The camel club, p.26
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       The Camel Club, p.26
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  members of the World War II-era WASPs, or Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, to be eligible to receive burial at Arlington with full military honors, something denied to them because they were summarily disbanded after the war. In June of 2002 a new regulation allowed a number of women’s military groups, including the WASPs, to at least be buried with the more limited funeral, instead of full, military honors. Unfortunately, Barbara Gray had not lived to see it happen.

  On the morning of September 11, 2001, Barbara Gray, then a civilian consultant, was meeting at the Pentagon on a project with two members of the army when the American Airlines flight slammed into the building, obliterating the room she was in. As an appalling footnote to this tragedy, the Grays’ daughter, Maggie, a government lawyer, had just arrived at the Pentagon to meet her mother. Her body was virtually cremated in the initial explosion.

  As Carter Gray stood there looking at his wife’s grave, the image of that morning cut deeply into him. And then the waves of guilt followed, for he should have been in that building too. Gray was supposed to meet his wife and daughter at the Pentagon before they all headed out on a long-planned family vacation. He’d been caught in traffic and was running about twenty minutes late. By the time he got to the Pentagon, his family was gone.

  As he finally pulled his gaze from the consecrated ground, Gray looked around and spotted the two men staring back at him from a distance. He didn’t recognize the large man, but there was something familiar about the other. Then he watched as the two men turned and walked off. Gray lingered by his wife’s grave for another ten minutes, and then, his curiosity getting the better of him, he headed to the spot where the two men had been standing. He realized this section of graves was familiar to him. He started looking at the headstones, his gaze moving swiftly down the neat rows of markers, until he stopped at one.

  The next moment his security staff was hustling after Gray as he rushed down the walkway. As he drew closer to the exit, he stopped and bent over, sucking in huge amounts of air as his security team circled him, asking if he was all right. He didn’t answer them. He didn’t even hear them.

  The name on the grave marker that had caused his pell-mell rush was pinballing around his mind. There was no body in the casket under that marker, Gray well knew. It was all a sham, all part of a cover-up. Yet the name on the marker wasn’t a fraud. It was a real man who, it was thought, had died in the defense of his country.

  “John Carr.” Gray said the name, one he had not uttered for decades.

  John Carr. The most accomplished killer Carter Gray had ever seen.

  Nathan’s wasn’t that crowded yet, and Alex Ford and Kate Adams were seated at a table in a corner near the bar area and had ordered some drinks.

  “Lucky’s a real pistol,” Alex said. “How’d you hook up with her?”

  “Before I went to Justice, I was in private practice. I handled the trusts and estates work when her husband died. We became friends, and she eventually asked me to come live with her. I said no at first, but she kept asking, and Mr. Right had failed miserably to show up at my door in the meantime. I pay rent for the carriage house,” she added quickly. “Lucky’s a very interesting person. She’s someone who’s been everywhere, knows everybody. But she’s lonely too. Old age doesn’t go down well with someone like her. She’s so alive, and she wants to do everything she used to do; but she really can’t anymore.”

  “From what I saw she’s doing a pretty damn good job of trying,” he replied. “So why’d you jump to the government side?”

  “Nothing too original. I got burned out on the billable hour treadmill. And you’re not going to change the world doing T and E law.”

  “So what do you do at Justice to change the world?”

  “I’m into a fairly new thing actually. After Gitmo Bay and treatment of POWs at Abu Ghraib, the Salt Pit and other places, Justice formed a new group to enforce the civil rights of prisoners deemed to be of a highly political nature as well as foreign combatants, and to investigate any crimes against those class of persons.”

  “Well, judging from what I read in the papers, you must keep pretty busy.”

  “The U.S. overall has an excellent record when it comes to treatment of POWs and persons listed as foreign combatants, but the longer the war against terrorism goes on, the more tempting it is for our guys to stoop to the other side’s level. After all, they’re only human, and they might come to view the person sitting across from them as someone not worthy of any rights at all.”

  “But that doesn’t excuse them breaking the law.”

