The camel club, p.21
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       The Camel Club, p.21

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “It was this morning. I’m not sure the Service needs agents with memories that poor, so you want to load up and try again? Keep in mind that there are two careers in question here, and one of them is just starting out.” He again shot a glance at Simpson.

  “The identity of the person isn’t important, sir. I’d already concluded that I was going to keep investigating the case because certain things didn’t add up, that’s all. It’s solely my responsibility. Agent Simpson had nothing to do with my decision to go to NIC. She was merely doing what I told her to, and reluctantly at that. I’m prepared to take the full consequences for my actions.”

  “So you won’t answer my question?”

  “With all due respect, sir, if I thought it had the slightest bearing on this case, I would answer it.”

  “And you’re not going to let me be the judge of that?”

  For a lot of reasons Alex was not going to tell the director of the Secret Service that a man calling himself Oliver Stone, who sometimes occupied a tent across from the White House, and who’d been known to harbor a few conspiracy theories, was the “old friend” who had convinced him to keep investigating. It just didn’t seem like a good idea right now.

  Alex nervously licked his lips. “Again, with all due respect, it was said to me in confidence, and unlike some people, I don’t break confidences.” He didn’t look at Simpson when he said this, but then he didn’t really have to. “So you can just stop the buck right at me, sir.”

  The director sat in his chair and leaned back. “You’ve had a good, solid career at the Service, Ford.”

  “I’d like to think so.” Alex felt his breath quicken as he sensed the axe coming.

  “But it’s the end of the career that people remember.”

  Alex almost started laughing because this was exactly what Stone had told him, for an entirely different reason, of course. “That’s what I’ve heard, sir.” He paused and said, “I’m assuming I’m being transferred to another field office.” When the Service was ticked off at an agent, it usually sent that person to one of the least desirable field offices. Although, in this case, that might have been wishful thinking. Disobeying a command from the director would probably result in his immediate expulsion from the Service.

  “You just take the rest of the day off. Then starting tomorrow you’re officially transferred out of WFO and back to presidential protection detail. Maybe standing post in some doorways will knock some sense into you. Quite frankly, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. Half of me wants to kick your ass right out of the Service this minute. But you’ve put in a lot of good years; it’d be a shame to see that go right in the crapper.” He held up a finger. “And just so there’s no miscommunication, you are not to go near the Patrick Johnson case in any way at all, even if your ‘old friend’ tells you otherwise. Is that clear?”

  “Absolutely, sir.”

  “Now get the hell out of here.”



  DJAMILA GAVE THE BABY HIS BATH while Lori Franklin played with the other two boys on the elaborate play set in the backyard. As she was dressing the little one afterward, Djamila watched the others from the nursery window. Lori Franklin didn’t spend enough time with her children, at least in Djamila’s estimation. Yet even the Iraqi woman had to admit that the time the mother did spend with her sons was real quality time. She read to them and drew with them and played games with them, spending patient hours with her three sons as they grew and changed every day. It was clear that Lori Franklin adored her boys. Now she was pushing the middle child on the swing while giving the oldest a piggyback ride. They all ended up chasing each other around the yard before collapsing in a pile. The peals of laughter reached all the way to Djamila, and, after a few seconds of fighting the urge, Djamila found herself laughing too at this heartwarming spectacle. Sons. She wanted many sons who would grow up tall and strong and take care of their mother when she grew old.

  Djamila abruptly stopped laughing and turned away from the window. People should never take for granted what they had. Never! Especially Americans, who had everything.

  Later, while Djamila and Franklin were preparing lunch, the latter closed the refrigerator door with a puzzled look.

  “Djamila, there’s kosher food in here.”

  Djamila wiped off her hands on a towel. “Yes, miss, I buy some at store. I use my money. It is for my meals here.”

  “Djamila, I don’t care about that. We’ll pay for your food. But you must know that kosher is, well, it’s Jewish food.”

  “Yes, miss, this I know.”

  Franklin flashed a confused look. “Am I missing something here? A Muslim eating Jewish food?”

  “Jews are people of the Book, in the Qur’an, I mean. As are Christians too, miss. And Jesus, he is recognized as a very important prophet of Islam, but he is not a god. There is only one God. And only Muhammad communicated the true word of God to the people. But David and Ibrahim, who you call Abraham, are important prophets too for Islam. We respect them for what they did. It was Ibrahim and his son Ishmael who built the Kaaba and established the practice of hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.”

  Franklin looked impatient. “Thanks for the theology lesson, but what does all that have to do with food?”

  “Muslims must eat food that is deemed lawful, or halal, and avoid what is haram, or unlawful. These rules they come from the Qur’an and fatwas and other Islamic rulings. We cannot consume alcohol or eat the meat of pigs, dogs or monkeys or other animals that haven’t died by human hand. We can only eat the meat of animals that have the cloven hoof and chew the cud and only fish that have the fin and scales, just like the Jews. The Jews, they prepare their food in ways acceptable to Muslims. As example, they drain all blood from the meat. Muslims, we cannot drink blood or have anything to do with blood in our food. And Jews do not kill the animal by boiling it or by electricity, although they do not declare three times, ‘Allahu akbar,’ that means God is great, when they slaughter the animal. But we Muslims recognize God by saying his name before we eat the food. And God will not let his people starve if they can’t find halal food. You say God’s name over the food, it is halal. Not all Muslims will eat the food of Jews, but if I cannot find halal food, I will eat the kosher.”

  Lori Franklin was frowning at her nanny. “Well, I’m afraid I don’t understand that. I pick up a newspaper and pretty much can count on at least one story of Jews and Muslims killing each other somewhere. I know it’s not all that simple, but you’d think if you eat their food and they’re in your Bible, you could find some way to get along.”

  Djamila stiffened. “It is not about food that we differ. I could tell you much—”

  “Yes, well, I really don’t want to get into it. I have to meet George after lunch. He forgot his plane tickets for his flight tonight. Honestly, George can’t remember anything. You’d think an investment banker would have a better memory.”

  After lunch was over and Lori Franklin had left, Djamila put the children into her van and drove to the park. On the ride over, her thoughts turned to her recent past.

  She had known young men who’d trained with her in Pakistan that kept what they called journals of sacrifice, their sacrifice. The West, she knew, called them suicide diaries. She had read accounts in the papers of these diaries being found after the young men had died for Islam. Djamila had thought about what the last day of her life would look like. In her head she ran through what she would be thinking when the time came, how she would react. She had many questions and some doubts that troubled her. Would she be brave? She had imagined herself being noble and stoic, but was that unrealistic? Would she instantly be transported to paradise? Would anyone mourn her? And yet this also made her feel guilty, for her love of God should be enough; as it was for all Muslims.

  Under normal circumstances it would have been unheard of for women to be deployed in terrorist cells with men, since there were strict rules and tribal customs forbidding unrelat
ed men and women from being around each other. However, it had become quickly evident that Muslim men were almost always placed under heavy scrutiny in America, whereas Muslim women were given much more leeway. Thus, Muslim women were being engaged in much greater numbers now.

  Djamila had grown close to one man she’d trained with. Ahmed was an Iranian, which instantly made her suspicious because there had never been harmony between Iran and her country. Yet he described a world in Tehran that was different from what she’d been told in Iraq.

  “People want to be happy,” he told her. “But they cannot be happy if they are not free. You can love and worship God, without other people telling you how to live every part of life.” Then he went on to tell her that Iranian women could drive, vote and even hold seats in the Parliament. They were not forced to cover their entire face, just their hair and body, and they had started to wear cosmetics. He also told her that satellite dishes were being smuggled into the country in large numbers, and that, even more astonishing, men and women sat in cars while music played on the radio. If you knew where to go and the right things to say, you could get around the rules and the mullahs. You could have a chance to live life, if only for a little time, he had said. Djamila listened very intensely whenever he spoke of this.

  He had also told Djamila that her name, which meant “beautiful” in Arabic, was most fitting to her. Most fitting, he’d said with respect and admiration, his gaze averted from hers. This comment had made her very happy. It had given her possibilities for a future that she had not thought realistic. However, he also spoke often of his coming death, even writing down in his diary the very day and hour that he planned on dying for God. But he would never show her the date he had chosen.

  Djamila didn’t know if he’d fulfilled that wish or not. She didn’t know where he’d been sent. She would read the newspapers looking for his name or his picture telling of his death, but she’d never seen it. Djamila wondered if he ever read the newspapers looking for her picture and the account of her death.

  He’d been a fledgling poet who had modest dreams of seeing his verses in print for other Arabs to read. His poems were filled with tragedy that Djamila knew came from years of violence and suffering in Iran. One of the last things he told her was, “When one has lost everything except one’s life, it doesn’t make that life more valuable, it only makes the sacrifice of that life more potent. To die for God, life could have no greater purpose.” She would never forget those words. They gave her strength and her life meaning.

  The Qur’an said that any man or woman who has led a righteous life while believing in God enters paradise without the slightest injustice. But Djamila had learned that the only way for a Muslim to be guaranteed passage into paradise was to die as a martyr during an Islamic holy war. If that was so, and Djamila prayed every day that it was true, then she would willingly make that sacrifice. The life after must be better. God would not let it be otherwise; she was certain of this.

  Sometimes Djamila would imagine her poet joining her in paradise, where they could live in eternal peace. This thought was one of the very few that could still bring a smile to her lips. Yes, Djamila would like to see him again, very much. In life or death, it did not matter to her. It did not matter at all.



  STONE WALKED BACK TO HIS cottage and cleaned himself up, putting ice on his face and resting while the swelling went down. Then he used his borrowed cell phone and contacted Reuben and Caleb. They scheduled a meeting for that night; he was unable to get hold of Milton.

