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?”
“I’d like to see her body, please.”
The young woman’s smile disappeared. “See her body?”
She was only about five feet tall and even in her clunky heels Puller was about a mile higher than she was. He could see her dark roots among all the blonde strands.
“We would need to see some proof of your relationship.”
“She kept her maiden name as part of her married one. Do you have that as part of her records?”
The woman sat back down and clicked some computer keys. “We just have her listed as Betsy Simon.”
“Who identified the body?”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“Your records have to show that the body had been identified. The ME would have required that too. You can’t bury someone without confirming they are who you think they are. That might get your operating license pulled.”
“I can assure you that we strictly follow all applicable laws and regulations to the letter,” she said in an offended tone.
“I’m sure you do.” Puller took out his creds and showed her his badge and ID card.
“You’re with the Army?”
“That’s what it says. You want to kick me to someone higher in authority? You probably don’t want to make this call on your own.”
The woman looked relieved by this suggestion. She lifted the phone, spoke some words. After a few minutes a man, dressed all in black with a white shirt that was so stiff with starch that it had left his neck permanently red, came out from behind a door with his hand extended.
“Mr. Puller? I’m Carl Brown, how can I help you?”
Puller showed Brown his cred pack and explained his situation. Brown looked suitably sympathetic. Puller figured that was taught in funeral home school as well.
Brown led him off to a side room where there were empty caskets set on long tables. “It’s just that we have so many rules and regulations governing our industry,” said Brown. “We have to maintain the privacy and dignity of the people who entrust their loved ones to us.”
“Well, her loved ones didn’t entrust Betsy Simon to you. I didn’t even know she was dead until a little while ago. And I didn’t request that her remains be brought here. Who did?”
“The local police asked that we pick up her body. There are many retirees down here, and many live alone. Their families may be scattered around the country or even the world. It takes time to contact them. But leaving the body in a tropical climate such as Florida’s is not exactly, how shall I say, a respectful avenue to pursue for the deceased.”
“I understand that an autopsy has been performed on her remains?”
“That is correct.”
“And the ME has released the body?”
Brown nodded. “This morning. Apparently, she found no evidence of a crime or anything like that.”
“Have you seen the autopsy report?”
Brown said hastily, “Oh, no. That’s not something that would be shared with us.”
“You have her contact information.”
“I can get it, yes.”
“Has anyone officially identified her body?” asked Puller.
“Our records indicate that that was done by people on the scene who knew her. Probably a neighbor if she didn’t have family in town. But we would always prefer that family members come and confirm that.”
“Well, here I am.”
Puller slipped the photo from his pocket and showed it to him. “I’m on the far right, Betsy is two over from me. It was taken years ago, but I don’t think she’s changed all that much. Look on the back of the photo. It lists all of our names. Is that good enough? I don’t see what other reason I would’ve come all this way to look at a body that didn’t have anything to do with me. The Army pays me to do better things with my time.”
Brown looked ashamed by this last comment. “Absolutely. I’m sure they do.” He looked around, apparently to see if anyone was in earshot. “All right, if you’ll just follow me.”
This room was even colder than the other spaces here, and there was a good reason for this. Dead bodies needed cold for preservation. Otherwise, the process of decomposition made human mortal remains extremely unpleasant to be around.
Puller gazed down at the long figure on the marble slab. A sheet covered everything except her head. Puller was alone in the room; Brown was waiting just outside to give him some privacy. His aunt’s features were obviously very pale, but they were easily recognizable. He had had no doubt that she was actually dead, but at least now he had confirmation of it.
Her hair had been tidied up and it lay flat against her head. Puller reached out and touched several of the white strands. They felt bristly, harsh. He took his hand back. He had seen many dead bodies in various states of decay, many far worse than his aunt’s condition. But she had been family. He had sat on this woman’s knee, listened to her stories, eaten her cooking. She had helped him learn the alphabet, come to love books, let him play in her house, make noise at all hours. But she also had instilled in him discipline, purpose, and loyalty.
His old man had earned the three stars, but his older sister could very well have done the same, Puller thought, if she’d been given the chance.
He estimated her height. About five-nine. She had seemed like a giant to him when he was a boy. Age had probably shrunken her as it had her brother. But she was still tall for a woman, as her brother was for a man. He had not seen her in a long time. He had not really regretted that in adulthood, as there were many other things to occupy his time. Like fighting wars. And finding killers.
But now he did regret it, losing that connection with a woman who had meant so much to him growing up. And now it was too late to do anything about it.
And if he had kept in touch with her would she be lying here on a slab? Maybe she would have contacted him sooner, let him know directly of her concerns.
You can only play the guilt card so much, John. The fact is I couldn’t have saved her, no matter how much I might have wanted to.
But maybe I can avenge her, if she was murdered. No, I will avenge her.
He examined her remains in a more professional manner. This included a meticulous probing of her head. It didn’t take long to find it. An abrasion, a bruise really, over her right ear. It was covered by her hair, but clearly visible when he lifted the strands out of the way.
Her scalp had been cut open and her facial skin pulled down during the autopsy to provide access to the brain. He knew this from the sutures on the back of her head. Puller also knew that a Stryker saw had been used to open her cranium so the brain could be taken out, examined, and weighed. A Y-incision had ope
ned her chest. He could see a few of the sutures resulting from this. All major organs contained therein would have received this same processing and scrutiny.