The camel club, p.3
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       The Camel Club, p.3
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         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  nightlife would have blared away near the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Georgetown had many tony places that promised good times for those with lots of ready cash or at least passable credit, neither of which Stone possessed. However, at this late hour most revelers had called it a night. Washington was, above all, an early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise sort of town.

  The Potomac River was also quiet tonight. The police boat that regularly patrolled the waters must have headed south toward the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. That was very good, Stone thought. Thankfully, he didn’t pass any police officers on land either. This was a free country, but somewhat less free for a man who lived in a cemetery, wore clothes only a couple of levels above rags and was out after dark in an affluent area.

  Stone walked along the waterfront, skirted the Francis Scott Key Park, trudged under the Francis Scott Key Bridge and finally passed a memorial to the famous composer. A bit of overkill, Stone thought, for a fellow who had written song lyrics no one could remember. The sky was an inky black with splashes of clouds and dots of stars; and, with the recently reinstated curfew at nearby Reagan National Airport, there were no aircraft exhaust streams to mar its beauty. However, Stone could feel the thick ground fog rolling in. Soon, he would be lucky to see a foot in front of him. He was drawing near to a gaudily painted building owned by one of the local rowing clubs when a familiar voice called to him from the darkness.

  “Oliver, is that you?”

  “Yes, Caleb. Are the others here?”

  A medium-sized fellow with a bit of a paunch came into Stone’s line of sight. Caleb Shaw was dressed in a suit of clothes from the nineteenth century, complete with a bowler hat that covered his short, graying hair; an old-fashioned watch graced the front of his wool vest. He wore his sideburns long, and a small, well-groomed mustache hovered over his lip.

  “Reuben’s here, but he’s, uh, relieving himself. I haven’t seen Milton yet,” Caleb added.

  Stone sighed. “Not a surprise. Milton is brilliant but absentminded as always.”

  When Reuben joined them, he didn’t look well. Reuben Rhodes stood over six foot four and was a very powerfully built man of about sixty with a longish mass of curly dark hair dappled with gray and a matching short, thick beard. He was dressed in dirty jeans and a flannel shirt, with frayed moccasins on his feet. He was pressing one of his hands into his side. Reuben was prone to kidney stones.

  “You should go to the clinic, Reuben,” Stone implored.

  The big man scowled. “I don’t like people poking around inside me; had enough of that in the army. So I’ll suffer in silence and in privacy if you don’t mind.”

  As they were speaking, Milton Farb joined them. He stopped, pecked the dirt with his right foot three times, then with his left two times and finished this off with a series of whistles and grunts. Then he recited a string of numbers that obviously had great significance for him.

  The other three waited patiently until he finished. They all knew if they interrupted their companion in the midst of his obsessive-compulsive ritual, he would have to start again, and it was getting rather late.

  “Hello, Milton,” Stone said after the grunts and whistles had ceased.

  Milton Farb looked up from the dirt and smiled. He had a leather backpack over his shoulder and was dressed in a colorful sweater and crisp-pressed khaki pants. He was five foot eleven and thin with wire-rim glasses. He wore his graying sandy-blond hair on the long side, which made him resemble an aging hippie. However, there was an impish look in his twinkling eyes that made him appear younger than he was.

  Milton patted his backpack. “I have some good stuff, Oliver.”

  “Well, let’s get going,” said Reuben, who was still holding his side. “I’ve got the early shift at the loading dock tomorrow.” As the four headed off, Reuben drew next to Stone and slipped some money into his friend’s shirt pocket.

  “You don’t have to do that, Reuben,” Stone protested. “I have the stipend from the church.”

  “Right! I know they don’t pay much to pull weeds and polish tombstones, especially when they throw in a roof over your head.”

  “Yes, but it’s not like you have much to spare yourself.”

  “You did the same for me for many a year when I couldn’t pay anyone to hire me.” He then added gruffly, “Look at us. What a ragtag regiment we are. When the hell did we get so old and pathetic?”

  Caleb laughed, although Milton looked stunned for a moment until he realized Reuben was joking.

  “Old age always sneaks up on one, but once it’s fully present, the effects are hardly subtle,” Stone commented dryly. As they walked along, Stone studied each of his companions, men he’d known for years and who’d been with him through both good and bad times.

