Excerpt for Close Enough to Touch by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Close Enough

to Touch

By

Cade Brogan

Close Enough to Touch © 2017 Cade Brogan

Triplicity Publishing, LLC


Smashwords Edition


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form without permission.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events of any kind, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Printed in the United States of America

First Edition – 2017

Cover Design: Triplicity Publishing, LLC

Interior Design: Triplicity Publishing, LLC

Editor: Megan Brady - Triplicity Publishing, LLC

Acknowledgements


I want to thank my incredible team of beta readers—Kay, Dana, Paula. Kathy, Laure, and Maureen. You can’t imagine how much I appreciate the time and effort each of you put into this work. I also want to thank Kay, my wife. I couldn’t ask for more than what she gives because she gives it all. And last but not least, I’d like to thank my editor, Megan Brady and my publisher, Alea Hamilton. You guys are the best!


Dedication


For my wife.


It’s a beautiful thing when your best friend is the love of your life.


Amo te, Kay.


Cast of Characters


Rylee Hayes: Homicide detective.


Buckshot: Rylee’s coonhound.


Kenzie Bigham: Church secretary. Rylee’s college girlfriend.


Abby Bigham: Kenzie’s 13-year-old daughter.


Joanna Grey: Not your average serial killer.


Rich Winters: Homicide detective. Rylee’s partner.


Gladys and Omar Hayes: Rylee’s grandparents.


Martha and Wilber Watson: Joanna’s mother and stepfather.


Pastor Mark: Kenzie’s minister and boss.


Chastity Carr: Rylee’s recent ex-girlfriend.


Sally Smith: Member of the church.


Jodi Hollis: Member of the church.


Marcus Hobbs: Person of Interest.


Dr. Benjamin Holmes: Forensic Pathologist.


Dr. Hines: Director of the botanical garden.


Mr. Calissi: Rylee’s neighbor.


Sergeant Burke: A CPD Officer


Mark Garner: Boston homicide detective.


Lou: A CPD Officer.


Chapter One


It would be impossible for me to stop poisoning people.”


~ Anna Zwanziger

(Poisoner, 1811)

It wasn’t so unusual.

Women.

Hunting.

Joanna removed the red stabilizer.

Now, the use of blowpipes, well, she had to admit that was rare, but not to the point where anyone would consider it strange. Hunters used them in the rainforest to take down prey; monkeys and toucans, primarily. Veterinary techs used them in zoos to immobilize, vaccinate, and medicate. Much the same as zoo patients, her targets were animals confined to small spaces. Out of the ordinary, but not strange. Now, the use of poison, well, that was as common as could be, especially for serial killers of the female persuasion. She injected the deadly poison into the chamber of her syringe, using pliers to mount a hypodermic needle. With a snap, the safety cap was in place. As she slipped the tube-like weapon into a specially sewn pocket along the outside seam of her jeans, she imagined her day. There was nothing she enjoyed more than killing. It had been that way since the very first day. She flashed back to a painful memory, pushing it far away. That had nothing to do with anything, she told herself. She’d convinced herself long ago that it had been no more than a coincidence that her stepdad put his hands all over her that day. She flashed again, collecting her keys. “Get back”, she spat to the unpleasant recollection. “You have no right to spoil my day.”


***


The neighborhood was older, mixed. Apartment buildings snugged close to single-family dwellings. Mom and pop businesses squeezed in between. A few structures were condemned, but most looked well maintained. Black folk lived next to white folk; Chinese lived next to Indians; Gays lived next to straights. Muslims, well, they lived next to Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and atheists. How could this area be known for having one of the lowest crime rates? She slowed as she neared the rundown three-story building, her destination. Not the kind of place she’d ever choose to live. Not even if she lacked a penny to her name. It was, however, the kind of place that she often found her victims. She thanked God for her all-brick ranch in her all-white neighborhood. But there was always something that ruined everything. In her neighborhood, it was the house on the corner, the one with the old man and his concubine. He was raising a biracial grandkid, a girl, seven or eight. The kid was cute enough. Too bad she had to be mixed. Had she not been so young, Joanna would have chosen her as her next victim. But killing kids was different, disgusting. She’d only done it once or twice. Oh well, it wouldn’t be so long before this kid turned eighteen. God willing, she’d still be doing what she was doing. It was her contribution to the world—purifying—restoring order as God intended.

