No Man's Land

David Baldacci | 8 mins


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.

Or it could be that they really thought he was dead.

Their mistake.

Then he settled on the screwed-up release date.

If they were coming, it would be tomorrow.

Thank God for stupid court clerks.

Following the directions given on his discharge papers, he walked to the bus stop. It was four rusted posts with a shingled roof and a wooden seat worn down by decades of people waiting for a ride to somewhere else. While he was waiting he took the packet of parole materials from his jacket and dumped them in a trash can standing next to the enclosure. He had no intention of attending any parole hearings. He had places to go that were far away from here.

He touched the spot on the left side of his head, halfway between the occipital bone and the lambdoid suture. He then traced his finger over the sutural bones to the parietal bones and finally to the sagittal suture. They were important parts of the skull protecting significant elements of the brain.

He had once thought that what had been added there was a ticking time bomb.

Now he simply thought of it as him.

He let his hand drop to his side as he watched the bus pull up to the curb. The doors opened and he climbed on, gave his ticket to the driver, and walked to the back.

A cascade of smells enveloped him, mostly of the fried-food and unwashed-bodies variety. Everyone on the bus watched him as he passed. Women’s fingers curled more tightly around their purses. Men watched him with defensive looks and fists ready. Children simply stared wide-eyed.

He just had that effect on people, he supposed.

He sat in the very rear, where the stench from the lone restroom might have overwhelmed someone who had not smelled far worse.

Rogers had smelled far worse.

In seats catty-corner across the aisle from him were a man in his twenties and a girl of the same age. The girl was in the aisle seat. Her boyfriend was huge, about six-six and all muscle. They had not watched Rogers walk back here, mainly because they had been too busy exploring each other’s mouths with their tongues.

When the bus pulled off, they separated lips and the man glanced over the seat at Rogers with hostile eyes. Rogers looked back until the man glanced away. The woman gazed back too and smiled.

“Did you just get out?” she asked.

Rogers looked down at his clothes. It occurred to him that this must be standard-issue garb for those leaving prison. Perhaps the correctional system ordered the items in bulk, including shoes that were too small so the ex-cons couldn’t outrun anybody. And maybe the bus stop was known to folks around here as the “prisoners’ stop.” That would explain the looks he’d been given.

Rogers never thought to return her smile, but he did nod in answer to her query.

“How long were you in for?”

In answer, Rogers held up all ten fingers.

She gave him a sympathetic look. “That’s a long time.” She crossed her legs so that one long slender and bare limb was thrust out into the aisle, giving him an admirable view of pale skin.

They rode for nearly an hour, the distance from the prison to the closest town. All that time the high-heeled shoe dangled enticingly off the woman’s foot.

Rogers never once looked away.

When they pulled into the bus depot it was dark. Nearly everyone got off. Rogers was last because he liked it that way.

His feet hit the pavement and he looked around. Some of the passengers were greeted by friends or family. Others pulled their luggage from the storage compartment at the rear of the bus. Rogers simply stood there and looked around as he had done outside the prison. He had no friends or family to greet him, and no luggage to retrieve.

But he was waiting for something to happen.

The young man who had glared at him went to collect his and the woman’s bags. While he did so she came over to Rogers.

“You look like you could use some fun.”

He didn’t answer.

She glanced in the direction of her boyfriend. “We go our separate ways in a little bit. After that, why don’t we go have a good time, just you and me? I know a place.”

When the boyfriend came around the side of the bus carrying a long duffel and a smaller suitcase, she gripped his arm and they walked off. But she looked back at Rogers and winked.

His gaze tracked the young couple as they headed down the street, turned left, and disappeared from sight.

Rogers started to walk. He turned down the same alley and saw the couple up ahead. They were nearly out of sight. But not quite.

Rogers touched his head again at the same spot and then ran his finger back, as he had before, as though tracing the route of a meandering river.

They kept walking for a long time, block after block the couple just in sight. Always just in sight.

It was quite dark now. The couple turned a corner and disappeared from view.

Rogers picked up his pace and turned the same corner.

His arm caught the blow from the bat. The wood shattered and the top half of the bat flew off and hit the wall.

“Shit!” roared the young man holding it. The duffel lay open on the ground. The woman was a few feet behind her boyfriend. She had ducked when the bat had broken in half and sailed in her direction, causing her to drop her purse.

The man let go of the other half of the bat, pulled a switchblade from his pocket, and opened it.

