John Carr, aka Oliver Stone-once the most skilled assassin his country ever had-stands in Lafayette Park in front of the White House. Inside, the British prime minister is being honored at a state dinner. Then, just as the prime minister's motorcade leaves, a bomb explodes in the park, and in the chaotic aftermath Stone is given an urgent assignment: find those responsible.
British MI-6 agent Mary Chapman becomes his partner in the search for the unknown attackers. But their opponents are elusive, skilled, and increasingly lethal. Worst of all, the park bombing may have been only the opening salvo in their plan. With nowhere else to turn, Stone enlists the help of the only people he knows he can trust: the Camel Club.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 5, 1960
Place of Birth:Richmond, VIrginia
Education:B.A. in Political Science, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1982; J.D., University of Virginia, 1986
Read an Excerpt
By Baldacci, David
VisionCopyright © 2011 Baldacci, David All right reserved.
OLIVER STONE WAS COUNTING SECONDS, an exercise that had always calmed him. And he needed to be calm. He was meeting with someone tonight. Someone very important. And Stone didn’t quite know how it was going to go. He did know one thing for certain. He was not going to run. He was through running.
Stone had just returned from Divine, Virginia, where Abby Riker, a woman he’d met, lived. Abby had been the first woman Stone had feelings for since he’d lost his wife three decades prior. Despite their obvious fondness for one another, Abby would not leave Divine, and Stone could not live there. For better or worse, much of him belonged to this town, even with all the pain it had caused.
That pain might become even more intense. The communication he’d received an hour after returning home had been explicit. They would come for him at midnight. No debate was allowed, no negotiation suffered through, no chance of any compromise. The party on the other end of the equation always dictated the terms.
A few moments later he stopped counting. Car tires had bitten into the gravel that lined the entrance to Mt. Zion Cemetery. It was a historical if humble burial site for African Americans who’d gained prominence by fighting for things their white counterparts had always taken for granted, like where to eat, sleep, ride in a bus or use the bathroom. The irony had never been lost on Stone that Mt. Zion rested high above fancy Georgetown. It was not all that long ago that the wealthy folks here only tolerated their darker brethren if they wore a maid’s starched uniform or else were handing out drinks and finger foods and keeping their obedient gaze on the polished floors.
Car doors opened and car doors closed. Stone counted three clunks of metal against metal. So a trio. Of men. They wouldn’t send a woman for this, he didn’t think, though that might simply have been the prejudice of his generation.
Glocks or Sigs or perhaps customized models, depending on whom they’d sent to do the deed. Regardless, the weapons would be chambering efficiently lethal ordnance. The guns would be holstered under nice suit jackets. No black-clad storm troopers rappelling from the skids of go-fast choppers in quaint, well-connected Georgetown. The extraction would be quiet, no important person’s sleep interrupted.
To show respect.
These people had no personal grudge against him. They might not even know who he was. It was a job. He’d done it, though he’d never knocked beforehand. Surprise and then the millisecond-long pull of a trigger had been his MO.
At least I thought that, because I didn’t have the courage to face the truth.
As a soldier, Stone had never had any qualms about ending the life of anyone who was trying to terminate his. War was Darwinism at its most efficient and the rules were innately commonsensical, kill or be killed chief among them. However, what he had done after leaving the military had been different in a way that left him permanently mistrustful of those in power.
He stood in the doorway, framed by the light behind him. He would have chosen this moment to fire, if he’d been on the trigger side. Quick, clean, no chance of missing. He’d given them their opportunity.
They didn’t take it. They were not going to kill him.
It was actually four men, and Stone felt slight apprehension that his observations had been flawed.
The leader of the pack was trim, five-ten, short hair and efficient eyes that took in everything and gave nothing in return. He motioned to the vehicle parked by the gate, a black Escalade. There was a time when Stone would have rated a platoon of crackerjack killers coming for him by land, sea and air. Those days, apparently, were over. A quartet of suits in a Cadillac on steroids was enough.
There were no unnecessary words uttered. He was expertly searched and ushered into the vehicle. He sat in the middle bench seat, a man on either side of him. He could feel each of their muscled arms as it lay against his. They were tensed, ready to block any attempt by Stone to get to their weapons. Stone had no thought of making such an attempt. Now, outnumbered four to one, he would lose that battle ten times out of ten, a blackened tattoo painted on his forehead, a third eye his reward for the fatal miscalculation. Decades ago it was probable that four men far better than these would lie dead as he walked away to fight another day. But those days were long in the past.
“Where?” he asked. He never expected a response and didn’t get one.
Minutes later he stood alone outside a building virtually every American would recognize. He didn’t stand there for long. More men appeared, better and higher-ranked than the ones who had just dropped him off. He was now in the inner ring. The personnel became more skilled the closer one approached the center. They escorted him down a corridor with numerous doorways. Every single one of them was closed, and it wasn’t simply the lateness of the hour. This place never really slept.
The door opened and the door closed. Stone was alone once more, but again not for long. A door opened in another part of the room and the man entered. He didn’t look at Stone, but motioned for him to sit.
The man settled down behind his desk.
Stone was an unofficial visitor here. Normally a log was kept of everyone passing through this place, but not tonight. Not him. The man was dressed casually, chinos, open-collared shirt, loafers. He slid glasses over his face, rustled some papers on his desk. A single light burned next to him. Stone studied him. The man looked intense and determined. He had to be to survive this place. To manage his way through the world’s most impossible job.
He put down the papers; slid up the glasses onto the lined forehead.
“We have a problem,” said James Brennan, the president of the United States. “And we need your help.”
STONE WAS MILDLY SURPRISED but didn’t show it. Registering surprise was never good in situations like this. “A problem with what?”
“All right.” Nothing new there, thought Stone. We often have problems with the Russians.
The president continued, “You’ve been there.” It wasn’t a question.
“You speak the language.” Again, not a question, so Stone remained silent. “You know their tactics.”
“I used to know them. That was a long time ago.”
Brennan smiled grimly. “Just like hairdos and clothes, if one hangs around long enough, things come back in style, including, apparently, espionage techniques.”
The president leaned back and put his feet up on the Resolute desk that had been a gift from Queen Victoria to America near the end of the nineteenth century. Ruther-ford B. Hayes had been the first sitting president to use it, and Brennan the latest.
“The Russians have a web of spy rings entrenched in this country. The FBI has arrested some of them, infiltrated others, but more are out there of which we have no information.”
“Countries spy on each other all the time,” said Stone. “I would be stunned if we didn’t have intelligence operations going on over there.”
“That’s beside the point.”
“All right,” said Stone, who actually thought that was the point.
“The Russian cartels control all the major drug distribution pipelines in the eastern hemisphere. The monies involved are truly enormous.”
Stone nodded. This he knew.
“Well, now they control it in the western hemisphere as well.”
This Stone didn’t know. “I understand the Colombians had been muscled out by the Mexicans.”
Brennan nodded thoughtfully. Stone could sense in the man’s weary expression the mounds of briefing books he had no doubt pored over today to understand this and a dozen other critical matters thoroughly. The presidency would suck up every ounce of energy and intellectual curiosity one cared to give the job.
