Puller shrugged, leaned back against the tree, but remained tensed, ready to move in an instant if need be. “Drugs. Guns. The Colombians have lost the drug pipeline to the Mexicans. But the Gulf is still full of traffickers.”

“Then it could get pretty dicey tonight. We might not have enough firepower.”

“This is an intelligence-gathering expedition only. No engagement. We take what we find to the proper authorities.”

“We might not have a choice about engagement. If we’re spotted.”

“Risk of the battlefield.”

“On U.S. soil no less. Didn’t teach us that at the Army War College.”

“Maybe they should have.”

“Yeah, maybe they should have. I’ll speak to the appropriate parties about it. If I survive hanging with you.”

They fell silent until Carson said, “Something else on your mind?”

Puller didn’t look at her. There was something else on his mind. He had continued his investigative work prompted by looking at his watch outside of Grif Mason’s hideaway. And everything he had found out only reinforced his suspicions

. It didn’t sadden him. It angered him. But he would have to productively channel that anger. He looked forward to the opportunity to do so.

“Just a jumble of things,” he said.

Carson was about to say something else when Puller put up a hand. “Stay down,” he hissed.

A few seconds later Carson heard what Puller’s quicker senses had already registered.

The truck crept along the surface road shielded by a line of trees. It turned and puttered down toward the water, easing into the small park-off, where the driver killed the engine. Several men got out even as Puller and Carson hunkered down at their observation post.

Puller held up a finger, indicating to Carson that they would communicate solely via nonverbal signals from now on. She nodded in understanding.

Lying prone in the sand, Puller intensified the power on his night-vision goggles and pointed them at the truck, which sat about a hundred yards away from their position.

At first Puller was thinking that another vehicle would meet the truck, but that didn’t make any sense. Truck and truck at a clandestine meeting site was not logical. Moving over the road you’d get a warehouse and do your transfer in privacy.

The only reason to drive down near the water was if you were expecting a delivery from the water.

A minute later Puller’s deduction was proved correct.

The whine of the boat wasn’t much, but water was a great conductor of sound. The boat was moving fast, and within thirty seconds Puller could see the outline of what he almost immediately recognized as a RIB. It was the same type of amphibious boat the Rangers used.

As the RIB grew closer to shore, Puller could make out many people on board. Too many for the boat’s small footprint.

Carson touched his arm. He looked at her, found her pointing back toward land. Puller focused that way and saw the men from the truck coming down to the beach.

Right now he would have given anything for a night camera to record what was about to happen.

People were being pulled off the RIB. When they hit the sand, Puller could see that they were bound and their mouths taped shut.

They also wore different-colored shirts.

Puller flipped up his goggles and saw green, red, and blue.

He felt a gentle squeeze on his arm and turned to see Carson staring over his shoulder. She looked at him. He shook his head and turned back to what was happening on the beach.

The people were herded up the sand and to the truck where two men were posted there to guard them.

Puller turned his attention back to the beach, where the RIB had disappeared, but another one was now approaching the beach. The scenario that had just happened on the beach was repeated with this second group.

A third RIB beached, disgorged passengers, and left.

Then a fourth RIB came and did the same.

After the last RIB left, the truck was locked and three men climbed into the cab.

Carson said, “What do we do now?”

Puller was thinking this very same question.

What do we do?

“We need to call the police, right now,” Carson urged.

But Puller shook his head. “No,” he said.

She looked at him in bewilderment. “No? Are you crazy? Those people were prisoners, Puller.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“Then we call the cops.”

“Not yet.”

“When do you think might be a more suitable time?”

Puller looked at the truck as it started to pull away. “Let’s go,” he said.

CHAPTER 77

Puller kept back as far as he could from the truck while still keeping it in sight.

It was tricky. Headlights back here at this time of night would no doubt make the guys in the truck dangerously suspicious.

Carson alternated between looking at the tail- lights of the truck and scowling at Puller.

“I’m still not getting this tactic, Puller. If you don’t call the police for something like this, what then?”

He said nothing, but kept his gaze upon the truck as it wound around the curves with thick trees on both sides. They might as well have been in a forest. There was no hint of the nearby ocean except for the occasional whiff of brine.

He finally looked at her. “Well-timed op. Secluded spot, middle of the night. Bring them in by water, truck them out.”

“Right, so?”

“How many nights you think they do this?”

“I have no way of knowing that.”

“Let’s say they do it three or four times a week. Maybe seven days a week.”

“Maybe not. Maybe we just got lucky.”

“No one is that lucky.”

“And your point?”

“Maybe this is what my aunt saw. Or what the Storrows saw.”

“Maybe it is.”

“My aunt was a good upstanding citizen. The Storrows were, by all indications, pillars of the community.”

“Granted, they probably were.”

“And you think these elderly solid citizens saw what we saw and didn’t tell the police?”

Carson started to say something and then stopped. “So your point is they did tell the police and nothing happened.”

“Oh, something happened. They ended up dead. All of them.”

“You think the police are in on what we just saw?”

“I don’t see how you can run an op like that, even once a week, and trust that the cops are not going to happen upon you. All it would take is one cop on patrol seeing a boat light, or the truck, or just happening to walk down the beach and see what we saw tonight.”

“And they couldn’t risk that?”

“We just saw four RIBs. They’re not long-dis- tance boats. That means there’s a larger vessel out there that they launched from. I counted eighty people off the boats, and now they’re in the back of that truck. You’re talking equipment, money, and manpower. The payoff has to justify

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