Hells corner, p.45
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       Hells Corner, p.45
 

         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  bit of good news. As he stared down at his friend lying on the hospital bed with thick bandages wound round his head, Stone had gripped his hand and squeezed it. “Alex, if you can hear me, it’s going to be okay. I promise that everything will be okay.” He paused, drawing a long breath that seemed to take forever to leave his body. “You’re a hero, Alex. The president is okay. No one was hurt. You’re a hero.” Stone looked down at his hand. He thought he had felt the other man squeeze it. But when he looked back up at the unconscious agent he knew that was just wishful thinking. Stone let go and walked to the doorway. Something made him look back. As he stared at his friend lying in the bed and fighting for his life, he felt a measure of guilt so powerful his knees started to buckle.

  He’s lying there because of me. And now Caleb and Annabelle are probably dead. Again, because of me.

  Stone had made one other stop, at a rare book store in Old Town Alexandria. The owner had been helped by Stone and Caleb and in return had allowed Stone to keep certain items there in a secret room underneath the old building. Those items were now in the back of the Rover.

  “Murder Mountain?” said Chapman. “You mentioned it but didn’t really explain it.”

  Knox answered when it didn’t appear Stone was going to. “Old CIA training facility. Shut down before my time. Hell of a place, from what I’ve heard. The way the Agency used to do things during the Cold War. I thought they’d demolished it.”

  “No, they haven’t,” said Stone.

  Knox eyed him curiously. “Have you been back recently?”

  “Yes. Pretty recently.”

  “Why?” asked Chapman.

  “Business,” Stone replied tersely.

  “What’s the layout?” asked Finn, as he hunched forward in his rear seat.

  In answer Stone pulled out a laminated piece of paper and handed it back to him. Finn clicked on the overhead light and he and Chapman studied it. There were annotations on the page in Stone’s handwriting.

  “This place looks bloody awful,” exclaimed Chapman. “A laboratory with a torture cage? A holding tank where you square off with an opponent in the dark to see who can kill the other?”

  Stone glanced back at her. “It was not for the fainthearted.” His look was searching. She quickly got it.

  “I’m not fainthearted.”

  “Good to know,” he replied.

  She eyed the cargo hold of the Rover. “That’s a fine set of vintage equipment you’ve got back there.”

  “Yes, it is.”

  “How are we going to do this?” asked Knox as he turned off Route 29 and onto Highway 211. They entered the tiny town of Washington, Virginia, the seat of Rappahannock County at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Washington, Virginia, was world famous for one reason: It was the home of the Inn at Little Washington, a prestigious restaurant that had been serving world-class cuisine for over a quarter century.

  As they left the town and rose higher into the mountains, Stone broke his silence. “There are a couple of entry points. One is obvious, the other is not.”

  “How well do you think she knows this place?” asked Chapman.

  “Like Knox, it was before her time. She never would have trained there. But I can’t answer your question. She obviously knew of its existence. She may have explored it thoroughly. In fact, from what I know of her now, she probably has gone over every inch of it.”

  “So she’ll know about the secondary entrance?” said Knox.

  “We have to assume she will.”

  But she won’t know about the third way in and out, because I’m the only one who does.

  Stone had discovered it in his fourth month at Murder Mountain, when he just needed to get outside the place for a few moments alone. Just to catch his breath, collect his wits. Just get out of what had become a hellhole. Worse than any prison ever could have been. That was the principal reason Stone had been able to weather the max prison he and Knox had ended up in.

  Because I endured something far worse. A year at Murder Mountain.

  Chapman said, “What I don’t get is why she would have set up shop at this place, kidnapped Caleb and Annabelle and then basically dared you to come get her. She’ll never be able to escape now.”

  Stone looked grim. “I don’t think she intends on escaping. She’s conceded that she’s going to go down for this. But she’s choosing to exit on her own terms.”

  “Meaning she’s willing to die,” said Knox.

  “And take us with her,” replied Stone.

  “Dangerous opponent,” said Finn. “Someone who doesn’t care if she dies. Like a suicide bomber.”

  “She better be thinking the same thing about me,” muttered Stone.

  The other three glanced at each other but said nothing.

  Chapman finally broke the silence. “So front or hidden entrance? We have to get in some way.”

  “She’ll have six guys with her. All Russian, all hard as nails. They’ll kill anybody she tells them to.”

  “Okay, but that doesn’t answer my question.”

  “It’s a big place and they’ll have to have at least one man guarding Caleb and Annabelle. Friedman will be back in a protected space. That leaves five men for perimeter duty. They can’t deploy them all at the entrances. They have to hold at least three back for interior protection. That leaves one at each entrance. That’s thin.”

  “What do you think they expect us to do?”

  “Hit both entrances, and whichever team gets through, so be it. If we did that we’d split up, making it two against one. If we hit one entrance together, it’s four against one.”

  “I like those odds better,” said Knox.

  “So do I,” said Stone. “But we’re not going to do it that way.”

  “Why?” said Chapman.

  “You’ll see why.”

  CHAPTER 96

  STONE WAS ALONE. He slipped among bulky rocks and narrow crevices as he made his way toward the secondary entrance into Murder Mountain. As a raw recruit to the CIA’s fabled Triple Six Division, Stone had spent a full year of his life here learning new ways to hunt, new ways to kill and new ways to be something both more and less than human. He had become a magnificently skilled predator with all ordinary emotions such as compassion and empathy burned out of him. Murder Mountain had turned out the best killers ever to walk the planet. And John Carr was universally acknowledged as the best of the best.

  The training became so intense that Stone and some of his fellow trainees had looked for and discovered a way out of the facility. They had done so not to run to the rural town about twenty miles distant to get drunk or bed a few farmers’ daughters, but simply to sit under the stars, look at the moon, feel the breeze, see the green of the trees, feel the earth under their feet.

  Stone had just wanted assurance that there was still a world going on outside Murder Mountain. Assignment to Triple Six was technically voluntary, but in all the important ways it was not. Stone still remembered clearly the day the man from the CIA had visited him in his military barracks. Stone and his company had just returned from Vietnam. Stone had performed so heroically in one firefight that there was talk of his being awarded the Medal of Honor. But that had not happened, largely because of a jealous superior officer who fudged the paperwork. If Stone had been awarded the medal his life might have turned out differently. Medal of Honor winners were rare. The army might have sent him on a publicity tour, even though by then the war was waning nearly as fast as the country’s interest in waging it.

  So the man in the suit had come. He had made a proposal. Come join another agency. Another unit dedicated to fighting your country’s enemies. That was how he had phrased it: “Your country’s enemies.” Stone had been told little else. He looked to his commander for advice, but it was clear that the decision had already been made. Stone, barely twenty years old and covered in medals and commendations for his exemplary service in Vietnam, was mustered out of the army with breathtaking speed and soon fo
und himself here, at Murder Mountain.

  The light was poor along this trail, but he had no trouble traversing it. It was all mental memory at this point. When he’d come back to this place not all that long ago, it had been the same way. He had remembered it all, as if he had never been away. As if the memory of it had been lurking in a set of brain cells, sequestered from the rest and not degraded in any way, like a cancerous tumor lying dormant until it started its fatal spread. Then nothing else was safe. Every part of him was vulnerable. That could sum up his life in Triple Six quite adequately.

  He slipped the pair of old NVGs over his eyes when the light became too poor to make anything out. The crevices grew smaller. It was a good thing he had remained lean all these years or he never would have fit. Although, he recalled, big Reuben Rhodes had managed to squeeze himself through the rocks when he came here with Stone to save a man’s life. To save President Brennan’s life.

  All the men in Triple Six had been lean, nothing but gristle and muscle. They could run all day, shoot all night without missing. They could change plans on the fly, ferret out targets no matter how deeply they had dug in. Stone could not deny that it had been exhilarating, challenging and even memorable.

  “But I never wanted to come back here,” he said to himself.

  He paused, looked ahead. The entrance he was searching for was up ahead. It was built into the back of a kitchen cabinet on a swivel pin. Stone had always assumed that another group of trainees before his time had done that. Stone and his teammates had merely discovered it one night and followed it out. They weren’t the only class of Triple Six recruits who wanted a bit of freedom, it seemed. Or maybe the people who ran Murder Mountain had done it, sensing that the recruits needed to believe they had a bit of control over their lives, that they could take a few moments rest from a hellish experience.

  Maybe they were afraid we’d all go mad and kill them.

  He slipped his gun from its holster and another object from his belt. The entrance was straight ahead. He assumed Friedman had given strict orders. Do not kill, at least him. Bring him to me. Then she would kill him, probably after making him watch the deaths of Caleb and Annabelle.

  He reached the outside of the entrance. Readying his gun, he held out the other object, a telescoping rod. He flipped it out to its full six-foot length. He nudged the wall in front of him that represented the back of the cabinet on the pin swivel. It had been painted to resemble black rock, but it was only wood. Rotted wood now. He pushed harder with the rod. The wood gave way, the pin swivel did its job and the wall swung inward.

  Something shot out of the opening and hit the rock Stone was standing next to. This he’d expected. A dart. Paralyze, not kill. He pulled the pin on the lump of metal he’d taken from a compartment on his vest and tossed it into the opening at the same time he slid behind a large outcrop of rock.

  There was a small pulse of energy followed by a dense cloud of smoke. Stone slid on his gas mask and counted. He stopped counting when he heard the man behind the wall hit the floor. He moved through the opening and looked down. The Russian was large, with a shaved head, a small goatee and a dart pistol in his hand. It was probably not in the man’s nature to seek to stun instead of kill. He’d not been very good with the dart gun. Stone used two pairs of plasticuffs to immobilize the man’s hands and feet. Clear of the gas, he removed his mask and moved forward into Murder Mountain.

  At the front entrance to the facility, Finn, Chapman and Knox stood facing a metal door revealed in the rock face of the mountain where they’d pulled aside a curtain of kudzu that covered it. Stone had told them where the door was located and had given them a key that he said would open the portal. But there wasn’t even a keyhole to try the key in. He’d also told them that he was the only one who could make it through the hidden entrance, because there was no way for someone to follow him closely enough not to get lost. He told them he would rendezvous with them at the front door.

  “He snookered us,” moaned Knox, who was holding the useless key. “I can’t believe I fell for it. Like he’d have a damn key to this place after all these years.”

  “He’s going it alone,” said Finn.

  “The hell he is,” snapped Chapman. She reached inside her jacket and pulled out a slender metal object with a magnetized edge.

  “What is that?” asked Knox.

  “Well, love, at MI6 we call this a doorbell.” She attached it to the metal door where it met the doorjamb. She motioned them to step back. She drew a remote from her pocket, slid open the protective hard plastic covering and pressed a button. “Don’t look at the laser,” she instructed.

  They all looked away as a burst of red light erupted from the device she’d placed on the door. It cut neatly through the locking bar, and the door swung free on its hinges.

  “Pretty cool technology,” said Knox.

  “One-time power pack, good for most secure doors, metal or otherwise,” she explained.

  “I see Mr. Q is still alive and well in British intelligence.”

  “Actually, it was a woman who invented this little toy. But you can just call her Ms. Q.”

  Guns out, they approached the door. With Chapman and Knox covering him, Finn slowly pulled the door all the way open. He aimed his gun into the darkness and then nodded at the others. They pulled on protective goggles, as did Finn. A second later Finn hit the opening with a pulse of blinding white light. There was a shout of pain from inside and then the light vanished.

  Before the men could move, Chapman was through the opening. They hustled after her in time to see her nimbly disarm the man and then smash her foot into his face, sending him rocketing backward against an interior wall. The man, partially blinded by the light, ricocheted off the wall and came at Chapman, big arms swinging like pistons. Finn moved to step between the attacker and Chapman, but the MI6 agent had already launched off the ground. With her left foot she hit the man with a crushing blow to his right knee. They all heard the bone in his leg snap. He crumpled downward at the same time she delivered a kick to his chin, flipping him heels over ass. When he tried to rise, his gut pushing in and out with painful breaths, Chapman laid him down for good with an elbow strike to the base of his neck. She rose and placed the muzzle of her Walther against the unconscious man’s temple.

  “Wait a minute,” snapped Knox.

  “What?” she asked.

  “You’re just going to shoot him in cold blood?” asked Knox.

  “Do we want to leave witnesses?” she asked calmly.

  “Witnesses to what?”

  “To whatever’s going to happen here tonight. Like me killing Stone for him playing us for fools.”

  “We’re not killing anyone unless they’re in a position to kill us,” Knox said firmly.

  Chapman deftly cuffed the unconscious man. “Suit yourself.”

  Finn said, “Where’d you learn moves like that?”

  “Maybe you blokes think otherwise, but MI6 is not a bloody girls’ school. Now let’s get going.”

  She turned on a flashlight and headed down the corridor.

  Finn and Knox looked at each other and then quickly followed the woman.

  CHAPTER 97

  THOUGH THE ENTIRE FACILITY itself was quite large, with barracks, kitchens, an infirmary, a library, offices, classrooms and other specific free spaces, the most intensive training areas of Murder Mountain were set up in the form of a pair of large steel cylinders divided into parallel sections and separated by a main hall. Once you entered the first section, you had to continue on until the last section in that cylinder. The massive entry doors locked behind you and did not allow passage back. And one couldn’t simply block the door open, because if one did the next door would not open. It was a way to keep reluctant recruits focused and on mission and always moving forward. Stone’s plan was simple. He was going to take the section on the right and follow it through. If he didn’t find his quarry there, he would exit this cylinder, walk back down the main hall and
enter the other cylinder.

  Stone made his way slowly down the hall to the first door. One man was down and there were five more to go, plus Friedman, whom Stone considered probably the most skilled of the bunch.

  He felt no guilt about tricking his friends. If anyone was going to die trying to rescue Caleb and Annabelle it was going to be him. This ultimately was his fight, not theirs. He’d lost enough friends. He was determined not to lose any more tonight.

  He ran off the order of the training sections in his head. Shooting range first, where he had fired off hundreds of thousands of rounds in the year he had been here. They threw every imaginable distraction at you while you were aiming at the targets. It had been good training, because out in the real world a perfect field of fire with accompanying idyllic conditions was impossible to find.

  After the shooting range was a room outfitted like the famed Hogan’s Alley at the FBI Academy. Here Stone and his teammates had practiced what they’d learned in the classroom. After that room was the lab. It was there where the psychological testing took place—really glorified torture to determine what your breaking point was. Stone had seen hard-as-steel men weep in that room, as the technicians played numbing games with their minds, which would never be as strong as their physical side, no matter how much they trained. There were proven exercises that would enlarge and strengthen muscle. The mind, on the other hand, was not so easily quantifiable. And the recruits all carried hidden mental elements with them here that would jump out at unexpected times and cause them to falter, to fail, to scream in rage. Stone had felt all those emotions. No place on earth had ever humbled him like the lab at Murder Mountain.

  After the lab was a series of rooms that served as holding cells. Stone never knew what persons might have been “held” here, and he didn’t want to know. If Caleb and Annabelle were not down this way he would start through the other cylinder where there were only two sections. The first was a tank full of foul liquid. One would fall into this muck if one did not know where to step on a catwalk that constituted the top of the tank. Once inside the tank it became a fight to the death. After the tank came a maze that Stone thankfully had the answer for. Or at least he thought he did. He now wondered if Friedman had built some surprise for him.

 
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