want to see you about this.”

“I bet he will. In fact, I’ve already seen him tonight.”

“Did he bite your head off?”

“I think we’ve reached an understanding, actually.”

“Okay. But I wouldn’t count on that holding after this.”

“Right.”

“You’ve sort of set a record for mayhem in Paradise.”

“I can see that.”

“You going to be here much longer?” “Wish I could tell you for sure, but I can’t.” “Your aunt?”

“My aunt.”

“You just don’t let go, do you?”

“Never saw the point,” replied Puller.

CHAPTER 33

Puller was following Landry over to her place. She was ahead of him in a dark blue, white-topped Toyota FJ four-by-four Cruiser. It looked rugged and durable and ready to roll on asphalt or sand, which was probably why she had purchased it. Puller had pegged her as particularly no-nonsense. He also could tell this by her keeping exactly to the speed limit as they headed west to Destin.

On the way he phoned his brother at USDB. The call had been scheduled in advance, as required, and although he was late phoning in, he was put through a few seconds later.

Robert Puller had been awaiting his younger brother’s call and picked up immediately.

“Sorry for the late call,” said Puller. “I got sidetracked.”

“That’s okay. I was going to go out tonight, but decided to just stay here and wait for you to ring up.”

“Nice to hear you’ve retained your sense of humor.”

“Most important thing I’ve got, actually. Maybe the only thing I’ve got.”

“I can see that.”

“Now, when you get sidetracked it usually means someone is lying all bloody in a ditch.” “They’re not in a ditch,” said Puller. “They’re in a holding cell.”

“Talk to me.”

Puller conveyed most of what had happened in Paradise over the last dozen hours or so. When he recounted it, he was amazed that he had packed so much into so little time.

“You’ve been busy,” said Robert.

“Wasn’t really by choice.”

“So a journal is missing from Betsy’s house?”

“Looks to be.”

“And a ten-mile drive at night?”

“That was just a guess. I’ll have to confirm it.” “And the guys following you?”

“Got a contact at USACIL working on that. Hopefully I’ll hear something soon.”

“Sorry you had to see Aunt Betsy like that.” “How much of the summers we spent with her and Uncle Lloyd do you remember?”

“Pretty much every second. She was an unforgettable lady. Sort of like the Old Man but with compassion and a heart.”

Puller nodded. That would have been his articulated assessment as well. “Some of the best times we ever had,” he noted.

“Sometimes I think we’re the way we are because of her more than the Old Man,” said Robert.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” replied Puller. “But the older I get the more I think I’m like the Old Man too much.”

“Stop thinking that, it’ll drive you crazy.” “Maybe it already has.”

“You’re the sanest man I know. And that’s saying something.”

“Maybe, Bobby. But maybe not.”

“So what do you think? Was she murdered?” “Factor in the journal missing, if that’s what it was, the folks tailing me, the fact that I think the lawyer is lying to me, and what was in Aunt Betsy’s note—yeah, I think she was murdered.”

“But the police don’t see it that way?”

“Not now they don’t. That could change.”

“So who’re in the holding cells?”

“Just some folks I had a disagreement with. Not connected to what I’m down here for.”

“You really can’t be sure about that.”

“You’re right, I can’t be. But it’s just my gut.” “What are your next steps?”

“Get some sleep. I’m running on empty right now.”

“Anything else?”

Puller hesitated, then decided to say it. “There’s a guy down here. Bigger than me. Stronger than me. Probably can kick my ass.” “That qualifies as remarkable. What’s the connection to you?”

“Don’t know that there is any. Could just be wrong place, wrong time.”

“You could just shoot him.”

“He actually helped me out tonight. I don’t think he did it because he was a Good Samaritan. I think he was just pissed that somebody was disturbing his sleep.”

“Okay. I think I follow that, but not really.” “How are things on your end?”

“The views haven’t changed.”

Puller cracked a grin, but then it faded. “Yeah.”

“So after you get some sleep, what then?” “Run the ten miles Betsy might have done. Work on the lawyer angle. Follow up with US- ACIL. I’m getting my duffel of goodies tomorrow at Eglin AFB. Then I can start acting like a real investigator again.”

“Sounds like a plan. But watch your back, John. You’re there solo and you don’t really know who to trust. And it sounds like you have reason to distrust quite a few people right now.” “Good advice, Bobby.”

“So how’s the house?”

“What?”

“Aunt Betsy’s house, how is it?”

“It’s nice. Near the water.”

“You gonna be moving down there now that it’s yours?”

“I doubt it.”

“Come on, lots of people move to Florida.” “Honestly, Paradise is turning out to be way too dangerous for my tastes.”

Puller clicked off and kept driving.

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