Hells corner, p.32
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       Hells Corner, p.32
 

         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  “That didn’t stop you from involving Annabelle, Harry and Reuben, did it? They don’t have a badge or a commission but I do.”

  “I know none of this is simple.”

  “Oh, it’s completely simple. You’ve cut me completely out of the loop. I thought we were friends. And I thought our friendship would rise above everything else.”

  Stone started to say something but then stopped. He glanced at Chapman and then back at Alex.

  “You’re right.”

  This frank admission seemed to drain the anger from the Secret Service agent. “Okay.”

  “We’ve made some progress,” said Stone. “But not enough, and my sense is that we’re running out of time. And if I’ve been less than candid with you, it’s partly due to your being in a very delicate position.”

  “Partly?”

  “Yes, the rest is due entirely to my clumsy handling of our friendship. I’m sorry.”

  “Can you tell me this? Should I be worried? I mean for the president?”

  “I know of no specific threats against him, if that’s what you mean. And if I did, you and the president would know too. That I swear.”

  “I heard you met with him at Camp David.”

  “I did. I needed to speak with him frankly.”

  “And did he respond in kind?”

  “He did. To a surprising degree, in fact.”

  “I understand Reuben is still in the hospital.”

  “Yes, that was close, Alex, too close.”

  “We pushed you to let us help, Oliver. We’re all big boys and girls.”

  “There is still responsibility at my level. I won’t be making that mistake again.”

  “You can’t protect your friends from everything.”

  “I can at least stop putting them in dangerous situations.”

  “You said you’re making progress. Are you close to finding out what’s going on?”

  “We are, actually.”

  “And is it bad?”

  Stone glanced at Chapman before answering. “I think it’s very bad, yes.”

  “Be careful, then. And if there’s anything I can do to help, I’m here.” Alex turned and walked off.

  “He’s a fine bloke,” said Chapman as she joined Stone.

  “Yes, he is. Every time I talk with Alex I’m reminded both how lucky I am to have friends like him and also how unworthy I am to have friends like him.”

  “Well, they probably feel the same way about you.”

  “You think so? I don’t.”

  “So what do we do about Mr. Sykes? Direct approach or something more subtle?”

  “Subtle. And direct at the same time.”

  “How do we manage that?”

  “I’m thinking of a way right now. And something else just occurred to me. You know the Latinos that were killed?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Lloyd Wilder wasn’t involved. The Latinos all were.”

  “What?”

  “The man who told Annabelle he saw the men taking down the hoop was lying.”

  “But you thought Lloyd Wilder was involved too. What changed your mind?”

  “I suspected he was involved. I wasn’t convinced. But after thinking about it, I’m convinced my suspicions were wrong.”

  “Why?”

  “Annabelle and Reuben were strangers in a bar looking for the tree farm. And these men just happened to volunteer that one of them had seen someone, not John Kravitz, take down that hoop?”

  “Well?”

  “It was all staged. The man said he was hiding behind a building. As we saw when we were there the building with the hoop was over fifty feet from the next closest structure. And on a ladder and in the dark it’s nearly impossible to ID or even tell someone’s size and age. So how did he know he wasn’t John Kravitz?”

  “That’s right. And the guy did say he left before the man even came down the ladder.”

  “And right after they get this ‘critical’ piece of info Annabelle and Reuben are attacked?”

  “So you think it was a setup?”

  “I think they knew who Annabelle and Reuben were before they walked in that bar.”

  “And they tried to kill them?”

  “Operative word, tried. I know Reuben got shot twice, but they were both nonfatal wounds. Deliberately nonfatal, I believe. He’s as brave as they come, but there’s no way you’re overrunning a position fortified with machine guns by charging at them with a pistol. And they would not have retreated. By all combat logic Reuben should be dead.”

  “So they let him live, you mean? Why?”

  “So Annabelle and Reuben could come back and tell us what they heard. Another red herring, another dead end to run down, wasting time. And then the Latinos end up shot soon thereafter. More smoke and mirrors. More clues to hunt down that will take us farther from the truth.”

