Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
MITCH Rapp tried to find a more comfortable position, but none was available. His helmet was jammed against the top of the fuselage and there was something sharp poking through the mesh seat just to the right of his spine.
Not exactly the CIA’s G550, but then this aircraft hadn’t exactly been designed to ferry government VIPs. Its only purpose was the insertion of select teams behind enemy lines, and in order to do that effectively it had to be small, fast, and stealthy. There was no pilot or cockpit, no cabin pressure or heat, and no light other than the dim glow from a computer screen to his right.
He glanced over and scanned the data it contained. Four hundred knots at 25,000 feet on a south-by-southeast heading. An infrared map moved lazily beneath the compass and numbers, tracking the ground. Near the bottom of the display, his target began to appear.
Despite everything he’d lived through—everything he’d done—there were very few places that held memories bad enough to make his palms sweat. In fact, only two. The place his wife had died and al-Shirqat.
A green light over the door flashed and he disconnected his mask from the aircraft’s oxygen supply, immediately reattaching it to a low-volume tank on his wingsuit. Slipping out of his chair, he sat on the carbon fiber floor and lashed a small pack between his legs. The countdown had started and he waited until the door began to retract to lower his goggles. The outside air temperature was thirty below zero and the wind lashed at him as he fought his way to the inky black opening. When the countdown in his earpiece reached zero, he threw himself out, struggling to maintain a stable position as he accelerated into his free fall.
After a few seconds he was steady enough to glance at the screen strapped to his wrist. Along with altitude, it indicated direction and horizontal distance to his drop zone. Not that hitting it exactly was all that critical—it was a more or less randomly chosen spot about a mile from the edge of the ISIS-controlled city. His old mentor Stan Hurley had beaten precision into him during jump training, though. Rapp could still picture the man standing in the middle of the landing circle, staring skyward.
If you don’t kick me in my head, I’m going to kick the shit out of yours.
Who would have thought he’d miss the old cuss so much?
Everything below him was dark, creating a disorienting sensation of floating in space. Saddam Hussein’s former officers were becoming increasingly prominent in ISIS leadership and with their rise came a commensurate improvement in discipline. They’d completely blacked out al-Shirqat in an effort to reduce the effectiveness of U.S. bombing runs. Worse, a few mobile SAM units were being moved around the battered streets. Their functionality was unknown, but the knowledge that they were there was enough to prompt him to jump from altitude and come in sideways.
He pulled his chute about a thousand feet above the ground, releasing the pack between his legs and letting it drop onto the lanyard connected to him. With a few deft pulls on the chute’s toggles, he came down directly on top of the planned target—a sandy knoll that offered him the high ground.
Rapp gathered the chute quickly and pulled off his goggles and helmet. He lay still for almost two minutes, listening. When he was satisfied that his arrival had gone unnoticed, he stripped down to a grimy pair of jeans and T-shirt, then dragged his pack to him.
It didn’t contain much more than a shoulder holster with a Glock and silencer, two extra mags, some dried meat, and a shovel to bury everything else. Once that was done, there was little that would identify him as anything more than a local Iraqi who had been caught in the desert after sunset.
Without the screen on his wrist, he was forced to use the stars for navigation. Fortunately, they were just as effective now as they had been when explorers first set out to discover the world. He followed a southerly course, rubbing at his face to remove any marks left by his goggles. Based on weeks of overhead surveillance, he didn’t expect to run into any security forces as he entered the city, but there was nothing certain in this business.
When Rapp reached the bombed-out buildings at the edge of town, he dropped to his stomach again. The men he was there for were farther toward the interior and he mentally reviewed the path through the city laid out by the Agency’s cartographers.
When he’d escaped al-Shirqat last time, he’d been posing as an American ISIS recruit. The former Iraqi general controlling the area had devised a plan to use dirty bombs to take out Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing capacity, destabilizing the world economy and leaving the Saudis vulnerable to a takeover by Islamic radicals. Rapp had managed to stop the plot, but not without the help of the local resistance.
Now the identities of those men had been discovered and ISIS was closing in on them. Most of the people at Langley thought he was crazy to come back, arguing that the risks far outweighed the rewards. And they were probably right. With one exception, the five young men Rapp was there to extract weren’t good fighters. None were much use at gathering intelligence, either. Mostly they sat around making long political speeches that the others then heartily agreed with. But when he’d needed them, they’d stepped up. Fuck if he wouldn’t do the same.
Unfortunately, that decision had forced him to put a reluctant Joe Maslick in charge of the Rabat, Morocco, operation. In the end, it was probably a good thing. The op wasn’t all that complicated and Maslick needed some command experience whether he liked it or not.
