One rusted, leaning mailbox.
Puller passed by the mailbox and the dirt road that it fronted.
Woods on both sides.
He was surprised a place like this had an address that could be found on his GPS. Big Brother really did have all the info.
He parked a quarter of a mile down, got out, and entered the woods. He worked his way back west. He eyed the small house from behind a stand of trees. In the distance he could hear the distinct sound of a rattlesnake warning someone of its presence.
Puller didn’t move. He just squatted there, eyeing the place.
There was an old truck out front. The guts of another truck rested on the far side of the house. There appeared to be a garage behind the house. Its single door was closed. The place didn’t look like it had been recently inhabited. It wasn’t dark enough yet for lights to have to be on in the house, though the surrounding woods threw everything into a jumble of shadows.
No sounds. No people.
He continued to squat, continued to contemplate what to do.
It was apparent that someone who lived this far away from the murders probably had not seen anything. But they might know something. Like the note had said.
So the analysis came down to a possible lead or someone looking to do him harm. Either revenge from Dickie and company, or a counterattack from someone looking to derail his investigation.
He had put his phone on vibrate. It did.
He looked at the screen, answered it in a low voice.
“Where are you, Puller?” Cole asked.
“At the address. In the woods to the east of the house. Where are you?”
“West of it in the woods.”
“Great minds. See anything? I’ve got zip over here.”
“Do you know who lives in the place?”
“There wasn’t a name on the mailbox.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Find out why we’re here.”
“How do you want to do this?”
“How about we keep it simple. I come in from the east and you come in from the west. Stop at the tree line and check back in.”
He put his phone away and moved forward. His M11 was out and pointing the way. He assumed Cole’s Cobra was doing the same to the west.
A minute later his phone vibrated.
“In place,” Cole said. “What now?”
Puller didn’t respond right away. He was taking in what he was looking at grid by grid. The Taliban and al-Qaeda had been very clever about leading American soldiers into traps. They could find ways to make something actually very deadly look entirely innocuous. Children, women, pets.
“Give me a minute.”
He took a few steps forward. He called out. “Hello? Anybody in there?”
No answer. He hadn’t really expected one.
He took two more steps forward until he was clear of the tree line. But he kept the old truck between him and the house.
He spoke into his phone. “Can you see me?”
“Yes. But just barely.”
“See anything on your side?”
“No. I don’t think this place is lived in. Hell, it looks ready to fall in.”
“Ever been down this way?”
“Only going somewhere else. Never even noticed this road before. What do you think is going on?”
“Stay put. I’m going to try something.”
He slipped the phone into his pocket and edged forward until he had a sightline on the front porch. He looked up and then down, side to side. Then he looked down again. From his jacket pocket he pulled a scope that he’d taken from his rucksack.
He looked through it, adjusting the optics until he had a clear look at the front porch. He looked up, down, side to side. And then he came back to the down part.
He slipped out his phone, wedged it against his ear. “Sit tight and keep down.”
“What do you see? What are you going to do?”
“You’ll hear it loud and clear in about five seconds if it is what I think it is.”
But he’d already put the phone away.
He attached the scope to the top of his M11.
He gave one more look around. “Hello, it’s John Puller. You asked me to come here. I’d like to talk.”
He waited five more seconds. Did they think he was just going to walk right up to the front door?
He lifted his gun and took aim through the scope. His muzzle was pointed at the front-porch floorboards.
He fired three times in rapid succession. Pieces of the decking shot into the air. He heard the ping of metal on metal.
That could only mean one thing. He’d been right. He crouched down.
The front door blew open. The shotgun blast ripped the old fragile wood cleanly. Anyone standing in front of it would have been obliterated.
Anyone being me, thought Puller.
He looked to his left and saw Cole staring first at him, then at the large hole in the front door, and then back at him.
“How’d you know it was booby-trapped?” she called out.
“New floorboards in front of the door. They put the pressure plate under it, ran a wire inside the house, and attached it to the trigger on the shotgun that they mounted on something at gut level. Heard my rounds impact the plate.” He moved away from the truck. “Still can’t figure why they thought I would just mosey up to the door and get my head blown off.”
“I’m just glad you’re smarter than they give you credit for.”
She moved forward too.