  Reuben had graduated from West Point and served three distinguished tours in Vietnam, earning virtually every medal and commendation the military could confer. After that, he’d been assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency, essentially the military counterpart of the CIA. However, he eventually quit the DIA and became a vocal protester of war in general and the Vietnam War in particular. When the country quit caring about that “little skirmish” in Southeast Asia, Reuben found himself a man without a cause. He lived in England for a time before returning to the States. After that, heavy doses of drugs and burned bridges left him with few options in life. He’d been fortunate to run into Oliver Stone, who helped turn his life around. Reuben was currently on the payroll of a warehouse company, where he unloaded trucks, exercising his muscles instead of his mind.

  Caleb Shaw held twin doctorates in political science and eighteenth-century literature, though his bohemian nature found comfort in the fashions of the nineteenth century. Like Reuben, he’d been an active protester during Vietnam, where he lost his brother. Caleb had also been a strident voice against the administration during Watergate, when the nation lost the last vestiges of its political innocence. Despite his academic prowess, his eccentricities had long since banished him from the mainstream of scholarship. He currently worked in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. His membership in the organization he was meeting with tonight had not been included on his résumé when he sought the position. Federal authorities frowned on people who affiliated with conspiracy-theory groups that held their meetings in the middle of the night.

  Milton Farb probably possessed more sheer brilliance than the other members put together, even if he often forgot to eat, thought that Paris Hilton was a place to stay in France and believed that so long as he possessed an ATM card that he also had money. A child prodigy, he had the innate capacity to add enormous numbers in his head and a pure photographic memory—he could read or see something once and never forget it. His parents had worked in a traveling carnival, and Milton became a very popular sideshow, adding numbers in his head faster than someone else could on a calculator, and reciting, back, without faltering, the exact text of any book shown him.

  Years later, after completing graduate school in record time, he was employed at the National Institutes of Health, or NIH. The only things that had prevented him from having a successful life were his worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and a strong paranoia complex, both problems probably caused by his unorthodox childhood on the carnival circuit. Unfortunately these twin demons tended to erupt at inappropriate times. After sending a threatening letter to the president of the United States decades ago and being investigated by the Secret Service, his NIH career quickly came to an end.

  Stone first met Milton in a mental health facility where Stone worked as an orderly and Milton was a patient. While he was hospitalized Milton’s parents died and left their son penniless. Stone, who’d come to know of Milton’s extraordinary intellectual ability, persuaded his destitute friend to try out for, of all things, Jeopardy! Milton qualified for the show, and, his OCD and other issues temporarily kept in check with medication, he went on to defeat all comers and earn a s
mall fortune. He now had a thriving business designing corporate Web sites.

  They headed down closer to the water where there was an old abandoned junkyard. At a spot nearby there was a great clump of ragged bushes, half in the water. From this hiding place the four managed to pull out a long, crusted rowboat that hardly looked seaworthy. Undaunted by this, they tugged off their socks and shoes and stuffed them in their bags, carried the boat down to the water and climbed in. They took turns at the oars, with big Reuben pulling the longest and hardest.

  There was a cooling breeze on the water, and the lights of Georgetown and, farther south, Washington were inviting, though fading with the encroaching fog. There was much to like about the place, Stone thought as he sat in the bow of the little vessel. Yes, much to like, but more to loathe.

  “The police boat’s up near the 14th Street Bridge,” Caleb reported. “They’re on a new schedule. And they’ve got Homeland Security chopper patrols circling the Mall monuments every two hours again. It was on the alert e-mail at the library today.”

  “The threat level was elevated this morning,” Reuben informed them. “Friends of mine in the know say it’s all bullshit campaign posturing; President Brennan waving the flag.”

  Stone turned around and stared at Milton, who sat impassively in the stern.

  “You’re unusually quiet tonight, Milton. Everything all right?”

  Milton looked at him shyly. “I made a friend.” They all stared at him curiously. “A female friend,” he added.

  Reuben slapped Milton on the shoulder. “You old dog you.”

  “That’s wonderful,” Stone said. “Where did you meet her?”

  “At the anxiety clinic. She’s a patient too.”

  “I see,” Stone said, turning back around.

  “That’s very nice, I’m sure,” Caleb added diplomatically.

  They moved slowly under the Key Bridge, keeping to the middle of the channel, and then followed the curve of the river south. Stone took comfort that the thickening fog made them practically invisible from shore. Federal authorities didn’t tolerate trespassers very well. Stone watched as land came into view. “A little to the right, Reuben.”

  “Next time let’s just meet in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It requires much less sweat on my part,” the big man complained as he huffed and puffed on the oars.

  The boat made its way around the western side of the island and into a small strip of water known appropriately as Little Channel. It was so isolated here that it seemed impossible that they’d glimpsed the U.S. Capitol dome just minutes ago.

  Reaching shore, they climbed out and hauled the boat up into the bushes. As the men trudged single file through the woods toward the main trail, Oliver Stone carried an extra spring in his step. He had a lot he wanted to accomplish tonight.

  CHAPTER

  5

  THE LATVIAN ENTOURAGE FINALLY retired, and Alex immediately hitched a ride to a federal cop hangout, not far from the Secret Service’s WFO. The establishment was called the LEAP Bar. The acronym LEAP probably meant nothing to the layperson but was very well known to federal law enforcement types.

  LEAP stood for “Law Enforcement Availability Pay.” In exchange for being available at least ten hours a day for work that required a badge, a gun and more than a modicum of guts, federal officers received from their respective agencies a 25 percent bump in their base pay. Naming the bar LEAP was a brilliant marketing move by the saloon owners because the place had been packed from day one with pistol-toting men and women.

  Alex passed through the front door and edged up to the bar. On the wall facing him were dozens of arm patches with the insignias of law enforcement agencies. Adorning the other walls were framed newspaper articles of heroic deeds by the FBI, DEA, ATF, FAM and other such agencies.

  When Alex saw her, he grinned, in spite of wanting to remain cool and unaffected by her presence.

  “Beefeater martini on the rocks with not two, or four, but three plump olives,” she said, eyeing him with an accompanying smile.

  “Good memory.”

  “Yeah, it’s really tough considering you never order anything else.”

  “How’s DOJ treating you?”

  Kate Adams was the only bartender of his acquaintance who was also a Department of Justice lawyer.

  She handed him his drink. “Hunky-dory. How’s the Service treating you?”

  “The paychecks keep coming and I keep breathing. That’s all I ask.”

  “You really should raise your standards.”

  Kate mopped up the bar as Alex kept shooting discreet glances her way. She was five-seven with slender curves and shoulder-length blond hair curling around a long neck. She had high cheekbones with a slim, straight nose between, leading down to a shapely chin. In fact, everything about her was cool and classical until you got to the eyes. They were large and green and, to Alex, evidenced a fiery, passionate soul lurking within. Single, a GS-15 and in her mid-thirties—he’d checked on the government database—Kate looked five years younger than that. It was a pity, Alex thought, since he looked every bit his age, though his black hair had not yet started to thin or gray. Why, he didn’t know.

  “You’re getting skinny,” she remarked, breaking into his thoughts.

  “Being out of protection, I’m not standing around shoveling in hotel food, and I actually get to work out instead of sitting my butt on a plane for ten hours at a crack.”

  He’d been coming here for over a month and chitchatting with the woman. He wanted to do more than that, though, and now tried to think of something that would hold her attention. He suddenly glanced at her hands. “So how long have you played the piano?”

  “What?” Kate said in a surprised tone.

  “Your fingers are calloused,” he observed. “A sure sign of a piano player.”

  She looked at her hands. “Or from a computer keyboard.”

  “No. Computer keys callous the tips only. Piano keys hit the full upper part of the finger. And that’s not all. You chew your nails down to the nubs. You have a dent in your left thumbnail, a scar on your right index finger, and your left pinkie is a little crooked, probably from a break when you were a kid.”

  Kate stared at her fingers. “What are you? Some sort of hand expert?”

  “All Secret Service agents are. I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life looking at hands in all fifty states and a bunch of countries overseas.”

  “Why?”

  “Because people kill with their hands, Kate.”

  “Oh.”

  He was about to say something else when a group of FBI agents who’d just gotten off the last shift burst in, strode en masse to the bar and started ordering in loud voices. Alex, pushed away by their sheer number, took his drink and sat alone at a small table in a corner. However, his gaze remained fixed on Kate. The Bureau boys were giving the lovely bartender their fawning attention, which irritated the hell out of the Secret Service agent.

  Alex finally turned his attention to the TV bolted to the wall. It was tuned to CNN, and a number of bar patrons were listening intently to the person speaking on the screen. Alex carried his drink over near the set so he could hear better, and watched a repeat of an earlier press conference held by Carter Gray, the nation’s intelligence chief.

  Gray’s physical appearance instantly gave one assurance. Though short in stature, he had the weighty presence of granite with his burly shoulders, stout neck and wide face. He wore glasses that gave him a professional air, which wasn’t simply a façade; he was the product of some of the finest schools in the country. And everything the schools hadn’t taught him, he had learned through almost four decades in the field. He did not seem capable of being either intimidated or caught off guard.

  “In rural southwest Virginia three alleged terrorists were found dead by a farmer looking for a lost cow,” the secretary of intelligence announced with a completely straight face. The mental image this conjured made Alex want to laugh, but Carter Gray’s
grave demeanor extinguished any desire to chuckle.

  “Forensic evidence suggests these men had been dead for at least a week and perhaps longer. Using the information database at the National Intelligence Center, we have confirmed that one of them was Muhammad al-Zawahiri, who we believe was connected to the Grand Central suicide bombing and is suspected of running an East Coast drug ring as well. Also killed were Adnan al-Rimi, believed to be one of al-Zawahiri’s foot soldiers, and a third man whose identity is still unknown. Using intelligence developed by NIC, the FBI has arrested five other men with connections to al-Zawahiri and confiscated a large quantity of illegal drugs, cash and weapons.”

  Gray knew how to play the Washington game perfectly, Alex thought. He’d made sure the public knew that NIC was the one who’d done the heavy lifting, but he’d also credited the FBI. Success in D.C. was measured in budget dollars and extra scraps of turf. Any bureaucrat who forgot this did so at his extreme peril. Yet every agency occasionally needed favors from its sister organizations. Gray had clearly covered his bases there.

  Gray continued. “One of the most interesting facets of this incident is that, based on the investigation so far, it seems that al-Zawahiri killed his two companions and then committed suicide, although it may turn out that his death was somehow related to his drug trafficking. Regardless, we believe that this latest development will send another shock wave through terrorist communities at a time when the United States is making clear inroads in the fight against terror.” He paused and then said in a crisp voice, “And now I’d like to introduce the president of the United States.”

  This was the standard drill for these press conferences. Gray would report the actual details in straightforward language. Then the charismatic James Brennan would follow and knock the political baseball out of the park with a hyperbole-laced speech that left no doubt as to who could protect the country best.

  As Brennan began his remarks, Alex turned his attention back to the bar and the lady there. He knew that a woman like Kate Adams probably had twenty guys gunning for her, and most of them were probably better prospects than he was. She also probably realized how he felt; hell, she’d probably known how he felt about her even before he did.

  He squared his shoulders and made up his mind. Well, there’s no reason I can’t be the one guy out of twenty who sticks.

  However, halfway to the bar he stopped. Another man had come in and walked right up to her. The immediate smile on Kate’s face was enough to tell Alex that this person was special. He sat back down and continued to watch as they moved off to the end of the bar where they could talk in private. The fellow was a little shorter than Alex, but younger, powerfully built and handsome. To Alex’s practiced eye the man’s clothes were very expensive. He was probably one of those high-priced corporate attorneys or lobbyists who plied their trade on K Street. Every time Kate laughed it was like a meat cleaver directly in the Secret Service agent’s skull.

  He finished his drink and was about to leave when he heard his name. He turned and saw Kate motioning to him. He reluctantly walked over.

  “Alex, this is Tom Hemingway. Tom, Alex Ford,” she said.

  When they shook hands, there was such strength in Hemingway’s grip that Alex, who was pretty strong, felt a pain shoot up his arm. He stared down at the man’s hand, amazed at the thickness of the fingers and the knuckles that looked like wedges of steel. Hemingway had the most powerful set of hands the Secret Service agent had ever seen.

 
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