Zero Day


By David Baldacci

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Combat veteran and U. S. Army investigator John Puller is on the hunt for justice with the help of a homicide detective — but as they face deceptions and dead ends, a powerful force threatens to stop them forever.

John Puller is a combat veteran and the best military investigator in the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative 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.


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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.

National security.

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."

"He knows."

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."

"Need anything?"

"Nothing you can provide. And you don't have to keep coming."

"My choice."

"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."

"You checked?"

"I checked."

"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?"

"Just asking."

"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."

"You checked?"

"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 when?"

"Since I belted a guard."


"Because he said something I didn't care for."

"Like what?"

"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?"

"Not really."

"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.

"Hey, John?"

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.


  • "Readers expect excitement and intrigue in David Baldacci's books, and Zero Day is no exception...As Baldacci's new hero narrowly escapes countless close calls, the pairing of the author's imagination and knowledge create a wild ride for the reader. Puller is gutsy, brash and likable. Best of all, he survives to reappear in the next book of this new series."—The Free-Lance Star
  • "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
  • "An effective thriller."
    San Antonio Express-News

On Sale
Mar 27, 2012
Page Count
448 pages

David Baldacci

About the Author

David Baldacci is a global #1 bestselling author, and one of the world’s favorite storytellers. His books are published in over 45 languages and in more than 80 countries, with 150 million copies sold worldwide. His works have been adapted for both feature film and television. 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 and his foundation at

Learn more about this author