Danger multiplies for a pregnant coroner investigating a math teacher’s murder in this hard-boiled mystery by a USA Today–bestselling author.
Deputy coroner Mattie Winston knows a thing or two about dead bodies. That’s why she’s on the case of Derrick Ames, a high school math teacher stabbed to death with a barbecue fork straight to the heart. Sure, she’s turned up some motives and a few suspects, but nothing adds up. Especially when the evidence points to Ames’s teenage son. Newly pregnant Mattie can’t believe it, even as her own long-estranged father may be following her. But one thing’s certain, she’d better start figuring things out fast, or a deadly perpetrator could be subtracting two more victims from the population of Sorenson, Wisconsin . . .
Praise for Annelise Ryan and her Mattie Winston series
“Ryan shows growing skill at mixing humor with CSI-style crime.”—Publishers Weekly“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
About the Author
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By Annelise Ryan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Beth Amos
All rights reserved.
I find it ironic that I'm sitting across from a psychiatrist discussing the dichotomy of life and death, not only because I hate shrinks and once swore I'd never go to one, but because I came here voluntarily, at least this time. My name is Mattie Winston, and I deal with life and death on a regular basis these days: death because it's a part of my daily job, life because there is a new one growing inside me.
I'm pregnant ... very, very pregnant at the moment. And while being in this condition is something I had planned for at some point in my life, getting here the way I have has been as well planned as a train wreck. I've been imagining my future since I was twelve years old, sitting in my bedroom acting out scenes of domestic bliss with Barbie and Ken, and cutting pictures out of bridal magazines with my sister, Desi, who was ten at the time. My future was crystal clear in my mind: a loving husband, two adorable children, and a life full of comfort and fun in my Barbie Dreamhouse, with occasional family vacations in our Barbie camper.
Things appeared to be progressing according to the Big Plan when I snagged a husband who seemed to fit nicely into the Ken/Prince Charming mold I'd carved out for him. His name was David Winston, and he was a surgeon I met at the hospital where I worked. At the time I was an ER nurse, but I quickly transferred and became an OR nurse so I could be closer to him. I missed the ER like crazy, but I figured a little job unhappiness was a worthy sacrifice to be near the man I loved. After a whirlwind courtship, David and I managed a few years of marital bliss. But that starry-eyed, fairy-tale future I'd imagined as a child crashed and burned when I found David performing exploratory surgery on one of our coworkers late one night in an otherwise deserted operating room. Unfortunately, the only surgical instrument he was using at the time was his penis.
Crushed, humiliated, and hurt beyond belief, I fled my job and my marriage. My neighbor and good friend, Izzy Rybarceski, who is the medical examiner for our county, gave me a place to hide by allowing me to move into the mother-in-law cottage behind his house. It was nice to have a place to run to, but the location of the cottage meant I was only a stone's throw away from the home I had shared with David. I know this because I've thrown stones at it a time or two.
Izzy let me sit and stew for a couple of months while I came to terms with the end of my marriage and the tattered remains of my childhood dream. My money ran out about the same time Izzy's patience did, and when I emerged from my cave of self-pity, he offered me a position as his assistant. The job description entailed dissecting dead bodies and investigating any crimes involving deaths, so I felt reasonably qualified for the work, given my OR experience at the hospital, my insatiable curiosity, and my general nosiness.
It turned out to be a good fit, and it's a job I love more than any other I've ever had. But it came with a curveball named Steve Hurley, a tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed homicide detective who had arrived in town a few months before I started working for Izzy.
Hurley and I hit it off in a big way, and I began to consider David a mere misstep in my planned future, a fork in the road that I had to take in order to meet up with Hurley. It turned out there were many other forks in that road—like the fact that Hurley and I met over the dead body of the woman David had had his affair with, like the fact that both David and I were prime suspects in her murder, and like the fact that Hurley had a wife and child he didn't know he had. I suspect there are many more forks to come. In fact, given that my relationship with Hurley thus far has had more ups and downs and more ins and outs than a porno movie, I expect to get thoroughly forked over in the months and years to come.
The psychiatrist sitting across from me—Maggie Baldwin, or Dr. Naggy as I like to call her—is someone I was forced to see months ago when Hurley and I experienced the latest speed bump on our road to happiness. Because of a non-fraternization rule that came up when the ME's office and the police were tasked with oversight duties for one another, Hurley and I couldn't be a couple and work together. After much agonizing, I decided to quit my job with Izzy and go back to work in the hospital ER. I wasn't happy about the decision—I loved my job with Izzy—but I loved Hurley more. Plus, returning to the scene of David's crime wasn't something I looked forward to. Small towns like Sorenson thrive on gossip, and I'd been the primary topic more times than I liked of late. I knew everyone at the hospital would be whispering and gossiping behind my back, watching like vultures for any chance encounters David and I might have, eager to pick at the bloody remains left behind.
