Zero day, p.4

Zero Day, page 4

 part  #1 of  John Puller Series

 

Zero Day
 



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  “On whether you mind coal dust in your eggs.”

  “Can’t be any worse than depleted uranium in your morning coffee. And I’m still standing.”

  She cackled. “Then any place in town will do. They’re all about the same, honey.”

  As he turned away she said, “You married?”

  “You looking?” he replied, turning back to see her gap-toothed grin.

  “If only, honey. If only. Get a good night’s sleep.”

  Puller headed out. Sleep was not on his agenda.

  CHAPTER

  6

  PULLER HAD CALLED the police officer in charge of the investigation a number of times on the drive to West Virginia and left multiple messages. He hadn’t received a response. Maybe the locals were not going to be as cooperative as his SAC had suggested they would be. Or maybe they were just overwhelmed with four bodies and a massive forensics puzzle. Puller could hardly blame them if they were.

  The motel was a one-story courtyard configuration. On the way to his room Puller passed a young man lying unconscious on a strip of grass near a Pepsi machine that was chained to a metal post thirty feet from the motel office. Puller checked the man for injuries and found none. He made sure he had a pulse, smelled the liquor on his breath, and kept going. He carried his bag into his twelve-by-twelve room. It had a bathroom so tiny he could stand in the middle and easily touch the opposite walls simultaneously.

  He made some coffee from his own stock and using his portable percolator, a habit he’d picked up while on assignment overseas. He sat down on the floor with the file spread in front of him. He eyed the numbers, slid out his cell, and punched them in.

  The voice was female, groggy. “Hello?”

  “Sam Cole, please.”

  “Speaking.”

  “Sam Cole?” he asked again in a louder voice.

  The voice became rigid and more alert. “Short for Samantha. Who the hell is this? And do you have any idea what time it is?”

  The local accent thickened with the level of anger, Puller noted.

  “It’s 0320. Or twenty after three for civilians.”

  Long pause. He could see her wheels spinning, translating this to something comprehensible.

  “Damn, you’re Army, right?” Her voice was now husky, attractive.

  “John Puller. CID special agent from the 701st MP Group out of Quantico, Virginia.” He recited this in staccato fashion as he had a million times before.

  He envisioned her sitting up in bed. He wondered if she was alone. He didn’t hear any male mumbles in the background. But he did hear the percussion of a Zippo followed by a few seconds of silence. Then there was an intake of breath followed by an elongated exhale of smoke.

  “You miss the surgeon general’s warning, Ms. Cole?”

  “No, it’s right here on the side of my smokes. Why the hell are you calling me in the middle of the night?”

  “You’re listed in my file as the officer in charge. I just got into town. I need to get up to speed. And for the record, I called you four times over the last six hours and left messages each time. Never got a call back.”

  “I’ve been busy, haven’t even checked my phone.”

  “I’m sure you have been busy, ma’am.” He thought, And I’m sure you did check, but didn’t bother to call me back. Then his SAC’s admonition came back to him.

  Play nice.

  “I’m sorry to roust you out of your sack, ma’am. I thought you might still be at the crime scene.”

  She said, “I’ve been working this thing all day and most of the night. My head just hit the damn pillow an hour ago.”

  “Which means I have a lot of catching up to do. But I can call back later.”

  He heard her get up, stumble and curse.

  “Ma’am, I said I can call back later. Just go back to sleep.”

  “Will you just shut up a minute?” she snapped.

  “What?” Puller said sharply.

  “I have to pee!”

  He heard her drop the phone on the floor. Footsteps. Door closed, so he didn’t actually hear Cole relieving herself. Another minute went by. He wasn’t wasting time. He was reading through the report again.

  She came back on. “I’ll meet you there at seven o’clock—excuse me, oh zero seven hundred o’clock a.m. or whatever the hell it is you say.”

  “Zero-seven-hundred Juliet.”

  He listened to another long inhale and then exhale of smoke.

  She said, “Juliet? I told you my name is Sam.”

  “Means local daylight saving time. If it were the winter and we were in eastern standard time it would be zero-seven-hundred Romeo.”

  “Romeo and Juliet?” she said skeptically.

