The camel club, p.10
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       The Camel Club, p.10

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  Alex finally got it. “What? You’re saying he swam here?”

  “Looks that way.”

  “Why? If he was in the water already and wanted to commit suicide, why not just go out by sucking in a bunch of the Potomac?”

  “Well, if he just swam across Little Channel from the Virginia side, it’s not very far,” the cop pointed out.

  “Yeah,” Alex retorted. “But if you’re going to come from that direction, why not just take the footbridge that goes over Little Channel, instead of sloughing through it? And if he was stone drunk, he would’ve drowned.”

  “Not if he drank the Scotch when he got here,” the cop answered. “And there’s something else.”

  He called out some instructions to a member of the forensics team canvassing the area. The man brought over something and handed it to the cop, who held it up. “We found this.” It was a plastic evidence baggie with another plastic baggie inside it.

  Alex and Simpson studied it. Alex got the answer first. “He used this to put his gun in so his ammo wouldn’t get wet while he was swimming here.”

  “You win the prize. It was a .22 revolver with jacketed rounds.”

  “I understand there was a suicide note,” Alex said.

  The cop pulled out his memo book. “I wrote it down verbatim.” He read it to the two Secret Service agents, and Simpson copied it down in her notebook.

  “Do you have the original note?” Alex asked.

  “And you are?” a strident voice asked.

  Alex turned and was confronted by a short, compact man in a two-piece Brooks Brothers, muted tie and shiny banker wing tips.

  Alex flashed his creds and introduced himself and his partner.

  The man barely glanced at the creds before announcing, “I’m FBI Special Agent Lloyd. We already have agents from NIC here to represent the Service’s interests.”

  Alex assumed his beleaguered federal lawman pose. “Just following orders, Agent Lloyd. And quite honestly, the Service likes to rep its own interests. I’m sure the Bureau can understand that losing someone from N-TAC is a sensitive area, what with us being part of Homeland Security instead of Treasury now.” Alex knew that Homeland Security carried a lot more beef than Treasury ever had in law enforcement circles. And if nothing else, the eight-hundred-pound gorilla Bureau tended to respect the nine-hundred-pound gorilla that Homeland Security had become.

  Lloyd looked like he was going to shoot back some ripping comment but then seemed to think better of it. He shrugged. “Fine. Go play Sherlock Holmes. The body’s right over there. Just don’t contaminate the crime scene.”

  “I really appreciate it, Agent Lloyd. I was asking about the note that was found.”

  Lloyd motioned to one of the other FBI suits, and the note was brought over.

  Lloyd said, “They’re going to fume the clothes and other stuff for latent prints, but I’m not confident they’ll find much. It’s a suicide.”

  Simpson spoke up. “Cloth isn’t great for capturing latents, but that jacket he’s wearing isn’t a bad surface, particularly since it was damp and the weather last night was good for holding prints. Your tech guys have a Superfume stick in the truck? You can’t beat cyano for popping latents on surfaces like that.”

  “I don’t know if they do or not,” Lloyd said.

  “It might actually be better if you take the clothes to the lab. You can fume them in a heat-accelerated chamber or a megafume. I know the FBI lab has those.” She pointed to the suicide note. “Pop that in a heat chamber with ninhydrin or DFOSPRAY, and it’ll pull whatever’s there right out.”

  “Thanks for the pointer,” Lloyd said tersely, although it was obvious he was impressed with her knowledge of fingerprint lift techniques.

  Alex looked at Simpson with new respect, and then his gaze returned to Lloyd, who was staring darkly at her.

  “You’ll need to confirm it’s his handwriting on the note,” Alex added.

  “I’m aware of that,” Lloyd said.

  “I can get the Service’s lab to run it. And whatever fingerprints that might be there.”

  “The FBI lab has no peer,” Lloyd shot back.

  “But our lab has less of a backlog. We are on the same team here, Agent Lloyd.”

  This comment seemed to strike some cooperative nerve buried deeply within the stubborn FBI man. After a few moments his manner totally changed. “I appreciate that, Agent Ford.”

  “Make it Alex, she’s Jackie,” Alex said, inclining his head at Simpson.

  “Good enough, I’m Don. We’ll actually take you up on that offer. The FBI lab is pretty full with terrorist-related matters. You’ll have to sign for it for chain of custody. The M.E.’s a stickler for that.”

  Alex did so and then examined the paper closely through the plastic before giving it to Simpson to hold. “So we have any motive for the suicide? I heard he was getting married.”

  “That’ll sure drive some men to kill themselves,” the cop said.

  That comment drew a laugh from everyone except Simpson, who looked for a moment like she might pull her gun and produce some dead men of her own.

  Lloyd said, “Too early to tell. We’ll investigate, but it certainly looks like Patrick Johnson killed himself.”

  “No signs of anyone else having been here?” Simpson asked.

  The cop answered, “There might have been, but then fifty schoolkids came marching through. It was still foggy here this morning. They almost tripped over the body. Scared the crap out of them. The stone pavers here won’t be of much help for footprints or other trace.”

  “What path did he use to get here?” Alex asked.

  “Probably that one.” The cop pointed to his left. “If he swam across Little Channel, that path would’ve been the one he’d use after he walked through the trees and crap.”

  Lloyd added, “We’re making a search along the shore for his car. He lived in Bethesda, Maryland. He had to drive down here reasonably close and then swim for the island. If we find his car, we can better pinpoint where he entered the water.”

  Alex glanced toward the Virginia side. “Guys, if he swam across Little Channel, the only place to leave his car would be in the parking lot.”

  The cop shrugged. “But he didn’t. Unless someone drove him to his suicide spot and then left. That doesn’t make much sense.”

  “The police boat usually runs through here,” Simpson noted.

  Lloyd nodded. “They did in fact come by here last night. But the fog was so thick they didn’t see anything, certainly no swimmer in the water.”

  “How long has he been dead?” Alex asked.

  “M.E. thinks about twelve hours give or take.”

  “Any thoughts on why he picked Roosevelt Island?”

  “It’s private, quiet, but still close to everything. And maybe he was a Roosevelt groupie,” Lloyd added. The FBI agent glanced over at the men from NIC, frowned and then turned back to Alex. “We’ll be heading over to NIC to ask some questions, see if we can find out why Johnson would want to kill himself. What we learn might get those guys”—he motioned to the NIC folks—“a little more paranoid than they already are.”

  “Meaning Johnson might have been doing something at NIC he shouldn’t have?” Alex said.

  “Hard for me to say, since I’m not really sure what it is they do over at NIC,” Lloyd commented before walking off.

  “Join the club,” Alex muttered. He motioned Simpson to follow him over to the body. “Your stomach gonna be okay with this?” he asked her.

  “I was a homicide detective in Alabama. I’ve seen plenty of gunshot wounds and dead bodies.”

  “I didn’t know Bama was such a killing field.”

  “Are you kidding? Alabama has more guns than the entire United States military.”

  Alex squatted down and looked at Johnson’s body. He felt one of the stiffened arms. The sleeve was soaked through, and the body was still in full rigor.

  There was dried blood coming from the e
ars, nose and around the mouth.

  “Basilar fracture,” Simpson deduced. “The blood seeps down from the base of the fractured skull. The M.E. will probably find the slug near the top or the back of the head. Since it was only a .22 caliber, he would’ve had to really shove it up there to get a clean trajectory.”

  “There’s some blood spatter on the sleeve but only one small blood drop on the right hand,” Alex added. “That’s a little surprising.”

  “Yeah, but sometimes there’s less bleeding when the slug stays in the head.”

  “Probably right.”

  Over his shoulder Alex called out, “Where was the gun and note found?”

  The cop answered, “Gun was on the right side of the body, about six inches away. The note was in the right side pocket of his windbreaker.”

  When Alex rose, he bit back a searing pain in his neck. It almost always gave him a jolt when he stood quickly. Simpson looked at him.

  “You okay?”

  “Old yoga injury. What do your Alabama homicide detective instincts think?”

  Simpson shrugged. “I learned that the prelim manner of death was usually right.”

  “That’s not what I asked you. What does your gut say?”

  She spoke quickly. “That we need to know a lot more before we close the book on this one. This wouldn’t be the first case where the preliminary findings were misleading.” She nodded over at the NIC guys. “I doubt they’re going to be very cooperative.”

  Alex stared at the men. If there was one agency that was more shrouded in secrecy than the CIA and even the NSA, it was NIC. He could easily envision the roadblocks being erected with a foundation of national security interests outweighing everything else. While it was true that the Secret Service used that tactic at times, Alex had a lot more confidence in his agency invoking that authority properly. He wasn’t nearly as comfortable with NIC chambering that particular silver bullet.

  “So what do you think?” Simpson asked him.

  Alex studied the ground for a long minute and then looked up at her. “Not to sound too selfish about it, but I think this is going to be a pain in my ass that I don’t really need at this point in my career.”

  As Alex and Simpson were leaving Roosevelt Island, the two men who’d been identified as being with NIC hustled over to them.

  “We understand you’re Secret Service,” the tall blond one said.

  “That’s right,” Alex replied. “Agents Ford and Simpson out of WFO.”

  “I’m Tyler Reinke and this is Warren Peters. We’re with NIC. Since Johnson was a shared employee between our two agencies, it’ll probably be best if we work together.”

  “Well, it’s pretty early on in the game, but I don’t mind sharing so long as I get something in return,” Alex answered.

  Reinke smiled. “That’s the only way we play the game.”

  “Okay, so can you arrange for us to interview the people Johnson worked with?”

  Peters said, “I think so. Do you know anyone at NIC?”

  “Well, you’re the first two I’ve ever found who would admit you worked there.”

  Both Reinke and Peters looked a little chagrined at this comment.

  “Here’s my card,” Alex said. “Let me know when you’ve got it set up.” He pointed to the bagged note in Simpson’s hand. “We’ll also run a comparison on the handwriting on the note, to make sure it’s Johnson’s.”

  Peters said, “I actually wanted to talk to you about the note. We’ve got lots of handwriting experts on staff. They can turn that around pretty fast.”

  “The Service can get it done quickly too,” Alex countered.

  “But NIC has a hundred samples of Johnson’s handwriting at work. I’m just offering to help make things go faster. Cooperation is the key these days, right?”

  Simpson piped in, “That note is evidence in a homicide investigation. The M.E. might have a problem letting you take it. It’s one thing to give it to the FBI or Secret Service, we’re sworn law enforcement.”

  “Actually, we are too,” Reinke said. “And I’ve already talked to the M.E. and pointed out that there are national security interests here. He was fine with us taking custody of it so long as the chain of evidence was properly maintained.”

  “Well, I’m sure that scared the hell out of him,” Alex said. He pondered for a moment and then shrugged. “Okay, let us know ASAP. And check it for prints too.”

  After Peters had filled out the appropriate paperwork with the M.E., he gingerly took the note. “Carter Gray’s going to be on the warpath. Probably already is.”

  “I can see that,” Alex replied.

  After the NIC men had left them, Simpson asked, “So what do you really think?”

  “I think they’re assholes who’re gonna pitch my card in the nearest trash can.”

  “So why’d you give them the note, then?”

  “Because now that they have control of material evidence in a homicide case, that gives us a great excuse to go to NIC and see things for ourselves.”

  CHAPTER

  18

  CARTER GRAY HAD RISEN AT six-thirty and arrived back at NIC forty-five minutes later. In the NIC lobby were a series of stark black-and-white photos that every employee had to pass each day. One showed the World Trade Center towers ablaze. The photo next to it graphically captured the rubble and empty space where the towers had stood. The crippled Pentagon was in the third photo, a hole punched in its face by the American Airlines jet. A fourth photo showed the stark crater in the Pennsylvania field, the final resting place of the doomed United Airlines flight. The picture beside that one captured the blackened and blistered skin of the White House where two rocket-propelled grenades had hit and actually entered the East Room of the president’s house, and the one next to it showed the devastation of the Oklahoma City bombing.

  These horrific pictures continued down one side of the NIC lobby and then marched down the opposite wall. For many, though, the last photo was the most devastating. Virtually all of the victims had been under the age of sixteen, their lives ripped from them by a squad of four suicide bombers who detonated simultaneously during a special ceremony overseas honoring America’s best and brightest schoolchildren. They had won the trip to France because of their academic prowess and stellar community service back home. They returned to the States wrapped in coffins instead of accolades.

  “Never forget,” Gray had lectured his people. “And do all you can to make certain these things never ever happen again.”

  NIC kept an unofficial tally of how many lives and property had been saved by its stopping potential terrorist attacks in the United States and overseas. The estimated number of deaths prevented stood at 93,000 Americans and 31,000 foreigners, and the value of property saved at nearly $100 billion. No one outside the highest intelligence circles knew of these statistics; certainly, the American public would never know, and for good reason. If they ever found out how many “near misses” there had been, the American people would probably never leave their homes again.

  Gray rode the elevator to the same floor as he had the night before but entered a different room. In here were five men and two women seated around a rectangular conference table. Gray sat and opened a laptop in front of him.

  “Results of last night?” he said.

  “Al-Omari refused to cooperate,” one of his lieutenants answered.

  “Not that surprising actually.”

  “About al-Omari’s son, Mr. Secretary, do you want us to take him?”

  “No. The boy can stay with his mother. A child needs at least one parent. ”

  “Understood, sir,” the man said, acknowledging the death sentence just handed out to the unfortunate father.

  “Take one week, and by any means at your disposal you will extract as much useful intelligence as possible from Mr. al-Omari.”

  “Done,” one of the women said.

  “Ronald Tyrus, our resident neo-Nazi?” Gray asked.

  “We’
ve already started debriefing him.”

  “And the others?”

  “Kim Fong has given us a confirmed lead on a shipment of a new-generation explosive allegedly invisible to airport X-ray. According to him, it’s being smuggled into L.A. next week.”

  “Follow it to the buyer. I want the scientists, equipment and their financial backers, the whole spectrum. The others?”

  “None of them would cooperate.” The man paused. “The usual exit strategy?”

  Each of the people in this room had worked with Gray before in some capacity and stood in awe of the man. They had collectively made decisions and taken actions that were illegal and often immoral as well. Over the years these highly educated and trained men and women had been given orders to find and kill those persons deemed to be enemies of the United States; and they had dutifully carried out those commands, because that was their job. Yet the potential death of another human being, while certainly not new territory for this group, never failed to garner their respectful attention.

 
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