“Then we should call in the police,” said Carson.
“No,” said Diaz. “Lampert and Rojas have assets everywhere. We
can’t trust the police.”
“Then the U.S. military. Eglin is right up the road.”
“By the time they can send anyone it’ll be too late,” argued Diaz.
Puller had a sudden thought. “You said this was a joint operation with the U.S. Did you happen to be working with military-looking guys in a Chrysler?”
“Yes,” said Diaz. “They told me of their interaction with Americans. I guess that was you.”
“Guess it was. Were they tracking me or Betsy Simon?”
“They had spotted a car belonging to Simon near the transfer spot one night. They traced it to her. Then she was killed. They started watching.” “Where are they now?” asked Puller.
“After their encounter with you, they were reassigned. No one has replaced them yet.” “Great,” muttered Puller.
“Okay, give us the layout of the warehouse,” said Carson. “If they’re still there we’ll have to hit it hard and fast.”
“We will hit it hard and fast,” said Mecho. “And we will kill who we have to kill.” He looked at Puller. “Unless you have a problem with murdering slavers.”
“No problem at all,” said Puller. “If they’re trying to murder me.”
“That I think you can count on,” said Mecho.
There were four sides to the warehouse and they covered all of them. They had to split their forces in quarters to accomplish this, but allowing a hole for anyone to escape was deemed not acceptable.
Puller took the rear.
Mecho the front.
Carson the left side.
Diaz the right.
They were prepared for a war.
They did not find one.
They did not find anyone at all.
The warehouse was empty.
The makeshift prison cells held no one.
They searched the space in ten minutes and then regrouped in the center of it.
Puller said, “They move fast, I’ll give them that.”
“But where have they gone?” asked Carson. “We can get APBs out. They have to be using trucks to transport.”
“Lot of trucks going up and down the highway,” pointed out Puller. “Can’t stop and search them all.”
He glanced over her shoulder and stiffened. He raced past Carson and over to a spot against the wall. He knelt and picked it up.
The others joined him.
“What is it, Puller?” asked Carson.
Puller held it up.
It was a ring. A small silver ring with a lion on it.
“This belongs to my friend Diego.”
“Who is this Diego?” asked Mecho.
“A kid. About twelve years old. His cousin is Mateo. He’s five. They were probably both here. Diego probably left this as a clue. He’s a pretty smart kid.”
“A five-year-old,” said Diaz. “Why would they have taken twelve- and five-year-old boys?”
“Prostitution?” said Puller. “Sick bastards out there.”
“No. Rojas is a criminal. And a truly evil man. But he has never taken anyone that young before.”
“Diego didn’t come through the normal pipeline. He lived in Paradise. He was snatched from right here. Along with Mateo.”
Diaz looked worried.
“What is it?” asked Carson.
“Then it was Lampert who ordered this. Not Rojas.”
Puller rose and pocketed the ring. “So what exactly does that mean?”
“It could mean that Lampert is expanding his product line, without Rojas’s approval or even knowledge.”
“Expand it where?”
“What?” exclaimed Carson.
“You build mock families to divert suspicion.
A mother. A father. With young children. If you travel with little ones security is instinctively lessened. It is against human nature to take your own children into harm’s way.”
“Not in the Middle East,” said Puller. “Happened all the time.”
“Yes, they were used as shields and sometimes bombs, I understand this,” said Diaz. “But this is not the Middle East. And the people who used children as shields and bombs were not their parents.”
Puller said, “So you’re saying it’s great cover to travel with small kids. To avoid detection or at least heightened scrutiny.”
“Maybe getting in and out of the country,” added Carson.
“Yes, that is what I’m thinking,” said Diaz. Puller looked at Carson. He said, “I should have shot Lampert the night I met him.”
Diaz said urgently, “We need to find them.” “They had to have trucked them out of here,” said Puller. He looked at Mecho. “Any idea how many people might have been held here?”
Mecho looked around at the empty cells. “I watched the beach for two nights. Each time eighty prisoners were brought in.”
“So a lot of people to move,” said Puller.
“They are probably heading toward the interstate highways as we speak,” said Diaz.
Puller mulled this thought over as Carson stared at him. “I’m not too sure about that,” he said.
“Where else?” asked Diaz. “They have product to move. They have buyers.”
“If I’m Lampert and I know my pipeline was compromised, then I’m not going to deliver the product to my buyers. He couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t be followed. That blows his pipeline sky-high. And that also wins him a death sentence from Rojas.”
“What, then?” asked Carson. “What do you think he’s doing with them?”
Puller stared in the direction of the Gulf. “I think he’s returning them to sender.”
“Back to Colombia?” said Diaz.
“Back to wherever they came from,” said Puller. He looked at Mecho.
“How did you get here?”
“I swam mostly,” said Mecho, but Puller could tell by his face that the man was leaping ahead to the ultimate conclusion of Puller’s question.
“I was one of the taken,” he said. “It sidetracked me for a bit. But I escaped. The crew who brought me was not so lucky. They were late and it cost them their lives.”
Diaz said, “Where did you escape from?”
“An oil platform off the coast. No longer used, of course. They dock at a series of them going from Mexico to Florida. That is how they move the product.”
Diaz said, “But I didn’t think there were any oil platforms off the coast of Florida.”
Carson spoke up. “That’s mostly true. The vast majority are off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas. And some off Alabama. There are no oil platforms on the Atlantic side of Florida. And pretty much all the oil wells dug in Florida state waters in the Gulf over the years came up dry.” “Okay,” said Puller. “But Mecho is saying there is one out there and that he was on it. How does that make sense?”
Carson continued, “Some energy companies made natural gas discoveries in the mid-eighties to mid-nineties. About twenty-five miles off the