Zero day, p.15

Zero Day, page 15

 part  #1 of  John Puller Series


Zero Day

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  you’re in the Army you can kick everybody’s ass?”

  “No. But I know I can kick your ass.”

  Frank’s right hand swung, but Puller had already launched. The top of his head hit the other man flush in the face. Puller’s skull was far harder than the other man’s nose. A stunned 280-pound Frank whipsawed backward, his face bloody. Puller took hold of Frank’s left arm, windmilling it back and torquing the limb nearly to the breaking point. He slid a foot behind Frank’s left leg and the big man went straight down to the pavement. Puller had knelt along with the falling Frank, cupping his head with his free hand before it hit the ground so the man’s skull wouldn’t crack.

  Puller dug the roll of quarters out of Frank’s fist, dropped it on the pavement, rose, and looked down. When Frank, who was holding his broken nose and trying to dig the blood out of his eyes with his knuckles, tried to stand, Puller put a foot on his chest and nudged him back down.

  “Just stay there.” He turned to Dickie. “Go in the Crib and get a bag of ice. Do it now.” When Dickie didn’t move, Puller gave him a shove. “Now, Dickie, or I’ll throw you right through the window to speed your ass up.”

  Dickie rushed off.

  “You didn’t have to do that, you son of a bitch,” Frank said through his bloodied hands.

  “And you didn’t have to take a swing at me with a roll of quarters.”

  “I think you broke my nose.”

  “I did break your nose. But it was already broken before. It goes off to the left and has the hump in the middle. Probably caught it on a face mask during a game. Doubt it was ever reset properly. And you’ve probably got a deviated septum too. Now, when they fix you up, they can make all that right.”

  Dickie came back out with the ice enclosed in a small towel. When Puller looked over, everyone in the restaurant was standing at the window watching.

  Dickie held out the ice to Puller.

  “I don’t need it, Dickie, your bud there does.”

  Frank took the ice and held it against his nose.

  “What in the hell is going on here?”

  Puller turned to see Sam Cole pull up in her police cruiser with the window rolled down. She was in full uniform. She parked at the curb and got out. Puller noted that her gun belt didn’t squeak.

  She looked down at Frank and saw the roll of quarters. She glanced over at Dickie and then at Puller.

  “You want to explain what’s going on? Did he attack you or did you attack him?”

  Puller looked at Dickie and then at Frank. When neither of them seemed willing to speak, Puller said, “He slipped and broke his nose. His buddy got him some ice.”

  Cole hiked her eyebrows and then glanced at Dickie. He mumbled, “That’s right.”

  She looked down at Frank. “That your story too?”

  Frank sat up on one elbow. “Yes, ma’am.”

  “And what, a roll of quarters just fell out your pocket?”

  “Shirt pocket,” said Puller. “When he fell. I heard him say something about doing his laundry. Explains the quarters.”

  Cole put out her hand and helped Frank up. “You better go have that looked at.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  They slowly walked off.

  “Ready to get going?” asked Puller.

  “What I’m ready for is for you to tell me what really happened.”

  “You saying I lied?”

  “That guy didn’t slip. He looked like he’d been hit by a truck. And that roll of quarters was probably in his fist when he took a swing at you.”

  “All conjecture and speculation on your part.”

  “Well, here’s some firmer evidence.” She reached up and smacked him lightly on the forehead. “You have blood right there. I don’t see a cut, so it’s probably his blood. That means he took a swing and you head-butted him. I’d like to know why.”

  “Misunderstanding.” Puller used his sleeve to wipe the blood off.

  “About what?”

  “About personal space.”

  “You’re really starting to piss me off.”

  “It’s not important, Cole. Small-town, insider-outsider thing. If it turns out to be more than that, you’ll be the first to know from me.”

  She didn’t look convinced but also didn’t say anything.

  “I thought we were meeting at the crime scene.”

  “Got up early, figured you’d be here,” Cole replied.

  “I had a chat with your boss.”

  “Sheriff Lindemann?”

  “He came into the Crib. I gave him some contact info to help with the media stuff.”


