There was no sympathy in the question. Puller neither expected nor wanted any. Mecho simply wanted to know the physical status of his comrades in arms. He wanted to know if he could count on Puller or rather have to compensate for him.
Puller would have wanted to know the exact same thing.
“They gave me a painkiller I had in my duffel. I can shoot and I can fight and I can take punishment. So don’t worry about me. I’ll handle my end. You cover yours.”
“What about your woman?” asked Mecho. “Can she hold her own?”
“What about your woman?” asked Puller.
“Are you always this cooperative?”
“I don’t even know who you are, so yeah, this is about as cooperative as it gets from me.”
“Diaz will be fine.”
“So will Carson.”
They rode for another minute in silence. The only noise was the sounds from the women readying the weapons.
Finally Mecho said, “My name is Gavril. That is my given name. My surname would mean nothing to you. But people call me Mecho.” “You’re Bulgarian,” said Puller.
Mecho glanced at him. “How did you know?” “I fought with them in Iraq way back. They were great fighters and could drink any other nationality under the table. Even the Russians.” Mecho smiled. “The Russians think vodka is gold. It is merely water with perfume. It does not even put hair on the chest.”
“Were you military?”
Mecho’s smile faded. “I used to be. Then things changed.”
Neither man noticed that Carson and Diaz had finished their work and were listening intently to this exchange.
“Bulgaria was no longer part of the Soviet Union, of course. But some things don’t change. I love my country. It is a place of beauty. The people there are good. They like to work hard. They love their freedoms. But that does not mean that every leader we have is a good one who deserves the respect of the people. So sometimes when you do not follow along blindly things happen to you.”
“Were you imprisoned?”
Mecho glanced at him sharply. “Why do you say that?”
“Because the Soviets were big on that, that’s why. And Bulgaria was part of that world for a long time.”
“For a time,” Mecho said. “Perhaps a longer time than I care to remember.”
“How did you end up here going after slavers?”
“I come from a small village in the southwest part of my country. The Rila range, it is called. It is remote. The people there work hard. There are few if any outsiders who come there. My family still lives there.”
Puller said, “But outsiders did come?”
Mecho nodded and glanced out the window so as not to show the tears forming in his eyes.
“Men came and promised things, a better life for our young people. Education, jobs, all good things. They took about thirty of them.” He paused. “Including my youngest sister. We are a large family. She is far younger than me. She was only sixteen when she left.” He paused again. “No, not when she left, when she was taken” “They were slavers,” said Puller.
Mecho nodded. “Who thought that a little village on a mountain in Bulgaria would never be able to strike back for the evil that was done. I was not there at the time, or I would have not allowed this to happen. I have seen a lot of the world. The people in my village have not. They are trusting, too trusting. When I came back and found out what had happened, I started to look for my sister. And the others.”
“What’s her name?” This question came from Carson, who had put a hand on Mecho’s big shoulder, gripping it.
“Rada. This is she.”
Mecho took out the photo and held it out to Carson. She took it and looked at it.
“She’s very beautiful,” said Carson, and Diaz nodded in agreement.
“Not like the rest of the family,” said Mecho matter-of-factly. “They look more like me. Big and ugly.”
“You are not ugly, Mecho,” said Diaz fiercely. “You are a man trying to do the right thing. There is nothing more handsome than that.”
“And you tracked her down to Lampert?” asked Puller.
Diaz answered while Mecho took the photograph of Rada back from Carson and stared down silently at it. “We have talked,” she said. “He actually worked the connection from the other way. Through Stiven Rojas.”
“Rojas,” exclaimed Carson. “He’s on our most wanted list. He’s even been deemed a national security risk. He’s involved in this?”
“He collects the product, the people, and then they are transported to this country,” said Diaz. “Lampert takes over from there. He has established buyers everywhere. He gets the people to them. They are separated into three main categories. Prostitutes are the most valuable. Next are drug mules. Then common laborers.”
Mecho added, “They wear different-colored clothing that shows which category they fall into. I have seen this.”
Puller said, “We saw it tonight.”
“And you said he has buyers in the U.S.? For slaves?” said Carson.
“The slave trade has never been more lucrative,” said Diaz. “As governments crack down on drugs and guns, it is becoming more and more popular. You need people to carry drugs. You need hookers to score tricks. And you need people to work the fields and the factories. If you don’t have to pay them or pay them very much it is good for the bottom line.”
“But it’s not like you can keep those people locked up. Prostitutes, drug runners, laborers. Why don’t they just escape? America is a big country,” said Puller. “And there’s always a policeman nearby.”
“Because they tell them that if they do try to escape, or tell the police, their families will be killed,” said Mecho.
“How do you know this?” asked Diaz, looking at him curiously.
“I had a talk with two of Lampert’s men. They told me. And his housekeeper, I could tell from the little she told me that she is a slave. She is afraid for her family. Lampert also uses her for sex.”
Mecho’s eyes drifted toward Diaz’s when he said this last part, but she quickly looked away, her face reddening.
Puller said, “You had a talk with two of Lampert’s men? Would they be the same pair that were staying at the Plaza?”
Mecho did not answer, which to Puller was answer enough.
“So you killed them?”
“They were not human. Not any longer. They were like rabid dogs.”
“You still murdered them.”
“You have not killed before?”
“I have not murdered before.”
Diaz said, “That can be dealt with later.” Puller said, “Mecho, do you know anything about the death of an old lady and an old couple?”
Mecho said, “I saw an old couple killed on the beach when I first came here.”
Puller glanced sharply at him. “On the beach? Did you see who killed them?”
Mecho shook his head. “But it was one person. Shots to the head. Then their bodies were dragged into the water. The tide took them out.” “And you just let it happen?” said Puller. “There was nothing I could do. It happened too fast.”
Carson said, “Okay, their bodies were dragged out to the water. So probably a man. Big, small, white, black?”
“Not that tall. I could not see the color of the skin clearly but I think white. And slender, but obviously strong.”
“And you blew up Lampert’s Bentley,” said Puller.
Mecho looked at him, puzzled. “How did you know that?”
“You have big feet.”
Diaz said, “This can all keep. We need to be prepared for what is coming up in the next few minutes.”
Mecho nodded. “The warehouse. It is where they keep the slaves. That is where the trucks go.”