Those people were lost forever. As soon as they had been taken, it was over. On the boat. On the truck. It didn’t matter. Nothing could break the long chain of ownership, for that’s what it was.

Chattel.

The sixteenth century or the twenty-first century, it didn’t really matter. People with power and means would always take advantage of those without them.

He clipped and thought about his next move.

He ran his eye along the top of the hedge and at the same time skirted his gaze along the perimeter of the mansion. The same Maserati was parked in the front cobblestone circular drive. He assumed that the young couple had stayed over. Why leave this place if one didn’t have to? He had learned, by asking subtle questions of a house servant who had come out to retrieve the mail, that the interior staff consisted of ten people. These included maids, a chef, someone playing the role of a butler, and various others who worked cheap and were able to live in the servants’ quarters of the grandest home on the Emerald Coast.

The family who lived here consisted of four people:

The cash machine husband.

The pampered second wife.

The even more pampered son.

The mother-in-law.

The cash machine was in his mid-forties, relatively young for having amassed such great wealth. He had not asked the maid how the money had been made.

He already knew.

The second wife used to be a runway model, was in her early thirties, and spent most of her time shopping.

The cash machine’s son—the second wife’s stepson—was seventeen and attended a private boarding school in Connecticut. He had already been accepted at an Ivy League school based more on his father’s largesse to the university than his academic performance. He was now home for the summer playing polo, driving his Porsche, and sowing his wild oats among the available local young women, who were unabashedly competing to one day live in grand houses filled with servants. This he had also found out before coming here.

The second wife’s mother lived in the lavish guesthouse and was, at least by most accounts, a bitch of massive proportions.

As he watched, the same woman he had seen by the pool the day before strolled out of the mansion’s rear French doors. She had on a white skirt that showed off her bare, tanned legs, a light blue shirt, and spike backless heels. Her hair fell around her shoulders. Her appearance was quite dressy for this early in the morning. Perhaps she had an appointment.

He watched as she crossed over to the guesthouse and went inside, perhaps to pay her respects to the resident mother-in-law.

The rear door to the mansion opened once more and a man stepped out.

He studied him. About five-eleven, trim, fit, dressed in white shorts that showed off his tanned, muscular calves. He had on leather loafers that looked expensive and no doubt were, and a pale blue patterned long-sleeved Bugatchi shirt. He had left the shirt untucked, no doubt to show that despite his immense wealth he was a casual yet hip man. His hair was brown and wavy with just a touch of gray around the temples.

The man crossed the grounds and entered the guesthouse.

He knew who the man was. He was the cash machine. The man owned this estate and everything in it.

His name was Peter J. Lampert.

He’d made and lost most of a multibillion- dollar fortune as a hedge fund manager, along with most of the money entrusted to him by his clients. Then he had made another enormous fortune to pay for this place and other assorted toys of the rich. But he had not bothered to recoup his clients’ money.

That was what bankruptcy was for, he’d responded, when someone asked him if he felt remorse at all for destroying the lives of so many people.

Lampert, he knew, also had his own private jet, a Dassault Falcon 900LX that was parked at a private airport about thirty minutes from here. Its maximum cabin height was six feet two inches, which meant Lampert could stand up straight inside it, but he couldn’t. Yet he never expected to be on it. Private jets were not meant for the hired help.

At the end of the estate’s main dock, one hundred feet out to sea in deep water, sat Lampert’s mega-yacht, named Lady Lucky. Lampert had named that after his second wife, whose name was Lucille, but whom everyone called Lucky, because she apparently had been as the second wife of Peter J. Lampert.

Lucky was currently away, he had been told by the same maid. A shopping trip to Paris and London. Well, the rich had to spend their money on something.

As he thought about it, it was quite likely that her mother was traveling with her too. If so there would be no reason for anyone to visit the guesthouse.

Except perhaps for one.

He worked his way over to the left side of the structure. There were bushes there that required trimming. He managed to look like he was clipping but actually made no noise with his tool. He edged closer to the window. The drapes were partially up. He heard it before he saw them.

Moans and groans.

He looked around for security. They did not seem to be in this sector.

He grew closer to the window, squatting down, trying to shrink his great height.

He took a peek through the window.

The woman was now wearing only her shirt. Her skirt was on the bed along with her spike heels. Her panties were down around her bare feet. On her tiptoes, she gripped one of the bed’s four posters, her body bent forward at a forty- five-degree angle.

Lampert was behind her. He had not bothered to take off his clothes. Apparently he could only be bothered to slide his zipper down. She arched her neck back and was making suitable noises designed to urge on her lover.

Lampert pushed into her violently, grunted heavily one last time, and then bent forward, supporting himself on her back, totally spent. Panting, he freed himself from her and zipped up his shorts. She turned and kissed him. He fondled and then slapped her bare buttocks.

Lampert said something that he couldn’t hear, but the woman laughed. A few moments later Lampert was gone. He apparently had other appointments.

He watched as the woman lay back on the bed, slipped a pill bottle from her shirt pocket, tongued a capsule, and swallowed it. She took off her shirt, walked naked into the bathroom, and emerged about a minute later, her face looking scrubbed.

He continued observing as she quickly dressed, smoothing out her shirt and zipping up her skirt before slipping on her heels. When she left the room, he came around the corner of the building, stooped down, and started to weed the lawn.

She stepped from the guesthouse, looked to the right and saw him there. Her features grew brighter when she saw him. She smiled. The smell of sex was all over her. He wondered if she realized that, despite her freshening up. He wondered what the young man she had driven up with in the Maserati would say if he detected evidence of the morning tryst.

“Hello,” she said.

He nodded at her, keeping his gaze partially downcast but still watching her.

“You were here yesterday. What’s your name?” she asked.

“Mecho.”

“Mecho? I’ve never heard that name before.”

“In my country it means ‘bear.’ I am as big as one, you see. I was a big baby, you see, so my father decided to make it official.” He stopped and smiled shyly.

His English was much better than that, and he was not by nature a shy man, but he did not want her to know that. Mecho was not his given name, but it had been his nickname, precisely because of his great size.

“What is your country?” she asked.

“Far away from here. But I like this place. My country is often too cold.”

She smiled and waved away a fly with her hand. Her smile was radiant, her cheeks slightly reddened.

Sex agreed with her, he thought.

“It’s always warm in Paradise,” she said.

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