Oath of Loyalty by Vince Flynn
RAPP nodded, though he doubted the subtle movement would be visible in the moonlight. Mike Nash had managed to get their SUV through the river but then bogged down on the muddy bank only a few yards from dry land. The former Marine was still in the driver’s seat, bathed in the glow of the dashboard gauges and dangling a winch remote control through the window.
Beyond that, everything was still. Even the breeze had died, leaving nothing but the hum of insects beneath the idling motor. What little evidence of humanity that existed in this part of Uganda had been left behind a good hour ago when rolling farmland had given way to empty wilderness. Above, the Milky Way was smeared across the sky, creating a false sense of peace and anonymity.
In his younger days, Rapp wouldn’t have given his surroundings much thought beyond analyzing their tactical nuances. He’d have obsessed over identifying potential ambushes and escape routes, judging the speed with which he could run across the unpredictable surface, and staying outside the beam of the headlights. Now, though, he could almost trick himself into believing it was a safe moment to take a breath.
“Mitch! What are you doing, man? Irene’s waiting.”
With no trees available, they were having to use a ground anchor to secure the winch. Rapp looked around and found a patch of dirt soft enough to drive the shovel-like blade into. When the hook was sufficiently buried, he raised a hand and Nash started taking in cable. By the time it went taut, Rapp had retreated another twenty feet into the darkness.
He watched his old friend feather the accelerator while working the remote, breaking the tires’ suction while being careful not to put too much pressure on the anchor. Satisfied that Nash would soon have the vehicle back on terra firma, Rapp returned his attention to the sky.
Six weeks ago, Irene Kennedy had asked him to take a job protecting Nicholas Ward, history’s first trillionaire. Someone with high-level access to the CIA’s mainframe had downloaded sensitive information on him and prompted a desperate mole hunt that only five people in the world were privy to. Since then, the situation had gone steadily downhill. The stolen information had found its way into the hands of the Saudis, who had used it to try to kill Ward, a man whose work in alternative energy threatened to make their oil reserves worthless. Rapp had thwarted their attempt, but in a way that made it appear that the Saudis had succeeded. At that moment, the world believed that Ward was in the hands of one of history’s most brutal terrorists and that Rapp, Scott Coleman, and most of his team were dead.
It was an all-or-nothing strategy that had been enough to shake the major economies but not enough to identify their mole. With a little luck, though, that would soon change. Ward was using his international telecommunications holdings to track the burner phones utilized by the mole to communicate with his Saudi masters. It was only a matter of time before he came up with a name.
Without that name, though, they still had no idea how deep the mole was burrowed into the Agency’s communications. Because of that, Irene Kennedy had sent Mike Nash to Uganda so that he and Rapp could meet face-to-face in order to coordinate their next move. Simple, low-tech, and secure.
Or so he’d thought.
When Nash arrived, he’d handed over a password-protected tablet that contained a video of Kennedy saying that the plot against Ward went much higher than the Saudi royal family. Apparently, the risks were significant enough that, unknown to Nash, she had come to Uganda to talk to Rapp personally. The video ended with directions to a rendezvous point that was about as close to the middle of nowhere as you could get.
The sound of the SUV’s engine grew in volume, and Rapp turned his attention back to the man behind the wheel. He was unquestionably courageous, patriotic, and smart as hell. But was he loyal? Yesterday, that would have been an easy question to answer, but a text Rapp had received a few hours ago made him wonder.
Paranoia? Probably. In fact, almost certainly. But no one had ever died from being too paranoid.
“Which way?” Nash said.
The predicted two hours had been turned into a five-hour ordeal that included two more river crossings and one more opportunity to test the winch. Finally, they’d dead-ended into a paved road.
“Right. We’re back on track. This is the same road we turned off of after the gas station.”
By the time they passed through a small village that was their last landmark, it was late morning. Rapp reached over and reset the vehicle’s odometer. “In twenty-seven point three kilometers there’ll be a dirt road on the right. Easy to miss in the dark, but we should be okay now that the sun’s up.”
According to Kennedy’s video, that dirt track would take them to a wooded area too steep and rocky to be useful to the farms that once again surrounded them. A clearing near the middle was where she’d be waiting.
As expected, the turn was obvious, and they began climbing a rough track that penetrated the forest. After a few more hard-won miles, Rapp pointed to a small break in the foliage. “There.”
Nash pulled in and stopped. “This is it?”
