The Coroner and the Body in the Bath

Paul Austin Ardoin

This story takes place between the events of The Reluctant Coroner (Book One of The Fenway Stevenson Mysteries) and The Incumbent Coroner (Book Two).

 

THE CORONER AND THE BODY IN THE BATH

Copyright © 2020 Paul Austin Ardoin

All rights reserved.

No parts of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Under no circumstances may any part of this book be photocopied for resale.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters and situations within its pages and places or persons, living or dead, is unintentional and coincidental.

Edited by Max Christian Hansen

Information about the author can be found at https://www.paulaustinardoin.com

 

ONE: THE BODY IN THE BATH

The man in the bath sat slumped over to his left, with his eyes closed and his head covered in blood that had matted his otherwise dark brown hair. The six-inch-deep water had been tinged red. Except for the bullet wound in his right temple, he looked fit and strong, dressed in blue jeans and a chambray shirt. His right hand floated awkwardly in the discolored water next to him.

Acting Coroner Fenway Stevenson bent her tall frame down to crouch at the side of the bathtub and snapped on a pair of blue nitrile gloves. Sunlight beat through the west-facing window. The bathroom was warm and humid and her hair started to frizz. Oh well. It was a bad idea to curl it this morning anyway. She broke into a sweat under her pantsuit, too warm for the late June afternoon. Days like this made her glad she was just babysitting the coroner position until the special election.

Sergeant Desirée Roubideaux stood next to her in a black uniform. Her hair was cropped so close to her head that she didn’t have to worry about the humidity. She stared at the dead man. “His wife insists he was murdered.”

“He’s fully clothed, Dez,” Fenway said.

“That he is. And the water messed up the time of death, too. Are you going to check the body temperature?”

Fenway screwed up her mouth. “Um… I could, I suppose. I don’t know if I should move the body until CSI gets here.”

Dez nodded. “You’ll get the hang of this.”

Fenway bit her tongue. Not if I can help it.

“CSI should be here in half an hour,” Dez continued. “And we don’t know how hot the water was when he got in, so I’m not sure how much body temp will tell us anyway.” She got close to the water and stared at his submerged hand. “Given how the water has affected his skin, I’ll guess he’s been dead for three or four hours at most.”

“You don’t normally get into the bathtub with your clothes on. Not a full tub, anyway.” Fenway peered at the gunshot wound in the temple. “I read that happens more with suicides.”

“You read that, did you?” Dez said.

“Yes, I did. Just this last class, in fact. And I got an A.” She liked how the words felt coming out of her mouth, even if it was a brag. “The victim thinks it’ll be easier to clean up if they’re in a bathtub. Especially if they think they’re a burden on their loved ones.”

Dez turned her head to look at Fenway. “You think he killed himself?”

Fenway gave Dez a tight smile. “In my experience, the weapon is usually found near the body.”

“The wife could have moved it. Maybe the stigma of a suicide—”

“There are a lot of scenarios. It’s definitely possible the wife is right and it’s a homicide.” Fenway stood up. “What’s his name?”

“Augustus Edward Merchant, thirty-six. Everyone calls him Gus.”

Fenway fought the urge to laugh. “Such an old-man name for a relatively young guy. Where was the wife earlier today?”

“Work,” Dez said, still looking closely at the victim’s face. “She’s the office manager at Fairlane Construction. According to her driver’s license, her name is Beatrice Lydia Merchant. She goes by Lydia.”

Fenway took a look around the bathroom. The towels over the racks were color-coordinated and neat, and a small decorative soap in a flower shape sat in a hand-painted porcelain dish by the sink. The blood spatter and the dead body were the only sign of disorder. “This is a guest bathroom, Dez.”

“Yeah,” Dez said, looking around the tub. “No shampoo in here.”

“Is that odd?”

“I’m not sure.”

Fenway nodded. “Where is Ms. Merchant now?”

“She was screaming about her neighbor being the killer. Called the woman a bunch of names,” Dez said through a smirk. “Which my ears are far too virginal to hear. I told her to go in the backyard to calm down.”

“You weren’t able to talk to her?”

Dez folded her arms. “In spite of my exemplary interpersonal skills, Fenway, I think you better talk to her. She was yelling at me.”

“Great.”

“She was asking for a friend of hers, someone named Donna. I don’t know if she called her or not, but we should keep an eye out for a visitor.”

Fenway took a step back, looked down at the body, and then cocked her head. “Was his arm in the tub when you found him?”

Dez nodded. “Yeah. I’m not sure his arm position makes sense if it was a homicide. When someone’s holding a gun to your head….”

Fenway raised her hand, facing out, in front of her right eye. “Would your arm just drop in the tub after a shot like that? Wouldn’t it at least be at an odd angle?” She peered closely at Gus Merchant’s arm and then crouched down again.

“I suppose someone could have sneaked up on him.”

“Or maybe the body was moved.”

Dez shook her head. “I guess it’s possible, but I can’t think of a single scenario where the killer would shoot someone, then put their body in a bathtub fully clothed. Besides, with the blood spatter, I can’t imagine him being killed anywhere else.”

