The Devil’s Work – Linda Ladd

Off the west coast of Florida, a giant ball of flame sat atop the horizon. Blazing and brilliant, it slowly disappeared into the vast blue reaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Another magnificent Sanibel Island sunset was over, but it left a soft pink glow that colored the beaches. Will Novak was jogging along, nice and steady, heading south toward the Sanibel Lighthouse, when those faint golden spikes turned to black and a single star appeared. He liked sunsets, especially the ones out over the sea, but he was tired and ready to head back to his rental condo. The ocean winds were sweeping in, brisk and bracing, and drying his sweat-soaked skin as he ran along the hard-packed sand. It felt good to have a nice long run. He had been idle for a week, and he needed the surge of energy it gave him. Few people were around now that the sky show was over, no doubt worn out from a day romping in sun and surf. Lights were blinking on inside the hotels and restaurants he jogged past. When it grew darker along the sand, Novak had the beach to himself, which was the way he liked it. Since he had retired from the military, he had become a loner who enjoyed peace and quiet on the few occasions he actually could get some. His lifestyle made these isolated pools of serenity rare, but now he was ready for some action. Claire Morgan Black, his PI partner, had left him an intriguing voicemail ten days ago, relating news of a case without giving him any details. So he had come to the island and checked into Ocean’s Edge, waiting for Claire to make it home from Italy.

While he waited, he was to watch for the arrival of a woman named Alcina Castillo and then keep a close eye on her. After that directive, Claire had pretty much ignored his texts. The mystery woman had not shown up. Will wanted the details explaining why he was hanging around that condo and doing nothing. Not that his stay in paradise was any kind of hardship. A beach bum existence was right up his alley, not exactly hell on earth by any stretch of the imagination. Sanibel Island was beautiful, and better yet, it was peaceful and quiet. Now the lights of Fort Myers Beach sparkled across the dark bay, the big luxury high-rise condos and hotels full of tourists. Restaurants over there would be packed with hungry visitors lingering over fresh seafood and imbibing fancy cocktails. Novak usually ran at night when he was away on assignment.

When he was at home in the bayous of Louisiana, he worked out at dawn, on a specific course he’d laid out to increase his speed and strengthen his endurance. Novak was a big guy, six feet six inches, and weighed 240 pounds. His large size should have affected his ability to react to provocation, but he had worked diligently to overcome that problem and now could surprise opponents by how fast he could move. He couldn’t always sustain the quickness, but usually it didn’t have to last long to put another man down. It had done him well in many a barroom brawl. Here he had no reason to tangle with anybody because he spent all day watching for the woman to appear. It was a good gig, he supposed, sitting around on the sand or in his private screened lanai, relaxing, and waiting for something to pop. No such luck thus far. In a nutshell, he was bored. All was quiet, all the time.

The other guests looked to be typical tourists doing absolutely nothing unusual or criminal, just nice normal people enjoying hard-earned vacations, so good for them. Tonight he was ready to hit the sack. He had run longer than he’d meant to, crossing the Sanibel Causeway and jogging down McGregor Boulevard on a circuitous route to Fort Myers Beach and the marina where he’d docked his sailboat. He liked to check it out every day or so. His boat, a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 379 that he’d had factory-built to accommodate his large frame, was his prized possession. His boat was sleek and fast, a beautiful forty-footer that was comfortable when he sailed south into the Caribbean Sea. He had wanted a big bed he could actually stretch out in. The Sweet Sarah was secured at a berth in the biggest marina he could find because he liked the anonymity of being lost inside a forest of masts, just in case any past enemies were still thinking of exacting payback. It happened now and then, since he had made life miserable for a lot of bad guys, both as an NYPD cop and as a Navy SEAL and now as a private investigator. For obvious reasons, he made a habit of watching his back.

