The assassination of the speaker of the House has rocked the nation. And the Camel Club has found a chilling connection with another death: that of the director of the Library of Congress’s Rare Books and Special Collections Division.
The club’s unofficial leader, a man who calls himself Oliver Stone, discovers that someone is selling America to its enemies one secret at a time. Then Annabelle Conroy, the greatest con artist of her generation, comes to town and joins forces with the Camel Club for her own reasons. And Stone will need all the help she can give, because the two murders are hurtling the Camel Club into a world of espionage that is bringing America to its knees.
* * * * *
[Watch David discussing writing and The Collectors at the Library of Congress as part of the Books & Beyond series sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book.]
The next morning Seagraves drove to his ofﬁce in northern Virginia. Sitting at his desk in a space that was small and cluttered, and looked exactly the same as other work spaces up and down the corridor, he mentally assembled the critical pieces of his task. Seagraves ﬁnally concluded that he would do the deed himself, unwilling to trust it to a third party. He’d killed before, many times in fact; the only difference now was he wouldn’t be doing it for his government. This one was all for him.
He spent the next two days in careful, decisive preparation efﬁciently conducted around his day job. The three imperatives of his mission were embedded in every action he performed: (1) keep it simple; (2) provide for every contingency; and (3) never panic no matter how much your plan goes awry, which it occasionally did. However, if there were a fourth rule, it would have to be: exploit the fact that most people are fools when it comes to things that actually matter, like their own survival. He had never suffered from that shortcoming.
Roger Seagraves was forty-two, single and childless. A wife and brats would certainly have complicated his unorthodox lifestyle. In his previous career with the federal government he’d adopted false identities and traveled across the world. Fortunately, changing identities was stunningly easy to do in the computer age. A few clicks of the Dell, a server somewhere in India hummed, and from one’s fancy laser printer out popped a new you with all the ofﬁcial bells, whistles and available credit.
Seagraves could actually buy all that he needed on an Internet site that required a carefully guarded password. It was akin to a Macy’s department store for criminals, sometimes dubbed by its felonious clientele as “EvilBay.” There one could purchase everything from ﬁrst-rate ID packs and stolen credit card numbers to the services of professional hit men, or sterilized weapons if you were inclined to commit the murder yourself. He usually obtained the necessary materials from a dealer who had a 99 percent approval rating from his customers and a money-back guarantee. Even killers liked to go with quality.
Roger Seagraves was tall, well built and handsome with thick blond wavy hair; on the surface he seemed carefree in his ways and possessed an infectious grin. Virtually every woman in his vicinity copped a second look, as did some envious men. He often used this to his advantage. When you had to kill or deceive, you used whatever tools you had as effectively as possible. His government had taught him that too. Though he still technically labored for the United States, he also worked for himself. His “ofﬁcial” pension plan fell far short of giving him the quality retirement he felt he deserved after so many years of risking his life for the red, white and blue. For him, though, it had been mostly red.
On the third afternoon after his enlightening visit to the Capitol Seagraves subtly modiﬁed his features and put on several layers of clothing. When it grew dark, he drove a van up into the expensive fringes of northwest D.C. where the embassies and private mansions all had paranoid guards patrolling their compounds.
He parked in a small courtyard behind a building across the street from a very exclusive club housed in an imposing brick Georgian that catered to wealthy and politically obsessed persons, of whom Washington had more than any city on earth. These folks loved to gather over passable food and average wine and talk polls, policies and patronage to their hearts’ content.
Seagraves wore a blue jumper suit with “Service” stenciled on the back. The key he’d made earlier ﬁt the simple lock of the vacant building that was awaiting extensive renovation. His toolbox in hand, he took the steps two at a time until he reached the top ﬂoor and entered a room facing the street. He ﬂashed a penlight around the empty space, noting the single window. He’d left it unlocked and well oiled on an earlier visit.
He opened his toolbox and quickly assembled his sniper riﬂe. Next he attached the suppressor can to the muzzle, chambered a single round—he was nothing if not conﬁdent—crept forward and drew up the window a bare two inches, just enough to allow the can to ﬁt in the opening. He checked his watch and looked up and down the street from his lofty perch without much worry of being spotted, since the building he was in was completely dark. In addition, his riﬂe had no optics signature and sported Camoﬂex technology, meaning it changed color to match its background.
Oh, what the human race had learned from the humble moth.
When the limo and lead security car pulled up to the club, he drew his bead on the head of one of the men who got out of the stretch, but he didn’t ﬁre. It wasn’t time yet. The club member walked inside followed by his security men sporting ear fobs and thick necks sticking out of starched collars. He watched the stretch and the security car pull off.
Seagraves checked his watch again: two hours to go. He continued to scan the street below as town cars and cabs dropped off serious-faced women outﬁtted not in carats of De Beers and yards of Versace, but in smart off-the-rack business suits and tasteful costume jewelry, with their social and political antennae set on high. The serious-faced men accompanying them were hunkered down in pinstripes, bland ties and what seemed to be bad attitudes.
It won’t get any better, gents, trust me.
One hundred and twenty minutes dragged by, and his gaze had never once left the club’s brick façade. Through the large front windows he could see the efﬁcient swirl of folks who cradled their drinks and murmured in low, conspiratorial tones.
Okay, it was time for business.
He gave the street another quick scan. Not a soul was looking his way. Over his career he’d found they never were. Seagraves waited patiently until the target walked through his crosshairs for the last time, then his gloved ﬁnger edged to the trigger. He didn’t particularly like ﬁring through a windowpane, though it wouldn’t interfere with the ﬂight of the ordnance he was using.
Thwap! This was followed instantly by a tinkle of glass and the heavy thud of a pudgy dead man hitting a highly polished oak ﬂoor. The Honorable Robert Bradley had felt no pain at all with the impact. The bullet had killed his brain before it could tell his mouth to start screaming. Not a bad way to go, actually.
Seagraves calmly laid down the riﬂe and peeled off his jumpsuit, exposing the D.C. police uniform underneath. He put on a matching hat he’d brought with him and marched down the stairs to the rear door. When he exited the building, he could hear the screams from across the street. Only nineteen seconds had passed since the shot; he knew because he’d counted the ticks off in his head. He now moved rapidly down the street as he continued to time the action in his head. The next moment he heard the powerful whine of the car engine as the carefully choreographed scene was played out. Now he began to run all out, pulling his pistol as he did so. He had ﬁve seconds to get there. He turned the corner in time to almost be hit by the sedan as it raced by him. At the last instant he leaped to the side, rolled and came up in the middle of the road.
People across the street shouted at him, pointing at the car. He turned, gripped his gun with both hands and ﬁred at the sedan. The blanks in his gun sounded sweet, just like the real thing. He placed ﬁve shots and then sprinted hard down the asphalt for half a block and slid into what appeared to be an unmarked police cruiser parked there; it raced after the fast-disappearing sedan, its siren blaring and grille lights ﬂashing.
The car it was “chasing” turned left at the next intersection, then right, and headed down an alley, stopping in the middle. The driver in the car jumped out, ran to the lime-green VW Beetle parked in front of his in the alley and drove off.
Once out of sight of the club, the other car’s grille lights and siren stopped as it peeled away from the hunt and headed in the opposite direction. The man next to Seagraves never once looked at him as he climbed into the backseat and stripped off the police uniform. Underneath the cop clothes he wore a tight-ﬁtting one-piece jogging outﬁt; black sneakers were already on his feet. In the ﬂoorboard of the car was a muzzled six-month-old black Lab. The car whipped down a side street and turned left at the next corner, stopping beside a park deserted at this late hour. The back door opened, Seagraves climbed out and the car sped off.
Seagraves held the leash tightly as he and his “pet” commenced their “nightly” jog. When they turned right at the next corner, four police cruisers ﬂew past the pair. Not one face in the cop convoy even glanced at him.
A minute later, in another part of the city, a ﬁreball raced into the sky. It was the rented and fortunately empty town house of the dead man. Initially, it would be blamed on a gas leak that had ignited. Yet combined with the murder of Bob Bradley, the federal authorities would seek out other explanations, though they wouldn’t come easily.
After running for three blocks Seagraves abandoned his pet, a waiting car was climbed into and he was back at his home less than an hour later. Meanwhile, the United States government would have to ﬁnd another Speaker of the House to replace the recently deceased Robert “Bob” Bradley. That shouldn’t be too hard, Seagraves mused as he drove to work the next day after reading of Bradley’s murder in the morning newspaper. After all, the damn town is full of bloody politicians. Bloody politicians? That’s an apt description. He pulled his car to the security gate, displayed his ID badge and was waved through by the armed guard there who knew him well.
He strode through the front door of the sprawling building in Langley, Virginia, passed through additional security gauntlets and then headed to his eight-by-ten-foot cluttered cookie-cutter ofﬁce. He was currently a midlevel bureaucrat whose main work consisted of being a liaison between his agency and the incompetent and brainless on Capitol Hill who’d somehow been voted into ofﬁce. It was not nearly as taxing as his old job here, and represented a bone thrown his way for meritorious service. Now, unlike decades ago, the CIA let its “special” employees come in from the cold once they’d reached the age where reﬂexes slowed a bit and enthusiasm for the work diminished.
As Seagraves looked over some tedious paperwork, he realized how much he’d missed the killing. He supposed people who had once murdered for a living never really got over that bloodlust. At least last night had given him a bit of the old glory back.
That was one problem out of the way, but another one would probably soon take its place. Yet Roger Seagraves was a creative troubleshooter. It was just his nature.