typically run on a seventy-five to twenty-five gas to diesel mixture.”

“So what happened to cause it to fail? You said there was a fuel problem?”

“The best we can tell, there was either a diesel oxidation degradation problem or a microorganism contamination issue.”

“In English?” said Puller patiently.

The E-4 explained, “Diesel can degrade over time. Oxidation can occur in the first year of storage, forming sediment and gum. When introduced into the system they can clog fuel filters and injectors, just like gunk in a car engine. Now, microorganisms are introduced via water condensation in the fuel lines, which promotes bacteria and fungi. They feed on the fuel. They can form colonies that clog the lines as well.”

“But I presume you have protocols in place that would prevent those problems from happening.”

When the men said nothing, Puller exclaimed sharply, “The Army has procedures for toilet paper usage. Are you saying they had none for maintenance of a power system for the military’s most important prison?”

The same E-4 said hastily, “No, no, they do. Lots of them. But it might have still happened. There was a lot of rain this year and we got some underground seepage into the bunker. That could have caused excessive condensation buildup. And these generators are very near the end of their useful life. In fact, they should have been replaced about two years ago.”

“Sequestration cuts brought the hammer down on that,” pointed out the other E-4. “And the Army also bought some bad diesel that’s been working its way through the system.”

“Okay. So you checked out the generator and found the lines all, what, gummed up, with microorganisms, sediment?”

“That’s pretty much what we did find, yes sir.”

“And that caused the generator to fail?”

They both nodded. One added, “And without the diesel serving as the pilot light, you can’t ignite the natural gas. So, no fuel source connection. That means no power.”

“And a prison with no locked doors,” said Puller as he stared at both men. “So you two are the principal caretakers of this equipment?”

“Yes sir,” they said together.

“Well, you might want to make alternate plans for your future.”

“Meaning exactly what, sir?” asked one of them anxiously.

“Meaning that the Army, in its infinite wisdom, must affix blame for this clusterfuck. And you two are as likely candidates as any I’ve seen so far.”

The E-4s exchanged a shocked glance as Puller headed out of the bunker and back to daylight.



PULLER SAT IN the room and stared at the feed from the surveillance cameras’ capture of the events on the night his brother disappeared from the DB. The various loops had been compiled so that he could see essentially an all-inclusive feed. He had wanted the room darkened so his focus would be on the screen in front of him. The total feed wasn’t long, perhaps two hours or so to record all that happened, and that counted the duplication from the different cameras. If he had been watching the feed from a single camera, the events would have taken less than thirty minutes total. It was remarkable that so much of significance could have taken place in such a short time.

Puller looked through the feed initially to orient himself to the spatial parameters. Corridors, rooms, doorways. When the power went out on the feed, he leaned in closer to the screen and used his controller to take it in frame by frame.

Blackout. Not much to see.

Then the lights came back on, flickered, and then went back off. The cameras had built-in lighting, so he could make out the silhouettes of figures running, the bouncing beams of flashlights. There was audio too, which he isolated. He listened to each individual voice. He doubted that his brother would have spoken, but he couldn’t discount the possibility. The frames ran through, and not one time did he spot his brother. One problem was that the camera recording in his brother’s pod was placed far away from his cell door. Puller had seen figures running up and down that hall, but none were recognizable. Perhaps the frames could be enhanced or better lighted, but that would probably take time.

Then came the sound of shots that sounded like the real thing. The next sound was so loud that Puller jerked a bit—an explosion going off in the DB? After that came the reinforcements from Fort Leavenworth. They swept down corridors and took charge of the prisoners out of their cells. At least from what he could see.

He sat back and drank down the rest of the bottle of water. This was going nowhere fast. He had transformers that had blown from a lightning strike during a storm that no one could have relied on to knock out the prison’s primary power source. Then, according to Al Jordan, “people” had come around and taken the remains of the transformers. He had a generator that had gotten gummed up and two E-4s who were probably going to get shit-canned or at least receive severe professional consequences for letting it happen.

He had gunshots and an explosion or at least the sounds thereof that no one could as yet explain. He had no opportunity, no motive, no leads, and no suspects. He had nothing at all. And yet his brother was out there somewhere doing who knew what, maybe with enemies of this country. Because there was no way his brother had busted out of the DB without help, from inside, outside, or, more likely, both.

He hit some more keys and brought up an image that was crystal clear. This had been taken before the power had gone out. He sat up straighter as he looked at his brother.

Robert Puller was sitting on the bolted-to-the-floor bunk in his cell. The walls were cinderblock, the floor smooth concrete. There was one window. There was a commode and a sink next to it, both built into the wall. There was a metal table and chair, again affixed to the wall. Robert Puller had on his orange prison jumper and sneakers with no laces. Laces could be transformed into rope, which could be used as either a weapon or a way to kill oneself. His brother was reading a book. His back was against the wall, his long legs stuck straight out in front of him. When the sounds of the storm were heard, Robert Puller glanced up from his book but then went back to the pages. And then the power went out and the cell went black. Then the generator kicked on and the lights came back, on and so did the surveillance camera in Robert’s room.

Robert Puller was still on his cot but no longer reading the book. His feet were on the floor and he was staring at the door. In just a short time the generator would fail and the blackness would return.

Before that happened, Puller froze his brother’s image, leaned closer to the screen, and peered deeply into Robert’s features, trying to decipher the thoughts going through that staggeringly complicated mind.

Talk to me, bro. Show me something. What are you thinking? Are you waiting for something to happen? Are you expecting something to happen? Or not?

Puller observed, and not for the first time, how much he resembled his older brother. Both were tall. Both had the same nose, and both shared their father’s angular jaw. The eyes were deep-set, giving each man a brooding look regardless of what they might actually be contemplating. But then again all three Puller men tended to be brooders.

His mind went back to when they were children. Bobby, because of his brains, had been the leader of the military brats on whatever base they had been living with their father. His brother had been the most sensitive, honorable person Puller knew, so sensitive, in fact, that the old man had taken to busting his balls about this perceived “weakness.” In fact, he had done it so often that Puller had memorized his father’s spiel.

“You can’t command men in battle if they like you, Bob,” his father had said. “They have to have equal parts fear and respect. And I would say fear is even more important than respect. Respect only gets you so far. Fear can get you through every damn obstacle devised by the enemy. Men will follow you to hell if they fear you. Because failing you will scare them more than any other thing they will ever face on the battlefield. You remember that, son. You remember that if you rem

ember nothing else I’ve ever told you.”

Bobby had never gotten over this “weakness.” Which was probably why he opted for the Air Force instead of the Army. And staked out his career with technology rather than guns and cojones the size of Nebraska.

When Puller had found out from Captain Macri that the prison computer system had been hacked, he had initially thought that his brother, who knew his way around computers better than just about anyone, might somehow have done it. But then they never let his brother near a computer at the DB. And he’d been sitting in his cell and seemed genuinely surprised when the power went out. So if not his brother, who?

Puller was thinking all of this when the door opened and in walked a woman about his age. She was tall, slender, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, dressed in a black pantsuit with a white blouse, the collar flipped up in a way that even Puller, who knew nothing of women’s fashions, thought looked sort of chic. She had shoulder-length auburn hair, a freckled face, and a flint-sharp nose. She looked like she had been an athlete in college, and carried herself in a confident manner.

“Agent Puller?”

Momentarily thrown by this unusual greeting, he rose and said, “I’m Chief Warrant Officer John Puller, with the 701st CID out of Quantico.”

She put out a hand. “Veronica Knox.” He shook her hand and she held up her creds, which dangled on a lanyard. “INSCOM,” she said, referring to the United States Army’s Intelligence and Security Command.

“Where are you based out of?” he asked.

“I’m a floater going to the trouble spots. That’s why I’m here.”

“Okay. And your rank?”


“It’s just sort of standard to know.”

Tags: David Baldacci John Puller Thriller
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