Zero Day is a nifty, paranoid thriller disguised as a murder mystery, and Baldacci advances it at a speedy clip with a nice mix of intrigue, tantalizing clues and the occasional explosion...Baldacci's books are fast-paced battles between good and evil."Richmond Times Dispatch
Zero Day (John Puller Series #1)by David Baldacci
From David Baldacci--the modern master of the thriller and #1 worldwide bestselling novelist-comes a new hero: a lone Army Special Agent taking on the toughest crimes facing the nation.
And Zero Day is where it all begins....
John Puller is a combat veteran and the best military investigator in the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division. His/i>… See more details below
From David Baldacci--the modern master of the thriller and #1 worldwide bestselling novelist-comes a new hero: a lone Army Special Agent taking on the toughest crimes facing the nation.
And Zero Day is where it all begins....
John Puller is a combat veteran and the best military investigator in the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division. His father was an Army fighting legend, and his brother is serving a life sentence for treason in a federal military prison. Puller has an indomitable spirit and an unstoppable drive to find the truth.
Now, Puller is called out on a case in a remote, rural area in West Virginia coal country far from any military outpost. Someone has stumbled onto a brutal crime scene, a family slaughtered. The local homicide detective, a headstrong woman with personal demons of her own, joins forces with Puller in the investigation. As Puller digs through deception after deception, he realizes that absolutely nothing he's seen in this small town, and no one in it, are what they seem. Facing a potential conspiracy that reaches far beyond the hills of West Virginia, he is one man on the hunt for justice against an overwhelming force.
David Baldacci is one of the world's favorite storytellers. His books are published in over 45 languages and in more than 80 countries, with over 110 million copies in print. David Baldacci is also the cofounder, along with his wife, of the Wish You Well Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting literacy efforts across America. Still a resident of his native Virginia, he invites you to visit him at www.DavidBaldacci.com and his foundation at www.WishYouWellFoundation.org, and to look into its program to spread books across America at www.FeedingBodyandMind.com.
Read an Excerpt
By Baldacci, David
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Baldacci, David
All right reserved.
THE CLOUD OF COAL DUST driven deeply into his lungs nearly caused Howard Reed to pull his mail truck off the road and throw up onto the stunted, burnt grass. But he coughed and spat and tightened his gut. Reed worked the accelerator and raced past the haul roads where dump trucks lumbered across, spewing black grit into the air like burning confetti. That same air was filled with sulfur dioxide because a coal waste pile had caught on fire, as they often did. These elements would drift up into the sky, react with oxygen to form sulfur trioxide, and then clamp onto water molecules to create a potent compound that would later fall back to earth as toxic acid rain. None of it was a trusty recipe for environmental harmony.
Reed kept his hand tightly on the special mechanism, and his eighteen-year-old Ford Explorer with the rattling tailpipe and shuddering transmission stayed on the cracked asphalt. His mail truck was his personal vehicle and had been modified to allow him to sit in the passenger seat and pull up flush to the mailboxes on his route. This was accomplished in part by an apparatus that looked like the fan belt in a car. It allowed him to steer, brake, and accelerate from the right side of the car.
After becoming a rural mailman and learning to drive from the “wrong” side of the vehicle, Reed had wanted to travel to England and try his newfound skill on the roads there, where every motorist drove on the left. He had learned that this dated back to the days of the jousters. Most folks were right-handed, and back then a man wanted to keep his sword or jousting pole closest to his enemy. His wife told him he was an idiot and would most likely end up dead in a foreign land.
He moved past the mountain, or where the mountain had once been before the Trent Mining and Exploration Company had blown it up in order to get to the buried rich coal seams. Large tracts of the area looked like the surface of the moon now, cratered and denuded. It was a process called surface mining. To Reed a better term was surface annihilation.
But this was West Virginia, and coal provided the bulk of the good-paying jobs. So Reed didn’t make a fuss about his home being flooded by a fly ash sludge storage pond giving way. Or about well water that turned black and smelled like rotten eggs. Or about air that was routinely full of things that did not mix well with human beings. He didn’t complain about his remaining kidney or his damaged liver and lungs from living around such toxic elements. He would be viewed as anti-coal and thus anti-jobs. Reed just didn’t need the added grief.
He turned down the road to make his last delivery of the day. It was a package that had to be signed for. He had cursed when he’d picked up his load of mail and seen it. A signature meant he had to actually interact with another human being. All he wanted right now was to scoot over to the Dollar Bar where every mug of beer on Monday cost a quarter. He would sit on his little worn-down perch at the end of the mahogany slab and try not to think about going home to his wife who would smell the alcohol on his breath and spend the next four hours lecturing him about it.
He pulled into the gravel drive. This neighborhood had once been fairly nice—well, if one went back to the 1950s. Now it was not so nice. There wasn’t a soul around. The yards were empty of kids as though it were two in the morning instead of two in the afternoon. On a hot summer’s day the kids should be out running under the sprinkler or playing hide-and-seek. But kids didn’t do that anymore, Reed knew. They sat inside in the AC and played video games so violent and gory that Reed had forbidden his grandchildren to bring them into his house.
Now the yards were filled with trash and dirty plastic toys. Ancient rusted Fords and Dodges were up on concrete blocks. The homes’ cheap siding was popping off, every surface of wood needed painting, and roofs were starting to collapse as though God above were pressing down on them. It was all sad and rather pathetic and made Reed want that beer even more, because his neighborhood looked exactly the same as this one. He knew a few privileged folks were making a fortune off the coal seams. It was just that none of them happened to live around here.
He pulled the package from the postal bin and trudged toward the house. It was a tired-looking two-story with vinyl siding. The door was hollow-core wood, white and scarred. A sheer glass door fronted it. A plywood wheelchair ramp bled off the stoop. The shrubs in front of the house were overgrown and dying; their branches had pushed against the soft siding, buckling it. There were two cars parked in the gravel in front of his black Ford: a Chrysler minivan and a late-model Lexus.
He took a moment to admire the Japanese car. Something like that would probably cost him more than a year’s salary. He reverently touched the blue metallic paint. He noted a pair of aviator sunglasses hanging from the rearview mirror. There was a briefcase in the backseat and a green jacket next to it. Both vehicles’ license plates were from Virginia.
He continued on, bypassing the ramp, hit the bottom step, trekked up the three squared-off logs of poured concrete, and rang the bell. He heard the sound pealing back at him from inside.
He waited. Ten seconds. Twenty. His irritation grew.
He rang again.
“Hello? Mailman. Got a package needs a signature.” His voice, virtually unused throughout his workday, seemed strange to him, as though someone else were talking. He glanced down at the eight-by-eleven-inch flat package. Attached to it was the receipt that needed signing.
Come on, it’s hot as hell and the Dollar Bar is calling my name.
He glanced at the package label and called out, “Mr. Halverson?”
Reed didn’t know the man but did recognize the name from previous deliveries. Some mailmen in rural areas became friendly with their customers. Reed had never been that kind of mailman. He wanted his beer, not a conversation.
He rang again and then knocked on the glass, two sharp raps with his knuckles. He swiped at a bead of sweat that trickled down the back of his burnt red neck, an occupational hazard from sitting next to an open car window all day with the sun beating down on him. His armpits were oozing sweat, staining his shirt. He wasn’t running his car AC with the window down. Gas was expensive enough without wasting it.
He raised his voice: “Hello, it’s the mailman. Need a signature. If it goes back you probably won’t see it again.” He could see shimmers of heat in the air. He felt slightly dizzy. He was getting too old for this.
He aimed his gaze at the two cars. Had to be somebody home. He stepped away from the door and tilted his head back. There was no one peering at him from the dormer windows. One was open, making them look like mismatched eyeballs. He rapped again.
Finally, he heard someone approaching. He noted that the wooden door was cracked open a few inches. The sounds grew nearer and then stopped. Reed was hard of hearing or he would’ve noticed the odd sound of the footfalls.
“Mailman, need a signature,” he called out.
He licked his dry lips. He could see the quarter beer in his hand. Taste it.
Open the damn door.
He said, “Do you want your package?”
I could give a rat’s ass. I could just chuck it down a ravine, like I’ve done before.
The door finally inched open. Reed tugged back the glass portal, his hand extended, the package in it. “You got a pen?” he asked.
When the door opened more, he blinked. There was no one there. The door had opened all by itself. Then he glanced down. A miniature collie looked back up at him, its long snout and furry hindquarters swaying from side to side. It had obviously nosed the door open.
Reed was not the stereotypical mailman. He loved dogs, had two of his own.
“Hey there, buddy.” He knelt down. “Hey there.” He scratched the dog’s ears. “Anybody home? You want to sign for this package?”
