The Forgotten (John Puller #2)

Army Special Agent John Puller is the best there is. A combat veteran, Puller is the man the U.S. Army relies on to investigate the toughest crimes facing the nation. Now he has a new case—but this time, the crime is personal: His aunt has been found dead in Paradise, Florida.A picture-perfect town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradise thrives on the wealthy tourists and retirees drawn to its gorgeous weather and beaches. The local police have ruled his aunt’s death an unfortunate, tragic accident. But just before she died, she mailed a letter to Puller’s father, telling him that beneath its beautiful veneer, Paradise is not all it seems to be.

What Puller finds convinces him that his aunt’s death was no accident . . . and that the palm trees and sandy beaches of Paradise may hide a conspiracy so shocking that some will go to unthinkable lengths to make sure the truth is never revealed.

CHAPTER 1

He had the look of a man who was afraid that tonight would be his last on earth. And he had good reason to think so. The odds were fifty-fifty that it might be, and the percentage could go higher depending on how the next hour turned out.

The margin of error was that small.

The roar of the twin-engine boat moving at near full throttle wiped away the nighttime quiet on calm ocean waters. At this time of year the Gulf of Mexico was usually not so peaceful. Now was typically the most active period of the hurricane season. While several storms were brewing out in the open Atlantic, none as yet had formed a firm center and entered the Gulf. Everyone on the coast was crossing his fingers and praying it would remain that way.

The fiberglass hull cut cleanly through the dense, salty water. The boat could hold about twenty people comfortably, but there were thirty folks on board. They were desperately gripping anything they could to keep from being bounced overboard. Despite the smooth waters, a boat carrying far too many people and moving at high speed was never very stable.

The captain piloting the boat did not care about the comfort of his passengers. His top priority was staying alive. He kept one hand on the wheel and the other on the dual throttles. He eyed the speed gauge with a worried look.

Come on. Come on. You can do this. You can make it.

Forty miles per hour. He pushed the throttles ahead and crept the speed stick up to forty-five. He was almost topped out now. Even with the twin stern-drive engines he wouldn’t be able to muster more speed without unduly depleting his fuel. And there were no marinas around here to provide more gas.

Even with the breeze created by the boat’s movement it was still hot out here. At least one did not have to worry about mosquitoes, not at this speed and this far from land. The man eyed the passengers one by one. It was not an idle observation. He was counting heads, although he already knew the answer. He had four crewmen with him. They were all armed, all watching the “passengers.” In a mutiny it would be five against one. But the passengers did not have submachine guns. One clip could take out every one of them with bullets to spare. And the majority were women and children, because that was where the real demand was.

No, he was not worried about a mutiny. He was worried about timing.

The captain checked his illuminated watch. It would be close. They had been late leaving the last outpost. Then their chart plotter had gone haywire for thirty nerve-racking minutes, sending them in completely the wrong direction. This was vast ocean. Every bit of it looked the same. No landmass to aid in navigation. They were not in well-marked shipping channels. Without their electronic guidepost they would be screwed, like flying a plane without instrumentation in thick fog. The only outcome would be disaster.

But they had gotten the plotter operational, corrected course, and he had immediately pushed the stern-drives hard. Then he had pushed them some more. His gaze continued to flit to his dash, checking the oil, fuel, and engine temperature gauges. A breakdown out here would be catastrophic. They couldn’t exactly call the Coast Guard for assistance.

He futilely looked to the skies for eyes watching from up there. Unmanned eyes that would send back gigs of digital data about what they were seeing. He would never see the response team until it was too late. The Coast Guard cutters would be on them before he could do anything. They would board, know immediately what was going on, and he would go to prison for a very long time, perhaps the rest of his life.

But he was not as scared of the Coast Guard as he was of certain other people.

He pushed the boat’s speed up to forty-seven and said a silent prayer that a vital engine part would not blow. He looked at his watch again. He counted the minutes in his head as he scanned the water ahead of them.

“They’ll feed me to the sharks,” he muttered.

Not for the first time, he regretted agreeing to this business venture. Yet the money was so good he could not turn it down, despite the risks. He had done fifteen of these runs and figured with a similar number in the future he could retire to a nice, quiet spot in the Florida Keys and live like a king. It beat the hell out of driving his boat for pasty tourists from the North looking to land a tuna or marlin but more often simply puking all over his boat in rough seas.

But first I have to get this boat and these people where they need to go.

He eyed the red and green navigation lights on the bow. They gave a solemn glow to an otherwise moonless night. He counted more minutes in his head at the same time as he scanned the boat’s gauges.

His heart sank.

His fuel was running low. The stick was dipping perilously close to reserve status. He felt his gut tighten. They had too much weight. And the problem with the navigation system had cost them over an hour, many nautical miles, and precious fuel. He always added a fuel buffer of ten percent to be sure, but even this surplus might not be enough. He scanned the passengers again. Most were women and teenagers, but some were beefy men, easily over two hundred pounds each. And there was one man who was a true giant. But dumping passengers as a solution to his fuel issue was beyond problematic. He might as well put a gun to his own head and pull the trigger.

He swiftly redid the calculations in his head, just as airline pilots did after getting a full passenger and cargo manifest. It was the same question regardless of whether your ride was in the water or thirty thousand feet above it.

Do I have enough fuel to get there?

He caught the eye of one of his men and beckoned him over.

The man listened to his boss’s problem and did his own calculations. “It’s gonna be tight,” he said worriedly.

“And it’s not like we can start throwing people overboard,” said the captain.

“Right. They have the manifest. They know how many we’re carrying. We start throwing them overboard, we might as well jump in too.”

“Tell me some shit I don’t know,” the captain snapped.

He made a decision and eased off the throttles, cutting their speed back to forty miles per hour. The dual props started spinning more slowly. The boat was still fully up on plane. To the naked eye there wasn’t a big difference between forty and forty-seven miles per hour on the water, but with the reduced fuel burn it could be the difference between running dry or making it. They would fuel up, and the return trip, with only five of them on board, would be no problem.

“Better to be a little late than not get there at all,” said the captain.

There was a hollow ring to his statement and the other man did not miss it. He clenched his weapon tighter. The captain looked away from him, his throat constricting as a cold dread gripped him.

To the people who’d hired him, timing was important. And being late, even by a few minutes, was never a good thing.

Right now the insane profit margin did not really seem worth it. You couldn’t spend money if you were dead.

But thirty minutes later, with his engines starting to suck on air instead of fuel, the captain saw his destination straight ahead. It rose out of the ocean like a throne for Neptune.

They were here. They were very late, but at least they’d made it.

He looked at the passengers. They too were staring at the structure, their eyes bugged out. He couldn’t blame them. Even though this was not the first such structure they had seen it was still a monstrous sight, especially at night. Hell, it still freaked him out, even after all the similar trips he’d made. He just wanted to dump his load, fuel up, and get his ass back to where he’d come from. As soon as the twenty-five passengers stepped off his boat they were someone else’s problem.

He slowed his engines and took his time docking alongside a floating metal platform tethered to the larger structure. After the ropes were secured, hands reached across and started pulling the passengers onto the platform, which bobbed up and down from the light chop created by the docking process.

He didn’t see the larger ship that was normally waiting to take passengers onward. It must have already left with a load.

As the captain signed off on some documents and received his pay in plastic bundles taped down, he looked at the passengers as they were herded up a long metal stairway. They all looked terrified.

They should be, he thought. The unknown was not nearly as terrifying as the known. And he understood quite clearly that these people were well aware what was about to happen to them. And they also knew that no one else cared.

They were not rich.

They were not powerful.

They were truly the forgotten.

And their numbers were growing exponentially as the world was settling swiftly into a permanent state of the rich and thus powerful and then everyone else. And what the rich and powerful wanted, they usually got.

He opened one of the plastic bundles. His mind did not immediately register what he was seeing. When it became apparent that what he was holding was cut-up newspaper and not money, he looked up.

The muzzle of the MP5 was pointed directly at him, less than ten feet away, held by a man standing on Neptune’s Seat. The MP was an awesome killing weapon at close quarters. It would prove so tonight.

The captain had time to put up his hand, as though flesh and bone would block shaped ordnance coming at him far faster than a jumbo jet could fly. When it hit him it did so with thousands of foot-pounds of kinetic energy. Twenty such rounds slammed into him at roughly the same time, shredding his body.

The impact of the spray of slugs knocked him off his feet and then over the gunwale. Before he sank beneath the waves the four other men on board joined him in the water. All shredded, all dead, they disappeared into the depths. The sharks would have a buffet tonight.

Punctuality was not only a virtue, it seemed, but also an absolute necessity.