SOUTHERN VIRGINIA (ONE YEAR EARLIER)
MITCH Rapp removed the blindfold from his face and raised his seat back. The brown Ford Taurus sedan rocked its way down a rutted gravel road, twin plumes of dust corkscrewing into the hot August air. The blindfold was a precaution in case he failed, which Rapp had no intention of doing. He stared out the window at the thick wall of pines that bracketed the lane. Even with the bright sun he could see no more than thirty feet into the dark maze of trees and underbrush. As a child he’d always found the woods to be an inviting place, but on this particular afternoon it had a decidedly more ominous feel.
A foreboding premonition hijacked his thoughts and sent his mind careening into a place that he did not want to go. At least not this afternoon. Still, a frown creased his brow as Rapp wondered how many men had died in this particular forest, and
he wasn’t thinking of the men who had fought in the Civil War all those years earlier. No, he thought, trying to be completely honest with himself. Death was too open-ended a word for it. It left the possibility that some accident had befallen the person, and that was a convenient way to skirt the seriousness of what he was getting himself into. Executed was a far more accurate word. The men he was thinking of had been marched into these very woods, shot in the back of the head, and dumped into freshly dug holes never to be heard from again. That was the world that Rapp was about to enter, and he was utterly and completely at peace with his decision.
Still, a sliver of doubt sliced through the curtains of his mind and caused a flash of hesitation. Rapp wrestled with it for a moment, and then stuffed it back into the deepest recesses of his brain. Now was not the time for second thoughts. He’d been over this, around it, and under it. He’d studied it from every conceivable angle since the day the mysterious woman had walked into his life. In a strange way, he knew where it was all headed from almost the first moment she’d looked at him with those discerning, penetrating eyes.
He had been waiting for someone to show up, though Rapp had never told her that. Or that the only way he could cope with the pain of losing the love of his life was to plot his revenge. That every single night before he went to sleep he thought of the network of faceless men who had plotted to bring down Pan Am Flight 103, that he saw himself
on this very journey, headed to a remote place not dissimilar from the woods he now found himself in. It was all logical to him. Enemies needed to be killed, and Rapp was more than willing to become the person who would do that killing. He knew what was about to happen. He was to be trained, honed and forged into an ultimate precision weapon, and then he would begin to hunt them down. Every last one of the faceless men who had conspired to kill all those innocent civilians on that cold December night.
The car began to slow and Rapp looked up to see a rusted cattle gate with a heavy chain and padlock. His dark brow furrowed with suspicion.
The woman driving the vehicle glanced sideways at him and said, “You were expecting something a little more high-tech perhaps.”
Rapp nodded silently.
Irene Kennedy put the car in park and said, “Appearances can be very deceiving.” She opened her door and stepped from the vehicle. As she walked to the gate she listened. A moment later she heard the click of the passenger door, and she smiled. Without an ounce of training he had made the right decision. From their very first meeting it was apparent he was different. She had audited every detail of his life and watched him from afar for several months. Kennedy was exceedingly good at her job. She was methodical, organized, and patient. She also had a photographic memory.
Kennedy had grown up in the business. Her father had worked for the State Department, and
the vast majority of her education had taken place overseas in countries where an American was not always welcome. Vigilance was a part of her daily routine from the age of five. While other parents worried about their kids’ wandering out into the street and getting hit by a car, Kennedy’s parents worried about her finding a bomb under their car. It was drilled into her to always be aware of her surroundings.
When Kennedy finally introduced herself to Rapp, he studied her for a long second and then asked why she had been following him. At the time Rapp was only twenty-two, with no formal training. If Kennedy had a weakness it was with improvisation. She liked things plotted out well in advance, and being so thorough, she had gone in assuming the novice would have no idea that she had been running surveillance on him. She had recruited dozens of people and this was a first. Kennedy was caught off guard to the point of stammering for an answer. The recruit was supposed to be the one struggling to understand what was going on. Rapp’s recognizing her was not part of the script.
Later, in her motel room outside Syracuse, she retraced her every move over the past eight months and tried to figure out where she had slipped. After three hours and seventeen pages of notes, she still couldn’t pinpoint her mistake. With frustration, and grudging admiration, she had concluded that Rapp had extremely acute situational awareness. She moved his file to the top of her stack and made a bold decision. Rather than use the normal people,
she contacted a firm run by some retired spooks. They were old friends of her father’s, who specialized in handling jobs without creating a paper trail. She asked them to take an objective look at Rapp, just in case she had missed something. Two weeks later they came back with a summary that sent chills up Kennedy’s spine.
