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Authors: Annelise Ryan

Working Stiff

BOOK: Working Stiff
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Praise for Annelise Ryan
and
Working Stiff

“Sassy, sexy, and suspenseful, Annelise Ryan knocks 'em dead in her wry and original
Working Stiff
.”

—Carolyn Hart, author of
Dare to Die

“Move over, Stephanie Plum. Make way for Mattie Winston, the funniest deputy coroner to cut up a corpse since, well, ever. I loved every minute I spent with her in this sharp and sassy debut mystery.”

—Laura Levine, author of
Killer Cruise

“Mattie Winston, RN, wasn't looking for excitement when she became a morgue assistant—quite the contrary—but she got plenty and so will readers who won't be able to put this book down.”

—Leslie Meier, author of
Mother's Day Murder


Working Stiff
has it all: suspense, laughter, a spicy dash of romance—and a heroine who's guaranteed to walk off with your heart. Mattie Winston is an unforgettable character who has me begging for a sequel. Annelise Ryan, are you listening?”

—Tess Gerritsen,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Keepsake

“Matty is klutzy and endearing, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments…her foibles are still fun and entertaining.”

—
Romantic Times

“Ryan, the pseudonym of a Wisconsin emergency nurse, brings her professional expertise to her crisp debut…Mattie wisecracks her way through an increasingly complex plot.”

—
Publishers Weekly

Books by Annelise Ryan

SCARED STIFF

WORKING STIFF

Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.

Working Stiff
Annelise Ryan

A Mattie Winston Mystery

KENSINGTON BOOKS

http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

This one is for Ryan Douglas, my best production ever.

Acknowledgments

Warm thanks go to Jamie Brenner, my agent, and Peter Senftleben, my editor, for believing in me and making this happen. You guys rock my world. Thanks, too, to Doug Clegg, for keeping my flagging spirits up and pushing for Mattie every time I was ready to give up on her. To my family, thanks for all your loving support and faith in me, for understanding why I sometimes become a social recluse so I can write, and for being my best promoters.

And finally, a hearty thanks to all the family, friends, coworkers, and miscellaneous acquaintances in my life who ever made me laugh, especially those of you who share my warped and occasionally dark sense of humor. Laughter truly is the best medicine and this book is my small way of trying to return the favor.

Chapter 1

I
'm surprised by how much the inside of a dead body smells like the inside of a live one. I expected something a little more tainted, like the difference between freshly ground hamburger and that gray, one-day-away-from-the-Dumpster stuff you get in the discount section at the grocery store. Of course, all I've seen so far is the freshly dead, not the deadly dead. Apparently the deadly dead can invade your nostrils with molecules of nasty-smelling stuff that clings and burns and threatens to make you vomit for days afterward.

Or so says Izzy, and he should know since cutting up dead people is what he does for a living. And now, so do I. It's only my second day at it, but I can already tell it's going to be a real conversation stopper at cocktail parties.

At the moment, we are standing on opposite sides of an autopsy table with a woman's body laid out between us, her torso looking as if it's just been filleted. I'm sure we create a strange tableau, and not just because of the open corpse. Izzy and I are the yin and yang of body types—the Munchkin and the Amazon. The only thing we have in common is a tendency to put on the pounds: Izzy is nearly as wide as he is tall, and I'm cursed—or blessed, depending on your perspective and what century you were born in—with the perfect metabolism for surviving long periods of hunger. My body is a model of energy efficiency, burning calories the way a miser on a pension burns candles.

But that's where our commonalities end. Izzy is barely five feet tall, while I hit the six-foot mark at the age of sixteen (though I tell anyone who asks that I'm five-foot-twelve). Izzy has a dark, Mediterranean look while I'm very fair: white-blond hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion, though not nearly as pale as the woman on our table.

Izzy reaches over, hands me the woman's liver, and asks, “So, what do you think so far?” He sounds a little concerned, which isn't surprising. This job takes a bit more getting used to than most.

“Think? I'm trying not to think.” I place the liver on the scale beside me and record the result on my clipboard.

“Aw, come on. When you get right down to it, is this really all that different from what you were doing before?”

“Uh, yeah,” I answer in my best
duh!
tone.

“How so? You used to cut people open. You handled their insides. You saw blood and guts. It's pretty much the same, no?”

