Chapter 1 1
THE WHITE HOUSE
CIA director Irene Kennedy stepped into the president’s outer office and paused to take in her surroundings. The changes had continued in earnest since the last time she was there. The décor and artwork were even more modern and now the carpet had been replaced with a wood floor that bounced sound around the room.
The desk of the president’s secretary—a barely controlled disaster over the last two administrations—was now the picture of minimalist, high-tech efficiency. As was the woman sitting behind it.
The fact that so much effort was being put into something as trivial as redecorating suggested a return to what passed for normalcy in Washington. Six months ago, a terrorist group had managed to take down the entire US power grid and keep it down for more than a month. The consequences had been dire, with hundreds of thousands of Americans dead of cold, violence, and lack of medical care. Countless devastating fires caused by exploding electrical substations, sagging power lines, and desperate people trying to stay warm had raged throughout the country. And, finally, the world’s economy had collapsed in reaction to its most powerful engine being taken off-line.
The effects would reverberate for years, but the worst was over. Power had been restored to all but a few rural outposts in the Northwest, critical manufacturing and agriculture were fully back online, and areas wiped out by fires were being rebuilt. After months of world governments being too focused on the crises in front of them to create new ones, moves were once again being made on the geopolitical chessboard. Moves that it was her job to neutralize.
“Dr. Kennedy?” the president’s secretary said, glancing up from her monitor. “You can go in. He’s expecting you.”
She entered an Oval Office that was all but unrecognizable. The wallpaper was gone, as were the traditional pleated curtains. Furniture had been updated to something that leaned toward midcentury modern, and artwork had slipped into the abstract. Only the Resolute Desk and flags remained.
The man walking toward her seemed to fit perfectly with the environment he’d created. At forty-four, Anthony Cook was one of the youngest presidents in US history. He’d managed to rise from the turmoil created by the suicide of his party’s front-runner, crushing the more conventional replacement candidates endorsed by the establishment. The American people had been fed up with business as usual for a long time and that, combined with the hardship brought about by the electrical grid failure, had sent them on a search for someone different.
Anthony Cook, for better or worse, was it.
“Irene,” he said, taking her hand. “It’s good to see you.”
She wasn’t sure that was entirely true. Her relationship with his predecessor had been one of mutual respect and occasionally even warmth. Cook seemed to be incapable of either. He was a ruthless man, though one with an admittedly impressive grasp of history and America’s challenges going forward. A born politician who had spent his life immersed in that world but who still managed to portray himself as an outsider. A common man who had infiltrated the political elite and was now positioned to transform it.
None of this was necessarily bad. Politics was theater and a fair amount of melodrama was necessary to get people to the polls. But what was behind the persona Cook had created? Where was he going? What did he want? Due to his understandable focus since he took office on putting America back on track, they hadn’t interacted enough for Kennedy to get a true measure of the man.
He pointed her toward a conversation area, and she made note of his broad shoulders, narrow waist, and full head of hair. In his years as a political strategist, he’d been very different—a scrawny intellectual with fiery charisma, a gift for picking winners, and an icy, realpolitik view of the average American.
By the time he’d thrown his own hat into the ring, though, he’d reinvented himself. President Cook was good looking, physically imposing, and impeccably dressed. He oozed concern for every one of the three hundred and thirty million people under his care. He was the man with the answers. The man who would lead America into a future so bright it was blinding.
“I’m not sure you know our guest, Irene.”
From behind, the man sitting on one of the sofas looked very much like everyone else in Washington—blue suit, nice posture, expensive haircut with a little gray at the temples. But when he put down his coffee cup and stood, he proved to be much more than one of the political operatives that infested the beltway.
As the world’s first trillionaire, Nicholas Ward needed little introduction. He was a genius in every sense of the word who had stepped back from controlling his business empire to run a massive foundation that he’d charged with nothing less ambitious than solving the problems of humanity. Health care, renewable energy, employment, violence, poverty—if something had plagued society since the dawn of time, Ward figured he could fix it in the next twenty years.
A bit optimistic in her estimation, but he was a hard man to dismiss. Impossible, really.
“You look good, Nick. Africa seems to agree with you.”
“Don’t be fooled. It’s all biting insects and sunburn.”
She leaned in and he kissed her on the cheek.
“I take it you do know each other,” the president said, failing to hide a hint of irritation that Kennedy found a bit worrying. She hadn’t been told what this meeting was about or that the most powerful private citizen in the world would be in attendance. Had it been an attempt at a subtle power play that had now backfired?
Not yet sure how to navigate the environment that Cook had created, she was grateful when Ward answered.
“Irene and I are in the same business—we both want to keep people safe and healthy. That’s landed us at a few of the same conferences and participating on the same panels.” He flashed the everyman smile that he was known for. “I figure the fact that she hasn’t had me killed yet makes us friends.”
Fairly close friends, in fact. Their relationship had been cemented by a recent bioterrorism event that she’d had no choice but to bring him in on. The long days, long nights, and logistical nightmares they’d faced had given her a healthy respect and personal affection for the man. He was one of the most impressive people she had ever met and seemed to honestly have the good of mankind at heart. The fact that some of his views were a bit naïve was more than overcome by his enthusiasm and almost supernatural competence.
“I heard what happened in Uganda, but the details that have reached my desk are still sketchy. We have limited resources in that area and I’m not sure the local government’s fully on top of things.”
“I can guarantee you they’re not. That’s why I’m here.”
“Why don’t you give us the rundown on what you know,” the president said, reasserting his dominance by pointing everyone to a seat and then taking one himself.
“Our facility was attacked by Gideon Auma’s forces. The hospital director managed to evacuate most of the people before it happened, but the ones who stayed—including him—were killed. The exception may be David Chism and his two research assistants. They were there at the outset of the attack, but now they’ve disappeared.”
“My understanding is that the facility burned,” Kennedy said. “It seems likely that they were inside.”
“That was our assumption, but our people are going through the rubble and haven’t found any bodies.”
“Are you sure that Auma doesn’t have them?” Kennedy said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a call pretty soon asking for ransom. In fact, it seems to be the most likely reason he’d attack a facility that has nothing he needs and that’s well outside his normal operating theater.”
“It’s possible,” Ward admitted. “But we have people on the ground telling us that there’s significant guerrilla activity in the forest to the east of the facility. As though they’re searching for something.”
“Irene?” the president prompted.
She leaned back and instinctively reached for a cup of tea that wasn’t there. Another reminder that the Alexander administration was gone.
“I understand the importance of David Chism, Nick. Believe me I do. But the chances that he’s still alive seem low to me. More likely he was hiding in the building when it started to burn. Maybe even in a safe room designed specifically for this kind of event. My guess is that a more thorough search of the ruins will turn up his body and the bodies of his team.”
“But are you sure?”
“No,” she admitted.
“What if they escaped into the jungle?”
“That’s a big ‘what if,’?” the president said.
“But with what’s on the line, it seems like one worth pursuing.”
The two men locked eyes for a moment, but it was hard to know exactly what passed between them. The fact that they had crossed swords years ago when Cook was the governor of California was well known.
“When you say this is worth pursuing, I assume you mean by me?” Cook said a bit coldly.
“The Ugandan government has some rescue workers on-site, but they’re already starting to pull out. And they say they don’t want to bring in troops to search for my people because they’re concerned that the Congolese will see it as a provocation. In truth, though, it’s more likely that they’re not prepared to engage Auma right now for political reasons.”
“And they’re making the assumption that Chism’s dead,” Cook said, standing. “Which is almost certainly correct.” He offered his hand. “Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Nicholas. Irene and I will talk about it and let you know what we come up with.”
To his credit, the wealthiest man in history took being dismissed gracefully, shaking hands with the president, and nodding in Kennedy’s direction before leaving the Oval Office.
“Thoughts?” Cook said, taking a seat again.
“Setting David Chism aside for a moment, Gideon Auma is the leader of a terrorist organization that’s allied with Islamic extrem—”
“But he’s a regional threat,” Cook interrupted, once again displaying his grasp of international issues. “And he’s only a Muslim when it’s convenient to him. He uses Christianity, animism, and anything else he can come up with just as easily. The truth is that he’s a messianic cult leader who’s never going to stir up any trouble outside of Uganda and the DRC.”
Stir up any trouble was a disturbingly trivial assessment of the situation on the ground. The level of brutality Gideon Auma had unleashed on that part of Africa would shock even a hardened ISIS operative. The human suffering was hard to ignore, though Cook had a gift for that when the cameras weren’t on him.
“Regional threats have a way of expanding in unpredictable ways, Mr. President. It’s a lesson we’ve learned over and over.”
He frowned and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m not convinced. And as far as Chism goes, you and I both know he’s dead. Scientists don’t just run through flaming buildings and then turn into Rambo in the African jungle.”
“But if he’s not? Based on what I know about his work, it would be hard to overstate his importance—both to America and to mankind in general. Another concern I have is that if he is alive and Auma captures him, Nick will pay whatever it takes to get him back. With a few hundred million dollars in his pocket, Auma could expand his influence.”
“Send Mitch Rapp to Uganda. Let him make a recommendation from the ground.”
“No. Not Rapp.”
“He’s too valuable an asset and we both know this is a waste of time.” He stood again and it was Kennedy’s turn to be dismissed. “Keep my people posted of any developments and in the meantime, I’ll give this some thought. Until you hear from me, though, we’re staying out of it.”
He started back to his desk as she crossed the office toward the door. Her hand had barely touched the knob when he spoke again.
