“What’s this place we’re heading to?” “Diego’s.”

They passed the Sierra and Puller arrived at the building with the blue awning. He marched up to the second story and knocked on the door. No one came.

He knocked again.

And then a third time.

He heard footsteps and relaxed slightly as Carson looked at him expectantly.

The door opened. Puller had thought it would be one o

f two people. Diego or Isabel. Well, maybe three if one counted little Mateo.

It was none of them.

The woman standing there was in her sixties, short and plump with brown hair streaked heavily with silver. Her face was thickly lined and a prominent mole had grown in the crevice between her cheek and nose. She was dressed in sweatpants, cheap sneakers, and a dark top. She looked curiously from Puller to Carson.

“Si?”

So this was the abuela, thought Puller, the grandmother.

“Habla inglés, senora?” asked Puller.

“Yes. Poquito”

“My name is John Puller. I know Diego and Isabel and Mateo. I helped them out the other day. They might have told you.”

“Yes, they tell me.” Then her face collapsed and her shoulders started to shake. Puller put a hand under her arm to keep the woman from

slumping to the floor.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her.

“Los ninos, they no here.”

“Where are they?” asked Puller.

“Donde estan los ninos?” amended Carson.

“No sé. Desaparecido.”

Puller looked at Carson. “They vanished?”

Carson nodded. “That’s what she said.”

Puller said, “Have you called the police? He llamado a la policía?”

She shook her head. “No policía. Nunca la policía.”

Carson said, “Doesn’t sound as though she likes the police very much.”

“She could be undocumented. And the kids too.”

“Right.”

Puller looked at the sobbing woman and said to Carson, “it could be the guys I beat up. But something feel me it’s not. But Diego did help me track down the two guys.”

“So the two guys made them disappear?”

“I guess that’s the most likely answer. Diego was following them. Maybe they spotted him and Isabel and Mateo were with him.” Puller felt sudden guilt for involving Diego in this.

“Unless the two guys are lying dead at the Plaza.”

“Still could have been them. Diego and his cousins might have escaped from them.”

“After killing the two guys?” Carson said skeptically.

Puller looked at the woman again. “Lo siento. Podemos ayudar de alguna manera?”

The woman shook her head and told Puller that only God could help her now. She shut the door and Puller stood staring off over Carson’s shoulder.

“Should we report it?” she asked.

“We might do more harm than good if the kids are okay. They might end up getting deported.”

“Better than being dead, John.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“We can ask around. Maybe someone has seen them.”

“That’s a good idea. Diego has some friends around here. They might know something.”

It took them twenty minutes to locate two of Diego’s friends. The first had not seen Diego for two days. The second one had seen him yesterday.

“Was he with anyone?” asked Puller.

The boy held out his hand.

Puller put a five-dollar bill in it.

“Yes.”

“Who?” asked Carson.

The boy held out his hand again.

Carson put a dollar bill in it. The boy said nothing.

Puller said, “You tell us something useful there’ll be more. Otherwise, the ATM is shut down for the day.”

The boy looked around and said, “He is with the duenos de la calle.”

“The street kings?” said Puller.

“Yes. The street kings.”

“What is he doing with them?”

The boy held out his hand and Carson put another dollar bill in it.

“I think he is trying to join. If he is, he is stupid. They are a very bad gang.”

“What about Isabel and Mateo?” Puller asked. The boy withdrew his hand and put the cash in his pocket. He shrugged. “I do not know about them.”

“Where do we find the street kings?” asked Puller.

“You do not want to find the street kings, sewor,” said the boy.

“Actually, yes, I do. Where?”

Puller held out a twenty. “Ahora!”

The boy gave them an address and then ran off.

Puller looked at Carson. “You don’t have to go with me.”

“The hell I don’t. This is just getting interesting.”

“You have any weapons?”

“You’re asking a one-star if she has any weapons? Other women might like shoes and nail polish. I grew up on Winchesters and Colts on a farm in Oklahoma. So I brought some goodies with me.”

“Okay. So we might want to gun up for this.” “Hell, John, I don’t think there’s any ‘might’

about it.”

CHAPTER 57

The small shack sat behind an abandoned- looking building ten blocks off the water. It was in an area that would be discreetly described as in a transitional stage, meaning don’t go there at night and also try to avoid it during the day. The place looked dead and wasted and nothing like Paradise and its emerald beaches relatively close by. It seemed that the town’s beauty was only skin deep. A few layers under the surface it became quite ugly.

Three young men were standing outside the building and taking turns tossing knives at tin cans set atop a Dumpster. They were good enough that each one consistently knocked the cans over from a distance of ten feet.

“Decent aim.”

The men whirled, their hands dipping to the guns in their waistbands.

And then they stopped reaching for their guns.

Puller stood there holding an MP5 set on two- shot bursts. Carson had not been kidding about weapons. And flying on military transport had allowed her to bring whatever guns she wanted.

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