The Camel Club, Page 23David Baldacci
He walked back down to the nurse’s station and stopped at the fourth tile over from the exact center of the station. Then he turned around and walked back toward the front entrance. Anyone watching him would just assume he was making his rounds. He counted off his paces in his head, nodding to a pair of nurses who walked by as he did so. Near the front entrance he turned right, counted his steps down this hallway, turned, pushed open the door to the exit stairs, counted his steps down two flights and found himself in the basement corridor on the west side of the hospital building. This corridor ran into another that carried him north and then emptied out into the rear exit area. A wide asphalt drive was located here that sloped upward to the main road running behind the hospital. Because of the grade and poor drainage, it often flooded here after even a moderate rain, which was another reason why everyone preferred entering through the front.
As he stood there, Adnan visualized several times a particular maneuver in his head. Finished, he went over to a pair of double doors, unlocked them and stepped inside, closing the doors behind him. He was now in the hospital’s power room, which also housed the backup generator. He’d been coached on the basics of this room by the security firm, in case there was an emergency. He’d supplemented that coaching by reading the manuals for every piece of equipment in the room. There was only one that he was really interested in. It sat on a wall across from the generator. He opened the box with another key on his chain and studied the controls inside. It wouldn’t be difficult to rig it, he decided.
He locked up the power room and went back inside the hospital to continue his rounds. He would do this every day, until the day came.
A little while later Adnan’s shift ended, and he changed out of his uniform in the hospital’s locker room and rode his bicycle to his apartment about two miles away. He prepared a meal of flat bread, dates, fava beans, olives and a piece of halal meat that he cooked on the stovetop in his tiny kitchen.
Adnan’s family had raised livestock and grown dates in Saudi Arabia, no small feat in a country with only 1 percent of its land arable, but they had suffered great hardship. After his father’s death the al-Rimis fled to Iraq, where they grew wheat and raised goats. Adnan, as the eldest son, became the family’s patriarch. He began butchering meat in accordance with Islamic law so it was halal, and the additional monies that this endeavor provided had been very welcome.
Adnan sat in his apartment staring out the window and cradling a cup of tea, his mind drifting back to that time. Goats, lambs, chickens and cattle had met their end at the point of his very sharp knife. These animals had to be slaughtered from their necks while Adnan spoke God’s name. Adnan never struck the spinal cord while doing his butchering, for two reasons: It was less painful to the animal, and it allowed convulsive motions to remain, which hastened the drainage of blood, as required by Islamic law. Under that law no animal could witness the death of another, and the animals had to be well fed and rested. It was a far cry from the mass killings of the “stun and stick” method used by American slaughterhouses. Yes, the Americans were the best at killing lots of things quickly, Adnan thought.
As he sipped his tea, Adnan reflected still more on his past. He fought in the decade-long Iran-Iraq war where Muslim slaughtered Muslim by the thousands in some of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting history had ever seen. After that conflict was over, Adnan’s life returned to normal. He married, raised a family and did his best to avoid giving the megalomaniac Saddam Hussein or his minions cause to harm him or his family.
Then 9/11 happened, Afghanistan was invaded and the Taliban quickly fell. Personally, Adnan had no problem with any of that. America had been attacked and it had struck back. Adnan, like most Iraqis, did not support the Taliban. Life went on in Iraq. And even with the international embargo on his country Adnan was able to earn a modest living. And then, the U.S. declared war on Iraq. Like all his countrymen, Adnan waited with dread for the bombs and missiles to start falling. He sent his family away to safety, but he remained behind because it was his adopted country and was about to be attacked by another nation.
When the American planes came, Adnan watched in silent horror as Baghdad became one continuous fireball. The Americans called it collateral damage, but to Adnan these were men, women and children blown apart in their homes. And then the American tanks and troops came. There had never been any doubt in Adnan’s mind as to the outcome. The Americans were simply too powerful. They could kill you from a thousand miles away with their weapons. All Adnan had ever had to fight with was his gun, his knife and his bare hands. And it was said that the U.S. had missiles that could take off from America and vaporize the entire Middle East minutes later. This terrified Adnan. There was no way to beat such a devil.
