Hells corner, p.15
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       Hells Corner, p.15
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         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “So you think the tree was deliberately sabotaged?”

  “Either that or it’s a pretty big coincidence. No new tree needed, that bomb ain’t getting to Lafayette Park. Because it came inside that tree. I think we all realize that now.”

  “Agent Gross with the FBI said they were tracking down that angle. But they aren’t finding much.”

  “That’s interesting.”

  “You’re telling me you didn’t know that already?”

  “FBI has always gone its own way. I keep my ears to the ground, though. And I think what they’ll continue to find on that end is a big zip.”

  “Why? Tracks too well covered?”

  Weaver gazed over at Stone through the darkness. “They didn’t X-ray that root ball. It’s going in the park, in the dirt. It’s not the Christmas tree for the White House.”

  “Canine sweep?”

  “Not sure. But don’t think so.”

  “Why not?”

  “No definitive answer on that.”

  “ATF thinks it was a remote detonation setup.”

  “Hmmph.”

  “You disagree?”

  “Let me put it to you this way. No bomb is foolproof. I almost got my hand blown off once dealing with a ‘foolproof’ explosive when I was in the Corps.”

  “So what’s your theory?”

  “Can we turn on some lights? I feel like I’m back in high school sneaking some of my old man’s hooch.”

  “I prefer the dark.”

  “Okay, suit yourself. The bomb goes in with a remote detonator. Probably a cell phone. Tree hole gets covered up. Then it’s detonated at the precise time they want. But instead we got a guy running from gunfire who jumps in a hole to save his ass, and boom.”

  “But how did the bomb detonate?”

  “Like I said, bombs are tricky things. Fat guy jumps and lands right on it, or maybe one of the slugs hits it. Detonates.”

  “We’d actually discussed that possibility.”

  “So I’m here wasting your time?”

  “No, I hadn’t thought of the tree being killed on purpose. That’s one for you.”

  “It only occurred to me tonight.”

  “ATF thinks the bomb was in a basketball and then placed inside the root ball.”

  “Doesn’t matter, still could have gone off accidentally.”

  “But that makes no sense. The only reason the guy jumped in the hole and, according to your theory, prematurely detonated the bomb was because he was running from the gunfire. Why go to all the trouble to get a bomb there and then screw it up by shooting off the guns?”

  “It makes perfect sense if you look at it in a different way.”

  A few seconds later Stone said slowly, “You mean if the gunners and bombers were different.”

  “Exactly. And if so, the bombers are pretty pissed off right now at whoever started shooting.”

  Stone said, “The Yemeni group?”

  “Those guys claim credit for lots of shit they had nothing to do with. Maybe they did the guns, okay. But then the bomb goes off and they figure, ‘Hell, let’s take credit for that too.’ Raises their profile with other terrorists. More street cred equals more funding. That’s how it works. Sort of like turf and budget wars in D.C.”

  “Then that means the bomb was meant to kill someone else at the park at a completely different time.”

  “That’s right. Only the question is who?”

  CHAPTER 33

  TWO HOURS AFTER WEAVER AND HIS MEN LEFT, Stone could still not fall asleep. Weaver was obtaining a list of events to be held at Lafayette Park in the upcoming months and told Stone that he would share that information with him. For his part, Stone told Weaver all that they had uncovered about the jogger’s background and the other information he had learned from ATF and the FBI’s inquiries. He did not tell Weaver about Fuat Turkekul. If the NIC chief was meant to know about the operation to catch Osama bin Laden, people other than Stone would have to so inform him.

  Stone lay on his cot thinking all of this through while the night burned onward to dawn. Finally his thoughts turned to the Camel Club. Caleb and Reuben had been friends of his for years. They had literally been through hell and back together. Alex Ford had been a more recent arrival to the ranks of the club, but he had twice saved Stone’s life and risked his career on at least five other occasions to help him and the others. Annabelle had blown into their lives only a short time ago but had quickly proved her loyalty to Stone. And Harry Finn had stood shoulder to shoulder with Stone in a firefight with a team of trained assassins even though Stone had killed Finn’s father more than three decades ago.

  And I basically told all of them that I didn’t trust them. That I didn’t need their help. But that’s not the whole story.

  Only a handful of people knew that Stone had taken his old rifle and killed two prominent Americans who had destroyed his life, costing him his wife and child. Stone had killed many people on behalf of his country. He had dutifully followed orders. Yet these two men he’d killed on his own. Judge, jury and executioner. He felt he was justified for what he’d done. He felt no remorse for ending their lives.

  But still. He had a conscience. All those years of killing had never managed to totally rid him of one. And with his strong sense of justice, Stone knew that he would have to make payment one day. It was only right. But he was not going to take his friends down too. They didn’t deserve that. He was living on borrowed time. His friends were not. The Camel Club, he knew, was coming to the end of its run. At least with him as its de facto leader.

  He showered, dressed and headed out as the sun was just starting to creep upward. He stopped at the front door when he saw Chapman sitting on the hood of her rental just outside the wrought-iron gates sipping on a Starbucks coffee.

  He zipped up his jacket against the cool morning air and walked over to her. She was dressed in jeans, a heavy black sweater and boots, looking very unlike a proper MI6 agent. Her hair was tied back revealing a small mole near her temple. She slipped off the car hood, reached through the driver’s window for a second cup of coffee in the holder and handed it to him.

  “Figured you for an early riser,” she explained as he drank down some of the java.

  “Thanks,” he said curtly.

  “Interesting night?” she asked.

  “Why do you ask?”

  “Just wondering.”

  “Wondering enough to watch my place last night?”

  “Could be. Late-night visitor?”

  “Are you asking or confirming?”

  “Just asking.”

  “Riley Weaver. NIC. Wanted a chat. Had some interesting theories.”

  “Can I hear them?”

  “Let’s head on to the park.”

  Chapman put the wheels in gear and they drove off. On the way down to M Street Stone explained to her what Weaver had to say.

  “Pretty good stuff, actually,” she said. “Weaver seems to be on top of this.”

  “If he can narrow down who the target was it’ll be even better.”

  “Shouldn’t be too difficult. How many events are there at Lafayette Park?”

  “More than you might imagine. And it’s not just government folks like the president. Private groups can apply to be there. For a special event or to protest. It can be quite a lengthy list.”

  “Still, we should be able to narrow it down. And at least the threat has been removed.”

  “No it hasn’t.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Because we don’t really know what the threat is yet. We have to assume they’ll try again. Getting the bomb in the park took a lot of work. The target has to justify that level of effort. They won’t leave it like this.”

  They arrived near the area, and after passing through various security checkpoints, they walked onto the grass of Lafayette Park. Stone looked around. It was still early and there were few folks about, all of them authorized, of course. The park and vicinity were still shu
t down to the public.

  Stone sat on a bench and finished his coffee while Chapman hovered in front of him. “Is it true you used to sort of live in the park?” she asked.

  “Yes.”

  “Why?”

  “Why not?”

  “Okay, this is going nowhere.”

  “I was protesting. You’re allowed to do that in this country.”

  “What were you protesting about?”

  “Everything, pretty much.”

  “What, taxes and stuff?”

  “No, I never made enough money to pay taxes.”

  “So what, then?”

  Stone stared over at the White House. “Just things that I thought weren’t right.”

  “Are they right now?”

  “I doubt it.”

  “But you stopped protesting?”

  “Just because I’m no longer at the park full-time doesn’t mean I’m not still protesting.”

  “Do you trust Weaver? From what you said, the man was pouring his heart out to you. Seemed legitimately concerned.”

  “He was legitimately concerned. That somebody was going to perpetrate another 9/11 on his watch. I’m sure he will do all he can to stop that from happening. And I’m sure he will try and capture all the credit for doing so while leaving the rest of us in the dark if he can.”

  “No honor among thieves or spies?”

  “I see that as a case of splitting hairs, actually.”

  Chapman threw her empty coffee cup away in a trash can and sat down next to him. “So we’re waiting on the FBI’s follow-up on the trail of the tree and who had the opportunity to put a bomb inside it. And Weaver is going to find out who might’ve been the real target at the park. Doesn’t leave a lot for us to do.”

  “Why inside a basketball?” asked Stone suddenly.

  “What?”

  “If the bomb is inside the root ball why bother to put it in a basketball? It would take up more room and any hump through the burlap might’ve raised suspicions. So why not just wedge the bomb in the root ball.”

