Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Forgotten, Page 2

David Baldacci


  The old woman was tall but bent. Her spine had curved itself over the last decade, and that had reduced her height by three inches. Her hair was cut short and in severe lines around her face, which had all the wrinkles and sun damage one would expect after more than eight decades of living, two of them in coastal Florida. She navigated with the aid of a walker, two tennis balls stuck onto the bottoms of the front legs for stability.

  Her large hands clutched the top bar of the walker. Over her shoulder was her purse. It was large and bulky and rode awkwardly against her body. Her gait was steady and purposeful. She looked neither right nor left, nor over her shoulder. She was a woman on a mission and the passersby on the street voluntarily moved out of her way. Some smiled at what they no doubt believed was a dotty old woman who no longer cared what anyone thought about her behavior. It was true she no longer cared what others thought. But she was far from dotty.

  Her destination was just up ahead.

  A mailbox.

  She ran her walker right up to it, using a free hand to balance herself against the stout property of the U.S. Postal Service. With her other hand she reached into her purse and pulled out the letter. She paused and looked at the address one last time.

  She had spent considerable time writing the letter. The younger generation, with all of its tweets and Facebook and cryptic texts and emails where no actual language or grammar were involved, would never have understood taking the time to compose a handwritten missive such as this one. But she had wanted to get the words just right, because what she was writing about was so extraordinary. At least to her way of thinking.

  The addressee’s name was written in block letters to make it as clear as possible. She did not want this piece of mail to go astray.

  General John Puller, Senior (Ret.).

  She was sending it in care of the VA hospital where she knew he was staying. She knew his health was not good, but she also knew that he was a man who could make things happen. He had risen nearly as high in the military as it was possible to go.

  And he was also her brother. Her younger brother.

  Big sisters were special to their little brothers. While they were growing up he had done his best to make her life miserable, playing an endless series of practical jokes on her, embarrassing her in front of her boyfriends, competing with her for their parents’ affections. It was different when they became adults. Then it was like the grown man was desperately trying to make up for all the hardship he had caused his older sister.

  She could count on him to sort this out. More to the point, he had a son, her nephew, who was very good at figuring things out. She reckoned this letter would eventually end up in his capable hands. And she hoped he came down here. It had been a long time since she had seen her nephew.

  Too long.

  She opened the lid of the mailbox and watched the letter slide down the metal gullet. She closed the lid and then opened it twice more just to make sure the letter was in the belly of the box.

  She turned her walker around and made her way back to the cabstand. She had a favorite taxi driver who had picked her up from her home and now would drive her back there. She could still drive but chose not to tonight.

  The mailbox was situated at the end of a oneway street. It was easier for him to park where he had, leaving her with only a short walk to the mailbox. He had offered to post the letter for her, but she had declined. She needed to do it herself, and she also needed the exercise.

  He was a youngster to her, only in his late fifties. He wore an old-fashioned chauffeur’s hat, although the rest of his outfit was decidedly more casual: khaki shorts, blue polo shirt, and canvas boat shoes on his feet. His tan was so uniformly dark that it looked like the product of a UV bed or spray-on tan.

  “Thank you, Jerry,” she said, as she climbed, with his assistance, into the backseat of the Prius. Jerry folded up her walker and put it in the rear of the car before getting into the driver’s seat.

  “Everything good to go, Ms. Simon?” he asked.

  “I hope so,” she replied. For the first time she looked and felt truly nervous.

  “You want to go back home now?”

  “Yes, please. I’m tired.”

  Jerry turned around in his seat and scrutinized her. “You look pale. Maybe you should go see a doctor. Got enough of them in Florida.”

  “Maybe I will. But not right now. I just need some rest.”

  He drove her back to her little community on the beach. They passed a pair of soaring palm trees and a sign set on a brick wall that read, “Sunset by the Sea.”

  The sign had always irritated her, because she lived by an ocean, not a sea. Technically, she actually lived on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the Panhandle of Florida. She had always thought that “Sunset Coast” or “Sunset Gulf’ sounded better than “Sunset by the Sea.” But the name was official and there was no changing it.

  Jerry drove her to her house on Orion Street and saw her inside. A typical residence for this part of Florida, it was a two-story structure with cinderblock walls covered in beige stucco with a red terra-cotta roof and a two-car garage. The house had three bedrooms, with hers right off the kitchen. It was thirty-one hundred square feet in an efficient footprint, far larger than she needed, but she had no interest in moving. This would be her last home. She had known that for a long time.

