The Camel Club
By David Baldacci
Warner Books ISBN: 0-446-57738-3
HE WAS RUNNING HARD, BULLETS embedding in things all around him. He couldn't see who was shooting, and he had no weapon to return fire. The woman next to him was his wife. The young girl next to her was their daughter. A bullet sliced through his wife's wrist, and he heard her scream. Then a second bullet found its target and his wife's eyes widened slightly. It was the split-second bulge of the pupils that signaled death before one's brain could even register it. As his wife fell, he raced to his little girl's side to shield her. His fingers reached for hers but missed. They always missed.
He awoke and sat straight up, the sweat trickling down his cheeks before finally creeping onto his long, bushy beard. He poured a bit of water from a bottle over his face, letting the cool drops push away the heat-filled pain of his recurrent nightmare.
As he got up from the bed, his leg brushed against the old box he kept there. He hesitated and then lifted the top off. Inside was a ragged photo album. One by one he looked at the few pictures of the woman who'd been his wife. Then he turned to the photos of his daughter; of the baby and toddler she'd been. He had no more pictures of her after that. He would have given his life to have seen her, even for a moment, as a young woman. Never a day went by that he didn't wonder what might have been.
He looked around the cottage's sparsely furnished interior. Looking back at him were dusty shelves crammed with books covering an array of subjects. Next to the large window that overlooked the darkened grounds was an old desk stacked with journals filled with his precise handwriting. A blackened stone fireplace provided much of his heat, and there was a small kitchen where he prepared his simple meals. A minuscule bathroom completed his modest living arrangements.
He checked his watch, took a pair of binoculars from the rickety wooden table next to his bed and grabbed a frayed cloth knapsack off his desk. He stuffed the binoculars and a few journals in the knapsack and headed outside.
The old grave markers loomed before him, the moonlight glancing off the weathered, mossy stone. As he stepped from the front porch to the grass, the brisk air helped carry away the burning sensation in his head from his nightmare, but not the one in his heart. Thankfully, he had somewhere to go tonight, yet with some time to spare. And when he had extra time, he invariably headed to one place.
He walked through the large wrought-iron gates where the scrollwork announced that this was Mt. Zion Cemetery, located in northwest Washington, D.C., and owned by the nearby Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. The church was the oldest black congregation in the city, having been organized in 1816 by folks who didn't enjoy practicing their faith at a segregated house of worship that had somehow missed the concept of equality in the Scriptures. The three-acre parcel had also been an important stop along the underground railroad, shepherding slaves from the South to freedom in the North during the Civil War.
The graveyard was bracketed on one side by the massive Dumbarton House, headquarters of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, and on the other side by a low-rise brick residential building. For decades the historic cemetery had suffered from neglect, with toppled tombstones and waist-high weeds. Then the church had enclosed the graveyard with the fence and built the small caretaker's cottage.
Nearby was the far larger and far better known Oak Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of many notable people. However, he preferred Mt. Zion and its place in history as a gateway to freedom.
He'd been engaged as the cemetery's caretaker some years ago, and he took his work very seriously, making sure the grounds and grave sites were kept in good order. The cottage that came with the job was his first real home in a long time. The church paid him in cash with no bothersome paperwork; he didn't make nearly enough to pay income taxes anyway. In fact, he made barely enough money to live. Yet it was still the best job he'd ever had.
He walked south on 27th Street, caught a Metro bus and was soon dropped a block or so from his "second home" of sorts. As he passed the small tent that at least technically belonged to him, he pulled the binoculars out of his knapsack and from the shadow of a tree used them to eye the building across the street. He had taken the government-issued binoculars with him after serving his country proudly before completely losing faith in its leaders. His real name he had not used in decades. He had been known for a long time now as Oliver Stone, a name he'd adopted in what could only be termed an act of cheeky defiance.
He related well to the irreverent film director's legendary work, which challenged the "official" perception of history, a history that often turned out to be more fiction than fact. Taking the man's name as his own seemed appropriate, since this Oliver Stone was also very interested in the "real" truth.
Through the binoculars he continued to study the comings and goings at the mansion that never ceased to fascinate him. Then Stone entered his small tent, and, using an old flashlight, he carefully noted down his observations in one of the journals he'd brought in his knapsack. He kept some of these at the caretaker's cottage and many more at hiding places he maintained elsewhere. He stored nothing at the tent because he knew it was regularly searched. In his wallet he always kept his official permit allowing him to have his tent here and the right to protest in front of the building across the street. He took that right very seriously.
Returning outside, he watched the guards who holstered semiautomatic pistols and held machine guns or occasionally spoke into walkie-talkies. They all knew him and were warily polite, as folks were with those who could suddenly turn on you. Stone always took great pains to show them respect. You were always deferential with people who carried machine guns. Oliver Stone, while not exactly in the mainstream, was hardly crazy.
