Hells corner, p.13
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       Hells Corner, p.13
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         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  Stone and Chapman remained standing because there was nowhere else to sit.

  “I’m sure you’ve been worried about…?” Stone said in a prompting manner.

  “My uncle, Alfredo, but we call him Freddy.”


  “The family.”

  “Are they here?” Stone looked around.

  “No, they’re back in Mexico.”

  “So you live here with him?”

  She nodded.

  Stone said, “And his last name?”


  “When was the last time you saw him?” asked Chapman.

  “Two nights ago. He went out for dinner.”

  “Do you know where?”

  “At a place on Sixteenth Street, near F. He come from España originally, my uncle. My father’s family, the Escalantes, they come from España too, a long time ago. Good paellas in España. He liked his paellas, my uncle. And this place he goes to, it has good paellas.”

  Stone and Chapman exchanged glances, obviously thinking the same thing.

  That would have put him close to Lafayette Park.

  “Can I ask why you waited so long to call the police about him?” Stone asked.

  “I have no telephone here. And I cannot get around too good without Uncle Freddy. I think he will come home anytime. But he does not. I finally ask a neighbor to call for me.”

  “Okay. Do you remember what he was wearing when he went out?”

  “His blue sweatsuit. He liked to wear it, but he didn’t like to work out. I thought that was funny.”

  “Was he not in good shape?” asked Chapman.

  Carmen made a motion with both hands to indicate a large belly. “He liked his comida and his beer,” she said simply.

  “How would he usually get home? Did he have a car?” asked Stone.

  “We have no car. He use bus or train.”

  “Did he tell you he might go for a walk after dinner?” asked Chapman.

  Carmen’s face started to tremble and she pointed to the little TV perched on a particleboard stand. “I see what happened. The bomb. Uncle Freddy, he is dead?” A tear slid down her cheek.

  Stone and Chapman again exchanged a look. “Do you have a photo of your uncle here?”

  Carmen pointed to a lopsided bookshelf against one wall. There were a half dozen framed photos on it. Stone went over, checked them out. Alfredo “Freddy” Padilla was in the third from the right. He wore jeans but also the same blue warm-up jacket in which he had been blown to bits. Stone picked it up and showed it to Chapman, who nodded, instantly recognizing the man from the countless times she’d watched him on the video. Stone put the photo back down and turned to Carmen.

  “Do you have any family who could come and stay with you?”

  “Then he is dead?”

  Stone hesitated. “I’m afraid so.”

  She put a hand up to her mouth and started to quietly sob.

  Stone knelt down in front of her. “I know this is a really bad time, but can you think of any reason why your uncle would have wanted to take a walk through Lafayette Park that night?”

  The woman finally composed herself, finding some internal strength that Stone was frankly surprised she possessed.

  “He love this country,” she said. “We only recently come here. Me for the medicos to help with my legs. Uncle Freddy he come with me. My parents are dead. He get job. It not pay much, but he was doing the best he could.”

  “Your English is very good for only recently coming here,” commented Chapman.

  Carmen smiled. “I take it in school from when I was little. And I travel to Texas. My English is best in mi familia,” she said proudly.

  “So Lafayette Park?” prompted Stone.

  “He liked to go and look at your White House. He would tell me, ‘Carmen, this is greatest country on earth. A person he can do anything here.’ He had me go one time. He carry me on his shoulders. We look at the grande casa blanca. He say your president lived there. And that he was a great man.”

  Stone stood. “Again, I’m very sorry.”

  Chapman asked, “Is there anyone who can come and stay with you?”

  “It is all right. I have been by myself before.”

  “But do you have other relatives?” persisted Chapman.

  Carmen sniffled but nodded. “I have people who can come and take me back to Mexico.”

  “Back? But what about your doctors?” asked Stone.

  “Not without Uncle Freddy,” she replied. “My parents were killed in a bus accident. I was also on the bus. That was how my legs came to be like this. Uncle Freddy, he too was on bus. They take out his spleen and other things, but he got well. And he was like a father to me.” She stopped. “I… I don’t want to live here without him. Not even if this is the greatest country in all the world.”

