Divine justice, p.1
Divine Justice, p.1Part #4 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
To the memory of my father
THE CHESAPEAKE BAY is America’s largest estuary. Nearly two hundred miles long, its watershed covers an area of sixty-five thousand utopian square miles with more than a hundred and fifty rivers and streams barreling into it. It’s also the home of myriad bird and aquatic life, and a haven for legions of recreational boaters. The bay is indeed a creation of remarkable beauty, except when you happen to be swimming in the middle of the damn thing during a thunderstorm in the veiled darkness of early morning.
Oliver Stone cracked the surface of the water and gulped in the thick salty air, a thirsty man in the center of a trillion-ton ocean. The long dive had caused him to go farther down than was particularly healthy. Yet when you throw yourself off a thirty-foot cliff into an angry ocean, you should be thankful just to have a heartbeat. As he treaded water he looked around to gauge his bearings. Nothing he saw was too appealing right now. With each streak of lightning sparking to earth, he eyed the three-story-high cliff he’d been standing on. He’d been in the bay less than a minute yet the chill was already drizzling into his bones despite the full-body wet suit he wore underneath his clothes. He stripped off his waterlogged pants, shirt and shoes and then kicked off swimming east. He didn’t have much time to get this done.
Twenty minutes later he cut toward shore, all four limbs cement. He used to be able to swim all day, but he wasn’t twenty anymore. Hell, he wasn’t even fifty anymore. Now he just wanted land; he was tired of impersonating a fish.
He pointed himself at a cleft in the rock and shot toward it. He slogged free of the breakers and jogged toward a large boulder where he snagged the cloth bag he’d previously hidden. Tugging off his wet suit, he toweled dry and changed into fresh clothes and a pair of tennis shoes. The sodden articles were pushed into the bag, tied to a rock and hurled into the storm-swept bay where they’d join his decades-old sniper rifle and long-range scope. He was officially retired from the killing profession. He hoped he would live to enjoy the experience. Right now it was barely even money on that score.
Stone carefully picked his way up the rocky path to a dirt trail. Ten minutes later he reached a fringe of woods where shallow-rooted pines leaned away from the punishing sea wind. A twenty-minute jog after that carried him to the batch of ramshackle buildings, most closer to falling down than not. The cloud-encrusted light was just beginning to topple the darkness as he slid through the window of the smallest hut. It was no more than a lean-to, really, though it did have such luxuries as a door and a floor. He checked his watch. He had ten minutes at most. Already dog-tired, he once more pulled off his clothes then slipped into the tiny shower with rusted piping that only delivered a thin stream of lukewarm water, like a fountain on its last dying spurt. Still, he scrubbed hard, wiping away the stink and briny clutch of the angry bay—wiping away evidence, actually. He was on auto now, his mind too numb to lead the way. That would change. The head games were about to start. He could already envision the boots coming for him.
Stone was listening for the knock on the door; it came as he was dressing.
“Hey man, you ready?” called the voice. It shot through the thin plywood door like a cat’s paw into a mouse hole.
In answer Stone smacked one hand hard against the ragged plank floor as he slipped on his shoes, shrugged into a frayed coat, tugged a John Deere cap low over his head and put on his thick glasses. He ran a hand over the bristly gray beard he’d grown over the past six months, then opened the door and nodded at the short, squat man facing him. The fellow had a beer keg frame and a lazy right eye along with teeth yellowed by too many Winstons and double-pop Maxwell House coffees. This was clearly not café latte land. The top of his head was covered by a Green Bay Packers knit cap. He wore faded farmer’s bibs, dirty work boots and a threadbare, grease-stained coat along with an easy smile.
“Cold one this morning,” the man said, rubbing his chunky nose and slipping a lit cigarette from between his lips.
Tell me about it, Stone thought.
“But it’s supposed to warm up.” He drank from an official NASCAR tankard of java, letting some dribble down his chin when he pulled it back.
Stone nodded as his bearded face drooped and his normally attentive eyes grew vacant behind the smudged lenses. As he walked behind the other man Stone’s left leg bent outward with a chicken-wing limp that stooped him into being several inches shorter.
They were loading an old banged-up, bald-tired Ford F-150 with firewood when the police car and black sedans slid into the driveway, propelling pebbly gravel in all directions like fired BBs. The trim, muscled men who climbed out of the rides wore blue slickers with “FBI” stenciled on the back in gold lettering and pistols with fourteen-round clips in their belt holsters. Three of them walked up to Stone and his buddy, while a chubby uniformed sheriff with polished black boots and a Stetson hustled to catch up.
“What’s the deal, Virgil?” Green Bay asked the uniform. “Some sonofabitch break outta prison again? I’m telling you, you boys oughta start shooting to kill again and screw the pissant liberals.”
Virgil shook his head, worry lines rising on his forehead. “No prison. Man’s dead, Leroy.”
One of the FBI slickers snapped, “Let me see some ID.”
Another said, “Where were you and your friend an hour ago?”
Leroy looked from one Fibbie to the next. Then he stared over at the uniform. “Virgil, what the hell’s going on?”
“Like I said, a man’s dead. Important man. His name’s—”
With a slash of his hand, a slicker cut him off. “ID. Now!”
Leroy quickly slid a thin wallet out of his bib’s pocket and handed over his license. While one of the agents punched the number into a handheld computer he’d slipped from his windbreaker, another agent held out his hand to Stone.
Stone didn’t move. He just stared back with a vacuous expression, his lips gumming and his bum leg doing an exaggerated deep knee bend. He looked confused, which was all part of the act.
“He ain’t got no license,” Leroy said. “He ain’t got nothing of nothing. Hell, can’t even talk, just grunts.”
The FBI agents closed around Stone. “He work for you?”
“Yessir. Four months now. Good worker, strong back. Don’t ask for much money—room and board is all, really. But he got a bad leg and not too much upstairs. He’s mostly what you call unemployable.”
The agents looked down at the protruding angle of Stone’s leg then back up at his bespectacled face and bushy beard.
One of them asked, “What’s your name?”
Stone grunted and made several jerky motions with his hand, like he was showing off a bastardized martial art for the federal men.
“Sign language, least I think it is, or some such,” Leroy volunteered wearily. “Don’t know sign language myself so’s I don’t know his real name. Just call him ‘Hey man.’ Then I show him what needs doing. That seems to work. It ain’t like we’re doing heart surgery up here, just throwing shit in a truck mostly.”
A slicker said, “Tell him to lift up his pants leg on his bum wheel.”
“Just tell him!”
Leroy motioned to Stone to do so by drawing up his own pants leg.
Stone bent down and, with improvised difficulty, mimicked Leroy’s action.
The men all stared down at the ugly scar marching across the kneecap.
“Damn!” said Leroy. “No wonder he can’t walk good.”
The same FBI slicker motioned with his hand for Stone to roll his pants leg back down. “Okay, fine.”
Stone never thought he’d be thankful for the old bayonet wound a North Vietnamese soldier had given him. It looked a lot worse than it actually was because the surgeon had had to fix Stone up on the floor of the jungle in the middle of an artillery barrage. Understandably the doctor’s hands had not been at their steadiest.
Sheriff Virgil said, “Leroy and me grew up here together. He was the center and I was the quarterback on the high school football team that won the county championship forty years ago. He’s not riding around killing anybody. And that feller there, easy to see he’s not the sharpshooting type.”
The FBI agent tossed back Leroy’s license and looked at his fellow feds. “Clean,” he muttered in a disappointed tone.
“Where you headed?” another slicker said as he glanced at the half-loaded truck.
“Same place I’m always headed this time of the morning this time of the year. We take us some wood down to folks who ain’t got time to chop their own, and sell it before the cold weather sets in. Then we get down to the marina and work on the boat. Maybe take it out if the seas clear up.”
“You got a boat?” one agent said sharply.
Leroy looked over at Virgil with a comical expression. “Yeah, got me a big-ass yacht.” He pointed behind him. “We like to take us a ride in that there Chesapeake Bay and maybe catch us a few crabs. I hear tell they like that shit round these parts.”
“Cut the crap, Leroy, before you get yourself in trouble,” Virgil said quickly. “This is serious.”
“I believe it is,” Leroy shot back. “But if a man’s dead, you best not waste any more time jawing with us. ’Cause we ain’t know nuthin’ ’bout nuthin’.”
“You see anybody pass this way this morning?”
“Not one car till you folks come tearing up. And we both been up before full light.”
Stone limped over to the truck and started throwing wood in the cargo bed.
The agents looked at each other. One of them mumbled, “Let’s roll.”
A few seconds later they were gone.
Leroy walked over to the truck and started tossing wood in. “Wonder what man be dead?” he said, really to himself. “Important man, they say. Lot of important men in this world. But they die just like the rest of us. God’s way of making life fair.”
Stone let out a long, loud grunt.
Leroy looked over at him and grinned. “Hey man, now that’s the smartest thing I heard all damn morning.”
When the day’s work was over, Stone pantomimed to Leroy that he was heading on. Leroy seemed to take it well. “Surprised you lasted long as you did. Good luck.” He peeled off a few faded twenties and handed them over. Stone took the money, patted the man’s back and limped off.
After packing his duffel, Stone set out on foot and hitchhiked to D.C. in the back of a truck, the driver unwilling to let the scruffy Stone ride with him in the warmth of the truck’s cab. Stone didn’t mind. It would give him time to think. And he had a lot to think about. He had just killed two of the most prominent men in the country on the same day, literally hours apart, using the rifle he’d earlier chucked into the ocean before taking the dive off the cliffs.
The truck dropped him off near the Foggy Bottom area of the capital and Stone set out for his old home at Mt. Zion Cemetery.
He had a letter to deliver.
And something to pick up.
And then it would be time to hit the road.
His alter ego John Carr was finally dead.
And the odds were awfully good that Oliver Stone might be right behind him.
THE COTTAGE WAS DARK, the cemetery darker still. The only thing visible was the mist of Stone’s exhaled breath as it mingled with cool air. His gaze penetrated to every square inch of the cemetery because he could not afford any screwups now. It was stupid coming here, but loyalty was not a choice he felt, it was a duty. And it was who he was. At least they couldn’t take that away from him.
