The camel club, p.36
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       The Camel Club, p.36

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  remained in it. Now this end of the street was as effectively walled off as the other.

  Ten seconds later, up and down the avenue, smoke started pouring out of businesses, causing people to flee and fire alarms to be pulled. This was the result of the smoke bombs hidden in these establishments earlier by the Arab chemist and engineer. The few souls who had chosen not to attend the dedication were soon out in the streets wandering around in a panic.

  Alex skidded the Beast to a stop directly in front of Mercy Hospital. The rear passenger doors flew open, and the two agents burst out carrying the president. They had barely reached the first step leading to the hospital when they were both hit and went down. The president collapsed to the sidewalk and lay there next to the Beast.

  “Son of a bitch!” Alex screamed into his mike as he scrambled out of the car on the passenger side. “Snipers at the hospital! Snipers at the hospital! We’ve been set up. Repeat, we have been set up! Agents down! Agents down. Ravensclaw—” He paused. “Ravensclaw’s . . . ,” he began again, but didn’t finish because he didn’t know what the hell to say about Ravensclaw.

  He was frantically trying to spot the muzzle flashes. Alex knew he had to get Brennan inside the hospital. His gaze surveyed the street level and then darted upward. That’s when he saw it: six flights up, apartment building directly across the street. No optics signature, but twin muzzle flashes, a deuce of snipers.

  Alex pulled his gun even as he felt slugs slam into the tires of the Beast. As soon as the holes were formed, however, the punctures closed up again as the self-healing tires did their thing. Rounds hit the limo front, back and on the side. One hit the glass but did not damage it. The Beast could survive a lot more than they were throwing at it. But the president of the United States was lying on the sidewalk, apparently dying. Protect the man, the symbol, the office. And Alex Ford was the only agent still standing who could uphold that mantra of the Secret Service. Yet as soon as Alex started up the hospital steps with the president, they’d be an easy target for the snipers who’d taken the high ground. Yet Brennan was breathing, his heart was still beating. That’s all Alex cared about right now. Not on my watch, sir. Not on my watch.

  He gripped the man under the shoulders, braced himself and then pulled. The president was now fully protected behind the steel and polycarbonate wall of the Beast.

  “You’re gonna be okay, sir,” he said as calmly as he could.

  “I’m . . . dying . . . ,” the president managed to mutter back between moans.

  Even with the Beast shielding them, Alex instinctively put his body between Brennan and the snipers. Millimeter by millimeter he edged his head over the rear of the Beast. He ducked back down when a shot sailed his way. He immediately sent back a few rounds with his SIG, but he wasn’t going to waste ammo; it’d take a miracle shot to even nick one of the bastards at this distance and trajectory.

  When he glanced toward the hospital, he saw a security guard and shouted, “Get down! Get down! Snipers across the street.”

  The man immediately ducked back inside. Then two seconds later he burst out firing at the upper floors of the apartment building, hurtled down the steps and rolled to a landing next to Alex as gunfire hit all around them.

  “Damn!” Alex said. “You got some kind of death wish?”

  “Is this the president?” Adnan al-Rimi asked breathlessly, nodding at the prostrate Brennan.

  “Yeah. And we need to get him in there fast,” Alex said, pointing with his gun at the hospital. “Because the next closest hospital’s in Pittsburgh and he needs help now.”

  “Are you the only security?” Adnan asked in an incredulous tone.

  Alex nodded grimly. “Looks that way.”

  “We saw on TV what happened.”

  Alex glanced at the man. “You the only security here?” Adnan nodded. “What kind of gun you have?”

  “Piece-of-shit .38.”

  “Great.” The president moaned loudly and Alex quickly said, “What’s your name?”

  Adnan answered, “Farid Shah.”

  “Okay, Farid, I’m hereby deputizing you.”

