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

  She leaned forward and Stone saw the Walther PPK pistol hanging from her black leather shoulder holster revealed through the gap between her jacket and shirt.

  He inclined his head at the pistol. “Tough trigger pull, isn’t it?”

  “You get used to it.” She paused, swirling her remaining coffee with a wooden stirrer. “Let’s face it, this has been a cock-up from start to finish. The Americans have so many agencies I can’t get a straight answer from any of them. My boss feels the same way. However, America is our chief ally and we intend to do nothing to disrupt that relationship, of course. But it was our PM put at risk and we have an obligation to see it through.”

  “And you’ve come to me? Why?”

  “James McElroy trusts you. Ergo, I trust you. And you were there last night. That makes you valuable.”

  “Maybe. But Iran was a long time ago, Agent Chapman.”

  “Some things don’t change. McElroy said you were one of them.”

  “That’s assuming that I really am John Carr.”

  “Oh, you are, I have no doubt of that.”

  “How can you be so sure?”

  “When I was here earlier I lifted a set of your prints from a glass in your loo when I went to take a pee. With my boss’s weight behind me, I was able to get a priority search on NIC’s database. Still, it took passing through eight levels of security, a few burned-out computers and two high-level authorizations before the hit came back.” She hiked her eyebrows. “John Carr. Of the CIA’s late and lamented Triple Six Division.”

  “Which officially never existed,” he said quietly.

  “No matter to me. I was just a nipper when it pulled its last trigger, official or not.” She stood. “Ready to go see the man whose life you saved? He really does want to buy you that pint, Mr. Carr.”


  JAMES MCELROY WAS SITTING in his suite at the Willard Hotel when Stone and Chapman were ushered in. The Brit spymaster was now seventy-four years old, gray and bowed. His substantial belly poked through the front of his jacket. When he rose from the chair, his arthritic knees quivered a bit, yet the man’s roaming and intelligent eyes clearly showed that while age had decimated him physically, his mental agility remained completely intact. Though he was once over six-two, gravity and infirmity had shaved a couple of inches from his frame. His hair was thinning and slicked back, revealing lines of pink flesh underneath. Flecks of dandruff clung to the shoulders of his blue jacket.

  When he saw Stone, his eyes lit up. “You haven’t changed a jot,” said McElroy. “Except your hair is white.” He lightly smacked Stone’s flat, hard belly before extending his hand and then gripping Stone in a bear hug. “And I’m fat and you’re not.”

  When they separated, McElroy waved them both into chairs. “How the hell have you been, John?”

  “I’ve been,” said Stone simply.

  The Brit nodded in understanding, his expression growing somber. “Yes, I actually have some knowledge of what you mean by that. Events became particularly trying for you.”

  “One way to describe it.”

  McElroy’s eyes narrowed. “I heard about… you know. And I’m sorry.”

  “More than I got from my own side. But thank you.”

  Chapman looked at Stone and McElroy and said, “Care to share, sir?”

  “No,” said Stone. “He wouldn’t.”

  McElroy didn’t take his gaze off Stone but said to her, “John and I are of a generation that will carry our professional secrets to the grave. Understood?”

  “Yes sir,” she replied quickly.

  “John, will you join me for a drink?”

  “Little early for me.”

  “But it’s already quite late in London, so let’s pretend, shall we? Special occasion and all? Two old friends.”

  An attendant brought drinks for all three. Stone had a beer, Chapman a Beefeater martini and McElroy a slender finger of scotch. He looked at Stone over the rim of his glass. “Gallstones. Bloody things driving me mad. But it’s said a small measure of good scotch can kill them dead. At least I believe I heard that somewhere. In this case a rumor will suffice.” He lifted his glass. “Cheers.”

  They all drank and McElroy dabbed his mouth with his pocket kerchief.

  “The PM?” prompted Stone, and Chapman drew a little straighter in her chair as she bit into a fat olive from her drink.

  McElroy looked pained, rubbed his side and nodded in a perfunctory manner. “Yes, the PM. Solid chap. I actually voted for him. Between you and me he’s a bit dodgy on some things, but what politician isn’t?”

  “Dodgy enough to be blown up?” asked Stone.

  “Don’t think so, no. Not homegrown, in other words.”

  “Lot of enemies out there.” Stone glanced at Chapman. “Our closest ally. It’s put a bull’s-eye on your little island.”