Things had looked good over there, his sailboat shining from the scrubbing he’d given her a few days ago and battened down tight. He would have preferred to stay aboard the boat, but Claire didn’t do things on a whim. She had a good reason for him to hole up at Ocean’s Edge. He just didn’t know what it was. When Claire had left the message, he had already been in Florida waters, which saved time. He’d been anchored up north at Clearwater Beach, where he had been restocking supplies after spending an enjoyable month at sea with Lori Garner. Unfortunately for him, Lori had been called to New Orleans by some family thing and had boarded a plane home in Tampa. He’d met Lori on a job that brought down a corrupt state judge in Galveston, Texas. She’d endured some bad things there, including taking a bullet, but their weeks spent out on the drink had healed that wound. It had been good for him, too.

Lori had promised to rejoin him soon, but Novak wasn’t counting on it. He hoped she would. She was younger than him, and it had taken some time getting used to her slangy banter and fierce independence. She was a bit abrasive at times, but somehow that had a way of calming him down. They ended up as lovers out there alone in the vast sea, something he hadn’t minded one bit. In fact, he missed her more than he thought he would. Now he was on his own again, working a case he knew nothing about. The woman he was after was a Guatemalan national. Alcina Castillo was young, barely in her twenties, pretty, dark eyed, and dark haired. Claire was holding her cards close to the vest this time, which was unlike her.

He didn’t like being kept in the dark much, but maybe Claire didn’t know the particulars yet. Perhaps this Alcina woman was supposed to fill them in. He wished to hell somebody would. By the time he made it to back to the condo, the exterior night-lights lit up the place as bright as day, too bright for people trying to sleep. It was a good thing they turned them off at a reasonable hour. Looking forward to a hot shower and grabbing a bite to eat, all Novak wanted was a good night’s sleep with the windows thrown wide so the sound of the pounding surf would soothe him. He was ready to get home to Bonne Terre, the old plantation he had inherited on the day he was born. There was plenty of work he could have been doing on his dilapidated mansion, instead of sitting around here and waiting for something to pop. Dark and rolling and eternal, the ocean crashed to shore on his right. The breakers were wild and loud, pushed inland by a storm he could see out at sea.

The waves curled and crested in pale ghostly lines that stretched down the beach. He slowed when he hit the condo and walked past the four buildings to the nature preserve on the far side. Everything looked peaceful. Nobody was in sight, nothing out of the ordinary, just like every other night when he’d come home from his run. He turned to face the cool ocean breeze and tasted the salt in the air as he sat on the wood bridge that led into the pitch-black, tangled preserve. He sat alone there and let his pulse slow to normal. A wide strip of small white shells reached out in both directions on the beach. Sanibel Island was world renowned when it came to seashells; at least that’s what he’d been told. Storms like the one tonight brought in treasure troves in every hue and shape and color, dredged up from their resting place on the outer shelf that protected the coast. Novak could see flashes of lightning forking down out of backlit clouds to strike the sea.

The Ocean’s Edge complex still glowed under soft yellow—infused spotlights on the tan stucco walls. The condo was old but recently refurbished; he liked the 1950s feel of it and the thick walls and private porches. One could walk a matter of feet out its breezeways and wade into the shallows. It was a homey place, and employees were courteous and helpful. It hadn’t taken long to figure out which residents were full-time and who was visiting for a week or two. Truth be told, he had settled in with a pair of binoculars and spied on all of his unsuspecting neighbors. Mopping sweat off his face and torso with his forearm, he relaxed there. After letting his body cool down a bit, he kicked off his Nikes and waded out into the surf. He swam about thirty yards out, well past the breakers, and then floated out there on his back, relaxing his muscles and staring at the stars as incoming waves pushed him back to shore. When his feet touched sand, he walked out and sat back down on the bridge.

Novak felt good sitting there alone. He liked the dark and the solitude, and he hadn’t had enough of it for the last month. It wasn’t that he hadn’t enjoyed Lori’s company; he had. He hoped she might be waiting at Bonne Terre when he got home. He rarely invited anybody to his plantation—never, actually. He liked her, and they fit together well. She was a former military cop and a trained Army sniper. He liked that about her, too. They understood each other and what had to be done. When he heard a distant shout, he turned and looked up the beach.

He could just barely make out three people, maybe thirty yards away. Nobody else was in sight. In the residual yellow glow that didn’t quite light the sand, he could see a big guy heading out toward the water. Problem was, he was dragging what looked like a kid with him. The boy looked young, maybe twelve, maybe even younger. He was no match for the man or his long, angry strides. When the boy fell to his knees, the man just dragged him while the boy attempted to regain his feet. The other person was a woman trying her level best to stop what was going on. She looked even smaller than the kid. They had come out of the first condo building, but Novak didn’t recognize them from his surveillance.

What it looked like to Novak was a case of domestic violence. The woman grabbed the back of the man’s shirt and dug in her heels in a fruitless effort to slow him down. That’s when he stopped, spun on her, and shoved her hard enough to put her on her back in the sand. Novak tensed up. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like seeing a man beat up on a woman. He didn’t care who that guy was or what the problem was. It looked like he was a bully, and he looked twice the woman’s size. Novak stood up and watched them. The man had on some kind of leather vest over a white T-shirt.

Novak could see the big skull patch on the back of the vest. It appeared the guy might be in some kind of motorcycle gang. Although the woman looked tiny up against him, she had guts. She sprang back up, ran into the surf after the guy, and grabbed his shirt again. Novak started walking toward them. The man grabbed a fistful of the woman’s hair and dragged her out deeper into the water. They were all yelling now, screaming stuff that Novak couldn’t make out. Their words were flung away with the wind. Nobody inside the complex seemed to notice the altercation, but it was dark at the water’s edge and the heavy surf was deafening. Whatever was going down was strictly none of Novak’s business.

On the other hand, that woman just might be the one he’d been waiting for. She basically fit the description, and she definitely needed help. Maybe his case had finally found him. The trio was knee deep in the crashing waves. The man and woman were screaming at each other, and then he pushed her away and jerked the kid out deeper. The woman didn’t give up. That’s when the man backhanded her, knocking her backward under the water. A big wave hit them and took her bodily in toward the beach. Then the man concentrated on the kid. He held him under so long that Novak knew he meant to drown the boy.

Novak took off running toward them as the kid flailed desperately but ineffectually. The woman had fought her way back to them and was slugging the big guy in the back with one fist and trying to pull the kid’s head out of the water with the other. She jumped on the bully’s back, but he shrugged her off like a bothersome gnat and held the boy submerged. At that point, Novak was dead certain that man was going to drown them both. They didn’t see Novak coming. That was good for Novak but bad for the big thug. Novak grabbed the guy by the back of his vest and spun him around. Novak had better luck getting the guy’s attention than the woman had. Shocked by the force of Novak’s grip, the man dropped his victim in a hurry. Novak had learned a long time ago never to waste time or expend undue effort in a fistfight.

If you’re going to mess it up with somebody, mess it up hard and fast. He doubled his right fist and punched the guy in the nose, a hard, quick jab, the kind that put all the strength in your shoulder behind it and would send blood gushing like a geyser. Let a bully face a man bigger and stronger, a man who gave no quarter and played by no rules, and see how long he lasted. Novak’s blow was brutal enough to knock the guy off his feet. He went over backward and under the water and came up choking on the blood and the briny seawater. Novak felt the urge to hold him under the way he’d done to the boy, let him endure the kind of panic the boy had no doubt felt as his breath ran out, but decided to forgo that unless it became necessary. Sometimes a punch that brutal would end the game before it got started. Novak shoved the goon under again, and the guy floundered around a bit, perhaps drowning, but maybe not. Novak didn’t really care, but he got a hold on the back of the stupid leather vest and towed the limp man back onto the beach. He dropped him on his face in the sand, where he lay hacking and strangling.

Once the guy got his breath back, he unwisely decided it would be a good idea to engage Novak. That meant he was not only a big bully but stupid, too. Novak watched him struggle to stand up and then stagger drunkenly around with his fists up like a gentleman boxer in the 1890s. He threw a punch so wild that Novak didn’t have to move, but then his opponent made the mistake of grabbing Novak’s arm. So Novak sent another hard jab into the guy’s solar plexus. That did the trick. The guy grabbed his belly, gasping and coughing, and appeared to pass out on his back in the shallows. Novak dragged him up farther onto the sand, dropped him there, and then looked around for the woman and kid. He was pretty sure now that they were Claire’s clients. He could barely see them.

They were hightailing it up the deserted beach at a full run. Novak started out after them, curious as to what the hell was going on. His gut was telling him that the woman was Alcina Castillo, so he needed to catch up with her and get her the hell out of danger. Wherever that hooligan had come from, there were bound to be others incoming and dressed just like him. They liked to travel around in packs. About ten yards up the beach, he heard them behind him. He turned around. Two guys were running straight at him. A third guy was kneeling beside their bleeding buddy. They all had on those skull vests.

Novak stood his ground and waited for them to reach him. Both were bigger than the first guy, but neither had weight or height on Novak. They didn’t look particularly strong or intimidating. They looked like the kind of guys who needed guns to take care of business because they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. They also looked like the type who would use those guns to hunt for victims in numbers, like timber wolves. Novak was unarmed, which was unusual for him, but he’d jogged the beach every night since he’d arrived with no problems. It was a tame tourist area and not known for serious criminal activity. That was about to change, but Novak could mess it up with the best of them, and he could disarm these two kids any day of the week. His military training often came in handy. So he stood and waited for them to get close enough to put down.

They had the smarts to pull up a couple of yards away and point their Ruger semiautomatics at his bare chest. In the condo’s lights, Novak ascertained that one man looked to be Hispanic, but the other one was definitely Caucasian. Both had heavy beards and long ponytails tied at the nape and more tats on their bare arms than a Folsom Prison lifer. To Novak, they looked more like frat boys at a Hells Angels party. They didn’t threaten him verbally, which surprised Novak, judging from his past encounters with similar types who liked to scream out profane threats and cocky bravado. “You got a problem?” he asked them, already on the balls of his feet and ready to move, only waiting for one of them to step in closer. These sorts always came closer so they could attempt to intimidate him. These two didn’t. Instead, the short Hispanic man said, “Shut up and start walking. Down that way.

” He motioned toward the nature preserve with his gun. “How about telling me why I should do that?” The speaker wore a gang-inspired black-and-yellow bandanna tied across his forehead. He had lots of badges on his vest, mainly skulls and crossbones in various configurations to match the big one on his back. The name Mario was embroidered across the front. The other guy’s said Larry. That wasn’t smart at all. If they were going out to perpetrate crimes like drowning women and children, they shouldn’t wear their names on their clothes. These guys were stupid, all right, but definitely members of a gang. Novak needed to know which gang it was; he’d found out the hard way that these sorts of clubs posed different threat levels. Mario said, “Just start walking, unless you want us to end you right here.

” “Maybe you should tell me where we’re going?” “You just asking for a beatdown, aren’t you, dude?” That was the white guy, getting in on the fake bluster. Novak hated it when somebody called him dude; it was just a little quirk he had. Unless it was Lori Garner, who loved to spill out all kinds of social media crap and abbreviations he’d never heard of, but he liked her and she was good looking, so she got away with it. These two didn’t appeal to him. “I’m not going anywhere with you, so get the hell out of my face before I take that gun and shove it up your ass.” What that got him was Mario’s gun barrel jammed up under his chin. A mistake, that was. Novak moved so fast that the younger guy was caught flat-footed. Ducking to his left, he snatched the gun out of the man’s hands before he could even move, then slammed it hard against his cheekbone. He shoved him to the ground and beaded the Ruger on the other guy’s face.

This one was not so circumspect and pulled his trigger in panic. Novak felt the burn of the bullet on his left biceps. It barely tagged his arm, so he ignored that and disarmed the second guy and then knocked him unconscious with a hard uppercut with the Ruger. Unfortunately, the condo lights went out about the time two more gangbangers showed up out of the dark and grabbed Novak from behind. He managed to throw one off but was now outnumbered by three. So he gave it up, stood still, and put his hands up as a gun barrel was thrust hard into his kidneys. Lucky for him, they didn’t shoot him right then and there. That was a mistake on their part. It probably meant they weren’t used to murdering people in cold blood, or maybe they didn’t want to do it in front of a four-building condo complex. Maybe they thought drowning was less noticeable.

They started prodding him down the beach with four weapons pointed at him, front, back, and either side, boxing him in as tightly as Secret Service agents guarding a president. They stopped next to the first guy Novak had put down, who was still wallowing and moaning in the shallows. Fingering the flesh wound on his arm, Novak decided it was nothing to worry about. He glanced at the condo complex, hoping for signs of concerned residents dialing 911, but no such luck. It was pretty much dark. Surf was too loud and the beach was too dark. Maybe he’d get lucky and some Good Samaritan hiding behind closed curtains had already summoned the cops. He listened for the shriek of sirens, but no luck there, either. He was on his own with a gang of incompetent but heavily armed little bullies. Not such good odds.

Still, they had picked the wrong victim this time. He would wait until he got the chance and then take them down as best he could. He could take one of their guns easily enough, no problem. That would even things up considerably, so he said nothing and did what he was told. This whole altercation was all about the woman and boy, no doubt about it. Both had disappeared into the darkness and hopefully headed somewhere safe. These guys were not well-trained military personnel by any stretch of the imagination, but they weren’t Eagle Scouts, either. They weren’t as tough as they liked to think, but they knew how to pull a trigger, had already done so, and that made them dangerous and unpredictable. He would make his move at the right time and find out how tough they really were. Fortunately, they made no move to tie him up, thinking it was over and he was afraid of them.

One particularly annoying guy kept jabbing Novak in the back with his gun barrel. They were taking him into that nature preserve, which would be a damn good place to kill him and leave his corpse to rot hidden under thick tropical undergrowth. There were plenty of beach houses and hotels all over Sanibel Island, but most places were hidden from the main roads by these kind of natural thickets, which meant lots of places to murder at will and in private. Still, once out on the street, a gang of men marching a guy at gunpoint ought to draw someone’s attention sooner or later, unless they were planning a quick bullet in the head once they got him off the beach. Instead of murdering him when they should have, they walked him over the bridge and down a dark path into the preserve. Nobody said a word as the sound of the ocean subsided, muffled by thick vegetation and palms and palmettos. The night was impenetrable black, but they herded him along and seemed to know where they were going. He wondered what they were waiting for and why they hadn’t brought flashlights. Nobody would ever accuse them of being geniuses. Novak strained his eyes but couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.

All he had to do was take one down, get his gun, and they’d all be dead in minutes. They were pathetic, really. He walked along inside their ranks and tried to remember how the path meandered from the times he’d been in there before. Once he had his bearings, he took a deep breath, poised to make his move. High-powered beams suddenly flashed on all around them, blinding Novak and his captors. Dark figures burst out from behind the lights. Shocked, Novak didn’t have time to duck down, but it didn’t matter because the assault was not about him. Whoever these guys were, they were quick and efficient and knew exactly what they were doing. Within minutes, his not-so-tough captors were on the ground, bloodied up and unresponsive. Novak was the last man standing.

Then he heard a woman whispering. He started to turn toward her, but something slammed hard into the back of his skull. He went down on his hands and knees and wobbled there, trying to right the tilting ground as the flashlight beams swung about and further disoriented him. He couldn’t quite get his mind to work before the second blow hit him in the same place. After that, he was out for the count, unconscious well before his face hit the ground.

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