The camel club, p.39
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       The Camel Club, p.39

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  He led her into a small family room, and they sat down. The room had very little furniture. In fact, Kate thought, it was so barren that it almost looked like someone was either moving in or moving out. The only thing out of the ordinary was hundreds of shot glasses on one shelf.

  “I have a shot glass from every place I visited while on protection detail.” She turned to find his gaze on her. “Not much to show after all those years, is it?” he said.

  There was an awkward silence until he said, “You want something to drink?”

  “Nothing as strong as what you’re having.”

  He rose and came back a minute later with a glass of Coke on ice.

  “No Jack, right?” she said warily.

  “Nope, I’m actually fresh out. Funny, I had a whole bottle yesterday.”

  “So that’s the plan? Stay here and drink yourself to death while you play Johnny Cash ballads?”

  “It’s a plan,” he said dully.

  “Not a very good one.”

  “You have a better idea?”

  “You promised to meet with Oliver and the others.”

  “Oh, right, the Camera Club,” he said absently.

  “No, the Camel Club.”

  “Whatever,” he said, and started strumming on his guitar.

  Kate glanced around the room, and her gaze came to rest on a photo. She picked it up. The man in the picture was very tall and lean with a weathered face and a huge black pompadour slicked back to an exaggerated degree. A cigarette dangled from his lips, and he was holding a guitar.

  She glanced at Alex, who was watching her closely. “Your father?”

  “The one and only Freddy ‘Hot Rod’ Ford,” he said.

  “He doesn’t really look like Johnny Cash.”

  “I know. More like Hank Williams, Sr.”

  She put the photo back down and looked around.

  “Not much of a life, is it?” he said.

  Kate turned and saw Alex watching her.

  “Being a Secret Service agent doesn’t mix really well with a home life,” he said.

  She smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m not after you for your money.”

  “Good thing.”

  She sat back down, sipped her Coke and said, “You need to meet with Oliver, Alex. Remember, a woman has been kidnapped.”

  “Then call in the FBI, although I think they’re tied up on another kidnapping right now.”

  “They want you.”

  He pointed to himself. “Look at me, Kate. If your sister were missing, would you really want me handling the case?”

  “Yes.”

  “Bullshit!”

  “Please, Alex, will you meet with them?”

  “No, I won’t!”

  “Why not!”

  “I don’t owe you or anyone else a damn explanation!”

  She set down her glass and stood. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” She turned to leave, but he put a hand on her shoulder and turned her back toward him.

  “I screwed up, Kate,” he said simply. “I didn’t do my job.”

  “It wasn’t your fault. They almost killed you.”

  “No, they suckered me like I was a rookie. This Middle Eastern security guard just happens to stroll out of the hospital? And he just offers to risk his life to help me, and I let the son of a bitch walk away with the president of the United States?”

  “You didn’t let him walk away. You figured out what they were up to.”

  “Yeah, about sixty seconds too late, and in my job that doesn’t cut it.” He leaned against the wall. “You remember what Clint Hill, Kennedy’s Secret Service guy, told me?”

  “That you didn’t want to be like him. Because he’d lost his president.”

  “That’s right,” Alex said. “And now I know exactly what the man meant.”

  CHAPTER

  59

  CARTER GRAY HAD BARELY SLEPT since Brennan disappeared, yet the NIC chief had little to show for his efforts. Thirty-six hours after the president had been kidnapped, he was sitting at a conference table at NIC. Across from him, shackled to a chair with two burly guards hovering nearby, was a man answering only to the name Farid Shah, which matched his official documents. Gray knew that it was all phony and had managed to wrest control of Shah from the FBI, based mainly on the fact that he had considerable dirt on the FBI director.

  “Farid Shah from India,” Gray said. “But you’re not Indian.”

  “My father was Indian, my mother was Saudi. I took after her,” the prisoner said quietly. His wounded arm was taped to his side. They were not going to allow him to wear a sling, since it would also make a very effective suicide tool.

  “A Hindu marries a Muslim?”

  “Out of a billion people you’d be surprised how much it happens.”

  “And how exactly did you get from India to America?”

  “America, it’s the land of opportunity,” he answered vaguely.

  “Are Muslims now recruiting Hindus as terrorists?”

  “I am a practicing Muslim. I’m sure you’ve watched me perform my salat in my cell, haven’t you?”

  “You know, Mr. Shah, you look familiar to me.”

  “I’ve found that to most Americans all of us look alike.”

  “I’m not most Americans. And how exactly did you get your job as a security guard at the hospital?”

  The prisoner looked down at his hands and said nothing.

  “And who are these people?” Gray asked as he spread out the photos on the table. “Are these your family?” No reply.

  “They were found in your apartment, so presumably, you know who they are. It’s interesting. On the backs of each photo are dates written in Arabic. They appear to be the dates of birth and death and also some other information.” Gray held up one photo of a teenage boy. “This says he was sixteen when he died. It also says he was killed during the Iran-Iraq war. Was he your brother? Which side of the war was he on? Which side were you on?”

