Hells corner, p.3
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       Hells Corner, p.3
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         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  in a fifty-foot radius. Looks like a war zone inside that ring. Whatever it was, that bomb packed a wallop.”

  “There was an overweight man in a jogging suit in that vicinity when the shots started,” Stone noted. He frowned and tried to remember. “I was watching him. He was running for his life from the bullets, and then he just vanished. But that would have put him right at the epicenter of the blast.”

  They all looked at Alex, who seemed uncomfortable.

  “Alex?” said Annabelle again in a scolding tone.

  “Okay, it looks like the guy fell in a hole where they were installing a new tree. The explosion happened at or near that spot. But nothing has been confirmed.”

  “Do we know who he was?” asked Caleb.

  “Not yet.”

  “Origin of the bomb?”

  “Unknown as yet.”

  “Source of the shots?” Reuben asked.

  “Nothing that I know about.”

  “I hit something,” said Stone. “As I was falling. There was a man watching me.”

  “Could be,” said Alex warily.

  “The nurse told me they dug a tooth out of your head, Oliver,” said Annabelle.

  “A tooth? Then I hit the man when the explosion happened?”

  Annabelle nodded. “Looks to be. If so, he’s missing an incisor.”

  “Have you seen any of the video surveillance, Alex?” asked Stone.

  “No. I’m technically not part of the investigation, which is why I don’t have a lot of answers. I’m in protection detail, which means my butt, along with a bunch of others, is in the professional wringer right now.”

  “Secret Service taking its lumps?” said Reuben.

  “Yeah. This is a little more serious than party crashers.”

  “I was surprised there were so many in the park last night,” said Stone. “And had read about the dinner, but the papers said the PM was staying at the British embassy as he usually does. What happened there?”

  “Late change of plan. He and the president had planned an early working session the next morning. Far easier logistics getting the PM from Blair to the White House.” Alex added, “But it wasn’t made public. And yet you still knew he was going to Blair last night?”

  Stone nodded.

  “How?”

  “I passed the motorcade on the way to the park. It only had one motorcycle officer in the lead, which meant they weren’t going a great distance and thus traffic control wasn’t critical. The D.C. police chief isn’t going to waste valuable resources if she doesn’t have to. And the defensive cone was in place around Blair. As many guns as they had there meant it was a top-level dignitary. The PM was the only one who fit that bill.”

  “Why were you at the park at that hour?” Annabelle asked Stone.

  “Reminiscing,” he said casually before turning back to Alex. “So why so lax about security last night?”

  “It wasn’t lax. And it is a public park,” countered Alex.

  “Not when safety is an issue. I know that better than anyone,” rejoined Stone.

  “I just do what I’m told, Oliver.”

  “All right.” Stone looked around. “Can I leave?”

  “Yes, you can,” said a voice. “With us.”

  They all turned to look at the two suits standing in the doorway. One was in his fifties, stocky and big-boned with broad shoulders and a gun hump under his suit. The other was in his thirties and lean, under six feet and with a Marine Corps haircut. He was similarly armed.

  “Right now,” added the older man.

  CHAPTER 6

  “NOT HERE,” STONE MUTTERED to himself as the black Town Car pulled into the campus-style setting of the National Intelligence Center, or NIC, in northern Virginia. They passed the lush taxpayer-funded landscaping and headed to the main low-level building that housed a big chunk of America’s intelligence operations.

  One wall of the entrance lobby was lined with photos of terrorist attacks perpetrated against the United States. A plaque at the end of this line of devastating images read “Never Again.”

  The other wall held the official photos of the men who’d held the position of intelligence czar at this agency. They were few in number, as NIC had only been created after 9/11. The most prominent former director had been Carter Gray, a public servant with many high-ranking government positions to his credit. Gray’s portly face stared out at the men as Stone and his escorts walked by.

  Decades ago Stone had worked for the man, when Stone was known under his real name, John Carr. As his country’s most efficient assassin, Carr had used every ounce of courage and cleverness he possessed to serve his country. His reward for that had been the destruction of all the people he had ever cared about carried out by the very same folks he’d so faithfully served. That was one reason Stone had ended Gray’s life. And that reason alone would have been enough.

  Burn in hell, Carter, thought Stone as the door closed behind him.

  And I’ll see you when I get there.

  Five minutes later Stone was seated at a small wooden table inside a windowless room. He looked around the confines of the space even as he slowed his breathing and tried not to think about his pounding head. An interrogation room clearly.

