Page 29

The reason was to protect them.

Love for my mother and sister kept me quiet all these years.

Who would Emily stay quiet for?


Zander slipped on the clear face shield and checked out his partner in her shield. Ava’s eyes crinkled at the corners, indicating she was grinning behind the blue mask over her mouth.

“That’s a good look for you, Zander.”

He looked down at his gown and booties, feeling slightly claustrophobic in the protective gear. Part of him wanted to rip them off and head into the hallway for fresh air.

Fresher air, he corrected himself. As soon as they’d entered the medical examiner’s building, they’d encountered its unique smell. It wasn’t like a hospital smell or a funeral-home smell—both of which he’d experienced too many times.

It was a combination of professional-strength cleanser, refrigerated meat, and an underlying hint of decomposition. His nose had already grown used to it, noting that the odor didn’t bother him as it had at first. He’d learned early in this job that he could handle most odors—death, excrement, rot—if he toughed out the first ten minutes or so. He also knew to shower afterward as soon as possible and immediately dump every scrap of clothing in the laundry. Today he’d left his coat in the car, not wanting it to soak up any odors.

He and Ava stood in the autopsy suite. There were four stainless-steel tables, each with a sink at one end. A large hose and nozzle hung over each table, along with strong lights and a scale. Two assistants went about the suite, setting out instruments and getting things organized for the examiner.

On the closest table, Nate Copeland’s corpse silently waited for Dr. Rutledge.

Zander felt like a voyeur; he didn’t want to see the dead man, but it was his duty. The medical examiner had already done the Y incision from chest to groin but hadn’t removed the ribs. Ava fidgeted, and she lifted her shield to wipe her eyes. Usually she had no problem with autopsies, but she’d warned Zander that this one would be tough for her, given that she’d talked to the man the day before. At the Copeland house she’d held it together, but here the explicit details of the young man’s horrible end were laid out under the harsh lights.

A stark contrast to the very alive young deputy she’d interviewed—actually she’d grilled and guilt-tripped—about the Fitch crime scene.

Zander had told her not to feel sorry for doing her job.

“I’d convinced myself that the person he’d been is gone. This body is an empty shell,” Ava whispered. “But then I see that.” She pointed at a tattoo on Copeland’s deltoid. “He’s suddenly very human again.”

Zander understood. The tattoo represented something everlasting that Copeland had selected to carry with him. It symbolized a decision, a love, a permanence.

The tattoo remained, but the person was gone.

Copeland’s skin was pale, but along the edges of his lower back and legs, a dark bruised shade indicated he’d died faceup. Blood followed gravity after the heart stopped, and the livor mortis was in the right places for a man tipped back in a recliner. The dark color would also cover his backside.

The suite door swung open, and Dr. Seth Rutledge walked in, slipping his arms into a gown. An assistant tied the strings at the back as he shook Zander’s and Ava’s hands.

“Good to see the two of you. It’s been a while—I know, I know—that’s a good thing, in your opinion.” Seth focused on Ava. “Victoria said you’re getting married at a winery this summer?”

“Yes.” Her voice shook the littlest bit, and she didn’t expand on wedding descriptions as she usually did when asked about her plans.

Seth paused, but realized he wasn’t going to hear more. Sympathy filled his eyes. “That sounds great.”

“You and Victoria are on the list.” She sounded stronger.

“We better be.” He pulled on a pair of gloves. “Let’s get started.” He shifted into work mode as he neared the table.

Zander spotted something new. “I don’t remember seeing that sign before.” He pointed at a large, elegant plaque high along one wall.


A bit morbid. Delights as death’s verb felt wrong, but Zander figured it was medical examiner humor.

“Yes. Victoria gave me that for Christmas.”

Zander exchanged a glance with Ava, whose eyes had crinkled again, agreeing it made for an odd gift too, but Seth’s wife was his forensic anthropologist. The two of them worked in grim professions.

“The two of you are a match made in heaven, Seth,” Ava told him.

Seth’s eyes lit up above his mask. “I agree. Now, I’d already done a few things before you called this morning to ask me to wait. The external exam is finished, and you can see I stopped after the Y incision, but I sent fluids to toxicology and had his X-rays done.”

“Which fluids?” asked Ava.

“Blood, bile, urine, and vitreous humor.”

Zander was glad he hadn’t been present to watch Seth stick a needle in Copeland’s eye to draw the fluid. “You can get quick toxicology results?”

“We can for the basic tests since we run them here. Anything outside the norm, I send to another lab.”

“What’s the norm?”

“Alcohol, marijuana, opiates, barbiturates, psychostimulants. We also test for arsenic and heavy metals.” He paused. “We found Nate had the same GHB as in the Fitches.”

Zander and Ava looked at each other. “So this investigation has taken a new turn,” Zander said.

“There’s more than that,” said Seth. “The GSR test on his hand came back very high. Well over a two-thousand-particle count. He definitely fired the weapon, but it was an odd pattern. Part of his hand had virtually no GSR, as if something had been covering it—like another hand.”

Not suicide.

Zander was satisfied to hear that the young deputy hadn’t taken his own life, but the fact that he had been murdered wasn’t an improvement.

“I don’t know if one is better than the other,” muttered Ava, echoing Zander’s thoughts.

“It appears the same person who murdered the Fitches may have murdered Nate.”

“May have,” repeated Ava. “Even with this new evidence, it’s not definite. We need to remember that.”

Zander agreed. “Anything else from the external exam?”

“No abrasions or injuries,” the doctor went on. “Livor mortis matches the photos I saw of his position when he was found in the recliner. He has a tribal-style tattoo on his deltoid and one on his calf. A few scars. The X-rays don’t indicate any past broken bones, which I’ve found to be unusual in males. Usually something has been broken.”

“Females are better at seeing consequences,” Ava muttered. “Even as kids. You men do stupid, risky things.”

Zander couldn’t argue with that.

Seth peeled back the flaps of skin and muscles at the Y incision, exposing the rib cage. He took the large pruning shears from his assistant and started cutting ribs far under the flaps. The first sounds rattled Zander; they always did. But by the fourth cut, he was inured to the loud cracks. When Seth finished, he lifted out the front half of the rib cage.

Ava sucked in a breath.

“You good?” he whispered.

“Good as I can be.”

Next Seth systematically removed each organ, scrutinized it, weighed it, sliced it open for further scrutiny, and cut samples for testing and preservation. A recorder hung above Seth’s head to catch his observations, but an assistant also took notes.

Zander watched closely as Seth cut open the stomach. “I can smell alcohol. Smells like beer,” the examiner said. “There’s no solids in here, but there is some fluid. I suspect most had already passed to the small intestine.”

“Dr. Ruiz put his time of death at midmorning,” Ava said.

“This isn’t the first person I’ve opened who had beer for breakfast. It’s more common than you think.”

Even with a mask covering it, Zander saw Ava wrinkle her nose. “A mimosa for breakfast I can understand, but not beer,” she said.

“Why not? Who decided champagne was acceptable in the mornings but not beer?” Seth shrugged as he set the stomach on the scale. “They’re both alcohol. I’ve gained a different perspective on a lot of things in this job.”

“Do you have beer for breakfast?” Ava asked the examiner.

“Nope. Sounds disgusting.”

Ava snorted. “So there’s a good chance the GHB was in the beer.”

“I’ll have the fluids from his stomach tested,” said Seth.

“I don’t think any open beer bottles were found at the Copeland scene,” said Ava. “I’ll check with the team.”

Zander wanted the autopsy to be over, ready to follow up on what they’d just learned.

The doctor quickly sped through the rest of the organs and turned his attention to the head. He leaned close and palpated the skull with gentle hands. Zander wondered how he’d cut a cranial cap under the scalp when a large portion of the skull was missing. The primary concern was the presentation for an open-casket viewing.