“Why not?”

“It was sealed. I’m assuming because of the issues involved.”

“National security,” she said, and Puller could imagine her head nodding and her perhaps frowning at this. He had found that Shireen Kirk did not like secrets on either end of a case. They were a lot alike in that regard.

“Right. But why do you need to know about his case?”

“I’m trying to find him. If I knew what he went to DB for it might generate some leads for me.”

He hoped the late hour had reduced the efficiency of her bullshit meter.

“O-kay,” she said slowly, skepticism oozing from both syllables.

“I think you’d agree that breaking out of DB is pretty remarkable.”

“I think we can agree on that.”

“And maybe he had help to do it.”

“So you think whoever he was involved with before helped him escape?”

“It’s a theory.”

“He’s been at DB for how long?”

“Over two years.”

“Long time to wait to bust somebody out.”

“Not really. Not if you have to acquire the tools with which to do so.”

“Inside help, you mean?”

“That wouldn’t come easily or cheaply. At least I hope it wouldn’t, since it might implicate folks in uniform.”

“Well, if the file is sealed, I’m not sure there’s much I can do. And if you’ve been authorized to investigate this case you should be able to get it unsealed going through appropriate channels.”

“Maybe, maybe not. But right now I prefer not to employ proper channels. And I was thinking that you might know people who could unseal it.”

“That would take a court order, Puller,” she said sharply. “Because it would have taken a court order to seal it.”

“Well, I remember from high school science class that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”

“Yeah, and I remember from law school that a fool and her license to practice are soon parted.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything unethical, Shireen, because I know you wouldn’t. All I’m asking is for you to just see if there’s any way I can find out about the case. Something I can read. Someone I can talk to. Anything is more than I have right now. The military never throws anything away. There has to be some record of it somewhere.”

There was another pause and Puller started to wonder if she had hung up.


“Yeah, yeah, I’m still here. I’m just taking a minute to pull my head out of my ass for even contemplating helping you.”

“But you are contemplating?” noted Puller hopefully.

“I’ll make some calls. Anything comes of it, you’ll hear from me. If nothing comes of it, you won’t. Good enough?”

“Good enough. Thanks, Shireen.”

“Don’t thank me. This shit stinks so bad it’s a wonder you’re still breathing.”

“I know it’s out of the ordinary.”

“It’s not just out of the ordinary, it’s unthinkable. Letting you work on this case violates every rule the Army has. And you better get your head out of your ass and wonder why they’re really letting you do it. Because I can’t think of a single reason that would benefit you, three-star and NSC approvals notwithstanding.”

She clicked off and Puller put his phone back in his pocket.

He wasn’t a lawyer, but he had spent enough time around them to know that they could smell a problem and potential downside from the other side of the world. They definitely looked at the glass half-empty. And right now, maybe he should too.

Why do they really want me on this case?

Schindler, Daughtrey, and Rinehart had given him reasons for it. They seemed sound and plausible. But after what Shireen had just said they didn’t seem that sound or that plausible. And now Daughtrey was dead.

He was still thinking about this when he heard the woman scream.



HIS HAND AUTOMATICALLY dipped to his holster and Puller slid out his M11.

It had been a female screaming, no doubt about that. He hustled to the room’s single window and peered out. Four figures were there. There were three men and one woman, the one who had screamed. He wasn’t speculating. She was screaming right now.

He eyed the men. He couldn’t see their faces. The exterior lighting was poor and their backs were turned to him. He could see that two were roughly his size. The other was smallish. The woman was the smallest of them all. And a hand was around her throat as she was being dragged down the stairs.

Puller punched 911 on his phone and reported what he had just seen. Then he threw open the door and stepped out in time to see the group disappearing into an alleyway next to the motel.

He slipped quietly down the stairs, his M11 leading the way, and then sprinted across the courtyard. He stopped at the entrance to the alley and peered around the corner. Farther down the darkened alley he heard the woman scream. And he heard struggling.

There must be another exit from the alley. They might have a car waiting there. He picked up his pace.

And then he was sprawling on the pavement, his gun flying from his grip.

He rolled over and looked up. The three men looked back down at him. They were wearing ski masks. The woman was nowhere around.

This was an ambush and the girl was the bait.

And I’m an idiot because I fell for it.

Three guns were pointed at him, so he had no choice but to get up slowly with his hands raised over his head.

They made him walk down the alley to where an SUV was waiting. He was pushed in, blindfolded, gagged, and his hands bound with a zip tie. The SUV pulled off.

In his head he estimated the drive time at about thirty minutes. That didn’t help much in determining direction or destination, because the vehicle could have doubled back to throw him off. Since it was so late at night the normal sounds of the city weren’t as evident. But he didn’t think they were still in the city.

When they pulled to a stop the door was opened and he was pushed out. His feet crunched gravel. He was led up a short set of steps, through a doorway, and he heard it close behind him. He was pushed down into a chair and the gag removed.

He waited. He wasn’t going to open the conversation, for he assumed that was why he was here. Otherwise, he’d be dead.

When the voice came on, it was hollow–sounding, like the speaker was standing in a hole. The person wasn’t in the room, Puller knew. This was all being done remotely.

“Very cloak-and-dagger, I have to admit,” said the voice, which had clearly been modified electronically. It sounded like Darth Vader, only on an indie film budget. But it might be significant, thought Puller, because he might not want his voice recognized.

He remained quiet, waiting. Whatever the man said, it would be information he didn’t have previously. And if he got out of this alive, it could lead to something.

“I’m not here to make threats, Agent Puller. I’m here to appeal to your patriotism.”

“You could have done that over the phone.”

“That would have been awkward. I prefer this method.”


“Let’s call it an aggressive call for a meeting.”

“With three guns pointed at me, I guess you can call it what you want.”

“You’re investigating Robert Puller’s escape from prison. You hope to bring him back, alive rather than dead.”

Puller kept his mouth shut.

“I want to know what you’ve found out so far. Do you know where he is?”


“Do you have any promising leads?”

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