Ain’t She a Peach
FRANKIE McCREADY CAREFULLY dusted Maybelline blush in Light Rose on the curve of Eula Buckinerny’s cheek.
“Now, Miss Eula, I know you’ve never been one for makeup. You’ve always been blessed with such a nice complexion, you’ve never needed it,” Frankie murmured over the strains of the Mount Olive Gospel Singers’ rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” She liked to play her customers’ favorite music in the background while she made them up, so they would feel at home. “But every now and again, a girl needs some help from a good foundation and blush.
“Do ya think I wake up every morning with this fabulous Elizabeth Taylor lash already in place?” Frankie gestured to her own carefully framed violet-blue eyes. “No, this is the result of a steady hand and some indecently expensive mascara that I splurge on every six months. But don’t tell my mama. You know her. She gets downright indignant at the idea of
spendin’ more than ten dollars on anything you’re just going to wash off your face every night.”
Frankie studied her makeup kit and chose a lip color that, while just a bit pinker than beige, was still more risqué than anything Miss Eula had ever worn, even at the annual Sackett County Homemaker Society Awards Dinner. She painted a thin, careful coat across Eula’s lips. “This will be our little secret.”
Frankie dipped a smaller brush in a dark brown contouring powder called Hot Chocolate that would give Eula’s features shadow and dimension. After a few strokes, Frankie leaned back and admired her handiwork.
“There. You look beautiful. And I really think that lipstick pops with your pretty pink suit. Trudy Darnell will spend the month trying to figure out how ya managed to go out looking better than her, even in your casket.”
Smiling down at Eula one last time, Frankie bowed her head in a solemn gesture of farewell. She closed the frosted pink casket lid just as a loud knock sounded on the mortuary room door. “Frankie! Is it all clear?”
“Sure, Margot, I’m all finished up with Miss Eula.”
Frankie’s cousin stuck her blond head through the door. Margot Cary was just as sleek and polished as she’d been the day she stepped off the plane from Chicago a few months ago to take what was supposed to be a temporary job at the McCready Family Funeral Home and Bait Shop. And while her slick designer suits were still very much out of place in semirural Georgia, Frankie and the rest of the McCreadys
were working like ants on a discarded Blow Pop to make her feel like part of the family.
“You comin’ in?” Frankie asked.
Frankie snorted. Her cousin took no crap from the local PTA-based social terrorists, but she was still pretty creeped out by the concept of embalming. Frankie tried not to judge. After all, she was creeped out by the concept of gluten-free cupcakes and juice cleanses.
“Sheriff Linden is here for you, Frankie,” Margot said, training her eyes on a spot over Frankie’s shoulder, away from the form of Benjoe Watts, lying under a pristine white sheet on table two. “They’re bringing in Bobby Wayne Patterson.”
“Oh, that’s a shame.” Frankie sighed, frowning deeply.
“Yeah, my dad said that y’all—you all had been expecting this one for a while,” Margot said, clearing her throat.
Frankie’s momentary sadness over Bobby Wayne gave way to warm internal fuzziness over her cousin’s casual use of my dad, something that wouldn’t have happened just a few weeks before. After a lifetime of separation from the whole family, Margot wasn’t quite ready to call Stan McCready “Daddy.” But the two were able to stay in the same room and make pleasant conversation on a regular basis, which was a considerable improvement over when Margot had arrived.
Also, Margot had started to say “y’all,” which made Frankie perversely proud.
“Could you tell my dad that Miss Eula’s coming up on
the elevator?” Frankie asked. “All prettied up and ready for her party.”
“Will do,” Margot said, the corners of her slick coral lips lifting. “Your mom left your lunch in my office and said to remind you that you have to eat at some point. I believe the exact phrase she used was ‘No excuses or I’ll give her a whooping, just like when she was little.’?”
“She’s all talk. I never got whoopin’s.”
“I’d still eat the freaking sandwich, if I were you,” Margot told her. “Your mother is a culinary genius, and bacon is her medium of artistic expression.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Frankie said, rolling the closed pink casket toward the elevator that led to the west chapel. She called after Margot, who was already halfway up the stairs to the funeral home proper. “Remind Daddy that Miss Eula ordered a full spray of white roses! She wanted them in place for her visitation. And she wanted to make sure Trudy Darnell saw them. She actually wrote it in her preplanned funeral paperwork: ‘Make sure Trudy Darnell sees me covered in white roses.’ They had a long-standin’ feud over some pie-related incident at the 1964 county fair.”
“The roses are already here. I’ll place them myself,” Margot promised from the stairwell. “Also, for the record, I did not expect the old church ladies to be this cutthroat. It’s like Game of Thrones with less nudity and more denture cream.”
“Just be grateful for the ‘less nudity,’?” Frankie yelled.
“Trust me when I say that I am.”
Frankie snickered and then heard Margot say, “She’s ready to see you, Sheriff,” before click-clacking her way up the stairs on her scary ice-pick heels. Frankie had no idea how Margot walked in those things, much less did stairs.
Frankie turned to see a tall man in a dark green Sackett County Sheriff’s Department uniform duck through the door. She kept her lip from curling in disdain, but it was a near thing. “Sheriff.”
Blessed with a thick head of dark-blond hair and eyes the color of new moss, Eric Linden wasn’t handsome in the classical sense. Frankie knew enough about bone structure to see that his sharp cheekbones and slightly crooked Roman nose didn’t quite coordinate with his high forehead and square chin. His lips were oddly full and opened over white, but certainly not orthodontia-perfect, teeth. His top canines in particular were slightly off-kilter, which shouldn’t have been charming but somehow was.
And damn, did that man know how to fill out a uniform. The fit of Eric’s shirt alone was enough to make Frankie more than a little self-conscious. She liked to think that her sense of style made up for her own pale, under-toned physique. For instance, today’s ensemble of a black tunic over tights printed with galaxies and comets lent her a certain air of quirky elegance. It would help her self-esteem considerably if she didn’t turn to lady jelly in a lab coat every time she made eye contact with those big green eyes of his, while he seemed to remain unaffected. He was supposed to have been a fun highlight to an outstanding “self-care”
weekend—a highlight she would never have to see again. But here she was, enduring regular awkward interactions with a guy who seemed to think she was some heartless sex marauder, all because she hadn’t stuck around for postcoital pancakes a few weeks before.
“Ms. McCready,” he drawled, his eyes catching on Mr. Watts. He seemed to blanch, and his speech faltered for a second. “I—Y—Your cousin was supposed to tell you Bobby Wayne Patterson is coming in. I think it’s a possible homicide. Since you’re the county coroner, I need you to give him the full workup before I can send him along to the state crime lab.”
Jesus Herbert Christ. Not this again.
Eric Linden seemed to think that anybody who didn’t die in intensive care surrounded by a circle of great-great-grandchildren was the victim of foul play. This was the second body he’d brought in as a “possible homicide” in the couple of weeks since he had taken over for the recently retired Sheriff Rainey. The first was Len Huffman, a poor tourist from Ohio who’d had no idea how to operate a fishing boat near a dam and ended up drowning. Sheriff Linden had insisted the boater’s pretty and much younger wife had something to do with his untimely demise and refused to release the body to the family until he had evidence. While Frankie could see the motive in a woman forced to spend her precious vacation driving to Georgia for fishing, ultimately overconfidence and poor boatsmanship were the only killers in this case. It took Frankie’s autopsy report, a statement from the bass boat’s
manufacturer, and affidavits from the man’s sons regarding his poor swimming skills to convince Sheriff Linden.
Her relationship with Eric had suffered several episodes of tragic dickheadery in the short time she’d known him. What had been a very pleasant encounter that they’d both enjoyed—several times—on one of Frankie’s lost weekends in Atlanta was ruined when Eric was introduced to her as Lake Sackett’s new sheriff. Eric did not appreciate Frankie’s no-nonsense approach to anonymous short-term relationships and was not pleased to find he’d moved to her hometown. He’d proceeded to act like an asshat every time their jobs brought them together. He’d managed to make her feel unattractive, unprofessional, and unwanted without really trying. And when she’d thought they’d finally reached some sort of understanding after resolving Len Huffman’s case, he’d stomped all over it by accusing her of securing her evidence by inappropriately using her connections and natural charms.
Frankie considered herself a nice person, but she would dearly love to see Eric ugly-cry.
The buzzer by the back bay rang, letting Frankie know that a “delivery” was coming into her mortuary. She crossed the gray-tiled room and punched in the key code to electronically open the double doors. Naomi Daniels, the local day-shift paramedic, wheeled a gurney through the sunlit doorway. Poor Bobby Wayne was safely tucked inside a standard-issue black body bag. Frankie’s heart ached for his long-suffering mama.
“Hey, Naomi,” Frankie said, a note of finality in her voice, as if she’d been expecting this delivery.
“Hi, Frankie.” Naomi’s voice was resigned as she handed over the clipboard. Her messy brown hair hung limp around her cherubic face as she bent over the body. “Unresponsive at the scene. No breath, no pulse, cold to the touch. Pretty sure the cause of death is that big ol’ missing spot in the back of his head, but you’d know better than me.”
“Who found him?” Frankie asked, taking the state paperwork that assigned her official stewardship of the body.
“The Clay boys. Poor things skipped school to squirrel hunt and found a dead body for their trouble.”
“Well, they’ll never play hooky again,” Frankie muttered. She checked over the paperwork one last time before signing and handing it back to Naomi. The paramedic used her considerable upper-body strength to transfer the body bag onto Frankie’s central treatment table. Frankie noted that the sheriff hadn’t even offered to help her.
“No, they will not,” Naomi said, shaking her head. “Little Brody Clay threw up so much I thought I was going to have to drop him off at the ER before I brought Bobby Wayne in.”
Frankie grimaced. “Sheriff, this sort of thing can be pretty traumatic. You might make sure the boys get referred to the county’s mental health services for follow-up counseling. You’ll have to talk their daddy into it, because Allan Clay doesn’t buy into that sort of thing.”
“Already done,” the sheriff said, his square jaw stiff. “I know my job.”
Frankie pressed her poppy-bright mouth into a thin line, exhaled through her nose, and counted to eight. He didn’t deserve ten.
Naomi saw the grim set of Frankie’s normally cheerful mouth and took a step back. “Okay, then. I’m going to head out. Sheriff, you have my statement. If you need anything else, let me know.”
Sheriff Linden offered her a curt nod and Naomi carefully wheeled her gurney out into the sunlight. As she closed the double doors behind her, she mouthed the words Good luck at Frankie.
Frankie took the necessary report forms out of the filing cabinet by her desk. The little Funko Pop! versions of the Avengers, plus half the Lannister family, standing sentinel over her desktop monitor didn’t cheer her up like they normally did. She wanted Eric Linden and his big-city cop attitude out of her work space, yesterday. He was a condescending ass in a town that had already met its condescending-ass quota. They didn’t need to go importing them from Atlanta.
Frankie cleared her throat and turned carefully on thick-soled sneakers printed in cosmic blues, pinks, and purples. She thought they were a nice complement to the purple and blue streaks in her hair. “Can you explain to me why you think that Mr. Patterson’s death is a homicide?”
The sheriff cleared his throat and several beads of sweat appeared on his brow. “If you would open the body bag, I’ll show you.”
Frankie shook her head. “After the deceased come through my doors, I don’t like to let other people see them until I’ve prettied them up for their services. It’s a little more dignified.”
Eric frowned at her. “Do you understand how police investigations work? This isn’t optional. I’m the sheriff. You’re the coroner. I don’t want to use the phrase ‘chain of command,’ because it’s too damn early and I’ve spent my morning up to my ass cheeks in chiggers. So please, just open the damn bag.”
“I might, if you would explain to me how you could possibly think this is a homicide investigation.”
“The gunshot wound to the head doesn’t seem suspicious to you?” he drawled.
“Not when you consider that Bobby Wayne Patterson drank at least a twelve-pack of Bud Light every day and he was an avid hunter who built his own deer stand about twenty years ago. Also while drunk. And he called the safety on firearms ‘the sissy button.’ So no, when I add all of those factors up . . . I’m not seein’ homicide.”
“Just because the man had a reputation as a drunk doesn’t mean he couldn’t have met with foul play!” the sheriff exclaimed. Frankie noticed that he’d gone oddly pale. “Every case deserves our full attention.”
“I absolutely agree. But how many times have you pulled Bobby Wayne over for DUI in the weeks you’ve worked here?”
Sheriff Linden grimaced, which was answer enough for Frankie. He fumed, “So you’re just going to sign off on it as
an accident without even looking into it? Is that how you normally handle things around here, Ms. McCready?”
“No, I’m going to do my due diligence, just like I do with each and every body that comes through my doors. But I’m not going to waste the county’s limited budget on expensive, unnecessary tests when we need to save it just in case there’s an actual murder in our town . . . for the first time in more than twenty years.”
Sheriff Linden glowered at her with those icy green eyes of his and she rolled her own in response. “Okay, do you have pictures of the scene?”
The sheriff took a mini tablet out of an oversize pocket in his cargo pants, tapped in an access code, and handed it to her without looking at the screen. She scrolled through the photos of the body, the deer stand, and the ground surrounding the scene, until she found one that featured the dry-rotted wooden steps Bobby Wayne had nailed into the broad oak tree when he was in high school. Frankie noted that the fifth step up was broken and dangling from the trunk by a loosened nail.
“That broken step’s, what, eight feet off of the ground?” she said, manipulating the screen to zoom in on the step. Sheriff Linden frowned at the screen and nodded. Frankie snapped on a pair of sterile exam gloves.
“Excuse me, Bobby Wayne,” she said in a polite but brisk tone. “I just need to take a quick look.”
“You talk to the dead bodies?” Eric asked.
“I was raised well. Just because they’re not breathin’
doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be polite,” she shot back as she opened the body bag and gently extended Bobby Wayne’s hand. The sheriff took a rather large step back and she showed him the dark brown material packed under Bobby Wayne’s ragged fingernails. “And this looks like tree bark, doesn’t it? And those stains on his sleeves?” Frankie sniffed delicately at the green camo jacket. “Smell a lot like beer.”
The sheriff nodded, his lips going the color of day-old oatmeal. “McCready, don’t sniff the body. I gotta draw a line somewhere.”
“From that height, given the scratches on the tree trunk and the bark under his nails, and what looks like a Bud Light can at the base of the tree, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Bobby Wayne was trying to climb into his rickety old deer stand while holdin’ a beer, because I’m pretty sure Bobby Wayne was born holdin’ a beer. The step gave way under his foot, he dropped the beer, tried to keep hold of the trunk, but fell onto his back, with his rifle barrel right under the base of his skull, and the rifle went off. It’s a terrible tragedy, but these things happen. Haven’t you ever heard of the Darwin Awards?”
Sheriff Linden shook his head. “How would that even happen?”
Frankie took the sheriff’s tablet and opened the photos from the crime scene. She noted the way he instinctually turned his eyes away from the images. She tapped the screen. “Bobby Wayne always used his granddaddy’s rifle. He thought it was good luck.”
“Well, modern firearms have that firing pin block thing that prevents a gun from firing accidentally if it’s dropped.”
“I’m familiar with the concept.”
“Bobby Wayne’s granddaddy’s rifle didn’t have that. So . . . not good luck after all.” When he shot her a disappointed look, she added, “But just to make you feel better, I’ll run tests on the back of Bobby Wayne’s jacket to show the patterns of gunshot residue and determine how the rifle was situated against his back when it was fired. And I’ll send the bullet to the state lab for comparison to his rifle.”
“You can run GSR tests here?” Sheriff Linden asked, eyeing her work space.
“As I’ve told you before, Sheriff, this is technically the county morgue. There’s no major hospital for fifty miles. I’ve been the county coroner since my uncle, the last coroner, died. I know what I’m doin’.”
“You ran unopposed,” Sheriff Linden shot back, a tiny bit of color returning to his cheeks.
“No one else wanted the job,” she told him. “Because people around here enjoyed dealin’ with Sheriff Rainey about as much as I like dealing with you.”
“Well, that’s hurtful.” He placed his hand over his heart. For the first time since he’d entered the basement, Sheriff Linden offered a hint of a smile and she saw a glimpse of that charming, adventurous soul she’d spent quality naked time with all those nights ago.
“I’m not tryin’ to be hurtful. Just honest.” Frankie carefully
tucked Bobby Wayne’s arm back in the bag and zipped it. The sheriff took a deep breath and his shoulders relaxed. Frankie rounded the table and he took several steps back toward Mr. Watts’s table.
“I get that you’re used to murders by the hour, but you’re going to have to pump your brakes just a little bit. This is Lake Sackett. Not every non-natural death is going to be suspicious. Sometimes alcohol and outdoor sports are going to combine in awful, permanent ways.”
“Look, I’m an interim sheriff. I took the job knowing I would only have it until the special election in November. That doesn’t make it any less demoralizing to campaign for the job I have. And difficult, since, as you like to point out at every possible opportunity, I’m an outsider. I have to make a good impression with voters or there’s no hope of me getting elected.” He pinned her with those frank, incredibly dilated green eyes. “Besides, I saw what happened to the last sheriff. I would like to retire without the words ‘gross incompetence’ written on my cake.”
“Well, don’t let your evidence room become a hoarder nightmare and you’ll already be way ahead of Sheriff Rainey.”
Eric wiped at his sweaty brow. “So, what, you’re saying I should relax? Take up a hobby?”
Frankie opened a mini-fridge she kept near her desk and handed him a bottle of water. “No, I’m sayin’ you’re going to burn yourself out if you’re not careful. And you’re going to become the ‘boy who cries murder,’ which will make people
laugh at you when you walk into the Rise and Shine. They’ll pretend it’s something else, but it will be you. Not to mention, it doesn’t look great to the tourist trade if every hunting accident and drowning is investigated as the possible work of a serial killer.”
The sheriff sagged against the autopsy table behind him. “You’re right. But for the record, I want to do a good job, not just ’cause I want to be elected, but for my own reasons. I have to do well here.”
“Um, I really appreciate this new level of emotional openness between us, but maybe you shouldn’t touch Mr. Watts like that,” Frankie said, timidly gesturing to the table he was leaning on.
The sheriff turned, saw the covered body on the table, and stumbled away, dragging the sheet with him in his haste. The barest hint of Benjoe Watts’s gray hair became visible. And then Eric Linden did the last thing Frankie would have expected.
His eyes rolled up like window shades and he fainted dead away on the tile floor.