The camel club, p.9
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       The Camel Club, p.9
 

         Part #1 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  live to become a mother.

  She fed the boys snacks from a picnic basket she’d prepared. After that, Djamila had to chase down the oldest boy, Timmy, to retrieve her cell phone and car keys from him. He’d done this before whenever she left her purse in a place he could reach. She didn’t mind; all children were curious. She loaded the boys into the van, where they immediately fell asleep. Then she took out her rug and performed her midafternoon prayer next to the van. She had brought a small bottle of water and a pan with her to perform her ablution.

  While the boys slept, she drove all around Brennan, Pennsylvania. As had often been the case in this area, the town existed because the railroad gods had long ago decided to put a station stop here. These trains carried some passengers but mostly coal and coke to the steel mills and the eastern ports. Now Brennan was rebuilding itself into a posh suburb of Pittsburgh. The town had quaint shops and restaurants, regentrified homes and a sparkling new country club.

  Djamila stopped often to take pictures with a small digital camera no bigger than her index finger. As she did so, she spoke into a small recorder, describing things that should have held little importance to a foreign-born nanny shepherding three slumbering boys around; however, all of it interested her. Then she covered the outlying areas, paying particular attention to road configurations.

  Finally, she pulled up in front of a beautiful fieldstone estate that was set well back from the road and behind a low wall of locally quarried stone. Such a pretty home, she thought, but far too big. In America everything was too big: from the meals to the houses to the cars to the people. The only things that weren’t big were the clothes. Djamila had seen more butts, breasts and bellies in the last few months than she had seen in all the preceding years of her life. It disgusted her.

  Give Djamila the jilbab and a khimar to cover her body, give her even three other wives to compete with, over such “freedom.”

  She frowned as she glanced at the sleeping children. Yes, her employers disgusted her with their money and loveless marriage. Even the children in the backseat in one sense disgusted her because they would grow up one day and believe they ruled the world simply because they were Americans. She put the van in gear and drove off.

  Djamila would report in tonight on her computer, at the movie site. According to her memorized schedule, the chat room for this night dealt with a film called To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a strange name for a movie, but Americans, she knew, were strange. Yes, strange, violent and, most frightening of all, completely unpredictable.

  CHAPTER

  16

  OLIVER STONE HAD RETURNED to his cottage and attempted sleep, but the night’s extraordinary events rendered that act impossible. He built a small fire to battle the chill in the air and sat and read until dawn, though his thoughts continually wandered to the death of Patrick Johnson. Or rather, murder. Then he made some coffee and had a bit of breakfast. After that, he spent the next several hours attending to his duties in the cemetery. As he weeded, cut the grass, cleared debris and cleaned off aged tombstones, he focused on how close he and his friends had come to losing their lives last night. It was a feeling he’d had many times earlier in his life, and he’d learned to deal with it. Now it would not go away so easily.

  After he’d finished his work, he went inside the cottage and showered. Looking at his appearance in the mirror, Stone made a decision; only he didn’t have the necessary tools to implement that decision. Caleb and Reuben would be at work by now. And he just didn’t trust Milton to do the job properly.

  There was really only one alternative. He headed to Chinatown.

  “Adelphia?” Stone called out. It was forty-five minutes later, and he was standing outside her apartment, which was situated over a dry cleaners. “Adelphia?” he said again. He wondered if she’d already gone out. Then he heard approaching footsteps and Adelphia opened the door, dressed in a pair of black pants and a long sweater, her hair pulled back in a bun. She looked at him crossly.

  “How you know where I live?” she demanded.

  “You told me.”

  “Oh.” She scowled at him. “How did meeting go?” she said irritably.

  “Actually, there were a few surprises.”

  “What is it you want, Oliver?”

  Stone cleared his throat and launched into his lie. “I’ve thought about your advice about my appearance. So I was wondering if you could give me a haircut. I suppose I could do it myself, but I’m afraid the result would be worse than how I look right now.”

  “It is not so bad you look.” This comment seemed to slip out before the lady realized it. She coughed self-consciously and then gazed at him in mild surprise. “So, you take my advice?”

  He nodded. “I’m going to get some new clothes too. Well, new in the sense that they’ll be new to me. And shoes.”

  She looked at him suspiciously. “And the beard? That thing that makes you look to be, how you say, that Rumpelstein person.”

  “Yes, the beard will go too. But I can shave that off myself.”

  She waved dismissively. “No, I do. I have dreamed many times of disappearing that beard.” She motioned him into her apartment. “Come, come, we do it now. Before your mind it is changed.”

  Stone followed her in and looked around. The inside of Adelphia’s apartment was very clean and organized, which surprised him. The woman’s personality seemed far too impulsive and fractured to manufacture such order.

  She led him into the bathroom and pointed to the toilet. “Sit.”

  He did so while she busied herself with getting necessary instruments. From where he was sitting Stone could see a shelf in the hallway that held books on many subjects, a few in languages Stone did not recognize, though he had spent many years traveling the world.

