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No Man's Land, Page 2

David Baldacci

  the man’s skull. Bits of bone mixed with gray meninges pooled down the side of his head.

  Rogers let go of the dead man’s hand and he slumped sideways to the pavement.

  The woman was screaming and backing away now. She eyed her purse but made no move toward it.

  “Help me! Help me!”

  Rogers dropped the bat and looked at her.

  This part of town was deserted at this hour, which was why they had picked it as their ambush spot.

  There was no one available to help anybody. They had thought that would work in their favor. When Rogers had stepped into the alley he knew it would work in his favor.

  He had realized this was a setup from the moment the woman had looked at him on the bus. Her dead boyfriend was her age and good-looking. Rogers was neither of those. The only things he had that she would want rested in his pocket, on his wrist, and on his finger.

  They must prey on the men getting out.

  Well, tonight they had picked the wrong target.

  She backed up against a brick wall. Tears sliding down her face, she moaned, “Please, please don’t hurt me. I swear I won’t tell nobody what you done. I swear to God. Please.”

  Rogers bent down and picked up the switchblade.

  She started to sob. “Please, don’t. Please…He made me do it. He said he’d hurt me.”

  Rogers walked over to the woman and studied her quaking features. None of it had an effect on him, just like the knife biting into his arm.

  Nothing because he was nothing.

  Felt nothing.

  She obviously wanted him to feel pity for her. He knew that. He understood that. But there was a difference between understanding and actually feeling something.

  In some ways, it was the greatest difference there was.

  He felt nothing. Not for her. Not for him. He rubbed his head, probing the same spot, as though his fingers could reach through bone and tissue and brain matter and rip out what was there. It burned, but then it always burned when he did what he did.

  Rogers had not always been this way. Sometimes, when he thought long and hard about it, he could dimly remember a different person.

  He looked down at the knife, now a stainless steel extension of his limb. He loosened his grip.

  “Will you let me go?” she gasped. “I…I really do like you.”

  He took a step back.

  She forced a smile. “I promise I won’t tell.”

  Rogers took another step back. He could just leave, he thought.

  She looked over his shoulder. “I think he just moved,” she said breathlessly. “Are you sure he’s dead?”

  Rogers turned to look.

  The flash of movement caught his attention. She had snagged her purse and pulled a gun from it. He saw the muzzle of the nickel-plated revolver sweeping upward to take aim at his chest.

  He struck with astonishing swiftness and then stepped to the side as the arterial spray from her slashed neck erupted outward, narrowly missing him.

  She toppled forward and smacked the pavement face first, ruining her pretty features, not that it mattered now. The revolver she had pulled from her handbag struck the hard surface and clattered away.

  Rogers, pressed for time, cleaned out the cash from the young man’s wallet and the woman’s purse. He neatly folded the bills into his pocket.

  He positioned the shattered bat in the hand of the young woman and put the gun back in her purse. He replaced the switchblade in the hand of the dead man.

  He would let the local police try to figure out what had happened.

  He field-dressed his arm as best he could and the blood stopped flowing.

  He took a few moments to count the folded money. His cash had just been doubled.

  He had a long, difficult journey ahead of him.

  And after all these years, it was time to get started.



  JOHN PULLER STARED across at his father, who was sleeping in his bed in the room that had become his home.

  He wondered for how much longer.

  Puller Sr. had been going through a transition of late. And it wasn’t all to do with the deteriorating state of his personal health.

  His older son, Robert Puller, once incarcerated in a military prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, had been formally cleared of all charges of treason and his record expunged. Then he had been reinstated as an officer in the United States Air Force. Puller Sr. and his older son had experienced a reunion that had brought rare tears to John Puller.

  But the exuberance of his son’s being free had been followed by a period of rapid decline, at least mentally. Physically, the former three-star general was far fitter than men his age. But it was a strong body paired with a fading mind. And maybe the old man had been holding out until his son’s freedom was granted. That goal accomplished, perhaps his father had simply given up, his energy and along with it his will to live gone.

  So Puller sat and watched his father, wondering what he would find behind the chiseled granite features when the old man woke. His father had been born to lead men into battle. And he had done so with considerable success over several decades, earning virtually every medal, ribbon, commendation, and rank promotion the service offered. Yet once his fighting days were over, it was like a switch had been turned off and his father had swiftly devolved into…this.

  The doctors described it as dementia transitioning to something else. And worse.

  Puller described it as losing his father.

  His brother was overseas on a new assignment that would keep him away for several months. John Puller had just come off an investigation in Germany, and once the plane’s wheels hit tarmac he had driven here to see his father.

  It was late, but he hadn’t seen his dad in a while.

  And so he sat, and wondered which version of his father would awake and greet him.

  Puller Sr. the screaming hardass?

  Puller Sr. the stoic?

  Puller Sr. with nothing behind the eyes?

  He would take either of the first two over the last one.

  There was a knock on the door. Puller rose and opened it.

  Two men stared back at him. One was in the uniform of a full colonel. One was in plain clothes.

  “Yes?” said Puller.

  “John Puller Jr.?” said the plainclothes.

  “That’s right. And who are you?”

  “Ted Hull.” He took out his ID pack and displayed it. “CID. Out of the Twelfth MPs, Fort Lee.”

  “And I’m Colonel David Shorr,” said the uniformed man.

  Puller didn’t know him. But there were lots of colonels in the Army.

  Puller stepped out and closed the door behind him. “My father is sleeping. What can I do for you? Is this about another assignment? I was supposed to be on leave for the next two days. You can talk to my CO, Don White.”

  Shorr added, “We’ve already spoken with your CO. He told us where you were.”

  “So what’s the issue?”

  “It’s about your father, actually, Chief. And I guess you as well.”

  Since Puller was technically a chief warrant officer in the CID, or Criminal Investigation Command, of the United States Army, those in uniform referred to him as “Chief.” He was not a commissioned officer like those who had graduated from West Point. He had started his Army career as an enlisted man, and thus was lower in rank than Shorr.

  “I don’t understand, sir,” he said.

  At nearly six feet four he towered over the two men. His height came from his father. His calm demeanor came from his mother. His father had two emotional settings: loud and DEFCON One.

  “There’s a visitors’ room down the hall,” said Shorr. “Let’s talk there.”

  He led the way to the room, found it empty, and shut the door behind them. They all sat, Puller facing the other two men.

  Shorr looked at Hull and nodded. Hull took an envelope from his pocket and tapped it against his palm.r />
  “Fort Eustis received this communication. They forwarded it to my office. We’ve been doing some digging on it. Then we found out you were scheduled to come back today, so we rode up to see you.”

  Shorr added, “I’m stationed at JBLE. That’s the connection.”

  Puller nodded. He knew that was in the Tidewater area, which included Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News, Virginia. In 2010 the Army’s Fort Eustis in Newport News and Langley Air Force Base in nearby Hampton had come together to form the new base configuration known in the service as JBLE.

  “Transport and logistics,” noted Puller.


  “And while the Twelfth MPs are headquartered at Fort Lee, we also operate out of both JBLE and Fort Lee and constitute the CID office for JBLE,” said Hull. “I toggle back and forth. Prince George’s County isn’t that far from Tidewater.”

  Puller nodded. He knew all this. “So what’s in the letter?”

  He said this warily because his father had gotten a letter once before, from his sister in Florida. That had led Puller on a journey to the Sunshine State that had very nearly cost him his life.

  “It was addressed to the CID Office at JBLE. The woman who wrote it is Lynda Demirjian?” Hull said this in an inquiring way, as though the name would mean something to Puller. “Do you remember her?”

  “Yes. From Fort Monroe. When I was a kid.”

  “She lived near you when your father was stationed there before it was closed and its operations transferred over to Fort Eustis. She was a friend of the family. More particularly, she was friends with your mother.”