He made eye contact with one of the guards, who called out, "Hey, Stone, I hear Humpty Dumpty was pushed, pass it on."
Some of the other men laughed at this remark, and even Stone's lips curled into a smile. "Duly noted," he answered back. He had watched this very same sentry gun down someone a few feet from where he was standing. To be fair, the other fellow had been shooting at him.
He hitched his frayed pants up tighter around his slender waist, smoothed back his long grayish white hair and stopped for a moment to retie the string that was trying and failing to hold his right shoe together. He was a tall and very lean man, and his shirt was too big and his trousers too short. And the shoes, well, the shoes were always problematic.
"It is new clothes that you need," a female voice said in the darkness.
He looked up to see the speaker leaning against a statue of Major General Comte de Rochambeau, an American Revolutionary War hero. Rochambeau's stiff finger was pointing at something, Stone had never known what. Then there was a Prussian, Baron Steuben, to the northwest, and the Pole, General Kosciuszko, guarding the northeast flank of the seven-acre park that Stone was standing in. These statues always brought a smile to his face. Oliver Stone so loved being around revolutionaries.
"It really is the new clothes that you need, Oliver," the woman said again as she scratched her deeply tanned face. "And the hair cut too, yes. Oliver, it is a new everything that is needed."
"I'm sure that I do," he replied quietly. "Yet it's all in one's priorities, I suppose, and fortunately, vanity has never been one of mine."
This woman called herself Adelphia. She had an accent that he'd never been able to exactly place, although it was definitely European, probably Slavic. She was particularly unsympathetic to her verbs, wedging them into very awkward places in her speech. She was tall and spare with black hair shot through with gray that she wore long. Adelphia also had deeply set, brooding eyes and a mouth that was usually cast into a snarl, though Stone had sometimes found her to be kindhearted in a grudging sort of way. It was difficult to gauge her age, but she was certainly younger than he. The six-foot-long, freestanding banner outside her tent proclaimed:
A FETUS IS A LIFE. IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE IT, YOU'RE GOING STRAIGHT TO HELL.
There was very little that was subtle about Adelphia. In life she only saw the rigid lines of black and white. To her, shades of gray were nonexistent, whereas this was a city that had seemingly invented the color. The small sign outside of Oliver Stone's tent read simply:
I WANT THE TRUTH
He had yet to find it after all these years. Indeed, was there ever a city created where the truth was more difficult to discover than the one he was standing in right now?
"I go to get the cafe, Oliver. You would like some? I have money."
"No thank you, Adelphia. I have to go somewhere."
She scowled. "Another meeting is where you go? What good does it give you? It is not young you are no more and you should no be walking in the dark. This is dangerous place."
He glanced at the armed men. "Actually, I think it's fairly secure here."
"Many men with guns you say is safe? I say you crazy," she responded testily.
"Perhaps you're right and thank you for your concern," he said politely. Adelphia would much rather argue and looked for any opening to pounce on. He'd long since learned never to allow the woman such an opportunity.
Adelphia stared at him angrily for another moment and then stalked off. Meanwhile, Stone glanced at a sign next to his that read:
HAVE A NICE DOOMSDAY
Stone had not seen the gentleman who erected that sign for a long time.
"Yes, we will, won't we?" he muttered, and then his attention was caught by the sudden activity across the street. Policemen and marked cruisers were assembling in groups. Stone could also see lawmen taking up positions at the various intersections. Across the street the imposing black steel gates that could withstand the push of an M-1 tank opened, and a black Suburban shot out, its red and blue grille lights blazing.
Knowing instantly what was happening, Stone hurried down the street toward the nearest intersection. As he watched through his binoculars, the world's most elaborate motorcade streamed out onto 17th Street. In the middle of this imposing column was the most unique limousine ever built.
It was a Cadillac DTS model loaded with the latest in navigation and communication technology, and it could carry six passengers very comfortably in rich blue leather with wood trim accents. The limo boasted automatic-sensor reclining seats and a foldaway storable desktop and was fully airtight with its own internal air supply in case the outside oxygen wasn't up to par. The presidential seal was embroidered on the center of the rear seat, and presidential seals were also affixed on the inside and outside of the rear doors. On the right front fender rode the U.S. flag. The presidential standard flew from a post on the left front fender, signaling that America's chief executive was indeed inside.
The exterior of the vehicle was constructed of antiballistic-steel panels, and the windows were phone-book-thick polycarbonate glass that no bullet could penetrate. It ran on four self-healing tires and sported double-zero license plates. The car's gas mileage was lousy, but its price tag of $10 million did include a ten-disc CD changer with surround sound. Unfortunately, for those looking for a bargain, there was no dealer discount. It was known affectionately as the Beast. The limo had only two known weaknesses: It could neither fly nor float.
