“I’m not my brother. And all my clearances were renewed.”
“I know that.” The man fell silent and tapped the arm of his chair.
Puller said nothing. He knew what was coming next. It always did.
“So why not West Point for you, Puller? And why CID? Your military service is solid gold. Top scores at Ranger School. Hell of a combat record. A leader in the field. Your father earned forty-nine major medals over three decades and he’s an Army legend. You garnered nearly half that in six tours of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two Silvers, one of which landed you in rehab for three months, three Bronzes with V-devices, and a trio of Purples. And you bagged a guy on the fifty-two-card most wanted deck in Iraq, right?”
“Five of spades, sir,” said Puller.
“Right. So you’ve got more than enough stars and scars. Army loves that combo. You’re a stud with an impeccable military pedigree. If you’d stayed with the Rangers you’d be a shoo-in for the top enlisted spot. If you’d gone to West Point you’d be a major or maybe even a lieutenant colonel by now. And you could’ve earned at least two shoulder stars before you left the Army. Hell, maybe three like your old man if you played the political games right. At CID an enlisted man tops out at command sergeant major. And my predecessor told me the only reason you filed your warrant officer application was because sergeant first classes sit their butts behind desks at CID while WOs can still get out in the field.”
“I don’t much like desks, sir.”
“So here you are, at CID. On the low side of the bars and clusters. And I’m not the first to wonder about that, soldier.”
Puller let his gaze drop to the other man’s row of ribbons. White was dressed in the Army’s new blue Class Bs that were over time replacing the old greens. For anyone in the military the chest of ribbons and/or medals was the DNA of a person’s career. It told all to the experienced eye; nothing of significance could be hidden. From a combat perspective there wasn’t anything in the SAC’s history worthy of note, not a Purple or valor device in sight. Certainly the ribbons were many in number and would look impressive to the layperson, but it told Puller that the man was basically a career desk-humper, who only fired a weapon for recertification.
Puller said, “Sir, I like where I am. I like the way I got there. And it’s a moot point now. It is what it is.”
“I guess it is, Puller. I guess it is. Some might call you an underachiever.”
“Maybe it’s a character flaw, but I’ve never cared about what people call me.”
“Heard that too about you.”
Puller eyed the man steadily. “Yes, sir. I guess the case is getting cold out there.”
The man glanced over at his computer screen. “Then get your gear and head out.”
When White looked back moments later, Puller was already gone.
He’d never even heard the big man leave. White leaned farther back in his squeaky chair. Maybe that was why he had all those medals. You couldn’t kill what you couldn’t see coming.
SITTING ON THE TRUNK of his black Army-issued Chevy Malibu, Puller drank one extra-large cup of coffee while he scanned the file under the arc of a streetlight outside CID headquarters. Clustered around here were all the criminal investigative divisions of the military, including NCIS, which had become a hugely popular television show. Puller wished he could solve crimes in sixty minutes each week as his TV counterparts did. In the real world it often took a lot longer, and sometimes you never did get to the truth.
In the background the sounds of gunshots were relentless. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and the Marines trained around the clock with live ammo. Puller was so used to the gunfire that he barely noticed it. He would only react if he hadn’t heard it. Ironically, no shots fired at Quantico meant something was seriously wrong.
He turned the page in the file. The Army was as methodical and precise about recordkeeping as it was about everything else: the size of the file, the number of pages stapled to it, right-side info versus left-side, what dot and dash and triple slash went where. There were volumes of field manuals devoted to every last detail. Just the regulations that went along with maintaining the Military Police Blotter were legendary in their exactness. But the important thing to Puller would always be what was on the page, not where in the folder it was supposed to go.
Matthew Reynolds and his wife Stacey and their two teenage kids, one girl, one boy, had been murdered at a house in rural West Virginia. Mailman discovered the bodies. Local police on the scene. Husband was a colonel at DIA. He was in the process of rotating out and flipping to the private sector after pulling his twenty-six years in uniform. He was stationed at the Pentagon and lived in Fairfax City, so Puller didn’t know what the man and his family were doing in a house in West Virginia. That would be one of many questions he would have to find answers to. Maybe the locals already had answers. He would take any they had and then verify them independently.
He put the file in his briefcase and checked his gear pack in the trunk. It was contained in a customized infantry rucksack with over a hundred compartments. It held pretty much everything he would need in the field: light blue latex gloves, flashlights, paper bags, body bags and tags, 35-millimeter and instant cameras, green biohazard suits complete with hood and air filtering gear, white field evidence collection scrubs, tape measure, ruler, evidence tape, departmental file forms, latent print kit, GSR analysis kit, barrier sheeting, digital recorder, crime scene notebook, medical equipment kit, shoe covers, body thermometer, purification mask, reflective vest, pocketknife, and nearly six dozen other items. He had two M11 pistols, and extra thirteen-and twenty-round mags. Puller also carried in his trunk an MP5 submachine gun. He had spare combat duds neatly packed in another bag. For now with the heat still at eighty-five degrees this late at night, jeans and a short-sleeved white shirt and Nikes would do.
Puller had never taken on a case like this solo. There was usually at least one other CID agent with him, usually more, plus tech support. And this case begged for more resources. But he had his assignment. And in the Army once you had your assignment the next step was to execute it. Otherwise you would find yourself in front of a military tribunal with perhaps prison your next career post.
He programmed the address where he was heading into his GPS, closed the Chevy’s door, punched the gas, and left Quantico behind.
He stopped once to take a leak and grab another cup of black coffee. He hit Drake, West Virginia, population 6,547 as the sign said, at three in the morning. Sunrise would be in a little over three hours. He had gotten lost once, when the GPS led him down a two-lane road on the outskirts of Drake.
His headlights had hit on a neighborhood of abandoned houses. There must’ve been at least a hundred of them, maybe far more. They looked to be prefabricated and mass-assembled on site. There was a string of electrical and telephone poles down one side of the street. Yet as his car glided down this little “detour,” Puller had changed his mind. The houses weren’t abandoned; at least some of them were occupied. There were old cars parked out front. But the lights that glowed in a few of the windows didn’t seem to be electrical. Maybe gas or battery-operated. He kept going, and then his lights hit on something else peculiar. It was a huge dome-shaped mass formed out of concrete that
rose up out of the woods.
What the hell is that?
Despite his natural curiosity he had driven on, anxious to get to where he was going. The GPS had recalibrated and he soon found himself on the right path. When he arrived he wasn’t tired. In fact the long ride had both relaxed and energized him. He decided to get to work.
He’d called ahead and reserved a room at the only motel in the area. It was a few notches below a Motel 6, but Puller didn’t care. He’d spent years of his life in tin cans in swamps and deserts with a bucket for a shower and a hole in the earth for a bathroom, so this particular crevice in the wall was like the Ritz.
The door to the office was locked, but on the third ring of the buzzer, the door opened. Later, after she checked him in, the sleepy old lady in hair rollers and ratty robe standing behind the counter asked him what he was in town for.
As he palmed the room key Puller said, “Vacation.”
That had made the old woman laugh.
“You’re a slick one you are,” she said, her voice lisping through a large gap between her front teeth. She smelled of nicotine, garlic, and salsa. It was an impressive combination. “And big.” She gazed up at him from her five-foot-one-inch perch on earth.
“Any place you’d recommend to eat at?”
Army Rule Number One: Find a dependable place for chow.
“Depends,” said the woman.