plastic chair raided from the restaurant. Walls were stacked with boxes labeled with the word “bleach” in Arabic. A few notebooks that looked like business ledgers and a tiny potted plant rounded out the inventory.

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