The Camel Club by David Baldacci

  “But didn’t Patrick Johnson’s sudden wealth raise red flags here?” Alex asked.

  Hemingway looked chagrined. “It should have. Heads will roll for it.”

  “But not yours,” Alex remarked.

  “No, that wasn’t my responsibility,” Hemingway answered.

  “Lucky you. So if the drugs weren’t Johnson’s source of income, you’re saying it’s unlikely that he could have been selling secrets from here?”

  “Unlikely but not impossible. But the drugs were found at his house.”

  “Do you mind if we talk to some of Johnson’s co-workers?”

  “I can arrange that, but I’m afraid your discussions will have to be monitored.”

  “Wow, just like in prison, only we’re the good guys,” Alex said.

  “We’re the good guys too,” Hemingway shot back.

  An hour later, after they’d spoken to three of Johnson’s colleagues, Alex and Simpson learned that none of them really knew Johnson on a personal level.

  After they’d collected their guns, Hemingway escorted them out. “Good luck,” he said before the automatic doors shut behind them.

  “Right, sure, thanks for all your help,” Alex groused.

  They walked back to the car while two army grunts toting M-16s followed.

  “Either one of you guys wanna hold my hand in case I suddenly go berserk?” Alex asked before turning back around and marching on in disgust.

  “Well, that was a complete waste of time,” Simpson said.

  “So is ninety percent of investigative work. You should know that,” Alex said heatedly.

  “What are you so pissed about?”

  “Are you telling me all that stuff in there didn’t creep you out? Hell, I was half expecting a photo of when I lost my virginity to pop up.”

  “I’ve got nothing to hide. And why were you such an asshole with Tom?”

  “I was an asshole with Tom because I don’t happen to like the son of a bitch.”

  “Oh, well, I guess that explains your relationship with me.”

  Alex didn’t bother to answer. But he did lay down rubber on NIC’s pristine asphalt getting the hell out of Big Brother Town.



  A FEW MINUTES AFTER ALEX AND Simpson had left, Hemingway passed Reinke and Peters in the hallway at NIC and gave a short nod of his head. Fifteen minutes later Hemingway drove out of NIC. Ten minutes after that, Reinke and Peters did the same.

  They met at Tyson’s II Galleria, a large upscale shopping mall, purchased coffees and walked along the concourses. They’d already used an antisurveillance device to ensure that none of them had been bugged, and each had taken great pains to make sure they hadn’t been followed. A major rule of being a spy was to make certain your own agency wasn’t spying on you.

  “We tried to stop them from going through Johnson’s office,” Peters said. “But then Gray came in.”

  “I know,” Hemingway replied. “That’s why I went down there. The last thing I want is Carter Gray turning his attention to this.”

  “What about Ford and Simpson?”

  “If they get too close, there are ways to deal with them,” Hemingway said. “We found a print on the suicide note and ran it.”

  “Did you get a match?” Reinke asked.


  “Who is it?” Peters asked.

  “It’s in your jacket pocket.” Hemingway finished his coffee and threw away the cup. Peters pulled out the piece of paper Hemingway had slipped there at some point. He read the name: Milton Farb.

  Hemingway explained, “He worked at NIH years ago as a computer systems expert but had some mental problems and popped up in some psych centers. He was in the phone book, so it wasn’t hard tracking his address. I’ve e-mailed an encrypted version of his background file to you. Watch him, and he’ll probably lead you to the others. But do nothing without checking with me first. If we can avoid killing them, we will.” He walked off in one direction while Reinke and Peters headed off in the other with renewed energy.

  Carter Gray returned to his office, made a few phone calls, including one to the White House, and then held a series of brief meetings. After that, Gray settled down for another task that would take him several hours. Whenever the president was traveling and Gray was unable to accompany or meet him on the road, they conducted a secure video conference call for the daily briefing. Gray typically spent a good deal of each day preparing for that call, but he knew that the salient points could be summed up very quickly.

  “Mr. President, the world as we know it is going straight to hell, some of it due to our own actions, and there’s little we can do about it. However, so long as we keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars on homeland security, I can reasonably guarantee that most Americans will be safe. However, all our expensive efforts can still be defeated by a small group of people with enough nerve, dumb luck and plutonium. Then all bets are off, and we could all very well be dead. Any questions, sir?”

  Instead of preparing for the briefing with Brennan, though, Gray wanted to go for a drive. Unfortunately, he wasn’t allowed to. As with the president, the secretary of intelligence was not allowed to drive himself; he was deemed too vital to the security of the nation to be behind the wheel of a car. However, what Gray really wanted to do was go fishing. Since he couldn’t do that right now with a pole and bait, he decided to try another version of fishing, one at which he was also very skilled.

  He typed in a request for a name on his laptop. Within five minutes he had the information he wanted. NIC personnel were nothing if not efficient.

  It had been one of his most brilliant moves, Gray thought, centralizing all terrorist databases under NIC’s control. While it made the system far more accurate, it also gave NIC the heads-up on other intelligence agencies’ operations. If the CIA, for example, needed information on something, they would have to access one of the NIC databases and Gray would instantly know what they were looking at. It had worked beautifully, allowing him to spy on his intelligence brethren under cover of bureaucratic efficiency.

