The camel club, p.37
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       The Camel Club, p.37
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  remember ever having seen, even when he was in his full oratorical fury. It frightened her.

  “I do not know you,” he said bitterly. “Do not talk to me, woman.”

  Djamila took a step back from him, her heart crushed at this response.

  As Brennan was being transferred from the gurney to the van, Ahmed took a step toward the ambulance. Djamila saw him slip his hand inside the back of the ambulance but could not see what he was doing.

  When he walked over to the others, Djamila came forward again.

  “Ahmed, we were at the camps together in Pakistan. You must remember me.”

  This time Ahmed didn’t bother to answer.

  Djamila screamed as she saw a knife appear in Ahmed’s hand, its point aimed right at the president’s neck.

  Adnan was faster and he slammed into Ahmed, knocking him down.

  “You fool!” Ahmed screamed, getting to his feet as Adnan pointed his gun at him. “Do you realize who we have here?” He gestured to Brennan. “This is the American president. The king of evil. He has destroyed everything we have.”

  “You will not kill him,” Adnan said.

  “Listen to me,” Ahmed shouted. “We will never have this chance again. Can you not see that? The Americans will keep killing. They will kill us all with their tanks and planes. But we can kill him. That will destroy America.”

  “No!” Adnan said fiercely.

  “Why!” Ahmed cried. “Because of the plan?” he said derisively. “A plan devised by who, an American. We take orders from Americans, Adnan, do you not see that? This is all a plot. To kill us. I knew that. I have always known that. But now, now we take our revenge.” He held his knife up in the air. “We do it now.”

  “I do not wish to kill you, Ahmed, but I will.”

  “Then kill me!”

  Ahmed rushed forward and Adnan fired.

  Djamila screamed as Ahmed slumped to the floor of the garage with a single shot to the center of his chest. Adnan put the gun back in his holster and pushed Ahmed’s body out of the way. The tears slipped down Djamila’s cheek as she stared at her dead poet.

  The other men now worked away calmly, as though a cockroach had been killed in front of them instead of a man. Brennan was placed in the compartment, an oxygen tank in the other cutout space. The doctor fitted a mask over Brennan’s face and turned on the feed line.

  Adnan closed the compartment and turned to the sobbing Djamila.

  “He did know me,” she said haltingly between sobs. “That was my Ahmed.”

  Adnan’s response was a hard slap to her face. This startled Djamila so badly that she stopped crying.

  “Now get in your van,” Adnan said firmly, “and do your job.”

  Without another word Djamila did exactly as he said. The garage door flew back up, and the van raced out.

  Adnan looked at the other two men and nodded at Ahmed’s body. They picked it up and placed it in the oil pit while Adnan wrapped up his bleeding arm where Alex had shot him.

  Adnan had suspected that Ahmed would try something. He’d been keeping a close watch on him ever since they loaded the president into the ambulance. Still, it had been a close call.

  Seconds later the three climbed into the ambulance, where Adnan became the patient, with the doctor presiding over him and the third man driving. This was the original plan of escape and would have also included Ahmed.

  Despite this cover, however, Adnan knew they’d been seen at the hospital, and now he had a gunshot wound. They would not make it through the roadblocks. Yet they would make a fine decoy. And then very soon after that it would be over. Adnan gazed at the doctor, a man of fifty, and understood from his look that he knew this to be the case too. Adnan closed his eyes and held his wounded arm. The pain was not bad; he’d had far worse. It was just one more scar to add to what he already had. However, this time Adnan sensed it would be the last scar for him. He had no plans to rot in an American jail or let the Americans electrocute him like some animal.

  After the apartment building had been cleared except for the snipers, the lawmen had launched multiple RPGs into the sixth-floor apartment. Only then were the two gunmen finally silenced after the most intensive gun battle Pennsylvania had seen since Gettysburg. When the apartment was stormed, the shooters were both found dead, but only after having fired all of their M-50 ammo and thousands of rounds from their overheated machine guns, which were now both sizzling to the touch.

  The hospital was evacuated, and Alex Ford was discovered lying bleeding on the asphalt. When he was revived, he told them what he’d seen, and an APB went out on the ambulance.

  Djamila ran into a roadblock barely five minutes outside of Brennan. There were three cars in front of her, and the police were making people get out of their vehicles.

  She glanced back at the boys. The baby had fallen asleep, but the other two boys were still crying hard, and Djamila too felt tears sliding down her cheeks again.

  Ahmed said he did not know her. He had told her not to talk to him. Ahmed had been killed right in front of her. He had tried to stab the man. He’d gone against the plan and been killed for that. And yet what hurt her most of all were his words: “I do not know you.” His hatred had consumed him, crushing the poet’s heart in its grip. That was the only way Djamila could make herself understand what had happened.

