Zero day, p.48

Zero Day, page 48

 part  #1 of  John Puller Series


Zero Day

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  “Right through the head. Just riding his bike. And bam.”

  Strauss nearly tumbled off the bed as Puller fired his gun and the slug ripped into the wall and stayed there.

  “Shot him,” Puller continued calmly. “Blew up his brain. I was there, saw it all. Hydrostatic pressure to the head from a supersonic rifle round. A Lapua round, Bill. It was overkill. They wanted to make sure he was dead. He never had a chance. You never would’ve recognized your kid, Bill. He had no face left.”

  Strauss pulled himself back up and snapped, “That was not part of the plan. I didn’t know… No one told me that Dickie…” His voice trailed off and he started weeping.

  “I suppose you’re sorry he’s dead,” said Puller.

  “Of course I am. When you came to my house and told me I was distraught. His mother is devastated.”

  “But you had no problem leaving her behind,” Puller pointed out.

  “There was no way to bring her. There was no way to explain to her…” He halted, ground his fists into his eyes, wept some more.

  “So you kept the missus in the dark over all of this.”

  “I’ve set up an account for her. She would never want for anything.”

  “Except her husband and son. And since you left her behind, you couldn’t know she wouldn’t die when the bomb went off.”

  “I was told… I mean our house was far enough away—”

  Puller cut in. “Doesn’t it piss you off that they murdered your son?”

  Strauss said nothing.

  Puller slipped his hand into his jacket and pulled out a photo. “I have the autopsy photo right here. You want to see your kid? See what they did to him?”

  More tears trickled down Strauss’s face. He made no effort to brush them away. “Wasn’t supposed to happen.”

  “Well, it did happen, Bill. You want to see?” Puller said in a tighter voice. He held out the picture.

  Straus recoiled from it. “No. No, I don’t want to see him… like that,” he said in a hushed voice.

  “Somebody did that to my boy I’d want payback. I’d want revenge. I’d want justice.”

  “I… There’s no way to do that now.”

  “Sure there is.” Puller slipped the picture back in his pocket. “Amends, Bill. You can make it right. You can do it for your son.”

  “I can’t. You see my wife. They might hurt—”

  “She’s already in protective custody. She’ll go into witness protection. It’s all arranged. All done. All you have to do is the right thing.”

  Puller sat back down, holstered the M11.

  Strauss said, “What about me? Can I—”

  Puller cut him off again. “You’re going to prison, Bill. No deals.”

  “So I talk and still get prison?” Strauss said bitterly.

  “You get to live. It’s a good alternative to not living.”

  “So you are going to kill me? If I don’t cooperate?”

  “I don’t have to.”


  “The U.S. government will execute you. For treason.”

  A few moments of silence went by.

  Puller finally said, “I need an answer, Bill. Got wings waiting. Depending on your answer, the jet will take you one place as opposed to another.”

  Bill Strauss rose.

  “Let’s go.”

  Puller stood up and gripped the other man by the elbow.

  “Good choice.”

  “For my son.”

  “Yeah,” said Puller.



  PULLER’S CHOICE of running paths was remote and lonely. He liked to come here to sweat and think, and the former helped him do the latter. And he didn’t like other people around while he was doing it.

  He inserted the ear buds, turned on his iPod, and started his run. Five miles later he was trotting back to his car.

  And then he stopped.

  There were six men that he could see. One was leaning against the hood of his Malibu. There were four others providing perimeter security. The sixth man was standing near the rear door of the Malibu. Two black SUVs were parked in front and at the rear of Puller’s vehicle, blocking it in.

  Puller started walking. He slipped out his ear buds and cupped his iPod in his right hand.

  “Hey, Joe, how’s it going?”

  Joe Mason pushed off from the Malibu. “Puller, haven’t heard from you in a while. Thought my orders were pretty clear on that score. You report to me.”

  “Well, sometimes orders get gummed up by facts on the ground and then they have to be changed.”

  “Is that right?”

  “Pretty much, yeah.”

  “Well, nobody told me that. And it’s always good to hear it from the horse’s mouth. That’s why I’m here.”

  Puller drew closer to him. He noted the four perimeter guys close in. They were all armed. And they were all the same guys who had once before surrounded him in the parking garage in Arlington after his meeting with General Carson.

  “So you’re here because you want a report?’

  “That’s right.”

  “Okay. Easy enough. There are three basic points. After Dickie was murdered something didn’t feel right so I started doing some digging. And here’s what I found. You and Bill Strauss knew each other. You grew up together in New Jersey. I checked. You served together in the Marines. Strauss tried to B.S. me and said he’d never served. But he knew what a BCD and a DD were. And he made his son join up because he thought the Army could ‘cure’ him of his sexual preference. You don’t do that unless you’ve been in the ranks yourself.”

  “Okay, so I knew him. I served with him. Lots of Marines out there.”

  “He didn’t last long, just like his son. Dickie got dumped because of DADT. His old man got dumped because he was a petty thief and drug dealer and the Marine Corps just got tired of his ass. The interesting thing is you left around the same time. Now, you had no dings on your record like Strauss, otherwise you never would have gotten on with the Feds, and later at DHS. But I’m thinking that you and Strauss stayed in touch. And when Dickie told his old man about a way into the Bunker that Randy Cole told him about, and what he’d seen when he was in there, Bill called you. He figured with your connections, something good might come out of this. Good meaning lots of money regardless of the chaos and pain it might cause.”

  “Is that right?”

  “Yeah, Joe, it is. You came to Drake on the QT, and got into the Bunker and saw what Randy Cole was talking about. Only unlike him, you figured out what was in those barrels. All those nuke cakes just sitting there. Forgotten. What would the value be? Billions?”

  “How should I know?”

  “And the file you gave me on the Bunker was legit. At least it was legit as far as the Army cover-up went. It was perfect for you. The last thing you wanted was anybody snooping around there. So when I started asking about it you just pulled out the report and we stopped thinking about the Bunker as a viable target.”

  “Keep going.”

  “Second, you had to build the bomb. Strauss got Treadwell involved to do some of the machining of the parts without telling him what they were really for. He just gave him specs that you gave him. But Treadwell and Bitner got too curious and they made the very big mistake of involving their neighbor, Matt Reynolds. He was DIA. Way too close to home. He had a soil report done. I bet it was taken somewhere around the Bunker. I don’t think Reynolds knew there was plutonium in there, but he might have thought there was something toxic that people were after. And if he started really digging, your whole plan might get crushed. So six people had to die, including two kids. Which of your guys did the deed, Joe?” Puller looked around and pointed at one guy. “Him?” He pointed at a second. “That asshole? I doubt you came down to do the honors. Boss man doesn’t dirty his fingers. You just watched via video. Shotgunned the parents, bludgeoned the kids. What, didn’t have the heart to shoot the kids?”

  Mason sai
d nothing.

  “And then your guys spotted Larry Wellman on duty Monday night. A rookie. Your men approached him, probably when he was making rounds, near the rear of the house where no one could see. They flashed their creds. Fed gods. Wellman couldn’t be happier to help. Put up no fight. Asked no questions. He took your guys inside and they strung him up like a side of meat. You planted your bits of the certified letter there and left with his wheels.”

  “How were we supposed to get the letter in the first place?”

  “It wasn’t the real letter. You knew about it because Wellman told Dickie, or else Matt Reynolds told you what he’d done when you interrogated him. It wasn’t in the house and we never did end up finding it. You learned the letter wasn’t discovered, but you wanted us to go down that road because you knew it would lead nowhere and be a big waste of our time. So you killed a man just in order to plant a false clue at the crime scene.”

  “Interesting,” said Mason.

  “Then you concocted the Dari chatter to throw the blame onto guys in turbans that never existed. You never would have drawn attention to Drake, but your hand got called because of the murders. You knew CID was going to be coming out. So you did the chatter immediately afterward and then you had your guys do some more chatter and you gave me the plausible but wrong scent on the pipeline and nuke plant. You told me we had three days when you knew the Bunker was set to detonate in two. Strauss made those death threats to Roger Trent to lay the groundwork for something happening to him because Strauss was going to use this as an opportunity to get rid of Trent and the financial records that showed the embezzlement. So Trent and the boxes were put in the Bunker. There’d be nothing left of either one except radioactive dust. People would either assume Trent made a run for it to get away from the money troubles Strauss had caused, or whoever was sending him the death threats had finally gotten their man. It was a neat plan you two came up with.”

  “I haven’t heard anything that connects me to anything,” said Mason.

  Puller held up a third finger. “And here’s why I stopped reporting to you and instead started digging. You were the only one I told about Dickie Strauss working with me. More significantly, you were the only one I told about him meeting me that night at the firehouse. His death wasn’t a spontaneous thing. Your sniper was there long before, all set up and ready to go. You were the only one who could have orchestrated that. No one else.”

  “Not how I recall it,” replied Mason. “He said, he said.”

  “And you killed him because you were afraid Dickie would have a change of heart. He went to the house and found Larry Wellman. He saw the bodies of the Reynolds family. He knew Treadwell and Bitner were dead too. He was scared. I doubt you told him what the real plan was, but when people started dying he knew he was in way over his head. He might have figured working with the authorities was the best way out. But you couldn’t allow that. So you had your guy blow his head off.”

  “So you say. No proof.”

  Puller looked around at the other men. “You got away with it, Joe. You blew the Bunker. You got your nuke fuel. Roger Trent is dead. The financial docs are ash. So why are you here? Your plan worked.”

  Mason said nothing. He continued to eye Puller steadily.

  Puller edged a step closer to the man. “Maybe that Islamic ‘chatter’ actually wasn’t far from the truth, even though you planted it. Maybe you were hired by enemies of this country to detonate a shitload of fissile material in West Virginia. I think those barrels you left behind were part of the bomb. And the folks you’re in business with are probably not happy about it not going according to plan. So that’s why you’re here, to get a little bit of revenge on me. And maybe save your ass from the guys in the turbans. How much did you get paid to attack your own country, Joe? Just give me a ballpark.”

  Mason cleared his throat. “You don’t have it exactly right, Puller. I’m a patriot. I wouldn’t do that to my country. I knew what I had there. But I wasn’t paid to make it go boom.”

  “Bullshit!” snapped Puller. “You’re no different from the 9/11 maggots.”

  Mason exploded. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Puller.”

  “Then explain it to me, Joe. Explain how a former Marine turns traitor.”

  Mason started talking fast. “After all these years at DHS I know my way around nukes. And I knew how to get to the folks I needed to in order to build one. Once you have the fuel, the rest isn’t that hard. The government would never admit having left nuke fuel behind. I could sell this stuff and no one the wiser. My big mistake was letting Strauss get that idiot Treadwell to build the reflector and some other components, and that came back to bite me in the ass.”

  “Nothing you just said makes any difference. You’re still a traitor. You left barrels of uranium and plutonium cakes behind in the Bunker. That would have made five or six states radioactive.”

  “Those barrels were empty. I wasn’t leaving that stuff behind. You’re right. It was worth billions.”

  Puller said, “You’re lying. I saw those barrels. Those tops hadn’t been opened in decades.”

  Mason grinned triumphantly. “We cut open the bottoms of the barrels, Puller. And then resealed them. After we filled them with dirt. See, I provide for every contingency. Just like I did when you accessed the bomb. It triggered a countdown accelerator.”

  “But it was still a nuclear device. You were still going to nuke your own country, you asshole.”

  Mason snapped, “I knew what I was doing, okay? We only used a minimal amount of plutonium, enough to give it a little boom and some radiation. And it’s the middle of nowhere. So what if Drake, West Virginia, went radioactive? It was already dead.”

  “It has over six thousand people, Joe.”

  “A lot more people than that die in traffic accidents every year. A hundred thousand people die every year in hospitals because of mistakes. In that context the collateral damage was pretty damn small.”

  “But you’re intending to sell the nuke fuel to our enemies. They won’t detonate in an area that has no people, Joe. They’ll nuke New York, D.C.”

  “Yeah, well, I’m in the process of moving to another country. I’m kind of tired of this one. But you did screw things up for me. I can still sell the stuff, but it’ll just be trickier. That’s why I’m here. To give you a little payback.”

  Puller said, “Did you really need the money that badly? To sell out to terrorists? You’re scum.”

  “I’ve busted my ass for my country for over thirty years. And in the next round of budget cuts they were going to let me go. I owed them nothing.”

  Puller held up a fourth finger.

  Mason said, “You said there were only three points.”

  “I lied. We nailed Bill Strauss in South America. He took off before the Bunker blew, of course. It wasn’t like he was going to stay around for the mushroom cloud, although he didn’t bother taking his grieving wife. Guy’s a real winner. Oh, did I mention that he ratted you and all your guys out?”

  Mason blurted out, “That’s impossible. I spoke to Bill—”

  “Yeah, you spoke to him yesterday and today. I was in the room when you did. FBI recorded the whole thing.”

  “You’re bluffing.”

  “How else do you think I knew all the details I just told you? I’m a pretty good investigator, but Strauss debriefed us on a lot of stuff. Only way I knew about it.”

  Mason just kept staring.

  Puller said, “So you’re basically sitting on a bunch of nuclear material you’ll never be able to sell. But then again, you don’t need a lot of money in prison. Or if you’re convicted of treason, you get lethal injection. Either way is fine with me.”

  Puller looked around and observed that all of Mason’s men were now showing signs of extreme nervousness. That was both good and bad. Good in that nervous men were not as effective fighters. Bad in that nervous armed men did erratic things, and were thus hard to predict.

/>   But even though it was six against one, Puller could sense that they were feeling outnumbered right now.

  He looked back at Mason. “You ready to surrender, Joe?” asked Puller.

  “I’ll tell you what I’m ready for, Puller. And I’ll tell you right now.”



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