Book 1 in the Dean Matheson series. Book 2 is published 30th July 2019.
Officer Dean Matheson stands shivering against the cold night, trying not to look at the gruesome scene before him.
‘Matheson? Get over here. If I have to look at this, you have to look,’ says Detective Miller.
Dean moves closer to the tree the woman’s body is swinging from. The strong wind has her dancing around like she’s doing the jitterbug. The weather is threatening more snow and, although it’s almost dawn, it’s still pitch black out here in the woods. His colleagues, Officer Marty Swan and Sergeant Steve Dalkin, helpfully light up the woman’s lifeless body with their flashlights. Dean wishes they wouldn’t. He’s going to have trouble forgetting the sight of her bulging tongue and puzzled expression next time he eats. It won’t be the first meal he’s been unable to eat, thanks to this job.
He makes himself look at her for a moment longer. He knows she won’t be immediately recognisable to any of her family like this. If this was his wife Linda, he wouldn’t want to have to remember her this way. But then Linda isn’t speaking to him at the moment. He doesn’t expect she’ll stick around much longer now she knows about his affair, so there’s little risk of him ever having to identify her if she’s involved in an accident. Not that this was any accident. Discarded on its side under the woman’s bare feet, he notices the stepladder she must have used to reach the branch she’s hanging from.
As Miller takes notes nearby, Dean wonders where she got the ladder from and whether she carried it here herself or was given a lift by someone. Maybe she hitchhiked. There are no cars parked nearby apart from their police vehicles and an ambulance, so she certainly didn’t drive herself out here. And where are her shoes? This feels odd to him.
‘Are you building up the courage to ask her out on a date or do you actually intend on helping us cut her down sometime soon?’
Miller’s a condescending jerk. He refers to Dean and Marty as his ‘minions’ but he would never talk to Steve that way because Steve’s their sergeant. Dean decided a long time ago that once he’s worked his way up to homicide detective he intends to treat the cops on the ground with respect. He doesn’t believe in shit rolling downhill.
‘You hold the flashlights then,’ he says.
All three of them throw their flashlights towards Miller and use the discarded stepladder to reach the hanging woman. Dean almost slips on the ladder’s steps, as they seem greasy. He reluctantly removes his thick winter gloves and stuffs them in his pockets, feeling the cold immediately. Steve uses his pocketknife to start cutting through the rope above her head while Marty reluctantly grips under her armpits. Dean holds her lifeless legs. She’s wearing a skirt, exposing her bare skin. She still feels slightly warm despite the bad weather, so she can’t have been here too long. There’s no purse in sight and she doesn’t have any pockets to carry anything that would identify her. With what he hopes is the natural instinct of a detective, Dean starts trying to piece together what happened and when.
Maple Valley isn’t the smallest town in New Hampshire, but it’s small enough that most residents either know each other, are related to each other, or have dated each other. But Dean doesn’t recognise this woman, which isn’t completely unusual, but at least one of the cops showing up at a crime scene is usually quick to identify the victims in this town.
‘Anybody know her?’ he asks.
‘Not me,’ says Steve.
‘Nope, me neither. She’s too good looking to be one of my exes.’ jokes Marty.
Dean smiles. Sometimes you need someone like Marty to lighten the mood. Especially when you’re holding a dead body.
‘Okay, almost there. You all got her?’ asks Steve.
Before they can answer, her dead weight falls into their arms and they almost drop her. Dean wobbles on the stepladder and struggles not to fall back. He thinks how, for a slim woman, she sure weighs a lot now she’s dead. Carefully, they carry her down to the blanket they had already placed over the wet grass, under the tree. Dean notices the medical examiner is patiently waiting nearby, jumping on the spot to try to keep warm in the cold wind.
‘Hey, Doctor Sheila. Hope we’re not interrupting date night for you?’ jokes Marty.
‘Oh yeah. I’ve got a dozen men lined up at my door,’ she answers. ‘Unfortunately, that’s the morgue door and they’re all dead.’
Dean tries not to look at her as she leans over the body. He starts making his own notes in the small pad he carries with him.
‘So, who found her?’ asks Sheila.
He waits to see if anyone else will answer first but she’s looking at him. ‘We got a call from Eric Petty who said he was driving home from vacation with his kid when some lightning flashed in the woods. It lit her up. He pulled over to check what they thought they saw and then ran back to his car and immediately phoned us,’ he tries to avoid her eyes. She has great eyes. ‘We’ve already taken his statement but that’s pretty much all he said. He’s pretty shaken up. I’ve asked him not to talk about it with anyone until we release a statement.’
Sheila looks back down at the body as she puts on some latex gloves. She crouches down on the crunchy grass and examines the woman’s neck for a few minutes. She turns the woman’s head to the left, then to the right. She beams a light in her eyes one at a time. Everyone remains silent as she makes her notes. Then, after taking almost twenty photographs of the unidentified woman, she’s done. For now, anyway.