Brennan said, “Pipeline trumps product, they finally figured that out. You can make the crap anywhere, but getting it to the buyer is the real key. And on this side of the world Americans are the buyers. But the Russians have kicked our southern neighbor’s ass, Stone. They have killed and clawed and bombed and tortured and bribed their way to the top, with the result that they are now in control of at least ninety percent of the business. And that is a major problem.”
“I understood that Carlos Montoya—”
The president brushed this comment aside impatiently. “The papers say that. Fox and CNN broadcast that, the pundits fixate on it, but the fact is Carlos Montoya is done. He was the worst of the scum in Mexico. He killed two of his own brothers to win control of the family business, and yet he proved no match for the Russians. In fact, our intel leads us to believe that he’s been killed. The Russians are about as ruthless as they come in the drug world.”
“All right,” said Stone evenly.
“So long as the Mexican cartels were the adversary it was manageable. Not ideal, of course, but it didn’t reach national security status. We could battle it on our borders and in the metro areas where the cartels had infiltrated primarily through gang ranks. It’s different with the Russians.”
“Meaning a connection between the spy rings and the cartels?”
Brennan eyed Stone, perhaps surprised he’d made the connection so fast. “We believe there is. In fact, our belief is that the Russian government and their drug cartels are one and the same.”
“That’s a very troublesome conclusion,” said Stone.
“And the correct one, we think. Illegal drug sales are one of the leading exports from Russia. They make it in the old Soviet labs, and ship it all over the world through various means. They pay off the people they have to and kill the ones they can’t bribe. The monies involved are enormous. Hundreds of billions of dollars. Too enormous for the government not to want its share. And there’s more to the equation.”
“You mean the more drugs they sell to America the weaker we become as a nation? It drains dollars and brain cells. It increases the level of both petty and major crime, taxes our resources, shifts assets from productive areas to nonproductive ones.”
Again, Brennan looked surprised at Stone’s nimble articulation. “That’s right. And the Russians know something about the power of addictions. Their populace certainly abuses both drugs and alcohol. But we have detected a purposeful, enhanced effort by the Russians to basically overwhelm America with drugs.” The president sat back. “And then there’s the obvious complicating factor.”
“They’re a nuclear power,” replied Stone. “They have as many warheads as we do, in fact.”
The president nodded. “They want back in the top tier. Perhaps they want to be the sole superpower, supplanting us. And on top of that they are vastly influential in the Middle and Far East. Even the Chinese and Israelis fear them, if only for their unpredictability. The balance is getting out of whack.”
“All right. Why me?”
“The Russians have gone back to old-school tactics, Stone. From your era.”
“I’m not that old. Aren’t there spies from my era still at the Agency?”
“No, there’s really not. There was a hiring freeze before 9/11 and a lot of voluntary and involuntary retirements of older personnel. After those planes hit the buildings, there was considerable ramp-up. The result is that three-quarters of the CIA is comprised of twenty-somethings. The only thing they know about Russia is they make good vodka and it’s cold there. You know Russia. You understand the trenches of espionage better than most of the people sitting in the executive offices at Langley.” He paused. “And we all know you have special skills. Skills this country spent good money instilling in you.”
The guilt factor. Interesting.
“But all my contacts there are gone. Dead.”
“That is actually an advantage. You go in with a blank slate, an unknown quantity.”
“How will we start?”
“By you going back in unofficially, of course. There will be training, getting you up to date on things. I suspect you will be ready to leave the country in a month.”
“Going to Russia?”
“No, Mexico and Latin America. We need you on the ground where the drugs are coming through. It’ll be rough work. And dangerous. I guess I don’t need to tell you that.” He paused and his gaze flicked to Stone’s close-cropped white hair.
Stone easily interpreted the observation. “I’m not as young as I was, obviously.”
“None of us are.”
Stone nodded, his mind racing ahead to the logical conclusion of all this. He really only had one question. “Why?”
“I already told you why. In many respects you’re the best we have. And the problem is very real and getting worse.”
“Can I hear the rest of it?”
“The rest of what?”
“Why I’m really here.”
“I don’t understand,” the president said irritably. “I thought I had made myself clear.”
“The last time I was here I told you some things and intimated other things.”
The president made no reaction to these words.
“Then I was offered the Medal of Honor.”
“And you turned it down,” Brennan said sharply. “A first, I believe.”
“You have to turn down what you don’t deserve.”
“Bullshit. Your actions on the battlefield more than earned it.”
“On the battlefield, yes. But in the greater scheme of things, I didn’t deserve it. And with an honor like that, all things have to be considered. Which I think is why I’m really here.”
The two men stared at each other across the width of the Resolute desk. By the look on his face the president very clearly understood what “all things” meant. A man named Carter Gray. And a man named Roger Simpson. Both prominent Americans. Both friends of this president. And both dead. Directly because of Oliver Stone, who’d had good reason to do it, but he’d still killed them. And there was really no legal or even moral excuse for that. Even as he’d pulled the trigger on each man, Stone had known that.
But it still didn’t stop me, because if anyone deserved killing those two did.
“You saved my life,” Brennan began in an uneasy tone.
“And I took two others.”
The president abruptly rose and walked over to the window. Stone watched him closely. He’d said it. Now he was just going to let the other man talk and let the chips fall.
“Gray was going to kill me.”
“Yes, he was.”
“So your killing him didn’t bother me as much as it ordinarily would have, to put it bluntly.”
The president turned to look at him. “I did some research on that. I can understand why you would have wanted to eliminate the man. But no man is an island, Stone. And cold-blooded killing is unacceptable in a civilized world.”
“Unless it’s been authorized by appropriate parties,” Stone pointed out. “By people who have sat in the chair in which you now sit.”
Brennan snatched a glance at his desk chair and then looked away. “This is a dangerous mission, Stone. You will be given every asset you require to succeed. But there are no guarantees.”
“There are never any guarantees.”
The president sat back down, made a steeple with his hands, possibly an impromptu shield between himself and the other man.
When Brennan didn’t say anything, Stone did. “This is my penance, isn’t it?”
The president lowered his hands.
“This is my penance,” Stone said again. “In lieu of a trial that no one wants because too many unpleasant truths will come out for the government, and the reputations of certain dead public servants will be tarnished. And you’re not the sort to order my execution because, as you said, that’s not how a civilized people resolve their differences.”
“You don’t mince words,” Brennan said quietly.
“Are they true words or not?”
“I think you understand my dilemma.”
“Don’t apologize for having a conscience, sir. I’ve served other men who held your office who had none at all.”
“If you fail, you fail. The Russians are as ruthless as they come. You know that better than most.”
“And if I succeed?”
“Then you will never have to worry about your government knocking on your door again.” He leaned forward. “Do you accept?”
Stone nodded and rose. “I accept.” He paused at the door. “If I don’t make it back, I would appreciate it if my friends were told that I died serving my country.”
The president nodded.
“Thank you,” said Oliver Stone.
THE NEXT NIGHT STONE STOOD where he had for decades, in seven-acre Lafayette Park across from the White House. It had originally been called President’s Park, but now that title encompassed the White House grounds, Lafayette Park and the Ellipse, a fifty-two-acre parcel of land on the south side of the White House. Once part of the White House grounds proper, Lafayette Park had been separated from that august property when President Thomas Jefferson had Pennsylvania Avenue plowed through.
