Hells corner, p.25
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       Hells Corner, p.25

         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “But what about Ashburn? Isn’t she on the case now?”

  “I’d prefer to handle it.”

  “Just in case we lose another agent?” she said quietly.

  Stone didn’t answer.

  An hour later they were standing in front of George Sykes, who was wearing the uniform of the National Park Service. He was the supervisor previously identified by Tom Gross who’d overseen the installation of the tree. Sykes was a fit man with a crushing grip. Chapman discreetly rubbed her sore fingers together after shaking the man’s hand.

  “The maple had shown no signs of disease or any other problem,” he said. “We did a survey of the park one morning and found that it was nearly dead. No way to save it. Broke my heart. That tree had been there a long time.”

  Chapman said, “So you pulled it out, ordered a new one and installed it?”

  “Right,” replied Sykes. “We’re very careful about the materials that go into the park. They have to be historically accurate.”

  “So we understand. And the tree farm in Pennsylvania was one of your vetted suppliers?” said Stone.

  “Yes. I told all this to Agent Gross.”

  “We understand. But in light of what happened to him we needed to go back over this.”

  “Absolutely,” said Sykes quickly. “What a nightmare. And they think one of the men at the tree farm was involved?”

  “Apparently,” said Chapman vaguely. “What can you tell us about when the tree was delivered?”

  “We kept it in a secure staging area a few blocks from the White House.”

  “And then you had it craned in here?” asked Stone.

  “That’s right,” said Sykes.

  “And the tree was installed but the hole remained uncovered?” said Chapman.

  “That’s right,” said Sykes.

  Stone said, “Why not cover it up right away? In fact it was a hazard, wasn’t it? You had to put tape around it to keep people away.”

  And keep the bomb detection dogs away from it, was Stone’s unspoken thought.

  “Transplanting a tree of that size creates a lot of stress for the specimen. You have to do it in stages and check the health of the tree along the way. Craning it in and putting it in the hole was only one step in a series of them that started when it was dug up at the farm in Pennsylvania. The key is to take it slow and easy. We put it in the hole and left it uncovered to measure its health. The maple was to be examined the following morning by our arborist. He’d give us a report and tell us the correct mixture of fill dirt and nutrients the tree would need for this transition period.”

  “Sounds complicated,” said Chapman.

  “It can be. You’re talking about a living thing that weighs tons. And proper watering is very important to help establish the roots.”

  “Okay,” Stone said slowly. “But you still don’t know what killed the first tree?”

  Sykes shrugged. “It could be a number of things. While it is strange to see it die so quickly, it’s not unheard of.”

  “Could it have been deliberately sabotaged?” asked Chapman.

  Sykes looked at her in amazement. “Why would someone want to kill that tree?”

  Stone explained, “Well, if the tree didn’t die, there would have been no need to replace it. No new tree, no bomb in the tree.”

  “Oh,” said Sykes, looking thoroughly appalled. “You mean they killed the first tree and then blew up the second? Those bastards.”

  Stone could sense he was far more upset about the demise of the trees than the human being who had been blown up.

  “Well, thank you for your help,” Stone said.

  Chapman and Stone walked back to her car. She said, “Clearly the bomb was in the root ball before it got here. And the fact that the hole wasn’t covered up isn’t that significant. Even with dirt in there the remote detonation presumably would have worked. Radio signals can certainly penetrate a few feet of dirt.”

  “So it seems, despite my misgivings, that the tree farm was the key and any connection there was lost when Kravitz died.”

  “They’ve certainly tidied up the trail behind them,” noted Chapman. “Wait a minute, were these nanobot things found at Kravitz’s trailer?”

  “Not to my knowledge, no.”

  “Well, wouldn’t they have been?”

  “I don’t know. But that’s something we have to find out.”

  Chapman checked her watch. “I need to go report in and also debrief Sir James.”

  “I’m going to the Library of Congress to talk to Caleb.”

  “Your intrepid researcher?”

  Stone smiled. “He is quite good if you know his strengths.”

  “How about dinner tonight?” she asked suddenly.

  Stone turned to look at her. “All right,” he said slowly. “Where?”

  “Restaurant on Fourteenth Street called Ceiba. Been wanting to go there. We can compare notes. Say around seven?”

  Stone nodded and walked off while Chapman hurried back to her car and drove not to the British embassy but to a hotel in Tysons Corner, Virginia. She rode the elevator to the sixth floor. She opened the door to a room and went in. It was a large suite made up of a spacious living room, bedroom and dining area. She looked out at the views from the window, took off her jacket and shoes and rubbed her feet as she sat on the couch. She pulled her gun and studied it. When the knock came she put the Walther away.