‘Is there a suicide note?’ she asks as she removes the gloves.
‘Not on her,’ answers Steve. ‘Maybe it’s at her house.’
‘Okay, I’ll get them to bag her up and drive her over to the morgue.’ She turns to Miller. ‘I’ll let you know when my report’s ready.’
Sheila gets in her car, an old Civic, and flashes Dean a smile that makes him want to follow her instead of going home. He tries to remind himself he’s supposed to have ended their affair, but the temptation is still there. A new text message quickly brings him back to reality. Linda wants to know what time he’s getting off work. He decides to ring her instead of texting and moves away from the others so they don’t overhear. Marty and Steve laugh at his need for privacy and start to examine the area around the tree, for any belongings or evidence.
‘Hey, it’s me. We’ve just got finished with a suicide so I’m going to have to go to the station and help write it up before I can finish. I shouldn’t be much longer.’
‘So, if I call the station in about fifteen minutes you’ll be there to speak to me?’ she replies, clearly unhappy.
‘Linda, come on! That’s what I said, honey. I’m not lying.’
‘How do I know that without checking on you? I can’t believe anything you say to me from now on. How do you expect me to ever trust you again?’ She sounds on the verge of tears, which makes him feel like shit.
‘I don’t know, Linda,’ he whispers. ‘I’m sorry, you know I am.’
Miller walks past him and laughs. ‘Come on, lover boy. Sort your wife out later. You’ve got work to do.’
Dean gives him the finger, but not to his face.
‘I’ve got to go. Ring me at the station to check on me, by all means. I’ll see you in about an hour and I’ll treat you to breakfast at the diner.’ He hesitates and then adds, ‘I love you.’
Linda doesn’t say anything before she ends the call. As he puts his phone away and retrieves his gloves he feels like a jerk. He hates how unhappy she is and he’s genuinely worried about her. But he still wants to pay Sheila a visit. He doesn’t know whether this means he shouldn’t be married. To distract himself he gets in the police cruiser with Steve and they drive through the howling wind, heading back to the police station.
Dean became a police officer after spending five years working as a corrections officer at the local Women’s Correctional Facility. His ultimate goal has always been promotion to detective as soon as possible. Piecing together serious crimes is the part of the job he enjoys, but he doesn’t get much opportunity to do that in his current role. Instead, he’s too busy responding to domestics, shoplifters, burglaries, and acting more like a social worker. Knowing this is the best way to make detective, he puts up with it.
Now, sat at his cramped desk with paperwork spilling onto the floor, he puts in extra hours to try to help piece together the story of Jane Doe, because he wants to prove himself. It was easier when Detective Jones was here. He’d throw things Dean’s way so he could build up some experience in complicated and violent crimes. Plus, he was allowed to do it in work time so he got paid for it. However, since Jones retired a year ago, Miller got promoted to detective and Miller doesn’t like him.
Dean watches him now, searching his desk drawers for food and can’t help shaking his head. The whole station knows Miller only got promoted because his wife’s brother knows someone high up. That and the fact that he was getting too fat to be a real cop. It was getting to the point where he was letting too many suspects get away on account of not being able to run after them any more. No one wanted to be partnered with him for anything because he was a liability. Now, Miller has what he considers to be a desk job when really he should still be out in the field and not leaving the actual detective work to the officers. In the twelve months since he was promoted, Dean thinks Miller has put on at least fifty pounds. The man wheezes every time he walks around the station and the whole department agrees he makes cops look bad.
Dean shakes his head again and sighs as he thinks of the injustice of the situation. He’d give anything to have Miller’s job. He retrieves some paper out of his desk drawer and writes down everything they know so far about what happened tonight: dead woman, maybe mid-twenties, shoeless, out in the wrong clothes for a storm, probably not local but with no ID, and no other obvious wounds, other than ligature wounds to the neck. That’s it. Not much to go on. Like a writer with a character but no plot, he draws lines sprouting from each piece of information he has, hoping it will lead to questions and answers.
Detective Jones taught him to always start with the biggest question and work your way back from there. What Dean needs to ask first is; why did a woman hang herself from a tree in Maple Valley on a cold, stormy November night? He’d feel better if there was a suicide note. That might give them some answers, but for that he needs her home address. He thinks of his brother’s suicide note. He’d left his bank card and passwords with it, being tragically thoughtful in his last moments but it didn’t answer any of their questions. Trying to avoid flashbacks to that awful time, Dean stares at his notes and decides on where to start; the woman’s identity.
The other person who needs to identify the body quickly as part of their job is Sheila. At the thought of her his gut tells him it’s time to go home and leave well alone, but instead he heads down to the morgue, which is in the doctor’s surgery, next door.
Sheila has her back to him when he opens the door to the morgue. He can’t help but check her out and wonder if she’s been waiting for him. He almost leaves before she sees him but she turns and smiles. A smile that would be hard for any man to resist.
