by Carolyn Elizabeth
Corey Curtis is coasting. At thirty-three, she’s in the best shape of her life and has a satisfying position at Jackson City Memorial Hospital. With a good paycheck, great friends, and occasional relationships with smart, beautiful women, she couldn’t be happier. She thinks.
Dr. Thayer Reynolds, whiling away some time before the start of her Emergency Department fellowship at JCMH and intrigued by the stories she’s heard, crashes the morgue to get a look at Corey—the woman her young colleagues are whispering about.
Totally spinning from her first interactions with Thayer, Corey throws herself into the post mortem exam of a construction worker who fell to his death, which isn’t at all suspicious—until it is. With no support from her boss or the police, Corey investigates the death on her own. Making bad decisions with good intentions, she recklessly endangers her own life and Thayer’s. Even worse—she potentially dooms any chance of a real relationship with Thayer before it even gets started.
Lex Kent’s Reviews - I always enjoy reading good debuts. It gets me excited to find new authors. I would recommend this book to just about anyone. I think people will enjoy this read. I hope there is a book 2 because I will be reading it. Almost forgot, I also like the oddball title of the book.
Corey danced on the balls of her feet, her fighting stance relaxed, and grinned around her mouth guard. Her opponent grinned back, rolling her shoulders, as she circled Corey while waiting for her opening.
“Kick her ass, Curtis,” a woman called, her voice echoing through the cavernous converted warehouse, now the gym where Corey spent several mornings and evenings a week.
She snorted a laugh, her gaze flicking to the ropes where a few of their other early morning MMA classmates watched with interest. She’d never beaten Rachel, not even come close, despite her height advantage and longer reach.
But today could be her day. Her focus came back to the ring as Rachel moved in on her, snapping off a couple of jabs in her direction. Corey easily danced out of the way.
Rachel taunted her, gleefully dropping her gloved hands. “What you waiting for, Corey?” she garbled around her mouth guard. “I gotta be at work in less than an hour.”
Corey’s eyes narrowed at the challenge as she stepped in with a sharp, three-punch combination landing two lefts before letting go with a right overhand punch to her head. She realized her mistake too late as Rachel stepped back, blocked her punch with her left arm, locked her arms around the back of Corey’s neck in a double-collar tie, and pulled her forward and down with a hard knee to her solar plexus.
Corey dropped to the mat with a grunt as the air was forced from her lungs. She spit out her mouth guard and canted her head up just in time to see Rachel’s gloved fist a second before it smashed into her face—hard.
“Oh, shit.” Rachel spit out her mouth guard and dropped to the mat next to her. “Cor, are you all right? I tried to pull that punch. I just meant to smack you in the side of your headgear but you turned into it.”
“I’m okay.” Corey sat back on her heels, sucking in deep lungfuls of air as she prodded her already tender eye with her fingertips.
“Better luck next time, Curtis,” someone cackled from nearby.
“You’re getting old, Corey,” another voice chimed in.
Rachel scowled in their direction. “Bitches,” she muttered. “Twenty-eight isn’t old.”
Corey grimaced. “I’m thirty-three.”
“Oh, well.” Rachel grinned. “I’ll go find you some ice, Grandma.”
Corey wiped steam from the mirror and leaned over the sink, prodding the skin around her eye. It was puffy, tender and already discolored, but it wasn’t swollen shut. She stepped back and gave herself a once-over, clad only in her briefs and sports bra. Her skin was tight over muscles defined from three or four days a week at the gym. The ink of her full sleeve tattoo on her right arm, a gift to herself for her thirtieth birthday, was still vibrant. Her teeth were straight and white, her eyes clear and blue. Her hair was cut short but trendy—closely cropped around the sides and back and longer and asymmetrical on top to fall rakishly over her eyes or stick up carelessly if she ran her hands through it—so said her stylist. All in all she had no complaints.
Rachel placed a baggie of ice on the sink. “Don’t let those skanks get to you, Cor.”
“What? No, I wasn’t. I was just—”
“They hope they look as good as you when they’re your age.”
She spun around. “I’m only thirty-three.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.” Rachel opened her locker and sat on a bench to change. “I mean if we didn’t already know we suck in bed together, I’d totally be all over your shit.”