  And that’s what’s about to happen to me.

  The room suddenly went dark and an image appeared on the wall opposite, projected there by equipment housed discreetly in the ceiling.

  It was a man sitting in a cushy chair behind a polished desk. From the view Stone had over the man’s shoulder it was clear he was on a jet. He was fifty and tanned with pointy hair cut nearly to his scalp and a pair of energetic green eyes.

  Before the man could speak, Stone said, “I don’t warrant a face-to-face?”

  A smile edged across the fellow’s face. “Afraid not, but you do get me.”

  Me was the new director of NIC, Riley Weaver. He’d taken over for the deceased Carter Gray. Those were big shoes to fill, and the word in government circles was that Weaver was slowly but surely finding his way. Whether or not that was a good thing for the country was as yet unknown.

  At the sound of Weaver’s voice, the door to the room opened and two other men filed in and leaned against the wall behind Stone. Stone never liked having armed men behind him, but there was nothing he could do about that right now. He was the visiting team and the home squad made the rules.

  “Debrief,” ordered Weaver, looking at Stone.

  “Why?” replied Stone.

  The smile slipped off Weaver’s face. “Because I asked, politely.”

  “Do I work for you? I don’t remember getting that memo.”

  “Just exercise your civic duty.”

  Stone said nothing.

  Weaver finally broke the silence. He leaned forward and said, “I understand you have fair winds and following seas at your back.”

  Weaver, Stone now recalled, had been a Marine. Marines were part of the navy, and his nautical reference showed that he was tighter in the loop than Stone had expected. The president of the United States represented Stone’s “fair winds and following seas,” which in nautical parlance meant very favorable navigating conditions. But did Weaver know about his meeting with the president? About his being shipped off to Mexico to deal with the Russians? If not, Stone had no intention of enlightening him.

  “Civic duty,” said Stone. “Just so we understand each other. It goes both ways.”

  Weaver sat back. His features showed that while he might have underestimated Stone initially, that miscalculation had been quickly remedied. “Agreed.”

  Stone succinctly gave his account of the attack in the park.

  When he was done Weaver said, “All right. Now look left and observe closely.”

  CHAPTER 7

  A MOMENT LATER STONE WAS WATCHING the prior night’s video feed from Lafayette Park. They had slowed down the frame speed so that Stone could view every detail closely and unhurriedly. As the gunfire commenced, Stone watched as people
started running in all directions. Perimeter security took defensive positions and looked for the source of the shots. The jogger started to run in the feeble way of a man unaccustomed to exercise. His strides were really short, increasingly weakened hops. His path carried him through the yellow tape and a few moments later he fell or he might’ve jumped into the hole where the big maple was being planted.

  Now Stone could make sense of what he had seen, namely the man seemingly vanishing into thin air. It was like a foxhole, thought Stone. To get away from the bullets.

  Then the explosion happened. Stone saw himself lifted off his feet and slammed into the ganger. They both went down. The tooth in his head. He rubbed the spot.

  A second later, the cameras went to static. The concussive force of the blast must have jammed the signal somehow. The wall became blank again.

  Weaver said, “Observations?”

  “Run it again,” Stone requested.

  He watched the feed twice more.

  Stone thought about what he’d just seen. The jogger had tumbled into the open hole around the maple and the explosion had happened seconds later.

  “So what was the source of the detonation? The jogger?”

  “Not sure yet. It may have been something in that hole.”

  Stone looked skeptical. “In the hole? No gas lines under the park?”

  “None.”

  “Then you know what you’re suggesting? A bomb planted in Lafayette Park?”

  Weaver’s expression grew even darker. “The implications of that are downright paralyzing, but we can’t discount the possibility.”

  “So you’re saying maybe the guy jumped into the hole to avoid the bullets and gets blown up instead by a bomb previously placed there?”

  “If so, it’s really bad luck for him. He gets away from the bullets and still dies.”

  “Who’s on the scene?”

  “ATF and the FBI as we speak.”

  Stone could understand that. The ATF handled all investigations involving explosives until it was determined that the act was one of international terrorism. Then the FBI would take over. However, Stone assumed a bomb going off across from the White House would be classified de facto as a foreign terrorist act. That meant the Bureau would take the lead. It probably already had.

  Stone asked, “Okay, let’s pass over the explosion for now. Do we know the source of the shots? On the video they appeared to be coming from the northern end of the park. From the direction of H Street or perhaps past that.”

