Hells corner, p.14
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       Hells Corner, p.14
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         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  Stone leaned forward more. “My loyalties run to the people at this table. Now tell me why you suspect that your own side is against you.”

  Gross looked irritated and sheepish at the same time. “I think my damn phone is being bugged, for one thing. At my office and my house. And it’s like when I ask questions, there’re more fingerprints down the line than there should be.” He eyed Stone and then Chapman. “Tell me something. And I’d like the truth.”

  “All right,” said Chapman quickly, but Stone remained silent, waiting.

  “The video feed from the night of the explosion? I mean after the detonation took place? I gotta tell you I’m not buying the company line that the blast screwed the cameras permanently. Like the Secret Service said today, there are lots of eyeballs on that park. But they all don’t share.” He stopped speaking and eyed them. “So is there more?”

  Chapman shot Stone a glance.

  Gross frowned. “Yeah, I thought so. So you guys are screwing with me too. How the hell can I run an investigation with both hands tied behind my back? You know what? The only person I trust right now is my wife. And that’s the God’s honest truth.”

  “I can understand that.”

  “And why the hell were you two privy to the full video and I wasn’t?” He scowled at Chapman. “Hell, you’re not even an American.”

  “There’s no good reason why you were kept out of the loop,” admitted Stone. He looked at Chapman. “Your laptop in the car?”

  She nodded.

  “Go get it.”

  A minute later she was back and fired her computer up. Seconds later they were looking at the video feed. The full video feed.

  After they finished Gross sat back, apparently mollified. “Okay, I’m still pissed that I got the rug pulled out from under me, but I didn’t see anything on there that deserved to make it off-limits to the FBI.”

  That was true, thought Stone. But in light of what he had learned, was there something there he just wasn’t seeing?

  He said to Chapman, “Run it again from the point where everyone starts walking off from the park. And do it in slow motion.”

  She did as he asked. After a minute Stone said, “Freeze it there.” He stared at the motionless video. He was angry for not having seen it before, particularly after what he had learned today.

  “Can you enlarge the frame?”

  She clicked some keys and the picture morphed larger in front of them.

  “Can you swing the frame to the left?”

  Chapman manipulated the built-in mouse and the image moved to the left.

  Stone put his finger on one spot on the screen. “Do you see it?”

  Gross and Chapman looked closer.

  “What?” they both said together.

  “That car’s headlights flicked against the window there. You can see a face clearly reflected in the darkened glass.”

  The other two leaned closer. “Okay,” said Chapman, “I can see it now.”

  Gross nodded. “But who is it?”

  “It’s the man in the suit. That’s why you didn’t get this part of the feed.”

  “Wait a minute,” said Gross. “How do you know it’s the guy in the suit?”

  “Because I met him today.”

  Gross’s face turned red and he stood. “You know where he is? Son of a bitch. You guys keep holding shit back from me. Maybe you’re the ones bugging my phones.”

  Stone stared up at him. “Agent Gross, keep your voice and your temper in check. And sit down. Now.”

  There was something in Stone’s manner that made the federal agent obey. He sat, though his expression was still angry.

  Stone continued, “The man in the suit was in the park that night to meet with someone about a very high-priority mission for this country.”

  “And how do you know that?”

  “I’m telling you what I was told earlier today from a source that I trust. As I said, I met the man whose face is reflected in that window. His mission involves tracking down someone who is the enemy of this country. Perhaps its greatest enemy,” Stone added.

  Realization slowly spread over Gross’s features. He said, “Damn, do you mean…?”

  Stone held up his hand. “A highly secret mission. Secret enough for the FBI to have been given an incomplete video feed of a major crime scene to keep his features off the video. Let’s leave it at that.”

  Gross exclaimed, “But then this guy might’ve been the target.”

  “No. If he were they wouldn’t have missed him.”

  “And where is this guy?”


  “Okay,” Gross said. “And where does that leave us?”

  “With not much,” said Chapman grumpily. “With not bloody much.”


