EAST OF MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
MITCH Rapp slowed, letting Scott Coleman’s lead extend to ten feet.
They were running on a poorly defined dirt track that switchbacked up a mountain to the west of the one he’d built his house on. By design, it was late afternoon and they were in full sun. Temperatures were in the high eighties with humidity around the same level, covering Rapp in a film of perspiration that was beginning to soak through his shirt.
Coleman, on the other hand, looked like he’d just climbed out of a swimming pool. He was pouring so much sweat that the trail of mud he left behind him would be visible from space. His breathing was coming in random, wheezing gasps that made him sound like the soon-to-be victim in a slasher flick. On the brighter side, his pace was steady and he wasn’t tripping over the roots and loose rocks beneath his feet.
So, three quarters of the way to the summit, he was moving about as
well as anybody could expect under the circumstances. Rapp wasn’t anybody, though. It was time to see what the former navy SEAL could do.
He crashed through some low branches to Coleman’s left, pulling back onto the trail a few feet ahead. After about a minute of matching his old friend’s pace, he started to slowly accelerate. Behind him, the rhythm of footfalls rose in defiance. Like they always did.
Coleman had just spent more than a year focused entirely on recovering from a run-in with Grisha Azarov, the nearly superhuman enforcer who worked for Russia’s president. Azarov had finally walked away from his country and employer, but unfortunately not in time to save Coleman a wrecked shoulder, a knife blade broken off in his ribs, and multiple gunshot wounds. The blood loss alone would have killed a man half his age, but the former SEAL managed to beat the odds and stay above ground.
That had turned out to be the easy part. When he’d finally been hoisted out of bed, it had taken him almost a month just to relearn how to walk. And then there was the mental side. Going from being stronger, tougher, and faster than almost everyone around him to someone who needed a motorized cart to navigate the grocery store had been a tough blow. Even worse was coming to terms with the fact that Azarov had torn through him like he wasn’t there. Coleman was still struggling to regain the confidence he’d always possessed in well-deserved abundance.
So it had been a surprise—of the rare good kind—when he’d showed up on Rapp’s doorstep and invited him on a trail run. It was good to see a hint of the old swagger. He’d been Rapp’s backup for a long time and the truth was that the year without him could have gone better. In this business, you were only as good as the people you surrounded yourself with.
Rapp glanced at the heart rate monitor strapped to his wrist. One sixty-five—a hard but comfortable pace that he could hold for around three hours before blowing up. Behind him, Coleman’s breathing was becoming desperate and his footfalls were losing their steady tempo.
Stumbles, followed by awkward saves, were increasingly frequent as his thigh muscles began to give up. But no falls. Not yet.
They broke out of the trees and Rapp pushed the pace a little harder as the summit came into sight. Coleman tripped and went down on one hand, but managed to get back to his feet without losing momentum. He was running purely on determination and pride now, but that was okay. He had serious reserves of both.
One hundred and seventy-one beats per minute read out on Rapp’s monitor.
Coleman was starting to wheeze, a sick whistle from deep in his chest. Something caught in his throat and he started to choke, causing Rapp to hesitate for a moment. Then he started to sprint. If his old friend was going to drop dead, better now than in Afghanistan or Syria when people were counting on him.
Rapp slowed to a walk when he reached the top of the mountain, squinting as he scanned the rolling carpet of green below. He could see the gleaming dot that was his house to the east, surrounded by a few homes erected on similar widely spaced lots. His obscenely rich brother had bought the entire subdivision and sold the individual parcels for a dollar to Rapp’s colleagues, ensuring that his older sibling would always be surrounded by shooters loyal to him.
To the south of Rapp’s gate, a contemporary house of wood and blast-resistant glass was nearly finished. Whether its owner would survive the last hundred yards of this run to take occupancy, though, was an open question.
Fortunately, it was a question that didn’t take too long to answer. Coleman crested the hill, lurching toward Rapp and finally collapsing to the rocky ground. He managed to rise to all fours but didn’t stand, instead keeping his head down and concentrating on not throwing up. After about a minute, he regained enough control of his breathing to get out a single word.
Rapp glanced at his watch. “One hour, sixteen minutes, thirty-
three seconds. Pick it up a little bit and you might qualify for the senior Olympics.”
In fact, the pace they’d sustained on the climb would have shaken off a third of active duty SEALs. Not too bad for an old sailor the doctors said would need a cane for the rest of his life.
