Mattie knows nearly everyone in the charmingly small town of Sorenson, Wisconsin, so she figures the deceased is an out-of-town stranger. If a woman this attractive had moved into town, the news would have surely hit the gossip mill in record time. But what is the victim doing here, laid out in this desolate field?
Things only get murkier with the arrival at the scene of the usually stoic and dependable detective Steven Hurley; one look at the body and he turns as white as the newly fallen snow and excuses himself from the case. It turns out the victim was a top investigative reporter from Chicago, and Hurley not only knew her, they dated a year and a half ago until she broke it off. While Mattie grapples with her jealousy over a gorgeous dead woman, Hurley swears her to secrecy and tells her . . . that knife in his ex's chest is his!
It's a case with more twists than Mattie's own crazy love life, and it'll take all of her forensic skills to unravel the increasingly bizarre clues and find the killer before she herself becomes just another cold case!
Death is never pretty and this one is no exception. But the victim, whose face is largely untouched by the violence that killed her, is exceptionally beautiful: a tiny, well-shaped nose, huge blue eyes, auburn hair, pouty lips, and porcelain skin with nary a blemish. She falls short of perfection however, because her lips have a deep bluish tinge to them and much of that pale coloring comes from a lack of circulation. People tend to change colors once they’re dead, especially when they’re lying on top of snow like this woman is.
I hang around dead people a lot these days. My name is Mattie Winston and I work as a deputy coroner here in the small Wisconsin town of Sorenson. I’ve lived here all my life and before my current job I worked in the local hospital: five years as an ER nurse and seven in the OR. As a result, I know a goodly portion of the people who live in town, but this woman’s face is unfamiliar to me. I’m certain I’d remember her if I’d ever seen her before because she is striking, even in death. This makes me suspect she’s an out-of-towner and the fact that Junior Feller—one of the two uniformed cops standing beside me and a Sorenson lifer like me—doesn’t recognize her affirms this belief. I suppose it’s possible our victim is simply new to the area, but I doubt it. If a woman this beautiful had moved to town it would have hit the gossip mill in record time and worried wives would be out in force with their husbands, keeping a watchful eye. Plus the victim isn’t dressed like the average Sorensonian. Her tiny, petite frame is covered with knit black slacks, a form-fitting, lime-green jacket, and high-heeled leather boots. The clothes look like impractical, expensive, designer duds, whereas most of the locals tend to favor clodhopper boots, down-filled coats, furry trapper hats with earflaps, and layers of long underwear that make it look like the town is populated by descendants of the Michelin Man.
“I’d venture to say the cause of death is obvious,” says Ron Colbert, the second uniformed cop. He makes this pronouncement with great authority, as if it’s some brilliant investigative deduction despite the fact that we can all see a knife buried in the left side of the victim’s chest. Colbert is new on the force—I met him for the first time a few weeks ago at the scene of another homicide—and like most rookies, he seems both eager and naïve, though my assumption of naïveté may be due to the fact that he looks like he’s twelve years old thanks to his small stature and a zit in the middle of his forehead that looks like a third eye. It was Colbert who discovered the body as he was driving along the road: the bright splash of green on top of the fresh, white snow caught his attention. No doubt it was a bit of a rush for him since the most exciting calls our cops typically get are for teenaged marauders who are out cow tipping and snipe hunting, or an illegally parked tractor at one of the town’s bars.
Deaths of any sort aren’t all that common here in Sorenson—Wisconsinites tend to be a hardy bunch as our winters weaned out the weak gene pool decades ago. Homicides are even rarer, and as such they are often the highlight of a cop’s career. Colbert must feel as if he hit the jackpot by running across two of them in a matter of weeks, so his eagerness is easy to understand.
