A new era of friendship between the Syrian and U.S. governments is threatened when American high-tech weapons go missing en route overseas. Determined to destroy the stolen arms before they can be used, Mack Bolan discovers nothing is what it seems between the Syrian regime and the loyalistsincluding the beautiful double agent working with him.
Getting to the weapons alive is only one of Bolan's problems. Tracking down the enemy behind the theftwithout starting a warwill put his years of experience to the test. But discretion is of the utmost importance, and the lives of millions are at stake, which makes the Executioner the only man for this mission.
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Mack Bolan flexed his knees as the ground rushed up to meet him. He rolled when he hit, hurrying to slap the quick release on his parachute. The black chute billowed behind him once he was free of it, carried by the high winds that had made his highaltitude, low-opening jump that much more difficult.
The man once known as the Executioner rolled and caught the chute, pulling it to his chest and folding it several times. In the moonlit darkness he would be nearly invisible, but there was nothing to be gained by leaving the chute floating around the desert where it could alert some passing patrol.
Crouching, using the night sky to silhouette any enemies who might approach, Bolan checked his gear. He wore a KA-BAR-style combat knife inverted on his web gear, which was concealed by a lightweight three-quarter-length jacket. Over his chest was slung his canvas war bag, which contained most of his munitions. Holstered in custom leather under his left arm was his action-tuned Beretta 93R, while a Desert Eagle in .44 Magnum was tucked in his waistband, in a Kydex IWB holster behind his right hip.
He'd been told his local contact would provide him with heavier weaponry on an as-needed basis. It wasn't practical for him to drop in with much more equipment than he had, so he'd opted to max out his weight limits on loaded magazines and grenades rather than adding an assault rifle to his kit. Toting two handguns and a knife, he wasn't exactly unarmed but if a patrol found him out here, where there was no cover and nowhere to go, he would definitely be outgunned.
Arid scrubland, broken by hills and promontories of rock, extended in every direction. The night sky was brilliant overhead. Bolan checked his direction against the stars and faced north, as he'd been instructed. There was no telling how long he might have to wait. He settled into his crouch, prepared for the long haul, knowing that the night would grow much colder before dawn. He didn't relish the thought of spending hours out here, but he would if there were no other choice
Bolan froze. His nostrils flared.
He put two fingers to his left ear as if activating communications gear. The motion concealed the slow drift of his right hand to his combat knife.
"Zero one zero," he said in a stage whisper, loud enough for anyone within ten meters to hear. "This is Space Commander Alpha One. I've touched down at Zulu Marker Zeta. Mortars are on standby." It was nonsense, but it didn't really matter what he said. Those listening would not be native English speakers. Chances were they spoke no English at all. As he wagged his left elbow, trying to draw attention to that side of his body, the fingers of his right hand curled around the rubberized handle of his knife.
He shifted his foot. Dirt and pebbles moved under the toe of his combat boot. He pretended he didn't feel the answering movement, the barely concealed reaction to his presence.
His nose twitched again. The smell was unmistakable. It was human body odor, and if he was smelling that, it could mean only one thing.
There were enemy soldiers right here, right now.
"I'm getting ready to dig a foxhole," Bolan told his imaginary radio contact. "Standing by in four, three"
He ripped his knife free and slammed the blade into the dirt next to his knee. A horrifying scream welled up from the ground below. Blood darkened the arid soil. Bolan left his knife where it was lodged and threw himself into a forward roll.
The ground erupted around him. Half a dozen soldiers, concealed in shallow gravelike depressions, popped up all around him. It was like something out of a zombie movie, Bolan thought, as the soldiers pushed themselves to their feet, their weapons and web gear trailing plumes of dirt. Weapon-mounted lights cast hazy beams in the dusty air.
Bolan's suppressed Beretta pistol was already in his fist. He pivoted on one knee, tracking the weapon lights, keenly aware of the short window in which he had to work. Only his faster reflexes and his experience saved him.
The Beretta coughed out 3-round bursts as the Executioner tapped out a Morse code of death on the trigger. He fired, rolled and fired again, changing position with each shot, staying low in the darkness to keep his enemies against the sky. The hollow metallic clatter of Kalashnikov rifles rolled over him; the shock waves of the multiple discharges hammered his eardrums as the enemy weapons ripped the earth around his body.