  He set up the images and data on split screens so he could view them all simultaneously. There were many men staring back at him. Almost all were Middle Eastern; they had all been duly recorded in the NIC database, complete with digital fingerprints, if available. And they were all dead, many at the hands of other terrorists. The skull and crossbones marker resting in the upper right-hand corner of each man’s picture confirmed this fate. They included an engineer and chemist who were also expert bomb makers. Another, Adnan al-Rimi, was a courageous fighter with nerves that had never broken in the heat of battle. Six others lost their lives when an explosive went off in the van they were in. Whether it was accidental or intentional had never been determined. The crime scene had been horrific, with body parts instead of bodies to collect. Other than Muhammad al-Zawahiri, none of these men were on the “A-list” of terrorist suspects, but it was still fortunate for America that they were dead.

  Gray had no way of knowing that the photos of al-Rimi and others had been altered subtly. They were not the pictures of the men who’d actually died either. They were a digitized combination of the real al-Rimi, for example, and the dead man identified as al-Rimi. This was done so that any “earlier” photos of the men still floating around would not look so different as to raise suspicion. It had taken time and considerable expertise. The result had been worth it, though. It was now virtually impossible to identify any of these Arabs from their photos in the NIC database.

  The other brilliant stroke had been leaving no “faces” behind on the dead men to identify. What had been substituted in their entirety, of course, were the men’s fingerprints, the forensic signature by which they’d been positively identified. Fingerprints never lied. Of course, in the digital age nothing was inviolate.

  And yet with all that, Carter Gray’s gut was telling him something was not right.

  Gray clicked out of the file and de
cided to go for a walk around the NIC grounds. He was allowed to do that, he supposed.

  As Gray strolled outside, he looked at the sky, following the flight of a Lufthansa 747 as it made its way into Dulles Airport, and his mind wandered to the past.

  Early on in his career at the CIA Gray had been assigned to the CIA’s ultrasecret and now abandoned training facility near Washington, Virginia, a bit over two hours west of D.C. The building, extremely well hidden within the surrounding forest, was known, in CIA parlance, as Area 51A, demonstrating that the Agency did, indeed, have a sense of humor. Unofficially, though, it had usually been referred to as Murder Mountain.

  Long since closed down, NIC had recently moved to have it reopened as an interrogation facility for terrorist suspects. However, the Justice Department had gotten wind of the scheme, and the process had slowed down considerably. Then, after the cumulative effects of “Gitmo” Bay in Cuba, the disgrace of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the Salt Pit prison fiasco in Afghanistan, the plans to reopen the facility were on the verge of being nixed.

  Gray was unconcerned, though. There were lots of other places outside the country that would serve the same purpose. Torture of prisoners was illegal under American and international laws. Gray had testified before many committees regarding compliance with this law by his intelligence community, lying to the Congress with virtually every word he spoke. However, did those great and pious legislators who neither knew one word of Arabic nor could even name the capitals of Oman or Turkmenistan without a staffer’s help, really think that was how the world worked?

  Intelligence was a filthy business where people lied and people died all the time. The fact that the U.S. president was right now contemplating the assassination of another country’s elected officials was testament enough to how complicated the global politics were.

  Gray returned to his office. He wanted to take another look at all these “dead men” who might somehow figure prominently in his future. God help America if they did.



  ALEX E-MAILED HIS UPDATED report to Jerry Sykes as soon as he got back to WFO. Unlike his first filing, however, the response this time was very swift. The phone call didn’t merely instruct him to go to Jerry Sykes’ office, or even the SAIC’s. He was ordered to report immediately to Secret Service headquarters and meet with none other than the director of the Secret Service.

  Okay, Alex thought, this was probably not a good sign. It was close enough to WFO that Alex could walk, and he did. The time in the fresh air allowed him to ponder his future after the Service, which might be coming faster than he had envisioned, in fact about three years faster.

  He had met the current director face-to-face only a couple times before. They’d been social occasions, and the few minutes of chitchat had been quite pleasant. Alex’s gut was telling him that this encounter wouldn’t be nearly as chummy.

  A few minutes later he walked into the director’s spacious office. Jerry Sykes was there, apparently trying to disappear into the sofa he was perched on, and, much to Alex’s surprise, Jackie Simpson was sitting next to Sykes.

  “You want to close the door, Ford?” Wayne Martin, the director of the Secret Service, said.

  Close the door. That was definitely not a good sign. Alex obeyed this instruction and then sat and waited for Martin to start speaking. He was a large man who favored striped shirts with big cuff links. He’d worked his way up through the ranks and was one of the agents who tackled John Hinckley after his attempt to assassinate Reagan. Martin was studying a file in front of him. Shooting a quick glance at it, Alex thought it appeared to be his Service history. Okay, this was really not looking good.

  Martin closed the file, sat on the edge of his desk and said, “Agent Ford, I’ll get right to it because, believe it or not, I’ve got a lot of things to do today.”

