The camel club, p.6
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       The Camel Club, p.6
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  four members of the Camel Club closed their eyes.

  When they reopened them, the four men continued to stare transfixed as the gun and bottle were placed near the body. A plastic baggie was taken out of the knapsack carried by the other man, and this was laid next to the murder weapon. Finally, a piece of folded paper was placed in the pocket of the dead man’s windbreaker.

  Finished, the two men looked around the area even as the Camel Club members shrank farther back in the bushes. A minute later the killers trudged off. As soon as the sounds of their footfalls disappeared, the Camel Club let out a collective sigh of relief. Holding his finger to his lips, Stone quietly led the way out of their hiding place and into the clearing.

  Reuben squatted down next to the body. He shook his head and said in a very low voice, “At least he was killed instantly. As if that somehow makes up for being murdered.” He looked at the nearly empty bottle. “Dewar’s. Looks like they got the poor bastard drunk so he couldn’t fight back.”

  “Is there any ID on the body?” Stone asked.

  “This is a crime scene,” Caleb said shakily. “We shouldn’t touch anything.”

  “He’s right,” Reuben agreed. He glanced over at Milton, who was making frantic motions with his hands as he sped silently through his OCD ritual. Reuben sighed. “We should get the hell out of here, Oliver, is what we should do.”

  Stone knelt down beside him and spoke quietly but urgently. “This was an execution made to look like suicide, Reuben. Those were professional killers, and I’d like to know who the target was and what he knew that led to his death.” As he was speaking, he wrapped a handkerchief pulled from his pocket around his hand, searched the dead man’s pockets and slid out a wallet. He nimbly flipped it open, and they all gazed at the driver’s license in the see-through plastic. Reuben pulled out his lighter and flicked it on so Stone could read the information on the license.

  “Patrick Johnson,” Stone read. “He lived in Bethesda.” Stone put the wallet back, searched the other pocket and pulled out the piece of paper the killer had placed there. By the flickering flame of the lighter he read the contents of the letter in a soft voice.

  “‘I’m sorry. It’s all too much. I can’t live with this anymore. This is the only way. I’m sorry. So sorry.’ And it’s signed Patrick Johnson.”

  Caleb slowly took his bowler hat off in respect for the dead and mouthed a prayer.

  Stone continued, “The writing is very legible. I suppose the police will assume it was written before he supposedly drank himself into a suicidal stupor.”

  Reuben said, “He said he was sorry right before they killed him.”

  Stone shook his head. “I think he was speaking about something else he was sorry for. The note’s words are just a subterfuge, a typical suicide’s last plea.”

  Stone put the note back. As he was doing so, his hand nudged against something else in the dead man’s pocket. He pulled out a small red lapel pin and squinted at it in the darkness.

  “What’s that?” Reuben asked, holding his lighter closer.

  Caleb said in a hushed whisper, “What if they come back?”

  Stone put the pin back and felt Johnson’s clothes. “They’re soaked through.”

  Reuben pointed to the plastic baggie. “What do you make of that?”

  Stone thought for a moment. “I think I understand its purpose and the soaked clothes as well. But Caleb’s right, we should leave.”

  They set off and then realized that Milton wasn’t with them. They turned back and found him crouched over the dead man counting, with his hand reaching over the body.

  “Uh, Milton, we really need to leave,” Caleb said urgently.

  However, Milton was apparently so traumatized that he couldn’t stop counting.

  “Oh, for chrissakes,” Reuben moaned. “Why don’t we all just bloody well count together until they come back and give us some bullets to suck on?”

  Stone put a steadying hand on Reuben’s arm and stepped forward next to Milton. He looked down at Patrick Johnson’s face. He was young, though death had already begun to hollow him. Stone knelt and placed his hand gently on Milton’s shoulder and said quietly, “We can do nothing for him now, Milton. And the comfort you take in your counting, the safety and security that you’re striving for, can be defeated if those two men come back.” He added bluntly, “They have guns, Milton, we don’t.”

  Milton halted his ritual, stifled a sob and said in a quivering voice, “I don’t like violence, Oliver.” Milton clutched his knapsack closer to his chest and then pointed at the corpse. “I don’t like that.”

  “I know, Milton. None of us do.”

  Stone and Milton rose together. With a sigh of relief Reuben followed them to the path leading to their boat.

  Warren Peters, who’d fired the shot that killed Patrick Johnson, was walking along the trail back to their dinghy when he stopped short.

  “Shit!” he whispered.

  “What?” Tyler Reinke asked as he nervously looked around. “Police boat?”

  “No, almost a big mistake.” Peters scooped up some dirt and pebbles in his hand. “When we dunked him, it cleaned his shoe soles off. If he walked here through the woods, his soles wouldn’t be clean. The FBI won’t miss that.”

  The two men hurried back along the path and over to the body. Peters squatted down next to the murdered man’s shoes and pressed dirt and pebbles into the soles.

  “Good catch,” Reinke said.

  “I don’t want to even think about what would’ve happened if I’d blown that.” He finished his task and started to rise, but his gaze caught on something.

  “Son of a bitch!” Peters exclaimed between clenched teeth. He pointed to the note he had pressed into the victim’s pocket: A corner of it was sticking out. “I shoved that all the way in because I didn’t want it to look too obvious. So why’s it visible now?” He pushed the note back in the pocket and looked at his partner searchingly.

  “Could an animal have taken a go at the body?”

  “After a few minutes? And why would an animal go after paper instead of flesh?” He rose, pulled a flashlight from his pocket and checked the stone floor.

  Reinke said, “You must’ve made a mistake with the paper. You probably didn’t push it in as far as you thought.”

  Peters continued to search the area and then stiffened.

  “What now?” his companion asked impatiently.

  “Listen, do you hear that?”

  Reinke remained still and silent and then his mouth gaped.

  “Somebody running. That way!” He pointed to the right, down one of the trails in the opposite direction they had come.

  The two men pulled their weapons and sprinted toward the sound.

  CHAPTER

  10

  STONE AND THE OTHERS HAD JUST jumped into their boat and pushed off. The fog was now dense enough to make navigation tricky. They were perhaps ten feet from the island in the Little Channel when the two men burst out of the trees and saw them.

  “Pull as hard as you can and keep your face turned down,” Stone said to Reuben, who needed no such prompting. His broad shoulders and thick arms moved with a Herculean effort, and the little boat sprang away from the shore.

  Stone turned to the others in the boat and whispered, “Don’t let them see your faces. Caleb, take off your hat!” They all immediately bent low, and Caleb swept off his bowler and jammed it between his quivering knees. Milton had started counting the minute he climbed onto the boat. The two men on shore took aim at their quarry, but the fog made their targets very elusive. They both fired, but their shots splattered harmlessly into the water a good foot from the boat.

  “Pull, Reuben, pull,” a terrified Caleb gasped as he ducked even farther down.

  “What the hell do you think I’m doing?” Reuben snapped, sweat trickling down his face.

  The pursuers took careful aim and fired twice more. One slug found its mark, and splintered wood flew up a
nd hit Stone in the right hand. The blood trickled down his fingers and onto the boat’s gunwale. He quickly staunched the flow with the same handkerchief he’d used to search the body of Patrick Johnson.

  “Oliver!” a frantic Milton called out.

  “I’m all right,” Stone answered. “Just stay down!”

  The two gunmen, realizing the futility of their attack, raced away.

  “They’re going to get their boat,” Stone warned.

  “Well, then we have a bit of a problem, because their boat has a motor,” Reuben retorted. “I’m going as fast as I can, but there’s not much gas left in my tank.”

  Stone pulled on Caleb’s sleeve. “Caleb, you take one oar and I’ll take the other.” Reuben moved out of the way, and the two men rowed with all their strength.

  Ordinarily, after leaving the inlet they would have gone north on the river and returned to their original launching site. Now they simply wanted to get to the mainland as fast as possible, which meant a straight path east. They passed the western tip of the island and made their turn toward Georgetown.

  “Oh, shit!” Reuben was staring back toward the island as he heard the boat engine coming. “Row like your lives depend on it,” he bellowed to Stone and Caleb. “Because they sure as hell do.”

  Seeing that Caleb and Stone were growing tired, Reuben pushed them out of the way and took up the oars again, pulling with all his considerable strength.

  “I think they’re gaining,” Caleb said breathlessly.

  A shot hit right next to him, and Caleb joined a cowering Milton in the bottom of the boat.

  Stone ducked down as another shot passed by, and then he heard Reuben cry out.

  “Reuben?” He turned to look at his friend.

  “It’s all right, just a glance, but I’d forgotten how much they burn.” Reuben added grimly, “They’ve got us, Oliver. It’ll be five corpses for those bastards tonight.”

  Stone looked toward the wispy lights of sleeping Georgetown. Even though the river was fairly narrow here, with the fog they were still too far away for anyone on shore to see what was going on. He glanced back at the oncoming boat. He could now make out the silhouettes of the two men on board. His mind raced back to the businesslike manner in which the unfortunate Patrick Johnson had been dispatched. Stone envisioned the gun being placed inside his own mouth, the trigger pulled.

  Suddenly, the motorboat veered away from them.

  “What the—” Reuben said.

  “It must be the police boat. Listen,” Stone whispered, pointing south of their position and cupping his ear.

  In a relieved voice Caleb cried out, “The police? Quick, get their attention.”

  “No,” Stone said firmly. “I want everyone to remain as silent as possible. Reuben, stop rowing.”

  Reuben looked curiously at his friend but stopped pulling at the oars and just sat there. “We’ll be damn lucky if they don’t run right into us,” he complained in a low voice.

  All of them could now clearly hear the whine of the big engine. Through the fog they saw the green starboard side running lights of the patrol boat passing by less than thirty feet away. The policemen on board wouldn’t have been able to hear the engine of the other boat over their own, nor could they have seen the rowboat, which had no lights. The members of the Camel Club held their collective breath and watched as the patrol boat slowly glided along. When it was finally out of sight, Stone said, “Okay, Reuben, get us to shore.”

  Caleb sat up. “Why didn’t you want us to alert the police?”

  Stone waited until the sharp outline of land came into view before answering.

  “We’re out on a boat we’re not supposed to have, going to a place we’re not supposed to be. A man has been killed and his body left on Roosevelt Island. If we tell the police we witnessed a murder, we’re admitting that we were there. We can tell them we saw two men who then tried to kill us, but we have no proof of that.”

  Now Milton sat up. “But you and Reuben were hurt.”

  “My hand is only scratched and Reuben’s was just a glance, so there’s no conclusive proof a bullet was involved. Thus, the police are left with the fact that there is a dead body that was transported by boat to the island we were on. We have a boat that could have performed that task quite easily, and there isn’t another such vessel around, since that motorboat will be long gone by the time we explain things. We are persons whom the police might not put much credibility in. So what do you think would be the most logical result of our telling them our story?” Stone looked at each of them expectantly.

  “They’d arrest us and throw away the key,” Reuben muttered as he ripped off a piece of his shirt and tied it around the minor wound on his arm. “What I’d like to know is how those two bastards suddenly realized we were on the island.”

  “They must have heard us,” Stone said. “Or else they came back for some other reason and noticed something amiss. Maybe I didn’t put the note or the pin back properly.”

  “You didn’t say what the pin was,” Caleb noted.

  “It was the lapel pin customarily worn by Secret Service agents.”

  “You think he was an agent?” Reuben asked as they drifted to shore.

  “Presumably, he has some connection.”

  When they reached land they swiftly pulled the boat ashore and hid it in an old drainage ditch near the seawall.

  “So now what?” Reuben asked as they trudged along through the quiet streets of Georgetown.

  Stone ticked the points off on his fingers. “We find out who the murdered man was. We find out why someone would want to kill him. And we find out who killed him.”

  Reuben looked incredulous. “And I thought your idea of bringing down Carter Gray was a toughie. Jesus, man, do you understand what you’re saying?”

  “Yes, I do,” Stone replied impassively.

  “But why do we have to do anything?” Caleb asked.

  Stone stared at him. “Men who kill like that tend to clean up all loose ends, which means they’ll do everything they can to track us down and kill us too. We can’t go to the police for the reasons I’ve already outlined. So my very strong suggestion is—”

  Reuben broke in. “That we get them before they get us.”

  Stone walked on, the rest of the Camel Club hurrying along in his wake.

  CHAPTER

  11

  AS THE VAN PASSED AROUND A bend in the road, the elaborate sign set in foot-high reflective letters came into view:

  WELCOME TO BRENNAN, PENNSYLVANIA, BIRTHPLACE OF PRESIDENT JAMES H. BRENNAN

  A rendering of Brennan had been carved into the wood beside these words. It was a good likeness. The man in the van’s passenger seat looked at his two companions and smiled. Then he raised an imaginary gun, pointed it at Brennan’s head and “fired,” placing three shots right into the brain of the most powerful man on earth.

  The van entered the downtown area: With a population of fifty thousand and fast becoming a major bedroom community of Pittsburgh, Brennan had high hopes for a major renaissance, and the new jobs, emerging business and construction going on around town were a testament to this dream becoming a reality. Much of this hope was based upon it being the hometown of the very popular incumbent president.

  Even the unused water tower situated in the middle of downtown had not escaped this push for greatness. At first the town fathers had wanted to put Brennan’s picture and the seal of the president of the United States on the tower. When told that this would neither be legal nor in good taste, they instead painted it in the Stars and Stripes, thereby connecting the man and the town. The three men in the van were also very interested in the nation’s chief executive, for an entirely different reason.

  The three men were tall, and possessed the leanness of people unfamiliar with a western diet of saturated fat and sugar. Two were Arab and the other Persian, though they had downplayed their Middle Eastern origins by shaving off their beards and assuming the style typical of college
students—namely, baggy jeans, sweaters, athletic shoes and plenty of attitude. They were enrolled as part-time students at the local community college studying basic engineering. In reality each was proficient in certain areas of science that had to do with barometric pressure, wind deflection, air drag and coefficiency as well as more esoteric subjects like the Coriolis effect and gyroscopic precession.

  Two of the men were from Afghanistan and in their late thirties, though they looked much younger. The other man, the Persian, was thirty years old and hailed from Iran. Their professors and classmates believed them to be from India and Pakistan. The three Muslims had found that to most Westerners the term “Middle Eastern” covered more than 3 billion people, from Indians to Muslims, with not much attention given to the nuances of nationality or ethnicity. And it wasn’t as though they were an oddity in Brennan. Over the last decade there had been a large influx of Middle Easterners into the United States, particularly in and near major metropolitan areas. Many new businesses in Brennan were owned by hardworking Saudis, Pakistanis and Indians.

  When they reached their apartment, a block from Main Street, someone was waiting for them. The man didn’t look at them when they entered, but continued gazing out the window.

 
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