“Certainly, Agent Puller. How are you?”

Puller said, “Great.”

“Investigation coming along?”

“It’s coming,” said Cole, as she came to stand next to Puller.

He said, “When do you expect your boss back in town?”

“I’m not actually sure.”

“Boss doesn’t fill in his second in command?” asked Puller.

“Why do you need to know when he’ll be back?”

Puller said, “That’s really between Trent and us.” He slapped Strauss on the shoulder. “Tell your boss I said hello.”

He turned and walked back to Jean’s table. “I’ll need to talk to your husband again. Tell Roger we’ll need to see him when he gets back into town.”

She put her fork down. “Why?”

“Just give him the message. Thanks.”

He walked toward the door.

Cole laid cash down for their meals, said a hasty goodbye to Jean, and hurried after Puller. He was already outside, where he was looking at the silver Benz.

“What were you trying to do in there with Strauss?” asked Cole.

“Just getting some info. He’s the COO?”

“Chief operating officer, yeah.”

“How long?”

“Pretty much as long as Roger’s been in business.”

“Strauss is older.”

“Yeah, but Roger is more ambitious, I guess.”

“Or at least he’s more of a risk-taker.”

They started walking back to the car.

“Still heading to D.C.?”

“Yeah. No way around it.”

“Think things will start hopping here soon?”

Puller said, “Seven people have already been killed. I think it’s been hopping for a while.”



THEY DROVE OVER in Cole’s cruiser to the Trent office where Molly Bitner had worked. Along the way Puller called the soil testing company in Ohio. After being transferred to two different people who could not help him, Puller motioned for Cole to pull off the road. She put the car in park and turned to him.

Into the phone Puller said, “Well, let me talk to a supervisor.” He waited another couple of minutes until the voice came on the line.

Puller explained the situation and the person on the other end responded.

“Can you tell me anything over the phone?” he asked.

Puller listened and nodded. He asked for their contact information and wrote it down in his notebook. “Okay. The court order will be coming. I’d appreciate a fast turnaround.”

He clicked off and looked at Cole.

She said, “So a court order is necessary? I didn’t think soil samples were so confidential. Could they tell you anything?”

“Only that it was Matthew Reynolds who had requested the work done. He paid by credit card. And it was some samples of organic matter that he wanted vetted. They wouldn’t tell me from where or what they found. I’ve got their information here. Can you get the paperwork going on that?”

“I’ll see the county attorney today.” She put the car back in drive and pulled back onto the road.

“It must be soil from around here, don’t you think?”

“I would assume so. But we have to know for sure.”

“And why test it?”

“Pollutants,” said Puller. “I mean, why else?”

“So that may be what this is about? Pollution?”

“Well, if they came back and killed Wellman to get the report, then yeah, I’d say that might be what this is about. It must be something really serious, though.”

“This is West Virginia, Puller. There’s a ton of ground and water pollution here already. Hell, we can’t even drink the water. People know that. You just have to look around or see the crap in the air to know it’s dirty. So I don’t see how it would be worth killing seven people to keep secret something that everyone already knows exists.”

“That’s a valid point. Let’s look at it from another angle. Has Trent had run-ins with EPA?”

“There isn’t a coal company operating in West Virginia that hasn’t had run-ins with EPA and the state regulatory folks. Coal drives the economy here, but there are limits.”

“And if you exceed those limits you can get in trouble?”

“Yes,” she conceded. “But again, is it worth killing seven people, including a police officer? If Roger had run afoul of some reg he’d have to pay a fine, which he’s done in the past. Many times. He has the money to do that. He doesn’t have to resort to murdering people.”

“What if it was more than just butchering a reg?”

“What do you mean?”

“You told me if people kept dropping dead from cancer that Trent might get run out of town on a rail. Foul water, sickness, maybe kids dying. That could crater his whole company. Cost him everything, including that big house and his private jet. Maybe he goes to prison too, if it’s shown he knew about it and did nothing. Maybe they stumbled onto something like that.”

Cole didn’t look convinced. A few miles passed before she broke the silence.

“But how would the Reynoldses be involved in that? I mean, I can understand Bitner. She worked at one of the Trent offices. Maybe she found out something. Overheard something. Saw something in a file or on a computer screen she wasn’t supposed to. But if so, why not just send in the soil sample request herself? Why use the Reynoldses?”

“Maybe she thought someone suspected her. So she used the Reynoldses as a go-between, to shield her own involvement. They’re living right across the street. Maybe they spoke, became friends of a sort. They see Matt Reynolds in his uniform. He’s official. A soldier. Works at the Pentagon. Sworn to protect his country. They think he can help with all his connections. He agrees to do it. But then someone finds out. They send in the hit team. Take both families out.”

“Lot of firepower. It’s not like Roger has teams of killers at his beck and call.”

“How do you know he doesn’t? Union and coal company battles can get pretty intense. He already has security. And Jean told me he carries a concealed weapon. Are you telling me he doesn’t have guys with guns on his payroll to handle stuff? Intimidation? Scare tactics?”

“With surface mining you don’t really have much union involvement because you don’t have miners going underground to get the coal out. So those types of battles don’t happen that much around here. In fact, the union hall closed years ago.”

“I concede it’s a theory we need to work out. Let’s hope we can find out something where Bitner used to work. And we can’t forget about the meth lab. If this is tied to drug dealers we need to know sooner rather than later.”

“The drug angle in my mind is more viable to explain all this then the coal angle. Drugs, guns, and violence just go hand in hand.”

“But that doesn’t explain the soil sample. Or the Reynoldses’ involvement. Or Wellman getting strung up.”

“My brain is starting to fry. Okay, let’s focus on what’s coming up next. How do we handle Bitner’s office? What tack do you want to take?”

“Ask broad questions and hope for equally broad answers. We keep our eyes and ears open. Anything in plain sight is fair game.”

“Well, if you’re right and the company killed all those people to keep some secret, I doubt Bitner’s office coworkers will be too forthcoming. They’re probably scared shitless.”

“Never said it would be easy.”

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