The whole truth, p.21
The Whole Truth, p.21Part #1 of A. Shaw series by David Baldacci
“My dog bit me. What did you mean about killing two birds with one stone? And why are you here in the middle of a homicide investigation?”
“I’d like you to see this first.”
He led Shaw into a room on the first floor that had been set up as a crime scene investigation office. On one table was a computer terminal. Royce sat down in front of it and started hitting keys.
“We got a video feed from a surveillance camera on the street that was put there to record license plates for the congestion charge. Here’s what it captured on the day the killings happened.”
Shaw looked over Royce’s shoulder as the screen sprang to life. The positioning of the camera up on a pole afforded a complete exterior view of the building. A van with a satellite dish sprouting from the top pulled up in front of the building and two men got out.
Royce explained, “The uniform of the London road crews.”
The men pulled a number of traffic cones from the van and used them to cordon off one end of the street and the sidewalks in both directions. The instant this was done Shaw noted the satellite dish started moving.
“They’re jamming cell phone reception,” he deduced.
Royce nodded. “After having earlier cut the hard-line phone wires to the building.”
Shaw stiffened as the next frame on the screen showed a half dozen men erupt from the van and race into the building. It happened so fast it was almost impossible to clearly see their movements. Even someone looking out a window or passing down the street might not have thought anything was out of the ordinary.
“Slow it down,” Shaw instructed.
A minute later, the scene was replayed again at half speed and the picture was zoomed in. The men were all tall and fit-looking. Lifelike masks covered their faces, and any weapons they might have been carrying were concealed under the long coats each wore. Shaw scrutinized each figure, looking for anything of distinction, any exposed skin that might have a memorable marking on it, but he came away disappointed.
Royce, who’d been watching him, nodded in sympathy. “I know, we’ve been over it a dozen times and nothing hit us either. They were obviously pros. They knew the camera was there and acted accordingly.”
“I take it the camera feed isn’t reviewed in real time?”
“Unfortunately not, otherwise it would have elicited an energetic response from the Metropolitan Police, I can assure you. They also must have been aware of that.”
“I probably shouldn’t even bother asking this.”
“License plate and vehicle are dead ends. Van was stolen from a junkyard in Surrey about a week ago, the plates off a wreck at a repair garage here in London. The back door to this building was kicked in, so evidently an assault team came through there as well.”
“I think you hit it on the head, an assault team. Front, back, hit each floor grid by grid. They probably had a list of everyone who worked here and the physical layout of the place.” Shaw said this more to himself than to Royce. “Okay, run the rest of the feed.”
Shaw stiffened once more when the shattered window glass poured down on the street. He saw a head emerge and the person started screaming. He couldn’t hear her, because there was no audio. But he didn’t need to hear.
“I thought it might be,” Royce said.
Shaw stared hard at him. “How much did Frank tell you about her and me?”
“Not all that much, but enough. And I’ve been in Ms. Fischer’s office. I saw the photos of you and her. I’m sorry. Had you been together long?”
“Not long enough.”
“Again, I’m sorry. I can only imagine what you’re feeling.”
“Don’t even try to imagine it,” Shaw said back.
Royce cleared his throat and turned to the screen. “The windows were accidentally painted shut and she had to break the glass.”
“Accidentally? You’re sure?”
“We checked out the painting company. They’re legit, been doing buildings around here for decades. All hands accounted for and all. It’s not such an unusual thing apparently, shoddy work I mean. I had my flat done three years ago and I still can’t open the damn windows.”
Shaw wasn’t listening. He was watching the image of Anna as she called out the window, obviously for help, help that would never arrive. Then a moment later he saw her climb up onto the windowsill.
“Was she going to jump?” he said sharply.
“To that awning below, we’re guessing.”
“But she never made it,” Shaw said dully. “Why?”
“I have to warn you that the next few frames are… Well, they’re not easy to watch.” Royce turned to look at him. “Are you sure you want to keep going?”
“I need to see it.”
The next scenes were played out quickly. Anna was on the sill of the window, in her stocking feet, grasping both sides of the window with her hands.
Mentally, Shaw was telling her to jump, jump, before it was too late, even though he knew it already was. It was an agonizing moment for him; he couldn’t even imagine how terrifying it had been for her. The next frame, however, sent his agony to an entirely new level.
