He wondered if Mom and Dad had died five years ago.
He looked at Cole again. He started to say something, but it was almost as if Cole could read his mind. Her look was pleading. Puller closed his mouth and looked down at his hands.
The meal was served. There were four courses, and all of them were good. The Trents obviously had not simply a cook but a chef. Puller felt self-conscious as the hired help ladled out the soup and meticulously served every course. But he figured if he’d gotten up and started serving himself it might cause the maids more distress than anything else.
Over an hour later they all pushed back from the table, their bellies full. Randy wiped his mouth one last time with his napkin and finished off his glass of what Puller suspected was a very expensive red wine. When he was a kid his father had taken him and his brother to Provence and Tuscany. While the boys had been too young to drink, even by European standards, their father had taught them about wine. The general had been a connoisseur and collector. It also didn’t hurt that he spoke fluent French and Italian.
“Thanks for the vittles,” said Randy. “You still swimming in the cement pond, Jean? Keep that girlish figure of yours for old Roger?”
An embarrassed Cole glanced at Puller. “Randy, I don’t think you need to play the Beverly Hillbillies act for Agent Puller.”
“Oh, it’s not an act, Agent Puller. I’m clearly white trash that’s got rich relations. But I just refuse to put on airs. Let that be a lesson to you. Never forget where you came from.”
“Should I get a room ready for you, Randy?” asked Jean.
“Changed my mind. Got places to go, people to mess with.”
Cole said, “Would that include people like Roger?”
Randy stared over at her, his smile deepening but also hardening, Puller thought. Still, it was an infectious smile. Puller felt his own lips tug upward.
“Man’s out of town, ain’t he? That’s what I heard.”
“You have sources on his movements?” asked Puller.
“No, I saw his jet fly over Drake earlier.”
“Would that include people like Roger?” Cole asked again.
Puller glanced at Cole. She looked about as tense as Puller had seen her. And that included quite a few stressful situations.
“I’m cool, sister cop,” said Randy. “Roger goes his way. I go mine. And you folks go yours.” He spread his hands to indicate the members of his family. “But I guess your way is the same as Roger’s.”
“Don’t talk about things you don’t know anything about,” said Jean. “It’s a bad habit. Gets folks into all sorts of trouble.”
Randy rose, dropping his napkin on the table. “Damn nice visiting with you. Let’s shoot to do it in another ten years or so.”
“Randy?” said Jean. “Wait. I didn’t mean it like that.”
But he walked across the room and was gone, shutting the door quietly behind him.
PULLER AND COLE left about thirty minutes later. Puller sat in the passenger seat of the truck and gazed out the window. He was full of questions about the evening, but he wasn’t going to ask any of them. It was none of his business.
Cole finally said, “Well, that was a lot of fun.”
“Families usually are.”
“I’m sure you have questions.”
“I don’t like people prying into my stuff, and I’m going to show you the same courtesy.”
They drove on in silence for five more minutes.
Cole began, “Our parents were killed when a boulder dislodged by a mine blast from one of Roger’s operations crushed the car they were in.”
Puller turned to look at her. “About five years ago?”
“And Randy took it hard?”
“We all took it hard,” she said fiercely. Then her look and tone softened. “But Randy took it the hardest of all. He and our parents were always close. Especially he and Daddy.”
Cole drove for a few more miles in silence. Puller looked around the truck’s interior and noted the new vinyl seats and the rebuilt dashboard with what looked to be original equipment. Even the floorboards looked new, with not a trace of rust.
“Did your dad redo this truck?”
“Reminds me of the cottage. Did you buy it along with the house?”
“Yes. Paid the money into the estate.”
“Is that what Randy lives off? Jean obviously doesn’t need the cash.”
“Yes. That’s how we set it up. Randy needed it more than me.”
“I can see that.”
“It’s funny. No one thought Roger Trent would amount to anything.”
“So how did he end up where he is today?”
“I have to admit, he worked hard. And had some vision. And some luck. He worked his way up in the coal business. He’s ruthless, arrogant, but he’s got a sixth sense for making money. And my daddy and brother did find a lot of coal for him. Even if it’s destroying the land.”
“But I guess it provides jobs.”
“Not nearly as many as it used to.”
“Why? Is the coal running out?”
“The coal is always running out. From the first scoop you take. But all mining operations in Drake and a lot in West Virginia are now surface mining.”
“Where they basically blow up the mountains to get to the seams?”
“Coal companies will tell you the decision to do surface versus deep mining is based on geology, topography, and pure economics. The lay of the land, depth and configuration of the coal seams, the cost of extraction versus the available profit, stuff like that. The reality is you need fewer workers to do surface mining. Which means more profits to the coal companies. Now, Trent will argue that a lot of the surface mining is covering ground that was already deep-mined. They’re just coming back to get what the deep mining couldn’t. So it’s a second shot and at least some economic activity and jobs are created. And he may be right about that. But it’s not a compelling argument when there’s no food on the table or a roof over your head.”
She stared over at him. “I have no idea if it will turn out to be relevant to the investigation, but it might make sense for you to learn some things about coal country.”
Part of Puller wanted to say no. He had little interest in the intricacies of coal mining and he felt the focus on the investigation slipping some. But he could sense that Cole wanted to talk about it. And the Army had drilled into him the value of knowing the field on which the battle will be fought. He found the same to be true for the investigative side.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER she stopped the truck and pointed up ahead. The moonlight was especially strong tonight and Puller could easily see what she was trying to show him.
“What do you make of that?” she asked. The object was a three-hundred-foot-high mound that looked startlingly out of place between two other peaks.
“That’s what’s called a ‘valley fill.’ What they fill it with the coal companies call ‘overburden.’ That’s basically everything they tore off the land: trees, soil, and rock that the coal companies sweep away to get to the seams. They have to put it somewhere. And since West Virginia has a reclamation act, meaning the coal companies have to put the land back close to how they found it, the companies take the overburden, dump it in a valley, hydroseed it, fertilize it, cover it with mulch, and go on their way. Problem is, when they dump the overburden like that they’ve turned the geology upside down. Topsoil is on the bottom and rock that was on the bottom is now on top. Native plants and trees won’t grow in it. So they introduce non-native plantings that are royally screwing up the ecosystem. But they’ve met the letter if not the spirit of the law and they move on. And this dumping also changes the topography of the land. Rivers get redirected. Flash floods occur. Mountains fall down and crush homes.”
“I didn’t really see that many folks living around here.”