Hells corner, p.16
Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
of finesse never hurts.”
Many miles later they pulled past the gates of the Keystone Tree Farm. The paved road led them to a long one-story building painted white with a green metal roof. In the background were various outbuildings both small and large with several big enough to accommodate fifty-foot-tall trees. The parking lot held a few dusty pickup trucks, a compact car and a black Escalade SUV. The three climbed out of the Vic and headed to a door marked “Office.”
A plump woman in too-tight jeans directed them back to a small room where a large man sat behind a metal desk, a phone to his ear. He waved them in and pointed to two chairs. When Gross flashed his badge the man said into the phone, “I’ll have to call you back.”
He put down the receiver, rose, tucked in his shirt where it had ridden out and said, “Can I see that badge again?”
Gross moved closer and held his commission and badge out to the man for several long seconds. Even after the man looked away Gross held up the FBI shield as though to convey the significance of their presence.
“What can I do for you?” said the man uneasily.
Gross said, “A name would be good for starters.”
The man cleared his throat, “Lloyd, Lloyd Wilder.”
“And you run this place?”
“I’m the foreman, yeah. Ten years now. What’s this about?”
Gross perched on the edge of the man’s desk while Stone leaned against one wall and Chapman sat in a chair. All of them peered at Wilder, who swallowed nervously and nearly fell back into his chair.
“Look,” Wilder began, “those guys told me they were legal. Okay, maybe they didn’t have all the paperwork, but do you know how much red tape there is? Take me all day every day just to read through the stuff, and I can’t find anybody else willing to do this sort of work and—”
Stone, catching on to this before Gross did, said coldly, “We’re not with Immigration. The shield said FBI, not ICE.”
Wilder looked from one to the other. “FBI?”
Gross leaned down so his face was uncomfortably close to Wilder’s. “FBI. That fellow over there is with the counterterrorism folks. The lady with MI6 out of the UK.”
Wilder eyed Chapman with an incredulous look. “MI6. Like James Bond?”
“Better than Bond, actually,” said Chapman. “Like dear James on steroids.”
Gross added, “And we could give a crap about your illegal aliens, but if you don’t cooperate ICE sure will be interested.”
Wilder’s face sagged. “But if you ain’t here about them, what are you here about?”
“You watch the news?”
“Yeah, I check out ESPN every night.”
“I mean the real news.”
“Oh, I mean some days. Why?”
“Explosion at Lafayette Park?” added Gross. “You hear about that?”
“Hell yes. It’s all over the place.”
They all stared at him pointedly and he looked back, puzzled.
“But what’s that got to do with me?” he finally blurted out.
“We believe the bomb was planted in the tree that came from this place of business.”
“Come on, you got to be kidding me.” Wilder grinned weakly. “Wait a minute. You guys ain’t really Feds, right? This is some kind of joke, ain’t it?”
Gross moved closer to him. “When a bomb goes off that close to the president of the United States, I can’t find anything remotely funny about it, Mr. Wilder. Can you?”
The smile faded. “So this is the real thing? You guys really are cops?”
“We really are. And we want to know how a bomb got in one of your trees.”
As the full weight of what was happening descended on him, Wilder appeared to be hyperventilating. “Oh Jesus. Oh sweet Jesus.” The man started rocking back and forth.
Stone moved around beside him and placed a calming hand on his shoulder. “We’re not accusing you of anything, Mr. Wilder,” he said. “And from your reaction, it seems clear you don’t know anything about it. But you may be able to help us nonetheless. Now take a couple of deep breaths and try to relax.” He squeezed the man’s shoulder.
Wilder finally calmed and nodded. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you. I mean that. I’m a patriot down to my bones. I’ve been NRA all my life. Hell, my daddy was a union man.”
Gross sat down across from him while Stone remained standing. Stone said, “Tell us about each of the people who work here.”
For the next twenty minutes, Wilder pulled out employment records and went over each worker with them.
“That’s it,” he said when he’d finished. “And there’s not one on that list that’s smart enough to do anything with no bomb. Hard enough to get them to hold the right end of a shovel. Although that may be because my español’s not too good.”