Hardly. Though it's been a mere two months since I traded in the starched white lab coat from Mercy Hospital that had my name,
MATTIE WINSTON
,
RN
, embroidered across the pocket, at the moment it feels like an eternity ago. This is nothing like my work in the OR. There, the patients' bodies were always hidden behind sterile drapes and waterproof shields, the field of focus nothing more than an iodine-bronzed square of skin and whatever lay directly beneath it. Most of the time I never even saw a face. But this…not just a face but the entire body, naked, ugly, and dead. And there's no poor-man's tan here. These people are the color of death from head to toe. It's a bit of a mental adjustment. After twelve years of working to save people's lives, I now remove their innards after they're dead and weigh them on a scale like fruit. Not exactly a move
up
the career ladder.

“Well, for one thing,” I tell Izzy, “my clientele used to be alive.”

“Live, schmive,” he says, handing me a spleen. “With all that anesthesia, they might as well have been dead. They didn't talk to you, did they?”

“Well, no, but—”

“So it's really no different, is it? Here, hold this back.” He directs my hand toward a pile of lower intestine and sets about severing the last few connections. “I don't think it's this job that's bothering you. I think you miss Dr. Wonderful.”

Dr. Wonderful is Dr. David Winston, who is not only chief of surgery at Mercy Hospital but also my husband, at least until I get the divorce papers filed.

“You do miss him, don't you?” Izzy persists.

“No, I don't.”

“Not even the sex?”

“There's more to life than sex.” I utter this with great nonchalance despite the fact that Izzy has hit a sore spot. During the last few months of my marriage, sex ranked just below plucking my eyebrows and cleaning out the toilet bowl on my list of things to do. Now that I no longer have the option—unless I want to don some stilettos and a tube top and cruise the streets—my libido seems to be growing by leaps and bounds.

Izzy shakes his head in wonder as he hands me a kidney. “See, that's the difference between men and women. Men, we always miss the sex.”

“Good,” I say bitterly. “I hope David is missing it like crazy.”

“It doesn't look like he's missing it at all.”

My heart does a funny beat, almost as if it's echoing the
uh-oh
that I'm thinking. I look over at Izzy but he's studiously avoiding any eye contact. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

He sighs and shakes his head.

“Do you know something, Izzy? If you do, spit it out.”

“You mean you haven't seen the woman who's been coming over to your…to David's house the past few nights?”

His quick correction stings, but not as much as his information does. I've been consoling myself ever since the split-up with an image of David pining away for me…regretful, sad, and lonely. The only communication we've had since I left is one long rambling, remorseful note, in which David apologized exactly nine times and swore his undying devotion to me. Izzy's suggestion that my side of the marital bed had barely grown cold before someone else moved in to heat it up—and I have a pretty good idea who that someone else is—brings tears to my eyes.

“No, I haven't seen any woman,” I tell him, struggling for a tone of casual indifference. “But that's because I haven't looked. It doesn't matter anymore. I don't care what…or who David does anymore.”

“Oh, okay.”

I can tell from Izzy's tone that he isn't buying it, but I'm determined not to ask him what I'm dying to know. We begin taking sections from the organs we've removed, Izzy doing the slicing and dicing, me placing the carved pieces into specimen bottles as an awkward silence stretches between us. As soon as we are finished with each organ, I place it back inside the body cavity. After several minutes of this I finally cave in.

“All right, you win. Tell me. Was it her?”

He shrugs. “I've never met her. What does she look like?”

His question hurls me back some two months in time and the memory, as always, triggers a flush of humiliation. Back then, David and I both worked in the OR at the local hospital. Despite working in the same place, we rarely did cases together, agreeing that it was wise to try to separate our professional lives from our private ones so the dynamics of one wouldn't interfere with the intimacy of the other. That's the story I bought into, anyway, though since then I've wondered if David's motivation was something else entirely.

Things came to a head on a day when David had a heavy load of regular surgeries coupled with several emergency cases. He called late in the evening to say he still had one more case to do and that he planned to crash at the hospital for the night. It was something he'd done before—usually because he had an unstable patient he was worried about—so it didn't raise any alarms with me.

Knowing how much he hated hospital food, I threw together a goody basket for him: some munchies for later that night and some fruit and muffins for in the morning. I didn't call to tell him I was coming because I figured he'd already be in the middle of his surgery. Besides, I wanted to surprise him.

He was surprised, all right, but not half as much as I was when I found the surgical area dark, quiet, and apparently deserted except for a dim light emanating from a small operating room at the end of the hall. Inside the room I found David with Karen Owenby, one of the other surgery nurses. David was leaning back against an OR table, his scrub pants down around his ankles, a look of ecstasy stamped on his face. Karen was kneeling in front of him, wholeheartedly vying for the title of head nurse.

As the image sears its way across my brain for the millionth time, I squeeze my eyes closed in anger.

“Is she really
that
ugly?” Izzy asks, glancing at the expression on my face.

“Uglier,” I tell him. “She has horns growing out of her head and snakes for hair.”

Izzy chuckles. “You know what you need?”

“For Richard Gere to fall madly in love with me and be my gigolo?”

“No, you need some excitement.”

Apparently catching my husband taking his oral exam in the OR isn't excitement enough.

“Yep,” Izzy says with a decisive nod. “You just need a little excitement. After all, isn't that what drew you to medicine? The life-and-death pace, the high emotional stakes, the drama?”

We are done with our sampling and the woman's organs are all back in her body, though not in any kind of order. I stare at them a moment, thinking they vaguely resemble that package of stuff you find hidden behind the ass flap on a turkey. It's a definite offense to my surgical sensibilities and I have to remind myself that it doesn't matter—the woman is dead.

“I think I've had quite enough drama for one lifetime,” I tell him.

“No way. You're an adrenaline junkie. You thrive on excitement. That's why you liked working at the hospital.” He steps down from the stool he has to use in order to reach the table, kicks it toward the woman's head, and climbs up again. Then he positions his scalpel just above her right ear.

“There's really not
that
much adrenaline in the OR,” I argue. “In fact, it's one of the tamer areas of medicine, orderly and controlled.”

“True, but you were never happy in the OR. The place where you were happy was the ER. You should have stayed there.”

“I liked the OR just fine,” I argue.

He responds with a look that tells me the alarm on his bullshit detector is screeching. And I have to admit, he's right. The OR was okay, but I
loved
working the ER. I loved the surprise of never knowing what might come through the door next. I loved working as part of a synchronized team, rushing against the clock in an effort to save a life that hung on the brink. I loved the people, the pace, and even the occasional messiness of it all. The only reason I'd left it for the OR was so I could be closer to David.

Well, that and the infamous nipple incident.

“Okay,” I concede. “Maybe I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie.”

“And like any junkie, if you don't get a fix from time to time, you get edgy and irritable.”

“I'm pretty sure that's PMS, Izzy.”

“So I have an idea,” he says, ignoring my brilliant rejoinder. Having sliced across the top of the woman's head from one ear to the other, he now grabs the front edge of this incision and pulls the entire scalp forward, exposing the skull. It is shiny and white except for a large clot of blood that clings to the right temporal lobe. From the X-rays we did earlier, I know that beneath that clot we'll find pieces of broken bone and an indentation in the skull that's roughly the same size and shape as a hammer—the weapon her drunken, jealous husband used to kill her.

Izzy pauses to snap a few pictures with the digital camera, and then says, “Part of my job is determining the cause and manner of any suspicious deaths in the county, and only part of that is gleaned from the autopsy. There's also investigative work that needs to be done at the scene of the death and afterward.”

He sets the camera aside and folds his arms over his chest. “You know, your position here can go one of two ways. You can keep working as a morgue assistant, which is basically what you're doing now, or you can function as a deputy coroner, which combines the morgue duties with investigative work. My last assistant had no training in forensics and no interest in learning it. He simply wanted to do his job and get out of here.”

“I can't imagine why,” I mutter, eyeing the body before us.

“But you have an analytical mind and a strong curiosity. With a little training, you'd make a great investigator. And frankly, I could use the help. I think you should give it a try, go out with me a time or two and see what it's like.”

“You make it sound like a date.”

He scoffs. “Yeah, like you would know.”

I scowl at him. “Give me a break. It's only been two months.”

“And you've spent every minute of it hibernating in your cave.”

“I'm healing.”

“You're wallowing.”

“I am not.”

“No? Then tell me how many pints of Ben & Jerry's you've polished off in the past two weeks.”

“Oh sure, make me measure in pints so the number will sound worse than it is.”

“Okay,” he says, arching one eyebrow at me. “Have it your way. Tell me how many
gallons
of Ben & Jerry's you've polished off in the past two weeks.”

“Bite me, Itsy.”

There's one other thing Izzy and I have in common—a fondness for nicknames. Izzy's real name is Izthak Rybarceski, a mouthful of syllables that even the most nimble linguists tend to stumble over. Hence the nickname, though even that gives him trouble at times. Because of his size there are some who insist on pronouncing it as Itsy, something that drives him up the wall.

For me the problem is just a general loathing of my real name. I don't know what the hell my mother was thinking when she chose it and even she has never used it. All my life I've been Mattie—the only place where my real name can be found is on my birth certificate—and that's fine by me. Outside of my family, there are only a handful of people who know my real name, Izzy being one of them. So I have to be careful. If I pick on his name too much, he might turn the tables on me.

BOOK: Working Stiff
12.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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