The Camel Club by David Baldacci



  THE BODY OF PATRICK JOHNSON was discovered early the next morning by a group of fifth graders and their teachers from a Maryland elementary school, who wanted to learn more about Teddy Roosevelt. Unfortunately, they learned far more than they’d bargained for.

  Later that morning Alex Ford was driving his creaky government Crown Vic into work and thinking about what he’d be doing that day. If nothing else, duty at the Washington Field Office provided a lot of variety. The head of WFO, the special agent in charge, or SAIC, believed that agents with broad experience in all areas of concern to the Service were better agents because of it. Alex generally agreed with this approach. Already this week he’d performed surveillance on a couple of ongoing cases, pulled a few hours of prisoner transport, stood post for several visiting foreign dignitaries and been called in once as part of the Gate Caller Squad maintained 24/7 at the WFO’s duty desk.

  The Gate Caller Squad, part of the Secret Service’s Protective Intelligence Squad, was summoned whenever someone walked up to the White House, knocked on the gate and wanted to see the president without an appointment, which happened more frequently than most people imagined. There was one guy who showed up every six months and informed the guards that this was “his” house and they were all trespassing. There was also increased activity like this when the moon was full, the Service had discovered. Such bizarre behavior would win the gate caller a visit from the Secret Service, some shrink time and possibly a trip to jail or St. Elizabeth’s, depending on how deranged the agents found the person.

  Alex parked his car, walked into the WFO, nodded to a broad-hipped female guard in the lobby, swiped his security card in the slot in the elevator and rode up to the fourth floor, where the Metro Area Task Force was located. For part of his work, Alex was assigned to the task force, as were many of the more veteran agents at WFO. The task force worked closely with Virginia and Maryland state police and other federal law enforcement on myriad financial felony cases. That was the good news. The bad news was that criminals were so active the task force had more work than it could reasonably handle.

  The Service had three floors in the building, and he headed to his wall-less work cubby in a large open area of the fourth floor. There was an e-mail from Jerry Sykes, his ATSAIC, or assistant to the special agent in charge, telling him to come up to the sixth floor as soon as he got in.

  Okay, that was a little out of the ordinary, he thought. Had he violated some civil rights he was unaware of when arresting the two ATM goofballs last night?

  Alex rode the elevator to the sixth floor, got off and walked down the hallway, nodding to people he knew along the way. He passed the duty board that hung on one wall in the corridor. It had magnetic pictures of all the agents at WFO arranged in clusters according to their current assignments. It was a good, if not exactly high-tech way of keeping abreast of people’s whereabouts. There was also an electronic backup duty roster, because some pranksters would switch the pictures of agents on this board to other assignments. So an agent tasked to Criminal could suddenly find himself, at least according to the board, being in the desk-bound insomniac land of the Recruitment Division.

  A few of the pictures were hung upside down; that meant that an agent was leaving the WFO for an assignment elsewhere. There were also red or blue dots on many of the pictures. This didn’t designate whether an agent was a Republican or Democrat, though some agents tried to sell that line to their friends and families who visited here; it designated whether the agent lived in Virginia or Maryland.

  Sykes rose from his desk when Alex appeared in the doorway.

  “Have a seat, Alex,” Sykes said, motioning to a chair.

  Alex sat and unbuttoned his suit jacket. “So am I in trouble, or is this just a fun date?” Alex smiled and, thankfully, Sykes grinned in return.

  “Heard about your heroics last night. We love agents who work unpaid overtime like that. Feel free to do it more often.”

  “Well, I wouldn’t turn down a nice bump in salary as a thank-you.”

  “In your dreams. Got a brand-new toy for you, something really hot.” He tapped a file lying on his desk. “This came on a slingshot from HQ to the SAIC here and then on to me.”

  Alex looked doubtful. “My load’s pretty full, Jerry. So long as people use money, other people will try and steal it or forge it.”

  “Forget that for now. How about making a run at a homicide?”

  “I don’t remember that being in our statutory mandate,” Alex said slowly.

