The camel club, p.27
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       The Camel Club, p.27
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  al-Rimi isn’t actually dead, but as far as American intelligence is concerned—”

  “He is dead,” Stone finished for him. “His past has been wiped clean. He could go anywhere and do anything he wanted to do.”

  “Like a sterilized weapon,” Reuben interjected.

  “Precisely.”

  “But wait a minute, Oliver,” Reuben said. “There are safeguards in place. If I remember correctly, at DIA no file alteration was allowed unless certain steps were followed.”

  Stone looked over at Caleb. “They have a similar procedure at the Library of Congress Rare Books Division. For obvious reasons the person buying the books can’t input them into the database, and the converse is also true. That’s actually what made me think of this possibility. But what if you had both people in your pocket: the gatherer of the intelligence and the one assigned to put that data in the system? And what if one of them was senior? Perhaps very senior.”

  Reuben finally sputtered. “Are you suggesting that Carter Gray is involved in this? Come on, whatever else you say about Gray, I don’t think you can reasonably question his loyalty to this country.”

  “I’m not saying it’s an easy answer, Reuben,” Stone replied. “But if not Gray, then perhaps someone else who’s been turned.”

  “Now, that’s more likely,” Reuben conceded.

  Milton spoke up. “Well, if this is all true, why was Johnson killed?”

  Stone answered. “If the two men we saw kill Patrick Johnson are with NIC, then it seems to me—given his extravagant lifestyle on a modest government paycheck—that two things might have happened. One, whoever hired him to alter the files was afraid his newfound wealth would lead to an investigation, so they killed him and planted the drugs. Or else Johnson might have gotten greedy, asked for more money and they killed him instead.”

  “So what do we do now?” Milton asked.

  “Staying alive would be my priority,” Reuben answered. “Because if Oliver is right, there’s going to be a lot of powerful folks looking to make sure we’re dead.”

  “And Milton’s identity and home have no doubt already been compromised,” Stone said. “As for the men after us, I propose that we turn the tables on them.”

  “How?” Caleb asked.

  Stone closed his notebook. “We have the home address of Tyler Reinke. I suggest we follow up on that.”

  “You want us to go marching right into the man’s crosshairs?” Reuben exclaimed.

  “No. But there’s no reason why we can’t put him in our crosshairs.”

  Ice cream in hand, Alex and Kate strolled down to the Georgetown waterfront near the spot where hundreds of years ago George Mason operated a ferry. Kate pointed out three boulders that were barely visible in the center of the river north of the Key Bridge and across from Georgetown University.

  She said, “That’s Three Sisters Island. Legend has it three nuns drowned at that spot when their boat overturned. And then the boulders sprung up to symbolize their deaths and warn others.”

  “The Potomac’s current is deceptively calm,” Alex added. “Not that anyone would want to swim in it these days. When it rains hard, you usually get some sewer overflow.”

  “When they built Interstate 66, they were also going to build a spur off it that included a bridge across the river at that point. They were going to call it the Three Sisters Bridge, but there were so many weird construction accidents they finally gave up. Some said it was the ghosts of the nuns.”

  “You believe in stuff like that?” Alex asked.

  “Stranger things have happened. I mean look at some of the conspiracy theorists in this town. Most are probably crazy, but some of them turn out to be right.”

  “I know a guy who falls into the category. His name’s Oliver Stone. The guy’s flat-out brilliant, if a couple paces off the sidewalk of life.”

  “Oliver Stone? You’re kidding.”

  “Not his real name, of course. I think it’s just his little joke aimed at people who believe he’s a quack. One of the most interesting things about him is he has no past, at least that I can find.” Alex smiled. “Maybe he’s been on the run all these years.”

  “Sounds like a man Lucky would like to meet.”

  “So does she still throw her underwear at dangerous men?”

  “What?” a surprised Kate asked.

  “Never mind.” Alex ate a spoonful of ice cream and looked over at Roosevelt Island. Adams followed his gaze.

  She finally said, “So would you care to talk about it? Bartenders are great listeners.”

  Alex motioned her to join him on a bench near the riverfront.

  He said, “Okay, here’s what’s bugging me. The guy swims to the island and shoots himself. Does that sound likely?”

  “Well, it was the island where he and his fiancée went on their first date.”

  “Right. But why swim to the island? Why not just drive to it or walk? There’s a footbridge that crosses over the parkway and empties right into the parking lot of the island. And so does a bike trail. Then you jump the gate, go over to the island, get stoned and blow your brains out without schlepping through the Potomac. They found his car a good ways upriver, which means it was a long swim, in street clothes and shoes and carrying a pistol in a plastic baggie. It’s not like the guy was Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps.”

  “But his prints were on the gun,” Kate retorted.

  “Forcing someone’s hand around a gun and pulling the trigger isn’t that easy or smart to do,” Alex conceded. “The last thing you want is to put a gun in somebody’s hand that you’re trying to kill. But what if you got him drunk first?”

  Alex pointed to his feet. “And the bottoms of his shoes bothered me.”

  “How so?”

  “They had dirt on them as you’d expect from walking through the brush, but there wasn’t any dirt on the ground around him. You’d think that some of that red clay would’ve ended up on the stone pavers around him. And his clothes were too clean. If you’d hiked around that island, you’d have twigs and leaves stuck all over your clothes. There was nothing like that on him. And if he had swum to the island, he would’ve had to trek through that bramble to get to the main trail.”

  “That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Kate admitted.

  “And the suicide note in his pocket? It was barely damp and the ink hadn’t run.”

  “He probably carried it in the same plastic bag he used for the gun.”

  “Then why not leave it in the baggie? Why pull it out and put it in a soaking-wet pocket that might cause the ink to run and the message to be lost? And while Johnson was wet when he was found, if he’d really swum all that way I would’ve expected him to be soggier and grimier than we found him. I mean the Potomac can get pretty foul around here.”

  “But he was wet.”

  “Yeah, but if you wanted it to seem like someone had swum all that way, what would you do?”

  Kate thought for a moment. “Dunk him in the water.”

  “Right, you’d dunk him in the water. And then there’s motivation. No one I talked to knew anything about Johnson dealing drugs. Hell, his fiancée was so ticked she threatened to sue me for even suggesting it might be true!”

  “Like I always said, Secret Service doesn’t miss the details.”

  “But come on, it’s not like we’re inherently better than the FBI with this stuff. They should’ve seen it too. I think there’s a lot of pressure from up top to put this to rest the easy way.”

  “If someone brought him to the island and they didn’t want to use a car for fear of being seen, what would they do?”

  As they were talking, they saw a police boat slowly pass.

  Alex and Kate looked at each other and said together, “A boat!”

  “That’s not something that’s easy to hide,” Alex said slowly.

  Kate looked up and down the waterfront. “I’m game if you are.”

  They threw their ice cream containers in the trash an
d headed down to the water.

  It took them a solid hour, but they finally found it when Kate spotted a tip of the bow sticking out from the drainage ditch.

  “Good eyes,” Alex complimented.

  She slipped off her sandals and Alex his shoes and socks. He rolled up his pants, and they scrambled down there as a couple of passersby watched curiously. Alex ran his gaze over the old wooden rowboat, stopping at one point and putting his face very near the hull. “That looks like a bullet hole.”

  “And that could be blood,” Kate said, pointing to a small dark patch near the gunwale.

  “Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless they killed Johnson in the boat and then took him to the island. It was foggy that night, so I guess it could’ve been done without anyone seeing.”

  “So what do you do with all this?” Kate asked.

  Alex rose and pondered this. “I’d like to see if the blood matches Patrick Johnson’s or if it’s someone else’s. But if the director finds out I’ve been poking around this case again, I’m going to end up in a brand-new Service outpost in Siberia. That is, if he doesn’t kill me with his bare hands.”

  “I can nose around,” Kate offered.

  “No. I don’t want you anywhere near this. Some of the thoughts going through my head are downright scary. For now we’ll just have to leave it alone.”

  CHAPTER

  42

  CAPTAIN JACK LOOKED AT THE note that had just been delivered. The message was coded but he’d memorized the key and quickly deciphered it. It was hardly good news:

  Gray met with me today. He accessed some files, but I can’t find out which ones because he put an override on. He mentioned the resurrection of the dead to me personally. I discovered he made the same statement to other senior people here. He’s obviously fishing, to see who would jump at the bait. That’s why I sent this by courier. Go ahead with plans. I will hold down this end. Communicate via Charlie One from now on.

  The problem with trying to communicate in this day and age was that it was virtually impossible to do so in secret if you used modern technology. Spy satellites were everywhere, and faxes, computers, cell and hard-line phones and e-mails were all potentially monitored. It was no wonder terrorists had resorted to couriers and handwritten messages. Ironic, that modern surveillance technology was driving them all back to the Stone Age. Charlie One was simple to use: coded messages on paper delivered by a trusted messenger, with the paper destroyed after being read.

  The Secret Service advance team would be arriving in Brennan very soon. Shortly after that, the president would fly into Pittsburgh on Air Force One, and the most heavily guarded motorcade in history would make its way to Brennan. There they would be confronted by what some would consider a ragtag army of mostly forty-something men and one young woman. Yet Captain Jack would bet on his crew. He took his lighter and burned the letter to ash.

  After she’d said her final prayer of the day, Djamila stood in front of her bathroom mirror and studied her features. Today was her twenty-fourth birthday; however, she thought she looked older than that; the last few years had not been kind to her. There had never been enough food and not enough clean water, and there were far too many nights of sleeping without a roof over her head. And bullets and bombs dropping all around you aged you faster than anything else. At least she now had enough to eat. America was the land of abundance, she’d often been told. They had so much, she thought, and it was hardly fair. It was said that there were homeless people here and children who went hungry, but she didn’t believe that. It couldn’t be possible. That was just American propaganda to make people pity them! Djamila swore in Arabic at this thought. Pity them?

  She was twenty-four years old, alone and halfway around the world from where she belonged. Her family was all gone. Murdered. She felt the lump in her throat growing. And a moment later she was choking back the tears. She quickly wet a towel and put it over her face, letting the cool fabric dry the tears.

  Recovered, she grabbed her purse and van keys and shut the door to her apartment, being careful to make sure it was securely locked.

  She had been told that there would always be one of Captain Jack’s men watching her van wherever it was parked. They could not afford to let the vehicle be stolen. There was not time to get another one like it.

  Captain Jack was a strange man, she thought. An American who spoke fluent Arabic was not common. He seemed to know the customs and history of the Islamic world better than some Muslims. Djamila had been instructed that whatever he told her to do she must obey. It had not seemed right at first, taking orders from an American. Yet, after meeting him in person, there was an aura of authority around the man that she couldn’t deny.

  Driving her van around the area in the evening had become a ritual for Djamila. It was as much to unwind after a long day of playing nanny to three energetic boys as it was to commit to memory the various roads and shortcuts necessary to her task. She drove into downtown Brennan and passed by Mercy Hospital. Adnan al-Rimi was not on duty, but Djamila wouldn’t have known him if she saw him. In the same vein she had no reason to look to the right and eye the apartment where, at that moment, a pair of camouflaged M-50 sniper rifles were trained on the hospital as part of a practice round.

  Her path took her by the auto repair shop. Out of habit she drove down the alley past a set of overhead doors situated there, their windows painted black. Her route on that day would take her through the southern tip of the downtown area, and then she would head west on the main road leading out of Brennan. In thirty minutes’ time her part would be over. She prayed to God that his wisdom and courage would guide her.

  She continued her trek and soon passed by the ceremonial grounds. All she knew was that the president of this country would be speaking here before a very large crowd. Other than that, the grassy piece of earth meant little to her.

  Her travels had taken her past the home of George and Lori Franklin, her employers. It was a very pretty home, if you liked the traditional architecture of America. But what Djamila enjoyed best about the Franklins’ home was the backyard. It was full of green grass to run across and trees for climbing and places to hide when she was playing games with the boys. Having grown up in a desert climate, Djamila had to admit that America was a very beautiful country. At least on the outside.

  Djamila’s route back to her apartment took her past the Franklins’ house once more. As the van glided by, Djamila instinctively looked to the upper dormer windows where the three boys slept in two rooms. She had found herself becoming more and more attached to them. They were fine children who would no doubt grow up as haters of Islam, of all that she believed in. If she could only have them for real, she would teach them the truths; she would show them the real light of her faith and her world. They might find that the differences between them were far outweighed by their similarities. Djamila pulled the van to a stop as she thought about this. For so long she had been told that America and Islam were not capable of being reconciled. And yes, that must be true. They are destroying my country, she reminded herself. They are a violent nation with an unbeatable army. They took what they wanted, whether it was oil or lives. And yet as she gazed around the peaceful neighborhood all that was hard to imagine. Very hard.

  Alex looked around the interior of Kate Adams’ home and liked very much what he was seeing. Things weren’t too orderly, and there was clutter here and there. Alex himself was no neatnik and doubted he could long stand the company of someone who was. And there were books everywhere too, which was also a good thing. Never a reader in school, Alex had made up for that with a vengeance when he joined the Service. Long plane flights allowed for plenty of time spent between the pages. And she obviously wasn’t a snooty, highbrowed reader. While many literary classics were tucked on shelves, Alex noted a healthy dose of commercial-grade fiction there as well.

  Family photos dotted tables and walls, and he took his time looking at Kate Adams as she evolved from a gangling, shy youn
g girl into a lovely, confident woman.

  In one corner of the room that took up most of the first floor sat a black baby grand piano.

  When she came back downstairs from her bedroom, Kate had changed into jeans, a sweater, and was barefoot.

  “Sorry,” she said, “I start to implode after a day in a dress and shoes.”

  “Don’t let the thousand-dollar suits and impeccable grooming fool you, I’m a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy myself.”

  She laughed. “Beer?”

  “Always a good chaser to mocha mint ice cream.”

  She pulled two Coronas from the fridge, cut up limes, and they sat on the couch that looked out onto the rear grounds.

  She curled her legs up under her. “So what’s your next move?”

  He shrugged. “Not sure. Officially, I’m on White House protection detail, and I should be thankful for that. I mean it’s not like I did anything wrong during the investigation. But I sat in the director’s office and refused a direct order from him to reveal the name of someone. I still can’t believe I did that.”

  “So was the old friend you told me about Oliver Stone?”

  He shot Kate a glance that answered the question for her. “How the hell did you figure that out?”

  “You’re not the only person in the room with deductive powers.”

  “Apparently not.” He took a swig of beer and sat back against the cushions. “Like I said, I think at this point my hands are tied. How can I even tell them about finding the boat without revealing that I was doing the very thing the director ordered me not to do? If he finds out, I’m history. I can’t risk that.”

  “I see your dilemma.” She brushed against his shoulder as she set her beer down on the coffee table. That simple touch was like an electric spark shot through Alex’s body.

 
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