The park had been used for many purposes over two centuries, including as a graveyard, a slave market and even a racetrack. And it was also notable for having more squirrels per square inch than any other place on earth. To this day, no one knew why. The place had changed dramatically since Stone first planted his sign in the ground, the one that read I Want the Truth. Gone were the permanent protestors like Stone, their ragged tents and their boisterous banners. Majestic Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicular traffic and had been ever since the Oklahoma City bombing.
People, institutions and countries were scared, and Stone couldn’t blame them. If Franklin Roosevelt had been alive and occupying the White House once more he might have invoked his most famous line: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But even those words might not have been enough. The bogeymen appeared to be winning the war of perception in the hearts and minds of the citizenry.
Stone glanced to the center of the park, at the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and America’s seventh chief executive. Jackson sat on a pediment of majestic Tennessee marble. It was the first statue of a man on horseback ever cast in the United States. The monument was surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence, with a scattering of ancient cannons inside this space. Four other statues memorializing foreign Revolutionary War heroes anchored each corner of the green space.
North of Jackson were rows of colorful flowers and a large newly placed maple. Yellow tape was wound around flex poles set in the ground ten feet out from this tree because of the open hole several feet deep and three feet wider than the huge root ball. Next to the hole were blue tarps with the displaced dirt piled up on them.
Stone’s gaze rose to elevated points where he knew the countersnipers were stationed, although he couldn’t see them. He assumed that many of them were probably drawing practice beads on his head.
No trigger slips please, gentlemen. I like my brain right where it is.
The state dinner at the White House was winding down and well-fed VIPs trickled out of the “People’s House.” One such guest was the British prime minister. His waiting motorcade would carry him on the brief trip to Blair House, the residence for visiting dignitaries, which was located on the west side of the park. It was a short walk, yet Stone supposed government leaders could not safely walk anywhere anymore. The world had long since changed for them too.
Stone turned his head and saw a woman sitting on a bench near the oval-shaped fountain on the east side of the park midway between Jackson and the statue of Polish general Tadeusz Kościuszko, who’d helped the fledgling English colonies free themselves from British rule. The irony that the leader of that same monarchy was now staying at a place overlooking this monument was not lost on Stone.
The woman was dressed in black slacks and a thin white coat. She had a large bag next to her. She appeared to be dozing.
That’s odd, thought Stone. People did not doze in Lafayette at this time of night.
She wasn’t the only person in the park. As Stone looked toward the trees on the northwest side of the park he spied a man in a suit carrying a briefcase. His back was to Stone. He’d stopped to examine the statue of German army officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who’d also helped the colonists kick Mad King George’s royal behind more than two centuries ago.
And then Stone noticed a short man with a large belly entering the park from the northern end where St. John’s Church was located. He was in jogging attire, though he looked incapable of even walking quickly without collapsing from a coronary. What looked to be an iPod was strapped to a belt around his ample middle, and he had on earphones.
And there was a fourth inhabitant of the park. He looked like a street gang foot soldier, dressed in prison shuffle jeans, dark bandanna, muscle shirt, camouflage jacket and stomp boots. The ganger was walking slowly right through the middle of the park. This too was odd since gangers almost never came to Lafayette Park because of the heavy police presence. And that presence was strengthened and even more vigilant tonight for a very simple reason.
State dinners put everyone on edge. A spring in the step of a patrolling sentry. A lawman’s hand a smidge closer to the trigger. A heightened tendency to shoot and pick up the pieces later. If a leader went down, no one escaped responsibility. Heads and pensions rolled.
But Stone had not come here to think about those things. He had come here to see Lafayette Park for the last time. In two days he would be leaving for his month-long training session. And then it was off to Mexico. He had already made up his mind. He would not tell his friends, the members of the Camel Club. If he did they might sense the truth, and nothing good could possibly come out of that. He deserved to be sacrificed. They didn’t.
He drew one more long breath and looked around. He smiled as he saw the gingko tree near the Jackson statue. It was across from the maple that had just been installed. The first time he’d come to this park it had been fall and the gingko leaves were a gloriously bright yellow. It was magnificent. There were gingko trees all over the city, but this was the only one in the park. Gingkoes could live well over a thousand years. Stone wondered what this place would look like in ten centuries. Would the gingko still be here? Would the big white building across the street?
He was turning to leave this place for the final time when his attention focused on what was coming down the street right toward him.
And his beloved park.
IT WAS THE SOUND of muscular engines, flashing lights and sirens that had put Stone on alert. He watched as the prime minister’s motorcade pulled out from the west side of the White House and set off toward Blair House. The building, which was actually three town houses stitched together, was deceptively large. It had more square footage than even the White House and was located to the immediate west of the park and facing Pennsylvania Avenue across from the monstrously large Old Executive Office Building where parts of the president’s and vice-president’s staffs maintained offices. Stone was surprised the Secret Service hadn’t cleared the area before the motorcade left.
He glanced around again. The lady was now awake and talking on her cell phone. The man in the suit was still lingering around the von Steuben statue with his back to Stone. The jogger was nearing the statue of Jackson. The ganger was still stamping through Lafayette, although the park wasn’t that large. He should have managed it by now.
Something was clearly off.
Stone chose to head west first. Though he was no longer a protestor here, he had come to view Lafayette Park as his turf to defend against all threats. Even his imminent departure to Mexico had not changed that. And while he didn’t yet feel threatened, he had a sense that that status might abruptly change.
He eyed the jogger diagonally across from him on the other side of the park. The man had stopped and was fiddling with the controls on his iPod. Stone’s gaze flicked to the lady on the bench. She was just putting away her cell phone.
Stone next approached the statue of the French general Comte de Rochambeau at the southwest corner of the park. As he did so, at the adjacent intersection of Jackson Place and Pennsylvania Avenue security teams were arrayed into walls of Kevlar and submachine guns awaiting the arrival of the prime minister. As he continued on, Stone met the ganger face-to-face. The man seemed to be walking in quicksand, moving but not getting anywhere. And there was a gun under his jacket; Stone could see the awkward but familiar bump in the material even in the darkened conditions. That was ballsy, thought Stone. You didn’t come down here armed, unless you wanted a rooftop countersniper to assume the worst, with the result that your next of kin might receive an official apology after your funeral. So why would the man risk his life?
Stone gauged the potential shot trajectory from the ganger to where the prime minister would be entering Blair House. There was none, unless the ganger had a weapon that could defy the laws of physics by bending its bullets around corners.
Stone let his gaze drift to the man in the suit at the northwest corner of the park. The fellow was still examining the statue, an act that normally would take at most a minute or so. And why come here at this hour to do so anyway? Stone eyed the soft-sided briefcase the man carried. Because of the distance between them Stone could not see it clearly, but it appeared bulky enough to contain a small bomb. However, the distance between the bomber and the prime minister essentially doomed any assassination attempt.
The motorcade continued down West Executive Avenue toward Pennsylvania. Sirens and guards galore for what amounted to a half-block-long slow jog on armored wheels. They would hang a left on Pennsylvania and pull in front of the curb next to the famous long green awning that capped the main entrance to Blair House.
