The Camel Club, Page 7David Baldacci
He was nearly sixty, though as lean and wiry as the younger men. He was Caucasian and an American, although from the immediate deference paid to him by his companions, he was clearly the leader of this small band. The Muslims referred to him, with respect, as Captain Jack. He had given himself this title based on his preferred brand of liquor. They did not, nor would they ever, know his real name. Captain Jack lived outside of Brennan, in a rental house on the road to Pittsburgh. He had come here, ostensibly, to look for locations for the “business” he was thinking about starting. This had given him ample reason to examine many of the vacant properties in the area.
Captain Jack was looking through his binoculars at Mercy Hospital across the street. Built right after the end of World War II, it was a squat white building with little in the way of architectural interest. It was the only hospital in the immediate vicinity, which was why it had attracted his interest.
There was a drop-off entrance in the rear of the hospital, but the space was very tight, and it was a long hike once inside to get to the admitting desk. Thus, even ambulances almost always dropped off their patients in front, using a wheelchair ramp next to the steps. For Captain Jack, that was a very important element, so critical, in fact, that he had videotaped an entire twenty-four-hour cycle of these comings and goings. They also had floor plans for Mercy Hospital and knew every exit and entrance, from the most obvious to the most obscure.
He continued to watch as a patient was unloaded from an ambulance and whisked through the front doors on a gurney. The trajectory here was excellent, Captain Jack thought. And high ground was almost always good ground in his line of work.
He sat down and watched as one of the men worked away on a laptop while the other two went over some equipment manuals.
“Current status?” he asked.
The Iranian on the laptop answered, “We’ve switched to another chat site.” He glanced at a piece of paper taped to his screen. “Tonight it’s Gone with the Wind.”
“Not one of my favorites,” their leader said dryly.
“What’s so great about a wind blowing?” one of the Afghans commented.
They had chosen a movie chat site listing the fifty greatest American movies of all time. It was highly doubtful that law enforcement agencies would be monitoring people cyber-gabbing about films, so their method of encryption was relatively simple. And then they would move on to another film the next day.
“Everyone progressing on schedule?” Captain Jack asked as he scratched his trim beard.
There were several other operation teams in Brennan. The authorities would of course call them terrorist cells, but to Captain Jack that was simply splitting hairs. American operations teams overseas could just as easily be deemed terrorist cells by the folks they were intending to harm. He should know: He had been on many of those teams. Once he’d gotten past the patriotic claptrap, he’d seen the truth: One should do what Captain Jack did for a living only for those willing to pay the most money. That simple change in philosophy had vastly uncomplicated his life.
The Iranian read through the chat lines. He had done this so often he could decipher the encrypted messages in his head. “All accounted for and all on schedule.” He added with an element of disbelief, “Even the woman is progressing well. Very well.”
The American smiled at this comment. “Women are far more capable than you give them credit for, Ahmed. The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.”
“The next thing you’ll be telling me is that men are the weaker sex,” Ahmed said scornfully.
“Now you’re getting close to something called wisdom.”
Captain Jack looked at the two Afghans. They were both Tajiks, members of the Northern Alliance before they’d been recruited for this assignment. He spoke to them in their native language, Dari.
“Do they still sell off the daughters for marriage in your country?”
“Of course,” one replied. “What else do you do with them?”
“Times are changing, my friend,” Captain Jack said. “It’s not exactly the fourteenth century anymore.”
The other Afghan piped in, “We have nothing against modern women, so long as they obey their men. If they do that, no problems. They are free.”
Free in that sense was relative, Captain Jack knew.
In Afghanistan, if a woman demanded divorce she lost everything, including the children. An adulterous wife, even one whose husband had taken another wife, was executed, sometimes by her own family. The men in their lives controlled everything: whether they went to school, worked outside the house, who they would marry. These were not conditions originated by the Taliban or Islam, but they wouldn’t necessarily run afoul of them either. They were based on ancient Afghan tribal customs.
“It’s not just the women,” the first Afghan said. “I have to obey my father, even if I disagree with him. His word is final. It is a matter of respect, of honor.”
And so it was, Captain Jack thought. And good luck trying to change that way of thinking considering it’s been around for thousands of years.
Captain Jack rose. “We don’t have a lot of time before the advance team arrives.”
“If we have to work twenty-four hours a day, it will be done,” Ahmed declared.
“You’re in school, remember?” Captain Jack said.
“Brennan, Pennsylvania. I thought only despots named places after themselves,” one of the Afghans said.
Captain Jack smiled. “Brennan didn’t do it, the people named it after him. This is a democracy, after all.”
“Does that make Brennan any less of a dictator?” the other Afghan said.
Captain Jack stopped smiling. “I don’t really care. All you have to remember is we only get one chance at this.”
Across the street at Mercy Hospital an emergency room doctor was walking down the hallway with one of the hospital administrators. The physician was a recent and welcome addition to Mercy, since the hospital was habitually understaffed. As they walked along, the doctor glanced nervously at an armed security guard posted at a doorway.