I shift my focus from the corpse to take in my surroundings. The body is lying on the edge of a large, harvested cornfield blanketed with six inches of fresh snow that fell during the night. The morning sun glistens on the snow’s surface, making it sparkle like a bed of diamonds. It’s an isolated spot; there are fields all around us, the nearest house is half a mile away, and the road beside the body is hardly a main thoroughfare though the plows have already been through. All in all it combines to make for a picturesque setting. Given that it’s the Friday before Thanksgiving, this slice of pastoral serenity triggers thoughts of traveling o’er the fields to Grandmother’s house … until I remember the corpsicle.
I look back at the body site and note how clumps of snow cast aside by the plow have rolled down the shoulder’s edge and into the bordering field, settling atop the small drifts like little snowman turds. The clumps are all around us, but there are none on the body. That, along with the blood-smeared path punched through the snowbank piled up on the shoulder, tells me our victim was dumped here after the plow came through.
I say so and Izzy, who is busy taking pictures of the scene, nods his agreement.
Izzy, whose full name is Izthak Rybarceski, is the county Medical Examiner as well as my boss, my friend, my neighbor, my landlord, and the anti-me. He is barely five feet tall with dark skin and hair—most of which circles his balding head like a friar fringe—whereas I clock in at six feet, and my fair skin, blond hair, and size twelve feet earned me the nickname Yeti in high school. Our only commonalities are a shared fondness for men, our tendency to grow insulation all year long like bears readying for hibernation, and our knowledge of internal anatomy.
I’ve only been at this job since early October. Izzy offered it to me a couple of months after I caught one of my hospital coworkers in an OR having a face-to-face meeting with a surgeon’s one-eyed trouser snake. Unfortunately that surgeon was my husband, David Winston. In order to escape the painful reminders and curious stares, I fled both my job and my marriage. Izzy was kind enough to let me stay in the small cottage he has behind his house and it provided me with somewhere to hide while I licked my wounds. My new home is charming and cozy, and I’m forever grateful to Izzy for allowing me to move into it. But because Izzy has been my neighbor for several years, the cottage does have one major drawback: it’s a stone’s throw away from my marital home.
After a couple of months of isolation and self-pity, I emerged in need of money and a job. Given that the next nearest hospital is over an hour away and my main talent is my ability to look at blood and guts without puking or fainting, I feared I’d end up dressed in a trash-bag overcoat living under a bridge, or worse ... with my mother. But Izzy rescued me once again by offering me a job as his assistant and nowadays I’m in the business of dissecting lives in every sense of the word.
I find my new career highly interesting on many levels, not the least of which is Steve Hurley, the primary homicide detective with the Sorenson Police Department. Unfortunately, I can’t help but notice that he’s the one thing missing from the scene before me now.
“Is Hurley coming?” I ask no one in particular.
“He had to go to Madison yesterday to testify in a trial and spent the night there,” Junior says. “He called just a bit ago to say he had just gotten back and would be here soon.” As if on cue, we hear the sound of a car approaching.
I look toward the road and recognize the car as Hurley’s. My heart skips a beat, something that seems to happen whenever Hurley is around. His black hair, intense blue eyes, and sit-on-my-lap thighs always get me revved up, but I’ve been working extra hard to rein in my hormones. That’s because, lately, Hurley has been oddly distant whenever we’re together: courteous and professional, but also strangely detached. It’s a puzzling change given that we’ve shared a couple of heated kisses in the not-so-distant past and I’m afraid I know the reason for it.
I watch him now as he parks behind my car, climbs out, and scans the road. When I see him shake his head in dismay I think I know why: the macadam is damp, but otherwise clear. What little snow the plows left on the road has melted beneath the morning sun, effectively obliterating any tire-track evidence we might have been able to collect.
“Too bad the plow came through,” Hurley hollers down to us, verifying my suspicion.
“It may not be all bad,” I yell back. “It looks like the body was dumped here and knowing when the plow came through may help us figure out when.”
