The camel club, p.5
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       The Camel Club, p.5
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  there. What brings you back here?”

  Alex shrugged. “You know, once you get POTUS duty inside you, you can’t get it out.”

  “Right! I’m counting the days till I see my family more than once a year.”

  “You on the campaign travel team?”

  Bobby nodded. “We leave day after tomorrow to shake some more hands and make some more speeches from Iowa to Mississippi. Because of all the campaign stuff, we were shorthanded and had to pull in some WFOs on twenty-one-day rotations to post POTUS’ and the VP’s families.”

  “I know. The halls at work are pretty empty.”

  “Brennan did a fund-raiser tonight. Kiss-up for dollars. Lucky me, I got to stay here.”

  “Yeah, lucky you.”

  Bobby laughed. “I don’t know if you heard, but the man’s hometown in Pennsylvania changed its name to Brennan. He’s going up there during the campaign to attend the dedication. Talk about your ego trips.” Bobby drew closer and said in a low voice, “He’s not a bad guy. Hell, I voted for him. But he’s a slick one. Some of the stuff he’s done on the side . . .”

  “He’s not the first.”

  “If John Q. Public knew what we did, huh?”

  As he headed off, Alex glanced over at Lafayette Park where the remaining “White House protesters” were located, or at least that’s how Alex and other Secret Service agents politely referred to them. The signs and tents and odd-looking folks had always held a fascination for him. There used to be far more of them, with elaborate signs erected everywhere. Yet even before 9/11 a crackdown had been enforced, and when the area in front of the White House was redone, this created a good excuse to shove these people away. Yet even the powerless in America had rights, and a few of them hooked up with the ACLU and sued in court for the right to return and the Supreme Court eventually sided with them. However, only two of the protesters had elected to come back.

  During his stint at the White House Alex got to know some of the protesters. Most were certifiably crazy and therefore closely watched by the Secret Service. There was one fellow he remembered who dressed only in neckties, strategically placing them over his body. Yet not all of the protesters were asylum candidates, including the man he’d come to visit.

  Alex stopped by one tent and called out, “Oliver? It’s Alex Ford. You there?”

  “He no here,” a female voice said contemptuously.

  Alex glanced over at the woman as she walked up with a paper cup of coffee in hand. “How’s it going, Adelphia?”

  “Doctors are immorally killing babies all over this country, that’s how it goes.”

  The woman was nothing if not passionate, Alex thought. Adelphia might’ve carried her passion somewhat to an extreme, but Alex still respected her for at least having one.

  “Yeah, that’s what I hear.” He paused respectfully. “Uh, where’s Oliver?”

  “I tell you, he no here. He have somewhere to go!”

  “Where?” Alex knew where both Stone and Adelphia lived but didn’t want to let on to the woman that he had this information. Adelphia, he’d come to learn, was paranoid enough.

  “Not am I his keeper.” She turned away.

  Alex smiled. When he’d been on presidential protection detail, he’d always suspected that the lady had a thing for Mr. Stone. Most of the agents who knew Oliver Stone had written him off as a harmless crackpot who adopted the name of a famous film director for some ridiculous reason. Alex had taken the time to get to know the man, however, finding Stone erudite and thoughtful, and more in touch with the political and economic complexities of the world than some wonks who worked across the street. In particular, the man knew by heart every detail of seemingly every conspiracy ever reported on. Some of the agents called him King Con for this attribute. And Stone played one hell of a game of chess.

  Alex called out to Adelphia, “If you see Oliver, tell him Agent Ford was looking for him; you remember me, right?” Adelphia made no sign that she’d heard him, but then again, that was just Adelphia.

  He headed back on foot to where his car was parked. Along the way Alex passed something that made him stop. On the far corner two men, one black and one white, were working on a freestanding ATM housed in a sliver between two buildings. They were dressed in overalls that had “Service Staff” printed across the back. Their van was parked at the curb. It had a company name and phone number printed on the side.

  Alex slipped into the shadows, pulled out his cell phone and called the number shown on the van. An official-sounding recording answered, giving the business hours for the company and so on. Alex did a quick look-see in the van, then pulled out his Secret Service badge and walked over to the men.

  “Hey, fellows, you servicing the machine?”

  The short man eyed the badge and nodded. “Yeah. Lucky us.”

  Alex looked at the ATM, and his very experienced eye saw what he thought he would see. “Hope you guys are union.”

  “Proud members of Local 453,” the smaller man said with a laugh. “At least we’re getting double time to do this crap.”

  Okay, here we go again.

  Alex drew his pistol and pointed it at them. “Pop the machine open.”

  The black guy said irately, “You Secret Service, what business you got checking out an ATM?”

  “Not that I need to give you a reason, but the Secret Service was originally formed to protect the official currency of the United States.” Alex pointed the gun directly at the black man’s head. “Open it!”

  Stuffed inside the ATM were no fewer than a hundred cards.

  Alex gave the pair their Miranda speech while he put PlastiCuffs on them. Then he called the arrest in. As they were waiting, the black guy looked over at him.

  “We been doing this a long time and had no trouble. How the hell you figure it?”

  “There’s a skimmer reader attached to the card slot. It captures the PIN so you can clone the card. And on top of that banks are cheap. So there’s no way one’s going to pay some union guys double overtime to schlep down here in the middle of the night to service this thing.”

  After the police took the men away, Alex walked down the street to his car. Even after the successful if unexpected bust, all he could think about was one Kate Adams, who fought for justice by day and poured out highballs by night and seemed very close to the big-knuckled Tom Hemingway of the undisclosed supersecret agency.

  Alex could only hope tomorrow would start on a better note.

  CHAPTER

  8

  STONE, MILTON, REUBEN AND Caleb walked along the main trail on Theodore Roosevelt Island, a ninety-acre memorial to the former president and Rough Rider that sat in the middle of the Potomac River. They soon reached a clearing where an immense statue of Teddy Roosevelt stood with his right arm raised to the heavens as though he were about to retake the oath of office nearly ninety years after his death. The area was elaborately laid out with brick pavers, two curved stone bridges over man-made canals of water, and a pair of huge fountains that flanked the statue.

  Oliver Stone sat cross-legged in front of the statue, and the others joined him there. Stone was an enthusiastic fan of T.R., which was the reason they were here, albeit as trespassers, since the island officially closed at dark. He announced in a solemn voice, “The regular meeting of the Camel Club is officially called to order. In the absence of a formal agenda I move that we discuss observations since the last meeting and then open the floor for new business. Do I have a second?”

  “I second the motion,” Reuben said automatically.

  “All in favor say aye,” Stone added.

  The ayes carried the motion, and Stone opened the notebook he pulled from his knapsack. Reuben slipped some crumpled pieces of paper from his pocket, and Milton slid his laptop computer out, then took a small bottle of antibacterial lotion out of his pocket and thoroughly washed his hands. Stone used a small penlight to see his notes, while Reuben read by the flickering flame of his cigarette lighter.<
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  “Brennan went out late tonight,” Stone reported. “Carter Gray was with him.”

  “Those two are joined at the hip,” Reuben noted hotly.

  “Like J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson,” Caleb added jokingly as he took off his bowler hat.

  “I was thinking more of Lenin and Trotsky,” Reuben growled.

  “So you don’t trust Gray?” Stone asked.

  “How can you trust any prick who actually likes being called a czar?” Reuben replied. “And as far as Brennan goes, all I can say is he should thank his lucky stars for terrorists because but for them his ass would be headed for the unemployment line.”

  “Reading the newspapers again, are we?” Stone said in an amused tone.

  “I use the papers to get my laughs, just like everybody else.”

  Stone looked thoughtful. “James Brennan is a gifted politician, and his intellect is first-rate. But more than that, he has the power to make people trust him. Yet inside, a darker beast lurks. He has an agenda that is not available to the public.”

  Reuben eyed him closely. “It seems to me that you’re describing Carter Gray more than you are the president.”

  Milton broke in exitedly. “I’ve compiled facts on several conspiracies of global proportion that have not been reported by any news media.”

  “And I,” Reuben said as he eyed his notes, “have personally noted three occasions when the present Speaker of the House has been unfaithful to his quite fetching wife.”

  “Personally noted?” Caleb asked skeptically as he stared at his friend.

  Reuben barked, “Two of my close acquaintances in the know keep me abreast of things. Clearly, despite the trouble some of his amorous predecessors have gotten into, it still seems our esteemed congressman continues to cavalierly insert his dinky in places it should not be.” He waved his notes. “It’s all here.”

  “What close acquaintances?” Caleb persisted.

  “High-placed sources that desire to remain anonymous, if you must damn well know,” Reuben snapped as he stuffed these allegedly libidinous revelations back in his pocket.

  Milton interrupted impatiently. “Yes, but let me tell you about my theories.” He spent the next twenty minutes enthusiastically discussing theoretical ties between North Korea and Great Britain for purposes of worldwide terrorism, and a possible attack on the euro and yen by a cabal in Yemen sponsored by a top member of the Saudi royal family.

  “I consider these facts material to the worldwide apocalypse that is most certainly on the horizon,” Milton concluded.

  The other members of the Camel Club sat there looking a bit overwhelmed; it was a normal reaction after Milton had delivered one of his convoluted diatribes.

  Finally, Reuben said, “Yes, but that North Korea/Great Britain thing is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think, Milton? I mean the bloody Koreans are absolutely humorless, and whatever else you say about the Brits, they are a very witty people.”

  Stone looked at Caleb. “Anything interesting on your end?”

  Caleb thought for a moment. “Well, we had a real scare when we couldn’t find our Dutch Bible.”

  They all looked at him expectantly.

  Caleb exclaimed, “Our Dutch Bible! It has hand-colored illustrations by Romeyn de Hooghe. He’s generally thought to be the most important Dutch illustrator of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. But it turned out all right. It was there the whole time, simply a clerical error.”

  “Thank God,” Reuben said sarcastically. “We wouldn’t want a de Hoose on the loose.”