Rapp closed his eyes for a moment, acknowledging that he was just stalling. He’d hoped never to have to return to this place, going so far as to try to convince the military to mount a major assault to take back the city. Predictably, they’d pushed back. It wasn’t that they didn’t think they could do it. With U.S. support, the Iraqi army was strong enough now to recapture it. The problem was that the locals didn’t really see the Iraqi army as much different than ISIS. Just another occupying force to fight an endless guerrilla war against. Welcome to the Middle East.
Rapp stood and moved forward, slipping between two buildings and navigating by the light of a full moon. This area of town had taken a lot of battle damage and was largely uninhabited now. He’d been through it once before but hadn’t bothered to commit it to memory.
After about five minutes of generally southward travel, he came to a collapsed building with little more than the east wall surviving. It was one of the landmarks he’d identified from a photo at Langley and he turned left, cutting diagonally across a cratered square.
By the time he made it to the far side, he was certain he was being tracked. There was a natural rhythm to the debris dislodging from the structures around him and now it was off just enough to stand out. The footfalls were random and careful, but to the practiced ear they were unmistakable.
He kept his pace casual, climbing over a burned car to gain access to the alley behind it. When he was certain he was obscured from view, he sidestepped into a gap in the wall to his right.
Whoever was behind him was disciplined—Rapp would give him that. It was a full two minutes before he was able to pick out an intermittent shadow inching toward his position. He dug a shard of concrete from around a piece of rebar and threw it, creating a nearly inaudible clatter twenty yards to the south.
The footsteps faltered for a moment. Rapp retrieved his Glock and waited, barely breathing. A few seconds passed before the silhouette reappeared. The man it belonged to was an inch taller than him and a good six inches wider at the shoulder. He had an assault rifle strapped across his chest and was moving in a manner that suggested he was more than just another ISIS dipshit.
Rapp remained motionless in the darkness where he’d taken refuge, watching the man approach. When he walked past, Rapp stepped out and pressed his gun to the back of his head.
The man didn’t cry out or even speak, instead coming to a halt and raising his hands. Rapp moved slowly around him, brushing the barrel of his Glock through the man’s hair until it came to rest against his forehead.
“I remember you being less sloppy,” Rapp said in Arabic.
“And I remember you looking like the wrong end of a goat.”
Rapp pulled the gun back and the big man embraced him.
“Hold your face to the sky, my friend. Let me see you.”
Rapp raised his chin to catch the moonlight and the Iraqi gripped Rapp’s beard, moving his face around to see better.
“It’s miraculous what you Americans can do,” he said sincerely.
In order to not be recognized on his prior operation in al-Shirqat, Rapp had been forced to let Joe Maslick beat his face into something resembling raw meat. That was the only face Gaffar had ever seen—the broken, bleeding, and swollen one Maslick had created.
“More surgeries than I care to remember.”
“Yes, but still… it’s incredible.”
“How are the others?”
“They’re managing, but they aren’t soldiers. Fear is a good motivator, but this…” He waved a hand around him. “The cold, the boredom, the lack of food. It is hard.”
“How long have you been hiding out here?”
Rapp nodded. Often it wasn’t the terror and exhaustion of combat that beat people down. It was everything in between.
“Come,” Gaffar said. “I’ll take you to them.”
What was left of this part of town appeared to be uninhabited and of no interest to ISIS forces, but still it made sense to proceed carefully. They finally arrived at a massive concrete slab that had tipped against a crumbling wall. Gaffar picked up a rock and tapped it three times against what had once been a lamppost. A moment later the people Rapp had come for appeared at the entrance of the artificial cave.
On the left were two thin men who looked like computer geeks. One seemed to have lost his glasses and was squinting uselessly into the darkness. Mohammed, their leader, didn’t seem too much worse for the wear and neither did his brother.
The Iraqi siblings were the only two men in the world that Rapp had a hard time looking in the eye, so he adjusted his gaze to the woman pressed against Mohammed’s side.
“You got married?” Rapp said. “Interesting sense of timing.”
“Shada was being auctioned off by ISIS. I’ve known her since we were children. I sold everything I had and used the money to buy her.”
Rapp looked into her dark eyes, taking in the unlined face and black, tangled hair. He had purchased Mohammed’s sister under similar circumstances. This girl was younger and more fearful, but otherwise no different than Laleh had been.
The memory was accompanied by a painful constriction in Rapp’s chest and he pushed her image from his mind. It would come back, though. It always did.
“If there isn’t room for me, I’ll stay behind,” she said as the silence drew out.
“No,” one of the geeks said, a little too loudly. “If anyone is going to stay here, it should be him. He got us into this.”
“Shut up!” Gaffar said in a harsh whisper. “We got ourselves into this. It’s our country to fight for. Our people who have destroyed it. Not his.”
He raised his hand to strike the man, but Rapp caught it.
“Look, all you have to do is hold it together for a little longer. Then this’ll all be over.”
He retrieved the food he’d brought and divided it among them. “Now eat up and gather your gear.”
“Then she can come?” Mohammed said.
Rapp nodded. “Five minutes.”