  She was brought back from these thoughts by a tapping on her window. It was the police. She rolled down her window, and the howls of the children reached the ears of the officers.

  “Damn, lady, are those kids okay?”

  “They are scared,” Djamila said, launching into her prepared speech. “I am scared too. There are sirens and police and people running and screaming. I have just come from downtown, and people they are screaming everywhere. It is mad; the world has gone mad. I take children to their home. I am nanny,” she added, probably unnecessarily. She started to sob, which made the kids cry even harder. This woke the baby up, and he added his powerful lungs to the crisis.

  “Okay, okay,” the officer said. “We’ll make this real fast.” He nodded to his men. They looked through the van and underneath it. They were searching inches from where the president lay unconscious. However, he might as well have been invisible, and the police were quite anxious to move on to another car. From the putrid smells coming from the backseat, all three boys had gone to the bathroom.

  The officers slammed the doors shut. “Good luck,” one of them said to Djamila, and waved her on.

  A minute later, after repeated attempts, George Franklin finally got through on the flooded 911 line and reported what had happened, giving a description of Djamila, the boys and the van. However, Djamila was on the way to her rendezvous spot long before this message was relayed to the field.

  Ten minutes later the black chopper soared over the devastated dedication grounds and landed in the parking lot. One of the doors opened, and Tom Hemingway stepped out and hustled over to Carter Gray, who stood talking to some federal agents.

  Hemingway said, “My God, sir, we were on our way back from New York when we heard. Is the president still alive?”

  Gray’s eyes had regained their focus and his mind its priorities. “The president, we have just learned, has been kidnapped,” Gray said. “I need to get back to Washington as soon as possible.”

  A minute later the chopper lifted into the air and headed south.

  CHAPTER

  56

  DJAMILA SLOWLY DROVE BACK from the rendezvous point toward the Franklins’ house. The transfer of the president from her van to his final transportation out of the area had gone very smoothly, taking barely a minute. She had the radio on to drown out the sounds of the boys from the back and also to find out what the news stations were reporting. The airwaves were filled with the breaking events, although the commentators were not making much sense. There were reports of many dead, but right now it seemed that the country, which had been watching the event on TV, was focusing on the fact that the
president had been rushed to the hospital. They would soon find the truth far different.

  So engrossed was Djamila in her thoughts that she failed to notice the police cruiser closing in on her from behind. She finally looked in the rearview mirror when the flashing roof lights caught her attention. She could hear a loud voice coming from one of the cars as the police talked to her through their PA system.

  “Pull the van over and get out immediately!”

  She didn’t pull the van over, and she had no intention of getting out immediately. Instead, she accelerated slightly.

  In the lead cruiser the officers eyed each other. “Looks like she’s still got the kids in there with her.”

  The other cop nodded. “We can box her in and try to talk her out.”

  “Yeah, but if she doesn’t come out? Call in a sniper unit, pronto.”

  “I don’t think there’s any left. Hell, we haven’t had a single murder here in over four years, and in one day we have an attack on the president and some crazy nanny kidnapping her employer’s kids.”

  A half mile farther up the road another police cruiser blocked the way. Djamila saw this and pulled off the asphalt and drove across the grass. The cruisers were about to follow but then stopped as Djamila turned the van around so it was facing back toward the road. She unfastened her seat belt and climbed into the backseat.

  “What the hell’s she doing?” one of the cops said. “You think she’s gonna hurt those kids?”

  “Who knows? What’s the status of the sniper?”

  “I took it as a really bad sign when the dispatcher laughed when I asked for one.”

  “There’s no way we can chance a shot with those kids in there.”

  “So what do we do?”

  “Look! The side door of the van’s opening.”

  They watched as an arm appeared and the baby was set on the ground still in its car seat. Next the two older boys were likewise deposited on the ground.

  “I don’t get this,” the cop in the passenger seat said.

  “If she makes one move to run them over, you take out her tires and I’ll try for a head shot through the windshield,” the other replied.

  The men climbed out of their cruiser; one had his pistol out, the other held a pump shotgun.

  However, Djamila had no intention of hurting the children. She glanced at them each in turn as she settled back in the driver’s seat. She even waved to the oldest boy.

  “Bye-bye, Timmy,” she said through the window. “Bye-bye, you naughty little boy.”

  “Nana,” was all the tearful boy said back as he waved his hand at her.

  As much as Djamila had disliked Lori Franklin, she was relieved she hadn’t had to kill the woman. Children needed their mothers. Yes, children needed their mothers.

  She took a moment to write something down on a piece of paper that she pulled from her purse. She folded it carefully and then gripped it in her hand.

  She put the van in gear, started rolling forward and pulled back onto the road.

