The camel club, p.25
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       The Camel Club, p.25
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “All through the power of the written word,” Stone said. “Remarkable.”

  “Do you still sell the porn stuff?” Reuben wanted to know.

  “Uh, Douglas, I need to look at my things, in the space Caleb arranged for me to use,” Stone said quietly.

  Douglas’ face paled and he swallowed nervously. “Oh, of course, of course. Go right ahead. And if you want anything, just ask. In fact, we have some very fine cappuccino and wonderful scones today. It’s on the house, as always.”

  “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

  Douglas hugged Stone again and then hurried off to help a woman who’d entered the shop dressed in a full-length fur coat despite the balmy weather.

  Reuben looked around at all the books. “Most of these writers probably died penniless, and he’s buying condos and boats and 401(k)s off their sweat.”

  Stone didn’t answer. He opened a small door set off to the side of the shop’s entryway and led the way down a narrow staircase that emptied into the basement area. He headed along a short corridor and through an old wooden door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” He closed the door behind them and turned left down another hall. Then Stone took an old-fashioned key from his pocket and used it to open an arched door at the end of this hall, and they entered a small room that was paneled in very old wood. He flicked on a light and went over to a large fireplace that sat against one wall. While Reuben watched, Stone knelt down, reached his hand up into the inside of the fireplace and pulled on a small piece of metal attached to a short wire hanging there. There was an audible click, and a panel of the wall next to the fireplace swung open.

  “Gotta love those priest’s holes,” Reuben said as he gripped the exposed panel and swung it all the way open.

  Inside was a room about eight feet deep and six feet wide and tall enough for even Reuben to easily stand up in. Stone pulled a small penlight from his pocket and stepped in. Bookshelves lined all three walls. On each of these shelves were neatly stacked journals and notebooks, a few locked metal boxes and numerous cardboard boxes taped shut.

  While Stone looked through the journals and notebooks, Reuben had a sudden thought. “How come you don’t keep all this stuff at your cottage?”

  “This place has an alarm system. All I have guarding my cottage are dead people.”

  “Well, how can you be sure that old Douglas doesn’t come down here and poke through your stuff when you’re not here?”

  Stone kept examining the journals as he talked. “I told him that I’d booby-trapped this room and that no one other than myself could open it safely without threat of instant death.”

  “And you think he believed you?”

  “It doesn’t really matter. He has no personal courage, so he’ll never find out for sure. Plus, at my suggestion Caleb let some hints drop to Douglas that I used to be a homicidal maniac before my release from a hospital for the criminally insane solely on a technicality. I think that’s why he hugs me every time he sees me. Either he wants to stay on my good side or he’s checking for weapons. Ah, here we are.”

  Stone pulled out an old leather-bound journal and opened it. The book was filled with newspaper clippings carefully glued to the pages. He read through it as Reuben waited impatiently. Finally, Stone closed the journal and then pulled out two other large books on a shelf. Behind these books was a leather case about eighteen inches square in size. Stone put this in his knapsack along with the journal.

  On the way out Reuben got three scones from the attractive young lady in black.

  “I’m Reuben,” he said, towering over her and holding in his belly.

  “Good for you,” she said curtly before hurrying off.

  “I think that young babe in there was rather taken with me,” Reuben said proudly as they got back to the motorcycle.

  “Yes, I suppose she ran off like that to tell all her friends,” Stone replied.

  CHAPTER

  39

  IT TOOK ALEX FORD ABOUT AN hour to decide what to wear on his night out with Kate Adams. It was a humbling and embarrassing sixty minutes as he realized how long it’d been since he’d gone on a real date. He finally decided on a blue blazer, white collared shirt and khaki pants with loafers on his big feet. He combed down his hair, shaved off his five o’clock shadow, dressed, chewed a couple of breath mints and decided the big, somewhat weathered lug staring back at him in the mirror would just have to do.