  “Check your badge and your paycheck. It says Homeland Security now and not Treasury, so we have lots of new goodies in our bag to hand out.” Sykes glanced at the file. “A man named Patrick Johnson was found this morning on Roosevelt Island with a gunshot wound in his mouth, a revolver and bottle of Scotch next to him and a suicide note in his pocket.”

  “And he is?” Alex asked.

  “Employed at N-TAC,” Sykes replied, referring to the National Threat Assessment Center. “In other words, he’s one of us. That’s where you come in.”

  “But N-TAC’s not really part of the Service anymore, not after the intelligence shake-up. It’s with NIC now. Along with damn near everything else.”

  “Right but we still have our fingers in that pie, and Johnson at least technically was a joint employee of the Secret Service and NIC.”

  “Gunshot wound to the mouth, guy was probably drunk, revolver right there and a note. What’s to investigate?”

  “Suicide is what it looks like so far, and it’ll probably stick. Since it occurred on federal property and he was a federal employee, the FBI and Park Police are investigating. But we want somebody looking out for our interests too. If it was a suicide, we can handle the spin okay. But if it’s something else, well, then, we need to run that down. That’s where you come in.”

  “Why Roosevelt Island? Was Johnson a T.R. freak?”

  “That’s for you to find out. But don’t let the Bureau run you off.”

  “So why am I so lucky, Jerry?” Alex asked. “I mean isn’t this something for the Inspections Division to do?”

  “Yes. But I like you,” Sykes replied sarcastically. “And after all that time on protection, you really need as much real work as you can get.”

  “Funny, that’s what they said when I went into protection detail.”

  “Whoever said life was fair?”

  “No one who’s ever worn a badge,” Alex shot back.

  Sykes took on a serious expression. “You’ve seen the kids running around here. They’re good and they’re smart and they work their butts off, but their average experience is less than six years. You’ve got three times that. And speaking of baby agents, take Simpson with you. Rookie needs some breaking in.”

  “I’m curious,” Alex said. “Has Simpson got any strings upstairs?”

  “Why?” Sykes asked, although Alex thought he saw a smile flit across the man’s face.

  “Because the crap duty doesn’t seem to stick to that rook, that’s why.”

  “All I can say is Simpson’s the blessed relation of some big muckety-muck, and people tend to give ‘that rook’ a little slack. Do not feel so inclined. Here’s the file. The crime scene awaits you. Go get ’em.”

  As Alex rose, Sykes added, “The ninety-day report cycle is out on this one. We want daily detailed e-mails. And just so you know, they’ll be going directly to the SAIC and HQ.”


  “Like I said, Alex, this one is hot, treat it accordingly.”

  “I get the point, Jerry.”

  Alex returned to his desk, hung his jacket over his chair and opened the file. The first thing he encountered was a photo of Patrick Johnson looking very much alive. There was a hand-scribbled note that said Johnson was engaged to be married. The name and phone number of his fiancée were underneath this note. Alex assumed the woman had already been told of the man’s death. Johnson’s employment history looked pretty routine.<
br />
  Johnson had been with the N-TAC division of the National Intelligence Center, or NIC as the D.C. bureaucrats referred to it. In layman’s terms N-TAC put together information and strategies that cops could use to prevent everything from presidential assassinations to terrorist attacks to another Columbine. No Secret Service agent ever wanted to arrest an assassin. That meant the person you were guarding was dead.

  Alex remembered the huge battle that erupted when NIC made clear it wanted to absorb N-TAC into its intelligence empire. The Service had put up a vigorous counterattack, but in the end the president sided with Gray and NIC. However, because the Service had such a unique relationship with the president, it had been able to keep some connection to N-TAC, which was why Johnson had still technically been a joint employee of the Service, if in name only.

  Alex flipped through the rest of the file making mental notes. Finally, he stood and put on his jacket. He grabbed Simpson on the way out.

  Jackie Simpson was petite and dark-haired with an olive complexion and strong facial features dominated by a pair of startling blue eyes. Though a rookie at the Secret Service, she was no novice when it came to detective work, having spent nearly eight years as a police officer before joining the Service. When she spoke, no one could miss Simpson’s southern origins, in her case Alabama. She was dressed in a dark pantsuit and carried her sidearm on a belt clip riding near her left hand. Alex raised his eyebrows at the three-inch blocky heels she wore that still left her six inches shorter than he was. Then his gaze took in the wedge of red handkerchief poking out from the lady’s breast pocket. That was a little fashion statement that could get you killed. Alex also knew that her pistol was a custom piece that she had somehow gotten approval for. The Service liked uniformity when it came to its agents’ weapons, in the event they had to share ammo during a shoot-out.

  Like many people in a new job, she was full of bountiful enthusiasm as well as a startling lack of tact. When told of their new assignment, she responded, “Sweet.”

  “It wasn’t too sweet for Patrick Johnson,” Alex pointed out.

  “I didn’t mean it that way.”

  “Glad to hear it. Let’s go.” Alex walked off fast, leaving Simpson to scurry after him.



  DJAMILA, THE NANNY, CHANGED the diaper of the youngest boy, then turned her attention and considerable patience to feeding the one-year-old’s two brothers, aged two and three. After she’d finished this task, she played with them and then put the boys down for naps. She took her prayer rug out of the bag she brought with her to work and prepared to perform the salat, or prayer, by undertaking the ablution, or wudu, of the face, head, hands, arms up to the elbows, and the feet up to the ankles. Barefoot, Djamila faced the qibla, the direction of Mecca, and performed her prayer. It was a ritual she did five times each day beginning two hours before sunrise and ending with the last prayer at nightfall, when the twilight disappears. This was Djamila’s second prayer of the day, performed at noon, when the sun begins its decline.

  A few minutes after she’d finished, the boys’ mother, Lori Franklin, came downstairs and gazed admiringly at her well-kept house and then looked in at her sons sleeping very soundly in their respective berths in the large playroom. Franklin was barely thirty and very attractive, with a slim, yet curvy figure and well-toned muscles. She carried a small bag with her.

  “Going to the club, miss?” Djamila said.

  “Yes, Djamila; a set of tennis and then who knows.” She laughed lightly and drew a contented breath in the way that young, well-off people often did. She nodded at her sons. “I see you have the army down already.”

  “Yes, they are good boys. They play hard and sleep harder.”

  “They’re good boys with you. They aren’t so good with me, or the three nannies that came before you. Now I can actually have a life even if my husband works twenty hours a day. Men, Djamila, can’t live with them, can’t live without their W-2s.”

  “In my country a man he is head of the home,” Djamila noted as she put some toys away in a storage box. “A woman’s duty is to help her husband, keep the home in a good way, and to take care of the children. But you must marry a man you respect and whose wishes you can carry out with a good conscience. Your husband is not your master; only God is.”

  The American rolled her eyes. “Oh, men are kings here too, Djamila, at least in their own minds.” She laughed again. “And I gave George the family he wanted. And I give him his wishes when he really needs me to. It’s not such a bad bargain.”

  “So you won’t be back this afternoon,” Djamila said, frowning, as she hurriedly changed the subject. She had found her employer far too frank sometimes.

  “I’ll be here in time to make dinner. George is out of town again. You can eat during the day now, can’t you? Your fasting thing is over?”

  “Ramadan has passed, yes.”

  “I can never keep the dates straight.”

  “That is because they change. Ramadan is celebrated in the ninth month of the Islamic year. It was then that Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur’an from the angel Gabriel. But Muslims use the lunar calendar, so Ramadan comes earlier every year. My parents have celebrated Ramadan during winter and also during summer.”

  “Well, I wouldn’t want to celebrate Christmas in July. And I can’t imagine fasting like that. Djamila, it can’t be healthy for you.”

  “Actually, it is very healthy. And the women with child or nursing, they do not have to fast. The sawm, how you say, the fasting, it purges the body of bad thoughts. It is a cleansing, focusing time of life. I enjoy it very much, and I do not feel hungry at all. I eat the sahur before dawn, and after sunset I can eat the meal. It is not much of a sacrifice.”