  She had a palm tree out front and some grass and decorative rocks in the yard. In the back a privacy fence ran along the property line, and she had a small reflecting pool along with a bench and a table where she could sit, drink her coffee, and enjoy both the cooler mornings and the final rays of the evening light. On either side of her house was another house pretty much exactly the same. All of Sunset by the Sea was pretty much the same, as though the builder had some large machine to spit the houses out off-site to later be transported and erected here.

  The beach was behind her house, just a short drive or long walk to the sugar-white sand of the Emerald Coast.

  It was summer and the temperature was in the low seventies at nearly six in the evening. That was about twenty degrees cooler than the high for the day, which was about average for Paradise, Florida, at this time of the year.

  Paradise, she thought. A silly, conceited name, but she also couldn’t say it didn’t fit. It was beautiful here most of the time.

  She would take heat over cold any day. That’s why they had invented Florida, she assumed. And perhaps Paradise in particular.

  And why the snowbirds flocked here every winter.

  She sat in her living room and gazed around at the memories of a lifetime. On the walls and shelves were photos of friends and family. Her gaze rested longest on a picture of her husband, Lloyd, a natural-born salesman. She had fallen in love with him after World War II. He had sold her a bill of goods, too, she supposed. He always claimed to be more successful than he was. He was a good salesman but a bigger spendthrift, she had found. But he was funny, made her laugh, didn’t have a violent bone in his body, never drank to excess, and he loved her. He never cheated on her, though with his job and the traveling involved, he certainly had had chances to wander from his marriage vows.

  Yes, she missed her Lloyd. After he’d passed away, she’d discovered he had a sizable life insurance policy he’d kept in force. She’d taken the whole of it and bought two stocks. Apple and Amazon. This had been way back. The two A’s on her report card, she liked to call them. The investment return had been enough to allow her to pay off the mortgage on this house and live very comfortably on far more money than Social Security alone would have allowed her.

  She had a light supper and some iced tea. Her appetite wasn’t nearly what it once was. Then she watched some TV, falling asleep in front of the screen. When she awoke she felt disoriented. Shaking her head to clear it, she decided it was time to go to bed. She rose with the aid of her walker and headed toward her bedroom. She would sleep for a few hours and then get back up, start her day over
again. That was her life now.

  She noticed a shadow of movement behind her, but had no chance to feel alarmed about it.

  That was to be Betsy Puller Simon’s last memory.

  A shadow behind her.

  A few minutes later there was a splash from the backyard.


  The timing was as good as it would ever get. He performed a few more strokes in the water until he finally felt the earth beneath his feet.

  He had lucked out and been picked up by a small fishing boat about two hours after his escape from the platform. The men had asked no questions. They gave him some food and water. They told him their location, and by reversing that course he got a better fix on the platform out in the Gulf. He could not forget all the prisoners housed there. They would be gone before he would ever return there. But there would be others to replace them.

  The fishing boat could not take him all the way to shore, they told him, but they would get him close enough. They chugged along slowly for what seemed a long time and he helped them with their work as part repayment for their helping him. They could not make a beeline for his destination. They were out here to work, and work they would.

  His great strength was marveled at by the fishermen, and they seemed sorry to see him go.

  They pointed in the direction of land when they got to the place where he needed to get off. They gave him a better-fitted life jacket and he slipped over the side of the boat and started swimming toward land.

  As he turned back he saw one of the men make the sign of the cross over his chest. Then his sole focus became reaching something he could stand on.

  By the time he arrived on shore his muscles were tight, knotted, and he was once more dehydrated. Water had been all around him for such a long time and yet he had not been able to drink even a drop of it. Fish had nipped at him. Singly that was not a problem. Cumulatively, his legs and arms were covered in tiny cuts and welts. And his head and shoulders hurt from the beating he’d taken from the guards and from his plunge off the platform. He could feel the bruises and cuts on his face from these impacts.

  But he was alive.

  And on land.


  The darkness covered his high-stepping through the last few breakers until he reached the sugar-white sand of the Emerald Coast in Florida’s Panhandle. He looked right and left up the beach for any late-night beachcombers. Seeing none, he dropped to his knees, rolled onto his back, and drew in long deep breaths as he stared at a sky so clear there seemed to be no space between the billions of visible stars. Paradise was a small town with long beaches, but its downtown area was built right along the sand. The central business district was farther down and to the west. And luckily it was so late that there was no one out on the boardwalk that ran parallel to the beach where he was.

  He thanked God for allowing him to live. So many hours of swimming, and then being picked up by the boat. In the vastness of the Gulf, what were the odds of that without divine intervention? The sharks had also miraculously left him alone. He had to attribute that to his prayers as well.

  His captors had not come after him.

  Prayer again.

  Thankfully, the beach was deserted.

  Well, not quite.

  God must have missed that one.

  He hunkered down in the sand as he heard the people coming.

  Then he flattened himself to the beach and burrowed in, allowing his over six-foot-six-inch, 290-pound frame to blend into the white grit that people from around the world came to lie on during the course of a year.

  It was two people. He could tell by the different voices.

  One man. One woman.

  He lifted his head a bare inch and stared in their direction. They were not walking a dog.

  Prayer, again. A dog would have found his scent by now.

  He would not act unless they spotted him. And even then, they might just assume he was simply lying on the beach enjoying the evening. He hoped they would not see him, and that if they did they would not panic. He knew that after his long journey at sea he must look pretty bad.

  He tensed his body, waited for them to pass by.

  They were within forty feet of him. The woman looked in his direction. The moonlight was not strong, but not weak either.

  He heard her exclaim and then say something to her companion.

  But then he realized that she was not actually looking in his direction.

  As he watched, a lithe figure came out from behind the cover of sand dunes.

  There was one pop and the man fell. The woman turned to run, but there was another pop and she fell too, hitting the compacted sand with a thud.

  The figure put the gun away, gripped the woman’s hands, and dragged her into the water a good ten feet. The tide took over from there and the body quickly sank beneath the water and was swept out.

  This same process was repeated on the man.

  The figure stood on the sand a few inches from the water and scanned the breakers, probably making sure the bodies were not going to be swept back to shore. Then the figure turned and was gone the way it had come.

  He kept his body flat to the stretch of beach even as he felt shame for not coming to the couple’s assistance. But it had happened so quickly that he doubted he could have prevented their deaths.

  And sometimes God was busy with other things. This he knew to be true. God had often been busy when he had needed him. But then many people needed God. He was just one of billions who asked for divine assistance from time to time.

  He waited until he was certain the shooter was gone. He had no idea why the couple had been killed. He had no idea who had killed them. It was not any of his business.

  He could not remain on the beach now. He made his way to the boardwalk, and spotted a bicycle chained to a post. He ripped the post out of the ground, freeing the chain. He wound the chain around the frame, climbed onto the bike, and set off.

  He had the city’s streets mostly memorized. He had a place to go, to stay, where he could change his clothes, rest, eat, hydrate, and then he could begin his quest, the real reason he had come here.

  As he disappeared into the night, he began to mumble again, to pray for forgiveness for not helping the couple by killing their attacker. He was good at killing, perhaps the best. But that did not mean that he liked it, because he did not.

  He was a giant, but actually a gentle man.

  But even gentle giants could be moved to violence for the right reasons.

  He had such reasons.

  He had them in abundance.

  He was no longer going to be gentle. Not while he was here.

  It was the sole thing driving him. Indeed, it was the only thing really keeping him alive.

  He rode on as the two corpses were pulled slowly out to sea.


  John Puller took a sharp left-hand turn and drove down the narrow two-lane road. In the backseat of the car was his cat, AWOL, who had wandered into his life one day and would probably leave him just as unexpectedly. Puller was in the Army, formerly a Ranger, and currently a CID, or Criminal Investigation Division, special agent. He was not investigating any cases at the moment. Right now he was just returning from a protracted road trip with his cat, allowing himself a bit of R&R after a hellish experience in a small West Virginia coal-mining town that had nearly ended with him and many other people dead.

  He pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex. It was near Quantico, Virginia, where the Army’s CID headquarters was located along with the 701st M.P. Group (CID), the unit to which Puller was attached. This made for an easy work commute, although he rarely spent much time at Quantico. He was more often on the road investigating crimes that involved a person who wore the uniform of the United States Army and yet was doing bad things. And unfortunately, there were a lot of cases to work.

  He parked his car, a trim Army-issued Mal- ibu, grabbed his rucksack from the trunk, opened the back door, and wa
ited patiently for AWOL, a fat orange-and-brown tabby, to mosey out. The cat followed him up to his apartment. Puller lived in six hundred square feet of rigid lines and minimal clutter. He had been in the Army for most of his adult life and now, in his mid-thirties, his personal aversion to junk and clutter was irreversibly established.

  He got food and water out for AWOL, snagged a beer from the fridge, sat down in his leather recliner, put his feet up, and closed his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually gotten a full night’s sleep. He decided to do something about it right now.

  The last few weeks had not been especially kind to Puller, who was nearly six feet four and a normally solid 232 pounds. He had not gotten any shorter, but he had lost about ten pounds because his appetite had abandoned him. Physically, he was still doing okay. He could beat any test the military might offer related to strength, endurance, or speed. Mentally, however, he was not doing very well. He wasn’t sure he ever would be doing well mentally again. Some days he thought he would, others not. This was one of the other days.

  Puller had gone on the road trip to try to get his head back on straight after the ordeal in West Virginia.