Coleman managed to lift one hand off the ground and raise his middle finger. “What’s your best?”
Rapp considered telling the truth but quickly discarded the idea. The amount of work Coleman had put into his recovery and the progress he’d made was incredible. No point in discouraging him.
“Hour eleven forty.”
“What would Azarov have done?”
“How the hell would I know?”
“Don’t bullshit me, Mitch. You worked with him.”
Rapp had recruited Azarov to help him with an operation that he didn’t want to involve Coleman’s men in. The former SEAL understood Rapp’s rationale for using the man who had nearly killed him—it had been a straight up illegal action that he didn’t want to blow back on the men who had been so loyal to him over the years. But that didn’t make Coleman any less competitive.
“All he does these days is drink beer by his pool and surf with his girlfriend.”
Coleman pushed himself to his feet. “Okay, Mitch. If you won’t tell me that, at least you can stop lying to me about your real personal best.”
“Fine. Hour four flat.”
“Shit,” Coleman said, lowering himself onto a boulder and staring out over the landscape. “I’ll never be as fast as I was before. Too many years and too much mileage.”
“Fighting’s not just about running up hills, Scott. You know that. I’m more concerned about your head.”
Coleman nodded, not taking his eyes off the horizon. “Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Maybe too much.”
“I’m not afraid, if that’s what you’re wondering. When your number’s up, it’s up. And I’ve made peace with what Azarov did to me. He was a young guy pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs. An Olympic-level athlete with surprise on his side.”
A barely perceptible smile appeared at the edges of his mouth. “And he damn near took you out, too.”
It was a true statement. Rapp won his battle with the Russian but that win had ended with him getting blown off an oil rig with his hair literally on fire. Too many more wins like that might kill him.
“It’s gonna get dark, Scott. And I want to take it easy on the way down. My knee’s bothering me.”
Coleman’s smile widened at the obvious lie.
And that was another thing that would be impossible to replace if he decided not to come back to active duty. They always knew what the other was thinking and could anticipate each other’s moves. They’d grown up in this business together and had a connection that Rapp doubted he could ever replicate with someone else.
“I’m okay with where I stand now,” Coleman said, looking up at him. “The question is, are you? You can’t be out there worrying about me leaving you hanging.”
Rapp’s cell phone rang and he pulled it out of a pocket in the back of his shirt. Claudia.
“What’s up?” he said, connecting the call.
“How’s Scott? You didn’t hurt him did you?”
Claudia Gould had recently gone from being the woman he was living with to being the woman he was living with who was also the logistics coordinator for Coleman’s company. Her late husband had been one of the top private contractors in the world before Stan Hurley tore his throat out. Not an ideal start to a relationship but it seemed to be working for both him and Coleman. She’d helped Rapp start living something that could pass for a life and she’d held SEAL Demolition and Salvage together while Coleman spent his days with personal trainers and physical therapists.
“He’s sitting right here.”
“Upright and under his own power?”
“Tell her you’re fine,” Rapp said, holding out the phone.
“I almost took him at the top, Claudia! Don’t let him tell you any different.”
Rapp frowned and put the phone back to his ear. “See?”
“Is he ready to come back to ops?”
“I think he’s ready to come back and run the whole thing. Ops and logistics.”
She switched to French as she always did when she was irritated. “You can wish all you want, Mitch, but he’s not firing me. I’m running that side of the business now. And it’s a good thing for us, because it pays a lot better than the CIA.”
There was no winning this fight, he knew. Claudia had taken a lot of pressure off Coleman and he had precisely zero desire to go back to coordinating details. Besides, she was better at it—something Coleman was fully willing to admit. The problem for Rapp was getting used to having the woman he was sleeping with on the comm when things went south. Boundaries between their personal and professional relationship were complicated and still in flux.
“Now’s not the time to talk about this, Claudia. Scott and I are going to start down, but it might take a while. Go ahead and feed Anna if she’s hungry. We can do dinner when I get back.”
“Actually, you aren’t coming down and we’re not having dinner together. Look to the north.”
He turned and squinted into the horizon. It took a few seconds but he finally made out a small dot over the mountains.
“There’s a laptop on board with a full briefing. Be careful, okay?”
She disconnected the call and he put the phone away before pointing to the approaching chopper. “So what’s the story, Scott? Are you back or not?”