The Camel Club by David Baldacci

  who knew the current password had been missing for two weeks largely fell on deaf ears.

  The United Nations had called on America to step down from its intention of launching a nuclear missile, and all other members of the U.N. Security Council had reiterated this demand through emergency diplomatic channels.

  To all these pleas the United States’ reply was the same: It was all up to the kidnappers. All they had to do was return James Brennan unharmed, which was what they said they were going to do anyway, and the Syrians could live. The only difference was the U.S. was now dictating the timetable of the return of the president.

  Israel was on the highest alert. Its leaders well knew that the country would be one of the first targets of an Islamic counterattack. And Syria was close enough to Israel that the issue of nuclear fallout caused the Israeli prime minister to contact Acting President Hamilton for clarification on the matter. Its vital Golan Heights water sources weren’t that far from the target zone. The government in Beirut also contacted Washington, since Damascus was close to Lebanon’s border. Washington’s terse reply was the same to both countries: “Take all precautions you deem necessary.”

  Back at the White House, Acting President Hamilton sat in the Oval Office with Defense Secretary Decker, his military commanders, the National Security Council, Secretary of State Mayes and a few other members of his cabinet. Carter Gray was conspicuously absent from the group.

  The momentous decision to launch nuclear weapons was clearly weighing on Hamilton; his skin pale and his face drawn, the man looked terminally ill. He sipped on bottled water to alleviate the acid burning through his stomach, while his generals and admirals conversed with each other in low voices.

  Decker left one of these groups and walked over to Hamilton. “Sir, I understand the enormity of your decision, but I want you to know that we have more than enough capability to do this.”

  “I’m not worried about your hitting the damn city, Joe. I’m worried about what happens after that.”

  “Syria has been aiding terrorists for a long time. Damascus is full of former Baathist heavyweights just biding their time before attempting a coup in Iraq. It’s well known that mosques in Damascus are recruiting stations for mujahideen. And Syrian militia are all over the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. It’s time we drew a hard line in the sand with them. It’s the same domino theory as spreading democracy in the Middle East by starting with Iraq. We make an example of the Syrians, then everyone else follows suit.”

  “Yes, but what about the radiation fallout?” Hamilton asked.

  “There will be some certainly. But where Damascus is situated, we believe that it will be somewhat contained.”

  Hamilton finished his water and threw the bottle in the wastebasket. “Fallout somewhat contained. I’m glad you believe that, Joe.”

  “Mr. President, you made the right decision. We could not allow this to happen without retaliation. That would empower these people to do even more. It has to stop. And deploying more troops would only stretch our military beyond the breaking point and allow the Syrians to successfully fight us guerrilla-style just like the Iraqis are doing. Besides, when they realize we’re not bluffing, they’ll release the president. We won’t have to launch.”

  “I hope you’re right.” Hamilton stood and stared out the window. “How much time left?”

  Decker instantly looked at his military aide.

  “Six hours eleven minutes thirty-six seconds,” the aide promptly replied as he studied the laptop in front of him.

  “Any more word from the Sharia Group?” Hamilton asked.

  “Only that they don’t have the president,” Andrea Mayes said. The secretary of state came over and stood next to her boss. “And what if they’re telling the truth, Mr. President? What if they don’t have him? Maybe someone is trying to lay the blame on Syria in hopes that we’d do exactly as we are doing.”

  Decker interjected, “I’ll grant you that even though authentication passwords are changed by Al Jazeera regularly, there is the possibility that someone else might have gotten access to it. But the person calling in the information had intimate details of the kidnapping that only the perpetrators would’ve known. Any terrorist organization that pulled off something like this would want the world to know. Historically, their strategy has never been to lay the responsibility off on another group. The only difference is the Sharia Group never expected us to use the nuclear card. That’s why they’re backtracking now and disclaiming culpability. The bastards have him, all right!”

  Hamilton stared at Decker. “But if they don’t, and we level Damascus?” Hamilton shook his head, turned back around and stared into the darkness of an otherwise beautiful late summer night in Washington, D.C. From the streets of the city thousands of voices screamed back at him in protest. The chants of “No nukes” managed to pierce even the thick walls of the White House, as the citizens of the U.S. made their opinion very clear to their leadership. Yet once the nuclear threat had been made, it could not be withdrawn, Hamilton understood. Otherwise America’s trillion-dollar nuclear arsenal would instantly become worthless.

  Instead of going to the White House and participating in what he considered a useless “death watch” for 6 million Syrians who were on the precipice of extinction, Carter Gray had remained at NIC headquarters. He stopped at Patrick Johnson’s empty cubicle and stared at the blank computer screen. Glitches and computer crashes. And presto, living, breathing terrorists were placed neatly into their digital graves. He sat in Johnson’s chair and surveyed the room. The picture of his fiancée, Anne Jeffries, was still on the desk. He picked it up and studied it. A nice-looking woman, Gray thought. She would find someone else to spend her life with. Johnson, from what he’d determined, was highly competent at his job but possessed the personality of a slug. He had certainly not concocted this scheme. It truly was an unbelievable thought, Gray mused. Someone at America’s premier intelligence agency had orchestrated the use of a group of supposedly dead Muslims to kidnap the president of the United States. And now the world was on the brink of global jihad.

  Gray had had the databases checked thoroughly. There were no electronic tracks showing who might have altered the files. That was not surprising, considering Johnson’s expertise and the fact that he helped create the database and spent his days troubleshooting the system. He well knew how to hide what he’d done. Yet who got him to do it in the first place and paid him well, judging by his expensive home and cars? And Gray pondered something else. Where was the president? It had to be somewhere relatively close by. Despite what he’d said to Hamilton on the subject, Gray did not believe for one moment that James Brennan was in Medina, Saudi Arabia. No Muslim would take a Christian there.

  He thought back to the day Jackie Simpson and that other agent came to NIC. They were accompanied by two of his men. Reynolds? No, Reinke. The tall, lean one. The other one was shorter and thicker. Peters. That’s right. Hemingway told him that they’d been assigned to look into the Johnson homicide. Gray picked up a phone and asked for the whereabouts of these two agents. The answer was surprising. They had not reported for duty tonight. He made another query. This surprised him even more, and then he wondered why he hadn’t asked that particular question before now.

  Gray was told that Tom Hemingway had assigned the pair to investigate the death of Patrick Johnson. At least Gray knew where Hemingway was. He’d been dispatched to the Middle East under deep cover soon after the kidnapping to see what he could find out. Hemingway had volunteered for the mission. Yet, there was no way to communicate with him. They had to wait for him to contact them. Wait for him to contact them.

  Gray put his hand in the biometric reader on Johnson’s desk, instantly giving him access to the dead man’s computer. Gray typed in a command and the result was very swift. Tom Hemingway had accessed Johnson’s computer. When Gray looked at the time stamp of when this occurred, he concluded it was when Hemingway met with Simpson and Alex. And yet something puz
zled Gray greatly. Hemingway was not supposed to have access to Johnson’s computer, or any of the other data supervisors’.

  Gray slowly rose from the chair. He was too old for this job. He was not up to it anymore. The truth had been dancing in front of his eyes this whole time. Gray’s next question was an obvious one. Where? The answer to that query came almost immediately.

  Gray picked up the phone again and ordered his chopper readied immediately and then called up a team of his most loyal field operatives. He bolted from Johnson’s office and jogged down the halls of NIC.

  Gray didn’t need fancy databases to guide him to the truth. His gut was screaming the answer at him, and his gut had rarely led him down the wrong path.



  THEY WERE IN ALEX’S CROWN Vic heading southwest on Route 29. Alex and Stone were in the front while Simpson and Reuben rode in the back. Alex glanced sideways at his companion. Here the Secret Service agent was, heading toward a possible showdown with a man who masterminded the kidnapping of a United States president. His “rescue team” consisted of a rookie Secret Service agent and a big guy pushing sixty whom Adelphia called Shifty Pants. And then there was the man named Oliver Stone, who worked in a cemetery, leading them all to a place called Murder Mountain. And to top it off, if they failed, the world might very well be toast. Alex sighed. We’re all dead.

  About thirty-five minutes after they’d branched off from Route 29 onto Highway 211, they entered the small town of Washington, Virginia, the seat of Rappahannock County. From there, Stone gave intricate instructions and they rose into the mountains, soon leaving any semblance of civilization behind as asphalt roads turned to gravel and then to dirt. It was difficult to believe they were a little over two hours away from the nation’s capital and not that far east of the confluence of busy Interstates 81 and 66.

  Simpson said from the backseat, “So what is this Murder Mountain place?”

  Stone glanced at her with a bemused expression and then looked out the windshield. “Take the next right, Alex, and then pull off the road.”

  “Road!” Alex said in frustration. “What road? I haven’t seen a real road for about twenty miles. My suspension’s shot.”

  They were in the midst of the mountains now, and the only thing that looked back at them from out of the darkness was thick forest.

  Stone glanced back at Simpson. “As I said before, Murder Mountain was a training facility for special operatives of the CIA.”

  “I know that’s what you said. What I want to know is, why do you call it Murder Mountain?”

  “Well, the short answer to that is they weren’t being trained to be nice to people.”

  Simpson snorted. “So you’re saying a U.S. government agency was training murderers? Is that what you’re saying?”

  Stone pointed up ahead. “Pull the car over there, Alex. We’re going to have to walk now.”

  Alex obeyed this instruction, unclipped his magnetized flashlight from the doorpost of the Crown Vic, went around to the trunk and started passing out equipment. This included guns and night-vision gear.

  Reuben and Stone both handled their weapons expertly.

  “Nam, three tours and then DIA,” Reuben said in response to a curious look from Alex. “I know my way around a pistol.”

  “Good,” Alex said. He looked at Stone, who was checking his weapon.

  “You all right with that, Oliver?”

  “I’m fine,” Stone said quietly. Actually, he was terrified to have a gun in his hand after all these years.

  “In case we get split up for any reason, everybody got a cell phone?” Alex asked.

  “The signal probably won’t work well up here,” Reuben commented.

  “And once we get inside the building, there won’t be any transmission possible,” Stone said. “The building was constructed with copper and lead shielding.”

  “Great,” Alex said. “Okay, Oliver, lead the way.”

  They headed into the woods.

  “Does anyone have a problem with caves?” Stone asked as he halted the group at an entrance into the side of the mountain.

  “I have a real problem with getting lost and dying in one,” Alex said.

  “That won’t happen, but it does get a little snug in places.”

  “How snug?” Reuben asked anxiously. “I’m not exactly a little guy.”

  “You’ll be fine,” Stone reassured his friend.

  Alex stared into the pitch-black hole. “Is this the entrance to the building?”

  “It’s not one of the official entrances, but they’d be watching the official entrances, wouldn’t they?” Stone replied. “Okay, stay close to me.” He shone his light ahead and stepped inside.

  Simpson was the last to enter, and she clearly wasn’t very happy about this turn of events. She glanced around behind her, shivered and followed the others inside.

  It took them some time to navigate the curving passageways. In two spots they had to clear debris that had fallen down and blocked the way, and in several other locations they had to crawl through. Above them the ceiling creaked and groaned, prompting them to hurry along faster.

  They reached a shaft that had rough foot- and handholds carved into the rock. Stone went first. When he reached the top, he shone his light on a wall of black rock. However, when he tapped it, the wall was hollow. He felt along the wall, then carefully pushed on it until the section started giving way. Alex clambered up and helped him, and soon the wall had been pushed back.

  They all scrambled through the opening.

  The wall they had pushed out was wooden, but painted on the back side to look like rock. The other side of the wall, the one inside the building, had a shelf attached to it. Stone popped the wall back into place.

  Stone whispered, “Now, I think it would be wise for everyone to have their guns ready. We don’t know how close we might be to someone.”

  As they walked along, they looked around at the immensity of the place. And it was as though they had stepped back in time forty years. There were even ashtrays built into the stainless-steel walls.

  A few moments later loud noises echoed from somewhere, causing all except Stone to point their weapons in all directions.

  “It’s only birds that have gotten in,” he explained. “That happened in the old days too.”

  With those words Stone felt himself freeze. The old days. It sounded so innocuous, as though he were returning to his cherished alma mater for a reunion. This place had been his home for twelve months. A year of his life devoted 24/7 to learning the most precise and intricate ways to kill people. As a young man Oliver Stone had excelled in these surroundings and at that task. A Special Forces soldier, the transition to the CIA team had not been that difficult. He had traded one weapon for another, and his enemies became civilians who didn’t even know they were under attack. As a young man his successes in the field had made him a legend in the special ops world. As an older man he found it all too horrible to contemplate. He couldn’t believe that two such different men could inhabit the same body.

  As they walked along, memories kept flooding back to Stone. Every new sighting, every fresh smell or distant sound, brought with it a recollection of past horrors. The others would all be looking to him to lead them, perhaps to save them. And yet he had never been trained to save anyone. The sweat broke over Stone’s forehead. He had brought three people he cared much about to die here. On Murder Mountain.

  Reinke and Peters had driven to Murder Mountain after they’d heard Sharia’s claim that it had kidnapped Brennan, and then Acting President Hamilton’s televised demand. They left their car in a clearing and sprinted toward the woods. Passing through a narrow cleft in the trees, they reached another open area. Here a mass of fallen rock lay along with overgrown bushes. Picking their way around this barrier, a door was revealed when Peters drew aside a curtain of kudzu. Murder Mountain had been built right into the rock.

  Peters lifted a small metal cover on
the door, revealing a button and loudspeaker.

  “It’s me and Tyler,” he said, talking into the loudspeaker. “Things are out of control. Hurry!”

  Reinke put the metal sheet back down and stepped back. As the massive door clicked open, three figures leaped from behind a pile of fallen rock. Tyler Reinke and Warren Peters dropped to the ground, their throats garroted. Captain Jack walked out from behind the rock and stood over them. He nodded approvingly. Reinke and Peters hadn’t even been able to make a sound to warn their colleague inside.

  A number of other men joined them and Captain Jack led them all into the building.



  CAPTAIN JACK BROUGHT WITH him eleven North Koreans with well-earned reputations as killers of considerable skill and ruthlessness. It had been relatively easy to get them into the United States posing as South Koreans as part of a technology fact-finding program. Asians coming into the country didn’t inspire near the scrutiny that Middle Easterners did.

  However, despite his men’s murderous abilities, Captain Jack was also well aware of Tom Hemingway’s prowess, and he wisely chose to split up his crew keeping two men with him. Captain Jack had seen firsthand what Mr. Hemingway could do in a fight. Eight members of a Yemeni death squad had the misfortune of running into Hemingway while Captain Jack observed from a safe distance. It had been a slaughter. All eight Yemeni, each tough, hardened and armed, were dead within five minutes. Hemingway never even pulled his gun. He did it all with his hands and feet, moving with a speed, precision and power that Captain Jack—with all his world travels—had never before encountered.

  By now Hemingway would realize that something was wrong, and he would be coming for them. Separating his men would allow Captain Jack to wear Hemingway down, to outflank and finally surround him. There would be no hand-to-hand fighting. They would simply pour bullets into Hemingway.

  The ancient fluorescent lights overhead flickered and popped. Then a sudden flash of illumination caused Captain Jack and the North Koreans with him to cover their eyes.

  The first thing Captain Jack saw when he drew his hand away from his eyes was a foot that seemed to come right out of the wall. There was a thud and a grunt, and he watched one of his men topple headfirst to the floor. An instant later the other North Korean was being propelled backward with such force that he collided with Captain Jack, and they both went down in a tangle of arms and legs. His own training kicked in, and Captain Jack went flat to the floor, whipped his pistol around and fired an arc of shots in the direction of his assailant at the same time he drew out another pistol with his free hand. When the mag on his first gun emptied, he poured another line of shots from the second pistol in the same direction. However, his bullet struck nothing except wall.

  Captain Jack got to his feet, his hands working at the same time to reload his weapons as he struggled to catch his breath. Despite all his experience in killing people, the swiftness and ferocity of the attack had staggered him. He noticed that both his men were still down.

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