  She padded across the room and opened the door.

  The man entered and she resumed her seat and looked up at him.

  “I don’t bloody well like this,” she snapped. “Not at all.”

  NIC director Riley Weaver stared down at her. “It doesn’t really matter what you like or not. And the authorization goes to the top on both sides.”

  “How do I know that for sure?” she snarled.

  “Because it’s true, Mary,” said James McElroy as he limped in from the bedroom.


  STONE MADE A STOP FIRST at the hospital to check on Reuben. He heard his friend’s voice long before he got to his room. Apparently from the little Stone could make out, Reuben wanted to leave but the doctors were unwilling to release him for several more days.

  Annabelle met him at the doorway to Reuben’s room. “Maybe you can talk some sense into him,” she barked.

  “I doubt it,” said Stone. “But I’ll try.”

  “I’m fine,” bellowed Reuben as Stone came into his line of sight. “It’s not like this was the first time I’ve been shot. But I’ll take a damn bullet over Nurse Ratchet here poking me with needles in places I don’t want to be poked.”

  The nurse taking his vitals merely rolled her eyes at Reuben’s comment. As she turned to leave she whispered to Stone, “Good luck.”

  Stone looked down at Reuben. “I take it you want to leave?”

  “What I want to do is get the assholes who did this to me.”

  Stone pulled up a chair and sat down at about the time Caleb wandered in with a vase of flowers.

  “What the hell are those?” snapped Reuben.

  Caleb frowned at the man’s ungrateful attitude. “They’re peonies. Very hard to get this time of year.”

  Reuben looked mortified. “Are you saying you brought me flowers?”

  “Yes. To brighten up this very depressing room. Look, it’s all gray and blah. You’ll never get well because you’ll be too depressed.”

  “I think they’re beautiful,” said Annabelle as she took the flowers from Caleb and smelled them.

  “You would think that. You’re a girl,” said Reuben. “But guys don’t bring guys flowers.” He suddenly leveled a ferocious gaze at Caleb. “Did anyone see you bring those in?”

  “What? I… Well, I suppose. A few. The people at the nurses’ station were admiring them.”

  Reuben, who had been sitting up in bed, collapsed back. “Oh great. They probably think we’re dating.”

  Caleb exclaimed, “I’m not gay.”

“Yeah, but you look like you are,” shot back Reuben.

  Caleb scowled. “I look like I am? How exactly do gay people look, Mr. stereotyping Neanderthal?”

  Reuben moaned and put a pillow over his face. From under it they heard him grumble, “Next time bring me a beer, for Chrissakes. Or better yet, a Playboy.”

  While Annabelle went in search of a vase for the flowers, Stone turned to Caleb. “I received your list of events coming up at Lafayette Park. I wanted to see you about it.”

  Reuben took the pillow off his face and said, “Where are you going with that?”

  Stone quickly explained things to him and added, “But there are a lot of events.”

  “There are,” agreed Caleb. “But I’ve been doing some digging and I’ve been able to narrow it down.” He pulled some slips of paper from his pocket and laid them out on the end of the bed as Stone leaned over to see them.

  Caleb explained, “I started with the assumption that this must be really big. Otherwise why go to all the trouble at Lafayette Park.”

  “Agreed,” said Stone.

  Annabelle came back into the room with the flowers in a vase, set it down on a counter and joined them.

  “There are five events that I think fall into that category,” continued Caleb. “They all occur within the next month. First, there’s a climate change rally. Then an antitax protest. Lots of people and lots of potential casualties at each one of those. Next, the president is giving a speech to honor the soldiers killed in the wars in the Middle East, along with the French president.”

  Reuben piped up, “That gets my vote. Two leaders with one pop. And all that stuff happened at the park when the British prime minister was there. Maybe they’re going after the E.U.”

  Stone said, “Go on, Caleb, and finish the list.”

  Caleb continued, “Fourth, there’s a world hunger protest. And last a demonstration against nuclear weapons.”

  “I’m telling you, terrorists will go with quality over quantity,” said Reuben. “You take out a couple heads of state over killing lots of ordinary citizens.”

  Annabelle shook her head. “Not necessarily. It depends on who’s behind the plot. If it’s some antiwar group or people who think climate change is a crock, those events could have been the targets.”

  Stone said, “I doubt the Russians are all that interested in our tax policies.”

  “The Russians!” exclaimed Caleb. “They’re behind this?”