“Give up the three hundred bucks, Mr. Ex-Con, and the ring and the watch, and you don’t get gutted.”

Three hundred bucks? So they knew the amount based on his decade in prison.

Rogers twisted his neck to the right and felt the pop.

He looked around. The walls were brick, high, and had no windows, meaning no witnesses. The alley was dark. There was no one else around. He had noted all this while he was walking.

“Did you hear me?” said the young man as he towered over Rogers.

Rogers nodded, for he had indeed heard the man.

“Well then, give me the cash and the other stuff. You simple or what?”

Rogers shook his head. For he was not simple. And he was also not going to give up anything.

“Suit yourself,” barked the man. He lunged at Rogers and slashed with the blade.

Rogers partially blocked the thrust of the knife, but the blade still bit into his arm. This slowed him down not even a little because he felt nothing. As the blood soaked into his clothing he gripped the hand holding the knife and squeezed.

The man dropped the knife. “Shit, shit!” he screamed. “Let go, let the fuck go!”

Rogers did not let go. The man fell to his knees, futilely trying to pry Rogers’s fingers off him.

The woman watched all of this in stunned disbelief.

With his free hand Rogers slowly reached down, gripped the handle of the broken bat, and held it up.

The young man looked up at him. “Please, man, don’t.”

Rogers swung the bat. The force of the blow crushed the side of the man’s skull. Bits of bone mixed with gray meninges pooled down the side of his head.

Rogers let go of the dead man’s hand and he slumped sideways to the pavement.

The woman was screaming and backing away now. She eyed her purse but made no move toward it.

“Help me! Help me!”

Rogers dropped the bat and looked at her.

This part of town was deserted at this hour, which was why they had picked it as their ambush spot.

There was no one available to help anybody. They had thought that would work in their favor. When Rogers had stepped into the alley he knew it would work in his favor.

He had realized this was a setup from the moment the woman had looked at him on the bus. Her dead boyfriend was her age and good-looking. Rogers was neither of those. The only things he had that she would want rested in his pocket, on his wrist, and on his finger.

They must prey on the men getting out.

Well, tonight they had picked the wrong target.

She backed up against a brick wall. Tears sliding down her face, she moaned, “Please, please don’t hurt me. I swear I won’t tell nobody what you done. I swear to God. Please.”

Rogers bent down and picked up the switchblade.

She started to sob. “Please, don’t. Please . . . He made me do it. He said he’d hurt me.”

Rogers walked over to the woman and studied her quaking features. None of it had an effect on him, just like the knife biting into his arm.

Nothing because he was nothing.

Felt nothing.

She obviously wanted him to feel pity for her. He knew that. He understood that. But there was a difference between understanding and actually feeling something.

In some ways, it was the greatest difference there was.

He felt nothing. Not for her. Not for him. He rubbed his head, probing the same spot, as though his fingers could reach through bone and tissue and brain matter and rip out what was there. It burned, but then it always burned when he did what he did.

Rogers had not always been this way. Sometimes, when he thought long and hard about it, he could dimly remember a different person.

He looked down at the knife, now a stainless steel extension of his limb. He loosened his grip.

“Will you let me go?” she gasped. “I . . . I really do like you.”

He took a step back.

She forced a smile. “I promise I won’t tell.”

Rogers took another step back. He could just leave, he thought.

She looked over his shoulder. “I think he just moved,” she said breathlessly. “Are you sure he’s dead?”

Rogers turned to look.

The flash of movement caught his attention. She had snagged her purse and pulled a gun from it. He saw the muzzle of the nickel-plated revolver sweeping upward to take aim at his chest.

He struck with astonishing swiftness and then stepped to the side as the arterial spray from her slashed neck erupted outward, narrowly missing him.

She toppled forward and smacked the pavement face first, ruining her pretty features, not that it mattered now. The revolver she had pulled from her handbag struck the hard surface and clattered away.

Rogers, pressed for time, cleaned out the cash from the young man’s wallet and the woman’s purse. He neatly folded the bills into his pocket.

He positioned the shattered bat in the hand of the young woman and put the gun back in her purse. He replaced the switchblade in the hand of the dead man.

He would let the local police try to figure out what had happened.

He field-dressed his arm as best he could and the blood stopped flowing.

He took a few moments to count the folded money. His cash had just been doubled.

He had a long, difficult journey ahead of him.

And after all these years, it was time to get started.