Hells corner, p.2
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Hells Corner, p.2
Download  in MP3 audio

         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “Don’t apologize for having a conscience, sir. I’ve served other men who held your office who had none at all.”

  “If you fail, you fail. The Russians are as ruthless as they come. You know that better than most.”

  “And if I succeed?”

  “Then you will never have to worry about your government knocking on your door again.” He leaned forward. “Do you accept?”

  Stone nodded and rose. “I accept.” He paused at the door. “If I don’t make it back, I would appreciate it if my friends were told that I died serving my country.”

  The president nodded.

  “Thank you,” said Oliver Stone.

  CHAPTER 3

  THE NEXT NIGHT STONE STOOD where he had for decades, in seven-acre Lafayette Park across from the White House. It had originally been called President’s Park, but now that title encompassed the White House grounds, Lafayette Park and the Ellipse, a fifty-two-acre parcel of land on the south side of the White House. Once part of the White House grounds proper, Lafayette Park had been separated from that august property when President Thomas Jefferson had Pennsylvania Avenue plowed through.

  The park had been used for many purposes over two centuries, including as a graveyard, a slave market and even a racetrack. And it was also notable for having more squirrels per square inch than any other place on earth. To this day, no one knew why. The place had changed dramatically since Stone first planted his sign in the ground, the one that read I Want the Truth. Gone were the permanent protestors like Stone, their ragged tents and their boisterous banners. Majestic Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicular traffic and had been ever since the Oklahoma City bombing.

  People, institutions and countries were scared, and Stone couldn’t blame them. If Franklin Roosevelt had been alive and occupying the White House once more he might have invoked his most famous line: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But even those words might not have been enough. The bogeymen appeared to be winning the war of perception in the hearts and minds of the citizenry.

  Stone glanced to the center of the park, at the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and America’s seventh chief executive. Jackson sat on a pediment of majestic Tennessee marble. It was the first statue of a man on horseback ever cast in the United States. The monument was surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence, with a scattering of ancient cannons inside this space. Four other statues memorializing foreign Revolutionary War heroes anchored each corner of the green space.

  North of Jackson were rows of colorful flowers and a large newly placed maple. Yellow tape was wound around flex poles set in the ground ten feet out from this tree because of the open hole several feet deep and three feet wider than the huge root ball. Next to the hole were blue tarps with the displaced dirt piled up on them.

  Stone’s gaze rose to elevated points where he knew the countersnipers were stationed, although he couldn’t see them. He assumed that many of them were probably drawing practice beads on his head.

  No trigger slips please, gentlemen. I like my brain right where it is.

  The state dinner at the White House was winding down and well-fed VIPs trickled out of the “People’s House.” One such guest was the British prime minister. His waiting motorcade would carry him on the brief trip to Blair House, the residence for visiting dignitaries, which was located on the west side of the park. It was a short walk, yet Stone supposed government leaders could not safely walk anywhere anymore. The world had long since changed for them too.

  Stone turned his head and saw a woman sitting on a bench near the oval-shaped fountain on the east side of the park midway between Jackson and the statue of Polish general Tadeusz Kociuszko, who’d helped the fledgling English colonies free themselves from British rule. The irony that the leader of that same monarchy was now staying at a place overlooking this monument was not lost on Stone.

  The woman was dressed in black slacks and a thin white coat. She had a large bag next to her. She appeared to be dozing.

  That’s odd, thought Stone. People did not doze in Lafayette at this time of night.

  She wasn’t the only person in the park. As Stone looked toward the trees on the northwest side of the park he spied a man in a suit carrying a briefcase. His back was to Stone. He’d stopped to examine the statue of German army officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who’d also helped the colonists kick Mad King George’s royal behind more than two centuries ago.

  And then Stone noticed a short man with a large belly entering the park from the northern end where St. John’s Church was located. He was in jogging attire, though he looked incapable of even walking quickly without collapsing from a coronary. What looked to be an iPod was strapped to a belt around his ample middle, and he had on earphones.

  And there was a fourth inhabitant of the park. He looked like a street gang foot soldier, dressed in prison shuffle jeans, dark bandanna, muscle shirt, camouflage jacket and stomp boots. The ganger was walking slowly right through the middle of the park. This too was odd since gangers almost never came to Lafayette Park because of the heavy police presence. And that presence was strengthened and even more vigilant tonight for a very simple reason.

  State dinners put everyone on edge. A spring in the step of a patrolling sentry. A lawman’s hand a smidge closer to the trigger. A heightened tendency to shoot and pick up the pieces later. If a leader went down, no one escaped responsibility. Heads and pensions rolled.

  But Stone had not come here to think about those things. He had come here to see Lafayette Park for the last time. In two days he would be leaving for his monthlong training session. And then it was off to Mexico. He had already made up his mind. He would not tell his friends, the members of the Camel Club. If he did they might sense the truth, and nothing good could possibly come out of that. He deserved to be sacrificed. They didn’t.

  He drew one more long breath and looked around. He smiled as he saw the gingko tree near the Jackson statue. It was across from the maple that had just been installed. The first time he’d come to this park it had been fall and the gingko leaves were a gloriously bright yellow. It was magnificent. There were gingko trees all over the city, but this was the only one in the park. Gingkoes could live well over a thousand years. Stone wondered what this place would look like in ten centuries. Would the gingko still be here? Would the big white building across the street?

  He was turning to leave this place for the final time when his attention focused on what was coming down the street right toward him.

  And his beloved park.

  CHAPTER 4

  IT WAS THE SOUND of muscular engines, flashing lights and sirens that had put Stone on alert. He watched as the prime minister’s motorcade pulled out from the west side of the White House and set off toward Blair House. The building, which was actually three town houses stitched together, was deceptively large. It had more square footage than even the White House and was located to the immediate west of the park and facing Pennsylvania Avenue across from the monstrously large Old Executive Office Building where parts of the president’s and vice-president’s staffs maintained offices. Stone was surprised the Secret Service hadn’t cleared the area before the motorcade left.

  He glanced around again. The lady was now awake and talking on her cell phone. The man in the suit was still lingering around the von Steuben statue with his back to Stone. The jogger was nearing the statue of Jackson. The ganger was still stamping through Lafayette, although the park wasn’t that large. He should have managed it by now.

  Something was clearly off.

  Stone chose to head west first. Though he was no longer a protestor here, he had come to view Lafayette Park as his turf to defend against all threats. Even his imminent departure to Mexico had not changed that. And while he didn’t yet feel threatened, he had a sense that that status might abruptly change.

  He eyed the jogger diagonally across from him on the other side of
the park. The man had stopped and was fiddling with the controls on his iPod. Stone’s gaze flicked to the lady on the bench. She was just putting away her cell phone.

  Stone next approached the statue of the French general Comte de Rochambeau at the southwest corner of the park. As he did so, at the adjacent intersection of Jackson Place and Pennsylvania Avenue security teams were arrayed into walls of Kevlar and submachine guns awaiting the arrival of the prime minister. As he continued on, Stone met the ganger face-to-face. The man seemed to be walking in quicksand, moving but not getting anywhere. And there was a gun under his jacket; Stone could see the awkward but familiar bump in the material even in the darkened conditions. That was ballsy, thought Stone. You didn’t come down here armed, unless you wanted a rooftop countersniper to assume the worst, with the result that your next of kin might receive an official apology after your funeral. So why would the man risk his life?

  Stone gauged the potential shot trajectory from the ganger to where the prime minister would be entering Blair House. There was none, unless the ganger had a weapon that could defy the laws of physics by bending its bullets around corners.

  Stone let his gaze drift to the man in the suit at the northwest corner of the park. The fellow was still examining the statue, an act that normally would take at most a minute or so. And why come here at this hour to do so anyway? Stone eyed the soft-sided briefcase the man carried. Because of the distance between them Stone could not see it clearly, but it appeared bulky enough to contain a small bomb. However, the distance between the bomber and the prime minister essentially doomed any assassination attempt.

  The motorcade continued down West Executive Avenue toward Pennsylvania. Sirens and guards galore for what amounted to a half-block-long slow jog on armored wheels. They would hang a left on Pennsylvania and pull in front of the curb next to the famous long green awning that capped the main entrance to Blair House.

  Stone spotted movement to the right of him from across the park. The jogger was on the go once more. Stone couldn’t be sure, but he thought the fat man was looking in the direction of the suit.

  Stone’s attention next shifted to the woman. She had risen too, slipped the bag over her shoulder and set off to the north side of the park toward St. John’s Church. She was tall, Stone noted, and her clothes hung well on her long frame. He gauged her age at closer to thirty than forty, though he’d never gotten a clear look at her face because of the poor light, the distance and the many trees in between them.

  His gaze swiveled again. On the other side of the park the suit was finally moving, heading northwest toward the Decatur House Museum. Stone looked behind him. The ganger was watching him now, not moving at all. Stone thought he saw the man’s index finger twitch as though on a trigger pull.

  The motorcade made the turn onto Pennsylvania and stopped in front of Blair House. The door to the lead stretch popped open. These types of limo exits tended to happen fast for obvious reasons. You only remained exposed to a possible bullet fired at long or short range for as brief a time as possible. Tonight, though, swiftness did not happen.

  The stocky and elegantly dressed prime minister got out slowly and, with the assistance of two aides, gingerly limped up the steps under the awning that had covered the heads of many world leaders. A bandage was wound thickly around the man’s left ankle. As he made his entrance into the building a wall of eyes looked outward to every crevice for threats. There were some British security personnel in the mix. However, the heavy lifting on this protection detail was being handled—as it always was for visiting heads of state—by the U.S. Secret Service.

  Because of where Blair House was situated, Stone could not see the prime minister exit the limo on his injured limb. His focus remained on the park. The jogger was walking toward the center of the grass. Stone’s gaze shifted. The woman was nearly clear of the park. The suit was already on the sidewalk that fronted H Street.

  Five more seconds passed. Then the first shot hit.