Puller saw it and launched. He hit Cole right in the gut, lifting her off the ground. They tumbled back toward the tree line two seconds before the truck detonated. A front wheel landed within six inches of them. Debris crashed down around them. Puller covered Cole with his body. A long strip of rubber landed across the back of his legs. It stung, but did no permanent damage. He would have a welt there, but that was all.
As the flames leapt over the truck, Puller knew he had a second problem. He grabbed Cole by the arm, lifted her over his shoulder, and ran into the woods. A few seconds later, the gas tank exploded, sending a second wave of wreckage sailing in all directions.
Puller set Cole down behind a tree and knelt in the dirt well away from the remains of the truck. He let the debris rain down safely away from them and then peered out from the shield of the tree.
“How did you know?” gasped Cole as she sat up.
“Trip wire stretched between two bushes.”
“Someone obviously wanted you dead. Rigged truck, rigged door. One misses, the other one gets you.” She looked around and shivered. And it wasn’t just because the night air was cooler. “My ears are ringing like a church bell.”
Puller wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the destroyed truck.
“You okay, Puller? Did you get hit?”
He shook his head.
“I should’ve seen that wire long before you hit it.”
“But you saw it in time.”
He looked over at her. “That’s not good enough.”
“I need to call a team in to investigate this,” she said. “And the fire department. If these woods catch on fire, it’ll be a nightmare trying to get under control.”
“There’s a spool of hose up near the house. If there’s still water left in the well, I’ll douse the flames.”
“What if there’re more booby-traps?”
“If I miss the triggers again I deserve what I get.”
“Puller, you didn’t miss anything.”
He ignored this. “Got any bomb specialists on board?”
“Lan Monroe knows something about it. But there’s a retired ATF agent who lives outside of town. I can deputize him.”
“I’d do it. Need as much expertise as possible on this one.”
While Cole called it in, Puller got the hose and sprayed down the wreckage and the flames. Within ten minutes two deputies showed up along with two fire engines. Lan Monroe called and said he was on his way. Cole reached the former ATF agent and arranged for him to come as well.
While the firemen took care of the remaining patches of fire and wetted down the truck remains, Puller got the attention of the deputies and pointed to the house. “I wouldn’t go near that sucker right now. What I’d do is find a motorized robot and send it in before anyone with a heartbeat gets close.”
Cole said, “State police has one of those. I’ll make the call.”
After she did that Puller said, “Well, I think we have a dinner to get to.”
“You still want to go?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“You have any clean clothes in your car?”
“Then we can stop by my place and shower. And I can change too. My place is closer to the Trents’ than your motel.”
They walked back to their rides while the investigation team stood as far away from the house and detonated truck as possible.
When they reached the road, Sheriff Pat Lindemann was leaning against the passenger door of his Ford. He dabbed his face with a handkerchief and spit on the dirt.
“Exciting times in Drake,” he said as they approached.
“Too exciting,” said Cole.
“You saved me having to get a new sergeant, Puller. I owe you for that.”
“I almost didn’t.”
“What counts is what happened,” said Lindemann. He eyed the drive back through the woods. “You’re making somebody uncomfortable. They left you the note at your motel?”
“Slid it under the door when I was taking a shower.”
“So they’re watching you?”
“It appears to be.”
“You two have any idea what in the hell is going on here?”
“Not yet,” said Cole. “But they just made it personal. So every waking moment of my life is going to be devoted to this, Sheriff.”
He nodded, spat again. “Allergies. Never had ’em before.” He eyed Puller. “You want some protection from our department?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Suit yourself. Well, I best get on. The missus is holding supper for me.”
“You take care, Sheriff,” said Cole.
After he drove away Puller said, “You angling for the job? He already seems to have checked out.”
“He’s a good cop. But he’s been doing this over thirty years and I don’t think he ever expected something like this on the tail end of his career.”
As she opened her car door Cole said, “I found out what you did with Louisa over at Annie’s Motel. That was really good of you.”
“She needed help, so I helped. No big deal. How is she?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to call the hospital. But she’d be dead for sure without you.”
“Do you know her?”
“Everyone knows Louisa. Salt of the earth.”
“It’s nice to help the salts of the earth,” replied Puller quietly. “They usually get the shaft.”
She put a hand on his shoulder. “I want you to stop beating yourself up about that trip wire, Puller.”
“If I’d done that overseas my entire squad would be dead.”
“But we’re not dead.”
“Right,” he said dully.
Puller got in his car and followed her out.