  “And someone is also cleaning house,” said Chapman. “By killing them.”

  “That too.”

  “If you’re right, your country is really letting Turkekul have a lot of rope. He might kill everyone before he hangs himself.”

  “Maybe.”

  “So now Sykes?” said Chapman.

  “Yes. Now Sykes.”

  CHAPTER 69

  ONLY THEY COULDN’T FIND SYKES. He had not returned from the break and none of his crew knew where he was. They searched the park and the adjacent areas.

  Stone got on his cell phone and reported this to Ashburn, along with what they had found out from Judy Donohue.

  Ashburn said, “I’ll get a BOLO out on him ASAP. He couldn’t have gotten far.”

  Stone put his phone away and looked at Chapman. “I don’t like how this is shaking out.”

  “Meaning they always seem to be one step ahead?”

  “Meaning I’m feeling manipulated again.”

  “He might have seen Donohue slip away to come and talk to us and panicked. Why don’t we get in the car and start doing a grid search? Maybe he’s somewhere hoofing it on foot.”

  They drove out and turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue on the east side of the White House. They had gone two blocks when it happened.

  The sound of the shot wasn’t muffled. It could be heard clearly above the ordinary sounds of the city. People in the streets started running for cover and screaming.

  The traffic stopped and horns started blaring.

  Stone and Chapman jumped from the car and raced forward.

  They heard a siren drawing near.

  They ran from car to car, peering inside.

  The siren grew louder. Then another one joined it.

  Chapman looked behind her. Two cop cars were cutting through the traffic heading their way. Stone saw this too and picked up his pace. He reached in his jacket for his gun. Chapman accelerated on the other side of the line of stalled traffic and mimicked his movements. They finally reached the obstacle in the road—two cars in a fender bender that Stone sensed was much more. An older man was leaning against the car in front looking very shaken and scared. As Stone looked down he could see the man had vomited on the street.

  As he approached, Stone held up his badge and called out, “Sir, what’s wrong?”

  The older man pointed at the car behind his, where the two bumpers were locked together. Stone checked the license plate of this car. Government issue. His spirits sank. He peered inside the car. “Damn.”

  Chapman was looking in from the passenger window. “Good God.”

  The two cop cars screeched to a stop and men in blue jumped out. They saw Stone and Chapman holding their weapons and pulled their own.

  “Police!” they cried out, their guns aimed at the pair.

  Stone and Chapman held up their badges high so the cops could see them.

  Stone barked, “Federal agents. Got a homicide here. FBI just put a BOLO out on this guy. But somebody got to him first.”

  The cops crept forward, checked Stone’s creds and looked in the car.

  Sykes was lying
back against the driver’s seat. The windshield was cracked. There was a hole burned into his forehead from the shot. Blood and brain matter were splattered around the car’s interior from the exit wound.

  It was no wonder the other driver had thrown up after seeing this, thought Stone.

  Chapman saw the cell phone on the front seat. Using a handkerchief, she scooped it up and checked the call log. “He got a call ten minutes ago. From a blocked phone. Maybe the techs can dig it out.”

  Stone nodded, looking around. “Right. Okay, he got the call, made a run for it.”

  Chapman added, “They set him up. Knew somehow he’d have to take this route. Lined the shot up.”

  Stone was now looking straight ahead, searching for where the shot had probably come from.

  One of the cops said, “What do you need us to do?”

  Stone kept looking while he talked. “Call in backup and secure the crime scene.”

  He pulled his phone and called Ashburn, filling her in.

  A string of expletives exploded over the phone. Having sufficiently vented, Ashburn said, “I’m sending reinforcements right now. We’ll coordinate with D.C. Metro.”

  Stone clicked off. “Cavalry’s coming.”

  “How do you want to break down the search?” Chapman asked.

  A woman who’d been standing on the sidewalk came running up to them. She was about twenty, with kneeless jeans and an iPhone clutched in her right hand and a shopping bag in her left.

  “Sir? Ma’am?”

