Cold. Warm. Cold.
S.A. Catherine Anderson is hot on the trail of a killer. Or is she?
Special Agent Catherine Anderson squatted beside Dr. Edwards as he zipped the black bag shut, the sound sending shivers through Catherine's already chilled body. Or maybe it was from the slush soaking into her boots. Suede does not repel snow. She clapped her hands together and rubbed them briskly.
The county coroner hid a wide grin behind his scarf. He didn't meet up with fancy investigators very often. Make that never. In fifteen years, none of their small town crimes had garnered outside attention.
Testing his own detective skills, he tried to guess which warm state she hailed from as she was woefully unprepared for their soggy spring weather.
“Where to next, Agent?” he inquired, courtesy dictating he ask.
“Someplace with lots of coffee and less snow,” came the response, stated with an edge that shut down any further conversation.
He shrugged and climbed into the van, dropping his clipboard on the dash. “It will take a couple of days for the body to thaw before I can do the examination. Let me know if you leave town before that.”
Catherine waved him off. She wasn't leaving anytime soon. The van spun its tires, spraying her with a slurry of mud and snow.
“This day just keeps getting better,” she complained as she ineffectively wiped at the muck on her pants. The cold would seep in soon. She should head back to her hotel before she caught some back-country flu. But first, another look at the scene. Despite the disturbances made by the officers, the coroner, and the unknown tipster, she could still picture the pond as it must have looked fifteen hours ago.
Thinking back, she worried at the timeline. Sheriff Donovan had received a note three days ago with the simple instructions: “You'll find it by the pond.” The 'it' wasn't clear, neither was which pond to look at. Two teens, out testing the ice thickness, found the victim's wallet wedged in the broken reeds at the edge of Miller's Pond.
It was the sheriff's probe into the licence holder's identity and subsequent calls to the Chicago Main Police Station that revealed a missing person report. An interstate disappearance, a stolen wallet, and a mysterious note had 'federal investigation' all over it.
On a quick visit to her friend, Elaine, in Boston, the call had her showing up within hours, arriving in the requisite black sedan toting her go-bag and badge. Nothing stands out more in a small town than a flashy car. Following the flashing lights, she had arrived to watch the young lady's body be chipped from its ice-encrusted cavity The scene was quiet now, leaving her standing alone, staring at the once angelic pond. Catherine pants were soaked to her knees, her feet resembling blocks of ice in her slush-filled boots. There was nothing more to be found here. The weather would have long ago disintegrated anything of value.
She would need to be satisfied with the meagre information the sheriff had gathered. Catherine had hoped to have more to give the family. With the conditions, she feared no evidence would be found, leaving her with the note and little else.
“Aaachoo!” Damn it.
There wasn't enough coffee in the diner to warm her up. Catherine shivered in her damp clothes, a puddle forming beneath her chair.
“Honey, you really need to get out of those clothes!” If it had been anyone other than the middle-aged waitress, Catherine would have returned the advice with a withering stare. Dorothy was right. She should have gone to the hotel, stepped into a hot shower and crawled into bed. Coffee trumped the need to be dry which found her ensconced in the tiny diner, absorbing the heat from her mug and hoping to fight off the cold threatening to settle in her chest.
With a tsk, Dorothy wiped off the surrounding tables, then returned to top off her mug with the strongest black brew Catherine had ever chewed on. Swallowing the nectar, she closed her eyes and let the heat swell out into her core. A sigh, blended with a tremor, rattled out as she sunk deeper in her chair. Draining the cup, she thunked it down, hoping the motion would translate into momentum. Standing, she pulled a ten out of her wallet, a lot for coffee and pie, the extra a well-deserved tip for the maid service.
“Wait!” Dorothy's voice came from the kitchen. “Agent!”
Catherine paused and turned back to see the bat-wing doors swing open and a brown paper bag being pushed through. The smell of chicken soup rose from the package and Catherine felt tears twinge in her eyes. The kindness of strangers still hit her. Guess she wasn't hard-hearted after all.
“Now,” Dorothy insisted, “you head over to that hotel and use all the hot water they've got. The soup should be cooled a bit by then, so you can crawl into bed with a warm tummy. Go on now, get.” Catherine found herself being shooed out the front door, dinner in hand. It felt nice to be taken care of.
The sheriff looked at her red eyes and tissue-filled hand and waved her into a seat across the room. He would rather shout than catch her cold. Catherine struggled to think clearly, encouraged by caffeine and supported by more soup. Sniffling, she dropped into the indicated chair.
Sheriff Donovan flipped through the file on his desk, refreshing the details he had previously shared, before turning to the latest update from Chicago.
“So, your victim? Seems like she was running away from her husband. Big surprise.” He scoffed, like this was the only answer to their question of who would do this. “Turns out he got mixed up with some gangster named...”
“Spiro.” Catherine's voice sounded flat and tinny, her ears buzzing with the pressure in her sinuses.
The sheriff looked up. “You know this dude?”