  “That’s the prelim conclusion at least, yeah.”

  “So running north-south. There were no muzzle flashes on the video,” Stone pointed out. “That must mean they were hidden from the camera’s eyes.”

  “Behind trees,” offered Weaver. “Lot of them at the northern end of the park. But the surveillance cameras are positioned mainly for ground-level observation. So in any event they might not have picked up the flashes if the shooters were really high up.”

  “Well, the shots had to come from elevated angles,” Stone opined.

  “How do you figure?” asked Riley in a way that made Stone believe the man already knew the answer but was simply testing him. Stone decided to play along, for now.

  “If they were fired from behind the trees at street level they most likely would have carried past the park and across Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.”

  “How do you know they didn’t?”

  “Because you would have already told me if they had or I would have heard about more casualties. There are a lot of people on the White House side. Vehicles lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Sentries doing perimeter patrols. It’s inconceivable that someone would not have been hit. So high ground to low. Fits with my observations. From what I could see, the slugs were all plowing into the dirt. And if they passed through tree canopies first, they had to be fired from at or above that line. And a lot of those trees are pretty tall with thick canopies.” Stone added, “Anyone on the northern end of the park see anything helpful?”

  “There was security. Park Police, couple of uniformed Secret Service agents, bomb-sniffing canine. They’re still being debriefed, but preliminarily they didn’t have much on the source.”

  Stone nodded. “And why wasn’t the park cleared last night?”

  Weaver’s expression showed his displeasure with this query. “I really just want your observations from watching that video.”

  “I like to have a fuller understanding of what’s going on before I extend myself.”

  Weaver’s gaze lowered to a file on his desk. “John Carr?”

  Stone remained silent, staring at the digital image of the man on the wall.

  “John Carr,” Weaver said again. “Your file is so classified even I still haven’t seen all of it.”

  “Sometimes even a government can be refreshingly discreet,” noted Stone. “But we were talking about the origins of the shots and the park security, or rather lack thereof.”

  “Origin of the shots is still being investigated. The park security is really Secret Service jurisdiction and I haven’t received a briefing from them.”

  “Of course you have,” countered Stone.

  Weaver looked intrigued. “What makes you say that?”

  “Security of the president trumps all other things, which gives the Secret Service interagency heft it might not otherwise have. What looked to be automatic gunfire and an explosion happened right across from the White House over fifteen hours ago. You provide the president with his daily national security briefing at seven every morning. If you haven’t talked to the Secret Service yet, then you couldn’t have briefed the president on the matter this morning. And if you didn’t brief the president this morning about an attack that happened in his front yard, you would no longer be employed as NIC director.”

  A twitch at Weaver’s right eye showed that this conversation was not going according to plan. The two men leaning against the wall moved uneasily.

  Weaver said, “The Service said that there were thoughts of clearing the park, but plans changed. Since the PM was going directly to Blair, they felt the park would not be a valid threat point. In sum, they thought they had it covered. Does that answer your question?”

  “Yes, but it prompts another one.”

  Weaver waited expectantly.

  “Exactly what plans changed?”

  In response Stone received a long Marine stare. “Just give me the rest of your observations if you have any.”

  Stone looked at the man, reading the intent behind the blunt words. He could play this any number of ways. Sometimes you pushed, sometimes you didn’t.

  He said, “Too many people in the park doing things they shouldn’t have been doing at that hour.”

  Weaver settled back in his comfy chair. “Go on.”

  “I’ve spent a lot of time in Lafayette. Eleven o’clock at night usually the only people there are security. Last night there were four people who shouldn’t have been there. The ganger, the guy in the suit, the lady on the bench and the jogger.”

  “They all could have been there legitimately,” Weaver pointed out. “It was a warm evening. And it is a park.”

  Stone shook his head. “Lafayette Park is not a preferred destination to sit or kill time at night. And the Service doesn’t like people lingering there. They’ll tell you the same thing.”

  “They actually have already,” volunteered Weaver. “So what are you thinking?”

  “Ganger had a gun. I could easily see it without the benefit of optics, so the countersnipers should have already seen it and relayed that to ground forces. Guy should have been nailed as soon as he set foot into the red zone. But he wasn’t.”

  Weaver nodded. “Okay, keep going.”

  “Lady was dressed nicely. Maybe an office dweller. She had a bag. But sitting on a bench at that hour makes no sense. She talks on her phone, then gets up about the time the motorcade pulls in. Fortuitous for her since she missed the gunfire.”

 
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