Mattie Winston, RN, is wryly cynical, politically incorrect, and inherently nosy, traits that suit her well when she trades in her hospital scrubs and OR table for a plastic apron and autopsy table. As a Deputy Coroner, Mattie gets to poke her nose into everyone else's business, but her first case -- a murder -- hits a little too close to home. The victim is Karen Owenby, Mattie's former coworker and the woman who had an affair with Mattie's soon-to-be-ex-husband, David.
As Mattie tries to determine if her husband is a killer, her judgment is clouded by her attraction to the darkly handsome homicide detective in charge of the case, though her romantic notions are dampened by the fact that her own name is at the top of the suspect list. Unable to pursue the case officially, Mattie launches her own investigation, aided by a cast of quirky characters who help her uncover a trail of sordid secrets, deadly betrayals, and missing underwear. Can she identify the real killer before she ends up as the next victim on the M.E.'s autopsy table?
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I’m surprised by how much the inside of a dead body smells like the inside of a live one. I expected something a little more tainted, like the difference between freshly ground hamburger and that gray, one-day-away-from-the-dumpster stuff you get in the discount section at the grocery store. Of course, all I’ve seen so far is the freshly dead, not the deadly dead. Apparently the deadly dead can invade your nostrils with molecules of nasty-smelling stuff that clings and burns and threatens to make you vomit for days afterward.
Or so says Izzy and he should know since cutting up dead people is what he does for a living. And now, so do I. It’s only my second day at it, but I can already tell it’s going to be a real conversation stopper at cocktail parties.
At the moment, we are standing on opposite sides of an autopsy table with a woman’s body laid out between us, her torso looking as if it’s just been filleted. I’m sure we create a strange tableau, and not just because of the open corpse. Izzy and I are the yin and yang of body types – the Munchkin and the Amazon. The only thing we have in common is a tendency to put on the pounds: Izzy is nearly as wide as he is tall and I’m cursed – or blessed, depending on your perspective and what century you were born in – with the perfect metabolism for surviving long periods of hunger. My body is a model of energy efficiency, burning calories the way a miser on a pension burns candles.
But that’s where our commonalities end. Izzy is barely five feet tall, while I hit the six-foot mark at the age of sixteen (though I tell anyone who asks that I’m five-foot-twelve.) Izzy has a dark, Mediterranean look while I’m very fair: white-blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion, though not nearly as pale as the woman on our table.
Izzy reaches over, hands me the woman’s liver, and asks, “So, what do you think so far?” He sounds a little concerned, which isn’t surprising. This job takes a bit more getting used to than most.
“Think? I’m trying not to think.” I place the liver on the scale beside me and record the result on my clipboard.
“Aw, come on. When you get right down to it, is this really all that different from what you were doing before?”
“Uh, yeah,” I answer in my best duh! tone.
“How so? You used to cut people open. You handled their insides. You saw blood and guts. It’s pretty much the same, no?”
Hardly. Though it’s been a mere two months since I traded in the starched white lab coat from Mercy Hospital that had my name, Mattie Winston, RN, embroidered across the pocket, at the moment it feels like an eternity ago. This is nothing like my work in the OR. There, the patients’ bodies were always hidden behind sterile drapes and waterproof shields, the field of focus nothing more than an iodine-bronzed square of skin and whatever laid directly beneath it. Most of the time I never even saw a face. But this … not just a face but the entire body, naked, ugly, and dead. And there’s no poor-man’s tan here. These people are the color of death from head to toe. It’s a bit of a mental adjustment. After twelve years of working to save people’s lives, I now remove their innards after they’re dead and weigh them on a scale like fruit. Not exactly a move up the career ladder.
“Well for one thing,” I tell Izzy, “my clientele used to be alive.”
“Live, schmive,” he says, handing me a spleen. “With all that anesthesia, they might as well have been dead. They didn’t talk to you, did they?”
“Well, no, but –”
“So it’s really no different, is it? Here, hold this back.” He directs my hand toward a pile of lower intestine and sets about severing the last few connections. “I don’t think it’s this job that’s bothering you. I think you miss Dr. Wonderful.”
Dr. Wonderful is Dr. David Winston, who is not only chief of surgery at Mercy Hospital but also my husband, at least until I get the divorce papers filed.
“You do miss him, don’t you?” Izzy persists.
“No, I don’t.”
“Not even the sex?”
“There’s more to life than sex.” I utter this with great nonchalance despite the fact that Izzy has hit a sore spot. During the last few months of my marriage, sex ranked just below plucking my eyebrows and cleaning out the toilet bowl on my list of things to do. Now that I no longer have the option – unless I want to don some stilettos and a tube top and cruise the streets – my libido seems to be growing by leaps and bounds.
