The camel club, p.11
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       The Camel Club, p.11

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  “No,” Gray said. “Let them go, but with tracers. And let it be known through discreet channels that they’ve talked to the authorities.”

  “The result will be they’ll be killed by their own people,” the other woman present said.

  Gray nodded. “Film the murders. We’ll use that as leverage. And if they won’t turn to our side, terrorist killing terrorist never fails to make the six o’clock news. Okay, give me the latest.”

  The man charged with responding to this query was the youngest person in the room. However, in many ways he had more experience in the field than most agents far his senior. Tom Hemingway looked just as dashing and was dressed just as impeccably as he had been last night at the LEAP Bar. He was a rising star at NIC and its reigning expert in Middle East affairs. He also had an excellent grounding in the Far East, having spent the first twenty years of his life in those two places with his father, who’d been a U.S. ambassador, first to China, then Jordan, and, for a brief time, Saudi Arabia, before returning to China.

  Because of his father’s travels, Tom Hemingway was one of the few operatives in American intelligence who could speak Mandarin Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi. He had read the Qur’an in its original Arabic and knew the Muslim world as well as any American other than his father. It was these attributes, plus physical and mental indefatigability and a gift for spy craft, that had fueled his meteoric rise through the ranks to his current position as one of Gray’s inner circle.

  Hemingway clicked a key on his computer, and a screen hanging on the far wall sprang to life showing a detailed satellite-imaging map of the Middle East.

  He said, “As outlined here, CIA and NIC operatives on the ground have made significant inroads in Iran, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, UAE and Yemen as well as the new Kurdish Republic. We’ve infiltrated over two dozen known terrorist organizations and splinter cells at the deepest levels. All are on track to pay big dividends.”

  “It helps when your field agents aren’t all blond and blue-eyed who speak no Arabic,” one of the other men commented dryly.

  “Well, for decades that’s all we had,” Gray shot back. “And we still don’t have nearly enough operatives who can speak the language.”

  “Kabul and Tikrit aren’t exactly popular career paths these days,” commented one of the men.

  “What are the losses currently running?” Gray asked.

  “Two operatives killed per month,” Hemingway answered. “It’s as high as it’s ever been, but with more reward obviously comes more risk,” he added.

  Gray responded, “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting these people out safely.”

  There was a murmur of largely unenthusiastic agreement around the table. Middle East terrorists dealt with suspected spies very directly. They filmed the beheading of the person and released it to the world to dissuade others from replacing the fallen. It had proved a very effective strategy.

  “We’re losing soldiers over there at the rate of a dozen a day, seven days a week,” Hemingway pointed out. “And with the new front that just opened on the Syrian border, the casualty rate will only get worse. Meanwhile, the Muslim independence movements in Chechnya, Kashmir, Thailand and Mindanao are allowing the spread of radical Islamic ideology to grow unabated. And Africa’s a whole other problem. Most of northern Nigeria had adopted strict sharia law. They’re stoning women to death for committing adultery and cutting the limbs off petty thieves. The terrorists’ recruiting and training operations are largely conducted over the Internet, and they use identity theft and other scams to hide their movements and conduct financing through the hawala system of informal money transfers. There’s no centralized command for our military to hit. Clandestine, undercover operations are the only viable strategy.”

  “There’s a democratic government in power in Iraq, duly elected by the people,” another man said. “Despite suicide bombers and bullets flying everywhere, the people came out and voted. And look at the gains in Lebanon, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Morocco. In fact, democracy is slowly spreading across the region. That truly is a miracle and something both we and the Muslim community can be proud of.”

  Hemingway looked at Gray. “It’s cost this country half a trillion dollars and counting to get to the election stage in Iraq. At that rate we’ll be bankrupt in five years. And when the Kurds declared their independence, it hardly set well in Baghdad. And the Sunnis may not be far behind in revolting from the Shia control. Meanwhile, the Baathist exiles and foreign insurgents are continuing to escalate the violence. On top of that, word is the Iraqi government will soon be asking the U.S to leave because it’s struck a deal with the Baathists for a bloodless coup. And then the Baathists will fight a final battle with the insurgents who favor a Taliban-style government. Iraq will end up far more destabilized than it ever was, with a legion of newly minted terrorists ready to attack us. So what has our money and the blood of our soldiers really bought us?”

  Gray said, “I’m aware of that. We knew the day would come. Unfortunately, from our side we really can’t leave. The situation is far too volatile.”

  Hemingway threw his hands up. “That’s what happens when you have a country that was artificially created by a colonial power, jamming three distinct and incompatible groups into one boundary. A one-size-fits-all democracy is not an effective foreign policy when you’re dealing with such different cultures. Western democracy is predicated on separation of church and state. That’s a difficult sell to Muslims. That’s why Mali and Senegal are the only Muslim nations rated fully free.”

  Gray said calmly, “We don’t make the foreign policy of this government, Tom, we just try and clean up the mess and limit the damage. India and Pakistan?”

  Hemingway drew a deep breath. “Situation continues to worsen. The current casualty estimates of a nuclear war between the two countries have twenty-five million dying the first day, with another twenty million critically injured. That is a disaster beyond the world’s collective ability to respond. And China and India are closer every day, both economically and militarily. That’s a real concern.”

  “Egypt?” Gray asked.

  “Ready to erupt, along with Indonesia and Saudi Arabia,” Hemingway responded. “Ever since the Temple of Hatsheput massacre, Egypt’s tourist trade’s been in the toilet. And a bad economy equals opportunities for an overthrow.”

  Gray sat back in his chair. “Well, understandably, people on vacation are averse to being shot and hacked to death.”

  “And then there’s North Korea,” Hemingway said.

  Gray nodded. “A madman in charge, the world’s third largest army, with nukes that can hit Seattle and whose lead export is counterfeit American money. I want the updated detailed scenarios on my desk in twenty-four hours. Okay, narcoterrorism?”

  Hemingway clicked another key and the wall screen changed. “In the highlighted areas Middle East terrorists are hooking up with Far East drug cartels in a much more formal way. In some cases they’re actually taking over the drug operations completely. The Central Asian republics are imploding. Drug production is the fastest-growing part of the economy. And since the republics were the former Soviet Union’s toxic waste dumps, we could soon have Middle East terrorist groups selling radioactive heroin and crack in the States.”

  “Ironic considering Muslims don’t even touch liquor, much less crack,” another man said.

  Hemingway shook his head. “I’ve been on flights with some Saudis where the hijab comes off and the booze comes out as soon as the plane was wheels-up.”

  “Thank you for your report, Tom. Is this current hit list fundamentally accurate?” Gray asked another man.

  “Yes, sir. It’s based on very credible evidence.”

  “In my experience a term very often confused with incredible evidence,” Gray said. “As usual, ground-level operatives are to be given the broadest possible latitude to accommodate different tactics by the enemy. Preemptive action is encouraged whenever possible. We’ll
take care of any lingering details on the other end.”

  Everyone in the room understood Gray’s words to mean: kill them and don’t worry about the legal or political niceties.

  Gray next asked for and received a report on the domestic terrorist front, which included groups of militia and religious cults.

  “Give me the current hot reads,” Gray ordered next.

  And on it went for the next two hours as one potential crisis after another was carefully dissected. And yet at any moment all this analysis could be thrown out the window as another building or world leader toppled or a jumbo jet exploded in midair.

  Gray was about to adjourn when one of the women, who’d left the room in response to a hurried summons, returned and handed him a new file.

  Gray took two minutes to scan the four pages. When he looked up, he was clearly not pleased. “This happened last night. The police and FBI have been investigating since eight-forty-five this morning. And this is the first I hear of it?”

  “I don’t think its potential importance was appreciated as quickly as it should have been.”

  “Patrick Johnson?” Gray asked.

  “He’s an analyst with—”

  “I know that,” Gray said impatiently. “It’s in the report you just handed me. Regardless of how he died, does it have something to do with his work?”

  “The FBI’s heading up the investigation.”

  “That gives me no comfort whatsoever,” Gray said bluntly. “Do we at least have people on the scene? This report was inexplicably silent on that.”

  “Yes.”

  “I want Patrick Johnson’s entire life history in one hour. Get on it.”

  The woman shot out of the room. After she’d gone, Gray rose and walked down the hall to another conference room where representatives from CIA, NSA and Homeland Security were waiting. For the next hour Gray received a briefing and asked a series of questions that made half the people in the room feel uncomfortable and the other half seriously intimidated.

  After that, he walked to his office, a modest room wedged between two far larger ones used for crisis command centers that were full of activity on most days. His office was devoid of any personal mementos or the ubiquitous photo wall of fame. Gray had no time to consider his past triumphs. Sitting at his desk, he stared for a moment at a wall where windows would normally be. He had vetoed them out of the NIC facility’s design; windows were a weakness, an avenue for spies and a source of distraction. Still, it had not been an easy decision because Gray was an avid outdoorsman. Yet here he was spending his “golden years” in a place without windows and sunlight trying to prevent the destruction of his world. Ironic, he mused, the mightiest intelligence agency ever created could not even see out of its own building.

  A noise sounded on his computer. He hit a key and started to read about Patrick Johnson with great interest.

  CHAPTER

  19

  THE RARE BOOKS DIVISION AT the Library of Congress Jefferson Building holds more than 800,000 precious volumes. For many bibliophiles the crown jewel of this literary treasure was the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection of antique books and prints. Many of these were classified as “incunabula,” meaning they were created before 1501 and without benefit of the Gutenberg printing press technology. The Rosenwald collection, along with over a hundred others, is housed in numerous vaults next to the Rare Books reading room. It was in this sanctuary that patrons were allowed to read, and occasionally touch, volumes that were more works of art than simply books.

  Although the reading room is open to the public, security is very tight. The entire area is monitored 24/7 by closed-circuit camera with time stamp. Clerks monitor the usage of all books in the room, and no volume is ever allowed out of the room except on loan to another institution or by order of the Librarian of Congress. The most rare publications are often not even taken out of the vault except under special circumstances. In many of these exceptional cases the staff handles the books while the visitor merely reads the exalted pages from a few inches safe distance.

  No bags or notebooks that could be used to secrete the precious tomes are allowed; nor are pens, as they could smudge the ancient pages. Only pencils and loose-leaf paper are permitted in this sanctified place. And even then, some clerks will often draw nervous breaths when a lead pencil draws within a foot of one of their cherished “wards.”

  Oliver Stone made his way to the reading room on the second floor and passed through the large leather and brass inner doors with porthole windows. Enormous bronze metal doors—which some claimed were symbolically stamped with three panels to show the importance of the history of printing—were open against the inner wall. When the reading room was closed, these doors were locked over the inner ones, creating a formidable barrier even if one could get past all the electronic security and armed guards. The room itself was one of the most beautiful in the whole of the Library of Congress. It had been fashioned after the Georgian simplicity of Independence Hall in Philadelphia with the intent of creating a soothing environment for scholarship and contemplation. This result had been achieved, because as soon as Stone entered the space, he felt a wondrous sense of calm.

  Caleb Shaw was working at his desk at the far end of the room. As a reference specialist he was an expert in several antiquarian periods, and he also helped scholars with important research. When Caleb saw his friend, he came forward to meet him, buttoning up his cardigan as he did so. The room was very cool.

  “Oliver, you’re right, I’m not sure I would have recognized you,” he said, gazing at his friend’s altered appearance.

  “It actually feels good.” Stone eyed one of the security cameras. “This place seems very well guarded.”

  “It has to be. The collection is priceless, the only one like it in the world. The safeguards they go through to make sure nothing is lost, you wouldn’t believe it. If a book gets misplaced, no one leaves until it’s found. The person who buys the books for the collection can’t access the database and alter the descriptions in the catalog, and the person who accesses the database can’t purchase books.”

  “Because otherwise a person could buy a book for the collection and make it ‘disappear’ on the database, and then take the book and sell it and no one the wiser?”

  “Exactly. My goodness, what a morning it’s been!” Caleb exclaimed. “A very elderly gentleman came in, not a scholar known to anyone here, just someone off the street. And he wanted to see a William Blake. A William Blake! ‘Any William Blake will do,’ he said. Well, that was a red flag right there. You might as well have asked to see our Mormon Bible, for all the sirens that set off. No one gets to see a Blake without senior-level approval, and that is not frequently given, I can tell you.”

  “Blake is rare?” Stone said.

  “Rare doesn’t even begin to describe the situation with Blake. Godlike perhaps.”

  “So what did you do?”

  “When we talked to him a little further, we discovered that he was quite probably descended from one of Blake’s siblings. So we brought out some of his illuminated works, his engravings, you know. He wasn’t allowed to touch them, of course, because very few people know how to handle old books. But this episode had a nice ending. The gentleman was quite overwhelmed by the entire experience. In fact, I thought he might start weeping. But many of our volumes are things of beauty. I think that’s why I love working here.”

  All of this came thundering out in the fashion of a man passionately engaged with his work and eager to spread this enthusiasm to others.

  Caleb and Stone took a staff elevator to the lower level, where they walked through the tunnels that connected the Jefferson, Adams and Madison Buildings of the Library of Congress complex, arriving at the cafeteria in the lower level of the Madison. They purchased lunch there and carried it outside, where they ate on a picnic table set up on the Madison’s raised frontage that looked out on Independence Avenue. The massive Jefferson Building was on the other side of the st
reet, and just beyond that was the U.S. Capitol.

  “Not a bad view,” Stone commented.

  “I’m afraid it gets taken for granted by most.”

  Stone finished his sandwich and then leaned toward his friend.

  “Patrick Johnson?”

  “I looked him up in the government database but found nothing. I don’t have the security clearances to make a really thorough probe. You thought he might be with the Secret Service because of that pin you found. If so, that’s out of my league. Law enforcement and librarians don’t share the same databases, I’m afraid.”

  “There’s a new development. That Secret Service agent I’m friendly with, Alex Ford? He came by to visit me last night at my tent.”

  “Last night! Do you think there’s a connection?”

  “I don’t see how there can be, since he came by before the murder even happened. But it is troubling.”

  There was a buzzing sound, and Caleb pulled out his cell phone and answered it. His features became very animated as he listened. When he clicked off, he said, “That was Milton. He was able to hack into the Secret Service’s database.”

  Stone’s eyes widened. “He was able to do that! Already?”

  “Milton can do anything with a computer, Oliver. He could make a fortune doing illegal things on the Internet. Three years ago he hacked into the Pentagon because he said he wanted to make sure they weren’t planning on nuking one of our own cities and blaming it on terrorists as an excuse for an all-out war against Islam.”

  “That certainly sounds like something Milton would think of. What did he find?”

  “Johnson worked as a data management supervisor at NIC.”

  “NIC? Carter Gray.”

  “Exactly.”

  Stone rose. “I want you to call Reuben and Milton and tell them to be ready to go out tonight. And we’ll need your car. You can pick me up at the usual spot. We’ll meet Reuben at Milton’s house. It’s closest to where we’re going.”

  “And where is that?”

  “Bethesda. To the late Patrick Johnson’s home.”

  “But, Oliver, the police will be there. It’s a murder investigation.”

  “No,” Stone corrected. “It’s a homicide investigation right now with the police no doubt leaning toward suicide. But if the police are there, we might be able to pick up some valuable information. Oh, and, Caleb, bring Goff.”

  As his friend walked off, a puzzled Caleb stared after him. Goff was Caleb’s dog! However, Caleb was well acquainted with his friend’s odd requests. He threw his trash away in a garbage can and headed back to his world of rare books.

 
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