that.”

“Like you said before. Drugs, guns.”

“They were people, General. No guns, no drugs.”

“So maybe drug mules?”

“And there were young women. So prostitutes. And bigger, older men. Maybe slave laborers.”

“Slave laborers? In America?”

“Why not?”

“I thought we fought the Civil War to take care of that little bit of evil.”

“If it’s profitable, evil can come back strong, just like a cancer with fresh blood lines to feed off.”

“Damn, Puller, do you really think that’s what this is about?”

“A pipeline is a pipeline. You can run lots of different things through it.”

“And the police?”

“Part of the equation. Paradise is wealthy and a tourist destination and no one wants to rock the boat and maybe the cops are paid to look the other way. Hell, maybe the whole damn town is.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“Maybe not. But if I’m those guys I’m not putting an operation like this together and risking a cop stumbling onto it and blowing it out of the water.”

“Something like that has to come from the top. So Bullock?”

“Maybe. I was surprised at how quickly he turned into my friend.”

“I wonder who’s running the op from the other end.”

“My bet is on the guy who got his Bentley blown up.”

“What? Lampert? How do you figure that?”

“I checked the guy out. Made and lost a fortune. Then made another one back, obviously. Only I can’t find out how. And he screws the hired help. And maybe they’re not hired at all. Maybe he’s got slaves on his ‘plantation.’ ”

“Okay, let’s say he is the guy. Why would someone blow up his car?”

“Maybe a guy with size sixteen shoes has a beef with the man.”

“Size sixteen shoes?”

Puller explained about the footprints outside the guesthouse window. “He’s the same guy who saved my butt the other night. I don’t think he did it out of kindness. And maybe he regrets it now. But he may be the one after Lampert. He works on a landscaping crew. Why do I want to bet he works the Lampert estate?”

“And his beef with Lampert?”

“No idea. And I may be barking up the wrong tree. But guys that big with skills like he has are rare. And I can’t believe he came here to cut grass.”

“So with the knowledge in hand, what do we do? Call in the Army? The DEA? The Border Patrol?”

“We need to know more. If we start making noises and they have moles on the inside, we’ll never get the evidence we need to put them away. They’ll be gone, never to return.”

“Well, when we find out where that truck is going we may have all the evidence we need,” she said.

Puller suddenly punched the gas and the Tahoe sped up.

“What are you doing?” Carson exclaimed. “They’ll see you.”

“We’ve already been seen.”

“What?”

“Twin bogies behind us and they’re closing like an Abrams tank brigade on a soft target.”

She looked behind her and saw the set of twin beams coming on way too fast.

“Shit!”

Carson lifted her pistol from its holster.

Puller shook his head. “Ineffective at this range and tactical position. Take my rifle. I’ll pop the back window. Take up a position in the rear. Use the tailgate to steady the rifle.” He eyed the rearview again. “I’m thinking fifty yards. Aim for the windshield and the radiator.”

She was already scrambling over the seat. “Roger that.”

He popped the window, she took her spot, settled the rifle on the tailgate, but then she paused.

“Puller, what if it’s the police or Feds back there?”

A bullet shattered the back glass, covering Carson in shards.

“Don’t think so,” said Puller. “Fire! Now!”

Carson pumped five rounds from her rifle into the windshield and radiator of the first vehicle. It swerved and smoke started pouring from the hood.

Carson fired twice more and the windshield shattered completely and then came off in one large chunk. She could see the driver hunched over and then the vehicle flew off the road.

“One bogie down,” she called out.

“Don’t declare victory yet,” barked Puller.

Out of the smoky haze thrown off by the first vehicle the second, an SUV, raced, bearing down on them fast.

These people were taking no chances.

Bullets poured from twin gunmen hanging out the windows.

The Tahoe’s left rear wheel shredded.

“Puller,” cried out Carson.

“I know.”

He fought the wheel, keeping it on the asphalt.

Carson fired back but then stopped.

“Keep shooting,” snapped Puller.

“My rifle jammed.”

“Shit,” barked Puller. He checked the rearview. Bogie coming fast, major firepower. They had one bad wheel and as he checked his fuel gauge he saw it plummeting. One round must have pierced the fuel tank.

“We’re losing gas,” Carson called out. “I can smell it.”

“They hit the tank.”

Carson looked back and her eyes widened as the SUV came on hard and fast, its hood nearing the back of the Tahoe. Then it abruptly slowed and fell back.

At first Carson thought they were retreating, but then she saw something that told her otherwise.

“Puller!”

“What?”

“They’ve got an RPG.”

The man on the right side of the SUV was hanging out the side getting a bead on them with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher riding on his shoulder, while another man inside the truck held on to him.

That’s why they had fallen back. To avoid the blast from ground zero when rocket and Tahoe plus leaky gas tank erupted in a flame ball.

Carson ducked down as the man fired. It was a good thing she was holding on, because at that very moment Puller, who’d been watching this unfold in the rearview, cut the wheel hard to the left at the exact instant the grenade launched.

The Tahoe shuddered and then responded.

The grenade passed by on the right, hit a bank of trees, and exploded.

Carson tumbled across the rear of the truck’s interior as the Tahoe skidded off the road and slid onto the shoulder. The rear door was ripped open and a large hand flew in, grabbed Carson under the arm, and lifted her out of the Tahoe.

The next instant she and Puller were running for their lives.

CHAPTER 78

They had two pistols and a jammed rifle between them.

Puller led Carson to cover behind a dune. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t need to be. They looked at each other as they heard people running toward their general position.

“Tight spot,” said Carson.

Puller checked the pistols. “We’ve both been in tighter. They haven’t located us yet. It’ll take some time.”

“But they will.”

“Yes, they will.”

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