As a single mom and deputy coroner of Sorenson, Wisconsin, Mattie Winston is used to her life being a juggling act. But now that she’s moved in with Detective Steve Hurley and his teenaged daughter, and has started planning their wedding, her home life is looking more like a three-ring circus. At least her workload at the Medical Examiner’s office is lightened by the new hire Hal Dawson. But before Hal can even cash his first paycheck, he’s murdered on a fishing trip with his girlfriend, who’s gone missing. To keep her life from going completely under, Mattie will have to dive deep for clues. But a killer is just as determined to keep the truth from ever surfacing . . .
Praise for Annelise Ryan and her Mattie Winston series
“The funniest deputy coroner to cut up a corpse since, well, ever.”
“Has it all: suspense, laughter, a spicy dash of romance...”
“Another winning mystery!”
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Dead in the Water
By Annelise Ryan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Beth Amos
All rights reserved.
Death is the ultimate equalizer. It knows no boundaries and visits everyone eventually: the rich, the poor, the young, the old, the beautiful, and the ugly. Sometimes it arrives with relentless predictability; at other times it comes with stealth and surprise. Its arrival may be peaceful, quiet, and well ordered, or it may be agonizing, brash, and messy. The only reliable predictor is that someday it will come. I think knowing this is what gives us humans drive and motivation. It forces us to make the most — or at least the best — of the time we have, because we don't really know when our clocks might stop ticking.
Determining where, when, and how death arrived for someone is the basis of my job. My name is Mattie Winston and I work part-time for the medical examiner's office as a medico-legal death investigator. That's a big fancy term for someone who assists with autopsies and the investigative part of death. Sometimes the investigative part is a slam dunk, like the drunken driver who dies wrapping his car around a tree, or the terminal cancer patient who passes on peacefully in her home. Other times the investigative part can be an annoying, vague, and troubling puzzle of circumstances that may require days, weeks, months, or even years to figure out. When a death is the result of a homicide, it's the job of my office to assist the police in figuring out who, what, when, where, why, and how. The combined efforts of our scientific procedures and law enforcement's investigative work will often provide the necessary answers. But not always. Sometimes we end up with an unsolved case. And sometimes — as is the case with the homicide I'm focused on today — it's a combination of our hard work and a bit of dumb luck. Unfortunately for me, the dumb luck in this case was mine and it might provide enough of a legal loophole for the killer to get off.
Also unfortunate for me is today I have to testify for the first time in the three years I've been doing this job. Since investigation is a key part of what I do, I often get involved in the finding and seizing of evidence and I've been subpoenaed before to testify. I've been coached on the process over the past two years by my boss, Izthak Rybarceski (Izzy to those of us who know and love him), the medical examiner here in Sorenson, Wisconsin. But up until now, I've never had to testify because the cases settled before going to trial, or the evidence I was involved with collecting was either determined irrelevant or simply accepted by both parties.
The investigative process in this current case took a different path than most, however, and the discovery of some key evidence is being contested by the defendant. I'm not going to be able to escape the courtroom this time, and the prosecuting attorney on the case, a thirtysomething man named Roger Beckwith, tried to ease my nervousness by walking me through the planned questions, reminding me to answer only what is asked, and cautioning me not to let my nerves rattle me to the point that I start babbling. Roger Beckwith, though, is only half of the equation. There's the defense attorney for me to reckon with as well.
I'm sitting outside the courtroom, watching the occasional person walk by and waiting for my summons. There are no other people sitting out here with me, and I've been waiting for over half an hour. The murmur of whatever is going on behind the closed courtroom doors is indistinct yet intimidating. At least three times I've caught myself chewing on my lower lip, and twice I've had to force my left leg to stop bouncing up and down with nervous tension. It's a little after nine in the morning and I've just finished my third cup of coffee, but I still feel logy, thanks to a sleepless night marked by nervous anxiety and a kid who didn't want to sleep. I thought the coffee might get and keep me alert, but now I'm worried I'll have to pee really bad just about the time I'm delivering my key testimony, and I'll either have to ask to be excused or wet my pants. The bathroom isn't too far away, but I'm afraid if I go, they'll call me to testify and think I've flown the coop. I make a mental note to buy and wear a pair of Depends if I have to do this again. I've never wet myself before, but I figure testifying in a criminal court case might be enough to scare the piss out of me.
I'm about to get up from my seat and pace, figuring it will at least work off some of my nervous energy, when the courtroom door opens and the court officer says, "Ms. Winston, they're ready for you."
It's not my first time inside a courtroom, but it is my first time doing anything other than observing. At least I'm here as a witness, not as a defendant or claimant, so I don't have to worry about my future, but it's nerve-wracking walking down the aisle and feeling the stares of everyone on me. I'm afraid of stumbling before I get to the witness-box, or doing something stupid and embarrassing when I do get there, like stuttering, or stammering, or laughing at an inappropriate moment ... something I do a lot. My nerves tend to express themselves through laughter, and I'm not talking about some tittering, sniggering, cover-your-mouth-and-hide-it kind of giggle. I'm talking about all-out, belly-shaking guffaws. This quirk has kept me from attending a lot of funerals. People don't take kindly to having this ceremonious ritual marked by the sound of a sitcom laugh track. Oddly enough, the only nerve-wracking events that make me cry are weddings. Though perhaps it's not so odd in my case, given my marital history.
As I approach the witness stand, I glance at the defendant, a thirty-three-year-old man named Tomas "Please just call me 'Tommy'" Wyzinski, who is on trial for killing his girlfriend. He is dressed much better today than any other time I've seen him, but his skin is the pasty color of someone who hasn't seen the sun in a while, and his longish hair is slicked back from his face with so much product it looks like the plastic hair on a Ken doll. He doesn't look at me, which is just as well. His eyes creep me out.
I shift my focus to the woman standing in front of the witness stand. I know she's there to swear me in, but suddenly I can't remember for the life of me if I'm supposed to stop before I get into the witness-box or climb straight into it. Then I see her offer the Bible on one extended hand and I stop in front of the witness-box.
"Please place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right hand," the woman instructs. For a moment, my brain is so frozen with nervous tension I can't remember which hand is which. I make a couple of tentative jabs, take a deep breath to center myself, and then do as she instructed.
"Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you shall give in this matter shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
"I do." Two of the scariest words in the English language.
As the woman turns away, I climb the step into the witness-box and take a seat. Roger Beckwith gets up and walks to a lectern centered between his table and the defense's.
"Good morning, Ms. Winston," he says with a warm smile. I return the greeting after making a funny movement with my lips because they're sticking to my dry teeth. "Can you please state for the court your occupation and where you work?"
"Sure. I'm a medico-legal death investigator working out of the medical examiner's office in Sorenson, Wisconsin. I work under the auspices of Dr. Izthak Rybarceski and in conjunction with the Sorenson police when necessary."
"How long have you had this position?"
"For three years."
"And what exactly is it you do in the course of your job?"
"I assist Dr. Rybarceski with autopsies and I investigate the means, locations, situations, and circumstances surrounding any suspicious deaths."
Beckwith makes a somber face that he aims at the jury. "Sounds like difficult, complicated work. It must be hard dealing with death and dying all the time like that, day in and day out."
My nerves relax a little. So far, everything is going the way Beckwith said it would, right down to his comment about my job, which is to provide me with an opening to pontificate on how much I love my work and how dedicated I am to it. I'm supposed to do this in a way that makes me seem friendly and approachable, yet professional. Beckwith's exact words to me were "try to come across to the jury as professional and dedicated, but not macabre or weird." So I practiced in front of my mirror all week, stating how much I enjoyed my work, how satisfying it was, and how those of us in the medical examiner's office have to step in and be the voices of the dead ... all of it done with various vocal tones and facial expressions that made me seem maniacal and scary one minute and Valiumed to the gills the next. After three days of practice, I felt I had achieved the perfect mix of professionalism and normalcy so that my fascination and daily work with the dead didn't sound like I was someone who kept their mummified mother in a closet somewhere.
I prepare to deliver my well-rehearsed lines, but before I can, the defense attorney — a petite, blond woman named Joan Mackey, who bears a striking resemblance to the murder victim in this case — interrupts.
"Objection," she says in a rote tone of voice as if she's bored. "There is no question there. And the defense is willing to stipulate to Ms. Winston's current job title and experience."
The judge says, "Sustained," sounding as bored as Joan Mackey, an unusually tame response for him.
I'm a little perturbed — after all my practice, I'm going to be bummed if I can't recite my job-loving mantra — but one look at Judge Wesley Kupper makes me swallow my own objection.
Judge Kupper would be an intimidating man even without his position of authority and his wood-cracking hammer. He's six-and-a-half feet tall, weighs in the neighborhood of three-fifty, has no neck, and speaks in a deep, rumbling voice that sounds like thunder. When he walks into the courtroom with his massive black robe billowing out around him, it's hard not to compare him to Darth Vader. His blue eyes are pale and icy — when he looks at you, it's as if he can see right through you — and his head is as bald — and as big — as a bowling ball. Whenever he shifts his position, his large leather chair groans beneath his weight like a house about to be ripped off its moorings.
"Is there a question in there somewhere, Mr. Beckwith?" Judge Kupper asks in a tired tone. "If not, please move on."
"Very well," Beckwith says. He gives the jury members a tolerant smile and then looks back at me. "Ms. Winston, what did you do before taking your current job?"
"Objection!" says Mackey with much more enthusiasm than before. "Relevance?"
"It's very relevant to the issue in question," Beckwith says. "Ms. Winston's background and prior employment directly impacted her actions on the day in question."
