The Camel Club by David Baldacci

  Captain Jack used his foot to turn over the North Korean who’d slammed into him. The man’s throat had been crushed so flat that he could see the bumps of his spinal column poking through the skin. Captain Jack touched his own throat, knowing full well that Hemingway might have easily killed him too. He looked at the other North Korean. The man’s nose had been crushed, its cartilage driven into his brain. It looked like he’d taken a cannonball flush in the face.

  “Jesus Christ,” Captain Jack muttered.

  He called out nervously, “Tom?” Captain Jack paused and then called out again. “Tom? That was pretty impressive, dispatching two first-class warriors in a couple seconds.” There was no answer. “Tom, I think you know why we’re here. Let us have him, and we can all walk away. And if you’re thinking you’re going to get backup from Reinke and Peters, think again. You’ll find them at the front door with their throats cut. So it’s just you against all of us. You can’t kill us all.”

  I certainly hope you can’t.

  Captain Jack jogged in the direction of his other men. He hoped to God Hemingway hadn’t gotten to them yet. Despite his confident words, Captain Jack was now wishing he’d brought a lot more North Koreans with him.

  In another room off the main corridor, Hemingway picked up a pair of crescent swords. He took a deep, meditative breath, turned and raced off. Murder Mountain would live up to its name tonight.

  When the shouts of the men reached them, Alex and the others retreated into a room off the main hall.

  “That wasn’t Hemingway’s voice,” Simpson said.

  “No, but whoever it is, he knows Hemingway’s in here, and apparently, Tom just killed two of the guy’s men,” Alex said. “So if Hemingway is here, the president may be too.”

  Stone checked his watch. “We have a little more than four hours to find out for sure.” He looked at each of them. “Okay, our best bet is to split up. That way if we’re ambushed, they can’t get all of us.”

  Stone drew Alex aside. “This place has a number of training rooms that you need to be aware of.”

  “Training rooms?” Alex asked nervously.

  “There’s a firing range, a situation room similar to the FBI’s Hogan’s Alley, a maze and rooms of ‘truth’ and ‘patience.’”

  “Truth and patience? What is this place, a damn monastery?”

  Stone went on to explain that the training rooms were situated on either side of the main corridor, with two rooms on one side and three on the other. “You have to go through one room to get to the next, until you reach a set of stairs that lead to the lower-level holding cells. That’s probably where the president is.” Stone ended by saying, “Once you enter the training rooms, you have to go completely through them; there is no other exit.”

  “I’m beginning to think none of us are ever going to exit this place,” Alex said gloomily.

  Stone motioned behind them with his hand. “Because we came in through the storage area, which is closer to the start of the training rooms, that means we may actually be ahead of the man we heard, if he came in through the front entrance.”

  Alex fingered his night-vision goggles, but they were useless in the light. He glanced behind him but saw no one.

  Stone said, “Reuben and I will take the three rooms to the left, you and Agent Simpson take the two on the right. The doors only open the one way. So once you go into a room, the doors lock behind you. You can’t go back.”

  “Of course not,” Alex replied sarcastically.

  “Oh, Alex, I understand that Agent Simpson is a rookie agent, so, well . . . I feel responsible for everyone here, you see.”

  “I’ll look after her, Oliver,” Alex replied, gazing at his friend curiously.

  “Thank you. Now, there are some things you need to know about the rooms you’ll be going into. What I’m about to tell you, you need to follow to the letter. Understand?”

  “You’re the guy, Oliver. Just tell me and it’s done.”

  After Stone had finished talking with Alex, he led Reuben down the hall and reached the first door that was located off a side corridor, where the two men ducked inside.

  As they scanned the dimly lit room, Stone whispered to Reuben, “This is the firing range.” This explanation was unnecessary as they gazed at the cubicles where the shooters would stand, and then at the other end where old, tattered targets with bullet-ridden paper silhouettes of men hung on the movable pulley system.

  Stone said, “You go to the right and we’ll meet in the middle. Once we’ve cleared the room, the door out to the next room is over there.”

  They parted, and Stone made his way cautiously down the left side of the firing range. He’d barely gone ten feet when the door to the firing range opened.

  Stone immediately extinguished his light and crouched low, raised his pistol and forced himself to remain calm. It was nearly three decades since he had done this sort of thing. He looked up for an instant and thought he saw someone flit by, but it was difficult in the poor light to make out who. The last thing Stone wanted to do was shoot Reuben by mistake. And there was just enough light to make his night-vision goggles useless.

  Footsteps crept closer, and Stone eased forward on his belly until he was at the very back of the firing range next to the targets. As the seconds passed by, Stone could feel a strange sensation overtaking him. Changes seemed to be taking place in his mind and body. His limbs were becoming fluid and his mind completely focused on survival. His entire existence was reduced to a fifty-by-fifty-square-foot badly lit firing range full of shadows, crevices, difficult shooting angles and hiding places. He moved a little farther to the left and touched something. He looked up and suddenly had an idea.

  The man crouched as he moved to the right, a pistol in one hand and a throwing knife in the other. He thought he heard something but wasn’t sure. He cautiously stepped into one of the firing range target paths.

  Seconds passed.

  And then the North Korean was startled by a scream. He turned and saw the thing flying at him. He fired and his bullets ripped through it.

  Stone fired an inch above the man’s muzzle flashes. There was a groan and the North Korean dropped to the floor. The “thing” that had flown at him was one of the paper targets. Stone had used a pull wire to initiate this diversion and screamed simultaneously, tricking the North Korean into firing and revealing his position.

  Then there was a more prolonged silence until Stone heard Reuben’s voice. “Oliver, are you okay?”

  A few moments later Reuben and Stone stood over the body after making sure the room was empty. Stone shone his light on the body. There were two bullet holes within a centimeter of each other, dead center of the man’s chest. Stone examined the man’s features, clothing and weaponry. “North Korean,” he deduced.

  “What exactly did you do at the CIA?” Reuben asked as he looked at the twin bullet holes.

  “I was officially called a destabilizer. It sounds far less offensive than what I actually was.”

  The machine-gun bullets ripped through the door to the firing range; Reuben and Stone threw themselves to the floor.

  The door burst open and a second man flew inside, still firing.

  Stone managed to kick a leg out and trip the man, sending him sprawling and his machine gun flying out of his hands.

  Reuben pounced on the much smaller man.

  “Got ’im, Oliver,” Reuben cried out. Reuben wrapped his huge arms around the man and squeezed. “Not so tough without your gun.” Then Reuben cried out in pain as the man smashed his heel on top of Reuben’s foot. Reuben’s grip loosened a bit, which was the only opening the man needed. Two blows slammed into Reuben’s chin, then two more thunderous strikes knifed into his gut, and Reuben was on his knees gasping for air and spitting up blood. The man’s hand raised, the blade in it held in a killing position. It descended toward the back of Reuben’s neck.

  The bullet hit him flush in the brain, and he dropped to his knees and then toppled to
the floor.

  Stone thrust the pistol back in his belt and ran over to his friend.

  “Reuben?” he said shakily. “Reuben!”

  “Damn, Oliver,” Reuben said slowly through his busted mouth. He rose on trembling legs. The two men looked at each other.

  “What the hell are we doing here, Oliver?” Reuben said, wiping the blood away. “We’re way out of our league.”

  Stone looked down at his trembling hands and felt the pain in his leg where he’d tripped the man. He’d killed two men tonight after not having killed anyone for nearly thirty years. Despite his brief feelings of his old training coming back, this was not like riding a bicycle. It was less about physical training and youthful strength and more about a mind-set that said it was okay to kill another human being by any means possible and for any reason. Stone had once been such a man. He no longer was. And yet he was trapped in a building that would very likely be his and his friends’ crypt if he didn’t continue to summon his old homicidal instincts.

  “I’m sorry for bringing you here, Reuben. I’m very sorry.” Stone’s voice cracked as he said this.

  Reuben put a big hand around his friend. “Hell, Oliver, if we gotta die, I’d rather go with you than anybody else I know. But we have to get back. I mean what would Caleb and Milton do without us?”

  Alex and Simpson were in a large, dark room that smelled distinctly foul. They had not heard the shots from the firing range because it was insulated for sound. Using his night-vision goggles Alex was able to see that there was a narrow elevated passageway leading across the room that was reachable by a set of metal steps.

  He whispered to Simpson, “I’ll go first, to make sure it’s okay. But cover me close,” he added.

  “Why do you get to play hero?” she asked.

  “Who says I’m playing hero? If I get in trouble, you better damn sure come bail me out, even if it means getting your ass shot up. Now, listen, when you go across that passageway, you stay right in the middle, okay? Do not step on the sides.”

  “Why, what’ll happen?”

  “I don’t know and I don’t want to find out. Oliver just told me to stay smack in the middle, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

  Alex made his way cautiously up the stairs and then walked across the catwalk staying right in the middle and keeping low. He reached the other side, saw the door to the other room and called back softly.

  “Okay, it’s clear, come on.”

  Simpson hurried after him. As soon as she reached him, the entry door to the room opened and closed. Alex and Simpson instantly crouched low.

  Alex studied the situation and then tapped Simpson on the shoulder and motioned to the exit door behind them and then indicated he was staying behind. As Simpson started off, Alex crouched on the edge of the catwalk, his pistol pointed straight ahead. He glanced back at Simpson and nodded. She opened the door and eased through. However, she made a slight noise, and this caused the other person in the room to hurry up the steps and onto the catwalk. Alex stepped forward and, unfortunately, to the side of the passageway. He heard a click, and the floor under him disappeared. He plummeted downward and landed in knee-deep, sludgy water. He heard another splash farther down the tank. The other guy had apparently fallen in too. It was now so black in here that Alex couldn’t even see himself, and his night-vision goggles had fallen off into the muck. Alex prayed his adversary didn’t have night-vision equipment, or he was dead.

  A shot was fired, and the bullet clanged off the side of the tank far too close to Alex’s head. He crouched down, returned fire and then moved. He tried not to breathe in the stench of the shit he’d fallen into. The wound in his arm was hurting, his bruised ribs were aching like hell and his neck was on fire. Other than that, he was in great shape.

  Alex had another problem besides these physical injuries. Because he was in knee-deep sludge, it was impossible to move without revealing his position. So Alex didn’t move. The problem was neither did the other man. This was turning into a battle of the first one to move dies. And now it occurred to Alex: This was the “patience” room that Stone had mentioned. After some minutes of standing still Alex realized he needed another strategy. He slowly reached out until his fingers touched the metal sides of the tank. Then he drew out his flashlight.

  Alex suddenly jerked his torso to the side, and the knife sailed by him, clanged against the sides of the tank and fell into the water with a small splash. Alex didn’t fire his weapon, though, which was undoubtedly his opponent’s hope.

  He hefted the flashlight in his hand, reached up and placed it carefully against the metal side of the tank. Its magnetized side instantly clamped securely there. Next Alex ducked down, and, stretching his arm as far as it would go, he placed his index finger on the flashlight’s power button. He readied his pistol, said a heartfelt prayer, pushed the button and whipped his hand back. The light blazed on, and a second later two shots hit it directly. Another instant and Alex’s own gun rang, and he let out a sigh of relief as he heard the body hit the water. Then someone was scrambling past overhead. How was that possible? There was no floor anymore. Then someone else raced by.

  Alex jumped as high as he could, trying to reach a handhold to pull himself out. Twice he missed and fell into the water. The third time he was on target, pulled himself up and managed to jerk himself along the handrail to the next door and through it.



  STONE AND REUBEN LOOKED around what appeared to be a replica of famed Hogan’s Alley in Quantico, which the FBI used to train its agents for real-life scenarios. The Secret Service had a similar setup at their Beltsville training facility. This room had mock buildings, a phone booth, sidewalks and an intersection complete with traffic light. An old black sedan with rotted tires was parked on the street. It was as though they had suddenly stepped back in time.

