He eyed the rumpled contour of the lawn to where it disappeared under the fence. If one had not been looking for it, the evidence of the trench would have been almost invisible. But not to him.

He had to assume that the power line would be encased in a hardened pipe, but maybe not.

He rose and walked around the perimeter of the property. He could not go back through the gate without revealing that he now knew the code. He also wondered how often it was changed. They were in the middle of the month and also the middle of the week. If they changed the code at the end of seven or thirty days, which was probable, he still had time.

He reached the rear of the grounds and saw the vastness of the Gulf spread out before

him. Seagulls swooped and dove. Boats either flew across the water or slowly puttered along. People were fishing, sailing, motorboating. That was during the day.

At night they were moving other kinds of product. The kind he had once been. But luckily he had escaped. Others had not been so fortunate.

He put his bag of lawn debris in one of the trucks and paused to drink from a cup of water he had filled from one of the large orange water coolers. He glanced at two other men who were working on a tree just inside the fenceline. They were Latinos. There was also one white man, two blacks, and then there was him. He was of indeterminate origin. Technically, he was Caucasian.

Technically.

He had never categorized himself that way. He belonged to an ethnic group, a strong one, judging by his features. There had not been many people looking to come to his country and breed with the ones already there. It was remote, it was harsh, outsiders were welcomed not with open arms, but only with suspicion. His people were proud, and they did not take kindly to insuit or injury. Well, that was putting it mildly. They never turned the other cheek.

He crumpled up the paper cup and threw it into the garbage bin on the back of the truck. He walked through the rear gate and made his way over near the infinity pool area.

The Maserati was parked nearby. Lounging next to the pool was the woman who’d been in the car. The man was not there. She had slipped off her sundress and high heels, which sat next to her as she lay back on the chaise. Her bathing suit was tiny, a strip of fabric up top, a thong below. As she rolled over on her stomach he could see nearly all of her revealed buttocks. They were mostly firm, but still soft enough in places to be intensely feminine. She undid the straps on her top and let them fall to the side. Her legs were long, smooth, and toned. Her light blonde hair, done up in a ponytail while in the car, now cascaded along her freckled shoulders.

She was a very beautiful woman. He could understand why the man in the Maserati had been smiling so smugly, as if she were his property.

His musings stopped when he realized he’d made a mistake.

He had watched the woman a few seconds too long. He heard footsteps behind him and felt the tug on his arm.

The voice said, “Move your ass. Now!”

He turned to see one of the security men there, earwig inserted, squiggly cord running down to the power pack hidden in his waistband behind his jacket. Though it was hot, they all wore jackets. And under the jackets were their guns.

“Now!” the man said again, staring up at him. “You’re not here to admire the view, lawn boy.”

He moved off at once. He could have killed the man with one strike to his neck, but there would have been no point. His plan would have been ruined. But his time would come.

He looked back once more at the woman to find her turned slightly to her side—not enough to reveal her breasts, but nearly so.

She seemed to be watching him. Behind the sunglasses he could not be sure. He wondered why someone like her would take notice of someone like him.

The answer to that question could not be good for him.

CHAPTER 20

Puller sat on the bed in his room and looked around. Nothing special. A floor, a door, a window, a bed, and a toilet. There was a double connecting door with the room next to his. He’d stayed in some better places and many far worse ones.

The walls were thin. He could hear the sounds coming from adjacent rooms, not clearly enough to recognize words, but certainly raised voices. On his way up to the room he’d passed several people, presumably residents here, who’d gazed at him suspiciously. He apparently was one of the few whites here. Maybe the only one.

By the glances and the whispers that had accompanied them, Puller assumed that some folks might vocalize their disapproval of his presence here in terms that would require him to take action. He didn’t want that to happen and would prefer if it didn’t. But he would be prepared if it did.

He unpacked the few clothes that he’d brought and checked his watch. He had some time before he was to meet Louise Timmins. Mason had not called back yet. Puller decided to do some more recon of the area and then meet Timmins. He did not like sitting in hotel rooms, whether they be a place like this or the Ritz—not that he would ever see the inside of a Ritz. Not on Uncle Sam’s pay.

He locked his door on the way out. He had left nothing behind that he could not afford to lose. He walked down the hall and reached the elevator, but he passed by this and walked to the stairwell. The building wasn’t in the best repair and he figured the elevator wouldn’t be either. Being trapped on one for several hours was not part of his plan.

He heard it before he could see anything. A man. A woman. And what sounded like a child.

He opened the door and stepped through. It was actually three grown men, a teenage girl about sixteen, and a boy who looked about five. One man was a Latino, one black, and the other had skin color the same as Puller’s. He appreciated diversity in prickish felons.

The girl—clearly against her will—was being held against the wall by the Latino. The black man had hold of the crying boy, restraining him. The kid was swinging his arms and trying to strike out. The white man was standing in front of the girl, a smile on his face. He had loosened his belt and was in the middle of unbuttoning his pants. His intent was as obvious as such intent had been for thousands of years.

Men forcing themselves on women.

When the door opened, the white guy, without even looking to see who it was, snarled, “Get the hell out of here. Now!”

Puller let the door shut behind him and noted the bulge in the back pocket of the white guy’s pants. Stupid place to keep your gun, but then White looked pretty dumb.

“Don’t think so. And you might as well cinch your belt back up. This is not going to go according to your plan.”

The three men turned to look at him. The girl shrank back and clutched at the boy.

White said, “You really want to do this, shit- head?”

“Name’s Puller. First name John. And you are?”

White looked at his buddies and smiled. But there was nervousness behind the smile, Puller noted. The black man was the biggest, but Puller had him by four inches and forty pounds. White was five-nine and a pudgy one-ninety. The Latino was five-six, a buck fifty, and had no demonstrable muscle.

Puller towered over them all. The width of his shoulders nearly spanned the doorway. He edged forward, his gaze directly on White, but his peripheral radar keeping his buddies in view.

White buckled his belt.

“You looking to get your ass killed?” said the black guy.

“No. Same way I’m sure she wasn’t looking to get assaulted by three jerk-offs.”

White slightly turned his head, his right hand dipping to his back pocket in a move that was as obvious as it would prove to be futile.

Puller sighed. Not how he wanted it to go down, but he didn’t have much choice now. He struck before the gun was halfway out of the man’s back pocket. He slammed his elbow into White’s neck and followed that by whipping a knee into his left kidney. As White dropped screaming to the floor, Puller sent a crushing right cross to his jaw. White lay on the floor, blood coming from his mouth along with a few of his teeth.

Half of Puller wanted to give the other two guys a way out, but the looks on their faces indicated that their combined presence was puffing up each other’s courage beyond all reason. Two against one, they were thinking. Easy pickings.

Too bad for them.

He hooked Latino around the head and, using him as a weapon, swung him off his feet and into Black, knocking him down the flight of stairs. He came to rest at the bottom, both the fight and his consciousness gone from him.

Puller kept swinging Latino until the latter’s head met the wall with crunching impact. He slumped down, joining Black in the land of involuntary sleep.

Puller stood there for a moment, not even out of breath, and more than a little pissed off that all this had come

to pass.

He looked at the girl. “You okay?”

She nodded. She was pretty, with soft curves and a large bosom. She looked older than she probably was. He doubted that this was the first time this kind of an assault had happened to her. Puller eyed the little boy. “He your brother?” She nodded again.

“What’re your names?”

“I’m Isabel. He’s Mateo,” she said in a tiny, scared voice.

“You want to call the cops?”

Puller thought he knew the answer to this, but felt compelled to ask it anyway. She was shaking her head before he’d even finished the question.

“Do you want me to call the cops?”

“No. Please don’t do that.”

He looked at the fallen men. They had buzz cuts and tats all over. He didn’t think it was possible, but one never knew.

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