Throughout the eight previous installments in her mystery series, Mattie Winston has gotten used to unusual situations. Whether it’s catching her (ex-)husband in flagrante delicto with a coworker, wrangling the residents of a retirement home, or getting in too deep with gambling, there’s no lengths to which she wouldn’t go while investigating the crimes in her small Wisconsin town. As a medicolegal death investigator, she’s made it her mission to help bring justice to those who seek it. And if that mission coincides with her flirtatious entanglements with Detective Steve Hurley, so be it.
In Dead Calm, Mattie’s ninth adventure, her life finally seems like it may approach somewhat-calmness. But when she and new husband Hurley are awoken with news of a murder-suicide in the middle of the night, Mattie is certain that not all is as it seems—even if Hurley doesn’t seem to be on board with her theory.
Keep reading for an excerpt of Dead Calm, the ninth Mattie Ryan mystery from Annelise Ryan.
There are two of our local cops in the room: Patrick Devonshire and Brenda Joiner. Also in the room is Jonas Kriedeman, the police department’s evidence technician. The bodies are on the queen-sized bed: a man and a woman, both lying on their backs. The woman is closest to us, her head to our right, and she has what appears to be a bullet hole in her chest, right where her heart is. Her death was most likely instantaneous. The man beside her has an entry wound on the right side of his head, with a corresponding exit wound on the left side. Judging from the brain matter I can see splattered on the pillow and on the woman’s face, his death was also instantaneous, not to mention messy. His right arm is hanging off the bed, and there is a gun on the floor beneath his hand.
“It’s a grim one,” Devonshire says with a grimace, staring at the mess on the man’s pillow. He looks a little pale. Devonshire isn’t known for having a strong stomach, and I’m worried he’s going to barf on our crime scene.
Hurley must be thinking something similar because he says, “Patrick, why don’t you go stand by the door to the room to make sure none of those rubberneckers try to get in here.”
Patrick obliges, looking relieved.
We are standing in front of a credenza located at the foot of the bed, and Mathers turns to point to something next to the bolted-down TV. “They left a note,” he says. “Or rather our male vic did.”
I look at the note. It’s computer-printed on plain paper, the type you can find in most any house, and it’s written in all capital letters.
I’M SORRY, MEREDITH. THIS ISN’T HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO END, BUT NOW WE ARE TOGETHER FOREVER. TO WHOEVER READS THIS NOTE, PLEASE TELL MY WIFE, PAMELA, I DIDN’T MEAN TO CAUSE HER ANY PAIN.
At the bottom of the page is a big, handwritten letter C, presumably scribbled with the pen lying next to the paper. Given that there is no computer or printer in the room, it seems obvious that the note was brought along to the motel. The pen is a generic ballpoint that could have originated in the room—though Cinder doesn’t strike me as the type to provide perks that can easily be taken—or it might have been left behind by a previous guest or brought along by one of our victims. I try to imagine the man asking the woman for a pen so he could sign the note with a one-letter closing before giving it to her and then killing her. It feels wrong in a hundred different ways. And yet the note is written as if it was intended to be read by the female victim, presuming that the dead woman is the Meredith mentioned in the note.
I look at Mathers. “I’m assuming you have IDs on them? We heard they’re from Sorenson.”
Mathers nods. “We found a purse over there,” he says, pointing to a chair. “Wallet inside belongs to a woman named Meredith Lansing, and the driver’s license picture matches that of our female vic. The guy left his wallet on the bedside table. It belongs to a Craig Knowlton. And again, the license picture matches.”
So the Meredith in the note and the dead woman are likely one and the same, and the name Craig fits with the letter C at the bottom of the suicide note. All neat and tidy . . . too much so for my tastes.
“This note seems wrong to me,” I say to no one in particular. “It doesn’t make sense to type out a note for the girlfriend and bring it along for her to read before killing her. And then leave it here for . . . for who? For us? A note that says something along the lines of Good-bye, cruel world, I couldn’t live without her would make more sense.”
“You’re trying to make sense of illogical, crazy thought patterns,” Hurley says. “Anyone crazy enough to kill the woman they love because they can’t have her couldn’t have been firing on all cylinders.”
“Maybe,” I say, still bothered by the note. I take out my camera and start shooting pictures, beginning with the note. Then I look over at Jonas. “Be sure and bag this pen and dust it for prints.”
He nods, grabs an evidence bag, and moves in on the pen.
“Know anything else about our victims?” Hurley asks. He is staring at the bodies, so his question isn’t directed at anyone. Brenda Joiner provides the first answers. “A little. Meredith Lansing had an ID card in her purse indicating she works at the hospital in Sorenson. Craig had some business cards in his wallet that state he’s a financial adviser for a company called Carrier Investments, also in Sorenson.”
Mathers jumps in. “I had our dispatcher run down what she could find on the two of them. They’re both married—to other people,” he adds with a wry arch of his brow. “Meredith’s husband is John Lansing; Craig’s wife is Pamela Knowlton. A Google search revealed that Pamela also works at Carrier Investments. In fact, she and Craig own the company. It’s some type of investment company franchise.”
“Have you sent anyone to notify the relatives yet?” Hurley asks.
Mathers shakes his head, giving us an apologetic look. “We’re so short on manpower at the moment that I didn’t have anyone to send. That’s one of the reasons we’re pulling you guys in on the case. In fact, my boss says you can have the whole thing if you want since the victims are both from Sorenson. We’re stretched pretty thin right now, and we’ll assist you with what we can, but . . .” He shrugs.
“No problem,” Hurley says. “Happy to help.” He looks over at Izzy. “Are you comfortable making IDs based on the license pictures? If you are, I’ll go and notify the families.”
Izzy frowns at this. “It’s not what I prefer, but under the circumstances . . .” He trails off and moves over to look at the licenses, both of which are at the end of the credenza. Meredith’s license photo shows her smiling, with dark hair framing her face. Craig’s picture is more serious; both his short dark hair and his expression look very businesslike. Izzy picks the licenses up and carries them over to the bed. One at a time, he holds the licenses out and compares the pictures to the faces of the victims.
When he’s done he looks at Hurley. “I suppose I’m okay with it.”
Jonas, who has been standing by in his biohazard gear, says, “We’ve got that tablet app for fingerprints. Can’t we scan them in here and see if we get a match?”
“Great idea,” Izzy says.
Jonas digs the tablet out of his scene kit and fires it up. A minute later, he has the app launched, and he reaches over Craig Knowlton’s body for his left hand; the right hand, the one that had held the gun, will need to be tested for gunshot residue. It only takes Jonas a few minutes to place each of the fingers on the screen and scan them in. When he’s done, he says, “One hand ought to be enough if they’re in AFIS. And I suspect Craig here will be. A lot of financial advisers have to have their fingerprints on file in order to be licensed.” He taps the screen a couple of times, says, “That one is searching,” and then heads to the other side of the bed and Meredith’s left hand, which is closest. When he’s done scanning her prints in, he tells us so. “It may take an hour or so to get a hit,” he says. And then to prove how wrong he is, a little chime sounds from the tablet. “Or not,” he says with a smile, looking at the tablet. “As I suspected, Craig Knowlton is in the system, and we have a positive ID.”
Izzy nods and looks at Hurley. “I’m comfortable with the woman’s ID if you want to do the notifications.” Hurley nods, and then Izzy looks at me. “Why don’t you go with him, and I’ll stay here with Jonas and help him process the scene.”
Brenda pipes up and says, “Patrick and I can stay. We called in some extra help to cover the town while we’re out here, so we’re yours for the duration.”
“That’s great,” Izzy says.
I’ve been busy with my camera the entire time, and I’ve taken dozens of pictures—general shots of the room and the tiny attached bathroom, followed by close-ups of the bodies, the gun, the blood spatter, the note, the pen, the purse, and the wallet—basically everything in the small room.
I say to Izzy, “I think I’ve got a picture of everything in here, and I thought I’d get some exterior shots on the way out. Do you need my camera for anything?”
“No, I’ve got mine in my kit if I need it,” Izzy says. He starts assigning tasks to the others in the room. Jonas is going around the room, dusting various surfaces for fingerprints, while Brenda Joiner does a quick test for gunshot residue on Craig Knowlton’s right hand. To no one’s surprise, the GSR test comes up positive. With that done, she sets about securing the hands of both victims in paper bags to protect any other evidence that might be on them. In the meantime, Hurley picks up the gun with his gloved hand, examines it closely, and then writes down its serial number in his notebook before bagging and tagging it as evidence.
Hurley turns and stares at the bodies again, his eyes narrowed in thought. Then he looks at Mathers. “What did the woman in the motel office have to say about them?”
Mathers consults his little notebook, a required piece of equipment in police work. “She said the gentleman checked them in around midnight as John and Jane Smith.” He punctuates this with a roll of his eyes. “Apparently she doesn’t require ID for check-ins. They booked the room for,” he pauses and makes air quotes with his fingers, “the four-hour-or-less rate, and they paid in cash.”
“Vehicle?” Hurley asks. “They had to get here somehow.”
Mathers shifts nervously and clears his throat. “Haven’t had a chance to check into that yet,” he says, looking apologetic. “I do know that the four cars parked out back here inside the tape belong to other, um, guests. But I haven’t had time yet to look for the victims’ car or cars.”
Hurley turns to Patrick, who is standing by the door, and raises his eyebrows. “Can you look into it, please?”
“On it,” Patrick says, looking eager and stepping outside. I imagine he’s more than happy to be released from duty anywhere near the mess in the room.
Hurley turns back to Mathers. “You said you talked to the people who were in the neighboring rooms?”
Mathers nods. He refers to his notebook and gives Hurley the names, contact information, and room locations of these guests. When he’s done with that, he gives us a brief summary of what each of these potential witnesses had to say. It isn’t much. The people who were in the room to the left of our victims—a middle-aged man and a woman who appeared to be a decade or so younger—claimed they heard nothing, though it’s hard to imagine they didn’t hear the sound of the gunshots. I suspect they did hear them but don’t want to get involved in any way, particularly if they are here at the motel for the same reason many of the right-wing guests are: for an illicit liaison of some sort.
The couple in the room on the right were also a man and a woman, both in their mid-thirties. They were the ones Mathers had mentioned earlier, the couple who called the front desk. The remaining guests consisted of two all-male couples, two more heterosexual couples, and one female trio.
Hurley turns to me and says, “I need to make a couple of phone calls to verify some things, and then you and I can go talk to the people outside. Now would be a good time to take your outdoor pictures, if you want.”
I nod and step outside into the humid night air. After making some adjustments to my camera for the nighttime setting, I snap pictures of the motel room door, the adjacent room doors, the parking lot and the vehicles in it, including the license plates, and the woods. The trees behind the motel are a heavy mix of oaks, maples, and pines. I imagine on many a night the branches would be swaying in the wind, the leaves rustling and whispering. But tonight the air is heavy and utterly still; the trees are unmoving. The woods extend along the back of the motel and beyond, curving around on one end to border a field of corn, and ending at a side road on the other end, about a hundred feet from the opposite end of the motel.
I venture a little closer to the edge, squinting into the darkness. I see there is a path of sorts, a narrow, trampled trail of ground extending into the woods, and I wonder where it leads. If it was light out, I might venture in there purely out of curiosity, but for the moment I can’t see a reason to do so. I’m even less inclined when I hear a rustling sound from deep inside the woods, a sound like small scampering feet scurrying over the ground. Clinching my decision is Hurley’s voice hailing me from the motel room doorway. I turn my back on the woods, though not without one last paranoid glance over my shoulder, and hurry back to the motel room door.
As we head around to the front side of the motel, Hurley says, “This one looks cut-and-dried as far as the manners of death, but I still want to talk to some of the witnesses out front.”
“Maybe,” I say, still bothered by that note. I stop walking, and it takes Hurley a few steps to realize it. He turns and looks at me with a confused expression before walking back to me.
“What?” he asks, his voice an odd mixture of impatience and curiosity.
“I’m a little confused as to the motive behind it all. If we assume Craig and Meredith were having an affair, what made Craig take such a drastic step?”
“Meredith wanted to end things,” Hurley says in a tone that makes it sound as if he’s explaining the obvious to a simpleton.
I give him an annoyed look. “If that’s the case, then why did she come out here with him tonight? If she was going to cut him loose, I’d think she’d do it somewhere a little less . . . erotic.”
Hurley scratches his head and shrugs. “Maybe she wanted one last roll in the sack for old time’s sake,” he says. I can hear the tired irritability in his voice.
“Maybe,” I say again, unconvinced.
“Let’s not build this into something it isn’t,” he says. “Sometimes I think you hang around Arnie too much, because lately it seems like you expect to find a conspiracy in every nook and cranny.”
He’s referring to Arnie Toffer, our lab tech and resident conspiracy theorist, a man who thinks space satellites were launched to give the government a way to monitor our every conversation and action, that every tap on our computer keyboards is monitored by some highly classified, black-ops government employee, and that some of the homeless people out there on the streets are really government spies in disguise. Sometimes I think Arnie has cornered the market on paranoia, but then again . . .
“Just because you’re paranoid . . . ,” I say to Hurley, letting him finish the cliché in his head. He simply rolls his eyes at me, turns, and once again heads toward the front of the motel.
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