Unfortunately the killer’s trail down to the body has been smeared, smudged, and kicked apart enough that there are no usable boot prints to identify, damage I suspect may have been done intentionally. All may not be lost, however. Incidental evidence, like a fallen hair or fiber, could have been dropped along the path. Keenly aware of this possibility, everyone who has arrived on the scene has been careful to blaze their own trail to the body rather than contaminate the existing one.
After Junior points out the path the rest of us have followed, Hurley makes his way down to us and the body. I try to catch his eye to gauge today’s level of temperament toward me, but his attention is focused solely on the surrounding area until he reaches our little group. Then his gaze shifts to the victim.
He stops dead in his tracks and the rosy color the cold has stamped on his cheeks drains away with frightening rapidity, leaving him nearly as pale as our corpse. As a nurse I’ve seen that happen plenty of times before, usually right before someone faints and does a face-plant on the floor.
I edge a bit closer to Hurley just in case. I harbor no illusions about my ability to catch him—he is well over six feet tall and sturdily built. But I figure if he does start to go down I can at least shove him hard enough to keep him from falling into our crime scene.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
The others turn to look at him but he ignores us for several beats as he stares at the body. “Not really,” he says finally, cutting his eyes back toward the neighboring field. He covers his mouth with one hand and his Adam’s apple bounces as he swallows hard. “I’m feeling a bit off this morning. Must be something I ate.”
The others in the group all shift a step away from Hurley, no doubt because they’re afraid of getting ralphed on. I, on the other hand, move closer. I overcame my aversion to gross bodily excretes very early in my nursing career and it’s going to take more than the threat of a little early morning barf to keep me away from a man who I’ve discovered can curl my toes with one kiss.
“I think I’m going to call someone else in for this one,” Hurley says.
He turns and backtracks along the trail he came in on, allowing me a few moments to surreptitiously admire his backside. Along the way he takes out his cell phone and punches in a number, but by the time he gets an answer he is too far away for me to hear the conversation. When he reaches the road, he hangs up and turns back to us.
“Bob Richmond is going to take this one,” he hollers. “He should be here in about ten minutes. I’m heading home to bed.”
This is bad news for me on several fronts. Bob Richmond is a grizzled old detective who is basically retired, though he occasionally fills in when needed. He’s cranky, impatient, and built like the Pillsbury Dough Boy—and that’s before you stuff him into a down-filled winter jacket. Plus, he’s not Hurley, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s his biggest fault.
Crestfallen, I watch as Hurley climbs into his car and pulls away without so much as a wave or a second glance. Once again I’m left feeling slighted and snubbed, and I have no idea why. Actually, that’s not true; I do have a suspicion. A few weeks ago, while riding in the back of an ambulance with Hurley, fearing he was mortally wounded, I whispered in his ear that I might be falling in love with him. He was more or less unconscious at the time so I didn’t think he heard me, but now I’m not so sure.
Swallowing down my frustration, I turn my attention back to our victim and try to push thoughts of Hurley from my mind, which is like trying not to breathe. Izzy has finished taking his pictures and we squat down on either side of the corpse to begin our field processing. The body is cold and rigid but I’m not sure if it’s from the weather, rigor mortis, or a mix of the two. If she’s frozen it will make it more difficult for us to determine a time of death since none of the usual indicators—stage of rigor, body temperature, and lividity—will be of much help. I’m getting a sinking feeling that nothing about this case is going to be easy.
As Izzy and I process the body—looking for surface evidence, bagging the hands, and rolling her over to place a sheet beneath her—Ron Colbert and Junior carefully examine the surrounding snow. About fifteen minutes into our efforts we hear another car engine approach and an old model, blue sedan covered with patches of rust and primer rumbles around the curve.
I haven’t seen Bob Richmond in a few years and he’s even bigger now than he was then. I guess his weight at well over four hundred pounds, and as I watch him struggle out of his car and waddle toward us, the words, “Bring me Solo and the Wookie,” come to mind. By the time he reaches the crest of the snow berm above us, he’s so winded, all he can do is stand there for a minute and gasp for breath, his ragged exhalations creating giant cumulus clouds as they hit the cold morning air.
“Anyone … know … who she is?” he manages, staring down at the corpse.
We all shake our heads.
Izzy fields this one. “Nothing obvious yet. It looks like she was killed somewhere else and dumped here. We’ve got a trail in the snow but it’s too messed up to be useful for prints.”
“TOD?” Richmond asks.
Izzy shrugs. “At this point there’s no way to know when she was killed. And since she may be frozen to some degree, I’m not sure how accurate a range I’ll be able to give you later on.”
Richmond nods and then looks over at me, staring with a curious expression. “Do I know you?”
“Mattie Winston. I’m a deputy coroner.”
He looks confused and shakes his head, as if he’s trying to get his hamster back on its wheel. “Since when?”
“Since a few weeks ago.”
“What were you before that?”
“I worked as a nurse at Mercy Hospital.”
He assumes an aha expression and nods. “You worked in the operating room, right?”
“For the past few years, yes. Before that I worked in the ER.”
“I think you were working when I had my bunions removed.”
I was, so I nod but say nothing. Most of what I remember about his case is how hard we struggled to move him off the OR table, but I figure mentioning that might not be the best way to start getting reacquainted.
“So how did you end up doing this?” he says, gesturing toward the dead woman.
Izzy and Junior exchange a look and then go back to their respective jobs with renewed intensity. They already know the sordid details, as does most of the town. Colbert, being new here, does not, but I can tell from the way he’s eyeing the other two men that he caught their look and knows there’s something juicy behind it.
“It’s a long story,” I tell Richmond, hoping he’ll take the hint. But judging from the bemused expression on his face, all I’ve done is pique his interest.
“Aren’t you married to a surgeon or something like that?” Richmond asks.
“Sort of,” I say vaguely.
“Sort of?” he snorts. “You’re sort of married? Isn’t that like being a little bit pregnant?”
“We’re separated,” I tell him, trying to color my comment with an as if it’s any of your business tone. “I’m filing for divorce.”
“Is that right?” The curious tone of his voice tells me he’s clearly unimpressed with my attempt to shut him down. “That’s a darned shame. What went wrong?”
I find it hard to believe Richmond doesn’t already know. Gossip in our town flows faster than an arterial bleed, and the fallout from the breakup of my marriage was some of the biggest news to hit in a long time, given that it was reminiscent of the Lewinsky-Clinton debacle and tied to a couple of murders.
“Where the hell have you been, Richmond?” I ask irritably. “Living in a cave?”
“Wait,” he says, his eyes narrowing. “Are you the one who was involved with that nurse who was murdered? Wasn’t she boffing your husband or something?”
“Or something,” I say irritably.
“So you’re the one who got Steve Hurley stabbed.”
I glare at him. “You make it sound like I stabbed him myself.”
Richmond arches his brows at me as if to say, well, did you?
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” I say. “That’s all.”
“Great. That’s just great,” Richmond says with a hugely dramatic sigh. “No wonder Hurley handed you off to me. Am I going to have to be looking over my shoulder every few seconds to make sure someone isn’t coming after me with a deadly weapon?”
“We can only hope,” I mutter under my breath. I turn my back to him and see that Izzy and the uniformed cops are hopping from one foot to the other, clapping their arms around themselves to try to keep warm. Richmond, who would be amply insulated if he was standing stark naked, appears immune to the cold. I’m pretty comfortable myself, mostly because I’m so hot under the collar.
Izzy says, “Hey, Bob, is it okay if we wrap this one up and take her in?”
Richmond doesn’t answer right away and I suspect it’s his passive aggressive way of exerting his authority. “She was a looker, wasn’t she?” he observes. Everyone nods. “And nobody here recognizes her?”
We all shake our heads.
