No mans land, p.10
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       No Man's Land, p.10
 

         Part #4 of John Puller series by David Baldacci

  But his training took over and he answered. In the Army your CO calls and you just pick up the phone no matter what. Otherwise, you would not be in the Army much longer. You’d be in a stockade.

  “Yes sir?”

  “Puller, got a call from the Twelfth MPs.”

  “Yes sir?”

  “They filled me in on what’s going on.”

  Puller felt his gut tighten a notch. “They came to see me when I was with my father.”

  “They told me that too. Agent Hull seems competent. I checked his record. Not a mark on it.”

  “I’m sure. He seemed good to me too.”

  “Damn shame all this is coming out now.”

  “Damn shame,” parroted Puller.

  “You got a couple days’ leave, right?”

  “Yes sir.”

  “You worked your ass off in Germany. Nailed those suckers to the wall.”

  “Thank you, sir. I had a good team over there. A lot of support.”

  “Right. Anyway, I was thinking you probably needed a little more R&R than a couple days. Go ahead and take a week. Check in when you can.”

  Puller could barely believe what he was hearing. “A week?”

  “Check in. If you need longer, let me know. I can’t remember the last time you took any time off, Puller. Even a soldier needs to recharge.”

  “Yes sir, thank you, sir.”

  “And Puller, step lightly. If things get hairy it’s above my pay grade to backstop you. You do this with flanks uncovered, understood?”

  “Understood.”

  The line went dead and Puller slowly pocketed his phone.

  A mixed message. But one Puller heard loud and clear. First, the time off. Then the warning that his ass was exposed and no reinforcements would be coming.

  He drove on.

  * * *

  Lucy Bristow did not seem familiar to Puller from across the width of her breakfast room table.

  She was petite, slender, with short silver hair containing blonde highlights. Her eyes were large for her small, oval face, giving her a perpetually penetrating stare. A gold bracelet dangled on her wrist. She had made tea and given a porcelain cup full of it to Puller.

  “I remember Jackie very well,” she said. “I remember you and your brother too. I doubt you remember me. You were just little boys.”

  Puller took a sip of the tea. It was hot and minty.

  “And my father?”

  She gave him a sharp glance. “Everyone at Fort Monroe knew John Puller Sr. He’d recently gotten his first star, brigadier general. I remember my husband told me your father’s career was tied to a rocket but that he deserved it. He wasn’t a paper pusher. He was a fighting man’s officer. He’d paid his dues. He told me your father had more sheer courage than any flag officer above him.”

  “I understand your husband was in the Army?”

  “Yes. He was a lieutenant colonel in your father’s command. We saw your parents quite frequently socially.”

  “Is he still alive?”

  “No, he’s not. He died a long time ago.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that.”

  “We were separated shortly before, but it was still a shock.” She put her cup of tea down and rubbed at her temple.

  Puller watched her. “I’m sure.”

  “We didn’t have children, so that made it a bit easier, if something like that can be made easier. My father was Army too, enlisted. Maxed out as an SFC. So an oh-seven was in the stratosphere for me,” she added, referring to the official pay grade rank of a brigadier general.

  “I’m an enlisted as well,” said Puller.

  “That’s right. I heard you didn’t follow your father to West Point.”

  Puller was surprised by this. “Who did you hear that from?”

  “Army women keep in touch. Scuttlebutt as fine art, I like to say.”

  “Carol Powers told me essentially the same thing.”

  “I was very surprised to hear from her that you were looking into your mother’s disappearance. I mean, it’s been such a long time.”

  “I’ve been surprised by a lot of things lately.”

  Bristow sighed and picked up her cup again. “She was a beautiful woman. On the inside as well as the outside. She was very popular at the post. Everyone loved her. She could have put on airs, what with being a general’s wife. But she pitched in and worked on projects, right in the trenches with all of us. And she brightened every room she walked into.” She paused and added, “She was a help to both my husband and me when we were going through our…issues.”

  “I’m glad to hear that. I remember going to St. Mary’s.”

  “I can still see her walking in with her two boys all dressed up in their Sunday best. You both were tall back then too. No surprise given how big your father was. And Jackie wasn’t short either.”

  “He didn’t go to church very much.”

  “You get to that rank the Army takes over your life.”

  “I guess so.”

  “Maybe that’s why you didn’t go to West Point,” she said, giving him a shrewd look.

  “Maybe,” he said noncommittally.

  “If I can speak frankly, I always thought it an odd match, your father and Jackie.”

  “Why was that?”

  “Well, she was nine years younger, for starters.”

  Puller hadn’t really thought about the age difference between his parents. By the time he might have focused on it, his mother had long since vanished.

  “And your father was the most focused man I’ve ever met. Commanded every room he walked into. The men loved and feared him.”

  “I wouldn’t disagree with that.”

  “My husband said most of the enlisted under your father’s command weren’t sure if he was going to shake their hand or kick their ass.”

  “I wouldn’t disagree with that either.”

  “Jackie commanded a room too, only with grace and elegance and just good vibes.” She paused. “They met in Germany, did you know that?”

  “Vaguely.” Puller suddenly realized that he didn’t know much about his parents’ courting history.

  “She was an Air Force brat. That was how I always saw her, floating above it all. Don’t get me wrong. She was nice and polite to everyone, and like I said, she pitched in with all the work. But she was also reserved, keeping part of herself out of sight and reach of everyone. Now, your father at the time was a lieutenant colonel with a chest full of medals and bullet and shrapnel wounds from Vietnam. They met at some military function. I heard it was like fire and ice slamming into each other. But then within a year or so they were married.”

