The camel club, p.2
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       The Camel Club, p.2
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         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “Perhaps you’re right and thank you for your concern,” he said politely. Adelphia would much rather argue and looked for any opening to pounce on. He’d long since learned never to allow the woman such an opportunity.

  Adelphia stared at him angrily for another moment and then stalked off. Meanwhile, Stone glanced at a sign next to his that read:

  HAVE A NICE DOOMSDAY

  Stone had not seen the gentleman who erected that sign for a long time.

  “Yes, we will, won’t we?” he muttered, and then his attention was caught by the sudden activity across the street. Policemen and marked cruisers were assembling in groups. Stone could also see lawmen taking up positions at the various intersections. Across the street the imposing black steel gates that could withstand the push of an M-1 tank opened, and a black Suburban shot out, its red and blue grille lights blazing.

  Knowing instantly what was happening, Stone hurried down the street toward the nearest intersection. As he watched through his binoculars, the world’s most elaborate motorcade streamed out onto 17th Street. In the middle of this imposing column was the most unique limousine ever built.

  It was a Cadillac DTS model loaded with the latest in navigation and communication technology, and it could carry six passengers very comfortably in rich blue leather with wood trim accents. The limo boasted automatic-sensor reclining seats and a foldaway storable desktop and was fully airtight with its own internal air supply in case the outside oxygen wasn’t up to par. The presidential seal was embroidered on the center of the rear seat, and presidential seals were also affixed on the inside and outside of the rear doors. On the right front fender rode the U.S. flag. The presidential standard flew from a post on the left front fender, signaling that America’s chief executive was indeed inside.

  The exterior of the vehicle was constructed of antiballistic-steel panels, and the windows were phone-book-thick polycarbonate glass that no bullet could penetrate. It ran on four self-healing tires and sported double-zero license plates. The car’s gas mileage was lousy, but its price tag of $10 million did include a ten-disc CD changer with surround sound. Unfortunately, for those looking for a bargain, there was no dealer discount. It was known affectionately as the Beast. The limo had only two known weaknesses: It could neither fly nor float.

  A light came on inside the Beast, and Stone saw the man perusing some papers, papers of enormous importance, no doubt. Another gentleman sat beside him. Stone had to smile. The agents must be furious over the light. Even with thick armor and bulletproof glass you didn’t make yourself such an easy target.

  The limo slowed as it passed through the intersection, and Stone tensed a bit as he saw the man glance his way. For a brief moment the president of the United States, James H. Brennan, and conspiracy-minded citizen Oliver Stone made direct eye contact. The president grimaced and said something. The man next to him immediately turned the light out. Stone smiled again. Yes, I will always be here. Longer than both of you.

  The man seated beside President Brennan was also well known to Stone. He was Carter Gray, the so-called intelligence czar, a recently created cabinet-level position that gave him ironfisted control of a $50-billion budget and 120,000 highly trained personnel in all fifteen American intelligence agencies. His empire included the spy satellite platform, the NSA’s cryptologic expertise, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, and even the venerable CIA, an agency Gray had once headed. Apparently, the folks at Langley thought that Gray would show them preference and deference. He had done neither. Because Gray was also a former secretary of defense, it was assumed that he would show the Pentagon—which consumed eighty cents out of every intelligence dollar—loyalty. That assumption had also turned out to be completely erroneous. Gray obviously knew where all the bodies were buried and had used that to bend both agencies to his considerable will.

  Stone did not believe that one man, one fallible human being, should have that much power, and certainly not someone like Carter Gray. Stone had known the man very well decades ago, though Gray certainly would not have recognized his old mate now. Years ago it would’ve been a different story, right, Mr. Gray?

  The binoculars were suddenly ripped out of his hands, and Stone was staring at a uniformed guard toting a machine gun.

  “You pull these out again to look at the man, Stone, they’re gone; you got it? And if we didn’t know you were okay, they’d be gone right now.” The man thrust the vintage field glasses back into Stone’s hands and marched off.

  “Simply exercising my constitutional rights, Officer,” Stone replied in a low voice that he knew the guard couldn’t hear. He quickly put his binoculars away and stepped back into the shadows. Again, one should not argue with humorless men carrying automatic weapons. Stone let out a long breath. His life was a precarious balance every day.

  He went back inside his tent, opened his knapsack and, using his flashlight, read over a series of stories he’d clipped from newspapers and magazines and pasted into his journals. They documented the doings of Carter Gray and President Brennan: “Intelligence Czar Strikes Again,” claimed one headline; “Brennan and Gray Make Dynamic Duo,” said another.

  It had all come about very quickly. After several fits and starts Congress had dramatically reorganized the U.S. intelligence community and essentially put its complete faith in Carter Gray. As secretary of intelligence, Gray headed the National Intelligence Center, or NIC. The center’s statutory mandate was to keep the country safe from attacks within or without its borders. Safe by any means necessary was perhaps the chief unwritten part of this mandate.

  However, the beginning of Gray’s tenure had hardly matched his impressive résumé: a series of suicide bombers in metropolitan areas with enormous casualties, two assassinations of visiting foreign dignitaries and then a direct but fortunately unsuccessful attack on the White House. Despite many in Congress calling for his resignation and the dismantling of the secretary’s authority, Gray had kept the support of his president. And if power slots in Washington were compared to natural disasters, the president was a hurricane and an earthquake all rolled into one.

  Then slowly, the tide had begun to turn. A dozen planned terrorist attacks on American soil had been thwarted. And terrorists were being killed and captured at an increasingly high rate. Long unable to crack the inner rings of these organizations, the American intelligence community was finally starting to attack the enemy from within its own circles and damaging its ability to hit the United States and its allies. Gray had understandably received the lion’s share of the credit for these outcomes.

  Stone checked his watch. The meeting would be starting soon. However, it was a long walk, and his legs, his usual mode of getting around, were tired today. He left the tent and checked his wallet. There was no money in it.

  That’s when he spotted the pedestrian. Stone immediately headed after this gentleman as he raised his hand and a taxi pulled up to the curb. Stone increased his pace, reaching the man as he climbed into the cab. His eyes downcast, his hand out, Stone said, “Can you spare some change, sir? Just a few dollars.” This was said in a practiced, deferential tone, allowing the other man to adopt a magnanimous posture if he so chose. Adopt one, Stone thought. For it’s a long walk.

  The man hesitated and then took the bait. He smiled and reached for his wallet. Stone’s eyes widened as a crisp twenty-dollar bill was placed in his palm.

  “God bless you,” Stone said as he clutched the money tightly.

  Stone walked as quickly as he could to a nearby hotel’s taxi stand. Normally, he’d have taken a bus, but with twenty dollars he’d ride by himself for a change. After smoothing down his long, disheveled hair and prodding his equally stubborn beard into place, Stone walked up to the first cab in line.

  On seeing him the cabby hit the door lock and yelled, “Get the hell outta here!”

  Stone held up the twenty-dollar bill and said through the half-opened window, “The regulations under which you operate do not
allow you to discriminate on any basis.”

  It was clear from the cabby’s expression that he would discriminate on any basis he wanted to and yet he eyed the cash greedily. “You speak pretty good for some homeless bum.” He added suspiciously, “I thought all you people was nuts.”

  “I am hardly a nut and I’m not homeless,” Stone replied. “But I am, well, I am just a bit down on my luck.”

  “Ain’t we all?” He unlocked the doors and Stone quickly climbed in and told the man where he wanted to go.

  “Saw the president on the move tonight,” the cabby said. “Pretty cool.”

  “Yes, pretty cool,” Stone agreed without much enthusiasm. He glanced out the rear window of the cab in the direction of the White House and then sat back against the seat and closed his eyes. What an interesting neighborhood to call home.

  CHAPTER

  2

  THE BLACK SEDAN CREPT DOWN the one-lane road that was bracketed by thick walls of trees, finally easing onto a gravel path branching from the road. A hundred feet later the car came to a stop. Tyler Reinke, tall, blond, athletically built and in his late twenties, climbed out of the driver’s side while Warren Peters, early thirties and barely five foot seven with a barrel chest and thinning dark hair, extricated himself from the passenger seat. Reinke unlocked the car’s trunk. Inside lying in a fetal position was a fellow in his mid-thirties, his arms and legs bound tightly with rubber straps. He was dressed in blue jeans and a Washington Redskins jacket. A heavy cloth covered his mouth, and a plastic tarp had been placed under him. Yet, unlike most people bound and stuffed in car trunks, he was still alive, although he appeared deeply sedated. Using the tarp, the men lifted him out of the trunk and set him down on the ground.

  “I scouted this out before, Tyler,” Peters said. “It’s the best location, but a bit of a hike. We’ll carry him using the tarp. That way nothing from us gets on him.”

  “Right,” Reinke replied as he stared warily down the steep, uneven terrain. “Let’s just take it nice and slow.”

  They made their way carefully down, leaning heavily into tree trunks along the way. Luckily, it had not rained lately and the ground provided firm footing. Still, carrying the man between them on the plastic was awkward, and they had to take several breaks along the way, with the stout Peters puffing hard.

  Their path finally leveled out and Reinke said, “Okay, almost there. Let’s set him down and take a recon.”

  The two men drew out night-vision binoculars from a duffel bag that Reinke had strapped to his back, and took a long look around.

  Satisfied, they took up their trek once more. Fifteen minutes later they reached the end of the dirt and rock. The water was not deep here, and flat boulders could be seen in several locations poking through the surface of the slow-moving river.

  “All right,” Peters said. “This is the place.”

  Reinke opened the duffel bag, pulled out two objects and set them down on the ground. Squatting next to the larger object, he felt along its contours. Seconds later his fingers found what they were searching for. A minute later the dinghy was fully inflated. The other item he’d pulled from the duffel was a small engine prop that he attached to the boat’s stern.

  Peters said, “We’ll keep to the Virginia side. This engine’s pretty quiet, but sound really carries over the water.” He handed his colleague a small device. “Not that we’ll need it, but here’s the GPS.”

  “We have to dunk him,” Reinke pointed out.

  “Right. Figured we’d do it by the shore here.”

  They took off their shoes and socks and rolled up their pant legs. Carrying the captive, they stepped along the soft dirt and rocks lining the water’s edge and then waded in up to their knees and lowered him into the warm water until his body—but not his face—was submerged and then quickly pulled him up again. They did this maneuver twice more.

  “That should to it,” Peters said as he looked down at the soaked man who moaned a bit in his sleep. They hadn’t dunked his face because they thought that might rouse him, and make it more difficult to transport him.

  They waded back to shore and then placed him in the inflatable dinghy. The men made one more careful sweep of the area and then carried the small boat out to the water and climbed in. Peters started the engine, and the dinghy sped out into the river at a decent clip. The tall Reinke squatted next to the prisoner and eyed the GPS screen as they made their way downriver hugging the forested side.

  As he navigated the craft Peters said, “I would’ve preferred doing this somewhere more private, but that wasn’t my call. At least there’s a fog rolling in. I checked the weather forecast and for once it was right. We’ll put into a deserted little cove a couple hundred yards down from here, wait until everything is cleared out and then head on.”

  “Good plan,” Reinke replied.

  The two men fell silent as the tiny craft headed into the gathering fogbank.

  CHAPTER

  3

  ALEX FORD STIFLED A YAWN AND rubbed his tired eyes. A clear voice shot through his ear fob. “Stay alert, Ford.” He gave a barely noticeable nod of his head and refocused. The room was hot, but at least he wasn’t wearing the Kevlar body armor that was akin to strapping a microwave to your body. As usual, the wires leading from his surveillance kit to his ear fob and wrist mic were irritating his skin. The ear fob itself was even more aggravating, making his ear so sore it was painful to even touch.

  He touched the pistol in his shoulder holster. Like all Secret Service agents, his suits were designed a little big in the chest, to disguise the bulge of the weapon. The Service had recently converted to the .357 SIG from the nine-millimeter version. The SIG was a good gun with enough stopping power to do the job; however, some of his colleagues had complained about the switch, clearly preferring the old hardware. Alex, who wasn’t a big gun buff, didn’t care. In all his years with the Service he’d infrequently pulled his gun and even more rarely fired it.

  This thought made Alex reflect on his career for a moment. How many doorways had he stood post at? The answer was clearly etched in the wrinkles on his face and the weariness in his eyes. Even after leaving protection detail and being reassigned to the Secret Service’s Washington Field Office, or WFO, to do more investigative work at the tail end of his career, here he was again taking up space between the doorjambs, watching people, looking for the needle in a haystack that intended bodily harm to someone under his watch.

  Tonight was foreign dignitary protection at the low end of the threat assessment level. He’d been unlucky enough to draw the overtime assignment to protect a visiting head of government, finding out about it an hour before he was about to go off duty. So instead of having a drink in his favorite pub, he was making sure nobody took a shot at the prime minister of Latvia. Or was it Estonia?

  The event was a reception at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, but the crowd was definitely B-list, many here only because they’d been ordered to attend. The few marginally important guests were a handful of junior levels from the White House, some local D.C. politicos hoping for decent newsprint and a portly congressman who was a member of some international relations committee; he looked even more bored than Alex felt.

  The veteran Secret Service agent had already done three of these extra-duty soirées in the past week. The months leading up to a presidential election were a manic swirl of parties, fund-raisers and meet-and-greets. Members of Congress and their staffers would hit a half dozen of these events every evening, as much for the free food and drink as to shake constituents’ hands, collect checks and sometimes even discuss the issues. Whenever one of these parties had in attendance anyone under Secret Service protection guys like Alex would trudge out after a long day’s work and keep them safe.

  Alex glanced at his partner for the night, a tall, beefy kid out of WFO with a Marine Corps buzz cut who’d been called in at the last minute too. Alex had a few more years until he could retire on his federal pension, but
this kid was looking at more than two decades of riding the Secret Service’s career roller coaster.

  “Simpson got out of this again,” the kid muttered. “Second time in a row. Tell me this: Whose ass is getting kissed upstairs?”

  Alex shrugged noncommittally. The thing about duty like this, it gave you time to think; in fact, way too much time. Secret Service agents were like jailhouse lawyers in that respect: a lot of clock on their hands to mull things over, creating complicated bitch lists as they silently guarded their charges. Alex just didn’t care about that side of the profession anymore.

  He glanced at the button on his wrist mic and had to smile. The mic button had been problematic for years. Agents would cross their arms and accidentally turn it on, or else the mic would get stuck on somehow. And then coming over the airwaves would be a graphic description of some hot chick wandering the area. If Alex had a hundred bucks for every time he’d heard the phrase “Did you see the rack on that one?” he could’ve retired already. And then you’d have everyone yelling into his mic, “Open mic.” It was pretty funny to watch all the agents scrambling to make sure it wasn’t them inadvertently broadcasting their lust.

  Alex repositioned his ear fob and rubbed at his neck. That part of his anatomy remained one large train wreck of cartilage and fused disks. He’d been pulling motorcade duty on a presidential protection detail when the truck he’d been riding in rolled after the driver swerved to avoid a deer on a back road. That little tumble fractured Alex’s neck. After a number of operations and the insertion of some very fine stainless steel, his six-foot-three frame had been reduced by nearly a full inch, though his posture was much improved, since steel didn’t bend. Being a little shorter didn’t bother him nearly as much as the constant burn in his neck. He could’ve taken disability and left the Service, but that wasn’t the way he wanted to go out. Single and childless, he didn’t have any place to go to. So he’d sweated and pushed himself back into shape and gotten the blessing of the Secret Service medicos to return to the field after months on desk duty.

  Right now, though, at age forty-three, after spending most of his adult life on constant high alert amid numbing tedium—a typical Secret Service agent’s daily existence—he seriously wondered just how demented he’d been to keep going. Hell, he could have found a hobby. Or at least a wife.

  Alex bit his lip to mitigate the smoldering heat in his neck and stoically watched the prime minister’s wife cramming foie gras into her mouth.

  What a gig.

  CHAPTER

  4

  OLIVER STONE GOT OUT OF THE TAXI.

  Before driving off, the cabby said with a snort, “In my book you’re still a bum no matter how fancy you talk.”

  Stone gazed after the departing car. He’d long since stopped responding to such comments. People would think what they wanted to. Besides, he did look like a bum.

  He walked toward a small park next to the Georgetown Waterfront Complex and glanced down at the brownish waters of the Potomac River as they licked up against the seawall. Some very enterprising graffiti artists, who obviously didn’t mind working with water right under their butts, had elaborately painted the concrete barrier.

  A little earlier there would have been traffic racing along the elevated Whitehurst Freeway that ran behind Stone. And a jet-fueled
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