Fenway put her chin in her palm and rested her elbow on her other arm as she mumbled into her hand. “Why would you move the body, though? Make it look like a suicide just to remove the gun?”

Dez cupped her hand around her ear. “Listen, Fenway, I might be on the wrong side of fifty, but I know I don’t need hearing aids yet.”

“Just talking to myself, Dez,” Fenway said. “And we’re still missing the gun?”

“Yeah. The wife says Gus’s gun isn’t in the bedside table drawer or the gun safe.”

“What type of gun?”

Dez folded her arms. “She doesn’t know. A handgun. She thinks it had a magazine. I don’t know how much we can trust what she says, though. She was pretty upset. Screaming when we found her. She was going through a bunch of paperwork and folders, just throwing papers everywhere.

“Everywhere?” Fenway tilted her head. “All throughout the house?”

Dez pointed across the hall. “No—sorry. Just in the office. They don’t have kids. The mess is in there.”

Fenway stepped out of the bathroom and stuck her head into the office. Bills and paperwork were scattered all over the desk and floor. Manila folders, check stubs, and empty envelopes were littered from the doorway to the chair at the computer. She might have been looking for something important after finding her husband dead. Phone numbers of his relatives, financial statements, hidden bank accounts, or, if Gus had been involved in shady dealings, maybe a secret ledger.

Or maybe she was just intent on destroying something—anything—in her grief.

Fenway sighed. “All right. I’ll go talk to her.”

She walked through the small but tidy house. Photos on the mantelpiece showed Gus Merchant in a striped polo shirt next to a thin white woman in a floral print sundress, both smiling. Fenway stopped at the sliding glass door and looked into the backyard. The woman from the photograph, her face pinched, sat on a cheap white resin chair. She held a lit cigarette in one hand and vacantly stared into the distance. She had frizzy blonde hair, cropped between the bottom of her ears and her shoulders, and wore jeans and a cap-sleeved T-shirt. The foggy morning had given way to a beautiful day, with a light breeze blowing off the ocean.

Fenway walked out onto the concrete patio, trying to make as much noise as possible. “You’re Gus Merchant’s wife?”

“That’s right. I’m Lydia.” She looked up at Fenway and blinked. The beginning of crow’s feet played at the corners of her eyes. “Christ, does the county only hire Black chicks now?”

Fenway pursed her lips as Lydia exhaled a long plume of smoke. “You’re the person who called 911?”

Lydia turned away from Fenway and stared out past the trees. “I—I don’t know. I guess I must have.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

Lydia seemed to expend a lot of effort to tear her gaze from the nothing she stared into. She settled her attention on Fenway’s face.

“What’d you say?”

“I’m sorry to make you go through it again, ma’am, but I need to hear it directly from you.”

Lydia cleared her throat. “Not much to tell. I got off work. Then I went to the grocery store. Came home, put everything away, then I found two coffee cups on the kitchen table.”

“Two coffee cups?”

“Yes. They weren’t there when I went to work.” She looked down. “And there was lipstick on one of the cups.”

Fenway nodded. “Am I correct in assuming you thought your husband was having an affair?”

“I know he was having an affair. About a month ago, I found credit card statements for fancy dinners and some jewelry that I didn’t recognize. We had it out when he came home late one night. Of course he was with her.” She closed her eyes. “He said he broke it off with her a few weeks ago.”

Fenway walked around Lydia and took a seat in a matching chair. “Just like that?”

“We had a long, painful conversation about it. He slept on the sofa for a couple of nights.”

Fenway watched Lydia’s face. Her breathing was measured and even.

“So you think the woman he broke it off with was back here today?”

“Yes. I was pissed off, let me tell you. I stormed all over the house, screaming that Gus explain himself. I thought I’d catch them in bed together.”

Fenway waited.

Lydia stared up at the sky and swallowed. “When I didn’t find them in the bedroom, I passed the bathroom and the door was ajar. He was just sitting in the tub.”

Fenway thought about the odd position of the arm. “Did you touch him?”

Lydia shook her head.

“Not even to check for a pulse?”

Lydia frowned. “He wasn’t moving. He had—there was—” She pointed to her temple, and then dropped her hands into her lap.

Leaning forward, Fenway watched Lydia’s eyes carefully. “You think that woman killed him? A neighbor, I think you said?”

“That’s right. Two girls moved into the blue house on the corner last September. Mitzi and Ditzy, I call ’em.” She turned her face toward the back fence and muttered, “Homewrecker.”

Fenway folded her arms. “Which one is the homewrecker?”

“Mitzi. The skinny one with the perfect skin and the innocent doe-eyes. When she couldn’t have him, she killed him.”

“Her name isn’t really Mitzi, though, right?”

“It’s Kayla. She’s a student at that fancy rich-kids’ university.”

“Do you know where his phone is?”

Lydia looked up. “His phone?”

Fenway stood. “Getting information off the phone of the, uh, deceased is standard. If he communicated with, um, Kayla, we’d want a record of it.”

“Can’t you just go down to her house and arrest her?”

Fenway squinted. Something didn’t feel right. “On your word that she did it?”

“I’ve given you motive. And my husband’s gun is missing.”

“You think Kayla has it?”

“I do.” She scoffed. “So typical, him thinking a gun made him more manly. I didn’t want it in the house, but he said it was for protection, and he wanted me to learn how to shoot.” Lydia set her jaw. “That’s how he started seeing her, you know. The gun didn’t impress me, but I guess it impressed her. He’s out in the yard, taking down the Christmas lights, and she comes by in her tight sweater and her yoga pants, chatting him up, and next thing I know, they’re at the range together.”

“I see. And you told the sergeant the gun is missing?”

“I don’t know. I think I mentioned it.”

The sliding door opened and Officer Celeste Salvador stuck her head out. A few inches shorter than Fenway, she had shoulder-length dark hair and a strong chin. “Coroner? A woman who lives across the street is here to see Ms. Merchant.”

“Donna,” Lydia said, relief in her voice.

“This isn’t the neighbor who—”

“No, no, it’s my friend from across the street. Gus and I have been friends with them since we moved in.”

Like Lydia, Donna was blonde, but she wore her hair past her shoulders and was a little younger. She wore a freshly ironed white blouse and a wrinkled ankle-length skirt with blue and gold moon shapes. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I left work as soon as I heard,” she said.

“You two work together?”

“No,” Donna said. “I’m an insurance adjuster. Walter and I live across the street. I’m Donna Youngblood.”

“Walter’s your husband?”

“That’s right. He’s still at work.”

“Thanks.” Fenway looked at the new widow, calculating. How much did it make sense to let the friend comfort Lydia? Fenway stood up and walked to Salvador. “Keep an eye on the two of them,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t want them thinking I suspect either of them, so I’ll let this Donna person console Lydia. But if you hear things that sound like code, or them getting their stories straight, separate them and call me right away.”

Salvador nodded.

Fenway turned to the two women, now embracing in front of the chairs. “All right, Ms. Merchant. You can stay here with Ms. Youngblood. I’ll be back in a little while.”

 

TWO: HOMEWRECKER

When she walked inside, Dez was in the kitchen, in front of the sink, studying Lydia and Donna out the window.

Dez tapped her fingers on the counter.

“Hey, Dez,” Fenway dipped her head toward the sliding glass door. “Did you see most of that?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“Most of it. I’m glad I wasn’t out there for the ‘Black chicks’ comment. I’d’ve said something I’d regret later.”

“Did she tell you the neighbor woman took his gun?”

Dez furrowed her brow. “She wasn’t that coherent. She was screaming about another woman, and her neighbor, and a gun. She wouldn’t calm down long enough for me to ask her anything.”

Fenway nodded. “She seems calm now. We need to find the phone of the deceased, and figure out if his gun is with the neighbor.”

Dez nodded. “Roger that, Rookie. I searched the bedroom. There’s a small gun safe in the closet, but it’s open and empty. I’ve got Salvador looking for the phone now.”

“So you’re way ahead of me.”

Dez cackled. “I’ve worked these cases for twenty-five years.” She kept looking out the window at Lydia, sitting in the sun, leaning back in her chair, another cigarette dangling between her lips.

Fenway followed Dez’s gaze. “Has the grief not hit her, or is she acting weird?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one who got the A in that class on reading body language, right?” Dez motioned toward the hallway with her head. “Come on.”

Fenway tapped her foot. “I should talk to the woman Gus was supposedly having an affair with. Ms. Merchant says her name is Kayla. She calls her and her roommate Mitzi and Ditzy.”

Dez shrugged. “She’s a woman scorned.”

“She seems to think it’s Kayla who was scorned.”

“That’s a good reason to interview her.” Dez looked at her watch. “It’s half past five now. If she had a day job, they could be home by now.”

Fenway smirked. “She’s a student. I don’t know if she’s in summer session, or if she has a job.”

“Either way, we should go. Salvador can keep an eye on everything here.”

Dez and Fenway walked from the bedroom, down the hall, and out the front door, where they stood blinking in the hazy sunshine.

Fenway looked to her right. Three doors down, a royal blue house stood on the corner. As they walked closer, she noted that its front lawn was mowed but not edged. Next to the house, an overexuberant garden bloomed. Manzanita bushes choked the ground, but some flowering plants still found their way through the tangle. Near the front door, a smattering of mariposa lilies—pink, orange, and yellow upside down bells—provided stark contrast to the otherwise drab house and yard. Fenway’s mother had loved painting canvases full of mariposa lilies. Fenway thought they were so weirdly colorful, they looked fake.

“I’ll knock,” said Dez. “I’ve got the uniform and all.”

Fenway stayed two steps behind Dez, who strode to the narrow front porch, pulled open the screen, and then rapped her knuckles five times on the door.

Muffled sounds came from inside, perhaps furniture sliding on the floor. It took a long time for someone to answer.

A young woman peered out. She was white, with tousled reddish-brown hair framing her thin face. Her large hazel eyes were slightly glazed, but she took in the sight of the two Black women on her doorstep and ran her gaze up and down Dez’s official uniform. She wore no makeup or lipstick but looked fresh and vibrant and youthful. No wonder Lydia Merchant hated her.

“Can I help you, officer?” Her voice was soft but confident.

“We’re here about one of your neighbors,” Dez said.