  “He thinks very highly of you.”

  “It’s mutual. He’s the one who gave me my chance.”

  “You said you were with the state police before you came here.”

  “That was his idea. He said if I had that on my résumé, nobody could stop me from carrying a badge in Drake.”

  “I take it he doesn’t make the hiring decisions.”

  “County Commission. All men. All men living in the nineteenth century. Barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen just about covers their idea of a woman’s role in life.”

  “I also spoke to the mailman.”

  “Mailman? You mean Howard Reed?”

  “Yeah, he’s in there finishing his breakfast. He said he left the package he was delivering inside the house. Dropped it in there, more likely. He said it was sent in care of the Halversons, which means it was probably addressed to the Reynoldses. Do you have it?”

  Cole looked puzzled. “There was nothing like that.”

  Puller gazed steadily at her. “Didn’t you wonder why the mailman was at the door in the first place?”

  “He told me he was there to get a signature for something. I just assumed…” Her voice trailed off and her cheeks reddened. “I screwed up. I shouldn’t have assumed.”

  “But you’re saying the package wasn’t found in the house? Reed was pretty sure that’s where he dropped it.”

  “Maybe that’s what they came back for night before last.”

  “Yeah, but your people had all day in there. Why didn’t they find the package?”

  She said, “Let’s go get an answer to that, Puller. Right now.”



  TWO COUNTY COP CARS WERE PARKED, side by side, hood to trunk, outside the two houses. The officers inside the vehicles were chatting when Cole skidded to a stop with Puller right behind in his Malibu. She slid out of the car before it even seemed to have stopped rolling and approached the twin cruisers.

  “You two spend all night jawing or actually doing your job?” she snapped.

  Puller walked up behind her and noted that the two cops were ones he’d never seen before, which made sense if they were pulling the graveyard shift.

  The cops climbed out of their rides and stood at semi-attention, although Puller interpreted far more contempt in their body language than respect for a superior officer. In the Army that situation would have been taken care of in a matter of a few painful minutes, with a months-long penance by the transgressor to follow.

  Cole said, “Anything to report?”

  Both of them shook their heads. One said, “Saw nothing and heard nothing. Did rounds regularly, but changed up the timing so nobody watching could catch a pattern.”

  “Okay.” She pointed to Puller. “This is John Puller from the Army CID. He’s working with us on this case.”

  This pair didn’t look any friendlier than the ones had yesterday. That didn’t bother Puller. He hadn’t come here to make buddies with anybody. He nodded at the two but then glanced at Cole. It was her show to run right now, not his.

  “You two were at the crime scene on Monday,” said Cole. “Did either of you notice a package that the mailman might’ve dropped in the house over there?” She pointed to the Halversons’.

  They both shook their heads. “Any evidence found gets logged in,” said one of
them. “Didn’t see any package.”

  The other said, “If it didn’t get logged in, we didn’t find it. But we weren’t the only ones in there. Lan should know if a package turned up,” he added.

  Cole snarled, “I should’ve known if a damn package turned up.”

  “So maybe there is no package, Sarge,” said the first cop in a calm, even tone.

  Puller scrutinized each of them without seeming to do so. Still, he didn’t have a good read on them. He couldn’t tell if their obvious resentment at being ordered around by a woman was also masking something else, like a lie.

  He said, “Well, I guess it will turn up or it won’t.”

  Both cops looked at him.

  Before either of them could speak, Puller said, “So no activity last night? No cars, no people walking? No kids outside playing hide-and-seek?”

  “There were cars,” said one cop. “And they all went to their houses and they’re all still there.”

  The other said, “A few kids outside. None came near the houses. And nobody was out walking last night. It was hot and muggy and the skeeters were out like you wouldn’t believe.”

  Puller looked over at the house where Treadwell and Bitner had been killed. “They have any next of kin that need to be notified?”

  Cole said, “We’re checking into that. The Reynoldses had some besides the wife’s parents. We’re in the process of trying to contact them.”

  “Army can help you with that. They’ll have info on the colonel’s relatives.”

