Hells corner, p.47
Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
“Let’s keep moving,” said Stone.
“Oliver!” cried out Annabelle as the buzz of fluorescent lights came on.
Stone ripped off his goggles, turned, but was too late.
The Russian was by the door leading out of the lab. Somehow Stone had not seen him hiding. His gun was aimed right at Stone’s head. Stone pushed Annabelle to the floor and pulled his weapon. The shot rang out, catching the surprised Russian in the forehead, tattooing his skin with a small black dot.
He dropped. The lights went out.
Stone looked down at his weapon. His unfired weapon. Where the hell had that shot come from? He grabbed Annabelle’s arm and pulled her along beside him. They hopped over the dead man and through the door.
Four dead Russians. Two to go. Plus Friedman.
STONE AND ANNABELLE REACHED THE END of the cylinder.
The holding cells.
If Caleb wasn’t in one of them Stone would have to start over from the other side. And he would have to bring Annabelle with him.
The first thing he saw brought astonishment and then relief. Knox and Finn and Caleb were waiting for them. Weak light allowed everyone to see the others.
“How did you get in here?” Stone asked as they huddled in one corner and Annabelle hugged Caleb despite his foul clothes and smell.
“Chapman’s doing,” said Knox as he filled Stone in on what had happened to them so far. “She told us how to get through the maze too. Said she researched it.”
Stone looked behind him. “So she went to the left?”
“That’s right. Any idea where she is?”
“Somewhere behind me. And she just saved my life.”
“We got one Russian at the front entrance. At least Chapman got him.”
“So there’s only one left.”
“And now there are none,” said a voice.
Chapman stepped into the light.
“Guy tried to jump me as I came through to start my first section,” she explained. “He either wasn’t very good, or I’m better than I think I am.”
When she finished speaking, Stone looked around, a curious expression on his features.
Finn said to Chapman, “Any sign of Friedman?”
“I say we get the hell out of here as fast as we can,” said Knox. “We’ve got what we came for. Friedman can keep.”
He looked at Stone, who seemed frozen to the spot.
“Oliver, are you okay?”
“What?” said Finn.
“Russians,” Stone said again.
“Right. And we killed them all.”
“Not very good Russians,” said Stone. “You would have thought they would have been better.”
They all looked at him.
He stared back. “We went through them very easily. Too easily. They weren’t very good. And I think that was intentional.”
“Why would Friedman hire not very good security?”
“Because she didn’t need the A-team. The B-team was good enough.”
“Good enough for what?” asked Chapman.
“To draw us here. To get us to this spot, in fact. They were expendable. She didn’t care if they died or not. No, I take that back. She wanted them to die.”
Knox said, “But if we killed them, that means they didn’t kill us. How does that get her anywhere?”
“She’s trying to redeem herself to Carlos Montoya. She failed the first time around. But now she’s going again with her backup plan.”
“Backup plan?” exclaimed Knox.
Stone nodded. “You always have a backup plan. And I walked right into it.”
“Into what exactly?” asked Chapman nervously.
“They’re going to find us all here with a pack of Russians.” Stone paused. “And there’s a laboratory back there loaded with new equipment. And I think I know what that new equipment is supposed to represent.”
Chapman was the first to see what he was getting at.
He nodded. “Yes, nanobots.”
“But the Russians aren’t behind it. I think we clearly established that.”
“But when they find us here with all these dead Russians and a lab full of nanobot research that was probably shipped in from Montoya’s facilities, what do you think the world will think?”
Caleb said nervously, “What exactly do you mean by ‘when they find us here’?”
Finn answered, “We were set up. We were meant to get in here, plow through the Russians and get to this point.”
“Why?” asked Annabelle.
The explosion sounded above them.
It was so powerful it shook the floor. Bits of concrete and a plate of steel fell nearby, making them all jump.
“What the hell was that?” yelled Chapman.
“That,” said Stone, “was the front door being sealed off.”
He grabbed Annabelle’s hand. “Come on.”
They all followed his lead as he guided them back to the main hall and then toward the way he had come in.
“Should we at least see if we can get out the front way?” called out Knox.
His answer came in the form of another explosion that dropped part of the mountain twenty feet behind them, effectively cutting off any access to the front entrance.
They all ran harder.
The mountain was trembling now, as one precision explosion after another detonated.
“The whole mountain is going to come down on us,” screamed Annabelle.
“No it won’t,” said Stone as they raced along. “Just enough to kill us. But she has to allow them to be able to get in and find the pieces of evidence she wants to be found.”
“That bitch!” screamed Chapman as another bomb detonated in front of them, causing Stone to veer off to the left with the others right behind.
“Oliver, what about the way you came in?” called out Finn. “She might not know about that.”
“She does know about it but we’ve got no choice,” Stone replied.
A section of wall toppled over, nearly crushing Caleb. However, Finn and Knox pulled him to safety with a second to spare. But Caleb moaned and clutched his shoulder where a chunk of rock had struck.
Finn pulled open his shirt and shone a light on him. “Collarbone’s cracked. But you’re okay. Collarbone’s the fail-safe. It breaks so another more important part doesn’t.”
“Makes me feel so much better,” groaned Caleb.
When Stone reached the kitchen area he stopped and stared helplessly at what was in front of him. Friedman had been ahead of him on this too. She’d collapsed the entrance to the back of the kitchen with a thick wall of debris that had cascaded down from a charge no doubt having been placed in a perfect spot to accomplish this. And even if they dug through that, Stone knew they would just confront another, even thicker wall of rubble. Friedman would have seen to that.
She did her homework.
He briefly wondered how long ago she had had Murder Mountain ready to go. And was she somewhere nearby, detonating these charges? Was she somehow watching them, knowing exactly when to set off each one? And then he had no more time to wonder, as everyone looked at him.
“What now?” said Chapman breathlessly, her face, like all the others’, caked with grime from the dust and smoke.
Stone looked upward as another charge detonated, though not nearby. But more of the facility collapsed and the mountain gave another shudder.
Then the lights went completely out, plunging them into darkness.
Stone, Finn and Knox immediately powered up their NV goggles. Stone took Annabelle’s hand, Knox took Caleb’s and Finn clamped his hand around Chapman’s wrist.
“Follow me,” said Stone.
There was one more way out of here. And as far as Stone knew, he was the only person who had ever discovered it. This was their last chance.
He was very conscious of the fact t
JOE KNOX DISAPPEARED UNDER A PILE of rubble as a charge detonating fifty feet away collapsed the section of wall next to him. The others instantly began digging the man out. Stone was on his knees pitching chunks of debris off his friend. His fingers and arms bloodied, the sweat stinging his eyes, he frantically worked in the dark to free Knox. Finally, his fingers touched flesh. In two more minutes they had uncovered the man completely.
Knox was breathing, but unconscious.
Stone started to lift him up, but Finn said, “Let me do that.”
He hoisted the two-hundred-pound Knox over his shoulder.
“The only other way out is up, Harry,” said Stone.
Finn nodded, a grim look on his face. “Just lead the way.”
Stone took the length of rope from Knox’s knapsack that the man had used to help rescue Caleb from the tank of sludge. Each person looped the rope around their middle and then passed it on.
“Let’s move,” said Stone.
He prayed that Friedman had not figured out the third exit from Murder Mountain, as he had done all those years ago. He led the group across the main hall and down to the other end. Stopping in front of what looked like a sheer wall of metal, he ran his fingers up and down its surface. It was cold to the touch, still strong, seemingly impenetrable. Rivets ran up one side of the panel and down the other. Another explosion shook the building. Dirt and dust tumbled down on them from the weakening ceiling.
He pressed on one spot and the wall gave way. He slid the metal out of the way and a set of crude rock stairs was revealed. They went through the opening and headed up.
Stone wondered how long it would take for the authorities to realize what was happening. Some local would report the explosions. This would be relayed to the sheriff’s department or whatever police was up here. They would send someone, probably a single officer, and that person would have no idea what they were faced with. Calls would be made. At some point, after a lengthy interval, the CIA would hear of it. They would send a team up here helter-skelter.
But what would they find?
They would find exactly what Friedman wanted them to find. Dead Russian muscle, possibly tied to the drug cartels. And a nanobot research facility where long ago the CIA had trained its assassins. That would hit the national and global news pipelines like a nuclear warhead.
And they will find us, thought Stone. They’ll find us dead.
But how would she accomplish that last part? The explosions might seal them in here, but they could conceivably survive until rescuers arrived. They had some food, some water. There might be supplies here they could use.
She would have thought of that. There has to be something else.
They kept moving. When Finn grew tired, Stone hefted Knox over his shoulder and carried him for as long as he could. Then Finn swapped back. But as the route took them upwards, it became harder and harder to manage. Yet they kept going.
Chunks of rock now dropped from above with each detonation, since they were in parts of the facility that had never been built out, where the mountain had been left untouched.
Annabelle gasped, “Where are we headed?”
Stone pointed up. “Not much farther.”
“Is it on top of the mountain?”
“Close to it.”
“Is there a way down?”
Stone didn’t answer right away. Actually he didn’t have an answer. He had used this exit before, finding it mostly by accident one night when he couldn’t sleep. But he’d never gone down the mountain. He’d just looked at the stars, had a few moments of peace before heading back and taking up his training once more. So he didn’t know if there was a way down the mountain. But there had to be. He would find one.
He glanced back at Finn, who was carrying Knox. He looked at Caleb clutching his injured shoulder. He looked at exhausted Annabelle. He felt his own legs tremble from extreme exertion.
“We’ll find one, Annabelle,” he said. “And being outside the mountain is better than being inside it.”
They traveled upward another hundred feet. Every time they came to a cross-tunnel Stone had to stop and think about which one was the right one. Twice he made the wrong decision. On the third time he went on ahead alone until he was sure of the way and then came back and got the others.
Finn said in a low voice to him, “Knox is not doing well.”
Stone knelt down beside the injured man and shone his light on his face. It was gray, sweaty, but cool to the touch. Stone gently lifted one of the man’s eyelids and hit the eye with the light. He let the eyelid fall back into place and rose.
Knox didn’t have much time left to live.
Chapman said, “Is it my imagination or is it getting harder to breathe? I didn’t think the mountains in Virginia were that high.”
“They’re not,” said Stone. He took a long breath and it caught halfway in his chest as the amount of oxygen drawn in petered out.
Now Stone had his answer. Friedman was going to suffocate them. Down below he heard machinery operating.
“Fans,” he said. “Taking the air out.”
He took another whiff and his features involuntarily seized up.
Finn looked at him. “And she’s adding something to the air that’s still left in here. Something we don’t need in our lungs. Besides all the smoke and shit from the detonations.”
“Hurry,” said Stone. “This way.”
Another fifty feet of rocky paths like large steps made of stone. They were uneven, overly wide in some places, problematically narrow in others.
Stone looked at Finn. He knew his friend had uncommon strength and the nearly infinite endurance of the Navy SEAL he had once been. But he was operating on about half the level of oxygen one needed and the situation was getting worse.
Annabelle had her arm around Caleb, helping him up the path. But Caleb was growing tired quickly. He didn’t have near the strength or stamina of the others.
Finally he stopped and sat down, his breaths coming in desperate wheezes.
“Just… go. Leave… me. Can’t…”
Stone turned, put his arm under Caleb’s good shoulder and hauled him to his feet. Caleb winced in pain.
“No one gets left behind,” he said. “We either all stay here or we all keep going.”
They struggled on.
Annabelle was the first to see it.
“Light!” she exclaimed.
They rushed forward, encouraged by perhaps the end to their journey.
It was a natural cleft in the mountaintop that decades ago Stone had enlarged and then covered with materials he had smuggled up from the facility below. The cracks of light did not lie. The dawn had broken
Hells Corner by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes