The camel club, p.28
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       The Camel Club, p.28

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
 

  Kate sat down in front of the piano and started playing a piece that he recognized as Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It was clear that the woman was a highly skilled pianist. After a couple of minutes he joined her on the bench and started tapping out a side melody.

  She said, “That’s Ray Charles. I thought you were a guitar player.”

  “My old man said if you start with piano you can play pretty much anything.”

  “Wasn’t Clint Eastwood a piano-playing Secret Service agent in the movie In the Line of Fire?”

  “Yep, with Rene Russo sitting next to him.”

  “Sorry, I’m no Rene Russo.”

  “I’m no Clint Eastwood. And FYI, Rene Russo has nothing on you.”

  “Liar.”

  “I’m not the kind of guy to take my clothes off on a first date like Eastwood. Sorry,” he added with a grin.

  She smirked at him. “Pity.”

  “But that rule doesn’t necessarily hold for the second date.”

  “Oh, you’re that confident there’ll be a second one?”

  “Come on, I’m packing heat. I’m a lock, according to Lucky.”

  He ran his fingers across the keys until they touched hers.

  The kiss that followed made the electrical spark Alex had felt before seem like a faint tickle.

  She kissed him one more time and then stood. “I know this is probably unfair, but I think your first-date rule is a good one.” She said this only halfheartedly, but then glanced away. “You don’t give it away the first night, because they might not be back the second.”

  He put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be back any night you want me, Kate.”

  “How about tomorrow?” She added, “If I can wait that long.”

  Alex fired up his old Cherokee and drove off, his spirits soaring. He pulled off down the street, turned back onto 31st and started the long, winding descent into the main drag of Georgetown. His first hint of trouble was when he tapped the brakes and they didn’t respond. His second hint of coming disaster was when he punched them again and they sank to the floor. And he was rapidly gathering speed as the descent angle steepened. On top of that, there were parked cars on both sides of the street and the asphalt here curved like a damn serpent.

  He fought the wheel and also tried to downshift to slow his momentum, neither of which did much. And then the headlights of another car cut through the darkness coming toward him.

  “Oh, shit!” He cut the wheel hard to the right, and the Cherokee slid between two parked cars, where a sturdy tree did what the brakes couldn’t. The impact deployed the air bag, briefly stunning him. Alex pushed the bag away, undid his seat belt and staggered out of the car. He could taste blood on his lips, and his face was burning, probably from the air bag’s hot gas.

  He sat on the curb, trying to catch his breath and also trying not to be sick as the mocha mint ice cream and Corona ratcheted up his throat.

  The next thing he knew, someone was kneeling beside him. Alex started to say that he was okay when he froze. The hard, cold object was flush against his neck. His arm instinctively shot out and smashed into the person’s knee, buckling it.

  The man yelled out in pain, but as Alex tried to get up, a searing blow caught him across the head. Then he heard footsteps running away and a car squeal off. Moments later he understood the hasty retreat as other car lights appeared and people were surrounding him.

  “Are you all right?” they were asking him over and over.

  Alex could still feel the icy touch of the gun barrel against his neck. Then a thought hit him. His brakes!

  Alex pushed the people away and, ignoring the pain in his head, grabbed a flashlight out of the Cherokee and shone the light under his left front wheel well. It was all covered with brake fluid. Someone had tampered with his truck. Yet the only place they could’ve done that was at Kate’s. Kate!

  He reached in his pocket for his cell phone. It wasn’t there. He threw open the door to the wrecked Cherokee. His cell phone was on the floorboard, broken in half from the force of the collision. He screamed in fury. By now the people who’d come to his aid were backing away, their expressions fearful in the face of his bizarre behavior.

  Then one of them spotted it as he wheeled around and his jacket flew open. This person yelled, “He’s got a gun!” On this they all scattered like frightened pigeons.

  He started running after them. “I need your phone! Your phone!” he yelled. But they were already gone.

  Alex turned and started sprinting back up 31st Street. The blood was dripping down his shirt from his scalp wound, and his arms and legs felt disconnected from his body, but on he raced, up the steep incline until he felt his lungs would burst. He hit R Street and turned left, redoubling his speed, finding a reserve of energy and another gear he never knew he had. As the house came into view, he pulled out his gun.

  He slowed and crouched low as he slipped into the yard. The main house was dark. He made his way quietly to the garden gate leading to the backyard and the carriage house. The gate was locked, so he clambered over the fence. His feet touched the grass on the other side, and Alex squatted down to reconnoiter the area and catch his breath. His head was pounding, and his ears were ringing so badly he didn’t know if he could even hear. He moved, crouching, through the cover of the bushes toward the carriage house. There was a light on upstairs. He took several deep breaths, forcing himself to stay calm as he gripped his SIG.

  He inched forward, his eyes scanning the grounds through the bushes. If someone is out there drawing a bead . . . Then a light came on in the first floor of the carriage house. Alex watched through a window as Kate came into his line of sight. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was still barefoot but now wore only a long T-shirt. He inched forward some more as his gaze veered from Kate to the outside of the carriage house to the line of bulky Leland cypresses that surrounded the rear grounds. If Alex were sniping, that’s the spot he would have chosen.