  Alex opened the rear door of the Beast, pressed a button on the panel on the back of the passenger chair, and it came down. Behind it was a cache of weapons, including a shotgun, an MP-5 machine gun and a sniper rifle. Alex pulled out the MP-5 and grabbed an extra mag for it. He turned back to his newly deputized colleague.

  “Farid, you look like a pretty strong guy.”

  “I am very strong.”

  “Good. You think you can lift the president and carry him up those steps and into the hospital?”

  Adnan nodded. “Easily.”

  “Okay, when I count to three, you’re gonna do just that. I’m gonna put this gun here on two-shot bursts. That’ll give you maybe ten seconds to get up those steps. And, Farid?”

  “Yes?”

  “You gotta do one thing for me, man.”

  “What?”

  “I’m going to be between you and the president and the snipers. To get to you, they gotta kill me first.” Alex paused and swallowed hard. “But if I go down, and I probably will, they’re gonna have to go through you to get him. That means you gotta carry him in front of you so that at all times there is a body between the president and the snipers, you got that?” Adnan said nothing. “You got it!” Alex snapped.

  “Yes!”

  “Good luck.” Alex waited for him to pick the president up. Then he turned and said, “Okay, one . . . two . . . three!”

  Alex jumped up and opened fire, sweeping the two windows where he’d seen the muzzle flashes with his MP-5.

  He wanted desperately to glance back and see the rental cop’s progress, but that wasn’t an option. Finally, his mag empty, he pulled his pistol and emptied that too. As shots rained at him, he dropped back down, reloaded and turned. He expected to see that the pair was safely in the hospital. But they weren’t. In fact, the rental cop seemed to be taking his time getting up the steps, as though he were in no need of . . .

  “Shit!” Alex screamed. He lined up the man’s broad back in his gun sight.

  “Hold it!”

  The man instantly turned, and Brennan was now between him and Alex. Adnan backed slowly toward the hospital as Alex tried desperately to find an opening for a kill shot that had absolutely no chance of hitting the president. Unfortunately, there was no such opening, and the pair disappeared into the hospital.

  Alex screamed into his wrist mic. “They’ve got the president. Repeat, they have abducted Ravensclaw at the hospital. We need to shut the whole damn town down.”

  Alex was just about to sprint up the steps, fully expecting to be gunned down, when good luck finally landed on his side. Police reinforcements appeared on the scene. Alex waited another minute as the lawmen engaged the snipers and then raced up the steps to Mercy Hospital. With gunshots splattering all around him he launched himself through the glass doors, shattering them in the process.

  A split second later he heard a bomb go off inside the hospital.

  CHAPTER

  54

  REUBEN LIFTED KATE AND Adelphia over the fence and then joined the other Camel Club members there. As terrified people ran screaming past them, they took a moment to catch their breaths and collect their wits.

  “My God,” a very pale Kate said, looking around frantically for Alex Ford.

  “It is horrible,” Adelphia moaned. “It is like Poland and Soviets.”

  Stone was surveying the dedication grounds where the bodies of the fallen lay. The grass was red with the blood of the gunmen. The federal countersnipers had control of the situation and were now securing the area, moving from body to body, ensuring that the Arab terrorists were actually dead. However, even from the perimeter Stone could see that there was no life left in the lumps of flesh on the ground.

  Every one of Captain Jack’s men lay dead; many of the fedayeen were burned beyond recognition.

  They could all hear sirens in t
he distance. A few minutes later a fire engine appeared on the scene followed by several others. They quickly attacked the blazing cars with their hoses, and black smoke billowed into the air.

  Stone continued to watch as the wreckage of the police cruiser was cleared so that the presidential motorcade, at least what was left of it, could start streaming out. Mrs. Brennan and the chief of staff were swept into the second Beast and whisked away. The bruised and battered governor of Pennsylvania had been recovered and driven off in a van.

  Stone felt a big hand on his shoulder and turned to find Reuben staring at him.

  “We should probably get the hell out of here,” he said. “Damn cops might start shooting stragglers and ask questions later.”