  Stone ignored his friend’s query and said thoughtfully, “I wonder how far away one would have to be to remotely detonate a bomb buried in the earth? And, second, how would the bombers know where the podium would be situated with the heads of state? I know they place the stages in different spots. Sometimes even on the sidewalk. This bomb would have done no damage to them in that event.”

  Reuben said, “I’d ask Alex. If it turns out the stage was going to be set up near the Jackson statue then I think that confirms there’s a spy.”

  Stone replied, “I think you’re right.”

  Annabelle said, “I’ll call him. We’re getting together later anyway.”

  Caleb added, “And I have to get back to work.”

  “So do I,” said Stone.

  “And what about me?” complained Reuben. “You guys go off having fun while I’m stuck in here.”

  At that moment an attendant came in with Reuben’s lunch. She put the tray in front of him and took off the top to reveal a dark spongy mass that was apparently a piece of meat, some stringy vegetables, a doughy roll and a sippy cup with what looked like pee in it.

  Reuben whimpered, “Please get me the hell out of here.”

  “As soon as possible, Reuben, I promise,” said Stone as he hurried out.

  “Enjoy your flowers,” snapped Caleb. “And next time I’ll be sure to bring my Village People’s greatest hits collection for all to hear. And I might just wear a very flamboyant scarf and my skinny jeans.” He stalked out.

  Annabelle leaned over and kissed Reuben on the cheek and brushed back his matted hair. “Hang in there, big guy. And just remember we almost lost you. What would I do without my Reuben?”

  He smiled at this comment and watched her leave. He waited for a few moments to make sure they were gone and then he picked up the vase. He took a deep sniff of the peonies and sat back with a contented look.


  MARY CHAPMAN LET THE WATER wash over her, the steam in the shower rising like morning mist over a lake. She slapped the wall of the shower in frustration, ducked her head under the cascading water and took a deep, controlling breath. She turned off the water, stepped out of the shower, toweled off and sat on the bed.

  The meeting with Director Weaver and Sir James had been efficient and hit on all relevant points. This was part of the job. She should have no problem with any of it. It was the reason she’d been brought over here. But she did have a problem with it. And she didn’t know what to do about it.

  She dried her hair, took her time choosing what to wear, slipped on her heels and jewelry, grabbed her bag and gun and walked down to the front of the hotel after calling for her car. She drove into D.C. fighting the rush-hour traffic. He was already there waiting for her.

  She smiled at Stone, who’d changed clothes and was dressed in a pair of slacks and a white long-sleeved shirt that matched the color of his close-cropped hair and offset nicely the deep tan on his square-jawed face. He’d rolled the shirtsleeves up to reveal ropy forearms. At six-two, he looked even taller because of his leanness. Yet when he’d grabbed her arm outside John Kravitz’s trailer she had felt the immense strength in his grip. Even at his age the man was still made of iron. She presumed he would be until the day he died. Which might be sooner than anyone expected.

  When she thought this Chapman stopped smiling.

  “I never thanked you for saving my life back at your cottage,” she said. “The flash-bang got me, but not you.”

  “Well, we’d both be dead except for you. I’ve never seen anyone move that fast.”

  “High praise coming from you.”

  He momentarily put a hand on the small of her back as they were escorted to a table overlooking Fourteenth Street. He was more than twenty years older than her, but still, there was something about him that was unlike any man she’d ever met. How he had survived so long doing what he did. And he had the most intense pair of eyes she’d ever seen.

  His light touch made Chapman feel protected and comforted, but when he removed his hand her depression set in once more. She ordered a mojito and he a beer. They scanned their menus.

  “Productive afternoon?” he asked, eyeing her over the menu.

  She felt her face growing warm as she looked over at him. “A little boring, actually. Reports and briefings are not my strong suits. How about you?”

  Stone’s cell phone buzzed. He looked at the number and answered it.

  He mouthed the name Agent Ashburn.

  He listened. His eyes twitched. He shot a glance at Chapman. “Right, thanks for the heads-up.”

  “What’s up?” Chapman asked after he put his phone away.

  “They just found the Latinos from the tree farm in Pennsylvania.”

  “What do you mean they found them?”

  “Dead. Execution style. Bodies dumped in a ravine.”

  Chapman sat back, her face pale. “But why kill them?”

  “The guy saw someone taking down a basketball hoop. He didn’t tell the cops. He told Annabelle. And now they’re all dead.”

  Chapman nodded. “They’re cleaning up loose ends.”

  “Looks to be. Probably the only reason they didn’t kill everyone at the tree farm along with Gross and the supervisor is because they knew we were coming.”


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