Still, after Hussein had been toppled, there was hope. Yet that hope quickly turned to despair as violence and death took hold and civil society simply disappeared. And when the American presence truly became an “occupation,” Adnan felt his duty was clear. So he fought against them, killing his fellow citizens in the process, an act that sickened him but one that he somehow rationalized away. He had killed Iranians during the war between the two countries. He had killed Arabs and Americans in Iraq. He had slaughtered animals using his knife. It seemed to Adnan that his whole life had been consumed with taking the lives of others.
And now his own life was the only one left. His wife and children were dead. His parents, brothers and sisters were all gone too. It was only Adnan still here on earth while his family resided in paradise.
And here he was in the United States in the palm of his enemy. This would be his last stand, his final act of a life spent attacking and being attacked. Adnan was tired; he’d lived eighty years in only half that time. His body and mind could not endure much more.
He finished his tea but continued to look out the window as a group of children ran around the playground of the apartment complex. There were black children and white children and brown children playing together. At that age, differences in color and culture meant nothing to them. Yet, unfortunately, that would change when they became adults, Adnan knew. It always did.
“YOU WANTED TO SEE ME, SIR?” Tom Hemingway asked as he walked into Carter Gray’s office. This space was rumored to be the only square inch of the NIC facility that was not under electronic surveillance.
Sitting behind his desk, Gray motioned Hemingway in. “Shut the door, Tom.”
For a half an hour the two men discussed various geopolitical events coming up, the state of several world crises and Hemingway’s take on some key developments in ongoing intelligence operations in the Middle and Far East. Then the conversation turned to other matters.
“The Secret Service agents who were out here today?” Gray said.
“I fully cooperated with them, sir, at least NIC’s version of full cooperation. I hope I did the right thing extricating you like that.”
“You did. The agents they were meeting with initially that I spoke with?”
“Warren Peters and Tyler Reinke. Both good men. They were assigned to represent NIC’s interests during the investigation. I believe they were processing some evidence found at the scene for the Secret Service.”
“I spoke to the president about Ford and Simpson. I don’t think they’ll be back.”
“I understand that Simpson is your goddaughter?”
“Yes. Jackie is Roger Simpson’s only child. I was honored when he asked me to be Jackie’s godfather, although I’m not sure if I’ve been a good one.”
“She looks like she’s done all right for herself.”
“I love her like a daughter.” Gray looked a bit embarrassed by his words and quickly cleared his throat. “An internal audit is being conducted over Patrick Johnson’s death. The FBI will be involved.”
Hemingway nodded. “I think it’s a good move. I can’t believe there’s anything to it, but we have to cover the bases.”
Gray eyed him clo
sely. “And why don’t you think there’s anything to it, Tom?”
“A house and cars he couldn’t afford? Drugs found in the house? Seems straightforward. It’s not the first time it’s happened.”
“It’s the first time it’s happened here,” Gray said. “Did you know Johnson well?”
“As well as I knew any of the data supervisors. By all accounts he was excellent at his job.”
“How did he strike you?”
Hemingway thought about this. “From my limited contact he was a man whose ambitions outstripped his opportunities.”
“A keen insight for someone you admittedly didn’t know all that well.”
“That assessment could apply to half the people here. Quite frankly, they want to be you. But they never will and it bothers them.”
Gray sat back in his chair. “I’ve taken a good look at Johnson’s file. There was nothing in there to indicate that he would be turned. Do you agree?”
“But then again, the same could be said of virtually all the people who have been turned against this country. It has more to do with psychology than bank accounts.”
“There are others here who knew Johnson better than I did.”
“I’ve spoken with them,” Gray said. “I’ve also spoken with his fiancée. She believes the drug business is absolute garbage.”
“Well, it’s not surprising that she’d defend him.”
“Tom, I recall that the centralization of all intelligence databases was completed four months ago. Is that correct?”
“Yes, with the proviso that we only recently completed integration of the Transportation Safety Administration’s files from their Screening, Coordination and Operations Office. That was due to some legal hang-ups with Homeland Security, among others.”
