The Camel Club, Page 4David Baldacci
“Secret Service,” Hemingway said, glancing at Alex’s red lapel pin.
“You?” Alex asked.
“I’m with one of those places where I’d have to kill you if I told you,” Hemingway replied with a knowing smile.
Alex could barely conceal his contempt. “I’ve got buddies at the CIA, DIA, NRO and the NSA. Which one are you?”
“I’m not talking anything that obvious, Alex,” Hemingway answered with a chuckle.
Alex glanced at Kate. “Since when is DOJ mixed up with funny guys like him?”
Hemingway said, “Actually, we’re working on something together. My agency and DOJ. Kate’s the lead counsel. I’m the liaison.”
“I’m sure you couldn’t ask for a better partner than Kate.” Alex put his empty glass down. “Well, I better get going.”
“I’m sure I’ll see you in here soon,” Kate said quickly.
Alex didn’t answer her. He turned to Hemingway. “Hang in there, Tom. And don’t let it slip where you do your Uncle Sam time. I wouldn’t want you to get busted for having to kill some poor bastard who asked too many questions.” He strode off. With the eyes in the back of his head that all Secret Service agents seemed to possess, Alex felt the man’s gaze burning into him. What he didn’t sense was Kate’s worried look following him out.
Okay, Alex thought as the crisp night air hit him, that was a real crappy end to what up until then was just your average shitty day. He decided to go for a stroll and let his Beefeater with a trio of fat olives pickle his soul. Now he wished he’d had a second.
THE PRESIDENTIAL MOTORCADE was returning to the White House after the fund-raising event, passing swiftly through empty streets and closed intersections. Thanks to the meticulous work of the Secret Service advance team, U.S. presidents never spent one idle moment in traffic. That perk alone would be sufficient motivation for some frustrated D.C. commuters to vie for the job. On the drive over, Gray had given his boss an end-of-the-day briefing on all pertinent intelligence matters. Now, in the backseat of the Beast, Brennan was intently studying some poll results while Gray stared straight ahead, his mind, as always, juggling a dozen things at once.
Finally, Gray glanced at his boss. “With all due respect, sir, going over the polls every five minutes won’t change the result. As a presidential candidate Senator Dyson is not in your league. You will win this election by a landslide.” Gray added diplomatically, “Thus, you have the luxury of focusing on other concerns of critical importance.”
Brennan chuckled and put the poll results away. “Carter, you’re a brilliant man but clearly no politician. A race isn’t in the bag until the last vote has been counted. But I’m certainly aware that my considerable lead in this race is due in part to you.”
“I truly appreciated your support during my very rough beginning.”
Actually, Brennan had considered dumping Gray on multiple occasions during that “rough” period, a fact Gray knew well. However, while Gray had never been an ass-kisser, if one were inclined to smooch someone’s buttocks on occasion, the derriere of the leader of the free world wasn’t a bad place to target.
“Are you on to any more al-Zawahiris out there?”
“That incident was a very rare thing, Mr. President.” Gray still wasn’t sure why al-Zawahiri had seemingly turned like that. The NIC chief wanted to assume that his strategy of infiltrating terrorist organizations and employing other tactics to turn them against each other was really starting to pay dividends. However, Gray was far too suspicious a man to rule out alternatives.
“Well, it got us some great press.”
As he had in the past, Gray mastered an urge to say what he really thought about such a comment. The veteran spy had served under several presidents, and they were all much like Brennan. They were not inherently bad people. However, considering their exalted status, Gray found them far more prone to traditional human failings than their fellow citizens. At their core Gray considered them to be selfish and egotistical creatures formed and then hardened in the heat of political battle. All presidents could claim it was about doing good, about furthering the right agendas, about leading their political party, but in Gray’s experience it really all came down to the throne of the Oval Office. Power was the greatest high in the world, and the presidency of the United States represented the greatest power there was; its potency made heroin seem like a placebo.
However, if Brennan dropped dead tonight, there was an adequate vice president ready to step into his shoes, and the country would continue to run. In Gray’s opinion, if Brennan somehow lost the upcoming election, his opponent would simply move into the White House and America wouldn’t miss a beat. Presidents weren’t indispensable, the NIC chief knew, they only thought they were.
“Rest assured, Mr. President, you would know of any more al-Zawahiris the moment I did.”
Brennan was far too wily a politician to accept that statement at face value. It was a Washington tradition that intelligence chiefs kept things from their president. Yet Brennan had every incentive to allow the very popular Gray free rein to do his job. And Carter Gray was a spy, and spies always held things back; it was apparently in their genes never to be entirely forthcoming. It was as though, if they did reveal all, they’d disappear.
“Get some sleep, Carter, I’ll see you tomorrow,” the president said as they left the Beast.
Brennan’s entourage poured out of the other cars in the motorcade. The president’s top advisers and handlers hated the fact that Brennan had chosen to ride alone with Gray both to and from the fund-raiser. It had been a bone thrown Gray’s way for the al-Zawahiri coup, but it benefited the president as well. At the fund-raiser Gray scared the fat checkbooks out of the well-heeled attendees with his stirring talk on terrorism. The tuxedoed crowd coughed up a million dollars for Brennan’s political party. That was certainly worth a private ride in the Beast.
Gray was whisked away from the White House moments later. Contrary to the president’s advice, Carter Gray had no intention of going to bed, and forty-five minutes later he was striding onto the grounds of the National Intelligence Center headquarters in Loudoun County, Virginia. The facility was as well protected as NSA in Maryland. Two full army companies—four hundred soldiers strong—were devoted to the exterior security. However, none had the necessary security clearances to set foot inside any of the structures except in the event of a catastrophe. The main building looked like it was all glass with commanding views of the Virginia countryside. There actually wasn’t a window in the place. Behind the glass panes, the bunker-thick concrete walls, lined with specialized material, prevented human or electronic eyes from peering in.
Here more than three thousand men and women armed with the most sophisticated technology labored 24/7 to keep America safe, while the other intelligence agencies fed NIC with more data every second of every day.
After the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11 and the CIA’s WMD disaster, many U.S. leaders were left wondering if “American intelligence” was an oxymoron. Subsequent governmental attempts at reform had met with little success and had actually created more confusion at a time when clarity and focus in the intelligence sector were national goals. A National Counter-Terrorism Center with its own director reporting to the president and a brand-new Intelligence Directorate at the FBI were added to the plethora of existing counterintelligence ranks that still largely refused to share information with each other.
At least in Gray’s mind, saner heads had prevailed and shredded all these unnecessary layers in favor of a single national intelligence director with his own agency personnel, operations center and, of critical importance, budget and operational control over all other intelligence agencies. It was an old adage in the spy business that analysts got you in political hot water but covert op people landed you in prison. If Gray ever went down, he wanted to be responsible for his own professional demise.
Gray entered the main b
uilding, went through the biometric identification process and stepped into an elevator that whisked him to the top floor.
The room was small and well lighted. He entered, took a seat and put on a headset. There were four other people in the room. On one wall was a video screen, and on the table in front of Gray was a dossier labeled with the name Salem al-Omari. He knew the file contents by heart.
“It’s late, so let’s get to it,” Gray said. The lights dimmed, the screen came to life and they saw a man sitting in a chair in the middle of a room. He was dressed in blue scrubs with neither hands nor feet bound. His features were Middle Eastern, his eyes haunted but also defiant. They were all defiant, Gray had found. When he looked at someone like al-Omari, Gray couldn’t help but think of a Dostoyevsky creation, the displaced outsider, brooding, plotting and methodically stroking a weapon of anarchy. It was the face of a fanatic, of one possessed by a deranged evil. It was the same type of person who’d taken away forever the two people Gray had loved most in the world.
Though al-Omari was thousands of miles away in a facility only a very few people even knew existed, the picture and sound were crystal clear thanks to the satellite downlink.
Through his headset he asked al-Omari a question in English. The man promptly answered in Arabic and then smiled triumphantly.
In flawless Arabic Gray said, “Mr. al-Omari, I am fluent in Arabic and can actually speak it better than you. I know that you lived in England for years and that you speak English better than you do Arabic. I strongly suggest that we communicate in that language so there is absolutely no misunderstanding between us.”
Al-Omari’s smile faded, and he sat straighter in his chair.
Gray explained his proposal. Al-Omari was to become a spy for the United States, infiltrating one of the deadliest terrorist organizations operating in the Middle East. The man promptly refused. Gray persisted and al-Omari refused yet again, adding that “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“There are currently ninety-three terrorist organizations in the world as recognized by the U.S. State Department, most of them originating in the Middle East,” Gray responded. “You have confirmed membership in at least three of them. In addition, you were found with forged passports, structural plans to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and bomb-making material. Now you’re going to work for us, or it will become distinctly unpleasant.”
Al-Omari smiled and leaned toward the camera. “I was interrogated years ago in Jordan by your CIA and your military and your FBI, your so-called Tiger Teams. They sent females in wearing only their underwear. They wiped their menstrual blood on me, or at least what they called their menstrual blood, so I was unclean and could not perform my prayers. They rubbed their bodies against me, offered me sex if I talk. I say no to them and I am beaten afterward.” He sat back. “I have been threatened with rape, and they say I will get AIDS from it and die. I do not care. True followers of Muhammad do not fear death as you Christians do. It is your greatest weakness and will lead to your total destruction. Islam will triumph. It is written in the Qur’an. Islam will rule the world.”
“No, that is not written in the Qur’an,” Gray rejoined. “Not in any of the 114 suras. And neither is world domination mentioned in the sayings of Muhammad.”
“You’ve read the Hadith?” al-Omari said incredulously, referring to the collections of sayings and the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslims.
“And I’ve read the Qur’an in Arabic. Western scholars have never done a good job of translating that language, unfortunately. Thus, Mr. al-Omari, you should know that Islam is actually a peaceful, tolerant religion, though it is a religion that defends itself vigorously. That’s understandable, since some ‘civilized’ cultures have been trying to convert Muslims to their faith ever since the Crusades, first with the sword and then the gun. But the Hadith says that even in jihad, innocent women and children must be spared.”
“As if any of you are innocent,” al-Omari shot back. “All of Islam must fight back against those who would oppress us.”
“Islam represents one-fifth of the face of humanity, and the overwhelming numbers of your brethren believe in the freedoms of speech and press and also equal protection under law. And more than half of the world’s Muslims live under democratically constituted governments. I know that you were trained at a madrasain Afghanistan, so that your knowledge of the Qur’an is limited to rote memory, thus I’ll forgive your seeming ignorance on these issues.” Gray didn’t add that at the madrasa al-Omari’s training would have also included automatic weapons and how to fight holy wars, earning such a training center the dubious title of Islamic West Point.
Gray continued. “You aspired to be a shahid, but you had neither the nerve nor the zealotry to be a suicide bomber, nor did you have the backbone and instincts to be a mujahid.”
“You shall see whether I have the courage to die for Islam.”
“Killing you does me no good. I want you to work for me.”
“Go to hell!”
“We can do this easy or hard,” Gray said, checking his watch. He had been up for thirty hours now. “And there are many ways to attain Janna.”
Al-Omari leaned forward. “I will get to Heaven my way,” he said, sneering.
“You have a wife and children living back in England,” Gray noted.
Al-Omari folded his arms across his chest and assumed a stony look. “Bastards like you will serve us well in the next life.”
“A son and a daughter,” Gray continued as though he hadn’t heard the man’s retort. “I realize that the women’s fate may not overly concern you. However, the boy—”
“My son will gladly die—”
Gray interrupted in a very firm voice. “I will not kill your son. I have other plans for him. He just turned eighteen months old?”
A trace of concern crossed al-Omari’s face. “How did you know that?”
“You will raise him in the Muslim faith?”
Al-Omari did not answer; he simply stared at the camera.
Gray continued. “Well, if you do not agree to work with us, I will take your son from his mother, and he will be adopted by a loving couple who will raise him as their own.” Gray paused for the emphasis he would place on his next words. “He will be raised in the Christian faith in America by Americans. Or not. It’s all up to you.”
So stunned was al-Omari that he rose from the chair and staggered toward the camera, until hands appeared and forced him back into his chair.
The next words out of his mouth were in Arabic, but were nonetheless clear enough. Moments later, his rage uncontrollable, al-Omari had to be physically restrained as the threats continued to flow. Finally, his mouth was taped shut.
Gray pushed the man’s file away. “Over the last few years 7,816 Americans have died at the hands of people like you. All of these deaths have taken place on American soil. Counting attacks overseas, the death toll is nearly ten thousand. Some of these victims were children who were denied the opportunity to grow up to practice any religious faith at all. I will give you twenty-four hours to make your decision. I ask you to consider it carefully. If you work with us, you and your family will live out your lives in comfort. However, if you choose not to work with us . . .” Gray nodded to the man next to him, and the screen went blank.
Gray looked at six more files in front of him. Four represented other Middle Easterners, much like al-Omari. The fifth was a neo-Nazi based in Arkansas, and the sixth, Kim Fong, was a member of a Southeast Asian group with ties to known Middle East terrorist organizations. These men were “ghost detainees” in the unofficial nomenclature. No one other than Gray and a few select people at NIC knew they were even in custody. Like the CIA, NIC maintained clandestine paramilitary squads in hot spots all over the world. One of their tasks was to capture alleged enemies of America and afford them no due process whatsoever.
Gray would put similar proposals to all the ghost detainees, although the inducements would vary
depending on the intelligence Gray had gathered on each man’s background. Money worked with more of them than one would think. Rich people rarely blew themselves and others to bits for religious or any other reasons. However, they often manipulated other people to do it for them. Gray would be lucky if half accepted his offer, but he would gladly take those odds.
An hour later Gray left NIC. Only the skinhead had agreed outright to help, doubtless spurred on by Gray’s threat to turn him over to a radically violent anti-Nazi group headquartered in South America if he didn’t cooperate. Other than that, the night had been a disappointment.
As Gray walked to his car he reflected on the situation confronting him. The violence was mounting on each side, and the harder one side hit, the harder the other tried to hit back. Using just a fraction of its nuclear arsenal, the United States could wipe out the entire Middle East, vaporizing everyone in the blink of an eye, along with every holy site for two of the world’s major religions. Barring that unthinkable scenario, Gray did not see any clear resolution. This was not a war of professional armored battalions versus turbaned rabble in the streets toting rifles and RPGs. And it was not simply a difference of religions. It was a battle against a mind-set, of how people should conduct their lives, a battle that had political, social and cultural facets melded together into an exceedingly complex mosaic of humanity under enormous strain. At times Gray humbly wondered whether the conflict should be fought with psychiatrists and counselors instead of soldiers and spies. Yet all he could do was get up each day and do his job.
Gray sat back against the worn leather of the Suburban he was riding in while the armed guards all around him kept a close lookout. Gray closed his eyes for fifteen minutes until he felt the vehicle slow. Then came the familiar rattle as the motorcade rolled across the gravel drive leading up to Gray’s modest home. It was as well guarded as the VP’s digs at the Naval Observatory. President Brennan was not about to let anything happen to his intelligence chief.
Gray lived alone, but not by choice. He went inside, allowed himself a beer to unwind and then headed upstairs to sleep for a few hours. As was his habit before retiring, he picked up the two pictures on the fireplace mantel across from his bed. The first was his wife, Barbara, a woman who’d shared most of his adult life. The second photo was of his only child, his daughter, Margaret, or Maggie as everyone had called her. Had? He had never grown comfortable referring to his family in the past tense. Yet how else did one refer to the dead and buried? He kissed both of the pictures and set them back down.
After he had climbed into bed, the horrible weight of depression lasted thirty minutes, less than usual, and then Carter Gray fell into an exhausted sleep. In five hours he would rise and again engage in the only battle he now considered worth fighting.
ALEX FORD’S WALK THAT NIGHT took him east, and he soon found himself in familiar territory: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Now gracing the area between the White House and Lafayette Park were elm trees and retractable bollards, interspersed with guard booths camouflaged so they didn’t stand out like prison gun towers. However, the key here was, and always would be, security, regardless of how many new trees and pretty flowers they planted.
“Hey, Alex,” a man in a suit said as he walked out of the front security gate.
“You going on or off duty, Bobby?”
Bobby smiled. “You see an ear fob sticking out my ass? I’m going home to the little woman and kids, unless they moved out and forgot to tell me, which isn’t exactly beyond the realm of possibility, since I’m never