He saw the first bullet pass through her chest and a wash of blood and tissue was propelled from her body. A split second later another chunk of Anna was blown out into the fresh London air. As she toppled back inside her office, Shaw finally looked away.
“We can finish this later,” Royce suggested.
“Keep rolling, I’m okay.”
Several minutes later the men emerged from the front door. Seconds after that the van was gone.
“And no one heard or saw anything?” Shaw asked. “Even a woman screaming out the window? Shots fired, her blood hitting the street?”
“The buildings on either side of this one are scheduled to be renovated so they were empty. The buildings opposite are occupied but the tenants were notified that the city was doing some hazardous gas work in the area that day and they were to leave their premises before noon or risk a hefty fine.”
“And no one bothered to call and check whether that was true?”
“There was a phone number on the notice. Several tenants did call and received confirmation that it was true.”
“Only the number was phony.”
“Correct. And the cones blocked off the normal automobile flow and foot traffic. And it’s a dead-end street. There’re never many vehicles down here anyway.”
“Leaving The Phoenix Group all alone. It was well planned out,” Shaw grudgingly admitted. “I’d like to see Anna’s office now.”
“Well, first I’d like to introduce you to an owner of The Phoenix Group.”
“They’re here?” Shaw said sharply.
“One of them flew in as soon as he was notified.”
“What do you know about the phoenix symbol?”
“Bird that never dies. Rises from the ashes. Egyptian origin.”
“Your description is accurate, as far as it goes. The phoenix is actually a symbol that has various origins. Egyptian as you said. It’s also Arabian, Japanese, and at least one other.”
“Which is?” Shaw said impatiently.
A small man appeared in the doorway. He was dressed in a black suit and his expression matched the color of his clothing. Royce rose to greet him.
“Shaw, let me introduce you to Mr. Feng Hai. Of China.”
WHILE SHAW WAS INSIDE THE BUILDING Katie had been busy outside. She’d actually gotten there before him and had hidden around a corner when she saw him arrive by cab. She’d flashed her no-longer-valid press badge at the officer on duty outside the entrance and fired off a series of questions to which the man in blue offered not a single answer.
“Move along,” he said, his beefy face showing considerable irritation.
“Not into a free and independent press, Constable?” she asked.
“What I’m into is you
“Your name will never appear. You’ll be an unnamed source.”
“You’re bloody right my name won’t appear. Now move along!”
Katie walked slowly down the street a bit, staring up at the windows of the building as she did so. Shaw was in there getting the whole story while she was out here with zip.
If I could just… Back on top. Another Pulitzer.
She was so intent on her thoughts that she nearly jumped when something touched her arm. She whirled around and saw him, his soft felt cap in hand, his wide, nervous eyes squarely on her.
“Can I help you?” she asked suspiciously.
“You are a journalist, yes?” His voice was squeaky and not exactly brimming with confidence. She easily guessed that English was not his first language. He was short and painfully thin. His teeth were crooked and yellowed. His clothes barely rose to the level of threadbare.
“Who wants to know?” She peered over his shoulder as though expecting to see someone else there.
He looked back at The Phoenix Group building. “I have come here every day to see it. This place, I mean.” He gave an involuntary shudder.
“It is disturbing,” she said, still wary of the man.
He seemed to sense her discomfort. “My name is Aron Lesnik. I am from Krakow. That is in Poland,” he added.
“I know where Krakow is,” Katie said. “I’ve been there. What do you want with me?”
“I saw you talking to that police officer. I heard you say you are journalist. Is that true? Are you journalist?”
Lesnik glanced once more at the building. When he turned back to her, his eyes were filled with tears. “I am so sorry for those people. They were good people and now they are dead.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve and looked at her pitifully.
“It was a real tragedy. Now if you’ll excuse me.” Katie wondered why she always seemed to attract the nutcases. The man’s next words made her forget that thought.
“I was in there. On that day.” He said this in a hoarse voice.
“What?” Katie couldn’t have heard the man right. “In where?”
Lesnik pointed to The Phoenix Group building. “In there,” he repeated, an agonizing pitch to his voice now.
“Where the murders happened?”
Lesnik nodded, his head bobbing up and down like a child making a confession.
“What were you doing in the building?”
“I was looking for work. A job. My English is not that good, but I am good with computers. I go there because I hear they need people who are good with computers. I have appointment. It is on that day. That… bad day.”
“Let me get this straight,” Katie said, trying but failing to hide her excitement. “You were in that building for an interview when the people were killed? While they were being killed?”
Lesnik nodded. “Yes.” His eyes filled with tears again.
“Then how come you’re not dead?” she said suspiciously.
“I hear the guns. I know about sounds of guns. I was young boy in Krakow when the Soviets would come with guns. So I hide.”
A bit of Katie’s suspicion drained away. She’d had to hide from men with guns when she’d been reporting overseas. “Where did you hide? I want precise details.”
“On the second floor there is machine in a little room they use to make copies of papers. It has doors in back. A little space to hold things. It was empty. I am not big. I crawl inside. I stay there until the shootings stop. Then I come out. I think they shoot me too when they find me. But they do not find me. I am lucky.”
Katie was nearly vibrating off the pavement. “Look, it’s probably not a great idea to talk about this here. Why don’t we go somewhere else?”
Lesnik immediately backed away. “No, I say enough. I come here every day. I come, because I can’t stay away. Those people, all dead. All dead except me. I should be dead too.”
“Don’t say that. It obviously wasn’t your time to go. Like you said, you were lucky. And besides it’ll be good to get it off your chest,” she urged.
“No. No! I only come up to you because I hear you are journalist. In Poland we have journalists who are heroes, heroes in Poland. They stand up to Soviets. My father, he is one of them. They kill him, but he is still hero,” he added proudly.
“I’m sure he is. But you can’t just not tell anyone. You have to go to the police.”
Lesnik took another step back. “No, no police. I do not like police.”
Katie looked at him warily. “Are you in some sort of trouble?”
Lesnik didn’t answer her. He simply glanced away. “No police. I must go now.”
She clutched his arm. “Wait a minute.” Katie thought quickly. “Look, if I promise not to reveal my source, can you at least tell me what you saw? I promise, I swear on a stack of Bibles I won’t ever tell who told me. After all, you came up to me. You must want me to help somehow.”
Lesnik looked unsure. “I don’t know why I come up to you.” He paused. “You… you can do that? Not tell?”
“Absolutely.” She looked over his anguished face, his small, childlike frame, and his shabby clothes. She could easily envision him hiding terrified inside a copier as gunfire erupted all around him. “How about I buy you something to eat and we can talk? Just talk. If you’re still uncomfortable, you can walk away.” She put out her hand. “Deal?”
He didn’t take her hand.
“I’m sure your father would want to see the truth come out. And to see murderers punished.”
He slowly slipped his fingers around hers. “Okay. I go with you.”
As they walked along Katie said the one question she’d been dying to ask.
“Did you see who did it?” She held her breath waiting for the answer.
He nodded. “And I hear them too. I hear them good. I know the language they speak very good.”
“Language? So they were foreigners?”
Lesnik stopped walking and stared at her. “They were Russians.”
“You’re sure? Absolutely certain?”
For the first time his face took on a confident expression. “I am Pole. From Krakow. I know Russian when I hear it.”
“WE NAMED THE COMPANY after the Chinese phoenix, the Feng Huang,” Feng Hai said as they sat in an office off the main foyer. “In Chinese mythology the phoenix stands for virtue, power, and prosperity. It was also said that the bird represented power sent down to the empress from above. You might know that Feng means male phoenix.”
“And Feng is also your surname,” commented Shaw. Unlike the West the Chinese put their family name ahead of their given one. So Hai was the man’s first name.
Feng nodded. “That also gave me the idea, that is correct.”
“And the connection The Phoenix Group has to China?” Royce asked.
“It is simply a Chinese company doing business in London, like many others.”
“Your employees seemed to think a wealthy American from Arizona owned it,” Shaw noted.
Feng shrugged. “Rumors, obviously.”
Shaw said, “I think it was more than that. I think it was a deliberate cover.”
Royce sat forward while Feng glared at Shaw. “So it was basically a think tank that studied global issues funded by you and your partners? That was the business model?”
“And you set it up for what reason?” Royce asked.
“To find answers to complicated questions,” Feng said. “The Chinese too have an interest in such problems and solutions. We are not all heartless polluters and people who put lead in children’s toys, gentlemen,” he said, attempting a weak smile.
“Did The Phoenix Group make any money for you?” Shaw asked.
“We did not do it for money.”
The Whole Truth by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.2 out of 5 / Based on47 votes