  Djamila didn’t add that one American meal typically equaled three of hers. “Then at the end of Ramadan we celebrate. It is called ‘id al-fitr. We wear new clothes and exchange nice meals and visit with our friends and family. It is very much fun.”

  “Well, I still think it’s unhealthy.” Lori Franklin looked out the window. “It’s a beautiful day, so why don’t you drive the boys to the park and let them burn some energy up? That way the house will be a little quieter when I get home.”

  “I will take them, miss. I like to drive very much.”

  “Women aren’t allowed to drive in your country, are they?”

  Djamila hesitated and then said, “It is true that a woman cannot drive a car in Riyadh, but that is just a local law that has nothing to do with Islam.”

  Franklin looked at her with pity. “You don’t have to make excuses. There were lots of things you weren’t allowed to do over there. I know. I watch the news. Forced marriages and men having lots of wives. And you had to wear all those veils and things to cover up your body. And no education. You have no rights at all.”

  Djamila looked down for a moment so Franklin wouldn’t see the resentment reflected in her features. When she looked back up, she forced a smile and said in a positive tone, “What you say is not Islam that I know or that most Muslims know. Muslim women are not forced to marry. It is a contract between man and woman, and also between their families. If a divorce happens, God forbid, the woman she is entitled to much property from the man. This is her right by the law, you understand. And a man may have more than one wife, but only if he can support them all equally. Unless a man he is very rich, he only has one wife. And Islam says all should learn, men and women. I receive a good education.

  “As for dress, the Qur’an does not say wear this or that. It tells both men and women to be modest and righteous in their dress. God is loving. He knows if one believes in him, that person will make the right choices. Some women choose the veil and the abaya, what you call a body cloak. Others do not.”

  “Well, it’s very different here, Djamila. In America you can do anything you want to. Anything. That’s what makes this country so great.”

  “Yes, I have heard that. And yet sometimes is do
ing everything you want to do really that good?”

  Franklin smiled. “Absolutely, Djamila, especially if you don’t get caught.”

  “If you say so,” Djamila replied, but she didn’t believe any of it.

  “Women really run this country, Djamila, we just let men think they do.”

  “But women in America, they were not allowed to vote until the twentieth century, is that not so?”

  Franklin looked a little put off by this comment but then waved her hand dismissively. “That’s ancient history. Let’s just say we’ve made up for lost time. And the sooner the Muslim women figure that out, the better.”

  Djamila chose not to respond to this. She had been instructed not to address such issues with her employer, and yet sometimes she could not help herself.

  Franklin said, “I wish you’d reconsider and come live with us. This house is huge.”

  “Thank you. But for now I would like to keep our arrangement the same.”

  “Okay, whatever you want. I can’t afford to lose you.”

  She blew kisses at her sleeping family and left. As Franklin pulled out of the driveway, she glanced at the white van parked there. It had never occurred to her that it was somewhat odd that a woman who before coming to the United States had never driven a car would have shown up for a new job with her very own van and valid driver’s license. However, Franklin already had far too much to occupy her mind than to worry about such a trivial incongruity.

  She was in fact not going to play tennis or cards at her country club. In the small bag she carried was a negligee of breathtaking sheerness. She was already wearing the matching thong, and she had seen no reason to wear a bra for what she would be engaged in doing that afternoon. Her only problem would be convincing her very young lover not to tear them off her body.

  Djamila went to the window and watched her employer drive away in her little Mercedes sports car. On one afternoon when George Franklin took the day off to spend some time with his sons, Djamila followed Lori Franklin to the country club, where she got into the car of a man who was not her husband. Djamila followed them to a motel. She suspected that that was where the woman was heading now. After all, it was a bit difficult to play tennis without a tennis racket, and Franklin’s was still hanging on a peg in the garage.

  Men were clearly not kings in America, Djamila had concluded after only a few weeks in the States. They were fools. And their women were whores.

  After her charges’ nap she took them to the park, where they played to exhaustion. Djamila smiled as she watched the oldest boy take great pleasure in running circles around his brothers. Djamila wanted sons, lots of them. And then her smile faded. She doubted that she would ever
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