Lethal Agent (Mitch Rapp #18)

According to Rapp’s briefing, there was also a hidden chamber with communications equipment and a few weapons, but it was best to use it sparingly. If anyone discovered its existence, Karman’s body would be hanging from one of his restaurant’s ceiling beams inside an hour.

“Better than bleach . . .” the Yemeni said, rummaging in a box behind him, “is alcohol.”

He retrieved a half-full bottle of Jack Daniel’s and poured careful measures into two coffee cups before handing one to Rapp.

“Did your work go well?” he asked, keeping the conversation vague and in Arabic. He was well-liked and trusted in the area, but it was still a war zone. People were always listening. Always suspicious.

“No. I wasn’t able to connect with our friend.”

Karman’s face fell. “I’m sorry for that. I did the best I could to schedule it, but you know how unpredictable he can be.”

Rapp nodded and took a sip of his drink.

“I’ve become nothing more than a tea room gossip,” Karman said in a hushed tone. “Trying to live off the pittance the restaurant makes and arguing politics with whoever sits down at one of my tables.”

The message was clear. He was calling for resources. Unfortunately, the dipshits in Washington weren’t in the mood to provide them.

“Really? Business looks good to me.”

“An illusion. Customers are dwindling and talk has turned wild. Spies. Intrigue. Conspiracies. I spend my days listening to this and searching the sky for the Saudi missile that will kill me. Or looking behind me for the man who will put a knife in my back for the money in my pocket.”

“Former ISIS fighters?” Rapp said.

Karman nodded. “They’re heavily armed and purposeless. Young men full of hate, violence, and lust. All believing that their every whim is a directive from God. If Sayid Halabi is alive I would have expected him to move them toward the lawless middle of the country. But he doesn’t seem interested. The rumor is that he’s forming a much smaller group of well-educated, well-trained followers.”

Karman brought his mug to his lips and closed his eyes as he swished the whiskey around in his mouth before swallowing. “People speak of him as though he’s a ghost. As if he’d died and returned. They believe that God spoke to him and gave him the secret to defeating the infidels.”

“Do you believe that’s true?”

“No. But I think Halabi does. And I think that he’s even more brilliant than he is twisted. What I can tell you for certain is that ISIS is evolving. And if he’s behind that, I guarantee you he’s not doing it for his entertainment. He’s working toward something. Something big.”

Again, Karman was using the cover of idle gossip to make a point: that something needed to be done before Halabi could assert his dominance over a reinvigorated jihadist movement. Unfortunately, he was preaching to the choir. Rapp and Kennedy spent a hell of a lot of time and effort making that precise case to politicians who seemed less interested every day.

Karman reached for a pack of cigarettes and lit one before speaking again. “There’s nothing more for us here, my friend. I can’t distinguish one day from another anymore. I serve food. I clean. I listen to loose talk. And I wait for death.”





CHAPTER 4


CENTRAL YEMEN

THE boy curled up on the dirty cot, covering his mouth and bracing himself for the coughing fit that was to come. Dr. Victoria Schaefer watched helplessly as he convulsed, the sound of his choking muffled by the hazmat suit she was wearing. When it was over, he reached out a hand spattered with blood from his lungs.

She took it, squeezing gently through rubber gloves and fighting back the urge to cry. With the headgear she was wearing, there was no way to wipe the tears away. It was a lesson she’d learned over and over again throughout the years.

“It’s going to be all right,” she lied through her faceplate.

The respiratory disease she’d stumbled upon in that remote Yemeni village killed more than a third of the people who displayed symptoms. Soon he’d be added to that statistic. And there was nothing she could do about it.

He managed to say something as he pointed to another of the cots lined up in the tiny stone building. She didn’t understand the words—bringing her interpreter into this makeshift clinic would have been too dangerous—but she understood their meaning. The woman lying by the door was his mother. After days of struggling for every breath, she’d lost her fight two hours ago.

“She’s just sleeping,” Schaefer said in as soothing a tone as she could manage.

The boy was young enough to have eyes still full of trust and hope. In contrast, the adults in the village had started to lose faith in her. And why not? Even before her medical supplies had dwindled, she’d been largely powerless. Beyond keeping victims as comfortable as possible and treating their secondary infections with antibiotics, there was little choice but to just let the virus run its course.

The boy lost consciousness and Schaefer walked through the gloom to a stool in the corner. The windows had been sealed and the door was closed tight against a jamb enhanced with rubber stripping. Light was provided by a hole in the roof covered with a piece of white cloth that was the best filter they could come up with.

The other three living people in the building were in various stages of the illness. One—ironically a man who estimated himself to be in his late sixties—was on his way to recovery. What that recovery would look like, though, she wasn’t sure. Yemeni acute respiratory syndrome, as they’d dubbed it, left about thirty percent of its survivors permanently disabled. It was almost certain that he would never be able to work again. The question was whether he would even be able to care for himself without assistance.

The ultimate fate of the other two victims was unknown. They were in the early stages and it was still too soon to tell. Both were strong and in their twenties, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to YARS. It was an equal opportunity killer that took healthy adults at about the same rate it did children and the elderly.

The boy started to cough again, but this time she didn’t go to him, instead staring down at his blood on her gloves. She’d leave his mother where he could see her and take comfort from her presence. The heat in the building was suffocating, but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t last long enough for her to start to decompose.

? ? ?

“Vick—”

The satellite phone cut out and Schaefer shook it violently. Not the most high-tech solution, but it seemed to work. She was able to make out the last few words of her boss’s sentence, but ignored them. Ken Dinh was the president of Doctors Without Borders, a good man and a personal friend. But he was sitting behind a desk in Toronto and she was on the ground in the middle-of-nowhere Yemen.

“Are you listening to what I’m saying, Vicky?”

No one was watching, so she allowed herself a guilty frown. At forty-two, she’d already been through a number of husbands, all of whom had roughly the same complaints. The top of the list was that she was obsessed with her job. Second was that she was—to use her last husband’s words—always camped out in some war-torn, disease-ridden, third-world hellhole. The last one was something about never listening and instead just waiting to talk. She wasn’t sure, though, because she hadn’t really been listening.

“I heard you but I don’t know what you want me to say. No worries? Hey, maybe it’s not as bad as it looks? And what do you want me to tell the people in this village? Take two aspirin and call me in the morning?”

“This sarcasm isn’t like you, Vicky.”

“Seriously?”

“No. Obviously that was a joke.”

“So now we’re going to sit around telling jokes?”

Even from half a world away she could hear his deep sigh. “But it’s isolated, right? You haven’t seen or heard anything that points to an outbreak outside that village.”

She’d walked about a third of a mile to make the call, stopping partway up a slope containing boulders big enough to provide shade. It was the place she came when she needed to be alone. When she needed to find a little perspective in a world that didn’t offer much anymore.

The village below wasn’t much to look at, a few buildings constructed of the same reddish stone and dirt that extended to the horizon in every direction. She surveyed it for a few moments instead of answering. Dinh was technically right. The disease she’d discovered appeared to be isolated to this forgotten place and its forty-three remaining inhabitants.

And because of that, no one cared. It had no strategic relevance to the Houthi rebels or government forces fighting for control of the country. The ISIS and al Qaeda forces operating in the area didn’t consider it a sufficient prize to send the two or three armed men necessary to take it. And the Saudis had no reason to waste fuel and ordnance blowing it up.

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