  Cole nodded at her officers. “Okay, your shift is up at eight. You can go back to work.”

  The men turned and strode off.

  “Attitude like that all the time?” said Puller.

  “Well, I basically accused them of either screwing up or withholding evidence, so I can understand a little attitude. I’d probably be the same. I guess I shouldn’t have gone off like that, but I’m pissed that I missed the damn package.” She glanced up at him. “Mind if I smoke a quick one?”

  “I don’t but your lungs will.”

  “You think I haven’t tried to quit?”

  “My old man smoked for forty years.”

  “What got him off?”


  “You’re kidding, really?”

  “Surprised me too. I didn’t think stubborn people could be hypnotized. But apparently they’re the most susceptible.”

  “You calling me stubborn?”

  “I’d rather call you a former smoker.”

  “Thanks, Puller. I might just try that.”

  “So the next step is checking the evidence log and what else?”

  “Lan will be here this morning.” She looked at her watch. “In about an hour or so.”

  “And if the package doesn’t turn up?”

  “I don’t know, Puller. I just don’t know.”

  “Reed said he could maybe find out where it came from back at his office. Check the certified mail records. But maybe you can speed that up officially.”

  “Yes, I can. It would be nice to know what was in a package that was worth maybe one of my men being killed.”

  He turned and looked at the house. “Were you one of the first responders?”

  “No. Two others. Jenkins over there. And Lou, who you met yesterday. The one who talked to the imposter from the Treadwell house.”

  “When did you get here?”

  “About ninety minutes after the call came in. I was way on the other side of the county.”

  “And the dog was still in the house?”

  “Yeah. Why? What does the dog have to do with anything? It didn’t bark, I told you that.”

  “Well, dogs pick up stuff. They chew stuff. They eat stuff they’re not supposed to.”

  Cole looked over at the house, her features stark.

  “Let’s go, Puller.”

  She started to run.



  FORTY MINUTES LATER Puller watched as Cole lifted the edge of the hemming around the sofa the bodies had been on. He handed her a Maglite and she shone it under the piece of furniture.

  “Got something,” she said. She pulled out a dog bone and two plastic dog toys.

  “Seems to be the mutt’s hiding place,” said Puller. “Anything else?”

  She tried to edge farther under the sofa.

  “Hang on,” he said. Puller lifted one end four feet into the air. Cole stared up at him from the floor. “Now that’s using your brain. And muscle.”

  He looked down. “Bit of cardboard, like from a package.”

  “And this!” Cole picked up the bit of green paper off the carpet and stood. Puller set the sofa back down.

  She examined the bit of paper and handed it to him.

  “Looks like the edge from a certified mail receipt.”

  “Yes, it does. Only where’s the rest of it? Do we have to X-ray the dog’s stomach?”

  “Or maybe the people who killed Wellman took it. They might’ve figured the dog got the package and hid it somewhere. They looked under the couch and there it was.”

  Cole looked puzzled. “But how would they know it was even here?”

  “They interrogated the Reynoldses. The colonel might’ve told them they were expecting a package.”

  “So why didn’t they just intercept it? They could’ve been in the house when Reed delivered the package. They could have signed for it. Impersonated them like that guy did with Eric Treadwell across the street. Reed told us he didn’t know any of them. So he wouldn’t have known the difference. He just wanted the piece of paper signed.”

  “But what if they didn’t know about the package until later? Until after it was delivered here?”

  “I don’t get that at all, Puller.”

  He sat down on the edge of the sofa. “Reed said he was at the door because he needed a signature. That means it’s some sort of special mail. But he doesn’t say what happened to the package. Why would that sort of package be coming to the Halversons? They’re retired. Reed remembered it was actually going to the Reynoldses, but he didn’t tell the police that. Only that it was a package requiring a signature. So the killers might have just deduced what we did. Mailman at the door because of a package. What was in the package? They had to find out.”

  Puller looked out the window. Lan Monroe was just pulling to a stop in front of the house. “Why don’t we ask Lan what his evidence list shows?”

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