The camel club, p.17
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       The Camel Club, p.17

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  intuitively knowing it would be a bad thing, he put his book down and spent the next hour drifting through his past. Stone lingered over the pictures he had of his daughter. One showed her holding a bunch of daisies, her favorite flower. He smiled as he remembered how she would pronounce it: dayzzzees. There was another picture of her blowing out candles on a cake. It wasn’t her birthday. She’d gotten stitches in her hand after she’d fallen on some broken glass, and the cake was her reward for being so brave. The cut left a scar in the shape of a crescent on her right palm. He’d kissed it every time he held her. He had so few memories of her that Stone clung desperately to every one.

  At last his mind went back to that final night. Their house had been situated in a very isolated area; his employer had insisted on that. It was only after the attack that Stone understood the reason for this requirement.

  He remembered the creak of the door as it was opened. Cut off from their child, he and his wife barely slipped through the window when the muffled shots commenced. Stone remembered visualizing the suppressor cans on the ends of the muzzles. Thump—thump—thump. They nipped at him like lethal gnats. And then his wife screamed once, and that was all. She was dead. Stone killed two of the men sent to execute him that night, using their own guns against them. And then he’d gotten away to a safe place.

  That night was the last time Stone saw his wife or his daughter. The next day it was as though they’d never existed. The house had been emptied and all signs of the murderous attack obliterated. All attempts to find his daughter over the years had failed. Beth. Her full name was Elizabeth, but they had always called her Beth. She was a beautiful child and the pride of her father. And he had lost her forever on a hellish night decades ago.

  When he eventually learned the truth of what had happened, Stone was consumed with the idea of revenge. And then something happened that struck those thoughts from him. He read in the paper of the violent death of a man, an important man, in a country overseas. The killing was never solved. The man left behind a wife and children. Stone recognized the fingerprints of his former employer all over that killing. It was a scene personally very familiar to Stone as well.

  That’s when he realized he was not a man who deserved revenge even for his wife being murdered and his child taken from him. His past sins were many, piled high under the dubious cloak of patriotism. For Stone, it effectively disenfranchised him from seeking justice for the wrong committed against his family.

  He disappeared and traveled the world under a number of aliases. It had been relatively easy; his government had trained him very well to do just that. After many years of wandering he embarked on the only option left to him. He became Oliver Stone, a man of silent protest, who watched and paid attention to important things in America others didn’t seem drawn to. And still, it had not been nearly enough to balance the pain of losing the two people he cared most about. That would be his burden until his last breath.

  When he fell asleep in the chair as the fire died low, the wetness of his tears still shimmered on the album’s slick pages.

  CHAPTER

  27

  DJAMILA ROSE AT FIVE O’CLOCK in her small apartment on the outskirts of Brennan, Pennsylvania. Shortly after dawn she performed her first prayer of the day. After she had cleansed herself and removed her shoes and covered her head, Djamila went through the Islamic rituals of standing, sitting, bowing and prostrating herself on her prayer rug. She began by reciting the shahada, the central statement of Muslim faith: La ilaha illa’Llah, or “There is no god but God.” After that, she recited the opening sura, the first chapter of the Qur’an. The invocations were performed silently, only her lips moving as she formed the words. After she’d finished her salat, she changed her clothes and readied herself for work before sitting down to breakfast.

  As she surveyed her tiny kitchen, Djamila reflected on her conversation with Lori Franklin the day before. Djamila had lied to her employer, though the American would have no way of knowing of the deceit. Djamila’s official papers showed her to be a Saudi. That, and her being a woman, had allowed her entry into America to go very smoothly, even in post-9/11 times. Djamila was actually an Iraqi by birth, and a Sunni Muslim by religious practice, as were over 80 percent of all Muslims, although in Iraq the Sunnis were in the minority. In early times the Sunnis clashed with their Shia counterparts largely over the issue of the successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Now the differences were far more numerous and bitter.

  The Shiites believed that the fourth rightly guided caliphate, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s son-in-law and also his cousin, was the true blood successor to the Islamic Prophet. Shia Muslims performed a pilgrimage to Mazar-i-Sharif to the blue mosque where Ali was entombed. Sunni Muslims believed that Muhammad had not appointed his successor, and thus they established the caliphates to take over for the Prophet after his death. The Sunnis and Shiites agreed that none of the caliphs rose to the level of a prophet; however, the fact that three of the four caliphs had died violent deaths was a testament to how fervently divided the Muslim population was over this issue.

  Under the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, Djamila had been allowed to drive a car, whereas in Saudi Arabia this wouldn’t have been possible. The Saudis followed a very strict form of sharia, or Islamic law. This strictness required women to be completely covered at all times, and it prohibited them from voting and even from going out of the house without a permission note from their husbands. These rules were scrupulously enforced by the tenacious, whip-wielding religious police.

  There was also the notorious “Chop-Chop Square,” the main square in downtown Riyadh. It was here every Friday where those who broke the sharia were punished for all to see. Djamila had been there once and watched in horror as five people lost both their hands and two others their heads. Far more subtle punishment was the fallaga, the beating of the bottom of the feet in a way that left no marks, although the victim was typically unable to walk, so great was the pain.

  The rest of the world had largely looked the other way ever since King Ibn Saud, conqueror of Arabia and the ruler who had given his name to the country, hired geologists to come look for water but who struck oil instead. With fully one-quarter of the world’s black gold reserves under the country’s sands, a resource eagerly coveted by the industrialized world, the Saudis could usually do what they wanted without fear of repercussions.

  However, Djamila had not entirely lied to Franklin. Living in Baghdad, and being a Sunni Muslim like Saddam Hussein, she had worn clothes mostly of her choosing, and she had been well educated. Despite that, she had hated living under the Iraqi dictator. She had lost friends and family who “disappeared” after speaking out against the despotic ruler. During the American invasion of Iraq she prayed that Hussein would be toppled, and those prayers were answered. She and her family at first welcomed the Americans and their allies as heroes for giving them back their freedom. But then things rapidly began to change.

  Djamila returned from the market one day to find her family’s home reduced to rubble after an errant air strike. All of her family, including her two young brothers, perished. After that tragedy Djamila went to live with relatives in Mosul. But they fell victim to a car bombing in the resulting insurgency against the American presence in Iraq.

  Next Djamila traveled to Tikrit to stay with a cousin, but the war had forced her to flee there as well. Since that time she’d been homeless, joining a growing number of people who had essentially become nomads, constantly caught in the fighting between an ever-larger army of insurgents, and America and its allies. In one of these groups she had met a man who spoke out against the Americans as being nothing more than imperialists after precious oil. He argued that all Muslims had the duty to strike back against this enemy of Islam.

  Like most Muslims, the only jihad Djamila had ever practiced was the “greater jihad,” the internal struggle to be a better follower of Islam. This man was obviously speaking of another jihad, the “lesser jihad,
the holy war, a concept that originated with Islam in the seventh century. At first Djamila dismissed the man and his advocacy as mindless ravings, yet as her situation grew bleaker, she found herself beginning to listen to him and others like him. The things he was saying, added to the horrors she had seen firsthand, started to make sense to the young woman who’d lost everything. And soon her dismay and hopelessness turned to something else: anger.

  Before long, Djamila found herself in Pakistan and then Afghanistan, being trained to do things she would never have contemplated before. While in Afghanistan she wore the burka, held her tongue and obeyed the men. She would go to the market and soon her clothing would swell because she shoved all the items she purchased under it. The burka had a grill in front of the opening for the face. It was designed to take away a woman’s peripheral vision. If she wanted to look at something she had to turn her entire head. In this way, it was said, the husband would always be able to tell what was holding his wife’s interest. Even with the Taliban gone, many burkas remained. But even women who took the burkas off were not really free, Djamila could see, since their husbands and brothers and, indeed, even their sons still controlled every aspect of their lives.

  After months of training, she was on her way to the United States, along with scores of others like her, all with forged documents and all with a burning ambition to strike back against an enemy that had destroyed their lives. Djamila had been taught that everything about America was evil. That the Western life and values were in complete opposition to the Muslin faith and, indeed, had as its core mission the complete destruction of Islam. How could she not fight against a monster such as that?

  Her first weeks in America had been divided between monotony and eye-opening experiences. For weeks she had little to do except carry messages back and forth. Yet she was seeing America, the great enemy, for the first time. She had visited some of the shops with an Afghan woman. The woman was shocked to see pictures of people on the products in the stores. Under the Taliban all such graphics had been blotted out.

  Americans were large people with huge appetites and the cars they drove, Djamila had never seen such enormous cars. The stores were full, the people wore all sorts of different clothes. Men and women embraced in the streets, even kissing in front of strangers like herself. And things moved so fast she could barely follow them. It was as though she had been hurled far into the future. She found herself terrified but also curiously intrigued.

  Then she had been taken from the group she had come to America with and brought to another city, where she received still more training. She was given a new identity, complete with references. And she was also given the very special van that she now drove. She was next sent to Brennan and became the Franklins’ nanny. She enjoyed the work and loved being with the boys, but as time passed she longed to go home. America was simply not for her.

  Djamila had always looked forward to the time when she would perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to the most holy site in Islam, Mecca, the town in Hejaz where Muhammad was born. As a child she had heard stories from family who’d undertaken this most significant event in a Muslim’s life. She envisioned standing in a circle around the Great Mosque, or Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, performing her prayers.

  The pilgrimage continued in Muzdalifa, where the Night Prayer was observed and twenty-one pebbles were picked up for symbolic stoning of Satan at Mina. Two or three days were spent in Mina for various ceremonies before the return to Mecca. Families who made the pilgrimage were allowed to add the term “hajj” to their name.

  As a little girl Djamila had been especially drawn with anticipated delight to stories of the four-day celebration afterward, the ‘id al-adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, also known as the Major Festival. She had also looked forward to painting the mode of transportation she used to make the pilgrimage on her front door, an old Egyptian custom that other Muslims sometimes copied. However, Djamila had never gotten the chance to go to Mecca before her country had exploded into war. Now she doubted she would ever be able to do so. Indeed, she felt it very unlikely that she would return to her homeland in anything other than a coffin.

  She packed her things for work and went down to her van. She glanced at the back cargo area of the vehicle. Hidden there was an add-on feature that the car manufacturer would never have dreamed of offering.

  In the center of downtown Brennan, Captain Jack closed on the purchase of his new property, an automobile repair facility. Dressed in an elegant two-piece suit, the distinguished-looking “entrepreneur” took the keys, thanking the seller and his agent as he drove away in his Audi convertible. They had smiled and counted their money and wished him luck. Good luck to you too, he wanted to say. And good luck to the town of Brennan. It’s certainly going to need it.

  A few minutes later Captain Jack parked his car at a curb, flipped open his iPAQ, went online and entered the chat room. Today’s film was The Wizard of Oz. He remembered watching it as a child. Probably unlike most viewers, he’d always sympathized with the plight of the enslaved flying monkeys. He left his message arranging a meeting at the park.

  The auto repair facility would be one of the most critical elements of this operation, and that was where the woman came in. If she didn’t come through, none of his work would matter. Some things a person couldn’t get from faceless e-mails, like whether someone had the will necessary to do the job.

  Sometimes you had to go see for yourself.

  The day was overcast and a bit chilly, so the park was nearly empty. Captain Jack sat on a bench, read his newspaper and drank his coffee. He had spent half an hour making a careful reconnoiter of the park before ever leaving his car. The odds that anyone had him under surveillance were astronomically small. Yet one didn’t survive long in his line of work by tripping over the small but crucial details.

  The front pages were filled with very important news: The stock market, amazingly, had gone up yesterday after having gone down the day before. American football was thick in the air; war on the gridiron they called it. Well, at least those who had never been in the real thing called it that. Captain Jack also learned that, shockingly, one movie star was actually leaving his wife for another movie star. And then he read of the revelation that a rock musician had been found lip-synching during a live concert. And that a car bombing had killed three Israelis in that never-ending struggle. Retribution would be swift, proclaimed Israeli officials. Yes, it would, Captain Jack knew. You didn’t screw with the Israelis. Captain Jack was a very brave, battle-scarred man. Yet even he avoided directly antagonizing the Israelis.

  Buried in the far back pages of the newspaper, Captain Jack read how AIDS in Africa continued to kill millions. He next skimmed an article on how civil wars on that continent had claimed millions more. Half the world lived in complete poverty, stated another story. Thousands of children were dying every day simply because they had nothing in their bellies.

  Captain Jack put down the paper. He was not much of a moralist; he’d killed many people in his lifetime. If there was a heaven and a hell, he knew where his eternal lodgings would be. But, really, lip-synching on the front page?

  He heard the children first, but didn’t look in that direction. Next he listened to the swing being swung, and then the whirligig started going round and round. He smiled at the screams of delight from the young ones.

  Finally, the sounds of the children quieted down. More minutes passed, and then he heard car doors open and close. Next he listened to the footsteps coming toward him. They were measured, calm treads. Then came a slight squeak from the bench directly behind his as the person sat down. He immediately lifted up his paper.

  “I think the Steelers could go all the way this year, don’t you?” he said.

  “No, my money is on the Patriots,” the other replied.

  “Are you sure?”

  “I am very sure of what I say. If I were in doubt, I would say nothing.”

  With their identifying code out of the way, Capta
in Jack got down to business.

  “Things are good with the Franklins?”

  “Yes, very good,” Djamila replied.

  “Routines all square, no curves thrown at you?”

  “Their life is simple. He works all the time. She plays all the time.”

  He caught the edge behind her words. “Oh, you think so?”

  “I know so.” She paused and added, “Americans disgust me.”

  “Do they, now?”

  “They’re pigs! They are evil, all of them!”

  He said one word in Arabic that froze Djamila.

  “Listen to me,” Captain Jack said firmly. “A few Americans are bad and a few Muslims are bad. But most want to live in peace and relative happiness, make a home, have a family, pray to God and die with dignity.”

  “They destroy my country! They say Iraq is united with Al Qaeda and Taliban. That is insane. Hussein and bin Laden were mortal enemies; we all know that. And fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, they are Saudis. Yet I do not see American tanks roll down streets of Riyadh, only Baghdad.”

  “Deposing a man they helped keep in power, I know. But Iraq doesn’t own a chunk of America as the Saudis do. Besides, all ‘great’ civilizations slaughter others who stand in their way. You can talk to the American Indians about that one. But if you want to hear about Muslim cruelty against other Muslims, go see the Kurds.”

  “You tell me this. You tell me this now! Why? Why!”

  Captain Jack’s voice was calm but still very firm. “Because the anger you mistake for passion is the one thing that could destroy all that we’ve worked for. I need you to focus, not hate. Hate makes you do irrational things. I do not tolerate irrational thinking, do you understand me?”

  There was silence.

  “Do you?”

  Djamila finally said, “Yes.”

  “The plan has changed. It’s actually a little cleaner now. I want you to listen very carefully. And then you will practice this new routine, over and over until you can do it in your sleep.”

  When he finished telling her of the new details, she said, “Like you say, it is easier. It is the way I would go to the Franklins’ house.”

  “Exactly. But we have to account for everything. On that day, if the Franklins’ routine varies for any reason, and it may, because presidents don’t come to town every day, someone will be standing by. You remember what you have to say?”

  “‘A storm is coming,’” Djamila answered. “But I do not think it will be necessary.”

  “But if it is necessary, then it will be done.” He said this sternly, in Arabic.

  She hesitated, then asked, “And if the storm comes?”

  “Then you will do what you were brought here to do. But if they catch up to you”—he paused—“you will have your reward. As a fida’ya.”

  Djamila smiled as she gazed at a point in the cloudy sky where a bit of the sun was easing through. No one had ever referred to her as a fida’ya before.

  She was still staring at this spot when Captain Jack left.

  He’d learned enough.

  CHAPTER

  28

  “I THOUGHT THE CASE WAS closed,” Jackie Simpson said as she and Alex drove away from WFO in his car.

  “I never said that.”

 
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