She parked in the lot across the street and turned off her engine. Her pulse raced as she locked her gaze on a particular third-floor window. She’d been watching it for days. She bit her lower lip in anticipation, knowing that her first kill since moving here was minutes away. When the bathroom light switched on, she tied her scarf and exited her vehicle. She scanned her surroundings as she made her way toward the rear entrance. As always, she was prepared to carry out her Christian duty. With a tug, the heavy fire door groaned open. She held her palm against its surface to shut it quietly. Having visited this place on several occasions, she knew it would slam, and potentially awaken the building. Unlike the guys, she didn’t kill on random impulse. Instead, each dispatch was completed with care and consideration. It was better to get to know the victim, to see how she lived, and memorize her routine, before taking her life. It was a time-consuming endeavor, but one with the payoff that she’d never been caught. She climbed the stairs—slow and soft.

One.

Two.

Three flights up.

Tug.

When the door opened without a groan, she paused. Bright red and shiny, it had been replaced since her last visit to the property. A solitary bulb dangled in the dimly lit hallway. With feather-light steps, she moved to door thirty-seven, the home of her target. She inserted her tension wrench soundlessly, glancing to the left and right before wiggling her pick into the lock. She looked both ways again as she applied torque.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

With a soft click, the last pin set.

She pushed, but not too hard.

Water. The sound of water spraying in the shower, caused her to nudge it a little more.

Light. There was only one in the tiny apartment. It beckoned her from underneath the bathroom door.

She lifted the safety cap, leaving the sharpness of the needle exposed. Her blowpipe was loaded and ready to go. She lifted it to her lips as she tiptoed close to the door. Showtime, darling, she thought as she touched the knob. Thud. The door slammed into the wall. Steam, hot steam from the shower fogged the mirror, and captured her arousal. She paused, her lips parting as she admired the silhouette behind the frosted door. Bad girl... Bad, bad girl, she told herself. You know what you deserve when you get home. She watched the door rumble down its track to the ceramic tile.

“What the hell?” the woman shouted. “You get the fuck out of here!” Her hands flew up to her chest, leaving the rest of her cocoa-colored skin exquisitely exposed. “I’m calling the cops!”

Joanna squinted, sighting her mark. It was a vein at the base of her victim’s neck, the best location for quick delivery of the toxin.

“Hey! What are you doing?” the woman asked in a shrill voice, her eyes darting from one side to the other.

Joanna puckered, filled her lungs, and let go. “Wh—ooo—t.”

The victim’s eyes enlarged to the size of saucers as the lancet delivered its poison. “What the hell’d you do?” she choked. Her brown eyes bulged, unblinking; her nostrils flared, and she trembled uncontrollably. When her head jerked back, her mouth became a dark cavern.

“Fingers don’t work so well, huh,” Joanna commented softly as she watched her struggle to wrap her fingers around the deadly projectile. “Don’t worry; it won’t be long now.”

Gasp.

Moan.

Gurgle.

Gag.

Gulp.

The woman’s eyes glazed over as she went down, down, down. More times than not, they crumpled halfway in and halfway out of the shower. Her name was Sally D. Smith. Joanna knew because it was printed on her mailbox. She wondered what the ‘D’ stood for. Maybe, Diane, she supposed. She retrieved the sprig of bramble from her pocket and taped it to the mirror. It was her signature, her calling card. Everyone had one, some sick, some not. Some were complex, and some were straightforward. Hers was simple, but not one cop in twenty-four years, three-hundred-fifty-one dispatches, had ever figured it out. Not a surprise. They weren’t known to be the sharpest crayons in the box. She, on the other hand, was more intelligent than most. She smiled, retrieving a small pair of scissors and a specimen bottle from her inside pocket. Closure suited her. She enjoyed finishing things off. She licked her lips and moved closer.