  Another police cruiser had joined the hunt now. Djamila headed toward the two policemen who were standing outside their cruiser.

  “Stop the car!” one of them said over his portable PA.

  Djamila didn’t stop. She accelerated.

  “Stop the car now or we’ll open fire!” Both officers aimed their weapons. One cruiser closed in on the rear of the van while the other cruiser broke off and got the boys safely in their car.

  “Shoot the tires out,” one of the cops said as Djamila bore down on them.

  They both fired and took out the front tires. Still, Djamila kept coming. She gunned the motor, and the van hobbled along at a fair clip on the shredded wheels.

  “Stop the van!” the cop yelled again through his PA.

  The cops behind the van shot out Djamila’s rear tires, and still she rolled on. The van was weaving and lurching but was still headed directly for the two policemen.

  “She’s crazy!” one of the cops cried out. “She’s gonna run us down.”

  “Stop the car! Now!” the cop shouted again. “Or we will open fire on you!”

  Inside the van, Djamila didn’t even hear him. She was chanting over and over in Arabic, “I bear witness that there is no God but God.” For an instant, as she hurtled forward, her thoughts careened to a young man named Ahmed who didn’t know her, despite having captured her heart. Ahmed, her poet, who was dead, and surely now in paradise.

  Djamila thought of the Prophet Muhammad climbing the miraj, or ladder, that fateful night, until he reached the Farthest Mosque, the hallowed “seventh heaven.” It was the promised paradise and it would be so beautiful. Far better than anything here on earth.

  She pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and the crippled van shot forward.

  The shotgun and pistol roared together. The van’s windshield exploded inward.

  The vehicle immediately weaved off the road onto the grass and hit a tree.

  The van’s horn started blaring. The cops rushed over to it and cautiously opened the driver’s door. Djamila’s bloodied head was resting against the steering wheel, her eyes open but no longer seeing. As the officers stepped back, a piece of paper floated out of the van. One of them stooped and picked it up.

  “What’s it say?” the other asked. “Suicide note?”

  He looked at it, shrugged and handed it to his colleague. “I don’t read Chinese.”

  It was actually Arabic. Djamila had written something down.

  It was the date and exact time of her death.

  CHAPTER

  57

  CARTER GRAY SAID NOTHING IN the chopper ride back to Washington. Hemingway didn’t attempt to break into the man’s thoughts; he had quite enough of his own.

  They landed at NIC, and Gray climbed out of the chopper.

  “Do you want to go home, sir?” Hemingway asked.

  Gray looked at him incredulously. “The president is missing. I have work to do.”

  He walked into NIC headquarters as the chopper lifted off again. Hemingway spoke into his headset to the pilot.

  Tyler Reinke confirmed this command and they headed west.

  Hemingway glanced down at the floor of the chopper. In the cargo hold a foot under him, President James Brennan was sleeping peacefully.

  Within a few hours even the most remote parts of the world knew at least some of the details of what had happened in the small town of Brennan, Pennsylvania.

  The Secret Service had immediately implemented its continuity of government plan, securing all persons in the chain of command down to the secretary of state. The vice president, Ben Hamilton, had assumed the duties of the chief executive in accordance with the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the first time it had been invoked in response to a kidnapped president.

  And the newly installed acting president was not a happy man.

  Hamilton had verbally eviscerated the director of the Secret Service. Next he’d summoned the heads of every intelligence agency to the White House and took them to task for having been so totally oblivious to an operation that had clearly taken enormous planning and manpower. It was well known that the VP had presidential aspirations. He obviously thought that, aside from the damage the kidnapping had caused the country, it was probably not beneficial to him to assume the top spot in this way.

  Then he ordered Carter Gray to come to the Oval Office that night.

  By all accounts, Gray handled the tirade thrown his way in stride. When Hamilton finished, Gray calmly asked him if he could now go about the business of finding the president and returning him safely. His new boss’s response, according to the sources who’d heard it through the very thick walls, was not printable in any newspaper.

  At Kate’s invitation Adelphia and the Camel Club reconvened back at her carriage house on their return from Brennan. Adelphia still carried a horrified look. Kate gave her some water and a cold cloth, but the woman just sat there staring down at her hands and slowly shak
ing her head.

  Kate said, “Alex is okay, but I haven’t been able to see him, only talk to him on the phone for a few minutes.”

  “I’m sure he’s being debriefed,” Reuben replied. “He was right in the middle of it all. He might’ve seen something that could help.”

  “What did we all see that might be useful?” Stone asked.

  “A lot of shooting, people dying and cars on fire,” Caleb listed.

  “And the president being carried away,” Milton added.

  “But there was something wrong with him before that,” Caleb said. “I saw it on the big TV. He was clutching his chest.”

  “Heart attack?” Reuben suggested.

 
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