If not for bad luck, there wouldn't be any luck at all in LUCKY STIFF, the fourth installment in the Mattie Winston series. Who murdered paraplegic, Jack Allen, on Christmas Day, and where is all the money Jack won at the casino a few months ago? What really happened to farmer, Donald Strommen, whose body just resurfaced weeks after he went missing during a fishing trip on a nearby lake? And most important of all, will Mattie finally get "lucky" with Hurley? Join Mattie, Hurley, Izzy, and the rest of the Sorenson crew as they try to solve two of the most bizarre crimes any of them have ever seen.
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There are few things in life that smell as bad as a burnt human body. You’d think with all that flesh, which is really just another form of meat, it might smell like a pig roasting on a spit. But you’d be wrong. Your average roasting pig doesn’t have hair, intact organs, and vessels filled with blood. Unfortunately, the person whose death I now have to investigate comes with all those things, and the stench is nauseating.
Adding to the biological odors are the various household items that have burned: plastics, Styrofoam, building materials, and a variety of fabrics. This is a smell I know well because I’ve been living next to another burnt-down building for the past couple of weeks: the house I used to share with my ex-husband, David Winston. The only person who was in my old house when the fire struck was my ex, and despite the fact that I’ve imagined him being tortured or dying in hideous ways many times over the past few months, he escaped from the fire unharmed. David is healthy, alive, and if his recent behavior is any indication, well into manopause, unlike the person before me now, who is burnt so badly, I can’t tell if the body is that of a man or a woman.
My ex is a surgeon. He cuts people open in an effort to better, or save their lives. My name is Mattie Winston, I’m a nurse, and I used to do the same thing, working side-by-side with David in our local hospital’s OR. But after catching David using his pocket rocket as a tongue depressor on one of my coworkers, I left my job, my home, and my marriage rather abruptly. Fortunately my best friend and neighbor, Izzy, threw me a lifesaver by offering me both a job and the mother-in-law cottage behind his house. Since Izzy is the county medical examiner, my new job still involves cutting people open but with two significant differences: all of my patients are a certain distance past their freshness dates, and rather than trying to save their lives, I’m trying to figure out how they lost them.
The ME’s office is located in the small Wisconsin town of Sorenson and we cover deaths for a county-wide area. I grew up in Sorenson, and that makes my job very difficult at times since I know most of the people I have to autopsy. Today the death I’m investigating is right here in town, a body discovered in a home that is now little more than a burnt-out shell. As a result, I’m not sure yet if our victim is someone I know. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that it’s Christmas day as evidenced by the empty tree stand and a dozen or so broken glass ornaments in one corner.
Very little in the room I’m standing in is recognizable. Heat from the flames melted the foot or so of snow that was on the roof, and the melt-off, combined with the fire damage and all the water from the fire hoses, brought down most of the modest rancher’s upper structure, leaving the scene a soggy, exposed, piled-up mess. An early afternoon sun is shining down on us, and the outside temperature is already forty-eight degrees—very atypical for December here in Wisconsin. Fortunately there was plenty of snow on the ground before today, allowing us some semblance of a white Christmas.
Izzy is beside me as we carefully pick our way through the charred remains, which are still smoking in places despite the heroic efforts of the fire department. It’s a bit easier for me to maneuver than it is for Izzy, because I’m six feet tall and have very long legs. Izzy, on the other hand, stands right around five feet tall and his legs aren’t much longer in their entirety than my shinbones.
Several of the firefighters are still on site, spot-quenching little flare-ups and guiding us through the debris field. They were the ones who called us when they found the body. Also here are several cops, including Steve Hurley, the tall, dark-haired, blissfully blue-eyed homicide detective I lust after but can’t have.
“Are you guys sure this is arson?” Hurley asks a woman firefighter standing nearby.
“Positive,” she says. She is a cute blond with a large, fluorescent name label across the back of her fire coat that says KANE. Her cheeks are flushed and there are smudges of ash on her face, but they’re not enough to hide her prettiness. If anything they enhance it, giving her an impish, pixie look. Even with all her fire gear on I can tell she has a trim, petite figure and I want to hate her on sight, especially when I see Hurley give her the once-over...twice. My figure has never been petite, not even in the womb. My mother once described giving birth to me as akin to crapping out bowling balls for twenty hours straight. I have what Izzy’s life partner, Dom, calls a Rubenesque figure, a comment that makes me want to both hate Dom and ask him to make me a Reuben sandwich. Dom is a killer cook.
Speaking of cooking, Kane points over toward the couch and says, “There’s a pour pattern over there and if you look at the alligator pattern on the wall above it, you can tell that’s where the fire started, even though someone tried to make it look like it started here by our victim. There’s this other, smaller pour pattern next to the body leading from this overturned drink glass. Judging from the empty vodka bottles we found in the trash, and the ashtray beside this glass, I’m guessing someone wanted us to think the victim caused the fire by reaching for a drink, spilling it, and tipping over in the wheelchair while holding a cigarette.”
“Any idea who our victim is?” Hurley asks.
“For now we’re assuming it’s the man who lives here, a thirty-eight-year-old paraplegic by the name of Jack Allen.”
“Oh, no,” I mutter, looking aghast at the blackened mass.
“You know him?” Izzy asks.
“I do. I’ve taken care of him at the hospital several times. In fact, I took care of him when he had the car accident that paralyzed him. It was back when I was working in the ER, about seven, maybe eight years ago. I also saw him when we took his gallbladder out last year, and again more recently when he came in to have a bedsore debrided.”
Kane cocks her head to one side. “I’m sorry, I thought you were with the ME’s office,” she says, eyeing me with a puzzled expression.
“I am. I’ve only had this job for a few months. Before that I worked at Mercy Hospital as an RN.”
“Ah,” Kane says, and I see a glimmer of recognition on her face. “You’re that gal who was married to the surgeon, the doctor who was doing it with that OR nurse who ended up murdered.”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“And you also worked in the OR?”
“Now I know why you look so familiar.” I’m thinking she’s going to mention some surgical procedure she had recently, but no such luck. “You were the one who was pictured on the front page of that tabloid, standing by the Heinrich car crash in your underwear.”
My face grows hot. “Yes, that was also me,” I say, my smile tight. Izzy and Hurley snort with laughter and I give them a threatening look as I silently curse my recent claim to fame. There are many perks to living in a small town like Sorenson. Unfortunately, anonymity isn’t one of them. Infamy comes cheap and lasts a long, long time.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” Candy says.
“I’m Mattie Winston. Nice to meet you,” I lie.
“I’m Candy Kane. Today is my birthday and my parents had a warped sense of humor.”
“Happy birthday,” Hurley says with a smile that makes me want to step between him and Candy to block his view.
“Thanks,” Candy says, smiling back. “After I’m done here I get to go home and open all those lovely happy-merry-birthday-Christmas presents. We holiday kids tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to gifts.”
This seems only fair to me since she clearly didn’t get the short end of the genetic stick.
I look back at the floor and try to make sense of the fact that the burnt corpse lying there might be Jack Allen. The body is lying on its side in a fetal position, the blackened arms bent up like a boxer trying to block a punch. I know from my recent studies that this pugilistic positioning is characteristic of severe burn victims, caused by shortening of the muscles and tendons as they heat up. I can’t see the victim’s face because the head and shoulders are covered with a pile of debris—ceiling tiles and old vermiculite-type insulation. The only thing about the body that fits our tentative ID is the wheelchair that’s tipped on its side and positioned behind the body.
Kane says, “The neighbors say he was a smoker as well as a drinker, though they fell short of describing him as an out-and-out drunk. One other interesting tidbit mentioned by the neighbors is the fact that our victim apparently won a very large jackpot at the North Woods casino a few months ago.”
“How large is very large?” Hurley asks.
“Five hundred thousand and change,” Kane says.
Izzy lets out a low whistle.
“Sounds like motive to me,” Hurley says. “And it might help us narrow down the list of suspects. All we have to do is follow the money.”
“First we need to verify that this is Jack Allen,” Izzy says. He steps forward, reaches down, and lifts one corner of a ceiling tile that’s covering the victim’s head, exposing the face. I can only see one half of it as the other half is against the floor, but the entire head is relatively untouched by the ravages of the fire. Izzy turns and gives me a questioning look.
“That’s Jack all right.”
Izzy stares down at him. “Interesting how the debris protected his face from the flames.”
“It would,” Candy says. “That vermiculite insulation contains asbestos.”
“Asbestos?” I echo, looking concerned.
“Don’t worry,” Candy says. “Right now everything is so saturated it would be nearly impossible for any fibers to become airborne. But it will require a special crew with the proper equipment to clean the place up.”
