Zero Daypart #1 of John Puller Series by David Baldacci / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime
To the memory of my mother
And to Charles “Chuck” Betack, my friend
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.
Reed Howard 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.
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 Investigative 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.