No mans land, p.11
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       No Man's Land, p.11
 

         Part #4 of John Puller series by David Baldacci

  She came around the side of the desk and perched a hip on it. Rogers now saw that her heels bumped her height up several inches. Without them she was really about five-five.

  She said, “You former military? You look it.”

  “Something like that. I don’t want to fill out any paperwork. And I prefer cash. If that’s a problem, I can leave now.”

  “You don’t get to make the preferences,” said the big man. “She’s the boss. She calls the shots.”

  Rogers rubbed the back of his head, the sensation more a tingling than a pain. He looked up at the big man. “So why aren’t you the bouncer? You’re big enough. The boss afraid you can’t cut it?”

  The man looked ready to drive a fist right through Rogers’s face. “Where the fuck do you get off—”

  “Karl!”

  The woman stood and walked over to them as Karl took a step back.

  “Karl is my security chief. He stays with me.”

  “You need security?”

  “I’m Helen Myers, Mr.?”

  “Paul. Just call me Paul.”

  She looked at Karl. “He vets the bouncers. That’s part of his job as head of security.”

  “Okay.”

  “And we normally run a background check on potential employees.”

  Rogers turned to leave.

  “Wait,” said Myers.

  Rogers turned back around.

  “Are you in some sort of trouble?”

  “I had some trouble and I paid my bill on it. I’m a free man. And I really need the job. But I’m not going through a background check. No harm, no foul. Thanks anyway.”

  “Just hold on for a sec.” She studied him for a few moments.

  “Okay, Paul, I’m going to turn it over to Karl now.”

  Rogers looked at Karl expectantly.

  Karl stepped forward and gave Rogers a smile that did not reach his eyes. “Let me see how you do visual sweeps.”

  Rogers turned his head to the right.

  A second later his hand reached out and caught the haymaker Karl had planned to land on his chin.

  Caught and held it.

  Karl tried to pull free but couldn’t break Rogers’s grip.

  “What the hell!” he exclaimed.

  Next, Rogers gripped the fist so tightly that one of the man’s knuckles popped out of joint.

  “Shit,” cried out Karl. “Let the fuck go, man.”

  “Please release him, Paul,” said Myers.

  Rogers let go and stepped back, putting his hands behind his back and standing at attention.

  “Son of a bitch,” said Karl, holding his injured hand. “What are you, some kinda freak?”

  Rogers looked at Myers. “How much does the job pay?”

  Myers said, “Five hundred a night. Hours are eight to two in the morning. We’re closed on Mondays. We get a lot of soldiers and they can get rowdy. And none of them are lightweights. They all know how to fight. That’s why the pay is what it is. I can’t guarantee that you won’t get injured. That’s what happened to the last bouncer. You will have to sign off on that disclaimer.”

  “I haven’t finished vetting him yet, Ms. Myers,” said Karl, glaring at Rogers.

  Rogers glanced at him. “I’ll arm wrestle you, if you don’t mind a blown-out rotator.”

  “I usually do a little boxing with the new guys,” snapped Karl.

  “I wouldn’t advise that,” said Rogers. “It would not be a fair fight.”

  “You little prick!”

  Karl kicked out at Rogers, who sidestepped the thrust, clamped down on the leg, and effortlessly flipped Karl off his feet. An instant after Karl hit the floor Rogers straddled him, wrenched his arm behind his back, and put him in a chokehold that had Karl’s eyes rolling in the back of his head.

  “Stop, stop!” cried out Myers.

  Rogers immediately let go and stepped back.

  “Do I get the job?” he said calmly.

  Myers looked down at the barely conscious Karl on the floor and then lifted her gaze to Rogers.

  “When can you start?”

  “Tonight.”

  “All right.”

  She added a bit shakily, “Do you have a problem I should know about, Paul?”

  “I have no problems. And I’ll do a good job for you.”

  “Okay, but we don’t need you to kill anybody.”

  Rogers didn’t answer her. He helped Karl to his feet and over to a chair. The big man wouldn’t meet his eye.

