But as the forensic evidence is gathered and autopsies are performed, Mattie and Hurley realize the scene has been staged. They have a double murder on their hands. The spurned spouses of both victims top the list of suspects, but as more is revealed, the case becomes increasingly complex. Dividing their time and resources between the crime and an ongoing investigation involving Mattie's father, plus caring for their kids, the two are stretched to their limits. After another victim turns up dead, there's no room for error as they stage a scene of their own to back the killer into a corner . . .
Praise for Annelise Ryan and her Mattie Winston series
“The forensic details will interest Patricia Cornwell readers . . . while the often slapstick humor and the blossoming romance between Mattie and Hurley will draw Evanovich fans.” —Booklist
“The funniest deputy coroner to cut up a corpse since, well, ever!”
—Laura Levine, author of Killer Cruise
“A puzzler of a mystery. Annelise Ryan has created a smart and saucy heroine in Mattie Winston . . . What a thrill ride!” —New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay
“Ryan smoothly blends humor, distinctive characters, and authentic forensic detail.”
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The chiming ringtone of a phone awakens me from a deep sleep, and out of habit, I roll over and grab my cell in an effort to silence it as fast as I can. My bleary eyes try to focus on the screen, but sleep's hold is too great; the whole thing is a blur. I blink hard, glance at the clock on my bedside table, and see that it's just after three in the morning. The ringing stops, and for a moment, I think the caller must have hung up because I haven't hit the answer icon yet. Then I hear a voice behind me say, "Hurley," and realize it wasn't my phone ringing.
Just as I'm thinking that my husband and I need to personalize our ringtones so we can distinguish whose phone is getting called, the chiming sound starts up again. This time I know it's my phone because I feel it vibrating in my hand. I finally see the answer icon and swipe at it, silencing the ring. I realize as I do so that if both my husband's phone and mine are going off in the middle of the night, it means someone is dead.
My name is Mattie Winston, and I'm a medicolegal death investigator for the medical examiner's office in Sorenson, Wisconsin. My husband, Steve Hurley, is a homicide detective here in town. There are no regular hours to either of our jobs, though we try to maintain a façade of normalcy by getting up every weekday morning and heading into our offices. But people don't die on a Monday-through-Friday, nine-to-five schedule, and that means there are plenty of times when we put in a lot of long, extra hours.
"This is Mattie," I say into my phone. I sit up straighter in bed and look over at Hurley as I hear the voice of my boss, Izzy, emanate from my phone. I used to work at the local hospital; my original career was in nursing, and I spent six years in the ER and seven in the OR, good prep for the slicing and dicing I have to do in my current job. Now I'm an assistant to Dr. Izthak "Izzy" Rybarceski, the medical examiner in Sorenson, though for the past three weeks Izzy has been out on sick leave following a heart attack. I've been working with Izzy for almost three years now, and we work well together, in large part because we were friends — and, at one point, neighbors — before I started my current job.
"Mattie, we have a call," Izzy says. His voice sounds energized and excited, and that does my heart good because it means his heart is good. "It's a two-fer, so we should both go."
"A two-fer?" I echo, looking at Hurley with eyebrows raised. He nods, confirming that he has received the same info.
"The cops say it looks like a murder-suicide," Izzy says.
"Okay," I say, flinging back the covers. "Where?"
"It's out at the Grizzly Motel."
This gives me pause. "That's quite a way outside the city limits. Who's investigating?"
"The county guys pulled it, but they're terribly short-handed. They've got two men out on sick leave, another one out for paternity leave, and there are two accident scenes they're investigating right now in other areas of the county. And if the tentative IDs are correct, the victims are both Sorenson residents, so Hurley's probably going to get a call to assist."
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure he just did. Give us ten minutes to get going, and we'll meet you out there."
I disconnect my call and get out of bed, heading for the bathroom. Hurley is still on his phone, but he isn't saying anything at the moment; he's just listening. Our dog, Hoover, a yellow Lab mix — and, judging from the way he eats, I'm convinced there's a bit of vacuum cleaner in those genes — opens his eyes and watches me, his big head resting on his paws.
By the time I emerge from the bathroom with my bladder emptied, teeth brushed, and my hair partially tamed into a cowlicky mess of blond mayhem, Hurley is already dressed. We pass one another just outside the bathroom door.
"The Grizzly Motel?" I say.
"Yep. Murder-suicide?" he counters.
"Yep." I head for the dresser and grab a pair of jeans, a bra, and a T-shirt. "I'll go wake Emily," I say as I pull on my jeans beneath my nightgown. Then I peel the nightgown off, put on the bra and shirt, and shuffle my way down the hall to Emily's room, stepping over Hoover. Along the way I stop at our son Matthew's room and poke my head in.
He is sound asleep, and I utter a silent prayer of thanks that the ringing phones didn't wake him. His thick, dark hair — the color just like his father's — is sticking out on top of his head like a rooster's comb, the style surprisingly similar to mine even if the color is at the opposite end of the spectrum. He has his left thumb firmly planted in his mouth, but he is still, not sucking, not moving, no muscles twitching. A persistent internal alarm clamors, one I've had to quell hundreds of times in the twenty-two months of Matthew's existence, and I focus my gaze on his chest until I detect a slow rise and fall. Reassured, I resist an urge to tiptoe into the room and kiss him, knowing there's a good chance the action will wake him. And at this age, a just wakened Matthew is like the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, a whirlwind of seemingly endless and frenzied energy with a penchant for creating crayon artwork on the walls and an apparent belief that any remotely wet form of food he eats is also a hair product.
I sense Hurley behind me — I can feel the heat of his body along my back — and his face appears over my right shoulder. We stand there that way for several seconds, both of us drinking in this most precious sight.
Finally, Hurley whispers in my ear. "I'll go nuke us a couple of cups of coffee. I think there's enough left in the pot."
I nod, and as he turns and heads downstairs, I make my way to the door of Emily's room and open it. The room is a mess, its normal state. Clothes are strewn about on the desk, the chair, the floor, and the bed, and two of the drawers in the dresser are open, with items hanging over the edges. The top of the desk is a chaotic riot of papers, as if a tornado had spun above it. There is half of a sandwich, the edges dry, brittle, and curling, on the bedside table. Out of habit, I head for the sandwich, intending to take it downstairs with me, but I change my mind. My seventeen-year-old stepdaughter and I reached a peace treaty some time back about the state of her room. We agreed that it is her space to do with as she wants, and that I won't nag her about the state it's in, nor will I venture into it and try to clean it up. Treaty or not, the mess still bothers me, but as long as there aren't any bugs in the room or mold growing on the walls, I'm determined to abide by our terms.
Emily is sound asleep in the bed amidst all this squalor, and I feel a twinge of guilt at having to wake her. But it's late July and summer vacation for her — no school to worry about, and she has no job other than the frequent babysitting she does for us — so I know she'll manage.
"Em?" I say in a low voice, giving her shoulder a gentle shake. This first effort does nothing, so I try a second time, speaking a little louder and shaking a little harder. I'm rewarded for my efforts with a grunt.
"A call?" she mumbles, not opening her eyes.
"Yes," I say. "Can you watch Matthew until we get back? I'm not sure how long we'll be gone, but I can get Desi to come and pick him up later this morning if need be."
She sits up and rubs her eyes. "I'm good for the day," she says. She drops her hands into her lap, glances at the alarm clock beside her bed, and smiles at me. "Of course, given the hour and the short notice, this job should probably be paid at triple time."
I smile back at her. "You got it." The girl excels at extortion, and her babysitting money goes into a fund she calls her funny money, money she is saving up to buy herself a car. Hurley and I have argued over this because I feel we should buy her a car, and frankly it would be nice to get rid of the chauffeuring duties I'm constantly having to do. But he is insistent that she earn the money and buy the car herself. So for now, I'm speeding up the process by caving in — willingly and happily — to Emily's attempts to pad her fund.
Emily's smile broadens at my capitulation. "I might get that car before school starts at this rate," she says.
"Indeed, you might," I say, giving her a kiss on the forehead. "Now go back to sleep."
She plops back down, fluffing her pillow beneath her head. I go downstairs, where I find Hurley nuking coffee that was left in the pot from earlier in the day. It won't be gourmet, by any means, but at this hour, just about any coffee will do.
Wordlessly, we fix our coffees in travel mugs and head out, slipping on shoes that are kept by the door. Hurley's car is parked in the driveway. Mine, a midnight-blue hearse, is parked in the street. Without any discussion, we both head for Hurley's car. While seeing a hearse at a death scene shouldn't be too shocking — in fact, it's ironically apropos — the car at times tends to attract attention that I can do without.
As soon as we're settled and underway, I say, "We probably should have iced these coffees instead of nuking them. It's still in the eighties out here."
Our weather for the past week or so has been a blast of furnace-quality heat and dripping humidity. The temps have been well into the nineties, and the humidity has been hovering in the 80th-percentile range. Though some people love this hot weather, it's not my favorite. I come with plenty of natural insulation, and my tolerance of heat is about as good as my tolerance of the tongue-in-cheek Wisconsin state bird: the mosquito. They've been out in force this past week, too, and I have the bites to prove it.
It's a Wednesday night — though technically it's now Thursday morning — and I spent the better part of the past weekend traveling to the land Hurley and I bought right before we tied the knot a few weeks ago, giving up our independence on Independence Day. The land is out in the country; the mosquitos were apparently having some sort of convention out there all weekend, and I was on the menu for every meal. As a result, I now look like I have the measles. It's a small price to pay, however, for moving along our building project. I'm desperate to get into our new home. The house we're living in now is Hurley's, one he bought and lived in for two years before I moved in. Now, with the two of us, two kids, two cats, and a dog in it, it's feeling kind of tight. It also feels like Hurley's house, and I'm eager to have a place to live that is not only roomier, but ours, with no prior history.
Emily and I have tried to fem up the place some, but our efforts have done little to eliminate the overall bachelor pad feel of the place. Apparently, it takes more than some curtains, throw rugs, and a box of tampons in every bathroom to lend a house a feminine air.
The only thing that truly felt like home to me before moving in with Hurley was a small cottage that Izzy had built behind his house. Back when I was married to a local surgeon named David Winston, Izzy was my neighbor. He built a cottage behind his house for his then-ailing mother, Sylvie, but Sylvie rallied after a year and then opted to move out and into senior housing. This happened right around the time my marriage to David went south, along with most of the local geese, after I caught him canoodling with an OR nurse at the local hospital where we both worked at the time. So I moved into Izzy's cottage until I could sort things out, a process complicated by my starting a whole new career, meeting Hurley, getting pregnant, and dealing with the discovery of Hurley's daughter, Emily, who he didn't know existed until two years ago. Her arrival, along with that of her mother, an ex that Hurley discovered wasn't really an ex because she never filed the divorce papers, coincided with me discovering I was pregnant.
For the better part of a year and a half, Izzy's cottage was my home. It was my fortress of solitude, the place where I acquired my fur family of one dog and two cats, the place where I launched my new career, the place where I learned how to be on my own again, the place where I gave birth to my son — literally, since it happened in the bathtub — and raised him on my own for most of his first year. It was small — what Realtors euphemistically refer to as cozy — and I'm not, since I stand six feet tall and typically weigh in somewhere between one-seventy and none of your damned business. Considering that I moved into the cottage after living in a McMansion with David, one might think I found it to be a humbling, if not humiliating step down in life. But I never saw it that way. I grew to love the place, and it was one of the few things at that time that I could call my own. The facts that it was next to my old house — offering me ample spying opportunities — and only steps away from my two favorite therapists — Izzy and his life partner, Dom — were bonuses. To be totally honest, my favorite therapists are Ben & Jerry, but Izzy and Dom are a close second and kinder to my hips.
The house David and I once shared burned to the ground not long after I moved out — a whole other story in itself — though it has since been rebuilt. The new house is even bigger, and David still lives there, along with his new wife, Patty Volker, who at one time was our mutual insurance agent. Though the destruction of the house saddened me at first, it seemed fitting after a while. That fire gave me closure. It also gave me a decent little divorce settlement when the insurance check came.
Unfortunately, Sylvie's good health didn't last, requiring her to move back into the cottage. It was a move she didn't accept gracefully, given that it meant not only giving up some of her independence, but living in close proximity to Izzy and Dom. Sylvie doesn't approve of her son's sexual orientation, and having evidence of it in her face every day is something she hasn't taken to very well. She spent the first two months there without bathing, a curious quirk that almost led to Izzy putting her in a home. Then we learned that Sylvie knew I'd delivered Matthew in the bathtub, and in her mind that area was now like sacred ground. She wouldn't stand in it, sit in it, or run water in it. Izzy had to find a local priest to come in and do a special ceremony — one I suspect he made up — in which he "captured" the sacred essence Sylvie thought was in the tub and put it in a mason jar. Sylvie insisted on giving me the jar afterward, and I thought about tossing it out. But some superstitious vestigial corner of my brain wouldn't let me — that and a fear of what Sylvie would do if she ever asked to see it and discovered I no longer had it.
Since I had to vacate the cottage for Sylvie, moving in with Hurley was the logical option. But it wasn't an easy decision for three reasons. For starters, my relationship with Emily was iffy at the time, iffy being a euphemism for a barrel of TNT connected to a short, lit fuse. Her mother died not long after the two of them showed up on Hurley's doorstep unannounced, and while I understood Emily's emotional turmoil — losing the only family she had known for more than fourteen years, discovering she had a father she'd always thought was dead, and then learning that he was starting a new family with me — her behavior at one point bordered on frightening. We eventually worked it out with the help of time, patience, a lot of counseling, and a near-death experience for Emily. I have grown to love Emily as if she were my own daughter, but for a while there it was touch and go.
Another thing that made moving in with Hurley an iffy prospect was the state of our relationship. He'd asked me to marry him — several times — and I wanted to. But I couldn't shake the feeling that the only reason he was asking was because I was pregnant and he felt it was the right and proper thing to do.
Excerpted from "Dead Calm"
Copyright © 2018 Beth Amos.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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