The camel club, p.16
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       The Camel Club, p.16

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  “Carter Gray will be going to the dedication in Brennan.”

  “Damn, I’d say that was worth a face-to-face. How do you want to play it, then?”

  “The exit strategy has always been problematic. No matter how we tried to tweak it, there was too much uncertainty. Now, with Gray coming, we have certainty.”

  “How exactly do you figure that?”

  Hemingway explained his plan and his colleague looked suitably impressed.

  “Well, I think it’ll work. In fact, I think it’s brilliant. Brilliant and ballsy.”

  “Depending on whether it succeeds or not,” Hemingway replied.

  “Don’t be modest, Tom. Let’s call this what it is. A plan that will rock the entire world.” He paused and added, “But don’t underestimate the old man. Carter Gray’s forgotten more than you and I will ever know about the spy business.”

  Hemingway opened his briefcase. Inside was a DVD. He tossed it to his companion. “I think you’ll find what’s on there helpful.”

  Captain Jack fingered the DVD and watched Hemingway closely. “I did over twenty years with the Company, quite a few under Gray, and you did what?”

  “Twelve, all in the field, with two years at NSA before that,” Hemingway answered. “I started at NIC a year after Gray became secretary.”

  “I hear they’re grooming you for the top spot. Interested?”

  Hemingway shook his head. “There’s little future there that I can see.”

  “Back to the CIA, then?”

  “It’s a useless anachronism.”

  “Right! There’ll always be a CIA, even after the Iraqi WMDs that never were.”

  “You think so?” Hemingway said curiously.

  “Oh, when I was helping support a host of ‘acceptable alternatives’ to communism, mostly monster dictators, or feeding crack to black neighborhoods to help fund illegal operations overseas, or blowing up democracies in other countries because they wouldn’t support American business interests, I thought to myself, there’s got to be a better way of doing this. But I got over that thinking a long time ago.”

  “We can’t win this particular fight with soldiers and spies,” Hemingway said. “It’s not that simple.”

  “Then it can’t be won,” Captain Jack answered bluntly. “Because that’s the only way countries know to settle their differences.”

  “Dostoyevsky wrote that ‘while nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.’”

  “You and I have both spent a lot of time there, but do you really think you’ll ever understand the ‘evildoer’ mentality of the Middle Eastern terrorist?”

  “How do you know that’s the ‘evildoer’ I’m referring to? We certainly don’t have clean hands when it comes to events overseas. In fact, we created many of the problems we face today.”

  “That’s why there’s only one sensible motivation these days: money. As I’ve told you before, I don’t care about anything else. I will go back to my beautiful little island, and I will not stir again. This is it for me.”

  “That’s being brutally honest,” Hemingway remarked.

  “Would you rather I tell you that my twitching ideology is screaming for me to help make the world better?”

  “No, I’ll take the brutal honesty.”

  “And why are you doing it?”

  “For something better than what we have.”

  “Idealism again? I’m telling you, Tom, you’ll live to regret it. Or die.”

  “Not idealism, or even fatalism, but simply an idea put into action.”

  Captain Jack shook his head slowly. “I’ve fought for and against pretty much every cause there is. There will always be war of some kind. At first it was over fertile soil and good water, then precious metal and then the most popular version of human disagreement, ‘My God is better than your God.’ Whether you draw your faith from Jeremiah and Jesus, Allah and Muhammad or Brahma and Buddha, it doesn’t matter. Someone will tell you you’re wrong, and he’ll fight you over it. Me, I believe in aliens, and to hell with all earthly gods. In the grand scheme of a trillion planets in the universe we’re just not that damn important anyway. And humans are rotten to the core.”

  “Buddha rose above materialism. Jesus was champion of embracing one’s enemies. As was Gandhi.”

  “Jesus was betrayed and died on the cross, and Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu who was ticked off Gandhi tolerated Muslims,” Captain Jack pointed out.

  Hemingway paced the room. “I remember my father telling me about England’s redrawing of India’s boundaries when it became independent. They wanted to separate the Hindu from the Muslim, but they used outdated maps. Twelve million people had to relocate because the Brits screwed it up so badly. And a half million people died during the resulting chaos. And before that, Iraq was unilaterally cobbled together, causing many of the conflicts we see today. There are dozens of such examples. The strong countries smashing the weaker ones and then avoiding responsibility later for the very problems they caused.”

  “You keep proving my point, Tom, that we’re rotten to the core.”

  “My point is we never learn!”

  “And what, you think you have a better answer?” Hemingway didn’t respond. Captain Jack rose but then paused at the door. “I doubt that I’ll see you again, unless you end up heading to a small island in the South Pacific. If you do, you’ll be welcome. Unless you’re a fugitive. Then, my friend, you’re on your own.”

  CHAPTER

  26

  AFTER HE’D LEFT THE BAR, ALEX Ford grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby diner, wedging his butt between the wide frames of two hefty D.C. cops at the counter. He shared some shoptalk with his law enforcement brethren and also swapped some old doomsday gossip. Alex’s personal favorite was, “At all costs, stay out of the Metro on Halloween.” What Alex really wanted to do was stand on the counter and shout for all to hear that a beautiful woman had just asked him out. Instead, he quietly finished off his cheeseburger, french fries and wedge of blueberry pie washed down with black coffee. Afterward, he headed back to WFO to check his e-mails.

