An excerpt from David Baldacci’s ‘The Escape’

Updated

The prison looked more like the campus of a community college than a place where men were kept in cells for ten years or longer for offenses committed while wearing the uniform of their country. There were no guard towers, but there were two staggered twelve-foot-tall security fences, armed patrols, and enough surveillance cameras to keep an electronic eye on virtually every millimeter of the place. Situated at the northern end of Fort Leavenworth, the United States Disciplinary Barracks sat next to the Missouri River on nearly forty rolling, forested Kansas acres, a mound of brick and razor wire cradled by a green hand. It was the only maximum-security military prison for males in the country.

America’s foremost military prison was called the USDB, or the DB for short. The Leavenworth federal penitentiary for civilians, one of three prisons on the grounds of Fort Leavenworth, was four miles to the south. Along with the Joint Regional Correctional Facility—also for military prisoners—there was a fourth privately operated prison in Leavenworth, which raised the total inmate population among the four prisons to about five thousand. The Leavenworth Tourism Bureau, apparently seeking to capitalize on any bit of notoriety to lure visitors to the area, had incorporated the prison angle into its promotional brochures with the phrase “Doin’ time in Leavenworth.”

Federal dollars rolled through this part of Kansas and jumped the border into Missouri like a flood of green paper locusts, boosting the local economy and filling the coffers of businesses that provided the soldiers with smoked ribs, cold beer, fast cars, cheap hookers, and pretty much everything in between.

Inside the DB were about four hundred and fifty prisoners. Inmates were housed in a series of escape-proof pods, including a Special Housing Unit, or SHU. The majority of inmates were here for sex-based crimes. They were mostly young and their sentences were long.

Approximately ten prisoners were kept in solitary confinement at any one time, while the remaining inmates were housed in the general population. There were no bars on the doors; they were just solid metal, with a slot at the bottom for food trays to be shoved through. This also allowed for shackles to be fitted like a new pair of iron shoes when a prisoner needed to be transported somewhere.

Unlike at some other state and federal penitentiaries around the country, discipline and respect were demanded here and given. There were no power struggles between the incarcerated and their watchers. There was the rule of military law, and the primary responses from those being held here were “Yes sir,” closely followed by “No sir.”

The DB had a death row on which currently sat a half dozen mconvicted murderers, including the Fort Hood killer. It also had an execution chamber. Whether any of the death row inmates would ever see the lethal injection needle would be something only the lawyers and judges could determine, probably years and millions of dollars in legal fees from now.

Day had long since passed to night and the lights from a civilian Piper plane lifting off from the nearby Sherman Airfield were almost the only evidence of activity. It was quiet now, but a violent storm front that had been on the radar for a while was howling in from the north. Another system that had sprung up in Texas was barreling toward the Midwest like a brakeless freight train. It would soon meet its northern counterpart, with devastating results. The entire area was already hunkering down in anticipation.

When the two rampaging fronts met three hours later, the result was a storm of shattering proportions, with jagged lightning slicing sideways across the sky, rain bucketing down, and winds that seemed to have no limit to their strength or reach.

The power lines went first, snapped like string by tumbling trees. Then down came the phone lines. After that more trees toppled, blocking roads. The nearby Kansas City International Airport had been shut down ahead of time, all planes empty and the terminal full of travelers riding out the storm and quietly thanking God they were on the ground instead of up in that maelstrom.

Inside the DB the guards made their rounds, or sipped their coffees in the break room, or talked in low whispers, exchanging scuttlebutt of no importance just to get through their shifts. No one thought anything of the storm outside since they were safely inside a fortress of brick and steel. They were like an aircraft carrier confronted by gale-force winds and heavy seas. It might not be pleasant, but they would easily ride it out.

Even when the regular power failed as both transformers at a nearby substation blew up, plunging the prison into momentary darkness, no one was overly concerned. The massive backup generator automatically kicked on, and that machine was inside a bombproof installation with its own underground power source of natural gas that would never run out of juice. This secondary system came on so fast the short lapse did nothing more than cause jittery fluorescents and a few pops on surveillance cameras and computer monitors.

Guards finished their coffees and moved on to other gossip, while others slowly made their way down halls and around corners and in and out of pods, making sure all was well in the world of the DB.

What finally got everyone’s attention was the total silence that came when the foolproof generator with the endless supply of energy in the bombproof installation made a noise like a giant with whooping cough, and then simply died.

All the lights, cameras, and consoles instantly went out, although some of the surveillance cameras had battery backups and thus remained on. And then the quiet was replaced with urgent cries and the sounds of men running. Communication radios crackled and popped. Flashlights were snatched from holders on leather belts and powered up. But they provided only meager illumination.

