“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 Mu 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 Mu 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.”
Til 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 cafe 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 kindergart- ners. 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 ioist.”
“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.