  Sykes still hadn’t responded, although Alex had received an electronic receipt that the man had opened the e-mail report. He wandered the halls of WFO, half hoping to run into Sykes and see where he stood on the investigation. Alex had written up thousands of reports, but this one went right to HQ, something not all that common for street grunts like him, who weren’t being groomed to move up the agency’s leadership ladder. When you knew the director’s eyes were going to be running over your feeble attempt at logical composition, it tended to make the neck hairs stand up and start twitching.

  He passed by the assignment board and noted that his photo and Simpson’s had been placed under the heading “Special Assignment.” As he looked at the olive-skinned lady staring back at him out of the photo, he muttered the name “J-Glo.” Maybe she should just go back to Alabama. Daddy would probably love that.

  He killed some more time at his desk and then decided that if Sykes really wanted to talk, he’d find him.

  Out on the sidewalk he sucked in a chest full of crisp night air and smiled as he thought of Kate Adams, and then he walked down the street with a lift in his step that had been absent for a long time. He thought about heading home, but what he really wanted to do was talk to someone. However, all his good friends were married Secret Service agents, which meant if they weren’t on duty, they were spending some rare quality time with their families. And Alex shared little in common with the young bucks at WFO.

  This made him realize that in three short years he was going to have to make some pretty major decisions. Would he just retire? Or would he go to another agency, live mostly off his pension from the Service and stockpile the paychecks from the new job? This was known as double-dipping. It was completely legal, and many feds did it to pad their retirement funds. It was a way to even out things after they’d worked for below market-value in the p
ublic sector.

  Much of Alex’s adult life had been a blur, learning the ropes at the Service, busting bad guys in eight different field offices, then on to protection detail, where he had spent every waking hour hopping planes and running from one city, one country to the next. He had been so busy worrying about everybody else that he had never spent much time worrying about himself. And now that it was time to think about his future, Alex suddenly felt totally incapable of doing so. Where did he start? What did he do? He felt a panic attack coming on, and not one that another martini would’ve cured.

  He was standing paralyzed on a corner deciding what to do with the rest of his life when his cell phone rang. At first the name and number on the caller ID screen didn’t register, but then it clicked. It was Anne Jeffries, the late Patrick Johnson’s fiancée.

  “Hello?”

  “You don’t think I would know if the man I was going to marry, the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with, was a damn drug dealer!” She screamed this at him so loudly that he jerked the phone away from his ear.

  “Ms. Jeffries—”

  “I’m going to sue. I’m going to sue the FBI and the Secret Service. And you. And that bitch of a partner of yours!”

  “Whoa, hold on, now. I can understand that you’re upset—”

  “Upset? Upset isn’t even in the universe of what I’m feeling. It’s not enough that Pat had to be murdered, now his reputation is being destroyed too.”

  “Ms. Jeffries, I’m just trying to do my job—”

  “Save your pathetic excuses for my lawyer,” she snapped, and then hung up.

  Alex put his phone away and took a deep breath. He wondered whom the woman might call next? The Washington Post? 60 Minutes? Every boss he’d ever had? He called Jerry Sykes’ private cell number. It went into voice mail, but Alex left a detailed message about his brief but explosive conversation with the bereaved fiancée. Okay, he’d done what he could. The shit was probably going to fly anyway.

  He definitely didn’t want to go home now. He wanted to walk. And think.

  His wandering took him, as it often did, to the White House. He nodded to some of the uniformed Secret Service that he knew, and stopped and chatted with an agent who was sitting in a black Suburban gulping down black coffee. Alex and the man had started out together at the Louisville Field Office, though their paths had parted after that.

  POTUS was hosting a state dinner tonight, his friend told Alex. And then it was off to campaign in the Midwest the next day, with a 9/11 ceremony in New York City after that.

  “I like to see a president who keeps busy,” Alex replied. Some chief executives worked their butts off, pulling a full twelve hours during the day, changing into a tux and doing the Washington social two-step and then working the phones from their private quarters until the wee hours. Other presidents liked to cruise through the day and knock off early. Alex had never thought the presidency was a “cruising” sort of job.

  He passed into Lafayette Park and was surprised to see a light on in Stone’s tent. Maybe he’d finally found somebody he could really talk to.

  “Oliver?” he called out softly while standing next to the lighted tent.

  The tent flap fell open, and he stared at a man he didn’t recognize.

  “I’m sorry,” Alex said, “I was looking for—”

  “Agent Ford,” Oliver Stone said as he stepped outside.

  “Oliver? Is that you?”

  Stone smiled and rubbed his clean-shaven face. “A man needs a fresh start every once in a while,” he explained.

  “I came by looking for you last night.”

  “Adelphia told me. I miss our chess matches.”

  “I’m afraid I didn’t give you much competition.”

  “You improved a lot over the years,” Stone replied kindly.

  While Alex was on presidential protection detail, he’d visited Stone as often as his busy schedule allowed. At first it was to check up on potential problems near the White House. Back then, Alex considered anyone within a square mile of the place who didn’t carry a Secret Service badge as the enemy, and Stone had been no exception.

  What had really intrigued Alex about Oliver Stone was that the man didn’t seem to have a past. Alex had heard rumors that Stone had at one time worked for the government. So Alex went on every database he could think of looking for some history on the fellow, but there was simply none. He didn’t search under “Oliver Stone,” an obviously fake name. Instead, he surreptitiously got Stone’s fingerprints and ran them through AFIS, the FBI’s massive automated fingerprint identification system. That came back negative. Then he passed them through the military databanks, the Secret Service’s own computer files and through every other place he could think of. They all came back zip. As far as the United States government was concerned, Oliver Stone didn’t exist.

  He’d once followed Stone to his caretaker’s cottage at the cemetery. He checked with the church that owned it, but they would tell him nothing about the man, and Alex had no probable cause to force the issue. He’d watched Stone working in the cemetery a few times, and when he’d gone off, Alex considered searching the cottage. Yet there was something about Stone, an intense measure of dignity and also a profound sincerity, that caused Alex to finally reject this idea.

  “So what did you come to see me about?” Stone asked.

  “Just passing through. Adelphia said you were at a meeting.”

  “She likes to embellish. I met some friends over on the Mall. We like walking there at night.” He paused and added, “So how are things going at the WFO?”

  “It’s nice working cases again.”

  “I heard that an employee of yours was killed.”

  Alex nodded. “Patrick Johnson. He worked at the National Threat Assessment Center. That’s really been blended with NIC now, but I’m involved because Johnson was still sort of a joint employee of ours.”

  “You’re involved?” Stone said. “Do you mean that you’re working the case?”

  Alex hesitated. There didn’t seem to be any reason not to acknowledge his involvement. It wasn’t exactly confidential. “I was assigned to poke around, although it seems to have been solved.”

  “I hadn’t heard.”

  “They found heroin in Johnson’s home. They think whoever he was dealing with killed him.” He didn’t mention Anne Jeffries’ call. That part wasn’t publicly known.

  “And what do you think?” Stone said, eyeing him keenly.

  Alex shrugged. “Who knows? And we’re just really piggybacking on the FBI.”

  “And yet a man has been killed.”

  Alex looked at his friend questioningly. “Yeah? I know that.”

  “Over the years I’ve watched you, Agent Ford. You’re observant, diligent, and you have sound instincts. I think you should use those talents on this case. If the man’s work was sensitive to this nation’s security, a second pair of eyes is certainly in order.”

  “I’ve covered the bases, Oliver. If it wasn’t drugs?”

  “Exactly. If not drugs, what? I think someone should answer that question very thoroughly. Perhaps the answer lies with his work. Consider that planting drugs at his home would be an easy way to cover something up.”

  Alex looked doubtful. “That’s highly unlikely. And quite frankly, NIC is a big can of worms to open for a guy looking to retire in three years.”

  “Three years isn’t such a long time, Agent Ford; not nearly as long as the years you’ve already served your country. And unfortunately, fair or not, the end of one’s career is what a person is usually remembered for.”

  “And if I make a misstep on this one, maybe I don’t have a career left.”

  “But the other important point to realize is this: The end of one’s career is also what you remember most vividly. And you’ll have decades to possibly regret. And that is a very long time.”

  Leaving Stone, Alex slowly walked back to his car. What the man said made sense. There were iss
ues that were not clear in Alex’s mind about Patrick Johnson’s death. The drug discovery did seem a little too convenient, and other details just didn’t add up. In truth, he had been only halfheartedly investigating the case, more than ready to follow the Bureau’s lead and its conclusions.

  And Stone had been right on another level. Alex had stayed at the Service after his accident because he didn’t want to go out on a disability ride. Well, sleepwalking through a major case wasn’t the way he wanted to go out either. There was something to be said for professional pride. And if U.S. presidents shouldn’t cruise through their duties, Secret Service agents shouldn’t either.

  Oliver Stone watched Alex pass out of sight and then quickly walked to his cottage at the cemetery. From there he used the cell phone Milton had given him to call Caleb and tell him of this latest development. “It was a stroke of good fortune that I couldn’t ignore,” Stone explained.

  “But you didn’t say anything about us seeing the murder, did you?”

  “Agent Ford is a federal policeman. Had I told him that, his duty would’ve been clear. My best hope is that he will dig up something at NIC that would have been beyond our means to do.”

  “Won’t that place him in jeopardy? I mean if NIC’s gunning down its own employees, they might not stop at killing a Secret Service agent.”

  “Agent Ford is a capable man. But we’ll also have to act as his guardian angels, won’t we?”

  Stone clicked off and, suddenly remembering he hadn’t eaten any dinner, went into his kitchen and made some soup, which he ate in front of a small fire he’d built. Cemeteries always seemed to be cold, no matter the season.

  After that, he sat down in his old armchair next to the fire with a book that he’d been reading from his very eclectic collection that Caleb had helped him assemble. That’s all he had left: his friends, his books, some theories, a few memories.

  He glanced at the box with the photo album again, and, despite
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