“Okay. Then I guess it’s just a matter of where we go from here. But just to be up-front, I’m going to keep looking into this. It’s just how I’m built.”

He paused, searching Landry’s face for her reaction to this. When she said nothing, he continued. “If I find something substantial, I will bring it to you. Then we can determine what to do from there. Does that seem workable?”

“What do you define as substantial? If it’s a suspect or a body, I think that might be too late.” “I will work really hard to keep you in the loop the whole way, how about that?”

“How about if I work with you on my own time?”

He studied her. “Is that what you want?”

“I think so, yeah. It’s what you originally suggested, isn’t it?”

“I guess so. I just never really expected you to bite on it. So why are you?”

“I don’t like people dying when they didn’t have to.”

“Then I think we have a deal.”

As they were leaving the restaurant Puller’s phone buzzed. It was a text from General Carson. She had run down the plate.

When Puller saw the information his eyes widened.

This case had just gone to a whole new level.

CHAPTER 44

“You want to come back to my place and talk about this some more?” Landry asked as they walked out of Darby’s.

Puller wasn’t paying attention to her. He was staring down at the phone in his hand. More specifically, he was staring at the text on

his phone’s screen.

“I’m sorry if I’m boring you,” Landry said crossly as she eyed the device in his hand.

He put it away in his pocket. “Sorry, something just came up. What were you saying?”

“My place, talk some more? We could walk on the beach. It’s up to you. No skin off my nose if you decline. Just trying to be friendly.” She added, “And keeping you off the streets and out of trouble.”

Puller thought about this. He still didn’t have a place to stay, but he didn’t think it was a good idea to crash at Landry’s place again. And even though he had finished processing his aunt’s home he still didn’t feel comfortable staying there. She had left it to him, of course, so he had every right to be there if he wanted. But what it really came down to was that until he figured out what had happened to her, Puller didn’t think he deserved to stay in the woman’s house. Not after all those years of not contacting her, letting her tumble from his life like an insignificant piece of debris.

“You know of any places I can bed down in Paradise?” He paused and smiled. “If you think it’s safe enough for me.”

“Why not stay at your aunt’s?”

“If those guys in the Chrysler are tailing me it would be too easy for them to keep tabs on me.” “You really think they’re following you?” “Don’t know one way or another. Until I do

I’m not taking chances.”

“There’s a place called the Gull Coast. It’s on Gulfstream Avenue. Two blocks south of the Sierra. It’s a little bit more money because it is closer to the beach, but you probably won’t have to worry about being murdered while you’re brushing your teeth.”

“Sounds right up my alley. Thanks.”

“So you want to hook up later? I usually take a walk on the beach at night around my condo building.”

“I’ll meet you there in an hour. That’ll give me time to check into the Gull Coast.”

“Okay. See you in an hour.”

She walked to her car and Puller to his. He punched in the numbers on the phone as he pulled out of the parking lot.

“Wondered what took you so long,” said Carson on the other end of the phone. “I figured you’d call me the second after you got my text.” “Just got a little backed up down here. But tell me something. How can the Pentagon be told to stand down for running a lousy license plate?” “We did trace it, you know. To a big cloud somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Not really, but it might as well have been. Total dead end. I was as surprised as you. Figured it would turn out to be a private company. Then we got the call to knock it off.”

“Call from who?”

“The official source apparently did not wish to identify itself to a lowly one-star. I got the word from higher up the chain of command.”

“So are you in trouble?”

“I don’t think so. But I might be wrong about that.”

“I had a friend at USACIL try to run the plate for me. I got called by a Colonel Walmsey. He tried to shame me into coming back and cleaning the mess up, but then he figured out who my father was and backed off. I wonder if he got warned off too.”

“I don’t know about that. But we sure did. And J2 is not used to having its hand slapped, I can tell you that.”

“Who has the horsepower to do that?”

“It’s not a long list. What the higher-ups want to keep secret, they do keep secret, right or wrong.”

“As a soldier, I get that. As a taxpayer I’m more than a little pissed.”

“So be pissed. It is what it is.”

“The two guys?”

“Anyone’s guess. What did they look like?” “They looked like me, only smaller.”

“So former military, like you said on our last call.”

“I don’t know for sure, General.”

“General?”

“We’re back on the clock.”

“Okay,” she said in an amused tone.

“Maybe they’re still on our side. In fact, since you got called off maybe they are on our side.” “Maybe. But it prompts the question of what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into, Puller.” “Blowback from West Virginia?”

“That’s what I was thinking. It touched a lot of very hot wires. It looked like things turned out great and you were the hero, but you know D.C. Things could have changed. Maybe they’re looking for a scapegoat for a reason unknown to either of us. Wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened.”

“Meaning me as the scapegoat?”

“And I was involved too, if you recall.”

“So why would they be down here tracking me—”

He gripped the phone so hard he thought he felt the shell begin to cave in.

“Puller?”

Til call you back.”

“What is it?”

Til call you back.”

Puller clicked off and hit a hard right.

Because the Chrysler guys kept showing up where he was, he had simply assumed that they had to be after him.

That had been an assumption he had no business making.

While it was true that the guys had taken up a tail on him—they had been seen around the Sierra after all—they had to have picked him up from some point.

And he knew what that point might have been.

My aunt’s house.

They might not have been following him. This might have nothing to do with blowback from what had happened in West Virginia. They might have been checking out Betsy Simon’s home.

And it wasn’t a huge stretch to their having killed her. He didn’t care if they were from the Pentagon or if someone high up was trying to call the dogs off. If they had killed his aunt they were going to pay for it.

He punched the gas and the Tahoe sped off into the darkness.

CHAPTER 45

Puller parked two blocks over and walked the rest of the way to his

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