The Beretta's 20-round box magazine cycled dry. Rather than dump it and attempt a reload, Bolan shifted the weapon to his left hand. He drew the Desert Eagle with his right, still avoiding enemy gunfire. The triangular snout of the .44 Magnum Israeli hand-cannon belched flame each time he pulled the trigger. He was careful not to look directly at it, doing his best to salvage his night vision.
He heard the shots before he saw the new shooter. The sound was different; it was higher, from another angle, and he threw himself backward in the dirt before he could fix the new threat's location. The chopped AK, a Krinkov with a folding stock, cut down the last two soldiers in the circle of resistance. Bolan had swung his Desert Eagle in the direction of the approaching form but stopped himself before pulling the trigger.
The figure that came to stand over him pulled a desert scarf from mouth and nose. Bolan saw, against the night sky, long hair falling free of the square of cloth. The distinctive sound of a classic fuel-oil lighter snapping open was followed by a flare of light. In the flame, a beautiful woman with dark hair and darker eyes looked back at him.
The desert was suddenly very quiet. Bolan could hear the flickering of the lighter's flame in the night wind.
"Are you lighting a cigarette?" he asked.
"I do not smoke," the woman said. She wore a military field jacket and fatigue pants that did little to hide the curve of her hips. The hilt of a Jordanian-military-style jambiya combat knife was visible in her belt. The tube of an RPG launcher was secured over her shoulder. "But if you see me, perhaps you will not shoot me."
"You think so?" Bolan said.
"If you are Matt Cooper," the woman replied. "If you are not, I may shoot you?"
Bolan almost laughed. "Yes, I'm Matthew Cooper, and no, you should not shoot me. Either you're my contact or the operation is compromised."
"I am Sabeen Yenni," the woman said.
The name was the right one, the name Hal Brognola had given him only hours ago, when Bolan was preparing to board the flight to Syria.
"Your contact," the big Fed had told him through the scrambled satellite link, "is a double agent named Sabeen Yenni. Intelligence has been aware of her for some time. She has a network of her own, or more accurately, several networks, which extend into some pretty deep, dark areas of that region. Formerly she was with an al-Qaeda women's brigade in northern Syria, but she was co-opted by US elements and brought on board to work for us. She still claims to be a spy for the Syrian loyalists, whom she's supposed to be selling out."
"I'm not up on the latest in Syria," Bolan had admitted. "Loyalists?"
"Loyal to the previous regime, Striker," Brognola said. As head of the Sensitive Operations Group and the man to whom the Stony Man Farm counterterrorist teams answered, Brognola was also one of the few people alive who knew Bolan's history as the vigilante called the Executioner. "Recently, there was a coup in Syria. The new regime is like a political unicorn, something we never thought would fall in our laps. They're nominally open to normal relations with the United States. The new Leader for Life of Syria is one Basram Hahmir, who was fairly highly placed in their military before he used it to take over."
"Funny how that works," Bolan said.
"Hahmir is something of a golden boy to the Man right now," Brognola revealed. "As part of the agreement through which the United States and the UN Security Council formally recognized the new Syrian government, Hahmir traveled to the United States for an extended meet and greet with various diplomats. You were overseas when it happened, and officially, it never did. We hushed it up in the American media and it's gained no traction among the conspiracy nuts on the internet."
"What are you talking about, Hal?"
"Hahmir," Brognola explained. "He jumped between the President and a would-be assassin. Fortunately, the Secret Service was able to get to the few journalists on-site and preempt the story before it became unwieldy. In a joint press conference later that day, the Man and Hahmir announced the dawn of a new era in US-Syrian relations."
"Sounds a little too easy."
"I thought the same thing," Brognola said. "The Farm's looking into it. But as you can imagine, the President and Hahmir have become fast friends. That has in turn prompted instant cooperation on the part of the United States. The Man has a personal stake in Hahmir's regime. A Syria loyal to the United States is a tactical prize we simply can't afford to pass up."
"I think I can see where this is going," Bolan said.
"Hahmir's government will almost certainly come under attack from its former allies. Syria was no friend to the West, and now that it is, the region will destroy itself unless we do something to stop it. The United States has shipped an aid package to Syria that includes next-generation weaponry, particularly mobile missile systems."
"There's a 'but' coming," Bolan said.
"But," Brognola continued, "the weapons shipment has gone missing. It was stolen right out from under the Syrian authorities' noses at the airfield. That, by itself, is suspicious enough. Hahmir is all apologies and, honestly, his regime is frantic to locate the weapons because they're worried the loyalists might figure out how to deploy them first. His New Governmental Militia has been tearing up the countryside, torturing and strong-arming Syrian citizens."
"Something like," the big Fed told him. "The militia is the reason Hahmir took power in the first place, but it's starting to look like Hahmir's operatives within the military have ambitions of their own. Specifically, a vicious character named Sudhra 'the Wolf' Fafniyal. It's Fafniyal's secret police that your contact is supposed to be spying on the loyalists for."
"Can't tell the players without a scorecard," Bolan said drily.
"They're color-coded," Brognola said. "The previous Syrian regime's color was royal red. The loyalists wear red armbands as a result. Fafniyal's troops wear black. Hahmir's regular militia wears blue, if I remember correctly."
"And this Sabeen Yenni? What color does she wear, working for us while ratting out the loyalists to Fafniyal?"
"It's safe to say her loyalty is to herself," Brognola admitted, "but her track record as a freedom fighter is well documented. It's why she was approached by US Intelligence in the first place."
"Trust, but verify," Bolan said. "I've got it. I'll just have to watch out for knives at my back."
"And bullets. And grenades," Brognola said.
"So where does that leave us?" the soldier asked. "Any chance of support from the Farm?"
"Able Team and Phoenix Force are otherwise engaged," Brognola told him. "Although we do have the support of the cyberteam. We've been monitoring Syria with realtime satellite imagery retasked for this mission."
"That will help," Bolan commented.
"The Man is grateful to his new friend, but he isn't stupid. The Farm was told to track that weaponry shipment through to its destination. Thermal imagery shows us multiple locations in remote areas of Syria where we believe the weaponry has been cached. It's only a matter of time before the loyalists, without the benefit of US technical advisors, figure out how to deploy the missile systems. When they do they're going to set that region on fire. We're looking at all-out war."
"So I go in, find the weapons and destroy them, with Sabeen Yenni to show me all the local highlights."
"That's the upshot, yes," Brognola said. "But it's more complicated than that."
"It always is."
"No matter what you do there, Striker," the big Fed said, "it could touch off a war for control of Syria at the very least. The United States cannot be seen as interfering on the ground, or the resulting backlash could cause us problems almost as bad as losing a sympathetic government. Your presence in Syria isn't sanctioned by Hahmir's government, and we couldn't allow them to know about it for fear of compromising you. That's the official word. Unofficially, they know damned well we're sending someone to track the weapons, even though everyone involved is going to play dumb. The Man has even shared some intelligence with them, as a good-faith gesture."
"That leaves me plenty vulnerable," Bolan said.
"There's no other way to put a team, or even a single man, on the ground," Brognola said. "Hahmir's government claims it will play ball, at least off the books. But if they're pressed, they, too, will claim they have no knowledge of your mission. They'll treat you accordingly."
"You drop me into the nicest meat grinders, Hal."
"We need you to ferret out who has done what, if you can, but under the cloak of plausible deniability," Brognola went on. "That means we're giving you an internationally available electronic tablet that you can use for mission data and so on. There can be no way of tracing you back to us should you end up in enemy hands. And there's no shortage of potential enemies who might want to put you down."
"Understood," Bolan said. He understood, all right. It was a familiar story as familiar as the thin ice on which he now stood.
"Striker, there's one more thing."
"If you do find evidence of perfidy on the part of Hah-mir or elements within his government, you do have one more option."
"And that is?" Bolan asked.
"Option Zeta," Brognola said. "It's a file in your dossier. Read it thoroughly and memorize the codes. You might need them."
"Got it," Bolan had said. "Striker, out."
And now he was here, in Syria, with his bootsand his backon the actual ground. He would either return the weapons systems to Hahmir's government or he would destroy them. And along the way he would determine, if at all possible, whether the President could trust the Hah-mir regime. But right now, there was the matter of the dead men who had been lying in wait under the ground.
"This is a problem," Bolan said, indicating the bodies. He took Yenni's hand when she offered it, and allowed her to help him to his feet. The freedom fighter draped her desert scarf around her neck, pocketed her lighter and crouched next to him.
"They are dead," she said. "And we are alive. This is not a problem."
"Not in the immediate sense," he replied. "But the drop coordinates were known only to your network. These men were waiting for me. Right here." He knelt and played the beam of his tactical flashlight over the nearest body.