“I did. Michigan, Upper Peninsula. After fifty years of nine-foot snowdrifts and half of each year spent seemingly in darkness and with temperatures in the teens, I’m less of a cold person than I am a heat person. And the spring, fall, and winter are spectacular here. Three out of four ain’t bad. I’ve got some fresh lemonade. I have my own lemon tree. And I can answer any questions you might have.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Cookie took Sadie off her leash and the tiny dog immediately went to her water bowl and lapped at it for what seemed a very long time. Cookie bustled around the kitchen, getting out glasses and little plates. Puller watched as a pitcher of lemonade appeared along with a platter of cookies, pastries, and other assorted goodies.
Puller looked around the house. It was expensively decorated, with heavy, solid furnishings, all with a Caribbean theme, window treatments that were sturdy enough to keep out the afternoon light and heat, and carpet that your feet sank into.
Cookie must have been an awfully good baker.
In one glass cabinet there was a display of a dozen vintage watches. Puller drew closer and examined them.
“Started collecting them years ago,” Cookie said over Puller’s shoulder. “Some are very valuable.”
“Will you ever sell them?”
“My kids can after I’m dead. I like them too much.”
Puller could hear the air conditioner running full out and wondered what a monthly electrical bill would be for this place.
As if in answer to his thoughts Cookie said, “I put solar panels in two years ago. They work wonders. I not only get my electricity for free, I have a surplus that I sell back to the city of Paradise. Not that I need the money, but I won’t turn it down either. And it’s totally green. I’m into that.”
They sat and drank their lemonade. It was tart and cold and had a nice aftertaste. Cookie helped himself to several chocolate fudge bars and urged Puller to try the coconut-filled pastries.
Puller bit into one and came away impressed. “This is really good.”
Cookie flushed with pleasure at his words. “You would think over the years that I’d get sick of baking, but the truth is I love it more than ever. See, now I get to bake for myself and my friends. It’s not a job anymore.”
“Did you bake for Betsy?”
“Oh yes. And for Lloyd when he was alive.” “So you’ve been here a while?”
“Moved in three years after Betsy and Lloyd did. So yes, a good long time.”
He set his glass of lemonade down. “And I want you to know how so very sad I was when she passed. She was a wonderful person, she really was. A good friend to me. Just very caring. And when something needed to be done in the community, you could always count on Betsy to pitch in. And Lloyd too when he was alive.”
“That was how she was wired. Very can-do,” replied Puller.
“She told me a lot about your father, her brother. A three-star. Army legend.”
Puller nodded. “Yeah.” He never liked to talk about his father. “Do you know whether she had a lawyer?”
“Yes, same one I used. His name is Griffin Mason. Everyone calls him Grif. He’s an excellent attorney.”
“Does he handle wills?”
“Every lawyer in Florida handles trusts and estate work,” said Cookie. “Sort of their bread and butter, what with the elderly population.” “You have his contact info?”
Cookie opened the drawer of a built-in desk next to the refrigerator, drew out a business card, and handed it to him.
Puller eyed it briefly and slipped it into his pocket. “So you said you found her body? Can you run me through the details on that?”
Cookie sat back and his plump face assumed a sad expression. Puller could even see tears clustering in the corners of his eyes.
“I don’t get up that early. I’m more of a night owl. And at age seventy-nine, four or five hours a night are plenty for me. At some point down the road I’ll have a lot longer time to sleep. Anyway, I have a little morning routine. I let Sadie out in the backyard while I sit on the back deck and drink my first cup of coffee and read the newspaper. I still get the actual paper, most of the old folks around here do. I’m online a lot and consider myself pretty tech-sawy for an old fart, but I still like to hold the news, as it were.”
“What time was that?”
“About eleven or so. This was several days ago now, you understand. So I was sitting on my deck and I noticed that Betsy’s back door was open. From the deck I could see it over my fence- line. I thought that was odd because as a rule Betsy didn’t really get going until around noon or so. Her osteoporosis had done a real number on her spine. It was getting difficult for her to even get around with her walker. And I knew it was difficult for her to get out of bed.”
“I can see that,” replied Puller. “Did she have a caregiver?”
“Yes. Jane Ryon, lovely girl. She would come three days a week, starting around nine in the morning. She would do some tidying up around the house and then help Betsy get up, get her clothes on, stuff like that.”
“Why only three days a week?”
“Betsy wanted to retain her independence, I guess. And a full-time caregiver isn’t cheap. And Medicare really doesn’t cover that unless you’re in far worse shape than Betsy was, and even then they don’t cover the entire expense. Betsy never seemed to be hurting for money, but folks of our generation, we’re frugal. Jane also helps me as well. Twice a week.”
“You look pretty independent.”
“She runs errands, takes care of Sadie when I’m gone. She’s a great physical therapist and all those years of baking left me a permanent pretzel, particularly in my hands.”
“You have her contact info?”
Cookie presented him with another business card. “I have hundreds of them. People in Florida pass them out like candy. The elderly are a service industry’s best customers. We all have stuff that we can’t do ourselves anymore, but that still needs doing.”
“Okay, so back to that morning?”
“I walked to the fence between our properties and called out her name. I didn’t get an answer, so I left my backyard, walked over, and knocked on her front door. I didn’t expect her to get up and race to the door if she was in bed, but I thought maybe she might call out. Her bedroom is on the first floor.”
“I know,” said Puller. “Go on.”
“Well, there was no answer at the front door, so I decided to go into her backyard and get into the house that way. I was hoping nothing had happened to her, but in our neighborhood we’ve had people die before and they haven’t been found for some time. At our ages, your ticker can just stop and down you go.”
“I guess that’s true,” said Puller. He kept his gaze on the man, willing him to pick up the pace and get to what he really needed to know.
“I managed to open the gate latch and stepped into the backyard. I was looking at the door as I came around the corner of the house. I almost didn’t look in the direction of her little fountain pool, but luckily I did. I couldn’t see it from where my deck is situated, you see. But now I could.”
Puller stopped him there. “Okay, if you could just take it one step at a time. Tell me everything you saw, smelled, heard.”
Puller had taken out a notebook and Cookie looked at it anxiously. “The police told me it was an accident.”
“The police might be right. Then again, they might be wrong.”
“So you came down to investigate?”
“I came down to see my aunt. When I found out she was dead, I paid my respects. Then I switched to investigation mode to make sure she didn’t leave this world against her wishes.”
Cookie gave a little shudder and continued. “I saw her lying in the fountain pool. It’s only about two feet deep. You’d think no one could drown in it. But she was facedown, her entire head was underwater.”
“Which way was she facing?”
“Her head was pointed
toward the house.” “Arms outstretched or by her side?”
Cookie considered this for a few moments, obviously trying to picture the scene in his mind. “Right arm outstretched and over top of the stone surround. Her left arm was by her side.” “Her legs?”
“On the ground on the right side of the pool.” “What did you do next?”
“I ran over to her. At that point I didn’t know if she was dead or alive. I kicked off my sandals and walked directly into the water. I grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her head out of the water.”
Puller thought about this. Cookie had wrecked the crime scene. He had to do it, because like he’d said, he didn’t know if Betsy was still alive. Crime scenes could be legitimately tainted by first responders trying to save lives. That trumped even preserving evidence. In this case, unfortunately, it had been for naught.