  Gray didn’t wait for an answer that he knew wasn’t coming. He picked up another photo, this one of a woman. “It says she was killed in what is written as the ‘first American invasion of Iraq.’ I’m assuming you’re referring to Persian Gulf One, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States came to Kuwait’s aid. Was she your wife? Did you fight for Saddam Hussein?” Again, nothing.

  Gray picked up one more picture, that of a teenage girl. He turned it around and read, “‘Killed in second American invasion of Iraq.’ Was this your daughter?” The prisoner was still studying his hands. “You’ve lost all these people, your family and friends in war and insurrection; Muslim against Muslim and then Muslim against American. Is that what this is all about?” Gray leaned in closer. “Is this all about revenge?”

  Gray slowly collected the photos and nodded to the guards. As he rose to leave, Gray said to the prisoner, “I’ll be back very soon. And then you will tell me everything.”

  The following morning, responding to news rumors, the nation was finally told that during the kidnapping of President Brennan the terrorists had used tranquilizer guns. These resulted in no deaths to any American, although numerous people suffered injuries when the crowd stampeded at the dedication ceremony. The confirmed killing of twenty-one Arabs had the world shaking its collective head. The New York Times headline put the issue succinctly: “Suicide Killers Who Kill Only Themselves?” A commentary in the Washington Post wondered if it was due to the fact that real guns would have been detected by the magnetometers. Yet no one could explain why the snipers at the hospital also used tranquilizer guns.

  The New York Post put it most bluntly with its headline: “What in the Hell Is Going On?”

  Violence was spreading into the streets across America and the world. Clearly, it was only a matter of time before something major happened.

  On that very same morning the White House absorbed more stunning news. Each of the major American television networks had received a heads-up from Al Jazeera that it was about to
release a ransom note from the kidnappers that had just been delivered to the Arab news network. There were stunning revelations contained in the note, representatives of Al Jazeera claimed. No one, not even the acting president, would be given an advance copy of the ransom demand. Apparently, the kidnappers wanted the government to find out at the same time as the rest of its citizenry.

  Acting President Hamilton’s response to this, if it had been on live TV, would’ve required a number of bleep-overs and an official FCC rebuke for on-air profanity. Yet what could he do? Hamilton assembled his cabinet, advisers and military commanders to watch the announcement.

  “How the hell do we even know if these people have Brennan? This could all be a load of crap,” the national security adviser warned.

  “Exactly,” the secretary of defense, Joe Decker, echoed. He was well respected as a cabinet member who did his homework and played the political games to the fullest. He also had the reputation of a man unafraid to pull the trigger when it came to unleashing America’s military juggernaut. Decker had been an iron man in Brennan’s administration, and Hamilton was relying heavily on him during this crisis.

  Hamilton withdrew a slip of paper from his pocket. “This was forwarded to the White House a few minutes ago from the networks. It accompanied the demand letter.”

  “What is it, sir?” Decker asked.

  “They say it’s the nuclear codes that President Brennan was carrying with him. We’ll need to confirm that they’re accurate. Obviously, the codes are no longer valid.”

  Two minutes later, after a quick consultation and a confirming phone call, Defense Secretary Decker glumly looked around the room. “They’re the ones.”

  The other men and women in the room stared downward, avoiding eye contact with each other. They were all thinking the same thing. Whatever the kidnappers were asking for would almost undoubtedly be something the U.S. could not agree to. And that, unfortunately, would seal the fate of James Brennan.

  A grizzled news anchor appeared on the plasma screen mounted on the wall. Hamilton, putting words to the unspoken thoughts of those gathered around him, said, “I swear to God, if those bastards film the beheading of Jim Brennan, there won’t be one building left standing over there.”

  The veteran news anchor appeared upset but quickly started reading. First, America and the rest of the world had to recognize Islam as a great religion and give it the respect it deserved. Second, for every dollar given by the U.S. to either Israel or Egypt a dollar had to be given to Palestine for economic development. Third, there must be a complete withdrawal of all allied troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, although U.N. troops could remain. Fourth, all allied military bases in Afghanistan must be removed. Fifth, all private foreign oil interests in the Middle East must be turned over to the country where such oil interests were located, including the oil pipeline running through Afghanistan. Sixth, any foreign businesses operating in the Middle East must be majority-owned by Arabs, and must reinvest all their profits in the region for the next two decades to help build infrastructure and create jobs. Seventh, there must be agreement by the United States and its allies that they would not invade another sovereign nation unless specifically attacked by that nation’s military or unless there was credible evidence of such nation’s support of a terrorist attack against the U.S. or its allies. Eighth, the United States must refrain from using its powerful military to reshape the world in its image and must respect the diverse cultures in the Middle East. Ninth, there must be an acknowledgment that many problems in the Middle East were the result of the West’s misguided foreign policies and colonial exploitation, and that a widespread dialogue must be initiated on how best to move forward.

