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. This 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 straightened out, 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 hear 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 of 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.
THE VESSEL WAS IMMEDIATELY drained of its fuel, oil, and other fluids and then scuttled. Oil and gas created a large sheen on the water’s surface that could be seen from above by patrolling Coast Guard and DEA planes.
During the day the abandoned oil platform would look, well, abandoned. Not a prisoner in sight. They would all be inside the main structure safely away from view. Shipments of fresh product moved in and out only at night. During the day the operation shut down. The risk of being seen was too great.
There were thousands of shuttered oil platforms in the Gulf awaiting either demolition or else transformation into artificial reefs. Though laws required that the demolition or transformation take place typically within a year of abandonment, the actual time for that to happen could be much longer. And all the while these platforms, large enough to comfortably house hundreds, just sat there well out to sea. They were empty and ripe for exploitation by certain ambitious folks who needed a series of landing sites as they shepherded their precious cargo across broad waters.
As the vessel slowly sank into the deep Gulf, the passengers were herded up steel steps. They had been roped together and spaced a foot apart. The younger ones had a hard time keeping in step with the adults. When they fell, they were immediately jerked back into line and then beaten around the shoulders and arms. Their faces, however, were not touched.
One man, far bigger than the rest, kept his gaze downcast as he marched up the metal steps. He was over six-six and rock-solid, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, and thighs and calves easily the girth of a professional athlete’s. He also possessed the hard, bony musculature and near-gaunt features of a man who had grown up with not enough to eat. He would fetch a good price, but not as high as the girls, for obvious reasons. Everything was based on profit margins, and the girls, particularly the younger ones, had the highest margins of all. And that could be extended over at least ten years. By that time they would have collectively earned millions of dollars for their owners.
By contrast, his life would be relatively short as he was literally worked to death, or so his captors believed. “LMP,” or “low-margin product,” he would be called. The girls, on the other hand, were simply referred to as “gold.”
He seemed to be mumbling to himself, but not in a language that anyone around him could understand. He missed a step and stumbled. Batons immediately rained down on his shoulders and the back of his legs. One struck him in the face, bloodying his nose. They were apparently not worried about his looks.
He rose and kept going. And kept mumbling. The blows did not seem to have affected him.
There was a young girl in front of him who glanced back at him once, but he didn’t return her gaze. An older woman in line behind him shook her head and said a prayer in her native Spanish and then made the sign of the cross.
The man stumbled again, and again the beating took place. The guards jabbered at him, slapped him with their roughened hands. He took the punishment, rose, and kept going. And kept mumbling.
A shaft of heat lightning to the east illuminated the sky for about a second. Whether or not the man interpreted this event as some divine signal to act was unclear. His actions, however, were crystal clear.
He bulled past one guard, slamming into the man so hard that the guard pitched over the rail and plummeted down more than thirty feet, hitting and bouncing off the steel platform. His neck broke on impact and he lay still.
What was unnoticed was the sharp knife that the mumbling man had taken from the guard’s belt. It was his sole reason for attacking him. As the other gunmen lined up their shots, the man cut through his bindings, grabbed a life jacket hanging on a hook on the stair rail, slipped it on, and dove off on the opposite side from where the guard had gone over.
When he landed he did not hit steel. He slammed into the warm waters of the Gulf.
He broke the surface awkwardly and went under.
Seconds later a barrage of MP5 rounds ripped the surface of the water, creating hundreds of tiny whitecaps. A boat was sent out a few minutes later to look for him. But there was no sign. In the dark, he could have gone in any direction, and it was a lot of surface water to cover. The boat finally returned. The Gulf waters grew calm once more. He was probably dead, they thought.
If not he soon would be.
The remaining prisoners, twenty-four of them now, continued their slow ascent to the cells where they would be kept until another boat came to take them onward. They were placed mostly five to a cage. There they joined other prisoners who were also awaiting rides to the mainland. They were young, older, and in between. They were all foreigners, all poor or otherwise not part of any mainstream society. Some had been targeted and captured. Others had merely been unlucky.
As bad as that luck had been, it would only get worse once they left here.
The guards, mostly foreigners themselves, never made eye contact and did not even acknowledge the existence of their captives, other than when they slid plates of food and jugs of water inside the cages.
The captives were just nameless, meaningless bits of particle temporarily residing in the Gulf of Mexico. They sat on their haunches. Some stared out between the bars of the cages; most kept their gazes on the floor. They were defeated, resigned, unwilling to attempt a fight, or find a path to freedom. They seemed to have stoically accepted their fate.
The older woman who had been behind the large man would occasionally direct her gaze far down to the ocean’s surface. It would have been impossible for her to see anything in the water from the enclosed space. But once or twice she imagined that she had seen something. When the food and water came she ate and drank her small allotted share and pondered the man who had attempted an escape. She silently admired his bravery, even if it had cost him his life. At least he was free, if dead. That was far better than what awaited her.
Yes, maybe he was the lucky one, she thought. She put a bit of bread in her mouth and took a sip of warm water from the plastic jug and forgot all about the man.
A half mile from Neptune’s Seat the man swam through the water. He looked back in the direction of the structure, now invisible to him. He had never intended to swim to shore from an oil platform. This was solely improvisation on his part. He had planned to take a plane from Texas to Florida. His current dilemma was the result of carelessness on his part that had resulted in his becoming a victim. But he had to get to land, and swimming there seemed to be the only way.
He adjusted the life jacket—which was too small for him but provided some needed buoyancy—and treaded water for a bit, trying to move as little as possible. Next he turned and started to float on his back. Darkness was when the sharks came out. Eventually, though, he would have to swim. Nighttime was the best time to do that, despite the dangers from the finned predators. Daylight would leave him exposed to many hazards, many of them man-made. Aided by the stars, which provided some needed navigational guidance, he set out in the direction that he believed to be toward land. He would occasionally look back at the platform, trying hard to solidify in his mind its location in the vastness of the Gulf. It was unlikely, he knew, but he might one day have to find it again.
His strokes were compact, seemingly effortless. With the buoyancy of the life jacket he could keep this pace up for hours. And he would have to, to get where he needed to go. He had decided to turn a possible catastrophe into an advantage.
He would head in the same direction another fast boat would have taken him at a later point in time. Perhaps he would beat his fellow captives to the final destination, if the sharks didn’t disrupt his plans by shearing off a limb or two and leaving him to bleed out alone.
His strokes became automatic, his breathing the same. This allowed his mind to wander and then focus on what lay ahead. The swim would be long and exhausting and fraught with peril. He could die at many points along the way. But he had survived much to get to this point. He would simply will himself to live.
He had to hope it would be enough.
It usually had been in a life marked more by tragedy and pain than by anything remotely approaching normalcy.
He stoically accepted it as his lot in life.
And he swam on.
THE OLD WOMAN WAS TALL but bent. Her spine had curved itself over the last decade, and that had reduced her height by three inches. Her hair was cut short and in severe lines around her face, which had all the wrinkles and sun damage one would expect after more than eight decades of living, two of them in coastal Florida. She navigated with the aid of a walker, two tennis balls stuck onto the bottoms of the front legs for stability.
Her large hands clutched the top bar of the walker. Over her shoulder was her purse. It was large and bulky and rode awkwardly against her body. Her gait was steady and purposeful. She looked neither right nor left, nor over her shoulder. She was a woman on a mission and the passersby on the street voluntarily moved out of her way. Some smiled at what they no doubt believed was a dotty old woman who no longer cared what anyone thought about her behavior. It was true she no longer cared what others thought. But she was far from dotty.
Her destination was just up ahead.
She ran her walker right up to it, using a free hand to balance herself against the stout property of the U.S. Postal Service. With her other hand she reached into her purse and pulled out the letter. She paused and looked at the address one last time.
She had spent considerable time writing the letter. The younger generation, with all of its tweets and Facebook and cryptic texts and emails where no actual language or grammar were involved, would never have understood taking the time to compose a handwritten missive such as this one. But she had wanted to get the words just right, because what she was writing about was so extraordinary. At least to her way of thinking.
The addressee’s name was written in block letters to make it as clear as possible. She did not want this piece of mail to go astray.
General John Puller, Senior (Ret.).
She was sending it in care of the VA hospital where she knew he was staying. She knew his health was not good, but she also knew that he was a man who could make things happen. He had risen nearly as high in the military as it was possible to go.
And he was also her brother. Her younger brother.
Big sisters were special to their little brothers. While they were growing up he had done his best to make her life miserable, playing an endless series of practical jokes on her, embarrassing her in front of her boyfriends, competing with her for their parents’ affections. It was different when they became adults. Then it was like the grown man was desperately trying to make up for all the hardship he had caused his older sister.
She could count on him to sort this out. More to the point, he had a son, her nephew, who was very good at figuring things out. She reckoned this letter would eventually end up in his capable hands. And she hoped he came down here. It had been a long time since she had seen her nephew.
She opened the lid of the mailbox and watched the letter slide down the metal gullet. She closed the lid and then opened it twice more just to make sure the letter was in the belly of the box.
She turned her walker around and made her way back to the cabstand. She had a favorite taxi driver who had picked her up from her home and now would drive her back there. She could still drive but chose not to tonight.
The mailbox was situated at the end of a one-way street. It was easier for him to park where he had, leaving her with only a short walk to the mailbox. He had offered to post the letter for her, but she had declined. She needed to do it herself, and she also needed the exercise.
He was a youngster to her, only in his late fifties. He wore an old-fashioned chauffeur’s hat, although the rest of his outfit was decidedly more casual: khaki shorts, blue polo shirt, and canvas boat shoes on his feet. His tan was so uniformly dark that it looked like the product of a UV bed or spray-on tan.
“Thank you, Jerry,” she said, as she climbed, with his assistance, into the backseat of the Prius. Jerry folded up her walker and put it in the rear of the car before getting into the driver’s seat.
“Everything good to go, Ms. Simon?” he asked.
“I hope so,” she replied. For the first time she looked and felt truly nervous.
“You want to go back home now?”
“Yes, please. I’m tired.”
Jerry turned around in his seat and scrutinized her. “You look pale. Maybe you should go see a doctor. Got enough of them in Florida.”
“Maybe I will. But not right now. I just need some rest.”
He drove her back to her little community on the beach. They passed a pair of soaring palm trees and a sign set on a brick wall that read, “Sunset by the Sea.”
The sign had always irritated her, because she lived by an ocean, not a sea. Technically, she actually lived on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the Panhandle of Florida. She had always thought that “Sunset Coast” or “Sunset Gulf” sounded better than “Sunset by the Sea.” But the name was official and there was no changing it.
Jerry drove her to her house on Orion Street and saw her inside. A typical residence for this part of Florida, it was a two-story structure with cinderblock walls covered in beige stucco with a red terra-cotta roof and a two-car garage. The house had three bedrooms, with hers right off the kitchen. It was thirty-one hundred square feet in an efficient footprint, far larger than she needed, but she had no interest in moving. This would be her last home. She had known that for a long time.
She had a palm tree out front and some grass and decorative rocks in the yard. In the back a privacy fence ran along the property line, and she had a small reflecting pool along with a bench and a table where she could sit, drink her coffee, and enjoy both the cooler mornings and the final rays of the evening light. On either side of her house was another house pretty much exactly the same. All of Sunset by the Sea was pretty much the same, as though the builder had some large machine to spit the houses out off-site to later be transported and erected here.
The beach was behind her house, just a short drive or long walk to the sugar-white sand of the Emerald Coast.
It was summer and the temperature was in the low seventies at nearly six in the evening. That was about twenty degrees cooler than the high for the day, which was about average for Paradise, Florida, at this time of the year.
Paradise, she thought. A silly, conceited name, but she also couldn’t say it didn’t fit. It was beautiful here most of the time.
She would take heat over cold any day. That’s why they had invented Florida, she assumed. And perhaps Paradise in particular.
And why the snowbirds flocked here every winter.
She sat in her living room and gazed around at the memories of a lifetime. On the walls and shelves were photos of friends and family. Her gaze rested longest on a picture of her husband, Lloyd, a natural-born salesman. She had fallen in love with him after World War II. He had sold her a bill of goods, too, she supposed. He always claimed to be more successful than he was. He was a good salesman but a bigger spendthrift, she had found. But he was funny, made her laugh, didn’t have a violent bone in his body, never drank to excess, and he loved her. He never cheated on her, though with his job and the traveling involved, he certainly had had chances to wander from his marriage vows.
Yes, she missed her Lloyd. After he’d passed away, she’d discovered he had a sizable life insurance policy he’d kept in force. She’d taken the whole of it and bought two stocks. Apple and Amazon. This had been way back. The two A’s on her report card, she liked to call them. The investment return had been enough to allow her to pay off the mortgage on this house and live very comfortably on far more money than Social Security alone would have allowed her.
She had a light supper and some iced tea. Her appetite wasn’t nearly what it once was. Then she watched some TV, falling asleep in front of the screen. When she awoke she felt disoriented. Shaking her head to clear it, she decided it was time to go to bed. She rose with the aid of her walker and headed toward her bedroom. She would sleep for a few hours and then get back up, start her day over again. That was her life now.
She noticed a shadow of movement behind her, but had no chance to feel alarmed about it.
That was to be Betsy Puller Simon’s last memory.
A shadow behind her.
A few minutes later there was a splash from the backyard.
THE TIMING WAS AS good as it would ever get. He performed a few more strokes in the water until he finally felt the earth beneath his feet.
He had lucked out and been picked up by a small fishing boat about two hours after his escape from the platform. The men had asked no questions. They gave him some food and water. They told him their location, and by reversing that course he got a better fix on the platform out in the Gulf. He could not forget all the prisoners housed there. They would be gone before he would ever return there. But there would be others to replace them.
The fishing boat could not take him all the way to shore, they told him, but they would get him close enough. They chugged along slowly for what seemed a long time and he helped them with their work as part repayment for their helping him. They could not make a beeline for his destination. They were out here to work, and work they would.
His great strength was marveled at by the fishermen, and they seemed sorry to see him go.
They pointed in the direction of land when they got to the place where he needed to get off. They gave him a better-fitted life jacket and he slipped over the side of the boat and started swimming toward land.
As he turned back he saw one of the men make the sign of the cross over his chest. Then his sole focus became reaching something he could stand on.
By the time he arrived on shore his muscles were tight, knotted, and he was once more dehydrated. Water had been all around him for such a long time and yet he had not been able to drink even a drop of it. Fish had nipped at him. Singly that was not a problem. Cumulatively, his legs and arms were covered in tiny cuts and welts. And his head and shoulders hurt from the beating he’d taken from the guards and from his plunge off the platform. He could feel the bruises and cuts on his face from these impacts.
But he was alive.
And on land.
The darkness covered his high-stepping through the last few breakers until he reached the sugar-white sand of the Emerald Coast in Florida’s Panhandle. He looked right and left up the beach for any late-night beachcombers. Seeing none, he dropped to his knees, rolled onto his back, and drew in long deep breaths as he stared at a sky so clear there seemed to be no space between the billions of visible stars. Paradise was a small town with long beaches, but its downtown area was built right along the sand. The central business district was farther down and to the west. And luckily it was so late that there was no one out on the boardwalk that ran parallel to the beach where he was.
He thanked God for allowing him to live. So many hours of swimming, and then being picked up by the boat. In the vastness of the Gulf, what were the odds of that without divine intervention? The sharks had also miraculously left him alone. He had to attribute that to his prayers as well.
His captors had not come after him.
Thankfully, the beach was deserted.
Well, not quite.
God must have missed that one.
He hunkered down in the sand as he heard the people coming.
Then he flattened himself to the beach and burrowed in, allowing his over six-foot-six-inch, 290-pound frame to blend into the white grit that people from around the world came to lie on during the course of a year.
It was two people. He could tell by the different voices.
One man. One woman.
He lifted his head a bare inch and stared in their direction. They were not walking a dog. Prayer, again. A dog would have found his scent by now.
He would not act unless they spotted him. And even then, they might just assume he was simply lying on the beach enjoying the evening. He hoped they would not see him, and that if they did they would not panic. He knew that after his long journey at sea he must look pretty bad.
He tensed his body, waited for them to pass by.
They were within forty feet of him. The woman looked in his direction. The moonlight was not strong, but not weak either.
He heard her exclaim and then say something to her companion.
But then he realized that she was not actually looking in his direction.
As he watched, a lithe figure came out from behind the cover of sand dunes.
There was one pop and the man fell. The woman turned to run, but there was another pop and she fell too, hitting the compacted sand with a thud.
The figure put the gun away, gripped the woman’s hands, and dragged her into the water a good ten feet. The tide took over from there and the body quickly sank beneath the water and was swept out.
This same process was repeated on the man.
The figure stood on the sand a few inches from the water and scanned the breakers, probably making sure the bodies were not going to be swept back to shore. Then the figure turned and was gone the way it had come.
He kept his body flat to the stretch of beach even as he felt shame for not coming to the couple’s assistance. But it had happened so quickly that he doubted he could have prevented their deaths.
And sometimes God was busy with other things. This he knew to be true. God had often been busy when he had needed him. But then many people needed God. He was just one of billions who asked for divine assistance from time to time.
He waited until he was certain the shooter was gone. He had no idea why the couple had been killed. He had no idea who had killed them. It was not any of his business.
He could not remain on the beach now. He made his way to the boardwalk, and spotted a bicycle chained to a post. He ripped the post out of the ground, freeing the chain. He wound the chain around the frame, climbed onto the bike, and set off.
He had the city’s streets mostly memorized. He had a place to go, to stay, where he could change his clothes, rest, eat, hydrate, and then he could begin his quest, the real reason he had come here.
As he disappeared into the night, he began to mumble again, to pray for forgiveness for not helping the couple by killing their attacker. He was good at killing, perhaps the best. But that did not mean that he liked it, because he did not.
He was a giant, but actually a gentle man.
But even gentle giants could be moved to violence for the right reasons.
He had such reasons.
He had them in abundance.
He was no longer going to be gentle. Not while he was here.
It was the sole thing driving him. Indeed, it was the only thing really keeping him alive.
He rode on as the two corpses were pulled slowly out to sea.
JOHN PULLER TOOK A sharp left-hand turn and drove down the narrow two-lane road. In the backseat of the car was his cat, AWOL, who had wandered into his life one day and would probably leave him just as unexpectedly. Puller was in the Army, formerly a Ranger, and currently a CID, or Criminal Investigation Division, special agent. He was not investigating any cases at the moment. Right now he was just returning from a protracted road trip with his cat, allowing himself a bit of R&R after a hellish experience in a small West Virginia coal-mining town that had nearly ended with him and many other people dead.
He pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex. It was near Quantico, Virginia, where the Army’s CID headquarters was located along with the 701st M.P. Group (CID), the unit to which Puller was attached. This made for an easy work commute, although he rarely spent much time at Quantico. He was more often on the road investigating crimes that involved a person who wore the uniform of the United States Army and yet was doing bad things. And unfortunately, there were a lot of cases to work.
He parked his car, a trim Army-issued Malibu, grabbed his rucksack from the trunk, opened the back door, and waited patiently for AWOL, a fat orange-and-brown tabby, to mosey out. The cat followed him up to his apartment. Puller lived in six hundred square feet of rigid lines and minimal clutter. He had been in the Army for most of his adult life and now, in his mid-thirties, his personal aversion to junk and clutter was irreversibly established.
He got food and water out for AWOL, snagged a beer from the fridge, sat down in his leather recliner, put his feet up, and closed his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually gotten a full night’s sleep. He decided to do something about it right now.
The last few weeks had not been especially kind to Puller, who was nearly six feet four and a normally solid 232 pounds. He had not gotten any shorter, but he had lost about ten pounds because his appetite had abandoned him. Physically, he was still doing okay. He could beat any test the military might offer related to strength, endurance, or speed. Mentally, however, he was not doing very well. He wasn’t sure he ever would be doing well mentally again. Some days he thought he would, others not. This was one of the other days.
Puller had gone on the road trip to try to get his head back on straight after the ordeal in West Virginia.
It had not worked. If anything, he was even worse. The time away, the miles driven had only provided him with far too much time to think. Sometimes that was not good. He didn’t want to think anymore. He just wanted to be doing something that would carry him into the future instead of transporting him to the past.
His phone buzzed. He looked at the readout on the screen.
USDB. That stood for the United States Disciplinary Barracks. It was located in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It was the Army’s prison for its most important—that is, dangerous—criminals.
Puller knew it well. He had visited there often.
His older brother and only sibling, Robert Puller, would be stationed there for the rest of his natural life, and maybe even beyond, if the Pentagon had its way.
“Please hold,” an efficient-sounding female voice said.
The next moment a familiar voice came on the line.
It was his brother, formerly a major in the Air Force before being convicted at court-martial for treason against his country for reasons that Puller neither was privy to nor would probably ever understand for as long as he lived.
“Hey, Bobby,” said Puller dully. His head was starting to ache.
“Where are you?”
He said irritably, “Just got back. Just put my feet up. What’s going on?”
“How was your road trip? Get things figured out?”
“Which means you didn’t and you’re just blowing me off. That’s okay. I can take it.”
Normally, Puller looked forward to talking to his brother. Their calls and visits were infrequent. But not this time. He just wanted to sit in his recliner with his beer and think of exactly nothing.
“What’s going on?” he said again, a little more firmly.
“Okay, I read you loud and clear. ‘Get the hell off the phone, I don’t want to talk.’ I wouldn’t be bothering you except for the call I got.”
Puller sat up in his recliner and put his beer down.
“What call? The Old Man?”
There was only one “Old Man” in the Puller brothers’ lives.
That would be John Puller Sr., a retired three-star and a fighting legend. He was an old bastard from the Patton Kicking Ass and Taking No Names School of Combat. However, the former commander of the legendary 101st Airborne was now in a veterans’ hospital suffering from short but intense bouts of dementia and long and even more intense episodes of depression. The dementia was probably because of age. The depression was because he no longer wore the uniform, no longer commanded a single soldier, and thus felt he had no more reason left to live. Puller Sr. had been put on earth for one reason only: to lead soldiers into combat.
More to the point, he had been put on this earth to lead soldiers to victory in combat. At least that’s what he believed. And most days both his sons would have agreed with that assessment.
“People on behalf of the Old Man from the hospital. They couldn’t reach you, so they tried me. I can’t exactly up and visit the Old Man.”
“What did they call about? Is he failing mentally again? Did he fall down and break a hip?”
“No on both counts. I don’t think it has to do with him personally. They weren’t entirely clear what the issue was, probably because Dad wasn’t entirely clear with them. I believe that it involved a letter that he received, but I can’t swear to that. But that’s what it seemed to be about.”
“A letter. Who from?”
“Again, can’t answer that. I thought with you being pretty much right there you could go over and find out what’s going on. They said he was really upset.”
“But they didn’t know what was in the letter? How can that be?”
“You know how that can be,” replied Robert. “I don’t care how old or out of it Dad is. If he doesn’t want you to read a letter he has, you ain’t reading it. He can still kick ass even at his age. There’s not a doctor in the VA system who could take him or would ever want to try.”
“Okay, Bobby, I’ll head over now.”
“John, all bullshit aside, you okay?”
“All bullshit aside, no, Bobby, I’m not okay.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m in the Army.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“Meaning I’m going to soldier on.”
“You can always talk to somebody. The Army has lots of specialists who do just that. You went through a lot of shit in West Virginia. It would screw anybody up. Like PTSD.”
“I don’t need to talk to anybody.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
“Puller men don’t talk about their troubles.”
Puller could imagine his brother shaking his head in disappointment.
“Is that family rule number three or four?”
Puller said, “For me, right now, it’s rule number one.”
AS HE WALKED DOWN the hall at the VA hospital Puller wondered whether he would end up in one himself when he got older. As he looked around at the elderly sick and disabled former soldiers his spirits dropped even more.
Maybe a shot to the head when the time comes would be better.
He knew where his father’s room was and so bypassed the nurse’s desk. He actually heard his old man long before he saw him. John Puller Sr. had always possessed a voice like a bullhorn, and age and his other infirmities had done nothing to lessen its power. Indeed, in some ways, it seemed even more strident than before.
As Puller approached the door to his father’s room it opened and a frazzled-looking nurse stepped out.
“God, am I glad you’re here,” she said, staring up at Puller. He was not in uniform but she apparently had easily recognized him.
“What’s the problem?” asked Puller.
“He’s the problem,” she replied. “He’s been asking for you for the last twenty-four hours. He won’t let it go.”
Puller put his hand on the knob. “He was a three-star. It’s always personal and they never let anything go. It’s in their DNA.”
“Good luck,” said the nurse.
“It’ll have nothing to do with luck,” said Puller as he walked into the room and shut the door behind him.
Inside the room he put his broad back to the door and gazed around. The place was small, maybe ten by ten, like a prison cell. Actually, it was about the same size as the place his brother would be calling home at USDB for the rest of his life.
The room was furnished with a hospital bed, a laminated wood nightstand, a curtain for privacy, and a chair that did not look comfortable and felt just how it looked.
Then there was one window, a tiny closet, and a bathroom with support bars and panic buttons all over the place.
And then, lastly, his old man, John Puller Sr., the former commander of arguably the Army’s most famous division, the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles.
“XO, where the hell you been?” said Puller Sr., staring at his son like he had him lined up over iron gunsights.
“On assignment, just got back. Hear there’s something up, sir.”
“Damn right there is.”
Puller moved forward and stood at ease by the side of the bed where his father lay, wearing a white T-shirt and loose-fitting blue scrub pants. Once nearly as tall as his son, the old man had been shrunken by age to a little over six-one—still tall, but not the near giant he had once been. A white fringe of cottony hair ran around the rim of his head, with nothing else on top. His eyes were ice blue and went from flashing fire to vacant, sometimes in the span of a few seconds.
The doctors weren’t quite sure what was going on with Puller Sr. They wouldn’t officially call it Alzheimer’s or even dementia. They had begun to say simply that he was “getting old.”
Puller just hoped his father had enough lucidity left today to tell him about the letter. Or at least to allow him to see it.
“You received a letter?” he prompted. “Top-secret communication? Maybe from SecArm?” he added, referring to the Secretary of the Army.
Although his father had been out of the Army for nearly two decades, he didn’t seem to realize that was so. Puller had found it better to keep the military subterfuge going, in order to put his father at ease, and also to move conversations forward. He felt silly doing it, but the doctors had persuaded him that this was a preferable course, at least in the short term. And maybe the short term was all his father had left.
His father nodded and looked grim. “Not bullshit, at least I don’t think so. Got me concerned, XO.”
“Can I get read in, sir?”
His father hesitated, stared up at him, his expression that of a man who was not quite sure what or who he was looking at.
“Think I can get read in, General?” Puller asked again, his voice quieter but also firmer.
His father pointed to his pillow. “Under there. Had me concerned.”
“Yes, sir. May I, sir?”
Puller indicated the pillow and his father nodded and sat up.
Puller stepped forward and pulled up the pillow. Underneath was an envelope that had been torn open. Puller picked it up and gazed at it. The address was written in block letters. His dad. At this VA hospital. Postmarked from a place called Paradise, Florida. The place sounded vaguely familiar. He looked at the name in the top left-hand corner of the envelope.
Betsy Puller Simon. That’s why it sounded familiar.
That was his aunt and his father’s sister. She was older than her brother by nearly ten years. Lloyd Simon had been her husband. He’d died many years ago. Puller had been on deployment in Afghanistan back then. He remembered getting a note from his father about it. He hadn’t thought about his aunt very often since then and suddenly wondered why. Well, now he was totally focused on her.
She’d written to her brother. The brother was upset. Puller was about to find out why, he supposed. He hoped it wasn’t about a missing pet, or an unpaid bill, or that his elderly aunt was getting remarried and maybe wanted her younger brother to give her away.
There was no way that was happening.
He slid the single sheet of paper out of the envelope and unfolded it. It was heavy stock with a nice watermark. In five years they probably wouldn’t even make this stuff anymore. Who wrote letters by hand these days?
He focused on the spidery handwriting sprawled across the page. It was written in blue ink, which made it jump off the cream-colored paper.
There were three paragraphs in the letter. Puller read all three, twice. His aunt had ended by writing, “Love to you, Johnny. Betsy.”
Johnny and Betsy?
It made his father seem almost human.
Puller could now understand why his father had been upset after reading the letter. His aunt had clearly been upset while writing it.
Something was going on down in Paradise, Florida, that she didn’t like. She didn’t go into detail in the letter, but what she had written was enough to get Puller interested. Mysterious happenings at night. People not being who they seemed. A general air of something not being right. She had named no names. But she had ended the letter by asking for help not from her brother.
She asked specifically for my help.
His aunt must’ve known that he was an Army investigator. Perhaps his father had told her. Perhaps she had found out on her own. What he did for a living was not a secret.
He folded the letter back up and put it in his pocket. He looked at his father, who was now gazing across at the little TV set connected to the wall by way of a hinged arm. On the screen was The Price Is Right. His father seemed intrigued by the goings-on. This was a man who, in addition to having led the 101st, had commanded an entire corps composed of up to five divisions, totaling nearly a hundred thousand highly trained soldiers, in combat. And he was now intently watching a TV show where people guessed the prices of everyday stuff in an attempt to win more stuff.
“Can I keep the letter, sir?” he asked.
Now that Puller had been summoned and had the letter and matter seemingly in hand, his father no longer seemed interested or upset. He waved his hand in a vague symbol of dismissal.
“Take care of it, XO. Report back when the matter is resolved.”
“Thank you, sir, I’ll do my best, sir.”
Even though his father wasn’t looking at him, he performed a crisp salute, spun on his heel, and exited. He did this because the last time he’d seen his father he’d walked out on him in both disgust and frustration, leaving the old man to scream after him. Apparently that memory no longer resided in his father’s mind. Along with a lot of other things. But it had remained in Puller’s mind, stark and fierce.
However, as his hand hit the door pull his father said, “Take care of Betsy, XO, she’s the real deal.”
Puller looked back at his father. The old man had turned and was staring at him. His ice blue eyes appeared to hold as much lucidity as they ever had. He was no longer in Price Is Right land.
“I will, sir. Count on me.”
On the way out Puller ran into his father’s primary-care physician. Balding and slight of build, he was a good doctor and labored here for far less money than his medical degree from Yale could have earned him elsewhere.
“So how’s he doing?” asked Puller.
“As good as can be expected. Physically, he’s still an amazing specimen. I wouldn’t want to arm-wrestle him. But up top things seem to be continuing to slip.”
“Anything that can be done?”
“He’s on the meds typically prescribed for his condition. There is no cure, of course. We can’t reverse things now, though the future holds some promise for that. I just think it’s going to be a long downward spiral, John. And it might speed up as time goes on. Sorry it’s not better news.”
Puller thanked the doctor and headed on. He knew all of this, but still asked each time he was here. Maybe part of him thought the answer might one day turn out to be different.
He left the hospital and walked to his car. On the way he took the letter back out of his pocket. His aunt had helpfully written in her phone number in Paradise. He reached his car, sat on the hood, slid out his phone, and punched in the digits.
Puller was not someone who liked to put off to the next minute what he could do in the current one.
The phone rang four times and then went to voice mail. Puller left a message for his aunt and then clicked off and put the phone away.
He gazed at the letter again as he sat there on the hood of his Malibu. Well, it actually belonged to the United States Army, but Puller was the United States Army, so maybe it was the same thing.
A letter with troubling concerns. But then again he’d only tried to call her once. Maybe she was simply at the doctor’s. Elderly people spent much of their time at doctors’ offices. He had certainly seen that with his father.
Puller sighed. In many important ways this was not his problem. His father had probably forgotten all about the letter. Puller hadn’t seen his aunt in a long time. She had not been a part of his life as an adult. But she had been when he was a young boy. Sort of a substitute for a mother who was not there because she couldn’t be.
All these years later Puller still could recall vividly moments spent with Betsy Simon. She had been there for him when he needed something that he simply did not have in life. Things that little boys needed. Things that fathers could not supply, even if they happened to be around, which his father had not. He’d been too busy commanding thousands of men to do things not just the Army way, but also his way. Betsy Simon had filled that void. She was so important to him back then. He had talked to her about everything, both troubles and triumphs. She had been a wonderful listener. And Puller had come to realize that the advice she dispensed to him growing up had been couched so artfully that it seemed to be his own ideas.
He had leave time still remaining. No one had expected him back this early. He could not walk away from this.
Or her. And it wasn’t entirely altruism. A part of Puller wondered whether his aunt could once more help him through troubling times. And not just with his father. He had never really talked about what had happened in West Virginia with anyone, not even his brother. Yet, despite what he’d told his brother, Puller had things he needed to talk about. What he didn’t have was someone he felt comfortable doing that with.
Maybe his aunt could be that person. Again.
It looked like he was headed to Paradise.
THERE WERE MANY AVENUES, it seemed, to get to Paradise. Puller chose a Delta flight connecting through Atlanta that got him into the Northwest Florida Regional Airport four and a half hours after he left Washington. The airport was actually on land owned by the United States government. Eglin Air Force Base was one of the biggest Air Force bases in the world, and one the Army grunt Puller had visited while in Ranger School.
This part of Florida was on central daylight saving time, so when Puller walked to the Hertz rental car counter he took a few moments to change the time on his watch. It was now ten-thirty hours CDST. He had gained an hour. The temperature was already in the eighties.
“Welcome to the Emerald Coast,” the woman behind the Hertz counter told him. She was short and stout with frizzy hair dyed brown from its normal gray.
“I thought the spiel would be ‘Welcome to Paradise,’ ” said Puller.
She looked up at him and smiled. “Well, that’s about forty minutes or so from here. And I try to mix it up. But I probably say ‘Welcome to Paradise’ about twenty percent of the time.”
“I guess even Paradise can get a little old.”
“You want a convertible?” she asked. “Everyone does when they come here. Got a beautiful Corvette that was just turned in.”
“I don’t know, how much is it?”
When she said the per diem price he shook his head. “Army doesn’t pay me enough to afford that.”
“You’re in the Army?”
“Ever since college.”
“So is my son. He’s a Ranger.”
“I was an instructor with the Ranger Training Brigade and then went across the street to the 75th out of Fort Benning for two years before I deployed to the Middle East.
“Rangers lead the way.”
“It’s what I’ve always thought despite what the Marines and the SEALs say,” replied Puller.
She paused. “You still want that Corvette?”
“Like I said, ma’am, it’s not in my budget.”
“How much can you afford?”
Puller told her.
“Then it is in your budget.” She started clicking computer keys.
“Can you do that?” he asked.
“I just did,” she replied. “And the GPS is thrown in for no charge.”
“I appreciate it.”
“No, I appreciate you.”
The Corvette was a gold color, and Puller pulled out onto the road feeling pretty golden himself. He took Highway 85 south and passed places named Shalimar, Cinco Bayou, and Fort Walton Beach. Then he merged onto the Miracle Strip Parkway, crossed over Okaloosa Island, which was also part of the massive footprint of Eglin AFB, zoomed across a bridge, drove through the town of Destin, continued east, and a short while later arrived in Paradise.
As he looked around he could see why it was named Paradise. Everything was relatively new, distinctively upscale, and clean, with postcard ocean views. There were high-rise condo buildings right on the water, a picturesque harbor with fishing boats that looked right out of a Hollywood film, chic-looking restaurants, Gucci-level shopping, beautiful women wearing very little, cars that made his Corvette look cheap, and a general air of “this is as good as it gets, people.”
He parked in a free spot, climbed out of the low-slung car—no small feat for someone his size—and looked around. He wore jeans, a loose-fitting untucked long-sleeved white shirt, and loafers sans socks. His M11 pistol was tucked into a belt holster at the small of his back and covered by the shirt. As an Army CID agent he was required to carry his sidearm with him at all times. And even if it hadn’t been required he would have done it anyway.
Multiple tours in the Middle East just did that to a guy. You gunned up as naturally as you drew a breath. Because without guns the odds were someone would try to stop you from breathing.
The sun was climbing high in the sky. It was hot but the breeze was nice, managing to evaporate several beads of perspiration off his forehead. Several young, curvy, and barely clothed ladies gave him long, interested looks as they passed by clutching their Kate Spade and Hermès bags and teetering in their Jimmy Choos.
He didn’t reciprocate. He was still on leave, but this was no vacation. He was here on a mission, albeit a personal one.
He slipped off his shoes and walked to the beach just a few steps away. It was some of the whitest sand he could remember seeing, and it was soft. Middle East sand was different, grittier. But that might have been because on that sand people had been doing their best to kill him by gun, IED, knife, or simply using their bare hands. That sort of marred the perception one had of a place.
The water too was unique. He could now understand the appellation “Emerald Coast.” The water did look like a huge pan of luminous green stones. The breakers were calm today. The wooden board displaying the water conditions indicated yellow, which meant light surf and medium hazard. But he wasn’t here for a swim.
When he’d done his third and last phase in Ranger school it had been conducted in Florida. But not Paradise. It was in the swamps of the Sunshine State, filled with gators, moccasins, rattlers, and coral snakes. Puller couldn’t remember a bikini-clad hottie or Gucci bag within a hundred miles. And even worse than that were the Ranger instructors, who had kicked his ass from one end of the Florida muck to the other.