  D.C. traffic had reached the critical stage where there was no good time or direction to be driving, and Alex was afraid he was going to be late. However, he lucked out after skirting an accident on Interstate 66 that left a clear field ahead. He took the Key Bridge exit, crossed the Potomac, hooked a right onto M Street and soon found himself cruising up 31st Street in posh Georgetown. It was a place named after a British king, and certain elements of the area retained that regal dignity that some might equate to outright snobbery. However, on the main shopping drag of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, the tone was decidedly funky and modern with gaggles of underdressed kids crowding the narrow sidewalks yakking on their cell phones and checking each other out. Yet in the upper regions of Georgetown where Alex was heading lived famous families with enormous financial portfolios and nary a tattoo or body piercing in sight.

  As Alex passed one stately mansion after another, he started growing more nervous. He had guarded some incredibly powerful people over the years, but the Service prided itself as being an elite agency with a blue-collar nature. Alex was solidly in that mold and much preferred the lunch counter at the local IHOP to a three-star restaurant in Paris. Well, there was no going back now, he told himself.

  The road he was on dead-ended at R Street near the massive Dumbarton Oaks mansion. Alex hung a left and continued on down R until he found the place.

  “Okay, she wasn’t kidding about the mansion status,” Alex said as he stared up at the brick and slate-roofed behemoth. He pulled into the circular driveway, got out and looked around. The grounds were formal with the bushes all cut to the same height and shape and the late summer blooms presented in all their colorful and symmetrical glory. The moss was growing lushly around the stone slabs that led to an arched wooden door that accessed the backyard. Or with palaces such as this it was probably referred to as the rear grounds, Alex thought.

  He checked his watch and found he was about ten minutes early. Maybe Kate wasn’t even here yet. He was about to drive around the block to kill some time when he heard a lilting voice calling out to him.

  “Yoo-hoo, are you the Secret Service man?” He turned and spotted a small, stooped woman scurrying toward him, a basket of cut flowers hooked over one arm. She had on a wide-brimmed sun hat with white cottony hair poking out, beige canvas pants and an untucked long-sleeved jeans shirt; large black sunglasses covered most of her face. She seemed shrunken with time, and he put her age at around mid-eighties or so.

  “Ma’am?”

  “You are tall and cute. Are you armed too? With Kate you better be.”

  Alex glanced around, briefly wondering if Kate was playing a joke on him and this odd woman had been hired as part of the gag. He didn’t see anyone and turned back to the woman. “I’m Alex Ford.”

  “Are you one of those Fords?”

  “Sorry, afraid there’s no trust fund in my future.”

  She took off her glove, stuck it in her pants pocket and put out her hand. He shook it but then she didn’t let go. She pulled him toward the house. “Kate isn’t ready yet. Come on in, have a drink and let’s talk, Alex.”

  Alex allowed himself to be led along by the woman because, frankly, he didn’t know what else to do. She smelled of strong cooking spices and even stronger hair spray.

  When they reached the house and went inside, she finally let go of his hand and said, “Where are my manners, I’m Lucille Whitney-Houseman.”

  “Are you one of those Whitney-Housemans?” Alex said, with a grin.

  She took off her glasses and smiled back coquettishl
y. “My father, Ira Whitney, didn’t found the meatpacking industry, he just made a fortune off it. My dear husband, Bernie, may you rest in peace,” she added, looking at the ceiling and crossing herself, “now, his family made their money in whiskey and not all of it legally. And Bernie was a prosecutor before he became a federal judge. It made for some interesting family gatherings, I can tell you.”

  She led him into a vast living room and motioned for him to sit down on a large sofa placed against one wall. She put the flowers in a cut crystal vase and turned to him.

  “Now, speaking of whiskey, name your poison.” She went over to a small cabinet and opened it. Inside was a fairly complete bar.

  “Well, Mrs. . . . uh, do you go by both names?”

  “Just call me Lucky. Everybody does because lucky I’ve been, my whole life.”

  “I’ll have a glass of club soda, Lucky.”

  She turned and looked at him sternly. “I know how to make lots of cocktails, young man, but club soda ain’t one of them,” she said in a scolding tone.

  “Oh, uh, rum and Coke, then.”

  “I’ll make it Jack and Coke, honey, with the emphasis on the Jack.”

  She brought him the drink and sat down next to him with her own glass. She held it up. “A Gibson. I fell in love with them after I saw Cary Grant order one on that train in North by Northwest. Cheers!”

  They tapped glasses and Alex took a sip of his. He coughed. It tasted like she’d let the Jack run solo. He looked around the living room. It was about the size of his entire house and with far nicer furniture.

  “So you’ve known Kate long?” he asked.

  “About seven years, although she’s only lived with me for three. She’s wonderful. Smart as a whip, beautiful, a real pistol, but then, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Plus, she makes the best buttery nipples I’ve ever tasted.”

  Alex nearly choked on his drink. “Excuse me?”

  “Don’t get all excited, honey, it’s a specialty drink. Baileys and butterscotch schnapps. She is a bartender, after all.”

  “Oh, right.”

  “So are you one of the agents who guard the president?”

  “Actually, starting tomorrow, I am,” Alex said.

  “I’ve known every president since Harry Truman,” she said wistfully. “I voted Republican for thirty years and then Democratic for about twenty, but now I’m old enough to know better, so I’m an Independent. But I loved Ronnie Reagan. What a charmer. He and I danced at one of the balls. But of all the presidents I’ve known I have to confess that I liked Jimmy Carter best. He was a good, decent man; a real gentleman, even if he did lust in his heart. And you can’t say that about all of them, can you?”

  “No, I guess you can’t. So you know President Brennan, then?”

  “We’ve met, but he wouldn’t know me from Eve. I’ve long since passed my usefulness in the political arena. Although in my prime I had some sway. Georgetown was the place to be for all that. Kate Graham, Evangeline Bruce, Pamela Harrington, Lorraine Cooper, I knew them all. The dinner parties we had. The national policy we came up with sitting around drinking and smoking, although the ladies were often separated from the gentlemen. But not always.” She lowered her voice and looked at him with raised pencil-thin eyebrows that looked painted on. “Because the sex we had, oh, my Lord. But not any orgies or anything like that, honey. I mean you’re talking about government people, public servants, and it’s hard to get up early and work those long hours after sex orgies. It takes it out of you, it really does.”

  Alex suddenly realized his mouth had opened wider and wider as he listened to her. He quickly closed it. “So, uh, Kate lives in the carriage house?”

  “I’ve wanted her to move in here—the place has eight bedrooms, after all—but she won’t. She likes her space, all women do. And she can come and go as she wants.” She patted his leg. “So this is your first date with her. That’s sweet. Where’re you going?”

  “I’m not sure. Kate picked the place.”

  She gripped his hand again and looked directly into his eyes. “Okay, honey, let me give you some advice. Even the modern woman likes the man to take charge every once in a while. So next time you pick the place. Be decisive about it. Women hate men who can’t make up their minds.”

  “Okay, but how do I know when else she wants me to take charge?”

  “Oh, you won’t. You’ll just screw it up like every other man does.”

  Alex cleared his throat. “So does she date a lot?”

  “Okay, you want the 411 on Kate, don’t you, honey? Well, Kate only brings someone around every few months. Nobody’s stuck yet but don’t let that discourage you. She usually brings home some fancy-pants lawyer, lobbyist or big-shot government type. Now, you’re the first man with a gun she’s brought here,” she added in an encouraging tone. “You are packing heat, aren’t you?” she asked hopefully.

  “Would that be a good thing?”

  “Honey, all civilized women throw their underwear at dangerous men. We just can’t help ourselves.”

  He grinned, opened his coat and showed her his gun.

  She clapped her hands together. “Oh, that is so thrilling.”

  “Hey, Lucky, get away from my man.”

