The Camel Club by David Baldacci

  Decker shook his head. “These conditions will have no effect on the launch. The D-5 has inertial guidance. It takes two star sightings after separation of the final rocket motor, then it’ll maneuver to optimal location to deploy the warheads for free fall onto the target. The problem is only with maintaining contact with the sub.”

  “So what are you saying, Joe?” Hamilton asked.

  “I’m strongly suggesting that we just get it over with before we lose contact.”

  “What? Launch now?” Hamilton checked his watch. “There’s still fifty-two minutes left.”

  “And what difference will that possibly make, Mr. President? If they were going to release him, they would’ve done so by now. In fact, this just gives the other side more time to plan how to strike back at us. And if we don’t do it now, the Tennessee might not be reachable.”

  “Can’t we use another nuclear asset?”

  “That sub is in the ideal place with the ideal ordnance to hit Damascus, and it’s prepped and ready to go. Our other subs in the Atlantic would face the same communications problems in any event.”

  “Well, just tell the Tennessee to fire when the deadline ends unless they hear from us.”

  “It doesn’t work that way with nukes, sir. For lots of reasons, it’s only when we tell them to launch that they launch. They don’t watch clocks. And we could scramble something else, but it likely would be past the deadline by the time it’s ready. And if we don’t fire the missile within the time frame we’ve set out, then we’ve lost all credibility, sir.”

  “So that’s how it’s going to be from now on? We hit them; they hit us. What? Until we’re all gone?”

  “With all due respect, sir, we have far more to hit them with than they do us. And I have every confidence that we will win in the end.”

  Hamilton glanced up to see all gazes in the room upon him. May God have mercy on me. He said, “Get in touch with the Syrians first. Give them one last chance.” He put his head in his hands as everyone in the room looked down.

  Suddenly, Andrea Mayes jumped up. “Wait! Please. Sir, why wouldn’t they give him back if they had him? Why would they let millions of their own people die?”

  Decker snapped, “Because they’re terrorists. That’s how they think. And according to their faith, all those people will go right to paradise. And let’s not forget that they attacked us. They took our president. And right now he’s almost certainly dead. We have no choice. We have to strike back in a way that will leave no doubt as to this country’s resolve. Anything less will give them courage to escalate their attacks on us. And there’s no better way to do that than with a nuclear weapon. Japan only surrendered after we dropped two on them. It ended up saving millions of lives.”

  He failed to mention that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had also killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and left both cities radioactive for decades.

  Hamilton looked away, and the secretary of state slumped back in her chair.

  Decker grabbed a secure phone and ordered the final demand be made to the Syrians and Sharia immediately. A few minutes later he had his answer.

  Hamilton looked up. “Well?”

  “The sanitized version is that God will strike us down for the evil we’re about to do,” Decker replied. “So am I authorized to contact Command Authority, sir?”

  Hamilton suddenly looked indecisive. Mayes seized on this to say, “Mr. President, please think about what you’re about to do. If we annihilate Damascus there will never be peace. Never.”

  Decker moved in front of her. “Mr. President, we don’t have peace now. And if you fail to carry through on your demand America will be robbed of all its power. To the world we will become a laughingstock, inept and emasculated. I know that you are not that kind of leader.” He paused and added firmly, “We have to do this.”

  Hamilton rubbed his eyes, glanced at Mayes and then nodded at Decker. “Make the call.”

  Hamilton stood and gazed out the window while Decker picked up another phone and gave the order to the National Command Authority, which instantly relayed it to the Tennessee. The mighty Trident missile would launch shortly thereafter, accelerating out of the water’s depths with such incomprehensible speed and force that a protective wall of gas would enclose it. As it passed through hundreds of feet of ocean depths, not even a single drop of water would touch its metal hide. At a cruising speed of fourteen thousand miles an hour, the Trident missile would hit Damascus less than thirty minutes after launch with the force of a thousand category 5 hurricanes all rolled into one. There would be nothing left.

  At first the ringing phone didn’t register. Then slowly, Hamilton looked up. It was that phone. He raced over and snatched it up.


  His face paled and he grabbed at his side. Most in the room thought he was about to have some sort of attack.

  “They have him,” he screamed to the room. “They have Brennan.” He whirled on Decker. “Call off the launch. Call it off!”

  Decker quickly spoke into the other phone and ordered the Tennessee to stand down. However, the secretary of defense suddenly paled. “What? That can’t be.”

  Everyone’s gaze was riveted on him.

  Decker looked ashen-faced as he said, “The atmospheric conditions over the Atlantic have started disrupting satellite communications. The Tennessee acknowledged and confirmed the order to launch, but now Command Authority is having trouble contacting the sub again.”

  Hamilton shouted at Decker, “I knew we should have waited the full eight hours. You idiot!”

  Andrea Mayes said shakily, “Oh, my God.”

  Hamilton grabbed the phone from Decker and roughly pushed the man out of the way. Into the phone he said, “This is Acting President Hamilton. You have to get in touch with that damn sub and tell them not to launch. I don’t care how you do it, just do it.” He held on to the edge of the Resolute Desk for support as his knees started to buckle and sweat glistened his brow.

  A stricken-looking Decker stood holding his shoulder from where Hamilton had shoved him against the wall.

  Hamilton yelled into the phone again, “Blow the goddamn sub out of the water if you have to.” He shrieked, “Just stop it! Stop it!”

  Seconds ticked by, and not one breath could be heard in the Oval Office, because every last person was holding theirs. Finally, Hamilton replaced the phone receiver in its cradle and sank to his knees. He looked very close to passing out now.

  Hamilton slowly looked up at his subordinates. “They stopped the launch,” he managed to say before staring directly at Decker. “With . . . one . . . damn . . . second to spare.”

  There were no cheers in the Oval Office; all of them were frozen.

  However, somewhere underneath the Atlantic Ocean 155 American sailors screamed in relieved joy.

  The safe return of President James Brennan at an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Medina, Ohio, rocked the world yet again. The more than fourteen thousand American military and special operatives deployed to Medina in Saudi Arabia slipped away as quietly as possible. In the president’s pocket had been found a typed note that read simply: “From great sacrifice comes great opportunity.”

  Franklin Hemingway had penned those words thirty years earlier, and his son could think of no better message to leave with the leader of the free world.

  Carter Gray was hailed as a national hero for figuring out where Brennan was going to be released. While somewhat vague on the details, Gray explained that it was a combination of hard work, reliable informants and a lot of luck. “However, the kidnappers were true to their word,” he said. “Because the president was in Medina, only about seven thousand miles away from the one we thought it was.”

  Gray had spent an emotional night with Senator Simpson and his wife, comforting them on the loss of their only child. The official version of what had happened, and the only one her parents had received as well, was that Jackie was the
victim of a deadly carjacking while driving along Interstate 81 very late at night. There were no suspects, and Gray knew there would never be an arrest. The only other development was the unexplained disappearance of three NIC agents. Gray would take care of that too.

  On a positive note Captain Jack had talked. And talked and talked. Carter Gray now had quite a lot of ammo to use against North Korea.

  James Brennan triumphantly returned to the White House as huge crowds surrounding the area cheered. He gave televised remarks to the nation, thanking Carter Gray for his exemplary work, having no idea that the man had seriously contemplated killing him and blaming it on the Syrians. Brennan also thanked his beleaguered vice president for a job well done. Finally, he expressed his gratitude to the American people for being stalwart and true throughout the crisis.

  They would never know that a mere second had been the margin of error in the commencement of a worldwide apocalypse. His chief of staff stood by beaming. With the crisis over, her attention had returned fully to the election. The latest polls showed Brennan with a historically high eighty-six percent approval rating. Barring something catastrophic her candidate would easily win the election and have four more years to build his legacy.

  Brennan received a full briefing on all that had happened, but no one could shed light on who’d kidnapped him. It now appeared clear that neither the Sharia Group nor Syria had had anything to do with the abduction. In the colder light of reason the Sharia Group had no assets in the United States capable of having orchestrated such a scheme. The body of one of the group’s leaders had been found, and the man had obviously died of torture. And no one had explained how so many skilled Arabs could have infiltrated the United States with America’s intelligence sector having no record of any of them.

  Damascus was still in shambles, but not nearly as bad as it would have been if the Trident had hit it. The Syrians and the rest of the Middle East were still understandably shell-shocked, but it seemed that with the world so close to the abyss people were looking at things with a more cooperative eye. It remained to be seen if this mood had permanence, though.

  Vice President Hamilton had taken some time off from his official duties. Coming within a second of being the first American president since Harry Truman to order the use of a nuclear bomb was more pressure than any person should have to bear, and it had taken its toll on the man. However, Hamilton was expected to make a full recovery.

  Brennan had been astonished to learn that the kidnappers had died nearly to a man while intentionally not inflicting any casualties on the United States. While he was still contemplating this stunning news, the president watched a recording of one of his favorite political roundtable shows that had been broadcast while he was still missing. Each of the four pundits on the show concluded that what was going on was a trick of some sort.

  “And if the president is delivered back safely?” the moderator asked.

  All of the pundits said that that would be another trick of some sort.

  “With what goal in mind?” the moderator asked. “They sacrificed over twenty people. They could have killed the president quite easily at any time. And if they return him safely, what have they gained?”

  “You have to understand, these people will stop at nothing,” one of the pundits declared. “First they tried killing us. But that didn’t work. We fought back and are winning the war on terror. So they’ve clearly changed tactics.”

  “And now they’re trying the ploy of not killing us?” the bewildered moderator asked.

  “Precisely,” the smug pundit answered.

  Brennan had received a copy of the kidnappers’ demands and spent a long time in his private quarters going over them. He also reviewed with horror the details of how close the U.S. had come to launching a nuclear strike against a nation that, it turned out, was innocent of the alleged wrongdoing. While Brennan praised his vice president publicly, he was shocked when he learned how quickly Hamilton had been persuaded to authorize the use of nuclear weapons and how close he’d come to launching one. Brennan was now thinking seriously of other VP candidates.

  He held lengthy meetings with his various experts in Muslim affairs and other Western leaders and spent long hours with his wife and family. He went to church several times in one week, perhaps seeking divine advice for the secular problems of humankind.

  Now that the president was safely back, the international press started to report more openly about the kidnappers’ demands. Throughout the capitals of Europe, South America and Asia, people were actually focusing more on the substance of the demands, since, for once, they didn’t have an accompanying pile of human bodies and rubble to overshadow them.

  Finally, Brennan called a meeting of his cabinet, his National Security Council and his top military advisers. There he brought up his abductors’ demands.

  His national security adviser immediately protested. “Sir,” the NSA said, “it’s absurd. We can’t comply with any of them. It’s beyond preposterous.”

  Secretary of Defense Decker spoke up. “Mr. President, to even consider those demands is a sign of weakness on behalf of this country.”

  Brennan’s response was terse. “We came within seconds of killing six million people on what turned out to be deeply flawed evidence.”

  “We didn’t start this thing. And there’s always risk involved,” Decker countered.

  Brennan stared the man down. “We are the world’s sole remaining superpower. We have a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world. Even if others don’t show restraint, we have to!”

  The way Brennan was looking at Decker, it was clear a new secretary of defense would be joining a new vice president in Brennan’s second administration.

  Brennan pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket. It was the note that had been found on him after the kidnapping. He read it to himself. “From great sacrifice comes great opportunity.” And as history had shown and Brennan well knew, great presidents were often created during such times.

  He turned away from Joe Decker and his Pentagon folks and looked at Andrea Mayes, his secretary of state.

  “I think it’s time we got to work,” President Brennan said.



  JACQUELINE SIMPSON WAS LAID TO rest in a private service at a cemetery in northern Virginia. In attendance were her grief-stricken parents, close family friends, political dignitaries, representatives of the Secret Service and her godfather, Carter Gray.

  Nearby but hidden behind a copse of trees stood Oliver Stone, wearing a brand-new black suit and tie that his friends had purchased for him. As the minister spoke words of religious wisdom and comfort, Stone didn’t hear them. His gaze was transfixed on the coffin that held his daughter, Beth. He didn’t cry. He was having trouble deciding what he should feel. He was her father, but then again, he wasn’t. He had had her for three years; the Simpsons for the rest of her life. Simply from a time standpoint, he had little claim to be here. And yet he could not have stayed away.

  When the ceremony was over and all the others had left, Stone emerged from his hiding place and walked down to the burial spot. The cemetery workers were about to lower the coffin into the hole in the ground, but Stone asked them to wait.

  “Are you family?” one asked him.

  “Yes,” he answered. “I’m family.”

  For twenty long minutes Stone knelt in front of the coffin, with one of his hands resting on its smooth, polished surface.

  He finally rose on shaky legs, bent over and kissed the coffin, placing a single flower on top. It was a daisy.

  “Good-bye, Beth,” he said quietly. “I love you.”

  The Camel Club, Alex and Kate met at Stone’s cottage the following day. Reuben had been treated for his wounds, and the doctors had taken care of a couple of bothersome kidney stones at the same time. Chastity was fully recovered from her ordeal, something she had absolutely no memory of.

  Alex brought with him the newspaper account of Jacki
e Simpson’s death. “She was a damn hero, and all she’ll be remembered for is being a victim of a carjacking,” he said bitterly.

  Stone was sitting behind his desk. “You’re wrong. That’s not all she’ll be remembered for,” he said firmly.

  Alex changed the subject. “It’s killing me that Carter Gray is now some national hero when he was going to murder the president. There has to be something we can do.”

  Reuben said, “But if we go public, then everything else comes out. I’m not sure the country can handle that after everything that’s happened.”

  Stone said quietly, “Carter Gray will be taken care of. I’ll personally see to that.”

  They all looked at him curiously, but the man’s expression did not invite questions.

  Reuben stood. “Okay, I think it’s time to make it official.” He cleared his throat. “I hereby call a special meeting of the Camel Club to order. Because of their exemplary work on behalf of the United States, and their invaluable assistance to the club, I move that we admit two new members: Agent Alex Ford and Kate Adams. Do I have a second?”

  “Second,” said Milton and Caleb together.

  “All in favor say aye!”

  And the ayes carried.

  Alex said, “Okay, I need to know something. Why the Camel Club?”

  Stone answered, “Because camels have great stamina. They never give up.”

  “That’s what Oliver says, but the real reason is this,” Reuben countered. “In the 1920s there was another Camel Club. And at each meeting of that club they would all raise their glasses and take a vow to oppose Prohibition to the last drop of whiskey. Now, that’s my kind of club.”

  When the meeting broke up, Alex stayed behind to talk to Stone in private.

  “So Oliver Stone is really John Carr,” he said.

  “Was John Carr. He’s dead,” Stone said bluntly.

  “Oliver, you told Carter Gray that your country had taken your
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