A light came on inside the Beast, and Stone saw the man perusing some papers, papers of enormous importance, no doubt. Another gentleman sat beside him. Stone had to smile. The agents must be furious over the light. Even with thick armor and bulletproof glass you didn't make yourself such an easy target.
The limo slowed as it passed through the intersection, and Stone tensed a bit as he saw the man glance his way. For a brief moment the president of the United States, James H. Brennan, and conspiracy-minded citizen Oliver Stone made direct eye contact. The president grimaced and said something. The man next to him immediately turned the light out. Stone smiled again. Yes, I will always be here. Longer than both of you.
The man seated beside President Brennan was also well known to Stone. He was Carter Gray, the so-called intelligence czar, a recently created cabinet-level position that gave him ironfisted control of a $50-billion budget and 120,000 highly trained personnel in all fifteen American intelligence agencies. His empire included the spy satellite platform, the NSA's cryptologic expertise, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, and even the venerable CIA, an agency Gray had once headed. Apparently, the folks at Langley thought that Gray would show them preference and deference. He had done neither. Because Gray was also a former secretary of defense, it was assumed that he would show the Pentagon-which consumed eighty cents out of every intelligence dollar-loyalty. That assumption had also turned out to be completely erroneous. Gray obviously knew where all the bodies were buried and had used that to bend both agencies to his considerable will.
Stone did not believe that one man, one fallible human being, should have that much power, and certainly not someone like Carter Gray. Stone had known the man very well decades ago, though Gray certainly would not have recognized his old mate now. Years ago it would've been a different story, right, Mr. Gray?
The binoculars were suddenly ripped out of his hands, and Stone was staring at a uniformed guard toting a machine gun.
"You pull these out again to look at the man, Stone, they're gone; you got it? And if we didn't know you were okay, they'd be gone right now." The man thrust the vintage field glasses back into Stone's hands and marched off.
"Simply exercising my constitutional rights, Officer," Stone replied in a low voice that he knew the guard couldn't hear. He quickly put his binoculars away and stepped back into the shadows. Again, one should not argue with humorless men carrying automatic weapons. Stone let out a long breath. His life was a precarious balance every day.
He went back inside his tent, opened his knapsack and, using his flashlight, read over a series of stories he'd clipped from newspapers and magazines and pasted into his journals. They documented the doings of Carter Gray and President Brennan: "Intelligence Czar Strikes Again," claimed one headline; "Brennan and Gray Make Dynamic Duo," said another.
It had all come about very quickly. After several fits and starts Congress had dramatically reorganized the U.S. intelligence community and essentially put its complete faith in Carter Gray. As secretary of intelligence, Gray headed the National Intelligence Center, or NIC. The center's statutory mandate was to keep the country safe from attacks within or without its borders. Safe by any means necessary was perhaps the chief unwritten part of this mandate.
However, the beginning of Gray's tenure had hardly matched his impressive resume: a series of suicide bombers in metropolitan areas with enormous casualties, two assassinations of visiting foreign dignitaries and then a direct but fortunately unsuccessful attack on the White House. Despite many in Congress calling for his resignation and the dismantling of the secretary's authority, Gray had kept the support of his president. And if power slots in Washington were compared to natural disasters, the president was a hurricane and an earthquake all rolled into one.
Then slowly, the tide had begun to turn. A dozen planned terrorist attacks on American soil had been thwarted. And terrorists were being killed and captured at an increasingly high rate. Long unable to crack the inner rings of these organizations, the American intelligence community was finally starting to attack the enemy from within its own circles and damaging its ability to hit the United States and its allies. Gray had understandably received the lion's share of the credit for these outcomes.
Stone checked his watch. The meeting would be starting soon. However, it was a long walk, and his legs, his usual mode of getting around, were tired today. He left the tent and checked his wallet. There was no money in it.
That's when he spotted the pedestrian. Stone immediately headed after this gentleman as he raised his hand and a taxi pulled up to the curb. Stone increased his pace, reaching the man as he climbed into the cab. His eyes downcast, his hand out, Stone said, "Can you spare some change, sir? Just a few dollars." This was said in a practiced, deferential tone, allowing the other man to adopt a magnanimous posture if he so chose. Adopt one, Stone thought. For it's a long walk.
The man hesitated and then took the bait. He smiled and reached for his wallet. Stone's eyes widened as a crisp twenty-dollar bill was placed in his palm.
"God bless you," Stone said as he clutched the money tightly.
Excerpted from The Camel Club by David Baldacci
Excerpted by permission.
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