  Stone looked puzzled. “Reuben, you grabbed one of the gunmen’s weapons. Did you notice anything unusual about it?”

  Reuben thought for a moment. “Well, I didn’t want to hold on to it too long, or else my head would’ve probably been exploding too. But now that you mention it, it did feel kind of funny. Lighter than I would’ve thought.” He looked at Stone. “Why’d you ask that?”

  Stone didn’t answer. He looked again at all the dead Arabs.

  Seconds after Adnan had entered the hospital, he placed Brennan, who was still moaning continuously, on a gurney that he’d left just inside the front door. The gunfight outside had driven everyone inside the hospital away from the front entrance. Adnan saw a group of nurses, doctors and aides staring fearfully at him from farther down the hallway.

  “What’s going on?” one of the doctors shouted as he edged forward.

  Adnan didn’t respond to this query, but he did nod at the man who’d just appeared next to him. It was the hospital’s newest staff physician who’d earlier expressed concern about the need for security guards at Mercy Hospital.

  “A wounded man,” the doctor called out. “I’ll take care of him.”

  “Stay away from the front doors,” Adnan warned. “People are shooting.”

  The doctor pulled a syringe from his pocket, uncapped it and injected the president in his arm; Brennan slipped into unconsciousness. Then the doctor placed a sheet over the president and strapped him to the gurney and pushed it down the side hallway. He got on the elevator there and took it down one floor to the basement. Adnan waited until this had happened and then turned back to the group of hospital personnel.

  “Hey!” another doctor yelled at Adnan. “Who was that man on the gurney?” They now all started moving toward him.

  Adnan reached inside his jacket, pulled out a gas mask, put it on and started walking toward the oncoming group. Then he pulled from his pocket what looked to be a grenade and held it up.

  “Look out,” one of the nurses screamed as the group turned and ran in the other direction.

  “Call the police,” another doctor yelled as she scrambled away.

  An instant later Adnan reached the fourth tile across from the center of the nurse’s station and threw the cylinder against the wall. It exploded, and the hall was immediately filled with thick smoke that was driven in all directions by the hospital’s air circulation system. A split second before the smoke bomb went off, Adnan heard glass shattering, but he couldn’t see the source. He couldn’t know this was Alex Ford throwing himself through the glass doors, but the Arab knew he had to hurry. He turned back toward the front of the hospital and counted off his steps, navigating in the dark solely through memory from his constant practice. As he neared the front entrance, Adnan felt something bump his leg, but he kept going.

  An instant later the timed explosive device he’d placed in the hospital’s electrical room went off. All power to the hospital was now gone; everything went dark.

  Adnan made his turn, walked down the passageway, stopped at the exit door, opened it and went through. He grabbed a long metal bar that he’d earlier hidden behind a steam pipe and wedged it through the closed door’s push bar. Then he began to run.

  As soon as the bomb went off and smoke filled the halls, Alex dropped to the floor and slithered forward on his belly. It was like being far underwater, and the fumes were making him gag. Then he bumped into something, and that something was flesh and bone. He made a grab for it, but then it was gone. He swiveled around and started heading the other way, following the sounds of the footsteps. They were measured, steady. How the hell could anyone be walking so calmly through this crap? And then it suddenly dawned on him: because that person had a mask. And the steady tread? The person was leading himself through the smoke by counting steps. Alex had practiced that very same tactic in the dark at the Secret Service’s Beltsville training facility.

  Alex crawled forward as fast as he could. The footsteps suddenly grew fainter and he redoubled his efforts, whipping his body back and forth like a serpent closing in on its prey. Thankfully, the footfalls picked up again. He hit another hallway, turned and belly-crawled down it. He heard a door open and then close. He slithered faster, pushing himself to the right and feeling for the wall. When his hand hit metal, he reached up and grabbed the handle, but the door refused to open. He pulled his gun and shot at the door at waist level. One of the slugs hit the push bar, collapsing it, and the metal pole bar Adnan had wedged there fell free. He wrenched open the door and flung himself through. The smoke wasn’t as bad in here, but the power to the hospital had obviously gone out because there was no light.

