Zero day, p.5

Zero Day, page 5

 part  #1 of  John Puller Series


Zero Day

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  traveled to the dark patch. Right where the engine would be if the car were pointed to the east. Careful not to impact the tread mark, he squatted, touched the liquid. Warm. Oil. Recent. The perimeter cop? Probably. If so, where was he?

  He moved swiftly up to the front door, noted the broken glass. He slipped on his shoe covers. The front door was locked but it wasn’t a deadbolt. It took him all of three seconds.

  He moved forward, shining his light around with one hand, the other gripping his front-side M11 pistol.

  Puller figured you go into a house where four people had been murdered and the guard who’s supposed to be out front isn’t, certain possibilities come to mind. He reached the living room and his light hit them.

  On the couch.

  Lined up in a row.

  Four bodies, the weight of one holding up its neighbor.

  He holstered his weapon and, keeping well back, spoke into the mic, recording everything he was seeing.

  Dad to the far right, teen daughter to the far left. Mom and brother in the middle. Mom next to Dad. He hit the carpeted floor in front of them with the Maglite. No blood spatters. He glanced up, aimed his beam at the heads.

  Dad had taken a heavy ordnance load right in the face; a near contact wound.

  Mom’s face was relatively intact but her torso was destroyed. Puller glanced down at the dead woman’s hands and saw that they were nearly obliterated. She’d held them up, he surmised, right before they shot her. The hands had no chance of protecting her from the blast, but it was just instinctive to block whatever part of the body the gun was aimed at.

  The two teens’ kill wounds were not evident. Maybe they’d taken it in the back. The parents had not been killed here. The spatters would have covered the room. Killed somewhere else in the house, moved here, lined up like a family watching TV together.

  Pretty sick. But then you had to be pretty sick to take out a family.

  Sick or a professional without a conscience.

  And maybe it was the same thing.

  He drew closer, careful not to step on anything marked with an evidence number on the carpet. Dad was in his old green Class Bs that could be officially worn for a few more years. The right side of his face was mostly gone, his spine exposed through the gaping wound in the neck. Bone and a hollow eye socket looked back at Puller. No wounds in his torso. He’d taken it all in the face and neck at close range.

  A shotgun was pretty much the only firearm that did damage like that.

  He could see bits of white in the wound tracks. Wadding from the shell. Hopefully they’d be able to tell the gauge from measuring the diameter of the wadding or by the name of the maker on top of the wad, if it was still readable.

  Mom’s eyes stared back at Puller. For an observer given to melodrama it would have appeared that the woman’s look was pleading.

  Find my killer.

  Puller illuminated her chest with the Maglite. Dozens of punctures, randomly distributed. Shotgun as well, but different in the way it had been deployed.

  He drew a ruler from his pocket and measured the distance between the punctures on Mrs. Reynolds’s blouse that had once been white but was now mostly crimson. He did the calculation in his head and put the ruler away. He felt the man’s arm and then the woman’s. Still in rigor, though it was well on its way down and the muscles were relaxing. The bodies were the temperature of the room or lower. He pulled his air thermometer and took a reading. Blood had pooled to the lower extremities. Bowels and bladders long ago emptied. Skin greenish blue, rotting smell, faces dissolving. In death everybody was ugly.

  He turned his attention to the teens.

  Then he stopped, swiveled. A noise. From somewhere in the house.

  Apparently he wasn’t the only living person in here.



  THUMP-WHOOSH-THUMP. Thump-whoosh-thump.

  Down the stairs, basement level.

  Of course it is.

  Puller eased to the doorway.

  He sniffed the air. The scent of decomposing bodies was heavy, but Puller was not focusing his nose on that. He was trying to detect something else. Sweat. Cologne. Cigarettes. The molecular signature of bad breath. Anything that would give him an edge.


  He moved the door open with his foot. The passageway down was dark.

  Of course it is.


  The mechanical nature of the sound did not cause Puller to relax.

  If he were leading someone to his death he would employ deception. In fact, in Iraq and Afghanistan he’d done it many times, just like the other side had been trying to do to him.

  He pulled a pair of night optics from his knapsack, slipped them on his head, flipped down the eyepiece, and fired them up. The tunnel of darkness immediately flamed to life, albeit a green, somewhat hazy life. He squatted and pulled his other pistol from its holster. Both handguns were double-single action, racked and ready. Ordinarily he would not use two pistols at the same time, for the simple reason that his aim and accuracy could be diminished if he fired at two targets simultaneously. However, in a contained space like this, where accuracy was not so critical, he needed as much firepower as possible.

  Two of the main differences between MPs and CID special agents were that MPs carried their weapons without a round chambered. CID agents went through life with racked guns at all times. MPs turned in their weapons when their shift was done. CID agents didn’t draw a breath without their guns in easy reach.

  When Puller applied twelve pounds of pressure on the trigger and fired, the slide would push the hammer back and his weapon would become a single-action pull. Twenty-round mags, so forty shots total, though he normally only needed one. He had never been a spray-and-pray kind of guy. But he could empty both pistols in about ten seconds if need be and lay down a man-sized target at fifteen meters with no problem. Now he just needed to acquire a target, preferably before it acquired him.

  With his silhouette narrowed and lowered he began to proceed down the carpeted stairs. He squinted along the iron sights of the right-hand pistol. He did not like being in an enclosed space. The “fatal funnel,” the Army called it. He had decent firepower, but they might have more.


  Mechanical. But someone had to hit the start button.

  The file had mentioned a dog. Cole and her folks had to have confiscated the animal. They wouldn’t have been so stupid as to leave a dog alone to mosey through the crime scene, particularly with bloody dead bodies around. Dogs, though domesticated, were carnivores after all.


  He hit the bottom step and crab-walked over to a far corner and did a recon.

  Unfinished space.

  Poured concrete floor, both studded-out and concrete foundation walls, exposed ceiling. Wires snaking up the naked walls. Mildew hit his nostrils. It was far better than the smell upstairs.

  Against one wall he saw the marks. And on the floor in front.

  Blood. The killing had been done down here. At least for Mom and Dad.


  He scanned the area once more. The room doglegged at the other end. There was a space he couldn’t see because of a jutting concrete load-bearing wall.


  Of course the sound is coming from there.

  Both guns aimed at this spot, Puller advanced, keeping low and his torso turned to the side.

  He reached the corner, backed away parallel to the wall. Corners were problematic. “Dynamic corners” were how the Army referred to them, because situations could change quickly once you stepped around one. He said, “Federal agent.”


  “Federal agent.”

  He eyed the wall. Concrete. If it were wood or drywall he would have fired some shots through it, to get the attention of anyone on the other side waiting to ambush him. With concrete his rounds were more than likely going to ricochet ri
ght back at him.

  “Slide any weapon out, then follow it with hands on head, fingers interlaced. I count to five, noncompliance will get you a flash-bang right up your ass.”

  He counted off, wishing he had a flash-bang with him.

  Thump, whoosh, thump.

  He holstered one pistol, slipped off his backpack, aimed, and tossed it in front of the opening.

  Thump, whoosh, thump.

  Either there was no one there, or he was one cool customer. Puller crouched, tensed, and did a quick turkey peek. In that momentary flash he took in a lot. None of it was good.

  He edged around the corner. Following the sound, he looked down. The floor fan was on its side. The whoosh sound was the fan. The thump was the fan oscillating from side to side where the frame made contact with the concrete on each revolution.

  But something had turned it on. And now he knew what that was.

  Puller glanced up. The man was in uniform. He was hanging from the ceiling. The strap used to hold him there had loosened. His body had dropped down, though it was still suspended. It had hit the fan, knocking it over and turning it on.

  Puller had just discovered what had happened to the perimeter guard.

  He eyed the man through his optics. Clearly dead. Eyes bugged out and glassy. Body hanging limp. Hands bound. Feet the same. Puller approached, touched the man’s skin. Somewhat warm but rapidly cooling. Hadn’t been dead all that long. He checked for a pulse, just to be sure. There was none. Heart had stopped beating and everything else had stopped working instantly. He was past the point of no return, but not by much.

  They had taken his police wheels. Warm oil, warm body.

  The dead guy looked young. The low man on the totem pole, he’d drawn the crap post assignment. Guarding stiffs in the nighttime, and now he was a stiff too. Puller eased his gaze over the uniform. Looked to be a deputy sheriff. Drake County, the shoulder badge said. He eyed the holster. No gun. No surprise. Man has a gun he’s not going to let you string him up without a fight. The face was swollen enough from the strangulation to where Puller couldn’t tell if he’d been beaten.