The woman looked down. “Listen, I can explain—”

A crash came from behind her and then the sound of running.

Dez turned and sprinted past Fenway around the side of the house. Fenway ran behind her, following just to the corner of the house, and glimpsed a young white man in a gray hoodie and jeans jump the side fence and land feet-first on the sidewalk. He started to run, but Dez tackled him before he had taken his third step.

Fenway jogged up, heart pounding, senses on alert.

Dez cuffed the man’s hands behind his back. “You’re under arrest.”

“For what? I didn’t do anything,” the man whined.

“Resisting arrest.”

“What were you going to arrest me for?”

“Pop quiz, Rookie.” Dez looked up at Fenway. “Know why he was resisting arrest even though we weren’t planning to arrest him?”

Fenway bit her lip, and took a deep breath. “Evading a police officer.”

Dez shook her head. “Nope. The California statute requires both parties to be in vehicles for that.”

Fenway furrowed her brow, then brightened. “Oh, right! Resisting arrest—that includes hampering a peace officer from performing their duties.”

“Right.” Dez nodded, s. “At the very least, this guy is a potential witness—and he’s interfered with our ability to interview the woman who answered the door, too.” She looked up. “The girl didn’t run, did she?”

Fenway paused and then hurried back around the front of the house.

The young woman stood on the porch, biting the nail on her right index finger. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I—we’ve got medical cards. And everyone else is over twenty-one.”

Fenway narrowed her eyes, and then the smell hit her—cloying and sweet, with an undertone of skunk. “Oh, no, we’re not here for anything like that.”

“You said a neighbor complained.”

Fenway shook her head. “Nope. This is about your neighbor Gus Merchant. Do you know him?” She pulled her notebook and a pen out of her purse.

The young woman’s cheeks went red. “Look, I don’t know what his wife said to you, but chances are it’s not true.”

“Ah,” Fenway said. “Can I get your name?”

“Kayla Baroque.”

“Broke? Like if it ain’t, don’t fix it?”

“Ha ha,” Kayla said. “I’ve never heard that one before. No, Baroque, like classical music.”

“You have a reason to be in a dispute with Ms. Merchant?”

Kayla put her hands on her hips and sighed. “It’s not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, all right? It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing that kind of stretched out into a few months. But, look, I’m not the one who suggested he leave his wife. I didn’t want that.”

“You didn’t want that?”

Kayla scoffed. “Hell, no. I’m only twenty. I’m not planning on staying in this town after I graduate. Gus seemed to think I wanted to play house with him, bust out a couple of babies. Nuh-uh.”

Fenway cocked her head. “Did Gus own a gun?”

“A gun? He never said anything about a gun. What happened? Was he cheating on his wife with someone else and she finally got fed up and blew his dick off?”

“Actually, his wife said that he took you to the gun range when you started your, uh, affair.”

“Really? When was this?”

“Before Christmas. He was putting his lights up and the two of you started talking, and then he took you to the gun range.”

Kayla smiled and tilted her head. “That’s a riot. Is that what he told his wife? Yeah, we chatted when he was putting up his lights, but we didn’t go to any gun range. He came over here to spend the afternoon, uh, having fun. My roommate was visiting her parents up in Salinas.”

Fenway nodded. “You said he was seeing someone else?”

Kayla shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t put it past him. Once a cheater, you know.”

Dez appeared around the corner, walking the man in handcuffs to her police cruiser.

“Oh, Brendan, no,” Kayla said. Then to Dez, “You don’t have to do that. He’ll cooperate. He just got scared, that’s all.”

Fenway shot a look at Dez.

Dez shook her head. “Nope, sorry, hon. Sheriff McVie busted Brendan four years ago for underage drinking. The sheriff is friends with his daddy.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Roubideaux,” Brendan mumbled.

Sergeant Roubideaux. Brendan, you took the sheriff’s daughter to the prom,” Dez said, “and now I gotta go call him and tell him you screwed up again. That doesn’t sit well.”

“Just, please, don’t tell my dad.”

Dez scoffed. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, but the sheriff is another matter.”

“Come on, Ms. Roub—I mean, Sergeant, I wasn’t doing anything. The cops make me nervous, is all. You don’t have to tell Mr. McVie.”

“Oh, now, Brendan, you know I have to tell him. You’ve got all kinds of probation conditions stuck to you like yellowjackets on a dead pig. McVie will figure out what to do with you.” She turned to Fenway. “I’ll let him stew in the back of the cruiser for a few minutes. You okay here?”

“Sure.”

Fenway turned around to face Kayla again, her notebook and pen still in her hand. The young woman wore a disapproving frown. “Idiot.” She crossed her arms. “I told him not to run.”

“When was the last time you saw Mr. Merchant?”

Kayla shrugged. “Probably, I don’t know, a month ago. We broke up, but he wanted to meet for lunch. Promised it would just be as friends. Then he begged for me to come back.” She pursed her lips. “I got out of there fast. I’m not dealing with drama like that, for sure.”

“You didn’t go over there today?”

Kayla balked. “Did—did something happen to Gus? I was kind of joking about the whole rage thing with his wife. Did she do something?”

Fenway hesitated.

“Oh my God, something happened to him and she’s blaming me, isn’t she? What happened? Is Gus in the hospital?”

“I have to ask, Kayla, where were you earlier today?”

“Today? I—I started my shift at six thirty this morning.”

“Where?”

“The Coffee Collective.”

“How far away is that?”

“It’s the one on San Vicente. Just a few miles. It’s where Gus and I met, actually. He was a regular. Just a couple of blocks from his work. Double espresso, that was his drink. He started ordering it extra hot when he ordered from me. Kinda dumb, I guess, but kinda sweet too.”

In a weird, creepy way. Fenway cleared her throat. “And you were at work until when?”

“I was supposed to get off at three, but the barista after me called in sick. I worked until four fifteen.”

“What did you do on your lunch break?”

“There’s a sandwich shop next door. I only get half an hour.”

“People saw you there? You didn’t come back this way at lunch?”

“If Gus’s wife is saying I was at their house today, I wasn’t. The store has security cameras all over the place. You can take a look if you don’t believe me.”

“You’re not in school today?”

Kayla squinted. “Term ended a few weeks ago. I’m trying to get as many hours as I can this summer to save up some money.”

Fenway nodded and folded her notebook, but it slipped from her grip and landed at her feet.

She bent over to pick it up and something black and metallic caught her eye, on the ground under the manzanita bush next to the porch.

Fenway cocked her head, crouched down, and peered carefully underneath the bush.

A gun.

“Dez?” Fenway called, pulling out an evidence bag.

“Yeah?”

“You’re going to want to see this.”

“I’ve got Brendan in the back of the cruiser. Can it wait?”

“No. And bring two pairs of gloves.”

The cruiser door closed with a thud and footsteps clicked on the concrete as Dez walked up.

“Did you find the gun?” Dez asked in a quiet voice, holding out a pair of blue nitrile gloves.

“Pretty good for a rookie, huh?” Fenway took the gloves and snapped them on, then took out an evidence bag.

“Did you say a gun?” Kayla said. “Where—under that bush? I don’t know anything about that.”

Fenway lay flat on the ground. The manzanita bush, zigzagging with the spindly stalk of the mariposa lilies, made excellent cover. She reached for the gun with one hand and hooked the loop around the trigger with her finger, pulling it closer until she could pick it up. She stood and released the magazine, then put both parts of the gun in the evidence bag.

“Well, how about that?” Dez said under her breath.

“If we give this to our CSI unit,” Fenway asked Kayla, “will they find your fingerprints?”

Kayla shook her head adamantly. “No! I’ve never seen that gun before in my life.”

Fenway handed the evidence bag to Dez. “Take this back to the station and get it to the lab as quickly as you can. If there are fingerprints on there, we’ll want to know as soon as we can. Might as well take Brendan to cool his heels in the interview room, too.”

Dez nodded and walked back to the cruiser.

Fenway stood up.

“Honest, I have no idea how that got there.” Kayla widened her eyes, and Fenway saw why Lydia had used the phrase doe-eyed. It was like looking at a cartoon deer.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Fenway said. “Either you killed Gus, or someone is trying to make it look like you did.”

Kayla’s jaw dropped open. “Wait—Gus is dead?

Fenway inwardly swore at herself. Rookie mistake.

Kayla’s mouth turned down and her lip trembled. “Oh no.” Fenway could hear the misery in Kayla’s voice. “No, no, no. I liked the guy. I would have kept, uh, having fun with him if he hadn’t wanted to get so serious.” A tear leaked out of the corner of her eye.

Fenway looked out at the street as Kayla struggled to get ahold of herself.

Fenway calculated. She could have driven back on her lunch hour, shot Gus in the head, thrown the gun under the bush on her way out the door, and been back to the coffee shop in time. But there wouldn’t have been time for much else.

Kayla seemed honestly distraught. Either she was a fantastic actress, or she hadn’t known Gus was dead.

 

THREE: A FRIEND IN NEED

 

Fenway opened front door of the Merchant house and walked into the kitchen. She looked out the window. Lydia Merchant still sat on the white resin chair, staring into space. Donna Youngblood sat in the chair Fenway had vacated earlier, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

Officer Salvador appeared from the hallway, holding a smartphone. “Found the phone, Coroner.”

“Thanks, Salvador.” Fenway motioned with her head toward the backyard. “How long were you out there?”

Salvador shrugged. “Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Seemed like regular grief-counselor talk. Figured I’d get some work done.” She stepped toward Fenway, who took the phone from Salvador’s outstretched hand.

Fenway looked at the screen; the phone was unlocked. “Don’t tell me you unlocked the phone with a fingerprint, Officer.”

Salvador looked at Fenway with a blank expression. “I saw his driver’s license. Fascinating—he was born on July nineteenth,” Salvador said. “That’s the same day as my niece. Just something interesting that I thought you might find useful.” She leaned forward. “July nineteenth.”

Fenway looked down at the phone. It had gone to sleep in her hand. She woke it up and typed 0-7-1-9. The phone’s home screen appeared.

“Nice work, Salvador.”

