The camel club, p.40
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       The Camel Club, p.40
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “What was the father’s name?” Gray asked impatiently.

  “Adnan al-Rimi,” the CIA director said. “But that can’t be right. He’s dead.”

  Gray acknowledged this, thanked the man and hung up. He immediately accessed the database, pulled up al-Rimi’s file photo and compared that picture with the current mug shot of the man calling himself Farid Shah. Though there was some likeness, even allowing for shaved hair and beard and weight changes, it was not the same man.

  Gray sat back in his chair and dropped the photo on his desk. NIC’s database had been corrupted and photos and fingerprints altered. Patrick Johnson had been paid to do it and then killed. That all made sense now; yet where did it leave Carter Gray? He’d been fighting this whole damn war with flawed intelligence. It was far more than a disaster. It was the greatest professional setback Gray had ever experienced.

  He walked outside and sat on the bench by the fountain. While Gray listened to the soothing water he stared up at the NIC facility, the greatest intelligence agency in the world. And right now he knew it was absolutely useless to him. This had been an inside job. His earlier suspicions about terrorists killing terrorists and then being “resurrected” had been confirmed. But who was the traitor? And how deep did the treachery go? Despite the vast resources at his disposal, Carter Gray was now very much alone.

  Tom Hemingway sat on the concrete floor, his long legs folded under him. His eyes were closed and his pulse and breathing so slowed that it was not apparent at first glance that he was actually alive. When he rose, he moved fast down the hallway and entered another room. He unlocked a heavy door, passed through it, unlocked another one and went inside.

  In a small enclosure, lying on a cot, her arms and legs chained to the wall, was Chastity Hayes. Her even breathing showed her to be asleep. Hemingway left Hayes and went to another room, where his other, far more important prisoner was also sleeping comfortably. Hemingway stood in the doorway and watched President Brennan for a while. And reflected on what had happened.

  When everyone expected murderous violence, Hemingway had given the world restraint. When everyone anticipated that the stereotype of the fanatical Muslim would be repeated once more, he had thrown the world a curve of historic proportion. Yet it was not without precedent. Gandhi had changed an entire continent with nonviolence. Brutal segregationists in the American South had finally been beaten by sit-ins and peace marches. Turning the other cheek was Hemingway’s “new” way. He had no idea if it would work, but it was clearly worth a chance. Because without it, all he saw was the inevitable destruction of two worlds that he cared so much about. He was apparently ignoring the fact that what happened in Pennsylvania had terrorized thousands and injured hundreds, some critically.

  Hemingway had agonized over how much to tell the Arabs about the mission. Would they follow orders if they knew not one of their enemy would perish? Yet finally, Hemingway had decided that if he was asking them to die for this cause, they should die fully informed. It was the right thing to do. So the men in Brennan, Pennsylvania, sacrificed their lives with the knowledge that their foes were safe. It was one of the most courageous acts Hemingway had ever witnessed.

  Hemingway checked his watch. There would be another message delivered to the world shortly. It involved where the president would be returned. And this would be just as stunning as the last message.

  Kate met with the Camel Club at Oliver Stone’s cottage and reported her failure with Alex Ford.

  She said, “He blames himself for what happened to the president.”

  “Having come to know him well over the years, I can’t say I’m surprised,” Stone replied. “He’s a proud man who takes his work very seriously.”

  “Too much pride is sometimes a bad thing,” Kate said.

  “Well, we’re running out of time,” Milton said. He had his computer on and pointed to the screen. “It’s getting very ugly out there.” They all crowded around him, staring at the news flashing across the computer. Milton said, “Even with the demand note saying they’ll let Brennan go, the violence is getting out of control. Muslims are being beaten and killed by mobs all over the world. And the Muslims are retaliating. Five Americans were ambushed in Kuwait and beheaded. And Iraq has become totally destabilized again.”

  Stone added, “And now even the more moderate Islamic elements are calling for the kidnappers holding Brennan to extract a heavy price for him from America.”

  “One group is calling for the kidnappers to demand nuclear weapons in exchange for his return,” Caleb said. “My God, the whole world is collapsing. Why can’t people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?”

  Reuben raised a thick eyebrow at that naive comment. “The U.S. military is cocked and locked, just waiting for the word to go.”

  “This might cause an all-out war with the Islamic world,” Caleb said.

  “Some people might want war,” Stone said. Carter Gray might want that.

  “What if the president is released . . . ,” Kate said.

  “It might not matter,” Stone replied. “With the world so divided, all it could take is one single catalyst to set the final battle in place.”

  “But if we can find out who did it?” Kate said.

  “Us?” exclaimed Reuben. “We haven’t got a bloody chance in hell of doing that.”

  “You’re wrong, Reuben,” Stone interjected sternly. They all looked at him. “Alex Ford once paid me a visit here; perhaps it’s time the Camel Club reciprocated.”

  Carter Gray walked down the hallway of an isolated cell area at NIC. He nodded to the guards and the cell door slid open.

  “Mr. al-Rimi,” Gray said triumphantly. “Shall we talk?”

  There was no response from the burly prisoner who was lying on his bed, the covers over his head. Gray motioned to the guards.

  The two men grabbed al-Rimi by the shoulders and attempted to haul him up.

  “Oh, shit!” one of the guards exclaimed.

  They let go of al-Rimi, and he fell to the concrete floor.

  Gray rushed in and stared at the body. Loose strands of medical tape were sticking out of his mouth. He had taken it from his wounded arm, balled it up and crammed it into his mouth, suffocating himself under the cover of his blanket. His body was already cold.

  Gray looked up at the video camera hanging in the corner and screamed, “A man chokes himself to death on medical tape, and you saw nothing! You idiots!”

  He threw the file into Adnan al-Rimi’s cell. The photos cascaded over the body.

  As he stalked off, the glazed eyes of the corpse seemed to follow each furious stride of the intelligence czar. If a dead man could’ve managed it, Adnan al-Rimi would certainly have been smiling.

  A half hour later Gray’s chopper landed at the White House. He was not looking forward to this meeting with Acting President Hamilton. He decided to get the worst of it out of the way up front. Gray and Hamilton had never been close. Hamilton was an old political sidekick of Brennan, and he had been openly cool to the close relationship Brennan had with his intelligence chief. And it was still a sore point with Hamilton that the president asked Gray and not him to attend the event in Brennan. And yet that event had radically altered their professional relationship, giving Hamilton the upper hand. Gray assumed his new boss would look for any opening to sack him, and the NIC chief didn’t intend to give him such an opportunity.

  He told Hamilton about a prisoner’s suicide, but without informing him of al-Rimi’s true identity. Gray intended to take that secret to his grave. “However, I think we’re making progress, sir,” he added.

  Hamilton snapped, “How the hell do you figure that, Gray?” He held up an Islamic newspaper. “You read Arabic, don’t you?”

  Gray translated the headline out loud: “They Are Finally Paying for Their Sins.”

  Hamilton picked up another paper. “This one says, ‘Maybe Islam Can Turn the Other Cheek.’ That ran in a major Italian daily. And now, while our
president is God knows where, the international press is intimating that this is somehow our fault.” He held up a long slip of paper. “In the last twenty minutes I’ve been informed that a Muslim cabdriver was pulled out of his vehicle in broad daylight in New York City and beaten to death. And you know what? He’d served six years in the army. Our army! And two Halliburton executives were snatched out of their hotel in Riyadh; their gutted bodies were found in an alley a half mile away with ‘Death to America’ written across their naked bodies. And that’s just the latest in about a dozen such incidents I’ve gotten today. The Pentagon’s waiting for me to tell them to nuke somebody and my intelligence folks are anything but intelligent it seems. We don’t have one damn lead as to where Jim Brennan is.” He stared at Gray, obviously itching to hear the man’s feeble response so he could pounce.

  Ben Hamilton had seemingly aged four years in the brief time since the kidnapping. Gray had never known a president to come into the White House with dark hair and leave with anything less than gray. This was the most impossible occupation in history and, in the strange way the world worked, the most coveted.

  Gray said, “Regardless of how this happened, and what the international media is saying about it, dogs don’t change their spots. When the inevitable happens, we’ll have the opening we need.”

  Hamilton slammed his fist down on his desk. “I want Jim Brennan back alive! Your previous work for this country means squat to me. This happened on your watch, and I hold you fully accountable for it. The United States has been humiliated by a bunch of damn Arabs. Unless the president is returned safe and sound, you will no longer head this country’s intelligence community. Are we perfectly clear on that?”

  “Absolutely,” Gray replied impassively. He knew this to be baseless rhetoric. There was no possible way the acting president could afford to fire his intelligence chief during such a crisis. “But let me point out that there is not one demand of the kidnappers that this country can seriously consider, given our current foreign policies. And we can’t wait one week for his release, not that I believe they will release him. The American people will not tolerate that. And the violence is only going to become worse in the meantime.”

  Hamilton snapped, “Well, then I guess you’ll just have to find him on your own.”

  Gray studied the man keenly. He sensed exactly what his adversary was thinking; politicians were all too transparent. Ben Hamilton had wanted this job more than anything. He had patiently paid his dues, waiting for Brennan to serve his two terms before it was his turn to wear the American Crown. Now he had the throne, yet could he do the job? In Gray’s mind it wasn’t even a close call. Ben Hamilton didn’t make even a worthy vice president.

  The chief of staff suddenly burst into the room with a Secret Service agent hard on her heels. “Sir,” she exclaimed. “This is just in from Al Jazeera. The kidnappers have disclosed the location where the president will be released.”

  “Where?” Gray snapped.

  “Medina.”

  Hamilton exclaimed, “Medina! How in the hell did they get Brennan out of the country and to Saudi Arabia?”

  “Private plane and private airport,” Gray answered. “Not that difficult.”

  Hamilton’s face flushed. “We spend billions on airport and border security, and they manage to sneak the damn president of the United States to the Middle East.” He stared at Gray as though he meant to fire him right that instant.

  Gray spoke quickly. “It makes sense. Medina is the second holiest city in the Muslim world behind Mecca.”

  Hamilton looked at his chief of staff. “Get in touch with the Saudis and tell them that Medina is going to be annexed by this country until we get Brennan back.” He eyed Gray. “I want every military and intelligence resource we have in the area focused there.”

  “I’m on it, sir,” Gray said, rising from his chair. He wanted to get out of the room as fast as he could.

  I serve at your pleasure, Gray thought as he fled the Oval Office.

  CHAPTER

  61

  CAPTAIN JACK SAT BACK IN HIS chair and smiled with excellent reason. He had in his hand the password he needed to set his final plan into motion. Their captive had endured far more torture than had been anticipated, although his North Korean colleagues were very skilled at such exercises. Yet the man had finally broken; they all did eventually. Captain Jack read the Arabic words and smiled.

  From a cloned phone that was not traceable to him he made one call. Speaking in fluent Arabic with well-honed inflections, he said what he needed to say and then used the precious password. This authenticated the source of Captain Jack’s statement to the party on the other line, and it would be immediately relayed to the world.

  Captain Jack clicked off the phone and used his lighter to burn the piece of paper. If Tom Hemingway thought he had stunned the world, wait until it heard what his old friend had to say.

  Secretary of Defense Joe Decker stared across the desk at Acting President Hamilton. They had just been informed of the latest statement issued through Al Jazeera. And they were furious.

  “It’s our only choice, sir,” Decker said. “We simply don’t have the troops to deploy there, and frankly, even if we did, it might quickly turn into another Iraq. We have to avoid that at all costs. We can’t afford it.”

  Andrea Mayes, the secretary of state, who’d been hovering in the back of the Oval Office, came forward. She was a tall, large-boned woman with graying hair. “What Secretary Decker is proposing is a direct violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty, sir. We can’t do it.”

  “Yes, we can,” Decker insisted.

  “How?” Hamilton asked sternly.

  “This country has made it clear that any use against it of weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical or nuclear, would void the terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty with regard to the offending country.”

  “But Syria hasn’t attacked us,” Mayes exclaimed.

  “The Sharia Group has just now claimed responsibility for kidnapping President Brennan. Sharia is based in and financed by Syria. Under the foreign policies outlined previously by this country, that means Syria has attacked us through the Sharia Group, and they used some chemical agent to abduct the president. And we have evidence that Syria has recently started up a WMD program. Now, even though Syria hasn’t used WMDs against us yet, the U.S. has no obligation to simply sit here and be attacked. Coupled with the fact that they’ve kidnapped our president and are now throwing that fact in our faces more than justifies our position.”

  Mayes shook her head in disbelief. “Syria is not a threat to develop WMDs. They are a fractured nation of Kurds, Sunnis and religious minorities.”

  “They are no friend of this country,” Decker shot back.

  Mayes said, “They don’t want the chaos and violence they see in Iraq. Who would? And they don’t buy our democracy goal. We’re giving money to Libya because it dropped its nuke program; it’s still a dictatorship. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s worst offenders of human rights, and their record on women’s rights is atrocious. And yet we allow them the status of one of our greatest allies. How can we expect other Arab nations to take us seriously with such inconsistency in our foreign policies?”

  She drew a quick breath before continuing. “The public in Syria is very aware of its government’s shortcomings and opposition groups are growing stronger there. The government repealed the death penalty for members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are other positive signs pointing to freedom growing there, without a U.S. invasion. Their government will change but it will take time.” Mayes stopped speaking and looked at the president. “That’s what I’ve been telling Jim Brennan for four years. These things take time. We can’t just uproot a thousand-year-old culture overnight.”

  Decker piped in, “Many of the dissident groups in Syria are leftist and communists. We don’t want to go down that road again.”

  Hamilton looked at the director of Central Intelligence, who was
sitting in front of the fireplace. “Are you on board with Joe’s opinion, Allan?”

  The director said, “It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s close enough.”

  “And there’s no reason to waste time going to the U.N. or building a coalition, sir,” Decker added quickly. “They have our president, and we need to get back in the driver’s seat. And this will put us there. Fast! And we can and should do it all alone.” Decker’s eyes blazed. “Damn it, sir, with all due respect, we are the world’s only superpower. I say we start acting like it.”

  “And Jim Brennan?” Hamilton asked.

  “If he’s still alive, and we all pray that he is, then this will probably be the only shot we have of getting him back.”

  Hamilton mulled this over and finally said, “Okay, gentlemen. Call the networks and get me airtime immediately. I’m going to inform the public about this.” He turned to Decker. “God help us if we’re wrong, Joe.”

  When Alex Ford opened his door, Adams and the Camel Club stared back at him.

  “Oh, hell!” Alex began angrily.

  Kate said, “Alex, please, we have to talk to you.”

  Reuben added, “It’s bad, Agent Ford. Really bad.”

  Alex said, “What are you talking about?”

  Stone answered, “There have been some major developments.”

  “What developments, Oliver?” Alex asked.

  Kate cut in. “A terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. We heard about it on the drive over here.”

  “The Sharia Group. It has clear ties to Syria,” Stone said.

  “Where’s your TV?” Kate asked. “The president is coming on in two minutes.”

  Alex led them inside and turned on his TV set. Ben Hamilton appeared on the screen a few minutes later looking very grave. He summed up the situation to the country and then said, “America is a generous nation. We have always been a people that reach out to others in need. We came to the aid of our friends during two world wars. Wars fought to keep the world free. There is no doubt that we are a good, honorable people who use our might benignly to spread freedom around the world. But we are also a nation that defends itself and strikes back when we have been attacked. Well, my fellow Americans, we have been attacked. And now the organization that has attacked us has shown itself. The Sharia Group has irrefutable ties to the nation of Syria, a country that has long been known to harbor terrorist groups operating against America and its
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