Snip.

Collect.

Screw on the top.

Fill out the label.


April 24, 2017

Dispatch #351

Chicago, IL


With a satisfied smile, she took one last look around. All, except the sprig, was, as she’d found it. Good job, she thought. Tonight, in the darkness of her bedroom, she’d reward herself.


Chapter Two


It was Rylee’s day off, the first in almost a month. And whether Buckshot liked it or not, they were going. “Come on,” she called out. “Nothing there you need to concern yourself about.” She cocked her head, frowning. “Come on I said. Let’s go.”

The coonhound lifted his nose, made eye contact, and promptly put it back down. No doubt something died in that spot. He’d roll in that rotting pile of leaves and stink up her new truck if she didn’t move him along. “I said come on,” she barked, shaking the end of his leash, so he noticed. “Don’t make me clip this on.” He fell in step within a moment. He was a smart dog, and her third coonhound. She got him last year, just after she turned thirty-five. She got her first when she was four, a gift from her mom. Wasn’t long after that that her mom had her first breakdown. Rylee sucked in air, clearing her mind. “Come on, Buckshot.” They sped up making their way down the hill. As they rounded the bend, she caught sight of the pond she’d fished with her grandpa since she was a child. He hadn’t come with her for quite a while. Maybe next Sunday, she thought. There were lots of great fishing spots up and down the coast of Lake Michigan, with the best being right downtown. But even with the drive to the country, this one would always be her favorite one. She settled onto a rock and cast her line into the murky water. She could count on a string of bass, bluegill, and catfish by the time she finished up, around four. She’d clean ‘em, fry ‘em up, and share ‘em with her grandma and grandpa.

Rylee rubbed Buckshot’s ears at the sound of a squirrel barking in the distance. “Minding his business like you need to be minding yours,” she commented as he lay back down. She’d no more than turned back to check her line than her cell rang in her pocket. Only one reason she’d be getting a call from the precinct this early on a Sunday morning. “Got a fifteen-minute hike back to my truck,” she said, raking her hair back with her fingers, “and then just over an hour drive back to Chi-town.” She dropped her tackle back into her box. “Be there as quick as I can,” she added. “At least it’s not rush hour.” She exhaled, meeting her dog’s eye. “Come on, Buckshot.”


***


Rylee exited the expressway onto a multi-lane. Chicago, the third most populous city in the United States, with its sirens blaring, horns honking, and graffitied walls was home. She passed Chicago-Read, a state-run two-hundred-bed psychiatric hospital as she traversed the northwest side of the city. Her mouth went dry, averting her gaze from what she knew to be her mom’s room. The sound of a jackhammer returned her attention to the road. It seemed no one had a day off this Sunday morning. “You guys just finishing up?” she asked, ducking under the strip of yellow tape restricting access to the crime scene.

“Yep, just did,” the tech responded. He had what looked to be a DNA kit tucked under his arm. “Your partner’s in there,” he added, nodding toward what she assumed to be the bathroom. “Victim is too. Medical Examiner should be here by eleven to pick her up.”

“Good deal,” Rylee said, pausing to scan the entry area before making her way past the kitchen and through the living room. She came up beside her longtime partner as he shifted his position to the edge of the bathroom doorway. Rich was a good-looking guy, tall and muscled out, forty-five and African American. “Lining up a shot?” she guessed, her eyes narrowing as she looked into the room. “No blood,” she commented, scratching her head.

“You don’t see it right off,” Rich responded, looking her way. “Pure luck Jones, and O’Malley saw it at all.” He nodded downward. “Look for yourself.”

Rylee squatted down next to the body, the victim already stiffening with rigor mortis. “Good job, Jones, and O’Malley,” she said softly, noting that a solitary prick had resulted in a minuscule drop of blood. “Dart, I’m guessing,” she added as she stood up. “What’s this?” she asked, noticing a thorny twig in the upper right corner of the mirror.