Mackey shakes her head and rolls her eyes.
"Overruled," Judge Kupper says.
"Thank you, Your Honor," Beckwith says, and then he shifts his attention back to me. "Ms. Winston, please tell the court what job you held prior to your position in the medical examiner's office."
"I was ... technically I still am an RN, a registered nurse. I was employed at the hospital in Sorenson for thirteen years — six in the emergency department and seven in the surgical department."
"Thank you," Beckwith says, scanning the jury members' faces. Per his pretrial counseling, pointing out that I'm a nurse — one of the most trusted occupations out there — not only helps to make me seem less "creepy," it also gives my testimony more veracity. In this particular case, it will play another, more significant role as well, one Beckwith is about to get to. "Let's move on to August fourteenth of last year, the day in question, the day you and Detective Bob Richmond arrived at the home of the defendant, Tommy Wyzinski. Can you tell me why the two of you went to his house?"
"It started when Detective Richmond and I were called to the scene of a suspicious death that —"
"Objection!" Mackey hollers. "The characterization of the death as suspicious is inflammatory."
Judge Kupper narrows his eyes at Mackey and in a tightlipped voice says, "Overruled."
Beckwith nods and looks back at me. "Just to satisfy everyone's curiosity here, can you state why this death was determined to be suspicious?"
"Sure. To begin with, the body was wrapped in plastic sheeting and it was found in some woods about a hundred feet from County Road A. We, Detective Richmond and I, felt pretty confident the victim didn't get there under her own power or wrap herself up prior to dying, because the body had no head, hands, or feet."
I'm surprised none of the jury or audience members gasp at this revelation, but there is a lot of uncomfortable stirring and shifting going on.
"Oh, my," Beckwith says with an overwrought grimace he makes sure the jury members can see. Then, with a pointed look at the defense table, he adds, "I think we can all agree that qualifies as suspicious."
There is a snort from the jury box, whether out of humor or derision I can't tell. I look over at them and try to determine who the culprit might have been, but everyone is straight-faced and somber looking.
"Please continue, Ms. Winston."
"In examining the remains and other evidence at the scene, we readily determined the victim was a woman. While surveying the scene and the surrounding area, we found a piece of paper in a parking lot that was approximately one hundred feet away from the wooded area where the body was found. It was a prescription for insulin."
"And was there a name on that prescription?" Beckwith asks.
"There was. It was written out to a Tomas Wyzinski."
"Was there an address on this prescription?"
I shake my head. "No, just the name. But fortunately the name is unusual enough that it was easy to do a computer search and find out where Mr. Wyzinski lived."
"And that's how you ended up in Pardeeville, at the defendant's home?"
"What time of day was it when you arrived at Mr. Wyzinski's house?"
"It was a little after ten in the morning."
"Why did you go to the defendant's house?"
"Given the proximity of the prescription to the scene where the body was found, Mr. Wyzinski was considered a potential witness. The police wanted to find out when he was there and determine if he had seen anything that might be relevant."
"So was Mr. Wyzinski a suspect at this time?"
"He was considered a person of interest," I say, using the term the police use until something more can be determined.
"And can you tell me what happened when you arrived at the defendant's house?"
I nod, sorting my thoughts out to make sure I say everything I need to say. "We ... Detective Richmond and I walked up to the front door and Detective Richmond knocked. We waited, but there was no answer. After a minute or so, Detective Richmond knocked again. And again there was no answer."
"Did you leave at this point?"
"We did not. There was a car parked in front of the house and Detective Richmond determined it belonged to Mr. Wyzinski. Since the address was out in the country and the closest house was two miles down the road, we figured Wyzinski was probably around, maybe somewhere else on the property. So we headed for the back of the house."
"What did you see at the back of the house?"
"There was another entrance, a back door, and there was also an old barn about fifty feet behind the house."
"What did you and Detective Richmond do next?"
"We climbed the steps to the back door and knocked on it."
"Did anyone answer?"
"No, but this door had glass in the upper half and Detective Richmond looked inside."
"What did he see?"
Beckwith raises his hand in a conciliatory gesture before Mackey can voice the reason behind her objection and rewords the question. "Did you also look through the window in the back door?" "I did."
"What did you see?"
"A man prostrate ..." I hear Beckwith's voice in my head reminding me to keep my terms simple and aimed at the layperson, and amend my answer. "There was a man lying face down on the kitchen floor."
"And what did you do next?" "I reached down and tried the knob to see if the door was unlocked."
"Please state your answer for the record," Beckwith prompts.
"Sorry. Yes, it was unlocked."
"What happened next?"
"I opened the door, went inside, and knelt down next to the man on the floor. I felt along his neck for a pulse."
Excerpted from Dead in the Water by Annelise Ryan. Copyright © 2017 Beth Amos. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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