Puller drew closer to the man. “Let me get this perfectly straight. Are you saying that you were told not to look into the Williamsburg cases as being possibly connected?”

“I never really looked into them, if that’s an answer,” said DiRenzo, avoiding Puller’s gaze.

“And you never questioned that?” said Knox.

DiRenzo looked at her. “I did what I was told. I was an investigator, but I was also in the Army. And like I just told you, I followed orders. Because if the Army teaches you

nothing else, it beats that into you.”

Puller said, “And did you ever think of a reason why the higher-ups didn’t want you to check into the serial murders to see if they were possibly connected to my mother’s disappearance?”

“I thought about it. I thought about it a lot, actually.”

“And?” said Knox.

“And any answer I came away with scared the shit out of me. So I finally stopped thinking about it.”

Chapter

26

SO THIS WAS how the other half lived. Well, the one-tenth of the one percent, anyway.

Rogers was leaning next to a tree off a road paralleling the beach.

The drive here had taken less than two hours. It was not even noon. He would have to get back in time for work. But he still had several hours to accomplish some things.

He was staring up at a home behind a high wall and steel gates that would have stopped a runaway Abrams tank. This was the palatial retirement home of Chris Ballard, the founder of what was now CB Excelon Corp.

Rogers had left his van back at a public parking lot just in case there were surveillance cameras posted by the front gate. He imagined they might film every car that went by the mansion. He did not want to be on that tape.

His eyes took in all points of the compound, for that’s what it was behind the high walls. Multiple buildings, an internal road system, cars, people. He had found an aerial view of the place on the Internet.

Ballard had clearly struck gold sucking at the teat of the federal government.

There wasn’t a whole lot of high ground here, but Rogers managed to find what there was. He worked through several spots before he found a place that allowed him to see into the compound but provided him cover while doing so. He automatically took in all points of entry and exit, strengths, weaknesses, potential hiding places, and security configurations. He waited patiently as he watched fit men in khakis, polo shirts, and ball caps with holstered handguns and headsets making their rounds.

Four buildings, including the main mansion, which looked to run to over twenty thousand square feet, were set around an enormous infinity pool.

One of the buildings looked to be a pool house that was three times the size of a normal house that folks actually lived in. Sleek chaise lounges lined the pool, all positioned perfectly parallel to their neighbors. There was an outdoor bar, an elaborate fire pit, patios, flagstone walkways, and sumptuous landscaping.

Cars, mostly Mercedes and Bentleys, were parked in the bays of the eight-car garage. Rogers could see this because all the overhead doors were open and a couple of men were working on one of the cars.

Outside the stone walls and set up on the east side of the mansion was a helipad with a large “B” painted in the center. And behind that and running parallel to the beach was a three-thousand-foot paved runway. Parked at one end of the tarmac was a trim Falcon 2000 jet. As Rogers watched, a man in a pilot’s uniform was doing a visual inspection of the aircraft.

All the accouterments of the super-rich down to the very last detail, thought Rogers. So many toys, so little time.

He made his way through a public access far down from the Ballard mansion to the beach. The Atlantic swelled and plunged in front of him as a strong wind pummeled the water. Salt air slammed into his lungs. Seagulls dipped and soared looking for meals. But none of that held Rogers’s interest. He kept walking toward the mansion. The sand belonged to everyone and he wanted to see what the defenses of the estate looked like from the beach side.

He reached a spot directly in front of the Ballard property and saw that a high stone wall ran the entire length of the property. It was so high in fact that he could only see the upper floors of the main house.

In the middle of the wall was a wooden gate as high as the wall. He trudged along the beach after taking off his shoes and socks and rolling up his pant legs. When he was a hundred yards past it, he heard something. He turned to see the gate opening.

Out marched three beefy armed men, obviously security. Behind them was a sand-colored golf cart with cognac-colored seats driven by another security man. A second armed man sat next to him.

In the rear seat of the vehicle was an elderly man in a white robe and Panama hat with a black band. Next to him sat a young woman in a pale blue sheer cover-up.

The old guy was Ballard, Rogers was pretty certain. He was the right age, and who else here would get a chauffeur-driven golf cart ride to the beach?

They drove down near the water and parked. The security men laid out a large blanket, lounge chairs, a table, and a basket. Then they stepped back and formed a ring around the man and woman as they climbed out of the vehicle, the woman supporting the man.

She led him over to one of the chairs and helped him off with his robe. Underneath he had on bathing trunks and a T-shirt. His body was reedy and his chest sunken. He seemed particularly frail. She put sunscreen on his exposed skin and settled him in his chair.

She then took off her cover-up, revealing a sea-foam green string bikini underneath.

She looked like she worked out, not an ounce of fat to be seen. Her skin was tanned, but not too much.

She lay down on the blanket facedown in front of the man, her tight glutes only half covered by the bikini bottom. Ballard didn’t seem to care. He just stared out at the water.

Yet Rogers caught one of the security men taking a peek at the woman before moving his gaze outward. By the time he spotted Rogers, the latter had already turned and was slowly heading down the beach. A hundred yards later Rogers stopped and walked over to the water, letting it rush over his feet.

Is that really Ballard? Probably. And the woman? Girlfriend? Trophy wife? Child? Grandchild? Nurse in a string bikini showing off her bod while grabbing some rays on duty?

The next sound made him turn and look back down the beach.

It was a sound of gathering power.

Then a rumble as that gathering power was set free.

About ten seconds later, the Falcon 2000 cleared the foliage that ran the length of the runway on the beach side, soared into the air, banked hard right over the water, straightened out, and continued its rapid ascent.

Rogers looked over at the man and woman.

The old man was still staring aimlessly out toward the water.

The young woman was up on her haunches and waved.

Rogers turned to follow her gaze and watched the twin plumes of exhaust from the jet’s engines smear the otherwise clear sky.

So who is in the Falcon?

He walked a bit farther out into the water, letting the saltwater edge up his pale ankles. He glanced down and saw the remnants of the old scars on his calves. Every few seconds he would shift his gaze to the left and eye the little group on the beach.

The lunch in the basket was served, the woman dutifully taking care of the old gent. She had put her cover-up back on.

Glasses of wine were poured and drunk.

A bowl of fruit and a plate of cheese picked through.

Sandwiches nibbled.

And then everything was packed up and the golf cart along with the security team headed back up the beach, through the gate, and it closed behind them.

Apparently the king’s sunbathing was over for the day.

Rogers waited a few minutes and then slowly made his way back the way he’d come. He left the sand behind, dried off his feet, put his socks and shoes back on, and trudged to his van. He rubbed the back of his head because it had started to throb again.

He wasn’t sure how much he’d learned today other than that Old Man Ballard had a helluva retirement package, including a beautiful companion to see to his every need.

He had just climbed into the driver’s seat when a car shot past

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