The hotel was far nicer than the Sierra. And it was right on the water.
The SUV was parked in the hotel’s garage. The four men had ridden the elevator to the lobby and then gone on to their rooms. They each had their own, a perk of this job. Money obviously was no limitation.
The man who had ridden shotgun in the SUV reached his room on the fifteenth floor and opened the door with his key card. He slipped off his jacket, revealing his holstered Glock nine. He made a beeline for the minibar and mixed a gin and tonic, then went to the window and gazed out over the Gulf. He took a long breath and slipped a cigarette from his pocket and lit up.
It was a nonsmoking room but he apparently didn’t care.
Thirty minutes later there was a knock at the door. Not his hotel room door, but the one connecting the room next to his. One of the other men was staying in that room.
He walked over to it. “Donny?”
“Call from the boss, we got to roll,” replied Donny.
“Got something for you,” said Donny.
He opened the door.
The blow hit him so hard it lifted him off his feet and he flew backward and landed on the soft bed, his nose broken and his consciousness gone.
Donny stood there with a gun barrel held against his right temple. Mecho was behind him.
“Please, man, don’t kill me,” moaned Donny.
Mecho shoved him into the room and closed the door behind him. A ferocious blow to Don- ny’s head dropped him to the floor.
When he awoke later he was tied to the bed along with his colleague, who was now awake as well. The two men looked at each other.
Mecho stood over them looking down. He duct-taped their mouths, pulled their pants and underwear down, and held the knife pointed at their privates.
When he cut him there, Donny screamed, but it was a nearly soundless one with the duct tape across his mouth.
The next instant Mecho slammed the knife straight into his chest so hard that the point came out the man’s back and stuck into the mattress.
Donny’s mouth sagged open as he died.
The other man looked in panic at his dead colleague.
Mecho took off the other man’s duct tape.
The man braced for the strike of the knife, but Mecho just looked at him.
The man glanced at dead Donny. “Why did you kill him? He’d tell you anything you wanted to know.”
“I killed him,” said Mecho, “because I could.”
“What do you want to know?” the other man said, his voice panicky.
Mecho sat on the bed next to him. “What is your name?” he asked quietly.
“Where are you from, Joe?”
“What is this New Jersey?”
“It’s a state. Of the United States.”
“Do you have a family?”
Joe hesitated, but Mecho pointed his blade at his chest and Joe said, “Wife and two little girls.” “In New Jersey?”
Joe nodded, his eyes filling with tears.
“And you want to see them again?”
“Yes,” Joe gasped. “More than anything.”
“And the people from the boats?”
Joe’s chest heaved more and he sobbed. “It’s just a job.”
“They have family too.”
“I just do it for the money, I swear to sweet Jesus. It’s the only reason. I got nothing against those people.”
“They have people they love and who love them.”
“Just a damn job. That’s all,” moaned Joe.
Mecho took out the photo of Rada and held it in front of Joe. “Do you recognize this person? Her name is Rada.”
Joe’s eyes were so filled with tears that he could barely see.
“I... I don’t know.”
Mecho gripped him around the neck and jerked him upward as he thrust the picture closer. “Do you know her?”
“I... I’m not sure. Maybe.”
“Her name is Rada.”
“I don’t know any of their names. We don’t get names.”
“She is a beautiful woman. About a month ago she came through here. Were you here then?”
Joe started to nod, sensing perhaps that if he had valuable intelligence it would keep him alive. “Wait a minute, yeah, I think I do remember her. Right, a month ago. Yeah, Rada.”
“Rada,” repeated Mecho. “One month ago.”
“You want to find her, right? Maybe I can help.”
“One month ago,” said Mecho again. “Rada. She is beautiful.”
“Absolutely,” said Joe. “A real looker. I can help you. If you untie me—”
Mecho slammed the blade into Joe’s chest and drove it in up to the hilt. Joe gave a shudder and joined Donny in the land of the dead.
Mecho stared down at him. “Rada has been gone for one year.” He fingered the photo. “And this is not a picture of Rada.”
He looked at dead Donny.
“And your friend already told me all I needed to know back in his room.”
He pulled his knife free and some pent-up arterial blood squirted from the wound. With the heart no longer beating and zero blood pressure, there would not be any more significant blood loss.
Mecho said, “So you can see that I have no further need of your assistance. I perhaps forgot to mention that. Forgive me, Joe. I’m sure your family in this New Jersey place will mourn you.” He stood, wiped the blade off on the sheets,
and stared down at the two men.
For the money. Just for the money.
They did not know the names. They never knew the names.
But I know their names.
I know them all.
Puller sat in his room at the Gull Coast staring at the wall. Sadie was curled up at the end of his bed. The dog had drunk so much water that she had peed in the Tahoe. Puller had cleaned that up and then walked her before coming up to his room.
It was four a.m. and he had not yet been to sleep.
There were many items swirling through his mind.
At four-thirty he closed his eyes and willed himself to rest for three hours.
When he woke at half past seven he felt like he’d slept for a full eight hours.
He showered and dressed, walked Sadie, and then fed her with food he had taken from Cookie’s. He walked the dog again to let her do her business and then went out to eat breakfast, leaving Sadie back in the thankfully air-conditioned room. He knew he would have to make other arrangements for the dog, but that was not at the top of his priority list right now.
He walked two blocks to the waterfront and found a small diner with a fifties retro interior and ordered the biggest breakfast it offered. In deference to the heat outside—the temperature was already in the eighties—he had water with ice in lieu of coffee.
Fully fueled, he left the diner and walked down the street.
“Did you get enough to eat?”
He turned and saw her standing by a mailbox.
Julie Carson was not in uniform. She had on jeans, sandals, and a green sleeveless blouse.
She didn’t look like the one-star that she was. She looked like a tourist. A very fit, attractive tourist.
Puller walked over to her.