STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're broadcasting from Washington, D.C., the city where they send troops to war and decide on your tax rates. So there is a lot of drama to go along with all that soul-killing politics. One author has mined Washington's secrets for 17 best-selling crime novels. The nation's capital is the setting for our next story in our summer reading series, Crime in the City. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO: There are eyes everywhere. We're being watched, even in our car.
Unidentified Man: Turn right on Lee Highway.
SHAPIRO: We're following GPS directions to an unmarked office just outside of Washington, D.C. The man we're about to meet is behind dozens of high-level government conspiracies. They involve the CIA, the FBI, even the president.
We pull into an anonymous-looking office park just over the D.C. border in Virginia. An unmarked Homeland Security building is next door. The guys who run America's spy satellites are just across the street. And the man we're here to see is not even listed on his building's directory.
Mr. DAVID BALDACCI (Writer): It's all very clandestine. You know, I am what I write about.
SHAPIRO: That's him, David Baldacci. If you've been to an airport bookstore in the last 10 years you've seen him, staring out from the book jacket of his Camel Club mystery series, or the Sean King and Michelle Maxwell novels. His latest novel is "First Family." Washington, D.C. is Baldacci's hunting ground.
Mr. BALDACCI: This city is full of the most intense people you will ever find in your life. And they live, breathe, drink, eat, sleep this stuff 24/7.
SHAPIRO: There's a reason Washington is so intense and so are Baldacci's novels. The stakes here could not be higher. Many of his books could be set nowhere else.
Mr. BALDACCI: I'm not talking about, you know, a typical crime novel where a gumshoe detective is trying to solve a murder. In a thriller like this, you know, a city disappears or war is declared or 1,000 people die.
SHAPIRO: Now, Baldacci is going to take us spy hunting.
(Soundbite of car doors slamming)
SHAPIRO: Five minutes away, Baldacci points out Michelle Maxwell's apartment. She's a troubled former Secret Service agent and the heroine of some of Baldacci's novels. Maxwell is fictional, but her apartment is real. It's a totally nondescript complex. Baldacci calls it bland by design.
You're describing this apartment complex as a place where spies could plausibly live. Given how close we are to CIA headquarters, they probably do.
Mr. BALDACCI: Oh, absolutely they do. A lot of these places are long-term rentals. A foreign government could rent this place out for a year, two years, three years. They could have different agents coming in and out, living here. You know, you don't want to be right across the street from the White House. That's where people are watching. Here, there's nobody watching. So they come and they go, their normal lives, they look like just everybody else.
SHAPIRO: And they go places everyone else goes. The grocery store, the movie theater. Around here, even the most mundane places have been centers of international espionage.
Mr. BALDACCI: I live in an area that has a park where my son played Little League baseball. And everybody in the area sort of calls it the spy park, because there have been more spies caught there dropping off stuff. Even my son, my son was nine years old, he says Dad, it's the spy park. Everybody knows that. Why don't they go someplace else?
SHAPIRO: So I have an important question for you. Do you think we're being watched?
Mr. BALDACCI: The odds are very good that we're probably being watched.
SHAPIRO: Is it just me or is there a pair of binoculars peaking out from behind some of those window blinds?
Mr. BALDACCI: As long as it's not a sniper rifle, I'm okay.
SHAPIRO: We drive into the city, right to the global center of power, the White House.
Unidentified Man #1: …in sight of assassination attempts on (unintelligible) life. Two Puerto Rican nationalists were coming in from either side trying to assassinate the president.
SHAPIRO: We're surrounded by tourists, business people, government staffers, they all look about as non-threatening as you can get. Baldacci says, that's what spies want you to think.
Which of these people do you think would be most likely to be engaged in some kind of nefarious plot?
Mr. BALDACCI: There's a guy over there in a white-and-green checked shirt. He's an elderly guy. He's looking at the White House. He's taking pictures. He's having a great time. He's going to go back and tell his grandkids what a wonderful thing I did. But he might be taking pictures as a way of signaling somebody inside those grounds that actually works there and is going to plant from a cell that's been there 20 years. And based on that information, something is going to happen later on.
SHAPIRO: Suddenly there's action behind us.
(Soundbite of siren)
SHAPIRO: Is that the president?
Mr. BALDACCI: No, that motorcade is not big enough for the president, but it's somebody serious because they have at least one SUV full of Secret Service agents.
SHAPIRO: Cabinet member, vice president?
Mr. BALDACCI: It could be. It could be the vice president, yeah, because the limo we saw go by was a Beast-style limo. It was not your ordinary limo.
SHAPIRO: The Beast, by the way, is the code name for the president's armored car.
Mr. BALDACCI: The Beast windows are phonebook thick and they don't roll down. The president can't roll them down and say, hey.
SHAPIRO: Is there something personally satisfying and fun about cutting so close to the center of power, getting into the Beast with the president in your novel?
Mr. BALDACCI: Oh, there's got - yeah, there's a head rush, undoubtedly because, you know, 99.9 percent of the people never get a chance to do that. But they want to know what it would be like. And I allow them to sort of know what it would be like.
SHAPIRO: Baldacci points to our next stop just across the park.
Mr. BALDACCI: It's actually probably the closest church to the White House. And I believe it's the one, on Easter, this is where the Obamas went.
SHAPIRO: We walk to the Saint John's Episcopal Church. Every president since James Madison has attended services in this modest yellow building. In Baldacci's novel "First Family," the first lady sneaks out of the White House for a clandestine meeting here. It turns out, real first ladies have done the same thing.
Mr. HAYDEN BRIAN (Operations Director, Saint John's Episcopal Church): We've had visits from the first lady like that where it was unannounced. We had one from Laura Bush on Good Friday a couple years ago.
SHAPIRO: Hayden Brian is the church's operations director. He says in Washington, D.C., even a house of God can be a den of spies.
Mr. BRIAN: We use a walkie-talkie system here sometimes. I've actually picked up people being followed on the walkie-talkie. It was bleeding over into our channel.
SHAPIRO: In what context?
Mr. BRIAN: Don't know. But you could hear people saying, he's getting up. He's taking the briefcase with him. He's walking down the street.
SHAPIRO: We really are in spy land. I mean, it's just…
Mr. BRIAN: Well, we think the CIA used to use our front bench out here as a drop.
SHAPIRO: How did they use it?
Mr. BRIAN: I don't know. They just, you know, they would leave something taped to the underside or whatever and put a little mark, an X or something, indicating that they'd made the drop. It was training.
SHAPIRO: A man approaches Baldacci from between the pews and suddenly it becomes clear why he likes to keep a low profile.
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, I just finished your last book. Oh, my God in heaven, you're wonderful. I just - the way you brought it all in (unintelligible) and poor little Gabriel and Ruth. I…
SHAPIRO: Even in the church there is no sanctuary. Eyes are everywhere. Baldacci's cover is blown. Our mission is compromised. It's time to get out of here. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from David Baldacci's latest novel on the new, improved, better-looking npr.org. You can also find summer reading recommendations.
It's MORNING EDITION. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.