Lethal Agent (Mitch Rapp #18)

The disease devastating the village had probably come from one of the bat populations living in caves set into the slope she was now calling from. But the specialists she’d consulted assured her that their range was nowhere near sufficient to make it to the closest population center—a similarly tiny village over forty hard miles to the east.

“It’s isolated,” she admitted finally. “But I don’t know for how much longer. I’m containing it by giving these people food and health care so none of them have any reason to leave. And I’m counting on the fact that no one from outside has any reason to come. Is that what you want to hang your hat on?”

“You also told me that you thought the whole thing was a fluke, right? The war cut off the village’s food supply and they started eating bats for the first time?”

“That’s just a guess,” she responded through clenched teeth. “We can’t get anyone with the right expertise to come here to do the testing. Look, Ken, I’m here with one nurse and a microbiologist who’s only interested in getting his name in the science journals. Twenty-five people in this village are dead. That’s a third of the population.”

“But you’ve stopped the spread, right? You’ve got it under control.”

“We’ve got the last few identified victims quarantined and for now we’ve convinced the villagers to steer clear of the local bat population,” she admitted. “But it’s incredibly contagious, Ken. Not like anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. Even casual contact with someone who’s sick comes with over a fifty percent infection rate. But the worst thing is how long the virus seems to be able to survive on surfaces. We have credible evidence of people getting sick after touching things handled by a victim seventy-two hours before. What if someone infected with this went through an airport? They could push a button on an elevator or touch the check-in counter and have people carry it all over the world. How could we stop it?”

“We stopped it last time,” he said in an obvious reference to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s.

“It’s not the same thing and you know it! SARS is an order of magnitude less contagious and it broke out in Asia. We had time to mount a worldwide response in countries with modern medical systems. This is Yemen. They don’t have the resources to do anything but stand back and pray. We could be talking about a pandemic that could kill a hundred million people. Are you a doctor or a politician, Ken? We—”

“Shut up, Vicky! Just shut your mouth for one minute if that’s possible.”

She fell silent at the man’s uncharacteristic outburst.

“Do you have any idea what’s happening in the rest of Yemen? Outside your little world? We’re dealing with a cholera outbreak that’s now officially the worst in modern history. NGOs are backing out because of the bombing and growing violence. Local medical personnel are either sick themselves or haven’t been paid in months and are moving on to figure out how to feed themselves.”

“Ken—”

“I’m not done! About a third of the country is slowly starving. We’re seeing infections that none of our antibiotics work on. And there are rumors that there’s going to be a major attack on Al Hudaydah. If that port closes, most of the imports into the country are going to dry up. No more humanitarian aid. No more food or medicine. No more fuel. On top of everything else, the country’s going to slip into famine.”

“But—” she tried to interject.

“Shut it!” he said and then continued. “All this and I can barely get governments or private donors to take my calls. Why? Because no one gives a crap about Yemen. They can’t find it on a map and they’re bone tired of pouring money into Middle East projects that get blown up before they’re even finished. And that’s leaving aside the U.S. presidential election that’s already consuming every media outlet in the world. If an alien spaceship landed in Yemen tomorrow, it’d be lucky to make page nine in the Times.”

“Ken—”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” he said. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. So, after all that’s said, you want me to divert my almost nonexistent resources from the thousands of people dying in the cities to a little village of fifty people surrounded by an impassable sea of desert?”

“Screw you, Ken.”

When he spoke again, his voice had softened. “Look. I really do understand what you’re saying to me. Remember that before I sat down behind this desk I spent years doing exactly what you’re doing. I want to help you. What you’re dealing with terrifies me—”

“But you’re going to do nothing.”

“Oh, ye of little faith.”

She perked up. “What does that mean?”

“I wish I could take credit for this, but in truth I had nothing to do with it. A couple weeks ago, a Saudi businessman I’ve never heard of contacted me. He said he’d seen something about you in a university newspaper and wanted to help. It kind of took me by surprise, so I just threw a number out there.”

“What number?”

“Two hundred and fifty grand.”

“And?”

“Long story, but he said yes.”

“What?” Victoria stammered, unable to process what she was hearing after months of fighting for castoffs and pocket change. “I . . . I don’t even understand what that means.”

“It means that I’ve got a team putting together a drop for you. Equipment, food, medicine. I might even have someone from the University of Wyoming who’s willing to look at your bats. We’ll lower the supplies down to you from a cargo chopper so we don’t have to get anywhere near your patients. I’m working on permission from the Saudis now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this when we started talking?”

“Because I wanted you to make an ass out of yourself. Now, listen to me. This isn’t a bottomless well. I don’t even know how to get in touch with this donor. He wanted to be anonymous and he’s doing a good job of it. Get that village healthy and figure out a way to keep them that way.”

“Ken. I’m sorry about—”

The line went dead and she dropped the phone, leaning against the rock behind her.

It was hard to remember everything that had happened to get her to that particular place at that particular time. Her childhood outside of Seattle had been unremarkable. She’d never traveled much and she’d stayed in Washington through her early career as a physician. It wasn’t until she was in her early thirties that she’d felt the pull of the outside world and the billions of desperate people who inhabited it.

Schaefer scooted away from the approaching rays of sun and focused on the village below. The door to their improvised clinic opened and a man in protective clothing appeared, shading his faceplate-covered eyes as he emerged. Otto Vogel was her no-nonsense German pillar of steel. They’d met in Ghana seven years ago and had been working together ever since. Not only was he the best nurse she’d ever met, but he was perhaps the most reliable person on the planet. There was no situation that he couldn’t deal with, no disaster that could ruffle him, no objective danger that could scare him. They’d been through Haiti, Nigeria, and Laos together, to name only a few. And now here they were in Yemen. The world’s forgotten humanitarian disaster.

He scanned the terrain, finally finding her hidden among the rocks. She’d told him that she was calling Ken Dinh and it wouldn’t be hard for him to guess that she’d do it from the shade of her favorite boulder.

Vogel made an exaggerated motion toward his wrist. He wasn’t actually wearing a watch, but she understood that it was a reference to the tardiness of their third musketeer. A man who was less a pillar of steel and more a pile of shit softened by the heat.

When Vogel disappeared around the corner to begin removing his contaminated clothing, she stood and reluctantly started toward a building at the opposite edge of the village.

When she finally pushed through the door of the stone structure she found a lone man scribbling in a notebook. He was only partially visible behind the battered lab equipment she’d borrowed from fleeing NGOs. Usually while wearing a black turtleneck and driving a van with the headlights turned off.

“You were supposed to relieve Otto more than a half an hour ago,” she said.

The initial reaction was an irritated frown—intimidating to the grad students who hung on his every word, but not as weighty in Yemen.

“I’m in the middle of something,” he said. His English was grammatically perfect, but he took pride in maintaining a thick French accent. “I need to work through it while my mind is fresh.”

Gabriel Bertrand was a world-class prick but unquestionably a brilliant one. He’d started his career as a physician, but after discovering that he didn’t like being around sick people, he’d moved into research and teaching.

“I appreciate that,” she said, her good mood managing to hold. “But we’ve got people dying in that building. Otto and I can’t handle—”

“Then let me help them, Victoria! You know perfectly well that we don’t know how to save those people. What I’m doing here could prevent future victims. It could—”

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