Fenway opened the back door and went outside. “Hi, Ms. Merchant.” She addressed the woman in the other chair, who averted her eyes and sniffled. “Hi, Ms. Youngblood. You doing okay?”

“Yes. Silly of me. I come over to comfort Lydia, and I’m the one who’s crying.” It was true—Donna Youngblood seemed sadder about Gus’s death than his own wife did, although grief was a funny thing.

Fenway realized she still had Gus’s phone in her hand, so she held it loosely at her hip.

“Mind sticking around for a few minutes? I have some questions I’d like to ask you.”

Donna Youngblood stiffened slightly and then relaxed. “Certainly. Whatever you need.”

“Okay.” Fenway looked the two women. “Let me step inside for a moment, and then I’ll come out and get Ms. Youngblood and we can talk.”

Fenway went inside and turned the corner into the hallway, tapping 0-7-1-9 on the phone. When the phone woke up, she tapped on Messages. A list appeared, with Lydia at the top. She scrolled down, farther, farther, but didn’t see a Kayla.

“Hey, Coroner,” Officer Celeste Salvador said, coming out of the bedroom. “Not sure there’s much else to go on in there.”

“Okay, Salvador.” She scrolled back up. Lydia. Walt. Mom. Francisco. CVS Pharmacy Rewards. Lydia. Bobby. Radio Highlights. Ed. XH. Levi. Walt. “No Kayla,” she said.

“No what?”

“Gus was having an affair with his neighbor, the one who Lydia thinks killed him, but he didn’t message her at all in the last couple of weeks.

Salvador pursed her lips. “It won’t say ‘Kayla’ in flashing neon, Fenway. Guys who cheat never have their girlfriends’ real names in their phones.”

Fenway thought for a moment.

Double espresso, that was his drink. He started ordering it extra hot when he ordered from me.

XH. Xtra Hot. The extra-hot barista.

Fenway clicked on the thread. The last messages came on the screen.

Gus: i guess i should of expected this

XH: I thought you knew this was just a fun thing

XH: like a summer fling

XH: I’ve had a lot of fun so far but I’m not ready for anything serious

Gus: how about you stop texting me

Gus: i ruind my marriage for u

XH: I never asked you to leave her

XH: I thought we were friends

XH: we’re still neighbors this doesn’t hve to b weird

XH: are you there?

XH: ok I get the hint. I had fun. Hope u can save your marriage.

Fenway turned the screen so Officer Salvador could see the screen.

“This look like a woman who’s so jealous she’ll kill the man she can’t have?”

Salvador pursed her lips.

“This fits what Kayla told me. Something’s off here.” Fenway raised her head, walking to the dining room, and looked out the sliding glass door. The new widow sat upright, still staring at the sky. Donna Youngblood, next to her, had tears streaming down her face. Her lips moved. Fenway tried to read what Donna was saying, but she couldn’t make anything out.

Salvador cleared her throat. “You need me? I’ve got another room to go through.”

“No, that’s fine. Do what you need to do.”

Fenway pulled the sliding door open.

The late June sun was hot on the concrete. She felt it through her shoes this time. Funny, she hadn’t even noticed it at first. It wasn’t particularly warm after the coastal fog had burned off, but the sun shone fiercely, making everything in Fenway’s path shimmer and wave in the rays.

“Ms. Youngblood?”

She looked up at Fenway, squinting against the sun. “Yes?”

“Would you mind coming in with me for just a moment?”

“Certainly.”

Fenway stepped inside and pulled two chairs out at the dining room table, sitting at the one that faced the sliding glass door. Donna came into the house and stood next to the chair opposite.

Now that they’d come in from the bright sunlight, Fenway saw that Donna had a yellowish stain on her skirt, in streaks about halfway down. It was the color of mustard, but it looked drier, like seeds had been squashed on the shirt and wiped off. Nothing on her crisp white blouse, though.

Fenway opened her mouth and then shut it again. She remembered the sheriff’s interrogation technique—always cool, calm, relaxed. Make the suspect think you don’t know anything, that you haven’t put two and two together yet. That way they don’t feel like they need to be careful with what they say and that there’s no reason for them to call a lawyer.

So she leaned back a little in her chair. Donna took a seat, setting her purse on the table in front of her, and they watched each other. The silence between them stretched out like a cat in a sunbeam, lazily unfolding. Maybe it could go on forever. Maybe this moment would last long enough for Donna not to have to tell the real truth.

Donna cleared her throat. “You said you had a few questions for me, Coroner?”

“I’m trying to figure out,” Fenway said slowly, “if you killed him, or if you just found him dead.”

“What?”

“We won’t find fingerprints on the gun we found,” Fenway said. “You made sure to wipe them off. You told Lydia that you found him in the bathtub, and you and she concocted a plan to make it look like Kayla had murdered him so she’d get—what? Life insurance money?”

Donna scoffed. “Kayla? That’s the name of the ditz in the corner house, right? The one Gus has been cheating with?” She rolled her eyes. “You’ve got it wrong, Coroner. No disrespect, but I had nothing to do with it.”

Fenway kept her gaze steady. “Lydia calls her a ditz too—Mitzi and Ditzy, she calls the pair of them.”

“Well, if the shoe fits.”

