The Camel Club by David Baldacci

  “Very nice.” He paused and then commented, “You know, these aren’t cheap, Adelphia.”

  “It is not like I drink the café a hundred times all of the days.”

  “But you have money?”

  Adelphia eyed his new clothes. “So? And you, you have the money.”

  “I have a job. And my friends, they help me.”

  “It is no one that helps me. I work for money, all of it.”

  Stone was surprised that he’d never asked her this before. “What do you do?”

  “I am seamstress for laundry place. I work when I want. They pay me good. And they give me good deal on room,” she said. “And then I can buy the café when I want.”

  “It must be very rewarding to have such a skill,” Stone said absently.

  They stopped talking, and their gazes idly took in other people in the small park.

  Adelphia finally broke the silence. “So your match of chess, you were victor?”

  “No. My defeat was based on equal parts lack of concentration and my opponent’s considerable skill.”

  “My father, he was very excellent at the chess. He was a, how you say . . .” She hesitated, obviously searching for the right words in English. “My father, he was a, how you say, Wielki Mistrz.”

  “A grand champion? No, you mean a grand master. That’s very impressive.”

  She glanced at him sharply. “You speak Polish?”

  “Just a little.”

  “You have been to Poland?”

  “A very long time ago,” he said, sipping his coffee and watching the breeze gently move the leaves on the trees overhead. “I take it that’s where you’re from?” he asked curiously. Adelphia had never spoken about her origins before.

  “It was in Krakow that I was born, but then my family, they move to Bialystok. I was just a child, so I go too.”

  Stone had been to both those cities but had no intention of telling her that. “I really only know Warsaw, and, as I said, that was a long time ago. Probably before you were born.”

  “Ha, that is nice thing you say that. Even if it is a lie!” She put her coffee down on the bench and gazed at him. “It is very much younger you look, Oliver.”

  “Thanks to you and your wizardry with scissors and a razor.”

  “And your friends, do they not think so too?”

  “My friends?” he said, glancing at her.

  “I have seen them.”

  He looked at her again. “Well, they’ve all come to visit me at Lafayette Park.”

  “No, I mean at your meetings I have seen them.”

  He tried not to look concerned at her stunning words. “So you followed me to my meetings? I hope they weren’t too boring.” What has she seen or heard?

  She looked coy and, as though she’d read his thoughts, said, “It might have been things I hear, or it might not.”

  “When was that?” he asked.

  “So finally it is I have your attention.” She edged closer to him and actually patted his hand. “Do not worry, Oliver, I am not spy. I see things but I do not hear. And the things I see, well, they stay with me always. Always they do.”

  “It’s not like we have anything worth overhearing or seeing.”

  “It is truth you seek, Oliver?” she said, smiling. “Like your sign say, it is truth you want. I can tell. You are such a man who seeks this.”

  “I’m afraid as the years go by, my chances of actually finding it are fewer and fewer.”

  Adelphia suddenly glanced over at a person who was staggering through the park. Anyone who had been on the streets of Washington over the last ten years had probably seen this pitiable sight. He had short stubs of bone and skin where his arms should have been. His legs were so horribly twisted that it was a miracle he could even remain upright. He was usually half-naked, even in winter. He had no shoes on. His feet were scarred and covered with sores, the toes oddly bent. His eyes were largely vacant, and a steady current of spittle slipped down his face and onto his chest. As far as anyone knew, he could not even speak. A small pouch hung from a string around his neck. Written across his tattered shirt in childlike scrawl was one word: “Help.”

  Stone had given money to the man on numerous occasions and knew that he lived over a steam grate by the Treasury Department. He’d tried to help the man over the years, but his mind was simply too far gone. If any government agency had stepped in to help, Stone was unaware of it.

  “My God, that man, that poor man. My heart, it bursts for his suffering,” Adelphia said. She raced over to him, pulled out some dollars from her pocket and placed them in his pouch. He babbled something at her and then staggered off to another group nearby, who also immediately opened their pocketbooks and wallets to him.

  As Adelphia was returning to her spot next to Stone, a large man stepped in front of her, blocking the way.

  He said gruffly, “I don’t look as shitty as that guy, but I’m hungry and I need a drink bad.” His hair was ratty and in his face, but he wasn’t dressed that shabbily. However, the stench coming off his body in waves was overpowering.

  “It is no more I have,” Adelphia answered in a frightened tone.

  “You’re lying!” He grabbed her arm and yanked Adelphia toward him. “Give me some damn money!”

  Before Adelphia could even cry out, Stone was beside her.

  “Let her go now!” Stone demanded.

  The man was a good twenty-five years younger than Stone and far bigger. “Get out of here, old man. This doesn’t concern you.”

  “This woman is my friend.”

  “I said get out of here!” He followed this with a vicious swing that caught Stone flush on the chin. He dropped to the ground, clutching his face.

  “Oliver!” Adelphia screamed.

  Other people in the park were yelling at the man now, and someone was running off, calling out for a policeman.

  As Stone struggled to get to his feet, the man pulled a switchblade out of his pocket and pointed it at Adelphia. “Give me the money or I’ll cut you bad, bitch.”

  Stone made a sudden lunge. The man let go of Adelphia and staggered back, dropping his knife. He fell to his knees, every muscle in his body trembling, and then he collapsed onto his back on the grass, writhing in agony.

  Stone picked up the switchblade and then palmed the weapon in a very unusual way. He reached over and ripped open his assailant’s collar, exposing the man’s thick neck and throbbing arteries. For an instant it seemed that Stone was going to slice that neck open from ear to ear as the knifepoint edged very near a pulsing vein. There was a look in Oliver Stone’s eyes that virtually no one who had known him over the last thirty-odd years had ever seen. Yet Stone abruptly stopped and gazed up at Adelphia, who stood there staring at him, her chest heaving. At that moment it was not clear which man she feared more.

  “Oliver?” she said quietly. “Oliver?”

  Stone dropped the knife on the ground, rose and wiped off his pants.

  “My God, you are bleeding,” Adelphia cried out. “Bleeding!”

  “I’m fine,” he said shakily as he dabbed at his bloody mouth with his sleeve. That was a lie. The blow had hurt him very much. His head was bursting, and he felt sick to his stomach. He picked at something in his mouth and yanked out a tooth the man’s punch had loosened.

  “You are no fine!” Adelphia insisted as she watched him.

  A woman came running up to them. “The police are coming. Are you both okay?”

  Stone turned to see a patrol car, its lights flashing, pull to a stop at the curb. He quickly turned to Adelphia. “I’m sure you can explain everything to the police.” This came out a little garbled because his lip was swelling.

  As he staggered off, she called out to him but he didn’t turn around.

  When the police came up and started asking her questions, all Adelphia could think about was what she had seen. Oliver Stone had dug his index finger into the man’s side, near the rib cage. This simple move had caused a ver
y large, angry man to drop to the ground, helpless.

  And the way Stone held the knife had struck her deeply, for a very personal reason. Adelphia had seen a man grip a knife that way only once before, many years ago in Poland. The man had been a member of the KGB, who had come to forcibly take her uncle away for speaking out against the Soviets. She had never seen her uncle alive again. His gutted body had been found in an unused well in a village twenty miles away.

  As Adelphia glanced around, she gasped.

  Oliver Stone had disappeared.



  “THIS IS WHERE PATRICK JOHNSON worked,” Carter Gray said, sweeping his hand across the room.

  Alex slowly took it all in. The space was about half the size of a football field with a large open area in the middle and cubicles along the perimeter. Computers with flat screens were on every desktop and servers hummed in the background. Men and women dressed in business attire either sat at their desks totally focused on their work or else walked the halls speaking into phone headsets using cryptic jargon that not even Alex, with all his federal time behind him, could understand. The sense of urgency here was palpable.

  As Gray led them over to a set of corner cubicles, Alex caught images of people’s faces flashing across some of the computers, most of them Middle Eastern, with data, presumably about each person, flowing down one side of the screen. The thing he didn’t see was a single scrap of paper.

  “We are paperless,” Gray said.

  Alex was startled by this comment. Has the man added mind reading to his repertoire?

  “At least the people working here are. I still like to feel the material in my hands.” He stopped at one cubicle, larger than the rest, whose walls, instead of waist level, were six feet high.

  “This is Johnson’s office.”

  “I take it he was a supervisor of some sort,” Simpson commented.

  “Yes. His precise task was to oversee the work on our data files of all terrorist-related suspects. When we took over N-TAC, we combined that staff and their files with ours. It was an ideal fit. However, we, of course, didn’t want to strip the Secret Service of all involvement. That’s why Johnson and others here were joint employees.”

  Gray said this in a magnanimous tone. However, as Alex looked around the space, he thought to himself, Nice but useless bone to throw our way, since we had no control over our “joint” employee. His gaze came to rest on the only personal item in the office. It was a small framed photo of Anne Jeffries sitting on Johnson’s desk. Alex noted that when the woman was all made up, she looked very pretty. He wondered if Anne Jeffries was meeting with a lawyer right now. A moment later another man joined them.

  Tom Hemingway flashed a smile as he put out his hand to Alex. “Well, I guess my cover’s blown, Agent Ford.”

  “I guess so,” Alex said as he winced at the man’s crushing grip.

  Gray raised an eyebrow. “You two know each other?”

  “Through Kate Adams, the DOJ lawyer I was working with, sir.”

  Simpson stepped forward. “I’m Jackie Simpson, Secret Service.”

  “Tom Hemingway.”

  “Nice to meet you, Tom.” She gazed appreciatively at the handsome Hemingway until she caught Alex scowling at her.

  “I was just showing them Patrick Johnson’s office and explaining what he did for us,” Gray said. “They’re investigating his death on behalf of the Service.”

  “If you’d like, sir, I can take over from here. I know you have a meeting.”

  “Tom knows much more about computers than I do,” Gray said. That wasn’t exactly true, but Gray had never been one to boast of his strengths, because that very hubris often turned them into weaknesses.

  “Don’t forget to tell your father what I said, Jackie.” Then Gray left them.

  “So what exactly are you looking for?” Hemingway asked.

  “Basically an understanding of what Johnson did here,” Alex answered. “Secretary Gray said that he oversaw the data files on terrorist suspects.”

  “That’s right, among other things. I guess the best way to describe it is that he and the other data supervisors are like senior air traffic controllers making sure all the pieces go together smoothly. The databases are constantly being updated with fresh intelligence. And we’ve streamlined things too. The FBI, DEA, Homeland Security, ATF, CIA, DIA and others each had its own database. There was a lot of overlap and wrong information and no way for one agency to thoroughly access another agency’s files. That was one of the problems that led up to 9/11. Now it’s all maintained here, but the other agencies have 24/7 access.”

  Alex spoke up. “Isn’t that a little risky, putting everything in one place?”

  “We have a backup center, of course,” Hemingway said.

  “Where is it?” Alex asked.

  “I’m afraid that’s classified.”

  Well, I saw that one coming.

  “And keep in mind that our system didn’t replace the Bureau’s AFIS,” said Hemingway, referring to the FBI’s fingerprint identification system. “We’re after terrorists, not pedophiles and bank robbers. We also bought several private firms that specialized in intelligence data mining and other areas of technological expertise.”

  “NIC bought private companies?” Alex said.

  Hemingway nodded. “Government doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel any more than the private sector. The software literally digs into trillions of bytes of information in numerous databases and builds patterns, suspect signatures and behavior and activity models that can be used in investigations. Our agents have handheld devices, like PalmPilots, that allow them instant access to these databases. With a single query they can access all relevant information about a subject. It’s incredible stuff.”

  “How do you effectively oversee an operation this big with people constantly firing stuff at you?” Alex asked.

  “When all the other agencies’ files came over, it created quite a backlog to work through. And between you and me, there were some glitches, and the system actually crashed a couple of times. But it’s all running smoothly now. It was Johnson’s task and others here to oversee that and also to ensure the accuracy of the data input. It’s very labor-intensive work.”

  “So not so speedy,” Alex said.

  “Speed is useless if the information is wrong,” Hemingway countered. “While we try to keep everything as up-to-date and accurate as possible, perfection, of course, is not attainable.”

  “Could you show us some file examples?” Simpson asked.

  “Sure.” Hemingway sat down at Johnson’s desk and put his hand in a biometric reader. Next he hit some keys on the computer, and a face appeared on the screen along with a fingerprint and other identifying data.

  Alex was suddenly staring at himself, along with seemingly everything he’d ever done since coming out of his mother’s womb.

  “Underage drinking conviction,” Simpson said, reading one of the sections.

  “That was supposed to have been expunged from my record,” Alex snapped.

  “I’m sure it was expunged from the official record,” Hemingway said. “How is your neck by the way? Looks like a nasty injury you suffered.”

  “You’ve got my medical records? What the hell happened to privacy?”

  “You must’ve neglected to read the fine print on the Patriot Act.” Hemingway hit some more keys and another search field came up. He said, “You go to the LEAP Bar a lot.” He pointed at a list of credit card purchases from that pub. “I’m sure the presence of the lovely Kate Adams is a factor.”

  “So every time I use my credit card you know what I’m up to?”

  “That’s why I always pay in cash,” Hemingway said smugly.

  He typed in some more commands, and Jackie Simpson’s photo, digitized fingerprint and basic information sheet came up. She pointed at one line. “That’s wrong. I was born in Birmingham, not Atlanta.”

  Hemingway smiled. “See, not even NIC i
s infallible. I’ll make sure it’s corrected.”

  “Do you have any bad guys in there, or do you just spy on cops?” Alex asked.

  Hemingway punched some more keys and another face sprang up. “His name is, was, Adnan al-Rimi. He was killed by another terrorist in Virginia. You can see that al-Rimi has been confirmed as deceased. That’s what the little skull and crossbones symbol in the upper right-hand corner signifies. A little corny and I’m not sure who came up with that idea, but it’s pretty clear as to a person’s current status.” Hemingway opened a drop-down window. “You can see the fingerprint image here. We were able to positively ID al-Rimi from his digital prints, which we had on file.”

  “Did Johnson have any information that would be valuable to someone?”

  “I think in broad terms everyone who works at NIC would have information that could be valuable to an enemy of this country, Agent Ford. That’s why we run background checks and perform a rigorous vetting process.”

  “Can’t do any better than that,” Jackie Simpson said.

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