  Puller thought back around thirty years and his memory finally arrived at a short, plump, pretty-faced woman who was always smiling and who baked the best cakes Puller could ever remember eating.

  “Why is she writing to CID?”

  “She’s very ill, unfortunately. Final-stage pancreatic cancer.”

  “I’m really sorry to hear that.” Puller glanced at the letter.

  Hull said, “She wrote to the CID because she was dying and she wanted to air something that she had been feeling for a long time. Almost like a deathbed statement.”

  “Okay,” said Puller, who was now growing impatient. “But what does it have to do with me? I was just a kid back then.”

  “As was your brother,” said Shorr.

  “You’re not with the MPs,” said Puller.

  Shorr shook his head. “But it was decided that some officer heft was required for this, um, meeting.”

  “And why was that?” asked Puller.

  “Mrs. Demirjian’s husband, Stan, served at Fort Monroe with your father. He was a sergeant first class back then. He’s retired now, of course. Do you remember him?”

  “Yes. He served with my father over in Vietnam. They went way back. But can you tell me what’s in that letter?”

  Hull said, “I think it best if you read it for yourself, Chief.”

  He handed it over. It was three pages in length and it seemed to be in a man’s hand.

  “She didn’t write this herself?” said Puller.

  “No, she’s too weak. Her husband wrote it, to her dictation.”

  Puller spread out the pages on the small table next to his chair and began to read. The two men watched him anxiously as he did so.

  The sentences were long and rambling and Puller could imagine the terminally ill woman trying to sufficiently collect her thoughts to communicate them to her husband. Yet it was still more a stream-of-consciousness outpouring than anything else. She was probably medicated when she had dictated it. Puller had to admire her determination to accomplish this when so near death.

  And then, with the introductory preambles out of the way, he got into the substance of the letter.

  And his mouth gaped.

  And his hand shook.

  And his stomach felt like someone had sucker-punched him there.

  He kept reading, faster and faster, his pace probably neatly matching the breathless dictation of the dying woman.

  When he had finished he looked up to find the two men staring at him.

  “She’s accusing my father of murdering my mother.”

  “That’s right,” said Hull. “That’s exactly right.”



  THIS IS RIDICULOUS,” said Puller. “When my mother went missing my father wasn’t even in the country.”

  Ted Hull glanced at Colonel Shorr, cleared his throat, and said, “As I said, we’ve done some preliminary digging.”

  Puller said, “Wait a minute, when did you receive this letter?”

  “A week ago.”

  “And you’re only now telling me about it?”

  Shorr interjected, “Chief Puller, I know how upsetting this must be for you.”

  “You’re damn right.” Puller caught himself, remembering that the man he was talking to was well above him in rank. “It is upsetting, sir,” he said more calmly.

  “And because of the seriousness of the allegation we wanted to do some investigation before bringing the matter to your attention.”

  “And what did your investigation show?” Puller said curtly.

  “That while your father was out of the country, he arrived back a day earlier than planned. He was in Virginia and in the vicinity of Fort Monroe five or six hours before your mother disappeared.”

  Puller felt his heart skip a beat. “That doesn’t prove he was involved.”

  “Not at all. But we checked the earlier investigation record. Your father said he was out of the country, and preliminary travel records backed that up. That’s why when the investigation was done back then it cleared him of any possible involvement.”

  “So why do you say otherwise now?”

  “Because we uncovered additional travel records and vouchers that show your father, who was scheduled to travel back stateside via military transport, actually flew back on a private jet.”

  “A private jet? Whose?”

  “We’re not certain of that yet. Keep in mind this was thirty years ago.”

  Puller rubbed his eyes, truly disbelieving that this was actually happening. “I know how long ago it was. I lived through it. My brother and I. And my father. It was a living hell for us all. It tore our family apart.”

  “I can understand that,” said Hull. “But the point is that if your father said he was out of the country and the records indicate otherwise?” He left the obvious implications of that contradiction