aunt’s home.

He did it by a very circuitous route. If people who could call off the Pentagon were involved in this, then Puller had to raise the level of his game accordingly.

He stopped near a fenceline and studied the terrain ahead. It was ten o’clock, dark even on the Emerald Coast, where the sun purportedly never stopped shining. It was quiet on Orion Street. A slight cooling breeze was blowing in from off the water. A car started up somewhere, its ignition shattering the silence.

Puller hunkered down and took cover behind a bush to remove himself from the possibility of headlights reflecting off him. The car drove past. It wasn’t the sedan with the two men inside.

But Puller still recognized it.

It was Jane Ryon driving past in her blue Ford Fiesta, the dent in the side door looming large in the wash of streetlights.

What the hell was she doing here? She had already gotten her things from his aunt’s house.

There was no way he could follow her. The Fiesta was nearly out of sight as it turned the corner. By the time he hustled back to his vehicle and took up the chase she would be long gone.

He slipped out into the open and continued down the sidewalk, his gaze moving like radar. He reached his aunt’s house and opted for entry through the rear door. The lights in Cookie’s house next door were on. Apparently the retired baker was in for the night. Or perhaps he had not yet gone out.

As he was walking through his aunt’s backyard Puller heard a little yap. He trotted to the fence and peered over.

Sadie looked up at him and yapped again.

Puller eyed the dog and then glanced over at Cookie’s house. Then he eyed the dog again.

What had Cookie said to him? He knew the Storrows, the couple found dead on the beach. They were friends. He was stunned by their deaths. Just like he had been stunned by his friend Betsy’s death. There was nothing surprising there. But there was one unanswered question.

Had Betsy Simon known the Storrows?

He looked down at Sadie barking. The little dog seemed sad. And lonely. And, if it was possible, her little features seemed confused.

Cookie said he would usually let Sadie out late in the morning to do her business. Puller had seen multiple leashes hanging on a hook by the back door when he had visited the house previously. And he had seen Cookie walking Sadie.

But Florida had snakes and gators and other types of nocturnal predators. Why let your little dog out alone at night even in a fenced backyard?

Puller jumped the fence and landed near Sadie, who jumped back in surprise and started yapping again. Puller scooped the little dog up in one arm and pulled his Mu with his right hand. Sadie, perhaps sensing that something was amiss, stopped yapping. Her tongue gently licked Puller’s arm.

Puller kept his gaze on the house. He reached the back steps and slipped quietly up them. The door was unlocked. He passed through, checking out all possible ambush angles before venturing farther in.

He cleared one room after another, keeping low and to the side and giving limited opportunity for anyone hiding inside to get a clean shot at him.

His search ended in the upstairs bathroom.

He put Sadie down and the little dog started licking at the water.

Puller put his gun away and stared down at Cookie.

He was naked and in the bathtub.

More precisely, he was resting at the bottom of the tub.

Puller made no move to pull him out and attempt to resuscitate him. It would have been for naught.

The eyes stared up at Puller.

The eyes of a dead man.

Drowning, he was certain, would be the official cause of death.

Just like his aunt next door.

Folks found submerged in water usually died because water was in their lungs, where water should not be.

The question then became, how did the person become submerged?

Three possible scenarios presented themselves.

Cookie could have had some medical crisis, a heart attack, a stroke, a seizure, or a drug reaction that had rendered him unconscious. He then would have slipped under the water and died.

Or he could have hit his head, knocked himself out, and gone under.

Or someone could have held him under the water.

Puller did not think the fourth possibility, suicide, was realistic. The body had its own emergency reaction to attempted suicide by drowning.

It fought for air. You could kill yourself out in the ocean by drowning because you gave yourself no opportunity to get back to land.

But not in a bathtub.

Puller spotted the bottles of medication on the sink next to the tub. He didn’t touch any of them, but did read the labels.

Blood pressure pills. Fluid retention capsules. Arthritis. Vascular. Beta blockers. Pills presumably to counteract the interaction of the other medications. The bottles went on and on.

Welcome to being old in America, the land of the blissfully overly medicated.

Puller looked around once more, taking in tiny details that might have great significance. Seeing nothing else, he decided he had intruded enough on what was now no longer a suburban residence, but a potential crime scene.

He pulled out his phone and hit 911.

It was shaping up to be a long night.


The long night did not start off well.

The police cruiser skidded to a stop at the curb with its rack lights turning and its siren blaring, crushing the quiet of the night.

Officer Hooper climbed out and pulled his gun as soon as Puller stepped clear of the house. The other cop with him was a man who looked similar enough in appearance to be Hooper’s brother. He had his gun out too.

“I can’t freaking believe this,” said Hooper as he eyed Puller.

Puller said, “Landry’s off duty. Why are you still working?”

“None of your business,” snapped Hooper. He turned to his partner. “Boyd, this is the jerk-off I was telling you about.”

Puller said, “Body’s in the upstairs bathroom.”

“If you screwed with the crime scene you are in serious shit trouble,” said Hooper, keeping his gun pointed in Puller’s direction.

“Hoop,” said Boyd. “Who’s to say he’s not our guy?”

“I called it in,” said Puller. “I waited here for you to arrive. Why would I do that if I’m ‘the guy’?”

Hooper said condescendingly, “Well, that way we wouldn’t suspect you. Shit, you Army guys all that stupid?”

“And the motive?” asked Puller.

“Not our problem,” said Hooper. “That’s your problem.”

“Actually, our criminal justice system adheres to the ‘innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’ philosophy,” said Puller. “So it is your problem.”

Another cruiser pulled up with an ambulance in tow. Chief Bullock climbed out. He was dressed in civilian clothes, so Puller assumed he’d gotten the call at home.

He walked straight past Hooper and Boyd and up to Puller.

“What do we got?”

“Dead man in the bath. No signs of a struggle. Could be he had a medical crisis and went unconscious. Post will tell us a lot more. I saw a car driving away from here a few minutes before I found the body. Blue Ford Fiesta with a big dent in the passenger door.”

“Know who was in it?”

“Woman named Jane Ryon. She was a caregiver to my aunt. And she knew the deceased as well. I don’t know if she was coming from this house or not. If so, she has a lot of explaining to do.”

Hooper and Boyd just stood there open- mouthed as Bullock and Puller talked.

Finally Bullock looked over and said, “Hey, Hoop, what the hell you waiting for? Secure the damn area. We have a potential crime scene here. You too, Boyd.”

Hooper and Boyd holstered their guns and hurried to do this.

Bullock turned back to Puller. “Some days I don’t know why I bother, with the

likes of those people constituting my police force.”