  They turned to her. She pointed to a building farther down the street. “I was looking up at that building as I was walking and I saw a flash of light. Then I heard the car crash. I think that’s where… where it came from.”

  Stone said quickly, “Could you tell which floor?”

  The woman looked at the building, silently counting. “Sixth. At least I think.”

  They could hear other sirens coming as the backup flew toward them. Stone yelled to the two cops first on the scene to follow him and Chapman. As they ran toward the building he pulled out his phone and let Ashburn know about this development, giving her the address.

  Stone put his gun away and ran as fast as he could, his gaze darting up to the sixth floor, waiting for another flash of light to appear.

  CHAPTER 70

  “YOU DON’T THINK THE SHOOTER is still in the building, do you?” said Chapman as they reached the entrance and ripped the doors open. Stone had ordered one cop to guard the front of the building and the other the rear.

  Stone didn’t answer. He held up his badge to the security guard who approached them. “You have a possible sniper in this building. Did you see anyone come in today who looked suspicious or who was carrying an unusually shaped bag?”

  The guard shook his head. “No one like that. But I just finished making my rounds, so someone might have slipped in then.”

  Stone said, “The FBI is on the way. What other exits do you have here beside the lobby?”

  “This way.” He led them to a door off the lobby. “Down that hall and to the right. Takes you to the loading dock in the rear.”

  As they started off the man said, “You want me to go with you?”

  “No, stay here. There’s a police officer posted out front. Anything happens you get to him.”

  “Okay, good luck.”

  Stone and Chapman darted through the door and down the hall. They had only gone about twenty feet when she grabbed his arm.

  “What?” he said.

  “That security guard?”

  “What about him?”

  “Do they normally wear gloves?”

  Stone flinched, wheeled around and sprinted back the way they had come.

  The door was locked now. Chapman shot the handle off and kicked it open. They rushed back into the lobby. There was no sign of the guard.

  Outside the cop told them that the man had come out and headed into the alley.

  “He said you told him to help secure the rear of the building and—”

  Chapman and Stone ran off before he finished.

  They found the security guard’s uniform next to a Dumpster. Stone and Chapman peered around.

  “He can’t be more than a few seconds ahead of us,” she whispered.

  “Thanks to you,” said Stone. “If you hadn’t figured out—”

  She hit him hard, knocking him down an instant before the round slammed into the side of the Dumpster at the spot where Stone’s head had just been. Chapman rolled, took aim and fired. Her shots chipped concrete off the side of the building, but the shooter was already gone.

  Stone had rolled over on his belly and had his gun aimed at the same spot.

  “See anything?” he hissed.

  She shook her head. “He’s gone.”

  The cop from the front, obviously having heard the shots, came running.

  “Stay down,” exclaimed Chapman, and the cop went to his knees and then scuttled forward until he was behind the Dumpster too.

  “Backup’s here,” he said. “You guys okay?”

  Stone sat up and looked at Chapman. “Thanks to her I am.”

  Chapman shrugged. “More luck than skill, really.”

  “I’ll take it. That slug was going right for my head.”

  The three of them made their way cautiously down the alley. They picked up their pace when they heard the car race off. By the time they got to the next intersection, there was no sign of a vehicle or the shooter. Stone and Chapman ran down the alley and then slowly jogged back.

  They both stopped when they reached the cop.

  He was squatting over his partner, who was lying behind some trash cans with his throat slit, his eyes staring blankly up.

  As they knelt over the body, Chapman said, “There must have been more than one guy. He wouldn’t have had time to shoot at us and then do this.”

  “He had backup of his own,” said Stone quietly, as the cop sat on his haunches wiping tears from his eyes over the death of his partner.

  “These guys are unbelievably organized,” said Chapman. “I mean, who the hell are they?”

  Stone put a hand on the shoulder of the cop. “I’m sorry.”

  The officer glanced up and nodded and then returned to staring at his dead colleague.

  Stone straightened, turned and walked back down the alley as the wail of sirens reached fever pitch.

 
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