Hells corner, p.17
Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
“Okay, set up roadblocks and search teams along a mile perimeter. It’s probably too late, but we have to try.”
The cop grabbed his radio to do this.
Stone said to Chapman, “Keep low and follow me.”
They made their way stealthily up to the body. Kravitz was lying on his back, his arms and legs splayed, his eyes open and staring lifeless up at a blue sky. A patch of crimson was on his shirt where the bullet had gone in.
“Single tap,” observed Stone. “LV.”
“Left ventricle. For torso shots I preferred the aorta myself.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Stone didn’t even glance at her; his gaze was skimming over Kravitz. “Working knowledge of the human body is part of any good sniper’s curriculum.”
“Well, I guess we know now that Kravitz was part of the bombing plot.”
“And somebody shot him to keep him from talking to us. That seems clear. The part that isn’t so clear is how they knew we were coming for him this morning.”
Chapman looked around. “I see what you mean. We haven’t told anyone. Gross picked us up at the park on the spur of the moment. Wilder couldn’t have called anyone because Gross is with him.”
Stone stiffened. “Damn it!”
Stone didn’t answer. He punched in the number for the FBI agent. The phone rang and rang and then went to voice mail. Instructing the cops to stay at the crime scene and wait for their backup, Stone did a hundred on the way back to the tree farm while Chapman white-knuckled the armrest. Along the way he called in more LEOs to meet them at the tree farm. When they pulled in the parking lot, he knew something was wrong. He pointed to the tread marks on the parking lot asphalt. “Those weren’t there when we left. Somebody got out of here in a hell of a hurry.”
Stone didn’t wait for the other cops to arrive. He pulled his gun and kicked open the door to the office. The woman who’d ushered them in to see Wilder was lying on the floor, a bullet hole in the middle of her forehead. Stone motioned to Chapman to cover him as he approached the door to the interior office. Crouched down, and using the wall as a shield, he turned the knob with his free hand and pushed the door inward. Then he backed away and took up position where he had a clear firing line into the office.
From her vantage point Chapman had already seen it. She caught a quick breath as Stone moved next to her.
Wilder was on the floor just inside the office. Even as far away as they were, Stone and Chapman could see that a good portion of his face was gone.
“Shotgun,” said Stone.
He moved forward, keeping his gun trained straight ahead, ready to fire in an instant if something came at him. A few seconds later he gave the all clear.
Chapman joined him as he gazed down at the body of Special Agent Tom Gross where it lay behind the desk, his gun in his hand. There were two bullet holes in his broad chest. Stone knelt and checked the man’s pulse. He shook his head. “He’s gone. Shit! Damn it!”
“What the hell is going on?” said Chapman as she stared down at the dead man.
Stone looked around. “They split us up and played us out,” he said. “It’s like they know what we’re going to do even before we do.” He knelt down and touched the barrel of the gun. “Warm. He fired it, very recently.”
“Maybe he hit one of them.”
“Maybe.” He scanned the room for other signs of blood but found none. He pointed to the opposite wall where a bullet had lodged. “Probably Gross’s one shot before he went down. At least he died fighting.”
“What the hell do we do now?”
They heard sirens coming.
“I don’t know,” said Stone. “I don’t know.”
“WHOSE IDEA WAS IT to leave Special Agent Gross alone?”
Stone and Chapman were at the FBI’s WFO, where they sat on one side of a long table and four grim men and one dour woman sat on the other side.
Stone said, “It was my idea. Agent Chapman and I went to the trailer to find John Kravitz and Agent Gross stayed behind with Lloyd Wilder.”
“Did you know whether any of the other workers at the tree farm were involved in the bombing conspiracy?” asked the woman, who had identified herself as Special Agent Laura Ashburn. She was dressed in a black suit and her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. About forty, she was of medium height, had pleasant features and a trim figure, but her eyes were black dots that bored through everything in their path. And right now the only thing in that path was Stone.
“We didn’t know that. And we still don’t.”
“And yet you left him there with no backup?” said one of the male agents.
Before Stone could answer another man said, “You left with Agent Chapman and you also had LEO support. And yet Tom Gross had none of that. He was alone.”
“I should have had Agent Chapman stay with Gross and then called in backup for them while I went to the trailer park,” conceded Stone.
Chapman interjected, “There was nothing stopping Agent Gross from doing that.”
All five FBI agents looked at her. One said, “When you’re trying to control a potential hostile situation and you have one potential bomber in your presence, you don’t really have time to yak on your phone.”
This same man turned back to Stone. “I understand that you are a recent hire by the adjunct agency to NSC.”
“But you’re a little old to be jumping into the game, aren’t you?”
Stone said nothing to this because what could he say, really?
Ashburn opened a file and added, “Can’t find much on you, Oliver Stone. Other than an illustrious film career.” The derision in her voice was mirrored in the expression of her four colleagues.
“Pretty rookie mistake for such a man of your years,” added the agent at the far left of the table. “Leaving an agent in a vulnerable situation.” He leaned forward. “What would you suggest that we tell his wife? His four kids? Got any suggestions? Love to hear them, Agent Stone.”
“I would tell them that her husband and their father died fighting. As a hero. That’s what I would tell them.”
“I’m sure that’ll make it all better,” sneered Ashburn.
Another agent said, “Have you ever been left all alone on assignment? I doubt it, since a guy like you probably covers himself at all times. Plenty of firepower at your back.”
Chapman spoke up. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. He saved my life and the lives of two police officers today. He figured out there was a shooter in the woods while we were standing around with our thumbs up our arses. And if you knew half of this man’s history you wouldn’t be sitting here grilling him for—”
“I don’t care about his history. I’m only concerned with the present,” Ashburn shot back.
“Well then, maybe you need to check with your superiors because—”
Stone put a hand on her arm. “Don’t,” he said quietly.
Ashburn closed her binder. “We’ll be filing a detailed report on this, the chief element of which will be a strong recommendation that you be removed from this case and a full investigation launched to see if any disciplinary or criminal charges should be imposed against you.”
“This is utterly ridiculous,” snapped Chapman.
Ashburn leveled a withering gaze on her, the black dots resembling hollow-points about to be launched. “I don’t know how it is across the pond, but this is America. Here we have accountability for our actions.” She glanced at Stone. “Or inaction, as the case may be.” She looked back at Chapman. “Piece of advice? I’d find a new partner if I were you.”
The agents all rose as one and filed out of the room.
Chapman glanced over at Stone. “Do you blokes routinely beat up on each other like that?”
“Usually only when it’s deserved.”
“And you think it is here?”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
Stone didn’t answer. He just left the room, left the WFO, hit the streets and kept walking. The night air was crisp, the sky cloudless. There was snarled traffic and honking over near the Verizon Center because some event was going on there.
As he walked along, Stone thought of the last few moments he’d been with Tom Gross. He hadn’t really focused on the man’s safety. He’d wanted to go after John Kravitz. In truth, he’d believed that he was keeping Gross safer by going after the alleged bomber at his home berth and leaving Gross behind. It had never occurred to him that they would attack at the tree farm and kill Kravitz. They definitely had manpower and intelligence and nerve. A formidable combination.
A sudden thought struck him and he called the number Riley Weaver had left for him. He wanted to know if Weaver had a list of the events that had been scheduled at Lafayette Park. If there was a lead in that list, Stone wanted to run it down. Someone answered the phone. Stone identified himself and asked for Weaver. The man put him on hold but was back within ten seconds.
“Please don’t call this number again.”
The line went dead and Stone slowly put his phone back in his pocket. The explanation for that brusque putdown was easy. Weaver knew that Stone had screwed up and cost an FBI agent his life. Because of that, Stone was off the cooperation list with NIC now. And forever.
As he passed block after block, his focus continued to deepen, even as the D.C. nightlife went on all around him. Runners along the Mall, tourists with maps in hand, partiers packed in groups heading to the next entertainment and office-dwelling men and women in suits lugging thick briefcases and burdened with weary countenances as they trudged home, probably to keep working.
Taking out Kravitz made perfect sense if he were involved in the bombing. One less mouth to betray the people behind it. They must have staked out the trailer park and were there ready to kill the man when Stone had shown up. But there was an alternative theory that if true was far more disquieting.
They knew we were coming.
In order to do that, they either would have needed to follow them or been ahead of them. Both scenarios carried serious implications and also the possibility of a mole in their ranks. But why the tree farm? Had Lloyd Wilder been involved as well? If so, the man was a consummate actor. The woman in the office? A long shot.
Tom Gross? But why take him out? He was the lead investigator, but he would simply be replaced with another. And the murder of an FBI agent would only result in the formidable Bureau tripling its already heightened effort to find those behind the Lafayette Park incident. It made no sense at all. None.
He arrived at his destination, flashed his badge to gain admittance and entered Lafayette Park. At least his credentials hadn’t been pulled. Yet. He sat on a bench, surveyed the surroundings where the investigative work was still going on. His mind swirled with recent events, not one bit of it solidifying into something useful. It was just mist, vapor. As soon as he focused on something promising, it vanished.
His gaze shifted to the White House across the street. The bombing had no doubt popped the president’s bubble of safety that he believed he had here. Every security force involved in defending this bit of earth had suffered a hard blow to their professional egos.
Hell’s Corner, Stone thought, was indeed living up to its name.
When he looked up he saw the man approaching. A part of him was surprised, but another part was not. He drew a long breath and waited.
THE CAMEL CLUB MINUS ITS LEADER sat around Caleb Shaw’s condo in Alexandria, Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River. Caleb had just finished serving tea and coffee to everyone except Reuben. The big man had brought his own hip flask with something presumably stronger in it than Earl Grey or Maxwell House.
Annabelle was dressed in a black skirt, loafers and a jean jacket. She spoke first and her tone was blunt. “How bad is it, Alex?”
Alex Ford, still wearing a suit and tie from his workday, leaned forward on the hassock, took a sip of coffee and said, “Pretty bad. An FBI agent is dead along with three other people, including at least one bombing suspect.”
“And they’re blaming Oliver?” asked Caleb with an air of indignation.
“Yes,” Alex said. “Whether rightly or wrongly. I told Oliver that there were many people unhappy with him being involved in this case, and now it’s come home to roost.”
Harry Finn was leaning against the wall. He’d finished his coffee and put his cup down. “Meaning making a scapegoat out of Oliver is a great way to kick him off the case?”
“Right. Although knowing Oliver, he probably does blame himself for what happened.”
Reuben growled, “You go after terrorists, people can get hurt. And they damn well asked him back into the fold, not the other way around.”
“That’s what’s so infuriating, Alex,” said Annabelle. “He didn’t have to do this at all. Now he’s in there risking his life and they blame him for someone getting killed.”
Alex spread his hands. “Annabelle, don’t be naïve. This is Washington. There’s nothing fair about any of it.”
She flung her long hair out of her face. “That makes me feel so much better.”
Caleb spoke up. “But what will happen now?”
“An investigation is being conducted. Two of them, actually. The search for the terrorists goes on, obviously. But now there will be a secondary inquiry regarding what happened that led to the death of Agent Gross and the others. To determine if there’s any evidence of negligence or wrongdoing.”
“With respect to Oliver, you mean,” interjected Annabelle.
“What might happen to him, worst case?” asked Caleb.
“Worst case? He might go to prison depending on how it plays out. But that’s unlikely. He might be kicked off the case. That’s far more likely. Even with his friends in high places, no one can stand that heat for long. Especially if the media starts riding that horse right into the ground.”
“This is a nightmare,” said Caleb. “If the media does enter the fray then they’ll start investigating Oliver and his past.”
“The man doesn’t have a past, at least officially,” noted Reuben in a deep grumble.
“Exactly,” said Caleb. “That’s my point. They will be relentless in trying to find out exactly who he is.”
“The government won’t want that,” said Alex.
Reuben nodded in a knowing fashion. “He knows too damn much. A lot of stuff that would be embarrassing if it came out now.”
Annabelle said, “Triple Six stuff, you mean?”
“You… you don’t think the government… might try to silence him?” she said in a halting voice.
Caleb looked incredulous. “This isn’t the Soviet Union, Annabelle. We don’t assassinate our own people.”
Annabelle glanced at Alex, who quickly looked away. She said, “All right. He’s helped all of us in one way or another. Which begs the question of why we’re here debating whether to help him or not.”
“That’s not the question,” Alex said. “The question is, by trying to help him will we make it even worse for him?”
“How is that possible?” she asked. “Right now he has everyone against him. He needs us. We’re all he has left.”
“He made his position on that pretty clear,” said Alex. “He doesn’t want our help.”
“Only because he doesn’t want us in danger,” she shot back. “And speaking for myself, that’s not a good enough reason.”
She rose. “So I’m going to help him, whether he wants that help or not.”
JAMES MCELROY SAT DOWN next to Stone on the bench while the Brit’s security team hove
“Chapman has filled me in on the particulars,” said McElroy.
“She said you saved her life.”
Hells Corner by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes