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Oliver Stone, the leader of the mysterious group that calls itself the Camel Club, is both feared and respected. Keeping a vigilant watch over our leaders in Washington D.C., the club has won over some allies, but it has also made some formidable enemies.
Annabelle Conroy, an honorary member of the Camel Club, is the greatest con artist of her generation. As an old, powerful mark hunts her down and the Camel Club tries to protect her, a new opponent suddenly arises.
One by one, men from Stone’s shadowy past turn up dead. Behind this slaughter stands one man: Harry Finn. To almost all who know him, he’s a loving father and husband who uses his skills to keep America safe. But Finn is also an unstoppable killer who now sets his lethal bull’s-eye on Oliver Stone. And with Harry Finn, Stone may well have met his match.
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More David Baldacci
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To Bernard Mason, steel true, blade straight
To the memory of Frank L. Jennings,
who meant so much to so many.
HARRY FINN ROSE as usual at six-thirty, made coffee, let the dog out into the fenced backyard for its morning constitutional, showered, shaved, woke the kids for school and oversaw that complicated operation for the next half hour as breakfasts were gulped, backpacks and shoes grabbed and arguments started and settled. His wife joined him, looking sleepy but nonetheless game for another day as a mother/chauffeur of three, including a precocious, independent-minded teenage boy.
Harry Finn was in his thirties with still boyish features and a pair of clear blue eyes that missed nothing. He'd married young and loved his wife and three children and even held sincere affection toward the family dog, a floppy-eared golden Labradoodle named George. Finn was an inch over six feet tall, with a long-limbed, wiry build ideally suited for speed and endurance. He was dressed in his usual faded jeans and shirttail-out clothing. And with round eyeglasses on and his intelligent, introspective expression, he looked like an accountant who enjoyed listening to Aerosmith after a day of crunching numbers. Although he was amazingly athletic, living by his wits was actually how he put bread on the table and iPods in his kids' ears, and he was very good at his work. Indeed, there were very few people who could do what Harry Finn could. And live.
He kissed his wife good-bye, hugged his kids, even the teenager, grabbed a duffel bag that he'd placed near the front door the night before, slid into his Toyota Prius and drove to National Airport on the Potomac River right outside of Washington, D.C. Its official name had been changed to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, but to the locals it would be forever simply National. Finn parked in one of the lots near the main terminal building, whose chief architectural feature was a series of connected domes copied from Thomas Jefferson's beloved Monticello. Bag in hand, he trudged across a skywalk into the sleek interior of the airport. Inside a restroom stall he opened his duffel, pulled on a heavy blue jacket with reflective stripes on the sleeves and a pair of blue workpants, slid a pair of orange noise mufflers around his neck and clipped the official-looking ID badge onto his jacket.
Employing a standard turnstile crash maneuver, he inserted himself into a herd of airport employees trekking through a "special" security line. Ironically, this line lacked even the cursory level of scrutiny forced on ordinary passengers. Once on the other side of the barrier he bought a cup of coffee and casually followed another airport worker through a secure door to the tarmac area. The man actually held the door open for him.
"What shift you working?" Finn asked the man, who told him.
"I'm just coming on," Finn said. "Which would be okay if I hadn't stayed up for the damn football game."
"Tell me about it," the man agreed.
Finn skittered down the metal steps and walked over to a 737 that was being prepped for a short-haul flight to Detroit with continuing service to Seattle. He passed several people along the way, including a fuel man, two baggage loaders and a mechanic inspecting the wheels of the Michigan-bound plane. No one confronted him because he looked and acted as though he had every right to be there. He made his way around the aircraft as he finished his coffee.
He next walked over to an Airbus A320 that would be on its way to Florida in about an hour. A baggage train was parked next to it. In one practiced motion, Finn pulled the small package from his jacket and slipped it into a side pocket of one of the bags stacked on the train. Then he knelt next to the plane's rear wheels and pretended to check out its tire tread. Again, people around him took no notice because Harry Finn exuded an air of a man perfectly at home in his surroundings. A minute later he was chatting up one of the ground crew, analyzing the prospects of the Washington Redskins and the deplorable state of employment for those toiling in the aviation industry.
"Everyone except the head honchos," Finn said. "Those bastards are printing money."
"You got that right," the other man said, and the two did a little knuckle smack to seal their solemn agreement on the disgusting greed of the rich and the ruthless who ruled the not-so-friendly skies.
Finn noted that the rear cargo hatch of the Detroit flight was now open. He waited until the handlers left with their train of luggage carts to fetch the bags and then climbed up on the lift parked there. He slipped into the cargo hold and inserted himself into his hiding place. He'd already picked it by studying interior cargo schematics of the 737 series, which were readily available if one knew where to look, and Finn clearly did. He'd also learned from open source research on the Internet that this plane was only going to be half full so his added weight in the rear would not be an issue.
While he lay curled in his hiding place the plane was loaded with fat bags and stressed passengers, and then it was wheels up to Detroit. Finn rode comfortably in the pressurized cargo hold, although it was a bit cooler here than in the main cabin and he was glad of the thick jacket he wore. About an hour after takeoff the plane landed and taxied to the gate. The cargo door was opened a few minutes later and the baggage offloaded. Finn patiently waited for a bit after the last bag was removed before he came out of concealment and peered through the open aft door. There were people around, but none looking his way. He climbed off the plane and dropped to the tarmac. A minute later he noticed a pair of security officers heading in his direction, sipping coffee and gabbing. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a lunch bag, took out a ham sandwich and began eating it as he walked away from the plane.
When the two guards passed him he nodded. "You regular coffee drinkers or is that half-caf caramel latte with a twist and four shots of who the hell knows what?" He grinned with his mouth full of ham sandwich. The two cops chuckled at his remark as he walked off.
He entered the terminal, went to a restroom, took off his jacket, ear mufflers and ID badge, made a quick phone call and marched to the airport security office.
"I put a bomb in a bag that was loaded onto an A320 at National Airport this morning," he explained to the officer on duty. "And I just rode in the cargo hold of a 737 from D.C. I could've downed the plane anytime I wanted."
The stunned officer was not wearing his weapon, so he leaped over the desk to tackle him. Finn neatly sidestepped this attack, and the fellow sprawled on the floor screaming for help. Other officers poured out of the back room and advanced on Finn, guns drawn. Yet Finn had pulled out his credentialing letter before the pistols had even appeared.
At that instant the door to the office flew open and three men strode in, their federal badges held high like the scepters of kings.
"Homeland Security," one of the men barked at the guards. He pointed at Harry Finn. "This man works for us. And somebody's in a shitload of trouble."
"GREAT JOB, HARRY, as usual," the head of the Homeland Security team said later, clapping Finn on the back. People had been screamed at and reports filed, e-mails fired off and cell phone batteries sucked dry as the clear lapses in airport security revealed by Harry Finn had been broadcast to all appropriate parties. Ordinarily, Finn would not have been tasked by the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS as it is commonly known, to execute an airport security breach because the FAA kept a stranglehold on that field. Finn suspected it was because the FAA boys were well aware of how many flaws there were in the system and didn't want anyone outside their domain to realize it as well. However, folks at DHS had managed to get authorization to do this one, and picked him to pull the trigger.
Finn wasn't an employee of DHS. The firm he worked for had been retained by the agency to test the security strength of both government and sensitive private facilities around the country. They did this using a hands-on, head-on approach: They tried to breach the places any way they could. DHS did a lot of this type of outsourcing. They had roughly a $40 billion annual budget and had to throw the money somewhere. Finn's firm got a little out of this business, but then even a little slice of billions was a nice revenue stream.
Normally Finn would have left the airport without revealing what he'd done and let the chips fall. However, DHS, obviously fed up with the state of airport security and no doubt wanting to make a robust statement, had instructed him to go in and confess so they could dramatically storm in after him and make a big splash. The media would be salivating and the airline industry reeling, and Homeland Security would look very efficient and heroic. Finn never got in the middle of that. He did not give interviews and his name was never in the newspapers. He just quietly did his job.
He would conduct a follow-up briefing for the airport security personnel he'd just run rings around, trying to be both encouraging and diplomatic in assessing their performance or lack thereof and recommending changes in the future. Sometimes the briefing sessions were the most dangerous things he did. People could get very ticked off after finding out they'd been both snookered and embarrassed. In the past Finn literally had had to fight his way out of a room.
The DHS man added, "We'll get these people in shape somehow, some way."
"I'm not sure it'll be in my lifetime, sir," Finn said.
"You can wing it back to D.C. with us," the man said. "We have an agency Falcon standing by."
"Thanks, but I have someone here I've been meaning to visit. I'm going back tomorrow."
"Right. Until next time."
Until next time, Finn thought.
The men left and Finn rented a car and drove into the Detroit suburbs, stopping at a strip mall. From his knapsack he pulled out a map and a file with a photo in it. The man in the picture was sixty-three years of age, bald with several distinguishing tattoos, and went by the name Dan Ross.
It wasn't his real name, but then neither was Harry Finn's.
ARTHRITIS. And on top of that the damn lupus. They were a lovely duo, perfectly synchronized to make his life a painfully throbbing hell. Every bone creaked, every solitary tendon shrieked. Each movement sent a mule kick right to his gut and yet he kept going, because if you stopped, you stopped for good. He downed a couple of potent pills he wasn't supposed to have and plunked a ball cap on his hairless, pale-skinned head, pulling the brim low over his eyes and then donning sunglasses. He never liked people seeing what he was looking at. And he never wanted people to get a good look at him.
He eased himself into his car and drove to the store. Along the way the meds kicked in and he felt okay, or at least he would for a couple hours.
"Thank you, Mr. Ross," the sales clerk said, glancing at the name on the credit card before handing it back along with his purchases. "You have a good day."
"I don't have good days anymore," Dan Ross replied. "I only have days left."
The clerk glanced at the hat covering the hairless head.
"Not cancer," Ross said, reading the man's thoughts. "Might be better if it was. Quicker, you know what I mean?"
The clerk, who was in his early twenties and of course still immortal, didn't look like he knew what Ross meant at all. He gave an awkward nod and turned to help another customer.
Ross left the store and debated what to do next. He had no money worries. Uncle Sam had taken care of him in his old, busted-up age. Pension was first-rate, health care coverage gold-plated; that was one thing the feds did well. One of a short list was his opinion. Now he just had time. That was his chief concern. What now? Home to do nothing? Or lunch at the local deli where he could fill his belly, watch ESPN and flirt with the pretty waitresses who wouldn't give him the time of day? Yet he could still dream, couldn't he? Dream of the days when the ladies gave him far more than simply time.
Not much of a life, he had to admit. He thought this as his gaze discreetly eased in all directions. Even to this day he could not overcome the impulse to check whether he was being followed. You got that way when people were always trying to kill you. God, he had loved it, though. Beat the hell out of the deli-or-home bullshit debate every miserable day of this screwed-up dilemma playing out as his "golden" years. Over three decades ago he'd been in a different country every month. Every month during the busy season anyway. Seen the world on a wing, a prayer and a weapon of choice, he'd always said. He allowed himself a nostalgia-fueled smile. That's all he had now, memories. And the damn lupus. I guess there is a God after all. Pretty damn shitty to find out now.
Unfortunately for Ross, while his observation skills were good, they were no longer infallible. Down the block in his rental car Harry Finn sat and studied the inimitable Mr. Ross. Where to, Danny? Home or the deli? Deli or home? What a long fall it's been for you.
During the times Finn had observed this internal debate, Dan Ross had picked the deli over home about three-quarters of the time. This ratio held true today as he turned and walked down the street and into the Edsel Deli, going strong since 1954, the sign over the door said, making it far more popular than the dismal car after which it was named.
Ross would be in there eating and watching every move of the cute waitresses for at least an hour. Then it was twenty minutes by car back to his house. After that he would sit out in his backyard, read the newspaper, and then it was time to go in, take a nap, fix a modest dinner, watch TV, play Solitaire by the small table near the front window with the lamp illuminating the cards, and then the man would call it a night. By nine o'clock the lights in the small bungalow would go out, and Dan Ross would fall asleep and wake up the next day to do it all over again. Finn methodically counted off in his head these ticks of the older man's threadbare life.
After Finn had tracked Ross to this town, he'd made several trips here to learn the man's routine. This surveillance had enabled him to concoct the perfect plan to complete his task.
About five minutes before Ross would appear from the Edsel, Finn got out of his car, strode across the street, glanced in the window of the deli, and located Ross at his usual table in the rear, studying the bill he'd just been handed. Finn walked unhurriedly down the street to where Ross' car was parked. In two minutes he was back in his rental. Three minutes after that Ross emerged from the restaurant, slowly edged down the street, climbed in his car and drove off.
Finn left in the opposite direction.
Ross went through his usual litany of triviality that evening, finishing it off with three fingers of Johnnie Walker Black and, ignoring all label warnings, combining it with a potent pop of meds for the pain. He barely made it to his bed before the paralysis set in. At first he assumed it was the drugs, and he actually welcomed the numbing feeling. Yet as he lay on the bed it occurred to him with slight panic that it might be the lupus moving to a higher, more aggressive stage. When he suddenly found it difficult to breathe he knew it was something else altogether. Heart attack? But where was the elephant on the chest, the shooting pain down the left arm? Stroke? He could still think, still talk. He said a few words and none of them constituted a mumble. His face didn't seem lopsided. He had felt no pain beforehand, other than his usual. That was the problem; he could feel nothing in his limbs now, nothing at all. His gaze ran down his arm until it reached his left hand. He tried to rub the fingers together but his mind's command apparently was not reaching the digits.
Yet earlier there had been something on his fingers. It had felt slick, like Vaseline. You could rub and rub and never get it to feel dry. He had washed his hands when he got home, and that seemed to do the trick. The fingers didn't feel slick anymore. He didn't know if it was due to the soap and water or to whatever it was having evaporated.
Then the truth hit him like a .50 caliber round. Or absorbed. As in absorbed into my body.
Where had his fingers become wet? He strained his mind to think. Not this morning. Not at the store, or the deli. After that? Perhaps. Getting in the car. The car handle! If he could have managed it, Ross would've sat up in a Eureka! moment. But he couldn't manage it. He could now barely breathe. All that emitted from his mouth was a sort of shortened wheeze. The door handle of his car had been slicked with something that was now killing him. He eyed the phone on the nightstand. Two feet away and it might as well have been in China for all the good it would do him now.
In the darkness the figure appeared beside his bed. The man wore no disguise; Ross could make out his features even in the weak light. He was young and normal-looking. Ross had seen thousands of faces just like that and had paid little attention to any of them. His job had not involved normal; it had encompassed extraordinary. He couldn't imagine how someone like this man had managed to kill him.
As Ross' breathing became more labored, the fellow pulled something from his pocket and held it up to him. It was a photo, but Ross couldn't make out who was in the picture. Realizing this, Harry Finn flicked on a small penlight and shone it on the photo. Ross' gaze ran up and down the image. Still recognition didn't come until Finn said the name.
"Now you know," Finn said quietly. "Now you know."
He put the photo away and stood silently looking down at Ross as the paralysis continued to wend its way through. He kept his gaze on the other man until the chest gave one last erratic heave and the pupils turned glassy.