Rapp responded by opening his door and stepping out. Nash did the same, using a hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare. The clearing was roughly a hundred yards in diameter and ringed by densely packed trees. The ground rolled a bit, broken by a few rocky outcroppings, but was otherwise unremarkable.
Rapp stayed near the vehicle while Nash walked away from it, finally turning when there was about twenty yards between them.
“Care to tell me what we’re doing here, Mitch?”
“We’re supposed to meet Irene.”
“Irene? What the hell are you talking about?”
Rapp came out from behind the vehicle and began moving away from it. “The message on that tablet was to meet her here.”
Nash’s expression turned skeptical with just a hint of caution. “I left her looking pretty comfortable in her office, Mitch. And why would she send me if she was planning on coming herself? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Rapp didn’t have time to answer before the men appeared from the trees. Three of them, covered head to toe in camo, eyes invisible behind goggles, assault weapons in hand. Their positions were perfect, allowing them to keep their guns trained while avoiding any potential crossfire.
Rapp stopped and watched the way they moved for a moment but didn’t reach for the Glock hanging beneath his right arm.
“There are four more in the trees, Mitch—all aiming at your head. Every one of them is a top operator and they know who you are. Even with superior numbers and position, I guarantee they’re scared. One twitch from you and everybody’s going to start shooting.”
Rapp nodded, feeling a flare of rage that quickly dissipated into something much worse. Something that hinted at what he’d experienced when his wife died. A deep sense of loss accompanied by the strange feeling that nothing would ever be the same for him.
“Just keep your hands at your sides and everything will be okay.”
“Why do I doubt that, Mike?”
Nash pulled his Colt and backed away another ten feet. He was a bureaucrat now, but not so far from his military roots that he’d feel comfortable putting too much trust in these men to protect him.
“This isn’t personal, Mitch.”
“How the fuck is this not personal? We’ve been friends for years. We’ve fought together. We’ve bled together. And now I’m standing here waiting to be executed by you. For what? A bunch of Saudi money? Your wife makes more than you can spend.”
“Not money, Mitch. And not the Saudis. The president of the United States. It’s probably hard for you to wrap your mind around this, but I don’t work for you. I don’t really even work for Irene. I work for the man elected to the White House.”
“So, you sided with a politician? That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Nash stiffened. “You think this is what I wanted? Are you fucking kidding me? You can’t imagine what I’ve gone through to try to keep us from ending up here. Ward’s people should have died in that first attack. Then it would have been over.”
“What’s he to you?”
“To me? Nothing. But to the Saudis, a lot. After you rescued Ward’s research team, President Cook asked me to get information on him. He said he didn’t want Irene to know but I didn’t think that much of it. I just figured he was fishing for dirt so he could blackmail Ward into supporting him or something. But then Ward’s compound gets attacked and he gets snatched. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what I’d gotten myself into.”
“But you didn’t go to Irene.”
“For what? To tell her that with my help, the president of the United States had colluded with a foreign government to get rid of the richest man in history? What would be the point?”
Sadly, he was probably right. Cook had majorities in both houses of Congress and loyalists running the National Security Agency, Secret Service, and Joint Chiefs. The current rumor was that he was about to replace the FBI director with a woman who worshipped him and after that he’d undoubtedly set his sights on the CIA. For all intents and purposes, Cook was now above the law. If he were to start shooting tourists through the White House gate, it was unlikely he’d even get impeached.
Nash started to pace. “The world we’ve been fighting for is gone, Mitch. We collapsed the Soviet Union and killed damn near every Islamic terrorist who’s ever even looked at us sideways. The era of wars between superpowers is over—it has to be or none of us survive. Your friend Nicholas Ward thinks that’s going to bring in a golden age. But you know that’s bullshit even better than I do. People need hardship. They need something to struggle against. Someone to hate and feel superior to. Without those things they lose their identity and sense of purpose. And they can’t handle it. Without a real enemy, they start turning on each other. That video of Irene you just watched? One of the president’s people made it in less than a day with software you can get for free online. In another few years, half the videos people see on the Internet will be fake. Served up by right-wing nuts, left-wing nuts, foreign powers, and anyone else with a laptop and a sixth-grade education. If we don’t take control of that, we’ll end up in a civil war. But instead of the North against the South, it’ll be four hundred different factions all swinging in the dark. Flat-earthers. Anti-vaxxers. Nazis. Communists. Antifa. The gluten intolerant—”
“And Cook’s going to fix all that.”
