“I take it Ms. Kirk didn’t want to tell me, though. She waited until you two were alone.”
“She plays everything close to the vest.”
“Well, with this I can’t say I blame her.”
Knox gazed around the bar. It was active, with lots of patrons, some with dates and some looking for companionship at least for one night.
“What do you intend to do now?”
Puller slipped out a piece of paper. “I intend to talk to these two people.”
Knox glanced at the paper. “The pair of witnesses?”
Puller finished off his beer and nodded. “Susan Reynolds is still in government service but works at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Niles Robinson works for a private government contractor and is based in Fairfax, Virginia.”
“So you doing this long-distance or close-up?”
“I don’t interview people long-distance if I can help it.”
“Interview or interrogate?” she shot back.
“That’s largely up to them.”
“What do you really hope to find?”
“When do you want to leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. There’s an eight a.m. flight out, gets into Reagan National a couple hours later.”
He paid the tab and they rose. He hooked her by the arm as they were about to head out. “The witnesses don’t know I’m coming, Knox. I’d like to keep the surprise.”
“If you’re afraid I’ll call them, you’re free to sleep in my hotel room tonight and keep watch. I got a room here before I met you in the bar.”
He studied her silently, his gaze taking in every point of her expression worth evaluating.
“I trust you, Knox.”
She said angrily, “No, I don’t think you do. So if you don’t want to spend the night in my room, I’ll spend the night in yours. And then we’ll head to the East Coast and see what we see.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“No, you’re wrong. I saw the way you just looked at me. So I do have to do it.”
“Look, I’ll just get my own room.”
“I thought you had a room.”
“I checked out after I left you at the cemetery. My plan was to run down some more leads and then head back to D.C. Obviously, with what happened with Macri and Shireen being here, things changed. We can head back tomorrow morning. I’ll get a room here.”
But he had already walked out of the bar and headed over to the front desk while Knox, her arms folded across her chest, moodily watched. Puller spent a long time with the hotel representative and the woman made several phone calls while Puller looked increasingly frustrated. Finally the woman put down the phone for the last time, shook her head, and said, “I’m really sorry. I even tried the downtown Y. Nothing.”
“Thanks,” said Puller tightly.
Puller walked back over to Knox. She said, “So what’s the word?”
Puller was stone-faced. “The word is there’s some sort of cattlemen’s convention in town. They just rented the last room in the hotel ten minutes ago.”
“Cattlemen?” said Knox, a smirk playing over her lips. “I didn’t know they had conventions. What do they talk about? The best ways to cow-tip?”
Puller went on as though he hadn’t heard her. “Which means there’s not a hotel room to be had anywhere.”
“You’re wrong there, Puller. There’s my room. Let’s go.”
Puller came out of the bathroom in Knox’s room dressed in sweats.
Knox passed by him and handed him her phone. “You can check the log. I didn’t make a call, text, or email while you were changing. And if you want you can hold on to it until we get to D.C.”
“You’re really blowing this out of proportion.”
“I don’t think so,” she said tersely. “I think I’m blowing it just right, actually.”
She slammed the bathroom door behind her. A minute later he heard the shower start up.
Puller looked around the room. There was only the one bed. And a chair. He grimaced. Contorting his nearly six-foot-four-inch body into a chair for a full night did not appeal to him in the least.
He eyed the floor. Hardwood. Great.
He called the front desk and asked about a roll-away bed. None were available. Apparently, several of the “cattlemen” were doubling up.
“We have a crib,” the woman said.
“Right,” said Puller before he hung up.
He sat in the chair and eyed her phone. She had disabled the auto lock, because he didn’t have to input a passcode. She had made no calls and had received none. He checked texts and emails. Nothing. Just like Knox had said. He checked the trash and junk caches. Zip there too.
He set the phone down on the nightstand, stretched out his limbs, and waited. And while he waited, he listened to the water running in the shower, and then he heard Knox singing. And before he realized it, his thoughts had drifted back to an unlikely person.
It had been the rockiest of relationships between his parents. She was a gentle woman, but with a spine of iron when she was pushed into a corner, a place John Puller Sr. had often forced her. Yet she had doted on her boys, until she was suddenly gone from their lives one day.
She had showered. That’s what had prompted the memory now. Puller had heard the water running and his mother singing, as she often did. Then the water had stopped. The bathroom door had opened and then closed. Puller had gone outside in the backyard to play. He remembered looking toward the house on the base where his father was stationed. His mother had been at the window, a towel still around her and her long hair still wet. She was looking at him. She smiled and waved. And he waved back.
That had been the last time he had ever seen her. When he had come back inside hours later she was gone. A search was conducted, but she was never found. His father had never spoken her name after that.
Jacqueline Puller had been Jackie to her friends, of which she had more than his father ever would. People feared his father. People loved his mother. Not a day went by that he didn’t think of her. Not a single day.
He conjured that face at the window. The smile, the wave. All of it full of love and reassurance, with nothing to predict such a catastrophic and mysterious end.
The image began to fade as the voice intruded.
Something shook him by the arm.
He came out of this memory, opened his eyes, and looked up. For one vastly unsettling moment Puller thought his long-lost mother was standing in front of him.
But it was Knox standing there draped in a towel, her hair pinned up and damp.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking genuinely worried about him.
He cleared his throat, gathered his composure, and nodded as he abruptly stood, causing her to jump back as he almost stepped on her bare foot.
“Sorry, just have a bunch of stuff on my mind.”
“Gee, I wonder what that could be?”
She smiled and he forced one to his lips. He picked up her phone and handed it back to her. “I think this is yours.”
“You sure you don’t want to keep it?”
“I’m sure I don’t need to.”
She set the phone on the nightstand and eyed the chair, the floor, and then the bed. “I guess we better discuss sleeping arrangements.”
“Look, I can just sleep in the lobby. There’s a couch there.”
She said in a mock playful tone, “What, you don’t trust yourself spending the night in a woman’s hotel room? What about the Rangers’ legendary self-discipline?”
He glanced down at her towel-draped figure. Then he abruptly looked up. “I trust myself.” He took in a whiff of air. Her hair smelled of vanilla. He felt an odd sensation creep up his spine. He shook it off, with difficulty.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I can sleep in the chair or on the floor.”