  “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” said Rogers. “I just really need the job.”

  Breathing hard, Karl waved him off.

  Myers led Rogers out of the office and into what looked like a workroom at the back of the bar. She gave him a set of clothes and shoes to wear.

  “This is what the bouncer wears. They should fit okay.”

  “Thanks.”

  She asked, “Do you have a smartphone?”

  He shook his head. “I don’t have a smartphone and I don’t have the money to buy one.”

  She opened a cabinet, pulled out a box, and tossed it to him. “It’s a Samsung, hooked to the Web and all ready to go. The phone number is on the front screen. It’s yours to use while you work here.”

  Rogers stuck it in his pocket. “Thanks.”

  “You’ll also wear a headset and comm pack when you’re on duty. I like my people to be in communication at all times.”

  “You sound like you were in the military.”

  “I’ll see you tonight. Get in two hours early so you can be shown how we do things, understood?”

  “Yes.”

  She glanced nervously at the door. “How did you do that to Karl?”

  “I got a few tricks. And I figured I had to show him I got what it takes.”

  “Okay, I get that. But he has nearly six inches and over a hundred pounds on you. He’s vetted a lot of bouncers a lot bigger than you, and none of them did what you just did. Karl usually had them on the floor.”

  “I’m stronger than I look,” said Rogers.

  “Obviously.”

  He left her there staring uncertainly after him.

  He walked back to his van and drove to a motel that offered a twenty-nine-dollar nightly rate. It was a firetrap, but after ten years in a prison cell he had learned not to care where he slept so long as he could walk out the door of his own free will.

  He paid for three nights in cash and went to the room after parking the white van in a space directly in front.

  Five hundred dollars a night, off during the days, and he would still have time after he clocked out at two to do what needed doing. It was a good scenario for him all the way around.

  He locked the door behind him, dropped his duffel on the floor, hung his work clothes up in the closet and placed the shoes directly underneath.

  He sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at the smartphone. He’d never used one before. They were only coming into vogue after he had gone to prison. But he quickly figured out how it worked.

  He went online and did some more digging on CB Excelon Corp.

  His searches becoming more advanced, he skipped from one site to another until he found something interesting.

  Former CEO retires and moves to the Outer Banks.

  The story was about five years old. Chris Ballard had founded and run Ballard Enterprises and its successor, CB Excelon, for many years. The “CB” obviously stood for Chris Ballard. He had subsequently turned the reins over to a new regime. Now eighty, Ballard was retiring to a more leisurely life on the sandy beaches of North Carolina.

  The story went on to bullet-point some of Ballard’s successes and the work that his firm had done in connection with DARPA, the Defense Department’s research arm. The article also gave a thumbnail history of the agency.

  DARPA, created in the late 1950s by President Eisenhower, had started out as the Advanced Research Projects Agency. It had come into being in response to the Soviets sending Sputnik I into orbit. The org
anization had changed its name several times over the decades, before settling on DARPA in 1996. With its new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, it employed hundreds of people and managed a budget of $3 billion. Its mission was to nurture and support game-changing military technologies and to create surprises for America’s enemies, although some of its project outcomes had had significant influence in nonmilitary applications. It funded numerous areas of development in the private sector and was known to give long leashes, short time frames, and overly ambitious—some would say impossible—goals to its contractors. It had had many successes but also spectacular failures. An independent agency, DARPA reported directly to DoD senior management.

  Rogers already knew this about DARPA and didn’t really care.

  He found a mapping function on the phone and determined that the Outer Banks were only a couple hours from Fort Monroe.

  His only lead to Claire Jericho was Chris Ballard.

  North Carolina here I come.

  Chapter

  16

  THE CAR HAD been in the driveway.

  Puller sat on the hood of his Malibu staring at the old house on the grounds of Fort Monroe. The Puller family had owned a Buick four-door sedan back then, provided by the Army.

  It had been in the driveway after his mother had left that night.

  They had no other car.

  She had to have walked.

  Puller pushed off the hood and started to head down the sidewalk. He could have gone in one of two directions, but he had chosen the way that made the most sense to him.

  Sunday best.

  As he walked along he could not stop himself from imagining his mother making this same journey that night. His footsteps were following that same trek. His steps were hitting where hers had hit on this very same concrete. He visualized her all dressed up, her purse perhaps clutched at her side. Her gaze directly in front of her. Some purpose in mind.

  Some destination.

  When he reached St. Mary’s Church, Puller stopped.

  It looked the same as when he’d been a boy here. The trees around it were larger and fuller, but the church itself had remained frozen in time.

  It was a beautiful little church. It would have made a great postcard picture, he suddenly thought.

  Come here and worship God. It will get you in the spirit.

  The Catholic church was still open and functioning. Its official name was St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. It had a school, also named St. Mary Star of the Sea, that catered to pre-K through eighth grade and was located across the causeway from the fort on Willard Avenue.

  Puller had attended Mass here every Sunday with his mother and brother, and his father if he was in town. He had never gone back since she’d vanished. He had never seen the point to it, since God had ignored his teary pleas and never returned Puller’s mother to him.

  He stood out in front of the church for a few minutes, trying not to be overwhelmed by all the memories that had suddenly come charging headlong at him.

  He walked up the steps and into the church. It was quiet and cool and a bit musty inside. He surveyed the interior, the blue carpeting and the sign over a shelf of written materials in the back that read Thou Shalt Not Steal.

  He walked up the aisle and noted the stained glass windows on either wall.

  One was a memorial to a soldier who had died in Korea. The words read, He died so the kids next door may live.

  That seemed to be the lot of many a soldier, thought Puller.

  You die so others don’t.

  Flags hung down from the ceiling on both sides. He looked up at them as he passed by.

  Then his eyes finally reached to the small altar.

  All the memories overcame him once more like an enemy overrunning his position on a battlefield.

  He shut his eyes and let these images wash over him. Taking the seats in the pew, his mother always between his brother and him. They were little boys after all, and seated together they would have at some point during the Mass gotten into trouble.

  He could conjure the smell of her perfume, delicate and barely there. The rustle of her skirt, the slight tap of her heel against the back of the pew in front of them. The methodical turning of the hymnal pages.

  Standing up to sing, to pray, listening to the homily. Rising again. Genuflecting. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Walking up to receive communion, Puller having qualified to do that only the year before his mother vanished.

  Swallowing the host and wishing his mother would have allowed him to drink some of Jesus’s blood in the form of the red wine.

  Just once.

  Putting the crumpled dollar bills in the offering basket.

  Singing the final hymn as the priest and the altar boys walked down the center aisle bearing the cross and the Holy Book out into the foyer.

  His mother lingering to talk to the priest and some friends, while he and his brother fidgeted, anxious to get home, change their clothes, and run wild outside. Or for Robert Puller to finish reading a book or complete a science project.

  Puller blinked and his gaze went toward the altar. A door had opened on one side of it and a man in a white collar had emerged from an inner room. He was carrying some hymnals. When he spotted Puller he put the books down and walked down the center aisle toward him.

  He was in his fifties, with a shock of fine white hair that neatly matched the color of the collar. He had on the usual black pants and a black clerical shirt with the white tab collar. His glasses fronted watery blue eyes.

  “May I help you?” he asked, offering a smile along with his greeting. The man drew closer and held out his hand. “I’m Father O’Neil.” He peered at Puller more closely. “I’m sorry, young man. Do you attend church here? I’m usually very good at remembering faces.”

  “I used to. About thirty years ago.”

  “Oh, then as a little boy?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, you go back much farther than I do. I’ve only been the pastor here for nine years. I came over from Roanoke.”

  “Father Rooney was the pastor when I came here.”

  “Father Rooney? That name sounds familiar. There were quite a few priests in between him and me. The Richmond Diocese likes to move us around.”

  “Would you have any idea where I could find him?”

  O’Neil became slightly guarded. “Can I ask why you’re looking
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