No mans land, p.5
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       No Man's Land, p.5

         Part #4 of John Puller series by David Baldacci

  “Got it.”

  Puller went online and accessed a secure military database. He entered the name Stan Demirjian. There was only one since the last name was not common. Demirjian had retired as a sergeant first class. He had his military pension. It was mailed out to his home like clockwork. His address was in the file. They lived on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia.

  In his mind’s eye Puller recalled a barrel-chested bald man with a gruff manner. But what sergeant first class didn’t have a gruff manner? Your job was to mold men and women into fighting machines. You weren’t there to be anyone’s friend.

  Puller hadn’t had much contact with Demirjian when his father had been in uniform. Now that he thought about it, he had seen far more of Mrs. Demirjian than of her husband.

  It was a two-hour drive from where he was to where the Demirjians lived. Should he go there and talk to them?

  No one had told him to back off the case. And he could go and talk to them in a civilian capacity, not as a CID agent. It wasn’t the best position, but at least it was something.

  And maybe he should before someone told him not to.

  The email with the forms to sign popped into his mailbox.

  He drove to the CID offices at Quantico, printed them out, signed them, and faxed them back to Shireen. Now the legal ball could get rolling.

  He drove home, threw a few things in to a bag, gunned up with his twin M11s, snagged an investigation duffel he kept in his apartment, changed the litterbox and filled the food and water bowls of his cat, AWOL, and hit the highway.

  When he was on a case Puller always had a battle plan of how he was going to approach things. Now he had no idea what the hell he was going to do.

  And if his father was guilty?

  He shook his head.

  I can’t deal with that now. I can’t deal with that ever.

  And yet if it came to it, Puller knew he would have to.



  PAUL ROGERS HAD risen early and driven across the West Virginia border. He had stopped for dinner at a Cracker Barrel. There were big buses parked in the lot, and when he went inside he saw that the place was mostly filled with senior citizens, perhaps on some sort of tour or pilgrimage.

  Pilgrimage. He could relate.

  He ate alone at a table near the back of the rustic-inspired space.

  The weather was clear now, but he had heard on the radio that a storm front was approaching and that it would bring rain and strong winds later that night.

  He looked at his map and calculated that he would arrive at his destination in the afternoon, late or early depending on how soon he got on the road and how bad the traffic was.

  He ate breakfast for dinner, cutting the sausage patties into four equal pieces and running them through his dense grits before putting them in his mouth.

  In his mind he was placing his plan into quadrants too and then prioritizing each one. Military precision. If he ever needed his training, he needed it now.

  He rubbed his head. It had become a habit so ingrained that sometimes he didn’t even know he was doing it.

  He looked around the large dining room once more and noted that many of the men had World War II caps on with stitched lettering signifying the military branches they had served in during the war. Some had pins on them representing specific units. They were all very old now, the youngest of them in their late eighties. Almost all were in wheelchairs or used walkers or canes to get around. They were gray, bent, but their features were proud, animated. They had fought the good fight and survived to have families and retirements and tour bus rides augmented with Cracker Barrel feasts.

  Rogers thought, I fought the good fight too. And I have nothing.

  Except he had a chance to make it all right. And he intended to give it the best shot he possibly could.

  He finished his meal and hit the highway, driving right into the building storm.

  He had something to get and he needed a special place to get it. Fortunately, he had passed a billboard that held the answer. And that would delay his reaching his destination. But that was okay. There would be time.

  He slept in his car in the parking lot of a shuttered Walmart. Things must be getting bad, he thought, if Walmarts couldn’t stay in business.

  It was chilly and rainy and the Chevy’s passenger-side window leaked. He watched the drips for a few minutes and then fell asleep.

  He rose the next morning, drove off, and found a place to eat. At noon he headed to the gun show he had seen advertised on the billboard.

  In some states gun shows had one big loophole. Private sellers didn’t have to do background checks. Only licensed ones did. Despite political moves to close this hole, some sellers did not abide by the rules. Which was perfectly fine with Rogers.

  Though things were changing, he could probably buy a weapon on the Internet without a background check, only he didn’t have a computer, an email address, a credit card, or a physical address for them to ship the gun to.

  He walked into the rambling tent that had been erected on the site and saw that dozens of dealers had set up small booths inside. The place was already packed, and he spent an hour simply walking around and observing. Most people didn’t observe. They were too absorbed in themselves. Thus they missed nearly all that was actually instructive.