  The impact of lead with the ground sent up a little geyser of dirt and grass four feet to the left of Stone. That was followed by more rounds, the slugs digging into the grass, ripping up flowerbeds, smacking against statues.

  As the gunfire continued everything slowed down for Stone. His gaze rotated through the field of fire as he dropped flat to the ground. The suit and the woman were gone from his line of vision. Ganger was still behind him, but on his belly too. The poor jogger, however, was running for his life. And then he simply disappeared from Stone’s view. Vanished.

  The firing stopped. Seconds of silence. Stone slowly rose. As he did so, he didn’t tense, he relaxed. Whether this saved his life or not was anyone’s guess.

  The bomb detonated. The center of Lafayette Park was engulfed in smoke and flying debris. The enormously heavy Jackson statue toppled over, its Tennessee marble base cracked in half. Its reign of more than a hundred and fifty years in the park was over.

  The concussive force of the explosion lifted Stone off his feet and threw him against something hard. The blow to his head made him dizzy, nauseous. For a fleeting instant he sensed debris being blown all around him. His lungs sucked in smoke, dirt and the sickening smell of the bomb residue.

  As the sound of the explosion subsided it was replaced by screams, sirens, the screech of tire rubber on asphalt and more screams. But Oliver Stone never heard or witnessed any of this. He was lying facedown on the ground, his eyes closed.

  CHAPTER 5

  “OLIVER?”

  Stone smelled the antiseptic and the latex and knew he was in a hospital. Which was far better than being dead in a morgue.

  His eyelids fluttered open. He saw her face. “Annabelle?”

  Annabelle Conroy, unofficial member of the Camel Club and its only known con artist, clutched his hand. She was lean and a couple inches shy of six feet with long reddish hair.

  “You have to stop getting blown up,” she said.

  Her tone was flippant, her look was not. She used her free hand to sweep the hair out of her face and Stone could see her eyes were puffy. Annabelle did not cry easily, but she had shed tears over him.

  He touched his head where the bandage was. “Not cracked, is it?”

  Annabelle said, “No. Mild concussion.”

  As Stone looked around he noted that the room was fairly bursting with bodies. There was NFL-sized Reuben Rhodes on the other side of the bed, with diminutive librarian Caleb Shaw next to him. The tall Secret Service agent Alex Ford was on Annabelle’s right and looking equally concerned. Behind them Stone saw Harry Finn.

  Finn said, “When I heard about the bomb going off at the park, I knew you had to be in the middle of it somehow.”

  Stone slowly sat up. “So what happened?”

  Alex answered. “They’re still trying to figure it out. Gunfire and then the explosion.”

  “Anyone else hurt? British PM?”

  “In Blair before the explosion. No one was shot.”

  “With all the gunfire it’s remarkable no one was hit.”

  “More like a miracle.”

  “No theories?” Stone asked, looking at Alex.

  “Not yet. The park is a mess. Locked down tight as I’ve ever seen it.”

  “But the PM?”

  Alex nodded. “Preliminarily, he was the target.”

  “But a pretty poor attempt, then,” said Reuben. “Since the explosion and gunfire happened at a park he wasn’t in.”

  Stone eyed Alex again. “Rebuttal to that?” he asked slowly. With each word he spoke his head hurt even worse. Thirty years ago he could have shrugged this off and kept moving forward. Not now.

  “Like I said, it’s early yet. But I’ll admit that’s a major puzzler. Not a good day for the PM all around.”

  “What do you mean?” asked Stone.

  “He twisted his ankle. Moving pretty slow.”

  “You know this firsthand?”

  “He took a tumble on some interior steps at the White House before the d
inner started. Little embarrassing for the guy. Fortunately, media cameras don’t roll inside that part of the building.”

  Annabelle asked, “What were you doing at the park last night? I thought you were still in Divine, Virginia, with Abby.”

  Stone looked out the window and saw that it was morning. “I came back,” he said simply. “And Abby stayed there.”

  “Oh,” said Annabelle in a disappointed tone, but her look was actually one of relief.

  He turned back to Alex. “There were four people in the park last night besides me. What happened to them?”

  Alex looked around the room before clearing his throat. “Unclear.”

  “Unclear as in you don’t know or you can’t tell us?” said Stone.

  Annabelle gave the Secret Service agent a fierce look. “Oliver was almost killed, Alex.”

  Alex sighed. He had never mastered the art of balancing professional secrecy with the Camel Club’s constant demands for intelligence on mostly classified matters. “They’re reviewing the video feeds and debriefing the human eyeballs on the park last night. They’re trying to put the picture together.”

  “And the four other people in the park?” Stone persisted quietly.

  “Four people?”

  “Three men and one woman.”

  “I don’t know anything about them,” replied Alex.

  “Where exactly did the explosion happen? I couldn’t really tell.”

  “Roughly middle of the park. Near the Jackson statue, or what’s left of it. Pieces of it along with the fence and the cannon were blown all over the park.”

  “So there was significant damage?” asked Stone.

  “All parts of the park were affected, but the major bomb damage was
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll