The Camel Club Read online
This novel is dedicated to the men and women of the United States Secret Service
And to Larry Kirshbaum, a first-rate editor, a great publisher, and a wonderful friend
THE CHEVY SUBURBAN SPED DOWN the road, enveloped by the hushed darkness of the Virginia countryside. Forty-one-year-old Adnan al-Rimi was hunched over the wheel as he concentrated on the windy road coming up. Deer were plentiful here, and Adnan had no desire to see the bloodied antlers of one slashing through the windshield. Indeed, the man was tired of things attacking him. He lifted a gloved hand from the steering wheel and felt for the gun in the holster under his jacket; a weapon was not just a comfort for Adnan, it was a necessity.
He suddenly glanced out the window as he heard the sound overhead.
There were two passengers in the backseat. The man talking animatedly in Farsi on a cell phone was Muhammad al-Zawahiri, an Iranian who had entered the country shortly before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The man next to him was an Afghan named Gul Khan, who’d been in the States only a few months. Khan was large and muscular with a shaved head. He wore a hunter’s camouflage jacket and was checking his machine gun with nimble fingers. He clicked the mag back in place and put the firing switch on two-shot bursts. A few drops of rain fell against the window, and Khan idly watched them trickle down.
“This is nice countryside,” Khan said in Pashto, a dialect Muhammad spoke but one Adnan had little familiarity with. “My country is filled with the metal carcasses of Soviet tanks. The farmers just plow around them.” He paused and added with a deeply satisfied look, “And some American carcasses too, we have.”
Adnan kept glancing in the rearview mirror. He didn’t like a man with a machine gun sitting behind him, fellow Muslim or not. And neither was he overly trusting of the Iranian. Adnan had been born in Saudi Arabia but migrated to Iraq as a young boy. He fought for Iraq in the horrific war between the two countries, and his enmity toward Iran still ran very deep. Ethnically, Muhammad al-Zawahiri was Persian, not Arab, like al-Rimi. It was another difference between the two men that caused al-Rimi not to trust him.
Muhammad finished his phone call, wiped a smudge of dirt off one of his American-made cowboy boots, checked the time on his very expensive watch and lay back against the seat and smiled as he lit a cigarette. He said something in Farsi and Khan laughed. The big Afghan’s breath smelled strongly of onions.
Adnan gripped the steering wheel tighter. He had never been a careless man, and Adnan didn’t like the Iranian’s flippancy about serious matters. Seconds later Adnan looked out the window again.
Muhammad had clearly heard it too. He rolled down his window and poked his head out, looking up at the cloudy sky. When he saw the wink of red lights overhead he barked to Adnan, who nodded and hit the gas; both men in the back strapped on their seatbelts.
The Chevy flew along the snaking country road, banking so hard around some curves that the men in the rear held on to the hand straps with all ten fingers. Yet even the fastest car in the world couldn’t outrun a helicopter on a serpentine track.
Speaking again in Farsi, Muhammad ordered Adnan to pull off under some trees and wait, to see if the chopper kept going. Continuing in Farsi he said, “Car accident, Adnan? Medical evacuation helicopter perhaps?”
Adnan shrugged. He didn’t speak Farsi very well, and oftentimes nuances in that language escaped him. One didn’t need to be a linguist, however, to sense the urgency in his colleague’s voice. He drove under a cluster of trees, and all three men got out and crouched down by the vehicle. Khan pointed his machine gun at the sky and Adnan slid his pistol out as well. Muhammad just gripped his cell phone and looked nervously overhead. For a moment it appeared that the chopper had left, but then a searchlight beam cut through the tree canopies directly over them.
The next word Muhammad spoke was in English: “Shit!” He nodded at Adnan, instructing him to go for a better look.
The Iraqi ran in a crouch until he reached the edge of the tree line and cautiously gazed up. The chopper was hovering sixty feet overhead. Adnan returned to his companions, reporting what he’d seen.
“They may be looking for a place to land,” he added.
“Do we have an RPG in the truck?” Muhammad asked, his voice slightly trembling. He was used to being the brains behind these sorts of operations rather than one of the foot soldiers who actually did the killing—and often died in the process.
Adnan shook his head. “We didn’t think we’d have need of a rocket-propelled grenade tonight.”
“Shit,” Muhammad said again. “Listen,” he hissed. “I think they’re landing.” The tree canopies were starting to shake from the chopper’s rotor wash.
Adnan nodded at his companions. “It is only a two-person helicopter. There are three of us,” he added firmly. He stared at his leader. “Take out your gun, Muhammad, and be ready to use it. We will not go quietly. We will take some Americans with us.”
“You fool,” Muhammad snapped. “Do you think they haven’t already called for others? They will simply keep us pinned down until help arrives.”
“Our cover papers are in order,” Adnan countered. “The best money can buy.”
The Iranian looked at him as though he were insane. “We are armed Arabs in the middle of pig farmers in Virginia. They will fingerprint me and know in seconds who I really am. We are trapped,” he added in another hiss. “How could this be? How?”
Adnan pointed at the man’s hand. “Perhaps that cell phone you’re always on. They can track these things. I’ve warned you before about that.”
“Allah’s will be done,” Gul Khan said as he put his gun’s firing selector on full auto, apparently in accordance with God’s wishes.
Muhammad stared at him incredulously. “If we are stopped now, our plans will not succeed. Do you think God wants that? Do you!” He paused and took a deep, steadying breath. “Here is what I want you two to do. What you must do!” He pointed a shaky finger at the vibrating tree canopies and said in a firm voice, “I want you to hold them off, while I make a run for it. There is another road a half-mile through these trees to the west. I can call Marwan to come and pick me up in the other truck at that location. But you must hold them off. You must do this!”
Adnan stared sullenly at his leader. By his expression, if there were a literal translation for “chickenshit” in his native tongue, Adnan would’ve certainly used it.
“Go, now, draw them off, it is your sacrifice for the cause,” Muhammad cried as he started backing away.
“If we are to die while you escape, then give me your gun,” Adnan said bitterly. “You will have no need of it.”
The Iranian pulled out his pistol and tossed it to Adnan.
The burly Khan turned toward the chopper and smiled. “How about this plan, Adnan?” he said over his shoulder. “Firing into their tail prop before they can land worked very well against the Americans in my country. Their spines snap like twigs when they hit the ground.”
The bullet hit him in the back of the neck, ironically snapping Khan’s own spine like a twig, and the big Afghani fell dead.
Adnan swiveled his pistol away from his first victim and pointed it at Muhammad, who, seeing this traitorous attack, had started to run. He was not fleet of foot, however, and the cowboy boots he favored were not built for running. Adnan caught up to him when Muhammad fell over a rotting tree trunk.
Muhammad looked up at his colleague as Adnan pointed Muhammad’s own pistol at him. The stream of invectives in Farsi from Muhammad was followed by pleas in halting Arabic and then finally in English: “Adnan, please. Why? Why?”
In Arabic Adnan answered, “You deal drugs, you say, to make money to support the effort. Yet you spend more time shopp