“We didn’t suck, exactly.” Corey laughed at the memory of their one night together five years ago.
She had only recently moved back to the area and started her position at Jackson City Memorial Hospital. She had joined the Women’s MMA Warehouse for obvious workout reasons and to meet people. This gym was particularly appealing because it was the only one that didn’t have gang showers. She was far from a prude about her body, or anyone else’s, but she drew the line at showering in full view of total strangers.
Rachel, a slightly androgynous twenty-something with a Ruby Rose look—black spiky hair, tattoos and a tongue ring out to prove herself to the world and expand her sexual horizons—latched on to Corey, six years her senior, like a spider monkey. After months of flirting and one night of far too many drinks, Corey relented and figured they should, at least, get it out of the way. While they both got what they needed at the time, the sex was more comical than anything and it never came up again. Their friendship, however, was one of the best things Corey had in her life.
“And anyway, you’re still stringing along that cool as ice, yet smoking-hot lawyer.” Rachel dragged her coffeehouse T-shirt over her head.
“Financial advisor,” she corrected. “Wait. What? Stringing along?”
Rachel pulled on cargo shorts. “Don’t pretend you don’t know how into you she is. You just haven’t gotten around to cutting her loose.”
She shook her head. “That’s not—”
“Oh, yeah?” Rachel eyed her. “When’s the last time you took her out? Have you ever even introduced her as your girlfriend? I can’t even remember her name. That’s how often you talk about her.”
“Anna,” Corey mumbled. “And I gave her a key to my place.”
“Oh, shit.” Rachel pulled on her battered Chucks and grabbed her canvas messenger bag out of her locker. “I’m late and hippy-dippy, yuppie, extra skinny, blah, blah, blah lattes won’t make themselves.”
Rachel pretended to resent her silly barista job, but Corey was one of the very few people who knew Rachel had dropped out of her first year of university and purchased the failing downtown coffee shop, using tuition money and a small business loan. She was smart and savvy, and within a few years, had turned it into the very successful shop it was today with great food and drinks, open mic nights, poetry slams and an occasional women-only speed dating night.
Corey glanced at the clock. It was after eight and she needed to get moving too. “Don’t let the hipsters get you down, Rach,” she called as Rachel raced out the door. “Oh, and thanks for the ass kicking.”
She laughed and pressed the melting bag of ice to her eye, her smile faltering with Rachel’s words about her half-assed relationship of six months still ringing in her ear.
Corey’s vintage, blue and white Ford F-100 rumbled into the lower level parking lot of the hospital. She often wondered what people would say if they knew the morgue and food services shared the same loading dock. She more or less kept regular hours, but she was autonomous, didn’t punch a time card and her patients were never an emergency. As long as she didn’t have a meeting, she considered her start time anywhere between eight and nine in the morning.
She shouldered her way through the door, adorned with the Latin phrase Mortui Vivos Docent, the dead teach the living. The small morgue contained a desk, computer, phone, and file cabinet. She headed past the silver walk-in cooler and into the main autopsy suite, where she heard the stainless steel being banged around.
“Jesus, there you are.” Cinnamon James, her sort-of and sometimes lab assistant by day and forensic anthropology PhD student all other times, eyed her up and down, impatiently. “Is that what you’re going to wear? And what the hell happened to your face?”
She looked down at her usual faded jeans and even more faded beer T-shirt. “Yes, Mom, this is what I always wear.” She frowned back at the petite, younger woman, noticing she was pulled together nicely in khaki dress pants and a light blue button-down blouse that made her look marginally older than her twenty-four years. Cin looked like the blond, doe-eyed cheerleader next door and was constantly dismissed and underestimated as a result. Her name didn’t do her any favors either. She was, in fact, whip-smart, highly educated and just had yet another paper published in Forensic Science Quarterly, which had generated invitations to several professional conferences to speak on her work.
“What’s the occasion?”
“It’s the beginning of July, Corey,” Cin huffed. “You forgot the new residents were coming—”
“Oh, shit.” She spun, mouth agape, and stared at the clock as the minute hand ticked toward nine. For those rare meetings in the land of the living, with her boss and any administrative types, she would at least change into scrubs and a lab coat. People found her five-foot-ten height intimidating enough without adding visible tattoos. “You think I have time to change?”
