Hells corner, p.40
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       Hells Corner, p.40
 

         Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci

  Stone peered through the window on the left side of the door. “The place still looks lived in. She might have just gone somewhere.”

  “So Padilla blew himself up. Why?”

  “That’s why I’m here. To ask Carmen if she might know why.”

  “So you think she’s in on it?”

  Stone didn’t answer right away, principally because he didn’t know how to answer. “I don’t think so, but there’s no guarantee.”

  “But if she’s not in on it she won’t be able to help us.”

  “Not necessarily.”

  Stone moved around to the rear of the house and Chapman followed.

  “What do you mean?” she asked.

  “Now we know or at least strongly suspect Padilla was the bomber. We can ask her questions we couldn’t before. If she’s involved, we’ll know pretty quickly. Then we can take her into custody and question her officially. If she’s not involved she may be able to tell us something helpful. Something her uncle mentioned. Something she overheard. Visitors he might have had here.”

  Stone tried the back door but it was locked.

  Chapman put her face to the rear window and looked inside. “Nothing. But she could be lying dead and out of sight. Do we break in?”

  Stone already had two slender instruments out of his pocket. “It’s a deadbolt. It’ll take a little time.”

  Chapman put her elbow through the glass, reached through the broken pane and turned the lock. “My way’s quicker.”

  Stone slowly put away his lock-pick tools. “You break and enter a lot in your line of work?”

  “Only when I’m bored.”

  They passed through the door and into the small kitchen.

  “Food in the fridge and dirty plates in the sink,” said Chapman as she looked around.

  Stone looked at the dried food. “Breakfast, probably from today.”

  Guns out, they moved into the hall and quickly searched the main level.

  “Okay, no bodies on this floor,” said Chapman. “Let’s try upstairs.”

  A two-minute search there turned up nothing.

  Chapman flicked through the clothes in the young woman’s closet. “Some nice things in here. Maybe she got paid off. That story about donations might have been bullshit.”

  Stone pointed to the set of braces in the corner. “How can she walk without those?”

  Chapman examined them. “These are her old ones. Remember she said she was getting a new pair?”

  Stone looked around the room. “Okay, Padilla was involved. We have the Latinos in Pennsylvania involved.”

  “And they’re dead too. Whoever their employer is, he’s not too loyal.”

  “Or he simply demands the ultimate sacrifice from his people,” replied Stone.

  They went back downstairs.

  “Do we wait for her to come back?” asked Chapman.

  Stone shook his head. “I’ve got a feeling this place is being watched. So they know we’re interested in her again.”

  “So you’re saying we might have just signed her death warrant, you mean?”

  “If we could only find out where she’s gone.”

  They went out the back door and walked around to the front. Stone looked up and down the street.

  Chapman said, “It seems this might be a neighborhood where some nice old lady might be peering out her window to see what’s going on.”

  “Good idea. You take this side of the street and I’ll take the other.”

  At the fourth house Chapman tried, a tiny black woman in her seventies with white hair answered the door.

  “Saw you poking around. About to call the police but then it struck me you might be the police,” she said matter-of-factly. “Not too many folks look like you wandering around here.”

  Chapman showed her badge and called Stone over.

  “This is my partner,” she told the older woman. “We’re trying to find out where Carmen Escalante is. She’s the woman with the braces whose uncle—”

  The woman cut her off. “I watch the news. I’ve seen Carmen around. But she’s not home now.”

  “Any idea where she might be?” asked Stone.

  “Left around nine this morning,” said the woman. “They come for her in the big black truck.”

  Stone and Chapman exchanged glances. “Who came for her?” asked Chapman.

  “Government folks. You know, in suits and such. With sunglasses. She’s got some memorial service to go to today.” She paused and eyed them suspiciously. “Don’t you two watch the news?”

  Stone said, “Do you know where the memorial service is being held?”

  “You don’t know that, maybe you ain’t the police.”

  “We are the police,” insisted Stone. “Do you know where the memorial service is being held?” he asked again, in a more urgent tone.

  “Why don’t you just call into headquarters or some such and find out?”

  She closed the door in their faces.

  Stone pulled out his phone as they hustled back to the car.

  “Oliver, what is going on?”

  “We talked about how the bomb going off would cause events to be moved elsewhere, away from the park.”

  “Right, but that got us nowhere.”

  “That’s because it’s not an event that was scheduled that they’re going to hit.”

  Chapman sucked in a breath and said, “They created the event that they’re going to hit. The bombing led to the memorial service.”

  “With the U.S. president and the president of Mexico in attendance.”

  As Chapman drove Stone called everyone he could think of.

  “No one’s answering.”

  “Caller ID. They know it’s you and aren’t picking up. Should we just call the police?”

  “And tell them what? ‘I’m Oliver Stone. I used to work for the government before I got sacked for screwing up’? ‘There’s a bomb at the memorial service. Go get it’? They’ll hang up on me before I even finish.”

  They stopped at a traffic light and Chapman glanced to her left. “Look,” she exclaimed.

  They were next to a bar. Through the window there was visible a TV hanging from the ceiling. It was turned to a news channel. And on the screen was the memorial service being broadcast live. Stone read the scroll line at the bottom.

  “It’s at Arlington National Cemetery.”

  “Point the way.”

  “Wait a minute!” Stone snapped. He was staring at the TV screen as the camera panned the area.

  “That’s Alex,” he exclaimed.

  Chapman turned to look. Sure enough, there was Alex Ford at the ceremony, obviously on protection duty for the president.

  “Hold on,” said Chapman. “Even if you get through to him, you don’t know where the bomb is located.”

  “I think I do know.”

  Chapman punched the gas while Stone fingered in the number, praying that his friend would answer.

  CHAPTER 85

  ALEX FORD STOICALLY SURVEYED the surroundings even as he felt the buzzing in his pocket. He ignored it. No calls or emails on protection duty. They set the ringer to vibrate when around the president. And the texting function had been taken away from their phones altogether. He should have just turned his phone off. He eyed the guests coming through the magnetometer. But before they got there they had to pass through a series of checkpoints and bomb-scanning machines. His gaze swiveled to the bomb detection canines that were examining every person coming to the event. After the explosion in Lafayette Park, the dogs were everywhere and constituted their best line of defense because they were mobile.

  His phone buzzed again. He ignored it again. If his boss saw him on the phone when he was supposed to have eyes on possible threats it would not be a pleasant day for him. In fact it would probably be his last day on protection detail.

  He eyed the president as he took his seat in the front row. The Mexican president sat down on his left. There were two chairs in between the
leaders. Alex watched as Carmen Escalante was escorted down the aisle, her new braces making virtually no noise when they plunked against the soft earth. Alice Gross, dressed all in black with a veil covering her face, walked behind Escalante. Gross’s four children were sitting in the row immediately behind the U.S. president.

  The two presidents rose as Escalante and Gross came down the row. Each man spoke a few words of condolence to the women and then everyone took their seats.

  Alex said a small curse as his phone buzzed yet again. He could tell by the tone that this time an email had been posted to his account. He looked around, spotting each member of the protection detail. They were just like him. Impassive features, shades, ear buds, rigid, hands in front, staring, sweeping, trying to ferret out even the possibility of a threat before it could turn into something else, like a bullet or a bomb.

  His phone buzzed again. He cursed again, a bit more audibly. He looked around. He could manage it, if he took his time. He edged his hand in his pants pocket, slid the phone slowly upward until just the screen appeared. He thumbed his email icon.

  “Great,” he muttered when he saw two new ones, delivered less than a minute apart. Then he saw whom the messages were from.

  Oliver Stone.

  He glanced up, to make sure no one was watching him. He looked down again, pushed a couple of buttons. He edged the phone out a little more. He was able to see the screen. The messages popped up. They were each the same. By the time he finished reading one of them the blood had drained from his face and he felt queasy. His fingers hit two keys, o and k. He hit the send key and let the phone fall back in his pocket.

  He took a long breath as his gaze slid back to the president, the man he was sworn to protect. He had taken an oath, just like all Secret Service agents, that he would sacrifice his life for this man. A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead and slid down his face.

  If his friend was wrong? If he acted and it turned out to be a mistake? His career was probably over. Not because Alex had tried to protect the president. But because he had acted on the intelligence provided by a now disgraced field agent.

  Yet sometimes, Alex concluded, you just had to trust your friends. And he did trust Oliver Stone, like he did no one else.

  He spoke into his radio, relaying word for word what he had just learned, leaving out only the source. Then he added the warning that Stone had provided in his text. “It’s probable that it will be a remote detonation. Any sudden moves on our part and the bomb goes off. We need a distraction or some cover to do this. Otherwise we have no chance to pull this off.”

  His supervisor’s voice came through his ear bud. “Ford, are you damn sure about this?”

  Alex’s gut clenched as he replied, “Even if I were half sure, we can’t take a risk, sir, can we?”

  He heard the man let out a long, tortured breath. He was no doubt doing what Alex had just done, namely contemplate what this might do to his career if it turned out to be wrong.

  “God help us all, Ford.”

  “Yes sir.”

  One minute later the plan was sent across the secure line to every agent. Alex checked his watch. Sixty seconds. He did his best to look calm and professional. Whoever was behind this could easily see where all the agents were. Any hint of something wrong and the bomb could go off.

  Since this had all been at Alex’s initiation he had been given the honor of performing the ultimate task. He steeled himself. A routine protection detail had just turned into something else—something all agents had to prepare for and hoped with all their hearts they would never have to face.

  Alex counted down the seconds, his gaze moving across the rows of guests, but always flitting back to the president. At the thirty-second mark in the one-minute countdown he started to move. He made his way down the side of the seating areas, as though he were simply doing a perimeter patrol. To his left a pair of agents walked down the other aisle. The plan had been put together on the fly, of course, and they all had to hope it was good enough. Alex eyed the large crypt immediately behind the temporary stage set up for the ceremony. He took another quick breath, trying to keep the adrenaline from ruining his motor skills.

  Twenty-second mark.

  Alex picked up his pace. He was nearing the row where the president was sitting, but his eyes weren’t on the man. They were on someone else.

  At the ten-second mark it happened.

  With a yell, a woman who had been walking down the aisle to her seat clutched her chest and fell to the ground. A crush of people immediately surrounded her. The spot of her collapse had been carefully planned. She was in fact a Secret Service agent held in reserve who had been hustled into duty just so she could collapse on cue right next to the president’s row.

  The crowd of people gathered around her allowed the inner core protection detail to build a wall around the president, which was normal procedure and would arouse no suspicion. They could do nothing if the bomber decided to detonate at this point, but they didn’t have much choice. There was one gap in this wall and Alex ducked through it by prearrangement. Several agents glanced at him, their jaws locked in both concentration and concern, but Alex’s focus was only on his target.

  Carmen Escalante looked frightened. That was a bit reassuring to Alex. If she wasn’t the bomber they might all survive. If she was the bomber she would surely detonate in the next two seconds.

  Carmen screamed as he ripped the braces from her arms, but her screams were drowned by the agents yelling out instructions to each other while securing the president and the crowd reacting to this latest development.

  Like a rugby player exiting a scrum, Alex emerged from the wall of agents, the braces partly hidden under his jacket. He walked at first, and then when fairly clear of the president’s immediate area he broke into a run. He bulled his way past people in his path, cleared the stage area, pulled the braces from underneath his jacket, wound up and threw them as hard as he could. His target was the area behind the large crypt, which was the best shield they had.

  Without looking behind him he knew his colleagues were carrying the president as fast as possible in the opposite direction, running over people if necessary.

  Unfortunately, the braces never reached the area behind the crypt. The concussive force of the bomb detonating in midair was enough to collapse the stage. Smoke, dirt and flames hurtled outward from the bomb seat, engulfing the first few rows of seats, which by that time had been emptied. People screamed and ran as debris rained down.

  The president was already in his limo and the motorcade had screeched off down the asphalt road out of the cemetery.

  Mission accomplished. That life had not ended. Not today. Not on their watch.

  Due to Alex’s heroic actions, no one in the crowd was killed, though many were seriously injured.

  The agents converged on the man lying near the destroyed stage. Their focus shifted to the bloodied head, the piece of granite sticking into it.

  “Ambulance over here, now!” one of them screamed.

  Alex Ford had done his duty.

  He had saved the life of the president of the United States.

  At perhaps the cost of his own.

  CHAPTER 86

  OLIVER STONE SAT IN THE WAITING ROOM of the hospital, the other members of the Camel Club and Mary Chapman surrounding him. No one spoke. They all just stared off, contemplating the possible loss of another friend.

  Annabelle’s eyes were a dull red, her face puffy and a tissue clutched in her hand. Caleb and Reuben, his arm and leg bandaged, sat huddled together, heads bowed. Harry Finn leaned against the wall next to the door. He hadn’t known Alex Ford as well as the others, but he had known him well enough to be deeply distressed by what had happened to the man.

  Alex was in intensive care after emergency surgery. The doctors said the head trauma had been severe, his skull fractured by the chunk of crypt blasted off by the explosion. The hemorrhaging had nearly killed him. As it was, he was now in a coma and not
one of the doctors could tell them if he would ever come out of it.

  Stone went to each of his friends, speaking in a low voice, offering words of comfort. When he got to Annabelle she rose and went outside. Stone started to follow her.

  Chapman snagged him by the arm. “Maybe she needs some time alone.”

  “Right now that’s the last thing she needs,” he answered as he pulled
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