  “Do you know all those languages, Adelphia?” he asked, pointing at the books.

  She stopped assembling her tools and looked at him suspiciously. “And why would books like that I keep if I could not read them? Does my apartment look so big that I keep things I no use?”

  “I see your point.”

  She draped a sheet over him and knotted it behind his neck.

  “How much cutting is it you want?”

  “Over the ears and off the neck will do nicely.”

  “You are sure of this?”

  “Absolutely sure.”

  She started clipping. Finished, she combed his hair into place, gelling down a few stubborn cowlicks. Next she attacked his thick beard with her shears, whittling it down quickly. Then picked up another object.

  “It is this I use on my legs,” she said, holding up a lady’s razor. “But it will do too for your face.”

  When he saw what he looked like in a small mirror Adelphia handed him after she’d finished, Stone almost didn’t recognize his reflection. He rubbed at facial skin he had not seen in years. With the bundle of long, scraggly hair and beard gone he noted that he had a long forehead with stacks of wrinkles and a smooth, slender neck.

  “It is a nice face you have,” Adelphia said sincerely. “And your neck is like baby’s skin. Me, I have got no nice neck. It is old woman’s. Like the turkey. ”

  “I think you have very pleasing features, Adelphia,” he said. Stone was still looking at his face in the mirror, so he didn’t see her blush and quickly look down.

  “You have visitor last night.”

  Stone glanced up at her. “A visitor. Who?”

  “A man in suit. His name it is Fort, or is something like that. I not remember exactly. He say to tell you of his coming by.”

  “Fort?”

  “I see him talking to those men, the ones across the street. You know him, Oliver. The Secret men.”

  “The Secret Service. Do you mean Ford? Agent Alex Ford?”

  Adelphia pointed at him. “That is it. A big man he is. Taller than you.”

  “Did he say what he wanted?”

  “Only that he say hello.”

  “What time was this?”


  “Do I look like keeper of time? I tell you he say hello.” She hesitated. “I think it is midnight he come by. It is nothing else I know.”

  His mind now preoccupied with this latest news, Stone hurriedly rose and took off the sheet. “I would like to pay you,” he began, but she waved this offer away. “There must be something I can do to return this kindness.”

  She glanced at him sharply. “There is a thing you can do.” She paused and he stared at her curiously. “We get the café sometime.” She added with a scowl, “When you not have big meeting in middle of night.”

  Stone was a little taken aback but decided what was the harm in talk and coffee? “All right, Adelphia. I guess it’s time we did things like that.”

  “Then that is good.” She put out her hand for him to shake. He was surprised by how strong her long fingers were.

  As Stone walked along the streets a few minutes later, he thought about his late night visitor. Alex Ford had been closer to Stone than any of the other Secret Service agents. So his visit could be simply a coincidence.

  Stone headed to a nearby Goodwill store. There, with the money Reuben had given him, he purchased two pairs of dungarees, a pair of sturdy walking shoes, socks, shirts, a sweater and a faded blue blazer. The clerk, whom he knew well, threw in two pairs of brand-new underwear.

  “You look years younger, Oliver,” the man commented.

  “I feel it. I really do,” he answered. He returned to Lafayette Park with his purchases to make a quick change inside his tent. However, as he started to enter his little sanctum, a voice called out.

  “Where the hell do you think you’re going, bud?”

  Stone looked up to see a uniformed Secret Service agent staring at him. “That tent’s already occupied, so move on.”

  Stone replied, “Officer, this is my tent.”

  The guard walked over to him. “Stone? Is that really you?”

  Stone smiled. “A little less hair and a little less beard, but, yes, it’s me.”

  The guard shook his head. “Who you been to see, Elizabeth Arden?”

  “And who is this Elizabeth woman?” a female voice cried out.

  They both turned to see Adelphia striding toward them and looking at Stone accusingly. She was still dressed in the same clothes as earlier, but her hair was now down around her shoulders.

  “Don’t get your conspiracy theories in a wad, Adelphia,” the guard said playfully. “It’s a spa where you go to get all pretty. My wife went there once, and let me tell you, for what it cost, I’ll take the woman just the way she is.” He chuckled and walked off, as Adelphia edged up to Stone.

  “You would like to go for a café now and talk?” she asked.

  “I would love to but I have to meet someone. However, when I get back.”

  “We will see,” Adelphia replied in a disappointed tone. “I too have things to do. I no can wait for you all the time. I have job.”

  “No, of course not,” Stone said, but the woman had turned and stormed off.

  Stone slipped inside his tent, changed and put the rest of his newly acquired clothes in his knapsack. He wandered through the park until he found what he was looking for in a trash can: the morning newspaper. There was nothing in the paper about a body being discovered on Roosevelt Island; it had obviously occurred too late to make the morning edition. He found a payphone and called Caleb in his office at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

  “Have you heard anything, Caleb? There’s nothing as yet in the papers.”

  “I’ve had the news on all morning. All they’re saying is that Roosevelt Island is closed due to an investigation of an undisclosed nature. Can you come down here around one o’clock so we can talk about it?”

  Stone agreed and added, “You’ve taken precautions?”

  “Yes, and so have the others. Reuben’s at work but he called on a break. I spoke with Milton. He’s staying inside his house. He’s really terrified.”

  “Fear is a natural reaction to what we all saw.” And then Stone remembered. “Uh, Caleb, you might not recognize me immediately. I’ve changed my appearance somewhat. I felt it necessary because I was the most likely to have been spotted by the killers.”

  “I understand, Oliver.”

  Stone hesitated and then added, “Since I’m fairly well presentable, would it be possible for me to meet you in the reading room instead of outside the building? I’ve always wanted to see the place, but didn’t want to, well, embarrass you at work.”

  “Oliver, I had no idea. Of course, you can.”

  As Stone walked to the Library of Congress, he thought about Patrick Johnson’s killers. They would know soon that the eyewitnesses had not gone to the police. And they might see an opportunity there that could lead to the extinction of the Camel Club.

  CHAPTER

  17

  ALEX PULLED HIS CAR OFF THE George Washington Parkway before it ascended sharply along the Potomac River, and parked in the lot for Roosevelt Island. The only access to the island from the parking lot was a long footbridge.

  The parking lot was filled with police cruisers and unmarked federal vehicles. A team from the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office was here as well as an FBI forensics squad. Alex knew he’d be running a gauntlet of suits and uniforms by the time their visit was over.

  “Busy place,” Simpson commented.

  “Yeah, it’ll be fun to see the Bureau and the Park Police fight out jurisdiction on this one. The D.C. cops will run a distant third.”

  They stepped onto the bridge and flashed their credentials at a guard posted there.

  “Secret Service?” the uniformed cop said, looking a little confused.

  “President sent us. Top secret stuff,” Alex answered, and kept on walking.

  They quickly made their way to the crime scene along the marked paths. As they drew closer, Alex caught snatches of conversation and the sounds of cell phones playing a cacophony of downloaded tunes. Alex was proud of the fact that his phone simply rang when someone called him.

  The two agents stepped into the paved area in front of the T.R. statue, where Alex looked around, mentally assembling the players working the homicide.

  The D.C. and Park Police stood out because of their uniforms and somewhat deferential manner. The forensics techs were also easy to spot. The suits standing around looking like they owned the place were the Bureau boys undoubtedly. Yet there were some other suits Alex couldn’t identify.

  He stepped toward what he’d picked out as the ranking park policeman. Getting the uniforms on your side was a very good rule to live by.

  “Alex Ford, Secret Service. This is Agent Simpson.”

  The policeman shook their hands.

  Alex inclined his head at the body. “What do we have so far?”

  The cop shrugged. “Probable suicide. Looks like the guy shot himself in the mouth. We won’t know for sure until the M.E. does the post. The guy’s in full rigor. We can’t get his mouth open without screwing things up for the autopsy.”

  “That the FBI over there?” Alex inclined his head at two suits standing near the body.

  “How’d you guess?” the cop said with an amused expression.

  “Superman capes sticking out of their jackets,” Alex replied. That comment drew a chuckle. “How about those guys?” he asked, pointing at the other men he’d noted earlier and who were talking quietly together.

  “Carter Gray’s boys from NIC,” the man said. “They’re probably analyzing what Al Qaeda has against Teddy Roosevelt.”

  Alex grinned and said, “You mind copying us on whatever you find? My boss is one of those real anal-retentive types.”

  “Sure thing, though we don’t have much interest in the case so far. His wallet’s still on him, and there’s a suicide note and a handgun with one round fired. And it looks like the guy sucked down nearly a quart of Scotch. You can still smell it. There’re prints on the gun and bottle, and the revolver’s registered to him. We’ll run
the prints to confirm they match the deceased.”

  “Gunpowder residue on the hand?” Simpson asked.

  “None that we could see. But the weapon looks very new and well maintained. And even with a revolver you may not get residue.”

  “Any sign of a struggle?” Alex asked. The cop shook his head.

  “One thing,” Simpson said. “Did he drive here to do the deed?”

  “No car in the parking lot,” the cop said.

  “Well, somebody could have shot him and driven off,” said Simpson. “But if it was a suicide, how else could he have gotten here?”

  “There’s an elevated pedestrian bridge on the north end of the parking lot that crosses the GW Parkway and connects to the Heritage Trail and Chain Bridge,” the cop said. “And a bike path crosses the bridge and ends in the parking lot for the island. But we don’t think that’s how he came. Somebody would’ve seen him if he’d used those routes.” He hesitated. “We have another theory. His clothes are soaked, too much for it to be just dew.”

 
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