  “Opposites attract.”

  “Maybe. She had two miscarriages before your brother was born.”

  Apparently Bristow had made this abrupt segue to gauge Puller’s reaction, because she was watching him closely.

  His jaw dropping was all the answer she needed.

  “So you didn’t know?”

  “No, I didn’t.”

  “Parents don’t often talk about that.”

  “I guess not.”

  “But I had several miscarriages too, and it was something that Jackie shared with me after she learned of my loss. That’s why I know those details. When you called, I focused on that time in my life, and it was surprising how easily all our conversations came back to me.”

  They fell silent for a few moments.

  “Can you tell me anything about the day she disappeared?” asked Puller finally.

  Bristow gazed over his shoulder. “I really can’t, John. You see, I had left my husband by then and moved into an apartment off the post.”

  “I didn’t know that.”

  “It was for the best. Our marriage didn’t work out. And then he died.”

  There was an awkward silence until Puller spoke up. “I was in the backyard playing when I saw her at the window. She was watching me and smiling.”

  Bristow nodded. “She was very prou
d of her boys.” Her gaze dropped to his. “I’m sure you miss her very much. To not have her in your life all these years.”

  “Yes ma’am,” Puller said dully. All these years without her. All that time gone. The things they could have experienced together.

  “John, are you all right?”

  Puller jerked back to find Bristow looking at him worriedly.

  “I’m fine. So, the day she disappeared. It was a Saturday.”

  Bristow nodded. “Yes, that’s right. The week leading up to that was a busy one. That Sunday there was going to be an Easter program at the church. A lot of details and planning. Your mother was on the committee, as was I. Even though I no longer lived on post, I would not have left them in the lurch on that.”

  “And she was looking forward to it?”

  “Oh yes. We all were.” She looked at him appraisingly. “You don’t think that your mother just walked away from her family, do you?”

  “I don’t know what to think right now, ma’am. I’m just trying to collect the facts and see where they lead me.”

  Bristow nodded. “Your father was not the easiest person to live with.”

  “I can attest to that.”

  “But that would not have been enough of a reason for her to leave. And she never would have left her sons behind. Don’t believe for one minute that she would have.”

  Puller considered this, his pen hovering over his notebook. “So if she didn’t walk out on us, then something happened to her.”

  Bristow nodded. “That’s what I always assumed. The MPs and CID agents came to talk to me, of course. And other people who knew your mother. Your father was out of the country, if I remember correctly.”

  Puller did not tell her that this was now known not to be the case. “Do you know anything that might have explained what happened?” he asked. “Something she might have told you that didn’t seem important at the time?”

  “They asked me the same sort of questions back then. I really didn’t. And over the years I’ve thought about it from time to time, but nothing pertinent ever occurred to me.”

  “Carol Powers said that my mom was all dressed up that night. Like she was going somewhere special. Do you know where that might have been?”

  “No, I really don’t. She sometimes went out to dinner with some of the gals. But she usually didn’t dress up for that. How was she dressed exactly?”

  Puller told her what Carol had told him.

  She shook her head. “That sounds like her Sunday best.”

  “I guess it does.”

  “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. But I just don’t know what she might have been doing. It was just a typical Saturday night as far as I was concerned.”

  Puller asked a few more questions and then thanked her and left.

  He sat out in his car for a few minutes pondering all of it.

  Then it clicked.

  He put the car in gear and pulled off, heading back to Fort Monroe.

  He finally had a potential lead.

  Sunday best.

  Chapter

  15

  PAUL ROGERS STARED up at the sign taped to the door of a bar called the Grunt.

  Not a bad name in an area with a huge military footprint. He could imagine it was filled every night with rank-and-file Army grunts looking to drink away their troubles and have a little fun in between dodging bullets and IEDs and getting screamed at by sergeants.

  Bouncer wanted.

  That’s what the sign said.

  He opened the door and walked in.

  At this time of day there were only a few people inside. He could tell most of them worked here and were getting the place ready for the nightly invasion.

  He walked over to the bartender, who was stacking glasses behind the bar.

  “I’m here about the bouncer job?”

  The bartender looked him up and down. Rogers was rock-solid but he hardly had the heft one probably thought a bouncer should possess.

  The bartender pointed at the other end of the room. “Office is back there. Knock on the door first.”

  Rogers headed that way, gazing around and taking in the space in one effective sweep. Large dance floor, video game room, raised platform for a live band, lots of tables and chairs. And enough alcohol stacked behind the bar to sink an aircraft carrier with all hands on board.

  Rogers thought back to the time he had been in a bar once. It had not ended well.

  It had cost him ten years of his life, in fact.

  A stupid mistake on his part. But the thing in his head had not let him make a better choice.

  He walked down a short hall, reached a door marked Office, and knocked.

  He heard footsteps and a moment later the door was opened by a man so large that he filled most of the doorway. He had a shaved head and was dressed in a black jacket, slacks, and a black turtleneck. He looked down at Rogers.

  “Yeah?” he said gruffly.

  “I’m here about the bouncer job.”

  The man took a step back and looked amused.

  Rogers could now see into the office. It was a large room, twenty feet square with high-end built-ins and furnishings. Behind a sleek mahogany desk sat a woman in her midthirties, dressed in a beige pantsuit with a white blouse underneath.

  The big man looked at her. “He’s here about the bouncer job,” he said derisively.

  The woman stood. She looked to be about five-eight, slender with long blonde hair that held far darker roots at the top of her head.

  “You have any experience?” she asked.

  Rogers nodded.

  “You’re a little small for that line of work. And a little old.”

  “I can handle myself.”

 
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