The camel club, p.34
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       The Camel Club, p.34

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  Hemingway shrugged. “I have my suspicions. Officially, it was never solved.”

  “It is interesting about the Chinese, Tom. They will one day replace America as the world’s largest economy. They have an army ten times the size of yours, and it is growing stronger and more technologically advanced every day. They have the capability to hit the United States with nuclear weapons. They kill and enslave millions of their own people, and yet you call them friends, while America crushes the Arab world under the pretense of freeing us. Do you know what we Arabs say? We say, go and ‘free’ your friends, the Chinese. But America does not do this. Why? Because the Chinese will not fight back with rifles and car bombs as we Muslims are forced to. Thus, you leave them alone. And you call them friends.”

  “My father didn’t think of them as all that friendly actually.”

  “A wise man. He has gone on to a better world now.”

  “I’m an atheist. So I’m not sure where he’s gone on to.”

  The Arab stared at him in sadness. “It is an insult to yourself not to believe in God, Tom.”

  “I believe in myself.”

  “But when your physical being ceases to exist, where does that leave you?” The Arab paused and said, “With nothing.”

  “It is my freedom to make that choice,” Hemingway said firmly.

  The Arab rose from his chair. “Good-bye, Tom, and good luck. We will not see each other again.”

  A few minutes later Hemingway was walking along the sidewalk back to his rental car. He looked at the sheet of paper his friend had given him, translating the Arabic in his head. The man had thought things out very carefully.

  Hemingway was on a flight out of Frankfurt that night and would be in New York eight hours later. He looked at the clear sky and wondered if there were as many gods as there were stars. According to some religions, there might be. The answers really didn’t matter to him. No god had ever answered his prayers. To Hemingway that was more than adequate proof that there was no such being.

  Several thousand miles away across the Atlantic, Captain Jack gazed up at the same sky and also pondered the events of the next day. Everything was done and only awaited the arrival of James Brennan and company. As a last measure all laptops used by the members of his operation had been destroyed. There would be no more movie chat room discussions. He would actually miss them.

  Later that evening Captain Jack drove into the parking lot of Pittsburgh International Airport. He dropped off his car and headed for the terminal. His official itinerary was fairly straightforward: Pittsburgh to Chicago O’Hare; O’Hare to Honolulu; and Honolulu to American Samoa, where a puddle jumper would take him to his precious island.

  His work in Brennan was done. He would not stay for the actual mission. That would be a little too tight even for him. And yet while his work here was finished, in other respects it was just beginning. And now it was time to activate his contingency plan. His partnership with Tom Hemingway was officially over, though the latter didn’t know it. It was fun while it lasted, Tom. He now worked for the North Koreans.

  Captain Jack checked in for his flight but kept his bag, which was small enough to carry on. He went to a bar to have a drink. Afterward, he hit the restroom. From there he wandered the airport and then headed to the security lines. Yet instead of going through security he exited the airport, went to a different parking lot and picked up a car waiting for him there. He headed south.

  Djamila sat at the kitchen table in her apartment and wrote the date and time of her death in her journal. She wondered how accurate she would be. If she did die tomorrow, her journal would be found. Perhaps they would publish it in the paper, along with her full name, which she wrote next to her time of death. Then, for some reason, she erased it. Would there be a possibility that she would survive tomorrow?

  She stood by the open window and looked out, letting the gentle breeze wash over her, and smelled air that held the fragrance of cut grass, a relatively new sensation for her. It was quiet, peaceful here. No bombs or gunfire. She could see people walking together, talking. An old man sat on the front steps of the building smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. She could hear the peals of laughter of children from the small playground nearby. Djamila was young with her whole life ahead of her. Yet she slowly closed the window and drew herself back into the dark shadows of her apartment.

  “Do not let me fail you,” she quietly asked God. “Do not let me fail you.”

  Barely twenty minutes from Djamila’s apartment, Adnan al-Rimi had just completed his last prayer of the day. As Djamila had, he’d lingered over his words with God too.