  “If you need any help will you contact us?” Stone wrote his phone number down on a piece of paper and handed it to her. He paused. “If you could give us something of your uncle’s? A comb or a toothbrush. So we can…” His voice trailed off.

  They left with a couple of articles containing Alfredo Padilla’s DNA to compare to the man’s remains. They sealed them in evidence bags Chapman had brought. Stone was certain it was the man. But the DNA would be conclusive.

  As they were walking back to the car Chapman said, “Okay, I’m an old cynic, but I want to start crying my bleeding eyes out.”

  “Alfredo Padilla was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Stone. “And she has to pay the price.”

  “He paid a pretty big one too,” Chapman reminded him.

  They got back in the car. She said, “What now?”

  “We hope Agent Gross has better luck than we did. But something tells me not to count on that.”


  THEY LEFT A MESSAGE for Gross and grabbed some Chinese takeout on the way back to Stone’s cottage. The weather was nice so Stone carried his little round kitchen table and two chairs out to the front porch. He laid out two plates and utensils and pulled two beers from the small refrigerator in his kitchen.

  They sat down and Chapman held up her beer and clinked it against Stone’s.

  “Cheers. You know how to treat a lady.”

  “You bought the food. And I have no idea how old the beer is.”

  She took a spoonful of wonton soup, extra spicy that made her eyes water, and retreated once more to her beer.

  “Too hot for you?” said Stone as he eyed her with some amusement.

  “Actually, I’m into pain. One of the reasons I do this job, I reckon.”

  “I worked with MI6 back in the day. Didn’t know any female agents then.”

  “Still aren’t that many. Testosterone world plain and simple.”

  “Clear career path or did you stumble onto it by accident?”

  “Bit of both, I suppose.” She took a mouthful of chicken and rice. “My dad was a copper and my mum was a nurse.”

  “That still doesn’t explain the MI6 connection.”

  “Sir James McElroy is my godfather.”

  “Okay,” said Stone slowly as he lowered his fork.

  “He and my grandfather were in the army together before Sir James went to the intelligence side. I guess he took a fancy to me. Really became a father figure to me when my dad was killed.”

  “How did your father die? In the line of duty?”

  Chapman shrugged. “That’s what they said. I never really found out the exact details.”

  “And that’s how you came to be part of law enforcement?”

  “I guess Sir James was grooming me all that time. Right schools, right training, right contacts. It seemed inevitable.”

  “In spite of what you wanted, you mean?”

  She took a sip of the beer, holding it in her mouth a moment before swallowing. “I ask myself that from time to time.”

  “And what’s the answer?”

  “It changes. And maybe I’m right where I need t
o be. Maybe I can even find out what really happened to my poor dad.” She pushed her plate away and sat back, put her feet up on the porch railing. “What about you? You and Sir James obviously go way back. And he knows things about you I guess I never will.”

  “They would mean nothing to you.”

  “What did it feel like, to do what you did?”

  Stone rose and stared out at the tombstones in the fading light. The weather in D.C., miserably hot and humid in the summer, and uncomfortably raw in the winter, could suddenly evolve to times like this, when the climate was perfect and you wished the day would never end.

  She stood next to him. “Look I won’t push it,” Chapman said quietly. “It’s really none of my business.”

  “It got to the point where I didn’t feel anything anymore,” Stone said.

  “But how did you get out?”

  “I’m not sure I ever did.”

  “Was it your wife?”

  Stone turned to her. “I thought your boss was more discreet.”

  “It wasn’t him,” she said hastily. “I just made a guess based on my own observations.”

  “What observations?” Stone said sharply.

  “Of you,” she answered simply. “Of things that matter to you. Like friends.”

  Stone turned away. “Good guess,” he said.

  “So why did you come back in the fold? After that?”

  “I guess I could say I had no choice.”

  “I think someone like you would always have a choice.”

  Stone didn’t speak for a long time. He just kept staring at the graves. A breeze rippled over them and Chapman wrapped her arms around herself.

  “I have a lot of regrets,” Stone said finally.

  “So this is about making amends?”

  “I don’t think I can ever make amends, Agent Chapman.”

  “Please, just call me Mary. We’re off duty now.”

  He glanced at her. “Okay, Mary. Have you ever killed anyone? Intentionally?”


  Stone nodded. “And how did you feel?”

  “Happy at first. That it wasn’t me dead. And then I felt sick. I’d been trained to do it, of course, but—”

  “No training can prepare you for it.”

  “I guess not.” She clenched the porch railing. “So how many people do you reckon you’ve killed?”

  “Why does it matter to you?”

  “I guess it doesn’t. And it’s not morbid curiosity. I… I don’t know what it is, exactly.”

  Before Stone could answer his cell phone buzzed. It was Tom Gross.

  “We’re back on duty, Agent Chapman,” said Stone.


  THEY MET GROSS NOT AT HIS OFFICE at the FBI, but at a coffee shop near the Verizon Center. The federal agent was dressed casually in khaki pants, a polo shirt and a Washington Capitals zippered jacket. They bought coffee and sat at a table in the back. Gross looked pale and nervous, his gaze flitting around the small space, as though he suspected he was being followed.

  “I’m not liking how this is shaking out,” Gross said. His hand went to his jacket pocket and then pulled back.

  “You used to smoke?” said Stone.

  Gross nodded. “Right this minute, sorry I gave it up.”

  “So talk to us.”

  Gross hunched forward and bent his head low. “First tell me how it went with Carmen Escalante?”

  Stone and Chapman alternated filling him in about the bereaved and crippled young woman.

  “Sad stuff, but then she’s a dead end?”

  “We never had high hopes for that line anyway,” said Stone. “She’s a victim, just like her uncle.”

  “Wrong place, wrong time. Poor sucker. Loves America and look what happens to him.”

  “How’d things go on your end?” asked Chapman.

  Gross shifted in his seat and took a swallow of coffee before answering. “I decided to cut to the chase and snagged the whole National Park Service crew that worked on the installation, including their supervisor, and sat their butts down at WFO. Supervisor’s named George Sykes. Career government service; guy has six grandchildren. Background clean as anyone’s. He was with his team the whole time and swore on a stack of Bibles that none of them were involved. And I tend to believe him. There were like seven people around the entire time from the moment the tree was delivered to the staging area. No way they all got bought off.”

  “So why was the hole still uncovered?” Stone asked.

  Gross smiled. “Got a real education on that. The National Park Service is very particular about the plantings in Lafayette Park. Apparently only specimens available during George Washington’s era are installed there. Those guys are really historians who dig the occasional hole. I learned a lot more about that today than I needed to. But the reason they left the hole open was because they had to prepare special dirt, an arborist was going to look at the tree to make sure the transition hadn’t damaged it, yada, yada. They were scheduled to close the hole the next day.”

  Chapman spoke up. “So the bomb was in the tree’s root ball before it was even delivered to the site. That has to be it. The National Park Service folks aren’t involved at all.”

  Stone looked from her to Gross. “Do we know the timeline with the tree? Where it came from? Who was involved on that end?”

  “Running that down as we speak. The thing is, I don’t see how a tree gets from that point to Lafayette without it being checked for a damn bomb. I mean, at the very least you’d think they’d let a canine take a sniff when it got to the staging area. That tree was big. As you saw on the video, they had to crane the sucker in.”

  Stone said, “Well, is there a record of a dog going over it for explosives?”

  “Not that I can find. And none of the installation crew recalls that happening.”

  “Another big hole in security if that’s true,” said Chapman.

  “Yeah, but a bomb in a root ball?” said Gross. “Who’d figure that one?”

  “Yeah, like jumbo jets flying into skyscrapers,” said Stone. “Or explosives in underwear or shoes. We have to start being ahead of that curve or more innocent people will die.”

  Gross took another swallow of his coffee, his brow a mass of wrinkles.

  “Something else?” prompted Stone, who was studying the man carefully.

  When Gross spoke he lowered his voice to a level where Stone and Chapman had to lean forward to hear. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think our side is watching us. Screwing with us, I mean. That’s why I asked to meet you two here.”

  Chapman said, “Our side? Why do you think that?”

  Gross looked at Stone warily. “I know you’re with NSC, and frankly I’ve pulled too many years to blow my career, but I’m also not going to sit pat and pretend everything is fine either.”

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