The Last Man
Author:Vince Flynn

Chapter 6

"I'VE never even heard of this man," the woman said with obvious frustration. "Who the hell does he think he is?"

Colonel Hunter Poole took a final drag from his cigarette, then tossed it to the gravel and crushed it with the heel of his black jump boot. "I don't know much about him."

"But you've heard of him?"

Poole knew he needed to be careful. Arianna Vinter was a passionate woman whose one glaring weakness was that she thought she could bully her way to any victory, and from what he'd heard about this Rapp fellow, it was probably not wise to attack him in a direct fashion. Poole shrugged and said, "He's a spook. They don't exactly advertise their resumes."

Vinter regarded her military man with a skeptical squint of her hazel eyes. "You're holding back."

Poole played it cool. "I've heard a few things . . . the kind of stuff that doesn't make it into official reports." He lit another cigarette and said, "He's notorious in certain circles."

"Notorious how?" Vinter asked, taking a deep pull off her thin menthol cigarette.

Their liaisons had become increasingly common. The embassy was a crowded, cramped place, and smoking indoors by Americans was strictly forbidden, even in a country where virtually everyone smoked. And then there was the simple fact that they needed to be careful about their relationship. So they came to this corner of the compound where the multicolored shipping containers were stacked. It was the hinterlands, where the workers and the occasional jarhead came to replenish supplies, but never the higher-ups from the embassy, and Poole and Vinter were definitely higher-ups.

Poole placed a hand against a rust-colored Conex container and thought about the various rumors regarding Mitch Rapp. The man, like Poole, was in his midforties. Unlike Rapp, however, Poole had a sterling record. He'd graduated in the top 5 percent of his class from West Point, completed Ranger School, and then blazed a trail through the big Green Machine with stops at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was a platoon leader in the first Gulf War, and by the time the Iraq campaign started he was the company commander of Alpha Company, Second Ranger Battalion. He completed three combat tours with the Rangers, two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. During his second tour in Afghanistan he was serving as an intelligence officer on the Joint Special Operations Command staff when he heard his commanding officer tell a story about a CIA covert officer who had bluffed his way into a detention facility at the Bagram Air Base by impersonating a U.S. Air Force colonel from the Office of Special Investigations.

A week earlier two high-value Taliban commanders had been caught on the battlefield and thus far had refused to talk. In less than an hour Rapp managed to get one of the men to spill the beans on an impending terrorist operation set to target the United States. The rumors about how he pulled this off were varied, but they all circled around some very Orwellian tactics that created a mix of awe and fear among the men at JSOC. There were other stories out there about Rapp, most of them from second- or third-hand accounts of his exploits in Indian country. If they were to be believed, Rapp was a person capable of extreme violence, with little concern for his own mortality and an absolute disregard for the political and legal issues that the men and women in uniform had to wrestle with.

Poole had followed the rules as any smart West Pointer would, and he was now on the doorstep of receiving his first star - a lifelong dream, but that wasn't where it was going to end. Poole felt he had the right stuff. Shooting for the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs was his ultimate goal, and if that worked out, who knew, maybe even the Oval Office was a possibility. Up until recently Poole would have found it difficult to understand a man like Rapp. Poole had been a rule follower, but Vinter had opened his eyes to the reality of Washington. She had shown him that there were times where rules were senseless obstacles. Rapp appeared to have built his entire career and reputation on the same philosophy. As enticing as it was to cut corners, Poole knew he needed to be careful. The U.S. Army was an entirely different playground. One misstep in the eyes of the wrong general and your career was over.

It was the fear of just that kind of misstep that caused Poole to temper what he knew about Rapp. "It's not easy to separate fact from fiction where he's concerned, but if you believe even half of what is said about him, he's an extremely reckless individual." The kind of man that could sink my career, Poole thought to himself.

"Dammit!" Vinter flicked her cigarette into the side of the container, sparks cascading to the ground. "The last thing we need right now is some brute from the CIA screwing this up. I've worked way too hard." Vinter thought of her career at the State Department and all of the sacrifices she'd made to climb the ladder alongside all of the other scheming and plotting diplomats. She'd taken this god-awful posting in Afghanistan for multiple, complicated reasons and one very simple one - because it would further her career. Vinter hated Afghanistan. It was a country filled with people who were stuck in some ancient misogynistic culture that should have died a century ago. The place was filled with hocus-pocus religious fanatics, who had less respect for women than most men had for their dogs.

As much as it bothered Vinter that a bunch of bearded freaks could terrorize women with impunity while the U.S. government stood by, her boss had made it clear that there were other priorities. The orders had come from the White House that with the election bearing down on the administration they needed to accelerate the military withdrawal. The administration was looking for an excuse, any excuse that would satisfy the independent voters. For several years, Vinter had been pushing reintegration as a solution. The original term had been amnesty, but it didn't poll well, so she came up with something more benign. After multiple focus groups and $125,000 to one of K Street's top PR firms, they landed on reintegration. The word had a more clinical sound to it, but more important, it would pave the way for exit and victory.

It was one of those rare moments in Vinter's career when her genius had led to something that she didn't want. It had been nearly a year ago when the secretary of state's assistant told her to come on up to the palatial office for a very important meeting. It started out well enough. The secretary told her the president loved her idea. Vinter had beamed with pride, like a child finally receiving due recognition from a distant parent, and then came the bad part. The president wanted her to take the lead, run with her idea, and make sure it got implemented. Her boss told her, "The president wants you on the ground in Kabul supervising the entire operation. You'll report directly to me. We're putting a lot of power in your hands. The ambassador will be told to aid you in any way you need and the White House is prepared to lean very heavily on the Pentagon and the CIA to make sure they support you. For all intents and purposes you will be running the show in Afghanistan."

Vinter didn't really hear the rest of it; her mind hung up on the part about living in Kabul, as if it were some bone-jarring pothole in an otherwise smooth road. Vinter had traveled to Afghanistan on multiple occasions, and she had long ago decided that she detested the place, but this was a career maker. She knew almost immediately that if she did her year or two in hell she could demand any post she wanted afterward. Her husband was not thrilled that she had failed to consult him on the decision, but she knew he wouldn't have the balls to really stand up to her. And besides, her teenage son was driving her nuts. There was too much testosterone in the house for her liking. She rationalized that it might be the best thing for her to take a break from the two men in her life, and if it caused her marriage to fall apart, that was something she could deal with. After seventeen years, change might not be the worst thing.

"He's a small cog in an extremely big wheel," Poole said, trying to calm her down.

Vinter was an extremely intelligent and passionate woman, but she could handle only one passion at a time, and Poole was more interested in getting her to hike up her skirt at the moment. He reached out and placed his right hand on her shoulder. "One call to the secretary and you can have him shipped off to Antarctica." He started rubbing her shoulder.

Vinter turned that possibility over in her mind until she figured out that her little Army boy was a bit too earnest in his physical contact. "What in the hell are you doing?"

"I'm trying to help you relax. You don't think clearly when you get like this."

"And you don't think clearly when you let your dick do your thinking. I've seen that look in your eye before. You're not worried about me thinking clearly, you're focused on having sex." Vinter saw the playful grin on Poole's face. "It's only been, what . . . six weeks and I already have you figured out. There will be no screwing back here between the storage containers like a couple of dogs in heat. It happened once. It was a moment of weakness, and it will never happen again."

"Come on," Poole half moaned. He pulled her close, adding, "I need you."

"You had me two days ago. I don't think you need it that bad."

"Normally I'm not like this, but you make me crazy." He kissed her lips while his hands found her backside.

Vinter pushed him away. "We have a meeting in ten minutes. Snap out of it. Zahir is threatening to take his men and go back to the mountains. If that happens it could create a domino effect and all of the progress I've achieved over the past year will vanish. All because some spook got kidnapped." She thought about the strange turn of events. "I hear this mercenary who is trying to undo all of our hard work is going to show his face at the meeting."

Poole pulled Vinter's hand toward his crotch. "Speaking of hard."

Vinter almost slapped him. "Stop it. We need to focus. Darren is absolutely beside himself. He says this Rapp has serious mental issues. Do you know what Washington will do if they hear we screwed this up?"

Poole had finally got it through his head that they weren't going to have sex. He took a deep sigh. "You're making way too big of a deal out of this. We didn't screw anything up. We're on schedule with reintegration. If this thing goes off the tracks at this point we blame it on Rapp. We lay it at the feet of the CIA and get out of the way."

"That doesn't work for me. I don't fail." Vinter stabbed herself in the chest with her index finger, attempting to add some unneeded emphasis to her position. Her hazel eyes wild with fury, she added. "I'm not going back to D.C. a fucking disaster."

Poole sighed. It appeared that a confrontation was unavoidable. He wondered if there was any way to minimize the oncoming clash. Vinter would expect 100 percent support from him, but Poole had already decided it would be foolish to confront Rapp in such an open way. Poole had learned that when going into battle against an unknown enemy you must set your ego aside and have a contingency in place for a tactical withdrawal. That was the careful course he would have to navigate. Vinter would scream at him later, but even with the great sex, he was growing tired of her browbeatings. Maybe this would present an opportunity to balance the scales and make her more compliant.

"I'm going to support you, but I'm warning you he might not be the kind of guy you want to pick a fight with."

"Well, I'm not the kind of woman you want to pick a fight with. And it's not going to be a fight. I'm going to tear his balls off and send him packing and that's going to be the end of it."

As much as Poole wanted to believe her, he shared none of her confidence. "Arianna, I know I'm not going to be able to change your mind, but don't tell me I didn't warn you." Having no desire to hear her response, Poole turned and began making his way toward the main building.