  “Contrary to popular belief, the United States Army has a sense of humor.”

  “Goodbye, Puller. Oh and just so you know, it’s Sergeant Samantha Cole, not ma’am, or Juliet. Romeo!”

  “Got it, Sergeant Cole. I’ll see you at zero-seven. Look forward to working with you on this case.”

  “Right,” she growled.

  He could visualize her throwing the phone across the room and falling back into her bed.

  Puller put the phone down, drank his coffee, and went through the report page by page. Thirty minutes later he gunned up, slipping one M11 into his front holster and the other into a holster attached to his belt in the rear. After fighting his way through the Middle East, he never felt as though he had enough weapons on his person. He put on a windbreaker and locked his motel room door on the way out.

  The young man who’d been lying in the bushes was now sitting up and gazing around in bewilderment.

  Puller walked over and looked down at him. “You might want to think about cutting back on the booze. Or at least pick a place to pass out that has a roof.”

  The man blinked up at him. “Who the hell are you?”

  “John Puller. Who are you?”

  The man licked his lips as though he was already thirsty for another round.

  Puller said, “You got a name?”

  The man stood. “Randy Cole.” He wiped his hands on the front of his jeans.

  Puller reflected on the last name and wondered about the obvious possibility but chose to keep it to himself.

  Randy Cole was good-looking and appeared to be in his late twenties. About five-ten with a lean, wiry build. Under his shirt he probably had six-pack abs. The hair was brown and curly, the facial features strong and handsome. There was no wedding band on his finger.

  “You staying at the motel?” asked Puller.

  Randy shook his head. “I’m local. You’re not.”

  “I know I’m not.”

  “So what are you doing in Drake?”

  “Business.”

  Randy snorted. “Business. You don’t look like no coal man to me.”

  “I’m not.”

  “So why, then?”

  “Business,” Puller said again, and his tone indicated he was not going beyond that description. “You got a car? You okay to drive?”

  “I’m cool.” Randy climbed out from the bushes.

  “You sure?” asked Puller. “You need a ride somewhere I can give you a lift.”

  “I said I’m cool.”

  But he staggered and grabbed at his head. Puller helped to right him.

  “I’m not sure you’re all that cool yet. Hangovers are a bitch.”

  “Not sure it’s just a hangover. I get headaches.”

  “You ought to get that checked out.”

  “Oh yeah, I’ll go get me the best docs in the world. Pay ’em in cash.”

  Puller said, “Well, next time I hope you can find a bed to sleep in.”

  Randy said, “Hell, sometimes bushes beat the shit out of beds. Depends on who you’re sharing the bed with. Right?”

  “Right,” said Puller.

  Puller aimed his ride west, following the GPS, but really listening to his own internal compass. The high-tech stuff was good, but your head w
as better. High-tech sometimes failed. The head didn’t unless someone had put a bullet through it, and then you had far bigger problems than just being lost.

  He again wondered briefly if Randy Cole was related to Samantha. Cop and drunk. Not an unheard-of situation. Sometimes the cop was also the drunk.

  Forty minutes later, after winding in and out of surface roads barely a car wide and fighting switchbacks and becoming lost once, he reached the street he wanted. By his internal compass it had taken him forty minutes to go about seven miles, and he noted that the GPS agreed with this. There were no straightaways in the mountainous terrain, and he had never once cranked the Malibu above forty.

  He slowed his car and eyed the surroundings. One of the CID’s credos came to him.

  Look. Listen. Smell.

  He took a deep breath. It was all about to begin.

  Again.

  CHAPTER

  7

  PULLER EASED HIS CAR to the side of the road and looked out the window. This would be the only time on this case his senses would not be dulled by prior observation.

  He stepped out and leaned against the Malibu. He took another deep breath. In the air currents he could smell the mining operation he had passed a couple of miles back. His ears picked up the distant sounds of rumbling trucks. He looked to the west and saw a searchlight crisscrossing the sky; why, he didn’t know.

  He studied the neighborhood. His night vision was excellent and the moonlight and lightening skies allowed both large and small details to be revealed. Small, dilapidated cookie-cutter houses. Toys in yards. Rusted trucks on blocks. A stray cat sneaking by. The place was tired. Dying. Maybe already dead. Like the Reynoldses. Wiped out.