As it turned out, my worries were for naught. Because our town is a small one, the hospital has trouble attracting physicians at times. Many of them prefer larger city hospitals, where there are more resources, more amenities, more cohorts to share on-call hours with, and more earning potential. So when David basically blackmailed the hospital administrators by threatening to leave if I came back to work there, they decided at the last minute that I was no longer welcome. Nurses were a dime a dozen, but David was the only surgeon on staff at the time, and the hospital couldn't afford to lose him.
My job with Izzy had already been given to someone else, but my settlement in the divorce left me with a nice cushion of money to tide me over for a while. I was fine with the career setbacks because at least I had Hurley, or so I thought. Unfortunately, there were two other women who popped into Hurley's life at exactly the same time, and their hold on him was much stronger than mine. One was Kate, the wife Hurley thought he'd divorced years ago—a wife I never knew he'd had. The other was a teenage girl named Emily—Hurley's daughter—a daughter that until then, Hurley never knew he had.
The forks kept coming. A bit of bad luck for my newly hired replacement turned out to be good luck for me. I was able to return to my job with Izzy and found myself once again working side-by-side with Hurley, determined to put him and his newfound family behind me. But Hurley and I are drawn to one another the way a metal oxygen tank is drawn to an MRI, explosive results included. Before long we were sneaking rolls in the hay whenever and wherever we could.
Then Hurley found out the true reason why his not-really-an-ex-wife had suddenly come back into his life, and that discovery led to him and his newfound daughter leaving town and staying gone for two months. The road truly forked me that time because shortly after Hurley left I discovered I was pregnant.
It is now mid-September, almost a year since I first met Hurley, and the road has recently forked me again. I am days away from my projected delivery date, and my huge, hormone-addled body has my brain so muddled that I can't think straight. I am about to embark on the biggest journey ever in my life, but every time I try to focus on it and the future, my thoughts go flying off in a million different directions like a burst of fireworks. In an effort to douse this incendiary state of mind, I made the decision to come back to Dr. Naggy after a six-month break. I was hoping she'd give me a quick fix, some brilliant bit of insight that would make everything feel right. Instead, she is insisting on knowing everything that has happened to me during the six months since I last saw her, a portion of my life she has labeled "the inciting events," as if they somehow led to a riot.
"So tell me what happened when Hurley came back to town," she says to me.
I ponder the question for a moment, wondering how to summarize six months of chaos during an hour-long appointment.
"Well, it all began around the start of May," I tell her. "That's when Hurley returned to Sorenson and his job. And once again our meeting took place over a murdered body. That seems to be a recurring theme in our lives."
"That's not too surprising, given your line of work," Dr. Naggy says.
"Yeah, but this time it was different because I wasn't there to investigate the death. This time I was there because I was the killer."CHAPTER 2
The events that led to me being tagged as a killer started on a beautiful spring evening at the start of May. Tulips and daffodils were in bloom everywhere; the landscape had shed its winter mantle of white and was once again bedecked in green, a favorite hue in Wisconsin because it signals winter's end and it's half of the Packers' traditional colors.
I was entering into my fifth month of pregnancy by then, and so far I'd managed to hide my condition from my friends and family, a subterfuge aided by the fact that I'm six feet tall and a well-rounded person ... and I mean that in terms of body habitus as opposed to experience or mental health.
Hurley had been gone for just over two months, but we had talked on the phone regularly, keeping one another updated, talking about current events, and occasionally having some mind-blowing phone sex. These phone calls were kept as secret as my pregnancy, which I hadn't yet mentioned to anyone—including Hurley—for several reasons. One reason I hadn't told Hurley was because he was tending to something of a very emotional and personal nature, and I didn't want to distract him from that. Another reason was because he was still recovering from the shock of discovering he already had a child he never knew about, a bright, personable fourteen-year-old girl named Emily who would be living with him when he returned. Heaping the news on him of yet another child he hadn't planned for seemed cruel. My third reason, perhaps the strongest one of all, was my recollection of all the things Hurley had said when he'd learned about Emily, about how he never wanted to be a father, wasn't suited for the job, and hadn't asked for it.
The final reason was because I wanted to have time to talk with Hurley about our relationship before the added pressure of knowing there would be another child came into play. I had some doubts about Hurley's feelings for me, and the last thing I wanted to do was force him into a proposal simply because he felt obligated.
There was never any question in my mind about whether to keep the baby. In fact, I'd fantasized numerous times in the past about what a child of ours would look like. Certain aspects of my mental image changed from time to time—hair color, overall build, gender—but the two things that stayed consistent were height and the color of the eyes. I'm fair-haired with a fair complexion and have blue eyes, and Hurley has black hair, a somewhat ruddy complexion, and blue eyes. We're both tall, so I felt certain the child inside me would be also, and the blue eyes were a given. But Hurley is tall and lanky, whereas my body type is the sort made for keeping one's innards warm during the long, cold Wisconsin winters. Animal lovers call it blubber on seals, whales, and walruses, but I prefer to call it insulation. I've managed to trim some of my insulation over the last couple of months by working out regularly at a nearby gym and altering my diet to one that is healthier for both me and my baby. But I don't think I'll ever be at risk for freezing to death.