  After that, he tended to the cemetery and helped a couple of visitors find a grave they were looking for. Many years ago the church had documented the people interred here, but that list had been lost. Over the past two years Stone had checked every headstone and local records to re-create an accurate list. He’d also steeped himself in the history of Mt. Zion Cemetery and acted as an informal tour guide, narrating this history to groups that came by.

  As he finished with the visitors and returned to work, he felt his face burn. And it wasn’t from his recent injuries, but rather from embarrassment. It had been so stupid of him to do that particularly in front of Adelphia. He could still feel the weight of the knife in his hand. So stupid.

  Later he decided to take the Metro to Milton’s house. If his friend had been able to trace the car tag, Stone wanted to know. Plus, he wanted to make sure Milton was all right. The people they were dealing with could also run down a fingerprint as easily as Milton could.

  He was walking down the street toward the Foggy Bottom subway station when he heard a horn sound behind him. He turned. It was Agent Ford. He pulled his Crown Vic to the curb and rolled down the window.

  “Want a ride?” Alex suddenly noted his friend’s injuries. “What the hell happened to you?”

  “I fell.”

  “You okay?”

  “My ego was bruised more than my face.” Stone climbed into the car and Alex sped off.

  Waiting for what he hoped was an acceptable period of time, Stone finally said, “I was thinking about our conversation last night. How’s your investigation going?”

  “It’s going so well I’ve been busted back to protection detail.”

  “Agent Ford—”

  “You know, Oliver, after all these years, you can probably call me Alex.”

  “I hope that my advice didn’t get you in trouble, Alex.”

  “I’m a big boy. And you happened to be right. Only I didn’t have all the facts straight, and now I’m paying the price.”

  “What facts?”

  “Afraid I can’t say. Where you heading, by the way?”

  Stone told him. “I’m visiting some friends,” he added.

  “I hope they’re the ones in high places. You can never have too many of those.”

  “I’m afraid I don’t have any of those.”

  “Neither do I. But hell, it turns out my rookie partner—and I use the term ‘partner’ very loosely—it turns out she has some of those kinds of friends. In fact, she informed me today that her godfather is none other than Carter Gray.”

  Stone looked at him. “Who’s your partner?”

  “Jackie Simpson.”

  Stone stiffened. “Roger Simpson’s daughter?”

  “How’d you know that?”

  “You mentioned friends in high places, and they don’t come much higher than Roger Simpson. He worked at the CIA but that was decades ago.”

  “I didn’t know about that, but I guess it explains his interest in intelligence.”

  Stone was staring out the window. “How old is the woman?”

  “What, Jackie? Mid-thirties.”

  “And she’s just starting out at the Secret Service?”

  “She was a cop in Alabama before joining the Service.”

  “What’s she like?”

  “Well, she’s pretty high on my shit list right now. The lady basically sold me down the river this morning.”

  “I mean what does she look like?”

  “Why do you want to know?”

  “Just curious,” Stone said.

  “She’s petite, black hair, blue eyes, and has a big-time drawl when she’s real pissed. She doesn’t back down and says what’s on her mind. No shrinking violet.”

  “I see. Attractive?”

  “Why, you thinking about asking her out?” Alex said grinning.

  “Old men are always curious about young women,” Stone replied with a smile.

  Ford shrugged. “She’s pretty, if you get past the attitude.”

  Mid-thirties, thought Stone. Black hair, blue eyes and an attitude.

  “Have you ever met Carter Gray?” Stone asked.

  “I did today,” Alex said.

  “What was your opinion?”

  “Pretty damn impressive.”

  “So is that why you got in trouble? You ran into Gray?”

  “Let’s just say I thought I’d be real smart and let the two NIC agents on the case
run some analysis on the suicide note we found. That would give me an excuse to go there and poke around. Turns out I got sandbagged. I should’ve seen it coming.”

  Stone had not been listening to the last part. His attention had been captured by the part about NIC having the suicide note. Were Milton’s fingerprints on it?

  “Uh, were the two agents at NIC helpful?”

  “Not particularly. You know, I hate spooks, I really do. I don’t give a crap if you call them the National Intelligence Center, the Central Intelligence Agency, or the Defense Intelligence Agency, they wouldn’t tell you the truth if their mother’s life depended on it.”

  “No, they wouldn’t,” Stone said under his breath.

  Halfway to his destination, Stone instructed Alex to let him off up ahead.

  “I can take you all the way to where you’re going, Oliver,” he said. “The director gave me the rest of the day off to think about my sins.”

  “I really need to walk.”

  “Well, you should get that jaw checked out.”

  “I will.”

  As soon as Alex drove off, Stone pulled out his cell phone and called Milton. In one way it was disheartening to learn that the Secret Service agent was off the case, but at least he would not be in danger. Stone could not say the same about the rest of them.

  Milton’s voice interrupted these musings. “Hello?”

  “Milton, where are you?”

  “I’m at Chastity’s.”

  “How long have you been there?”

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