you? Or regardless of who is ultimately held accountable?”
Puller suddenly stood, towering over her. She took a step back as he stared fiercely down at her. “I gave an oath when I put on the uniform, Knox. Bobby is my family, but so is the United States Army. I will follow this investigation objectively and I will hold people accountable. All people.”
“So what was the point of bringing me here, then?” she asked, looking mystified.
“To remind you that I’m willing to sacrifice my brother or anybody else if it means doing my job and seeing that justice is done.” He paused, but only for a moment. “So what are you willing to sacrifice?”
Her eyes widened. “What the hell are you talking about? How did this get turned around to me?”
“Are you willing to sacrifice your loyalty to INSCOM, NSA? And whoever else you work for?”
“Puller, I thought we already had this discussion. You dressed me down and I said I’d work with you. So what’s the problem?”
In a voice like a drill sergeant he barked, “I asked you whether the 902d Military Intelligence Group stationed here had ties to the NSA. And your response was, ‘I’m afraid I can’t get into that.’”
“Look, you’re pissed and maybe you have a right to be, but bringing me to a cemetery is a little melodramatic, don’t you—”
Puller interrupted, “So I’m asking you for the last time, do you have my back under all conditions? Because if you don’t then you are useless to me, Knox. And we’re just going to go our separate ways.”
There was a long moment of silence before she broke it. “Puller, I told you I hate deceiving people like you. And I meant that.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“What do you want from me?”
“All I want is an answer to my question. It’s that simple.”
“I can give you an answer, just not the one you so obviously…want,” she said, her voice dying out at the end.
He said, “Well, that’s answer enough.” He spun on his heel, marched back to his car, and drove off, leaving her still standing on the final resting place of Thomas Custer, loyal brother extraordinaire.
ROBERT PULLER SAT in his motel room and stared down at the image he’d drawn, photographed, and then transferred onto glossy paper. It was the dead man back in his cell. Puller had gotten no hits on any database that he could hack into. He had finally stopped trying. The man was definitely not in the military. He was not in the federal bureaucracy. He was not a government contractor with a security clearance. He was not in law enforcement. He was not on a terrorist watch list. They would all be in a database somewhere. These days everybody was in a database somewhere.
So who the hell was he? And how did he end up in my prison cell?
Puller moved his face closer to the photo. He had spent years of his life examining the smallest details, looking for something of value, sometimes just a speck within a mountain of digital data. He was a twenty-first-century gold prospector, only his equipment was a computer and a bandwidth pipe the size of New Jersey.
Then his eye caught something, transmitted that something to his brain, and his brain retrieved the necessary information from memory. He looked down at the image with renewed energy and a fresh perspective.
I got the jawline wrong. It was dark in the cell, but that’s no excuse. I still got it wrong and I can’t afford mistakes. It was more angular. And the eyes, they were more sunken, the forehead a bit fuller, the nose a touch sharper.
On a sketchpad he made the necessary adjustments in the face. Finished, he sat back and stared down at the new image.
No wonder he didn’t show up in any database. Any American database.
Puller had examined many such faces during his career. He had become an expert at reading people’s origins in their features. The man was from Eastern Europe. Maybe as specific as the Balkan region. But clearly not Greek, Turkish, or Albanian. He must be a Slav. Could be a Bosnian, Croat, or Serb. So how did a Slav end up as part of an MP response team to a crisis situation at America’s only maximum-security military prison?
He sat back and closed his eyes. In his mind’s eye he took a trip through Fort Leavenworth, a place he had been to often in his career. Even though he was Air Force, his particular specialty made working with the other armed forces branches mandatory. And the 902d Military Intelligence Group was stationed there.
His photographic memory clicking away, Puller kept up his mental stroll until he came to the answer. He opened his eyes.
The foreign military school at Leavenworth. The man had to have come from there. He thought about it a bit more. But that couldn’t be right. He had heard nothing in the news about the dead man being identified. If he had been enrolled in the school at Leavenworth his face and prints would be on a database somewhere. Either he had been identified that way and the news not publicly released, or he hadn’t been identified, which meant Puller had missed something in his deductions.
He closed his eyes once more. No, there was another possibility. The foreign military student would have an access card to the fort that would allow him to avoid the main gate. That meant no vehicle searches. That meant the student could have transported onto the base the man who had ended up dead in his cell.
The man had been sent to the DB to kill him. Puller had known this as soon as the cell door had opened. It was dark, to be sure. But he had suspected something was wrong from the very beginning. The main power might go out because of a storm. But the backup power too? He knew it was fed from natural gas lines buried deeply underground and thus invulnerable to the storm’s power.
No, the odds of both systems failing at the same time were colossally long. And then there had been the actions of the man. He had come into the cell and closed the door behind him. That was the first suspicious sign. The second was the man taking out a knife. Puller had seen that in the illumination of the man’s helmet light.
But Puller had not given the man the opportunity to stab him. He had disarmed him, grabbed him by the neck.
And, well, the end had come quickly.
Thanks to the teachings of his little brother.
Apparently the Slavs had never heard of snap-crackle-pop.
It was fortunate that he was close to my height and build, yet they never thought of the possibilities there. Not for one second. I’m certain of that. They never imagined that I would end up killing him and taking his place to escape.
The questions, though, were numerous, and Puller was not finding any ready answers.
Why kill me now? Who would want to? And who could have orchestrated such an event at DB?
Puller sat back feeling distressed. He knew that the part of the brain that triggered emotions brought on by pain was the anterior cingulate cortex. Interestingly enough, it didn’t distinguish between emotional and physical pain. Thus it could be set in motion as easily by a broken heart as by a damaged limb.
He closed his eyes and started concentrating, turning slow-moving alpha waves into beta waves that cycled through his mind at twice the speed of the alphas.
Foreign military student.
Assassination attempt at Leavenworth more than two years after he had been imprisoned there.
What had been the catalyst? Simply the time for planning? He doubted that. It would take time to do so, but hardly more than twenty-four months. What had occurred in the interim?
All the rest, the power outage, the noises of guns and bombs, even the man sent to kill him, were all part of the “effect” of the cause and effect. They were just filler. Now he needed to get past the fluff and zero in on the root of it all.
His initial instinct had been to set out for a location connected to his old position at SRATCOM. That was still his inclination, but he didn’t have the luxury of gallivanting off to multiple places. He had to narrow it down.
So what had been the trigger for all this? If he coul
d find that, he could narrow the number of places to which he might have to travel.
While in solitary confinement, he had had access to the news. He had read as many newspapers as they would provide him. He had seen the TV. He had no Internet access but he had listened to the conversations of the guards. And his brother had brought him news as well during his visits.
Daughtrey had joined STRATCOM four months ago. The man was now dead. Had his joining STRATCOM been the reason for what had happened at the DB?
There was also talk that the intelligence community was going to be undergoing some radical structural changes, bringing more order and a streamlined approach to a sector that had been sorely lacking in those areas. Was that the reason for the events at the DB that had nearly claimed his life? But he had no connection to that world anymore.
He kept blasting the problem with cycles of beta waves.
Five minutes later he slammed his fist against the wall in frustration. His brain, the one thing that had never failed him, just had.