  “Quite so, yes. But we soldier on, don’t we?”

  “Who knew he’d be walking across the park?”

  “Limited circle,” answered Chapman as McElroy continued to rub his side while finishing his scotch. “They’re all being checked out as we speak.”

  McElroy looked uninterested in this detail, and Stone was quick to pick up on that. “Another theory?”

  McElroy sniffed. “I’m not sure it actually rises to the level of a theory just yet, John.”

  “I go by Oliver now.”

  He looked chagrined. “Of course you do. I read the briefing papers. Afraid my memory’s just not what it was. Well, Oliver, it’s just a thought.”

  “Which is?”

  Just as Stone had done earlier, McElroy held up four fingers of his right hand. “A quartet of people in the park last night.” He lowered one finger. “Our man was the one whose tooth you were briefly in possession of.”

  “Agent Chapman told me he was one of yours and that he was patrolling the park. But why, if the PM wouldn’t be there?”

  “No elaborate explanation. He’d been assigned to patrol the park when the old walk-through plan was still in place. When the PM turned his ankle, we simply left him there to provide a wider berth of security.” McElroy held the three fingers up even higher. “But the bloody thing is, John—excuse me, Oliver—the bloody thing is my counterparts over here can tell me absolutely nothing about the other three.”

  “I saw the video feed. One of them is dead.”

  “Not particularly helpful. Then there’s the man and the woman. Perhaps they were just there by coincidence. But perhaps not. In either case, I need to know for certain.”

  “Why were there any people in the park last night? “I’m there at all hours, and the security detail knows me. But late at night the park doesn’t typically have visitors.”

  “Good question. Happened to have asked it myself. Have you found an answer? Because I haven’t.”

  “No, at least not a satisfactory one. No immediate threats against the PM?”

  “Nothing particularly credible.”

  “What line will you be taking, then?”

  “Remove him from the threat.” McElroy checked his watch. “The PM should be wheels down at Heathrow in twenty minutes, in fact.”

  “And after that?”

  McElroy noticed a fleck of dandruff on his shoulder and brushed it away like he might an unappealing conclusion. “We can’t leave it, Oliver. It happened on American soil, so our reach is limited, but we really can’t leave it. Awful sort of precedent if we do. Can’t have folks taking potshots at our PM without any consequences.”

  “If he was the target.”

  “Have to assume he was until facts prove otherwise.”

  Stone looked over at Chapman and then back at his old acquaintance. “Agent Chapman seems well capable.”

  “Yes, she is, otherwise she wouldn’t be here. But I believe she will be infinitely more capable with you at her side.”

  Stone was already shaking his head. “My plate is full.”

  “Yes, your little trip to NIC. I understand Rile
y Weaver is marking his territory at an extraordinary clip over there. He’ll make mistakes, of course, and let’s just hope not too many people die when he does. And the FBI also wants a piece of you, I understand.”

  “Popular gent,” added Chapman.

  McElroy and Stone exchanged a knowing gaze. McElroy said, “I’m not sure ‘popular’ would be my first choice as a description. Short leash, Oliver?”

  “Could be.”

  Stone gave the older man a lengthy gaze.

  I wonder if he knows about my meeting with the president, about me going back in?

  Stone had no reason to think that McElroy wished him any ill will, but in this business simply saving someone’s life did not ensure a permanent allegiance. And Stone was also quite certain that the PM and hence James McElroy would sacrifice him if requested to do so by the Americans.

  And then something else occurred to Stone. That’s why I’m here. McElroy was told to deliver the message directly to me from the president.

  He decided to verify this speculation. “I already have an assignment. I’m supposed to leave tomorrow, in fact.”

  “Yes. Well, plans are fluid aren’t they? One has to account for recent events.”

  “Does one?”

  “A new arrangement is possible because of what happened in the park,” McElroy said bluntly.

  “Why? Simply because I was there?”

  “Partly. Plus, in the circles in question, I’m not without influence. And I thought you could be better deployed here than in more southern parts of this hemisphere.”

  So he does know about the Russians and the Mexican pipeline.

  “You became my advocate? That’s dangerous.”

  “So was Iran in 1977. Didn’t stop you, did it?”

  “My job. You owe me nothing.”

  “Actually, you’re not telling the truth.”

  Stone cocked his head slightly.

  McElroy continued, “I did some investigation afterwards. You had already been authorized to return home. In fact you were technically off duty. The actual team that was supposed to come to my aid was ambushed en route. Killed to a man. Why do I think I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know?”

  With this observation Chapman eyed Stone with even deeper interest.

  “You were in trouble. I was there. You would have done the same for me.”

  “Not, I’m afraid, with the same successful results.” He added quickly, “Not for lack of will. But I could never shoot that straight.”

  “So just give me the basic outline.”

  “You investigate. You succeed. Then…” McElroy shrugged. “What you were promised before will remain unchanged.”

  “And if I don’t succeed?”

  McElroy said nothing.

  “Okay,” said Stone.

  “Okay, you’ll do it?”



  “So how is this all going to play out?” asked Stone. “I’ve been on the outside a long time. You don’t just jump back in.”

  “I pulled some professional strings, with the PM’s blessing. He and your president are wonderful friends. They golf, they go to war together. You know how that is.”

  “So you’re saying?”

  “I’m saying they decided it would be spot-on brilliant for you and Mary here to poke around a bit on this.”

  “Just so we’re clear, I’m not what I once was.”

  McElroy studied his old friend. “Some remember you only for your extraordinary feats of physicality, for the aim that never missed, the courage that never wavered. But I also remember you as one of the cagiest operatives that ever wore the stars and stripes. Many tried to get you, some close to home. But no one ever succeeded. I’d say you are just what the doctor ordered. And I think it would be personally beneficial for you too. And not just for the obvious reasons.”

  “So keep my enemies closer?”

  “Friends and enemies closer,” corrected McElroy.

  Stone looked at Chapman. “How do you feel about this?”

  She said flippantly, “My boss has spoken. And I play by house rules.”

  “That’s not what I asked you,” he said sharply.

  Chapman lost her playful look. “I need to find out who wanted my PM dead. And if you can help me do that I’ll go the last mile with you.”

  “Well put,” McElroy said as he rose, clutching the armchair for support. “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to have seen you again. It has really done my old heart good.”

  “One thing. Weaver showed me the video feed of the park surveillance. Unfortunately, it cut off after the explosion. Went to static.”

  “Did it now?” McElroy peered at Chapman. “Mary, perhaps you can provide Oliver with the full video.”

  “I thought there might be more.”

  McElroy smiled. “There’s always more.”

  Stone’s mouth edged upward. “Been back to Iran?”

  McElroy smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of it unless you went with me. Mary will provide you with our files to date. Good luck.” A few seconds later he’d disappeared into an interior room, leaving Chapman and Stone alone.

  “I need a ride back to my place,” he said.

  “And then?” she said.

  “And then we’ll go over your files.”

  “Okay, but we may be running out of time.”

  “Oh, there’s no question about it. We are running out of time.”


  WHEN HE AND CHAPMAN RETURNED to the caretaker’s cottage, Stone put on a pot of hot water for tea while the MI6 agent took the files from her briefcase and spread them out over Stone’s desk. She also loaded a DVD into her laptop.

  With a frown she said, “You know I would prefer to meet in a more secure place. These files are all classified.”

  Stone looked up from the stove and said cheerfully, “Not to worry, I don’t have any security clearances, so as soon as I look at them they’ll be immediately declassified.”

  “Bloody hell,” murmured Chapman.

  Teacups in hand, they sat at the desk and began to go over the documents and reports. Stone’s gaze flew swiftly over the papers and photos, his agile and experienced mind separating the important from the trivial.

  After he was finished Chapman said, “Would you like to see the full feed?”

  He nodded. “I’m wondering why I was shown the edited version at NIC.”

  “Don’t ask me. It’s your blokes’ doing, not mine.”

  “I’m also wondering if the edited version is the only one they have.”

  To this, Chapman simply stared stoically at the screen.

  They watched the feed. It was picture only, no audio. After the explosion happened, the feed went to static, but only for a second as though the detonation had momentarily disabled the electronic surveillance’s signals. When the video resumed, Stone saw the remainder of the feed. Flames and white smoke covered Jackson’s statue, or where it used to be. The fence and cannons had also been flung away like feathers. It was a miracle no one had been killed. Luckily, at that time of night the park had been nearly deserted, and the security teams typically kept to the perimeter of the park.

  Stone saw himself lying on the ground unconscious while the British agent slowly rose and staggered away.

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