Two minutes later Harry Finn was walking through the woods at the back of Ross' house. The next morning he was on a plane, this time in the main cabin. He landed, drove home, kissed his wife, played with his dog and picked the kids up from school. That night they all went out to dinner to celebrate his youngest child, eight-year-old Susie, being named to portray a talking tree in a school play.
Around midnight, Harry Finn ventured downstairs to the kitchen, where George the faithful Labradoodle rose from his soft bed and greeted him. As he sat at the kitchen table and stroked the dog, Finn mentally crossed Dan Ross off his list.
Now he focused on the next name: Carter Gray, the former chief of America's intelligence empire.
ANNABELLE CONROY stretched out her long legs and watched the landscape drift by outside the window of the Amtrak Acela train car. She almost never took the train anywhere; her ride was typically at 39,000 feet where she popped peanuts, sipped watered-down seven-dollar cocktails, and dreamt up the next con. Today she was on the train because her companion, Milton Farb, would not set foot on anything that had the capacity and intent to leave the ground.
"Flying is the safest way to travel, Milton," she'd informed him.
"Not if you're on a plane that's in a death spiral. Then your chances of dying are roughly one hundred percent. And I don't like those odds."
It was hard to argue with geniuses, Annabelle had discovered. Still, Milton, the man with the photographic memory and a budding talent for brilliantly lying to people, had done good work. They had left Boston after a successful job. The item was back where it needed to be and no one had thought to call the cops. In Annabelle's world of high-stakes cons that was equal to perfection.
Thirty minutes later, as Amtrak's only bullet train service wound its way down the East Coast and pulled into a station, Annabelle glanced out the window and involuntarily shuddered when the conductor announced they were arriving in Newark, New Jersey. Jersey was Jerry Bagger land, although thankfully the Acela train didn't stop at Atlantic City where the maniacal casino boss had his empire. If it did Annabelle wouldn't have been on it.
Yet she was smart enough to realize that Jerry Bagger had every motivation to leave Atlantic City and come looking for her wherever she might be. When you ripped a guy like that off for $40 million, assuming that Bagger would do his best to tear thousands of pieces of your flesh off one at a time was hardly irrational thinking.
She glanced over at Milton, who looked about eighteen with his boyish face and longish hair. In reality the man was pushing fifty. He was on his computer, doing something that neither Annabelle nor anyone else below the level of genius would be able to understand.
Bored, Annabelle rose, went to the café car and purchased a beer and a bag of chips. On the way back she spied a New York Times lying discarded on one of the café tables. She sat down on a stool, drank her beer and munched her chips as she idly turned the pages looking for that one bit of information that might spark her next adventure. Once she got back to Washington, D.C., she had some decisions to make, chiefly whether to stay put or flee the country. She knew what her answer should be. A no-name island in the South Pacific was the safest place for her right now, where she could just wait out the tsunami named Jerry. Bagger was in his mid-sixties and her long con against him had without a doubt considerably raised the man's blood pressure. With a little luck he'd soon croak from a heart attack and she would be scot-free. However, she couldn't count on that. With Jerry you just had to figure that all your luck would turn out to be bad.
It shouldn't have been a difficult decision and yet it was. She had grown close, or as close as someone like her could get, to an oddball collection of men who called themselves the Camel Club. She smiled to herself as she thought about the foursome, one of whom was named Caleb Shaw and worked at the Library of Congress. He reminded her remarkably of the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz. Then her smile faded. Oliver Stone, the head of this little band of miscreants, was something altogether more. He must've had one hell of a past, Annabelle thought—a history that might even surpass hers in the unusual and extraordinary department, and that was saying something. She didn't know if she could say good-bye to Oliver Stone. She doubted she would ever run across another one like him.
Her gaze flicked up at a young man passing by who did not attempt to hide his admiration for her tall, curvy figure, long blonde hair, and thirty-six-year-old face that, if it didn't actually hit the "wow" level, came awfully close. This was so despite a small, fishhook-shaped scar under her eye; a present from her father, Paddy Conroy, the best short con artist of his generation, and the world's worst father, at least in his only child's estimation.
