The Camel Club by David Baldacci

  She eyed Alex. “Solzhenitsyn. No lightweight stuff.”

  “I think I read the Cliffs Notes on him in college,” Alex said.

  She held out the book. “Yeah, but in Russian?”

  Stone came out of the kitchen carrying two cups of coffee.

  “I like your home, Oliver,” she said. “It’s how I’d envision a college professor’s place to look.”

  “Yes, untidy, dusty, rumpled and full of old books.” Stone glanced at Alex. “I understand you’re on the advance team to Brennan, Pennsylvania?”

  Alex gaped. “How the hell did you know that?”

  “White House detail can often be very tedious, and people pass the time by talking shop. And voices carry amazingly there, if one is actually listening, which I’m afraid that few people really do anymore.”

  Kate smiled at Stone as they all sat down in chairs around the fireplace. “Alex said you were quite extraordinary, Oliver, and I’ve found I can thoroughly rely on his opinion of people.”

  “Well, Ms. Adams, I can assure you that Alex is truly special.”

  “Please call me Kate.”

  “Yeah, and if I get any more special,” Alex said, “I’ll be pumping gas for a living.” He glanced at Stone. “Your face looks like it’s healing.”

  “It was nothing to begin with. A little ice. I’ve suffered worse.”

  “Really? Care to talk about it?” Alex said.

  “You would find such a discussion terribly boring, I’m afraid.”

  “Try me,” Alex said pointedly.

  A voice reached them from the street. They all got up and went to the door. There was Adelphia standing outside the locked gates calling to Stone.

  “Adelphia?” Stone quickly went and let her in.

  After they had settled back around the fireplace, Stone introduced Adelphia to Kate Adams.

  Kate put out her hand but Adelphia simply nodded at her. The woman had obviously not planned on Stone having any company.

  “I didn’t know you knew where I lived, Adelphia,” Stone said.

  “You know where I live, it work both way,” she snapped.

  Suitably rebuked, Stone sat back in his chair and stared at his hands.

  “Oliver was just telling us that his face is much better,” Alex said quickly, giving the woman what he hoped would be a clear segue into her concerns.

  However, Adelphia said nothing, and there was another awkward silence until Kate remarked, “I actually knew one of the attorneys from the ACLU who worked on your relocation case in Lafayette Park. He said it was a tough battle.”

  “I believe the Secret Service were very aggressive in not wanting us back for security purposes,” Stone agreed.

  Adelphia suddenly broke in. “But then the rights of people, they win out. People here have good rights. That is why this country is great country.”

  Stone nodded in agreement.

  “Yes,” Adelphia continued. “My friend Oliver, he has sign. It say ‘I want truth.’”

  “Don’t we all,” Kate said with a smile.

  “But sometime truth, it must come from inside a person,” Adelphia said forcefully as she touched her chest. “One who asks for truth, they too must be truthful, is this not so?” She looked around the group as she said this.

  Stone was clearly uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. He responded slowly, “The truth comes in many different shapes. But sometimes even when the truth is staring someone in the face, he fails to see it.” He abruptly stood. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I actually have someplace I have to be.”

  “It’s pretty late, Oliver,” Alex said.

  “Yes, it is late, and I hadn’t anticipated visitors tonight.”

  His meaning was clear. They all stood and hurriedly walked out with mumbled good-byes.

  Alex and Kate gave Adelphia a lift back to her apartment.

  From the backseat she said, “He is in trouble. I know that this is true.”

  “What makes you so sure?” Alex asked.

  “He come by the park today with his friend, the giant one. He on a motorcycle. Riding in a sidecar.” She added this last in a tone implying that doing such was a criminal act.

  “A giant man? Oh, you mean Reuben,” Alex clarified.

  “Yes, Reuben. I no like him much. He has, how you say, the shifty pants.”

  “You mean shifty eyes,” Alex corrected.

  “No, I mean the shifty pants!”

  “It’s okay, Adelphia,” Kate said, “I know exactly what you mean.”

  Adelphia shot her an appreciative look.

  “But you still haven’t told us why you think he’s in trouble,” Alex said.

  “It is everything. He is not same. Something troubles him much. I try to talk to him, but he will not speak. He will not!”

  Alex looked at her, puzzled by the intensity of her response, and his suspicions were suddenly engaged. “Adelphia, is there something else you want to tell us?”

  She looked terrified for an instant and then assumed an expression of deep offense. “What do you say? That I lie!”

  “No, that’s not what I meant.”

  “I am no liar. I try to do good, that is all.”

  “I’m not—”

  She cut him off. “I no talk any more. I no tell you more lies!”

  They were stopped at a light. She jerked open the door, got out and stalked off.

  “Adelphia,” Alex called after her.

