Puller looked back at the abrasion. A blunt force trauma possibly inflicted by a third party, or it could be from where she had fallen and hit her head on the stone border of the fountain. There was a small cut, but he doubted it would have bled much. It was not in the area of the scalp, which had a superhighway of small blood vessels, all of which bled like a bitch from even a small slicing of the skin. He had seen one possible blood mark on the stone surround. But any blood that might have leached into the water would have quickly dissolved.

The ME must have concluded that the bruising had been caused by the fall and impact with the stone. Blunt force trauma, particularly to the head, almost always led to a finding of death by homicide, but apparently not in this case.

He wondered why.

Bullock had said that the official cause of death was asphyxiation. Naturally that could occur from many things, such as diseases like emphysema or illnesses such as pneumonia or accidents like drowning. Criminally, death by asphyxiation only could be caused by three things, Puller knew.

They were: strangulation, drowning caused by another party, and smothering.

He gazed closely at her neck, looking for any signs of ligature marks. But the skin there was unblemished. And there was no venous engorgement—enlarged veins that would occur around the injury site due to the pressure and constriction of the blood vessels. When you squeezed something, it swelled.

The other indicator of strangulation was not something Puller could see: an enlarged heart, particularly the right ventricle. He checked her lips for cyanosis, a blue discoloration around the lips that occurred with strangulation. There was no sign.

Next he lifted the sheet and checked her hands. There was no evidence of cyanosis on her fingertips. And there were no defensive wounds or marks. If someone had attacked her, it did not seem that she had fought back. If she had been immobilized quickly she might not have had the opportunity to do so.

He next checked her eyes and the area around them for petechial hemorrhaging, pinpoint reddish spots caused by the pressure on blood vessels. He found none.

So smothering and strangulation were probably out. That left drowning, which was what the ME had cited as her cause of death. But was it an accident, or did she have help?

Drowning had a number of different stages and left some forensic residue. When a person found himself in trouble in the water he typically panicked and flailed about, using up precious energy and causing lost buoyancy, resulting in the person going under. Then the person inhaled more water, which increased the panic level. They would hold their breath. Then pink foam would be exhaled when they had to take a breath and took in even more water. Respiratory arrest would ensue, and then would come the final battle, a few quick breaths to find air, and then it was over.

Is that what happened, Aunt Betsy? thought Puller.

If she had hit her head and been knocked unconscious before going into the water she would not have felt any panic. But if she had been conscious, but unable to lift her head out of the water because she was either too weak or disoriented, or because someone was holding her head under, it would have been a terrifying way to die.

It would have been like waterboarding, only with the finale tacked on.

He glanced at the doorway behind which Brown was waiting. He wanted to do a complete examination of his aunt’s body, but if Brown walked in and found the sheet off and Puller poking and prying around the woman’s naked body, things might get a little weird. And Puller might find his butt in a jail cell accused of all sorts of perverse behavior.

He would just have to take it as faith that his octogenarian aunt had not been raped. But he did slide the sheet partially off her and performed a cursory examination of her arms and legs. At the base of her right calf he found another bruise, maybe from her fall. If so, that supported the theory of an accident. He put the sheet back and looked down at her.

He drew out his phone and used the embedded camera to take pictures of his aunt’s covered body from various angles. Not exactly up to crime scene protocol standards, but he had to work with what he had.

He could learn no more here, but Puller found himself unable to look away from his aunt, unable to leave her just yet.

It had long been a family rule that Puller men did not cry under any circumstances. Puller always had adhered to that rule when fighting in the Middle East, where he’d had the opportunity to weep over dozens of lost comrades in arms. Yet he had broken the cardinal rule back in West Virginia when he’d watched someone he’d grown close to die. Maybe it was a sign of weakness. Or maybe it was a sign of his becoming less of a machine and more of a human.

At this point he didn’t know which.

As he continued to stare down at his aunt, he felt the creep of moistness around his eyes. But he did not allow it to build. There might be time to grieve later. Right now he had to figure out what had happened to Betsy. Until he had conclusive proof that said otherwise, the letter she had sent had convinced Puller that her death was not an accident.

His aunt had been murdered.

He left the dead behind and walked back to the living.

But he would not forget her. And he would not fail her in death, as perhaps he had in life.

CHAPTER 16

Puller got the name of the medical examiner, Louise Timmins, from Carl Brown, and then left Bailey’s Funeral Home. As soon as he stepped outside the heat and humidity hit him like a DU round from an Abrams tank. After the frigid interior of the funeral home it was quite a shock. He took a breath, shrugged it off, and kept moving.

He had a number of leads to run down. First, the medical examiner, where he hoped he could get a copy of the final autopsy report. Second, he had to try to track down whether his aunt had a lawyer and whether there was a last will and testament. And he had to talk to her neighbors, in particular the one who had identified her body. The neighbors in fact might know the name of Betsy’s lawyer, if she had one. And the methodical way his aunt had led her life told Puller that she probably did.

He put the address of the medical examiner into his GPS and found it would take him past his aunt’s house. He put the Corvette in gear and drove off. He liked the way the car rode, although getting his tall body in and out of the low-slung vehicle was proving to be more difficult than he had thought.

Maybe I’m just getting old.

Twenty minutes later he pulled the car to a stop at the curb across from Betsy’s house. He took a few moments to look up and down the street for Hooper and Landry lurking but saw no sign of them. He unwound his long legs and got out. As he did so he saw a short, big-bellied man walk by on the other side of the street. He had a tiny dog on a long leash. It looked like a round ball of flesh with fuzzy cowlicks all over, riding on twigs masquerading as legs.

When the man headed to the house next door to Betsy’s, Puller hurried across the street and caught up to him as he was putting his key in the lock.

The man turned and looked startled. Puller could understand that, but there was something more in the man’s features.

Real fear.

Well, Puller was a big guy and a stranger and he had busted in on the man’s personal space. But Puller thought he knew why the guy seemed to be shivering in ninety-plus-degree heat.

He was the one who called the cops on me.

Puller whipped out his cred pack and showed his ID card and badge. “I’m with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division,” he said, and the man immediately stopped shaking. “My aunt was Betsy Simon. I was told of her death and came down to check into things.”

The man’s face showed his full level of relief. “Oh my goodness. Then you’re John Puller Jr. She talked about you all the time. Called you Little Johnny. Pretty ironic considering your size.”

The innocuous comments deepened the guilt Puller was still feeling. “T

hat’s right. Her death was quite a shock.”

“It was to me too. I found her body. It really was awful.” He looked down at the dog that sat quietly next to its master. “This is Sadie. Sadie, say hello to Mr. Puller.”

Sadie gave a little yap and lifted her right paw.

Puller smiled, bent down, and shook it.

“I’m Stanley Fitzsimmons,” said the man. “But my friends call me Cookie.”

“Why’s that?”

“I used to be in the bakery business. Desserts specifically.” He pointed to his belly. “And as you can see, I sampled everything I made. Would you like to come in? It’s the hottest part of the day and neither Sadie nor I are really heat people. I only had her out because she had to use the bathroom and I needed a bit of exercise too.”

“If you’re not a heat person, why move to Florida? I’m assuming you came from somewhere else.”

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