“I think he has a better shot than most,” Nash responded. “He doesn’t have any illusions about humanity. He knows that ninety-five percent of people are going to fight tooth and nail against the utopia that all these tech gurus like Nicholas Ward want to force on them. And more important, he understands that they’ll drag the other five percent down with them. Cook just wants to give people the leadership they need. He wants to make their lives simple. Focus their energy. Give them something to belong to.”
“And that other five percent? I assume they get what they want, too?”
“Yeah. Wealth, power, and a nice tall wall between us and them.”
“What a beautiful vision.”
Nash let out a bitter laugh. “My entire career has been about fighting for America and the American dream, Mitch. But, at some point, it’s time to wake up. At some point, you’ve got to admit that the monkeys are going to figure out a reason to throw feces at each other. The question is how much of it are you willing to let stick to you. I’ve spent my entire life trying to save people who don’t want to be saved. Now it’s time for me to save myself and my family. Twenty years from now, I want my kids to be kicking back in penthouses, not scrounging for scraps and killing each other over every conspiracy theory that comes across Facebook. The job’s not stopping al-Qaeda from taking out a few people here and there. Not anymore. Now it’s about stopping the mob from destroying themselves and everything people like us have built.”
Rapp nodded and looked around at the men holding their weapons on him. “So, what’s the plan, Mike? I don’t have all day.”
“The plan…” Nash looked down at the pistol in his hand. “The plan is to clean up as much of your mess as I can.”
“Yeah. Your mess. You made everyone believe that Ward and his people are dead, and they need to stay that way. If they get resurrected, it’s going to be inconvenient to a lot of people who don’t like being inconvenienced. I assume you’ve got them stashed somewhere around here with Scott? Tell me where. I’ll drive over, have a couple of beers with the guys, and then tonight I’ll take care of the problem and drive out before anyone knows what happened. After that, if everyone agrees to keep their mouths shut, they can just walk away.”
“I can protect her. Cook will make me the new director and he doesn’t have any reason to pick a fight. All she has to do is fade into retirement.” He paused for a moment, finally pointing an accusatory finger at Rapp. “Like always, the problem is you. You’re the part of this shit sandwich everyone’s going to choke on.”
“And that’s why I’ll never leave here.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you do. How about I offer you the deal of the fucking century? You give me your word right now that you’ll just let this go. That you’ll forget about me, the Cooks, the Saudis, Ward, and all the rest. That you’ll go back to the Cape, race your bike, spend time with your new family, and never set foot back in the US. Do that and I’ll give you a ride to the airport.”
Rapp remained silent.
“Yeah. That’s what I thought,” Nash said, shaking his head slowly. “But I want to tell you something. I’m going to make you a hero. All the shit you’ve done that no one knows about? I’m going to tell them. You deserve that.”
Rapp walked to a rock outcropping, tracked by the men covering him. He sat and rested his elbows on his knees. “I got an interesting text on the way here.”
“I meant to ask you about that.”
“Like I told you, Ward’s people are still a few weeks out from putting names to the network of burners you were using. But he has put together some of the towers they connected to.”
“So, he noticed something interesting. That one of those phones connected twice to the same tower I do when I’m at home in Virginia.”
Nash’s brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what he’d just heard. Rapp decided to help him out.
“Apparently, Nick Ward’s memory is better than mine. I don’t recall telling him that the man I was meeting today lived in my neighborhood. But he did.”
“I don’t understand,” Nash said, backing away a few more steps and glancing at his backup to make sure they were all still in position.
“I didn’t, either. The video from Irene telling me to meet her in the middle of nowhere. The old password from Belarus that anyone high up enough in the Agency could get hold of. The mole who was too smart for anyone to identify. But then the cell tower put it all together for me.”
This time when Nash looked at the men covering Rapp, he did so with the intensity of someone who realized something had gone very wrong. It took only a moment before his body language revealed that he’d figured out what that thing was. It was already over when the men removed their goggles and face coverings.
Nash looked away before he could meet Scott Coleman’s eye. Understandable in that Coleman was probably his best friend in the world. Joe Maslick and Bruno McGraw—also present—rated pretty high, too.
“What did you find in the forest?” Rapp asked.
“Seven mercs,” Coleman said.
“All but the one we left alive to interrogate. They were solid operators. Too dangerous to play around with.”
Rapp nodded and the silence in the clearing began to stretch out. Finally, he broke it.
“I’m giving you a five-minute head start, Mike. For old times’ sake.”
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