  However, what Puller wasn’t seeing was the most disturbing of all.

  There was police tape hanging in front of the door telling everyone to keep the hell away. And someone had fashioned a jury-rigged barricade to the driveway using two five-gallon buckets turned upside down and more yellow police tape strung between them.

  But there wasn’t a cop in sight. No perimeter guard and yet the scene was barely fourteen hours old. Not good. It was unbelievable, in fact. He knew the legal chain of evidence could be blown out of the water by leaving a crime scene unsecured.

  He didn’t really want to do this, but not doing so would be derelict and might cost him and others their careers. He took out his phone and hit the numbers from memory.

  She answered on the second ring. “I swear to holy God I am going to shoot whoever this is.”

  “Sergeant Cole, it’s Puller again.”

  “Do you have a death wish?” she shouted into the phone.

  “There’s no guard here.”

  “Where?”

  “At the crime scene.”

  “How the hell do you know that?”

  “Because I’m parked outside the house.”

  “You’re wrong. There’s a patrol car with a deputy in it on duty. I ordered that myself.”

  Puller gazed around. “Well, unless he’s hiding in the woods and ditched his ride, he must’ve turned invisible. And isn’t the point of a perimeter guard to be visible?”

  “Shit. Are you really out there?”

  “I really am.”

  “And there’s really no patrol car there?”

  “There’s really not.”

  “I’ll be there in thirty-five minutes.”

  “Not faster than that?”

  “If I tried to drive faster than that on these roads in the dark, I’d end up wrapped around a tree or off a mountain.” She paused and Puller heard her clomping around in her bare feet, opening drawers, pulling out clothes, no doubt.

  “Look, Puller, can you do me a favor and temporarily secure the crime scene? I’m going to call the deputy who’s supposed to be there and chew his ass out.”

  “I can secure it. Are the bodies still inside?”

  “Why?”

  “If they are I want to see them.”

  “The bodies are still in there.”

  That was a long time to keep the bodies at the scene, but Puller decided not to comment on why that was. In a way he was glad. He wanted to see everything just as the killer had left it.

  “I don’t want to screw up your crime scene. Have you dusted for prints? Searched for trace?” he asked.

  “Pretty much. Going to do more this morning.”

  “Okay. Was there forced entry?”

  “None that we could see.”

  “So I can go in the front door?”

  “It’s locked. At least it should be.”

  “Then I’ll go in the front door.”

  “Puller—”

  “Thirty-five minutes.”

  She said slowly, “Okay, see you then. And… thanks for the assist.”

  Puller closed the phone and looked around. There were eight houses on the short dead-end street. Each one was dark. That was unremarkable at this time of the morning. Cars in the driveways of each of them. Woods at the rear of the houses on both sides.

  He grabbed some items from his rucksack and put them in a collapsible backpack he always carried with him. He slipped on an ear mic and connected it to a recorder that he dropped into a pouch on his belt. He slapped on his light blue gloves.

  He walked to the front of the house, glanced down at the gravel shoulder, and hit it with his Maglite. Tread marks. Could be any of the vehicles that had come here to investigate. He went over the chronology in his head.

  Mailman found the bodies at about 1400 and called it in. First responders showed up at half past. The call to the Army had come in ten minutes later. That was fast. Someone out here was on the ball. He wondered if it was Cole. He’d gotten the heads-up in Kansas and hopped his flight back. The plane had had a hell of a tailwind and they’d gotten in forty minutes early. After a brief stop at home he’d pulled in to CID at 1840. He was wheels out at 1950. He’d driven like a rocket and hit Drake a bit after three; it was now going on 0500.

  Puller eyed the wheelchair ramp. Matthew Reynolds was in his late forties and in good enough shape to be in the Army. His wife was five years younger with no health problems. Her insurance records were clean. The kids were sixteen and seventeen with clean health records. They weren’t using the ramp. This wasn’t their house. They were here for another reason. A reason that might have cost them their lives.

  He studied the tread mark on the shoulder again, and then his gaze
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