“They in the military?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “No.”

So no jurisdiction for me, thought Puller. Other than as a concerned citizen.

He said, “They won’t stop. I just made them a lot madder, in fact. They might take it out on you.”

She grabbed her brother’s hand and they both ran off through the door. Puller could hear their footsteps for a few seconds and then they were gone.

He did a quick check of the three guys. All breathing. All pulses strong. He didn’t care if bones were broken or skulls fractured. That was the price one paid for being pieces of shit that preyed on others. Especially three grown men against a girl and her five-year-old brother.

When White moaned and moved a bit, Puller kicked him in the head, sending him back to sleep.

“Prick.”

He debated whether to call the cops or not, but without the girl’s statement he’d have nothing except his own account. And if she didn’t back him up, which she wouldn’t, Puller might be looking at being charged with assault, the lies of the three men stacked against him.

He decided just to keep on going. He’d have to deal with the fallout later. He went back to his room, grabbed his bag, and walked out to retrieve his car.

He still had a recon to do. He was here to find out what had happened to his aunt. Nothing was going to detour him from that.

He could not have been more wrong.

CHAPTER 21

As Puller walked out of the building another man was walking in. When they crossed paths Puller did something he almost never had to do to when meeting another person.

He looked up.

It was the same guy from the back of the truck he’d seen earlier while eating lunch on the waterfront.

Up close the man looked even larger and more intimidating. Puller had never before seen a more perfectly proportioned physique. He could have been a poster boy for a superhero recruiting ad. As the two men went by each other, they both did the up-down, side-side checkout of the other. Practiced, smooth, looking for things that would not be obvious to the uninformed, meaning just about every other person on the planet.

Puller came away impressed not just with the other man’s physique but also with the preciseness of the observation of those intense eyes. It was obvious to Puller that the man recognized him from earlier in the day, even though it had only been a seconds-long glance. You had to be trained to achieve that sort of recognition skill.

Puller again ran his eye up and down the man. He wore a landscaping company uniform. Dark green T-shirt soaked in sweat and dark blue pants. New-looking work shoes that must have been a size sixteen.

So the guy either had gotten a new pair of shoes, which seemed unlikely, or he had just started this job. The shirt was stretched too tight across his torso. Every muscle was revealed through the flimsy fabric. He looked like the musculature chart one saw in a doctor’s office.

They probably didn’t have a shirt to fit him, reasoned Puller. The pants too were a little short. Most companies didn’t keep in stock uniforms to fit gents who topped six and a half feet in height. As they passed by one another Puller instinctively looked back; he wasn’t completely surprised when he found the other man doing the very same thing. The look was not threatening, just watchful, curious, appraising.

Puller walked to the garage, retrieved his car, and drove off.

He took Paradise grid by grid, memorizing as many details as he could. He finally pulled into a parking lot, shut the car off, sat back, and wondered about the contents of his aunt’s letter.

People not being what they seemed.

Mysterious happenings in the night.

Something just not being right.

As he drove he broke things down logically, something the military had spent years drilling into him. It was now how he approached everything in life, even the things to which logic didn’t necessarily pertain.

Like families.

Emotions.

Relationships.

Applying logic to any of them was a recipe for a lifetime of heartache.

Pretty much the story of his life.

He thought about the first of his aunt’s observations:

People not being what they seemed.

He didn’t know who his aunt’s friends were other than Cookie, who seemed innocuous and certainly exactly what he appeared to be. But that was based on only one interview, and thus to Puller the jury was still out on it.

There could be other neighbors to whom she was referring. Puller would have to check them all out. There was Jane Ryon, the caregiver. He would definitely check her out. Then the lawyer, Mason. Possibly others.

He moved on to the second observation in the letter:

Mysterious happenings in the night.

Happenings, plural. In the night. Did she mean mysterious happenings in her neighborhood? If so, did they involve one of her neighbors? To Puller the area had seemed like a normal suburb where mysterious happenings probably were at a minimum. But his aunt was dead and that obviously shined a new light on things.

Finally he considered his aunt’s third observation:

Something just not being right.

That was open to lots of interpretations. What Puller could fall back on was his experience with his aunt. One of the most no-nonsense people he’d ever known, if she said it or wrote it she believed it. She did not reach knee-jerk conclusions. There was the possibility that old age had changed those personality traits, but somehow Puller didn’t think so. They were too ingrained in his family’s genes.

He had to work from the assumption that everything in his aunt’s letter was true. And if she had stumbled onto something and the people involved in that something had found out, it was a prime motive to remove Betsy Simon from this earth. And if that had happened, Puller would welcome the opportunity to repay the folks who had done it. He would provide either a long prison sentence or their own early exit from the living.

Having exhausted the possibilities based on his limited investigation so far, he got out of the car, walked down a wooden boardwalk, and reached the beach. It was nearly six-thirty, and the cafe where he was meeting Timmins was close by. He decided to walk along the sand both to relax a bit and to think some more while the waves pounded the shore.

There were a number of people on the beach. Some were power walking with exaggerated motions of their legs and arms. Others strolled arm in arm. Still others had their dogs with them and were tossing tennis balls and Frisbees for their canine companions to run down.

Puller moved on, letting his gaze sweep from the ocean to the boardwalk and beyond. There were parts of Paradise that definitely fit the name. However, having been here only a relatively short period of time, Puller had seen other parts that did not remotely belong.

An interesting place, he thought.

When he saw what was going on up ahead, he picked up his pace. He didn’t know if it would have anything to do with his aunt’s death, but right now anything in Paradise that seemed unusual interested him.

CHAPTER 22

Puller saw officer Landry first, then Bullock. Hooper was nowhere to be seen.

What he saw next made him slow down to a leisurely walk. A barrier formed from metal stands and blue tarp had been erected to shield something from view. When police were around, the thing to be shielded from view typically was a human body.

Puller drew to within a hundred feet and stopped, taking it all in. Landry was standing near a couple whom Puller recognized. He had seen them at the police station earlier, looking worried and upset. The names they had mentioned came back to his mind.

Nancy and Fred Storrow.

They went out and never came back. There seemed to be a lot of that going around in Paradise. Puller wondered if either or both of them were behind the shield.

He looked out toward the water. The tide was coming in. Had it brought the body or bodies along with it?

He couldn’t imag

ine that two bodies had been dumped on the beach and were just now being found. You didn’t dump bodies in public places in broad daylight. It was now nearing seven in the evening. He looked out toward the water again.

Tide. Had to be. He doubted the corpses were in very good shape. Prolonged time in the water did awful things to bodies.

He glanced over at the couple again. The woman was weeping, leaning in against the shoulder of the man, while Landry stood awkwardly next to them, her official notebook dangling in one hand.

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