Hells corner, p.31
Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
deeply in the game before realizing it?” Stone was gazing directly at Weaver. “Because if so, that could really come back to bite you in the ass.”
The NIC director flushed. “If I were you, I’d just keep that absurd opinion to yourself. I’ve never understood why you were brought into this in the first place. You’ve been out of the field for over thirty years, and quite frankly, it shows. To repeat, you are ordered to keep the hell away from Fuat Turkekul. Understood?”
McElroy responded. “As I noted before, Director, I’m sure that Agent Stone understands the situation perfectly.”
McElroy looked directly at Stone and gave him a quick wink.
They were dropped off at Chapman’s car. As she drove Stone home she said, “Well, at least things are explained now. The Russians are on the prowl once more. Oh goody.”
“Why the gunfire?” Stone said abruptly.
Stone closed his eyes.
“Tents,” he said.
“Tents? What the bloody hell are you talking about? Are you planning on going camping?”
“White tents. All on one side.”
This same observation had earlier led him to the government building being the origin of the shots and not the Hay-Adams Hotel. But could there be another reason?
“Stone?” said Chapman. “What are you talking about?”
He didn’t answer.
THE NEXT MORNING, after receiving a phone call, Stone and Chapman met with Agent Ashburn at the FBI’s mobile command unit. The woman looked excited as she ushered them in.
“We think we know how the tree was poisoned,” she announced as she pointed them to the coffee pot and cups set up on one table near the door.
They sat with their coffees and watched as the screen came on.
“What are we looking at?” asked Stone.
Ashburn paused the video. “This is from the DHS video taken of Lafayette Park. The time stamp shows it’s from three weeks before the bombing.”
“What made you look at the DHS tape?” Chapman asked.
“We look at everything at the FBI,” she replied smugly. But then she added in a more humble tone, “And we were basically getting zip everywhere else. So we looked at this and it has an angle that is really interesting.” She hit the play button and the screen once more came to life.
As Stone watched, it was as though he were only feet away from the park; the images were so clear, so close, every pixel vivid and stark. He leaned in as the woman hobbled into view. She was dressed in layers of filthy, ragged clothes, her face and hands blackened with the grime from living on the streets. Her hair was a mess of curls and jagged lumps that hung down past her neck.
“A vagrant,” observed Chapman.
“Homeless, yes,” said Ashburn. “At least in appearance. But watch what she does.”
The woman slowly made her way across the park, even as Stone saw the uniformed Secret Service officers converging on her. The park was a public space, and technically open to everyone. But it was also across from the White House and visited by many tourists, and steps were employed to keep it safe and presentable. Stone had seen the Secret Service remove other homeless people from the park who were either too disturbing in appearance or too aggressive in their manner. The agents were unfailingly respectful and discreet. He’d even seen some of them buy the less fortunate folks food and coffee after escorting them away.
This woman on the screen, though, didn’t seem to want the attention. She picked up her pace, stumbling along, her left foot dragging behind. It was only now that Stone could see a plastic bottle clutched in her hand. She reached the maple and fell down on the ground moaning and twitching.
Ashburn froze the screen. “See that?” She used a laser pointer to indicate the bottle of water. It was tipped upside down and its cap was off. In the halted video a stream of liquid was captured pouring out of the bottle and onto the base of the tree. Ashburn played the rest of the video and Stone and Chapman watched as the entire contents of the bottle emptied out and were quickly absorbed into the mulch top around the tree.
The next moment the uniformed officers were helping the woman up and escorting her away.
Stone said, “Did the cops notice a strange odor coming from the bottle?”
Ashburn shook her head. “Asked and answered. We rounded up those uniforms yesterday. They remember the woman, but let’s just say her personal aroma was strong enough to cover anything that was in that bottle. And they just figured she accidentally poured her water out on the ground. It was no big deal. And when the tree died some time later, nobody connected the dots. But we did soil samples from around the original tree and actually found pieces of its bark the Park Service had kept. Tests run on them confirm a poison was applied that effectively prevented the tree from absorbing water and nutrients. Death was inevitable.”
Stone looked over at her. “Good work, Agent Ashburn. I think you hit on exactly how the tree was sabotaged.”
“Still a long way from figuring out the rest of it, though,” she said resignedly.
They left her and walked to the park. Chapman pointed up ahead. “They’re prepping to plant another tree,” she said. The National Park Service personnel were out in force working around the crater.
“Let’s just hope they use a different supplier this time,” said Stone. “And check it for bombs.”
The grounds team was roughly the same one they had interviewed. George Sykes was directing his uniformed troops as they cleared debris and reshaped the crater, filling it with fresh soil.
“Guess the ATF is finished doing their investigation here,” noted Chapman.
“So what was your eureka moment last night?” she asked. “You just said something about white tents and left it at that.”
“I would have come down here today even if Ashburn hadn’t called.” He pointed to the north toward the office building where the shots had come from. “Gauge the sightline.”
“I already did that, thank you.”
“You remember what the colored markers in the park represented?”
“Orange for debris and white for slugs.”
“Do you recall the distribution of each?”
Chapman gazed around the grass. “Orange was everywhere, which is to be expected with a bomb. An explosive is indiscriminate in its distribution of wreckage.”
“And the white markers?”
Chapman hesitated. “As I remember it, they were uniformly on the western side of the park.”
“Uniformly—that’s the key term.”
Chapman looked back at the office building and then at the park. “But you told me the bullet distribution was the reason you had me look at that building in the first place.”
“Chicken and egg. I was looking at the wrong end of the equation.”
“I thought they used that building, at least partially, because it was taller than the hotel’s garden terrace and they could see over the trees. That way they wouldn’t be firing blindly. I was thinking like a sniper. That was an incorrect approach.”
Chapman looked confused, but only for a moment. “You mean since there was no actual target in the park, the PM for example, why would they care about firing blindly?”
“Right. They could fire machine-gun rounds right through that tree canopy. Who cares? But the office building allowed them to see over the trees. And in the dark that was a necessity because things look different in the dark and spatial skills deteriorate. They might have been using night optics, but there’s a lot of ambient light around here at night. And night optics can be seen by other people using night optics, and there’s a lot of that around here with the security forces in place.”
“Okay,” said Chapman slowly. “That means?”
“The shooters contained their fields of fire to the west side.”
“You were on the west side of the park. Along with our man.
“And bullets did hit uncomfortably close to us. I believe that occurred more by accident than intent. If they’d hit us I don’t think they would have cared.”
“So why did they confine it to the west side?” wondered Chapman.
Stone was about to answer when Chapman stopped him. “Don’t look now, but one of the groundspeople is staring at us with a very strange expression.”
“The young woman. Hang on, I’m going to try something.”
“Just hang on.”
Stone pretended to examine a spot in the grass with investigative interest. Two minutes later Chapman returned to him. “Okay, we wait five minutes and then we walk north and go into the church over there.”
“To meet with the lady.”
“How did you manage that?”
“Let’s just say it was a bit of girl-to-girl signaling that is impervious to male capture and translation.”
FIVE MINUTES LATER they were in St. John’s Church admiring the embroidered kneelers in the “presidential pew” of the house of worship.
“James Madison. John Quincy Adams,” read Chapman as she glanced down at the kneelers. “Impressive list of blokes.”
Stone replied, “Your country certainly didn’t think that back then. Revolutionaries and even terrorists, they were called.”
“Well, after a couple hundred years even the thorniest differences can be overcome.”
The woman, dressed in her green-and-khaki uniform, entered the church and slipped off her hat. She spotted them and hurried over.
Chapman said, “I saw you trying to catch our eye. Thank you for meeting with us.”
“I really don’t know if it’s anything. And even though it’s our break time I can’t be gone too long.”
