The Last Man
Author:Vince Flynn



Chapter 8

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

RAPP looked out the porthole of the enormous MRAP Cougar. The drive from the airport to the embassy was short, just under two miles. The Army Corp of Engineers had done a nice job widening the Great Massoud Road to relieve as many choke points as possible. Cameras had been installed and fresh blacktop prevented insurgents from trying to bury roadside bombs. No parking was permitted on the street, and the sidewalks were kept clear of garbage, vendors, and pretty much anything that could conceal a roadside bomb. Despite all of these precautions, Rapp was filled with anxiety.

While most people found comfort in the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, Rapp thought of them as big rolling coffins. You might as well paint a sign on the hulking side that said Infidels. Rapp preferred a more low-profile form of transportation. The Clandestine Service at Langley bought older-model vehicles and had private contractors make sure the cars were in top mechanical shape. Occasionally they would add bulletproof glass and some armor, but in Afghanistan, Rapp felt the key was to change vehicles often and blend in.

As they hit the big turnaround at the corner of the embassy, Rapp felt his chest tighten. They were close to the gate and this was where the crazies liked to attack. The vehicle came to a sudden stop. They were the third in a three-vehicle convoy. Rapp looked up at Coleman with irritation washed across his face and asked, "Why are we stopping?"

Coleman gave him an easy shrug. "Probably checking our creds."

"You mean to tell me those dumbasses didn't pre-clear us?"

"No idea." Coleman smiled, amused at Rapp's nervousness.

Rapp punched the button to lower the back hatch. "Well, I'm not going to be a sitting duck." As the stairs lowered, Rapp nimbly navigated them before they were all the way down.

Coleman laughed at him and popped the button to close the hatch. The Air Force security guys driving the vehicle were grumbling up front, wanting to know who the moron was who had just compromised their secure vehicle. Coleman waved them off and apologized.

Outside, Rapp came face-to-face with a U.S. Marine who couldn't have been older than twenty. The corporal gave Rapp a knowing nod and said, "I don't like those things either."

Rapp took a quick look around and realized the Marine was part of a security team that had been pushed out one hundred feet from the main gate. They were in a semicircle spaced every thirty feet; a loose cordon designed to create a secure pocket while credentials were verified and vehicles checked. The embassy's perimeter blast walls, ballistic glass, and Kevlar-reinforced walls were impervious to car bombs, but visitors were vulnerable during this brief window when they were at the embassy's doorstep. Two four-man fire teams composed the extended security.

What a shitty job, Rapp thought to himself. They were a thin tripwire out here to slow down any crazy bastards who were barreling down on the gate in an explosives-laden vehicle. Their early shots with their M-4s were not likely to stop the vehicle, nor were the rounds of the M249 SAW. It was the job of the big .50 caliber guns back at the gate to punch a hole in the engine of any unauthorized vehicle.

"How'd you end up with this powder-puff job?" Rapp asked, as his eyes continued to sweep the area.

The Marine tapped the two chevrons on his sleeve. "Shit rolls downhill and, as my gunny likes to remind me, the Corps is not a democracy. So I do what I'm told."

Rapp nodded - understood it was the way it had to be. "Good luck." Rapp turned and headed for the door next to the big steel gate. A sergeant in his tan combat utility uniform and decked out in body armor intercepted him. Rapp pulled out a set of fake State Department credentials.

The sergeant took the credentials and said, "Wait here." He walked over to the closest guard booth and slid the identification through the metal box. A few moments later he returned with Rapp's fake creds and a badge. "Are you armed, Mr. Cox?"

Rapp shook his head and said, "Nope," even though he was carrying two pistols and a knife. He followed the sergeant to the small door and stepped through. On the other side a familiar face was waiting for him. Rapp was neither pleased nor bothered to see Mike Nash. "Irene decided to send over reinforcements."

Nash had been attached to Rapp's team for almost five years and had recently been promoted to deputy director of the Counterterrorism Center at Langley. "I'm only the first wave. She's pulling in clandestine boys from all over the place."

Rapp grimaced. He didn't have the time or the patience to manage all of these people. It quickly dawned on him that he wouldn't have to. That was why Nash was here. Still, he needed to have a say in what these people would be doing or they'd end up falling all over each other. "And what are we going to do with everyone?"

Nash shrugged. "They're gonna beat the bushes until we find something more specific."

Normally Rapp would have been drastically against drawing too much attention to what they were doing, but this little disaster was a unique problem. Beating the bushes was as a good a start as any for the moment. "Any orders?" Rapp asked, knowing there would be.

"Yeah," Nash said as he jerked his head toward a tree-lined walkway, signaling Rapp to follow him. The two men looked enough alike to be confused as brothers. Rapp was five years older and an inch taller. His hair was black with a touch of gray where Nash's was dark brown. The main similarities were in their square jaws and overall demeanor. When they were a good distance away from the gate Nash found a spot under a towering cypress tree. "What'd you find out in Jalalabad?"

"Four dead bodyguards, safe's empty, his laptop is gone, and God only knows what else. It's a fucking disaster."

"Any leads?"

"Not really." Rapp shook his head. "Although I met some asshole named Zahir. He used to be a terrorist, but now he's supposedly our friend." Rapp's tone made it obvious that he didn't buy the last part.

"Abdul Siraj Zahir. I'm familiar with his work. I warned both Rick and Sickles that we didn't want to get in bed with him, but they ignored me."

