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WWJBD? Chelsea Swan asked herself as she headed out to the loading dock of the medical examiner's office of Bear Claw, Colorado. The e-speak stood for What Would James Bond Do? and served as her mantra, though some days she replaced 007's name with some of her other favorite fictional spies: Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, Jack Bauer and the like.
Regardless of who she was trying to channel on a given day, the mantra meant one thing: don't be a wuss. On the scale of fight or flight, Chelsea fell squarely in the "flight" category, which wouldn't be such a big deal if another part of her didn't long for adventure, for the sort of danger she read about and watched on TV, and experienced secondhand through her bevy of cop friends.
She'd gone into pathology because she'd wanted to be near police work without actually carrying a gun, and because she liked medicine, but didn't want to be responsible for another human being's life. She was good at fitting together the clues she found during an autopsy, and turning them into a cause of death. She liked the puzzles, and the knowledge that her work sometimes helped the families understand why and how their loved one had died. Occasionally she'd even even assisted the Bear Claw Creek Police Department in finding a killer, and the success had given her a serious buzz.
Most days the job was rewarding without being actively frightening. Then there were days like today, when even James Bond might've hesitated. Chelsea figured she was entitled to some nerves, though, because while she was certainly no stranger to death, today was different. The dead were different.
The four incoming bodies belonged to terrorists, mass murderers who'd been incarcerated in the ARX Supermax prison two hours north of Bear Claw, and who'd died there under suspicious circumstances. The knowledge that she'd be autopsying their bodies in under an hour gave Chelsea a serious case of the willies as she headed out to meet the prison transport van. No matter how many times she told herself the dead deserved justice, she couldn't talk herself into believing it in this case.
Besides, the bodies came with major political baggage, which meant the ME's office would be under microscopic scrutiny.
Unfortunately, they didn't have a choice in the matter.
Three of the men, who went by the names of al-Jihad, Muhammad Feyd and Lee Mawadi, were international-level terrorists who'd been convicted of the Santa Bombings that had rocked the Bear Claw region three years earlier. The fourth, Jonah Fairfax, had tortured and murdered two federal agents in the days leading up to a bloody government raid on a militant anarchists' compound up in northern Montana, and had apparently hooked up with the terrorists inside the prison, despite being in 24/7 solitary confinement. The four were seriously bad news.
Chelsea, who usually managed to find the upside of any situation, wished the prison had stuck to its standard procedure of handling everything internally, including autopsies. Unfortunately, budget cuts had forced Warden Pollard to pare back his medical staff. When the four prisoners had died of unknown causes within an hour of one another, Pollard had requested an outside autopsy and the state had turfed the bodies to Bear Claw.
"Lucky us," Chelsea muttered as she pushed through the doors leading to the loading dock, which opened onto a narrow alley separating the two big buildings that housed the ME's office and the main station house of the Bear Claw Creek Police Department.
Two other members of the ME's office were already waiting on the loading ramp: Chelsea's boss and friend, Chief Medical Examiner Sara Whitney, and their newly hired assistant, Jerry Osage. Under normal circumstances there wouldn't have been a welcoming committee for the bodies, but these were far from normal circumstances. The deaths had gained national media attention at a time the ME's office would've strongly preferred otherwise.
That worry was in Sara's eyes as she turned to Chelsea, but her voice held its normal brisk, businesslike tone when she said, "I'm glad you're here. Chief Mendoza wants me to come out front and say a few words for the cameras so we can sneak the van in the back way while the newsies are distracted." Sara slipped out of her fall-weight wool jacket and held it out, revealing a jade-toned skirt suit that perfectly complemented her shoulder-length, honey-colored hair and arresting amber eyes. "Take this in case you're waiting long."
The mid-October day was unusually cool, thanks to a sharp breeze that brought frigid air down from the snow-covered Rockies. It was just another change in the unusually unpredictable weather they'd been having lately. The mix of snow squalls and torrential downpours had triggered landslides in Bear Claw Canyon as well as the hills west of the city, taking out roads and at one point even prompting evacuation of the Bear Claw Ski Resort, which was just starting to gear up for the winter season.
