The camel club, p.14
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       The Camel Club, p.14
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  had made its way through WFO with the swiftness only a water cooler broadcast network could inspire.

  “Nope. Couldn’t find anybody else that stupid.”

  “Hear you and Simpson make a nice team,” the man commented, barely suppressing a grin.

  “We have our moments.”

  “Heard of J-Lo?”

  “Who hasn’t?” Alex replied.

  “Well, Simpson is J-Glo. Didn’t you know you were partnering with a celeb?”

  “J-Glo? What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Come on, Alex, she’s got a halo over her. The light is shining from heaven above on that little southern pistol. They say it’s blinding from at least five hundred yards. I’m surprised you can still see.”

  The agent walked off, laughing.

  As luck would have it, Alex ran into his partner on the way out of the building.

  “Going home?” he asked.

  “No, I’m going to see if I can find any friends. I can’t seem to dig up any here. ”

  She started to walk off, but Alex put a hand on her shoulder. “Look, what I said was meant as constructive criticism, nothing else. I would’ve paid good money for tips like that when I was just starting out and didn’t know squat.”

  For an instant Simpson actually looked like she wanted to take a swing at him, but with what seemed immense self-control she regained her composure.

  “I appreciate your interest but it’s different for a woman. The Service is still very much a man’s world.”

  “I’m not denying that, Jackie. But the fact is you’re not doing your career any favors by letting yourself be treated differently from everybody else.”

  Simpson’s face flushed. “I can’t help it if people are treating me with kid gloves.”

  Alex shook his head. “Wrong answer. You can help it. In fact, you better make damn sure it stops.” He paused and then asked, “Who is your guardian angel?” Simpson didn’t appear to want to answer. “Look, just spill it. It’s not like I can’t find out.”

  She snapped, “Fine! My father is Senator Roger Simpson.”

  Alex nodded, impressed. “Chairman of the Intelligence Oversight Committee. That’s a pretty big angel.”

  In a flash Simpson was right in Alex’s face, almost stepping on his size 13 loafers as she attacked. “My father would never use his influence to help me. And for your information, being his only child didn’t make my life easier. I had to fight for every damn thing I got. I’ve got the bruises and thick skin to show for it.”

  Alex backed up a step and put out a hand to keep her at bay. “This town isn’t built on fact, it’s based on perception. And the perception is that you get out of the crap work more than you should. And that’s not all. ”

  “Oh, really?”

  He pointed at her jacket. “You usually wear a blazing red handkerchief in your breast pocket.”

  “So what?”

  “So, to a Secret Service agent, that’s a no-no. It not only draws attention to you in a profession that prides itself on keeping a low profile except on protection detail. It also makes a damn fine target for somebody looking to take a shot at you. So not only does it label you as a maverick, it labels you as a stupid maverick.”

  Simpson’s jaw clenched as she stared down at this crimson mark, as though it were a scarlet letter.

  Alex continued. “And your gun. It’s a custom piece. Another sign that you think you’re different—translate, better—than everybody else. That doesn’t sit well with agents here, men or women.”

  “My daddy gave me this gun when I became a police officer.” Alex noted that the angrier Simpson became, the more pronounced her Alabama drawl.

  “So put it in a shadow box on your wall and carry the Service’s standard issue!”

  “And what, then all my problems just go away?” This shot out of the woman’s mouth with such an attitude that now Alex felt like decking her.

  “No, then you just have all the problems everybody else has. Why don’t you just file that one away under ‘Life’s a Bitch’?” And so are you.

  Alex turned and walked off. He’d had enough of the rookie for one day. The LEAP Bar was seriously calling his name.

  Kate Adams had just come on duty after a full day at Justice when Alex walked in. It was relatively early yet, so the place was mostly empty. Alex marched up to the bar, a man on a mission. She’d seen him coming and had the martini with three fat olives waiting for him by the time Alex’s rear hit the stool.

  “My imagination, or are you a little upset about something?” she said in a teasing manner that immediately eased the tension from him.

  The mingled scents of coconut and honeysuckle drifted across the width of the mahogany bar and settled in his nostrils. He wondered if she’d washed her hair before coming to work, or if it was her perfume, or both. Regardless, it was doing a number on him.

  “Just work. It’ll pass.” He took a sip of his drink, popped one of the olives into his mouth and chased it down with a handful of peanuts he grabbed from a bowl next to him. “How goes it with you? Your superspy friend Tommy come calling?”

  She raised her eyebrows at this comment. “Hemingway? I wouldn’t exactly call him a friend.” He gave her such a skeptical look that she put down the glass she was drying off and leaned across the bar.

  “You have another opinion you’d like to express, Agent Ford?”

  He shrugged. “None of my business really.”

  “A girl can flirt and not mean anything by it.”

  Alex took another hit of his martini. “That’s good to know.”

  “You have to admit, he’s very cute, well traveled, intelligent. The man’s the whole package really.”

  Alex started to launch a blistering rejoinder but then realized she was just pulling his chain, and enjoying herself immensely. “Yeah, he is. Hell, I was thinking about asking the guy out myself.”

  She leaned across the bar again and grabbed his tie so hard Alex was jerked toward her, spilling part of his drink.

  She said, “Well, since you can’t seem to get around to it, I will. Do you want to go out?”

  Alex felt his mouth hanging open but had the good sense to shut it a second later. “You’re asking me out?”

  “No, I’m asking the guy behind you. Yes, I’m asking you out.”

  Alex couldn’t help but glance around him on the outside chance that he was being set up with a hidden studio audience that was just waiting to erupt into belly laughs.

  “You’re really serious?”

  She tightened her grip on his tie. “When I flirt, I flirt. When I ask, it’s a whole other ball game.”

  “Yes. I want to go out with you.”

  “See, that wasn’t all that hard, was it? Now, since we’ve finally gotten that settled, why don’t we negotiate a date? Because you seem a little slow on the social uptake, I’ll go first. I’m assuming you enjoy eating as well as drinking. How about dinner?”

  “You just threw me a curve. I thought for sure you’d be safe and propose lunch.”

  “I’m not into safe these days,” she said. Then Kate let go of his tie very, very slowly, sliding her hand down the fabric until the tie fell free.

  Alex eased himself back, not seeming to mind at all that half his martini was now on his jacket sleeve.

  “Dinner sounds fine with me,” he managed to say without mangling the words too badly.

  “Okay, let’s set a date and time. I’m into instant gratification; are you free tomorrow night?”

  Even if he’d been assigned to guard the president on his deathbed, Alex would’ve found a way to be available. “Sounds good.”

  “Say around six-thirty. I’ll make dinner reservations unless you’d care to.”

  “No, go ahead.”

  “Do you want to meet at the restaurant or pick me up at my place?”

  “Your place is fine.”

  “My, you’re so agreeable, Agent Ford. I can’t tell you how refreshing tha
t is for me after being around lawyers all day. Lawyers don’t agree on anything.”

  “Yeah, I’ve heard that.”

  “Why don’t you come by around six?”

  She wrote her phone number and address down and slid it across to him. He handed her one of his cards with his home address and phone number penciled in on the back.

  “You like it out in Manassas?” she asked, eyeing his card.

  “My wallet likes it a lot.” He glanced at her address and got a funny look. “R Street? Georgetown!”

  “Don’t get your hopes up, mister. I’m not an heiress masquerading as a DOJ do-gooder. I live in the carriage house behind the mansion. The woman who owns the place is a widow and likes having someone around. She’s really nice. Quite the pistol actually.”

  “You don’t owe me an explanation.”

  “But that doesn’t mean that you don’t want one.” She poured him a fresh drink. “On the house, since you seemed to have spilled yours.” She handed him a rag.

  “While you’re in a cooperative mood, where does the ‘total package’ work and what project are you two involved in?”

  Kate put a finger to her lips. “Lawyer confidentiality thing, you understand. But without breaking any state secrets I can tell you I’m working with his agency on its request to reuse an old building. But I don’t think we’re going to reach such an agreement. So what’s going on at work that has you ticked off?”

  “You don’t hear enough sob stories as it is?”

  “We’re officially going out. So, in for a dime, in for a dollar.”

  Alex smiled. “Okay. There’s this rookie at work I’m partnering with on an investigation. She’s got a bigwig daddy who’s pulling strings for her upstairs. I’m trying to explain to her that that’s not how you make friends at the Service.”

  “And she’s not getting the concept?”

  “If she doesn’t soon, it’ll come down on her like a ton of bricks.”

  “So what’s the case you’re working on with her?”

  “Now it’s my turn to plead confidentiality.” Suddenly, Alex’s gaze was riveted on the plasma screen TV on the wall behind the bar.

  A camera shot of Roosevelt Island was in the foreground of the screen as the big-toothed news anchor teleprompted her way through the story of a mysterious suicide. There was no report on the Secret Service’s involvement, Alex noted. However, the heroin find at Patrick Johnson’s house was prominently mentioned.

  “Is that your case?” Kate asked.

  He glanced back at her. “What?”

  “I was hoping that’d be the only reason you were so totally ignoring me.”

  “Hey, I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly. “Yeah, that’s it. But no more details.”

  They both turned to the TV when they heard a familiar voice.

  The man was articulating NIC’s official response to the tragedy. And it wasn’t Carter Gray, who probably didn’t want to make this an ongoing national story by lending his considerable presence to it. However, Tom Hemingway was polished and efficient, the total package, as he presented NIC’s spin to the country.

  Alex looked back at Kate, who for the first time seemed at a loss for words. He smiled triumphantly. “Busted.”

  CHAPTER

  24

  CALEB PICKED UP OLIVER STONE near the White House in his ancient pewter-gray Chevy Malibu with a fidgety tailpipe. They headed to Milton Farb’s house near the D.C. and Maryland line, where Reuben would meet them. Stone sat in the front seat holding Caleb’s dog, Goff, a small mongrel of unknown provenance named after the first chief of the Rare Books Division, Frederick Goff. As they pulled up in front of Milton’s modest but well-kept home, Reuben jumped up from the front steps, walked over to the car and climbed in. He was dressed in his usual jeans, moccasins and a wrinkly red-checked flannel shirt; a pair of work gloves stuck out of his back pocket, and he carried his safety helmet in his hand.

  “Grabbed some overtime at the loading dock,” he explained. “Didn’t have a chance to go home.” He looked in surprise at Stone’s new haircut and clean-shaven appearance. “Don’t tell me you’re rejoining mainstream America.”

  “Just trying to remain incognito and alive. Is Milton ready?”

  “Our friend will be delayed a bit,” Reuben said with a wink.

  “What?” Stone said.

  “He’s entertaining, Oliver. You remember? His new lady friend?”

  “Did you meet her?” Caleb asked excitedly. “Maybe she has a friend for me.” Although a confirmed bachelor, Caleb was always on the lookout for new prospects.

  “Just got a glimpse. She’s actually a lot younger than Milton and damn nice-looking,” Reuben replied. “Hope the poor fellow doesn’t go and commit himself. I’ve had three trips down the aisle, and there won’t be a fourth unless I am ungodly drunk. Blasted women. Can’t live with them, and they sure as hell can’t live with me.”

  “Your third wife was quite a nice woman,” Stone noted.

  “I’m not saying that the ladies don’t have their uses, Oliver. I’m just of the opinion that long-lasting relationships are not the product of legal commitment. There have been more good times bashed by the covenant of marriage than I could count in several lifetimes.”

  “So your logic is what, ban marriage and you’ll see the divorce rate plummet?”

  “That too,” Reuben said gruffly.

  They all looked over as the door to Milton’s house opened.

  “She is good-looking,” Caleb said, peering around Stone.

  Milton and the woman kissed lightly on the lips, and then she walked down the steps to her car, a yellow Porsche that was parked in front of Caleb’s Malibu.

  “I wonder if Milton’s OCD creates a problem for her,” Caleb said thoughtfully. They had all spent hundreds of hours of their lives waiting through Milton’s rituals. Yet they’d accepted it as an element of their friend’s personality. They all had such “elements,” and Milton had been diligent in seeking help for his disorder. And after years of medication, counseling and occasional hospitalization, he led a fairly normal existence, only resorting to his OCD for brief periods when locking his doors, sitting, washing his hands, or during moments of intense stress.

  “I don’t think that’ll be a problem for her,” Reuben said, pointing.

  They all watched as the woman tapped the pavement with her high heels and then pecked on the car window with her finger, silently counting and muttering before opening her car door. Then she performed a similar exercise checking her seat, before climbing in. She left a considerable amount of rubber on the pavement as she hit sixty miles an hour six seconds later, before she slammed on her brakes at the next intersection. Then she roared off again, the deep-throated decibels of the Porsche’s turbo actually causing Caleb to wince.

  “Where the hell did he meet the woman, at a NASCAR event?” Caleb asked as he stared wide-eyed at the smoke still rising off the tire marks on the street.

  “No, he told us he met her at the anxiety clinic,” Reuben reminded them. “She was there getting treatment for OCD too.”

  Milton closed his front door, went through a brief ritual and came out to join them carrying his knapsack. He climbed into the backseat next to Reuben.

  “She’s a real looker,” Reuben said. “What’s her name?”

  “Chastity,” Milton replied.

  Reuben snorted. “Chastity? Well, for your sake, I hope she doesn’t live up to her name.”

  Traffic was fairly heavy, and by the time they got to Patrick Johnson’s neighborhood it was quite dark. This suited Stone well. The nighttime was where he was most comfortable.

  He checked house numbers as they drifted down the street. “All right, Caleb, it’s coming up in the next block on the left. Park the car here.”

  Caleb pulled the Malibu to the curb and looked at his friend.

  “Now what?” he asked nervously.

  “We wait. I want to get the lay of the land a bit, see who’s com
ing and going.” Stone pulled out his binoculars and gazed through them up the street. “Assuming that those Suburbans parked out front are Bureau cars, I’m guessing that the third house up on the left is Johnson’s.”

  “Nice digs,” Reuben commented, following his friend’s gaze.

  Meanwhile, Milton had been studying his laptop computer. He said, “It was reported that they found heroin in the house. And Roosevelt Island was where Johnson spent his first date with his fiancée. They’re
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