"Well, the asshole showed up at the safe house and tried to throw his weight around."

"And I'm sure you employed all of your diplomatic skill to defuse the situation."

"You're a smart man. He took a shit all over Hubbard, and when I couldn't take it anymore I stuck a gun in his face and threatened to blow his head off."

Nash laughed. He thought briefly about telling Rapp how dangerous Zahir could be, but he'd be wasting his breath. Mitch knew his type all too well. "Not the most subtle approach."

"Listen . . . I'd love to be all sneaky and clever about this, but we don't have the time. We either get him back in the next few days or all hell is going to break loose."

Nash concurred. "Irene agrees. We all know the score and know what has to be done."

Rapp was suspicious that the higher-ups in D.C. were of a single mind. "Listen, I've seen this movie before. They say all kinds of shit, talk tough, and demand results, and then we run off and start kicking in doors and knocking heads and then a year from now, if things start to leak, they'll act all shocked and demand we swing from the mast."

"I don't disagree, but at least this time, Irene says DOD, State, and the White House are all on board."

Rapp still wasn't buying it. "That's what they say now, but I'm telling you . . . down the road they'll bail on our asses so fast it'll make your head spin."

"You're probably right, but what in the hell are we going to do about it? We either play by the book and watch it all fall apart or we get rough and hope we get him back before he spills the family jewels."

"I know what we have to do, and I'm willing to do it, but you're not going to convince me that those clowns in D.C. will support us for a second."

Nash didn't have much faith in his fellow bureaucrats and even less in the politicians who ran the city, but they had more leverage than Rapp was giving them credit for. "Did you know Rick became the de facto paymaster for this reintegration program?"

Rapp was surprised by the news. "I thought State was running that cluster fuck."

"They were the lead agency, but they didn't have the wherewithal, or I suspect the guts to actually shake hands with this collection of misfits, so the president asked Irene if we could help out."

"And she said yes."

"That's correct, so Irene has a little more leverage on all of them this time around since they all signed on. Maybe they'll be more cooperative."

"I won't hold my breath."

"None of us expect you to, which is what we need to talk about. This meeting that's about to take place . . . Irene wants you to keep a low profile."

"Why?"

"She's working directly with the Sec Def and the Sec State to keep their people in line. The White House is helping out and she thinks she can get all of them to basically close their eyes and cover their ears for the next seventy-two hours."

"Fine by me."

Nash pressed. "She doesn't want you to pick any fights."

Rapp scoffed and shook his head. "With who?"

"With anyone."

"What about that Sickles dumbass?"

"She wants me to handle him."

"Really," Rapp said with a raised brow, "then you'd better keep him away from me."

Nash knew this wouldn't be easy and dancing around the issue would only make it worse. "Listen . . . everyone knows you're point on this, but you have a history of not playing nice on the playground with the other kids."

Rapp heard the first MRAP roll through the gate, shook his head in frustration, and said, "Spit it out. I'm not in the most patient mood this morning."

"You're never in a patient mood, so I need you to slow down for a second . . . hear me out. There's going to be a woman in this meeting . . . Arianna Vinter . . . have you heard of her?"

"No."

"She's from State . . . she's the one who came up with this whole reintegration business. Apparently she's a real ball buster . . . very connected and she's not afraid to chew ass."

"Wonderful."

"Yeah . . . well, Irene thinks you two are going to have a problem."

"Why would you guys want to put me in a room with this woman?"

"Believe me, Irene thought long and hard about it."

"Then why don't I just skip it?"

"We thought about that, but Irene wants them to understand how serious this is, and she wants them to all know that we are running the show until the White House says different."

"Then I don't see a problem."

"Irene's not so sure. She doesn't want you getting distracted and she thinks this Vinter will do exactly that."

This was the type of stuff that drove Rapp nuts. In the best of times he couldn't give a rat's ass about the feelings of some State Department bureaucrat, but now, in the midst of one of the worst debacles the Agency had seen in decades, his fuse was so short, he was ready to explode. He pointed his finger at Nash and was about to unleash a torrent of expletives when Coleman rolled up and interrupted him.

"Mike, how was your flight?" Coleman extended his hand.

"Fine." Nash shook his hand and then pointed at Rapp with his thumb. "I'm just trying to calm down our friend."

"Don't waste your time. Where's Stan? I need to talk to him."

For no apparent reason, Nash's demeanor melted into a mask of concern at the mention of the man who had trained both him and Rapp.

Rapp picked up on it immediately. "What's wrong?"

"He's not going to be making the trip."

"Why?"

Nash looked at the ground for a few seconds and then said, "He got some bad news while you guys were in the air."

"What kind of bad news?" Rapp asked.

"Cancer."

"Shit," Rapp said under his breath. "His lungs?" Stan Hurley had smoked for more than forty years.

Nash nodded. "Stage four. They're giving him six months. Maybe a little more . . . maybe a little less."

It was as if all of Rapp's energy had left him. Just melted away from his head down to his feet and onto the pavement. His relationship with Hurley was a complicated one that couldn't have started off on a worse footing, but over the last two decades the irascible old cuss had become an extremely valuable mentor. Often he was the only person that Rapp could really confide in. Hurley was the only man who had truly walked in his shoes. Rapp turned away from Coleman and Nash and began to walk. He had no destination in mind, only a feeling that he needed to be alone so he could get a handle on the sadness that was beginning to wash over him.