  As this list was read off, the mood in the room at the White House darkened even more. A general exclaimed, “Same old crap! I’m a little disappointed they weren’t more creative.”

  “We can’t bow to blackmail,” Hamilton said. He looked around the room for confirmation.

  “Absolutely not,” the NSA agreed.

  “Clearly we can’t,” Secretary Decker added forcefully.

  Around the table people started scribbling notes on the appropriate spin for this chain of events. Meanwhile, the generals and admirals huddled in a corner sketching out a military response.

  The secretary of state, Andrea Mayes, spoke up. “Wait a minute, people. Damn it, let’s not just write Jim Brennan off.” She was a close friend of the kidnapped president.

  The Pentagon group looked at her in utter disbelief.

  One of them snapped, “Do you really believe that they’re just going to hand him back to us?”

  There were eruptions around the table; then a very loud voice boomed out. Everyone’s attention was directed to Carter Gray, who sat at one end of the table. Though his aura of invincibility had been substantially damaged, he could still command respect.

  “Perhaps,” Gray said, motioning to the TV, “we should listen to the rest.”

  The room grew silent.

  “This is a new section,” the TV anchor said, holding the paper tightly. He cleared his throat and began reading. “Civilized countries that unilaterally spread their will with bullets and bombs are terrorists and have no right to deny other countries the same privilege. When you lead with the sword, you often die by it.” The anchor paused again. “Now we come to the most bizarre part of this message, although, quite frankly, what has happened thus far is the most incredible series of events that I have seen in my thirty-two years of covering the news.” He paused a third time, as though to give the moment the substantial gravitas it deserved.

  “Damn it,” Secretary Decker roared. “Just tell us, for God’s sake!”

  The anchor started reading again. “Whether or not these demands are met, one week from today President James Brennan will be released unharmed, left at a safe location, and the appropriate authorities will be contacted immediately to retrieve him. However, we ask the world to take these demands with the utmost seriousness if we are ever to truly have Salaam.” The anchor added hastily, “That means ‘peace’ in Arabic.”

  The White House group simply stared at the TV, shock and awe all over their faces.

  “What the hell did he just say?” Hamilton asked.

  Gray answered in a clear voice, “He said that even if the demands are not met, President Brennan will be released unharmed.”

  “Bullshit!” Decker yelled. “Do they think we’re all idiots?”

  Gray thought, No, I don’t believe they think you’re all idiots.

  “This is preposterous,” Decker said angrily. “What I want to know is where they recruited the people to pull this off.”

  Gray looked at him disdainfully. “There are over one billion Muslims on this earth. Muslims follow their faith fervently and do what is asked of them without question. So do you really think that it would be that difficult to find fewer than two dozen of them willing to sacrifice their lives under these circumstances? Do you?” he asked again. “We’re fighting a war against these people, Joe. If you don’t even know your enemy, I respectfully suggest that the Defense Department is not the best fit for your capabilities.”

  “Where the hell do you get off—” Decker began, but Gray snapped, “The question we should be asking ourselves is, who planned the scheme? Because I seriously doubt it was any terrorist organization of which I’m aware. That means there’s someone else out there. Someone else we have to find if we’re to have any chance of getting the president back alive.”

  CHAPTER

  60

  AFTER THE STUNNING DEMAND, Carter Gray had gone back to work with renewed purpose. The files at NIC contained no record of Farid Shah, so Gray had mulled where next to search. The FBI had its AFIS criminal files, yet Gray was almost certain the name Farid Shah would not be found there. One did not assume a false name with a criminal record attached to it. And as Gray had predicted, a search in the AFIS database also turned up negative.

  Next Gray hopped a chopp
er to Brennan, Pennsylvania. A temporary morgue had been set up there, and Gray examined all of the bodies. The corpse of the doctor from Mercy Hospital looked familiar, but that was all. The problem was many of the photos NIC had in its terrorist files were anywhere from five to fifteen years old. People could change a lot in that amount of time. Gray then traveled to the dedication grounds, the garage, the hospital and finally the apartment building where the snipers had kept the police at bay. Nothing occurred to the NIC chief except his ability to marvel at the terrorists’ intricate planning. Who had set this in motion? Who?

  On the chopper ride home he pulled out the photos he’d taken from Shah’s apartment. A sudden thought occurred to him. The chopper was redirected to Langley.

  When he arrived, Gray gave the photos and also a mug shot of Farid Shah to the DCI and asked him to make immediate inquiries to try to identify any of them.

  Late that evening, back at his office, Gray received a phone call from Langley.

  They had turned up an Arab informant who thought he recognized one of the people in the photos. It was the young girl. She was the daughter of someone the informant had fought with in Iraq, first as part of an underground movement against Saddam Hussein and then against the American occupation. When the informant saw Shah’s mug shot, he identified it immediately, although the man’s appearance had changed drastically. He was the young girl’s father.

 
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