Stone put his finger on one name on the list. “John Kravitz. He doesn’t sound Latino.”
“Well, he’s not, of course. But you’re barking up the wrong tree there. No pun intended,” he added hurriedly.
“Why?” asked Stone.
“He’s college educated.”
“I thought you intimated they were all stupid. And nothing against your line of work, but why is a college grad digging up trees?”
“We do more than that here. John’s degree’s in landscape design, horticulture, stuff like that. He’s a good arborist. Sees stuff no one else does. Why we hired him.”
“How long has he been with you?” asked Chapman.
“About seven months. Didn’t expect him to stay that long, but he seems content.”
“Has he been in to work this week?”
“Every day like clockwork.”
“Where is he now? Here?”
Wilder checked the clock on the wall. “He’ll be here in about thirty minutes. He only lives about five miles down the road in a little trailer park off the highway.”
“What else can you tell us about him?” asked Gross.
“He’s about thirty, thin, tall as you,” he said, pointing at Stone. “With brown hair and a goatee.”
“He get along with everybody?”
“Look, the other guys can barely put two words of English together and I’m not sure they’re even literate in their own language. Like I said, John is a college boy. He usually spends his lunch hour reading.”
“Know anything about his personal life? Political beliefs?” asked Gross.
“No. But I’m telling you John is no bomber.”
“Does he play basketball by any chance?” asked Gross.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just answer the question.”
“He told me he played in high school. We have a hoop out back. Boys play at lunchtime if they’re not out making a delivery.”
“Whose ball do you use?” asked Stone.
“Ball? We’ve got a couple around here. John I know has one.” Wilder looked flustered. “What’s a basketball got to do with a damn bomb?”
“We’re going to wait for John. When he gets here you have him come back to your office, okay?” said Gross.
“Do we really have to—”
“Okay?” Gross said firmly.
Wilder managed to whisper, “Okay.”
WHILE THEY WERE WAITING for John Kravitz to arrive, Stone and Chapman explored the grounds. A few Latino workers watched them warily from a distance, probably fearing they were from ICE. Stone didn’t pay much attention to them. But something did capture his interest. Over a building behind the office, there were some holes in the wood and the outline of what once had been bolted there. Stone pointed to it, but Chapman only looked quizzical.
“Basketball hoop,” said Stone. “Or where one used to be.”
“So someone took it down?”
“But didn’t fill in the holes or paint over it.”
When they went back inside and asked Wilder about it, he professed to know nothing about the missing hoop.
Thirty minutes passed, and while a half dozen other people arrived for work, Kravitz was not among them.
“We’ll need his address now,” said Gross.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” said Wilder.
Stone pulled Gross to the side. “Chapman and I will pay him a visit while you stay here with Wilder.”
“You think he’s in on it?”
“I’m not sure what to think right now, so we have to assume he is.”
Wilder said, “I can call him at home, see if he’s okay. Tell him to come on in.”
“No,” said Stone. “No calls. Just sit tight with Agent Gross.”
Stone nodded at Gross and the FBI agent’s hand dipped to the butt of the gun in his belt holster, while Wilder, seeing this, started hyperventilating anew.
Gross said, “You want me to get some LEOs as backup for you?”
“Some local cops wouldn’t hurt,” said Stone. “Just tell them no sirens and to stay back until we signal them.”
Gross nodded. “Good luck.”
A minute later Stone and Chapman were in the Crown Vic on the way to the trailer park. Stone was driving. The sedan streaked down the highway. They passed a police cruiser going the same way. The cop driving was about to hit his lights at the speeding car when Stone slowed, dropped back and held his badge out the window. The cop in the passenger side slid down his window.
“You the LEOs they called in for us as backup?” Stone asked.
The cop nodded. “Possible suspect in the Lafayette Park bombing?”
Stone nodded. “Just follow our lead. Okay?”
“Yes sir,” said the obviously excited young deputy.
Stone rolled his window back up and hit the gas.
Chapman glanced over and saw the gun in a shoulder holster Stone was wearing.
“What are you carrying?” she asked.
“You wouldn’t recognize it.”
“For starters, it’s older than you are.”
“I know most of the major makes. American and European, Chinese, Russian.”
“It’s not a major one.”
“I know some of the lesser-known models.”
“It wasn’t mass-produced.”
“You could say that.”
“How many were made?”
When they got to the trailer park, Stone left the car by the side of the road and they made their way to Kravitz’s trailer on foot. The park had about twenty-five trailers mounted on permanent foundations and was bracketed by thick woods. The cops were ten paces back and on either side of the narrow gravel road that constituted the only ingress and egress.
“If he is the bomber he might have his trailer wired with a booby trap,” noted Chapman.
“That thought had occurred to me.”
“So are we going to just knock on his door, then?”
“We’ll play it by ear.”
Chapman looked put off. “Okay, pleased to see you have the plan all formulated.”
“In a situation like this plans usually are for shit. You react professionally to what comes at you. That’s the best plan of all.”
The trailer was set off by itself, a small patch of gravel in front. An ancient and battered Chevy pickup was parked in front, its metal corroding, its paint disintegrating. They checked to make sure the truck was empty and then took cover behind it.
Stone eyed the two cops and motioned with his hand where he wanted them to take up position. When they were in place he called out, “John Kravitz?”
There was no answer.
“John Kravitz? Federal agents. We need you to come out, hands in clear view. Right now.”
Chapman looked at Stone. The two cops stared at him too.
“What now?” she asked.
“We do it the hard way,” said Stone.
Stone eyed the white tank attached to the front of the trailer. He took out his gun. “Kravitz, you have five seconds to come out or I’m going to put a round into your propane tank and blow you right to hell.”
“Are you mental?” hissed Chapman.
The two cops looked at Stone like they were debating whether to arrest him.
“Two seconds, Kravitz,” called out Stone.
He assumed his firing stance and lined the tank up in his sight.
“Stone!” said Chapman. “You could blow us all up.”
“One second, Kravitz.”
The door to the trailer opened and Kravitz came out, his hands in the air. He looked like he’d just gotten out of bed. “Don’t shoot,” he said in a pleading voice. “Don’t shoot, I don’t have a gun. Hell, what do you want with me? I just overslept. Do they send the Feds out for that now?”
Stone saw the flash of light in the reflection of the trailer window. Immediately realizing what it was, he screamed, “Everyone down! Now!” He grabbed Chapman’s arm and pulled her to the ground. From the corner of his eye he saw the two cops hit the dirt. Kravitz still stood upright looking stunned. Stone let go of Chapman and whirled around, pointed his gun at the woods and fired. At the instant he did so a bullet was fired from somewhere deep in the woods. The two shots together sounded like a mini-explosion. Following his lead, Chapman had her gun out in a second and fired off six rounds from her Walther in the same direction.
The round fired from the woods hit Kravitz squarely in the chest, exiting out the back and smacking into the side of the trailer. Kravitz stood stock-still for about a second, his eyes wide, as though he didn’t even realize he’d been shot. And killed. Then he toppled to the ground. Stone knew he was dead before he hit the gravel. Long-range rifle ordnance was almost always fatal with a center chest shot.
Before anyone else could move, Stone was up and sprinting toward the woods. He scanned the tree line and called over his shoulder, “See if he’s still breathing. If he is, do what you can and call an ambulance. Then secure the crime scene and call in backup. Chapman, with me, keep low.”
She raced after him as he entered the woods.
“That was a long-range rifle round,” he called out. “Look for any movement, five hundred yards and out.”
“How’d you even know anyone was out here?”
“Saw the optics signature in the reflection on the trailer window. I had no chance of hitting the sniper with a pistol round. I was just hoping to screw up his shot.”
After several minutes of searching and coming up empty they ran back toward the trailer. On the way there Chapman said, “You probably saved my life.”
“You weren’t the target.”
When they got back to the trailer Stone said to the cops, “Anything?”
One cop shook his head. “Dead. We called in backup.”
Hells Corner by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes