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No Man's Land
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Two men. Thirty years.
John Puller’s mother, Jackie, vanished thirty years ago from Fort Monroe, Virginia, when Puller was just a boy. Paul Rogers has been in prison for ten years. But twenty years before that, he was at Fort Monroe. One night three decades ago, Puller’s and Rogers’ worlds collided with devastating results, and the truth has been buried ever since.
Military investigators, armed with a letter from a friend of Jackie’s, arrive in the hospital room of Puller’s father-a legendary three-star now sinking into dementia-and reveal that Puller Sr. has been accused of murdering his wife.
Aided by his brother Robert Puller, an Air Force major, and Veronica Knox, who works for a shadowy U.S. intelligence organization, Puller begins a journey that will take him into his own past, to find the truth about his mother.
Paul Rogers’ time is running out. With the clock ticking, he begins his own journey, one that will take him across the country to the place where all his troubles began: a mysterious building on the grounds of Fort Monroe. There, thirty years ago, the man Rogers had once been vanished too, and was replaced with a monster. And now the monster wants revenge. And the only person standing in his way is John Puller.
PAUL ROGERS WAS waiting for them to come and kill him.
For ten years he had done this.
Now he had twenty-four more hours to go.
Or to live.
Rogers was six feet one inches tall and tipped the scale at one hundred and eighty pounds; hardly any of it was fat. Most people looking only at his chiseled body would be surprised to learn that he was over fifty years old. From the neck down he looked like an anatomical chart, each muscle hardened and defined as it melded into its neighbor.
However, from the neck up the years were clearly imprinted on his features, and a guess of fifty would actually have been kind. The hair was thick but mostly gray, and the face, though it had been behind bars and out of the sun for a decade, was roughly weathered, with deep crevices around the eyes and mouth and furrows whittled across the broad brow.
He had an unruly beard that matched the color of his hair. Facial hair wasn’t really permitted in here, but he knew that no one had the guts to make him shave it off.
He was like a timber rattler without the benefit of a warning sound, likely to bite if you drew too close.
The eyes lurking under the tufted eyebrows were perhaps his most distinctive feature: a pale, liquid blue that carried a sense of being both depthless and also empty of life.
He sat up straighter when he heard them coming.
Still twenty-four hours to go. This was not a good sign.
There were two sets of heels walking in unison.
The door slid open and the pair of guards stood there.
“Okay, Rogers,” said the older guard. “Let’s go.”
Rogers stood and looked at the men, confusion on his features.
The guard said, “I know it was supposed to be tomorrow, but apparently the court clerk put the wrong date on the order and it was too much trouble to try to change it. So voilà, today is your big day.”
Rogers moved forward and held out his hands so they could shackle him.
The older guard shook his head. “Your parole was granted, Rogers. You get to walk out as a free man. No more chains.” But as he said this, he clutched the handle of his baton a little more tightly and a vein throbbed at his temple.
The two guards led Rogers down a long hallway. On each side were barred cell doors. The men behind them had been talking, but when Rogers came into view they abruptly stopped. The prisoners watched mutely as he passed, then the whispers started up once more.
Upon entering a small room he was given a set of new clothes, shiny lace-up shoes, his ring, his watch, and three hundred dollars in cash. Thirty bucks for every year he’d been inside; that was the state’s magnanimous policy.
And, maybe most important, a bus ticket that would take him to the nearest town.
He took off his prison jumpsuit and put on new skivvies and the fresh clothes. He had to cinch the belt extra tight around his lean waist to keep the pants up, but the jacket was tight against his wide shoulders. He put on the new shoes. They were a size too small and pinched his long feet. He next put on the watch, set the correct time using the clock on the wall, slipped the cash into his jacket, and forced the ring over a knotty knuckle.
He was led to the front entrance of the prison and handed a packet of materials outlining his duties and responsibilities as a parolee. These included regular meetings with his parole officer and tight restrictions on his movements and associations with other people for the duration of his parole. He couldn’t leave the area and couldn’t knowingly go within a hundred feet of someone with a criminal record. He couldn’t do drugs and he couldn’t own or carry a weapon.
The hydraulic rams came to life and the metal door opened, revealing the outside world to Rogers for the first time in a decade.
He stepped across the threshold as the older guard said, “Good luck, and don’t let me see you back here.”
Then the rams were engaged once more and the massive door shut behind him with the whisper of fluid-charged machinery coming to rest.
The older guard shook his head while the younger one stared at the back of the door.
“If I had to bet, he’ll be back in prison before long,” said the older guard.
“Paul Rogers has spoken maybe five words since he’s been in this place. But the look on his face sometimes.” The guard shivered. “We’ve got some unholy badasses in here, as you know. But nobody gave me the creeps like Rogers. It was as though there was nothing behind the eyes. He was up for parole twice before and didn’t get it. I heard he scared the crap out of the parole board just by looking at them. The third time was the charm, I suppose.”
“What did he do to get sent to prison?”
“And he only got ten years?”
“Extenuating circumstances, I guess.”
“Did the other inmates ever try to bully him?” asked the younger guard.
“Bully him! Did you ever see that guy work out in the rec yard? He’s older than me and he’s stronger than the biggest SOB we have in here. And I think the guy slept like an hour a night. I’d make my rounds at two in the morning and there he’d be in his cell just staring off or talking to himself and rubbing the back of his head. Really weird.” He paused. “But when he first came here a couple of the toughest inmates did try to go alpha on him.”
“Let’s just say they’re not alphas anymore. One ended up paralyzed, and the other sits in a wheelchair dribbling water down his front, because Rogers permanently damaged his brain. One blow cracked the guy’s skull. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“How’d he get hold of a weapon in here?”
“Weapon? He used his bare hands.”
The older guard nodded thoughtfully. “That made his cred in here. Nobody bothered him after that. Prisoners respect the alpha. You saw how they all went quiet when he passed by just now. He was a legend in here getting bigger and badder without lifting a finger. But to his credit, Rogers was an alpha like I’ve never seen before. And more.”
“How do you mean?”
The guard thought about this for a few moments. “When they first brought him here we did the standard strip search, no orifice overlooked.”
“Well, Rogers had scars on him.”
“Hell, lots of cons have scars. And tats!”
“Not like this. They were up and down both arms and both legs and on his head and around his torso. And along his fingers. Ugly shit. And we couldn’t take prints off the guy. I mean, he didn’t have any! Never seen anything like it before. Hope I never see anything like it again.”
“How’d he get the scars?”
“Like I said, dude only said five words since he came here. And it wasn’t like we could force him to tell us how he got them. I always assumed Rogers belonged to some sort of freak cult or had been tortured. Hell, it would’ve taken an Army battalion to do that to him. But the fact is I really didn’t want to know. Rogers is a freak. An out-and-out freak that I’m really glad to see the back of.”
“Surprised they let him out, then.”
As the guards walked back to the cellblocks the older one muttered, “God help anybody who runs into that son of a bitch.”
OUTSIDE, ROGERS DREW a slow breath and then let it go, watching the chilly vapor materialize momentarily and then vanish just as quickly. He stood there for a few seconds getting his bearings. In some ways it was like being born and slipping out of the womb and seeing a world you didn’t know existed a moment before.
His gaze went from left to right and right to left. Then to the sky. Choppers were not out of the question, he thought. Not for this.
Not for him.
But there was no one waiting for him.
It could be the passage of time. Three decades. People died, memories faded.
Or it could be that they really thought he was dead.
Then he settled on the screwed-up release date.
If they were coming, it would be tomorrow.
Thank God for stupid court clerks.
Following the directions given on his discharge papers, he walked to the bus stop. It was four rusted posts with a shingled roof and a wooden seat worn down by decades of people waiting for a ride to somewhere else. While he was waiting he took the packet of parole materials from his jacket and dumped them in a trash can standing next to the enclosure. He had no intention of attending any parole hearings. He had places to go that were far away from here.
He touched the spot on the left side of his head, halfway between the occipital bone and the lambdoid suture. He then traced his finger over the sutural bones to the parietal bones and finally to the sagittal suture. They were important parts of the skull protecting significant elements of the brain.
He had once thought that what had been added there was a ticking time bomb.
Now he simply thought of it as him.
He let his hand drop to his side as he watched the bus pull up to the curb. The doors opened and he climbed on, gave his ticket to the driver, and walked to the back.
A cascade of smells enveloped him, mostly of the fried-food and unwashed-bodies variety. Everyone on the bus watched him as he passed. Women’s fingers curled more tightly around their purses. Men watched him with defensive looks and fists ready. Children simply stared wide-eyed.
He just had that effect on people, he supposed.
He sat in the very rear, where the stench from the lone restroom might have overwhelmed someone who had not smelled far worse.
Rogers had smelled far worse.
In seats catty-corner across the aisle from him were a man in his twenties and a girl of the same age. The girl was in the aisle seat. Her boyfriend was huge, about six-six and all muscle. They had not watched Rogers walk back here, mainly because they had been too busy exploring each other’s mouths with their tongues.
When the bus pulled off, they separated lips and the man glanced over the seat at Rogers with hostile eyes. Rogers looked back until the man glanced away. The woman gazed back too and smiled.
“Did you just get out?” she asked.
Rogers looked down at his clothes. It occurred to him that this must be standard-issue garb for those leaving prison. Perhaps the correctional system ordered the items in bulk, including shoes that were too small so the ex-cons couldn’t outrun anybody. And maybe the bus stop was known to folks around here as the “prisoners’ stop.” That would explain the looks he’d been given.
Rogers never thought to return her smile, but he did nod in answer to her query.
“How long were you in for?”
In answer, Rogers held up all ten fingers.
She gave him a sympathetic look. “That’s a long time.” She crossed her legs so that one long slender and bare limb was thrust out into the aisle, giving him an admirable view of pale skin.
They rode for nearly an hour, the distance from the prison to the closest town. All that time the high-heeled shoe dangled enticingly off the woman’s foot.
Rogers never once looked away.
When they pulled into the bus depot it was dark. Nearly everyone got off. Rogers was last because he liked it that way.
His feet hit the pavement and he looked around. Some of the passengers were greeted by friends or family. Others pulled their luggage from the storage compartment at the rear of the bus. Rogers simply stood there and looked around as he had done outside the prison. He had no friends or family to greet him, and no luggage to retrieve.
But he was waiting for something to happen.
The young man who had glared at him went to collect his and the woman’s bags. While he did so she came over to Rogers.
“You look like you could use some fun.”
He didn’t answer.
She glanced in the direction of her boyfriend. “We go our separate ways in a little bit. After that, why don’t we go have a good time, just you and me? I know a place.”
When the boyfriend came around the side of the bus carrying a long duffel and a smaller suitcase, she gripped his arm and they walked off. But she looked back at Rogers and winked.
His gaze tracked the young couple as they headed down the street, turned left, and disappeared from sight.
Rogers started to walk. He turned down the same alley and saw the couple up ahead. They were nearly out of sight. But not quite.
Rogers touched his head again at the same spot and then ran his finger back, as he had before, as though tracing the route of a meandering river.
They kept walking for a long time, block after block the couple just in sight. Always just in sight.
It was quite dark now. The couple turned a corner and disappeared from view.
Rogers picked up his pace and turned the same corner.
His arm caught the blow from the bat. The wood shattered and the top half of the bat flew off and hit the wall.
“Shit!” roared the young man holding it. The duffel lay open on the ground. The woman was a few feet behind her boyfriend. She had ducked when the bat had broken in half and sailed in her direction, causing her to drop her purse.
The man let go of the other half of the bat, pulled a switchblade from his pocket, and opened it.
“Give up the three hundred bucks, Mr. Ex-Con, and the ring and the watch, and you don’t get gutted.”
Three hundred bucks? So they knew the amount based on his decade in prison.
Rogers twisted his neck to the right and felt the pop.
He looked around. The walls were brick, high, and had no windows, meaning no witnesses. The alley was dark. There was no one else around. He had noted all this while he was walking.
“Did you hear me?” said the young man as he towered over Rogers.
Rogers nodded, for he had indeed heard the man.
“Well then, give me the cash and the other stuff. You simple or what?”
Rogers shook his head. For he was not simple. And he was also not going to give up anything.
“Suit yourself,” barked the man. He lunged at Rogers and slashed with the blade.
Rogers partially blocked the thrust of the knife, but the blade still bit into his arm. This slowed him down not even a little because he felt nothing. As the blood soaked into his clothing he gripped the hand holding the knife and squeezed.
The man dropped the knife. “Shit, shit!” he screamed. “Let go, let the fuck go!”
Rogers did not let go. The man fell to his knees, futilely trying to pry Rogers’s fingers off him.
The woman watched all of this in stunned disbelief.
With his free hand Rogers slowly reached down, gripped the handle of the broken bat, and held it up.
The young man looked up at him. “Please, man, don’t.”
Rogers swung the bat. The force of the blow crushed the side of 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.
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.
“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.”
- "[A novel of] dramatic depth and intensity...an unforgettable read...Action-packed and thought-provoking."—Associated Press
- "Bestseller Baldacci makes the implausible plausible in his riveting fourth thriller featuring U.S. Army criminal investigator John Puller...Baldacci maintains tension throughout and imbues his characters with enough humanity to make readers care what happens to them."—Publishers Weekly
- "Be prepared for an action-packed ride... Baldacci once again partners [John Puller] with Veronica Knox, making for a lethal and legendary combination. Anticipation intensifies on each page."—RT Book Reviews (4 1/2 stars--Top Pick!)
- "This thriller, featuring U.S. Army criminal investigator John Puller, has a very plausible theme with a compelling and action-packed plot....[A] riveting and heart-wrenching story...NO MAN'S LAND is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Readers will be hooked from page one."—Military Press
"David Baldacci is one of America's favorite mystery writers, and he has earned that adulation fair and square. He is constantly turning out one readable and enjoyable adventure after another. His latest novel NO MAN'S LAND is his fourth John Puller story and it is a good one. It is fast reading from the start as the pages grab the readers' interest and off they go."
"This fast-paced ride will leave you guessing until the last page."
- On Sale
- Nov 15, 2016
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Grand Central Publishing