The Camel Club, Page 33David Baldacci
if Adelphia has told you that she followed us to the river and watched us head to the island, that doesn’t mean we were witness to that man’s death.”
“But I believe you saw everything. And I think whoever killed Patrick Johnson discovered your presence, and you had to make a run for it. That would explain the bullet hole in the boat and the blood. What I can’t understand is why you didn’t simply go to the police and tell them what you saw.”
“Easy enough for you to say,” Reuben interjected. “They’d believe you. But look at us, we’re a scruffy bunch with questionable pedigrees.”
“So you’re admitting you did witness the murder?”
Caleb started to speak but Stone broke in. “We’re not admitting anything.”
Kate said, “Oliver, I’m just trying to help you. And don’t forget, someone tried to kill Alex and me after we found the boat.”
Reuben shot Stone a puzzled look. “Oliver, you didn’t tell us that.”
Milton blurted out, “But what about Chastity? They’ve kidnapped Chastity!”
They all stared at him as tears fell down his twitching cheeks.
“If someone’s been kidnapped,” Kate said, “the police should be notified immediately.”
“It’s not quite that simple,” Caleb said, glancing at Stone, whose gaze was on the floor. “We really can’t go to the police.”
Kate looked at Stone. “Oliver,” she said quietly, “as a team we might be able to do something.”
“Hell yes, we could,” Reuben said. “She’s official, being with DOJ, and our sorry asses can only get things second- and third-hand.”
“It is time to work together,” Caleb chimed in.
Stone still said nothing.
Reuben put down his cigar “Okay, since our exalted leader is uncharacteristically mute, I hereby call a special meeting of the Camel Club to order. And I move that we tell Kate here everything. Do I have a second?”
“Second,” Caleb said immediately.
“All in favor,” Reuben said, his gaze on Stone.
The ayes carried.
Reuben said, “The Camel Club has spoken.”
“What is the Camel Club?” a puzzled Kate asked.
“Let me do the honors,” Stone finally said.
“YOU DID WHAT!” ALEX YELLED into his cell phone. He had been sitting in his hotel room the next morning just strapping on his gun when Kate called.
“See, that’s why I waited until this morning to call you,” she said. “Because I knew you’d be upset.”
“What the hell did you expect me to do? Say, ‘Good job, Kate, and I’m really glad you’re not a corpse’?”
“I told you I was going to check into Oliver Stone and his friends, and you said it was okay.”
“But I didn’t know they were eyewitnesses to Johnson’s murder, which was the very thing I told you to stay away from in the first place!”
“Well, I didn’t know they were connected either. So just hear me out. I’ve got a lot to tell you.” She spoke for several minutes, relaying what Stone had told her last night.
When she finished, Alex shook his head incredulously. “Okay, okay. Let me get this straight. They saw the murder and didn’t go to the police because they were afraid the police would think they were involved?”
“I don’t believe Oliver likes the police very much. Maybe it’s to do with his past.”
“And on top of that, they traced one of the murderers, went to his house and were almost killed?”
“And while they were ‘burglarizing’ the killer’s house, Milton Farb’s home was broken into by these same guys, and they got them on film doing it?”
“But Milton’s girlfriend’s been kidnapped by these people, and so they can’t go to the police about that either.”
“But they didn’t tell you the names of the murderers?”
“I think they only know one of their names.”
“But they have them on film. Did you recognize them?”
“They haven’t shown me the film.”
“Why the hell not?”
“They want to show it to you first.”
“Great, but I’m a four-hour drive away with work out the gazoo, and the president will be here tomorrow.”
“They won’t budge on that, Alex. I tried. They’ll only show it to you. I mean come on. I work for the Justice Department, and they don’t know me. It was a real effort for them to tell me as much as they have. Oliver trusts you, not me.”
Alex rubbed his hair, cupped the phone under his chin and finished putting on his holster. “Okay, so do you have a plan?”
“Well, I was thinking we could come up to see you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow! Tomorrow POTUS is here. And he takes precedence over everything, Kate, you know that.”
“I know. But I wanted you to meet with the Camel Club—”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s what Oliver and his friends refer to themselves as, the Camel Club. It’s sort of a conspiracy watchdog organization they’ve been running for years. Do you know they were the ones who first got on to the scandal with the defense secretary years ago? You remember, right? He was taking kickbacks for directing government contracts to certain vendors? The Camel Club discovered that through a scrap of information they got from an assistant chef at the White House. It’s really amazing stuff, Alex.”
Alex lay back on his bed and closed his eyes. “An assistant White House chef is spying on the secretary of defense for something called the Camel Club? This is a joke, right? Please tell me this is a joke, Kate.”
“Forget that. It’s not important.”