  He rolled up his prayer rug and put it away. Adnan only performed his prayers twice a day, at dawn and in the evening. He was a reluctant follower of Ramadan, his belly had been empty for too many years to starve it. Over the years he’d had the occasional cigarette and alcoholic drink. He had never made the pilgrimage to Mecca because he couldn’t afford the trip. And yet he considered himself a faithful Muslim because he worked hard, helped others in need, never cheated, never lied. But he had killed. He had killed in the name of God, to defend Islam, to protect his way of life. Sometimes it seemed his entire existence consisted of three elements: working, praying and fighting. He had worked hard to ensure that his children would not have to fight, would not have to blow themselves and others up to prove a point. But his children were all dead. The violence had reached them despite their father’s attempt to keep them safe.

  Now Adnan had only one more task ahead of him.

  With his eyes shut, Adnan paced off the dimensions of the hospital corridor in his apartment. He went down the hall, turned right, went fourteen paces down and moved right, opened the door and simulated going down eight steps, hitting a landing, turning and going down eight more, down the hall and reaching the exit door. Then he did it again. And again.

  Afterward, Adnan removed his shirt and looked at his body in the bathroom mirror. Though his physique was still impressive, there was a frailty beneath the muscle that more resembled an old man than someone in the prime of life. The numerous external injuries he’d suffered over the years had healed. Inside, though, the scars were permanent.

  He sat on his bed and withdrew from his wallet ten photos that he arranged in front of him. They were crumpled, faded reminders of his family. He lingered over each, recalling moments of peace and love. And horror. As when his father had been beheaded by the Saudis, for what amounted to a misdemeanor. It usually took two whacks with the sword to behead someone. Yet Adnan’s father had a very thick neck, and it had taken three strokes to sever it, an event eight-year-old Adnan had been forced to watch. Few people could have gone through these memories without shedding at least a few tears; however, Adnan’s eyes remained dry. And yet his fingers trembled as he kissed the fading images of his dead children.

  A few minutes later Adnan put on his coat and left his apartment. The bike ride into downtown Brennan went quickly. He chained his bicycle to a rack and started walking. His path took him in front of Mercy Hospital, where he briefly glanced at his place of employment, at least until tomorrow. Then his gaze darted to the apartment building across the street where he knew the two Afghans were checking and rechecking their weapons, because they were methodical and obsessive men, as all good snipers had to be.

  Adnan continued walking, turned down one street and then another and finally slipped into an alley. He rapped twice on the door. He heard nothing. Then he called out in Farsi. Footsteps approached, and he heard Ahmed’s voice answer in Farsi.

  “What is it you want, Adnan?”

  “To talk.”

  “I am busy.”

  “Everything should be done, Ahmed. Is there a problem?”

  The door opened and Ahmed scowled at him. “I have no problems,” Ahmed said, but he stepped back for Adnan to enter the garage.

  “I thought it wise to go over things one more time,” Adnan said as he sat on a stool next to the workbench. His gaze to
ok in the vehicle that would play such an important role the next day. He nodded at it. “It looks good, Ahmed. You have done well.”

  “Tomorrow will see whether we have done well or not,” Ahmed answered.

  He and Adnan spent twenty minutes going over their assigned tasks.

  “I am not worried about us,” Ahmed said sullenly. “It is this woman who troubles me. Who is she? What is her training?”

  “That is not your concern,” Adnan answered. “If she was picked for this, she will do her job well.”

  “Women are only good for having babies and to cook and clean.”

  “You are living in the past, my friend,” Adnan said.

  “The Muslim past was glorious. We had the best of everything.”

  “The world has moved past us, Ahmed. For Muslims to be truly great again we must move with it. Show the world what we can do. And we can do much.”

  Ahmed spat on the floor. “That is what I think of the world. They can just leave us alone.”

  “We will see after tomorrow who is right.”

  Ahmed slowly shook his head. “You trust in things too much. You trust the American who leads us too much.”

  “He may be an American, but he is brave and knows what he is doing.” He gazed sternly at the Iranian.

  “I will do my job,” Ahmed finally said.

  “Yes, you will,” Adnan answered as he rose to leave. “Because I will be right there to ensure that you do.”

  “You think I need an Iraqi babysitting me,” Ahmed said fiercely.

  “Tomorrow we are not Iraqi or Iranian or Afghani,” Adnan replied. “We are all Muslims, following God.”

  “Do not question my faith, Adnan,” Ahmed said in a dangerous tone.

  “I question nothing. Only God has the right to question the souls of his people.” Adnan went to the door but then turned back. “I will see you tomorrow, Ahmed.”

  “I will see you in paradise,” Ahmed answered.

  CHAPTER

  51

  AT ONE O’CLOCK IN THE afternoon Air Force One touched down at Pittsburgh International Airport. All other air traffic had been diverted from the area, as it would be when Air Force One took off again later. The long line of cars was ready to go. In a presidential motorcade there was a basic rule that one risked ignoring at his peril: When the president’s behind touched his seat in the Beast, the motorcade left. And if you didn’t have your ride yet in one of the other vehicles when this occurred, you weren’t going to the party.

  The road the presidential motorcade took had long since been closed off by the Secret Service, and motorists sat in foul moods staring at the Beast and the other twenty-six cars sailing by. In the presidential limo with Brennan was his wife, his chief of staff, the governor of Pennsylvania and Carter Gray.

  When the motorcade pulled into the dedication grounds, they were already filled with more than ten thousand people waving banners and signs to show their support for the town and its namesake. National media trucks were parked outside the fence, and perfectly coiffed anchormen and -women stood next to far younger and hipper but equally well coiffed news candy types from the cooler cable networks. Collectively, they would broadcast the event to the nation and the world, although with various spins of their own; the younger voices were predictably far more cynical about the entire proceedings.

  Alex Ford was positioned near the stage but then moved behind a roped-off area and toward the motorcade as it pulled into the fenced grounds. He stiffened for an instant as he saw Kate, Adelphia and the Camel Club in the crowd, about midway back but working their way forward. Kate waved to show she’d seen him. He didn’t wave back but did nod his head a bare inch at her, and then he returned to trying to spot potential trouble. In a crowd this large and boisterous that was nearly impossible. However, the magnetometers had been set up at all pedestrian entrance points, which had given the Service some comfort. Alex took a moment to gaze at the tree line where he knew the snipers were positioned, although he couldn’t see them. If it comes to it, don’t miss, guys, he said under his breath.

  When the president appeared, he was boxed in on all sides by the A-team protection detail that formed a wall of Kevlar and flesh around him. Alex knew these agents; they were a rock-solid crew.

  The president stepped onto the stage and shook some important hands while his wife, the governor, the chief of staff and Gray took their seats behind the podium. Brennan joined them a minute later.

  The event started off right on schedule. The mayor and some local dignitaries spoke and attempted to outdo one another when it came to extolling their president and their town. Then the governor rambled on a bit longer than the schedule had dictated, which caused the chief of staff to start frowning and tapping her high heel. Air Force One’s next stop was a fund-raiser in Los Angeles that was far more important—at least in her mind—than the renaming of this small if ambitious Pennsylvania town in her boss’s honor.

  Alex continued scanning the crowds. He noted a number of military personnel in the front row, near the rope line. He could see from their uniforms that most were regular army. A number of them were missing arms and legs, probably from their tours of duty in the Middle East. There were a couple of National Guardsmen, including one with a hook for a left hand. Alex shook his head in commiseration for their sacrifice. Brennan would certainly go down and see these soldiers after he had spoken. He’d always been good about that.

  As Alex’s gaze swept across the thousands of faces, he noted quite a few Middle Easterners. They were dressed much like everyone else around them. They carried signs and sported “Reelect Brennan” buttons and appeared to be just like the rest of the happy, proud and patriotic crowd. However, Alex had no way of knowing that some of these people were not happy or proud or patriotic.

