knew that meant the old man wasn’t yelling at anybody.

He left a message on Shireen’s voice mail telling her where they were and what they had found out. He knew he would have to report in soon to General Rinehart and Schindler from the NSC. How much he would tell them he wasn’t sure.

He checked his watch, gunned up, and headed to the elevator.

Knox was standing there waiting for the elevator car to arrive. She wore a cream-colored skirt that hit right above the knee, an emerald green blouse, and high-heeled, open-toed shoes revealing rose-colored nail polish. Her auburn hair was highlighted against the green fabric and was done up in a way that revealed her long, curved neck. She carried a clutch purse and a wrap was loosely draped around her shoulders. He caught a whiff of her perfume and felt a little lightheaded as he approached.

He looked down at his khakis, polo shirt, and old corduroy jacket. “I’m feeling a little underdressed next to you, Knox.”

She smiled. “You look fine.”

“Where to?” he asked when they reached the lobby. “I don’t know the town that well.”

“I made reservations at a place. Easy walking distance.”

He eyed her spikes. “Even in those shoes?”

She smiled. “I have great balance.”

He eyed her purse. “Gunned up?”

She nodded. “Compact but good stopping power. I use it as a backup ordinarily.”

The air was warm and the dark sky clear. The walk was only two blocks. The restaurant was fairly full at the late hour. The clientele was made up of well-dressed twenty-somethings who looked like lawyers, bankers, techies, and other assorted professionals taking a break from busy lives to play. When Puller saw the prices on the menu he glanced sharply at Knox.

“My per diem doesn’t cover this.”

“Relax, it’s on me.”

They split a bottle of wine and Puller had sirloin steak medium rare, while Knox ordered salmon served on a cedar plank. They divided up a piece of carrot cake over coffee for dessert.

They were the last customers to leave the restaurant.

As they walked back, Knox slipped her arm through his. She leaned into him and for some reason he interpreted this as more for support than anything else. When he glanced at her she confirmed this by saying, “I admit, the heels were a bad idea.”

“Well, they look great on you. Just like the dress.”

She squeezed his arm. “I wasn’t sure you had noticed.”

“I noticed,” said Puller. He paused. “Just like I noticed the four guys following us. Two across the street and two behind us.”

Knox kept looking straight ahead. “And they definitely seem interested in us?”

“They were outside the restaurant when we left. They split into pairs and headed our way. And they’re still there matching us stride for stride but keeping just back.”

“And the next block coming up is pretty isolated. And at this hour we’re the only ones out and about.”

“Let’s hang a left down the alleyway up there and see what happens.”

They made the turn and Puller watched as Knox opened her clutch and took out the pistol. She covered it by sliding her hand inside her wrap.

“I hear footsteps coming across the street,” she said.

“See the Dumpster up there?”

“Yes,” she said.

“When we get there let’s fake a little romantic thing.”

“You mean like making out?” she said.

“Yeah,” he said crisply.

“Okay, but what’s the endgame?”

“I want to be able to see the whites of their eyes. And since we’re outnumbered two to one I hope it’ll make them let down their defenses for the second we’ll need.”

They kept walking at a leisurely pace until they reached the Dumpster. Then Puller turned to Knox, brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes, circled her waist with his arm, and bent low to kiss her. As his lips rested against Knox’s, Puller had not a romantic thought in his head. He was counting off the footsteps in his head. His left hand was coiled around Knox’s waist but his right hand gripped his M11.

He moved his lips to Knox’s neck and pretended to nuzzle her skin. “Three-two-one,” he whispered in her ear.

They whirled, guns pointed at the four men, who were now only ten feet away. From their stunned expressions they had been caught completely off guard.

“Guns on the ground, now,” barked Puller.

One man did not heed this warning and raised his gun instead and fired. He missed his target and the round clanged off the Dumpster behind Puller. Knox fired and the man dropped to the asphalt. As he fell the other three shot back and retreated. Puller returned the fire.

“Go! Go!” shouted Knox. “I’ve got your six.”

Puller hustled after them. Knox checked the fallen man, looked behind her, threw off her heels, and sprinted after Puller.

The three men reached the end of the alley and Puller heard the vehicle coming fast on the next street. He increased his speed, but he needed to duck behind some garbage cans when one of the men turned and fired at him. By the time he got to the street the SUV was just turning the next corner.

Knox came running up to him.

“Anything?” she asked breathlessly.

He shook his head. “They’re gone. Didn’t get the plate.”

“Let’s check the guy I shot back there. Maybe he has some ID.”

But there was no dead guy. There was blood, but no corpse.

They looked everywhere the wounded man could have gone, but found no sign of him.

Knox looked at Puller, dumbstruck. “I hit him right in the chest.”

“Were they wearing body armor?”

“I couldn’t tell. It was too dark. But there’s blood. I hit him.” She smacked her palm against her forehead. “Serves me right. I should’ve aimed for the head.”

Puller phoned the police and explained the situation. Then he called his superior at CID. The cops showed up minutes later. After that came the local detectives, and after that two CID agents arrived from Fort Bragg over in Fayetteville. They didn’t look pleased at having to make the drive at this time of night. They asked their questions and checked over the crime scene, what there was of one.

One of the agents asked Puller if he had any idea why they’d been targeted. Puller didn’t elaborate but told the agents he and Knox were working a case that was classified.

“Well, good luck with that,” said the agent as he and his partner walked off.

After answering innumerable questions from the local cops and looking through mug books at the precinct and giving their official statements, Puller and Knox didn’t get back to their hotel until three in the morning.

“Did you get a chance to report in to your superiors?” he asked Knox as they rode up in the elevator.

She nodded. “You?”

“They weren’t happy. But it wasn’t like I asked somebody to try to kill us.”

She slipped off her heels before walking out of the elevator, leaning against the wall and rubbing one of her feet.

“Not exactly the night I had planned,” she said, sounding depressed.

“Wouldn’t think so.”

“Who do you think those guys were?”

“Same ones who jumped me at Leavenworth, maybe?”

“Did you recognize any of them?”

“The guys in Kansas wore ski masks.”

“So maybe they followed us across the country?”

“Maybe,” he said.

She looked up at him. “You tired?”

“Not particularly. Must be the adrenaline spike from almost getting killed.”

“The Ritz has round-the-clock room service. How about some wine and a snack? I’m suddenly starving.”

They headed to her room and she placed the order. It came twenty minutes later, and after the attendant left, Knox poured out the wine and handed Puller a plate with some crackers, bre

ads, cheeses, fruit, and a small bowl of nuts. They sat across from each other at the little table the attendant had wheeled in.

“Someone really doesn’t want us to find out the truth, Puller,” she said between sips of wine and bites of cheese.