  Kate said, “Better let her cool off awhile. She’ll come around soon enough.”

  “I don’t have time for that. I leave tomorrow morning.”

  “And tomorrow is when I start my vacation.”

  “What? When did that happen?”

  “After last night I needed some time off, so I’m taking a week. Maybe I’ll come up to see you in Brennan. I hear it’s a real happening place.”

  “It’s probably a cow pasture where a president happened to be born.”

  “And maybe I’ll have some time to check out your Mr. Stone and his friends.”

  He looked at her in alarm. “Kate, I don’t think that’s a great idea.”

  “Or I can start trying to find the people who wanted us dead. It’s your call.”

  He put up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay. Go after Oliver Stone and company. Damn, talk about the lesser of two evils.”

  “Aye, aye, sir,” she said, giving him a salute.



  THE SECRET SERVICE ADVANCE team touched down in Pittsburgh at seven A.M., and the equivalent of a small army rolled off the planes and headed directly to Brennan. The president traveled hundreds of times each year. And at least several days before he got to a particular location the Secret Service sent a regiment of agents who would spend collectively thousands of hours checking every conceivable detail to ensure that the trip would be uneventful from a security standpoint.

  Since the president had numerous trips planned on his campaign and would hop from one state to another, there were multiple advance teams out in the field, which had stretched the Service’s manpower. Normally, an advance team would have a full week to do its work, but because of the number of events President Brennan had booked on the campaign, the Service had had to prioritize. Events deemed lower risk were allotted less advance time. With higher-risk events the Service had its usual week to prepare. The Brennan, Pennsylvania, event had been deemed low risk for a number of factors. Of course, what that meant for Alex Ford and the rest of the advance team was that they would have to cram a week’s worth of work into a few days.

  The Service set up shop at the largest hotel in Brennan, taking over an entire floor. It had been renamed the Sir James, in honor of the president’s first name. That had caused about ten minutes of funny one-liners from the field agents, until their leaders came within earshot. One room became the communications center and was consequently stripped of all furniture and completely debugged. From this point until the Service left
there’d be no room service or maids allowed there.

  That afternoon the Service met with members of the local police forces. As Alex watched, the lead advance agent faced the cadre of law enforcement officers while briefing books were handed out.

  “Just remember,” he warned. “In another room near here there may be a group of people planning to do the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

  Alex had heard this spiel many times, but as he looked around the room, he couldn’t believe that many of those present were buying the line. Still, Alex, with all his experience, discounted nothing. Secret Service agents were paranoid by nature. While Brennan didn’t look like a potential trouble spot, no one had expected Bobby Kennedy to be shot in the kitchen of a hotel. James Garfield bought it at a train station; William McKinley went down at a rope line after having been shot by a man who wrapped his revolver inside a “bandage”; Lincoln was gunned down in a theater and JFK in his open limo. Not on my watch, Alex kept telling himself.

  Not on my watch.

  Potential motorcade routes from the airport to the ceremonial grounds were discussed, and possible trouble spots with each were considered. Then the group broke into smaller units, and Alex found himself asking the usual questions of the local law enforcement. Had gun sales peaked? Were any police uniforms missing? Were there any local threats against the president? What were the locations of the nearest hospitals and potential safe houses?

  After that, they drove out to the site. Alex walked the ceremonial grounds and helped establish sniper posts. He eyed the area, locating what the Service referred to as the assassin’s funnel. You had to think like a killer. Where, how and when could the person be expected to strike?

  The stage was finished, and a work crew was putting the finishing touches on lighting and sound and the two giant TV screens that would allow the crowd to see the president up close, at least digitally.

  To Alex’s experienced eye the place looked reasonably doable from a protection point of view. The single entry and exit for vehicular traffic was both bad and good for obvious reasons. Still, the president wouldn’t be here that long. Two hours tops.

  As Alex drove back into Brennan, he looked around the small town. It had long been a Service myth that the best time to rob a bank was when the president was in town, because every cop within twenty miles would be watching him and not the townspeople’s money. Alex had a feeling that adage would be pretty accurate here. There were no cops anywhere.

  Back in his hotel room Alex decided to go for a run. He’d gone through college on a track scholarship, and, despite his neck injury, he ran whenever he could. It was one of the few things keeping him from feeling totally washed up physically. He hit the main street and headed east, passed the hospital and then turned left and picked up his pace as he headed north. A van passed him. He had no reason to look over and didn’t. He wouldn’t have recognized the woman anyway. Nor did Djamila look in his direction as she drove by with the three boys in the back.