  Disappointed, Stone turned back to Reuben. “Other than your lascivious congressman, do you have anything of real interest?”

  Reuben shrugged. “I’ve been out of the loop too long, Oliver. People forget you.”

  “Then why don’t we move on to something a little more concrete?”

  The other men eyed him curiously.

  Stone drew a long breath. So many birthdays had passed by uncelebrated that he had to actually think about how old he was. Sixty-one, he said to himself. I am sixty-one years old. He’d founded the Camel Club long ago with the purpose of scrutinizing those in power and raising the public cry when they believed things to be awry, which they very often were. He had kept vigil outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue watching and noting his observations and fighting for things that other people apparently didn’t believe were important anymore, like truth and accountability.

  He was beginning to wonder if it was worth it.

  Yet he said aloud, “Have you noticed what is going on in this country?” He stared at his friends, who didn’t answer. “They may have us believing that we’re better protected. Yet being safer doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re more free.”

  “You sometimes have to sacrifice freedom for security, Oliver,” Caleb said as he fiddled with his heavy watch. “I don’t necessarily like it but what’s the alternative?”

  “The alternative is not living in fear,” Stone answered. “Especially in a state of fear from exaggerated circumstances. Men like Carter Gray are quite good at that.”

  “Well, Gray’s first year on the job you would’ve thought the man would have been run out on a rail, but he somehow managed to turn it around,” Reuben admitted grudgingly.

  “Which proves my point,” Stone retorted, “because I don’t think anyone is that good or that lucky.” He paused, obviously choosing his words with care. “My opinion is that Carter Gray is bad for this country’s future. I open the meeting to discuss relevant possibilities.”

  His three companions simply stared dully at him. Finally, Caleb found his voice.

  “Uh, what exactly do you mean, Oliver?”

  “I mean what can the Camel Club do to make sure that Carter Gray is relieved of his post as intelligence secretary?”

  “You want us to take down Carter Gray!” Caleb exclaimed.

  “Yes.”

  “Oh, good,” Reuben added in mock relief. “Because I thought it might be something difficult you were wanting.”

  “There is ample historical precedent for the powerless overcoming the powerful,” Stone noted.

  “Yeah, but in real life, Goliath kicks the shit out of David nine times out of ten,” Reuben replied grimly.

  Stone said, “Then what exactly is the purpose of continuing the club? We meet once a week and compare notes, observations and theories. To what end?”

  Caleb answered, “Well, we’ve done some good. Although we never got any credit for it. Our work helped reveal the truth behind the scandal at the Pentagon. That came from a scrap of conversation the White House chef’s assistant overheard and told you about. And don’t forget about the mole at NSA who was altering transcription files, Oliver. And then there was the DIA subterfuge that Reuben stumbled onto.”

  “Those events were a long time ago,” Stone replied. “So again I ask, what is the purpose of the club now?”

  Reuben said, “Well, maybe it’s like lots of other clubs, except without a building, refreshments or the pleasure of female companionship. But what can you expect when you don’t pay any dues?” he added, grinning.

  Before Stone could answer, all four of them had turned their heads in the direction of the sounds filtering through the woods. Stone instantly put a finger to his lips and listened. There it was again: a boat’s engine, and it sounded as though it was right at the edge of the island. They all took their bags and made their way quietly into the surrounding brush.

  CHAPTER

  9

  OLIVER STONE EASED A BRANCH out of the way and peered through this small gap toward the paved area in front of the Roosevelt monument. His companions were also riveted on what was happening nearby.

  Two men appeared on one of the gravel paths carrying something on a plastic tarp. One man was tall, lean and blond, the other short, thick and dark-haired. When they laid the tarp on the ground, Stone could see that they were carrying a man bound with straps. They slid the plastic from under him and then
swept the area with their flashlights, going grid by grid. Fortunately, as soon as Stone saw the flashlights come out of their pockets, he motioned for his friends to hunker down behind the cover of bushes, with their faces hidden from the beams.

  Satisfied that they were alone, the men turned back to their captive. One of them removed the cover from his mouth and placed it in his pocket.

  The man made a few sounds, none of them coherent. He appeared drunk.

  The short man put on a pair of rubber gloves and pulled a revolver from his coat while the other man undid their captive’s bindings. The short man took a nearly empty bottle from the duffel bag and pressed the semiconscious man’s hands around it and then splashed a bit of the remaining liquid on his clothes and around his mouth.

  Reuben was about to charge out of the bushes, but Stone put a hand on his arm. The other man was also armed; a pistol was clearly visible in his belt holster. The Camel Club stood no chance. To reveal themselves now would mean a death sentence.

  Meanwhile, the man holding the gun knelt down next to the captive. He took the man’s right hand and placed it around the gun. Perhaps because of the touch of the cold metal, the captive opened his eyes. As he stared up at the other man, he suddenly cried out, “I’m sorry. Please don’t. I’m sorry.”

  The short man slid the pistol into the man’s mouth, pushing it against the roof of the mouth. The captive choked for an instant, and then the short man forced the trigger down. At the sound of the shot all
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