The camel club, p.38
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       The Camel Club, p.38

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “Possibly,” Stone said.

  “Well, it was Arabs shooting,” Reuben added. “I grabbed one of their guns before the man got shot.”

  “It was definitely a coordinated attack,” Stone commented. “Even with all the chaos, that was clear to see. Shooters and then men setting themselves on fire, and then more shooters. In structured bursts of directed fire.”

  “At least the presidential limo was able to get away,” Kate added. “Even if the president ended up being kidnapped.”

  “Yes, but the perpetrators probably intended that the limo escape,” Stone said. “After cutting it off from the rest of the motorcade.” He looked over at Milton, who was frantically typing away on his laptop. “Anything new, Milton?”

  “Only that the president is confirmed missing, and there was a tremendous gun battle outside of Mercy Hospital in Brennan.”

  “Mercy Hospital,” Stone said thoughtfully. “If the president was ill, they must’ve taken him to the hospital. That would have been standard procedure.”

  “And they set fire to the ambulance,” Kate said.

  “Also part of the plan,” Stone replied.

  Caleb looked at all of them. “So what now?”

  “We really need to talk to Alex. He needs to look at that film,” Kate said.

  “I’m sure he’s pretty busy right now,” Reuben commented.

  “I’ll go and see him as soon as he’s home,” Kate said. “I know he’ll want to help.”

  Stone, however, didn’t look nearly as confident as she did.

  At Secret Service headquarters the crisis room was abuzz. Although the FBI was officially handling the investigation, the Service was not about to back down on this case.

  Alex Ford, his arm bandaged, his bruised ribs wrapped with tape and his lungs still feeling like they’d been charcoaled, had been debriefed for the tenth time and was, in turn, being caught up on recent developments.

  “We’ve got the hospital security guard,” said the Secret Service’s director, Wayne Martin. “The two other men in the ambulance were killed after a gun battle, but we got the bastard.”

  “And the president?” Alex asked anxiously.

  Martin said, “No sign of him. We think he was transferred to another vehicle. A woman named Djamila Saelem may have been involved. She worked as a nanny for a couple named Franklin. She tied up Mrs. Franklin and took the kids. Later she released the kids but was killed by the responding officers when she tried to run them down.”

  “What’s the connection to the president?” another agent asked.

  “We think she used the kids to get through the roadblocks. A nanny with three screaming babies is not really high on the suspect list.”

  “I’m still not getting it,” the same agent commented.

  “When the officers inspected the van she was driving, a secret compartment was found in the rear. It was copper- and lead-lined with an outline of a man’s body roughly the size of the president’s cut into it, plus space for an oxygen tank that was later recovered. Mrs. Franklin said the nanny was highly upset when she was told that Mrs. Franklin had changed her plans and was going to the dedication event with her sons. That would’ve thrown a big monkey wrench in their plan, so Franklin had to be taken out.”

  “Has he talked?” Alex asked. “The security guard, I mean.”

  “The FBI has taken over that line of inquiry,” Martin said bitterly. “But his prints were run through the system and came back with zip.”

  “Sir, that guy is no rookie. I can’t believe this is his first op,” Alex said.

  Martin said, “Agreed, but I guess he never got caught before.”

  Alex then asked the question he’d been dreading. “How many are dead, sir?”

  Martin looked at him strangely. “Counting the dedication grounds and what happened in town, twenty-one terrorists were killed.”

  “I mean what about our guys?”

  Martin glanced around the room at the other men and women there. “This is not public knowledge, and it won’t be until we can figure out what the hell’s going on.” He paused. “We had no casualties.”

  Alex jumped up and looked at the man. “What the hell are you talking about? Guys were dropping all over the place. I was there. I saw them, damn it. Is this some kind of bullshit political spin? Because if it is, it stinks!”

  “Just hold on, Ford,” Martin said. “I know you’re on heavy meds for the pain, but you don’t talk to me that way, son.”

  Alex took a deep breath and sat back down. “Sir, we had casualties.”

  “Our guys were shot, over twenty-five of them, plus about fifteen uniforms. And Dr. Bellamy.” Martin paused. “But they were shot with tranquilizer darts. They’ve all recovered. That’s why the shooters were able to get their weapons through the magnetometers. The guns and darts were made of composite materials with no metal.” He paused and then said, “None of what I’m telling you leaves this room.”

  All the agents in the room looked at one another. Alex said slowly, “Tranquilizer guns? They weren’t firing tranquilizer darts at the hospital. Those were real bullets.”

  “The snipers fired darts into the two other agents we found there. Then they held off the reinforcements with real ammo. However, despite having the high ground and one of the best sniper rifles on the market, they didn’t hit one damn person with live ammo. Eyewitnesses said the snipers only shot in the vicinity of our guys. They put up walls of fire in front of the hospital to keep our people away. That seems clear now. They apparently never took a kill shot, although our guys said there were plenty of opportunities for them to do so. I don’t claim to understand it, but those are the facts right now.”

  Alex touched his wounded arm. “They used live ammo on me.”

  “Congratulations, you were the only one. I guess they didn’t anticipate you being able to get into the hospital and mess up their plans.”

  “I obviously didn’t mess them up enough.”

  Martin eyed him closely. “You did as much as any agent could’ve.”

  Alex didn’t acknowledge this compliment.

  Martin continued. “The plan obviously was to funnel the president to the hospital without his normal security contingent. They knew our procedures and methodology well, and used them against us. We think the fact they didn’t harm any of the security forces may bode well for the president. They could have killed him easily.”

  “So they’ll hold him for ransom, and not just money,” another agent said.

  “That’s the probable scenario,” Martin conceded. “God only knows what they’re going to ask for.”

  “But why go to all the trouble of not killing us, sir?” Alex asked in exasperation. “I mean that’s what these guys do, they kill. Look at 9/11, the USS Cole, Grand Central. And they were slaughtered in the process. It makes no sense.”

  “Agreed, it makes no sense. We seem to be in new territory here.” Martin picked up a remote and pointed it at a large-screen plasma TV hanging from the wall. “We just got this video feed in. I want everyone to sit here and watch this thing. Anybody sees something that strikes ’em funny, sound off.”

  The TV came to life, and Alex watched as the horrific events at Brennan unfolded.

  They viewed it three times, and while a few agents had some comments, nothing jumped out at them. It was clear that the terrorists had been very organized and very disciplined.

  “They took the ambulance out and Dr. Bellamy too so we’d have to take the president directly to the hospital for treatment,” Martin said. “Then they used a tractor-trailer and a downed water tower to block off reinforcements. Pretty damn clever. Lucky we weren’t facing these guys when Reagan got shot. He got to the hospital with a handful of guys. Somebody waiting there would’ve had a pretty easy target. Which means we’re going to have to change how we do things from now on.”

  “But the president was looking ill,” Alex said. “I remember seeing him grab at his chest. When we got to the hospital,
he told me he was dying. I checked his pulse. It seemed okay but I’m no doctor.”

  “The hospital staff said a doctor at the hospital injected him with something and he went unconscious,” Martin added.

  “They couldn’t just count on him becoming ill and going to Mercy Hospital,” Alex said. “They had to make that happen at the ceremony.”

  “Right, but we don’t know how they did it.”

  Another agent spoke up. “Maybe he was hit with a dart that made him sick.”

  “That’s possible. And the dart guns don’t make a lot of noise, but no one saw a gun until the first volley of fire took place. We’ve gone over that film a hundred times. At no time does the president flinch or otherwise show that he’s been shot with anything. Even with a dart gun you’re going to have a physical reaction upon impact.”

  At that moment Jerry Sykes came in holding a paper. “This just in, sir.”

  Martin read it and then looked up at his crew. “The hospital in Brennan has reported five people who came to the hospital complaining of respiratory problems and heart attack symptoms. They sent us a rundown of the people’s descriptions and other details. They’re all being treated, but tests show there’s nothing wrong with them.”

  “Some sort of biological agent might’ve been released in the air,” Sykes suggested.

  “And only hit the president and a few others? That’s a mighty ineffective agent,” Martin said skeptically.

  Alex’s gaze was on the TV screen. “Were the five people who went to the hospital a National Guardsman, two older men, a young woman and an elderly woman?”

  Martin looked up from the file. “How in the hell did you know that?”

  In response, Alex pointed to the screen. “Back up and run that sequence in slow motion.”

  They all watched as Brennan started shaking hands along the rope line.

  “Okay, stop right there,” Alex cried out.

  Martin froze the playback.

  “Look at the man’s hand,” Alex said, pointing to the National Guardsman’s prosthetic device.

  “It’s a fake hand, Ford,” Sykes said. “A couple of the agents on the line noticed it.”

  “Right, I saw him too,” Alex said. “He shakes with his right hand, which is artificial. And you’ll see Brennan shaking five more hands before he went down. Now roll the tape.”

  The National Guardsman saluted the president.

  “Stop it right there,” Alex said. “See, he saluted with his left hand. Or left hook. One hand and one hook?”

  “So maybe he’s waiting to get the other one done,” Martin said impatiently.

  “But why shake with your right and salute with your left?”

  Sykes said, “I’m left-handed, but most people are right-handed. So I always shake with my right, but I sometimes salute with my left. So what?”

  Martin said, “Okay, anybody else see anything?”

  Alex kept studying the hand. “Can you zoom in on the guy’s hand?”

  Martin and Sykes looked at him crossly.

  “Just humor me, guys,” Alex said. “It’s not like anybody else here is spotting anything.”

  Martin hit the zoom button until the prosthetic hand nearly filled the screen.

  “Check that out,” Alex said, pointing.

  “Check what out?” Martin exclaimed.

  “The moisture on the guy’s palm.”

  Sykes looked at Alex quizzically. “That’s sweat. It was a warm day, Alex.”

  “Right. It was a warm day. But artificial hands don’t sweat.”

  “Holy shit!” Martin yelled as he stared at the screen.

  As the men were leaving a little later, Martin stopped Alex.

  “Ford, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You’re a damn hero actually.”

  “You don’t really believe that,” Alex said. “And neither do I.”



  TWENTY-FOUR HOURS HAD passed, and a panicked America continued to wait for word on its missing president. The National Guardsman’s address had been tracked down, but he was long gone by the time they got there. The other sickened people at the hospital were found to be suffering from a powerful synthetic hallucinogen that was absorbed through the skin. Tests showed that it caused heart-attack-like symptoms, partial paralysis and feelings of imminent doom. The hospital had to call in CIA scientists and technicians to help identify the substance. The CIA quickly informed everyone that it had never used the drug on anyone, but the enemies of America certainly had, the bastards. The good news, however, was that the drug was not fatal, and its effects could be counteracted quite easily by existing medications. It appeared the substance had been transferred when the infected president shook hands with five more people standing in the rope line.

  Another body had been found in a garage in downtown Brennan. Alex identified the man as the one driving the ambulance at the hospital. The garage was owned by an American businessman; however, no trace of him could be found. The ballistics report showed that the bullet removed from the dead man was fired from the same gun that had wounded Alex. The bullet had glanced off the Secret Service agent’s arm and embedded itself in a wooden railing. That coupled with the proximity of the garage to the hospital indicated strongly that the switch from the ambulance to Djamila Saelem’s van had taken place at the garage. The president had obviously been transferred from the van to something else, perhaps another vehicle, and then slipped out of the area.

  Acting President Hamilton had spoken several times to the American people to reassure them that the country was stable and its leadership running smoothly, and that whoever had done this terrible thing would be severely punished. He demanded that whatever terrorist group had kidnapped James Brennan return him at once, unharmed, or the United States’ retaliation for the brutal act would be nothing short of annihilation for both the perpetrators and any countries aiding them.

  However, the kidnapping had clearly stunned the United States. The financial markets had plummeted; people were afraid to leave their homes; the country had come to a standstill. It didn’t help matters that some Muslim extremists were calling upon the kidnappers to kill Brennan if he wasn’t already dead and show his body to the world.

  The armed forces and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) were at DEFCON level 2, only the second time SAC had been placed on that level, the other being the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Even the events of 9/11 had only pushed the DEFCON level to 3. Military experts warned that depending on how things developed, the DEFCON level might very well go to 1, the highest. Then all bets were off.

  The intelligence sector was doing all it could to identify the kidnappers. Diplomatic inquiries were also put out to all quarters. And the Pentagon was itching for a target on which to use its high-tech weaponry.

  In a conversation with a senator on the Armed Services Committee, a three-star general said, “We’re through dicking around with these people. No more boots on the ground for them to shoot at. Just missiles through the air. They can kiss their asses good-bye this time.”

  The senator did not disagree with him.

  Already heightened tensions between the Islamic world and America were ratcheted ever higher. Although no terrorist organization had claimed responsibility, every slain terrorist in Brennan was an Arab. Astonishingly, their prints and other information had been run through NIC’s vast, comprehensive system and nothing had come back. It was unthinkable that the U.S. intelligence community had not a single byte of information about any of these perpetrators, but that indeed seemed to be the case.

  Right now most people were not concentrating on that anomaly. They simply wanted their president back. And they wanted answers as to how this could have occurred in the first place.

  Late in the evening on the day following the kidnapping Kate Adams knocked on the front door of Alex Ford’s house in Manassas after having called him repeated times without success.

  Kate heard the soulful tunes of a guitar coming f
rom somewhere inside. Those sounds stopped, and she listened as footsteps grew closer to the door.


  “Alex, it’s Kate.”

  Alex opened the door. He was unshaven and his hair a mess. He was wearing torn jeans, a dirty T-shirt and no shoes. His eyes were bloodshot, and Kate smelled alcohol on his breath. He was holding a black acoustic guitar in his right hand.

  “You never returned my calls. I was really worried,” she said.

  “Sorry, I’ve been busy,” he said curtly.

  She stared at the instrument in his hand and then at the bandage on his arm. “How can you be playing guitar with a gunshot wound in your arm?”

  “Who needs a sling when you have Jack Daniel’s?”

  “Can I come in?”

  He shrugged, stepped back and closed the door behind her.

  “I’m surprised your house isn’t surrounded by media trucks.”

  “They haven’t released my name. I’m just the unidentified Secret Service agent who screwed up and let someone kidnap the president.”

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