“So probably not from around here,” he concludes. “Yeah, go ahead and take her in. When are you planning to post her?”
Izzy says, “Probably this afternoon. Depends on how cold she is.”
“Too bad you don’t have a person-sized microwave,” Richmond says. “We could put her in on defrost mode.” He laughs while we stare at him, and when he realizes his joke has fallen flat he clears his throat and says, “Yeah, go ahead and load her up.”
“Do you want to call for transport or should I?” Izzy asks.
Richmond looks back toward the road with a puzzled expression and I groan, knowing what’s coming next. Because Izzy’s legs are half the length of mine and his car is an old, restored Impala with a bench front seat, every time I ride with him I feel like one of those giant pretzels you can buy in a mall kiosk. Today, to avoid the contortions, Izzy rode with me to the scene in my recently acquired car—a shiny, midnight blue, slightly used hearse.
“The transport is here already,” Richmond says.
“That’s not the transport,” I explain, hearing the cops snort behind me. “It’s my personal vehicle.”
“What do you mean your personal vehicle?”
“Just what I said. What part of it don’t you understand?”
Richmond raises an eyebrow. “You’re telling me you drive a hearse? All the time?”
“Yeah. You got a problem with that?”
“It’s rather pathetic, don’t you think?”
I feel like telling him that being large enough to require a backup beeper is pathetic, too, but I don’t.
“If you’re going to drive around in a hearse, why not use it as one?” Richmond asks.
“Don’t need to,” I toss out. “These days you can buy those little scented trees with the smell of decomp already in them.”
We glare at one another for several seconds until Richmond mutters a “Hmph,” and waddles off, dialing a number into his cell phone.
I’ve had the hearse for a few weeks now. After totaling my regular car—which was actually David’s car according to the insurance and financing paperwork—I was left looking for a new vehicle I could afford on my own. The hearse was the only thing I could find. Though I wasn’t too pleased with it initially, it’s kind of grown on me. And my dog, Hoover, loves it. It’s full of all kinds of interesting smells that can keep him occupied for hours.
Izzy and I get back to the job at hand, wrapping the woman’s body in our sheet. The protruding knife makes the task a little challenging, though not as much as one might expect given the victim’s endowments. Then, with some help from the uniforms, we slide her into a body bag, again taking care not to dislodge the murder weapon.
When we’re done, Izzy takes out his wallet, hands me some money, and says, “Drive to Gerhardt’s home improvement store, pick up some plastic buckets and trowels, and bring them back here. We’ll need to collect the surface snow from the trail, and from beneath and around her body so we can look for trace evidence. I’ll stay here and see that she gets to the morgue.”
I nod and trudge my way back to the road, taking care to follow the same trail we made when we arrived on the scene. Since Richmond’s car is parked behind mine I have to walk past it to get to my hearse. He is standing behind his driver’s side door, which is open, leaning on it as he talks on his cell phone. I glance in at the car’s interior and see that the passenger side floor is littered nearly seat high with wrappers and fast-food bags.
As I open the door to my hearse, Richmond ends his call, snapping his cell phone closed. “Funeral home will be here in fifteen,” he yells down to the group by the body. Then he turns his attention on me. “Hey, Mattie?”
“Do you know what you’re doing with this job or do I have to stay here until you come back so I can watch you collect the evidence?”
I don’t know if it’s his attitude that’s pissing me off or the fact that Hurley isn’t here, but whichever it is, I’m definitely not feeling the love. I sense that he’s eager to leave so I tell him, “I think you better stick around. I’ve never done snow evidence before.”
He rolls his eyes and sighs. “Make it fast then,” he grumbles. “And bring me back something to eat, would you?”
I scowl at him and try to think of a witty retort, but nothing comes to mind. Then, as I’m pulling away, an idea hits me. If I make a quick stop at home to let Hoover out for a break, maybe I can bring Richmond back a yellow Sno-Cone.