chain. She carried a black medical bag.

Louise Timmins, the medical examiner, had arrived. She looked harried and upset. She walked directly to the police tape and was admitted by Landry. Timmins ducked under the tape and marched to the blue tarp, where she was met by Bullock. After a brief conversation Timmins slipped inside the makeshift enclosure. It would not be a pleasant sight or smell within such close, heated quarters, Puller knew.

You just had to keep breathing and pretty soon your sense of smell would fail, and fortunately so.

By his watch it was half an hour before Timmins reemerged into the sunlight. To Puller’s eye she looked a little queasy and more than a little upset. He wondered if she might have known the deceased, if there was only one body in there.

She spoke for some minutes to Bullock, who nodded and wrote things down on a spiral notepad.

When Timmins cleared the tape and headed for her car, Puller approached.

“Dr. Timmins?”

She looked up at him. She was only about five-two and thus had to crane her neck back some to fully take him in.

“Yes?”

“John Puller. We talked before?”

“Right, your aunt.” She did not seem pleased to have encountered him here. “I meant to call you to say that I would be delayed when I found out about this, but time got away from me.”

He said, “That’s okay. We can reschedule. I know you weren’t expecting this thing on the beach.”

He studied her more closely while she pulled her car keys from her purse. Up close she looked pale, drawn, and jumpy.

“No, I wasn’t expecting it. I was totally floored by it in fact.”

“Anyone you knew?”

She looked at him sharply. “What makes you ask that?”

“You look more upset than is warranted by seeing a dead body, even one pulled out of the water.”

“Looking at death is never easy.”

“But you’re a doctor and a medical examiner. You see it all the time, under all conditions. And since this is an oceanside town, I doubt that’s the first drowning victim you’ve seen.”

‘ ”1 really can’t talk to you about this.”

“I know. And I’d much prefer not to waste your time. Can we meet about my aunt?”

She looked at her watch.

He said, “I’d be glad to buy you dinner. If you have an appetite.”

She glanced back at the blue tarp. “No food, but maybe a little ginger ale on my stomach might help.”

“Okay. The cafe we were going to meet at is a few blocks over. You want to walk or drive?”

“Let’s drive. My legs are a little wobbly right now.”

As they walked to their cars, Puller turned around and saw both Bullock and Landry watching them. The police chief looked pissed. Landry seemed merely curious.

They drove separately to the cafe and found parking on the street. The place was crowded but they were able to snag a table near the front.

Timmins ordered a glass of ginger ale and Puller a Coke. It was after seven and the temperature was still in the mid-eighties and the ocean breeze had fallen away.

“Feels more like Hell than Paradise, doesn’t it?” said Timmins after they had gotten their drinks. She took a long sip of her ginger ale and sat back, looking a bit better.

“I take it you’re a transplant here?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Your skin is too pale and you’re not used to wearing sandals, which for women down here are probably a daily accessory.”

She glanced down at her feet where the sandal straps had made several red marks against her skin.

He continued, “The longer you wear sandals the more your skin will toughen up.”

“You’re very observant.”

“The Army pays me to be.”

“I’m from Minnesota originally. Moved down here about six months ago. My first summer here. Minnesota can get hot in the summer, but nothing like this.”

“So why’d you come down?”

“My husband died. I’d never been out of the state. I was tired of long winters. A doctor I’d met was selling his practice and I’ve always had an interest in forensic pathology. When I found out the job also included being the district ME, I jumped on it.”

“And the place being named Paradise probably didn’t hurt.”

“The brochures were very attractive,” she replied, with a weary smile.

“So will you be heading back north?”

“I doubt it. Place grows on you. June through August it gets crowded and the heat and humidity are pretty bad, but the rest of the year is quite nice. I could never take a walk in shorts in February in St. Paul.”

Puller leaned forward, officially ending the chitchat session. “My aunt?”

“You saw the body.”

“How do you know that?”

“Carl Brown over at Bailey’s told me. We’re friends. Local doctor and the funeral home in Florida get very close. Lots of my patients die. Old age catches up with everyone at some point.” “I saw the body.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“I checked you out, Agent Puller. I have some contacts at the Pentagon. My brother is in the Air Force. I was informed that you are absolutely terrific at what you do and that tenacity doesn’t come close to describing your intensity when on the hunt.”

Puller sat back, gauging the woman in a different light now. “There was a bruise on her right temple.”

“I saw that. There was also a slight bloodstain on the stone surround at the fountain.”

“So cause and effect. But what made her fall? Did she stumble or did she have a heart attack or stroke or did an aneurysm pop?”

“None of the above. She was in remarkably good shape, at least internally. Heart, lungs, other organs disease-free. She had bad osteoporosis and a curved spine but that was about it. She died from water in the lungs. Asphyxiation, technically.”

“So what made her fall?”

“She was using a walker, the ground might have been slick from some of the water from the fountain falling there. She goes down, hits her head, becomes unconscious, and drowns in twenty-four inches of water. It happens.”

“I wonder how often?”

“Once is enough in this case.”

“Nothing else suspicious on the body?”

“No defensive wounds, no ligature marks, no other bruising that would indicate someone had attacked her.”

Puller nodded. That corresponded to what he’d found. “Tox screens?”

“Won’t be back for a while. But I saw no signs of poisoning, if that’s where you’re going. And there were no indications of abuse of alcohol or drugs.”

“I think the most my aunt ever had was a glass of wine. At least that I remember.”

“The post bore that out. As I said, except for the spinal issues, she was in remarkable shape for someone her age. She had quite a few years left to go.”

“My aunt wrote a letter. In that letter she was concerned about something in Paradise. Any idea what she could have meant?”

“What sort of concerns did she have?”

“People not being who they seemed. Mysterious happenings at night.”

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