into the clear water, and once more observed the places where the stones had been disturbed.
Puller stood and pantomimed falling into the pool, hands out to break his fall. One there, one there. Knees impacting the decorative stones too. He adjusted things a bit to account for a possible walker. He compared his pantomime with what he was seeing. Not an exact fit, but something had disturbed the stones.
But unless she were unconscious his aunt could have rolled herself to the side and gotten her face out of the water. So, unconscious for some reason, facedown in the water. Two feet of it would easily cover her head. Death would have been quick.
Then Puller shook his head.
I see felonies everywhere. Dial it back, Puller.
He had no proof that his aunt was dead, or hurt in any way. He might have been crawling around her backyard in the heat looking for evidence of a crime that had not even been committed. That’s what he got for investigating crimes for a living. He could also make them up out of whole cloth if necessary.
Or even unnecessarily.
Then he took a step back and received confirmation that something out of the ordinary had indeed happened back here.
There were two parallel lines visible in the grass, like miniature train tracks where the grass had been pushed down. When he looked at another spot in the lawn, he saw another pair of parallel tracks. Puller knew what that meant. He had seen it many times before.
He walked swiftly to the back door and tried the knob. Locked. At least his aunt was security- minded. But the lock was just a single bolt. It took Puller all of fifteen seconds to beat it. He stepped inside, closed the door behind him.
The interior layout of the house seemed relatively simple. Straight hall from front to back, rooms off that. Stairs leading up, fore and aft, with bedrooms no doubt on the second floor. With his aunt’s advanced age he figured she might have a master suite on the main level. Puller had heard that concept was very popular in retirement communities.
He passed a laundry room, small den, and the kitchen and found the master suite off that. He finally arrived at a large family room that opened off the foyer and was visible from the kitchen over a waist-high wall. The furnishings were heavy on tropical motifs. There was a gas fireplace surrounded by stacked slate on one wall. Puller had checked out the Panhandle region and discovered that the lows in the middle of winter rarely crept down into the thirties, but he could understand his aunt, who hailed from the snowy Keystone State, wanting to warm her bones with a cozy fire that didn’t require chopping wood.
He noted the alarm panel next to the front door. The green light showed that it was not on, a fact he already knew because the alarm had not gone off when he had opened the back door.
There was an abundance of photos—mostly old ones—on shelves, consoles, and occasional tables set around the family room. Puller studied them one by one and found several of his old man, and him and his brother in their respective uniforms with their aunt Betsy. The last of these was from when Puller had joined the Army. He wondered now where the break in the family had come but couldn’t quite put a finger on it. There were also quite a few photos of Betsy’s husband, Lloyd. He’d been a little shorter than his wife, his face was full of life, and there was one picture of the two of them in which Lloyd was wearing his Army greens from World War II. Betsy was in her WAC, or Women’s Army Corps, uniform. The way they were gazing at each other in the photo it looked like love at first sight, if there was such a thing.
Puller heard it before he had a chance to see it.
He stepped to the window and drew the curtain back just a fraction of an inch. Ever since his tours in the Middle East he never revealed more of himself—physically or emotionally—than was absolutely necessary.
The police cruiser pulled to the curb and the driver killed the engine.
No sirens, no lights; the two cops inside were obviously in stealth mode. They climbed out and drew their guns, looked around, their gazes inching to the front of the house.
Someone had seen Puller in the yard, maybe going into the house, and had called the cops.
The male officer was bald and burly, the same one he had seen earlier. Next to him was his female partner. She was two inches taller and looked in better shape. He was thick and muscular up top but light in the legs. Too many bench presses and not enough squats. He looked, to Puller, like a washout from the military, but he obviously couldn’t be certain about that. Maybe it was just the condescending nod the man had given him earlier.
The guy held his nine-millimeter awkwardly, even unprofessionally, as if he had learned how to do it by watching TV or by sitting on his butt at a theater to see how action stars handled their weapons. She carried hers with perfect control and ease, her weight balanced equally between both legs, her knees slightly bent, her silhouette angled to the side to lower her target profile. It was like a Pro-Am tournament pairing, thought Puller.
If his aunt was dead and there had been an investigation, he sure as hell hoped bald and burly hadn’t been heading it up. That had screwup written all over it.
Puller decided to cut to the chase, mainly because he didn’t want the guy to accidentally shoot himself. He slipped a photo from its frame and slid it into his shirt pocket. Then he walked to the front door, opened it, and stepped out into the brilliant sunshine of Paradise.
The order came from the woman.
Puller obeyed the command.
“Hands over your head,” added her partner.
“Do you want me to freeze or put my hands over my head?” asked Puller. “Because I can’t do both. And I’m not looking to get shot over a misunderstanding.”
The two cops moved closer, one to his right, one to his left.
Puller noted that the woman watched his hands, while the guy was glued to his eyes. The woman was right. Puller couldn’t kill with his eyes. But his hand could pull a weapon and open fire within a second without his eyes moving an inch.
She said, “Put your hands over your head, fingers interlocked. Then down on your stomach, legs spread, facedown.”
“I have an Mu in a rear belt holster. And my Army creds and badge are inside my front pants pocket.”
The two cops made the mistake of glancing at each other. Puller could have shot them both dead in the two seconds they took to do that. But he didn’t and so they would get to live another day.
“What the hell is an Mu?” asked the male officer.
Before Puller could answer the woman said, “Army’s version of the Sig P228.”
Puller eyed her with interest. She was about five-seven, with blonde hair pinned up tight with a clamp at the back. Her build was slender, compact, but she moved with a dancer’s grace and her hands looked strong.
He said, “If I could reach very slowly in my front pants pocket I’ll show you my creds and badge.”
This time the woman didn’t look at her partner. “What unit?”
“The 701st out of Quantico, Virginia,” he answered promptly.
“CID or MP?” she asked.
“CID. I’m a CWO.”
Before her partner could ask she translated: “Chief warrant officer.”
Puller looked at her curiously. “You former military?”
Puller said, “Can I get my pack out?”
“Do it really slowly,” said the guy, tightening the grip on his gun.
Puller knew that was the exact wrong thing to do. An overly tight grip meant you would increase your error rate about thirty percent or more. But he was more concerned that the guy would mess up and accidentally shoot him.
“Two fingers in the pocket, that’s all,” said the woman. “And keep your other hand on the top of your head.” Her voice was firm, direct, even. He liked that. Her nerves were definitely not running away with her senses, unlike her partner.