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-lev- el 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 Mu 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 Hermes 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.