He watched as sunbathers sat under blue umbrellas or lay on towels. He had never seen so many mostly naked asses and top-down ladies in his life. And more than a few were not in the best of shape. It would have been far preferable for them to dress a lot more modestly. He observed a tanned male lifeguard sitting high up in his tower, scanning the waters for trouble. Down below another tanned and buff lifeguard on a three-wheeler sped down the sand.
Nice life if you could get it.
Puller looked up toward the sun, snatched a few rays, and then decided his tanning time was over. The Army did not encourage loitering, whether he was on leave or not.
He walked back to the car, rubbed sand off his feet, and slipped his loafers back on. He watched as a cop car with “Paradise PD” and palm trees airbrushed across the doors rolled by. There were two cops inside.
The driver was a burly guy with a shaved head, wearing reflector shades. He slowed the car, checked out Puller’s ride, then gazed up at the tall man.
Puller nodded back, having no idea what the man was trying to communicate, if anything. But it was always a good idea to stay on the good side of the local police, even if they had foliage painted on their vehicles.
Behind her shades the lady cop eyed Puller too. She was blonde and looked to be in her early thirties. Unlike her partner, she didn’t nod at him. When she looked away she said something to her partner and the cruiser sped off.
Puller stared after them for a few moments, climbed into his Corvette, and drove off. He had plugged his aunt’s address into the car’s GPS. It said he was only five minutes away.
Five minutes to go with no idea what he would be facing.
It was a lot like combat.
But in combat you usually had support, backup.
Here he was solo.
After going it alone in West Virginia he was beginning to find this strategy a little annoying.
If he were lucky Betsy Simon would answer the door and invite him in for iced tea.
HE WAS A WELCOME addition to the landscaping company because he was as strong as three men and could outwork all of them, which he had proven beyond doubt his first day on the job.
After fleeing the beach as the bodies of the two people slowly drifted out into the Gulf with the tide, he had ridden the stolen bike to a part of Paradise that was not as picturesque as the rest. This was a prearranged place for him to stay, rented for one month and stocked with food. It was a twelve-by-twelve room with a hot plate, yet was more living space than he had ever had before. He felt fortunate to have it. He had rested for several hours, hydrated, eaten, nursed his injuries, and contemplated his next moves.
It was the sort of neighborhood where everyone either drove decades-old pickup trucks and cars with bald tires and smoking engines or else rode bikes or hitched rides with more affluent friends to get where they needed to go. At night, the area was not safe to go out in unless you had the protection of one of the gangs that controlled this small corner of Paradise. It was not near the water, and no one would ever come here to take tourist photos. But it was where most of the men and women lived who cut the lawns, cleaned the pools, washed the clothes, and cleaned the houses for the wealthier folks who called Paradise home.
He had ventured out at night, but only to confirm his employment with one of the larger landscape companies. One look at his size and physique was all that the company foreman needed to pronounce him up to the task. On the walk back to his apartment he had encountered four young men who were street-level members of a gang that called themselves dueños de la calle, or the street kings.
They had encircled him on a quiet side avenue, gazing up at his great size. It was like the bull elephant surrounded by a pack of lionesses. They were trying to decide if they could collectively take him. He could see the gun bulges under their shirts and in the streetlight the glints of homemade shivs and store-bought blades resting in their hands.
He did not wonder if they could take him.
He knew they would fail, armed or not.
He had already decided how he would kill each of them if they attacked. It was not his first choice, because it would complicate his reason for being here. But he obviously couldn’t let them kill him either.
He kept walking and they kept encircling him like a moving bubble of flesh and bone. Finally, he stopped, looked at them. They spoke to him in Spanish. He shook his head, told them in broken Spanish that he didn’t really speak it, though he did, fluently. He only did this to throw them off, make it harder for them to communicate with him. Frustration messed with the mind.
Then he spoke in his native tongue, and this seemed to catch them off guard, which had been his intent.
The largest gangbanger, probably in an attempt to show he was not cowed by the big man, strode closer and asked him in English where he was from.
In answer he pointed in the direction of the water.
This did not seem to please them.
The smallest of them shot forward, using more courage and adrenaline than common sense, and tried to stick a knife in his gut. The man moved with a speed that was surprising for someone his size. He disarmed the smaller man and lifted him off the pavement with one arm as though he were a child. He placed the blade against his throat, where it tickled the little man’s trembling carotid. Then with a flash of movement he threw the knife and it buried point-first in a wooden door twenty feet across the street.
He dropped the man and the gang melted away into the night.
They were young, but obviously their stupidity had limits.
He walked on.
The next day had been spent in twelve hours of labor for which he received eight dollars per hour. This was paid in cash at the end of the day, but he was docked five dollars for food that consisted of a bottle of water, a sandwich, and chips. And another dollar per hour was deducted because of rising gas prices, he was told. The money was meaningless to him. He simply took it, stuffed it into his pocket, and rode in the back of a battered truck to a location near where he was staying.
The temperature had reached ninety-eight that day, and he had been out in the sun for all of it. While even the most veteran of the company’s workers had wilted quickly in the heat and humidity and sought frequent breaks in whatever shade was available, he had worked away, as oblivious to the heat as he had been to swimming all those hours through the Gulf.
When one had been to hell, anything less did not intimidate.
He had sat on his bed early the next morning. Sweat dripped down his back because his rent did not include air-conditioning that actually worked. Part of what had been left for him in the room had included a cell phone, with certain numbers and information on it that would prove useful in completing his task.
He moved through the phone’s screens every day going over what he needed to and deleting certain things he wouldn’t want anyone to possibly discover. Finished, he sat back on his bed and lifted a glass of cold water to his lips. He stared around the close confines of his room: four plain walls and a solitary window overlooking the street where the sounds of late-night partiers could be heard coming from the waterside, a long way from here. The closer one drew to the beach, the more it cost.
He was supposed to have traveled here by plane. Instead, he had taken a tranquilizer dart strike to his chest when he was on the street of a Mexican border town just across the line from Brownsville, Texas, one of the most dangerous places on earth. He had been fortunate to have just been tranquilized. He had woken on a vessel at sea trussed up like a shark in a net. Shifted from boat to boat, abandoned oil platform to abandoned oil platform, he had been successful at his first real chance at escape.
He took in a long breath and sat up against the wall as the frail bedframe squeaked and groaned trying to support his weight. His door was locked, a bureau in front of it. If someone came for him in the night he would not be surprised. He had slept palming a serrated knife. If someone came for him he would kill him. It was just his life, as he had always known it to be.
He got up to go to work.
PULLER EASED THE CORVETTE to the curb and gazed across the street at his aunt’s house. Sunset by the Sea was the name of the community, and Puller decided it was appropriate. The place was near the water and the sun did set every day just like clockwork.
His aunt’s house was a nice, sturdy-looking two-story with a garage. He had never visited her here. She had been mostly out of his life long before he’d joined the Army. She had originally lived in Pennsylvania with her husband, Lloyd. Puller recalled that the move to Florida had come about twenty years ago, when Lloyd retired.
There had been a few points of correspondence with his aunt over the years. His brother had been better at keeping up with Betsy Simon than he had. But then Bobby had gone to prison, their father had mostly lost his mind, and Puller had lost all contact with a woman who had been central to him as a little boy.
That was what life did to you, he supposed. Wiped out important things and replaced them with other important things.
He spent a few minutes sizing up the area. Nice, upscale, palm trees. No mansions here, though. He had passed a whole spate of those on the way here. They tended to be close to or right on the water, big as condo buildings—huge pools, high gates, and Bugattis and McLarens parked in circular drives with towering fountains as focal points. That sort of lifestyle was as foreign to Puller as living in Pyongyang, North Korea, would have been. And for him probably just as distasteful.
He would never make much money. After all, the only thing he did was continually risk life and limb to keep America safe. That apparently wasn’t as important or as valued as making billions on Wall Street at the expense of the average citizen, who was often left holding the bag of empty promises that seemed to be about all that remained of the American dream.
But his aunt had apparently done okay. Her house was fairly large and immaculate, and the yard watered and well tended. She apparently had not outlived her money.
He didn’t see anyone outside or passing down the street, either on foot or by car. The heat was really miserable, and maybe people took their siestas around now. He gazed at his watch. It was closing in on one p.m. He climbed out of the car, crossed the street, strode up the sidewalk to his aunt’s front door, and knocked.
There was no answer.
He knocked again, his gaze sliding left and then right, checking to see if her immediate neighbors had their curiosity antennae out. He didn’t see any prying eyes and he knocked once more.
He heard no footsteps.
He walked to the garage door and peered through the glass. Parked inside was a Toyota Camry. It looked relatively new. He wondered if his aunt still drove. He tried to lift the garage door, but it was locked down. Probably on an automatic door lift, he thought. No way elderly people were going to bend down and constantly jack up heavy overhead doors simply because they wanted to go for a drive.
He walked to the side yard and his height allowed him to peer over the privacy fence. He saw a fountain in the middle of the small backyard.
He tried the gate. It was locked. It was a simple latch, though; a bit of jiggling and it opened. He stepped into the backyard and walked over to the fountain. The first thing he noticed was the gouge in the dirt just outside of the stone surround that held the water in. He knelt down and studied the gouge and found another one parallel to it and about three feet away. He looked at the fountain. Someone had pulled the plug on the pump, because the water, designed to flow from the top of the fountain and into the lower pool, was not operating.
