“We know you were at Cookie’s house,” roared Puller.

“Okay, okay, I was there. For a meeting. I found him dead.”

“Bullshit.”

“He was. That’s why I told Jane to get her ass over there. I wanted to get the watches out before anyone came to the house. Do you know how much they’re worth?”

“Save it for your trial.”

Puller looked back at Isabel. “Get dressed. I’m taking you home. By the way, your abuela has been worried sick.”

“I have a life to lead.”

“Where are Diego and Mateo?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you know they were missing?”

She stared at him defiantly and then shrugged. “They’ll probably come back.”

“Get dressed,” he said quietly and shut the door.

As they hauled Mason and Ryon outside, Puller’s phone buzzed. He looked at the text that had just come across. His jaw plunged.

“Son of a bitch.”

“What is it?” asked Carson as they loaded Ryon and Mason into the back of the Tahoe and slammed the doors shut.

Puller stared across at her.

“ME finished the post on Cookie. He wasn’t murdered. He died from a popped aneurysm.” Carson said

, “So Mason’s not a killer?”

“And he’s not a pedophile.”

“He’s just a scum who steals from old people and beds underage girls.”

Puller sighed and leaned on the top of the Tahoe. “So we’re back to square one.”

“With Diego and Mateo too,” added Carson. “With everything, actually,” said Puller quietly. He glanced at his watch. It was a quarter past one. As he looked at the time something clicked in his brain. It had always been there, he supposed, but until this moment it had not registered.

Carson said, “Puller, what is it?”

Puller didn’t hear her. Part of him couldn’t believe it. Part of him could. But he would have to make sure. He would have to make calls. He would have to dig. He would have to once more become the investigator.

It was about time, he thought. It was about damn time.

CHAPTER 69

Mason and Ryon were in custody with the Paradise Police Department. Puller had given a full report to Bullock, who was burning the midnight oil. It had taken hours to fill him in on everything and then hours more to complete the paperwork. Justice, it seemed, was obsessed with paper.

Bullock did not seem pleased to have one more thing added to his plate, but he had his people fill out the necessary reports and ordered Ryon and Mason into holding cells. Mason was screaming about suing the entire city of Paradise, but Ryon had signed a confession and it was confirmed that Isabel was only fourteen, so the stat rape charge seemed solid.

Isabel was released into her grandmother’s care after confirming in writing the account of what had happened.

Puller had also filled out a missing persons report on Diego and Mateo. He had told Bullock about the allegation that a man had paid a thousand dollars for them.

Bullock’s features had turned darker while he listened to this.

Carson, who had been hovering in the background, said, “Do you have a problem with things like this in Paradise?”

Bullock glanced sharply up at her. “What do you mean?”

“With people being bought like that,” said Puller.

Bullock frowned. “Look, we have a large population of undocumented down here, even with the reverse immigration because of the bad economy. If people are here illegally it’s hard to know if anyone’s disappeared. Folks come and go.” “These are two little kids,” countered Puller. “They lived with their grandmother.”

“I get that, Puller. But I don’t have the manpower to put on every case of folks disappearing. Not even the big-city departments can do that anymore. It’s just the way things are.”

“Then things suck,” Puller said.

“Okay, they suck. What do you want me to do about it?”

“You’re putting a lot of resources on the Lampert case.”

“A bomb exploded there.”

“But no one was hurt.”

“It’s different.”

“It’s only different because he has the biggest estate in Paradise.”

Bullock rifled through some papers and didn’t respond.

“Any leads on the bomber?” asked Carson. “No,” replied Bullock, still rifling.

“What about Cookie?” asked Puller.

“Not a homicide. You know that. Aneurysm popped. So if you were thinking there was a homicidal lunatic loose on Orion Street and that person killed your aunt too, well, stop thinking it.”

“Just because Cookie’s death was from natural causes doesn’t mean my aunt wasn’t murdered.”

“Puller, I appreciate you bagging Mason and Ryon, I really do. If the case holds against them they’re scum who deserve to go away to prison. But what I will not appreciate is you running around town playing detective.”

“I offered my services before and you told me you might take me up on it.”

“I said might. And I’ve decided not to. You’re not part of this department. You’re in the military. You have no authority here and I have no authority over you. Things would get tricky real fast.”

“Okay, I guess I understand that.”

“Thanks. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to process the paperwork on Mason and Ryon.” Puller and Carson left and walked out into a new day with the sun already well up into the sky and the heat and humidity feeling like a pitcher of warm beer poured on them.

Carson stretched and worked a kink from her neck. “Well, I’m officially tired.”

“Yeah, not going to bed at night does that to a person.” He looked at his watch. “It’s already ten hundred.”

“We should catch some bunk time, John. Otherwise we’ll be no good for anything.”

Back in his room with Sadie bedded down on a large beach towel in the corner, Puller showered. He toweled off, slipped on a pair of boxers, and toppled backward on his bed. He wanted to go to sleep, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He rose and spent the next two hours burning up cell minutes. He found out a great deal of interesting information. All of it dovetailed nicely with what he had been thinking. And if he hadn’t looked at his watch last night, he never would have thought of it. Sometimes the mind did work in mysterious ways. He had more calls to make and more digging to do, but now he lay back on the bed and fell instantly asleep.

Hours later the knock on his door surprised him. He rose, snagging his Mu out of its holster.

“Yeah,” he said, standing to the left of the door.

“You can stand down. It’s just your friendly neighborhood one-star. You decent?”

Puller opened the door and looked at Carson. She had on a clingy light blue sleeveless dress with a V neckline and two-inch heels.

“What time is it?” asked Puller, who had gone from groggy to alert at the sight of her.

“Seventeen hundred.”

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