Alex jumped up. “Not important!”
“Alex, will you please listen to me? They’ve done some incredible investigative work on this case. They really have.”
Alex managed to calm down. “Okay, you all come up here and then what?”
“We attend the ceremony, and after that we all sit down, and they can show you the film and tell you the man’s name. Then we can go from there.”
“Meaning I take all this to the Secret Service?”
“Right. With a name and these guys on film, we have solid stuff. And we have to get Chastity back. Milton is heartbroken.”
“Who the hell is Chastity?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, that’s Milton’s girlfriend. She’s the one who was kidnapped.”
“The FBI handles kidnappings. And every second that goes by the odds are she won’t be found alive.”
“These aren’t ordinary kidnappers. They have a lot more at stake. They’ve called and let Milton talk to her for a few seconds every couple of hours, to show she’s alive. I don’t think they’ll harm Chastity, for now anyway. Things are at a stalemate.”
“And how exactly does Patrick Johnson tie into all this?”
“Well, they were sort of vague on that. I’m sure they’ll explain it more fully to you. From the little they’ve told me, I think they actually have it figured out.”
Alex let out a long breath. He had a day crammed with final preparations ahead of him. He should be totally focused on his work as a Secret Service agent. And yet now he knew the main thing occupying his mind would be the Camel Club. God help me.
“Alex, are you there?”
“I’m here,” he snapped.
“So what do you think? Can we come up?”
Alex actually glanced at his gun, wondering for a fleeting second if it wouldn’t just be easier to end it right now.
“Yeah, okay. Come on up.”
“And can we bring Adelphia? She’s been really worried about Oliver.”
Alex finally exploded. “Oh, sure, Kate, bring Adelphia. And bring the freaking Monkey and Giraffe Club too. And while you’re at it, why the hell don’t you pop over to the White House and snatch the president. I bet he’d get a real kick out of all this. And he’ll p
robably give you a ride up here on Air Force One. And be sure and give him my name so he knows exactly whose ass he’ll be reaming out when he gets here!”
Kate’s voice was irritatingly calm. “Okay, I’m hanging up now. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
The phone went dead, and Alex plopped back on the bed just as someone knocked on his door.
“Ford, time to hit it. Let’s go.” It was his squad leader. “Ford, you ready?” he said again more loudly.
Alex jumped up and opened the door. His squad leader stared back at him. “You okay?”
“Never better,” Alex said.
Darkness was gathering as Tom Hemingway walked through the streets of a small town an hour outside of Frankfurt, Germany. He passed through the charming shopping district, alongside a Gothic-style cathedral, ducked down a side street and entered an apartment building. He took the lift three flights up, rapped on the door of the fourth flat down the hall and was told to enter.
There were no lights on, and yet Hemingway almost instantly focused on one corner of the room that was almost completely dark.
“I see your sixth sense has not failed you, Tom,” the man said as he stepped forward with a smile. An Arab, he was not dressed in a djellaba but in a two-piece business suit, although he wore a turban around his head. He motioned for Hemingway to sit in a chair next to a small table. The man sat across from him. Hemingway sensed the presence of others but said nothing about this.
The Arab sat back and rested his hands on the arms of his chair. “Your father was an excellent man and a great friend of mine for nearly thirty years. He knew us; he took the time to learn our language, religion and cultures. No one does that today unfortunately.”
“He was special,” Hemingway agreed. “Very special.”
The man took a small cup of water off the table between them and drank from it. He offered one to Hemingway but he declined. The Arab handed a piece of paper over to Hemingway. “As agreed,” the Arab said. Hemingway put the document away in his pocket without looking at it.
“I’m sure you put a great deal of thought into it,” Hemingway said.
“I have been thinking about these things my whole life.”
“You will ensure that no one claims responsibility?”
The Arab nodded. “It is done. I take it that my people have been satisfactory to work with?”
“It is a testament to their loyalty to you that they have done everything asked of them without question.”
“What happened was not solely for your benefit. Al-Zawahiri, and others like him, they’d been seduced by your country. They had lost their ties to Islam.” He paused. “You are confident about tomorrow?”
“Attacking a superpower, that is something never to be done lightly.”
“Superpowers are still made up of people.”
The Arab shook his head. “We are very different people, different in ways your country refuses to recognize.”
“The more we’re different, perhaps the more we’re the same. We all want peace.”
“Excuse me for saying so, but that is your Buddhist bullshit talking.” The man took another sip of water. “America spends more on its military than all other countries in the world combined. No country does this for protection, for peace, only aggression. Your president can push one button, and the Arab world disappears in a mushroom cloud.”
“We have no reason to do that. Great strides have been made in the Middle East. Democracies are replacing dictatorships.”
“Yes, replacing dictatorships that America helped foster and support. And yet, in most cases, the democracies coming to power hate America more than the dictators they replaced. You went into Iraq not understanding its history or its culture. America seemed amazed that Great Britain took a land called Mesopotamia and artificially created a country it called Iraq. And that its population is composed of Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds and dozens of other groups that are not known to get along with one another. Did you really think you would waltz in and save the Iraqis and everything would be peaceful?” He held up his hand. “And one cannot ‘bomb’ people into a democracy. That comes from the ground up, not the sky down. Muslims going to the voting booths pass the bomb craters that took their families. Do you think the possibility of having an American-style democracy will ever make them forget who killed their husbands, wives and children?”
“My country needs to recognize that there are many ways to be free. I fear that we still see the only way to resolve things is our way.”
The Arab took another sip of water. “It is a nice sentiment, Tom, but not one, I think, that is shared by your leaders. Mighty God could vanquish your army with one sweep of his hand. Yet we mortal Arabs simply cannot beat you militarily with all your money and weapons. And we see American businesses and American pipelines marching behind the great American armies. You say your goal is a free world. Well, Africa has more dictators than the Middle East, and the genocide there is far worse. Yet I see no American tanks blasting their way through that land. But, of course, the Middle East has far more oil. Do not think we poor desert savages aren’t aware that America’s goals are less than altruistic, Tom. At least allow us that courtesy.”
“Freedom is a good thing, my friend. And America is the world’s most free country.”
“Really? A country that had slaves for two hundred and fifty years and kept the black man de facto enslaved for a hundred more? But I have also seen your style of freedom personally. Over fifty years ago Iran had a democratically elected prime minister who had the effrontery to nationalize the petroleum industry. American oil companies were hardly pleased. So your CIA helped overthrow the government and reinstall the puppet shah. His pathetic love of Western ways led to the Iranian revolution, and all hope for real democracy ended there. America has played these games all over the globe, from Chile to Pakistan. The Western world’s policies have led directly to the slaughter of countless millions across the world.” He paused and studied Hemingway closely. “So if the new government in Iraq is not to America’s liking?”
“And yet I know that you believe in freedom,” Hemingway said quietly. “As a young boy I sat and listened to you and my father discuss such things.”
“It is true that I have fought my whole life for certain freedoms that are in keeping with the word of God. I see clearly the benefits of people having a strong voice in their lives. I do not agree with how Muslim women are treated in some Arab countries. And it sickens me to see grand palaces rising next to mud huts. The Muslim world has many problems, and we need to address them. Yet is it really freedom when someone else tells you what you should be seeking? And why doesn’t it work both ways, Tom? America represents less than five percent of the earth’s population yet consumes one-quarter of its energy. Poor nations cannot get the energy they need, and their citizens suffer and die because America takes so much. So should these countries invade the great energy dictator America and make it use less oil and gas? Would the U.S. like that?”
“If you feel that way, can I ask why you’re helping me?”
The man shrugged. “It is simple. For every American killed, hundreds of Arabs die. Arab suicide bombers are now slaughtering their brethren by the thousands. We are weakening ourselves with every new explosion and playing right into the hands of the United States.” He paused and took another sip of water. “The Western press is fixated on suicide bombers killing themselves so that they can enter paradise. But God says that to save lives is a great thing. To save one life is to save many. Do we have to be slaughtered to enter paradise? Why can’t Muslims enjoy a peaceful life on earth, believe in God and serve him and enter paradise that way? In the Western world the young ones grow up in peace. Do our children not deserve that right?”
“Of course they do,” Hemingway said.
“Your country is asking the impossible, you know this. Before the 1970s energy crisis America did not care about the Middle East, other than the Arab versus Israeli iss
ue. Then 9/11 happened and you attacked the Taliban. I have no issue with that. In your place I would have done the same thing. Yet the goal you seek now, turning the entire Middle East into a democracy overnight, is madness. You ask us to do in years what it took you centuries to accomplish.” He paused. “And it is not simply a question of Islam against the West. For thousands of years Arab nations developed customs and cultures inextricably tied to a desert climate with few natural resources, often with the law of the tribe as their base, and the men as their leaders. For a very long time America had no problem with that. And now they do, of course and thus, according to you, we must change. Immediately. So far a hundred thousand Iraqis have died and the country is in chaos. I cannot applaud the progress, Tom. I really can’t.”
“I can only do my best. If it doesn’t work, what will have been lost?”
“Many good lives, that is what will be lost, Tom,” the Arab said sternly.
“And that is no different than what’s happening right now,” Hemingway replied.
“You have an answer for everything. Just like your father. It was in Beijing that he was killed?”
“Surely not the Chinese, though. They’re vicious but hardly stupid.”