“And on the subject of Mitch Rapp. I’d like to meet him.”
“I’ll let him know, sir.”
“But what are the chances that Chism is alive? Ten percent? Less?”
Anthony Cook’s wife, Catherine, saw everything in terms of numbers. It was a bias that had served her well during her time as one of the world’s most successful hedge fund managers. And it had been even more helpful during his rise through the political swamp. Simply put, he wouldn’t be sitting in the White House residence without her icy calculations.
“Can’t be much more than that,” Cook agreed.
She took a seat on a sofa across from him and looked up, staring at a blank white section of the ceiling to collect her thoughts. She was still extremely attractive at forty-two, with long dark hair pulled back, an athletic build maintained with the same diligence as his own, and a pale, unlined face. Their union had produced two sons—one with significant potential and one completely useless—but the bond between them had never really been sexual. In fact, he wouldn’t bet his life on the fact that she was even attracted to men. It didn’t matter, though. Their goals were perfectly aligned, and neither was interested in anything that didn’t relate to the achievement of those goals.
“I’ve quietly sold all our stock relating to Nick’s health care companies and reinvested the money in competitors who’ll benefit from Chism’s death. Valuations are already starting to move based on the rumors coming out of Uganda. We’ve made millions since the markets opened and stand to make tens of millions more. And so do a lot of other people. I don’t think a lot of tears will be shed around the world if Nicholas Ward takes a hit.”
What she said was an understatement of truly grand proportions. Ward was looking to transform health care worldwide, and Chism’s vaccine research was one of the cornerstones of that effort. Combined with Ward’s work in medical artificial intelligence and his ideas about decentralizing and democratizing the medical industry, they had the status quo under serious threat. Further, wealth creation seemed to be becoming an increasingly zero-sum game. Every time Ward won, there was some billionaire or corporation that lost. Virtually no one could keep up with him and the few who could, he hired.
“But all that hinges on him really being dead,” Cook pointed out.
She nodded. “There’s opportunity here for us. The question is do we want to exploit it. So far, we’ve been fairly conservative in our actions. But we’re only three and a half years from the next election. At some point, we’re going to have to move forward.”
“First, there’s no question that we need to send a team to Uganda to try to find Chism. We know how Ward feels about us but to date he hasn’t gotten too deeply involved in politics. We don’t need him rethinking that and staking out a position against your administration. I think we both agree there’s no chance of turning him into an ally, but if we do him this favor, we might be able to neutralize him as an enemy.”
“So, we try to get Chism back?” the president said.
“I didn’t say that.”
He thought for a moment. “So, we just put on a show.”
“It’s a bit of a tightrope walk but I imagine a doable one. Make enough of an effort to impress Ward but not so much that we have any chance of succeeding. And make sure that the right people know they owe us for that failure.”
“So, we send in an inadequate force with the excuse that we prioritized stealth and didn’t want to create an incident with the Ugandan government. Maybe we even lose a few of them. That’d make our commitment look even greater. Ward would have a hard time complaining about the failure of a rescue mission that ended up with American soldiers in body bags.”
“Agreed,” Catherine said.
“What about Kennedy? She’ll see through it.”
“She’ll object to not being in the loop and privately criticize the details of the operation, but that’s all. She doesn’t believe Chism is alive any more than we do, and she knows her job is hanging on by a thread.”
“Maybe it’s time to cut that thread. Keeping her on has played well up to this point, but she’s dangerous. You’d have to be an idiot to think she didn’t have something to do with Christine Barnett’s suicide. And if she’d do it to her, she’ll do it to me.”
Christine Barnett had been his party’s leader before her sudden and very unexpected death. While he owed his presidency to the fact that she was now rotting away in her mausoleum, the path she’d taken there was well beyond suspicious.
“There’s no evidence of that at all, Tony.”
“Come on. There’s no way that arrogant bitch offed herself. She thought she was the second coming of Jesus. Kennedy found the skeletons in her closet and quietly did away with her before she could get her hands on the Oval Office. The problem is that we’ve got a few skeletons, too, and in order to keep hold of the White House we’re going to be collecting more. I don’t want to spend my life looking over my shoulder for Irene Kennedy.”
“I agree that she was probably involved in Christine’s death and that she has to go. But I don’t see this as a pressing issue. Kennedy still has a lot of support on both sides of the aisle and the longer she stays, the less political it will look when we put her out to pasture.”
“What about Mitch Rapp?”
“Obviously, he has the potential to be a powerful tool. And he’s a simpler creature than Kennedy. He wears his motivations on his sleeve—love of country, loyalty to his comrades. He still sees America as a shining tower on a hill. Those kinds of delusions are easily manipulated.”
“You’re underestimating him, Cathy.”
“Not at all. I’m just thinking out loud. In any event, I’m anxious to be introduced. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to look into the eyes of a man like him.”