Corey Curtis turned up the volume to Joan Jett’s “Crimson and Clover” and drummed on the steering wheel of her vintage Ford F-100 as she drove away from the hospital. A trip into the field and away from her basement office in the morgue was always welcome, especially in nice weather. Her mood soared and she fought laughter, although she was on her way to a crime scene and the recovery of a partially decomposed body.
It was a hot, breezy, late August day in Jackson City, New York, in the Southern Tier, and for the first time in thirty-three years, she was in love—madly, deeply, insanely in love with Dr. Thayer Reynolds, a woman so wonderful and beautiful that when Corey looked at her, she thought her heart would beat right out of her chest. She wanted to jump up and down on Oprah’s couch and scream at the top of her lungs.
She was downright giddy at finally having the use of both hands after seven weeks in a full cast on her left arm. She had sustained a broken arm and other serious injuries in a freak attack from a murderer. She and Thayer had inadvertently solved a crime while snooping around the construction site where the foreman had died after a five-story fall, a fall Corey had always believed was suspicious.
A deep breath at the memory triggered the tolerable ache just beneath her left breast from the three broken ribs she suffered. She still had some healing to do. She rolled her shoulders and neck, loosening the muscles damaged when she fought the man in defense of herself and Thayer. She beat him, knocking him out, only to fall fifteen feet through an unfinished floor, and Thayer, unable to help, had watched it happen.
Broken bones and internal injuries weren’t even her biggest concern compared to the massive concussion and the debilitating headaches she still endured almost two months out from the accident. The migraines occurred less often and didn’t always require medication any longer, but they still incapacitated her for the better part of a day.
She shook herself out of her melancholy thoughts and adjusted the specially tinted glasses that protected her from UV and fluorescent light, the constant insult of which frequently triggered an attack. She focused on the day ahead and the recovery of the dead body.
Dr. Audrey Marsh, the forensic anthropologist at the university and Corey’s former mentor as an undergraduate, had been called by the police to assist on a case. At one time Corey had dreamed of a career in forensic anthropology but was seduced away by a master’s degree in pathology as a certified pathologists’ assistant. She could now boast a decent paycheck with good benefits and the position of Autopsy Services Coordinator at Jackson City Memorial Hospital. She had worked there for the last five years, overseeing the post mortem examinations under the supervision of Dr. Randall Webster, the forensic pathologist.
Still, she kept in touch with Dr. Marsh and was involved in forensic cases as they came up and overlapped with her work. She hadn’t assisted with a forensic case in a while and was far more excited than even she would have thought, given the gruesome death scene that awaited them at their destination. If the body was so far gone they needed Dr. Marsh’s help, it was going to be nothing but horrible.
She looked over at Cinnamon James riding shotgun. Cin was Dr. Marsh’s student, Corey’s friend and sometimes assistant. “Look Mom, two hands,” Corey blurted gleefully, her hands at ten and two on the wheel.
Cin smiled at her before returning to her phone. “You’re spirited today.”
“I told Thayer I’m in love with her this morning.”
Cin held her phone up to get a better satellite signal. “That comes as a surprise to exactly no one.”
“Well, sure, okay.” Corey shrugged, still grinning. “But I said it out loud and I just feel like…I don’t know. I feel like everything’s changed.”
Cin nodded. “God, my phone sucks.”
Corey pulled her much newer phone from her back pocket. “Here.”
“What did she say?” Cin asked.
“She said ‘I know.’”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Corey slanted her an incredulous glance. Cin was frighteningly bright and accomplished, well on her way to a PhD in forensic anthropology at Jackson City University, and Corey often forgot she was nearly ten years younger. Still, Corey wasn’t born yet when the movie Thayer quoted was released so that was no excuse. “From The Empire Strikes Back. Han to Leia after she confesses her love right before he’s frozen in carbonite.”
“Was Natalie Portman in that one?”
“What? Never mind.” She came to a stop at Main Street. “Which way?”
“West. Looks like we’re heading down Old South Road to Rankins Lake.”
Corey’s head whipped toward her. “Where?”
“Um.” Cin studied the directions as they continued through what passed for the business district in the small city of just over sixty-three thousand people. “Looks like the north side—Corey, stop!” she screamed as she looked up and threw her arm toward the dash.
Corey’s eyes snapped back to the road and she stood on the brakes, slamming them against their seat belts as the truck screeched to within inches of the car in front of them. Corey threw her arm out across Cin in the passenger seat. “Oh, fuck.”
“Jesus Christ, Corey,” Cin panted, dropping her head back against her seat and pulling at her belt that had tightened across her.
“Shit.” Corey’s heart pounded. She met the wide-eyed stare of the other driver in his rearview mirror and offered an apologetic wave. He took off as soon as the light turned green, apparently wanting to put as much distance between them as possible. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” Cin rubbed her collarbone where the belt had dug in.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry.” Corey winced at her reddening skin.
“Are you getting a headache or something?”
“No,” Corey said and started moving when the car behind her honked. “Thayer lives on Rankins Lake and just for a second…”
“Yeah, I know. So do other people, Corey. And didn’t you just see Thayer at work, like an hour ago?”
“Yeah, I know it’s stupid.” Corey smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I just flaked out for a second.”
“Do I need to drive?” Cin offered her a smile in apparent acceptance of her apology. “So you can be alone with your distracting thoughts?”
“I got it.” Corey shook her head, focusing on the road. “Just tell me where we’re going.”
They turned off Old South Road onto a smaller, unnamed access road half a mile from Thayer’s place and began winding their way around to the opposite side of the lake. The road narrowed, going from paved to gravel to dirt, and closed in by dense trees and ground foliage.
Corey squinted through the windshield, sunlight strobing in through the trees as they bumped along slowly. She couldn’t help wincing as the jostling and light flashes caused her some discomfort. “How much farther?”
“Almost.” Cin peered up ahead. “There.” She pointed to the patrol car pulled off in the brush, marking a drive of little more than two rutted dirt tracks heading toward the lake.
Corey stopped as a young officer held out his hand. He was her height, muscular arms straining against his shirtsleeves with closely cropped brown hair that glistened with sweat beneath his uniform cap. She didn’t recognize him but couldn’t fail to notice his sickly pallor and sweaty skin. As soon as she rolled the window down, she got blasted by the hot, fetid stench that could only be putrefying tissue. “Corey Curtis and Cinnamon James.” She held up her hospital ID badge and breathed through her mouth. “They’re expecting us.”
The officer swallowed heavily several times in an effort to speak, but in the end decided keeping his mouth closed was the safer option and simply waved them forward.
Corey’s face lit up at the sight of Audrey Marsh leaning against her battered Corolla, lighting a cigarette from the butt of one she’d just finished. Corey knew it was her recovery car and she drove a Benz on campus. Though it had been at least a year since Corey had seen her last at a lecture she had given, she hadn’t changed at all. She was small, five-foot-three, with wiry muscled arms and legs. She still wore no jewelry and no makeup, her almost completely gray hair in a long single braid down her back.
She waved, blowing a stream of smoke through her nose as Corey and Cin parked next to the ambulance. Two miserable-looking paramedics huddled in the cab, using the tails of their shirts to cover their noses.
Corey jumped out fast and slammed the door in a futile effort to keep the air in the truck clean. Her eyes watered and she coughed at the overpowering miasma of human decomposition. Her eyes tracked to the house, an old rundown double-wide with busted screens, mold on the siding, and a roof she was certain leaked in at least three places.
At the front of the house, to the right of rickety wooden porch steps, a section of rotting latticework had been pulled out and set aside revealing the entrance to a crawlspace beneath the house. The mouth of the pit was completely dark but the drone of the flies was so loud she could hear it from where she stood, and there was a cloud of flies at the entrance buzzing in and out.
“Corey.” Audrey Marsh’s voice was smoker’s rough as she pinched out her cigarette and pocketed the butt. “It’s good to see you.” She pulled Corey into a much stronger hug than her size suggested.
“Dr. Marsh, how are you?”
“Corey, I’m not going to tell you again about calling me Audrey. How long has it been since you were my student? Ten years? We’re colleagues.”
“Damn that makes me feel old.” Audrey sighed and lit another cigarette as she eyed her former student. “Are you up for this? Cin told me everything.”
“I’m much better Dr. Mar—um, Audrey,” Corey stammered, trying out her first name. “I’ve been cleared for work.”
Audrey nodded and took a long drag. “I wanted to come see you in the hospital but I was at conferences all summer. I only just got back before Webster and the police started blowing up my phone. I haven’t even unpacked.”
“It’s okay. Cin told me you were out of the country, and besides, I wasn’t very good company for a while.”
“Hmm.” Audrey took a long drag. “I hear you made a friend over the summer?”
Corey couldn’t help the grin that split her face at the mention of Thayer.
Audrey laughed and gripped her arms. “Love looks good on you, my young friend.” She took a final drag before pinching it out, her expression turning serious. “I’m glad you’re here today.”
Corey grimaced, acutely aware that they were chatting in very close proximity to an unidentified and rapidly decomposing body they were tasked with extricating from a very dark, very hot, and very small resting place. “I was pretty excited until I opened the car door.”
“I’ve done an awful lot of recoveries in my time, and you never really get used to it, but even I think this one will be rough.” Her eyes trained on the opening to the crawlspace.
Talking about it brought the stench to the forefront of Corey’s mind again and she coughed. “Hope you brought some gel.”
“Always.” Audrey produced a small jar of mentholated gel from her pocket, unscrewed the lid and dug her finger in. She swiped a glob beneath her nose and offered it to Corey. “It’s why I’ll never knock off the smoking. Nasty habit but kills the respiratory cilia.”
Corey did the same, smearing it under her nose to cut the foul air. “I better check in with Collier and get dressed.”
Audrey barked a laugh. “He’s as fun as ever.” She popped the trunk of her car to get her equipment. “See you in the trenches.”
Corey headed over to Jim Collier, who was looking especially disheveled with his tie loosened and his shirtsleeves rolled up. He was imposing at well over six feet tall with cropped graying hair and a gruff voice and demeanor. He was a sergeant with the Jackson City Police Department and they had often worked together when he was assigned cases that involved her postmortem exams. They had always had a friendly relationship, but since Corey’s injuries from her involvement in the previous case, they had begun to realize they were friends.
Today he stood with an unfamiliar female patrol officer, thumbs hooked into her duty belt and head on a swivel, her eyes hidden behind her aviators. She looked to be a few inches shorter than Corey, maybe five-foot-seven. She was powerfully built but still feminine even in the shapeless uniform and Kevlar vest.
Collier nodded between them as he scribbled in his ever-present notebook, which was like an extension of his hand. “Curtis, Austin. Austin, Curtis.”
Corey shook her head disapprovingly and extended her hand. “Corey.”
Collier glanced at Corey briefly. “You look different.”
She waved her left arm. “Got my cast off this morning.”
He grunted and coughed. “Just in time. I’d go down with you but it’s a tight fit.”
“My ass you would,” Corey shot back, noticing the twitch of a smile from Steph Austin. “I’m going to get set.” She headed back to her truck and Steph joined her.
Corey was already impressed with her. The air was so foul with decay you could taste it, and if Officer Steph Austin was bothered by it, she gave no indication. Maybe she was anosmic and couldn’t smell. “I can tell just by the way you stand that you’ve been doing this a while. You pull the short straw to get this gig?” she asked as she dropped the tailgate.
Steph seemed pleased with Corey’s comment. “I’m coming up on twenty years. I’m partnered with Sergeant Collier for the time being.”
“You could do a hell of a lot worse.”
“And I have,” Steph agreed, staring at Corey’s vivid, full sleeve, ocean life tattoo on her right arm. “That looks like Frankie Fortune’s work.”
“You know Frankie?”
Steph’s mouth quirked. “Maybe.”
Corey’s eyes narrowed and she assessed the woman again. The only skin that was showing was from the neck up and her arms in her summer uniform.
“You’ll never guess and I’m not the tramp stamp type of girl,” Steph deadpanned.
Corey laughed. She really liked Steph Austin and could see them being friends. “So, how long are you going to be riding with Collier?”
“Unknown at this time, but you’ll be seeing me around as long as I am.”
“Where he goes you go?”
“Pretty much.” Steph grimaced and removed her sunglasses. “In this case, though, I’m going with you. Photos and evidence.”
“What? In there?”
Steph smiled and now Corey could see the lines around her hazel eyes. There were more than a few strands of gray streaking through her brown hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. She was older than Corey originally thought, and if she’d been on the job for twenty years, she was at least in her early forties. She looked more than physically capable. “Are you sure about that?”
“Absolutely not but it’s the job.”
“Atta girl. Let’s get you kitted out. What are you wearing under your uniform?”
Steph cocked a brow at her. “I have a T-shirt on if that’s what you mean.”
“It is.” Corey smiled. “Take your vest, duty belt and uniform top off. Don’t wear anything that could get caught and tear your suit, and don’t bring anything you would have to go back in for if you lost. The suits are thin so empty your pockets.” She patted the Tyvek suit. “It’s also going to be hot as hell in there so the less you have on the better.” Corey scanned the contents of her truck bed. “Oh, shit, I forgot to pick up water.”
“The patrol cars have bottles in the trunk. They’ll be warm but I’ll make sure we get some.”
“Great. All of it. We’re going to need it. Get the suit on and I’ll help you with the rest. And if you have to pee do it now.”
“Right.” Steph took the suit and headed to Collier’s unmarked car to take her gear off, and he, in turn, wandered over to Corey’s truck.
“I like your partner,” Corey said to him as she stepped into her own suit.
“Who? Stone Cold?” He snorted as he continued writing whatever he was writing in the little notebook.
“Why do you call her that?” Corey glanced at him while she exchanged her expensive glasses for a pair of hardware store, yellow-tinted safety glasses. They didn’t work as well long term but were fine for short periods, and she wasn’t risking her good ones. Then she pulled thick, disposable boots over her shoes and tied them up over her calves.
“She’s a goddamn robot—totally emotionless. Never talks about herself. Never cracks a smile. Don’t even know if she’s gay or straight.”
“What the hell difference does that make to how well she does her job?”
“It doesn’t. I just mean no one knows anything about her.”
“Maybe because a woman in the good old boy police force feels like she can’t emote lest it be used against her in some way.”
He eyed her over his notes. “Like what way?”
“Like being called a bitch, a dyke, or a tease. Your nickname? Stone Cold Steph Austin—very clever, by the way—already screams, ‘You should smile more, honey, you’ll be prettier.’”
Collier grunted and turned back to his notes. “I didn’t make it up and she’s not my partner. She’s training. The brass are grooming her for advancement. Some initiative from the mayor’s office to promote more women into leadership.”
“Oh, I see. It’s because she’s a woman and not because she’s put in twenty years in a uniform with an impeccable service record, and she probably aced the detective’s exam and has still been passed over for promotion repeatedly?”
He snapped his notebook closed and glared at her. “What do you know about it? She tell you all that?”
Corey snorted and snapped her first layer of gloves over her hands. “Nope. Didn’t have to. I know how it works.”
“It’s not my fault there are hardly any women on the force.”
“Oh, really? Because the police have such a strong history of recruiting and welcoming women?”
“The fitness requirements are strict and it’s a dangerous profession. Women are—”
“Do not finish that sentence. I like and respect you, Collier, but I think I hate you a little bit right now.” She pulled on heavier weight gloves and pulled them up her wrists as far as they would go. “Do you even hear the bullshit coming out of your mouth right now?”
“I’m not sexist,” he barked. “You know me.”
Corey rolled her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s right, hashtag not all men. Well, what are you doing to change the culture? How many of your bros in blue have you told to shut the fuck up when you hear them spouting filth about pussy grabbing in the locker room?”
He looked away. “I’m not going to win this, am I?”
“Nope. Don’t worry, Collier. I know you’re one of the good guys. When we finish this case, I’ll take you out for a beer and introduce you to terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘mansplaining.’”
From behind them Steph Austin coughed to cover a laugh, drawing their attention, but couldn’t contain the bright smile lighting up her face letting Corey know she had most likely heard much of their conversation.
Corey grinned knowingly and threw her a wink, admitting Steph Austin was quite attractive when she smiled. Corey immediately quelled the thought and turned her attention back to the job at hand. Steph had the department-issued camera and was tasked with taking the photos of the body and scene under the house, as well as recovering any obvious evidence before the crime scene unit came to do a more thorough sweep once the body was out. Of course, they risked contaminating the scene by going in first, but the only way around that would be to move the house to allow proper access. An expense like that would be astronomical and would never be approved by the city.
Corey helped Steph with her gloves, booties, and respirator mask. She gave her a pair of safety glasses and a face shield that would go on last after they pulled the suit hoods up and snugged the elastic around their faces. Their personal protective equipment would do as much to protect the scene from them as it would protect them from the scene.
She glanced to the entrance as Cin and Audrey were setting down the battery powered portable LED lights, a backboard from the ambulance, a heavy-duty black body bag and a stack of towels.
“Looks like we’re set.” She looked at Steph. “Ready?”
“You and Sergeant Collier pretty good friends?” Steph asked.
“I guess.” Corey was already sweating and breathing heavily, her skin itching beneath the suit. She was grateful for idle conversation and something else to think about. “In our line of work we cross paths a lot. We’ve been colleagues for five years or so. The friends part came about a little more recently. Why do you ask?”
“He respects you a great deal. Cares about you and what you think.”
“There’s no way he told you that.” She laughed. “We go out of our way to never say nice things to or about one another—kind of like siblings.”
“He didn’t,” Steph agreed. “I just know I’ve never heard anyone bust his balls the way you just did and live to tell.”
“Yeah.” Corey grinned. “That was fun. He needed to hear it.”
“You respect him?”
Corey could tell that despite her casual tone, she was fishing. “Very much. He’s a great cop and I would trust him with my life. Nearly had to just recently, in fact.”
“I’m familiar with your story. What you did was really…”
“Please, don’t say brave.”
“I was going to say stupid, but we just met and I wasn’t sure how that would go over.”
She laughed. “I can live with that. Probably the only time Collier’s said nice things to me or called me by my first name was when I was in the hospital. His mouth may say differently sometimes but his heart is always in the right place. A little rough around the edges but he’s a great guy.”
“I think so too,” Steph said quietly.
“Yeah?” There was an almost imperceptible wistfulness in her tone and Corey glanced at her.
“If you ever repeat that to him they will never find your body.” Her voice was cool as ice but the glint in her eyes belied her threat.
The four women stood garbed head to toe in protective plastic and nitrile just outside the range of the green bottle fly swarm.
“Can you fill us in, Steph?” Corey asked.
“Nothing about the body,” Cin added.
Audrey nodded. “Any information or suspicions about cause of death might prejudice our analysis.”
“No worries there.” Steph coughed. “We don’t know a thing. Not even sex. Early this morning a couple of hikers caught the stench, and thinking it was a dead animal, decided to investigate. When they realized the house was the origin they went no further and called 911. A patrol car came out and made the discovery. He only poked his head and flashlight in far enough to determine a human body.”
“That the poor guy out on the road?” Corey asked.
“Yeah. Officer Kelly Warren. On the job six years. This is his first body discovery. The sergeant and I did a sweep of the interior and immediate grounds to determine there were no other deceased, injured or other immediate threats and called you. The crime scene unit is standing by until after the recovery.”
“Good enough,” Audrey replied, taking charge. “Corey, I want you to go in first and set up the lights. Do your best not to interfere with the scene. We have no idea yet how much room we’ll have and your height makes you the limiting factor, so get your bearings and let us know. Officer Austin is in next to get her photos and whatever else she needs. If it’s too crowded, one of the two of you will pop back out, and we’ll send the backboard and bag in. We’re going to roll the body and bag it in there to avoid causing any more damage on the way out. The backboard will keep the body from flopping around. We can pack it with towels on the outside to sop up the mess.” She held out the tin of gel. “Last chance.”
Everyone dug in and smeared the gel over their faces before affixing their masks in place and lowering their face shields.
Corey did her best to ignore the flies and stepped down into the hole. So far it was only two feet deep and she peered down seeing it dropped further. “I’m good.” She hunkered down and folded herself into the gap, her chest and back muscles informing her of their displeasure.
She was in and felt for the bottom of the house, touching the ceiling of the crawlspace easily from her knees. “About four feet high.” She leaned back out. “Pass me the lights.”
Cin handed them down one at a time. “You okay?”
Corey coughed. “Great. Let’s make this quick.”
She ducked back down, breathing heavily through her mask. The heat was oppressive and made even heavier by the indescribable sickening stench. Her scrubs stuck to her back and legs, and sweat prickled against her scalp and trickled down her face beneath her glasses and mask. There was no way she could brush it away so she endured.
She didn’t want to move too far into the crawlspace for fear of stumbling over the body. She would have liked to prepare more, but she couldn’t spend any longer than necessary. The respirator protected them from biohazard particles but did nothing to cut the smell, which was so dense she imagined she could see it. She flicked on the first light, blinking against the visual assault.
The scene revealed was so gruesome that her breath was stolen, and a cry of alarm was impossible. The body, unclothed but for boots and socks lay along the far wall from where she knelt—a writhing, undulating mass of insect activity. The maggots carpeted the face and neck and part of the torso and groin. Their movement made a wet, popping sound as they fed and grew. “Dear god.”
Corey set up the other lights against the walls in a quadrant as fast as she could, doing her best to avoid the ground immediately around the body. She estimated the space at fifteen feet square—a tight squeeze for all of them. She didn’t want to be alone any longer. “Steph?” She gagged and choked back bile.
Corey moved farther back as Steph hunched in. “Jesus Christ.” Steph choked, her eyes going enormously wide through the shield.
Corey patted her hard on the shoulder. “I know. Get the job done,” she managed, and to Steph’s credit, she immediately began snapping her photos and studying the ground for any evidence, gently sifting through the dirt with her fingers.
“It’s tight but we can make it work. Send in the backboard and bag and come down,” Corey directed to the anxiously peering eyes of Audrey and Cin.
She set the backboard out of the way and arranged the body bag so it was open and ready to receive its cargo, leaving room for Audrey and Cin.
Steph clicked away on the camera, but all Corey could hear was the sound of her own labored, nearly panicked breathing. No one deserved to be found like this.
“Holy Mary. That poor bastard,” Audrey said while Cin went pale and silent at the sight of the rotting, bug-infested corpse. They had no reason to know it was a man save the body was large, despite the decay.
“You have everything?” Audrey eyed Steph who had stopped taking photos and was studying the ground.
Steph swallowed hard. “I’ve done what I can.”
“Good.” Audrey jerked her head. “Get up top and get ready to guide the body out.”
Steph didn’t need to be told twice and scrambled out of the space.
Audrey produced a series of small vials from within her custom suit and proceeded to pluck off maggots of varying sizes into each one. She pulled a small shovel from another pocket and skimmed through the surface dirt around the body, taking additional samples. “The good news is since the body was relatively protected, there’s only small animal activity and we don’t need to go hunting for missing limbs that a fox or coyote dragged off.” She began brushing the maggots off the body and into the dirt away from the path they needed to exit. “Cin, let’s clear it off as best we can. Every single one of these little bastards is a biohazard and I don’t feel like battling with the administration about it. Corey is that bag set up?”
“Yes.” Corey didn’t want to talk more than necessary. She was starting to feel light-headed from breathing shallowly or dehydration or both. She’d completely sweated through her scrubs, and it felt like they’d been down there hours but it couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes.
“Cin, get on his legs and roll him toward the wall on my count.” Audrey placed her hands beneath the shoulders. “Corey, slide the backboard beneath him.”
Corey duck walked over the body bag and crouched into position, lining up the backboard.
“One. Two. Three.” They rocked the body over and Corey pressed the board hard through the dirt until they could ease the body back down.
“No straps,” Audrey instructed. “It will strip the flesh off. On three let’s get him in the bag.” They gripped the board ends and Corey leaned over to grab the side to guide it in. “One. Two. Three.” Audrey gauged the distance to the opening. “Cin, at the head with me. Corey, I need you at the legs to lift him out. Bet you didn’t wish you were so strong right about now. You’re going to have to do the heavy lifting.”
Corey could only nod. She would lift whatever she had to in order to get out of this hole.
The three of them worked together to maneuver the body toward the entrance to the crawlspace, Corey’s overtaxed muscles screaming their displeasure the entire way.
“Up,” Audrey barked. She and Cin shimmied out, leaving Corey by herself again, alone with her ragged breathing.
Gloved hands reached back in and Corey strained to lift the head end through. They caught their grip and dragged the body out while Corey shuffled quickly to the feet and lifted with effort as they wrestled the body out the gap. Her neck and back muscles burned with the strain, but it was finally through and natural sunlight blinded her as she gazed up.
A gloved and sleeved arm thrust through the opening at her. “Quit fucking around, Curtis,” Collier barked.
She reached up and was jerked through the opening.
She blinked at him and he looked her over with what she almost thought was concern.
“Yeah,” she gasped, though she didn’t feel it. She ripped the face shield off, dragged down her mask and yanked off her hood, breathing deeply.
“Okay.” He clapped a hand hard on her shoulder before moving off toward Steph who was stumbling toward the tree line retching, while she struggled out of her gear.
Corey ripped her suit and gloves off, stuffing them into a giant red biohazard bag on the ground and staggered to the back of her truck and the industrial-size tub of cleanser. She pumped handfuls of it and slathered it over her hands, arms, and face, feeling every scrape and paper cut from the last week as the alcohol-based formula touched her skin.
Audrey, a cigarette hanging out the side of her mouth, thrust a bottle of water into her hands. “You did good, kid.” She grinned and took a drag so hard her cheeks sunk in.
Corey drained the bottle in seconds, water pouring down her chin before she came up for air. “Got another one of those?” She coughed and wiped her face on the back of her hand.
“You quit.” Audrey eyed her but held out her pack of reds.
“Ten years ago.” Corey nodded and accepted a light taking a long drag before holding it a beat and exhaling into the sky. “I’d bathe in and guzzle bleach right now if I didn’t know I’d die horribly.”
Audrey’s snort of laughter was the last sound as they smoked and drank another bottle of water each.
Corey looked around the clearing, noticing something was different. “What time is it?”
“Around two. Plenty of time to get the body mechanically defleshed and into boxes. I’m going to get cleaned up and meet you at the morgue with a couple of overeager students in an hour.”
Corey blinked stupidly at her. “Where’s the ambulance?”
Audrey smiled thinly. “Sergeant Collier knows the plan. He’s by the lake. I have to get going and get set up.” She squeezed Corey’s hand. “Thank you for your help. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.”
Corey nodded, unsure what was up. “Anytime.”
She grabbed another bottle of lukewarm water and headed around the house to find Collier and Steph passing binoculars back and forth, deep in conversation as they pointed across the lake.
Steph’s white T-shirt was soaked through to nearly translucent, her dark bra strap clearly visible. She gave no indication she minded and Collier gave none that he noticed.
“Hey,” Corey said wearily. “What now?”
“We need to know who lives there.” Collier pointed across the lake to the peaked roof and deck visible through the trees. “We need to go around to the other side and question the owners.”
Corey winced. “I can help you with that.”
Collier waved her off. “You’ve done your part.”
“I mean…” She sucked in a breath, the air blessedly cleaner on this side. “...I know the owner of that house.”
Collier and Steph turned in unison their eyes narrowing, similarly.
Corey pursed her lips. “That’s Thayer’s place.”
Collier blurted. “You’re kidding.”
“I kid you not.”
Steph stared at her hard, her eyes a mixture of sympathy, suspicion, and amusement.
“I need to speak with her,” Collier said.
“You know where to find her.” Corey dragged her hands through her damp hair and scratched her itchy scalp. “In the meantime, what happened to the ambulance and what are we doing with the body?”
“About that,” Collier began. “The ambulance service declined transport in exchange for the backboard.”
“So, how is the body getting—” Corey froze as Collier stared at her expectantly, and Steph could no longer meet her eyes. “No. Absolutely not. No fucking way. What happened to the old coroner’s van?”
Jackson City was too small to warrant a state run Medical Examiner’s office and too far from New York City or Albany to use theirs. Up until a couple of years ago they had been on a county coroner’s system. There were three elected coroners—a pediatrician, ENT, and podiatrist—none of whom could actually perform an autopsy. At most they were figureheads in an outdated system that got paid to show up to scenes to say, “Yup, he’s dead,” and then leave. The county eventually trimmed them entirely out of the budget.
“Got sold at auction last year.” Collier shrugged. “You’ll get a police escort from Austin and my undying gratitude.”
Corey stared daggers at him. “I hate you so much right now.” She turned her glare to Steph and jabbed a finger at her. “You too.”
The joke was clearly on her when the three of them came back around to the front of the house, which was crawling with police.
The crime scene unit in their own version of protective suits was unloading their van and Cin and Audrey were long gone. Corey watched, dismayed, while two severely underpaid-looking techs loaded the body into the back of her truck. They secured the bag with nylon cord to keep it from sliding around and causing more trauma before slamming the tailgate.
“She can even put the lights on for you,” Collier said as they watched the scene unfolding. “I’m going to stay here and supervise this circus.”
“Go to hell,” Corey growled.
“Don’t be like that, Curtis.” He gave her shoulder a rough, friendly shake. “You’ll get to blow through all the lights and everything.”
Corey staggered and bit down on a groan of pain. “Shit.”
Collier’s expression sobered. “Hey, are you—”
“I’m fine.” She gritted out and straightened up. “I need my glasses.”
“I got it.” He beat her to her truck and retrieved her tinted glasses. “Are you okay to drive? ’Cause Austin can—”
“Fuck that.” Corey snatched them out of his hand and flung her cheap ones into the grass. “Fuck those and fuck you.”
Corey peered into her truck bed. “Fuck me.”
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