  He could see that most people here were licensed dealers. Buyers were producing ID and filling out the background check forms that would be run through the FBI’s NCIC database. The process took about ten minutes. There were a few private dealers, but they were selling shotguns and long guns and Confederate flags and cookies. And some of those didn’t even have a booth. They were simply walking around with sandwich board signs inked with what they had to sell.

  When the space in front of a particular seller cleared, Rogers walked over and looked at a pistol in its original packaging. The seller was a big flabby man in his forties wearing a camo shirt, jeans, and combat boots.

  He eyed Rogers. “Beauty, ain’t it?”

  Rogers looked over the pistol. He said, “M11. Military use only.”

  The seller smiled and put out his hand. “Name’s Mike Donohue, and I can tell you wore the uniform at some point if you know about the vaunted M11.”

  Rogers shook the man’s hand, careful to avoid squeezing it too tightly.

  Donohue took out the gun and held it up. “Collector’s item. Explains the price.”

  “Why a collector’s item?”

  “Some time back the Air Force ordered a bunch of M11s but ended up not taking fifty of them. By contract Sig couldn’t sell the M11 to civilians, like you said. But Sig Sauer could get a grand for each, and that was fifty thou potentially down the toilet, so they had incentive to get around that somehow. Then somebody had the genius idea that if you added another letter to the model number it would no longer technically be an M11, right? The A had already been taken for another M11 model, the M11-A1, so this became the M11-B.” He handed the gun to Rogers and pointed out the letter. “Sig had it reengraved. You can see the B right there. And voilà, a civilian can own an M11. The manual that comes with it is military too. All the contents of the box are original. There’s even a warning in there about radiation leakage from the tritium sights, but that’s only for the Army and Navy versions, not the Air Force. So you’ll have to find something else to kill you.”

  Donohue laughed and slapped Rogers on the shoulder.

  Rogers fought back a nearly overwhelming urge to crush the man’s face in retaliation.

  Donohue continued, “Now, it’s based on the original P228 frame, so it will only accept the thirteen-round mags. It comes with three. It won’t work with the fifteen-round mags.”

  Rogers held the gun, sighted through it, checked the balance, slid his fingers along the grip, and slid back the rack twice to test the action.

  Donohue said, “It’s got the carbon steel slide instead of the milled version the P229 has. But there’s only about a two-ounc
e difference between the two.”

  “You mind if I strip it?”

  “Go ahead. I got nothing to hide. Just be gentle with her.” Donohue laughed and slapped Rogers on the shoulder again. “Damn, man, I bet you’re older’n me, but I don’t think you got an ounce of fat on you. Just muscle and gristle.” He slapped his substantial belly. “Me, I’m just fat!” He laughed again.

  Rogers nimbly field-stripped the pistol and then put it back together.

  Donohue said, “Only four grand. It’s a steal, really. Only fifty of these beauties in existence. Think about that.”

  “I would have to steal it,” said Rogers. “Because I don’t have four thousand dollars.”

  “I got others for a lot less.”

  Rogers looked some of those over and then withdrew as other potential buyers came along and crowded him out.

  He backed about twenty feet away and watched Donohue. Periodically he saw him go out through a flap in the tent and come back with more merchandise.

  Rogers went over to another booth and bought a Ka-Bar knife. No background check was required for this purchase, though a knife could kill too. He ran his finger lightly over the serrated edge and came away satisfied. He slid the knife back into its leather holder and attached it to his belt. He also bought a cheap plastic flashlight.

  A few minutes later, he walked outside and around to the area from where Donohue had brought in more stock. He zipped up his jacket against the chilly wind. A big Dodge Ram was parked there. Attached to it was a small trailer. The truck was locked, the trailer padlocked. As Rogers watched from a distance, Donohue came out, unlocked the trailer, took out a few more boxes, locked the trailer back up, and went inside the tent again. Rogers moved forward, glad to have confirmed which vehicle was Donohue’s.

  In the bed of the Ford F-150 parked next to Donohue’s ride, Rogers saw some cardboard boxes and old, rusted tools. None of it was any use to him. What he wanted was still inside the tent. He retreated to his car, pulled it around to that side of the tent, and waited.

  Light grew to night. And the temperature continued to drop.

  But time and cold meant nothing to him.

  His stomach had rumbled once, and then he rubbed his head, focused, and the feelings of hunger vanished.

  People streamed in and out of the tent for hours, until finally the stream grew to a trickle. And then the parking lot emptied. And then the dealers started taking down their booths and packing up what they hadn’t sold.