  He took one more calming breath and went into pure protection mode. This meant his gaze was steady and moved in and out in grids, with Kate representing the center of his protection “bubble.” It was rumored that when Secret Service agents went into this groove, they could actually count the beats of a hummingbird’s wings. That was ridiculous, of course, but all Alex wanted to do was prevent the lady from being hurt. All he wanted to do was see the gun before it fired. He’d had all those years of training to do this very thing. Please, God, let it be enough.

  And that’s when he spotted it: across the yard and to the right, behind a giant rhododendron, the almost invisible glint of a rifle’s optics. He didn’t hesitate. He brought his gun up and fired. It was a long shot for a handgun, but he didn’t care if he hit the shooter. He just wanted to drive him away.

  He placed the shot directly behind the optics. As soon as he fired, the rifle barrel fully appeared, jerking upward and discharging. A split second later Alex put six more bullets into the same area. Next he heard Kate scream. Then the rifle disappeared, and he heard feet running hard away. Damn, he’d missed, but accomplished his goal just the same. Still, the bastard had gotten off a shot!

  Alex sprinted for the carriage house. Bursting through the door, he heard Kate scream again. She stopped when she saw him. He rushed to her, grabbed her around the waist and pushed her to the floor, his body shielding hers.

  “Stay down, there’s a shooter out there,” he said into her ear. He wriggled forward on his belly and punched the light switch, plunging the carriage house into darkness. Then he crawled back to her.

  “Are you all right?” he asked frantically. “You’re not shot?”

  “No,” she whispered back. Then she felt his face. “My God, are you bleeding?”

  “I’m not shot. Someone used my head as an anvil.”

  “Who did it?”

  “Don’t know.” He caught his breath and leaned his back against the stove, his gaze on the door, his hand clenched around his pistol. Kate cr
awled forward, reached up and pulled a roll of paper towels off the counter.

  “Kate,” he said harshly, “stay the hell down. The guy could still be out there.”

  “You’re bleeding,” she said firmly. She reached up again and ran some water over a wad of the towels. She cleaned his face off and examined the lump on his head. “I can’t believe it didn’t knock you out.”

  “Fear is a great antidote to unconsciousness.”

  “I didn’t even hear your truck drive up.”

  “My Cherokee was put out of commission. Brake line cut. I had quite the roller-coaster ride down 31st.”

  “Then how’d you get back here?”

  “I ran.”

  She looked astonished. “You ran! All that way?”

  “I figured the only place they could’ve tampered with my brakes was at your place. I . . . I had to get back here. I had to make sure you were okay!” This came out in one long breathless purge of his emotions.

  She stopped cleaning the blood off him even as her mouth started trembling. Then Kate wrapped her arms around him, her face nestled against his neck. Alex put an arm around her.

  What a hell of a first date!

  CHAPTER

  43

  THE CAMEL CLUB HAD WALKED back to Foggy Bottom and ridden the Metro to Union Station, where they had some late dinner at the food court in the lower level and talked things over. Afterward, they went to the train station’s parking garage to pick up their vehicles. Stone elected to ride in the sidecar with Reuben. He turned to Caleb and Milton, who were getting into the Malibu.

  “All right, you two can go to your condo, Caleb. I believe you’ll be safe there, but please keep vigilant.”

  “Wait a minute,” Caleb said sharply. “Where are you and Reuben going?”

  Stone hesitated. “I’ll just have Reuben drop me back at my cottage.”

  Caleb scrutinized his friend. “You’re lying! You’re going out to Purcellville, where that man lives.”

  “Tyler Reinke,” Milton stated, glaring at Stone.

  “You’re going out there,” Caleb continued. “And you don’t want us along because you’re afraid we might get in the way.”

  “Consider, Caleb, that you and Milton don’t really have any experience at this sort of thing. Whereas Reuben and—”

  “I don’t care,” Caleb snapped. “We’re going.”

  “I’m afraid I can’t allow that,” Stone replied evenly. “If we’re discovered, he’d have all four of us instead of simply two.”

  Caleb said with dignity, “Can’t allow it! We are adults, Oliver. And full members of the Camel Club. And if you don’t agree to let us go, I’ll follow right behind you blowing my horn the whole way, and let me tell you, my car’s horn sounds like a damn cannon going off!”

  “And I’ve already located his house on my computer using MapQuest,” Milton said. “It’s very difficult to find without precise directions, which I happen to have in my pocket.”

  Stone looked at Caleb, Milton and finally Reuben, who shrugged.

  “All for one and one for all,” Reuben said.

  Stone finally nodded, albeit grudgingly.

  “Shouldn’t we just take my car, then?” Caleb said.

  “No,” Stone replied as he eyed the motorcycle. “I’ve actually grown fond of riding in this contraption, and it also might come in useful tonight.”

  They headed west, picking up Route 7 in Virginia heading northwest, passing very close to NIC headquarters as they zipped through Leesburg. A sign at one of the intersections indicated the direction and proximity of the intelligence center. It had always amazed Stone that there were actually signs to NSA, CIA and other highly sensitive places. Yet, he supposed, they had visitors too. Still, it certainly put a crimp in the “secret” part of the business.

  Reinke’s place was very, very rural. They wound up and down back roads for a half hour after leaving Route 7, when Milton finally saw the route sign they wanted. He motioned for Caleb to pull off to the side of the road. Reuben slid in behind them, and he and Stone climbed off the motorcycle and joined them in the car.

  Milton said, “His house is two-tenths of a mile up that road. I did a cross search of other addresses up there. There aren’t any. His house is the only one.”

  “Bloody isolated,” Reuben said, looking around nervously.

  Stone commented, “Murderers are notorious for wanting their privacy.”

  “So what’s the plan?” Caleb asked.

  “I want you and Milton to remain in the car—”

  “Oliver!” Caleb argued immediately.

  “Just hear me out, Caleb. I want you and Milton to remain in the car, but first we’re going to drive up the road and see if anyone’s home. If they are, we leave. If not, you and Milton will come back here and serve as our lookout. This is the only road in or out, correct, Milton?”

  “Yes.”

  “We’ll communicate by cell phone. If you see anyone coming, call us immediately and we’ll take the necessary actions.”

  “What are you going to do?” Caleb asked. “Break into the man’s house?”

  “You know, Oliver, he’s probably got an alarm system,” Reuben ventured.

  “I would be surprised if he didn’t.”

  “So how do we get in, then?” Reuben asked.

  “Let me worry about that.”

  The house was indeed dark and presumably empty, since there was no car visible and the house didn’t have a garage. While Milton and Caleb stood guard in a hidden location near the entrance to the road, Reuben and Stone drove up on the Indian, parking it in a clump of trees behind the house and making their way on foot.

  It was a two-story old clapboard with chipping white paint. Stone led Reuben to the rear. The door here was solid, but there was a window next to it. Stone peered through the window and motioned Reuben to look too.

  A greenish glow emanated from a new-looking object on the wall opposite the door.

  “He’s got a security system, all right,” Reuben muttered. “Now what?”

  Stone didn’t answer him. He peered closer at the screen. “We’ll have to assume he has motion detectors. That complicates things.”

  Suddenly, something flew at them from the inside of the house accompanied by twin slashes of emerald. It hit the window and bounced off. Both men leaped back, and Reuben was already turned to run when Stone called out to him.

  “It’s all right, Reuben,” Stone said. “Mr. Reinke has a cat.”

  His chest heaving, Reuben staggered back up to the window and looked through it. Peering back up at him was a black tabby with a white chest and huge luminous green eyes. The room they were looking into was the kitchen. And the cat had apparently launched itself from the countertop when it noticed their presence.

  “Damn cat. I bet it’s a female,” Reuben said, grimacing.

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Because women have always tried to give me heart attacks, that’s why!”

  “Actually, the presence of the animal simplifies things greatly,” Stone said.

  “How the hell do you figure that?”

  “Security systems with motion detectors do not cohabit very well with cats.”

  Reuben snapped his fingers. “Pet corridors where the motion doesn’t hit.”

  “Exactly.” Stone was pulling something from his pocket. It was the black leather case he had taken from his secret room. He unzipped it. Inside was a first-class burglary kit.

  Reuben stared at these felonious instruments and then looked up at his friend and said, “I don’t want to know.”

  The window to the kitchen was opened within ten seconds.

  “How’d you figure the window wasn’t wired to the security system?”

  “Wired windows and a motion detector is a bit of overkill,” Stone replied. “And a house this old has plaster walls which are very difficult to run wire through. I doubt our Mr. Reinke could justify the price. And I checked for a wireless security
pod on the window before I jimmied it.”

  “Okay,” Reuben demanded. “I do want to know. How the hell do you know about stuff like wireless window security pods?”

  Stone glanced at him with an innocent expression. “The library is open to the public, Reuben.”

  They climbed inside and the cat met them immediately, rubbing up against their legs and waiting patiently to be stroked.

  “All right, before we enter any room, we need to find the motion detector. Then I’ll send the cat across the room and we’ll follow its lead,” Stone said. “Be prepared to crawl on your belly.”

  “Great! I might as well be back in Nam,” Reuben groused.

  A half hour before Stone and Reuben broke into Tyler Reinke’s house, the back door of Milton’s place was forced open and Warren Peters and Tyler Reinke slipped inside and shut the door behind them. It had not been that easy, since Milton had six locks on every door, and all the windows were nailed shut, something the fire marshal doubtless would’ve disapproved of. They had already checked the power box going into the house for any signs of a security system and had found none.

  Reinke was limping from where Alex Ford had punched him in the knee. And there was a bullet hole in Warren Peters’ coat sleeve where one of the Secret Service agent’s shots had almost found its mark. They’d stumbled upon the two when they went to Georgetown for another look at the boat, only to find that Ford and Adams had beaten them to it.

 
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