He leaned over and studied the floor of the pool. There were loose decorative stones laid there, but something had disturbed them. Some of the stones had been pushed around to such a degree that the concrete floor of the pool was revealed. As he leaned closer he saw where one of the rocks from the stone surround had been partially dislodged and was lying on the ground. There was a mark on this stone. He looked at it more closely.
Is that blood?
He knelt down and studied the topography in relation to the back of the house. He noted the gouges in the dirt once more. Could they be from a walker? There were no footprints that he could see. The grass was wiry and pretty dry, so he wouldn’t have expected any discernible impressions. He leaned in closer and studied the pool. Maybe two feet deep, about six feet in diameter, with the water kept in by the low stone wall.
His gaze swept around the rocks looking for any other marks. He saw no blood, no human tissue, and no hairs. He moved closer, peered down into the clear water, and once more observed the places where the stones had been disturbed.
Puller stood and pantomimed falling into the pool, hands out to break his fall. One there, one there. Knees impacting the decorative stones too. He adjusted things a bit to account for a possible walker. He compared his pantomime with what he was seeing. Not an exact fit, but something had disturbed the stones.
But unless she were unconscious his aunt could have rolled herself to the side and gotten her face out of the water. So, unconscious for some reason, facedown in the water. Two feet of it would easily cover her head. Death would have been quick.
Then Puller shook his head.
I see felonies everywhere. Dial it back, Puller.
He had no proof that his aunt was dead, or hurt in any way. He might have been crawling around her backyard in the heat looking for evidence of a crime that had not even been committed. That’s what he got for investigating crimes for a living. He could also make them up out of whole cloth if necessary.
Or even unnecessarily.
Then he took a step back and received confirmation that something out of the ordinary had indeed happened back here.
There were two parallel lines visible in the grass, like miniature train tracks where the grass had been pushed down. When he looked at another spot in the lawn, he saw another pair of parallel tracks. Puller knew what that meant. He had seen it many times before.
He walked swiftly to the back door and tried the knob. Locked. At least his aunt was security-minded. But the lock was just a single bolt. It took Puller all of fifteen seconds to beat it. He stepped inside, closed the door behind him.
The interior layout of the house seemed relatively simple. Straight hall from front to back, rooms off that. Stairs leading up, fore and aft, with bedrooms no doubt on the second floor. With his aunt’s advanced age he figured she might have a master suite on the main level. Puller had heard that concept was very popular in retirement communities.
He passed a laundry room, small den, and the kitchen and found the master suite off that. He finally arrived at a large family room that opened off the foyer and was visible from the kitchen over a waist-high wall. The furnishings were heavy on tropical motifs. There was a gas fireplace surrounded by stacked slate on one wall. Puller had checked out the Panhandle region and discovered that the lows in the middle of winter rarely crept down into the thirties, but he could understand his aunt, who hailed from the snowy Keystone State, wanting to warm her bones with a cozy fire that didn’t require chopping wood.
He noted the alarm panel next to the front door. The green light showed that it was not on, a fact he already knew because the alarm had not gone off when he had opened the back door.
There was an abundance of photos—mostly old ones—on shelves, consoles, and occasional tables set around the family room. Puller studied them one by one and found several of his old man, and him and his brother in their respective uniforms with their aunt Betsy. The last of these was from when Puller had joined the Army. He wondered now where the break in the family had come but couldn’t quite put a finger on it. There were also quite a few photos of Betsy’s husband, Lloyd. He’d been a little shorter than his wife, his face was full of life, and there was one picture of the two of them in which Lloyd was wearing his Army greens from World War II. Betsy was in her WAC, or Women’s Army Corps, uniform. The way they were gazing at each other in the photo it looked like love at first sight, if there was such a thing.
Puller heard it before he had a chance to see it.
He stepped to the window and drew the curtain back just a fraction of an inch. Ever since his tours in the Middle East he never revealed more of himself—physically or emotionally—than was absolutely necessary.
The police cruiser pulled to the curb and the driver killed the engine.
No sirens, no lights; the two cops inside were obviously in stealth mode. They climbed out and drew their guns, looked around, their gazes inching to the front of the house.
Someone had seen Puller in the yard, maybe going into the house, and had called the cops.
The male officer was bald and burly, the same one he had seen earlier. Next to him was his female partner. She was two inches taller and looked in better shape. He was thick and muscular up top but light in the legs. Too many bench presses and not enough squats. He looked, to Puller, like a washout from the military, but he obviously couldn’t be certain about that. Maybe it was just the condescending nod the man had given him earlier.
The guy held his nine-millimeter awkwardly, even unprofessionally, as if he had learned how to do it by watching TV or by sitting on his butt at a theater to see how action stars handled their weapons. She carried hers with perfect control and ease, her weight balanced equally between both legs, her knees slightly bent, her silhouette angled to the side to lower her target profile. It was like a Pro-Am tournament pairing, thought Puller.
If his aunt was dead and there had been an investigation, he sure as hell hoped bald and burly hadn’t been heading it up. That had screwup written all over it.
Puller decided to cut to the chase, mainly because he didn’t want the guy to accidentally shoot himself. He slipped a photo from its frame and slid it into his shirt pocket. Then he walked to the front door, opened it, and stepped out into the brilliant sunshine of Paradise.
The order came from the woman.
Puller obeyed the command.
“Hands over your head,” added her partner.
“Do you want me to freeze or put my hands over my head?” asked Puller. “Because I can’t do both. And I’m not looking to get shot over a misunderstanding.”
The two cops moved closer, one to his right, one to his left.
Puller noted that the woman watched his hands, while the guy was glued to his eyes. The woman was right. Puller couldn’t kill with his eyes. But his hand could pull a weapon and open fire within a second without his eyes moving an inch.
She said, “Put your hands over your head, fingers interlocked. Then down on your stomach, legs spread, facedown.”
“I have an M11 in a rear belt holster. And my Army creds and badge are inside my front pants pocket.”
The two cops made the mistake of glancing at each other. Puller could have shot them both dead in the two seconds they took to do that. But he didn’t and so they would get to live another day.
“What the hell is an M11?” asked the male officer.
Before Puller could answer the woman said, “Army’s version of the Sig P228.”
Puller eyed her with interest. She was about five-seven, with blonde hair pinned up tight with a clamp at the back. Her build was slender, compact, but she moved with a dancer’s grace and her hands looked strong.
He said, “If I could reach very slowly in my front pants pocket I’ll show you my creds and badge.”
This time the woman didn’t look at her partner. “What unit?”
“The 701st out of Quantico, Virginia,” he answered promptly.
“CID or MP?” she asked.
“CID. I’m a CWO.”
Before her partner could ask she translated: “Chief warrant officer.”
Puller looked at her curiously. “You former military?”
Puller said, “Can I get my pack out?”
“Do it really slowly,” said the guy, tightening the grip on his gun.
Puller knew that was the exact wrong thing to do. An overly tight grip meant you would increase your error rate about thirty percent or more. But he was more concerned that the guy would mess up and accidentally shoot him.
“Two fingers in the pocket, that’s all,” said the woman. “And keep your other hand on the top of your head.” Her voice was firm, direct, even. He liked that. Her nerves were definitely not running away with her senses, unlike her partner.
Puller two-fingered out his cred pack and held it up, ID card first, badge second. The CID’s one-eyed eagle symbol was unique.
The two drew close enough for Puller to simply hand the pack to the woman while the man kept his drawdown on him. He actually wished it had been the other way around, because the guy looked wound tight enough to shoot all three of them dead.
She lifted her gaze from the cred pack, checking the photo on there with the man himself, and said, “Okay, but I’m going to have to take your sidearm as a precaution until we sort this out.”
“Small of my back, belt holster.”
She moved behind him while her partner took a step back and lined Puller up in his iron sights.
She gave him a quick but efficient patdown, her hands flitting over his backside, then down and up the insides of his legs. Puller felt his shirt being lifted up. Then she slid the pistol out of the holster and a moment later she stood in front of him, gripping his pistol by the muzzle and pointing it downward.
She said, “We got a call about a break-in. What are you doing here?”
“This is my aunt Betsy Simon’s place. I came down here to pay her a visit. No one answered the door, so I went in through the back.”
“Long way to come, from Virginia,” said the man, with his gun still aimed at Puller’s head.
Puller didn’t look at him but spoke to the woman. “Can you ask your partner to holster? Accidents can happen.”
“The cred pack’s legit, Barry, and he’s unarmed now. You can stand down.”
“John Puller,” said the woman. “And your aunt was Betsy Simon?”
He nodded. “And you are?” He had glanced at her nametag, but the sun’s glare made it impossible to read.
“Officer Landry, Cheryl Landry. That’s Officer Barry Hooper.”
She handed him back his cred pack.
“Any idea where my aunt is?” asked Puller.
Landry looked at her partner nervously.
Puller caught the look. “I saw some interesting things in the backyard. Did something happen back there?”
“Why do you think that?” she asked suspiciously.
“Clues around the fountain. And I saw tracks in the grass back there where a gurney had been wheeled in and out. I’m assuming that gurney was carrying someone. Was that someone my aunt?”
“We were first responders,” said Landry quietly.
“To what exactly?”
“The lady who lived here drowned in the little pool back there,” interjected Hooper.
His partner shot him a reproachful glance and said, “It seemed to be an accident. I’m sorry, Agent Puller.”
Puller stood there trying to take it all in. In a way, he was not surprised. In another way he was flummoxed. He had been hoping that the victim was someone other than his aunt.
He asked, “Can you walk me through what happened?”
Hooper snapped, “We’re responding to a B and E right now and you’re it. We’re not standing here jawing with you. We should be cuffing you and reading you your rights.”
Landry looked at him. “He’s right. We don’t know if your aunt was Betsy Simon. And we don’t know what you were doing in her house.”
“Photo in my shirt pocket. I took it from the house.”
Landry slid the photo out, looked at it.
“It’s quite a few years old, but if you saw my aunt I don’t think she’s changed that much. And I look pretty much the same, with a few more lines. And our names are listed on the back.”
Landry studied the picture and the reverse side and then let Hooper look at it.
“It’s him, Barry,” said Landry.
“Still not conclusive to me,” retorted Hooper.
Puller shrugged and took the photo back. “Okay, so let’s go down to the station and straighten it out. I was heading there anyway after I finished looking around here.”
“Like I said, the lady fell and drowned in her little pool,” said Hooper. “Accident all the way.”
“Medical examiner confirm that?”
Landry said, “Haven’t heard. Autopsy should be done by now.”
Hooper said, “It was an accident. Lady fell and drowned. We checked the scene out thoroughly.”
“Yeah, that’s what you keep saying. What, are you trying to convince yourself it’s true?”
Landry added, “That’s what it looked like all right, Agent Puller. I can understand it’s hard to accept a tragedy like that, but it happens. Especially with older folks.”
“And Florida has more than most,” added Hooper. “Dropping like flies every minute of every day.”
Puller turned to look at him and took a step closer to the man to accentuate their differences in vertical prominence. “Except they’re not.”
“Not what?” said Hooper, looked confused.
“Flies. And in case you didn’t know, autopsies reveal about twenty-five percent of the time a different cause of death than the one everybody thought it was.”
“We can go down to the station,” said Landry in a placating tone. “And straighten things out, like you said.”
“You want me to follow you or go in your car?” asked Puller.
“It’s not a choice. You go in our ride,” said Hooper, before Landry could speak. “With your hands cuffed and your rights read.”
“You’re really going to arrest me?” asked Puller.
“Did you break into that house?” Hooper shot back.
“I went in to check on my aunt.”
“Why didn’t you call the police if you were concerned?” asked Landry. “We could have filled you in.”
“Maybe I could have, but it’s not my way of doing things,” replied Puller.
“Army have the luxury of letting its guys just bop around the country doing their own stuff?” said Hooper. “No wonder our taxes are so damn high.”
“Even the Army lets its guys have some R and R time, Officer Hooper.”
“We’ll leave your car here,” broke in Landry. “You ride with us, but without the cuffs or the rights read.”
“Thanks,” said Puller, as Hooper eyed his partner darkly.
“But if your story doesn’t check out,” she warned, “that all changes.”
“Fair enough,” said Puller. “But after you find out I’m legit, I’ll need to see my aunt’s body.”
He walked toward their cruiser. “Let’s roll,” he called back over his shoulder.
The two cops slowly followed.
THE PARADISE POLICE STATION WAS located two blocks off the beach in a two-story stone and stucco structure that had an orange terra-cotta roof and a pair of palm trees out front. It sat next to a Ritz-Carlton hotel and looked more like a country club than a place where cops went to get their patrol assignments and cruisers to go hunt criminals.
As Puller climbed out of the police car and looked around he said to Hooper, “Did you purposely locate in the high-crime area to keep watch over the criminal element?”
Hooper ignored him, but placed an arm on Puller’s elbow to shepherd him into the building. Apparently Hooper was under the impression that Puller was in custody and the only things missing were the cuffs over his wrists and a Miranda warning ringing in his ears.
The place inside looked much like the place outside. High-dollar, clean, orderly. In fact it was the cleanest, most orderly police station Puller had ever seen. The personnel working inside pristinely delineated office spaces barely looked up as the trio came in. Their clothes were starched, spotless, and looked to have been fitted by a veteran tailor. No phones were ringing. No one was screaming for his lawyer or declaring that he was innocent of all trumped-up charges. No uncooperative prisoners were puking on the floor. No fat, sweaty cops with major B.O. and pissed-off attitudes were waddling down the halls in search of a myocardial infarction in the form of a vending machine stuffed with chocolate and sodium.
It was such a total disconnect for Puller that he looked around for a camera, seriously wondering for a few moments whether he was being punked.
He glanced at Landry, who was walking next to him. “I’ve never seen a police station quite like this one.”
“What’s so different about it?” she asked.
“You been in any others?”
“Trust me, it’s different. I was looking around for a valet outside and a place to order a drink in here before I teed off for a quick round of nine holes. And I don’t even play golf.”
Hooper nudged his elbow harder. “So we’ve got a strong tax base. That’s a problem somehow?”
“Didn’t say it was a problem. Just said it was different.”
“Then maybe everybody else should follow our example,” retorted Hooper. “Because I think we’ve got it right. Money equals a better life all around.”
“Yeah, next time I’m in Kabul, I’ll let them know your thoughts.”
“I was talking the United States of America, not dipshit land where they talk funny and think their pissant god is better than our real God.”
“I think I’ll keep that one to myself,” replied Puller.
“Like I give a crap what you do.”
Puller tried to remove his elbow from Hooper’s grip but the man kept it there, as if he were a magnet and Puller were a block of metal. The guy was doing it just to piss him off. That was clear. And Puller could do nothing about it unless he wanted to end up in a jail cell, which would seriously crimp the investigation of his aunt’s death.
Hooper directed him to a chair outside of a frosted glass–enclosed office with the name Henry Bullock, Chief of Police stenciled on the door. Landry knocked twice and Puller heard a gruff voice say, “Enter.”
Hooper stood next to him as Landry disappeared inside the office.
Puller had nothing else to do so he looked around. His attention was captured by a man and a woman in their early forties because they appeared distraught in a sea of otherwise complete calm. They were seated at the desk of a man dressed in black slacks, white-collared shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, and a muted tie. A plastic lanyard with a badge on it hung from his reedy neck.
Puller could catch only snatches of the conversation, but he heard the words “late-night walk,” then the names “Nancy and Fred Storrow.”
The woman dabbed at her nose with a tissue while the man looked down at his hands. The guy behind the desk hit keys on his computer and uttered sympathetic noises.
Puller drew his attention away from this exchange when the door to Bullock’s office opened and Landry and another man whom Puller assumed was the chief of police stepped out.
Henry Bullock was a fraction under six feet with thick shoulders and hammy arms that pulled tight against his regulation uniform. His gut was widening and offered even greater strain against the fabric than did his muscles. His body was better balanced than Hooper’s because the man’s legs were thick but tapered down to unusually small feet. He looked to be in his late fifties, with thinning gray hair, thick eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and skin that had seen too much sun and wind. The furrows on his brow were deep and permanent and left him with a perpetual scowl.
If he’d been in a different uniform Puller would have sworn the man was his former drill sergeant.
“Puller?” he said, staring down at him.
“Come on in. You too, Landry. Hoop, you can wait outside.”
“But Chief,” said Hooper. “I was in on the bust too.”
Bullock turned to look at him. “There is no bust, Hoop. Not yet. If there is, I’ll let you know.”
And in those few words Puller could tell that Bullock was a savvy man and knew exactly the limits of Officer Hooper.
Hooper stood there sullenly, his gaze on Puller as though this slight was somehow his fault. Puller stood and walked past the man, his elbow finally free.
“Just hang tight, Hoop,” he said. “We’ll get back to you.”
PULLER WALKED INTO THE OFFICE, trailed by Landry. She shut the door behind her.
The office was a twelve-foot-wide, eight-foot-deep rectangle of space. It was furnished in a spartan, no-nonsense way, which, Puller assumed, precisely paralleled the personality of the occupant.
Bullock sat down behind his wooden desk and motioned for Puller to take the lone chair opposite. Landry stood at semi-attention diagonally off Puller’s left shoulder.
Puller sat, looking expectantly at Bullock.
The police chief fiddled with the fingernail of his right index finger for a few moments before breaking the silence.
“We’re verifying you are who you say you are.”
“And after you do can I check out the crime scene?”
Bullock flicked an annoyed gaze at him. “There is no crime scene.”
“Technically, maybe not, but that could change.”
“Your aunt was how old?”
“And used a walker, the report said. She fell, hit her head, and drowned. I’m very sorry it happened. Lost my grandmother to a drowning accident. Had a seizure in the bathtub. She was old too. It just happened. Nothing anyone could do. Looks to be the same here. You shouldn’t feel guilty about it,” he added.
“Has it been confirmed that she drowned?” asked Puller, ignoring this last barb.
When neither of them said anything, he said, “Unless Florida is really different, there has to be something written on the death certificate in the ‘cause of death’ box or people get a little nervous.”
“Water in the lungs, so yes, she drowned,” said Bullock. “Medical examiner completed the autopsy last night. Technically I believe the term is—”
Puller finished for him, “Yeah, asphyxiation. Can I see the report?”
“No, you can’t. They don’t go out to anyone except next of kin and those with a court order.”
“I’m her nephew.”
“So you say, but even so, I’ve always interpreted the definition of next of kin to be immediate family.”
“She doesn’t have any. Her husband’s dead, and her only sibling is back in Virginia at a VA hospital and lacks the mental capacity to handle this. And she had no kids.”
“I’m sorry. There’s really nothing I can do about that,” said Bullock. “The privacy of the deceased is not something I take lightly.”
“But you do take lightly that someone might have murdered her?”
Bullock snapped, “I don’t care for what you’re insinuating.”
“Weren’t you going to contact her next of kin?” Puller asked.
