servant. Protect and defend.”

“Right. So what am I supposed to do? Evacuate the county?”

Puller gripped the steering wheel tighter and peered out into the darkness. Cole had been telling him which way to go to get to the Strausses’ home, but apparently they were on a long straightaway, at least long by local standards, and Cole had obviously seized the opportunity to voice her concerns.

“You can try, I guess. But without more to go on, I’m not sure how effective you’ll be.”

“But if you back me up? And the folks up in D.C.?”

“That won’t be happening,” said Puller bluntly.

“Why the hell not?”

Puller decided to tell her the truth. “They see you guys as an opportunity to write a new page in the playbook and nail some bad guys in the process.”

“You mean we’re guinea pigs?” she snapped.

“Yeah, you’re guinea pigs. The Feds figure if we hit the panic button the bad guys will just pull up stakes and go to another place and do it there.”

“But this is my hometown. I was born here. I know the people. I can’t just wait around for them to be wiped out.”

Puller had been staring at her, but now he looked away.

“Puller? Do you understand where I’m coming from?”

“Yeah, I do. And that means I probably shouldn’t have told you.”

“The hell you shouldn’t have!”

“Bottom line, the Feds are going to do nothing to precipitate this. They want to see it play out. They’ll call in the troops at the last minute. It should be enough time to ensure minimal collateral damage.”

“Should be enough time? Minimal collateral damage?”

He interrupted her. “But that doesn’t mean that we just have to sit here with our tails tucked between our legs. We can try to solve this sucker before the trigger is pulled.”

“But what if we can’t?”

“It’s the best plan I have.”

“You’re asking me to decide between my country and my people.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything, Cole. I’m just telling you what they told me. I don’t like it any better than you do.”

“So what would you do?”

“I’m a soldier. It’s easy for me. I just follow orders.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Yeah, you’re right, it is.”

“So?”

He gripped the wheel so tightly that he could feel it give a little. “So, I don’t know.”

They ate up more ground in silence. She broke it only to give him the final directions to Strauss’s place.

As they neared it she said, “What if I decide to raise the alarm?”

“It’s up to you.”

“You won’t shoot me?”

“It’s up to you,” Puller said again. “And no, I won’t shoot you.” He took a long breath. “In fact, I’ll back you up.”

“You will? Why?”

He looked over to see her staring at him.

“I just will,” said Puller. “Right thing to do. Sometimes the brass forgets about that little detail. Right thing to do,” he said again.

They saw the lights of the Strauss home up ahead. As Puller turned into the driveway he said, “We can get through this if we keep working together.”

She pressed the palms of her hands against the dash, as though trying to slow down runaway thoughts attempting to escape her mind.

He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. “You’re not alone, Sam. I’m right here with you.”

She turned to him. “First time you’ve called me Sam.”

“I’m in the Army. We’re a formal race of people.”

This drew a rare smile from her. She patted his hand.

“I’m good… John.” She looked at him. “Is that okay? That I sometimes call you John? I know that probably sounds silly with everything that’s going on, to worry about something like that.”

“It’s fine. And it’s better than Romeo, I guess.”

“Or Juliet,” she replied.

CHAPTER

78

THE STRAUSS HOME was a little over half the size of the Trents’, which meant it was enormous by Drake standards. And by most American standards, Puller thought. It stood within its own five-acre grounds and even had a little gate out front, though there was no guard here as there was at Trent’s mansion.

Cole had called ahead and roused Strauss and his wife from their beds. The couple was waiting for them when they rang the doorbell. Mrs. Strauss was a large-boned fleshy woman who had taken the time to fix her hair after being awoken in the middle of the night. She wore slacks, a blouse with the bottom untucked, and an expression that was devastated.

Bill Strauss was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. He had an unlit cigarette dangling between his fingers. Perhaps Mrs. Strauss, like Rhonda Dougett, did not allow smoking in her house.

They sat huddled on a couch together while Cole explained what had happened. When she came to the gunshot Bill Strauss looked up.

“So you’re saying someone murdered him? Killed Dickie on purpose?”

Puller said, “I was there. That’s exactly what happened.”

Strauss gazed at him. “You were there? At the firehouse? Why?”

Cole answered. “That’s not relevant, Mr. Strauss.”

“Do you have any leads on the killer?”

“We have better than that,” said Puller. “We have the killer.”

Both Strausses gaped at him. Bill Strauss said, “You caught him? Who is he? Why did he kill our son?”

“We don’t know who he is. And we can’t ask him why he killed Dickie, because he killed himself a few minutes after he shot your son.”

Mrs. Strauss started to weep softly into her hands while her husband slid a hand around her shoulders. When the woman completely broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably a few moments later, her husband led her off down the hall.

Puller and Cole sat there waiting for him to return. Puller rose after a couple of minutes and started looking around the room.

Strauss came back in a minute later. He said, “I’m sorry about that. But I’m sure you can understand how distressed we both are.”

“Absolutely,” said Cole. “We can come back another time, if you’d like. I know this is very difficult.”

Strauss sat back down and shook his head. “No, let’s just get it over with.”

This time he did light up and blew the smoke off to the side.

“We’re trying to find out who the dead man is. If we do, it could help break the case.”

“So you’re sure he’s not from around here?” asked Strauss.

“Don’t think so, but we’ll confirm it.”

“Any reason you can think of why someone would want to harm your son?” asked Cole.

“Not a one. Dickie didn’t have any enemies. He had friends. He had his buddies in the motorcycle club.”

“Where did he work?” asked Puller.

“He… uh, he didn’t currently have a job,” said Strauss.

“Well, where did he last work?”

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