  Rogers watched as Donohue came out carrying several boxes. One of them, he noted, was the distinctive case of the M11-B. He wasn’t surprised no one had bought it. Most of the potential purchasers he’d seen inside were working stiffs. He doubted any of them had four grand to throw down on a fancy-ass collector’s pistol.

  He rubbed his shoulder where Donohue had slapped him twice. He did not like people jacking him around like that. It was an insult.

  Donohue finished packing and drove off. Rogers followed.

  Donohue pulled into the drive-through of a McDonald’s and bought some food.

  Rogers had seen the man’s Pennsylvania license plates. Maybe he was headed home.

  Donohue then made it easy for Rogers. Instead of pulling over and eating in the parking lot of the Mickey D’s, he headed on down the road. About a mile or so along he pulled off down a dirt road and into what looked to be an old picnic area.

  Rogers cut the lights on his ride and slowly followed the truck. It turned off onto another dirt road and pulled to a stop.

  Rogers didn’t make that turn. He would finish this on foot.

  Donohue switched off his lights and then must have cracked his window, because Rogers could hear music coming from the truck’s radio.

  Rogers killed his engine and got quietly out of his car. He approached dead center of the trailer so Donohue would not be able to glimpse him in the side mirrors.

  He reached the door of the trailer. The padlock was a solid-looking Yale with a key entry instead of a combo. The metal clasp it was inserted through was stainless steel and about a half inch thick. It was designed, of course, so that all of the screw points on the two plates were covered when the door was closed and the lock engaged. But the designers had not counted on someone with Rogers’s strength. He gripped the clasp and slowly pulled it and the support screws right out of the wood.

  He quietly went inside the trailer and shone his light around. He saw the box and hefted it in one hand.

  He stepped outside of the trailer.

  “What do you think you’re doing?”

  Rogers stopped. Next he heard the click of a gun hammer being drawn back.

  Using his peripheral vision, he could see Donohue standing next to the side of the trailer, gun in hand, a paper napkin stuck to the crotch of his pants.

  “You can just put that down right now, asshole.”

  Rogers set the box down. Out of sight of Donohue, he slipped the knife from its holder.

  “Good, now I can shoot your ass and you won’t drop the box and damage that gun, dickhead.”

  Rogers pivoted on one foot, swung his arm back and around, and slammed the knife into Donohue. It went right through the center of the big man’s chest and stuck into the wooden wall of the trailer, pinning him there like a moth to a corkboard.

  After one long scream, the man died.

  And still the screams continued.

  For a moment Rogers couldn’t fathom how the dead man could still be making noise, until he looked past the body and saw a small boy leaning out of the truck’s driver’s side, a Happy Meal in his hands, a smudge of ketchup riding on the outside edge of his mouth.

  The boy must have been sleeping in the front seat when Rogers had been checking out the truck and trailer.

  The boy was looking right at him. But it was dark. He couldn’t possibly—

  Rogers’s brain jolted and jerked and misfired under his skull. He had contemplated every possibility except this one.

  He had no choice.

  He lunged, grabbed the boy’s arm, and pulled him out of the truck. The boy dropped the Happy Meal and was still screaming until Rogers placed a hand over his face. He squirmed and struggled, but as his lungs and brain were deprived of oxygen, his thrashing slowed.

  Rogers counted in his head, his gaze not on the boy but on the dead Donohue, probably the boy’s father.


  As soon as the boy fell limp, Rogers removed his hand. He checked the pulse. It was there. Weak, but the lungs were inflating, the small chest rising and falling.

  He was alive.

  Rogers stared down at the little boy. The hair was blond, the limbs stick thin. The back of his neck covered in large freckles.

  Rogers’s brain misfired again.

  What was he doing?

  You never left witnesses behind.

  You never left anything living behind.

  Just finish it. It would only take seconds.

  Instead, he put the boy back in the front seat of the truck and closed the door. He pulled his knife free from the dead man and Donohue slumped to the dirt. He wiped it clean on the grass and stuck it back into its holder.

  He hefted the box with the gun and ran back to his car, got in, and drove off. He hit the main road and punched the gas.

  As he roared down the road he ran his hand over the box containing the M11-B.

  A collector’s item.

  The vaunted M11.

  More than thirty years ago a revolver had been held against his head for five minutes. Only the M11 wasn’t a revolver; it was a semiautomatic with a magazine to hold its bullets.

  That’s why Rogers had not simply taken the revolver from the woman he’d killed in the alley.

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