Stone spotted movement to the right of him from across the park. The jogger was on the go once more. Stone couldn’t be sure, but he thought the fat man was looking in the direction of the suit.
Stone’s attention next shifted to the woman. She had risen too, slipped the bag over her shoulder and set off to the north side of the park toward St. John’s Church. She was tall, Stone noted, and her clothes hung well on her long frame. He gauged her age at closer to thirty than forty, though he’d never gotten a clear look at her face because of the poor light, the distance and the many trees in between them.
His gaze swiveled again. On the other side of the park the suit was finally moving, heading northwest toward the Decatur House Museum. Stone looked behind him. The ganger was watching him now, not moving at all. Stone thought he saw the man’s index finger twitch as though on a trigger pull.
The motorcade made the turn onto Pennsylvania and stopped in front of Blair House. The door to the lead stretch popped open. These types of limo exits tended to happen fast for obvious reasons. You only remained exposed to a possible bullet fired at long or short range for as brief a time as possible. Tonight, though, swiftness did not happen.
The stocky and elegantly dressed prime minister got out slowly and, with the assistance of two aides, gingerly limped up the steps under the awning that had covered the heads of many world leaders. A bandage was wound thickly around the man’s left ankle. As he made his entrance into the building a wall of eyes looked outward to every crevice for threats. There were some British security personnel in the mix. However, the heavy lifting on this protection detail was being handled—as it always was for visiting heads of state—by the U.S. Secret Service.
Because of where Blair House was situated, Stone could not see the prime minister exit the limo on his injured limb. His focus remained on the park. The jogger was walking toward the center of the grass. Stone’s gaze shifted. The woman was nearly clear of the park. The suit was already on the sidewalk that fronted H Street.
Five more seconds passed. Then the first shot hit.
The impact of lead with the ground sent up a little geyser of dirt and grass four feet to the left of Stone. That was followed by more rounds, the slugs digging into the grass, ripping up flowerbeds, smacking against statues.
As the gunfire continued everything slowed down for Stone. His gaze rotated through the field of fire as he dropped flat to the ground. The suit and the woman were gone from his line of vision. Ganger was still behind him, but on his belly too. The poor jogger, however, was running for his life. And then he simply disappeared from Stone’s view. Vanished.
The firing stopped. Seconds of silence. Stone slowly rose. As he did so, he didn’t tense, he relaxed. Whether this saved his life or not was anyone’s guess.
The bomb detonated. The center of Lafayette Park was engulfed in smoke and flying debris. The enormously heavy Jackson statue toppled over, its Tennessee marble base cracked in half. Its reign of more than a hundred and fifty years in the park was over.
The concussive force of the explosion lifted Stone off his feet and threw him against something hard. The blow to his head made him dizzy, nauseous. For a fleeting instant he sensed debris being blown all around him. His lungs sucked in smoke, dirt and the sickening smell of the bomb residue.
As the sound of the explosion subsided it was replaced by screams, sirens, the screech of tire rubber on asphalt and more screams. But Oliver Stone never heard or witnessed any of this. He was lying facedown on the ground, his eyes closed.
Stone smelled the antiseptic and the latex and knew he was in a hospital. Which was far better than being dead in a morgue.
His eyelids fluttered open. He saw her face. “Annabelle?”
Annabelle Conroy, unofficial member of the Camel Club and its only known con artist, clutched his hand. She was lean and a couple inches shy of six feet with long reddish hair.
“You have to stop getting blown up,” she said.
Her tone was flippant, her look was not. She used her free hand to sweep the hair out of her face and Stone could see her eyes were puffy. Annabelle did not cry easily, but she had shed tears over him.
He touched his head where the bandage was. “Not cracked, is it?”
Annabelle said, “No. Mild concussion.”
As Stone looked around he noted that the room was fairly bursting with bodies. There was NFL-sized Reuben Rhodes on the other side of the bed, with diminutive librarian Caleb Shaw next to him. The tall Secret Service agent Alex Ford was on Annabelle’s right and looking equally concerned. Behind them Stone saw Harry Finn.
Finn said, “When I heard about the bomb going off at the park, I knew you had to be in the middle of it somehow.”
Stone slowly sat up. “So what happened?”
Alex answered. “They’re still trying to figure it out. Gunfire and then the explosion.”
“Anyone else hurt? British PM?”
“In Blair before the explosion. No one was shot.”
“With all the gunfire it’s remarkable no one was hit.”
“More like a miracle.”
“No theories?” Stone asked, looking at Alex.
“Not yet. The park is a mess. Locked down tight as I’ve ever seen it.”
“But the PM?”
Alex nodded. “Preliminarily, he was the target.”
“But a pretty poor attempt, then,” said Reuben. “Since the explosion and gunfire happened at a park he wasn’t in.”
Stone eyed Alex again. “Rebuttal to that?” he asked slowly. With each word he spoke his head hurt even worse. Thirty years ago he could have shrugged this off and kept moving forward. Not now.
“Like I said, it’s early yet. But I’ll admit that’s a major puzzler. Not a good day for the PM all around.”
“What do you mean?” asked Stone.
“He twisted his ankle. Moving pretty slow.”
“You know this firsthand?”
“He took a tumble on some interior steps at the White House before the dinner started. Little embarrassing for the guy. Fortunately, media cameras don’t roll inside that part of the building.”
Annabelle asked, “What were you doing at the park last night? I thought you were still in Divine, Virginia, with Abby.”
Stone looked out the window and saw that it was morning. “I came back,” he said simply. “And Abby stayed there.”
“Oh,” said Annabelle in a disappointed tone, but her look was actually one of relief.
He turned back to Alex. “There were four people in the park last night besides me. What happened to them?”
Alex looked around the room before clearing his throat. “Unclear.”
“Unclear as in you don’t know or you can’t tell us?” said Stone.
Annabelle gave the Secret Service agent a fierce look. “Oliver was almost killed, Alex.”
Alex sighed. He had never mastered the art of balancing professional secrecy with the Camel Club’s constant demands for intelligence on mostly classified matters. “They’re reviewing the video feeds and debriefing the human eyeballs on the park last night. They’re trying to put the picture together.”
“And the four other people in the park?” Stone persisted quietly.
“Three men and one woman.”
“I don’t know anything about them,” replied Alex.
“Where exactly did the explosion happen? I couldn’t really tell.”
“Roughly middle of the park. Near the Jackson statue, or what’s left of it. Pieces of it along with the fence and the cannon were blown all over the park.”
“So there was significant damage?” asked Stone.
“All parts of the park were affected, but the major bomb damage was in a fifty-foot radius. Looks like a war zone inside that ring. Whatever it was, that bomb packed a wallop.”
“There was an overweight man in a jogging suit in that vicinity when the shots started,” Stone noted. He frowned and tried to remember. “I was watching him. He was running for his life from the bullets, and then he just vanished. But that would have put him right at the epicenter of the blast.”
They all looked at Alex, who seemed uncomfortable.
“Alex?” said Annabelle again in a scolding tone.
“Okay, it looks like the guy fell in a hole where they were installing a new tree. The explosion happened at or near that spot. But nothing has been confirmed.”
“Do we know who he was?” asked Caleb.
“Origin of the bomb?”