While I'm determined to keep the baby regardless of what happens between me and Hurley, I also know it means I might end up as a single mother. And that means once again being fodder for the Sorenson gossip mill.
At the start of May I was looking forward to Hurley's return, but I was also dreading it. Despite my gym efforts, I knew I couldn't hide my pregnancy much longer. Not only was my tummy starting to show—something I might have been able to pass off as weight gain for a little while longer—something weird was going on in my hips, and I was starting to waddle like a penguin. Plus my already large bosom was popping out of every bra and blouse I owned. Even with the best sports bra money could buy, my personal trainer, Gunther, said watching me run on the treadmill was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters play while on LSD. I started to ask him if he meant the players or the watchers were on LSD, but then realized it didn't matter.
The changes in my figure weren't the only problem. People were starting to notice other things, too. In my third month, I was plagued with terrible bouts of morning sickness that had Izzy wondering if I was still suited for the job. It didn't help that I was assaulted by strange and often nasty smells on a regular basis, everything from formaldehyde to body parts that were long past their expiration dates. I told Izzy it was just nerves, and that I was seeing a doctor about it. He was visibly relieved when I quit having to leave both death sites and the autopsy suite to make a mad dash for the restroom to barf, although this respite only lasted about two weeks. That's when the child inside me decided that my bladder was a punching bag. Once again Izzy became concerned about my frequent bathroom runs, and once again I assured him I was seeing a doctor about the problem, and that it was probably nothing more than a bad bladder infection. The first part of that excuse was true: I was seeing a doctor. The last part, however, was a lie. I knew it wasn't a bladder infection that was making me pee every half hour.
I was also much more cautious about using personal protective equipment whenever I was on-site or in the autopsy room, and Izzy hadn't missed this change in my behavior, either. Several times I saw him eyeing me with that curious, quizzical expression he often got right before he figured out some deep dark secret of mine that I had hoped to keep hidden. I passed this one off by saying that my eyes had been opened byJonas Kriedeman's life-threatening allergies to the chemicals we use. This was an unfortunate situation for Jonas, the person who took my position when I turned in my ill-fated resignation, but a fortunate one for me since it enabled me to get my job back. And it had worked out okay for Jonas, too, because he was able get his old job back, working as an evidence tech for the police department.
Despite my efforts to hide things, my days of keeping my condition a secret were numbered, and I knew it. I had hoped to keep it under wraps for at least another week or two, because juicy gossip seeps through our town like the scent of manure does in the early spring when the surrounding farmers fertilize their fields. In fact, manure and gossip have many things in common. The more they reek, the better people think they are. The fouler the stench, the faster people want to spread them. And both items tend to linger long after some people wish they were gone.
Because of this, both Maggie and the OB doctor I was seeing for my pregnancy were in a neighboring town nearly a half hour away. Despite the fact that HIPAA laws are supposed to prevent people from disclosing confidential medical information about the people they care for, certain things have a way of getting around. In fact, people in small towns are masters at innuendo. There is an entire subculture built around the ability to reveal information about someone without actually saying it. Facial expressions and vocal fluctuations are easily interpreted by those familiar with small-town gossip in the same way twins who make up their own language understand one another. The big reveal would go something like this: "Hey, I saw Mattie Winston at the grocery store the other day, and she had such a glow about her." Then the speaker would arch an eyebrow and in a suggestive tone, add, "You know what I mean?" If asked later, the person who said this could truthfully deny telling anyone I was pregnant.
I knew Izzy would likely figure things out before anyone else, although his partner, Dom, and my sister, Desi, were equally probable front-runners. My mother, on the other hand, is much too self-absorbed. I'm not sure she'd pick up on the fact that I was pregnant if I was giving birth on her dining room table, an act that would probably give her a stroke, not because I was giving birth, but because of all the germs I'd be distributing across the surface of her table. My mother has issues, and to say that she is a bit of a germophobe is like saying the Pacific Ocean has a bit of water.
Getting pregnant when I did hadn't been intentional—no one could have been more surprised than I was—and it happened the first time Hurley and I ever slept together. I was on birth control pills, but while investigating a case with ties to a local casino, I'd gotten caught up in the gambling scene and found myself making frequent trips to the place to play some blackjack or poker. Once inside the casino, day and night became indistinguishable, and I often lost all sense of time. As a result, I didn't take my birth control pills with the regularity I should have, and apparently that, combined with a course of antibiotics I took for a sinus infection, was the perfect cocktail for conception.
Excerpted from Stiff Penalty by Annelise Ryan. Copyright © 2015 Beth Amos. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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