When Reed’s hand hit the wetness in the animal’s fur he at first thought it was dog pee and he jerked back. When he looked down at his palm he saw the red, sticky substance that had been transferred from the collie.
“You hurt, boy?”
He examined the dog. More blood, but no wound that he could see.
“What the hell?” Reed muttered.
He stood, one hand on the knob. “Hello? Anybody here? Hello?”
He looked behind him, unsure of what to do. He glanced down at the dog; it was staring up at him, its features now seemed melancholy. And something else was strange. The dog hadn’t barked once. His two mutts would raise the roof if someone came to his door.
“Shit,” Reed said under his breath. “Hello?” he said in a loud voice. “Everybody okay?” He edged inside the house. It was warm. His nose wrinkled at the unpleasant smell. If his head hadn’t been stuffed with allergies, the odor would have been far more unpleasant.
“Hello. Your dog has blood on him. Everything okay?”
He took a few more steps forward, cleared the small vestibule, and peered around the corner into the tiny living room set off the hall.
An instant later the wooden front door was thrown back, the knob punching a crater in the drywall. The glass door was kicked open so hard that it hit the metal banister on the left side of the porch, shattering the glass. Howard Reed jumped from the top step to the dirt. His heels dug in, he gave one shudder, sank to his knees, and threw up what little was in his stomach. Then he rose and stumbled to his truck, coughing, retching, and yelling in terror like a man suddenly deranged.
And he was.
Howard Reed would not make it to the Dollar Bar today.
JOHN PULLER STARED out the window at the great state of Kansas a few thousand feet below. He leaned closer to the plane’s window and looked straight down. The flight path into KCI airport took them over Missouri and west into Kansas. The pilot would do a protracted series of banks and head back to the Show-Me State to land. The jet was now flying over federal property. In this case that federal property was a prison, or rather several of them, both federal and military. Down there several thousand inmates sat in their cells and brooded over having lost their liberty, many of them forever.
He squinted, putting up one hand to block the glare from the sun. They were passing over the old USDB, or United States Disciplinary Barracks, also known as the Castle. For over a hundred years it had housed the worst of the armed forces’ lawbreakers. Whereas the old Castle looked like a medieval fortress made of stone and brick, the new USDB looked like a community college. That is, until you noted the twin fourteen-foot fences that ringed the facility.
Leavenworth Federal Prison for civilians was four miles to the south.
Only men were incarcerated at USDB. Female military prisoners were housed in the San Diego naval brig. The inmates here had been convicted at court-martial of violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. USDB only housed prisoners who were sentenced to five years or more or those convicted of national security offenses.
That was why John Puller was here.
The jet’s landing gear came down and the plane descended into the Kansas City airport, touching down smoothly on the tarmac.
Thirty minutes later, Puller slid into his rental car and drove out of the airport, steering his ride due west toward Kansas. The air was still and hot. The hills were green and rolling. Puller didn’t turn on the car’s AC. He preferred real air, hot or not. He was exactly six feet three and seven-eighths inches in his bare feet. He knew this because his employer, the United States Army, was very good at measuring its personnel. He weighed 232 pounds. On the Army’s height-to-weight-to-age standards he would be deemed, at thirty-five, to be about ten pounds overweight. But no one looking at him would have thought that. If there was an ounce of fat on the man it would take a microscope to locate it.
He was taller than most infantrymen and almost all other Army Rangers he had served with. That had its advantages and disadvantages. His muscles were long and ropy and his limbs carried the advantage of extraordinary leverage and endurance. The downside was he was a far bigger target than the typical grunt.
He had been a decent tight end in college and looked like he could still suit up on Saturday. He had always lacked the supernormal speed and agility to make it into the NFL, but that had never been his ambition. There was only one career John Puller had ever wanted. And that was to wear the uniform of the United States Army.
He was not in uniform today. He never wore it when he came to USDB. More miles went by. He passed a sign for the Lewis and Clark Trail. Then the blue bridge came up. He crossed it. He was now in Kansas. More specifically, he was now at Fort Leavenworth.
He cleared the main checkpoint, where the military examined his ID and wrote down his license plate number. The guard saluted Warrant Officer Puller and said a crisp “Thank you, sir. You may proceed.” Puller drove on. With an Eminem tune playing on the radio, he passed along Grant Avenue and eyed the remains of the old Castle. He saw remnants of the wire canopy that had covered the former prison. It had been placed there to prevent escape by chopper. The Army tried to think of everything.
Two miles later he arrived at the USDB. Somewhere in the background a train’s horn sounded. A Cessna lifted off from nearby Sherman Army Airfield, its bulky snout and sturdy wings battling a crosswind. Puller parked and left his wallet and most of his other personal possessions in the car, including his standard-issue SIG P228, which the Army designated the M11. He had checked his sidearm and ammo in a hard-sided case for the flight here. He was supposed to carry his gun with him at all times. Yet walking armed into a prison did not seem like a good idea to Puller, authorized or not. And he would have to secure the gun in a locker anyway once inside. For obvious reasons, no weapons could go in where the prisoners were.
There was one bored young member of the Military Police manning the scan gate. Though Puller knew it wasn’t possible, the soldier looked like he’d been pulled straight from boot camp to hold this post. Puller presented his driver’s license and his cred pack.
The burly, chubby-cheeked MP stared at the badge and ID card identifying John Puller as a Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, special agent. The crouching eagle with its head turned to the right was the centerpiece of the badge. It had large claws that gripped the top of the shield. Its one revealed eye looked menacing, the large beak poised ready to strike. The MP saluted and then gazed up at the tall, wide-shouldered man.
“You here officially, sir?”
“John Puller Jr.? You related to—”
“My old man.”
The young MP looked awed. “Yes, sir. Give him my best, sir.”
The United States Army had many fighting legends, and John Puller Sr. was right near the very top of that list.
Puller stepped through the magnetometer. It beeped. He was wanded. Like always. The device screeched at his right forearm.
“Titanium rod,” noted Puller. He rolled up his sleeve to show the scar.
The wand went off again at his left ankle.
The MP looked up inquiringly.
Puller said, “Screws and plate. I can lift my pants leg.”
“If you will, sir.”
When Puller let his pants leg drop back down the guard said apologetically, “Just doing my job, sir.”
“I would’ve given you hell if you didn’t, MP.”
Wide-eyed, the soldier said, “Did you get those in combat, sir?”
“I didn’t shoot myself.”
Puller grabbed his car keys out of the bowl he’d put them in and slid his license and cred pack back into his shirt pocket. He signed the visitor’s log.
The heavy door was buzzed open and he walked a few paces to stand in the visitor’s room. There were three other inmates receiving visitors. Young kids played on the floor while husbands and their wives or girlfriends talked quietly. Kids were forbidden from sitting on their daddies’ laps. One hug, kiss, or handshake at the beginning and end of the visit was allowed. No hands could dip below the waist. In between, a visitor and the inmate could intertwine fingers. All conversations had to be conducted in normal voices. You could only converse with the inmate you’d come to see. One could bring in a pen or pencil but not paints or crayons. That rule, thought Puller, had come from a big mess that someone had made, probably a child. But it was a stupid rule, he thought, since a pen or pencil could easily be turned into a weapon whereas a crayon wouldn’t be much of a threat.
Puller stood there and watched as a woman who looked to be the mother of an inmate read the Bible to him. You could bring books in, but you couldn’t give them to the inmate. Neither could you give them a magazine or newspaper. You couldn’t bring in any food, but you could buy your inmate food from the nearby vending machines. They were not allowed to buy things themselves. Perhaps it would have seemed too much like normal life, thought Puller, which was not something prison was designed to provide. Once a visitor entered the room, leaving it instantly terminated the visit. There was only one exception to this rule, of which Puller would never be able to take advantage: breastfeeding. There was a room for that upstairs.
The door at the opposite end of the room opened and a man in an orange jumpsuit walked through. Puller watched him come forward.
He was tall but an inch shorter than Puller, and possessed a more slender build. The face was similar, though the hair was darker and longer. There was a touch of white in places that Puller did not have. Both men’s jaws were square, the line of the noses narrow and slightly off to the right, and the teeth large and even. There was a right-side dimple and eyes that appeared green in artificial light and blue in the sun.
Puller also had a scar across the left side of his neck that angled down toward the back. There were other distinguishing marks on his left leg, right arm, and upper torso both front and rear. They all represented unwelcome intrusions of foreign objects fired with violent velocity into his person. The other man had none of these, and his skin was white and smooth. No suntanning in here.
Puller’s skin had been roughened by brutal heat and wind and equally debilitating cold. He would be described by most as rugged-looking. Not handsome. Never cute. On good days he could perhaps be attractive, or more likely interesting-looking. It would never occur to him to even think about those things. He was a soldier, not a model.