For the moment, though, the skies were clear, the wind sharp. The Rocky Mountains were a dark blur on the horizon, well beyond the huge wilderness of Bear Claw Canyon State Park, which formed an unpopulated buffer between the city suburbs and the ARX Supermax prison.
Chelsea shivered involuntarily, though she couldn't have said whether the chill came from the wind biting through the thin scrubs she wore over her casual slacks and shirt, or the thought of how little actually separated them from an enclosure housing two thousand or so of the worst criminals in the country.
She took Sara's coat and drew it over her shoulders. "Thanks."
The garment was too long everywhere and she didn't have a prayer of buttoning it across the front, mute testimony that Sara was tall and lean and willowy, whereas Chelsea was none of those things.
Five-five if she stretched it, tending way more toward curvy than willowy, Chelsea wore her dark, chestnut-highlighted hair in a sassy bob that brushed her chin, used a daily layer of mascara to emphasize the long eyelashes that framed her brown eyes, and considered her smile to be her best feature. If life were a movie, she would probably play the best friend's supporting role to Sara's elegant lead, and that was okay with her.
Some people were destined to do great things, others small ones. That was just the way it was.
Within the ME's office, Chelsea was good at the small things. She was the best of them at dealing with the families of the dead, mainly because she genuinely liked people. She enjoyed meeting them and learning about them, and she liked knowing that the information she gave them often helped ease the passing of their loved ones. She might not be saving the world, but she was, she hoped, making the natural process of death a bit easier, one family at a time.
At the moment, though, she didn't particularly care if the incoming bodies were tied to people who had loved them and wanted answers. As far as she was concerned, monsters like the four dead men didn't deserve autopsies or answers. They deserved deep, unmarked graves and justice in the afterlife.
"I wish the prison had kept the bodies," Sara grumbled, her thoughts paralleling Chelsea's. Then she sighed, clearly not looking forward to the impromptu press conference. "Okay, I'll go do the song and dance and leave you guys to the real work."
The snippiness implied by her words was more self-directed than anythingas the youngest chief medical examiner in city history, and a woman to boot, she'd found herself doing far more politicking and crisis management than she'd expected, when Chelsea knew she'd rather be in the morgue, doing the work she'd trained for.
The two women had only met the year before, when Sara had pulled Chelsea's résumé out of a stack of better-qualified applicants because she'd been looking to build a young, cutting-edge team that combined empathy with hard science and innovation. That had been great until six months later, when the young, aggressive mayor who'd recruited Sara had stepped down in the wake of an embezzlement scandal, and his old-guard deputy mayor had taken over and promptly started undoing a large chunk of his predecessor's work.
Acting Mayor Proudfoot hadn't yet managed to disassemble the ME's office, but he was trying. That had Sara, Chelsea and the others watching their backs at every turn these days.
"We've got this," Chelsea assured her boss. "You go make us look good, okay?"
Sara shot her a grateful smile and headed inside. When the door shut at her back, Chelsea glanced at Jerry. She grinned at the sight of the assistant's obvious discomfort in the sharp air. "Dude, your nose is turning blue."
Dark-haired and brown-eyed, the twenty-something Florida native was having a tough time adjusting to his first cold snap, having moved to Bear Claw just that summer to be with his park-ranger girlfriend. But Jerry was a hard worker and an asset to the team. He didn't accept her invitation to bitch about the cold, instead saying, "The van's late. Wonder if the driver got lost or stuck in the media circus or something."
Chelsea pulled out her cell and checked the time display, frowning when she saw that he was right, the transpo coming from the prison was a good fifteen minutes overdue. "Maybe I should call the prison dispatcher and see if there's been a delay."
"Never mind. I think I see them."
Sure enough, a plain-looking van nosed its way into the alley, then spun away from them and started backing toward the cement loading dock, its brake lights flashing as the driver struggled to navigate the tight, unfamiliar alley, which was made even tighter by an obstacle course of trash bins and parked vehicles.
Unmarked and unremarkable, the van looked like nothing special on first glance, but a closer inspection revealed that it was reinforced throughout, with mesh on the small back windows.
