“You answered your phone when you obviously knew why I was calling. You could have played ostrich and dodged the bullet. You’ve got a new command down in Texas that I’m sure is keeping you busy twenty-four/seven. So thanks.”

“I don’t much care

for ostriches. Never saw the point. And I’m getting these folks down here whipped into shape. I’ll call you later.”

He hung up and sat back. He wasn’t thinking about his brother right now and his dilemma. He was thinking about the woman who had been on the other end of that conversation.

When Puller had first met her, Julie Carson was an Army one-star assigned to the Pentagon with designs on at least one and possibly two more stars before her military career was finished. Puller had run into her during a case he was investigating in West Virginia. The two had started out as adversaries and then months later had ended up sharing a bed while Puller was investigating his aunt’s death at her home on the Gulf Coast of Florida. And Carson had almost been killed while trying to help him. Though badly wounded, she’d fully recovered. Puller still had nightmares about it.

She had gotten her second star and with it a new command at an Army base in Texas. They had said their goodbyes over a bottle of wine and take-out Italian. The Army tended to get in the way of any permanent relationships among service members. He knew he might not see her in person again, at least for a while. After Texas the odds were she would be headed to the Pacific Northwest. After that, it was anyone’s guess. He was just glad that she had answered his call. Right now he needed a friend with stars on her shoulders.

Later that day, he had just gotten back to his apartment near Quantico when his phone buzzed. It was Carson.

“I hope you don’t mind if I eat while I talk,” she said. “I had time today to either eat lunch or do a five-mile run.”

“And of course you opted to run.”

“Don’t we all?” she replied as he heard utensils hitting a plate and liquid being poured into a glass.

“You cook a lot down there?” he asked.

“Are you giving me shit?” she said in a mock-reproachful tone.

“No, I’m deadly serious,” he replied, though his tone wasn’t.

“I almost never cook,” she said. “My mother would be so disappointed. Well, she is disappointed. She could fill the house with what she did in the kitchen. And the smells were like you wouldn’t believe. I played three sports in high school and I think part of me did it so I could eat my mom’s cooking and not get fat. Maybe that’s why I never even really tried to learn my way around the kitchen. I knew I could never be as good as she was.”

“A little competitive, are we?”

“Show me anyone in uniform who isn’t,” she shot back.

He heard her gulp whatever she was drinking, and then her tone turned serious. “So let’s talk about your brother.”

“I still can’t get my arms around it.”

“John, how do you break out of DB?”

“How much do you know about it?”

“Mostly scuttlebutt, but there was a lot of it. A storm. Backup power failed. Reinforcements were called in. They restored order. Head count was done. And no Robert Puller in attendance. But there was mention of someone else who shouldn’t have been there.”

“Then you know about as much as I do. And the someone else was dead and in my brother’s cell.”

“Holy hell!” she exclaimed.

“Pretty much says it all,” he said evenly.

“I definitely hadn’t heard that. And no sign of him since?”

“Apparently not. Don White, my CO, filled me in today. Then I went to see my father. I figured he might have heard and even with his condition he might be upset.”

“And that’s when you ran into the suit and the generals?”

“They asked me the standard questions: my visits to him, what we discussed. Then, if he contacted me, to contact them. But then it got weird, like I said on the phone.”

“In what way weird?”

“First, although they never came out and said it, I believe they want me to look into the case.”

“How can that be? I’m sure your CO told you not to go near it.”

“He did. And then the Air Force guy wanted to know if I thought my brother was guilty.”

“And what did you say?”

It suddenly occurred to Puller that he had never really talked about his brother with her. And it also seemed apparent that Carson wanted to know if Puller thought his brother was guilty.

“I didn’t really answer him, because I’m not really sure what I think about it.”

“Okay,” she said, though her tone made clear she was not satisfied by his reply.

He said, “Did you find out anything about these guys?”

“Rinehart’s assigned to DIA. At a very high level. It’s beyond my ability to find out much more than that. The same really goes for James Schindler at the NSC. He wasn’t in the military. He came up through the civilian side of NSA before moving on to the Security Council.”

“I guess that makes sense. My brother was convicted of national security crimes. That cuts across all branches. And so does DIA. And the NSC has its finger in everything because of the president. What about Daughtrey?”

“Timothy Daughtrey is attached to STRATCOM.”

“Bingo! That was where my brother was working when he was arrested.” He paused. “It’s ironic.”

“What is?”

“Bobby was stationed at a STRATCOM satellite facility near Leavenworth when he was arrested and court-martialed. He didn’t have far to travel to go to DB.”

“And the STRATCOM connection dovetails right into DIA and NSC because spooks all hang around the same playground,” she added.

“I guess so,” said Puller slowly.

“The FBI is of course all over this,” added Carson. “National security issues bring out all the big dogs. I would say your brother is the most wanted man in America right now. I wouldn’t think his chances of evading capture are very good.”

“I’m surprised the FBI hasn’t been by to see me,” said Puller.

“I would imagine if they haven’t been by they are at least keeping an eye on you. But it might be that Rinehart et al. have talked to them and made it clear they’re heading the John Puller piece of this equation.”

“Complicated stuff.”

“Yes, it is. I read up on your brother’s career this afternoon,” she added.

“Did you?” he said sharply.

“Hey, don’t cop an attitude. I like to be prepared. A lot of it was classified beyond even my clearances, and some of the files seemed to have been deleted, because there were gaps. Some of the pages I saw onscreen were heavily redacted, but from what I saw your brother’s career was still pretty damn impressive. I mean, the trajectory was like a rocket. He would have easily gotten his star, and more. I even dug up a white paper he’d written on a next-generation nuclear weaponry design. I could understand about every tenth word, and I don’t consider myself stupid. Some of the math equations in the paper looked like Chinese to me.”

“He was always the smart one in the family. Officer material. I was just the enlisted grunt in the trenches.”

“Did you ever ask him if he did it?” she asked bluntly.

Puller said, “Once.”

“And?”

“And he didn’t answer me.”

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