  “Yes, sir,” Alex said automatically.

  “I got a call from the president a little while ago. He was on Air Force One. The man was on his plane going to a string of campaign events, and he took the time to call me about you. That’s why you’re here today.”

  It was as though all the blood were evaporating from Alex’s body. “The president called about me, sir?”

  “Would you like to take a guess what about?”

  Alex shot a glance at Sykes, who was studying the floor. Simpson was looking at him, but she didn’t appear to be in a helpful mood.

  “The Patrick Johnson case?” Alex could barely hear his own voice.

  “Bingo!” Martin boomed, slamming a fist down on his desk and causing everybody to jump.

  “Since you’re batting a thousand, Ford, you care to take another guess as to what you did that prompted a call from the president of the United States?”

  Alex had no saliva left in his mouth, but the man obviously wanted an answer. “I’ve been investigating the death of Patrick Johnson. That’s what I was ordered to do.”

  Martin was shaking his head halfway through this answer. “The FBI is the lead investigative agency on the case. My understanding is that you were assigned to merely observe that investigation so as to protect the interests of this agency. And that our only connection to the deceased is that he was technically a joint employee of this agency and NIC. But in reality he was fully under NIC’s control and jurisdiction. Do you disagree with that assessment?”

  Alex didn’t even bother to glance at Sykes. “No, sir.”

  “Good, I’m glad that we’ve got that established. Now, the FBI found drugs at Mr. Johnson’s residence and is following up along those lines, which would tend to indicate that he was selling said drugs and generating considerable income from that endeavor. And consequently, his employment at NIC was not being considered as possibly connected to his death. Are you aware of this?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Good again.” Martin stood, and Alex braced for what was coming. He wasn’t disappointed.

  Martin erupted, “Now, with all that said, would you care to tell me what in the living hell you were thinking when you went out to NIC and questioned none other than Carter Gray about this matter?” This was conveyed in what could only be described as one long drill sergeant scream.

  When Alex finally found his voice, he said, “I thought that to cover all the angles, going out to NIC was proper. They had run an analysis on a note for us and—”

  “Did you or did you not interrogate Carter Gray?”

  “I did not, sir. He showed up and offered to take us to Johnson’s work space. Until then, I was merely speaking with two junior subordinates who were not being particularly cooperative.”

  “Did you threaten to seek a warrant to search the NIC premises?”

  Alex’s heart seemed to skip a beat. “That was just a routine jab at—”

  Martin smacked his desktop again. “Did you!”

  Sweat now christened Alex’s face. “Yes, sir.”

  “Did you learn anything useful while you were there? Did you find a smoking gun? Did you find evidence to implicate Secretary Gray in some nefarious plot?”

  Even though he well knew these were rhetorical questions, Alex felt compelled to answer the man. “We learned nothing that was particularly helpful to the investigation. But again, it was on Secretary Gray’s initiative that he showed us around, sir. And it was only for a couple of minutes.”

  “Let me fill you in on the politics of our business, Ford. Secretary Gray didn’t randomly run into you at NIC. He was alerted to your presence and purpose and came down to see you. He told the president that he felt compelled to do so because if word leaked out to the media that NIC was not being cooperative in a criminal investigation, it would reflect badly on him and his agency. As you know, Secretary Gray and the president are especially close. So things that reflect badly on NIC and Secretary Gray don’t make the president happy. Are you following this?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Are you also aware that under Secretary Gray’s initiative a full in
ternal investigation is being conducted at NIC with regards to the Johnson matter and that the FBI will be assisting in this?”

  “No, sir, I was not aware of that.”

  Martin didn’t appear to be listening now. He picked up a piece of paper from his desk. “According to your first report, you’d concluded that Mr. Johnson was probably a drug dealer, and you were going to let the FBI track that lead down. That was it. You filed that report last night. Now this morning you showed up at NIC asking a bunch of questions that were in clear contradiction to your initial conclusions. My question to you is, what happened between the time you filed the report last night and your going to NIC this morning that made you change your mind?”

  By the way Martin was looking at him, it suddenly struck Alex that the man already knew the answer. He shot a glance at Simpson, who was now looking nervously down at her thick-heeled pumps. That’s why she was here. Oh, shit!

  He looked back at the director.

  “I’m waiting for your answer,” Martin said.

  Alex cleared his throat, buying time. “Sir, they’d analyzed the handwriting on the note, and I wanted to get the results.”

  Martin gave Alex a look so scathing the agent could actually feel the swells of perspiration under his armpits.

  “Don’t ever bullshit me, son,” Martin said in a very low, steady voice that was somehow far more threatening than the man’s prior tirade. The director looked over at Simpson. “Agent Simpson informed us that you told her an old friend had convinced you to get up a head of steam on this case and go for it.” He paused and said, “Who was that ‘friend’?”

  Talk about a casual slip of the tongue coming back to crater your life. Alex’s mind was racing from how he was going to afford his mortgage after he was fired from the Service in disgrace, to how he could kill Jackie Simpson and not get the death penalty.

  “I don’t really recall that conversation with Agent Simpson, sir.”

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