Kennedy took that report straight to her boss, Thomas Stansfield. Midway through reading the file he suspected what she was up to. When he finished, he slowly closed the two-inch-thick biography of the young Mitch Rapp and made her plead her case. She was concise and to the point, but still Stansfield pointed out the potential pitfalls and obvious dangers of leapfrogging the initial phase of training. She countered perfectly. The game was changing. He had said it himself many times. They could not sit back and play defense, and in this ever more interconnected world they needed a weapon more surgical than any guided bomb or cruise missile. Having spent many years in the field himself, Stansfield also knew this person would have to be uniquely autonomous. Someone who conveniently had no official record.
Kennedy ticked off eight additional reasons why she felt this young man was the perfect candidate. Her logic was sound, but beyond that there was the simple fact that they had to begin somewhere. By Stansfield’s reckoning this was an endeavor they should have started a good five years earlier, so it was with a heavy sigh and a leap of faith that he decided to proceed. He told Kennedy to forgo the
normal training and take him to the only man they knew who was crazy enough to try to mold a green recruit into what they needed. If Rapp could survive six months of schooling at the hands of Stan Hurley, he might indeed be the weapon they were looking for. Before she left, Stansfield told her to eliminate any connection: Every last file, surveillance photo, and recording that could ever tie them to Rapp was to be destroyed.
Kennedy pulled the car through the gate and asked Rapp to close and lock it behind them. Rapp did as he was asked and then got back in the car. One hundred yards later Kennedy slowed the vehicle to a crawl and maneuvered diagonally in an effort to avoid a large pothole.
“Why no security on the perimeter?” Rapp asked.
“The high-tech systems . . . more often than not . . . they draw too much unwanted attention. They also give a lot of false alarms, which in turn requires a lot of manpower. That’s not what this place is about.”
“What about dogs?” Rapp asked.
She liked the way he was thinking. As if on cue, two hounds came galloping around the bend. The dogs charged straight at the vehicle. Kennedy stopped and waited for them to get out of her way. A moment later, after baring their teeth, they turned and bolted back in the direction they’d just come from.
Kennedy took her foot off the brake and proceeded up the lane. “This man,” Kennedy said. “The one who will be training you.”
“The crazy little guy who is going to try to kill me,” Rapp said without smiling.
“I didn’t say he was going to try to kill you . . . I said he is going to try to make you think he’s trying to kill you.”
“Very comforting,” Rapp said sarcastically. “Why do you keep bringing him up?”
“I want you to be prepared.”
Rapp thought about that for a moment and said, “I am, or at least as prepared as you can be for something like this.”
She considered that for a moment. “The physical part is assumed. We know you’re in good shape, and that’s important, but I want you to know that you will be pushed in ways you never imagined. It’s a game. One that’s designed to make you quit. Your greatest asset will be mental discipline, not physical strength.”
Rapp disagreed with her but kept his mouth shut and his face a mask of neutrality. To be the best required equal doses of both. He knew the game. He’d been through plenty of grueling football and lacrosse practices in the humid August heat of Virginia, and back then it was only a simple desire to play that kept him going. Now his motivation to succeed was much deeper. Far more personal.
“Just try to remember... none of it is personal,” Kennedy said.
Rapp smiled inwardly. That’s where you’re wrong, he thought. It’s all personal. When he responded, however, he was compliant. “I know,” Rapp said in an easy tone. “What about these other
guys?” If there was one thing that made him a little nervous it was this. The other recruits had been down here for two days. Rapp didn’t like getting a late start. They would have already begun the bonding process and were likely to resent his showing up late. He didn’t understand the delay, but she wasn’t exactly forthright with information.
“There are six of them.” Kennedy scrolled through the photos in her mind’s eye. She had read their jackets. They all had military experience and shared, at least on paper, many of Rapp’s qualities. They were all dark-featured, athletic, capable of violence, or at least not afraid of it, and they had all to one degree or another passed the extensive psychological exams. They had all showed a facility for foreign languages. In terms of a sense of right and wrong, they all hovered near that critical six o’clock position on the mental health pie chart. That thin line that separated law enforcement officers from career criminals.
Around the next bend the landscape opened up before them. A freshly mowed lawn roughly the size of a football field ran along both sides of the lane all the way to a white barn and two-story house with a wraparound porch. This was not what Rapp had expected. The place looked like a rural postcard complete with a set of rocking chairs on the big white porch.
A man appeared from inside the house. He was holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Rapp watched him move across the porch. The man swiveled his head to the left and
then right in a casual manner. Most people would have missed it, but Rapp’s senses had been opened to the reality that the world was divided between those who were part of the herd and those who liked to hunt. The man was checking his flanks. He stopped at the top of the porch steps and looked down at them from behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. Rapp smiled ever so slightly at the realization that this was the man who was going to try to break him. It was a challenge he had been looking forward to for some time.