Izzy shakes his head in wonder as he hands me a kidney. “See, that’s the difference between men and women. Men, we always miss the sex.”
“Good,” I say bitterly. “I hope David is missing it like crazy.”
“It doesn’t look like he’s missing it at all.”
My heart does a funny beat, almost as if it’s echoing the uh oh that I’m thinking. I look over at Izzy but he’s studiously avoiding any eye contact. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
He sighs and shakes his head.
“Do you know something, Izzy? If you do, spit it out.”
“You mean you haven’t seen the woman who’s been coming over to your … to David’s house the past few nights?”
His quick correction stings, but not as much as his information does. I’ve been consoling myself ever since the split-up with an image of David pining away for me… regretful, sad, and lonely. The only communication we’ve had since I left is one long rambling, remorseful note, in which David apologized exactly nine times and swore his undying devotion to me. Izzy’s suggestion that my side of the marital bed had barely grown cold before someone else moved in to heat it up – and I have a pretty good idea who that someone else is – brings tears to my eyes.
“No, I haven’t seen any woman,” I tell him, struggling for a tone of casual indifference. “But that’s because I haven’t looked. It doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t care what … or who David does anymore.”
I can tell from Izzy’s tone that he isn’t buying it, but I’m determined not to ask him what I’m dying to know. We begin taking sections from the organs we’ve removed, Izzy doing the slicing and dicing, me placing the carved pieces into specimen bottles as an awkward silence stretches between us. As soon as we are finished with each organ, I place it back inside the body cavity. After several minutes of this I finally cave in.
“All right, you win. Tell me. Was it her?”
He shrugs “I’ve never met her. What does she look like?”
His question hurls me back some two months in time and the memory, as always, triggers a flush of humiliation. Back then, David and I both worked in the OR at the local hospital. Despite working in the same place, we rarely did cases together, agreeing that it was wise to try to separate our professional lives from our private ones so the dynamics of one wouldn’t interfere with the intimacy of the other. That’s the story I bought into, anyway, though since then I’ve wondered if David’s motivation was something else entirely.
Things came to a head on a day when David had a heavy load of regular surgeries coupled with several emergency cases. He called late in the evening to say he still had one more case to do and that he planned to crash at the hospital for the night. It was something he’d done before – usually because he had an unstable patient he was worried about – so it didn’t raise any alarms.
Knowing how much he hated hospital food, I threw together a goody basket for him: some munchies for later that night and some fruit and muffins for in the morning. I didn’t call to tell him I was coming because I figured he’d already be in the middle of his surgery. Besides, I wanted to surprise him.
He was surprised, all right, but not half as much as I was when I found the surgical area dark, quiet, and apparently deserted except for a dim light emanating from a small operating room at the end of the hall. Inside the room I found David with Karen Owenby, one of the other surgery nurses. David was leaning back against an OR table, his scrub pants down around his ankles, a look of ecstasy stamped on his face. Karen was kneeling in front of him, wholeheartedly vying for the title of head nurse.
As the image sears its way across my brain for the millionth time, I squeeze my eyes closed in anger.
“Is she really that ugly?” Izzy asks, glancing at the expression on my face.
“Uglier,” I tell him. “She has horns growing out of her head and snakes for hair.”
Izzy chuckles. “You know what you need?”
“For Richard Gere to fall madly in love with me and be my gigolo?”
“No, you need some excitement.”
Apparently catching my husband taking his oral exam in the OR isn’t excitement enough.
“Yep,” Izzy says with a decisive nod. “You just need a little excitement. After all, isn’t that what drew you to medicine? The life and death pace, the high emotional stakes, the drama?”
We are done with our sampling and the woman’s organs are all back in her body, though not in any kind of order. I stare at them a moment, thinking they vaguely resemble that package of stuff you find hidden behind the ass flap on a turkey. It’s a definite offense to my surgical sensibilities and I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter – the woman is dead.
“I think I’ve had quite enough drama for one lifetime,” I tell him.
“No way. You’re an adrenaline junkie. You thrive on excitement. That’s why you liked working at the hospital.” He steps down from the stool he has to use in order to reach the table, kicks it toward the woman’s head, and climbs up again. Then he positions his scalpel just above her right ear.
“There’s really not that much adrenaline in the OR,” I argue. “In fact, it’s one of the tamer areas of medicine, orderly and controlled.”
“True, but you were never happy in the OR. The place where you were happy was the ER. You should have stayed there.”
“I liked the OR just fine,” I argue.
He responds with a look that tells me the alarm on his bullshit detector is screeching. And I have to admit, he’s right. The OR was okay, but I loved working the ER. I loved the surprise of never knowing what might come through the door next. I loved working as part of a synchronized team, rushing against the clock in an effort to save a life that hung on the brink. I loved the people, the pace, and even the occasional messiness of it all. The only reason I’d left it for the OR was so I could be closer to David.
Well, that and the infamous nipple incident.
“Okay,” I concede. “Maybe I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie.”
“And like any junkie, if you don’t get a fix from time to time, you get edgy and irritable.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s PMS, Izzy.”
“So I have an idea,” he says, ignoring my brilliant rejoinder. Having sliced across the top of the woman’s head from one ear to the other, he now grabs the front edge of this incision and pulls the entire scalp forward, exposing the skull. It is shiny and white except for a large clot of blood that clings to the right temporal lobe. From the x-rays we did earlier, I know that beneath that clot we’ll find pieces of broken bone and an indentation in the skull that’s roughly the same size and shape as a hammer – the weapon her drunken, jealous husband used to kill her.
Izzy pauses to snap a few pictures with the digital camera, and then says, “Part of my job is determining the cause and manner of any suspicious deaths in the county and only part of that is gleaned from the autopsy. There’s also investigative work that needs to be done at the scene of the death and afterward.”
He sets the camera aside and folds his arms over his chest. “You know, your position here can go one of two ways. You can keep working as a morgue assistant, which is basically what you’re doing now, or you can function as a deputy coroner, which combines the morgue duties with investigative work. My last assistant had no training in forensics and no interest in learning it. He simply wanted to do his job and get out of here.”
“I can’t imagine why,” I mutter, eyeing the body before us.
“But you have an analytical mind and a strong curiosity. With a little training, you’d make a great investigator. And frankly, I could use the help. I think you should give it a try, go out with me a time or two and see what it’s like.”
“You make it sound like a date.”
He scoffs. “Yeah, like you would know.”
I scowl at him. “Give me a break. It’s only been two months.”
“And you’ve spent every minute of it hibernating in your cave.”
“I am not.”
“No? Then tell me how many pints of Ben & Jerry’s you’ve polished off in the past two weeks.”
“Oh sure, make me measure in pints so the number will sound worse than it is.”
“Okay,” he says, arching one eyebrow at me. “Have it your way. Tell me how many gallons of Ben & Jerry’s you’ve polished off in the past two weeks.”
“Bite me, Itsy.”
There’s one other thing Izzy and I have in common – a fondness for nicknames. Izzy’s real name is Izthak Rybarceski, a mouthful of symbols that even the most nimble linguists tend to stumble over. Hence the nickname, though even that gives him trouble at times. Because of his size there are some who insist on pronouncing it as Itsy, something that drives him up the wall. For me the problem is just a general loathing of my real name. I don’t know what the hell my mother was thinking when she chose it and even she has never used it. All my life I’ve been Mattie – the only place where my real name can be found is on my birth certificate – and that’s fine by me. Outside of my family, there are only a handful of people who know my real name, Izzy being one of them. So I have to be careful. If I pick on his name too much, he might turn the tables on me.
“I don’t think I’d make a very good investigator,” I tell him, hoping to divert his attention away from my insult.
“Sure you would. You’re a natural. You’re nosy as hell.”
Now there’s a bullet item I can’t wait to put on my resume.
“At least give it a try,” he says with a sigh.
“But I don’t know the first thing about crime scene investigation. Hell, I’ve only been doing this for two days.”
“You’ll learn. Just like you’re learning here. Just like you learned when you started working in the OR. I’ll send you to some seminars and training programs. You’ll catch on.”
I think about what he’s suggesting. We live in Sorenson, a small town in Wisconsin where the crime rate is low, longevity is high, and the obits frequently tell of octogenarians who die “unexpectedly.” Even with what might come in from the surrounding areas, which is mostly villages and farmland, I can’t imagine us getting that much business. After all, this is Wisconsin, the land of cheese, brown-eyed cows, apple-cheeked people, and old-fashioned values. The only reason we have a medical examiner in Sorenson is because Izzy happens to live here and we are the biggest city within a hundred-mile radius, which isn’t saying much, given that our population is only eleven thousand. So how often is a “suspicious” death going to occur? Still …
I’m about to argue the point one more time when Izzy says, “Please? Will you just give it a try? For me?”
Damn. His pleading face reminds me of what a good friend he’s been to me, especially lately. I owe him.
“Okay, you win. I’ll give it a shot.”
“Excellent!” he says. “Though perhaps a bad choice of words for our line of business.” He wiggles his eyebrows at me and I have to stifle a laugh, though not at his corny joke. At fifty-something, Izzy suffers from that wooly caterpillar thing that strikes so many men as they age. The hairs in his eyebrows are longer than many of those on his head, though there are a few in his ears and nose that look like they might catch up.
Moments later, my humor is forgotten as I place Ingrid Swenson’s brain on my scale.