  They both turned around and saw a smiling Kate Adams standing in the doorway leading into the next room. She had on a pleated black skirt that ended midthigh, a white blouse open at the neck and sandals. Alex realized he’d never seen her legs before; she always wore pants at the bar. She gave Lucky a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

  “I have been entertaining your beau while you made yourself beautiful, my dear,” Lucky said. “Not that it takes that much effort for you. Oh, it’s just not fair, Kate. Not even the best plastic surgeon in the world could give me your cheekbones.”

  “You liar. The men were always gaga over Lucky Whitney. And they still are.”

  Lucky smiled at Alex and said in a very coy tone, “Well, I have to admit, this young man did show me his piece, Kate. I bet you haven’t had that pleasure yet.”

  Kate looked surprised. “His piece? No, I haven’t seen it yet.”

  His expression one of horror, Alex jumped up so fast he spilled some of his drink on the couch. “My gun! I showed her my gun.”

  “That’s right, that’s what he called it. His gun,” Lucky said, smiling impishly. “Now, where are you two going for dinner?”

  “Nathan’s,” Kate answered.

  Lucky raised her eyebrows. “Nathan’s?” She gave Alex a thumbs-up. “That’s where she takes the ones with real potential.”

  CHAPTER

  40

  “REUBEN,” STONE CALLED OUT from his perch in the sidecar. “We have some time yet. Can we stop in at Arlington Cemetery?”

  Reuben looked over at the nation’s most hallowed burial place for its military dead and nodded.

  A few minutes later they passed through the visitors’ entrance and walked past the Women in Military Service Memorial. They paused for a moment near the Kennedy graves, Arlington’s biggest visitor draw, with the changing of the guard at the Tombs of the Unknowns a close second.

  Continuing on, Reuben stopped and gazed at a stretch of grass near Arlington House. It had once been Robert E. Lee’s home but had been confiscated by the federal government after Lee had chosen to lead the Confederate army against the Union.

  “Isn’t that where you found me, stoned outta my head?”

  Stone looked at the spot. “It was a long time ago, Reuben. You pulled yourself out of it. You fought off your demons.”

  “I couldn’t have done it without you, Oliver.” He paused and looked around at all the white tombstones. “I was just so damn pissed off. I lost half my company from Nam to Agent Orange, and the army wouldn’t even admit they’d done it. And then the same thing happened with the Persian Gulf syndrome. I just wanted to come here and scream, make somebody listen.”

  “It’s probably best that you passed out when you did.
The secretary of defense was here that day; it might’ve gotten ugly.”

  Reuben gazed curiously at his friend. “You know, I never asked you what you were doing at the cemetery that day.”

  “Just like everyone else, I was there to pay my respects.”

  Stone stopped at one area and silently counted down the rows of white headstones until he came to one near the middle. He stood, his arms folded across his chest, while the setting sun burned down into the horizon. Reuben checked his watch but seemed reluctant to interrupt his friend.

  Stone’s solitude was finally halted by a group of men passing nearby. He watched as they headed toward the newest expansion of Arlington Cemetery and one that was not yet completed. It was the 9/11 memorial site that abutted the grounds of the cemetery. The site included a signature monument to the lives that were lost at the Pentagon, and a memorial grove.

  Stone stiffened when he saw who was in the center of the wall of armed security. Reuben glanced over too.

  “Carter Gray,” Reuben muttered.

  “Here to see his wife, I would assume,” Stone said quietly. “Before the crowds come tomorrow.”

  Carter Gray stopped at the gravesite of his wife, Barbara, knelt on the ground and placed a small bouquet of flowers on the recessed earth. Technically, the anniversary of his wife’s death was tomorrow, but the cemetery would be filled that day, and, as Stone had deduced, the man had no desire to share his grief with a mass of strangers.

  Gray rose and stared down at where his wife’s body lay, while his security detail kept a respectful distance away.

  Barbara Gray had retired from the army as a brigadier general after a distinguished career in which she set many firsts for women in the military. Barbara Gray had also been one of the most vocal advocates for
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