A group of barefoot kids in shorts and no shirts was running up and down the street, kicking a soccer ball with great skill. They all stopped playing and stared when Puller pulled up in front of the Sierra in his Corvette. When he got out, they stared even harder and drew closer.
He grabbed his bag from the passenger seat, shut and beeped the doors locked with his key fob, and strode up to the kids.
One of the boys looked up at him and asked in Spanish if that was his car.
Puller answered in Spanish that it was actually being rented by a friend of his named Uncle Sam.
The boy asked if Uncle Sam was rich.
“Not as rich as he used to be,” answered Puller as he walked toward the Sierra’s little front office.
Puller paid for two nights, got his room key and instructions on where and when breakfast was served. The woman behind the desk told him where he could park his car. She gave him a key card to access the garage.
“I can’t leave it on the street?” said Puller She was a small Latina with straight dark hair. “You can, but it might not be there in the morning.”
“Right,” said Puller. “I’ll put it in the garage.” When he got back to the car the gang of boys had surrounded it, touching it and whispering. “You like cars?” Puller asked them.
They all nodded their heads.
“I’ll let you hear the engine.”
He got in and fired it up and revved the engine. They all jumped back at the sound, looked at each other and started laughing.
Puller drove to the garage area that was on a side street next to the Sierra. He put his key card in an electronic reader and the large metal door rose, revealing a large space beyond. He pulled through and the door automatically closed. He parked the car, exited via a side door of the garage, and walked back to the Sierra.
At the comer he saw one of the boys who had been admiring his car. He had brown curly hair and looked about ten or eleven. Puller noted the skinny, undernourished frame. But he also saw that the boy’s muscles were hard and his features determined. His gaze was wary, but then Puller figured around here one had to be careful.
“You live around here?” asked Puller in English.
The boy nodded. “Si.” He pointed to his left. “Mi casa.”
“What’s your name?”
“Okay, Diego, I’m Puller.” They shook hands. “You know Paradise really well?”
Diego nodded. “Very good. I live here all the time.”
“You live with your mom and dad.”
He shook his head. “Mi abuela.”
So his grandmother was raising him, thought Puller.
“You want to earn some money?”
Diego nodded so vigorously that his soft brown curls bounced up and down. “Si. Me gusta el dinero.”
Puller handed him a five-dollar bill and then took out his cell phone. He showed him the picture of the Chrysler.
“Keep an eye out for this car,” he said. “Don’t go near it, don’t talk to the people in it, don’t let them see you watching, but get the rest of the license plate for me if you can, and what the people inside look like. Entiendes?”
Puller held out his hand for the boy to shake. He did so. Puller noticed the ring on the boy’s finger. It was silver with a lion’s head engraved on it.
“Mi padre gave it to me.”
“I’ll be seeing you, Diego.”
“But how will I find you?” asked Diego.
“You won’t have to. I’ll find you.”
The home was one of the largest on the Emerald Coast, ten acres on prime waterfront on its own point with sweeping views of the Gulf across an infinite horizon. Its total cost was far more than a thousand middle-class folks collectively would earn in a year.
He pushed lawnmowers and hefted bags of yard debris and loaded them onto trucks parked in the service area behind the mansion. The landscape trucks were not allowed to come through the front entrance with its fine cobblestone drive. They were relegated to the asphalt in the rear.
There were two pools in the rear grounds, one an infinity pool and the other an Olympicsized oval. The grandeur of the grounds was matched only by the beauty of the interior of the thirty-five-thousand-square-foot home with an additional twenty thousand square feet in various other buildings, including a pool house, guesthouse, gymnasium, theater, and security quarters.
He had seen one of the indoor maids venture outside to receive a package from a FedEx driver, who also was relegated to the service entrance. She was a Latina dressed in an old-fashioned maid’s uniform complete with white apron and black cap. Her body was slim but curvy. Her face was pretty. Her hair was dark and luxurious- looking.
At the end of the dock that ran straight out into the Gulf was a 250-foot yacht with a chopper resting on top of an aft helipad.
He labored hard, the sweat running down his back and into his eyes. While other workers stopped for water or shade breaks he continued to push on. Yet his tasks had a purpose. They allowed him to circumnavigate the grounds. In his mind he placed all of the buildings onto a chessboard, moving pieces in accordance with various scenarios.
What he focused on most of all was the deployment of the security forces. There were six on duty during the day. All seemed professional, worked as a team, were well armed, observant, and loyal to their employer. In sum, there didn’t seem to be many weaknesses.
He assumed there were at least a fresh half dozen deployed at night and maybe more, since the darkness was a more apt time for an attack.
He drew near enough to the main gate coming in to see the alarm pad and surveillance camera mounted there. The gates were wrought iron and massive. They looked like the ones in front of the White House main entrance. The walls surrounding the front of the estate were stucco and over six feet high. The homeowner obviously wanted privacy.
He dropped to one knee and was performing some pruning tasks around a mound of bushes when he saw a Maserati convertible pull up to the gate. Inside were a man and a woman. They were both in their early thirties and had the well- nourished and pleased looks of folks for whom life had held no hardships.
They punched in the code and the gates swung open.
As they passed by him neither of them even looked at him. But he looked at them, memorizing every detail of their faces.
And now he also had the six-digit security code to the front gate, beacuse he’d seen the man input it. The only remaining problem was the surveillance camera.
He drew closer to the gate and worked on trimming back a bush. His gaze ran up the pole to which the camera was attached. The power line was enclosed in the metal pole, a standard practice, he knew. But once the pole was set in the ground the power lines had to go somewhere.
He stepped through the gate before it closed all the way and started to work on a patch of lawn running back from the camera post to the fenceline. As he got down on his hands and knees and clipped at weeds and picked up an errant leaf that had had the effrontery to land on the lush grass, he studied the slight hump in the ground. This was where the trench had been dug for the electrical line running to the gate, which also powered the camera, voice box and security pad.