“Unknown as yet.”
“Source of the shots?” Reuben asked.
“Nothing that I know about.”
“I hit something,” said Stone. “As I was falling. There was a man watching me.”
“Could be,” said Alex warily.
“The nurse told me they dug a tooth out of your head, Oliver,” said Annabelle.
“A tooth? Then I hit the man when the explosion happened?”
Annabelle nodded. “Looks to be. If so, he’s missing an incisor.”
“Have you seen any of the video surveillance, Alex?” asked Stone.
“No. I’m technically not part of the investigation, which is why I don’t have a lot of answers. I’m in protection detail, which means my butt, along with a bunch of others, is in the professional wringer right now.”
“Secret Service taking its lumps?” said Reuben.
“Yeah. This is a little more serious than party crashers.”
“I was surprised there were so many in the park last night,” said Stone. “And had read about the dinner, but the papers said the PM was staying at the British embassy as he usually does. What happened there?”
“Late change of plan. He and the president had planned an early working session the next morning. Far easier logistics getting the PM from Blair to the White House.” Alex added, “But it wasn’t made public. And yet you still knew he was going to Blair last night?”
“I passed the motorcade on the way to the park. It only had one motorcycle officer in the lead, which meant they weren’t going a great distance and thus traffic control wasn’t critical. The D.C. police chief isn’t going to waste valuable resources if she doesn’t have to. And the defensive cone was in place around Blair. As many guns as they had there meant it was a top-level dignitary. The PM was the only one who fit that bill.”
“Why were you at the park at that hour?” Annabelle asked Stone.
“Reminiscing,” he said casually before turning back to Alex. “So why so lax about security last night?”
“It wasn’t lax. And it is a public park,” countered Alex.
“Not when safety is an issue. I know that better than anyone,” rejoined Stone.
“I just do what I’m told, Oliver.”
“All right.” Stone looked around. “Can I leave?”
“Yes, you can,” said a voice. “With us.”
They all turned to look at the two suits standing in the doorway. One was in his fifties, stocky and big-boned with broad shoulders and a gun hump under his suit. The other was in his thirties and lean, under six feet and with a Marine Corps haircut. He was similarly armed.
“Right now,” added the older man.
“NOT HERE,” STONE MUTTERED to himself as the black Town Car pulled into the campus-style setting of the National Intelligence Center, or NIC, in northern Virginia. They passed the lush taxpayer-funded landscaping and headed to the main low-level building that housed a big chunk of America’s intelligence operations.
One wall of the entrance lobby was lined with photos of terrorist attacks perpetrated against the United States. A plaque at the end of this line of devastating images read “Never Again.”
The other wall held the official photos of the men who’d held the position of intelligence czar at this agency. They were few in number, as NIC had only been created after 9/11. The most prominent former director had been Carter Gray, a public servant with many high-ranking government positions to his credit. Gray’s portly face stared out at the men as Stone and his escorts walked by.
Decades ago Stone had worked for the man, when Stone was known under his real name, John Carr. As his country’s most efficient assassin, Carr had used every ounce of courage and cleverness he possessed to serve his country. His reward for that had been the destruction of all the people he had ever cared about carried out by the very same folks he’d so faithfully served. That was one reason Stone had ended Gray’s life. And that reason alone would have been enough.
Burn in hell, Carter, thought Stone as the door closed behind him.
And I’ll see you when I get there.
Five minutes later Stone was seated at a small wooden table inside a windowless room. He looked around the confines of the space even as he slowed his breathing and tried not to think about his pounding head. An interrogation room clearly.
And that’s what’s about to happen to me.
The room suddenly went dark and an image appeared on the wall opposite, projected there by equipment housed discreetly in the ceiling.
It was a man sitting in a cushy chair behind a polished desk. From the view Stone had over the man’s shoulder it was clear he was on a jet. He was fifty and tanned with pointy hair cut nearly to his scalp and a pair of energetic green eyes.
Before the man could speak, Stone said, “I don’t warrant a face-to-face?”
A smile edged across the fellow’s face. “Afraid not, but you do get me.”
Me was the new director of NIC, Riley Weaver. He’d taken over for the deceased Carter Gray. Those were big shoes to fill, and the word in government circles was that Weaver was slowly but surely finding his way. Whether or not that was a good thing for the country was as yet unknown.
At the sound of Weaver’s voice, the door to the room opened and two other men filed in and leaned against the wall behind Stone. Stone never liked having armed men behind him, but there was nothing he could do about that right now. He was the visiting team and the home squad made the rules.
“Debrief,” ordered Weaver, looking at Stone.
“Why?” replied Stone.
The smile slipped off Weaver’s face. “Because I asked, politely.”
“Do I work for you? I don’t remember getting that memo.”
“Just exercise your civic duty.”
Stone said nothing.
Weaver finally broke the silence. He leaned forward and said, “I understand you have fair winds and following seas at your back.”
Weaver, Stone now recalled, had been a Marine. Marines were part of the navy, and his nautical reference showed that he was tighter in the loop than Stone had expected. The president of the United States represented Stone’s “fair winds and following seas,” which in nautical parlance meant very favorable navigating conditions. But did Weaver know about his meeting with the president? About his being shipped off to Mexico to deal with the Russians? If not, Stone had no intention of enlightening him.
“Civic duty,” said Stone. “Just so we understand each other. It goes both ways.”
Weaver sat back. His features showed that while he might have underestimated Stone initially, that miscalculation had been quickly remedied. “Agreed.”
Stone succinctly gave his account of the attack in the park.
When he was done Weaver said, “All right. Now look left and observe closely.”
A MOMENT LATER STONE WAS WATCHING the prior night’s video feed from Lafayette Park. They had slowed down the frame speed so that Stone could view every detail closely and unhurriedly. As the gunfire commenced, Stone watched as people started running in all directions. Perimeter security took defensive positions and looked for the source of the shots. The jogger started to run in the feeble way of a man unaccustomed to exercise. His strides were really short, increasingly weakened hops. His path carried him through the yellow tape and a few moments later he fell or he might’ve jumped into the hole where the big maple was being planted.
Now Stone could make sense of what he had seen, namely the man seemingly vanishing into thin air. It was like a foxhole, thought Stone. To get away from the bullets.
Then the explosion happened. Stone saw himself lifted off his feet and slammed into the ganger. They both went down. The tooth in his head. He rubbed the spot.
A second later, the cameras went to static. The concussive force of the blast must have jammed the signal somehow. The wall became blank again.
Weaver said, “Observations?”
“Run it again,” Stone requested.
He watched the feed twice more.
Stone thought about what he’d just seen. The jogger had tumbled into the open hole around the maple and the explosion had happened seconds later.
“So what was the source of the detonation? The jogger?”
“Not sure yet. It may have been something in that hole.”
Stone looked skeptical. “In the hole? No gas lines under the park?”
“Then you know what you’re suggesting? A bomb planted in Lafayette Park?”
Weaver’s expression grew even darker. “The implications of that are downright paralyzing, but we can’t discount the possibility.”
“So you’re saying maybe the guy jumped into the hole to avoid the bullets and gets blown up instead by a bomb previously placed there?”
“If so, it’s really bad luck for him. He gets away from the bullets and still dies.”
“Who’s on the scene?”
“ATF and the FBI as we speak.”
Stone could understand that. The ATF handled all investigations involving explosives until it was determined that the act was one of international terrorism. Then the FBI would take over. However, Stone assumed a bomb going off across from the White House would be classified de facto as a foreign terrorist act. That meant the Bureau would take the lead. It probably already had.
Stone asked, “Okay, let’s pass over the explosion for now. Do we know the source of the shots? On the video they appeared to be coming from the northern end of the park. From the direction of H Street or perhaps past that.”
“That’s the prelim conclusion at least, yeah.”
“So running north-south. There were no muzzle flashes on the video,” Stone pointed out. “That must mean they were hidden from the camera’s eyes.”
“Behind trees,” offered Weaver. “Lot of them at the northern end of the park. But the surveillance cameras are positioned mainly for ground-level observation. So in any event they might not have picked up the flashes if the shooters were really high up.”
“Well, the shots had to come from elevated angles,” Stone opined.
“How do you figure?” asked Riley in a way that made Stone believe the man already knew the answer but was simply testing him. Stone decided to play along, for now.
“If they were fired from behind the trees at street level they most likely would have carried past the park and across Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.”
“How do you know they didn’t?”
“Because you would have already told me if they had or I would have heard about more casualties. There are a lot of people on the White House side. Vehicles lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Sentries doing perimeter patrols. It’s inconceivable that someone would not have been hit. So high ground to low. Fits with my observations. From what I could see, the slugs were all plowing into the dirt. And if they passed through tree canopies first, they had to be fired from at or above that line. And a lot of those trees are pretty tall with thick canopies.” Stone added, “Anyone on the northern end of the park see anything helpful?”
“There was security. Park Police, couple of uniformed Secret Service agents, bomb-sniffing canine. They’re still being debriefed, but preliminarily they didn’t have much on the source.”
Stone nodded. “And why wasn’t the park cleared last night?”
Weaver’s expression showed his displeasure with this query. “I really just want your observations from watching that video.”
“I like to have a fuller understanding of what’s going on before I extend myself.”
Weaver’s gaze lowered to a file on his desk. “John Carr?”
Stone remained silent, staring at the digital image of the man on the wall.
“John Carr,” Weaver said again. “Your file is so classified even I still haven’t seen all of it.”
“Sometimes even a government can be refreshingly discreet,” noted Stone. “But we were talking about the origins of the shots and the park security, or rather lack thereof.”
“Origin of the shots is still being investigated. The park security is really Secret Service jurisdiction and I haven’t received a briefing from them.”
“Of course you have,” countered Stone.
Weaver looked intrigued. “What makes you say that?”
“Security of the president trumps all other things, which gives the Secret Service interagency heft it might not otherwise have. What looked to be automatic gunfire and an explosion happened right across from the White House over fifteen hours ago. You provide the president with his daily national security briefing at seven every morning. If you haven’t talked to the Secret Service yet, then you couldn’t have briefed the president on the matter this morning. And if you didn’t brief the president this morning about an attack that happened in his front yard, you would no longer be employed as NIC director.”
A twitch at Weaver’s right eye showed that this conversation was not going according to plan. The two men leaning against the wall moved uneasily.
Weaver said, “The Service said that there were thoughts of clearing the park, but plans changed. Since the PM was going directly to Blair, they felt the park would not be a valid threat point. In sum, they thought they had it covered. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, but it prompts another one.”
Weaver waited expectantly.
“Exactly what plans changed?”
In response Stone received a long Marine stare. “Just give me the rest of your observations if you have any.”
Stone looked at the man, reading the intent behind the blunt words. He could play this any number of ways. Sometimes you pushed, sometimes you didn’t.
He said, “Too many people in the park doing things they shouldn’t have been doing at that hour.”
Weaver settled back in his comfy chair. “Go on.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Lafayette. Eleven o’clock at night usually the only people there are security. Last night there were four people who shouldn’t have been there. The ganger, the guy in the suit, the lady on the bench and the jogger.”
“They all could have been there legitimately,” Weaver pointed out. “It was a warm evening. And it is a park.”
Stone shook his head. “Lafayette Park is not a preferred destination to sit or kill time at night. And the Service doesn’t like people lingering there. They’ll tell you the same thing.”
“They actually have already,” volunteered Weaver. “So what are you thinking?”
“Ganger had a gun. I could easily see it without the benefit of optics, so the countersnipers should have already seen it and relayed that to ground forces. Guy should have been nailed as soon as he set foot into the red zone. But he wasn’t.”
Weaver nodded. “Okay, keep going.”
“Lady was dressed nicely. Maybe an office dweller. She had a bag. But sitting on a bench at that hour makes no sense. She talks on her phone, then gets up about the time the motorcade pulls in. Fortuitous for her since she missed the gunfire.”
“Keep going,” encouraged Weaver.
“The suit was checking out a statue and took a long time to do it. Then he made his move toward Decatur House at the same time as the woman was leaving the park. When the shooting started they were both out of my line of sight. After that I picked up on the jogger, who was running toward the Jackson statue. He seemed to simply vanish, but now I know he actually jumped in the hole to avoid the bullets.”
Weaver said, “And got blown up for his troubles.”
“That doesn’t mean that one or more of the other people in the park last night were also not involved.”
Weaver shook his head. “I believe that’s a stretch. You got raking automatic fire in the park and then a bomb that had already been planted there and gets triggered probably accidentally by the poor sucker trying to duck the bullets. I think the guy did us a favor. Ferreted out a bomb before it could have done real damage. Now we have to figure out who, how and why on the gunfire and the bomb.” Weaver studied him. “You have anything you’d care to add to the mix? Because quite frankly, I’m disappointed in the little you’ve had to tell me. I thought you were hot stuff and you’ve really given me not much I hadn’t figured out on my own.”
“I didn’t think it was my job to do your job. But here’s another observation for free.” Stone added, “The ganger was really a cop, right?”
On that, the screen went immediately to black.
WITHOUT ANY INSTRUCTIONS FROM HIM the car dropped Stone off at Mt. Zion Cemetery. This was intentional, Stone knew. It was as if to say, “We know exactly where you live. We can come for you anytime we want.”
Stone walked past the wrought-iron gates that enclosed the cemetery and into the small caretaker’s cottage that was his home. The furnishings were spartan and secondhand and fit Stone’s personality and limited resources perfectly. There was one large room divided between a small kitchen and a sitting area. Against one wall was a large shelf of books on esoteric subjects in multiple languages that he’d collected over decades. In front of that was Stone’s scarred wooden desk that had come with the cottage. A few threadbare chairs sat in front of a blackened brick fireplace. In an alcove behind a tattered curtain was the army cot he slept on. That and a tiny bathroom formed the extent of the premises.
Stone took three Advil, washed them down with a glass of water and sat down in the chair behind his desk while he rubbed his head. Whether he was still leaving for Mexico or not he didn’t know. But for now at least he would proceed on the assumption that he was staying until the men came for him.
He held up four fingers on his right hand and stared at them.
“Four people,” he said to himself. Although perhaps now only three since the video had made clear the jogger was no longer among the living. Yet they still didn’t know who he was or why he was there. So Stone kept the fourth finger up.
“So was the jogger in the classic wrong place, wrong time or was he involved?” he asked himself. “And where are the suit and the woman? And are they connected?”
And there was the ganger who was probably a cop. Stone had realized that was the only reason the man would have come to Lafayette with a gun. He had a badge and authorization to be there armed. The screen going black on him back at NIC was all the affirmation Stone needed. Riley Weaver didn’t play any nicer with people than Carter Gray had.
What was bothering Stone was that both the suit and the woman had left just before the gunfire began. Coincidence? Both just as lucky as the jogger was unlucky?
He closed his eyes and pushed his mind to reach back to the night before. His temples were still throbbing and his scalp still burned from having a pointy tooth rammed into it, but slowly the pictures and sounds returned.
“MP-5s or possibly TEC-9s,” he said out loud. In reality there could be lots of possibilities for the hardware. “Set on full auto. Probably thirty-round magazines that could be configured for fifty or more. So how many shots had been fired? He had not been able to count every round, of course, but he could make an estimate from the time expired. Full auto, assume thirty-round mags, two to three seconds to empty the ammo box. Firing lasted about three to four times that, or twelve to fifteen seconds. Hundred rounds or so. But only if there was only one weapon being fired. If more than one, they were talking hundreds of rounds. A lot of firepower. Since most of the slugs had apparently ended up in the dirt, the FBI would be able to get a fairly precise number. But that didn’t answer the far more important question. How exactly had anyone gotten that close to deliver that level of attack?
Stone rose and looked out the window and assembled in his mind the topography of the area around the park. To the north and west along H Street were the United States Chamber of Commerce building and the venerable Hay-Adams Hotel. To the northeast was St. John’s Church. Behind all these locations were federal government and office buildings. He recalled that the Hay-Adams had a rooftop garden area. And it was a taller building than the church. And height was important here to explain the trajectory of the bullets.
He moved on to the next question. Why did they take me to NIC? Just for my observations? There were other people there who could have told them the same things I did. There had to be another reason. Fair winds and following seas?
Stone looked out the window and saw the black Town Car pull up to the gates. As the occupants climbed out Stone eyed the men. FBI, he thought. Bureau agents tended to spend a little more on their clothes. Stone doubted that they were here to escort him to a plane destined for Mexico. The president would not have involved the FBI in something like that. Too many legal roadblocks. The Bureau tended to follow the letter of the law. And the FBI director had the clout to tell the president no. So perhaps the equation had changed once more.
And maybe this time in my favor.
As the four people drew closer, Stone could see that his initial observation was correct. He had just spied an FBI Academy ring on one of the men’s fingers. There was also a woman with them, and Stone didn’t think she was FBI. Assessing every feature from her teeth to her facial structure to her walk, she was a Brit, he concluded. MI6 most likely. Tasked for external intelligence, security and investigations.
This certainly made sense if the British PM was the target. She was either in country traveling with him, stationed here, or she had taken a day flight over, leaving at around two and getting in at about the same time. By the looks of it Stone opted for the latter.
And it was very clear why they were here. The bullets were one thing, but that bomb had been meant to blow somebody up and Stone didn’t think it was an over-weight jogger. And they thought Stone could somehow help them find the truth.
Ironic, he thought. The truth.
He kept watching them as they approached his cottage.
THE WOMAN WAS INDEED WITH MI6. Her name was Mary Chapman. Up close she turned out to be in her mid-thirties, about five-eight, with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair held back with a clasp. Her eyes were intense and shining. She had a compact jaw, thin lips and a slender, wiry build, though her bare calves were muscled. Her fingers were long and her grip was a vise. In Stone’s opinion the Brit’s features were classically attractive without being overwhelming. Chapman’s eyes were deeply green and active. She would never be described as “cute,” thought Stone. Confident, intimidating even, but never cute.
“How was the flight across the pond? Little jetlagged?” Stone said after everyone had been introduced and they’d taken up seats in front of the empty fireplace.
Chapman gazed at Stone and then made a show of smoothing out a wrinkle on her suit jacket. “No bloody beds in coach, even on dear old British Air.” Within her accent and words Stone detected a sense of humility along with a potential for broad humor.
“You must be highly thought of for them to fly you nearly three thousand miles here. MI6 has a permanent footprint in D.C., doesn’t it?”
Chapman eyed the shabby interior of the cottage before settling her eyes back on Stone’s threadbare clothes. “And I thought the Yanks paid their people better.”
One of the FBI agents cleared his throat. “Agent Chapman is here to assist the Bureau with its investigation.”
Stone turned his attention to the man. He was beefy though strongly built. A desk jockey, Stone assumed, by the size of his waist and perspiring forehead. He was clearly only the messenger and note taker. He wouldn’t be doing any of the heavy lifting on this.
“I’ve already been to NIC. They beat you to it. They came to the hospital. You were slower, if classier.”
Beefy looked chagrined by this but plunged on. “And was the meeting helpful?”
“I thought you were into cooperation and sharing these days.”
Beefy gazed stonily back at him.
Stone said, “They weren’t particularly forthcoming. I’m hoping you can do better.”
Chapman crossed her legs and said, “Sorry if I seem a bit nitpicky, but I didn’t see your credentials.”
Stone replied in a pleasant tone, “I don’t have any to show you.”
She looked at Beefy quizzically.
He said stiffly, “A formality that needn’t interrupt the progress of the investigation.”
Chapman hiked her eyebrows at this but remained silent.
“Good,” said Stone. He sat back in his desk chair and his features grew serious. “The park.” He gave them a minute-by-minute account of what had happened. When he was finished he added, “There are three people out there unaccounted for.” He gazed at Beefy. “And do we know the name of the unfortunate jogger?”
“There were human remains found. Everywhere,” Beefy added, his mouth curled up with distaste.
“It won’t be an easy one, but it’s also not insurmountable. Clearly DNA at this point. If he’s on a database somewhere we’ll get a hit. We’ve posted his picture from the video feed on our Web sites and given it to the media to splash around. Someone will hopefully come forward or at the very least report him missing.”
“The other three?”
“With the man in the suit and the woman we’re running the video feed taken at the park through facial recognition databases, although the man never looked in the direction of the surveillance cameras. No hits as of four minutes ago. We’ve also placed the images with the media, asking for the public’s help.”
“Do you see them as perhaps connected to this?” asked Stone.
“Too early to tell. Maybe they were just lucky they left the park when they did.”
“And the ganger? Was he a cop?”
“Did NIC tell you he was?”
“Not in so many words. But they didn’t deny it either.”
“I won’t deny it either, then.”
Stone said, “His tooth was sticking in my head until the doctors removed it. You can get a dental match on that, and possibly a DNA hit.” He held up his sleeve. “And this is his blood. Do you have a kit in the trunk of the Bucar? You can swab for it right now.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Chapman.
Stone turned to her. “And why is that?”
“Because the tooth belongs to one of our security people who was patrolling the park. The doctors didn’t return it to you, did they? See, my man would actually like it back.”
“And why was your man in the park last night?”
“Because before he turned his ankle after tripping on some steps at the White House, my prime minister was scheduled to walk across Lafayette Park on his way back to Blair House, at precisely two minutes past eleven. Lucky for him he didn’t, since he would have had his damn head blown off.”
AFTER THE FBI AGENTS and MI6 Chapman left, Stone puttered in the cemetery for a half hour, righting tombstones toppled by a recent heavy rain and cleaning debris caused by the same storm. This manual labor allowed him to think clearly. And he had a lot that was puzzling him and no answers. As he was bagging some sticks and small branches, he stiffened and slowly turned around.
He turned to see Mary Chapman come out from behind a bush. “I never moved. What, you have eyes in the back of your head?”
“Sometimes.” Stone tied up the bag and deposited it next to a wooden storage shed. “When I need to.”
Chapman walked over to him. “This is amazing cover for an agent. A cemetery worker.”
“Caretaker, actually. This cemetery isn’t used any longer. It’s a historical site.”
She stopped, lifted one leg and rubbed some dirt off her plain black low-heeled pump. “I see. And do you enjoy taking care of the dead?”
“They never argue with me.” He headed back to the cottage. She followed. They sat on the front porch. A minute of silence passed as they listened to the chirps of birds mingled with the sounds of passing cars. Stone stared straight ahead. Chapman’s gaze continued to flick at him like an erratic beam of light.
“So Oliver Stone?” she said at last, with mirth in her eyes. “I’ve enjoyed several of your movies. Are you here scouting another film?”
“Why did you come back?” he asked, finally turning to her.
She rose and surprised him by saying, “Got time for a spot of coffee? I’ll buy.”
She had a car, so they drove to lower Georgetown and found a parking spot on the street, an almost unheard-of event in the congested area.
Stone told her so.
“Right,” she said, clearly unimpressed by this. “Try parking in London.”
They carried their coffees and sat outside at a small table. Chapman took off her pumps, hiked her skirt to mid-thigh, put her feet up on an empty chair, leaned back, closed her eyes and let the sun fall fully on her pale face and bare legs. “England rarely has sun this strong,” she explained. “And when it does it’s usually immediately interrupted by clouds and then rain. Makes a lot of us seriously suicidal. Particularly if it rains in bloody August and you have no holiday abroad planned.”
She opened her eyes. “Do you now?”
“I lived in London for two years. It was a long time ago,” he added.
“You could say that, yes.”
Stone drank his coffee, said nothing.
She sipped her coffee and let the silence linger.
“John Carr?” she said again.
“I heard you the first time,” he said politely, glancing sideways at her.
She smiled. “Would you like to know where I heard that name for the first time?”
Stone didn’t answer, but his silence apparently constituted enough of an assent for her to continue.
“James McElroy. He’s a good bit older than you are.” She ran her eye over his tall, spare frame. “And not in nearly as good shape.”
Stone again said nothing.
“He’s a legend in British intelligence circles. Ran MI6 for decades. But I believe you know all that. Now he has some special title, I’m not really sure what it is. But he does what he wants. And bloody good for the country too, I can tell you that.”
“Is he well?”
“Yes. Apparently somewhat due to you. Iran, 1977? Six fanatics sent to place his head on the sharp end of a spear? Six dead men after you finished with them. He said he didn’t even have time to pull his weapon to help you. Then you were gone, just like that. Never had a chance to properly thank you.”
“I didn’t require any thanks. He was our ally. It was my job.”
“Well, irrespective, he said that for decades he wanted to buy you a pint for saving his arse, but you never turned up again. He still wants to, as a matter of fact.”
“Again, not necessary.”
Chapman stretched, put her feet back on the pavement, edged her skirt down and slipped her pumps back on. “By sheer coincidence he’s here in town.”
“Is that why you came back?”
“Yes and no.”
He stared at her expectantly.
“Yes, in that I knew he would want to see you. No in that I had my own reasons.”
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.”
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 Riley 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?”
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.”
“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.
“Your man looks all right. Except for his tooth.”
“He’s a tough chap, but he did say colliding with you was like hitting a brick wall.”
Stone continued to focus on the feed. The suit and woman were no longer visible. He saw people running; the security bollards on Pennsylvania retracted into the street and police cars and Secret Service vans raced away. Blair House was quickly sealed off.
“Can you show me the last thirty seconds again?”
She hit a couple of keystrokes and Stone watched the explosion happen again. He sat back puzzled.
“What’s the problem?” said Chapman as she stopped the video.
“Can you slow it down even more?”
“I’ll try.” She worked some keystrokes. “This is the best I can do, I’m afraid.”
They watched it again with everything in ultraslow motion.
Stone followed the path of the jogger as he passed by a pair of uniformed Secret Service officers and a canine before entering the park.
“Fat chap to be in trainers,” noted Chapman. “Doesn’t look like a runner, does he?”
“People who wear jogging suits aren’t always runners. He might have just been out for a walk.”
“If you say so.”
“Bomb could have been on that iPod.”
Chapman nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. C-4 or Semtex. Or something even more powerful. If so, there will be evidence of that in the debris field.”
“Yes and no. Yes, the iPod will be blown apart, but it would be regardless of whether it was part of an explosive device or not.”
“But they’ll be able to tell,” said Chapman. “From scorching marks, from the deformity angles of the parts, outward as opposed to inward, and so on.”
Stone turned to her. “You know about explosives?”
“Another reason they sent for me. I spent three years chasing some nasty Irishmen who didn’t believe the IRA had actually signed a peace treaty. They liked to make things go boom. Learned a lot.”
“I’m sure.” Stone looked back at the screen. “He dove into the planting hole.”
“And the explosion happened a few seconds later. Maybe a suicide bomber, then.”
Stone looked skeptical. “Who kills only himself by diving in a hole?”
“So what do you think the lay of the land is, then?”
He looked at her curiously. “Lay of what land?”
“Your land of too many bloody American agencies. I’ve only been on this case less than a day and already I feel claustrophobic.”
“Ever heard of Hell’s Corner?”
Chapman shook her head.
Stone leaned forward and tapped the frozen screen, which showed Lafayette Park. “This is Hell’s Corner,” he said. “Pennsylvania Avenue, the actual street, belongs to the D.C. metro cops. The sidewalks around Lafayette Park are the Secret Service’s turf and the park itself comes under the jurisdiction of the Park Police. Secret Service agents are actually taught to grab a person of interest from the street or park, carry him to the sidewalk and then arrest him there to prevent a pissing contest over jurisdiction.”
“Okay,” Chapman said slowly.
“Hell’s Corner,” he said again. “The Feds and cops hate it, but they all have to dance to the same song. The explosion is a case in point. The Park Police will control the scene, but the FBI, and the ATF, because an explosive was involved, will control the investigation. And Homeland Security, Secret Service, NIC and CIA will be hovering like vultures.”
Chapman took a sip of tea. “So what now?”
“We’ll have to go to the park, talk to the investigators and track down the jogger’s identity and that of the woman and the guy in the suit too.” He gazed at Chapman. “Your guy? Where is he?”
“Available for questioning. But we have his full report. He saw less than you.”
She reached for her jacket. “So on to the park?”
“You want to use my car?”
“I think we should, since I don’t happen to own one.”
Excerpted from Hell's Corner by Baldacci, David Copyright © 2011 by Baldacci, David. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.