And then the unthinkable occurred: All the automatic cell doors unlocked. This was not supposed to happen. The system was built such that whenever the power failed, the doors automatically locked. Not so good for prisoners if the power failure was due to, say, a fire, but that’s the way it was, or the way it was supposed to be. However, now the guards were hearing the clicks of cell doors opening all over the prison, and hundreds of prisoners were emerging into the hallways.

There were no guns allowed in the DB. Thus the guards had only their authority, wits, training, ability to read prisoners’ moods, and heavy batons to keep order. And now those batons were gripped in hands that were becoming increasingly sweaty.

There were SOPs, or standard operating procedures, for such an eventuality, because the military had procedures for every eventuality. The Army typically had two backups for all critical items. At the DB the natural gas backup generator was considered a fail-safe. However, now it had failed. Now it fell to the guards to maintain complete order. They were the last line of defense. The first goal was to secure all prisoners. The secondary goal was to secure all prisoners. Anything else would be deemed an unacceptable failure by any military standard. Careers and along with them stars and bars would fall off like parched needles from a Christmas tree still up in late January.

Since there were far more prisoners than guards, securing all of them involved a few tactics, the most important of which required grouping them in the large open central areas, where they would be made to lie facedown. This seemed to be going well for about five minutes, but then something else happened that would make every guard dig deeper into the Army manuals and more than one sphincter—whether attached to guard or prisoner—tighten.

“We’ve got shots fired,” shouted a guard into his radio. “Shots fired, undetermined location, unknown source.”

This message was repeated down the line until it was ringing in every guard’s ears. Shots fired and nobody knew from where or by whom. And since none of the guards had guns, that meant one of the prisoners must. Maybe more than one.

Now things, already serious, morphed into something bordering on chaotic.

And then the situation became a lot worse.

The sound of an explosion flooded the interior of pod number three, which contained the SHU. Now the borderline chaotic leapt right into utter meltdown. The only thing that could restore order was an overwhelming show of armed force. And there were few organizations in the world that could do overwhelming armed force better than the United States Army. Especially when that gunned up force was right next door at Fort Leavenworth.

Minutes later, six green Army trucks swept through the powerless boundary gates of the DB, whose high-tech intrusion detection systems had been rendered inoperable. Military police in SWAT gear and carrying shields poured off the trucks, their automatic weapons and shotguns racked and ready. They charged straight into the facility, their fields of vision bright and clear owing to their latest-generation night-vision goggles that made the blackness inside the prison look as fresh and vibrant as anything on an Xbox.

Prisoners froze where they were. Then those who were still standing immediately lay facedown, their hands behind their backs and their limbs trembling in the face of superbly trained soldiers loaded for war.

Order was eventually achieved.

Army engineers were able to restore power and the lights came back on and doors could lock once more. In the meantime, the MPs from Fort Leavenworth turned the facility back over to the guards and left the way they had come. The prison commander, a full colonel, gratefully exhaled as the weight of the world, or at least a sudden wall appearing between him and his next promotion, was lifted.

Prisoners shuffled back into their cells.

A head count was done.

The list of prisoners accounted for was compared to the official list of inmates.

Initially, the numbers tallied.

Initially.

But on further inspection that did not turn out to be the case.

There was one prisoner missing. Only one. But he was an important one. He had been sent here for life. Not because he had fragged an officer or otherwise killed one or many. Or because he had raped, slashed, burned, or bombed. He was not on death row. He was here because he was a traitor, having betrayed his country in the area of national security, which was a term that made everyone sit up and look over their shoulder.

And even more inexplicably, on the cot in the missing prisoner’s cell was someone else—an unidentified dead man lying facedown under the covers. This was the cause of the initial miscount of heads.

They searched every corner of the DB, including the air ducts and any other crevices they could think of. They raced outside into the now dying storm to search there, marching in methodical columns, leaving nothing unexamined.

But this plot of Kansas soil did not yield what they were looking for.

The inmate was gone. No one could explain how. No one could say how the dead man had come to be here. No one could make sense of any of this.

There was only one obvious fact.

Robert Puller, once a major in the United States Air Force and an expert in nuclear weaponry and cyber security, and also the son of one of the most famous fighting soldiers of them all, the now retired Army lieutenant general John Puller Sr., had escaped from the inescapable DB.

And he had left behind an unknown dead man in his place, which was even more inexplicable than how he had managed to break out.

Informed of this seeming impossibility turned stark reality, the prison’s commander lifted the secure phone in his office, and in doing so kissed his once promising career goodbye.

Excerpted from the book THE ESCAPE by David Baldacci.  © 2014 by David Baldacci.  Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.  All rights reserved.

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An excerpt from David Baldacci's 'The Escape'

Updated