  Standing on the street were a number of mannequins—a couple of men, three women and some children. The paint on their faces had faded, and they were very grimy, but they still looked remarkably lifelike. Reuben noted that there were bullet holes in the heads of all of them.

  Stone led Reuben behind one of the buildings. There were wooden staircases here leading up to landings at each of the cutout windows.

  “This is where we’d do our sniper work,” Stone explained.

  “Who were you training to kill?”

  “You don’t want to know that,” Stone tersely answered before putting a finger up to his lips. Footsteps were heading their way. Stone pointed upward, toward one of the windows. They made their way quietly up and cautiously peered out.

  Three North Koreans had entered the space. They moved as one well-trained unit, each taking turns covering the others as they searched the area.

  Stone’s and Reuben’s fingers tightened on their pistol triggers. Stone eased forward and lined up a shot. The problem was the men were carrying MP-5 machine guns. If Stone and Reuben each took out one of the North Koreans, that would leave one left and their position revealed. And even with two pistols between them, it would not be an easy thing to beat an MP-5 in a pair of skilled hands.

  “Holy shit!” Reuben exclaimed.

  One of the North Koreans had just dropped to the ground with a knife stuck in the side of his neck. The other two instantly fired in the direction of where the knife had come. Then there was silence as the two North Koreans hurriedly moved forward, taking up cover behind the old car. With the backs of the North Koreans now to Stone and Reuben, the two Camel Club members could have taken out both of them. Yet when Reuben looked over questioningly, Stone shook his head. He wanted to see how this played out before they committed themselves.

  One of the North Koreans drew an object from his jacket, pulled a pin and tossed it in the direction of the knife thrower.

  Even though the grenade was not heading in their direction, Stone grabbed Reuben and pressed him to the floor of the landing they were on.

  The explosion rocked the small
space. When the noise abated and the smoke cleared somewhat, Stone and Reuben glanced up in time to see the North Koreans moving forward. Stone would have waited: It was still too smoky to see all that clearly.

  An instant later, leaping out of this cover of smoke was a figure dressed all in black from head to foot. He moved with such incredible speed and agility that he appeared to be immune to the effects of gravity. A pair of crescent swords flashed at his sides like wings.

  Using the swords, he struck the machine guns, knocking them out of the North Koreans’ hands. When they reached for their pistols, the swords sliced into their holsters, dropping them to the ground, where their assailant kicked them away. All this occurred in one blindingly fast series of motions.

  Then the man stopped and stood between the pair of North Koreans. He very deliberately took off his black hood and placed the crescent swords on the floor.

  Tom Hemingway eyed the men closely and then spoke to them in Korean.

  “What’d he say?”

  “Basically to surrender or die,” Stone answered, his gaze transfixed on the scene in front of them.

  “Think they will?” Reuben whispered.

  “No. They’re North Koreans. Their tolerance for pain and suffering is beyond most people’s comprehension.” As Stone stared at Hemingway, he thought to himself, And they’re going to need every ounce of that tolerance right now.

  The North Koreans both assumed Tae Kwon Do stances. One made a quick feint with his foot that Hemingway didn’t even bother to respond to. He spoke again to them in Korean. They both shook their heads. The other launched a kick at Hemingway, who grabbed the man by the foot with one hand and, with a thrust of his arm, sent him sailing backward. He spoke again in Korean.

  “He said, ‘I’m sorry to have to do this,’” Stone answered as Reuben looked at him questioningly.

  Before they took another breath, Hemingway struck. His fist broke right through the feeble defense of one of his opponents and slammed directly into the man’s chest. Moving so fast it was actually difficult to follow with the naked eye, Hemingway whirled and delivered a crushing kick to the side of the man’s head.

  Even from where they were hiding, Stone and Reuben could hear the snap of the man’s neck.

  The other man ran across the street toward the car with Hemingway on his heels. When he whirled around, Hemingway saw the knife and leaped. The man threw the knife and it sliced into Hemingway’s arm, but he kept
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