Halloween night in Sorenson, Wisconsin, usually resembles any other small town: trick-or-treaters, costume parties, and lots of cheerfully scary decorations. But Deputy Coroner Mattie Winston is finding this year a little different, because among all the fake carnage is a very realm, very dead body.
When Mattie and her boss/best friend, Izzy, are called to the home of waitress and part-time model Shannon Tolliver, they find the ghoulish decorations just a bit too authentic. For among the fake blood and skeletons is the corpse of Shannon herself – and the evidence screams murder.
Since the whole town knows Shannon recently had a very public argument with her estranged husband, Erik, he’s suspect #1 for tall, dark, and blissfully blue-eyed homicide detective, Steve Hurley. But Mattie believes Erik truly loved his wife and is incapable of such a brutal act—even though he owns the exact same caliber handgun as the murder weapon.
Determined to unearth the truth—and maybe spend a little quality time with Detective Hunky—Mattie puts her scalpel-sharp medical skills to work and digs a little deeper. What she uncovers is stranger than anyone could have imagined. It seems Shannon’s murder is just the tip of a very deadly iceberg. Now, in order to solve a case that’s getting more dangerous by the minute—and to save Erik from the slammer—Mattie will have to risk everything to catch a killer who, if cornered, is capable of doing anything. And this time it’s not just Mattie’s life that’s on the line...
Despite the fact that I hang around dead bodies a lot these days, I find the scene before me very disturbing. The backdrop is ordinary enough: a well-maintained, ranch-style suburban home set on a generous plot of land near the edge of town. But any sense of normalcy ends with the front yard, which is littered with dead bodies. Fortunately, only one of the bodies is real, though I suppose it’s not so fortunate for the victim in question, who I’ve been told has been murdered.
As if the body farm isn’t surreal enough, my clothing adds to the absurdity: I’m wearing a full-skirted, white ballroom dress with puffy sleeves that make my shoulders look wider than a linebacker’s. Clipped to the bodice is my ID badge, which bears my name, Mattie Winston, and my title, Deputy Coroner. Though I’m still kind of new at this dead body stuff, I’m pretty sure my outfit isn’t the sort of couture one would normally wear to a crime scene. But then, who knows? I don’t think there’s a designer who has tackled this particular niche. I can see possibilities though: shirts and pants with chalk outlines drawn on them, sexy, peek-a-boo blouses with strategically placed bullet holes and knife tears, and, of course, lots of blood-red colored material.
In spite of the macabre scene and thoughts, in a perverse sort of way I’m happy to be here. Five minutes ago I was at a Halloween costume party being bored to tears by “William-not-Bill,” an obsessive-compulsive accountant in a Dracula costume. He is a date my friend, Izzy, fixed me up with, making me wonder what horrible thing I’ve done to Izzy to earn such retribution. After less than an hour in William-not-Bill’s company, I was trying desperately to come up with a plausible plan of escape when my beeper chirped and saved me. My relief was countered by a smidgen of guilt when I remembered that work for me meant someone else was dead, but probably not as dead as the date I was on. It was stone-cold, bones-only, well-beyond-the-putrid-stage dead.
I tried not to look too relieved at my reprieve as I snatched my beeper up from the table and gave William-not-Bill an apologetic smile. “Duty calls,” I said, feigning disappointment. “I’m afraid we’ll have to make it an early night.”
William-not-Bill frowned and said, “Darn it. Are you sure you need to go?”
I’d never been so sure of anything in my entire life.
“I’m afraid so,” I told him.
“I’d really like to see you again. Can I give you a call sometime?”
I would have rather stabbed myself blind with a dull fork and was tempted to say so when Izzy, who is only five feet tall and dressed tonight as the Keebler elf, tapped me on the shoulder.
Aside from being my date rescue, Izzy is my neighbor, my landlord, and my boss. He is also the anti-me: dark where I’m light, short where I’m tall, and male to my female. We do have three things in common however: fat-hoarding metabolisms, fondness for men, and jobs that require the removal of human organs. Izzy removes organs because he’s the county’s Medical Examiner. I used to remove organs, or at least assist in the process, inside a hospital operating room, which is where my soon-to-be-ex-husband, David, works as a surgeon. But after catching a coworker named Karen Owenby playing with a certain private organ on David, I ditched both him and the job. Now I work with Izzy in the M. E.’s office and while I still assist with organ removal, the goods aren’t as fresh as they used to be.
“Mattie? You ready?” Izzy asked as William-not-Bill pouted like a child.
“Absolutely.” I got up from the table and beat a hasty exit – not an easy task given the wide girth of my gown, the two-foot wand I was carrying, and the crown that kept sliding off my head. I left Izzy, whose legs are only a third the length of mine, behind in my wake, along with several broken drink glasses my skirt knocked from tables as I passed. By the time Izzy caught up to me I was standing next to his car in the parking lot, tapping my foot impatiently.
“What’s the rush?” he asked. “Afraid a house might drop on you?”
“I’m Glinda, the good witch,” I reminded him. “Houses don’t fall on Glinda.”
“Then why the big hurry? I haven’t seen you run that fast for anything other than ice cream in a long time.”
“Very funny,” I said, giving him a dirty look. “I didn’t want to give Dracula a chance to ask for my number again. Though I have to admit his costume was perfect. He spent the last two hours sucking the life out of me.” I shook my head woefully. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into dating that bozo. He has a comb-over for Christ’s sake. His only saving grace is that he’s tall.” This is actually an important asset for me. I hit the six-foot mark at the age of twelve, which made me a good foot taller than all of the boys for most of my high school years. That, combined with my ample bosom, made me very popular during the slow songs at school dances.
Izzy opened his door, got in the car, and reached over to unlock my side. The car is a fully restored Impala from the sixties. No such thing as automatic locks. Unfortunately, there are no bucket seats either, which means I have to pretzel six feet of me into the same amount of space Izzy uses.
I ripped the crown from my head and threw it and my wand into the back seat. Then I tried unsuccessfully to stuff the skirt of my gown down around me. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I imagined it must look like a giant puff ball was sitting in the passenger seat.
“Give William a break,” Izzy said as I spat taffeta. “So he’s got a touch of OCD. What’s the big deal? It’s his attention to detail that makes him such an ace accountant.”
“A touch of OCD? I’ll have you know he shot his cuffs at least fifty times, straightened the tablecloth a dozen times, and counted how many people were at the party every ten minutes. I can’t guess how many times he cleaned all the silverware at the table. And don’t even get me started on the fangs.”
Izzy conceded with a sigh. “Okay, maybe he’s a little anal retentive.”
“Doubt it,” I snapped back. “He’s got his head so far up his ass there isn’t room there for anything else. And just how old is he, anyway?”
“Late forties, maybe early fifties.”
“That’s a bit of a spread, don’t you think? He’s got to be at least fifteen years older than me.”
“I’m fourteen years older than Dom.”
“That’s different. You’re gay.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” Izzy laughed. “Besides, it’s not like you were looking for a serious date. You just wanted someone to tote along to make Hurley jealous.”
This was true. Steve Hurley is a tall, dark, and blissfully blue-eyed homicide detective that I’ve known for all of three weeks, ever since I became Izzy’s assistant. For me it was lust at first sight, which unfortunately occurred over Karen Owenby’s freshly murdered body. Things kind of went downhill from there, particularly after I became a suspect in the case.
“Clearly it was a wasted effort,” I pouted.
“Hey, it’s not my fault Hurley didn’t show up at the party.”
With that one sentence, Izzy shot straight to the heart of my misery. I sulked for the remainder of the journey, which was all of three minutes since Sorenson isn’t a very big town. When we arrived at our destination, I unfolded myself from Izzy’s car like a performer in Cirque de Soleil and stood a moment to let the blood flow back into my legs. Then I reached into the back seat and took out my processing kit.
That’s how I ended up here on the edges of suburbia, surrounded by bodies on a Saturday night, dressed like a white witch carrying a large tackle box.