Hells corner, p.12
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       Hells Corner, p.12
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         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “Like in the cinema. Rubbish, actually. That’s where all the coppers are looking for the spies between pints.”

  “Why didn’t you show up that night, Adelphia?” Stone asked again.

  “It was called off by my superiors. I was not given a reason. I knew that when I did not appear by a certain time Fuat would leave by prearrangement.” Adelphia added, “Do they know the source of the bomb?”

  “No, not yet.”

  “Was it a suicide bomber?” asked Turkekul. “That is their preferred choice of attack, other than an IED. I know of this group in Yemen. They stick to that playbook religiously.”

  Stone eyed McElroy, who made a slight shake of the head. Stone shifted in his seat. “It’s an ongoing investigation.”

  “Will you have to report this contact to your superiors?” Turkekul said.

  McElroy cleared his throat. “Oliver, I cannot officially tell you what to do. But I would ask that you think about that question carefully. A report at this juncture, even a censored one, could well lead to the termination of this mission before it’s ever had a chance to succeed.” McElroy bowed his head and seemed to be waiting for an answer.

  Stone didn’t deliberate for long. He turned to Turkekul. “I’ll say nothing, for now. However, despite what you’ve said, if it becomes apparent that you were the target I would assume you would want to know that?”

  Turkekul said, “You assume correctly. And I thank you for that.”

  “I’ll fill Chapman in.”

  “Actually, she needn’t know,” McElroy said quickly.

  Stone shook his head. “I don’t keep things from my partner. I know, she knows.”

  McElroy looked indecisive. “I’ll leave it up to you, then.”

  Stone rose from the couch. “One last question. Adelphia. How was the communication made between you two as to the location?”

  “I left a message up on the main notice board in the middle of Georgetown campus,” said Adelphia. “It was in a code that Fuat and I worked out.”

  “The same code we used to use when we both were at the park?”

  “Very close to it,” she admitted.

  “Don’t trust secure electronic communications?” asked Stone.

  “There are no such things, my friend,” said Turkekul. “Several of my colleagues have found that out to their great detriment.”

  McElroy added, “The insecurity of electronic systems has forced us all back in some ways to the old spy dodges. A bit less efficient, but we all get to use our ingenuity instead of relying on machines to do it for us. I actually like it a lot better. But then I’m an old Cold War relic.”

  McElroy walked Stone out. “I’m sorry it had to be done this way. I would have preferred otherwise, Oliver. It wasn’t fair to you.”

  “Life is rarely fair.”

  “I understand the investigation proceeds slowly.”

  “If at all.”

  “It has to make sense, somehow. If it doesn’t, much of what I believe in life goes up in smoke.”

  “Can I expect any more surprises along these lines?”

  “I hope not. As for Chapman?”

  “I’m going to tell her. And you won’t convince me otherwise.”

  “You’re probably right.”

  “Take care, Sir James.”

  “Oliver, watch your back.” He paused and added, “And your front too.”

  “You know something I don’t?”

  “No, but the old relic’s antennae are tingling something fierce.”

  “One more time,” said Stone. “Are you withholding anything else from me?”

  “Good luck, Oliver. And please take my advice.”


  “SO WHAT DID YOU LEARN?” Chapman asked Stone when he returned to Lafayette Park.

  Stone led her off to the side and away from the other investigators in the park. He told her everything that had happened, including her boss’s appearance and Fuat Turkekul’s mission.

  “Good God,” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe it.”

  “What, the underlying facts, or that you weren’t in the loop?”

  “Both, I guess.” Her gaze was downcast, her look one of lost confidence.

  Realizing what she was thinking, Stone said, “McElroy plays things very close to the vest. And he compartmentalizes. And he withholds when he deems it necessary. I expect you know that.”

  “I do, it’s just…”

  He gripped her arm. “Don’t let this destroy the faith you have in yourself. That will help no one, least of all you. Keeping you in the dark is not a reflection on your ability. It’s just the way it is. We’ve all had to suffer through that.”

  She looked up, drew a breath and her resolve seemed to stiffen. “You’re right.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “I do appreciate you telling me, though.” She removed her hand. “Did he ask you to do that?”

  “Do you want the truth?”

  “Yes, please,” she said firmly. “It would be refreshing, actually.”

  “Initially he didn’t want you to know. But when I told him I don’t keep things from my partner he agreed with my decision to tell you.”

  Chapman studied him closely, evidently trying to determine if he were telling the truth. “Good, enough said on the subject.”

  “So where were you this morning?” asked Stone.

  She looked sheepish. “I was actually having a lie-in. I’ve had about two hours’ sleep in the last forty-eight, and the jet lag really kicked in. I was a bit knackered. And I didn’t think I could manage to be much help when I could barely stay awake.”

  Stone glanced over and saw Agent Garchik striding toward them. “Maybe he’ll have some answers.”

  They met him at the barriers and followed Garchik back to ground zero. The ATF agent’s expression was both curious and concerned.

  “You have some developments?” prompted Stone.

  Garchik nodded as he stared down at the crater. “You could say that. Those pieces of leather we found came from a Wilson basketball.”

  “A basketball!” exclaimed Chapman.

  “You’re sure it was involved in the explosion?” Stone asked.

  “I can’t think of another reason why bits of a basketball would be in Lafayette Park. And the scorch marks showed they were quite near the blast seat. You could say right on top of it.”

  They all looked down at the hole.

  “Your conclusion?” Stone asked.

  “I think the bomb could very well have been in the basketball and the ball was placed inside the root ball of the maple. That location would tally with the debris field and other indicators we found.”

  “A bomb in a basketball?” said Chapman.

  “It would work,” said Garchik. “And it’s been done before by a few people, all dead now. Cut it open, put the bomb inside, reseal it, pump it up so that if anyone held it, it would feel legit. I wouldn’t advise dribbling the sucker, though.”

  “How was it detonated?” asked Stone.

  “Remotely would be my best guess, right now. Not a timer.”

  Stone said, “But we have information that the bomb dogs had patrolled the site the night of the bombing. Wouldn’t they have sensed it? You said they couldn’t be fooled by anything.”

  “They can’t. But they do have limits.”

  “What exactly are those limits?” asked Chapman.

  “Typical scent radius for the dogs is about three feet in all directions aboveground. And they can sniff out explosives buried up to roughly the same distance belowground.” Garchik pointed at the crater. “This hole before the bomb went off was over four feet deep and well over eight feet across.”

  “But uncovered,” Stone pointed out.

  “Yeah, but the root ball was huge. Six feet wide by over three feet high.”

  Stone realized something. “And there was yellow warning tape up cordoning off this area. So the dogs might not have gotten within ten feet of it.”

right,” said Garchik. “So whether the bomb was here when they made their pass or not, chances are good they wouldn’t have detected it unless their handlers took them past the tape and let them climb right on top of the root ball. Which I sort of doubt was the case.”

  Stone’s gaze immediately swung toward the White House. “Then we need to talk to the people who installed it as soon as possible. But first we need to look at the video.”

  “Video?” said Chapman.

  “The video feed will show when that tree went in and who did it. It will also show if anyone went back in there afterward. And what they had with them. Like a bag big enough to place a basketball in.”

  Garchik said, “It would be pretty hard to slip a basketball inside a root ball and not have someone see you. There’s a burlap sack around it to hold the dirt and roots together, but it would still be complicated. You’d have to get the ball there somehow, get down into the hole, slit the sack, put the ball in and somehow patch the sack back up.”

  Chapman added, “And he couldn’t exactly waltz it past the White House guards. I’m assuming the workers have to go through checkpoints.”

  “Yes, they do,” answered Stone. “And I would imagine an X-ray of the basketball would reveal the bomb inside?”

  “Absolutely,” said Garchik.

  “Then if one of the groundspeople was involved he didn’t take the ball through White House security.” He looked around. “But he could have come directly to the park to begin work on the tree. Someone could have given him the ball then. The White House wouldn’t be involved at all.”

  “Which would be captured on the video,” said Garchik. “We’ll have to check that angle, but it seems way too easy to detect on our part.”

  Stone said, “Which means we’re missing something.” He looked down at the crater. “Let’s check that video feed. Right now.”


  A FEW MINUTES LATER they were standing in the FBI’s command post on Jackson Place. They had called in two Secret Service agents, who huddled with them around the large TV screen. The feed they would be looking at had come from the Secret Service’s archives.

  “We keep the images for a minimum of fifteen years,” explained one of the Secret Service agents.