Through the mesh, Chelsea could see one of the guards' faces. His eyes were a clear, piercing blue, and a thin scar ran through one of his dark eyebrows, probably tangible evidence of the dangers that came from working within the ARX Supermax.
As the van's rear bumper kissed the rubber-padded lip of the dock, the guard's eyes locked on Chelsea and another shiver tried to work its way through her. This one didn't come from the cold or unease about the prisoners' bodies, though; it was a sensual tremor, one that tempted her to rethink the "career first" vow she'd made in the wake of yet another near-miss of a relationship.
The guard's eyes hadn't changed and he hadn't moved, but suddenly her breath came thin in her lungs and she had to lock her legs against a wash of heat and weakness, and an almost overwhelming urge to see the rest of him. In private.
"Wow," she said aloud. "Note to self: take Sara up on her offer to bring her brother around for a look-see." Chelsea might've sworn off serious relationships, but there was no doubt her body was telling her that it was time for some recreational dating.
"'Scuse me?" asked Jerry, who looked confused.
"Just talking to myself," Chelsea said as the van came to a stop and the guard disappeared from the window.
She felt a little spurt of disappointment to have their shared look broken off, followed by a kick of nerves that she'd see the rest of him in a moment. Not that she was likely to follow up on the attraction, if it was even reciprocated. His direct, challenging stare warned that he'd probably be too intense for her, too unnerving.
She liked her guys the same way she preferred her Tex-Mex and curry: a little on the mild side, satisfying yet undemanding. She might be drawn to the other kind of guy, the tough, challenging sort she liked in her books and movies, but that was where her inner wimp kicked in. She didn't want to date a guy she couldn't keep up with.
And that was so not what she was supposed to be focusing on right now, she lectured herself as the driver killed the engine and emerged from the vehicle, carrying the requisite paperwork. Moments later, the back doors swung open and two other guys jumped down and started readying the body bags for transfer into the morgue. The men were wearing drab uniforms with weapon belts, and hats pulled low over their brows, making them blend into a certain sort of sameness except for the blue-eyed guard, who Chelsea recognized immediately, even from the back.
He was maybe five-ten or so, with wide shoulders and ropy muscles that strained the fabric of his uniform, as though he'd bulked up recently and hadn't yet replaced his clothes. His hips were narrow, his legs powerful, and though she'd never really gone for the uniform look beforeshe was surrounded by cops on a daily basis, so there wasn't much novelty in itthe dark material of his pants did seriously interesting things to his backside when he bent over and fiddled with one of the gurneys, unlocking it from the fasteners that had kept it in place during transport.
As far as she could tell, two of the bodies were on gurneys, two on the floor of the van. Normally she would've been annoyed by the lack of respect for the dead. Not this time, though.
When the driver moved to hand the paperwork to Jerry, the assistant waved it off and pointed at Chelsea. "She's in charge. I'm just the muscle."
She tore herself away from ogling the guard to reach for the clipboard. "I'll take the paperwork. Jerry can help you unload and show you where the bodies go."
The driver frowned. "I thought a guy was supposed to sign off on the delivery. Rickey Charles."
Chelsea flipped through the pages, nodding when everything looked good. Once all the bags were inside the morgue, she would open them up and inspect the bodies, making sure the info matched. Then, and only then, would she sign the papers indicating that she'd accepted the delivery, freeing the guards to make the return trip to the prison.
Not paying full attention to the driver, she said, "Rickey got held up this morning. I'm covering."
Actually, her fellow medical examiner was in lockup, sleeping it off after being arrested on his third DUI, but she wasn't about to advertise the fact. Sara had made a monumental mistake hiring the charismatic young pathologist in the first place, but he was related to one of her higher-ups, and he'd fit the "young and innovative" stamp she'd been trying to put on the ME's office, so she'd given him a chance despite his less-than-stellar recommendations.
That'd come back to bite Sara, but Chelsea knew her friend would handle it quietly. There was no need to gossip.
Noticing that the driver had started to fidget, she said, "Don't stress. It'll just take a few minutes."
He mumbled something, grabbed the clipboard and turned away, heading back for the van.
"Hey!" she called, starting after him. "I haven't signed off yet."