  “No, it doesn’t. And that’s where people like me come in. I’ve been to the various war zones six times in the last two years. Unfortunately, it’s not getting much better.”

  “It looks like Carter Gray has started counterpunching well.”

  Kate sat back and sipped on the glass of red wine she’d ordered. “I have mixed feelings about that. I feel for him personally and his loss on 9/11. I think that’s the only reason he came back into the government sector. But I’m not convinced it was a good thing. ”

  “What do you mean?” Alex asked.

  “I know he’s gotten extraordinary results. I wonder if he employs extraordinary means to achieve them. For example, we’ve had real problems with rendition.”

  “I’ve heard that’s quite a political football.”

  “It’s no wonder with the way the procedure works. Suspected terrorists are transferred from the U.S. to other countries or vice versa without any legal processing or access by the International Red Cross. When we transfer prisoners out to other countries, verbal assurances are first required from the receiving country that the transferees won’t be subjected to torture. Well, the problem is there’s no way to verify that torture doesn’t occur. And in fact, it seems clear that the torture often does happen. On top of that, because such torture in the U.S. is illegal, some think NIC and CIA are actively involved in rendering prisoners to other countries so that torture can be used as a tool to get useful information. They’ll even get the receiving country to trump up charges against a suspect so he can be jailed, interrogated and often tortured. That’s against everything that America stands for.”

  “Well, after seeing the place firsthand, I believe NIC is capable of pretty much anything.”

  “So I take it your looking into that man’s death isn’t going all that well?”

  Alex hesitated and then decided it wouldn’t hurt to come clean. He told her about his uncomfortable “chat” with the director of the Secret Service and about being busted back to protection detail.

  “I’m so sorry, Alex.” She reached over and touched his hand.

  “Hey, I set myself up for it. Gray plays in the big leagues, and having your own partner rat you out doesn’t help. I guess I was outclassed.” He took a drink of his cocktail. “Your martinis are much better,” he said, smiling.

  She clinked her glass against his. “I knew I liked you.”

  His expression grew serious. “I should’ve stuck to my original plan: with three years to go to finish off my twenty, put it on cruise control and don’t rock the boat.”

  “You don’t strike me as a ‘cruising’ sort of person,” Kate replied.

  He shrugged. “Look, let’s cut the shoptalk. Tell me more about yourself. That’s what first dates are for.”

  She sat back and picked at a piece of bread in front of her. “Well, I’m an only child. My parents live in Colorado. They’ll tell you we’re descended from the Massachusetts Adamses, but I’m not sure I buy that. My dream was to be a world class gymnast. And I worked my guts out for it. Then I grew six inches in one year, and there went that dream. Right after high school I decided I wanted to be a croupier in Vegas. Don’t ask why, I just did. I enrolled in a course, passed with flying colors and took off for Sin City. But it didn’t last too long. I had a teeny problem with drunken high rollers thinking they could grab my butt whenever they wanted. After a few of them lost teeth, the cas
ino suggested I head back East. When I started college, I decided to bartend to pay for it, and then I continued pouring drinks when I went to law school. At least with that occupation you have solid wood between you and the resident animals. And as you deduced earlier, I also play the piano. I earned money teaching it to help pay for school. I don’t need to keep bartending, but honestly I like to. It’s an outlet for me and you meet a lot of fascinating people at the LEAP bar.”

  “Gymnast, croupier, bartender, piano-playing defender of truth and justice. That’s pretty damn impressive.”

  “Sometimes I think it’s far more dysfunctional than it is impressive. So how about you?”

  “Nothing too exciting. I grew up in Ohio. Youngest of four and the only son. My dad was an auto parts salesman by day, but by night he was the second coming of Johnny Cash.”

  “Really?”

  “Well, he wanted to be anyway. I think he had the largest collection of Cash memorabilia outside of Nashville. Always dressed in black, played a wicked acoustical guitar, pretty good pipes. I learned guitar so I could play with him. We even went out on the road together, playing some of the best hole-in-the-walls in the Ohio Valley. We weren’t great but we weren’t bad either. It was a blast. Then his four-pack-a-day habit caught up to him. The lung cancer took him in six months. My mom lives in a retirement village in Florida. My sisters are scattered around the country.”