Donovan raised an eyebrow, hoping for more details. When she offered nothing, he turned back to the paper in his hand. “So, I suppose you knew about that before you landed here?” he asked, miffed at being excluded.
Despite being sick, Catherine caught the tone in the sheriff's voice. Small town pride. And she had wounded it.
“I'm sorry, sheriff. I couldn't tell you until we were certain of the circumstances. But, yes, I suspected Spiro might be involved.”
“Someone brought big-city problems to my small town, and you didn't think to fill me in.” His voice was harsh. “I've had people asking questions for days, putting themselves in danger, and you couldn't share this one detail!”
Catherine knew she would not be able to fix her gaffe. It was protocol to play things close to the chest. In her zeal to find the answers, she had overlooked an important step—protecting the innocent. If the killer was still in town (which she doubted) or had an accomplice here (which was possible), she may have put more citizens in danger. 'Sorry' wasn't going to be enough.
Time to lay down her cards.
“Spiro has held a tight grip on Chicago's underground for the past eight years. I have chased, arrested, prosecuted, and released more of his men than I can list. He protects all of them, his lawyers are excellent at twisting the truth, and nothing ever sticks.” She coughed, her chest aching with the effort. “When you ran Kirsten's licence, my boss picked it up. Her husband got messed up with Spiro last year, owes more money than he can pay.” Her fever spiked, sweat beading on her forehead as her energy faltered.
“I'm hoping Dr. Edwards can find something, anything, that will lead back to Spiro. Or to one of his 'assistants'. I need to find a chink in his telfon armor so we can finally get him off the streets.” She stood on wavering legs. “If you have more information, call me. I'll be at the diner.” Catherine stumbled out the door, intent on getting some more soup, a syrupy cup of coffee, and then a nap.
The chirp of a text broke through her fever-riddled sleep. She had wished to be warm. She should have been more specific. Flopping over the edge of the bed, she forced her eyes to focus on the message.
“Got the report. You up?”
Groggy but determined, Catherine pushed herself into motion. A quick shower, fresh clothes, and a new wad of tissues in her pocket. She looked as drawn as she felt, but now was not the time for a pity party. This might be the break the Bureau had been waiting for. She punched a reply: “Meet you at the diner.”
In the three minutes it took to shuffle to her meeting, she wondered if she should have driven. Fresh snow covered the tree-lined street and the sidewalk. Her boots weren't any better at keeping the water out today than they were three days ago. It seemed she had become accustomed to the feeling of wet suede.
The sheriff cruiser pulled up just as she opened the door. Waiting to enter with him, he waved her on inside. Catherine glanced inside the diner to see the coroner seated at the center table, a steaming cup of coffee waiting for her. Stomping her feet to shake off the extra snow, her nerves tingled with the effort. It was time to get back to New Orleans.
Dr. Edwards stood as she approached, rushing around the table to pull out her chair. She smiled at the gesture. It was a lost art. The folder sat on the table beside her coffee. The bustle and noise of the diner swirled around her as she inhaled the heady aroma of roast beef and gravy. Maybe the pie would need to wait.
“Sheriff,” the coroner acknowledged as Donovan joined them. “Coffee?”
Dorothy sashayed over with the carafe. “Hi, Hon. I missed you last night.”
“Sorry 'bout that. Rain-check?” Sheriff Donovan's face was flushed and Catherine didn't think it had anything to do with the weather. She looked at Dorothy and back to Donovan. No mystery there.
“Well, doc. What did you learn? Is your stiff thawed yet?” His voice was gruff and all business, trying to deflect the agent from asking any questions about his love life.
The coroner paused, drawing out the moment. He liked watching his friend squirm a little. After stirring milk into his coffee until it looked like pancake batter, he sipped it slowly, staring over the rim at Donovan.
Catherine watched the two men, obviously lifetime friends, and their interactions. Enjoying the show, but eager to get to the details, she coughed, breaking the tension and both men leaned back in their chairs.
“Yes, Jeffrey. The deceased has gone from cold to warm and back again.” Dr. Edwards turned to Catherine. I don't know how much good my report is going to be. There were no fibres trapped on her skin, or in the ice. Her clothes were saturated with water from the pond, so no trace there. The only evidence I have are these pictures.” He turned the file around to show Catherine the close-ups of the victim's neck. “It takes a lot of strength to strangle someone and a lot more moxie to face them while you do it.”
The trio sat silently while their food arrived. Catherine sighed. The only thing she had caught on this trip was her cold. She was no closer to tightening the noose on Spiro. It was some comfort that she could bring the poor woman's body back to Chicago for her family. Closing the file, she looked at the two men.
“Well. I guess I can book a flight back to New Orleans. After I deliver Kirsten home.” She looked at the kitchen. “Hey, Dorothy? Can I get my pie to go?”
About the author
I am a panster by nature, discovering my characters as they reveal themselves. To date, my novel writing has involved the paranormal or magick within a more familiar setting, blending it with mysteries, police procedurals, or thrillers.