  CHAPMAN DROPPED STONE OFF at his cottage and then went on to her lodgings. Stone walked around the cemetery tidying up things at the same time he was thinking about the day’s events. They had hit dead ends pretty much in every direction. Each person in the park that night had been checked and found to have nothing to do with the bombing or the gunfire. Alfredo Padilla had been blown up by mistake. Marisa Friedman worked nearby and had been calling her lover. Fuat Turkekul was there to meet Adelphia to discuss their very important operation. The British cop had been there on orders from MI6. Four promising leads turned out to be worth nothing.

  Stone went inside and sat behind his desk. It was late and he should sleep, but he wasn’t tired; his mind was working too fast to rest. He attempted to read a book to try and relax, but his mind kept coming back to what had happened in Lafayette Park.

  Someone had carried off an incredible feat of terrorism smack in the middle of one of the most protected areas in the world, and they had done so for no apparent reason. He did not believe the statement from the organization in Yemen. This operation had to have taken a long time and required enormous resources. While Islamic terrorists had a lot of both, their assets were not infinite. They could not afford to waste them. Therefore, you did not undertake all that for symbolic reasons, any more than you would go to all the trouble of hijacking a jumbo jet and “symbolically” flying it close to a tall building instead of directly into it.

  And he also didn’t buy the theory that he had seen some pundits bandying about on TV. That people would be scared to come to D.C. now. So what? The government wouldn’t be crippled because busloads of tourists from Iowa or Maine decided to go somewhere else on vacation. It was not a “replicable act,” as some counterterrorism specialists liked to say. This wasn’t a shopping mall or an airport ticket counter. You detonate in one of those places and you terrify people all over the county, who will stay away from their malls and airports. That would severely disrupt the economy. But there was only one White House. Only one Lafayette Park.

  If it doesn’t make sense the way I’m thinking it through, it means I’m thinking it through wrong. But then what way is right?

  He was about to try a different tack when he sank down in his chair after putting out the desk lamp with a flick of his hand.

  There was someone outside.

  He dropped down and smacked a part of the plank floor in the kneehole section of his desk. The short board spun on a swivel. Inside a holster clipped to the underside of the plank was a custom pistol that he had carried for many years on the job. Back then it was as much a part of his body as his hand. Stone gripped it and swung the board back into place.

  He crawled to the rear window and peered out. There was a moon, and even though the men were moving stealthily through the underbrush, Stone still saw them because he knew where and how to look.

  He slipped his cell phone from his shirt pocket and was about to text a message when he heard the voice.

  “Stone? I’d like to talk to you.”

  Stone’s finger was poised over the send button. He recognized the voice. His mind was moving swiftly over the possible reasons why the man would have come here to see him.

at about?” he called back.

  “I think you know. I’m sure you have a gun and I’ve been told how well you wield one. And I’m sure you’ve spotted my men despite their best efforts. So that no one gets hurt, I propose that I come inside and meet with you. Just one-on-one. Does that work?”

  “And if it doesn’t?” Stone shot back.

  “I could say we would just leave.”

  “Why don’t I believe that?”

  “We’re both on the same side here.”

  “It doesn’t feel that way right now.”

  “I give you my word. I just want to talk.”

  “Then why come late at night with a strike team?”

  “It’s just the way I travel. Don’t take it personally. But I do just want to talk.”

  Stone thought rapidly. He really had no leverage here at all. And information could be a two-way street.

  “Just you,” he called back. “And I do have a gun. If I see even one red dot floating in the air, things will get ugly very fast. Understood?”

  “Understood. I’m coming in.”


  “Right. Slowly.”

  A few moments later Riley Weaver, the head of NIC, appeared in the doorway of Stone’s humble cottage, which was surrounded by the dead and also now at least a half dozen armed men.


  “CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND YOU,” instructed Stone. “And move away from it to your left.”

  He rose from behind the desk, keeping out of the line of fire from the window.

  “Open your jacket.”

  “I’m not armed.”

  “Open your jacket.”

  Weaver did so. He was startled when a hand swiftly searched him.

  “You’re light on your feet,” said Weaver.

  Stone stepped back from the man, keeping his gun aimed at him.

  “Can we turn on a light?” asked Weaver. “I’m walking blind here.”

