Hells corner, p.7
Part #5 of Camel Club series by David Baldacci
“I believe you know Special Agent Alex Ford. He’s waiting there for you.”
Stone gazed at Chapman. “She’s with me.”
The man looked at her. “Agent Chapman?” She nodded. “ID please.”
She produced it.
They were escorted through the front gates, although Chapman had to surrender her gun.
“I want it back,” she said to the confiscating officer, “in the exact same condition. I’m very partial to that weapon.”
“Yes ma’am,” responded the man politely.
They passed by a backhoe and a crew of men in green-and-khaki uniforms who were removing the stump of a tree inside the White House grounds. One of the men winked at Chapman. She scowled in response. As they entered the building and were led down the hall, Chapman whispered, “So this is the White House, eh?”
“Never been here?” Stone asked.
Stone didn’t answer.
At that moment Alex Ford stepped from a doorway and joined them. He nodded to the agent escort. “Chuck, I’ve got it. Thanks.”
“Okay, Alex.” Chuck broke off and headed back the way they had come.
Stone made introductions and then said, “Why are we here?”
“I understand you met with Sir James McElroy earlier?” said Alex.
“Sir? He didn’t tell me he’d been knighted.”
“Didn’t really want it,” remarked Chapman. “But you don’t turn down the queen, now do you?”
Stone said, “Yes, I met with him.”
“Just so you know, the decision for you to come back inside has not been very popular with certain other agencies.”
“And including some other folks here.”
“Who are we meeting with?”
“Chief of staff and the VP.”
“I think the VP is there to give it a bit more gravitas.”
“Have they been fully briefed?”
“Don’t know. Above my pay grade.”
They arrived at a door. Alex knocked.
“Enter,” a voice said.
“Ready?” said Alex, and Stone nodded.
Chapman adjusted her cuffs and whipped back a stray bit of hair. She muttered, “What the hell have I got myself into?”
“I was thinking the same thing,” commented Stone.
FROM THE ANTEROOM THEY WERE ADMITTED into the office of the vice president. He was a tall, white-haired and well-fed man with a reassuring smile and a strong handshake, no doubt built up over thousands of campaign stops. The chief of staff was short and wiry with eyes that continually swept the space around him, like a radar array.
It suddenly occurred to Stone that the VP being here made sense beyond providing gravitas. He was on the president’s National Security Council. Still, Stone was actually surprised the man would agree to meet with him directly and not through an underling. But then again, it was hard to refuse your president.
The pleasantries were made and quickly dispensed with. Alex Ford stood by the door, a security presence now and not a friend.
The VP said, “The president asked that we meet with you.” He nodded in Chapman’s direction. “With you both. We obviously want to get to the bottom of this, uh, delicate matter as quickly as possible.”
In his mind Stone translated this into plain English. What the VP had actually just communicated was, “This is not my idea, and though I’m being somewhat loyal to my president I won’t take the blame if it blows up. That’s why the chief of staff is here. My boss might go down, but not me.”
Stone wondered if either man had been made aware of the original plan to ship Stone off to Mexico to help deal with the Russian cartel nightmare. American vice presidents often had been kept in the dark by the chief executive. Chiefs of staff typically knew everything the president did.
The VP inclined his head at the chief of staff, who held out a black leather card case to Stone. “Your credentials,” said the man.
Stone slowly took the offered item, opened it and gazed at his face, which was staring back at him from the depths of the official photo that was part of his new commission. He wondered when they had taken his picture. Perhaps when he was sitting in the room at the NIC, which meant that Riley Weaver knew all about this. He had to smile when he saw his typed name:
Next to the photo was his ID card. On it, he had officially become a field agent of the national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism. This all made sense, Stone thought. The national coordinator worked within the National Security Council and reported to the president through the national security advisor. There was a link to the White House, but with one step in between. The president was covering all the bases. Just as his savvy VP was now doing. He flipped to the next sleeve in the case and there was his shiny badge with the agency insignia.
He said, “Interesting choice of agencies.”
The VP smiled his winning and inscrutable smile. “Yes, isn’t it?”
Yet Stone had managed to read a thousand such inscrutable faces. And the VP’s was no exception.
He believes this is all insane, and he’s probably right.
The chief of staff added, “It carries the same weight as DHS and the FBI. If not a bit more, actually. There are few doors that won’t open. And most of them are in this building.”
Well then, let’s hope I won’t have to try and open any doors here, thought Stone. He said to the chief of staff, “You serve at his pleasure.” Before the startled man could say anything, Stone turned to the VP. “And you obviously trust your running mate’s judgment, or at least hope he’s not making a serious miscalculation by conferring this authority on me.”
Both men now appeared to look at Stone in a different light.
The VP nodded. “He’s a good man. So I hope that his trust is justified when this is all said and done. I assume you feel the same way.”
Stone pocketed his new credentials without answering.
The chief of staff said, “You will be sworn in after this meeting by a representative of the national coordinator’s office. Thus you will also have arresting authority. You are also entitled to a sidearm. If you so choose,” he added in a dubious tone.
It was clear the chief of staff too thought it was madness to be handing over this much authority to a man like him. Stone briefly wondered how long the chief of staff had argued with the president over this decision before the latter had won out.
Stone glanced at Chapman. “My friend from MI6 here has a very nice Walther PPK. I think that will do for now.”
“All right.” The VP rose, signaling an end to the meeting. Stone knew that his working hours were measured in fifteen-minute increments and he had added incentive to have this particular encounter over.
Wait much longer and the smell of all this might permanently attach to you, sir.
They all shook hands. The VP said, “Good luck, Agent Stone.”
As they followed Alex back down the hall, Chapman said wryly, “Hell, if I knew it was this easy to become an American agent I would’ve come over here a long time ago.”
“It did go a bit too smoothly,” said Stone as he eyed Alex.
The Secret Service agent said, “Things have changed in the last fifteen years. We’ve got more contractors walking around with guns and badges than you can imagine. Both in force protection in overseas military campaigns and right here at home. Just the nature of the beast.”
Out of Chapman’s earshot he added, “Look, you need to understand that people know John Carr is back.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“You have a lot of secrets, Oliver. Too many for some.”
“Yes, that had occurred to me too.”
“You don’t need to do this.”
“Yes, actually I do.”
“For a number of reasons.”
Looking highly disgruntled, Alex said nothing.
Stone said, “After we finish here we’re going back over to the park. Can you come with us?”
Alex shook his head. “I’m on protection duty here. And like I told you before, I’m not allowed anywhere near this investigation. They’ve built a Chinese wall around this sucker for obvious reasons.”
Stone studied him. “Because someone believes there’s a mole in the Service?”
The other man looked uncomfortable about this observation but nodded. “I think it’s a load of crap, but you have to cover all the bases.”
In another room of the White House Stone was sworn in. Next, Chapman got her beloved gun back and they left the White House. She and Stone headed to the park.
“Pretty nice to have the president of the only remaining superpower on your side.”
“Am I ever going to hear the full story on that?”
“No, you’re not.”
STONE AND CHAPMAN flashed their badges and passed through the gauntlet of security at the park.
“What first?” she asked.
Stone pointed to a man encircled by suits. “Let’s go right to the top.”
They again showed their IDs. When the man saw Stone’s agency he motioned the pair over to a clear space.
“Tom Gross, FBI,” he said. “I’m the case agent. Out of WFO’s Domestic Counterterrorism Unit.” Gross was in his late forties, a bit shorter than Stone, stockier, with thinning dark hair and a serious expression that had probably been permanently stamped on his features one week after joining the Counterterrorism Unit.
Stone began, “We’re here because—”
Gross interrupted. “I got a phone call. You can expect the Bureau’s full cooperation.” He looked at Chapman. “Really glad your prime minister was unhurt.”
“Thanks,” replied Chapman.
Stone asked, “Has any group claimed responsibility?”
Gross led them to the point of origin of the explosion while Stone explained that he had been at the park last night. The small colored tents marking where evidence had been found had increased greatly in number while they had been across the street.
Gross said, “The media’s been all over this thing, of course, even though we’ve kept them well back from the crime scene. Damn mess, really. We’ve had to shut down everything within a full-block radius with the park as the center. Lot of pissed-off people.”
“I’m sure,” said Stone.
“The director has held a press conference in which he said very little, because we don’t know very much. The ADIC will handle the rest of the media through the MR Office,” he added, referring to the assistant director in charge and the FBI’s Media Relations Office. “We’re taking the lead over ATF, but they’re handling the heavy work on the bomb piece.”
Stone eyed Gross. “So you’ve concluded it’s international terrorism as opposed to domestic?”
“Can’t say that, no,” admitted Gross. “But because of the geographic proximity and the PM’s presence.”
“Right,” said Stone. “Have you seen the surveillance video of the park from last night?”
“Got it all set up at the mobile command post. Unfortunately, the damn cameras were knocked out by the blast. Surprised about that, because there’s about a dozen recorders stationed all around here and manned by probably five different agencies. The bomb might have been designed to jam them, though, for some reason.”
Stone’s face was inscrutable at this comment. The FBI had clearly not been privy to the unedited video. Stone filed that one away for now. “Source of the gunfire?” he asked.
Gross pointed to the northern end of the park. “Rooftop garden of the Hay-Adams Hotel. We found lots of shell casings. TEC-9 rounds.”
“Interesting choice of weapon,” said Stone.
“Why?” asked Gross.
“Limited range. About twenty-five useful meters. Which is shorter than the height they were firing down from. And it’s hard to hit anything with a TEC-9 that’s not standing right in front of you.”
“Well, they didn’t hit anything.”
“But you found no guns?” Stone asked.
Gross shook his head.
“How was that possible?” asked Chapman. “Do people just walk around in the States carrying machine guns? I thought the British press was making that up.”
“Not sure yet. And no, people do not walk around here carrying machine guns,” Gross added indignantly. “The hotel folks are cooperating fully. The garden is popular but not incredibly secure. Of course we shut the hotel down until the investigation is over. We kept all the guests on premises and are interviewing them right now.”
Stone asked, “Were the guns set up remotely or were human fingers pulling the triggers?”
“If they were operated remotely all traces were removed. For now I think we have to assume human involvement.”
“You said you locked the hotel down?” Stone said.
“Yes, but there was a time gap,” Gross conceded.
“It was pretty much chaos down here for a couple hours. When the source of the gunfire was confirmed, that was when the lockdown was set up.”
“So, easily enough time for the gunners to slip out, taking their hardware with them?”
“Multiple machine guns wouldn’t be exactly inconspicuous,” Gross pointed out.
Stone shook his head. “If you know what you’re doing you can break down a TEC-9 very quickly and fit it inside a briefcase.”
“We shut things down as fast as we could. But it is what it is.”
“Hopefully, someone at the hotel will remember seeing people leaving, perhaps with a bulky case?” noted Chapman.
Gross didn’t look too confident. “An event they had there was just letting out. Lots of people with briefcases leaving about that time, apparently.”
“That wasn’t a coincidence,” said Stone. “That was good prep work.”
A guy in a hazmat suit walked over to them. He tugged off his head covering. He was introduced as an agent from the ATF, Stephen Garchik.
Gross said, “Good to go?”
Garchik nodded and grinned. “Nothing that’ll kill you.”
Stone looked at the tent markers. They were divided between orange and white. The orange were far more numerous and were spread out relatively evenly around the park. The white markers were almost all on the western side of the park.
“Orange is bomb debris and white are locations of found slugs?” Stone ventured.
Garchik nodded approvingly. “Yep, obviously there were far more bomb bits than bullets, emanating from the blast seat.”
“What kind of explosive device was it, Agent Garchik?” Stone asked.
“Just make it Steve. Too early to tell. But by the size of the debris field and damage to that statue, it was some powerful stuff.”
“C-4, or Semtex maybe?” asked Chapman. “They can both do serious damage in relatively small footprints.”
Hells Corner by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes