SOUTHWEST OF THAMUD
MITCH Rapp started to move again, weaving through an expansive boulder field before dropping to his stomach at its edge. A quick scan of the terrain through his binoculars provided the same result it had every time before: reddish dirt covering an endless series of pronounced ridges. No water. No plant life. A burned-out sky starting to turn orange in the west. If it were ninety-five below zero instead of ninety-five above, he could have been on Mars.
Rapp shifted his gaze to the right, concentrating for a good fifteen seconds before spotting a flash of movement that was either Scott Coleman or one of his men. All were wearing camo made from cloth specifically selected and dyed for this op by Charlie Wicker’s girlfriend. She was a professional textile designer and a flat-out genius at matching colors and textures. If you gave her a few decent photos of your operating theater, she’d make you disappear.
A couple of contrails appeared above and he followed them with his eyes. Saudi jets on their way to bomb urban targets to the west. This
sparsely populated part of Yemen had become the exclusive territory of ISIS and al Qaeda, but the Saudis largely ignored it. Viable targets were hard to engage from the air and the Kingdom didn’t have the stomach to get bloody on the ground. That job had once again landed in his lap.
Satisfied they weren’t being watched, Rapp started forward in a crouch. Coleman and his team would follow, watching his back at perfect intervals like they had in Iraq. And Afghanistan. And Syria. And just about every other shithole the planet had to offer.
The Yemeni civil war had broken out in 2015 between Houthi rebels and government forces. Predictably, other regional powers had been drawn in, most notably Iran backing the rebels and Saudi Arabia getting behind the government. The involvement of those countries had intensified the conflict, creating a humanitarian disaster impressive even by Middle Eastern standards.
In many ways, it was a forgotten war. The world’s dirty little secret. Even among U.S. government officials and military commanders, it would be hard to find anyone aware that two-thirds of Yemen’s population was surviving on foreign aid and another eight million were slowly starving. They also wouldn’t be able to tell you that hunger and the loss of basic services were causing disease to run rampant through the country. Cholera, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and even diphtheria were surging to levels unheard-of in the modern era.
And anyplace that could be described using words like “forgotten,” “rampant,” and “war” eventually became a magnet for terrorists. They were yet another disease that infected the weakened and wounded.
An unusually high ridge became visible to the northwest, and Rapp dropped to the ground again, studying it through his lenses. He could make out a gap just large enough for a human about three hundred yards away.
“Whatcha got?” Coleman said over his earpiece.
“The cave entrance. Right where they said it would be.”
“Are we moving?”
“No, it’s backlit. We’ll let the sun drop over the horizon.”
“Roger that. Everybody copy?”
Bruno McGraw, Joe Maslick, and Charlie Wicker all acknowledged. The four men made up about half the people in the world Rapp trusted. Probably a sad state of affairs, but one that had kept him alive for a lot longer than anyone would have predicted.
He fine-tuned the focus on his binoculars, refining his view of the dark hole in the cliff face. It was hard to believe that Sayid Halabi was still alive. If Rapp had been any closer with that grenade, it would have gotten jammed in the ISIS leader’s throat. But even if his aim had been way off, it shouldn’t have mattered. The blast had brought down a significant portion of the cavern he’d been hiding out in.
The collapse had been extensive enough that Rapp himself had been trapped in it. In fact, he’d have died slowly in the darkness if Joe Maslick wasn’t a human wrecking ball who had spent much of his youth digging ditches on a landscaping crew. Oxygen had been getting pretty scarce when Mas finally broke through and dragged him from the grave he’d made for himself.
Despite all that, the intel on Halabi seemed reasonably solid. A while back, someone at NSA had decrypted a scrambled Internet video showing the man standing in the background at an al Qaeda meeting. The initial take had been that it was archival footage dredged up to keep the troops motivated. Deeper analysis, though, suggested that the images may have been taken six months after the night Rapp thought he’d finally ground his boot into that ISIS cockroach.
The video had led to the capture of one of the people at that meeting, and his interrogation led Rapp to this burned-out plain. The story was that Halabi had been severely injured by that grenade and was hiding out here convalescing. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question was whether it was true. And if it was true, was he still here. Clearly, he was healthy enough to be going to meetings and starting the process of rebuilding ISIS after the beating it had taken in his absence.
The sun finally hit the horizon, causing an immediate drop in temperature and improvement in visibility. Waiting for full darkness was
an option, but it seemed unnecessary. He hadn’t seen any sign of exterior guards and night versus day would have little meaning once he passed into that cave.
“We’re on,” he said into his throat mike.
“Copy that,” came Coleman’s response.
Rapp angled left, moving silently across the rocky terrain until he reached a stone wall about twenty yards from the cavern entrance. Staying low, he crept along the wall’s base until he reached its edge. Still no sign of ISIS enforcers. Behind him, the terrain was similarly empty, but that was to be expected. Coleman and his team would remain invisible until they were needed. It was impossible to anticipate the environment inside the cave, and Rapp was concerned that it could get tight enough to make a force of more than one man counterproductive.
When he finally slipped inside, the only evidence that it was inhabited was the churned dirt beneath his feet. He held his weapon in front of him as he eased along a passage about three feet wide and ten feet high. The familiar weight of his Glock had been replaced with that of an early-model Mission crossbow. His weapons tech had modified it for stealth, pushing the decibel level below eighty-five at the bow. Even better, the pitch had been lowered to the point that it sounded nothing like a weapon. Even to Rapp’s practiced ear, it came off more like a bag of sand dropping onto a sidewalk.
Crossbows weren’t the fastest things to reload and there hadn’t been much time to train with it, but he still figured it was the best tool for the job. The quietest pistol he owned—a Volquartsen .22 with a Gemtech suppressor—was strapped to his thigh, but it would be held in reserve. While it was impressively stealthy, the sharp crack it made was too loud and recognizable for this operating environment.
The darkness deepened the farther he penetrated, forcing him to move slowly enough for his eyes to keep pace. Based on what had happened last time he’d chased Sayid Halabi into a hole, it made sense to prioritize caution over speed. Mas might have forgotten his shovel.
A faint glow became visible at the end of the passage and Rapp
inched toward it, avoiding the rocks beneath his feet and staying on the soft earth. As he got closer, he could see that the corridor came to a T. The branch going right dead-ended after a few feet but the one to the left continued. A series of tiny bulbs wired to a car battery was the source of the glow.
One of the downsides of LED technology was that it made hiding out in caves a lot easier. A single battery could provide light for days. But it also created a vulnerability. Power supplies tended not to be as widely distributed and redundant as they used to be.
Rapp reached down and flipped the cable off the battery, plunging the cavern into darkness.
Shouts became audible almost immediately, but sounded more annoyed than alarmed. Rapp could tell that the voices belonged to two male Arabic speakers, but picking out exactly what they were saying was difficult with the echo. Basically a little name-calling and arguing about whose turn it was to fix the problem. When all your light came from a single improvised source, occasional outages were inevitable.
One of the men appeared a few seconds later, swinging a flashlight in his right hand but never lifting it high enough to give detail to his face. It didn’t matter. From his youthful gait and posture, it was clear that it wasn’t Halabi. Just one of his stooges.
Rapp aimed around the corner and gently squeezed the trigger. The sound profile of the crossbow and the projectile’s impact were both outstanding. Unfortunately, the accuracy at this range was less so. The man was still standing, seemingly perplexed by the fletching protruding beneath his left clavicle.
Rapp let go of his weapon and sprinted forward, getting one arm around the Arab’s neck and clamping a hand over his mouth and nose. The man fought as he was dragged back around the corner, but the sound of their struggle was attenuated by soft ground. Finally, Rapp dropped and wrapped his legs around him to limit his movement. There wasn’t enough leverage to choke him out, but the hand over his face was doing a pretty good job of suffocating him. The process took
longer than he would have liked and he was gouged a few times by the protruding bolt, but the Arab finally lost consciousness. A knife to the base of his skull finished the job.
Rapp slid from beneath the body and was recocking the crossbow when another shout echoed through the cavern.
“Farid! What are you doing, idiot? Turn the lights back on!”
Rapp yelled back that he couldn’t get them working, counting on the acoustics to make it difficult to distinguish one Arabic-speaking male from another. He loaded a bolt into his weapon and ran to the battery, putting the flashlight facedown in the dirt before crouching. The illumination was low enough that anyone approaching wouldn’t be able to see much more than a vague human outline.
A stream of half-baked electrical advice preceded the sound of footsteps and then another young man appeared. He didn’t seem at all concerned, once again proving the grand truth of all things human: people saw what they wanted and expected to see.
Rapp let the terrorist get to within fifteen feet before snatching up the crossbow. This time he compensated by aiming low and left, managing to put the projectile center of mass. No follow-up was necessary. The man fell forward, landing face-first in the dirt.
Certain that he wasn’t getting up again, Rapp reconnected the battery. He was likely going to need the light. Things had gone well so far but, in his experience, good luck never came in threes.
Support for that hypothesis emerged when a man who was apparently distrustful of the sound of falling sand bags sprinted around the corner. Rapp’s .22 was in an awkward position to draw, so instead he grabbed one of the bolts quivered on the crossbow.
The terrorist had been a little too enthusiastic in his approach and his momentum bounced him off one of the cave’s walls. Rapp took advantage of his compromised balance and lunged, driving the bladed head into his throat.
Not pretty, but effective enough to drop the man. As he fell, though, a small pipe sprouting wires rolled from his hand.
Rapp used his boot to kick the IED beneath the man’s body and then ran in the opposite direction, making it about twenty feet before diving into a shallow dip in the ground. The explosion sent hot gravel washing over him and he heard a few disconcertingly loud cracks from above, but that was it. The rock held. He rolled onto his back, pulling his shirt over his mouth and nose to protect his lungs from the dust. The smart money would be to turn tail and call in a few bunker busters, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. If Halabi was there, Rapp was going to see him dead. Even if they entered the afterlife together with their hands around each other’s throats.
The sound of automatic fire started up outside but Rapp ignored it, pulling the Volquartsen and using a penlight to continue deeper into the cavern. Coleman and his boys could handle themselves.
The cave system turned out to be relatively simple—a lot of branches, but almost all petered out after a few feet. The first chamber of any size contained a cot and some rudimentary medical equipment—an IV cart, monitors, and a garbage can half full of bloody bandages. All of it looked like it had been there for a while.
The second chamber appeared to have been set up for surgical procedures but wasn’t much more advanced than something from World War I. A gas cylinder that looked like it came from a welder, a tray with a few instruments strewn across it, and a makeshift operating table streaked with dried blood.
And that was the end of the line. The cave system dead-ended just beyond.
“Shit!” Rapp shouted, his voice reverberating down the corridor and bouncing back to him.
The son of a bitch had been there. They’d brought him to treat the injuries he’d sustained in Iraq and to give him time to heal. A month ago, Rapp might have been able to look into his eyes, put a pistol between them, and pull the trigger. But now he was long gone. Sayid Halabi had slipped through his fingers again.