“Armed guards? Is that really necessary?” he asked.
The administrator shrugged. “Afraid so. Our pharmacy’s been burglarized twice in the last six months. We can’t afford another hit.”
“Why wasn’t I told this before I agreed to come here?”
“Well, it’s not exactly something we wanted to publicize.”
“But I thought Brennan was a peaceful town,” the doctor said.
“Oh, it is, it is, but, you know, drugs are everywhere. But no one will try anything with armed guards here.”
The physician glanced over his shoulder at the security man who stood rigidly against a wall. From the look on the doctor’s face he didn’t appear to share the positive sentiments of his colleague.
As the men passed down the hallway, a uniformed Adnan al-Rimi, his appearance much changed since his “death” in rural Virginia, walked off to patrol another part of the hospital. There were many such dead men walking the streets of Brennan right now.
ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF BRENNAN, Pennsylvania, was a faded strip mall that had as its meager tenants a pawnshop, several low-rent mom-and-pop operations, a bail bondsman’s establishment and a fried chicken eatery. All of the other lease space was empty except for one office. The windows of this unit were still covered up, as the build-out had not yet been completed. Actually, the work had never been started, nor would it ever be.
In the far back room behind a makeshift plywood partition were two Arab men and a third fellow. One of the Arabs was an engineer specializing in medical devices, the other a chemist, though both men had other skills as well. The third man, a former U.S. National Guardsman, was sitting in a chair looking nervously at the various pieces of equipment stacked neatly on a long table against the wall; these included wrenches, power screwdrivers, electrical wires and other, more
sophisticated equipment. The former National Guardsman was looking nervously at where his right hand had been. A cast had been made of the stump, and a shiny metal socket with metal fingers had been attached to this spot.
“Just relax,” the chemist advised, and he put a gentle hand on the nervous fellow’s shoulder.
The engineer lifted an object out of a long box and held it up. It looked like a human hand. “It’s made of silicone, and we have copied your vein patterns, simulated your natural skin color and even matched it to your skin’s hair color. The metal socket and inner hand attached to your wrist are internally wired, with powered movement and flexibility in all five fingers. The older models only had mobility in the thumb, index and ring fingers. And they were able to engineer down the scale of the wiring so the new generation’s size approximates that of an actual human hand.” He held his hand up against the prosthetic one. “You can see that it’s barely an inch longer than normal.”
The man nodded and smiled. His thoughts were obvious. It did look like a real hand.
The chemist said, “You have a solid wrist joint and good remaining wrist muscles; that will help greatly. The electrodes embedded in the inner hand will have solid connection to the muscle.”
“Yeah, I’m a real lucky bastard,” the man said bitterly.
The silicone hand was put over the socket and the hand securely attached. When that was done, they took the man through some simple exercises.
The engineer said, “When you push your wrist muscles upward, the hand opens. When you relax your wrist muscles, the hand closes. Practice that.”
The man did so about a dozen times while the men watched closely. Each time, he became more comfortable with the manipulations.
The chemist nodded approvingly. “That is good. You are getting it. But you must keep practicing. Soon you will be able to do it without thinking. It will feel natural.”
The man in the chair rubbed the fake hand with the steel hook that constituted his other hand. “Does it feel real?” he asked. “I can’t tell.”
The engineer said, “Someone shaking hands with you will be able to tell it’s not real, simply by the texture and the colder temperature of the skin, but in all other respects it will look very real.”
The man seemed disappointed by this explanation and stopped looking at his new hand.
“You can never be what you were,” the chemist said bluntly. “But it is better than what you had, and we can do your other hand too, if you want.”
The man shook his head and held up his hook. “I want to keep this one. I don’t want to forget what happened to me.”
“You have your uniform?” the engineer asked.
The man nodded as he rose from the chair, still opening and closing his new hand. “That’s another memory, not that I need it.”
“What was your rank?”
“Sergeant. National Guard.” He flexed his new hand again. “And after it’s over?”
“You will be taken care of, as agreed,” the engineer answered.
“It’s nice, to be finally taken care of.”
“We will be in touch, in the usual way.”
They shook hands.
“Feels good to finally be able to do that,” the ex-National Guardsman said.
After he had left, the two men went back to work. There was another box on the table that was marked in Arabic. One of the men opened it. Inside wrapped in plastic was a stainless-steel canister. Inside the canister was a bottle filled with liquid. He lifted out the bottle and held it up to the light.
He well knew that, according to the FBI, the three deadliest substances in the world were, in descending order of lethality, plutonium, botulism toxin and ricin. The liquid in the glass vial was not nearly as deadly as any of those poisons. However, in its own way the substance was still very effective.
The hand he had just placed on the former National Guardsman had a pouch inside. When a tiny release button built into the skin was pushed and the wristbone was flexed a very special way, the pouch opened and any liquid inside it would be secreted through the artificial pores.
As they worked away, the chemist said, “He is bitter, that National Guardsman.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” the other answered.