  “If you hadn’t shown up with a platoon of firepower I might treat you with more courtesy.” All the time he was talking Stone had kept moving, circling the man. He assumed the former Marine would have excellent night vision too, and he was not proved wrong.

  “Okay, I can see you now and I know you can see me,” said Weaver. “How do you want to do this?”

  “You see the chairs by the fireplace?”


  “You on the left.”

  “And where will you be?”

  “Somewhere else.”

  Weaver moved forward and sat in a rickety wooden chair. He turned his head slightly to the right. “I can’t see you anymore.”

  “I know. What do you want?”

  “Our last meeting ended too abruptly.”

  “Entirely your doing.”

  “I know. I admit that. You’re working with NSC now. And the FBI.”


  “So how would you like to be part of a joint effort with NIC?”

  “I already have enough alphabet letters, thanks.”

  “You guys are no closer to solving this than from the moment that bomb detonated.”

  “Okay, you have your interagency spies in place. The man you replaced did the same thing. Not always to positive effect.”

  “I’m not Carter Gray. I know you two went way back and not in a good way.”

  “He was excellent at what he did. I just didn’t happen to agree with all he did.”

  “I read up some more on John Carr.”

  “Good for you. Why are you here? And it’s not just to offer me a job you know I wouldn’t take.”

  “You have the president’s backing. I know why.”

  Stone stared across at the man in the dark. He was ten feet from Weaver, behind and slightly to the man’s right. A perfect killing angle since most people were right-handed and to fire back they normally wouldn’t turn to their right, it was too awkward. They would turn to the left. And then of course it would be too late.

  “And where does that get us?” he said.

  “I’m not one to dwell on ancient history. A bomb and machine guns in Lafayette Park are what I’m focused on.”

  “Some are calling it symbolic.”

  “Do you believe that?” asked Weaver.

  “No. Terrorists are only into symbolism so long as there are lots of casualties.”

  “I agree. Too much time and assets went into this. There had to be a reason.”

  “I was just trying to think of one when you showed up.”

  “If we work together we might just get there sooner rather than later.”

  “I told you, I already have a team on this one.”

  “We’re all on the same team.”

  “You snatched me from my hospital bed before the FBI could get to me, played the bully at NIC, ridiculed my attempt to tell you what I knew or thought and then turned out the lights when I asked a question. If that’s your version of foreplay you’ll never get lucky.”

  “Okay, I deserved that. I played the heavy with you and it backfired. I realize that now.”

  “And you’re here now to play nice?”

  “Is that too hard to believe?”

  “Yes, it is. This is Washington, where they eat their young and their old. So one more time, why are you here?”

  Stone counted ten seconds off in his head and the silence persisted. He lined up the silhouette of Weaver along his gunsight. He strained to hear the sounds of black boots moving in on him.

  He can’t be that stupid, thought Stone. Acting as a distraction. It didn’t matter to Stone that the men outside worked for the same government he did. He had enough experience to know that citizenship was no protection when you were in the middle of someone else’s agenda. Or conspiracy. Which in Stone’s mind were one and the same.

  “I’m scared, Stone.”

  This unexpected comment caused Stone to glance up from his sightline.


  “Because something is going to happen. Something big, and I’m clueless about what it might be. And if the nation’s intelligence chief is clueless, well, it’s not good. I don’t want to be remembered for missing the big one.”

  Stone relaxed a bit more. “Something big. Based on what? Chatter?”

  “That and my gut. How did that bomb get in that hole? Why machine guns that hit nobody? And I’ve got another question that I don’t even think you’ve thought of.”


  “What happened to the original maple tree in the park? My sources tell me it just died, overnight. That’s why it had to be replaced. It’d been there for decades, hale and hearty, and then it just up and died and no one knows why.”

  Stone seemed paralyzed by this statement. He’d been gone from Lafayette Park for some time. Still, he remembered that maple, tall, huge canopy, beautiful specimen. It had seemed healthy.

  And then it just died. And no one knows why.

  He sat down next to the man and slipped his gun in his waistband. When Weaver eyed the weapon, Stone said, “I’m authorized to carry one now.”

  “No arguments from me. And you’re probably going to need it before this is over.”

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