“Any more significant glitches in the system?”
“No. And as I’m sure you also recall, the TSA piece was fairly substantial. It had the Secure Flight, Registered Traveler and the US VISIT programs among others. The US VISIT program was particularly sensitive for us because it contained detailed backgrounds, digital fingerprints and photos of foreign travelers. However, the ACLU had a field day with that one, screaming profiling and big brother to every court that would entertain them. But it belonged here and we eventually got it. Before, this data was scattered over a dozen departments with no workable integration, incredible overlap and duplication, with the result that much of it was worthless.”
“Well, that failure was one of the chief reasons 9/11 happened,” Gray said.
“Speaking of, I understand the president asked you to attend the memorial event in New York tomorrow.”
“The office grapevine; it’s better than any spy network devised. Yes, he did and yes, I declined. As always, I prefer to hold a very private ceremony honoring those who lost their lives that day.”
“I also heard that you’re going up to Brennan, Pennsylvania.”
Gray nodded, opened his desk drawer and pulled out a book.
“How well up are you on your Bible, Tom?”
Hemingway was accustomed to swift changes in direction with Gray. “I’ve read the King James Version. Along with the Qur’an, the Talmud and the Book of Mormon.”
“Good. What’s the one similarity you find in all of them?”
“Violence,” he answered promptly. “People talk about the Qur’an inciting violence. They have nothing on the Christians. If I recall correctly, Deuteronomy was particularly full of fire and brimstone. Thou shalt smite this and that dead.”
“At least it’s consistent. And yet the Qur’an instructs its followers not to take their own lives, which does not reconcile with the concept of a suicide bomber. Indeed, it doesn’t promise paradise, but rather warns of condemnation in hell for taking one’s own life.”
“The Qur’an says this when the death is outside the cause of Allah; it doesn’t apply to those who die for the cause. And there are enough references to killing the unbelievers in the Qur’an, and also in writings and local laws and customs subsequent to the Qur’an that it’s possible to justify that killing oneself and unbelievers at the same time is authorized. And for those who die in the cause, it says they don’t really die, nor should their loved ones grieve for them. That’s a distinction between Islam and Christianity.”
“Correct. But there’s also another great similarity between the two religions.”
“What’s that, sir?”
Gray put away his Bible. “The resurrection of the dead.”
THE SPACIOUS HOUSE THAT Captain Jack had rented in the suburbs of Brennan was set far off the main road with no other residences nearby. It also had a large home theater, a facility he was taking advantage of right now.
Captain Jack placed the DVD that Hemingway had given him in the player but did not turn it on yet, as the men who’d come here today took their seats. None of them were eating popcorn; no refreshments at all had been passed around. It was not that sort of movie night.
Captain Jack took a minute to survey his crew. They were good, capable men. They had been hardened by a life that had not included many moments of happiness or things that others took for granted, such as food, clean water, a bed and a life free from constant persecution and threat of violent death. Assembled here were his bomb makers and engineers, his shooters, his snipers, his fedayeen, his mechanics, his inside people and his wheelmen. Djamila was not here, however. Her mission was completely separate. And quite frankly, Captain Jack didn’t know how the males would react to a woman being such a critical part of the operation. Only a few of his company knew of her involvement, and the American knew it was best to keep it that way.
The men’s appearances had all changed. Hair cut or grown longer. Beards shaved off. Weight gained or lost. They all wore Western-style clothes. Some sported glasses, others had dyed their hair. While none of their “real” images remained on the NIC database, the operation was too important to become slack with the small but important details. Altered NIC photos notwithstanding, they might still be recognized by American intelligence operatives who’d seen them in the flesh years ago.
He walked to the front of the room and addressed them all by name as a sign of respect and camaraderie. He asked for progress reports, and each man reported back succinctly and knowledgably.
Captain Jack, Tom Hemingway and a third person had handpicked these men from a pool provided to them by this third party, a man they both trusted. They had not chosen the most violent and zealous Muslims among the group. Ironically, restraint was the quality they’d required above all.
The 9/11 hijackers had come from varied backgrounds. Fourteen of the fifteen hijackers who accompanied the four “pilots” on the jets were from Saudi Arabia. They were from middle-class families that were not particularly active either politically or in the Muslim faith. And yet these young men left their good homes and families, trained with Al Qaeda, became steeped in the practice of radical Islam and jihad and carried out their orders with military precision, no doubt with the hope of riding that flight path to paradise. The 9/11 hijackers had not had to make any decisions for themselves; all had been planned out. The situation developing in Brennan was far different. Each man would have a great deal of input in what would happen.
Thus, Hemingway and Captain Jack had sought out older, reasonably educated men who had once led normal lives. These men had not trained with Al Qaeda. They had not given their lives over to jihad for reasons typically associated with that mind-frame. And while several had had run-ins with American and European law enforcement, and their fingerprints and photos had been taken, necessitating the cover-up at NIC, none were at the level where their photos were plastered in newspapers everywhere. The youngest of them was thirty, the oldest fifty-two, and the average age was forty-one. These men, while they had experience with killing, were not eager in taking someone’s life. Every one of them had lost at least three immediate family member
s in wars and other conflicts over the years. Indeed, a half dozen had lost their entire families to such violence. They had volunteered for this mission for reasons other than those typically assumed to be at the core of the Middle Eastern terrorist mind. Indeed, all of these men considered themselves soldiers, not terrorists. That was the composition of the “holy warrior” Tom Hemingway had insisted on.
“Remember this,” Captain Jack told his men. “While we sit here planning this operation, in another room somewhere, there will be far more people planning how to stop us. They are excellent at what they do, so we have to be better than excellent. We have to be perfect.” He paused, making eye contact with each of them. “One mistake along the chain brings the whole thing crashing down. This is understood?”
All the men nodded in silent agreement.
Captain Jack went over the ceremony details again. The army of Secret Service and local police would have voluminous notebooks containing all the prep work for the president’s visit. Captain Jack and his team could afford no such luxury. One page lost could have catastrophic results. Thus, all details had to be memorized. To be absolutely clear, Captain Jack changed from Arabic to English and back again, depending on the subtlety of what he was trying to communicate.
“Before the president ever sets foot here, a Secret Service advance team will arrive in Brennan to begin their planning for the event along with the most elaborate and secure motorcade in the world. Typically, the motorcade consists of twenty-seven vehicles including local police escorts, a ‘Road Runner’ communications van, a press vehicle, VIP van, an ambulance, a SWAT vehicle carrying a counterassault team inside, and two ‘Beasts.’ One will carry the president and in the other, Secret Service agents. All roads leading from the airport to the dedication grounds in Brennan will be thoroughly checked and, on the day of the visit, sealed off.
“At the dedication grounds the president will enter from the right of the stage and exit in the same direction. When he’s speaking, he will be behind a bulletproof and bombproof glass podium known as the Blue Goose. Countersnipers will be positioned all along the perimeter tree line. When the president moves, he will be surrounded at all times by a wall of agents, hip and flank. Wherever the man is, is known as the kill zone, and the Secret Service takes that concept very, very seriously. The crowd will be very large, thus magnetometers will be set up at all pedestrian entrance points to the dedication grounds. We have the exact same magnetometers that will be used by the Secret Service and have tested them on the highest detection level.” He paused and added, “Shooters, you can pass through these points without fear.
“You must keep in mind that the Service will key on personal demeanors—namely, persons not fitting in, not participating in the ceremony, and those not relating to others in the crowd. Because you are Middle Eastern, they will give you extra scrutiny. They have an entire database on assassins that takes profiling down to the most insignificant detail. As you know, your photos are no longer on file with the Americans, and your appearances have been greatly altered, so risk of identification is very low. But that is no reason to be careless. Thus, your dress and behavior at the ceremony will be dictated to you, and you will adhere to every single detail, without exception. When you enter those grounds, you will look like doctors, lawyers, teachers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, respectable citizens in your adopted country.” Captain Jack paused and eyed each man.
“The video I’m about to show you will illustrate quite vividly how seriously the Secret Service takes its mission.”
He hit a button on the remote he was holding, and the screen jumped