No mans land, p.1
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       No Man's Land, p.1

         Part #4 of John Puller series by David Baldacci  



  To the memory of Lynette Collin, an angel to us all

  Chapter

  1

  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.

  “Why’s that?”

  “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?”

  “Killed somebody.”

  “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.”

  “What happened?”

  “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.”

  “Holy shit!”

  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.”

  “Right.”

  “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.”

  Chapter

  2

  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.

  Their mistake.

  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
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