Rich moved closer. “Totally missed that,” he admitted. “Course it’s way up above my eye level.” Small and high, it was a critical piece of evidence that could suggest they were looking at the work of a serial killer.

“That’s it,” Rylee responded, cocking her head, “make a tall joke while I solve a murder for ya.”

“While you solve a possible murder for me,” Rich countered. “Autopsy’s not until late tomorrow. Death could still be due to natural causes.”

“Pretty sure it’s not,” Rylee said as she positioned for a measurement and then a shot. “I think it’s a blackberry bramble,” she said, “but I could be wrong. A ‘C’ in botany can only carry a guy so far.” She gently removed the bramble from the mirror, dropped it into an evidence bag, and labeled it. Her shoulders tipped back as she took another look around, wondering if she’d be able to locate her old botany textbook. She had the sense that it was in her grandparent’s attic somewhere. “So, what do we know about her?”

“Thirty-two, last month,” Rich said. “Lives alone according to the super. He described her as a good tenant. Found her at 0915 and called 911 at 0925. Claimed the neighbor across the hall called him after the door stood open for a couple of hours. Said he came right up to check it out. He lives on the first floor.”

“Did you talk to the neighbor?” Rylee asked. She hated coming in late on a case, even if only by a couple of hours.

“No, not yet,” Rich responded, continuing. “Time of death was 0600. ICE contact’s her mom. It’s an Arizona number, a landline.” He took a breath, let it go, and met her eye. “I tried, but there was no answer.”

“I’ll call her,” Rylee offered, knowing that her partner had a difficult time telling parents they’d lost a child. The problem started after he lost his fifteen-year-old son to gang violence. That was two years ago. Since then, she’d tried her best to do all their informing. “Any priors?” she continued.

“Reported a credit card stolen last year,” Rich answered, “but that’s all.”

Rylee nodded, still looking around. “No sign of struggle. She’d have fought back if someone came at her with a needle.”

“Yeah, probably,” Rich responded. “Unless she knew ‘em. Maybe she had someone over for a shower, and they took her by surprise.” He shook his head with his fingers on his chin. “I still think it could be natural causes though. Guess we’ll know tomorrow.”

“I tell ya, it’s not natural causes,” Rylee countered. “Look at her, young, healthy, and strong.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Rich responded.

“Whatever, whoever got her, got her quick,” Rylee continued. “She didn’t even have time to grab a towel. With one spare second, she’d have grabbed one.” She shook her head as her upper lip curled. “Sick bastard,” she muttered, “sneak up on a woman while she’s in the shower.”

“If she was murdered,” Rich said, “sick bastard is right.”

“She was, I tell ya,” Rylee responded. She had a sense about these things. Call it woman’s intuition or good police instinct. Call it whatever you want, she could feel it in her gut.

“Fish biting today?” Rich asked, changing the subject.

“They were gonna,” Rylee answered as she went under the yellow tape, stepping into the hallway. She shook her head. “You think we’re ever gonna get a full day off?” she asked with a sigh.

“I don’t know,” Rich answered, following her. “Maybe, maybe not. I sure hope so though.” They stepped the stairs to the parking lot. “We haven’t even had a chance to get the camper out of storage.” With violent crime on the rise and detective positions left unfilled, days off were increasingly hard to come by. “Chinese?” he asked, pausing next to his unmarked squad car.

“The place on Archer?” Rylee asked.

“Of course,” Rich answered.

“Good,” Rylee said, glancing across the lot to her truck, “because Buckshot loves their crab rangoon.”


Chapter Three


“I don’t get why we have to go every Sunday,” Abby grumbled, yanking her blue dress off the hanger with enough force to tear the fabric. “No one else has to go every single week.” She didn’t care much for any of them, but if she had to wear one, it was her favorite.

“Because we do,” Kenzie responded. “I don’t ask much of you, Abigail.” Their gazes locked for a long moment.

“I hate you sometimes,” Abby muttered under her breath, jerking the dress on.

Kenzie took a breath, knowing that her thirteen-year-old was baiting her. “Wear your jeans if you want,” she said softly. She didn’t know what to do anymore. It seemed like everything, large and small, led to an argument. She opted to let this incident pass without comment. As the adult, she had the responsibility to help them choose their battles wisely. Years of counseling and they had virtually nothing to show for it. She’d resigned herself to the fact that she might never be forgiven for leaving, and subsequently divorcing, Abby’s father. Maybe she had it coming, who knows? To Abby, and her ex for that matter, her decision to leave had come out of the blue. In some respects, she supposed that was true. She’d been on the Dan Ryan that morning, running late. Traffic was more congested than usual. As it crawled to a stop, her mind filled with a notion of her future, old and unfulfilled. She was only twenty-nine, but in her mind, she saw her life ticking away, miserable. She moved out that weekend. Abby, then eight, refused to come with her. She was a strong-willed child and held her ground until the Court forced her to. In hindsight, Kenzie wondered if being honest about her reasons for leaving might’ve been the better thing to do. But she just couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t bring herself to. Five years, five long years since that day, and still her daughter hadn’t forgiven her. She blamed her for everything—that he hadn’t visited this year; hadn’t called since her birthday, and never wrote her. Maybe she deserved it. Maybe she had the right to stay angry for what seemed like forever. A wave of emptiness passed through the pit of her stomach as she slipped into her navy skirt. She called out “Abby” as she fastened the clasp on her necklace, a cross with a fiery orange garnet, her birthstone.

No answer.

Not unusual.

“Abby,” she called out again.

No answer.

Again, not unusual.

She exhaled, making her way down the upstairs hallway. “Did you hear me?” Kenzie asked, taking a position at the center of her daughter’s bedroom doorway.

“Yeah, I heard ya,” Abby answered, “I was waiting for the rest of it.”

Kenzie held her gaze for a long moment. “Come on,” she said firmly, “it’s time to go.”

“Straight there?” Abby asked. She removed her ear buds and laid them on the nightstand.

“No,” Kenzie responded, “we’re picking up Sally and Jodi.”

“Figures,” Abby said as she climbed into their old four-door.

“Neither has it easy, Abigail,” Kenzie continued. She shook her head slowly as she turned the key to start the car. It hesitated, like it might soon need a new battery, and then turned over. “Giving folks a ride is something we can do to help, something that doesn’t hurt us at all.”

“I know,” Abby mumbled. She leaned back, looking away for the next fourteen blocks. “There’s Jodi,” she finally blurted out as they approached the graffitied red brick structure, “but no Sally.”

“Guess she’s not going this morning,” Kenzie responded, pulling over.

“Not everybody thinks they have to go every week,” Abby responded.

“I know, Abigail,” Kenzie said, sighing. “I know.” She glanced to the backseat with a warm smile as her passenger climbed in and shut her door. “Good morning,” she greeted, forcing lift into her voice. “What a beautiful dress! Robin egg blue’s my favorite color.”


***


The church was a spacious, modern structure equipped to seat about twenty-five hundred to three thousand, with rows of pews facing a gigantic raised platform at the front. The stage lighting and sound system gave the impression that those in attendance were in for a show. Ten musicians were playing, and probably would continue to play, an easy mix of worship rock-n-roll. The lyrics were displayed on several large monitors. The pews were outfitted with soft cushions and headphones.

Joanna had arrived a good forty-five minutes before the service was scheduled to start. She liked to get a feel for a holy space before sitting down. So far, most were between the ages of thirty and fifty-five, predominately white. At least a thousand were milling around, many of whom were wearing t-shirts printed with one of two biblical quotes—Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” They were two of her favorite verses. She liked this church and planned to come back.

“Good morning,” the greeters chirped, smiling.

“And good morning to you,” Joanna responded, smiling back. She shook their hands and studied them for an extra moment. What a difficult choice, she thought, guessing both to be first generation biracial. It was never a good idea to take more than one from the same house of worship, but...

“I’m Jodi,” the taller one blurted out, still smiling, “Welcome to The Covenant. We hope with us you find the Lord.”

“I’m sure I will,” Joanna responded, smiling back.

“And I’m Kenzie,” said the curvaceous one with the bouncy dark curls. She looked a little older, maybe thirty-four or five. “Welcome,” she added, pointing to an area with tables on the far side of the room. “Please, enjoy some refreshments and make yourself comfortable.”

“Thank you. I’ll do that,” Joanna responded, locking onto her deep brown eyes. Maybe you should take both, she thought. It’s a large congregation after all. I can’t imagine that anyone would notice. She picked up an apocalypse pamphlet from a tabletop display as she made her way over to the cappuccino bar. Just this once, she told herself. Do them, and then you can move on to another house of worship.


***


Break lights flickered as the late model SUV in front of Joanna moved through the intersection. Too close, she told herself. Fall back. She eased up on the accelerator. In the next block, the traffic light turned yellow, and the old sedan stopped. The light was red by the time she came to a halt. She checked her mirror as she slid her tongue along the inside surface of her upper teeth. A poppy seed from the bagel she’d consumed had lodged itself between the two in front. There we go, she thought, swallowing. She nudged her cat-eye glasses up the bridge of her nose and re-tucked a stray lock of auburn hair into her bun. She considered the need for a salon appointment as the light turned green, but ruled it out as she moved forward. Her stomach fluttered in anticipation. It was always fun to scope out a new hunting ground. A full-size pickup passed, and then pulled in front of her. A woman with an olive complexion was driving. Her hair was dark brown, tapered in back, and feathered over her eyebrows. Masculine in appearance, she was most likely a lesbian. She had a dog with black spotted ears. The canine looked right at Joanna through the passenger window. She didn’t like dogs, large or small. She lifted her foot off the accelerator when an unmarked squad car pulled in behind the black truck. They turned the next corner. She squinted to see the street sign, making a mental note of where she was. Archer. Near Chinatown. In the next block, a red Volkswagen came to an abrupt halt. She stretched, keeping the old sedan in her sights as she whipped around. Could the two women be sisters? Probably not, because other than skin tone, they didn’t look much like one another. Six blocks down and one over, the old sedan came to a stop and the tall one—Jodi—got out. She waved to the curvy one—Kenzie—and the kid before making her way up the sidewalk. The building was like the one this morning, rundown. She’d come back later to figure out which apartment Jodi lived in. With any luck, her name would be on the mailbox. The old sedan pulled back into traffic. Off we go, she thought with an inward smile. “Off we go,” she giggled. “Off we go to a brand new hunting ground!”


Chapter Four


“It’s our turn to try out the new one,” Rich said, “so be nice.”

“I’m always nice,” Rylee responded, smiling and gently nudging his shoulder.

“Uh-huh,” Rich answered, “sure you are.” He was shaking his head as the receptionist appeared in the Medical Examiner’s window. “Hayes and Winters,” he announced, showing his ID even though he didn’t have to. “We’ve got the nine o’clock, Sally Dee Smith.”

“Be right back,” the woman responded, disappearing down the hall. Nice lady, always in good humor in spite of the fact that she was counting the days to retirement. Rylee would be counting too if she spent all day, every day, with dead people and forensic pathologists.

“My least favorite part of the job,” Rich admitted, wrinkling his nose.

“Mine too,” Rylee said, breathing through her mouth, “Especially when someone’s working on a decomposer.” She dabbed a bit of Vicks in each nostril, an old trick she’d learned from her field-training officer. “Here, want some?” she offered.

“Yeah, thanks,” Rich responded, stretching to catch the small tin that she’d just tossed at him. “I need to replenish our supply.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Rylee chuckled. “It doesn’t cost that much.” She’d been carrying the product with her since she’d been a rookie cop. It was hard to believe that’d be twelve years, come the first of July.

“Dr. Grey’s expecting you,” the receptionist announced, stepping back to the window. The door latch clicked when she pressed the buzzer. “Room five,” she added. “You can go on back.”

“Thanks,” Rich said, leading the way down the extra wide corridor. He grimaced as they walked past door number three. “Stinker’s in there,” he commented, wrinkling his nose. “Feel bad for whoever’s got that one.”

“Yeah, me too,” Rylee said with a hard swallow. “You know it’s bad when Vicks can’t cut it.”

“Oh yeah,” Rich said, nodding, and picking up the pace toward door number five.

Rylee shook her head when he held it open for her. “Such a gentleman,” she commented, sarcastically.

Joanna looked up, catching her eye.

“Good morning,” Rylee greeted, “Detective Hayes.” She nodded toward Rich. “And my partner, Detective Winters.”

“Good to meet you,” Joanna responded, promptly returning to her task at hand. She was an attractive woman, super-sexy, in her thirties. She had green eyes, an oval shaped face, and eyebrows that curved at the end. The standard blue garb looked good on her, including the latex gloves and cap. A stray lock of reddish hair dangled over the rim of her catlike glasses. Without a word, she stepped into a large walk-in refrigerator, wheeled out a stainless steel gurney, and unzipped the black bag. “Sally Dee Smith, the deceased,” she announced flatly. “It’ll take five, maybe six hours, to disassemble the body.” She looked up. “Make yourselves comfortable, but don’t get in my way.” Her eye contact was direct and intentional. “I don’t appreciate distractions, including questions, when I’m working.”

“Don’t know why people have to act like that,” Rylee commented under her breath.

“She’s new,” Rich said. “Give her a break.”

“Not an excuse,” Rylee responded, shaking her head. She lifted Joanna’s business card from the holder—B.S., M.S., Pharm.D., and M.D.—Microbiology, Forensic Toxicology, Pharmacy, and Medicine. “See, here’s her problem,” she added, handing him the card, “her credentials read like a can of alphabet soup. We’re just pond scum cops and she thinks she’s better than we are.”

“Man,” Rich commented, studying her, “are you ever cranked this morning.” He paused, cocking his head. “Ahhh...now I know why...”

Rylee met his gaze, waiting.

“You think she’s hot,” he continued.

“You gotta be kidding,” Rylee responded, shaking her head as her voice lifted a full octave. “Her?”

“Yes,” Rich said, his slow smile building, “her.” He chuckled. “You’re interested alright, and you’re pissed because she didn’t bat her pretty little green eyes at you.” Rylee wasn’t used to women looking the other way.

“Not at all,” Rylee said firmly. “Not in the least.” She locked gazes, adding, “I don’t date bitches.”

“Not since your last one,” Rich countered. It’d been two months and Rylee was still trying to break free of her last short-term girlfriend. His smile broadened. “But who said anything about dating her?” he teased.

“Would you just shut up before she hears you,” Rylee said, dropping her chin like she did when she was serious.

“Certainly,” Rich responded, leaning back, and winking.

“Deceased person is Sally Dee Smith, thirty-two-year-old, female,” Joanna began, “one-hundred-twenty-nine pounds, dark brown hair, brown eyes, and biracial. ID confirmed by fingerprints and dental records.”

The detectives looked over, their attention shifting from their conversation to the autopsy.

“Frontal, posterior, and profile photographs have been taken,” Joanna continued. “An irregular, flat, congenital birthmark, a Mongolian spot, is present on the deceased left thigh. Measurement is approximately 10 centimeters. One wound, consistent with the puncture of a twenty-gauge needle is present on the neck within the anterior triangle.”

Rylee stepped close to the table, snapping a photograph of the injury from a different angle.

Joanna exhaled loudly, lifting her hands from the cadaver as her face tightened.

“Sorry,” Rylee said softly, her gaze dropping.

“Just get on with whatever you think you need to do,” Joanna snapped, poking her tongue into her cheek, and watching. “I’m sure that shot is far more important than my autopsy.”

“No...Sorry,” Rylee repeated. Card-carrying bitch, she thought as she sat back down.

Joanna took a breath, exhaled, and locked gazes.