  “You’re not the only agency with electronic eyes on the park, though,” said Stone.

  The same agent smiled. “We all have peepers on our little slice of Hell’s Corner. In an ideal world we all share what we see, but this is far from an ideal world.”

  “What exactly are you looking for?” asked the other agent.

  Stone explained about the tree being planted, and also about the bomb dog going near the tree.

  Agent Garchik had stayed behind in the park to keep going over the crime scene, but Tom Gross had joined them after being called by Stone. The FBI agent said, “We need to see the entire feed from the time the tree was delivered to the moment the bomb went off.”

  They were shown this feed from three different angles. It took a long time, even though the security guard was able to speed up the frames without any significant detail being missed. At the end they stared at the screen with the same unanswered questions.

  Gross said, “The dogs did make a pass, but they stayed outside the tape line. That was a big hole in the security wall. Secret Service is going to get dinged for that.”

  The two agents exchanged glances and grimaced but said nothing.

  “And there wasn’t even a hint of anyone planting anything in that hole,” added Chapman.

  Stone said, “You’re sure this is all the footage?”

  One of the agents said, “That’s it.”

  Gross, Stone and Chapman left the command center. On the way back to the park Gross said, “I can’t remember the last case I had where not only haven’t I taken a step forward, I keep taking steps back.”

  Stone closed his eyes and recalled what he had seen on the video. A crane had lifted the large tree up into the air. Then a crew of National Park Service personnel in their green-and-khaki uniforms had moved in and helped direct the placement of the maple into the hole.

  He opened his eyes. “There had to be a staging area for the tree. Where it was kept before being installed? That wasn’t on the video.”

  “That’s right,” said a hopeful-looking Gross.

  Chapman added, “And the time stamp on the video shows that the tree was put in a day before the bombing happened. So why was the hole still uncovered?”

  Gross said, “I think we need to find answers to those questions.”

  A moment later his phone rang. He talked for a few moments and then clicked off. “We got a hit on the jogger. Missing persons report was phoned in a few hours ago. Family member. Matches the description, and he was in the vicinity of the park.”

  “Why so long to call it in?” asked Stone.

  “Something we’ll have to find out when we talk to them.”

  “I think we should split up,” said Stone. “You and your men can handle the groundspeople and Chapman and I can talk to the family members. You have the address?”

  Gross gave it to him. As they were parting company the FBI agent said, “Now we’ve only got the suit to track down.”

  Stone never turned around. “Yeah,” he said over his shoulder as Chapman marched along beside him.

  When they got to her car she said, “You know you could be charged with withholding vital evidence in an investigation. With obstruction even.”

  “If you think that’s the case, feel free to report me.”

  The two looked across the width of the rental at each other.

  Chapman finally sighed. “I don’t think it would further my career to pull the rug out from under my boss. So just get the hell in the car. ”

  When the doors plunked closed she threw it into gear. “Where to?”

  Stone gazed down at the slip of paper that Gross had given him with the address. “Anacostia. Make sure you keep your gun handy.”

  “Is it dangerous, then, this Anacostia?”

  Stone thought for a few moments before replying, “I guess less dangerous than Lafayette Park, actually.”


  CARMEN ESCALANTE lived in a duplex a few blocks from the river. The neighborhood was within sight of the ballpark of the Washington Nationals, but had not benefited from the gentrification that was going on in other areas around the stadium.

  They reached Escalante’s address and Stone knocked on a door that was scarred by at least three old bullet pocks by his quick count. They heard curious sounds approaching. Footsteps and something more. Something that clunked. When the door opened they were looking down at a petite woman in her twenties who had metal braces on each arm to support her twisted legs. Hence the strange sounds.

  “Carmen Escalante?” Stone asked.

  She nodded. “I am Carmen.”

  Stone and then Chapman showed her their badges.

  “We’re here about your report of a missing person,” said Chapman.

  “You don’t sound American,” said Carmen curiously.

  “I’m not.”

  Carmen looked confused. Stone said, “Can we come in?”

  They followed her down a short hall to a tiny room. The furniture was thirdhand, the floor littered with junk. Stone could smell rotting food.

  “I haven’t had a chance to clean up lately,” Carmen said, but her tone was unapologetic. She dropped onto the couch and stood her braces against the arm of the furniture. On either side of her was stacked what Stone could only politely describe as crap.

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