"Hey," the young man said. With his lean physique, tousled hair and expensive clothes that were designed to appear cheap and grungy, he looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. She quickly sized him up as a privileged college kid with far more money than was healthy and the insufferably cocky attitude to match.
"Hey back at you," she said and returned to her newspaper.
"Where you headed to?" he asked, sitting down next to her.
"Not where you're headed."
"But you don't know where I'm going," he said in a playful tone.
"That's sort of the point, right?"
He either didn't get her point or didn't care. "I go to Harvard."
"Wow, I never would've guessed that."
"But I'm from Philly. The Main Line. My parents have an estate there."
"Wow again. It's nice to have parents who have estates," she said in a clearly uninterested tone.
"It's also nice to have parents who are out of the country half the time. I'm having a little party there tonight. It's going to be a wild ride. You interested?"
Annabelle could feel the guy's gaze running down her. Okay, here we go again. She knew she shouldn't, but with guys like this she just couldn't seem to help herself.
She closed the newspaper. "I don't know. When you say wild, how wild do you mean?"
"How wild do you want it to be?" She could see him forming the word "baby," but he apparently thought better of using it, at least so soon in the conversation.
"I hate being disappointed."
He touched her arm. "I don't think you'll be disappointed."
She smiled and patted his hand. "So what are we talking about here? Booze and sex?"
"A given." He squeezed her arm. "Hey, I'm up in first class, why don't you join me?"
"You have anything other than booze and sex going on?"
"You like to get into the details?"
"It's all in the details, uh . . ."
"Steve. Steve Brinkman." He gave a practiced little chuckle. "You know, one of those Brinkmans. My father's the vice chairman of one of the biggest banks in the country."
"FYI, Steve, if you've just got coke at this party, and I'm not talking the soft drink, that would definitely disappoint me."
"What are you looking for? I'm sure I can get it. I've got connections."
"Goofballs, Dollies, Hog, with artillery to do it right, and no lemonade, lemonade always pisses me off," she added, referring to crap-quality drugs.
"Wow, you know your stuff," Steve said, nervously looking around at the other people in the café car.
"You ever chased the dragon, Steve?" she asked.
"It's a funky way to inhale heroin. It'll give you the greatest pop in the world, if it doesn't kill you."
He removed his hand from her arm. "Doesn't sound very smart."
"How old are you?"
"I like my men a little younger than that. I find that when a guy reaches eighteen he's left his best ball-banging behind. So you gonna have any minors at this party?"
He rose. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
"Oh, I'm not picky. It can be guys or girls. I mean, when you're shit-faced on meth, who cares?"
"Okay, I'm leaving now," Steve said hurriedly.
- "Baldacci does an excellent job of setting the scene and creating complex characters. (A) gripping page turner."—Associated Press
- "The action is explosive. Readers will barely have time to catch their breath."—People
- "He's hit the jackpot again...Baldacci pushes the pace pedal to the floor and takes the turns on two wheels."—New York Daily News
- "Baldacci brings an insider's savvy to his tale."—New York Times Books Review
"The modern-day paladins of the Camel Club are back in their third exciting adventure...Gripping, chilling, and full of surprises, Baldacci's latest reveals the anarchy that lurks under the slick facade of corrupted governments."
—Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
"It's a sign of Baldacci's skills as a storyteller that he brings so many revenge-themed plots together into a single, riveting thriller. In STONE COLD, he ups the ante. Virtually every character, no matter which side of the power divide he occupies, plays both pursuer and pursued at some point in the novel."
—Richmond Times Dispatch
"Baldacci's intricately woven plotlines, well-developed characters, fast-paced action, and surprise ending will leave readers satisfied and wanting more. A sequel worthy of its predecessors; highly recommended for all fiction collections."
—Library Journal (starred review)
- On Sale
- Nov 6, 2007
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