They did not hug. They shook hands briefly.
The other man smiled. “Good to see you, bro.”
The brothers Puller sat.
“LOST WEIGHT?” asked Puller.
His brother, Robert, leaned back in his chair and draped one long leg over his opposite knee.
“Chow here’s not as good as the Air Force.”
“Navy does it the best. Army’s a distant third. But that’s because the wings and the water guys are wimps.”
“Heard you made warrant officer. No longer an SFC.”
“Same job. Little bump in the pay.”
“Way you want it?”
“Way I want it.”
They fell silent. Puller looked to his left, where a young woman was holding hands with her inmate and showing him some pictures. Two little towheads played on the floor at Mom’s feet. Puller gazed back at his brother.
Robert Puller shifted his weight. He too had been watching the young couple. He was thirty-seven, had never been married, and had no children.
“Nothing left for them to do. Dad?”
Puller’s mouth twitched. “The same.”
“Been to see him?”
“Last week,” he said.
“Like your lawyers, not much they can do.”
“Tell him hello for me.”
A spark of anger. “I know. I’ve always known that.”
Robert’s raised voice drew a long, hard stare from the burly MP stationed against the wall.
In a lower voice Robert said, “But still tell him I said hello.”
“Nothing you can provide. And you don’t have to keep coming.”
“Younger brother guilt.”
“Younger brother something.”
Robert slid his palm across the tabletop. “It’s not that bad in here. It’s not like Leavenworth.”
“Sure it is. Still a prison.” Puller leaned forward. “Did you do it?”
Robert glanced up. “Wondered why you never asked me that before.”
“I’m asking now.”
“I’ve got nothing to say on that,” replied his brother.
“You think I’m trying to sneak a confession out of you? You’ve already been convicted.”
“No, but you are CID. I know your sense of justice. I don’t want to put you in an untenable conflict of interest or of the soul.”
Puller leaned back. “I compartmentalize.”
“Being John Puller’s son. I know all about that.”
“You always saw it as weight.”
“And it’s not?”
“It is whatever you want to make it. You’re smarter than me. You should have figured that out on your own.”
“And yet we both joined the military.”
“You went officer route, like the old man. I’m just enlisted.”
“And you call me smarter?”
“You’re a nuclear scientist. A mushroom cloud specialist. I’m just a grunt with a badge.”
“With a badge,” repeated his brother. “I guess I’m lucky I got life.”
“They haven’t executed anybody here since ’61.”
“National security. Treason. Yeah, real lucky I got life.”
“Do you feel lucky?”
“Maybe I do.”
“Then I guess you just answered my question. Need anything?” he asked again.
His brother attempted a grin, but it failed to hide the anxiety behind it. “Why do I sense a finality with that query?”
“No, I’m good,” he said dully. It was as if all the man’s energy had just evaporated.
Puller eyed his brother. Two years apart in age, they had been inseparable as young boys and later as young men in uniform for their country. Now he sensed a wall between them far higher than the ones surrounding the prison. And there was nothing he could do about it. He was looking at his brother. And then again his brother was no longer really there. He’d been replaced by this person in the orange jumpsuit who would be in this building for the rest of his natural life. Maybe for all of eternity. Puller wouldn’t put it past the military to have somehow figured that one out.
“Guy was killed here a while back,” said Robert.
Puller knew this. “Installation trusty. Baseball bat to the head on the rec field.”
“I checked. Did you know him?”
Robert shook his head. “I’m on 23/1. Not a lot of time to socialize.”
That meant he was locked up twenty-three hours a day and then allowed out for one hour of exercise alone in an isolated place.
Puller did not know this. “Since when?”
Robert smiled. “You mean you didn’t check?”
“Since I belted a guard.”
“Because he said something I didn’t care for.”
“Nothing you need to know about.”
“And why is that?”
“Trust me. Like you said, I’m the smart brother. And it wasn’t like they could add any more time on to my sentence.”
“Anything to do with the old man?”
“You better get going. Don’t want to miss your flight out of here.”
“I’ve got time. Was it the old man?”
“This isn’t an interrogation, little brother. You can’t pump me for info. My court-martial is long since over.”
Puller looked down at the shackles on his brother’s ankles. “They feeding you through the slit?”
There were no bars at USDB. The doors were solid. For prisoners in solitary their food was delivered three times a day via a slit in the door. A panel at the bottom of the door allowed the shackles to be put on before the door was opened.
Robert nodded. “Guess I’m lucky they didn’t stamp me NHC. Or else we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“Did they threaten No Human Contact status?”
“They say lots of things in here.”
The men sat in silence.
Finally Robert said, “You better get going. I’ve got stuff to do. Keep real busy here.”
“I’ll be back.”
“No reason. And maybe a better reason not to.”
“I’ll tell the old man you said hello.”
The men rose and shook hands. Robert reached out and patted his brother on the shoulder. “You miss the Middle East?”
“No. And I don’t know anybody who served over there who does.”
“Glad you came back in one piece.”
“A lot of us didn’t.”
“Got any interesting cases going?”
“You take care.”
“Right, you too.” Puller’s words were empty, hollow, before they even left his mouth.
He turned to leave. On cue the MP came to get his brother.
Puller looked back. The MP had one big hand on his brother’s left upper arm. Part of Puller wanted to rip that hand off and knock the MP through the wall. But just a part.
“Yeah?” He locked gazes with Robert.
“Nothing, man. Just nothing. It was good to see you.”
Puller passed the scan MP, who jumped to attention when he came by, and hit the stairs, taking them two steps at a time. The phone was ringing when he reached his rental. He looked at the caller ID.
It was the number for the 701st MP Group out of Quantico, Virginia, where he was assigned as a CID special agent.
He answered. Listened. In the Army they taught you to talk less, listen more. Much more.
His response was curt. “On my way.” He checked his watch, swiftly calculated flight and drive times. He would lose an hour flying west to east. “Three hours and fifty minutes, sir.”
There was a slaughterhouse in the boonies of West Virginia. One of the victims had been a full colonel. That fact had triggered CID involvement, although he wasn’t sure why the case had landed in the lap of the 701st. But he was a soldier. He’d gotten an order. He was executing that order.
He would fly back to Virginia, grab his gear, get the official pack, and then it was burnt rubber to the boonies. However, his thoughts were not on the murder of a colonel, but rather on that last look on his brother’s face. It perched in a prominent corner of Puller’s mind. He was good at compartmentalizing. But he didn’t feel like doing it right now. The memories of his brother from a different time and place slowly trickled through his thoughts.
Robert Puller had been a fast-track major in the Air Force who had helped oversee the nation’s nuclear arsenal. He was a lock for at least one star, and possibly two. And now he was a convicted traitor to his country and would not be leaving USDB until his last breath had been drawn.
But he was still his brother. Not even the U.S. military could change that.
Moments later Puller fired up the engine and smacked the car into gear. Every time he came here he left a bit of himself behind. There might come a day when there would be nothing left to take back.
He had never worn his emotions on his sleeve. He had never cried when men around him were dying on the battlefield, often horribly. But he had avenged them, in equally horrible ways. He had never walked into combat carrying uncontrolled anger, because that made you weak. And weakness made you fail. He had not shed a tear when his brother was court-martialed for treason. Men in the Puller family did not cry.
That was Rule One.
Men in the Puller family remained calm and in control at all times, because that raised the odds of victory.
That was Rule Two.
Any rules after that were largely superfluous.
John Puller was not a machine, but he also could see that he was awfully close to becoming one.
And beyond that he refused to engage in any further self-analysis.
He left USDB far faster than he’d arrived there. A far speedier wing ride east would take him headlong into another case. It was welcome to Puller, if only to take his mind off the one thing he had never come close to understanding.
“YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN with this one, Puller.”
John Puller sat across the desk from Don White, his SAC, otherwise known as the special agent in charge at the Criminal Investigative Division’s headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. For years the headquarters had been farther north at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Then the base realignment and closure folks had decided to consolidate CID offices across all branches at Quantico, which was also home to the FBI Academy and the Marine Corps.
Puller had made a quick stop at his off-base apartment to pick up a few things and check on his cat, a fat orange-and-brown tabby he had named AWOL, since it was always going off without getting clearance from him. AWOL meowed and then snarled at him before brushing against his leg and letting Puller run his hand over its arched back.
“Case, AWOL. Be back sometime. Food, water, and litterbox in the usual places.”
AWOL meowed his understanding of this and then glided away. He had wandered into Puller’s life about two years ago, and Puller figured the cat would wander out of it at some point.
There had been several phone messages on his apartment hard line, which he only kept in case the power went out and his cell phone went dead. There was only one message that he listened to in full.
He had sat down on the floor and played it through two more times.
