“But she wasn’t?”
Cookie shook his head. “I’ve seen a few dead people in my life. Not just at funerals and such. Smoke inhalation killed my little sister over fifty years ago. One of my best friends drowned in a pond when we were teenagers. Betsy’s face was deathly white. Her eyes were open, her mouth hung loosely. There was no pulse, no sign of life.” “Foam around the mouth?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Were her limbs stiff or supple?”
“They seemed a little stiff.”
“But just a little?”
“Upper arms stiff or supple?”
“Stiff. But her hands seemed normal, if cold.” “What did you do then?”
“I set her back down exactly as I had found her. I watch a lot of CSI and NCIS. I know you’re not supposed to mess with the area where a body is found. Then I went back to my house and called the police. They showed up about five minutes later. A man and a woman.”
“Landry and Hooper?”
“Yes, that’s right. How did you know that?” “Long story. Were you around when they went over the scene?”
“No. They took my statement and then asked me to go back to my house, and to stay there in case they had any other questions. Other police cars showed up and then I saw a woman with a medical bag drive up, get out, and go into the backyard.”
“Medical examiner,” said Puller.
“Right. Then a black hearse arrived a few hours later. I watched them bring Betsy out on a gurney with a white sheet over her. They put her in the hearse and it drove off.”
Cookie sat back, obviously exhausted and saddened by retelling the story. “I’m really going to miss her.”
“Did she still drive? I saw the car in the garage.”
“Not really. I mean, I hadn’t seen her out in the car in a while.”
“But she was still capable of driving?”
“I would say no. Her legs were weak and her reflexes were shot. Her spine was bent. I’m not sure how she dealt with the pain.” He paused. “Come to think of it, she did go out the day before I found her. I saw Jerry drive up.”
“Jerry Evans. He has a car service. I’ve used him. He picked Betsy up around six in the evening and she was back around thirty minutes later.”
“Short trip. Any idea where she went?”
“Yep. I asked Jerry. He said to mail a letter.” Puller knew it was the letter. “Why not just put it in the mailbox out front?”
“Our mail comes early here. Jerry said the box she used had a later pickup. It would go out that night.”
Puller thought, She mailed a letter. And a bit later she was dead.
Before Puller could even ask, Cookie handed him a business card with Jerry’s name and number on it.
“Thanks. Did she often go into the backyard at night by herself?”
“She liked to sit on the bench by the fountain pool. Usually during the day. To catch the sunlight. I’m not the best person to ask about what she did later at night. She normally went to bed long before I did. I like to get out and about. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but anyone in their seventies is considered a ‘young’un’ down here. We’re supposed to go out at night and party hearty.”
“Did you notice anything suspicious the night before you found her? People, sounds, anything?”
“I was out visiting friends across town so I probably wouldn’t have seen anything. I got home late. Everything seemed normal.”
“Was she dressed in her pajamas or regular clothes?”
“So the probability was she died the night before. She hadn’t been to bed.”
Cookie nodded. “That makes sense.”
“Over the last few days leading up to my aunt’s death, did she talk to you about anything she was concerned about?”
“Like what?” Cookie asked, looking curious. “Anything out of the ordinary. Did she mention a person? An event? Something she’d seen, perhaps at night?”
“No, nothing like that. Was she worried about something?”
“Yeah, I think she was,” said Puller. “And it looks like she might have had good reason to be.”
Puller sat in his rental and called the medical examiner, Louise Timmins, and after that the attorney, Grif Mason. Timmins was a practicing physician busy with patients until six that evening. Mason was out of the office at a meeting. Puller arranged to meet Timmins at seven at a nearby cafe and he left a message with Mason’s office to call him back when he returned.
He called Jerry, the driver, who confirmed what Cookie had already told him but added, “She looked tired, and worried about something.”
Puller thanked him, clicked off, and thought back to Cookie’s commentary. Upper arms stiff, hands normal. Rigor started in the upper extremities before moving outward. Then it went away in the reverse order. She had not been dead long enough for the process to start reversing.
Puller thought through the possible timetable. She had mailed a letter at six p.m. and her body was found at eleven a.m. the next day. Puller didn’t think she had died the moment she had returned from the mailbox but probably later that evening. So stiff upper arms told Puller that rigor was just beginning on his aunt’s body. That meant that when Cookie found her she had been dead probably about twelve to fourteen hours. That number could be skewed by the Florida heat and humidity, which would speed up a body’s decomposition, but it at least gave Puller a range to work with. If Cookie found her shortly after eleven her death might have occurred around ten the previous night, give or take. Or about four hours after she mailed the letter.
Puller checked his watch. It was past three in the afternoon and he didn’t yet have a place to stay. Now it was time to find a bed.
Right as he put the car in gear he spotted it. A vehicle parked at the curb four car lengths down from him and on the other side. It was a tan Chrysler sedan, Florida plates that began ZAT. He couldn’t see the rest because the plate was dirty. Perhaps intentionally so, he thought. The reason this was significant was that Puller had seen this very same car parked across the street from the funeral home.
He eased the Corvette from the curb and slowly drove off. He checked his rearview mirror. The tan Chrysler started up and pulled out.
Okay, that was progress. Someone was interested in him. He took out his phone and snapped a picture of the Chrysler’s reflection in his rearview mirror. There looked to be two people inside, but the sun’s glare made it difficult to see much detail.
He drove up and down the main strip right off the water but easily gauged that all of these places would be far beyond his budget. He began driving off water, block by block. He checked prices at the second and third blocks and found them to be so high he wondered how anybody could afford the places on the water.
He finally got on his cell phone and did a search of lodgings in the area by price. On the fifth block from the water was one that landed in his sweet spot, a residence inn called the Sierra, where one
could rent by the day or week. Eighty bucks a night, breakfast included, or you could get it down to four-fifty for the full seven days paid in advance. Actually it wasn’t all that sweet for a guy whose salary was paid by Uncle Sam, but it was going to have to do.
The three-story building was a block of ragged stucco with an orange terra-cotta roof, which was in as bad shape as the stucco. It was sandwiched between a gas station on one side and a building undergoing renovation on the other. The narrow street it was on had nary a palm tree. What the streets did have in abundance were old cars and trucks, some on cin- derblocks, others looking as though they were close to being so. It didn’t seem to Puller that any of the rusted vehicles were from later than the 1980s.
He looked in his rearview for the Chrysler but didn’t see it.