“We were in the process of doing that. We did a preliminary search of her home, but didn’t find any helpful info. And you have to understand, this is Florida. Lots of elderly, lots of deaths. We have four others we’re running down next of kin on and I have limited manpower.”
“The ME listing drowning as the cause of death tells us what killed her. It doesn’t tell us how she got in the water in the first place.”
“That’s a guess, not a fact.”
Landry stirred, seemingly about to say something, but then apparently thought better of it and remained silent.
Puller noticed this but didn’t react. He figured he could have a chat with her later, outside the presence of her boss.
“It’s an educated, professional assumption based on the facts on the ground,” corrected Bullock.
“An educated assumption is really just a guess in sheep’s clothing. The real reason I’m down here is because of a letter she sent.” He pulled it from his pocket and handed it to Bullock. Landry moved around and read it over her supervisor’s shoulder.
Bullock finished reading, folded the letter, and handed it back. “Proves nothing. If I had a dollar for every time some old woman thought something weird was going on, I’d retire a rich man.”
“Really? That would take like over a million old crazy ladies, wouldn’t it? The population of Paradise is 11,457. I checked before coming down. You’re going to have to recruit a lot more old crazy ladies if you want to retire.”
Before Bullock could respond to this a fax machine on a credenza behind him zinged to life. A paper came down the chute. Bullock picked it up, alternated reading it and gazing at Puller.
“Okay, you are who you say you are.”
“Nice to have it confirmed.”
“Landry here tells me you’re Army CID.”
“That’s right. About six years. Before that I was in the ranks carrying a rifle.”
“Well, I’ve been chief of police of this little hamlet for fifteen, and fifteen years before that I was a cop pounding the streets. Saw my share of murders and accidents. This is the latter, not the former.”
“Am I missing something here?” asked Puller. “Is there some reason you don’t want to check this out more thoroughly? If it’s a question of manpower I’m here to volunteer my services. And I’ve been around a lot of accidents and murders too. The Army unfortunately has an abundance of both. And I’ve handled cases that started out looking like an accident that turned into something else and vice versa.”
“Well, maybe you’re just not as good as we are,” shot back Bullock.
“Maybe I’m not. But why don’t we find out for sure? We have a little question of justice to be answered.”
Bullock rubbed his face with his hand like he was working off some fine grit, and shook his head.
“Okay, I think we’re done here. I’m sorry for your loss, if she is your aunt. But I would not advise going near her property again unless you have appropriate authorization. Next time we will arrest you.”
“And how exactly do I get authorization?”
“Talk to her lawyer. Maybe he can help. Probably just charge you a few thousand dollars.”
“I don’t know who her lawyer is. Maybe if I could go back to her house and check?”
“What part of appropriate authorization don’t you get?” said Bullock.
“So it’s a chicken and egg problem?”
“Hell, she’s your family, or so you say.”
Puller slipped out the picture. “I’ve got this.”
Bullock waved his hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, Landry told me about that. It’s not conclusive proof of anything.”
“So that’s it? That’s all you’ll do?”
“What I’m doing is my job. To serve and protect.”
“Well, if Betsy Simon was killed, you didn’t do a really good job on either one, did you?”
Bullock rose and stared down at Puller. For an instant Puller thought the man was going to pull his gun, but he simply said, “You have a good day, Mr. Puller.” He nodded at Landry, who said, “You can follow me out, Agent Puller.”
After the door closed behind them Hooper was next to Puller in an instant, his hand on his elbow again, like a sheepdog to a sheep. Only Puller would never be classified as a sheep. He firmly removed Hooper’s hand from his elbow and said, “Thanks. But unlike my aunt, I can walk unaided.”
Before Hooper could say anything Puller walked off, retracing his steps from the way in. Landry fell in behind him.
“I need my gun back,” said Puller.
“It’s in the police cruiser. We can drop you off at your car.”
“Thanks, I’d rather walk,” said Puller.
“It’s a long walk.”
Puller turned to look at her. “I have a lot to think about. And I’ve never been in Paradise before. I’d like to see every inch of it. Might never get another chance. Most folks who know me have me down for heading to the other place.”
At this Landry cracked a smile.
They reached the cruiser and Landry handed him back his M11 as Hooper hovered in the background, still looking upset that Puller wasn’t behind bars.
Landry handed Puller a card. “If you need any help,” she said, her gaze searching his for an instant before looking away. “Personal cell phone number’s on the back.”
Puller slid his M11 into the belt holster and her card into his shirt pocket.
“Appreciate that. Might take you up on it, Officer Landry.”
He glanced over her shoulder at Hooper. “He always so friendly?”
“He’s a good cop,” she said in a low voice.
“Never said he wasn’t. But tell him to lay off the elbow intimidation thing. Gets old after about thirty seconds.”
She edged closer. “Try Bailey’s Funeral Home. It’s over off Atlantic Avenue. Where the ME does her work. We don’t have a formal medical examiner’s office in Paradise. She’s a doctor in practice who helps us out.”
He turned and strode off.
Hooper called after him, “Next time you won’t get off so easy.”
Puller just kept walking.
PULLER CALLED Bailey’s Funeral Home on the walk back to his car. The woman on the phone would not confirm that Betsy Simon’s body was on the premises.
“Well, if you do have her body, I’m her nephew. And if you want to get paid for the funeral service then I really need confirmation that you have her. Otherwise you can just foot the bill yourselves.”
This approach seemed to stimulate the woman’s memory.
“Well, without giving out any private information, we did receive an elderly female’s body whose clothes were damp and who lived on Orion Street.”
“I’ll be over later today to make arrangements. I know the ME performed an autopsy. I’m assuming he’s released the body. But I would appreciate if nothing else is done to the remains before I get there. Are we clear on that?”
“Until the contract is signed and the deposit made, I can assure you that nothing will be done,” the woman said primly.
Puller clicked off and thought, Paradise just keeps getting better and better.
He drove his car to an outdoor café near the beach. He had chosen this spot because it afforded a nice vantage point of a major swath of the town. He ordered a turkey sandwich, fries, and iced tea. It was too hot for his normal pop of max-caffeinated coffee. And he was thinking about giving it up anyway. He was afraid it would start to impede his aim.
As he ate and drank he took mental pictures of all that was going on around him. He saw a pristine convertible Porsche driving next to an old Ford pickup truck with barely any tread on the tires or metal on the frame. A few moments later a large truck chugged by with a landscaping company’s name on its side. It stopped at the traffic light.
Puller studied the five men in dirty work pants and soaked-in-sweat matching green T-shirts with the company name on them standing up in the back of the truck. They were all short, stocky Latinos, except for the biggest one, who looked like a parent surrounded by kindergartners. He was easily two inches taller and more than fifty pounds heavier than Puller with not an ounce of fat on him. Guys that size tended to be bulky and slow-looking. This guy seemed almost gaunt. His hands were long gristly bones that looked strong enough to choke an elephant. The men’s gazes locked for a brief instant and then the truck and the giant were gone.
Puller saw a police cruiser pass by. He half expected to see Landry and Hooper inside, but it was another pair of cops who barely looked at him.
Puller paid his bill, finished off his iced tea, and phoned the VA hospital back in Virginia. He asked for his father’s doctor and was put on hold several different times before a woman’s voice said, “Dr. Murphy is tied up, can I help you?”
Puller explained who he was and what he wanted.
“Mr. Puller, I can put you right in to talk to your father. Perhaps you can calm him down.”
Doubtful, thought Puller. But he said, “I can try.”
His old man’s voice boomed through the phone. “XO? That you, XO?”
“It’s me, sir.”
“Mission brief,” said his father tersely.
“I’m on the ground in Florida. I did a recon of the area, interfaced with the locals. Later I plan to assess the casualties and will report back in at that time, sir.”
“Somebody took my top-secret communication, XO. From my personal safe.”
“You gave it to me, sir, need to know only. You must have other things on your mind, sir. Takes a lot of thinking to run the 101st.”
“Hell yes it does.”
“So I’ve got the communication, sir. Not to worry. Report back twenty hundred hours.”
“Roger that. Good luck, XO.”
Puller clicked off and felt ashamed, as he did every time he played this subterfuge with his father. But what was the alternative?
One he didn’t want to face, he supposed.
He next phoned USDB in Kansas and made arrangements to talk to his brother that night. After that, he put the phone away. It was time to see his aunt.
Despite their separation, once he had become an adult a part of Puller had always thought he would see Betsy Simon again.
Just not like this.
BAILEY’S FUNERAL HOME WAS A three-story brick building three blocks off the water and set on a half acre of mostly asphalt with a narrow perimeter of sunbaked grass. Puller parked his car near the front door, got out, and a few moments later entered the building. The air-conditioning hit him in a wave as he closed the door behind him. The place must have been at least twenty-five degrees cooler than outside and Puller was glad he was not paying the electric bill here. But then it occurred to him that every funeral home he’d ever been in had felt abnormally cold, even in New England in the middle of winter. It was like they didn’t have heat, only air-conditioning. Maybe that’s what you were taught in the funeral home business—keep everyone as cold as the clients in the coffins.
There was a small reception desk set a few yards from the front door. A young woman attired all in black—perhaps another funeral home tactic to show perpetual mourning—rose to greet him.
“I’m John Puller. I called before. My aunt Betsy Puller Simon is here?”
“Yes, Mr. Puller. What can we do for you?”
Excerpted from The Forgotten by David Baldacci Copyright © 2012 by David Baldacci. Excerpted by permission.
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