The camel club, p.45
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       The Camel Club, p.45
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  The man grimaced and dropped to his knees. Next Captain Jack shot him in the right arm.

  “Stop, please!” Simpson screamed.

  Captain Jack said, “I’m sorry to do this piecemeal, Tom, but I have no desire to have my neck crushed by you.”

  Hemingway said between gritted teeth, “You might want to reconsider your plan.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Because the cell doors are booby-trapped.”

  “Then turn the devices off and open the doors.”

  Hemingway shook his head.

  “Then I’ll just start killing them one by one until you do.”

  “You’re going to kill them anyway, so what does it matter?” Hemingway said.

  “We’ll just see how long you can take the screams. Your only weakness is you’re just too damn civilized, Tom.”

  Stone managed to catch Hemingway’s gaze and motioned with his eyes to something. Hemingway gave a barely perceptible nod.

  Captain Jack pressed the gun tightly against Simpson’s temple and said, “Good-bye, whoever you are.”

  “My name is John Carr,” Stone said quietly as he stepped forward. “You were right, we do know each other.”

  Captain Jack lowered his pistol slightly. “John Carr,” he said in amazement as he looked Stone up and down. “My God, John, the years haven’t been kind to you.”

  “You were a bastard traitor back then, and I see you still are.”

  “I went out on my terms. I don’t think you can say the same,” Captain Jack sneered. His attention was fully on Stone now, so he didn’t notice Hemingway edging toward the wall.

  Stone took another step forward, blocking Captain Jack’s line of sight to Hemingway. “Why don’t you kill me? You were always second best, so it’d be a thrill for you to take out the top man, wouldn’t it?”

  “You’re still one cocky bastard,” Captain Jack growled.

  “Unlike you, I earned the right to be. How did you screw up again? Oh, that’s right, you used the wrong barometric reading and you missed your target. They had to send me in a year later to do it right. Face it, you were a second-rate bungler.”

  Captain Jack pointed his pistol at Stone’s forehead. “I won’t have to worry about barometric pressure this time.”

  Hemingway leaped and hit the light switch, plunging them into darkness. Captain Jack fired. There were screams and shouts and scuffling and finally one horrific cry and then the sound of a body falling.

  The lights came back on, and Captain Jack was lying on the floor, his guns gone. Stone was standing over him, holding a knife covered in blood, fabric and skin. He’d taken it from the room of truth.

  “You bastard!” Captain Jack groaned as he grabbed his lower calves where Stone had cut him, immobilizing the man.

  Captain Jack screamed, “Why didn’t you just kill me?”

  “Because I didn’t have to,” Stone answered.

  “Listen to me,” Captain Jack gasped. “Ten million dollars to each of you if you kill Brennan.” They all looked at him in disgust. “He’s just a man,” he screamed.

  “If you don’t shut up,” Alex snapped, “I’ll kill you.”

  Hemingway managed to lever himself up against the wall. “You have to take President Brennan and leave him at a certain spot, to finish this the right way.”

  Alex looked at him in disbelief. “I don’t know what the hell your crazy motivations are, and I don’t care. You’ve left the entire world on the brink of war. So the only thing I’m doing is taking the president back where he belongs. And on the way we’re going to make a call and stop six million people from being incinerated because of what you did.” He pointed his gun at Hemingway. “Now you either open the cell door or I’ll kill you.”

  Hemingway struggled to his feet. “I’m not a traitor to my country, no matter what you or anyone else might think. I did this for my country. I did this for my world.”

  “Open the damn door!” Alex yelled. “Now!”

  Hemingway took out a set of keys and unlocked one of the doors.

  “I thought you said it was booby-trapped,” Captain Jack snarled.

  “I lied,” Hemingway said.

  Stone and Alex carried the unconscious president out and sat him up against a wall. They found Chastity and placed her on the floor next to him.

  Alex pulled out his cell phone. “Damn it, I forgot there’s no signal in here, so we need to get out of here to call Washington and—”

  A man’s voice interrupted. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

  They all turned and stared at Carter Gray and six men holding machine guns.

  CHAPTER

  68

  “THANK GOD,” SIMPSON SAID, stepping toward her godfather. However, Gray turned his attention to Hemingway.

  “The president was in the chopper that you flew me home in, wasn’t he?” Gray clearly didn’t expect an answer, and Hemingway didn’t provide one. “You corrupted my files, assembled an army of dead men and kidnapped the president.” Gray shook his head.

  “The president’s fine, Carter,” Simpson said. “He’s just drugged.”

  Gray said, “Very good. Well, we’ll take over from here.” He motioned two of his men to go get the president.

  “Wait!” Hemingway shouted. “He needs to be returned the way I planned! You can’t let all those people in Pennsylvania die in vain. They sacrificed themselves for a better world.”

  Gray’s face screwed up. “You are insane!” He calmed and turned to Stone.

  “Hello, John. I can’t tell you what a shock it’s been finding out you’re alive,” Gray continued. He glanced over at Captain Jack lying on the floor still clutching his bloodied legs. “Two old friends I believed to be dead. Resurrection seems to be a theme of the twenty-first century.”

  “I wasn’t ready to die on your timetable, Carter,” Stone said.

  Simpson looked between the two men. “What the hell are you talking about?”

  Alex interjected. “Look, people, we’re running out of time. We have to notify the White House that we have the president back. They’ll stop the launch.”

  Gray ignored this and said, “Jackie, I want you to step over here with me.”

  “What?” she said. “Didn’t you hear Alex? We have to stop the launch.”

  “When you and I leave here together, you are never to speak of anything you’ve seen or heard tonight. Do you understand?”

  Simpson looked at the others. “I’m sure you can trust all of us not to reveal anything that would damage the country.”

  “I’m not worried about the others, Jackie, just you.”

  Stone looked at the woman. “You’re the only one leaving here alive, Agent Simpson.” He glanced at Gray. “And I believe that includes the president.”

  “What the hell are you talking about?” Simpson shouted. She looked at her godfather for reassurance, but the truth of what Stone had just said was instantly revealed in Gray’s features. She pointed at the unconscious Brennan. “This is the president of the United States!”

  Gray said, “I’m aware of that. And there’s a man in the Oval Office right now who’s equally capable of running the country, which, unfortunately, isn’t saying much.”

  Simpson stared at the men with Gray. “He’s going to kill the president. You have to stop him!”

  “These men are all loyal only to me, otherwise they wouldn’t be here,” Gray answered.

  She said pleadingly, “Six million people are going to die if we don’t make the call to the White House, Carter.”

  “Six million Syrians,” Gray countered. “Do you know how many terrorist activities dear old Syria supports? And they’re the clearinghouse for virtually all the suicide bombers going into Iraq. We should have nuked the damn country years ago.”

  Simpson looked at her godfather. “You’re insane.”

  “This is bigger than any one man, Jackie,” Gray replied very calmly. “This is strictly a war of good versus evi
l, and we have to ensure that those two sides remain clearly defined. And to do so, sacrifices have to be made, for the good of all. Even the president is not above that. And to accomplish that the world has to believe that his kidnappers have killed him.” He paused and added, “I’m sure your father would have no problem with any of this.”

  “Bullshit!” Simpson roared. “He’d be the first one to throw you in jail.”

  “Step over here with me, Jackie,” Gray said with urgency. “Do it now.”

  Simpson didn’t budge. “No. You’re going to just have to kill me too.”

  “Please don’t force me to make that decision.”

  Alex suddenly screamed out, “Gun!” He threw himself toward Brennan. But someone else was a little quicker.

  The shot rang out, as people seemed to be moving in slow motion. There were screams and scuffling feet and the sound of metal hitting the floor. And then there was silence.

  Jackie Simpson dropped first to her knees and then fell facedown on the cold cement floor. The bullet that would have hit Brennan was now embedded inside her heart. Gray screamed and stood over Captain Jack, who’d pulled a small pistol from his ankle holster and fired at the president. Yet Simpson had denied him his kill.

  Alex knelt down and checked her pulse and then looked up and shook his head.

  “Jackie!” Gray cried out as he looked at his dead goddaughter.

  “Beth,” a stunned Oliver Stone whispered as he stared down at the woman.

  Alex, who’d been the only one close enough to hear, looked at Stone. Beth?

  Gray pointed his gun at Captain Jack, but Stone’s voice boomed out. “If you shoot him, you have no connection to the North Koreans’ plot to kill the president.”

  Gray’s finger remained on the trigger, but he didn’t pull it.

  Stone was visibly trembling and his eyes were tearing up as he said, “We’re going to take the president to Medina. To the place Mr. Hemingway tells us to.”

  “That is not an option,” Gray barked.

  “It is your only option, Carter,” Stone replied. “You can’t let millions of innocent people die for no reason.”

  He whirled on Stone. “Innocent! Those devils took my family from me!” Gray shouted. “They took everything I ever cared about.”

  “And my country did the same to me,” Stone answered.

  Gray and Stone stared at each other while everyone looked on. Then Stone’s gaze went to Simpson’s body. “Just like you, I’ve now lost everything.” His voice trembled.

  Gray’s gaze went from Simpson to Stone. “I can’t possibly take the president to Medina. There isn’t enough time.”

  “I believe the Medina Mr. Hemingway has in mind is far closer,” Stone replied.

  They all looked at Hemingway. “Do you have the chopper?” Hemingway asked Gray, who nodded. “Then you can make my Medina in less than two hours, well within the deadline.”

  “If I agree why can’t I just call from the chopper and tell them I found him in whatever Medina you’re talking about?” Gray rejoined.

  “Unless you actually go to the place, you won’t be able to answer all the questions about where he was found. The press and the country will want to know,” Hemingway answered. “In great detail.”

  Stone looked at Gray. “You can even take credit for finding the president, Carter. You’ll be a national hero.”

  “How exactly do I do that?” Gray retorted.

  “You’re a smart man, you’ll figure it out on the chopper ride,” Stone replied.

  Gray snapped, “This man stays with me.” He pointed at Captain Jack.

  “I’m sure you’ll be successful in getting every last morsel of information from him,” Stone said confidently.

  “And Hemingway too,” Gray added.

  “Let’s go!” Alex barked.

  As the others were heading out, Stone knelt down next to Simpson as Gray looked on. Stone touched the woman’s hair and then put her still-warm hand in his. He turned the hand over and looked at the crescent scar on the palm. It appeared remarkably the same as it had when she cut her hand all those years ago. He saw the scar when he picked up her change on the street that day. Tears slid down his cheeks. They were the tears of his nightmare, of losing his daughter in a dream. And now for real, which was immeasurably worse. He kissed her on the cheek.

  Stone looked up at Gray, who just stood there, hands dangling uselessly at his sides. “You will make sure that her body is returned for proper burial,” Stone said firmly. Gray nodded dully. Then Stone walked past the man without another word.

  Outside, they followed Gray’s men to a nearby clearing where the chopper sat.

  The pilot leaned out. “Where are we headed?”

  “To Medina,” Hemingway called out.

  “What?” the pilot exclaimed.

  “The address is in my shirt pocket,” Hemingway said.

  One of the guards pulled out the piece of paper and read it. He shot Hemingway a glance. Stone had read the paper over the man’s shoulder. He’d been right.

  Hemingway settled into his seat in the rear of the chopper. A split second later he head-butted the guard closest to him, shattering the man’s nose and right cheek. Then Hemingway kicked the seat in front of him with such force that it tore loose from its base and the guard sitting in it was thrown forward. In another instant Hemingway was running, wounded leg and all, toward the woods.

  Alex raced after Hemingway as fast he could while tree limbs, bushes and vines ripped at him. The guy had been shot in the damn leg, and Alex couldn’t catch him? He heard a shout ahead and he increased his pace. He broke free of the trees and skidded to a stop just before he would have plummeted over the side. He was standing on the edge of a long fall. He couldn’t see what was at the bottom, but as he stood there listening, Alex thought he heard a splash. As other guards raced up to join him, he pointed down into the abyss and shook his head.

  Tom Hemingway was gone.

  CHAPTER

  69

  ACTING PRESIDENT BEN HAMILTON was watching the screen in the Oval Office as people hovered around. The film footage was grainy and jerky—all professional news-gathering services had already fled the country—yet clearly showed the complete chaos that now was Damascus. The roads were clogged with cars, the streets with desperate, terrified Syrians. It was reported that people were sprinting down the runway of the airport, trying to grab onto the last few planes that were taking off. Law and order had long since disappeared. People were merely trying to get away. And as the hours wound down and that hope vanished, things were turning very ugly.

  Hamilton and his group watched the screen as parents ran down the streets carrying their children and screaming in terror while soldiers pushed through the panicked masses using bullhorns to tell the crowds to evacuate. Yet, with less than one hour left under the United States’ deadline, none of these people were going to survive. There was a jarring video segment of looters being beaten to death by angry citizens. Hamilton watched until he saw a group of small children become separated from their families and then being trampled underneath the fleeing crowds.

  “Turn the damn thing off,” Hamilton ordered, and the screen instantly went dark.

  Hamilton’s desk was covered with official pleas from all over the world begging him not to pull the trigger. Millions of Americans across the country were out in the streets, some in support of Hamilton’s decision, but most opposed. The White House switchboard had been overwhelmed.

  Secretary of Defense Joe Decker sat down next to his commander in chief. Hamilton looked at him in desperation.

  Perhaps sensing his boss’s wavering, Decker said, “Sir, I know that this is more pressure than a person should have to endure. And I know what the world is telling you. But if we back down now, we will lose all credibility with these people, and if that happens, then we’ve already lost.”

  “I understand that, Joe,” Hamilton said slowly.

  “There’s another developm
ent, sir.”

  Hamilton stared wearily at him. “What?”

  “There’re some very unusual atmospheric conditions occurring over the Atlantic right now. The navy reports that satellite communication with the Tennessee could well be compromised in a few minutes.”

  “If that’s the case we shouldn’t launch the missile.”

 
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