The camel club, p.18
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       The Camel Club, p.18

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “The Bureau found the drugs; you filed your report. You said you were going back to catching counterfeiters and standing post. I remember it pretty clearly because it’s when you also gave me that fabulous career advice.”

  “I got a call from Anne Jeffries last night. She said the drugs were bullshit. She threatened to sue us.”

  “She’s full of crap. And she can’t sue us for doing our job. Hell, it’s not like we planted the heroin in Johnson’s house.”

  Alex glanced over at her. “But what if someone else did?”

  She stared back at him skeptically. “Planted drugs? Why?”

  “That’s for us to find out. Right from the get-go this case hasn’t made sense.”

  “It makes perfect sense if you accept the fact that Patrick Johnson made a ton of money dealing drugs; he was getting married and didn’t see a way out.”

  “If he didn’t see a way out, why did he agree to get married in the first place?”

  “Maybe despite her dowdy looks, little Annie is Superwoman in bed and wouldn’t give it up anymore without a ring on her finger. So he pops the question and then has second thoughts. He feels trapped and decides the only way out is to bite the bullet.”

  “You’re joking, right?”

  “You don’t know a lot about women, do you?”

  “Meaning what exactly?”

  “Meaning that being only a man’s lust repository gets a little old after a while. Women want permanent relationships of the diamond variety. Men want conquests.”

  “Thanks for stereotyping the entire human race; it was very informative.”

  “Well, here’s another theory for you: Johnson was dealing drugs, but with his marriage he wanted to quit the business. It’s not the sort of business you just walk away from. As a wedding gift his associates gave him a bullet instead of a toaster.”

  “On the island where he had his first date? How would they have known?”

  “Maybe from Anne Jeffries, the lady who is now protesting so much that her sweetie was never involved in drugs.”

  “So she’s lying to us?”

  “She’s either incredibly stupid or else she knew about the drugs.”

  “So if she had no problem with it, why would he kill himself?”

  “Maybe he wanted to walk away from the business, but she didn’t want him to.”

  Alex shook his head. “So now in cahoots with the druggies, she kills her fiancé?”

  “It’s as plausible as your theory.”

  “I don’t think Anne Jeffries could tell the difference between a kilo of heroin and a box of sugar even if we shoved them down her throat.”

  “Whatever.” Simpson folded her arms across her chest. “So where are we going?”

  “Remember the two guys we met out at Roosevelt Island, Reinke and Peters? I called them. They’ve finished the handwriting analysis, and I thought we could go learn those results, get our note back and then snoop around.”

  She exclaimed, “Snoop around! Did you know that when the president goes to NIC, the Secret Service isn’t even allowed on certain floors with him because our security clearances aren’t high enough?”

  “Yeah, I know. That still pisses me off,” Alex said.

  “So what do you expect to find out there?”

  “As part of our investigation we need to know what Johnson did at NIC.”

  “What happened to the man who didn’t want to screw up his last three years?”

  Alex stopped the car at a red light and looked over at her. “If I’m afraid to screw up, then I should just turn in my badge right now. And since I’m not willing to do that . . .”

  “And this wonderfully patriotic epiphany just hit you?”

  “Actually, an old friend pointed it out to me last night.”

  The light turned green and they started off again. He glanced over at her, and that’s when he suddenly noticed it, because she’d unbuttoned her jacket.

  “That’s a SIG .357.”

  She didn’t look at him. “My other gun was a little heavy.”

  Alex also noted that she was not wearing her usual flashy breast pocket handkerchief.

  They were passing through western Fairfax County on Route 7 when Simpson finally spoke again. “I had dinner with my father last night.”

  “And how is the good senator?”

  “Enlightened,” she answered tersely.

  Alex wisely kept his mouth shut.

  When they pulled up to the main security entrance at NIC, Alex surveyed with awe the sprawling complex that lay ahead.

  “What the hell is NIC’s budget?”

  “It’s classified, like ours,” Simpson answered.

  It took them nearly an hour to clear security, and even then, despite their protests, they had to turn over their weapons. The two were escorted through the halls by a pair of armed guards and an inquisitive Doberman that kept sniffing at Alex’s pant leg.

  “Let’s not forget we’re all on the same team, little fellow,” Alex said jokingly to the dog.

  The guards didn’t even crack a smile.

  The two Secret Service agents were deposited in a small room and told to wait. And they waited. And waited.