  Next Alex passed an auto repair facility with its blacked-out windows. Hidden behind them was a lot of work going on as a new vehicle was fashioned. If Alex had been aware of the plot, he would’ve charged into the garage and arrested everyone there. But he wasn’t aware, so he just kept jogging. Indeed, the downtown area of Brennan held little interest for Alex because the president would never be coming here. The ceremony at the dedication grounds would constitute the entire program.

  After he had showered back at his hotel room, Alex went to volunteer for another chunk of work that night. Might as well do all he could to get back into the Service’s good graces.

  While Alex was working away up in Brennan, Kate was busy too. She’d risen very early that day and eaten breakfast with Lucky. She asked the older woman a favor, which Lucky quickly granted.

  After that, Kate had gone to the carriage house, sat down at her small desk and planned out her attack on Oliver Stone. Alex had said that he had run Stone’s prints through all the usual databases and come up with zilch. To Kate, that could only mean one of two things: Either the man had never held a position requiring a fingerprint check or else his identity had been erased from those databases so completely that whoever Oliver Stone really was had ceased to exist. She wrote down some possible lines of inquiries and then mapped out her strategy in the same manner she would a legal case. Satisfied, she quickly showered and headed out.

  A little later she parked as close to Mt. Zion Cemetery as she could and then waited. It was only seven-thirty in the morning, but as she watched, Stone emerged from his cottage and headed off down the street. Kate ducked down in her car so he couldn’t see her. When he was almost out of sight, a surprising thing happened. Adelphia came out from behind some parked cars on Q Street and started following Stone. Kate thought for a moment and then put the car in gear. She quickly caught up to Adelphia and rolled down her window.

  At first Adelphia pretended not to know who she was, but Kate persisted and Adelphia finally said self-consciously, “Oh, yes, it is you I know now.” Then she cast an anxious glance in Stone’s direction. He was almost out of sight.

  “Do you have somewhere to go?” Kate asked, following her gaze.

  “It is nowhere I have to go,” Adelphia said curtly. “I am free to do nothing.”

  “Then how about I buy you a cup of coffee? Alex told me that you like coffee.”

  “It is my own café I can buy. I earn living. I no need charity.”

  “I was just being friendly. Friends do that, you know. Like when Oliver helped you in the park when that man attacked you.”

  Adelphia looked at her suspiciously. “How is all this you know?”

  “Adelphia, you’re not the only one worried about Oliver. Alex is too. And I’m trying to help him while he’s out of town. Now, please come and have a cup of coffee with me. Please.”

  “Why you help Agent Fort?” she asked suspiciously.

  “Woman to woman? Because I care about him. Just like I know you care about Oliver.”

  At these words Adelphia looked once more in the direction of Stone, started to sniffle a little, got in the car and allowed Kate to buy her coffee at a nearby Starbucks.

  “So what is it that you do?” Adelphia said.

  “I work for the Department of Justice.”

  “So that is what you do? Make the justice?”

  “I’d like to think so. At least I try.”

  “In my country, for years—no, for decades—we have no justice. We have Soviets telling us what to do. Whether we can breathe air or not, they tell us. It is hell.”

  “I’m sure it was awful.”

  “Then I come to this country, get job, have good life.”

  Kate hesitated but then couldn’t help herself. “So how’d you end up in Lafayette Park?”

  At first Adelphia got an obstinate look on her face, but that dissolved quickly. Her voice trembling, she said, “No one ask me that before. Just you now. All these years and just you now ask me this.”

  “I realize you don’t know me very well, and you don’t have to answer.”

  “It is good thing. I no want to talk about it. I no want to.”

  They both sipped their coffees for a bit longer. Finally, Adelphia said, “You right. I worry sick about Oliver. He a troubled man. I know this.”

  “And how do you know?”

  Adelphia reached in her sleeve and drew out a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. “I watch the TV the other night. I never watch the TV. I never read the newspapers. Do you know why I never do these things?” Kate shook her head. “Because they are lies. Filled with lies they are.”

  “But you said you did see the TV.”

  “Yes, the news, it is on. And then I see it.”

  “What did you see?”

  Adelphia suddenly looked frightened, as though she had said far too much. “No, it is not thing I can say. It is not right for me to say. You are lawyer. You work for government. I no want to get Oliver in trouble.?

  “Adelphia, do you think Oliver did something wrong?”

  “No! No, it is not this I think. I tell you, he is good man.”

  “Okay, then he has nothing to worry about from the government. Or me.”

  Still, Adelphia didn’t say anything.

  “Adelphia, if you’re really concerned about Oliver, let me help. You can’t follow him everywhere to make sure he’s okay.”

  Finally, Adelphia sighed and patted Kate’s hand. “It is right what you say. I will tell.” Marshaling herself, she said, “On TV I see that there is body of a man found on that island in river.”

  “Roosevelt Island?” Kate said quickly.

  “That is one.”

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