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Preserving the union

By A Contributor

ZERO DAY David Baldacci Grand Central Publishing, 2011 434 Pages, $27.99

If you appreciate Sherlock Holmes’s knack for walking past someone and figuring out what he had for dinner, his health or where he grew up, then you will probably like “Zero Day” by David Baldacci.

The protagonist, John Puller, has perception skills similar to those associated with Holmes. Puller is a military criminal investigator. He served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he became highly decorated for valor. He is excellent at his job, but is still troubled by dreams of combat missions.

Puller comes from a military family. His father, John Puller Sr., is a retired general and for a time was commander of the 101st Airborne. But the retired general now has Alzheimer’s and calls his son frequently to ask military advice about what he thinks are active missions. Puller Jr. has one brother, Robert, who also is in the military, but he is imprisoned in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Robert had been on the fast track in the Air Force, overseeing a nuclear arsenal, before being tried and convicted of treason. He later proves vital to unraveling the mystery.

Puller’s assignment is to investigate the murders of Col. Matthew Reynolds and his two teenage children in West Virginia. Reynolds was beginning to work his way into retirement. His job placed him in the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) at the Pentagon. He commuted weekly between West Virginia and the Pentagon because his wife had two aging parents. His wife and kids moved to the area for the summer.

Puller is sent to lead the investigation with the local authorities. He is teamed up with Sam (Samantha) Cole, a sergeant in the local sheriff’s department, which has just 21 deputies to cover a mountainous, coal-rich area of 400 square miles. Sam is petite but tough, and grew up in the area. Both her sister and brother become potential suspects.

While coal keeps the economy going, many people dislike the coal industry because it pollutes the water supply, the air and the forests. Col. Matthews didn’t seem connected to the coal industry, but Puller is certain that he was. What is more puzzling is that when police canvass the area near the Reynolds’ house, they find that the couple across the street from where Col. Reynolds lived also was murdered.

And when the deputy who was put in charge of watching the initial crime scene also is killed, Puller comes to the conclusion that the murderer of the Reynoldses forgot something and committed the subsequent killings on a return visit to the scene.

The motives for the killings become clearer as the story unfolds;  the caverns are essential to the villains’ plan, which involves a threat to national security.

The story has many twists and turns, and the author keeps the reader wondering until the very end.

Once you find out what Puller and Sam have to do to save the town — and the country — you’ll wonder if they will be able to carry it off.

David Baldacci is a prolific and bestselling writer whose novels include “Wish You Well,” “The Christmas Train” and “Absolute Power.” He and his wife have started the Wish You Well Foundation, which supports literacy across America.

Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.

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