  Captain Jack’s men were organized in various pockets throughout the crowd so that their fire would cover maximum ground in front of the podium area. They’d all already keyed on the hook-handed National Guardsman. It had been easy after that, since the man stayed planted at the rope line waiting his turn with the president.

  Indeed, they were all waiting for James Brennan.

  At about the time Air Force One had been making its final approach into Pittsburgh a sleek black chopper was taking off from a helipad in downtown New York City and heading south. Next to the pilot sat another man dressed in a flight suit. In one of the seats in back was Tom Hemingway. In his hand he held a portable television set that he was watching intently. The crowds in Brennan were very large, and the grounds were already packed. That was what worried Hemingway most of all. The crowd.

  He checked his watch and told the pilot to hit it. The chopper shot across the Manhattan cityscape.

  For the past two hours Djamila had been on an outing with the children. As she pulled the van into the Franklins’ driveway, her plan was to make them all a quick lunch and then it would be time to go. As she opened the door, carrying the baby on her hip with the two toddlers in her wake, she received a shock so paralyzing that she almost dropped the baby.

  Lori Franklin was talking on the phone in the foyer, still dressed in her tennis outfit, although she was barefoot. She smiled at Djamila and motioned that she would be done with the call in a minute.

  When she clicked off, Djamila immediately said, “Miss, I not expect you home. You say you at club for tennis and then lunch there.”

  Franklin dropped to her knees and gave her sons big hugs as they rushed to her. Then she took the baby from Djamila.

  “I know, Djamila, but I changed my mind. I was talking with some of my friends from the club, and they’re going to the dedication today. So I decided to go too.” She bent down and said to her two oldest boys, “And you’re going too.”

  Djamila drew in a sharp breath. “You take them?”

  Franklin stood and waved the baby’s dimpled fist with her hand. “And this little guy.” She cooed to the baby. “You wanna see the president? You wanna?” She looked at Djamila.
It’ll be fun. And it’s not like the president comes to town every day.”

  “You go to dedication?” Djamila said in a soft, disbelieving voice.

  “Well, I voted for him, even if George thinks he’s an idiot. That’s between you and me,” she added.

  “But, miss, there will be large crowd there. I read in papers. Do you think it good to take the boys? They are so small and—”

  “I know, I thought that too. But then I realized it would be such a wonderful experience for them, even if they don’t remember it. When they grow up, the boys can say they were there. Now I’m going to grab a quick shower. I thought we could get lunch beforehand—”

  “We?” Djamila said. “You want me to come?”

  “Well, of course, I’ll need help with the strollers and the rest of their stuff. And you’re right about the crowds, so I’ll need an extra pair of eyes and hands to make sure the boys don’t get lost.”

  “But I have much to do here,” Djamila said dully, as if this moment she cared about housework.

  “Don’t be silly. This will be a wonderful experience for you too, Djamila. You’ll see firsthand what really makes this country so great. You know, we might even get to meet the president. George will eat his heart out even if he says he doesn’t like Brennan.”

  Franklin went upstairs to shower and change. Djamila sat down in a chair to steady herself. The oldest boy tugged on her shirt, asking her to come to the playroom with them. At first Djamila resisted but finally she went. As she heard the shower start in Franklin’s bathroom, she knew that she needed some time to think.

  She put the baby in the playpen and spent some time with the older boys. Then she went to the bathroom and ran some cold water over her face. The shower was still running upstairs. Djamila knew that Franklin didn’t take quick showers.

  Finally, Djamila knew there was no way around it. She went to get her purse.

  “A storm is coming,” she said to herself, practicing it before she had to say it for real on her cell phone. It was four simple words and then her problem would be over, and still her skin tingled. It would perhaps not be such a good resolution for Lori Franklin, who had picked today of all days to do something with her sons.

  When she saw it, her heart nearly stopped. Her purse was turned upside down on the floor. She’d stupidly left it on the chair and forgotten to move it to higher ground. She dropped to her knees and searched through the objects strewn there. Her cell phone! Where was her cell phone?

  She raced to the playroom and found the oldest boy, Timmy, the one who had made a habit of taking things from her purse until she started
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