  “Is it my imagination, or did we cross into a foreign country back there?” Alex said sourly as he balled up a piece of paper and missed a three-pointer aimed at the wastebasket.

  “You’re the one who wanted to come here,” his partner snapped. “I’ve got a full caseload back at WFO that I could be working on to build my career.”

  Before Alex could answer, the door opened, and in walked Tyler Reinke followed closely by Warren Peters.

  “Long time no see,” Alex said as he made a protracted show of checking his watch. “I’m glad you two could finally make it.”

  “Sorry about the wait,” Reinke said casually. He pulled out a piece of paper, and they all sat at the small table in the center of the room.

  “The handwriting on the note matches Johnson’s,” Reinke said. “No doubt about it.” He passed across the analysis for the Secret Service agents to examine.

  “No surprise there,” Alex said. “Where’s the note?”

  “In the lab.”

  “Okay.” Alex waited, but neither of the men said anything. “I’ll need it back.”

  “Right, fine,” Peters said.

  “It might take a little time,” Reinke added.

  “I was hoping you’d say that, because we wanted to look around Johnson’s office and talk to some of his co-workers. Get a feel for the stuff he was working on.”

  The men looked at him blankly. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Peters said.

  “Guys, this is a homicide investigation. I need a little cooperation.”

  “As far as cooperation goes, we ran the handwriting analysis for you. Besides, it looks pretty clear that the man committed suicide. That’s the Bureau’s conclusion too.”

  “Looks can be deceiving,” Alex shot back. “And investigating a person’s workplace is standard for this sort of case.”

  “Patrick Johnson’s work area is restricted to the highest security clearance levels,” Reinke said firmly. “No exceptions. Your clearances aren’t good enough. I checked.”

  Alex leaned forward and eyed Reinke. “I guarded the president of the United States for five years. I worked on the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force while you were still banging cheerleaders in college. I’ve stood post at meetings of the Joint Chiefs where they talked about stuff this country is doing that would make both of you crap in your Brooks Brothers pants.”

  “Your security clearances aren’t adequate,” Reinke reiterated.

  “Then we have a big problem,” Alex said. “Because I’ve been assigned to investigate this case. Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

  “Meaning what?” Peters asked.

  “Meaning I can get a warrant to search Johnson’s workplace and talk to his colleagues, or you can just let me do it, security clearance i
nadequacy notwithstanding.”

  Reinke smiled and shook his head. “There’s not a court in this country that would issue a search warrant for these premises.”

  “What, you’re playing the national security card?” Alex said scornfully.

  “Secret Service uses it all the time,” Peters retorted.

  “Not for something like this. And let me remind you that the Department of Homeland Security is my boss now, not wimp-ass Treasury.”

  “Right. And the director of Homeland Security reports to Carter Gray.”

  “Bullshit, they’re both cabinet secretaries.”

  Simpson cut in. “Are you guys finished seeing whose penis is bigger? Because this is getting pretty stupid.”

  The door opened, and both Reinke and Peters shot to their feet.

  Carter Gray stood there gazing at them. Alex watched in stunned silence as Gray walked over and gave Simpson a hug and a peck on the cheek.

  “You’re looking lovely as always, Jackie. How are things?”

  “I’ve had better days,” she answered, and then gave Alex a scowl before turning back to Gray. “This is my partner, Alex Ford.”

  Gray nodded. “Good to meet you, Alex.”

  “Thank you, sir.”

  Simpson said, “I had dinner with Dad last night.”

  “The senator needs to go deer hunting again with me. The last time I bagged a six-pointer. Haven’t had a damn bit of luck since.”

  “I’ll tell him.”

  “What can we do for you?”

  She told him about wanting to look around Patrick Johnson’s office.

  “I told them they lacked the necessary security clearances, sir,” Reinke interjected.

  “I’m sure you did.” Gray glanced at Simpson. “Come on, Jackie, I’ll walk you down there myself.” He looked back at Reinke and Peters. “That’ll be all,” he said tersely. The two men instantly fled the room.

  As Gray led them down the hall, Alex whispered into Simpson’s ear, “Jesus, you didn’t tell me you knew Carter Gray.”

  “You never asked.”

  “So how do you know him?”

  “He’s my godfather.”



  WHILE ALEX AND SIMPSON WERE trying to make some headway at NIC, Oliver Stone was playing chess in a park near the White House. His opponent, Thomas Jefferson Wyatt, known universally as T.J., was an old friend who had worked in the kitchen at the White House for almost forty years.

  T.J. was a member of the congregation of United Methodist that owned Mt. Zion Cemetery. It was T.J. who helped Stone get the caretaker’s job there.

  Weather permitting, Stone and Wyatt would often play chess on Wyatt’s day off. In fact, it was through chess that the men became friends.

  Stone made a move without his usual deliberation, and the adverse result was swift as Wyatt captured his queen.

  “You okay, Oliver?” Wyatt asked. “Not like you to make mistakes like that.”

  “Just some things on my mind, T.J.” He sat back against the park bench and gazed keenly at his friend. “It looks like your current boss will be around for another four years.”

  Wyatt shrugged. “From the kitchen one president looks a lot like another, Republican or Democrat. They all eat. But don’t get me wrong. He’s doing an okay job. He treats us good, gives us respect. Gives respect to the Secret Service too; not all of them do, you know. You think you’d treat people willing to take a bullet for you pretty good.” Wyatt shook his head. “Things I’ve seen on that score make you sick.”

  “Speaking of the Secret Service, I saw Agent Ford last night.”

  Wyatt brightened. “Now, that’s a good man. I told you after Kitty died and I had pneumonia he came to my house to check on me almost every day he was in town.”

  “I remember.”

  Stone moved one of his bishops forward and said, “I saw Carter Gray land at the White House yesterday.”

  “Secret Service don’t like that one bit. Chopper coming in should only be Marine One with the man on it and that’s all.”

  “Carter Gray’s status allows him to make his own rules.”

  Wyatt grinned, hunched forward and lowered his voice. “Got some scuttlebutt on him you’ll get a kick out of.”

  Stone eased forward. Their chess matches sometimes included snatches of relatively innocuous gossip. White House domestic staff tended to have long tenures at the White House, and they were famous for both meticulous attention to their duties and, more important for the First Family, their discretion. It had taken Stone years to get Wyatt comfortable enough to discuss anything that happened at the White House, however trivial.

  “The president asked Gray to go up to New York with him on 9/11, you know, for his big speech at the memorial site.” Wyatt paused and looked around at a passerby.

  “And?” asked Stone.

  “And Gray flat turned him down.”

  “That’s a little brazen, even for Gray.”

  “Well, you know what happened to his wife and daughter, right?”

  “Yes.” Stone had met Barbara Gray decades ago. She was an accomplished woman even back then, with a compassion that her husband had never possessed. Stone had instantly respected her, later faulting the lady only for her poor choice in husbands.

  “Then the president asked Gray to go up with him to that town in Pennsylvania, the place that changed its name to Brennan.”

  “And is he?”

  “You don’t turn down the man twice, right?”

  “No, you don’t,” Stone agreed.

  Both men fell silent as Wyatt studied the board and then made his move, edging his rook toward Stone’s knight.

  While Stone considered his options, he said, “I see that Gray has some problems of his own to deal with. This fellow Patrick Johnson who was found dead on Roosevelt Island, he worked for NIC.”

  “Oh, yeah, that’s been making the rounds at the big house.”

  “The president’s concerned?”

  “He and Gray are real tight. So dirt hits Gray, it’s bound to splash on the president. The man’s no dummy. The president’s loyal, but he’s not stupid.” T.J. glanced around. “I’m not telling tales out of school. Everybody knows that.”

  “I’m sure NIC and the White House have been working the media hard, because there wasn’t much in the morning news about it.”

  “I know the president’s been ordering a lot of late-night snacks and coffee. Man’s going into the homestretch on the election, and he doesn’t want nothing to upset the applecart. And a dead body can upset a lot of things.”

  After their chess match was finished and Wyatt had left, Stone sat and thought for a bit. So Gray was going to Brennan, Pennsylvania? That was interesting. Stone had thought it a little gutsy of the town to pull a stunt like that, but apparently, it had paid off.

  He was about to leave when he saw Adelphia walking toward him, carrying two cups of coffee. She sat down and handed him one. “Now we have the café and we chat,” she said firmly. “Unless you have meeting to go to,” she added drolly.

  “No, no, I don’t, Adelphia. And thank you for the coffee.” He paused and added, “How did you know I was here?”

  “Like that is big secret. Where do you come when you have the game of chess? It is here you come, always it is. With that black man who works at White House.”

  “I didn’t know I was that predictable in my movements,” he said, his tone somewhat annoyed.

  “Men, men are always predictable. Do you like your café?”

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