Lieutenant General “Fighting John” Puller was one of America’s greatest warriors and the past commander of the Screaming Eagles, the Army’s legendary 101st Airborne Division. He was no longer in the Army and he was no longer a leader of anything. But that did not mean the old man accepted either of those points of reality. In fact, he did not. Which of course meant he was not really living in reality.
He was still ordering his younger son around as though he was at the top of the stars-and-bars chain and his boy at the bottom. His father would probably not remember what he had said on the message. He might not even recall that he had phoned. Or the next time Puller saw him he might bring it up and chastise his son for not executing the given order. The old man was as unpredictable in civilian life as he had been on the battlefield. That made him the toughest of opponents. If there was anything a soldier feared, it was an adversary you could never read, a foe who might be more than willing to do whatever it took, however outrageous, to win. Fighting John Puller had been such a warrior. Consequently he had won far more than he had lost and his tactics were now a fixture in the Army training methodology. And future leaders learned about him at the War College and spread the Puller fighting tactics to all sectors of the Army universe.
Puller erased the message. His father would have to wait.
Next stop was CID headquarters.
The CID had been started by General “Black Jack” Pershing in France during World War I. It had become a major Army command in 1971 and was headed up by a one-star. Worldwide, nearly three thousand people were assigned to it, nine hundred of them special agents, like John Puller. It was a centralized stovepipe command structure with the Secretary of the Army at the top and special agents at the bottom, with three layers of bureaucracy in between. It was a lasagna dish with too many noodle beds, Puller thought.
He focused on the SAC. “With an off-post homicide we usually go heavier than a one-man team, sir.”
White said, “I’m trying to get you boots on the ground in West Virginia, but it’s not looking good at this point.”
Puller now asked the question that had been puzzling him ever since learning of the assignment. “The 3rd MP Group has the 1000th Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. West Virginia is their area of responsibility. They can investigate a colonel’s homicide as well as we can.”
“Murdered man was with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Sensitive slot calls for the ‘quiet professional’ of the 701st.” White smiled at the description often given to the highly trained field investigative personnel of the 701st CID.
Puller didn’t smile back.
White continued. “Fort Campbell. That’s where the 101st is stationed. Your father’s old division, the Screaming Eagles.”
“Long time ago, sir.”
“How’s the old man doing?”
“He’s doing, sir,” Puller replied tersely. He did not care to talk about his father with anyone other than his brother. And even with his brother it was usually only a few sentences at most.
“Right. Good. Anyway, the 701st’s FIUs are the best of the best, Puller. You weren’t assigned here like other MP groups. You were nominated.”
“Understood.” Puller just sat there wondering when the man would get around to telling him something he didn’t know.
White slid a file across the metal desk. “Here’s the prelim. Duty officer took down the initial info. Check with your team leader before you head out. An investigative plan has been formulated, but feel free to ad-lib based on conditions on the ground.”
Puller took the offered file but kept his gaze on the man. “Thumbnail, sir?”
“Dead man was Colonel Matthew Reynolds. As I said, he was with DIA. Stationed at the Pentagon. His local address is in Fairfax City, Virginia.”
“West Virginia connection?”
“Unknown as yet. But he’s been positively identified, so we know it’s him.”
“His duties at DIA? Anything that could connect to this?”
“DIA is notoriously tight-lipped about its people and what they do. But we have learned that Reynolds was in the process of retiring and going into the private sector. If we need to get you read in for purposes of the investigation we’ll do so.”
If? Puller thought.
“What were his official duties at DIA?”
The SAC wriggled a bit in his seat. “He reported directly to the J2’s vice chair.”
“The J2 is a two-star, right? Gives the daily intel briefing to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs?”
“Guy like that gets murdered, why isn’t DIA all over this? They have badged investigators?”
“All I can tell you is that the task has fallen to us. Namely, to you.”
“And if we catch the person, does DIA or more likely the FBI get to swoop in and do the perp walk?”
“Not my call.”
“So DIA is sitting this one out?”
“Again, I’m just telling you what I know.”
“Okay, do we know where he was heading to after he left the service?”
White shook his head. “Don’t know yet. You can check directly with Reynolds’s superior at DIA for specifics. A General Julie Carson.”
Puller decided to say it. “Looks like I’ll have to be read in to do the investigative work, sir.”
“We’ll wait and see.”
That answer was nonsensical and Puller noted his SAC didn’t look at him when he said it.
“Any other victims?” he asked.
“Wife, two kids. All dead.”
Puller sat back. “Okay, four dead, probably complicated crime scene in West Virginia with the investigation also extending to DIA. We would normally send out at least four to six people with major tech support on something like this. Even calling up some bodies from USACIL,” he added, referring to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Lab at Fort Gillem in Georgia. “We’d need the manpower just to properly process the evidence. And then another team to hit the DIA angle.”
“I think you just hit on the operative word.”
Puller sat back up. “And normally in an office as large as the 701st I’d be getting my assignment from my team leader, not the SAC, sir.”
“That’s right.” The man did not seem inclined to expand on that response.
Puller dropped his gaze to the file. He was obviously expected to figure this out on his own. “Phone call said slaughterhouse.”
White nodded. “That’s how it was described. Now, I don’t know how many homicides they have out there in West Virginia but I guess it was pretty bloody. Whatever it is, you’ll have seen far worse in the Middle East.”
Puller said nothing to this. Much like the subject of his father, he did not talk about his tours of duty in the desert.
White continued. “The local police are in charge of the investigation since it’s off-installation. It’s rural, and from what I understand they do not have an official homicide detective; uniforms will lead the investigation. Finesse will be called for. We don’t really have grounds for full involvement unless it’s determined the killer was military. And because of Reynolds’s position I want us involved at least on a collateral investigation basis. To do that we need to play nice with the locals.”
“Is there a secure facility in the area where I can store evidence?”
“Homeland Security has a secure site about thirty miles away. Second person stationed there to witness opening and closing the safe. I’ve gotten you authorization.”
“I assume that I can still have access to USACIL?”
“Yes, you can. We also did a quick phone call to West Virginia. They voiced no objection to CID involvement. The Army lawyers can paper it later.”
“Lawyers are good at paper, sir.”
White studied him. “But we’re the Army, so together with finesse the occasional hammer will also be necessary. And I understand that you are equally capable of providing either one.”
Puller said nothing. He’d spent his entire military career dealing with commissioned officers. Some were good, some were idiots. Puller had not made up his mind about this one.
White said, “I’ve only been here a month, got posted here after they moved the operation from Fort Belvoir. Still feeling my way. You’ve been doing this five years.”
“Going on six.”
“Everyone who counts tells me you’re the best we’ve got, if a little unorthodox.” He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his desk. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there’s a lot of interest from up top on this one, Puller. I’m talking past even the Secretary of the Army and on to the civilian corridors in D.C.”
“Understood. But I’ve investigated cases involving Defense Intelligence that were handled within normal parameters. If there is that much interest at those levels, Colonel Reynolds must’ve had some extra juice in his post at the Pentagon.” He paused. “Or maybe more dirt.”
White smiled. “Maybe you are as good as advertised.”
Puller stared back at the man. He thought, And maybe I’d make an excellent fall guy if this all goes to hell.
White said, “So you’ve been doing this nearly six years.”
Puller remained silent. He thought he knew where this was going, because others had gone there before. The man’s next words proved him correct.
White continued, “You’re college educated. You speak French and German and passable Italian. Your father and brother are officers.”
“Were officers,” corrected Puller. “And the only reason I speak those languages is because my father was stationed in Europe while I was a kid.”
White didn’t seem to be listening. “I know you were a star of your training class at USAMPS,” he began, referring to the United States Army’s Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. “As an MP you bounced the drunken heads of grunts all over the globe. You’ve cracked cases pretty much everywhere the Army has a footprint. And you’ve got your Top Secret and SCI clearances.” He paused. “Even though what your brother did nearly blew that for you.”
“I’m not my brother. And all my clearances were renewed.”
“I know that.” The man fell silent and tapped the arm of his chair.
Puller said nothing. He knew what was coming next. It always did.
“So why not West Point for you, Puller? And why CID? Your military service is solid gold. Top scores at Ranger School. Hell of a combat record. A leader in the field. Your father earned forty-nine major medals over three decades and he’s an Army legend. You garnered nearly half that in six tours of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two Silvers, one of which landed you in rehab for three months, three Bronzes with V-devices, and a trio of Purples. And you bagged a guy on the fifty-two-card most wanted deck in Iraq, right?”
“Five of spades, sir,” said Puller.
“Right. So you’ve got more than enough stars and scars. Army loves that combo. You’re a stud with an impeccable military pedigree. If you’d stayed with the Rangers you’d be a shoo-in for the top enlisted spot. If you’d gone to West Point you’d be a major or maybe even a lieutenant colonel by now. And you could’ve earned at least two shoulder stars before you left the Army. Hell, maybe three like your old man if you played the political games right. At CID an enlisted man tops out at command sergeant major. And my predecessor told me the only reason you filed your warrant officer application was because sergeant first classes sit their butts behind desks at CID while WOs can still get out in the field.”
“I don’t much like desks, sir.”
“So here you are, at CID. On the low side of the bars and clusters. And I’m not the first to wonder about that, soldier.”
Puller let his gaze drop to the other man’s row of ribbons. White was dressed in the Army’s new blue Class Bs that were over time replacing the old greens. For anyone in the military the chest of ribbons and/or medals was the DNA of a person’s career. It told all to the experienced eye; nothing of significance could be hidden. From a combat perspective there wasn’t anything in the SAC’s history worthy of note, not a Purple or valor device in sight. Certainly the ribbons were many in number and would look impressive to the layperson, but it told Puller that the man was basically a career desk-humper, who only fired a weapon for recertification.
Puller said, “Sir, I like where I am. I like the way I got there. And it’s a moot point now. It is what it is.”
“I guess it is, Puller. I guess it is. Some might call you an underachiever.”
“Maybe it’s a character flaw, but I’ve never cared about what people call me.”
“Heard that too about you.”
Puller eyed the man steadily. “Yes, sir. I guess the case is getting cold out there.”
The man glanced over at his computer screen. “Then get your gear and head out.”
When White looked back moments later, Puller was already gone.
He’d never even heard the big man leave. White leaned farther back in his squeaky chair. Maybe that was why he had all those medals. You couldn’t kill what you couldn’t see coming.
SITTING ON THE TRUNK of his black Army-issued Chevy Malibu, Puller drank one extra-large cup of coffee while he scanned the file under the arc of a streetlight outside CID headquarters. Clustered around here were all the criminal investigative divisions of the military, including NCIS, which had become a hugely popular television show. Puller wished he could solve crimes in sixty minutes each week as his TV counterparts did. In the real world it often took a lot longer, and sometimes you never did get to the truth.
In the background the sounds of gunshots were relentless. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and the Marines trained around the clock with live ammo. Puller was so used to the gunfire that he barely noticed it. He would only react if he hadn’t heard it. Ironically, no shots fired at Quantico meant something was seriously wrong.
He turned the page in the file. The Army was as methodical and precise about recordkeeping as it was about everything else: the size of the file, the number of pages stapled to it, right-side info versus left-side, what dot and dash and triple slash went where. There were volumes of field manuals devoted to every last detail. Just the regulations that went along with maintaining the Military Police Blotter were legendary in their exactness. But the important thing to Puller would always be what was on the page, not where in the folder it was supposed to go.
Matthew Reynolds and his wife Stacey and their two teenage kids, one girl, one boy, had been murdered at a house in rural West Virginia. Mailman discovered the bodies. Local police on the scene. Husband was a colonel at DIA. He was in the process of rotating out and flipping to the private sector after pulling his twenty-six years in uniform. He was stationed at the Pentagon and lived in Fairfax City, so Puller didn’t know what the man and his family were doing in a house in West Virginia. That would be one of many questions he would have to find answers to. Maybe the locals already had answers. He would take any they had and then verify them independently.
He put the file in his briefcase and checked his gear pack in the trunk. It was contained in a customized infantry rucksack with over a hundred compartments. It held pretty much everything he would need in the field: light blue latex gloves, flashlights, paper bags, body bags and tags, 35-millimeter and instant cameras, green biohazard suits complete with hood and air filtering gear, white field evidence collection scrubs, tape measure, ruler, evidence tape, departmental file forms, latent print kit, GSR analysis kit, barrier sheeting, digital recorder, crime scene notebook, medical equipment kit, shoe covers, body thermometer, purification mask, reflective vest, pocketknife, and nearly six dozen other items. He had two M11 pistols, and extra thirteen- and twenty-round mags. Puller also carried in his trunk an MP5 submachine gun. He had spare combat duds neatly packed in another bag. For now with the heat still at eighty-five degrees this late at night, jeans and a short-sleeved white shirt and Nikes would do.
Puller had never taken on a case like this solo. There was usually at least one other CID agent with him, usually more, plus tech support. And this case begged for more resources. But he had his assignment. And in the Army once you had your assignment the next step was to execute it. Otherwise you would find yourself in front of a military tribunal with perhaps prison your next career post.
He programmed the address where he was heading into his GPS, closed the Chevy’s door, punched the gas, and left Quantico behind.
He stopped once to take a leak and grab another cup of black coffee. He hit Drake, West Virginia, population 6,547 as the sign said, at three in the morning. Sunrise would be in a little over three hours. He had gotten lost once, when the GPS led him down a two-lane road on the outskirts of Drake.
His headlights had hit on a neighborhood of abandoned houses. There must’ve been at least a hundred of them, maybe far more. They looked to be prefabricated and mass-assembled on site. There was a string of electrical and telephone poles down one side of the street. Yet as his car glided down this little “detour,” Puller had changed his mind. The houses weren’t abandoned; at least some of them were occupied. There were old cars parked out front. But the lights that glowed in a few of the windows didn’t seem to be electrical. Maybe gas or battery-operated. He kept going, and then his lights hit on something else peculiar. It was a huge dome-shaped mass formed out of concrete that rose up out of the woods.
What the hell is that?
Despite his natural curiosity he had driven on, anxious to get to where he was going. The GPS had recalibrated and he soon found himself on the right path. When he arrived he wasn’t tired. In fact the long ride had both relaxed and energized him. He decided to get to work.
He’d called ahead and reserved a room at the only motel in the area. It was a few notches below a Motel 6, but Puller didn’t care. He’d spent years of his life in tin cans in swamps and deserts with a bucket for a shower and a hole in the earth for a bathroom, so this particular crevice in the wall was like the Ritz.
The door to the office was locked, but on the third ring of the buzzer, the door opened. Later, after she checked him in, the sleepy old lady in hair rollers and ratty robe standing behind the counter asked him what he was in town for.
As he palmed the room key Puller said, “Vacation.”
That had made the old woman laugh.
“You’re a slick one you are,” she said, her voice lisping through a large gap between her front teeth. She smelled of nicotine, garlic, and salsa. It was an impressive combination. “And big.” She gazed up at him from her five-foot-one-inch perch on earth.
“Any place you’d recommend to eat at?”
Army Rule Number One: Find a dependable place for chow.
“Depends,” said the woman.
“On whether you mind coal dust in your eggs.”
“Can’t be any worse than depleted uranium in your morning coffee. And I’m still standing.”
She cackled. “Then any place in town will do. They’re all about the same, honey.”
As he turned away she said, “You married?”
“You looking?” he replied, turning back to see her gap-toothed grin.
“If only, honey. If only. Get a good night’s sleep.”
Puller headed out. Sleep was not on his agenda.
PULLER HAD CALLED the police officer in charge of the investigation a number of times on the drive to West Virginia and left multiple messages. He hadn’t received a response. Maybe the locals were not going to be as cooperative as his SAC had suggested they would be. Or maybe they were just overwhelmed with four bodies and a massive forensics puzzle. Puller could hardly blame them if they were.
The motel was a one-story courtyard configuration. On the way to his room Puller passed a young man lying unconscious on a strip of grass near a Pepsi machine that was chained to a metal post thirty feet from the motel office. Puller checked the man for injuries and found none. He made sure he had a pulse, smelled the liquor on his breath, and kept going. He carried his bag into his twelve-by-twelve room. It had a bathroom so tiny he could stand in the middle and easily touch the opposite walls simultaneously.
He made some coffee from his own stock and using his portable percolator, a habit he’d picked up while on assignment overseas. He sat down on the floor with the file spread in front of him. He eyed the numbers, slid out his cell, and punched them in.
The voice was female, groggy. “Hello?”
“Sam Cole, please.”
“Sam Cole?” he asked again in a louder voice.
The voice became rigid and more alert. “Short for Samantha. Who the hell is this? And do you have any idea what time it is?”
The local accent thickened with the level of anger, Puller noted.
“It’s 0320. Or twenty after three for civilians.”
Long pause. He could see her wheels spinning, translating this to something comprehensible.
“Damn, you’re Army, right?” Her voice was now husky, attractive.
“John Puller. CID special agent from the 701st MP Group out of Quantico, Virginia.” He recited this in staccato fashion as he had a million times before.
He envisioned her sitting up in bed. He wondered if she was alone. He didn’t hear any male mumbles in the background. But he did hear the percussion of a Zippo followed by a few seconds of silence. Then there was an intake of breath followed by an elongated exhale of smoke.
“You miss the surgeon general’s warning, Ms. Cole?”
“No, it’s right here on the side of my smokes. Why the hell are you calling me in the middle of the night?”
“You’re listed in my file as the officer in charge. I just got into town. I need to get up to speed. And for the record, I called you four times over the last six hours and left messages each time. Never got a call back.”
“I’ve been busy, haven’t even checked my phone.”
“I’m sure you have been busy, ma’am.” He thought, And I’m sure you did check, but didn’t bother to call me back. Then his SAC’s admonition came back to him.
“I’m sorry to roust you out of your sack, ma’am. I thought you might still be at the crime scene.”
She said, “I’ve been working this thing all day and most of the night. My head just hit the damn pillow an hour ago.”
“Which means I have a lot of catching up to do. But I can call back later.”
He heard her get up, stumble and curse.
“Ma’am, I said I can call back later. Just go back to sleep.”
“Will you just shut up a minute?” she snapped.
“What?” Puller said sharply.
“I have to pee!”
He heard her drop the phone on the floor. Footsteps. Door closed, so he didn’t actually hear Cole relieving herself. Another minute went by. He wasn’t wasting time. He was reading through the report again.
She came back on. “I’ll meet you there at seven o’clock—excuse me, oh zero seven hundred o’clock a.m. or whatever the hell it is you say.”
He listened to another long inhale and then exhale of smoke.
She said, “Juliet? I told you my name is Sam.”
“Means local daylight saving time. If it were the winter and we were in eastern standard time it would be zero-seven-hundred Romeo.”
“Romeo and Juliet?” she said skeptically.
“Contrary to popular belief, the United States Army has a sense of humor.”
“Goodbye, Puller. Oh and just so you know, it’s Sergeant Samantha Cole, not ma’am, or Juliet. Romeo!”
“Got it, Sergeant Cole. I’ll see you at zero-seven. Look forward to working with you on this case.”
“Right,” she growled.
He could visualize her throwing the phone across the room and falling back into her bed.
Puller put the phone down, drank his coffee, and went through the report page by page. Thirty minutes later he gunned up, slipping one M11 into his front holster and the other into a holster attached to his belt in the rear. After fighting his way through the Middle East, he never felt as though he had enough weapons on his person. He put on a windbreaker and locked his motel room door on the way out.
The young man who’d been lying in the bushes was now sitting up and gazing around in bewilderment.
Puller walked over and looked down at him. “You might want to think about cutting back on the booze. Or at least pick a place to pass out that has a roof.”
The man blinked up at him. “Who the hell are you?”
“John Puller. Who are you?”
The man licked his lips as though he was already thirsty for another round.
Puller said, “You got a name?”
The man stood. “Randy Cole.” He wiped his hands on the front of his jeans.
Puller reflected on the last name and wondered about the obvious possibility but chose to keep it to himself.
Randy Cole was good-looking and appeared to be in his late twenties. About five-ten with a lean, wiry build. Under his shirt he probably had six-pack abs. The hair was brown and curly, the facial features strong and handsome. There was no wedding band on his finger.
“You staying at the motel?” asked Puller.
Randy shook his head. “I’m local. You’re not.”
“I know I’m not.”
“So what are you doing in Drake?”
Randy snorted. “Business. You don’t look like no coal man to me.”
“So why, then?”
“Business,” Puller said again, and his tone indicated he was not going beyond that description. “You got a car? You okay to drive?”
“I’m cool.” Randy climbed out from the bushes.
“You sure?” asked Puller. “You need a ride somewhere I can give you a lift.”
“I said I’m cool.”
But he staggered and grabbed at his head. Puller helped to right him.
“I’m not sure you’re all that cool yet. Hangovers are a bitch.”
“Not sure it’s just a hangover. I get headaches.”
“You ought to get that checked out.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll go get me the best docs in the world. Pay ’em in cash.”
Puller said, “Well, next time I hope you can find a bed to sleep in.”
Randy said, “Hell, sometimes bushes beat the shit out of beds. Depends on who you’re sharing the bed with. Right?”
“Right,” said Puller.
Puller aimed his ride west, following the GPS, but really listening to his own internal compass. The high-tech stuff was good, but your head was better. High-tech sometimes failed. The head didn’t unless someone had put a bullet through it, and then you had far bigger problems than just being lost.
He again wondered briefly if Randy Cole was related to Samantha. Cop and drunk. Not an unheard-of situation. Sometimes the cop was also the drunk.
Forty minutes later, after winding in and out of surface roads barely a car wide and fighting switchbacks and becoming lost once, he reached the street he wanted. By his internal compass it had taken him forty minutes to go about seven miles, and he noted that the GPS agreed with this. There were no straightaways in the mountainous terrain, and he had never once cranked the Malibu above forty.
He slowed his car and eyed the surroundings. One of the CID’s credos came to him.
Look. Listen. Smell.
He took a deep breath. It was all about to begin.
PULLER EASED HIS CAR to the side of the road and looked out the window. This would be the only time on this case his senses would not be dulled by prior observation.
He stepped out and leaned against the Malibu. He took another deep breath. In the air currents he could smell the mining operation he had passed a couple of miles back. His ears picked up the distant sounds of rumbling trucks. He looked to the west and saw a searchlight crisscrossing the sky; why, he didn’t know.
He studied the neighborhood. His night vision was excellent and the moonlight and lightening skies allowed both large and small details to be revealed. Small, dilapidated cookie-cutter houses. Toys in yards. Rusted trucks on blocks. A stray cat sneaking by. The place was tired. Dying. Maybe already dead. Like the Reynoldses. Wiped out.
However, what Puller wasn’t seeing was the most disturbing of all.
There was police tape hanging in front of the door telling everyone to keep the hell away. And someone had fashioned a jury-rigged barricade to the driveway using two five-gallon buckets turned upside down and more yellow police tape strung between them.
But there wasn’t a cop in sight. No perimeter guard and yet the scene was barely fourteen hours old. Not good. It was unbelievable, in fact. He knew the legal chain of evidence could be blown out of the water by leaving a crime scene unsecured.
He didn’t really want to do this, but not doing so would be derelict and might cost him and others their careers. He took out his phone and hit the numbers from memory.
She answered on the second ring. “I swear to holy God I am going to shoot whoever this is.”
“Sergeant Cole, it’s Puller again.”
“Do you have a death wish?” she shouted into the phone.
“There’s no guard here.”
“At the crime scene.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“Because I’m parked outside the house.”
“You’re wrong. There’s a patrol car with a deputy in it on duty. I ordered that myself.”
Puller gazed around. “Well, unless he’s hiding in the woods and ditched his ride, he must’ve turned invisible. And isn’t the point of a perimeter guard to be visible?”
“Shit. Are you really out there?”
“I really am.”
“And there’s really no patrol car there?”
“There’s really not.”
“I’ll be there in thirty-five minutes.”
“Not faster than that?”
“If I tried to drive faster than that on these roads in the dark, I’d end up wrapped around a tree or off a mountain.” She paused and Puller heard her clomping around in her bare feet, opening drawers, pulling out clothes, no doubt.
“Look, Puller, can you do me a favor and temporarily secure the crime scene? I’m going to call the deputy who’s supposed to be there and chew his ass out.”
“I can secure it. Are the bodies still inside?”
“If they are I want to see them.”
“The bodies are still in there.”
That was a long time to keep the bodies at the scene, but Puller decided not to comment on why that was. In a way he was glad. He wanted to see everything just as the killer had left it.
“I don’t want to screw up your crime scene. Have you dusted for prints? Searched for trace?” he asked.
“Pretty much. Going to do more this morning.”
“Okay. Was there forced entry?”
“None that we could see.”
“So I can go in the front door?”
“It’s locked. At least it should be.”
“Then I’ll go in the front door.”
She said slowly, “Okay, see you then. And… thanks for the assist.”
Puller closed the phone and looked around. There were eight houses on the short dead-end street. Each one was dark. That was unremarkable at this time of the morning. Cars in the driveways of each of them. Woods at the rear of the houses on both sides.
He grabbed some items from his rucksack and put them in a collapsible backpack he always carried with him. He slipped on an ear mic and connected it to a recorder that he dropped into a pouch on his belt. He slapped on his light blue gloves.
He walked to the front of the house, glanced down at the gravel shoulder, and hit it with his Maglite. Tread marks. Could be any of the vehicles that had come here to investigate. He went over the chronology in his head.
Mailman found the bodies at about 1400 and called it in. First responders showed up at half past. The call to the Army had come in ten minutes later. That was fast. Someone out here was on the ball. He wondered if it was Cole. He’d gotten the heads-up in Kansas and hopped his flight back. The plane had had a hell of a tailwind and they’d gotten in forty minutes early. After a brief stop at home he’d pulled in to CID at 1840. He was wheels out at 1950. He’d driven like a rocket and hit Drake a bit after three; it was now going on 0500.
Puller eyed the wheelchair ramp. Matthew Reynolds was in his late forties and in good enough shape to be in the Army. His wife was five years younger with no health problems. Her insurance records were clean. The kids were sixteen and seventeen with clean health records. They weren’t using the ramp. This wasn’t their house. They were here for another reason. A reason that might have cost them their lives.
He studied the tread mark on the shoulder again, and then his gaze traveled to the dark patch. Right where the engine would be if the car were pointed to the east. Careful not to impact the tread mark, he squatted, touched the liquid. Warm. Oil. Recent. The perimeter cop? Probably. If so, where was he?
He moved swiftly up to the front door, noted the broken glass. He slipped on his shoe covers. The front door was locked but it wasn’t a deadbolt. It took him all of three seconds.
He moved forward, shining his light around with one hand, the other gripping his front-side M11 pistol.
Puller figured you go into a house where four people had been murdered and the guard who’s supposed to be out front isn’t, certain possibilities come to mind. He reached the living room and his light hit them.
On the couch.
Lined up in a row.
Four bodies, the weight of one holding up its neighbor.
He holstered his weapon and, keeping well back, spoke into the mic, recording everything he was seeing.
Dad to the far right, teen daughter to the far left. Mom and brother in the middle. Mom next to Dad. He hit the carpeted floor in front of them with the Maglite. No blood spatters. He glanced up, aimed his beam at the heads.
Dad had taken a heavy ordnance load right in the face; a near contact wound.
Mom’s face was relatively intact but her torso was destroyed. Puller glanced down at the dead woman’s hands and saw that they were nearly obliterated. She’d held them up, he surmised, right before they shot her. The hands had no chance of protecting her from the blast, but it was just instinctive to block whatever part of the body the gun was aimed at.
The two teens’ kill wounds were not evident. Maybe they’d taken it in the back. The parents had not been killed here. The spatters would have covered the room. Killed somewhere else in the house, moved here, lined up like a family watching TV together.
Pretty sick. But then you had to be pretty sick to take out a family.
Sick or a professional without a conscience.
And maybe it was the same thing.
He drew closer, careful not to step on anything marked with an evidence number on the carpet. Dad was in his old green Class Bs that could be officially worn for a few more years. The right side of his face was mostly gone, his spine exposed through the gaping wound in the neck. Bone and a hollow eye socket looked back at Puller. No wounds in his torso. He’d taken it all in the face and neck at close range.
A shotgun was pretty much the only firearm that did damage like that.
He could see bits of white in the wound tracks. Wadding from the shell. Hopefully they’d be able to tell the gauge from measuring the diameter of the wadding or by the name of the maker on top of the wad, if it was still readable.
Mom’s eyes stared back at Puller. For an observer given to melodrama it would have appeared that the woman’s look was pleading.
Find my killer.
Puller illuminated her chest with the Maglite. Dozens of punctures, randomly distributed. Shotgun as well, but different in the way it had been deployed.
He drew a ruler from his pocket and measured the distance between the punctures on Mrs. Reynolds’s blouse that had once been white but was now mostly crimson. He did the calculation in his head and put the ruler away. He felt the man’s arm and then the woman’s. Still in rigor, though it was well on its way down and the muscles were relaxing. The bodies were the temperature of the room or lower. He pulled his air thermometer and took a reading. Blood had pooled to the lower extremities. Bowels and bladders long ago emptied. Skin greenish blue, rotting smell, faces dissolving. In death everybody was ugly.
He turned his attention to the teens.
Then he stopped, swiveled. A noise. From somewhere in the house.
Apparently he wasn’t the only living person in here.
Down the stairs, basement level.
Of course it is.
Puller eased to the doorway.
He sniffed the air. The scent of decomposing bodies was heavy, but Puller was not focusing his nose on that. He was trying to detect something else. Sweat. Cologne. Cigarettes. The molecular signature of bad breath. Anything that would give him an edge.
He moved the door open with his foot. The passageway down was dark.
Of course it is.
The mechanical nature of the sound did not cause Puller to relax.
If he were leading someone to his death he would employ deception. In fact, in Iraq and Afghanistan he’d done it many times, just like the other side had been trying to do to him.
He pulled a pair of night optics from his knapsack, slipped them on his head, flipped down the eyepiece, and fired them up. The tunnel of darkness immediately flamed to life, albeit a green, somewhat hazy life. He squatted and pulled his other pistol from its holster. Both handguns were double-single action, racked and ready. Ordinarily he would not use two pistols at the same time, for the simple reason that his aim and accuracy could be diminished if he fired at two targets simultaneously. However, in a contained space like this, where accuracy was not so critical, he needed as much firepower as possible.
Two of the main differences between MPs and CID special agents were that MPs carried their weapons without a round chambered. CID agents went through life with racked guns at all times. MPs turned in their weapons when their shift was done. CID agents didn’t draw a breath without their guns in easy reach.
When Puller applied twelve pounds of pressure on the trigger and fired, the slide would push the hammer back and his weapon would become a single-action pull. Twenty-round mags, so forty shots total, though he normally only needed one. He had never been a spray-and-pray kind of guy. But he could empty both pistols in about ten seconds if need be and lay down a man-sized target at fifteen meters with no problem. Now he just needed to acquire a target, preferably before it acquired him.
With his silhouette narrowed and lowered he began to proceed down the carpeted stairs. He squinted along the iron sights of the right-hand pistol. He did not like being in an enclosed space. The “fatal funnel,” the Army called it. He had decent firepower, but they might have more.
Mechanical. But someone had to hit the start button.
The file had mentioned a dog. Cole and her folks had to have confiscated the animal. They wouldn’t have been so stupid as to leave a dog alone to mosey through the crime scene, particularly with bloody dead bodies around. Dogs, though domesticated, were carnivores after all.
He hit the bottom step and crab-walked over to a far corner and did a recon.
Poured concrete floor, both studded-out and concrete foundation walls, exposed ceiling. Wires snaking up the naked walls. Mildew hit his nostrils. It was far better than the smell upstairs.
Against one wall he saw the marks. And on the floor in front.
Blood. The killing had been done down here. At least for Mom and Dad.
He scanned the area once more. The room doglegged at the other end. There was a space he couldn’t see because of a jutting concrete load-bearing wall.
Of course the sound is coming from there.
Both guns aimed at this spot, Puller advanced, keeping low and his torso turned to the side.
He reached the corner, backed away parallel to the wall. Corners were problematic. “Dynamic corners” were how the Army referred to them, because situations could change quickly once you stepped around one. He said, “Federal agent.”
He eyed the wall. Concrete. If it were wood or drywall he would have fired some shots through it, to get the attention of anyone on the other side waiting to ambush him. With concrete his rounds were more than likely going to ricochet right back at him.
“Slide any weapon out, then follow it with hands on head, fingers interlaced. I count to five, noncompliance will get you a flash-bang right up your ass.”
He counted off, wishing he had a flash-bang with him.
Thump, whoosh, thump.
He holstered one pistol, slipped off his backpack, aimed, and tossed it in front of the opening.
Thump, whoosh, thump.
Either there was no one there, or he was one cool customer. Puller crouched, tensed, and did a quick turkey peek. In that momentary flash he took in a lot. None of it was good.
He edged around the corner. Following the sound, he looked down. The floor fan was on its side. The whoosh sound was the fan. The thump was the fan oscillating from side to side where the frame made contact with the concrete on each revolution.
But something had turned it on. And now he knew what that was.
Puller glanced up. The man was in uniform. He was hanging from the ceiling. The strap used to hold him there had loosened. His body had dropped down, though it was still suspended. It had hit the fan, knocking it over and turning it on.
Puller had just discovered what had happened to the perimeter guard.
He eyed the man through his optics. Clearly dead. Eyes bugged out and glassy. Body hanging limp. Hands bound. Feet the same. Puller approached, touched the man’s skin. Somewhat warm but rapidly cooling. Hadn’t been dead all that long. He checked for a pulse, just to be sure. There was none. Heart had stopped beating and everything else had stopped working instantly. He was past the point of no return, but not by much.
They had taken his police wheels. Warm oil, warm body.
The dead guy looked young. The low man on the totem pole, he’d drawn the crap post assignment. Guarding stiffs in the nighttime, and now he was a stiff too. Puller eased his gaze over the uniform. Looked to be a deputy sheriff. Drake County, the shoulder badge said. He eyed the holster. No gun. No surprise. Man has a gun he’s not going to let you string him up without a fight. The face was swollen enough from the strangulation to where Puller couldn’t tell if he’d been beaten.
He reached down and turned the fan off.
The thump-whoosh-thump symphony ceased.
Puller drew closer to the body and used his optics to read the nameplate.
That was ballsy, thought Puller. To come back here and kill a cop. To come back to a murder scene once you’d done the deed.
What had they missed? Or left behind?
The next moment Puller was sprinting up the steps.
Someone else was coming.
He glanced at his watch.
It might be Sergeant Samantha Cole.
Or it might not.
THE WOMAN CLIMBED out of her ride. It wasn’t police wheels. It was a plain, decades-old pickup truck with a four-speed stick drive and three transmission antennas drilled in the cab’s roof. It also had a white custom camper with side windows and a flip-top gate on the back with the word “Chevy” stenciled on it. The truck’s pale blue was not the original color.
Samantha Cole was not in uniform. She was dressed in faded jeans, white T-shirt, a WVU Mountaineers windbreaker, and worn-down calf-high boots. The butt of a King Cobra double-action .45 revolver poked from inside her shoulder holster. It was on the left side, meaning she was right-handed. She was a sliver under five-three without the boots, and a wiry one-ten with dirty blonde hair that was long enough to reach her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and wide; the balls of her cheekbones were prominent enough to suggest Native American ancestry. Her face had a scattering of light freckles.
She was an attractive woman but with a hard, cynical look of someone to whom life had not been overly kind.
Cole stared at Puller’s Malibu and then up at the house where the Reynoldses sat dead all in a row. One hand on the butt of her gun, she advanced up the gravel drive. She passed the Lexus when it happened.
The hand was on her before she realized it. Its grip was iron. She had no chance. It pulled her down and then over to the other side of the car.
“Shit!” Her fingers closed around the long, thick fingers. She could not break the grip. She tried to pull her gun with her other hand, but it was blocked by her attacker’s arm pinning hers against her side. Cole was helpless.
“Just stay down, Cole,” the voice said into her ear. “There might be a shooter out there.”
“Puller?” she hissed as she turned to him. Puller released his grip and squatted next to the right front fender of the Lexus. He flipped up his night optics. He had one M11 in hand. The other pistol was parked back in its rear holster.
“Good to meet you.”
“You nearly gave me a heart attack. I never even heard you.”
“That’s sort of the point.”
“You about crushed my arm. What, are you bionic?”
He shrugged. “No, I’m just in the Army.”
“Why did you grab me?”
“Your guy named Wellman?”
“The cop on guard duty tonight?”
“Yeah, Larry Wellman. How’d you know that?”
“Somebody strung him up in the basement of the house and then stole his ride.”
Her face collapsed. “Larry’s dead?”
“You said there might be a shooter?”
He touched his optics. “Saw a flash of movement through a window of the house when I heard you pulling up.”
“The woods behind the house.”
“You think they…?”
“I don’t presume. Why I grabbed you. Already killed one cop, so what’s another to them?”
She gave him a searching glance. “I appreciate that. But I can’t believe Larry’s dead. No wonder he didn’t answer my call.” She paused. “He’s got a wife and a new baby.”
“You sure he’s dead?”
“If I weren’t I would’ve cut him down and tried to resuscitate him. But trust me, it would’ve been pointless. He hasn’t been dead long, though. Body’s still warm.”
“Shit,” she said again, her voice shaky.
He drew in her scent. Her breath smelled of mints with the tobacco lapping right underneath. No perfume. She hadn’t taken time to wash her hair. He glanced at his watch. She had gotten here two minutes ahead of her own deadline.
He saw her eyes start to glisten; a wobbly tear freed itself and slid down her cheek.
“You want to call it in?” he asked.
She answered in a dull, tired voice, “What? Oh, right.” She hastily wiped her eyes and pulled out her phone. She drilled in the numbers. She spoke fast but clearly, also putting out a BOLO on the missing police cruiser. The woman had gone from emotionally paralyzed to professional in a few seconds. Puller was impressed.
She closed the phone.
“How many officers do you have available?” he asked.
“We’re a rural county, Puller. Lot of space, not a lot of dollars. Budget cuts have wrecked us; cut our force by a third. And three of my guys are reservists who are currently in Afghanistan. So that translates into us having a total of twenty-one uniforms to cover about four hundred square miles. And two of them are banged up from a car crash last week.”
“So nineteen. Including you?”
“How many are coming now?”
“Three. And that’s a stretch. And it won’t be fast. They’re nowhere near here.”
Puller looked toward the woods. “Why don’t you stay here and wait for them and I’ll go check out whatever it was I saw in the woods.”
“Why would I stay here? I’m armed. Two’s better than one.”
“Suit yourself.” He eyed the woods, did the run-through logistics in his mind. It was so ingrained in him that he thought about it thoroughly without seeming to think about it at all.
“You ever been in the military?” he asked.
She shook her head. “State police for four years before I came back here. For the record, I’m a hell of a shot. Got the ribbons and trophies to prove it.”
“Okay, but you mind if I take the lead on this search?”
She looked out at the dark woods and then at his large, muscular physique.
“Works for me.”
A FEW MINUTES LATER Puller glanced behind him to see Sam Cole struggling to keep up with him in the dense brush. He stopped and held up his hand. Cole froze. He swept the area in front of him with his night-vision optics. Trees, brush, the dart of a deer. Nothing that was looking to kill them.
He still didn’t move. He thought back to what he’d seen in the woods through the window. A shape, not an animal. A man. Didn’t necessarily have to be connected to the case, but probably was.
He didn’t look back at her but simply waved Cole forward. She crouched next to him a few seconds later.
“You catch anything with that fancy gear of yours?”
“Just a deer and a whole lot of trees.”
“I don’t hear anything either.”
He eyed the lightening sky. “There was a searchlight on when I arrived. To the east, couple of miles away.”
“Probably mining operation.”
“Why a searchlight?”
“Chopper landing most probably. Giving the bird a target to hit.”
“Chopper landings at a coal mine in the middle of the night?”
“No law against it. And it’s not a mine. They do mountaintop extraction here. Which means they don’t tunnel under, they just blow up the mountain instead.”
Puller kept scanning ahead and on the peripheries. “Were you the one who contacted the Army about Reynolds?”
“Yes. He was in uniform. That was our first clue. And we checked his car, found his ID.” She paused. “You’ve been inside obviously. You saw he didn’t have much of a face left.”
“Did he have a briefcase or a laptop?”
“I’ll need to see them.”
“There could be classified material in and on them.”
“Are they secure?”
“In our evidence room back at the station.”
Puller thought for a moment. “I need you to make sure no one tries to access them. Reynolds was DIA, Defense Intelligence. It could be a big issue if an unauthorized person gets into that stuff. A real headache you don’t need.”
“I understand. I can make a call.”
“Thanks. File said you printed him?”
“And faxed it off to the Pentagon to a number they gave us. They confirmed his ID.”
“How many crime scene techs you have?”
“One. But he’s pretty good.”
“Chief’s way over in Charleston along with the state medical lab.”
Puller kept scanning while he talked. Whoever had been out here was gone. “Why are the bodies still in the house?”
“A number of reasons, but mostly because we didn’t really have an appropriate place to put them.”
“Closest one is a good hour away.”
“We’re in between.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the one we had moved out of town. And he wasn’t a doctor. He was an EMT. But under state law that was good enough.”
“So who’s going to do the posts on the victims?”
“I’m trying to work that out now. Probably a local doc I know who has some forensics background. How many crime scene techs did you bring with you?”
“You’re looking at him.”
“Tech and investigator? That’s a little unusual.”
“It’s actually a smart way to do it.”
“What do you mean?”
He said, “That way nothing gets between me and the evidence. And I’ve got the Army’s Criminal Investigation Lab to fall back on. Let’s head back to the house.”
A minute later they stood in front of the four bodies. It was growing light outside but Cole turned an overhead on.
Puller said, “The integrity of the crime scene has been blown. The killers came back. They could have screwed with the evidence.”
“They could have screwed with it before too,” shot back Cole.
“Even if we get a suspect to trial, his attorney can trash the entire prosecution based on this.”
Cole said nothing. By her angry features Puller could tell that she knew this to be true.
“So what do we do about it?” she finally said.
“Nothing for now. We keep working the scene.”
“Will you have to report this back?”
He didn’t answer her. Instead he looked around and said, “The Reynoldses didn’t live here. So what were they doing here?”
“Home belongs to a Richard and Minnie Halverson. They’re Mrs. Reynolds’s parents. They live in a nursing home. Well, he does. Mrs. Halverson was living here, but she suffered a stroke recently and is at a specialty hospital over near Pikeville. Not that far as the crow flies, but on our back roads it’ll take you a good hour and a half to get there.”
Excerpted from Zero Day by Baldacci, David Copyright © 2011 by Baldacci, David. Excerpted by permission.
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