  “So what made you want to play the human shield?”

  Alex took another drink and his look became somber. “I saw the Zapruder film clip of Kennedy’s assassination when I was twelve years old. I remembered thinking that something like that should never happen again. I’ll never forget the image of Agent Clint Hill jumping on the limo, pushing Mrs. Kennedy back into her seat. A lot of people at the time thought she was part of the conspiracy to kill the president, or else condemned her because they thought she was just trying to get away from all the blood on her, even if it was her husband’s. What she was actually doing was trying to retrieve the piece of her husband’s head that had gotten blown off.”

  He finished his drink before continuing. “I met Clint Hill at a Secret Service function. He was an old guy by then. Everybody wanted to shake his hand. I told him how honored I was to meet him. He was the only guy to react when it happened. He helped Mrs. Kennedy, and he put his body between her and whoever was shooting at them. I told him if the time came, I hoped I did as well as he’d done. You know what he said to me?”

  He looked up to see her gaze directly on him; Kate Adams seemed to be holding her breath. “What did he say?” she prompted.

  “He said, ‘Son, you don’t want to be like me. Because I lost my president.’”

  There was a long silence and finally Alex broke it. “I can’t believe that I’m sitting here dishing out this depressing crap. I’m not really like that.”

  “With the day you had I’m surprised you didn’t bag tonight.”

  “Kate, the thought of going out with you tonight was the only thing that got me through today.”

  Alex looked a little surprised at the frankness of his words and quickly looked down, studying the exterior of his remaining martini olive.

  Kate reached out and touched his hand. “I’m going to further embarrass you,” she said, “by telling you that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

  The conversation turned to more innocuous subjects, and time sped by. As they were leaving, Alex muttered an expletive under his breath.

  Coming in the door were Senator and Mrs. Roger Simpson and their daughter, Jackie.

  Alex tried to duck by but Jackie spotted him.

  “Hello, Alex,” she said.

  “Agent Simpson,” Alex replied curtly.

  “These are my parents.”

  Roger Simpson and his wife looked like twins: very tall and fair-haired. They towered over their petite, dark-haired daughter.

  “Senator. Mrs. Simpson,” Alex said, nodding at them both. Roger Simpson glared back at him so menacingly that Alex was convinced Jackie must have told him the whole story in her own biased way.

  “This is Kate Adams.”

  “Pleasure to meet you both,” Kate said.

  “Well, take care, Agent Simpson. I doubt I’ll be seeing you around.”

  He walked out with Adams trailing him.

  As soon as they were outside, Alex blurted out, “Can you believe, of all the restaurants in this damn town—”

  He broke off when Jackie Simpson popped out of Nathan’s.

  “Alex, can we talk for just a minute?” She glanced anxiously at Kate. “Privately?”

  “I’m pretty damn certain we have nothing to say to each other,” he shot back.

  “It’ll just take a minute. Please?”

  Alex looked at Kate, who shrugged and moved down the street a bit, studying the clothing in a shop window.

  Simpson drew closer. “Look, I know you’re upset as hell at me. And you think I ratted you out.”

  “Well, you’re batting a thousand so far.”

  “It didn’t happen like that. As soon as Carter Gray left us, he must’ve called my dad. Even before he called the president. My father called and gave it to me up one side and down the other. He said I couldn’t let some maverick wreck my career before it even got started.”

  “How did the director find out about my ‘old friend’?”

  Simpson looked miserable. “I know, that was stupid. My father can be overwhelming. He ground it out of me.” She sighed. “My dad’s one of the most accomplished people you’ll ever meet. And my mother was a Miss Alabama, which makes her a saint down there. So being a simple detective didn’t cut it with them. They wanted me to go into business or politics. I put my foot down and said I was a cop. But they kept pushing for me to go on to a bigger pond. Just to get them off my back, I joined the Service. Dad pulled strings so I got assigned to WFO. His dream is for me to be the first female director of the Service. All I ever wanted to be was a good cop. But for them that wasn’t enough.”

  “So are you going to do what your parents want your whole life?”

  “It’s not that easy. He’s a man that’s used to people obeying him.” She paused and looked up at him. “But that’s my problem. I just wanted you to know that I’m really sorry for what happened. And I hope I get a chance to make it up to you.”

  She turned and walked back inside before he could reply.

  When Kate rejoined him, he explained the gist of the conversation. After he’d finished, Alex added, “Just when you think you have somebody pegged and you’re justified in hating her guts, she pulls a fast one and complicates things.” He glanced across the street and his features brightened. “Please tell me you’d like to go get some ice cream.”

  She looked over at the shop across the street. “Okay, but I have to warn you I’m a minimum two-scoop sort of girl and I don’t share.”

  “My kind of woman.”

  CHAPTER

  41

  AT UNION STATION STONE AND Reuben found Caleb and Milton in the B. Dalton Bookstore. Caleb was poring over a Dickens masterpiece, while Milton was firmly entrenched in the computer magazine section.

  Stone and Reuben rounded up the pair, and they all boarded the Metro, taking it to the Smithsonian station, where they rode the escalator up to the Mall.

  “Keep your eyes and ears open,” Stone cautioned.

  They took a stroll past the major monuments as tourists flocked around taking pictures and videos of all the sights. The Camel Club eventually reached FDR Park, where the FDR Memorial, a fairly recent addition to the Mall, was located. It covered a large area of ground and was made up of various statuary depicting significant symbols from FDR’s reign as America’s only four-term president. Stone led his friends over to a secluded section that was shielded from wandering tourists by a Depression-era breadline immortalized in bronze.

  After he’d glanced around for a few moments, Stone shook his head in dissatisfaction and led them back
to the subway, which they rode to Foggy Bottom. They exited and started walking. At 27th and Q Streets, NW, Stone stopped. Staring back at them was the entrance for Mt. Zion Cemetery, where Stone was the caretaker.

  “Oh, no, Oliver,” Reuben complained. “Not another bloody cemetery.”

  “The dead don’t eavesdrop,” Stone replied curtly as he opened the gates.

  Stone led them into his cottage, where the others looked at him expectantly.

  “I’ve done some research that I believe is critical to our investigation into Patrick Johnson’s murder. Thus, I hereby call this special meeting of the Camel Club to order. I propose that we discuss the topic of the recent spate of terrorists killing each other. Do I have a second?”

  “I second,” Caleb said automatically, though he glanced curiously at the others.

  “All in favor say aye.”

  The ayes carried the motion, and Stone opened the large journal he’d brought from the rare book shop.

  “Over the last eighteen months there have been numerous instances where terrorists have allegedly killed each other. I found this to be so interesting that I started keeping all the articles I could find on the subject. The last such incident involved a man named Adnan al-Rimi.”

  “I read about that,” Milton said. “But why do you say allegedly?”

  “In each instance the dead man’s face was fully or partially obliterated, either by gunshots or explosives. They had to be identified by their fingerprints, DNA and whatever else was available.”

  Reuben spoke up. “But that’s just normal procedure, Oliver. When I was at DIA, we did that too, although we didn’t have DNA tests back then.”

  “And we know from Reuben that NIC now controls all terrorist-related information.” Stone added, “The same information databases which Patrick Johnson helped oversee were used to identify all these dead terrorists.” He paused. “Now, what if Mr. Johnson were rigging that database somehow?”

  After a long silence Milton was the first to speak. “Do you mean he might have been manipulating data somehow?”

  “Let me put it more bluntly,” Stone replied. “What if he substituted on the NIC database the prints of the men found dead in place of the fingerprints of the terrorists the authorities thought had been killed?”

  Caleb looked horrified. “Are you suggesting that someone like Adnan
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