Izzy nods solemnly. “Well at least we have a tentative ID. We can verify things later with his dental records.” He cocks his head to one side and stares at the body with a puzzled expression.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Look at the position of his head. His chin is tucked in close to his chest. If the head had been exposed to the fire I might think it was because of tendon shrinkage from the heat. But the head was protected from the fire, and that makes me think it was forced into that position. The presence of the glass and the ashtray suggest there was a table of some sort here, like a coffee table.”
“There probably was,” Kane says. She points to several burnt pieces of wood that look like long, skinny cinders from a fireplace. “These look like the legs on a wooden structure of some sort.”
“If so,” Izzy says, “it’s possible Jack died from positional asphyxiation. If he fell out of his chair and his head became wedged between it and a table, it could have blocked off his airway. I’ll get a better idea of how feasible that theory is when I open him up.”
Kane looks at Hurley and says, “There’s one more thing I think you should see.” We follow her through the debris into what appears to be the dining room. She stops in front of a charred piece of furniture and points to the melted, twisted remains of a stereo on top of it. As I look closer at the burnt mess I see what looks like a large stereo speaker, relatively intact despite evidence of intense heat and flames.
“There’s only one speaker,” Hurley says.
“And it didn’t burn,” I add.
“Good eye, both of you,” Candy says, though she directs her smile at Hurley. She points to some melted plastic and wires. “It looks like there was another speaker here but it was destroyed in the fire. There’s a reason this one survived.” She reaches over and flicks her finger against the front of the intact speaker, eliciting a metallic ping. “This is a false front. It’s constructed out of metal and made to look like a speaker, but it’s actually a safe.” She pulls on the speaker front and it opens, revealing an empty metal box. “There’s a key lock on the back that operates a little spring device to open it.”
“Was there anything in there?” Hurley asks.
“Nope, it was unlocked and empty when we got to it, and no sign of the key. But we did find this.” Candy points down at the floor near the corner of the buffet and I see the edges of a hundred dollar bill poking out from beneath some debris.
After snapping a picture, Hurley reaches down with his gloved hand and pulls the bill loose. Though its edges are singed, the main body of the bill is intact.
Candy says, “A lot of people don’t know that paper money isn’t really made out of paper, it’s made out of cloth...linen and cotton to be precise. And that means it doesn’t burn so easily, especially if it’s wet.”
“You’re thinking there was more of this in there,” Hurley says, gesturing toward the safe.
Candy shrugs, but she gives us a knowing smile that makes it clear she does think that.
Hurley sighs. “Well if our casino winner was stashing wads of cash in his house, our list of suspects is going to be a hell of a lot bigger than I thought.”
“Sorry to make things more complicated for you,” Candy says with a cutesy little grin.
Hurley holds her gaze a bit longer than I like. “No need to apologize. You did some great investigative work here. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. And if there’s anything else you need from me, don’t hesitate to ask.” She takes a card out of her pocket and hands it to him. “That’s my personal cell number on there. Call me anytime,” she says with a suggestive tone. Then she gives Hurley a flirtatious wink and adds, “If you’re nice to me, I just might give you a candy cane.”
I have a few suggestions for what she can do with her candy cane, but I keep them to myself.
“Ahem,” Izzy says, eyeing me with a worried expression. “I suppose we best get to wrapping up the body so we can get it back to the morgue before all this water destroys our evidence. What do you guys say to doing this autopsy today?”
“Fine by me,” I say. After years of employment at the hospital I’m used to working on the holidays. “You’ll be giving me the perfect excuse for avoiding the remainder of the celebration at my sister’s house. My mother was already having a conniption about all the germs that might be lurking in my sister’s live Christmas tree. When I left for this call, she was bleaching the tree ornaments.” My mother has a few mental quirks, not the least of which are her hypochondria and her OCD. I’m pretty certain that by day’s end she’ll be at home consulting her impressive medical library in search of tree-borne diseases, imagining symptoms to fit.
“I’m fine with it, too,” Hurley says. “I have no plans for the rest of the day and I’d like to get this wrapped up as quickly as possible.”
“Wrapped up?” I echo. “Interesting choice of words, given the holiday.”
Izzy rolls his eyes and heads back to the living room. I follow reluctantly, leaving Candy and Hurley alone in the dining room together. I force myself to focus on the immediate tasks at hand, but part of my mind imagines me holding a giant candy cane with the curved end looped around Hurley’s waist, dragging him away from Candy vaudeville style.