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Protect and Defend

Vince Flynn


  New York Times bestselling author Vince Flynn returns with his most explosive political thriller yet. A tour de force of action-packed suspense, Protect and Defend delivers an all-too-realistic and utterly compelling vision of nations navigating the minefield of international intrigue. A true heavyweight in the political thriller arena (Minneapolis Star Tribune), Vince Flynn has created a flesh-and-blood hero that readers can cheer for and a finger-blistering page-turner they won’t dare put down. In Protect and Defend, the action begins in the heart of Iran, where billions of dollars are being spent on the development of a nuclear program. No longer willing to wait for the international community to stop its neighboring enemy, Israel launches one of the most creative and daring espionage operations ever conceived. The attack leaves a radioactive tomb and environmental disaster in the middle of Iran’s second largest city. An outraged Iranian government publicly blames both Israel and the United States for the attack and demands retribution. Privately, Iran’s bombastic president wants much more. He wants America and Israel to pay for their aggression with blood. Enter Mitch Rapp, America’s top counterterrorism operative. Used to employing deception, Rapp sees an opportunity where others see only Iranian reprisals that could leave thousands of Americans dead. Rapp convinces President Josh Alexander to sign off on a risky operation that will further embarrass the Iranian government and push their country to the brink of revolution. As part of the plan, CIA director Irene Kennedy is dispatched to the region for a clandestine meeting with Azad Ashani, her Iranian counterpart. But Rapp isn’t the only one hatching plans. Iranian President Amatullah, has recruited Hezbollah master terrorist Imad Mukhtar to do his dirty work. For decades Mukhtar has acted as a surrogate for Iran, blazing a trail of death and destruction across the Middle East and beyond. When Kennedy’s meeting with Ashani goes disastrously wrong, Rapp and Mukhtar are set on a collision course that threatens to engulf the entire region in war. With the clock ticking, Rapp is given twenty-four hours, no questions asked, to do whatever it takes to stop Mukhtar, and avert an unthinkable catastrophe.



  To Thomas Patrick Tracy



  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 become 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.



  The cigarette smoke hung thick in the air as the three men eyed each other with a mix of contempt and suspicion. Azad Ashani did not want to be here. The fifty-one-year-old head of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security knew what was coming. Sooner or later the bombs would fall and the facility where he sat would be destroyed by an American onslaught. There was of course a good chance it would be the Israelis, but in the end would it be any different? The Israelis, after all, would be flying American-made planes and dropping American-made bunker-buster bombs.

  Ashani studied the concrete walls and ceiling of the cramped office. They were fifty feet underground in the Isfahan nuclear facility. Ashani had been reassured by engineers and bureaucrats alike that the facility was impregnable. Above them sat a surface building with a rebar, interlaced, two-meter slab of superhard concrete supported by a skeletal frame of massive steel I beams. Ten feet beneath that sat a one-meter-thick span of concrete and rebar and more I beams. Ten feet beneath that the same thing, and so it went all the way down to the fourth subterranean level. The engineers had told him ninety-nine percent of the American arsenal would be stopped by the massive ground level slab. The second floor was touted to be one hundred percent effective against the one percent that just might be able to get past the first barrier.

  This may have comforted many of Ashani’s fellow government officials, but Ashani was a born skeptic, not a blind religious fanatic. The American defense industry was constantly churning out new weapons capable of bigger and more amazing feats of destruction. When American ingenuity was pitted against his own government’s boisterous propaganda, a sane man was left with an easy choice of who to believe. On his original tour of the facility he asked the chief engineer, “If the second subfloor is one hundred percent effective, why bother building the third and fourth subfloors?” The question was never answered.

  Ashani had no doubt the facility was marked for destruction, and he was increasingly convinced it would happen within the month. He had firmly, though respectfully, argued against its ever being built. The hard-liners had won, however. They had now poured more than a billion dollars into this facility, the one at Natanz and several others, all while the Iranian economy grew increasingly anemic. Officially, the program was for the peaceful development of nuclear energy. The entire world knew this to be a lie, for the simple fact that Iran was blessed with massive oil and gas reserves. Economically, it made no sense to spend billions developing a nuclear program when cheap oil and gas were abundantly available. What they needed were refineries.

With each passing day Ashani felt a greater sense of impending doom. It reminded him of the feelings he’d had as a graduate student back in 1979. He could see the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi coming as clearly as he saw the ascension of the religious fanatics. Grounded in math and economics, Ashani was pragmatic. There was no denying the fact that the shah was a puppet dictator who raided the national coffers to pay for his opulent lifestyle. This dislike, however, had to be tempered with an acknowledgment of the fanaticism of Ayatollah Khomeini and his band of blackrobes. While in graduate school at Shiraz University, Ashani had watched the religious zealots draw his fellow students to their cause. In time, they boarded buses and headed to Tehran for the protests. Ashani remembered thinking that they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

  Revolutions were a tricky thing, and this one would be no different. Hard-line clerics fanned the flames of the populace’s rage and created in the shah a villain far greater than the facts would support. Young students and professionals who wanted to throw off the censorship and yoke of the shah’s secret police had no idea that they were making an alliance with a group that was no friend of free speech, feminism, and the enlightenment of Persian education. The youth of the country, however, was swept up in the storm of change like an angry uneducated mob. Very few bothered to stop and think what things would be like after the shah was removed. Ashani knew, though. In the end, revolutions were almost always won by whichever group was most willing to slaughter any and all opposition. Nearly three decades, a marriage, and five daughters later it was clear to Ashani that many of those students regretted what they had done.

  This was Ashani’s third trip in as many weeks to the underground facility. He had been ordered by the president to escort Mukhtar himself this time, as if somehow their mere presence would help protect the place from the impending aerial bombardment. Ashani had absolutely no authority over Iran’s Atomic Energy Council or the Supreme Security Council, both of which oversaw the operation of the half dozen not so secret facilities that Iran had invested so heavily in. Nonetheless, they imagined spies at every facility and they wanted Ashani and his secret police to catch them.