The door banged open to the anteroom. “Right this way, gang. I know it’s a little cramped but we’re all friends here.”
Cin pressed her lips together with a helpless shrug. “Sorry,” she mouthed.
Corey dropped her head back in a silent scream, her eyes tightly closed. “Fuck.”
She had just enough time to square her shoulders and straighten her expression before Dr. Edward Tweedle, PhD, Director of Resident Education, appeared followed by a gaggle of first-year residents from multiple specialties. “Dr. Tweedle, good morning,” she greeted him and gave a nod to the crisp white coats filing in behind.
Tweedle stopped dead, a few residents piling up behind him, as he took in her appearance with unadulterated disapproval, his eyes narrowing and his perfectly coiffed mustache twitching in anger. “How nice of you to take time out of your bar fight to meet with us.”
She bit down on her lip and looked away to keep from snarking back, while a few of the residents within earshot nervously snickered and gaped at her.
His program for resident training using deceased scheduled for autopsy was genius, had won awards for the hospital, and been emulated at other institutions. He accepted all the accolades and Corey oversaw the training. He needed her and he knew it. She considered it job security, but they mutually despised one another.
“I’m assuming you have an appropriate body and the required consents?” he asked haughtily.
She stiffened, opened her mouth to speak but paused too long, unsure of the answer.
Cin jumped in, waving a stack of forms. “Yes, sir. Of course.”
His expression relaxed somewhat. “Very good. Thank you, Miss James, for your professionalism and attention to our program. You are a great asset.”
Corey smoothed her expression again. “Do you have their paperwork and schedule?” she asked, making a point to fix her gaze on his forehead. She expected much of his animosity stemmed from being three inches shorter than she and having a surname ripe for lifelong bullying.
He thrust a clipboard into her hands. “Make sure they’re done in time for grand rounds,” he snapped, before pushing his way back through the residents to the door.
Corey turned away from the residents and shot a look to Cin. “Thank you. Will you get the body?” Cin threw on a lab coat and snapped on gloves before making her way through the living bodies to get the dead one from the cooler.
For a brief moment Corey considered putting on a lab coat, but it didn’t seem important now. The residents waited quietly with a mixture of expressions—anxious, excited, bored, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
“All right, let’s get started. For those of you who don’t know, I am Corey Curtis, Autopsy Services Coordinator under the direction of our forensic pathologist, Dr. Randall Webster. I assist Dr. Tweedle with supervising the practicum for your initial weeks of training.”
She paused and gave a cursory glance to the information on the clipboard. It was little changed from the past three years. There were twelve residents, four each from the emergency department, general surgery, and medicine. “For the next six weeks I’ll be seeing you once a week to practice a few common procedures including central lines, intubations, and arthrocentesis.” She paused when she heard the banging of the gurney through the cooler door as Cin made her way back. “Can everyone back up a little?”
It was a small autopsy suite brightly lit with overhead fluorescent lights, and despite the constant powerful ventilation, it always smelled of blood, chemicals, and cold flesh—sometimes overwhelming and rotten depending on the case. There was only one stainless steel table with attached sink, water, suction, and spray attachments. The surface of the table consisted of removable steel grates that allowed fluids and tissue to drop through to the smooth steel surface underneath, slightly slanted toward the sink for efficient cleanup.
One side of the room was lined with counters and cabinets for supplies and the fireproof cabinet for chemicals. The back wall contained a stainless steel dissection bench with attached sink for individual organ examination, a quantity of formalin for preserving tissue, and a scale for weights. The white-tiled floor sloped slightly toward the center drain and could be bleached and hosed down easily.
The third wall held a large whiteboard, one half of which was permanently marked with organ names, a column for weights, and space to write any other observations. The other half of the whiteboard showed a sexless outline of a human body for noting the external examination findings from scars and tattoos, eye and hair color, and external injury and perimortem interventions.
Cin skillfully pushed the gurney through the crowd and lined it up flush with the autopsy table. The body was large and wrapped in several white sheets from the top of its head and tucked under its feet.
“Thanks, Cin.” Corey smiled and gave Cin her introduction. “This is Cinnamon James. She works with me here and you’ll be seeing her around on occasion. When not giving me a hand, she’s studying forensic anthropology at the university under Dr. Audrey Marsh.”
Corey moved to the opposite side of the autopsy table and leaned toward the body, using her full height and arm span. She gripped the sheet at the shoulders and knees. She heard the door open and bang closed and straightened to see who was coming in.
The woman moved smoothly into the room and slipped in behind the residents to stand at the back. Corey was positively awestruck as she took her in. She was tall, maybe only an inch or two shorter than Corey, her trim body accentuating amazing curves beneath her stylish clothes. Her skin was naturally bronze and flawless with full lips framed perfectly by gold-highlighted auburn hair in a riot of curls that swept off her face and cascaded past her shoulders. She was beautiful in a way Corey could only describe as otherworldly.
Corey wasn’t even aware how long she stared until her gaze swept up to meet the woman’s eyes and a single, perfect brow arched in amusement, a smile hinting at her lips.
Corey cleared her throat feeling her face flush. She attempted to hide her embarrassment as she pulled the body across in one strong movement. She gave a nod to Cin, who had clearly seen the entire brief interaction and was fighting a laugh, to begin unwrapping the body.
“I’m not sure how much Dr. Tweedle explained about this practicum but I’ll give you a brief sketch. We use bodies of folks whose families have requested autopsies, but for whom a postmortem would otherwise not be required.” She stopped when a hand shot up. “Yes?”
“What’s the difference between requiring one and requesting one?” an impossibly young-looking woman asked.
She didn’t usually get questions about autopsy procedure but she was happy to answer. Her eyes flicked to the woman at the back who was watching her with interest, and she became hyper aware of herself—her too-low voice, and what she must look like, dressed as she was and sporting a shiner.
“Autopsies are required by law for any suspicious death, anyone who has died at home of unknown causes, suicides, and accidents, and all kids all the time, regardless of situation.” She glanced around at the faces to see they all, for the most part, seemed interested. “In hospital deaths, what we call “house cases,” autopsies are required if the patient dies within twenty-four hours of admission or if they were under direct physician care at the time, for example during surgery or in the emergency department. In these cases the costs are covered and there are no restrictions on the autopsy.”
She took a breath. “Next of kin can request an autopsy on a family member who dies but does not meet the requirements for a mandatory post. These can be full autopsies or partial—head only, chest only, whatever—depending on what they want to spend and what information they are looking for. Sometimes the family just wants to know more about how they died. Some family think, usually erroneously, that they have a malpractice case, or they want information on possible heritable conditions and that kind of thing. The expense for those posts is covered by the requesting family members. So, just to bring it around full circle…”
She picked up the chart off the now unwrapped body of a yellow-tinged, older man and flipped through the first couple of pages. “Mr. Wicker, eighty-three, terminal for non-alcoholic end stage liver disease died in hospice over the weekend. Though it’s not necessary, his family would like a post to get some more information on his liver disease. As part of the consent we explain we would like to use his body in training minimally invasive procedures and we knock a few bucks off the cost.” She looked around. “Make sense?”
Her mystery woman gave a small shrug and nod as if in answer and Corey’s lip twitched into a smile. Her belly did a little excited flip at the woman’s continued attention.
Corey tossed the man’s chart on the counter and referred back to her clipboard. “We don’t have a lot of time so let’s get started on subclavian central lines.” She looked around the room and the faces grew anxious again. “Who here knows what they’re doing?”
The room grew uncomfortably quiet save for the sound of shifting weight and shuffling feet as nervous glances shot across the room to each other.
She sighed. “All right, listen.” This happened every year on the first day. Her gaze was again drawn to the woman in the back, whose eyes glittered with amusement and offered what Corey interpreted as an encouraging smile.
She found herself mesmerized and worked to break herself from the woman’s gaze, clearing her throat. “I am not a doctor. I’m not here to judge you and I don’t even know how to do what you do, though I can probably answer your questions about anatomy. I’m here to provide you with an opportunity to learn something before you have to do it on a real live sick person.” She glanced around the room and had their full attention. “You are doctors now and are going to be expected to show some confidence and skill in your craft, and more than likely, save someone’s life. Fake it till you make it if you have to but take advantage of this time so your next patient doesn’t become my patient because of something you did or didn’t do.” She gestured to the body. “Mr. Wicker is way beyond caring about your technique, and you’re not going to hurt him so I suggest you get to work.”
The residents immediately grouped together by their department and went over to the three sets of trays Cin had set up for them on the counter, eagerly chattering as they identified instruments and anatomical landmarks.
Corey stepped out of the way, hearing the door open in time to see the woman slip out without saying a word. She frowned, glancing down at her list of twelve names and quickly counting twelve heads. She didn’t know who she was or why she had been here and was likely not going to find out now.
“Aw, that’s a shame.” Cin bumped her shoulder. “Thought you two had a shared moment there for a second.”
“Shut up.” Corey breathed a laugh, her face heating again. “You don’t know who that was, do you?”
Thayer Reynolds leaned over the desk at the Emergency Department nursing station. “Psst.”
Dana Fowler, the head nurse, looked up from her chart. “Hey, you.” She smiled at her friend. “You’re not on shift for a couple more days. What are you doing here?”
“Hey, Dr. Reynolds,” a young second-year resident grinned stupidly at her as he walked by.
Thayer turned and sketched him a wave, as he crashed into a closed sliding door, too busy looking at her to notice where he was going.
“Does that ever bother you?” Dana asked.
“Gawkers.” She leaned closer. “There are at least three other people stealing glances at you right now.”
“Guess I’ve gotten used to it.” Thayer laughed. “It’s harmless and anyway there’s not much I can do about where people put their eyes.” She shrugged. “In answer to your first question about why I’m here, I have meetings and paperwork all week and was in the neighborhood. Do you have time for a coffee?”
Dana glanced at the clock and then at the waiting room and finally at the whiteboard listing which patients were in what curtain being seen by which doctor. “I can go as far as the nurses’ lounge, but our coffee is pretty good.” She hopped out of her chair and motioned for Thayer to follow her.
Dana eyed her friend over the top of her paper cup. “So, you want to tell me why you’re really here?”
Thayer fought a smile and shrugged as she picked at the rim of her cup. “I’ve been hearing from some of the junior residents about their practicum training in the morgue and what it was like to work down there.”
“Aha. I see.” Dana grinned, knowingly.
“Aha, you see what?”
“You’ve been hearing stories of the Valkyrie?” Dana laughed. “I wondered how long it would take you to check her out.”
“I wasn’t checking her out,” Thayer scoffed. “With a nickname like that I was just curious. Does she mind that the residents call her that?”
“I have no idea.” Dana shrugged. “But who would mind being named after a Norse warrior goddess?”
“Actually, Valkyries weren’t warriors themselves but chose who lived and died on the battlefield, kind of like a Norse grim reaper. They would bring the slain up to Valhalla.” Thayer offered. “But I guess it’s still an apt nickname.”
“Uh-huh. You are such a nerd.” Dana grinned at her. “And what did you think?”
“I think the practicum program is a fantastic training tool.”
“Give me a break, Thayer.” Dana laughed. “What about Corey Curtis?”
Thayer pursed her lips, fighting a smile at the mere mention of the woman’s name. “She’s definitely intriguing and striking.”
“You always did go for the bad girls.”
“What makes you think she’s a bad girl?” Thayer cocked her head. “Do you know her?”
“No, not at all. I’ve interacted with her when I need to, but she intimidates the hell out of me and I don’t intimidate easily.”
“Really?” Thayer said, surprised. “I didn’t get that at all from her.”
“I’m not the only one, either. She sends a lot of the junior staff scurrying when she comes around.”
“Huh.” Thayer pursed her lips. “She’s definitely a lesbian?”
Dana barked a laugh. “You’re joking, right?”
She shrugged, sheepishly. “Well, you know, she could just be sporty or something.”
“I suppose. I’ve always thought she looked like that Olympic swimmer, you know the woman ten years ago who was the oldest to medal? Dara something.”
Thayer frowned a moment before the light went on. “I totally know who you mean and she does look like her. She’s not gay, though.”
“You’re killing me, here.” Dana laughed at her. “And don’t you have other things to worry about besides the sexuality of the morgue, uh, I don’t even know what her title is.”
Thayer sighed. “Yes, but she’s far more attractive to think on than the unpleasant woman in HR I have to meet with first thing tomorrow morning.”
Dana winced. “Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. Okay, then, did the object of your desire get a look at you?”
“Maybe.” Thayer shrugged noncommittally but she could almost feel Corey Curtis’s heated gaze. “And it’s not desire, it’s um, distraction or interest.”
“Uh-huh.” Dana finished her coffee and tossed the cup in the trash.
“Hi, Dr. Reynolds.” One of the junior nurses, right out of school, breezed into the lounge, batting her lashes and putting a little more swing in her hips as she crossed to the locker rooms. She was cute in a pixie-ish, early twenty-something sort of way.
“Hey, um…” Thayer faltered.
“Jules Archer,” Dana whispered.
“Jules.” Thayer called to the closing locker room door. “Shit.”
“Don’t worry, hon.” Dana laughed. “It’s only been a week and you’ll learn them all soon enough. Meanwhile they only have one name to learn, and you, my dear, are far more memorable than most of the knuckleheads around here.” She glanced at the door then eyed Thayer. “I’m pretty sure Jules is engaged to a man, but apparently your milkshake brings all the boys and the girls to the yard, I guess.”
* * *
Corey kicked the door to her condo closed with her heel, pulled the mail from between her teeth and dropped it on the kitchen counter with her keys, phone, and sunglasses. It was past seven before she finally got out of there. After the residents finally left, she still had to do the post on Mr. Wicker and write up the preliminary autopsy diagnoses to send to Dr. Webster. “Hey, Anna are you here?”
They were exclusive. They had agreed on that much, but they didn’t live together though Anna had a key and often stayed over. Corey had only been to her apartment downtown a couple of times because Anna didn’t have visitor parking. She kicked off her shoes and beelined to the fridge for a beer. She paused, frowning into the fridge, before pulling out the one with the note taped to it. Whatever this was, it was probably not good. She opened the beer and took a long drink before pulling off the note with a deep sigh.
My parents are only in town for one night. You are an asshole.
She stared stupidly at the note for a long minute. “Oh, fuck.” She glanced at the clock and then at her watch as if expecting it to say something different. She had assured Anna she would be out in time to meet them for dinner. That was at six and it was now close to eight.
Corey grabbed her phone, swiping it on, to see she had five unread texts and one voice mail. She cringed, sucking air between her teeth as she drained the rest of her beer before starting with the texts.
The first two were irritated, the next two ramped up to worried, and the final one ended with explosively and profanely angry words. She shuffled back to the fridge for another beer and collapsed onto the sofa before daring to listen to the voice mail. The message played for several seconds before Anna spoke. She no longer sounded angry, just sad and resigned.
“I was worried when you didn’t show up, so I left my parents at the restaurant and drove by the hospital. Your truck was still there and I knew you just forgot. I left the note on the way back to the restaurant and cleared out my things. There wasn’t much. I’m not an idiot, Corey, and I won’t be treated like one. I deserve better. The signs have been there for a while, but I just didn’t want to see them. Don’t call me. I don’t need or want to be wooed back and I wouldn’t believe you anyway. You are an honorable woman, Corey, and you have behaved dishonorably. I know how that will eat at you. I hope you find her, Corey, and I hope you treat her better. We had some fun times and the sex was good so not a complete waste of my time. Your key is by the coffeemaker.”
She let her phone fall to her lap and finished her second beer in several long swallows as she decided how she felt. She was sorry she hurt Anna. She totally agreed the asshole moniker was well deserved. Beyond that, though, she was having a hard time mustering up an emotion for a relationship in which she was never really invested. The sex had been pretty good. She would miss that.
On paper she and Anna ticked all the compatibility boxes yet there was still something missing—something indefinable and essential. She was not a serial dater and by her third beer had nearly convinced herself to take six months off and get her head out of her ass. By her fourth beer she was certain another lover wouldn’t be so much a rebound as a do-over. The fifth bottle went unfinished and all the women in her disjointed dreams had auburn hair.