He’d waited nearby for about a half hour to see if anything looked strange. His place had been watched for a couple months after he’d abandoned it. He knew this because he’d been watching the watchers. However, after four months of him not being around, they’d given up their sentinel and moved on. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t come back. And after the events of this morning, they probably would. All cops would you tell you that every violently ended life was worth the same level of investigation. Yet the reality was, the more important the victim the more diligent the hunt. And based on that maxim they would be bringing an army on this one.
Finally satisfied, he crawled underneath the fence at the back of the cemetery and crept to a large headstone. He yanked it over, revealing underneath the small compartment scooped out of the dirt. He took the box hidden there and put it in his duffel bag, then set the stone back in place. He patted the grave marker affectionately. The name of the deceased who lay here had long since been worn away by time. But Stone had researched the people who’d been buried at Mt. Zion and knew that this was the final resting place of one Samuel Washington, a freed slave who’d given his life to help others like him to freedom. He felt a certain kinship with the fellow because in a way Stone knew just what it was like to not be free.
He eyed the cottage in a dusk rushing headfirst to nightfall. He knew Annabelle Conroy had been staying there. Her rental was parked at the front gate. And he’d been inside the cottage when she’d been absent from it a couple months ago. The place looked far better than when he’d lived there. Yet he knew he could never reside at Mt. Zion again unless it was in a supine position approximately six feet underground. With the two early morning pulls of the trigger he’d become the most wanted man in America.
He wondered where she was tonight. Hopefully, out enjoying life, although since the news of the two murders was everywhere, he knew that his friends would easily deduce what had happened. He hoped they didn’t think less of him. That actually was the real reason he was here tonight.
He didn’t want to leave his friends hanging out there for him. The feds weren’t incompetent. They would be coming this way eventually. Stone wished with all his heart he could do more for the Camel Club, after all they had done for him. He had thought of simply turning himself in. But there was such a core of survivor mentality built into his psyche that his essentially walking to his own execution was not an option. He could not let them win that way. They would have to work a little harder.
The letter he held was carefully worded. It was not a confession because that would put his friends in an even greater dilemma. Granted, Stone was caught in a classic catch-22, but he owed them something. He should have known that with the life he’d led there was only one possible conclusion.
He slipped the letter from his pocket and rolled it around the hilt of a knife he pulled from another pocket, securing it with string. He took aim from the darkness of the side yard and let fly. The knife stuck into the porch column.
He had one more place to visit.
A few moments later he was crawling back under the fence. He walked to the Foggy Bottom Metro station and climbed on the train. Later, a thirty-minute walk brought him to yet another cemetery.
Why was it he was more comfortable with the dead than the living? The answer was relatively simple. The dead conveniently never asked questions.
Even in the darkness he quickly found the grave he was looking for. He knelt down, brushed some leaves away and gazed at the tombstone.
Here lay Milton Farb, the other member of the Camel Club, and the only deceased one. Yet even dead, Milton would forever be part of that informal band of conspiracy theorists who’d insisted on only one thing: the truth.
Too bad their leader hadn’t honored that principle.
The only reason his beloved friend was dead was because of Stone.
Because of him, the brilliant if quirky Milton was resting here for all time now, a large-caliber round having ended his life underneath the United States Capitol. It nearly equaled the grief Stone felt for the death of his poor wife decades ago.
Stone’s eyes moistened as he remembered that final, awful night at the Capitol Visitor Center. How Milton had looked at him after the bullet struck; those wide, pleading, innocent eyes. The memory of his friend’s last seconds of life would remain with Stone until his dying day. And there had been nothing Stone could do, except avenge his friend. And he had. He’d killed many heavily armed, expertly trained men in close confines that night, and he hardly remembered doing any of it, so overshadowed was it all by that one stunningly improbable death. Yet it hadn’t come close to making up for the loss. That was what the killings this morning had been about, at least partly. And neither of them had made up for losing Milton either. Or his wife. Or his daughter.
He very carefully cut out a chunk of grass and dirt on top of his friend’s grave, laid the box in it, and put the grass back on top, pushing it down firmly with a shove from his foot. He removed all evidence that the ground had been disturbed and then stood very erect and saluted his dead friend.
A few moments later Stone slowly walked back to the Metro and rode it to Union Station, where he bought a train ticket south with most of his remaining cash. There were a few police and plainclothes officers around and Stone duly noted the location of each one. No doubt the heavy artillery was at the three local airports doing their best to nab the killer of a well-known U.S. senator and the nation’s intelligence chief. The lowly American train system obviously didn’t warrant such a level of scrutiny, as though assassins wouldn’t deign to ride the decrepit rails.
Thirty minutes later he climbed on the Amtrak Crescent, destination New Orleans; it was a spur-of-the-moment decision as he had looked up at the marquee. The train was a few hours late leaving, otherwise he would’ve not been able to take it. Not a naturally superstitious man, he had considered that an omen. He jammed himself into a small bathroom, trimmed off the beard and removed his glasses before going to his seat.
Divine Justice by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on34 votes