  “I actually think I have the answer to that. Moisture.”

  He looked at her. “Go on.”

  “That tree is obviously going to be planted in the dirt. And watered. Probably soaked since it’s a new planting and they want to get it established. Unless it’s a completely encased mechanism meant for underwater use, presumably military in nature, explosive devices do not much like water. In fact, a little bit of liquid seeping in can foul a switch in no time, or even render the explosive element useless. You put it in a basketball, it’s sealed watertight. Or at least watertight enough.”

  “Okay. But would a basketball be the first thing that occurs to you as far as a watertight compartment?”

  “I don’t play the game, so no, it wouldn’t for me.” She sat up straighter. “But you’re thinking the choice of the basketball might be a clue as to the bomber’s identity?”

  “It’s certainly a possibility. And since clues have been particularly hard to come by with this case, we can’t afford to ignore any possible ones.”

  “Then you’ve bought into Weaver’s theory that the guns and the bomb were done by two separate organizations? Guns possibly by the Yemeni group and bomb by person or persons unknown?”

  “I won’t go so far as to say I agree with it, but it’s intriguing enough to check out.”

  “So why did they fire all those bullets and not hit a damn thing?”

  “I wish I could tell you the answer to that. In my mind it’s critical.”

  “This basketball thing is not so popular in my part of the world.”

  “True. Though I can’t imagine a bunch of millionaire NBA players have banded together to blow someone up at Lafayette Park.”

  “But the bombers might have some other connection to the game.”

  Stone pulled out his phone and made a call. “Agent Gross, Stone here. I’m down at the park and I have some information for you and a question.” He told Gross about his meeting with Weaver and the NIC chief’s theory of the case. Then he told Gross about his basketball idea.

  Gross said, “Okay. I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes and we’ll go talk to the folks where that tree came from.”

  Stone clicked off and looked at Chapman. “He’s coming to get us. We’re going to check out where the tree came from.”

  “Good. I’m getting bored doing nothing.”

  Stone rose and looked around. He started pacing off in different directions in the park as Chapman watched him curiously. Some of the damage from the blast had been cleaned up. And the small-tented markers were still laid out, giving the effect that both white and orange snow had fallen on the park. Weeks from now they would probably continue to find things. Possibly even years from now. He imagined a tourist happening on a bit of ear. Nice souvenir from their visit to the capital.

  He finally ended up at the crater. Chapman joined him at the edge.

  “So what’s going on in that noggin of yours?” she asked.

  “I’m missing something. Something obvious, but I don’t know what.”

  CHAPTER 34

  “DIDN’T KNOW YOU AND RILEY WEAVER were so tight,” said Gross as the FBI agent deftly handled the wheel of his Crown Vic on the way out of D.C.

  Stone sat next to him; Chapman was in the backseat.

  “Only met the man twice in my life. And neither time voluntarily. That doesn’t constitute ‘tight’ for me.”

  Gross shot him a glance. “So why’d he come to you? And not me?”

  “You’re his competitor. I’m just the man in the middle.”

  Gross made a face. “We’ve got to cut this competitive shit out if we’re really going to protect this country.”

  “Sounds good to me,” voiced Chapman. “You blokes are on the same side, after all.”

  “It’s a little more complicated than that, Agent Chapman,” said Gross as he glanced at her in the rearview mirror.

  “Just because you say it’s complicated doesn’t make it so,” she replied.

  “Anyway, if NIC would cooperate with us, it would make all of our jobs easier.”

  “And you don’t think every agency out there doesn’t say the same thing about the FBI?” said Stone.

  Gross gave a resigned laugh. “I guess you’re right.”

  “Weaver is still learning his way over there,” said Stone. “He doesn’t want the hammer to come down on his watch. He’s probably working this thing 24/7 using all conceivable methods. I was just one of them.”

  “So where are we headed?” asked Chapman after a few seconds of silence as the nearly empty streets of D.C. flew by.

  “Pennsylvania,” answered Gross. “That’s where the maple came from. A tree farm up near Gettysburg.”

  “Do they know we’re coming?” asked Stone.

  “No.”

  “Good.”

  “Shouldn’t you surround the place with agents?” said Chapman.

  “Whoever was involved in this won’t be sticking around. We go in with heat, the people left behind might clam up. I want some answers and a bit
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