Fenway put her chin in her hand for a moment but didn’t break her stare from Donna. “I thought at first that the lipstick from the second coffee cup on the table was Kayla’s. But when I visited her, she didn’t have any makeup on at all.”

“That doesn’t prove anything.”

“No, but it makes me look at other women in his life.” She placed Gus’s phone on the table. “We found this. It’s Gus’s phone, isn’t it?”

Donna shrugged. “It could be. I didn’t pay attention to what kind of phone he had.”

“He had a codename for Kayla in his contact list.” She unlocked the phone and scrolled up to the message from Walt. “Walt is your husband, right?”

“He prefers Walter.”

“He sent ‘Walt’ a message yesterday. Let’s see what it says.” Fenway tapped, and she read the message aloud.

Come over tomorrow morning we need to talk

Fenway looked across the table at Donna. “You said Walter was at work today?”

“Uh… yes.”

“Does he have the kind of flexible schedule where he can just come and go as he pleases?”

“Sometimes.”

“If I call his work, will they tell me he didn’t come in until late, or will they say he was there all day?”

Donna was silent.

“Insurance adjusters, on the other hand, interview people after accidents. They go to scenes of car accidents, robberies, stuff like that? Little more flexibility in your schedule. You’re not expected to be in the office most of the time.”

Donna pressed her lips together and blinked at Fenway.

Fenway tapped Walt and the contact entry appeared. She hit the phone icon next to the number.

From inside Donna’s purse, a phone rang.

“Gus wasn’t just seeing Kayla. He was seeing you, too. The lipstick on the coffee cup is yours.”

“You’ve got it wrong. Gus was murdered. And that slut down the street is the one who killed him. I mean, you even found the gun in her front yard.”

Fenway looked at Donna. “I mentioned that we found the gun, Donna, but how would you know where?” Fenway tapped her temple. “I’ll tell you how you knew. Because you put it there. You’ve got stains on your skirt, too. Lily pollen, which is particularly nasty. Especially the type of pollen from a late-blooming species called the mariposa lily. Which just happens to grow right above the bushes where we found the gun in front of Kayla’s house.”

Donna’s face tightened up. She opened her mouth and then closed it.

“What happened when you came over this morning, Donna?” Fenway folded her arms and leaned back. In the corner of her eye, she saw Officer Salvador leaning against the wall, trying to stay unnoticed, but hearing every word. “Did he break up with you?”

Donna leaned forward and her voice was low and menacing. “Not this morning. The bastard broke up with me three weeks ago. He said he wanted to make it work with someone else. Kayla, probably. I guess that didn’t work out because when I came over this morning, he told me he made a mistake and he wanted us to keep seeing each other.”

The last piece clicked into place in Fenway’s head. “And you said no.”

“You’re damn right I said no.”

So noble of you. Fenway bit her tongue.

“When we were having the affair, I couldn’t sleep. I felt horrible. I’d betrayed my best friend. When he broke up with me, I was relieved, believe it or not.”

Fenway nodded.

“I said some things to Gus this morning that maybe I shouldn’t have. I came back after lunch to apologize. Walter and I have a spare key—we watch each other’s houses when we go on vacation.”

Fenway waited. The moment seemed to go on a while.

Donna ran her finger in a line back and forth across the table. Finally, she continued, “He was dead in the bathtub when I came in.”

“What time was that?”

“A little before two.” She paused. “Look, I felt bad enough sleeping with the creep. I didn’t want Lydia to get screwed out of the insurance money too.”

“I take it they don’t pay if it’s a suicide.”

“I’m an insurance adjuster, Coroner. No insurance company covers suicide.”

Fenway nodded. “So you took the gun.”

Donna leaned forward, her palms down on the table. “Please, Coroner, don’t involve Lydia in this. She had nothing to do with trying to keep the insurance money. She’s having a hard enough time with Gus being dead and knowing what a cheating bastard he was.”

Fenway looked up at Donna again. “Did you tell her that you were sleeping with him too?”

“Not yet.”

“You planning to?”

Donna paused. “I’m not sure. I—I don’t really want this to get back to Lydia or Walter. Sleeping with Gus was the worst mistake I’ve ever made.”

“Worse than tampering with evidence?”

Donna nodded.

“I’ve made a couple of mistakes in my time, too.” Fenway thought about the night she’d spent with McVie, which seemed so long ago. She took a deep breath and scooted her chair back. “Anything else you want to tell me?”

Donna hesitated. “I found the suicide note. It was long and self-pitying and generally unreadable.”

“Where is it now?”

“At my house.”

“Officer Salvador,” Fenway said, standing up. “Would you take Ms. Youngblood to her house to get Mr. Merchant’s suicide note? Then let’s get her down to the station and get a statement.”

“Am I under arrest?” Donna asked.

Fenway tilted her head back and forth. “You’ve certainly done some things you could be arrested for, Ms. Youngblood. I won’t lie to you—we’ll have to see how the district attorney wants to handle it. I’d say you could only help yourself if you cooperate.”

Donna’s face turned ashen.

“I won’t tell Ms. Merchant of her husband’s affair with you, Ms. Youngblood,” Fenway said, walking to the sliding glass door. “Don’t make me regret my choice.”

Donna nodded, and Officer Salvador helped her out of her chair, ushered her into the entry hall, and exited out the front.

Fenway opened the sliding glass door and stepped outside just as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. Lydia sat in her chair, still staring into space.

Fenway took a seat next to her and looked out across the yard.

Lydia took a hitching breath and then began to speak, slowly and deliberately. “He didn’t want to work on our marriage when that little whore dumped him. He wasn’t happy. He wanted out.” She tapped the edges of her fingers of each hand together, index finger to pinkie, tap-tap-tap-tap, and then backward, and then forward again.

“And what did you do?”

“I pushed him. I got a lawyer. I got a copy of the texts. California’s a no-fault state, I know, so it wouldn’t make any difference in the alimony, but I would have embarrassed him. His mother would know he was screwing a girl ten years younger. I wanted to drag it on. I wanted him to have nothing when it was over. Even if I couldn’t have it, I wanted the lawyer to get everything.”

Fenway paused. “Did something else happen to Gus recently?”

“He was fired last week, right after the lawyers had hammered out an agreement.” Lydia looked Fenway in the eyes for the first time. “I don’t mind telling you, I was pissed off and I wasn’t going to let him get away with it. The agreement had him owing me a good chunk of his salary once the papers were signed.” Lydia gave Fenway a sarcastic, angry smile. “You ever been divorced, Coroner?”

Fenway shook her head.

“Well, after you sign the agreement, it doesn’t matter if you get laid off or anything. The alimony is based on the agreement. He’d have to wait a year to contest it. He had nothing. He’d be out on the street. He couldn’t pay it. I’d have him by the balls for years. And I loved it.” She pulled a lighter out of her pocket. “He was leaving work early to convince her to get back together with him. His boss had had enough.” Lydia chuckled as she lit her cigarette. “He literally lost everything because of her. You know, if you had told me that he had lost his shit and gone to shoot her in the head, I’d have believed you.”

“Yeah?”

Lydia pointed at Fenway with her cigarette. “I would have laughed, too. That homewrecking bitch would’ve gotten what was coming to her.”

Fenway looked up at the sky. The sun was coming out from behind the clouds again.

“He killed himself, didn’t he?” She shook her head. “That stupid girl didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Fenway nodded. “I’m sorry, but yes.”

“Why were you talking to Donna for so long?” Lydia searched Fenway’s face.

Fenway squinted, unsure if she should say anything.

“Oh.” Lydia set her mouth in a line. “She staged it.”

“She says she wanted you to get the insurance money.”

Lydia chuckled and her smile lost its anger. “Always looking out for me, that one.” Her smile turned wistful. “The dumb thing is, before he cheated on me, we were trying to have kids. We were so in love. But, shit, when sex becomes a chore, when you have to screw in the next twenty minutes because your ovaries are in Mercury and his scrotum is in Jupiter—well, it just wears on you.” She exhaled a long plume of smoke.

Fenway’s eyes watered but she didn’t say anything.

“Our ten-year anniversary would’ve been in September. Funny how you can take so much for granted and have it all pissed away for you in a matter of months.” Lydia rolled the cigarette between her fingers. “What’ll happen now?”

Fenway shrugged. “I don’t think you’ve done anything illegal.”

Lydia took another drag from her cigarette, like she was in an old movie.

Fenway kept staring across the yard, thinking about the woman whose world was crashing around her. Not that Fenway was much better off. She had two nursing degrees and more college loan debt than she knew what to do with. She wasn’t in a spot with anyone to try to have kids, to try IVF if nothing worked, to have sex be a chore. The thought almost made her laugh out loud.

She gave Lydia a card for a grief counselor and left her in the backyard, still smoking and staring into space. The crime scene unit had arrived and was taking evidence. Fenway said hello to the techs, told them what she knew, and then left just after six thirty.

She drove away from the house and wondered if Dez had finished handing off Brendan to McVie. Maybe the two of them could get a couple of beers later.

For a moment, Fenway debated going home, but she needed to start the paperwork on Gus Merchant’s death, and besides, she wanted to see Donna give her statement.

Oh—that was weird.

She was actually looking forward to it. All of it. Getting Donna’s statement. Finishing up the paperwork. Feeling the satisfaction about closing a suspicious death in just a couple of hours. It was almost as good as earning that last A in her last forensics class.

She shook her head in disgust. She was only Acting Coroner. This job wasn’t going to get its hooks into her.

Not if she could help it.

 

 

NEXT IN THE FENWAY STEVENSON MYSTERIES

 

THE INCUMBENT CORONER

Book Two of the Fenway Stevenson Mysteries

A beloved mayor. A seedy motel room. One baffling murder.

The bizarre circumstances of Fenway Stevenson’s latest case as county coroner drag her to the center of one very dangerous game. With one suspect in custody, an attempt on the life of the key witness leads to her disappearance and more unanswered questions. Fenway must race to solve the mystery before anyone else dies while also juggling an upcoming election and her overbearing father’s meddling.

As summer temperatures rise, so do the stakes. What will Fenway have to sacrifice to ensure the safety of everyone in her idyllic coastal town?

Get The Incumbent Coroner now!