CHAPTER

56

“JOHN PULLER?”

The men had materialized in the parking garage near Puller’s ride. He noted the twin black SUVs idling nearby.

“What does Homeland Security want with me?”

The leader of the bunch, a small, trim man with curly dark hair and frown lines stacked on his forehead, said, “How do you know we’re with DHS?”

Puller pointed at the waist of one man. “He’s got the SIG nine.” He pointed to another

man. “He’s carrying the SIG forty cal. DHS is one of the few that lets their people mix and match. Add to that you’ve got a DHS lapel pin on your jacket. And my final clue was the Homeland Security parking sticker on one of your rides over there.”

The man looked around and then smiled. “Good eye. Still need to see our cred packs?”

“Yeah, I do. And I’ll show you mine. Army CID.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I know you know.”

“We need you to come with us.”

“Where and why?”

“The why will be explained by others. The where is not too far.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Not really, no.”

Puller shrugged. “Then let’s go.”

The ride was ten minutes. They entered another parking garage, swept down two levels, left the vehicles, and took an elevator up five floors. Puller was led down a hall where every single door was shut and secured with key and combo locks. There was nothing to show this was a federal building, which wasn’t unusual, Puller knew. DHS in particular kept ordinary-looking space like this all over the country. But to someone who knew what to look for the place screamed federal. The carpet was government beige, the walls government beige, the doors metal. The government spent a lot of money, Puller knew, but not on the finishes in their office buildings.

He was led into a room and left there at a small table with the door closed and locked from the outside. He counted off five minutes in his head and was beginning to wonder whether someone had forgotten he was there when the door opened.

The man was in his fifties and carried the heft and gravitas of a long government career in a field that did not include paper pushing or staple counting. He held a file. He sat. He rustled through the file and then he finally acknowledged Puller by looking at him.

“You want something to drink?” the man asked. “We got coffee, though ours sucks. We have water. Just tap. The high-end Deer Park perk got whacked last year. Budgets cuts are a bitch. Next they’ll be taking our guns.”

“I’m good.” Puller glanced at the file. “That about me?”

“Not per se, no.” He tapped the file. “I’m Joe Mason, by the way.” He reached across and shook Puller’s hand.

“John Puller.”

“That one I got figured out,” said Mason. He fiddled with the cuticle on one of his fingers. “How’re things coming in West Virginia?”

“Figured that was what this was about. Not all that good, actually. I assume you’ve been read in?”

“You can call your SAC if you want. Don White’s a good guy.”

“I will call my SAC.”

Mason pulled out his phone. “Let’s get the perfunctory shit over with so we can move on to more substantive stuff. Call him now.”

Puller made the call. Don White filled him in on Joe Mason of DHS and told Puller to be cooperative with the man.

Puller slid the phone back to Mason and looked at the file again. “So do I have to be read in?”

“I was just now thinking the very same thing, Puller.”

“And have you reached a decision?”

“Everything I can get hold of about you tells me you’re a crackerjack guy. Patriotic to the marrow. Tenacious as a bulldog, you’re gonna get whoever you set after.”

Puller said nothing, just eyed the man. He wanted him to keep talking. He wanted to keep listening.

Mason continued. “We have a situation out there. Sounds corny, doesn’t it? We have a situation. Anyway, the problem is we don’t know what the situation is.” He looked up from the file. “Can you give us any help there?”

“Is this why SecArm was so interested in the case? Why they only sent me initially?”

“The Secretary of the Army is interested in this case because we are. And while you are the only one currently visible, there are other assets deployed on this. And not just from DHS.”

“I understood DIA isn’t interested in this.”

“I would not agree with that statement.”

“FBI in on it?”

“FBI is in on everything whether we want them or not. However, we did not want to overwhelm you with alphabet suits, so I was picked to deliver the interface.”

“Okay, there’s a situation, only you don’t know what it is. I would have thought DHS would have more to do than work on something like that.”

“I would agree with you except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“A piece of chatter that NSA picked up two days ago. Want to guess where it was coming from?”

“Drake, West Virginia.”

“You got it.”

“I thought NSA could only listen to the foreign part of a conversation. That it couldn’t listen in or read the emails or texts of Americans.”

“That’s mostly correct as far as it goes.”

“What did the chatter say?”

“Well, it was in a language that one would not expect to be coming from rural West Virginia.”

When the man didn’t tell him what it was, Puller got a little ticked off and said, “New Jersey? The Bronx?”

“Try again, and head farther east.”

“Arabic?”

“Dari. You know it’s one of the major dialects spoken in Afghanistan.”

“Yeah, that I know. So Afghanistan. Has it been translated?”

“Yes. As follows: ‘The time is coming soon.’ And that everyone needed to be prepared. And that justice would be theirs.”

“And you took that to mean some attack on the United States?”

“That’s what I’m paid to think, Puller. And also paid to prevent.”

“Why was this chatter so special? People say stupid stuff all the time that leads nowhere. Even speaking in Dari.”

“The chatter wasn’t clean. It was encrypted. And it wasn’t encrypted with some fancy computer algorithm. It was in code. Code that my people tell me was very popular with the old KGB before the Cold War ended. Now we also know that the Taliban has started using old KGB codes to communicate with implanted cells. I guess it harks back to the days when the Red Army was rolling around in tanks there.”

“Taliban using a KGB code in Dari coming from West Virginia. Now that’s diversity for you. But they broke it?”

“Obviously, or else I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. Ironically, the old code stuff is coming back into vogue, Puller, because we’ve gotten so good at cracking computerized encryption. Bottom line, it made us sit up and take notice.”

“I haven’t seen one turban in Drake. Just a bunch of proud Americans with a little red around the neck. How can you be sure the plan will be executed in Drake? The terrorists could just be hiding out there and the target could be someplace else.”

“Other components of the chatter lead us to believe that the target is at least in the vicinity of Drake.”

Puller sat back, thought about this. “Well, there’s a big concrete dome where a secret government facility operated in the 1960s. That’s probably a good place to start. In fact, it’s the only thing out of the ordinary in the place. Other than a bunch of dead bodies.

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