This was not a movie where he could Matrix his way to victory. It would be fearful men fighting, making mistakes but certainly landing some blows.

Puller tipped the scales at well over two hundred pounds. The men he would be facing tonight collectively weighed about a thousand pounds. They had twelve fists and a dozen legs to his two and two.

Six against one, hand-to-hand, no matter how good you were or how inept the six were, would likely result in defeat. Puller could take out three or four rather quickly. But the remaining two or three men would probably get in a lucky shot and possibly knock him down. And then it would be over. Bats and bars would rain down on him and then a gunshot would end it all.

If one had a choice—and sometimes one did —a truly superb close-quarters fighter only fought when the conditions favored him.

He didn’t have much time, because they would quickly determine that he was not in the room. Then they would do one of two things: leave and come back, or set a trap and wait for him. And a trap would involve a perimeter. At least he was counting on that, because a perimeter meant that the six men would have to divide their forces.

Then six became four, or three, two, or even one.

Divide and conquer.

That was the condition on the ground that Puller needed in order to win. And it would be even better if his adversaries tonight provided it for him. Something told him they would.

A well-thought-out perimeter could defeat most plans to pierce it. A few moments later he could see that this perimeter was not well thought out. And so it would be pierced rather easily.

The two men were standing in the middle of the hall. They had taken no measures to conceal their presence. One had a bat, the other a gun. They were talking in low tones, looking smug, confident. The man holding the bat spun it like a baton. The man with the gun held it loosely, pointed down. Four fingers were clasped around the butt of the weapon, his index finger not even near the trigger guard.

In other words, the weapons were useless.

The men didn’t react until the bat was taken from the first man. A blow to his stomach from the head of the bat sent him pitching to the floor. The second man raised his gun, but did not fire it because he was no longer holding it.

Puller, holding the pistol by the muzzle, brought the butt of the weapon around and crushed it against the man’s temple. He went down to join his buddy on the ragged carpet covered in puke stains. A tap from the bat on the writhing first man’s head was all that was needed to stop the writhing.

The attack had taken all of five seconds. Puller had swung the bat at almost the same time he had stripped the gun from the other man. The only sounds had come from bodies falling to the floor.

Puller crouched there, the bat in one hand, his other hand around his Mu. He had dropped the other pistol after removing the mag and clearing the chamber of the loaded round. He did not like firing other people’s weapons. A badly maintained gun could be more dangerous to the one firing it than to the one being fired on.

He counted off a few seconds in his head. Two down, four to go. His room was around the comer. These jackasses had been the front line. He figured perhaps one man at another barrier and then three at ground zero to finish the job.

He crab-walked to the corner, did a turkey peek, and drew back. Here the darkness was near total because someone had removed the overhead lights.

Nice tactic, he thought. But with his goggles darkness was preferable.

Halfway down the hall, in a shadow that was deeper than the surrounding darkness, was stationed the third man. He was crouched in a narrow alcove. Gun, bat, or metal bar would be his weapon. Puller had several options. He could bull-rush and reach the man before he could react. Or he could approach with stealth, take the man down quietly, and move on.

He opted for the latter.

Slithering on his belly like he had through Florida swamps and Iraqi sands in his career as a Ranger, Puller moved forward. He knew the crouching man would be looking at a point parallel to his eye level and then upward. It was just human nature. Only trained personnel would finish off the imaginary vertical line from floor to ceiling, knowing full well that an experienced attacker could come at you from virtually any angle. And the most obvious angle was never the most popular.

He drew within a foot of the other man. Puller was looking up, the other man still swiveling his gaze in an uneven arc. When he looked away from Puller the bat came up and the man went down, blood running from his head. The scalp bled like a bitch. And the accompanying headache, when the man awoke, would be one he would never forget.

He had not hit any of the three men tonight hard enough to kill them. Puller knew how much force was required to crack skulls. He had not minded applying that force to men who raped women in front of their little brothers. But these men tonight were just the revenge crew. They might actually be as bad as or worse than the ones Puller had already beaten up. But he would cut them a little slack. They would live to spread the message that to leave him alone was the smart money.

This man had held the metal bar. Puller retrieved it and kept going.

Three down and three to go. The odds were much better. In fact, they had returned to the same ones he had dealt with in the stairwell. And the three men he had disabled were the members of the revenge crew, which meant the men up ahead were the rapist crew. The same ones who had no doubt come back and beaten up Isabel and little Mateo.

Puller decided to up the level of force he was about to bring.

He moved quickly down the hall. The door to his room was slightly ajar. He shook his head at the tactics employed by the opposition. A partially open door was like waving a red flag and screaming, “We’re in here waiting for you.”

So you wouldn’t go in. You would move to the room next door and try to surprise them through the connecting portal. But of course the surprise would be all yours as they blew you away.

He envisioned them grouped around the connecting door, but he doubted their attention would be all that focused. For Puller to get that far their perimeter would have to have been defeated almost soundlessly. They would imagine this could never happen. They had chosen to be the rear guard tonight because they had hoped that Puller would never make it this far. They did not want another encounter with him. What sane person would, after the beating they had endured?

For all he knew they would be playing cards, or banging back beers to get up their courage, or smoking cigarettes, or peering out the lone window. Anything but being professional.

He hit the door to his room so hard that it broke off the hinges. There were two shapes directly in front of him. As he had thought, they were clustered around the connecting door. The metal bar took out both with one swing. White dropped onto the bed. This time he might very well be dead. Black was flung through the window, shattering the glass, and dangled there, half in and half out.

Now Latino was the only one left.

He was in the far corner of the room, looking ready to shit his pants. He had his gun out. He was at most six feet from Puller. In the dark and with his adrenaline spiking and turning fine motor skills to zero, it might as well have been six miles.

He fired once and missed by five feet.

He did not get a chance to fire a second time.

The first blow knocked the gun from his hand.

The second blow knocked him off his feet. The third blow left no doubt that the fight was done.

As Puller rose, his breath already starting to relax, he sensed it.

Light.

Body heat.

Sweat.

Eyes on him.

From the connecting doorway.

He looked.

Two small men there. Both Latinos. Armed. Both pointing compact nines right at his head. Two guns could not miss at this distance.

The rear guard he had not accounted for. Eight men had come tonight.

Not six.

He had screwed up in an unforgivable way. The penal

ty for that was crystal clear.

He was dead.

CHAPTER 32

It was the first time Puller had seen men fly without benefit of an aircraft.

Or so it seemed.

Their feet left the floor like they were attached to piano wire and someone had just hit a switch, lifting them skyward.

The next moment their heads collided. The sound was like a pair of cantaloupes smacking against one another. Puller could see the sensation of the violent collision spread to their eyes and mouths. The eyes winced, rolled in their heads, and then closed. The mouths opened wide, cries of pain came out of them, and then they closed, like the eyes. But unlike the eyes they closed only for a moment. Then they sagged open, even as their bodies became dead weight and they dropped to the floor. They hit it hard, guns skidding away. Blood pooled from their open mouths where teeth had cut deeply into tongues.

Standing behind the two small men was the giant, the man Puller had seen twice before. It seemed that the rear guard had done the unforgivable. They had used the giant’s room as their staging area without his permission. That was the only reason Puller could fathom for the man doing what he had done.

He straightened and stared at the giant. Puller’s Mu twitched in his hand. The giant was unarmed but still looked uncomfortably lethal and completely unafraid as he stood there, staring back at Puller.

Puller said, “Thanks.”

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