The camel club, p.41
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       The Camel Club, p.41

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  allies.” He paused. “All American government personnel in Syria have been airlifted out. All other Americans known to be in Syria have been given early warning to leave the country immediately.

  “The Sharia Group’s own ransom demand conceded that the United States has every right to defend itself when attacked and to also strike back against any nation that assisted in that attack. And America will not be dictated to by terrorists.” Here Hamilton gave a long pause. “Thus, my fellow Americans, the decision has been made by me, as your commander in chief, after consultation with the secretary of defense and the Pentagon.”

  “Oh, shit,” Alex and Kate blurted out together, for they knew what was coming.

  “We now make our demand of the kidnappers.” Hamilton paused again and squared his shoulders. “If President James H. Brennan is not returned to us safely within eight hours from this exact moment in time, I have instructed my military commanders to immediately thereafter launch a limited nuclear missile strike against Damascus, Syria. The only way in which Damascus will avoid such a fate is if our president is returned to his countrymen unharmed within the allotted time. If President Brennan is in Medina, then he can be turned over to the American embassy in Saudi Arabia, and the launch will be called off. I pray that the kidnappers will comply with our demand immediately. If not, may God have mercy on the people of Damascus. There will be no negotiations and no reprieves. Members of the Sharia Group, you said you would return our president to us unharmed. Do so in the time dictated by the United States, or Damascus will pay the price for your heinous crime.” Hamilton paused again. “God bless you, my fellow Americans, and may God bless the United States.”

  As the president faded out, everyone in Alex’s living room sat motionless in their chairs, holding their breaths. It was a scene doubtless replicated in a hundred million homes around America, and across the world.

  An anguished Kate looked over at Alex. “This could be the beginning of the end.”

  “If it is, it is,” Stone said calmly. “But it will do us no good to sit around waiting for the mushroom cloud to appear over Damascus.”

  “What the hell can we do, Oliver?” Alex asked.

  “Find the president!” Stone snapped.

  “How?” Alex shot back angrily. “He’s in Medina.”

  “I don’t believe that and I hope you don’t either.” He looked at Milton. “Show him the DVD.”

  Milton opened his laptop. “This is the video that was taken during the break-in at my house, Agent Ford.”

  “What the hell does this have to do with anything?” Alex shouted. “We are going to launch a nuclear missile in eight hours. Don’t you understand that?”

  “Look at the film, Alex,” Kate pleaded.

  Alex finally threw up his hands and plopped down on the floor in front of the laptop.

  “Damn,” he said a minute later. “That’s Tyler Reinke and Warren Peters. They’re from NIC.”

  “I thought they were NIC employees,” Stone said.

  “Why’d you think that?”

  “Because they were also the ones who killed Patrick Johnson.”

  Alex sat back, stunned. “Why would they have killed Johnson?”

  “Because he was altering files at NIC. Making people seem dead who weren’t really dead. And I think someone was paying him a lot of money to do it, but Johnson got greedy or sloppy or both.”

  “Let me get this straight. Johnson was altering files at NIC to make some people appear dead who really weren’t?”

  Stone said, “We believe that these men were the ones used in Brennan, Pennsylvania. The newspapers said that not one of the Arabs killed there was in the NIC files. That is inconceivable. I think these men were human sterilized weapons, and they were used to kidnap President Brennan. When we searched Reinke’s home, we discovered that he’d invested a lot of borrowed money in expectation of the stock market plummeting, which it has now.”

  “Are you saying this whole thing was about making money in the stock market?” Alex exclaimed.

  “No, it’s much deeper than that,” Stone replied.

  Alex looked at him. “Any idea who’s behind it?”

  “Someone high up at NIC,” Stone ventured. “Higher than Reinke and Peters certainly.”

  “Let me take another look at that video,” Alex said.

  He watched once more as Reinke and then Peters appeared on the screen. Then he pointed at the image of the man in the black mask as he leveled the security guard. “He hit the guy pretty hard,” Alex noted. “He had to check his pulse to make sure he hadn’t killed him.”

  Reuben suddenly put a finger up to his lips and motioned toward the window. The blind was drawn but the window was open. They all had heard it now: footsteps.

  Alex eyed Stone, and the pair quickly reached a silent agreement. Stone motioned to Reuben to join the Secret Service agent. While the group talked as though they were all still there, Alex pulled his gun and silently opened the front door. He went left while Reuben went to the right and around the side of the house toward the rear.

  A minute later they all heard screams and a struggle, and then silence. Then the front door opened and Alex marched in. Behind him Reuben was carrying someone.

  Jackie Simpson didn’t look very happy.

  CHAPTER

  62

  “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING here, Jackie?” Alex demanded.

  She glared at him. “I’ve been calling your house to see how you were doing, but you never called me back. So I came by tonight to see you, and I seem to have stumbled upon a conspiracy. What’s going on, Alex?”

  Stone had not taken his gaze off Simpson. “We’re actually trying to figure out what’s going on at NIC.”

  “I know, I heard that part. And that Reinke and Peters broke into someone’s house.” Simpson looked at Alex. “If you know something about the president being kidnapped, you have to take it to the Service. Alex, you could get into a lot of trouble for withholding that sort of information.”

  Stone cut in. “I don’t believe that’s a good idea.”

  Simpson stared at him contemptuously. “Who the hell are you?”

  He held out his hand. “Oliver Stone.”

  “Pardon me?” she said incredulously.

  “His name’s Oliver Stone,” Alex interjected. “And these are his friends, Reuben, Milton and Caleb. You’ve already met Kate Adams.”

  Stone said, “And you are Jackie Simpson, the only child of Senator Roger Simpson of Alabama, and the goddaughter of Carter Gray, the secretary of intelligence.”

  “Is that a problem?” she asked coolly.

  “Not at all. But going to the authorities at this stage would be a huge mistake, Agent Simpson”

  “Listen, Oliver Stone or whatever your real name is, I can do anything I damn well please. I’m a cop, okay, and—”

  “And you’re a very intelligent cop,” Stone broke in, gazing at her. “And because you are, I’m sure that you’ve already considered the obvious.”

  Simpson rolled her eyes, but Stone continued to stare at her until she said, “And what might that be?”

  “If we’re right and NIC’s files have been corrupted, the unfortunate result was that an army of terrorists was allowed to go to Brennan, Pennsylvania, and successfully kidnap the president. That does not bode well either for your godfather, who heads that agency, or your father, who oversees its operations as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I’m quite sure that you would not want to do anything to hurt them professionally. If you go to the authorities now, you could very well destroy both of their careers.”

  All eyes were on Jackie Simpson as she and Stone engaged in a protracted stare-down. Finally, Simpson broke off and looked at Alex for help.

  “Alex, what the hell is going on? What am I supposed to do here?”

  “We’re trying to figure this all out, Jackie. Until we do, we can’t say anything, to anybody.”

  Caleb looked at his watch.
We now have exactly seven hours and forty-one minutes to find Brennan and prevent a possible Armageddon.”

  “Well, everybody ought to cross their fingers and toes, then,” Reuben said.

  “Omigod!” Alex asserted. “Fingers!”

  “What?” Kate exclaimed.

  Alex snatched Milton’s computer and replayed the DVD. “There,” he said, pointing. “Right there, do you see that?”

  They all looked confused because he wasn’t pointing at Reinke or Peters. He was pointing at the man in the mask who’d knocked out the security guard.

  Stone looked at him puzzled. “All I see is a man in a mask, Alex. What else is there to see?”

  He froze the screen and pointed with his finger. “This.”

  They all squinted at the screen. Simpson said, “The security guard’s neck?”

  Alex said, “No, the right hand on that neck. He took his glove off to check the guard’s pulse.”

  Reuben shrugged. “Right. So what?”

  Alex looked exasperated. “Look at that hand. Tell me you don’t recognize it.”

  Kate said, “Recognize a hand? Are you serious?”

  “Like I told you before, Kate, hands are my specialty. And I recognize that hand. It’s very distinctive with bolt-size knuckles, and fingers thicker than I’ve ever seen.” He hit another button, and the picture zoomed in on the hand. “And the thumbnail has a black spot the shape of a triangle in the upper left-hand corner. When I saw that earlier, I thought it was some weird tattoo.”

  “Saw it earlier? What are you talking about? When did you see it earlier?”

  “In the bar that night. When you introduced me to Tom Hemingway. And I saw it again when he met us at NIC.”

  Kate stared at him openmouthed and then glanced at the screen. “You’re saying that’s Tom Hemingway’s hand?”

  “There’s no doubt about it. To me hands are as good as fingerprints, Kate.”

  Simpson said, “I think Alex is right. I believe that is Hemingway’s hand.”

  Stone ventured, “So this Hemingway may have kidnapped the president? Why?”

  “Who the hell knows!” Alex exclaimed. “But I think we might be able to figure out where they’re holding him. And Kate might have the answer.”

  “Me!” Kate exclaimed. “How?”

  “You mentioned that you and Hemingway were working on a project together.”

  “That’s right.”

  “If I recall correctly, you said it involved an old building.”

  She said slowly, “Right, near Washington, Virginia. I think it used to be a CIA asset, but it’s been abandoned a long time. NIC wanted to use it as an interrogation facility for foreign detainees, but with all the problems at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and the Salt Pit, DOJ is nixing it. Why?”

  “Because I think that’s where they may be holding President Brennan. Tell me everything you recall about it.”

  “That won’t be necessary,” Stone said

  They all looked at him. “Why not?” Alex asked.

  “Because I know that building very well.”

  “Who is this guy!” Simpson exclaimed.

  “Shut up, Jackie,” Alex snapped. “Oliver, you really know where this place is?”

  “There’s only one old CIA building in that part of Virginia.”

  “Alex,” Simpson protested, “you’re not actually buying any of this, are you?”

  Alex ignored her. “Can you get me there, Oliver?”

  “Yes. But are you sure you want to go?”

  “The president was kidnapped on my watch, so I have to do everything I can to get him back safely.”

  “It won’t be easy. Not only is it well hidden, it’s designed such that a very small force inside can hold back a very large force outside indefinitely.”

  “What the hell kind of place is it?” Reuben asked.

  “It was a CIA training facility for very . . . special operatives.”

  Alex checked his watch. “Washington, Virginia. If we start now, we can be there in about two hours.”

  “Longer than that actually,” Stone said. “The facility is a bit off the beaten path.”

  “Why can’t we call in the FBI?” Milton asked.

  Stone shook his head. “We have no idea how high the corruption goes. This fellow Hemingway may have spies everywhere who could tip him off.”

  “And we have no idea if the president is even there,” Alex added. “It’s just a hunch. We can’t waste their time leading them on what might be a wild-goose chase. We’re on a nuke missile countdown, for God’s sake.”

  Kate said, “Well, I have a van. We can all go in that.”

  Alex looked at her. “Forget it. You’re not coming, Kate!”

  “Then you’re not going,” she snapped.

  Stone interjected, “You can’t go, Kate, and neither can Caleb and Milton.” They all looked at him and started to erupt in protest all over again, but he held up his hand. “This facility’s unofficial name was Murder Mountain, and it’s an apt title.” He paused. “I’ll take Alex and Reuben there, but no one else.”

  Alex added, “And three people might be able to get up there unnoticed.”

  “Four,” Simpson said. They all turned to look at her. “Make that four people.” She stared defiantly at Alex. “I’m a Secret Service agent too.”

  CHAPTER

  63

  THE NUCLEAR-POWERED SUBMARINE Tennessee had been given the unenviable task of launching the missile strike against Damascus. The 560-foot-long, nearly 17,000-ton Ohio-class nuclear submarine was based in Kings Bay, Georgia, along with the rest of the Atlantic ballistic missile sub fleet. Ohio-class nuclear submarines were the most powerful weapons in the United States military. Using its full complement of multiple warhead missiles, just one sub could obliterate any nation on the face of the earth with a single strike.

  The Tennessee was currently parked in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of feet down, although it could have hit Damascus with one of its latest-generation Trident II D-5 missiles while sitting in its East Coast home port. Each D-5 cost nearly $30 million, stood forty-four feet long, weighed over sixty tons and had a maximum range of twelve thousand kilometers with a reduced payload. Capable of Mach 20, the D-5 was ten times faster than the Concorde, and no military jet in the world could come anywhere close to matching its speed.

  Only a single D-5 would be launched at Damascus, yet that was misleading as to the actual firepower being unleashed. The long-range D-5 configuration contained six MK 5 independent reentry vehicles, each one carrying a W-88 475-kiloton thermonuclear warhead. By comparison a single W-88 warhead far exceeded the combined explosive power of every bomb used in every war in history, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II.

  While the 155 sailors on board the Tennessee had been at sea for four weeks, the crew was well aware of current events. The sailors knew what they had been ordered to do, and every one of them intended to carry out that order to the letter, even if most of them harbored secret fears about what path this would lead the world down. They stared at their computer screens and went over again and again the launch procedures that might very well send the world into a titanic war. It was quite heady stuff for a group whose average age was twenty-two.

  Meanwhile, in the first hour since Hamilton had appeared on TV, the Arab world had united fully behind its sister nation. Diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Pakistan were desperately trying to convince America to change its mind. While the city of Damascus was being evacuated, military commanders and political leaders of other Muslim countries were conferencing on how best to respond if an American missile struck Syria. Middle Eastern terrorist organizations everywhere had called for an all-out jihad against the United States if Damascus was hit. Across much of the Middle East the leaders of these groups began planning their retaliations.

  If a missile did strike Syria, the devastation would be far beyond anything the world had ever experienced before.
Damascus was one of the most densely populated cities on the planet with over 6 million residents. It would only be possible for a minuscule percentage of its citizens to escape to safety in the allotted time. All others would simply disappear in the nuclear flashpoint as a mushroom cloud of radiation rose into the air before descending onto the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

  Syria and the Sharia Group had immediately and vigorously disclaimed responsibility for the kidnapping. However, this explanation was not widely believed in Western circles. The Sharia Group had become far more active in terrorism over the last year. And the person making the call to Al Jazeera had used the complex password assigned to Sharia by the Arab network for authentication purposes. This password was constantly changed and was known only to a few highly placed leaders of the terrorist organization. Statements from the Sharia Group that one of its leaders
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