Rich looked away, but Rylee refused to drop her eyes. When Joanna switched on the second ultraviolet light, she leaned over to her partner, muttering, “What a battle-axe.”

“Damn right she is,” Rich responded quietly.

Both looked up at the sound of Joanna’s low voice. Too bad she’s such a bitch, Rylee thought.

“A tattoo in the shape of a butterfly,” Joanna continued, “a Monarch, is present on the upper, outer quadrant of the right breast. “Measurement is...” She paused, smiling and calculating. “Approximately five centimeters,” she added, positioning her rib shears. “Dissecting,” she continued, “‘Y’ incision.” The two arms of the letter ran to the middle of Sally’s chest from her shoulder joints. The stem trailed down to her pubic region.

Rylee leaned over, her expression twisting at the sound of a bone saw. “Well, one thing’s certain,” she commented, shaking her head, “this lady loves what she does for a living.”


***


They tipped back in their chairs, flipping through pages, reading. “Okay, so I hate to do it,” Rylee blurted out, “but I have to give it to her. Bitch or not, our new forensic pathologist may have written the most thorough autopsy report I’ve ever seen.”

“She’s good, alright,” Rich responded. “I think she took tissue samples from anywhere and everywhere that she could get to ‘em.”

“Oh, I’m sure she did,” Rylee agreed with a grimace. “And body fluids too,” she added, again flipping through the pages, “urine, blood, gallbladder bile—everything.” She shook her head, making another face. “She even took a sample of vitreous gel from her eyes...Nasty.”

“Nasty’s right,” Rich responded, adding, “I couldn’t watch when she did it.”

“Me neither,” Rylee chimed in. “But at least we got what we needed.”


Chapter Five


“Wolfsbane,” Rylee said, quietly enough to be talking to herself. She was one of those folks who thought things through out loud. She shook her head, still surprised that the common flowering perennial in the back corner of her grandma’s garden had turned out to be the poison.

“Yeah,” Rich responded, looking up, “who’d have thought?”

“Not me, that’s for sure,” Rylee responded. “You know what one it is, don’t you?” she asked, ready to show off her knowledge.

“Uh-huh,” Rich said. “It’s that tall one you see all over the place south of I-80, the one with gorgeous blue spikes and hood-shaped flowers.”

“Yep, that’s the one,” Rylee responded with a nod. “I marched right over to grandmas’ after we found out about it to tell her she had to make sure to be careful.” She laughed. “But she already knew to watch for it. Still sharp as a tack at seventy-five.” She worried about the day her grandparents would take a downward turn, probably because of her mother. “Said she’d just read an article about it in one of her magazines,” she continued, “said it talked about an experienced gardener who collapsed and died after tending to it in his garden.” She shook her head, finishing her thought. “Had to make sure I knew to wear gloves if I picked one up.”

“Grandmas’ are like that,” Rich commented, chuckling. “Clucking right behind you.”

“Yeah, but mine’s worse,” Rylee responded. “Kind of a cross between a grandma and an overprotective mom.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” Rich said, pausing, “your grandparents raised you, didn’t they.”

“Yep,” Rylee answered, her voice trailing off, “sure did. Lived with ‘em from the time I was five.” She shuffled papers, pushing a painful memory to the back of her mind. Then, she experienced an attack of conscience, telling herself that—one of these days—she should visit her mom.

Rich tipped back in his chair with the report in his hand, returning them to a work topic. “So, what if our vic wasn’t murdered?” he proposed. “What if she was a gardener, gardening somewhere that we don’t know about. Maybe she had a big ol’ armload of wolfsbane, on the way to the burn pile or something.” He paged through the report. “Look here,” he went on, pointing. “Dr. Grey makes it a point to ask if our vic was a gardener.” He opened his notebook, referring to his handwritten notes. There were pieces of information that the pathologist shared afterward, but didn’t include in her report. “Says here that neurotoxins, like wolfsbane, are easily absorbed through the skin and open wounds.” He looked up. “So maybe this was an accidental overdose.”


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