  He reached down and turned the fan off.

  The thump-whoosh-thump symphony ceased.

  Puller drew closer to the body and used his optics to read the nameplate.

  Officer Wellman.

  That was ballsy, thought Puller. To come back here and kill a cop. To come back to a murder scene once you’d done the deed.

  What had they missed? Or left behind?

  The next moment Puller was sprinting up the steps.

  Someone else was coming.

  He glanced at his watch.

  It might be Sergeant Samantha Cole.

  Or it might not.



  THE WOMAN CLIMBED out of her ride. It wasn’t police wheels. It was a plain, decades-old pickup truck with a four-speed stick drive and three transmission antennas drilled in the cab’s roof. It also had a white custom camper with side windows and a flip-top gate on the back with the word “Chevy” stenciled on it. The truck’s pale blue was not the original color.

  Samantha Cole was not in uniform. She was dressed in faded jeans, white T-shirt, a WVU Mountaineers windbreaker, and worn-down calf-high boots. The butt of a King Cobra double-action .45 revolver poked from inside her shoulder holster. It was on the left side, meaning she was right-handed. She was a sliver under five-three without the boots, and a wiry one-ten with dirty blonde hair that was long enough to reach her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and wide; the balls of her cheekbones were prominent enough to suggest Native American ancestry. Her face had a scattering of light freckles.

  She was an attractive woman but with a hard, cynical look of someone to whom life had not been overly kind.

  Cole stared at Puller’s Malibu and then up at the house where the Reynoldses sat dead all in a row. One hand on the butt of her gun, she advanced up the gravel drive. She passed the Lexus when it happened.

  The hand was on her before she realized it. Its grip was iron. She had no chance. It pulled her down and then over to the other side of the car.

  “Shit!” Her fingers closed around the long, thick fingers. She could not break the grip. She tried to pull her gun with her other hand, but it was blocked by her attacker’s arm pinning hers against her side. Cole was helpless.

  “Just stay down, Cole,” the voice said into her ear. “There might be a shooter out there.”

  “Puller?” she hissed as she turned to him. Puller released his grip and squatted next to the right front fender of the Lexus. He flipped up his night optics. He had one M11 in hand. The other pistol was parked back in its rear holster.

  “Good to meet you.”

  “You nearly gave me a heart attack. I never even heard you.”

  “That’s sort of the point.”

  “You about crushed my arm. What, are you bionic?”

  He shrugged. “No, I’m just in the Army.”

  “Why did you grab me?”

  “Your guy named Wellman?”


  “The cop on guard duty tonight?”

  “Yeah, Larry Wellman. How’d you know that?”

  “Somebody strung him up in the basement of the house and then stole his ride.”

  Her face collapsed. “Larry’s dead?”

  “Afraid so.”

  “You said there might be a shooter?”

  He touched his optics. “Saw a flash of movement through a window of the house when I heard you pulling up.”

  “From where?”

  “The woods behind the house.”

  “You think they… ?”

  “I don’t presume. Why I grabbed you. Already killed one cop, so what’s another to them?”

  She gave him a searching glance. “I appreciate that. But I can’t believe Larry’s dead. No wonder he didn’t answer my call.” She paused. “He’s got a wife and a new baby.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “You sure he’s dead?”

  “If I weren’t I would’ve cut him down and tried to resuscitate him. But trust me, it would’ve been pointless. He hasn’t been dead long, though. Body’s still warm.”

  “Shit,” she said again, her voice shaky.

  He drew in her scent. Her breath smelled of mints with the tobacco lapping right underneath. No perfume. She hadn’t taken time to wash her hair. He glanced at his watch. She had gotten here two minutes ahead of her own deadline.

  He saw her eyes start to glisten; a wobbly tear freed itself and slid down her cheek.

  “You want to call it in?” he asked.

  She answered in a dull, tired voice, “What? Oh, right.” She hastily wiped her eyes and pulled out her phone. She drilled in the numbers. She spoke fast but clearly, also putting out a BOLO on the missing police cruiser. The woman had gone from emotionally paralyzed to professional in a few seconds. Puller was impressed.

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