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.”
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 of
f 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