TOM HEMINGWAY SAT IN HIS modest apartment near Capitol Hill. He had taken off his suit and put on shorts and a T-shirt and was barefoot. Though it was very late, he was not tired. In fact, adrenaline was ripping through his veins. He had just received the news: Patrick Johnson was dead. Hemingway felt no remorse. The man had no one to blame but himself. But there had been witnesses to the killing, and they had gotten away. Of course, that potentially changed everything.
He went into his bedroom, unlocked a hidden floor safe, took out a folder and sat down at his kitchen table. Inside the folder were photographs of over two dozen men and one woman. All were Muslims. The authorities would classify them as enemies of America. The assembling of these people represented two full years of Tom Hemingway’s life. And for those in the group who had run afoul of the law in some way, Hemingway had achieved a miracle. He had made the living appear to be dead.
Hemingway’s father, the Honorable Franklin T. Hemingway, had been a statesman, when that word still carried some actual meaning. He had risen through the ranks to become ambassador to some of the most diplomatically challenging countries on earth. Before his untimely death, he had been hailed as one of the great peacemakers of his generation, a dedicated and honorable civil servant.
Tom Hemingway eventually came to terms with his father’s violent death; however, he knew it was not something he would ever get over, nor should he. He had loved and respected his father, learning civility and compassion by the man’s example. Unlike many other ambassadors who “purchased” their title with large campaign donations and who never even bothered to adequately learn the language and culture of the country they were sent to, Franklin Hemingway immersed himself and his family in the language and history of whatever land he was assigned. Thus, Tom Hemingway had a far better understanding and appreciation of both the Islamic and Asian worlds than virtually any other American.
He had not gone the route of his diplomatic father, however, because Tom Hemingway didn’t believe he had the temperament for such a career. He had instead entered the spy world, beginning with the National Security Agency before transferring to the CIA and working his way up. It seemed an important even honorable career, and he’d thrown himself at it with the work ethic his father had instilled in him.
He’d become a superb field agent, assigned to some of the most dangerous hot spots in the world. He had survived, sometimes just by minutes, attempts to kill him. He had, in turn, killed, on behalf of his government. He helped orchestrate coups that toppled popularly elected governments. He also oversaw operations that created instability in fragile third-world countries, because this was deemed the best way to foster an atmosphere most beneficial to the United States. He had done all that was asked of him, and more.
And ultimately, it had been for nothing. The precious work that he’d performed was a sham, fueled more by business interests than national ones, accomplishing nothing other than making a bad situation worse. The world was as close to destruction as he had ever seen, and Tom Hemingway had seen a lot.
There were many reasons, beginning with critical shortages of water, oil and gas, steel, coal and other natural resources. Rich countries like the United States, Japan and China took the lion’s share of these precious commodities, leaving scraps for the poorest nations. But it was more than the historically complex issue of the haves and the have-nots. It was a fundamental question of ignorance and intolerance. Hemingway had always considered ignorance and intolerance to be like commas, because you often found them in pairs, and almost never did you find one, ignorance, without its evil twin, intolerance.
At age forty Hemingway’s father had helped create peace in lands that had known only war. At
the same age his son had helped to rip peace from lands all over the world, leaving much of it in shambles. It had been a devastating revelation, given his provenance.
And then he had sat down and looked at his options, and a plan had slowly coalesced. There were many who would have looked at what he intended and called him hopelessly naive. That was not the way the world worked, they would have argued. You are doomed to pitiful failure, they would have pronounced. And yet these were the same people who had performed atrocities in certain parts of the world under the pretense of helping them. They committed these “crimes” for reasons as crude as money and power and expected to have their own way without ever being seriously challenged by those they had so clearly wronged. Now who was the naive one? Hemingway thought.
His “official” occupation had allowed him to crisscross the Middle East over the last few years. During that time he slowly formed the pieces to his puzzle, meeting with people he needed assistance from. He found skeptics aplenty, but then one man, someone he deeply respected and a longtime friend of his father’s, agreed to help. The man gave Hemingway not only access to people but the necessary funds to construct an elaborate operation. Hemingway did not believe for an instant that this gentleman didn’t have reasons of his own to do so. However, Tom Hemingway, American-born and -bred, even with all his contacts in that region and familiarity with its language and culture, couldn’t have possibly pulled off something this monumental on his own. And if he suffered from a certain idealism that bordered on naiveté, he was brutally realistic about how best his plan could be successfully carried out.
He often wished his father were still alive so that he could ask for his advice. He knew, though, what Franklin Hemingway would say: It is wrong. Don’t do it. But the son was going to do it.
And what was his true motivation? Hemingway had asked himself that question often as the process was unfolding. He had come up with different answers at times. He had finally concluded that he was not doing this for his country, and he was not doing this for the Middle East. He was doing this for a planet that was quickly running out of second chances. And perhaps also as a tribute for a father who was a man of peace but who died a violent death, because people patently refused to understand each other.
Perhaps it was as simple, and complex, as that.