Chapman asked, “What’s your name?”
“Okay, Ms. Donohue, what’s troubling you?” asked Stone.
“Something that was said when you came to interview Mr. Sykes.”
“How do you know we did?” asked Chapman. “He was alone.”
Donohue looked embarrassed and uneasy.
Sensing this, Stone said, “How long have you been with the Park Service?”
“Ten years. Really love it.”
“Are you from the area?” Stone asked.
She smiled wryly. “Nope. About as far from it as you can get from a place like this.”
“Where’s that?” asked Chapman.
“Grew up in the middle of nowhere Montana. God’s country. I’ve been an outdoor girl all my life.” She held up her hand. On the back of it was a tattoo of a bird. “That’s the Sturnella neglecta, otherwise known as the western meadowlark. It’s Montana’s state bird. Got that when I was sixteen. My friends were getting hearts and guys’ names. I opted for wildlife.”
“And about what Mr. Sykes said? I guess you were nearby?”
Donohue dropped her wry look. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” she said quickly. “I was just nearby working on a project and…”
“And you just heard things,” Chapman said pleasantly. “Perfectly understandable.”
“So what did you hear that raised questions in your mind?” asked Stone.
“He said we were waiting on an arborist to check the tree. And that we were putting together special soil and nutrients and such.”
“That’s correct,” said Stone. “You mean you weren’t?”
“No, we do.”
“All right,” said Stone slowly. “Then what’s the problem?”
“I know I’m not explaining this very well. Why I work with my hands and not at a desk, I guess.”
“Just take your time, Judy,” Chapman said helpfully.
“Well, you see, the arborist had already checked the tree and given it a clean bill of health. He took another look at it again when it went in the hole, but only to make sure the stress of being craned in hadn’t injured it. The soil and nutrient plan was all ready to go.”
“So you’re saying that there was no need to leave the hole unfilled?” said Stone.
“Not really, no. I remember putting up the poles and tape and thinking it was pretty silly to leave the hole that way. I mean, what if someone fell in it?”
“And someone did,” said Chapman.
“Well, anyway, I still thought it was weird.”
“What explanation did Sykes give you for leaving the hole open?” asked Stone.
“He didn’t give us an explanation. He’s the crew chief. We do as we’re told.”
“When Agent Gross came by were you all present when he asked his questions?”
“For part of the time, but then he went off with Mr. Sykes.”
“And I take it the question about the uncovered hole didn’t come up while you were all there?”
“I recall the FBI agent getting to that issue, but then Mr. Sykes said it was time to get back to work and he’d finish the rest of the answers.”
“Did any of the other crew members have the same questions about the hole being uncovered?” asked Chapman.
“They’re a good bunch, real dedicated. But they also follow orders and don’t think too much about it. I guess I’m a little more independent. And after overhearing what Mr. Sykes told you, I just thought you ought to know.”
“You did the right thing, Judy,” said Chapman.
“I have to get back.”
“Right,” said Stone. “This was very helpful. But don’t mention it to anyone.”
Donohue nodded, a nervous expression on her face. “Do you think Mr. Sykes did something wrong?”
“We’re sure going to find out,” said Stone.
THEY LEFT THE CHURCH and walked back to the park.
“So now George Sykes is a suspect,” said Chapman. “Is there anyone who’s not involved in this thing?”
“A conspiracy does require more than one person,” observed Stone.
They turned to see Alex Ford striding toward them.
“Let me do the talking,” said Stone quickly to Chapman. “Hello, Alex,” he said, turning to his friend.
“So are you going to tell me anything remotely close to the truth about what’s going on?” Alex asked, his voice strident.
“I know I’m being secretive and cryptic, but the fact is I’m not sure it’s a good idea you knowing about any of this.”
“So that’s how it stands? A member of the Camel Club in name only?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. But I have a commission and a shield now and—”
Hells Corner by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes