Protect and Defend
PUERTO GOLFITO, COSTA RICA
Mitch Rapp ran his hand along her smooth, naked thigh, up to her waist, and then down along her flat stomach. His body was pressed against hers; front to back, her head resting on his arm. This moment had not been part of the plan, but it shouldn’t have surprised him. There had been signposts; furtive glances, comments made only half in jest. The tension had built for the better part of a year. Each of them silently wondering. Neither knowing for sure if it would ever go to that next level. And then they arrived at the private villa overlooking the tranquil beach. The warm, humid air, the crashing surf, the shots of tequila; all coalesced to create a situation of overwhelming sexual tension.
Rapp kissed her bare shoulder, nudged a lock of her silky, black hair with his nose and listened to her breathing. She was sound asleep. He lay still for a long moment, completely intoxicated by the smell and touch of the beautiful woman lying next to him. He hadn’t felt this alive in a long time, though guilt was still hovering in the recesses of his conscience, waiting to come rushing back at any moment. He could sense it gnawing at the edge of his psyche. Trying to get back in. Forcing him to think about things he wished he could forget, but knew he never would.
Pulling himself away from her, he rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling fan. Candles danced with the breeze and threw a faint light on the slow-turning blades and the dark, stained timber rafters above. Beyond the open balcony doors the waves rolled onto the beach. It had been two years since a bomb had destroyed his home on the Chesapeake Bay, killing his wife and the child she was carrying. Not once since that tragic day had he slept soundly, and tonight would be no different.
They’d come for him on that fall afternoon—not her. His guilt over her death drove him to the heights of rage and the valleys of sorrow. He had been a fool to think he could settle down and have a family. There were too many enemies. Too many relatives of the men he had killed. Too many governments and powerful individuals who would like nothing more than to see Mitch Rapp lying facedown in a pool of his own blood. There had been moments—moments of deep despair where Rapp had quietly wished one of them would succeed. He welcomed the challenge. Just maybe, someone would get lucky and put him out of his misery.
The odds of that happening tonight, however, were slim to nonexistent. Contrary to what his current prone position and the woman lying next to him suggested, Rapp had not traveled thousands of miles for a romantic getaway. Simply put, he had journeyed to this tropical location to kill a man. A narcissistic political operative who had selfishly put the needs of his party and himself above those of America. His scheming had changed the course of the last presidential election and resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent people. With each passing week, it became more obvious that the man thought he had gotten away with it. In fact, only a few people did know of his involvement, but unfortunately for the target, they were not the types to let treason go unpunished.
Rapp and his team had kept an eye on the man for the better part of a year. At first the surveillance was extremely passive. He was on one coast, and Rapp and his people were on the other. They tracked him electronically through his credit cards and ATM withdrawals. As the months passed, and the target began to let his guard down, they stepped up the surveillance. Listening devices were placed near his home, office, and boat, and his cell phone calls were monitored. Spyware was installed on his computers and they began tracking his every move, looking for a pattern or an opportunity.
That was how they discovered the trip he had planned, a monthlong excursion from San Diego down to Panama and back. The target was planning on putting his brand-new two million–dollar boat through his own personal sea trial. Rapp got his hands on the complete itinerary for the trip and sent an advance team to scout the ports of call. Terminating the target in a remote Third World country was infinitely better than doing so in America.
It turned out Puerto Golfito was the perfect location. Relatively small, the fishing village had a growing tourist industry. Cruise ships now dropped anchor a few times a week to disgorge their passengers. Commerce was on the up, real estate was booming, and the entire city was in a state of flux. It was the perfect environment for two people to come and go unnoticed. As far as operations went this one was not all that challenging. Even so, one aspect of the plan was giving Rapp some concern. The naked woman lying next to him was adamant that she be the one to send this man to his grave.
Maria Rivera had been the logical choice to accompany Rapp. Fluent in Spanish, she was highly motivated where the target was concerned. A little too motivated, possibly, which in addition to one other thing made Rapp a bit hesitant. She was more than capable of taking out the target, either by hand or with a gun, but she lacked practical experience. There was a reason why professional killers typically came from either the Special Forces or the mean streets. Both groups of men were desensitized to violence. They looked at it as a way to achieve an end. The formula for success was often no more complicated than meeting violence with superior violence.
The lovely Latina beside him had seen neither the mean streets of a ghetto nor the rough, covert world of Special Forces operators. Quite to the contrary, she had spent the last decade working for one of the world’s premier law enforcement agencies. Maria Rivera was a second-degree black belt and a former Secret Service agent who was an expert marksman with a pistol. She had been destined for greatness until a bomb tore apart a motorcade she was assigned to protect. The internal investigation that followed cleared her of any incompetence or blame, but in a business where success went unnoticed and failures became documentaries on the History Channel, she was quietly ushered off the fast track and stuffed away in a basement cubicle where her ambitions began to atrophy like the unused muscles of a comatose patient. Rapp knew she wouldn’t last long, so he offered her a chance at a new career.
Officially, Rivera worked for a private security company headquartered in McLean, Virginia. She was given the title of vice president and put in charge of personal protection and threat assessment. Her salary was three times greater than what she had earned with the Secret Service. The war on terror was good business for private security firms. Much of the company’s work was legitimate, but more and more Rapp was using them to do things that Langley needed to hide from the press and Congress.
This little south-of-the-border excursion was a perfect example of such an operation. Individually, Rapp would have had no problem getting a select number of senators or congressmen to sign off on the operation, but getting an entire committee to agree and not leak was impossible. Ego and political ambition trumped national security for far too many elected officials.
Rapp turned and looked at Rivera. Even though this operation was fairly simple, there was absolutely no room for mistakes. It had to look like an accident, or there would be too many questions. He wondered if she really had it in her, or if the years of law enforcement training would kick in and give her reason to pause. Killing a fellow human being was not always as difficult as one might believe. Give someone a minimal amount of training and put them in a situation where they are forced to defend either themselves or their family and most will rise to the occasion. Give someone like a Secret Service agent hundreds of hours of training and they will efficiently, and without hesitation, use lethal force to stop a gun-wielding presidential assassin.
Ask one of those same agents to kill an unarmed civilian and you have now moved into the unknown. Even if guilt is confirmed, and the punishment fits the crime, few law-and-order types relish the role of executioner. The agent is no longer being asked to react to a threat. An entirely new skill set is needed. Essentially you are asking a person who has only played defense to now line up on the other side of the ball and perform with the same level of proficiency. To change one’s role so quickly is nearly impossible. To kill cleanly, and make it look like an accident, was the domain of the rare, tested assassin.
Rapp checked Rivera again. She was sleeping soundly. Slowly, he slid his right arm out from under her neck, pulled back the sheet, and slid out of bed. As he covered her with the sheet her head stirred slightly and then settled back onto her pillow. Rapp backed away and walked across the cool tile floor to the balcony. A soft, humid breeze ruffled the tops of the palm trees below. He looked out across the bay at the bobbing masts of the sailboats and searched for the sleek cruiser that belonged to the man they had come to kill. The boat had arrived late in the afternoon and dropped anchor a convenient 200 feet from the nearest boat. The 63-foot Azzurra with its bright red stripe was easy to pick out among the other white hulls.
The man was scheduled to stay in Puerto Golfito for two nights. He had yet to deviate from his itinerary, which made Rapp’s job all that much easier. The plan for this evening was to watch him, but Rapp was beginning to have second thoughts. He looked up at the quarter moon and the approaching clouds. In an hour the conditions would be as good as they would get. The forecast called for clear skies the following evening. A quarter moon on the water provided more light than most people would think and more light increased the odds that they might be seen.
Rapp glanced back at Rivera. This one was going to be up close and personal. There would be no detachment through distance and the scope of a rifle. Even though the target was no threat physically, this was for many the most difficult kind of kill. The biggest psychological test. Bare hands. No knife. No gun. Just you and the prey wrapped in a death spiral like an anaconda squeezing the last breath from some warm-blooded animal it had plucked from the bank of a stream. She would feel the heat of his body, smell his scent, hear his muffled cries, and quite possibly see the pleading fear in his eyes. No, he decided, it was too big a test for Rivera.
Silently, he walked over to his bag and pulled out an encrypted Motorola radio. He turned it on and left it across the room on the dresser. With the rest of his gear in tow he slid out of the bedroom and made his way down the hall to the living room. The large sliding doors were open, covered only by sheer white curtains. Rapp headed for the middle, found the seam in the fabric, and stepped out onto the patio. He put on a pair of black swim skins and walked down the path to the water. The house sat on five acres and had its own private beach.
Rapp reached the tree line and checked the expanse of sand. It was empty. He slid a Motorola radio and a collapsible headset under the swim skins and strolled casually across the beach with his fins, snorkel, and dive mask. There was no sense in trying to be sneaky at this point. If anyone saw a person in black slinking suspiciously across the beach at this late hour they were likely to call the police. Rapp waded into the water, getting a fix on the boat. He lined it up with a dip in the tree line at the opposite end of the bay, finished putting on his mask and fins, and began slicing through the water toward the boat and its owner. He was going to squeeze the life out of Stu Garret, and he knew from experience that he wouldn’t feel the slightest bit of compassion.