The camel club, p.15
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       The Camel Club, p.15
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  theorizing that he killed himself there symbolically; with his upcoming marriage he couldn’t live his double life anymore.”

  “How can you be on the Internet in a car?” Caleb exclaimed.

  “I’m pure wireless,” Milton replied. “I don’t need hot spots. You know, Caleb, you really should let me bring you into the twenty-first century.”

  “I use a computer at work!”

  “Only for word processing. You don’t even have a personal e-mail account, only a library one.”

  “I prefer pen, paper and stamps to compose my mail,” Caleb responded indignantly.

  “Are you sure you don’t mean foolscap and a quill, Brother Caleb?” Reuben asked with a grin.

  Caleb said heatedly, “And unlike those Neanderthals on the Internet, I use complete sentences and, heaven help us, punctuation. Is that a crime?”

  “No, it’s not, Caleb,” Stone said calmly. “But let’s try to keep the discussion relevant to our mission tonight.”

  “You know, you would’ve thought that an NIC employee would’ve been vetted well enough that his drug dealer status showed up,” Reuben said.

  “Well, presumably, he was clean when he signed on with them but turned dirty sometime after,” Milton replied. “Look at Aldrich Ames. He had a big house and drove a Jaguar, and the CIA never even thought to ask him how he could afford it.”

  Caleb said, “But apparently, Johnson was selling drugs, not secrets. He ran afoul of his business associates, and they killed him. That seems pretty clear.”

  “Did those two gentlemen look like drug dealers to you?” Stone asked.

  “Since I don’t know any drug dealers, I’m not in a position to really answer that question,” Caleb said.

  “Well, I do know some,” said Reuben. “And despite what damn bigots might think, they’re not all young black gang members with nine-millimeters stuffed in their prison shuffle pants, Oliver.”

  “I’m not implying that they are. However, let’s consider the facts. They brought him to a place where he had his first date. That implies intelligence gathering unless he was in the habit of sharing his romantic history with his alleged criminal associates. They carried him in a powered boat that was so silent we didn’t even hear it until they reached the island. Now, that may be a technology drug dealers employ in, say, South America where there is a good deal more water. But in the nation’s capital?”

  Reuben said, “Who the hell knows what sort of high-tech toys they’re using around here nowadays?”

  Stone ignored this. “In addition, the two killers undertook a fairly military-style reconnaissance of the area and used a killing technique that smacks of the professional assassin. And they were well aware of potential incriminating forensic residue and took appropriate steps accordingly. They even had the foresight to bring a plastic baggie to give the impression that he’d used it to keep the gun dry while he swam to the island.”

  “That’s right,” Caleb said. “But even drug dealers want to avoid jail.”

  Stone ignored this comment too. “And when they realized there were witnesses to their crime, they gave not a second thought to disposing of us. These men are expert killers, but I very seriously doubt that they are drug dealers.”

  The other three pondered their friend’s logic as Stone raised the binoculars to his eyes again.

  The silence was broken a minute later by Caleb, who asked Milton, “What does Chastity do?”

  “She’s an accountant. She used to work for a big firm, but they fired her because of her OCD. She has her own company now. And she helps me with my Web design business. I’m awful with money. She keeps the books and does the marketing too. She’s really terrific.”

  “I’m sure she is terrific,” Reuben said. “It’s those quiet professional types you have to watch out for. You think they’re mild-mannered and then they just jump you. I dated this woman once, prim and proper, dresses past the knees. But I swear to God that lady could do things with her mouth that defied—”

  Stone broke in quickly. “Firing Chastity because of her medical condition doesn’t seem right unless it prevented her from doing her work.”

  “Oh, she could do the work. They said she embarrassed the firm in front of clients, which was a crock. Two of the partners just didn’t like her, one of them because Chastity wouldn’t sleep with him. She sued and won a lot of money.”

  “That’s the country we all know and love,” Reuben said. “The United States of Lawyers. But don’t let the rich pretty ones get away, Milton. I’m not telling you to marry the woman, God forbid, but if a man can keep a woman in these enlightened times, there’s nothing wrong with a woman keeping a man.”

  “She does buy me things,” Milton said quietly.

  “Really,” Reuben said with sudden interest. “What sorts of things?”

  “Software for my computer, clothes, wine. She knows a lot about wine.”

  “What sorts of clothes?” Reuben persisted.

  “Personal clothes,” a pink-faced Milton said. He immediately looked down at his computer and started hitting some keys. Reuben started to say something, but Stone silenced him with a very severe look.

  Finally, Stone said, “All right, here’s what I want each of you to do.”

  After laying out his plan, Stone put on an old hat he pulled from his backpack, placed Goff on a leash and got out of the car. Milton’s spare cell phone was in his pocket. Reuben and Caleb would stay in the car and keep watch, while Milton walked on the other side of the street toward Johnson’s home. His task was to note anyone who was paying Stone too much attention. Milton had been chosen for this role because he had remained in the bottom of the boat while they were being pursued, making it nearly impossible for the killers to have seen him. If Milton spotted anyone, he would ring Stone’s cell phone.

  Stone strolled slowly along the street, stopping to bag some waste that Goff deposited next to a tree. “Good dog, Goff,” Stone said, petting him. “That’s very helpful in keeping up our cover.” When he reached the front of Johnson’s residence, a man wearing an FBI windbreaker came out carrying a large box wrapped with police evidence tape.

  “A terrible tragedy, Officer,” Stone said in an inquiring tone to the man. The man didn’t answer, however, hurrying past Stone and handing the box to a woman who sat in one of the Suburbans. Stone let Goff sniff around a tree in front of Johnson’s house. While the animal did so, he was able to take in many details of the house and the adjacent properties. As he continued down the street, he passed a sedan that was idling at the curb. He managed not to even flinch when he saw who was sitting in the driver’s seat.

  Tyler Reinke’s gaze bored into Stone briefly before returning to his surveillance of Johnson’s house. He obviously didn’t recognize the man he had come close to shooting the night before. Stone inwardly said thanks for his prescience in radically altering his appearance. Now the question became, where was the other man?

  Stone continued down the street, turned left at the next corner and immediately called Caleb, relaying what he’d just seen. He then phoned Milton, who joined him a minute later.

  “You’re sure it’s him?” Milton asked.

  “No doubt. Now I want to know where the other one is.” His cell phone buzzed. Caleb’s voice was taut.

  “Reuben just spotted the other man.”

  “Where is he?”

  “Speaking with one of the FBI agents outside of Johnson’s home.”

  “Come and pick us up,” Stone said, relaying to Caleb where he and Milton were. “Don’t come down the street you’re on. I don’t want you to pass the house or the car he’s in. Turn left at the next corner and then make a right. We’ll meet you on the next block.”

  As the two men were waiting at the arranged spot, Stone watched as Milton picked up a page from a newspaper that had blown across the street. He folded it neatly and deposited it in a trash can that sat in front of a driveway.

  Stone said, “Milton, did you touch
the note in Patrick Johnson’s pocket last night?”

  Milton didn’t answer right away. However, his embarrassed look was all the response Stone really needed.

  “How did you know, Oliver?”

  “Those men knew we were there somehow. I don’t think it was because they saw us. I think they must have come back to the body for some reason and noticed that the note had been disturbed or was in a different place.”

  “I . . . I . . .”

  “You just wanted to check it, I know.” Stone was deeply worried for a very simple reason. Damp paper held fingerprints extremely well. Were Milton’s prints on any database anywhere? He didn’t want to ask him that question right now, for fear of sending his already upset friend into a panic attack.

  When the Malibu pulled up, Stone and Milton climbed in. Caleb drove ahead a bit, found a parking spot on the crowded street and wedged in.

  “Do we risk following them?” Reuben asked.

  “Unfortunately, Caleb’s car rather sticks out,” Stone said. “If they pick up that we’re following them and run the license plate, they’ll be at Caleb’s house waiting before he even gets back there.”

  “Oh, dear God,” Caleb said as he gripped the steering wheel and looked like he might be sick to his stomach.

  “So what do we do?” Reuben asked.

  Stone replied, “You said one of them was talking to the FBI. But the FBI wouldn’t be talking to just an ordinary citizen. I know. I tried. That could very well mean they’re law enforcement.”

  “Which means they could be with NIC,” Milton chimed in. “That’s where Johnson worked.”

  “A thought that had occurred to me,” Stone replied. “Carter Gray,” he muttered.

  “Not a man you take on lightly,” Reuben commented.

  Oh, shit!” Caleb whispered. He was staring in the rearview mirror. “That might be their car coming up behind us.”

  “Don’t look in that direction,” Stone commanded sharply. “Caleb, take a deep breath and calm down. Reuben, slump down a little in your seat to disguise your size in case they look this way.” As he was talking, Stone took off his hat and slid forward in his seat until he had disappeared from view. “Caleb, can they see your license plate from the street?”

  “No, the cars parked in front and back of us are too close.”

  “Good. As soon as they pass, I want you to wait ten seconds and then pull out, and turn in the opposite direction from them. Milton, you’re pretty well hidden from view in the backseat. I want you to very carefully glance over and see if they look at us. And I want you to get a good look at them.”

  Caleb took a deep breath and then held it as the car passed by slowly.

  “Don’t look over, Caleb,” Stone whispered again from his hiding place.

  As the car headed on and turned left at the next intersection, Stone said, “Milton?”

  “They didn’t look over.”

  “Okay, Caleb, go ahead.”

  Caleb slowly pulled his car out and turned right at the next corner as Stone sat back up. “Everyone keep a sharp lookout to make sure they don’t return,” Stone said.

  Stone looked back at Milton. “What did you see?”

  Milton gave a fairly complete description of both men as well as the Virginia license plate number of the car.

  Reuben looked at Stone. “I say now we go to the cops. We’ll back each other up. They’ll believe us.”

  “No!” Stone said sharply. “We have to get them before they get to us.”

  “How?” Reuben asked. “Especially if the killers are the authorities?”

  “By doing what the Camel Club used to do very well: seek the truth.”

  Milton broke in. “We can start by running their license plate number. It wasn’t a government plate, so we might just have lucked out, and it’s his personal car.”

  Reuben said, “Do you know someone at DMV who can run the tag?”

  Milton looked offended. “If I can hack into the Pentagon’s database, Reuben, DMV should prove no challenge at all.”

  CHAPTER

  25

  AT NIC HEADQUARTERS THERE was a state-of-the-art gymnasium in the lower level that virtually no one used for lack of time. However, in a small room off the main area there was one person working out.

  Tom Hemingway wore only a pair of loose-fitting shorts and a white tank shirt, and his feet were bare. He sat cross-legged on the floor with his eyes closed. A moment later he rose and assumed a martial arts stance. Most people watching him would have concluded that Hemingway was about to start practicing kung fu or karate. These same people would probably be surprised to learn that “kung fu,” literally translated, meant a skillful ability attained through hard work. Thus, someone could be a baseball player and be deemed to have good “kung fu.”

  There were four hundred types of martial arts disciplines that had originated other than in China, whereas there were only three indigenous to that country: Hsing-I Chuan, Pa-Kua Chang and Tai Chi Chuan. The key difference between the four hundred and the three was power, as the whole body was used as a means to transfer all kinetic energy of the attacker on to the target. It was roughly equivalent to the speed of a slap with the shock of being hit by a car. A blow struck by a skilled practitioner of any of the three so-called internal martial arts had the power to rupture organs and kill.

  During his years in China, Hemingway had found himself drawn to these internal martial arts, if for nothing more than to create a sense of identity that blended better with his surroundings than his blond hair and blue eyes did. Although he practiced the other forms of internal martial arts, Hemingway had become most proficient in the ShanXi House of Hsing-I.

  Prior to starting his practice forms, Hemingway had sat motionless for almost an hour meditating. This exercise allowed one to intuitively take in his surroundings, sensing presence long before anyone could actually be seen. This talent had served Hemingway well in the field. As a CIA agent his life had been saved on more than one occasion by his ability to be aware of his enemy in a manner that defied the five human senses.

  Through long years of practice Hemingway’s joints, tendons, ligaments, muscle groups and fascia were enormously strong. Decades of spine stretching while executing the twists and turns of his discipline had kept each of his vertebrae in perfect alignment with its neighbor. His sense of balance almost defied human comprehension. He had once stood for six hours on a skyscraper’s one-inch-wide ledge, twenty-one stories up in a driving wind and rain, while a Colombian death squad circled below looking for him. So strong were his fingers that he had to consciously hold back when he shook hands, and even then people frequently complained of his crushing grip.

  He now assumed the bamboo stance, which was the critical maneuver in Hsing-I. The bamboo technique was simple physics, and also where the famed power of Hsing-I emanated. Hemingway had killed highly skilled men with just one vector strike off the bamboo stance.

  He next picked up a pair of crescent swords, the traditional neijia weapons of the Pa-Kua internal martial art. They were his favorite form of practice weapon. He flew around the room using highly intricate bilateral movements of the curved swords, coupled with astonishingly tight footwork and tremendous centrifugal force that were characteristic of the Pa-Kua discipline

  After he had finished his workout, Hemingway showered and changed into his street clothes. As he was dressing, he unconsciously rubbed the tattoo that he carried on the inside of his right forearm. It was composed of four words in Chinese. Translated, it meant “Ultimate loyalty to serve country.” There was a story behind the marking that intrigued Hemingway.

  A famous general in the Southern Song dynasty named Yueh Fei had served under a field marshal who had defected to the enemy. This betrayal had sent Fei home in disgust. There his mother lectured him that a soldier’s first duty is to his country. She sent him back to battle with those four words tattooed on his back as a permanent reminder. Hemingway had heard the story as a young boy and
never forgotten it. He’d gotten the tattoo when a particularly troubling mission he performed for the CIA caused him to consider quitting. Instead, he had the words engraved on his skin and went on with his work.

  Hemingway drove to his modest apartment on Capitol Hill and went into the kitchen to make wulong black tea, his favorite. He brewed a pot and placed two cups on a tray and carried it into the small living room.

  Hemingway poured out the tea and then called out, “Cold wulong isn’t very good.”

  There was a stirring in the next room, and the man walked out.

  “Okay, what gave me away? I’m not wearing anything scented. I took off my shoes. I’ve been holding my damn breath for thirty minutes. What?”

  “You have a powerful aura that you can’t hide,” Hemingway said, smiling.

  “You scare me sometimes, Tom, you really do.” Captain Jack tipped back his head and laughed and then accepted a cup of tea. He sat down, took a sip and nodded at a painting of a Chinese landscape that hung against the far wall. “Nice.”

  “I’ve actually been to the area depicted in the painting. My father collected that artist’s work and some sculpture from the Shang dynasty.”

  “Amazing man, Ambassador Hemingway. I never met him but I certainly knew of him.”

  “He was a statesman,” Hemingway said as he sipped his tea. “Unfortunately that’s a breed that’s nearly extinct these days.”

  Captain Jack remained silent for a few moments, studying the man across from him. “I tried reading the poetry you told me about.”

  Hemingway looked up from his tea. “The Red Pepper collection? What’d you think?”

  “That I should work on my Chinese.”

  Hemingway smiled. “It’s a beautiful way to communicate, once you get into it.”

  Captain Jack set his teacup down on the table. “So what was so important that it had to be done in person?”

 
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