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No Man's Land (John Puller #4)

By´╝ÜDavid Baldacci

No Man's Land (John Puller #4)
Author: David Baldacci





CHAPTER 1

PAUL ROGERS WAS waiting for them to come and kill him.

For ten years he had done this.

Now he had twenty-four more hours to go.

Or to live.

Rogers was six feet one inches tall and tipped the scale at one hundred and eighty pounds; hardly any of it was fat. Most people looking only at his chiseled body would be surprised to learn that he was over fifty years old. From the neck down he looked like an anatomical chart, each muscle hardened and defined as it melded into its neighbor.

However, from the neck up the years were clearly imprinted on his features, and a guess of fifty would actually have been kind. The hair was thick but mostly gray, and the face, though it had been behind bars and out of the sun for a decade, was roughly weathered, with deep crevices around the eyes and mouth and furrows whittled across the broad brow.

He had an unruly beard that matched the color of his hair. Facial hair wasn't really permitted in here, but he knew that no one had the guts to make him shave it off.

He was like a timber rattler without the benefit of a warning sound, likely to bite if you drew too close.

The eyes lurking under the tufted eyebrows were perhaps his most distinctive feature: a pale, liquid blue that carried a sense of being both depthless and also empty of life.

He sat up straighter when he heard them coming.

Still twenty-four hours to go. This was not a good sign.

There were two sets of heels walking in unison.

The door slid open and the pair of guards stood there.

"Okay, Rogers," said the older guard. "Let's go."

Rogers stood and looked at the men, confusion on his features.

The guard said, "I know it was supposed to be tomorrow, but apparently the court clerk put the wrong date on the order and it was too much trouble to try to change it. So voilà, today is your big day."

Rogers moved forward and held out his hands so they could shackle him.

The older guard shook his head. "Your parole was granted, Rogers. You get to walk out as a free man. No more chains." But as he said this, he clutched the handle of his baton a little more tightly and a vein throbbed at his temple.

The two guards led Rogers down a long hallway. On each side were barred cell doors. The men behind them had been talking, but when Rogers came into view they abruptly stopped. The prisoners watched mutely as he passed, then the whispers started up once more.

Upon entering a small room he was given a set of new clothes, shiny lace-up shoes, his ring, his watch, and three hundred dollars in cash. Thirty bucks for every year he'd been inside; that was the state's magnanimous policy.

And, maybe most important, a bus ticket that would take him to the nearest town.

He took off his prison jumpsuit and put on new skivvies and the fresh clothes. He had to cinch the belt extra tight around his lean waist to keep the pants up, but the jacket was tight against his wide shoulders. He put on the new shoes. They were a size too small and pinched his long feet. He next put on the watch, set the correct time using the clock on the wall, slipped the cash into his jacket, and forced the ring over a knotty knuckle.

He was led to the front entrance of the prison and handed a packet of materials outlining his duties and responsibilities as a parolee. These included regular meetings with his parole officer and tight restrictions on his movements and associations with other people for the duration of his parole. He couldn't leave the area and couldn't knowingly go within a hundred feet of someone with a criminal record. He couldn't do drugs and he couldn't own or carry a weapon.

The hydraulic rams came to life and the metal door opened, revealing the outside world to Rogers for the first time in a decade.

He stepped across the threshold as the older guard said, "Good luck, and don't let me see you back here."

Then the rams were engaged once more and the massive door shut behind him with the whisper of fluid-charged machinery coming to rest.

The older guard shook his head while the younger one stared at the back of the door.

"If I had to bet, he'll be back in prison before long," said the older guard.

"Why's that?"

"Paul Rogers has spoken maybe five words since he's been in this place. But the look on his face sometimes." The guard shivered. "We've got some unholy badasses in here, as you know. But nobody gave me the creeps like Rogers. It was as though there was nothing behind the eyes. He was up for parole twice before and didn't get it. I heard he scared the crap out of the parole board just by looking at them. The third time was the charm, I suppose."

"What did he do to get sent to prison?"

"Killed somebody."

"And he only got ten years?"

"Extenuating circumstances, I guess."

"Did the other inmates ever try to bully him?" asked the younger guard.

"Bully him! Did you ever see that guy work out in the rec yard? He's older than me and he's stronger than the biggest SOB we have in here. And I think the guy slept like an hour a night. I'd make my rounds at two in the morning and there he'd be in his cell just staring off or talking to himself and rubbing the back of his head. Really weird." He paused. "But when he first came here a couple of the toughest inmates did try to go alpha on him."

"What happened?"

"Let's just say they're not alphas anymore. One ended up paralyzed, and the other sits in a wheelchair dribbling water down his front, because Rogers permanently damaged his brain. One blow cracked the guy's skull. I saw it with my own eyes."

"How'd he get hold of a weapon in here?"

"Weapon? He used his bare hands."

"Holy shit!"

The older guard nodded thoughtfully. "That made his cred in here. Nobody bothered him after that. Prisoners respect the alpha. You saw how they all went quiet when he passed by just now. He was a legend in here getting bigger and badder without lifting a finger. But to his credit, Rogers was an alpha like I've never seen before. And more."

"How do you mean?"

The guard thought about this for a few moments. "When they first brought him here we did the standard strip search, no orifice overlooked."

"Right."

"Well, Rogers had scars on him."

"Hell, lots of cons have scars. And tats!"

///



"Not like this. They were up and down both arms and both legs and on his head and around his torso. And along his fingers. Ugly shit. And we couldn't take prints off the guy. I mean, he didn't have any! Never seen anything like it before. Hope I never see anything like it again."

"How'd he get the scars?"

"Like I said, dude only said five words since he came here. And it wasn't like we could force him to tell us how he got them. I always assumed Rogers belonged to some sort of freak cult or had been tortured. Hell, it would've taken an Army battalion to do that to him. But the fact is I really didn't want to know. Rogers is a freak. An out-and-out freak that I'm really glad to see the back of."

"Surprised they let him out, then."

As the guards walked back to the cellblocks the older one muttered, "God help anybody who runs into that son of a bitch."

CHAPTER

2

OUTSIDE, ROGERS DREW a slow breath and then let it go, watching the chilly vapor materialize momentarily and then vanish just as quickly. He stood there for a few seconds getting his bearings. In some ways it was like being born and slipping out of the womb and seeing a world you didn't know existed a moment before.

His gaze went from left to right and right to left. Then to the sky. Choppers were not out of the question, he thought. Not for this.

Not for him.

But there was no one waiting for him.

It could be the passage of time. Three decades. People died, memories faded.

O

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