“That’s usual in my experience. A lot of people lie.”
“Do they try to kill you often, in your experience?”
“More than I would like,” he admitted.
They were quiet for a few moments.
“You’re a strange man,” she said in an odd tone.
He swallowed a hunk of cheese. “How so? I always thought I was pretty straightforward.”
“You’re a stand-up guy, all right. Solid, predictable, always looking to do the right thing. You don’t seek glory or medals. You’re all about getting the job done. That is what defines John Puller. I’ve come to accept that as the gospel.”
“So where does the strange part come in?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out. Just call it my gut for now.” She rose. “And now I think we both need some sleep.”
Puller stood and headed for the door. He turned back. “Back in the alley?”
“Yes?” she said.
“You’re a good shot. And fast.”
“I always have been, Puller. Always. That’s how I like to live my life. Fast.” She snatched a quick glance at the bed, and when she looked back she wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“We both need some sleep,” she said. “Big day tomorrow.” She glanced up and their gazes met for a brief instant. “Good night, Puller.”
He interpreted her look as hungry. And not for food. And he thought he might be giving her the same look in return.
She rose and went into the bathroom, closing the door.
Puller stood there for a few seconds trying to dissect what had just happened. Part of it seemed straightforward. Part of it was mud.
He returned to his room, took off his clothes, and dropped into bed. It was nearly four in the morning. His internal clock was seriously screwed up. His heart was racing from what had just happened with Knox. The woman was complicated. Utterly professional one moment, then sending weird signals the next. It might be that as a spy she tended to use all of her assets, including her sexual side. She was very, well, alluring, as old-fashioned as that sounded. He took a deep breath and wondered if a cold shower would help.
His phone buzzed. He swore under his breath, but automatically picked up the phone anyway. He always picked up the phone even if he didn’t always answer it. And maybe it was Knox wanting him to–
A text had dropped into his electronic basket. He read it.
And then he sat straight up. It wasn’t from Knox. But it concerned her.
The text had come from a number he didn’t recognize.
He called it back. Twice. No one answered.
He read the text again. It was short, to the point, and capable of only one interpretation.
Don’t trust Veronica Knox, Puller. She is not what she appears to be.
NILES ROBINSON HAD left work early to catch his son’s soccer match. The boy had gone from death’s door to being a healthy athletic twelve-year-old in less than two years. It truly was a miracle, and one that Robinson never took for granted.
There were a handful of parents watching the match from the sidelines. The day was warm and the boys had already worked up a sweat. Robinson’s son was a center midfielder, which meant he had equal responsibilities for defense and attack. Because of this his kid probably ran more than any of his other teammates, but he seemed up to the task.
Robinson shook his head in wonder as his son flashed past him with the ball. A minute later the ball was in the net and his son’s team had taken the lead. It was a lead they would not relinquish. After the match was over, Robinson congratulated his son and then headed back to work. The boy would be driven home by a friend.
A tall man in a hoodie approached him in the parking lot. Robinson didn’t register on him until the man was nearly upon him.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
Before the hooded man could answer, four men appeared out of vehicles parked nearby and converged on the pair. The hooded man was grabbed and his hood yanked down as his hands were cuffed behind him.
Robinson stared at the man and shook his head. “It’s not him,” he said. “It’s not Robert Puller.”
The man in the hoodie was younger and his face was dirty.
“Get your hands off me,” he yelled. “I ain’t done nothing wrong. Get them cuffs off me.”
One of the other men slammed him up against Robinson’s van. “Why did you approach this man?”
“Is that a crime?”
“It might be.”
“Some dude paid me.”
“What dude? Where is he?”
“Just some dude. Paid me twenty bucks. Said to come over here after the match was over.”
“What did he look like?”
“I don’t know. He was tall as me. Never saw his face.”
“Why’d he pick you?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“You hang around this park a lot?”
“Yeah, going through the trash cans. The kids leave full bottles of Gatorades. And the moms throw half the snacks they bring away. Cornucopia, man.”
“No, man, I had my private jet drop me off here so I could go through shit in the garbage.”
“When did the ‘dude’ approach you?”
“About an hour ago.”
“Over by the basketball courts on the other side of the park.”
The man let him go and looked at Robinson. “He faked us out with this idiot.”
Robinson nodded. “I told you he was smart.”
The man spoke to one of his colleagues. “Take this smartass and see what else you can get from him.”
They pulled the man away and pushed him into a waiting SUV, which immediately drove off.
The first man looked at Robinson. “If he contacts you, you get in touch with us immediately. Understood?”
Robinson nodded, climbed into his car, and drove off. When he looked at himself in the rearview mirror he was sweating.
He arrived at his house, having decided against going back to work. He emailed an excuse to his boss, went out into his backyard, and sat on a chair on his patio, his thoughts a whirlwind of mostly cataclysmic scenarios.
His personal cell phone buzzed. He had almost been expecting this.
He looked at the screen.
Sorry for all the excitement at the park. Had to flush the Dobermans.
A few seconds later another text came in.