  Alex rose, found the handrail and made his way down the steps, slipping and sliding along the way. He missed an entire step and ended up in a heap at the bottom of the first flight of stairs. Bruised and bleeding, he picked himself up and kept going by using the rail the rest of the way down. His panic increasing, Alex started taking the steps two at a time before reaching the bottom and hustling down the hall. He burst out of the exit door right as Adnan was getting in the ambulance that was parked there. Alex suspected the president was in the back.

  He didn’t even cry out a warning. Alex just opened fire, hitting Adnan in the arm. Adnan fired back, and Alex had to throw himself to the side, where he lost his footing and tumbled down a set of concrete stairs. He rose, got off another shot and took a round in return, right in his ribs, fired by Ahmed, who’d emerged from the driver side of the ambulance. Luckily, Ahmed’s small-caliber ordnance had zero chance of penetrating the latest-stage Kevlar that all Secret Service agents wore on protective detail. Still, it felt like Muhammad Ali had nailed him with his best punch, and Alex slumped down in pain just as another shot fired by Adnan, burned through the skin of his left arm.

  The ambulance sped off, its sirens screaming, as Alex faltered after it on legs that were nearly dead. His chest killing him, his arm bleeding profusely and his lungs full of smoke, Alex finally dropped to his knees and fired at the ambulance, emptying his mag but failing to stop it. Then, he tried his wrist mic but it didn’t work. He realized the bullet that hit his arm must’ve also severed the wiring to his comm pack. The last thing he remembered before passing out was one final sight of the ambulance, and then it was gone.

  And so was the president.

  On his watch.

  CHAPTER

  55

  GEORGE FRANKLIN PULLED HIS car into the driveway. He had come from the other side of Brennan, opposite where the ceremonial grounds were located, and he hadn’t had his radio on.

  “Lori?” he called out. “Djamila?” He plunked his keys on the kitchen island and went through the house calling out again. He opened the door to the garage and was puzzled to see his wife’s convertible and the big Navigator SUV parked there.

  Had they all gone out in Djamila’s van?

  “Lori? Boys?”

  He went upstairs, starting to become a little uneasy. When he opened the door to his bedroom, that unease turned to panic as he saw the phone lying on the floor, along with a torn-up sheet.

  “Lori honey?”

  He heard a sound from the closet. He rushed over and ripped the doors open and saw his bound wife. Lori’s eyes were not focusing well, but
she did seem to be looking at him. He raced to her side and pulled her gag off.

  “My God, Lori, what happened? Who did this?” he said frantically.

  She mouthed the name but he couldn’t hear it.

  “Who?”

  She said softly, “Djamila. She has the boys.” And then Lori Franklin started sobbing as her husband held her.

  The ambulance raced into the garage, and the doors shut behind it. Adnan and Ahmed jumped out of the ambulance, opened the back door and unloaded the president.

  Djamila had already opened the back of the van and was standing next to the rear passenger door where she was trying to keep the boys calm. They were all upset, but fortunately, they were also too young to free themselves from their car seats.

  Now Djamila raced to the rear of the van and pushed the button that was hidden in a crevice inside the interior there. The floor lifted up, revealing a compartment. It was lead- and copper-lined and cut into two shapes: one of a man in a fetal position and the other of a small cylindrical object. The shape of the man conformed to the measurements of President James Brennan, with an inch all around to spare.

  Djamila stared at the young man who had stepped back to let the doctor, Adnan and the other man present lift Brennan from the gurney.

  “Ahmed?” she said unbelievingly.

  He looked at her.

  “Ahmed. It is me, Djamila.” It was Ahmed, her Iranian poet; the one who had written down the exact date and time of his death, the young man who had given her so much good advice and also the young man she hoped to share paradise with.

  However, there was now a look in his eyes that Djamila could not
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