‘Hi. I wondered how long it would take for you to pay her a visit, and I knew you’d beat Miller.’
‘Are you down here alone?’ he asks.
‘Yes. Everyone else has a life. Well, except everyone in here. Come and take a look.’
Jane is resting on the slab in front of Sheila, naked apart from a thin, white sheet pulled up to just below her neck. Her tongue swelling has gone down now the rope has been removed. She’s turning a pale grey colour with patches of haematoma under the skin. Even with her injuries Dean can see she was beautiful when she was alive.
‘I’m sure Miller will tell you to carry out the usual DNA swabs for ID purposes, in case her family get in touch, but in the meantime, does she have anything we can use to try to identify her? A tattoo or a birthmark, maybe? Something we can release to the press?’ he asks.
Sheila pulls the sheet back and points to Jane’s shoulder. ‘She has a cute and unusual pattern of freckles here. She has them on both shoulders, almost identical patterns and almost like a birthmark. Freckles that cute are something a lover would remember.’
Dean tries to ignore the word ‘lover’. ‘So, I guess we put a statement out asking if anyone’s missing a young blonde woman and see what we get from that.’
‘Aren’t all men looking for a young blonde woman?’ she asks with a laugh.
Sheila’s a redhead.
‘You’d be surprised.’
His radio suddenly comes to life. It’s Jenny, one of the dispatchers. ‘I’ve got your wife on the phone asking whether you’re at work. What do I tell her?’
Jenny’s no rookie; she knows how the game works. She knows to always check with the officer before answering questions from partners. All the cops and support staff look out for each other, because no one else knows what it’s like to be in their line of work. Dean inwardly cringes and heads for the door.
‘I’ll speak to her,’ he radios back. He looks over his shoulder at Sheila on his way out but she’s already turned her back on him.
When Dean pulls up outside his house less than an hour later, all the lights are switched off, including the one on their porch. It’s six o’clock and the sun is slow to rise at this time of year, so the house is in semi-darkness with just the glow from the street light providing some relief from the shadows. Linda had hung up before he’d had a chance to prove he was at work, so he left the station soon after. He knows he’s screwed up his marriage, but he was going through a hard time after his brother’s death. He wasn’t himself. He wants to make it up to Linda, but she needs to cut him some slack. It’s not like she’s perfect either.
Standing outside their modest, three-bedroom home, he feels as if something isn’t right. If Linda’s home the interior lights should be on. At the thought of her not being there, he suddenly wants nothing more than to make everything right with her and start afresh. He closes the car door and heads up the steps. His house is never in darkness; even overnight they leave the porch light on. He reaches for the front door slowly, instinct telling him something’s off. It’s too still around here, even the wind has temporarily died down. He has one hand on his holster, just in case. He puts his key in the lock as quietly as possible and turns it. When the door opens, he realises he’s been holding his breath.
‘This is stupid. That damn suicide has me on edge,’ he says under his breath.
He steps inside and reaches for the hallway light, which also lights up the lounge. ‘Linda?’
There’s no answer from her but Bella comes running towards him like she hasn’t seen him in weeks, collar bell jingling.
‘Hey, girl. Where’s your mum?’
Bella purrs up at him and wraps herself around his legs. He picks her up and holds her to his chest as he walks into the kitchen and flips the lights on. He notices the note on the dining table straight away.
I’m staying with Chrissie for a couple of days. I realise this means you have free rein to invite your woman around here but I don’t think I care any more. I have to figure out some stuff. I’ll ring you at some point.
Dean puts Bella on the dining table, drops onto a kitchen chair and lowers his head into his hands. What a night. Not knowing what to do, he sits there for a while, re-reading the note. He doubts this will end happily, which makes him feel sick. He only lost his brother three months ago and now he might lose his wife. Reaching for the fridge, he gets out Bella’s dinner pouch, beef flavoured, empties it into her pink plastic bowl and watches her eat and purr at the same time. He doesn’t see anything he wants in the fridge so, when Bella’s finished eating, he lets her out to roam. He decides to head to the diner to see if he can find his appetite. He doesn’t want to be alone right now and Frankie’s Diner offers great food and even better advice.
‘Deano! Where have you been all my life?’ bellows the diner’s exuberant Italian owner and chef as Dean walks in and takes a seat at the bright white counter.
‘Right here, Frankie. Waiting for you to notice me.’
Frankie laughs and starts working on Dean’s usual breakfast; pancakes with a splash of maple syrup and lots of blueberries on top, served with a glass of iced water. Dean’s no longer a coffee drinker since he weaned himself off caffeine when he turned thirty, four years ago. That was something Linda made him do. She insists they do a full detox together once a year too. That’s something he won’t miss if she leaves him.
Rachel appears from the kitchen, smiling as usual and with her pencil tucked into her ponytail. She’s the only full-time waitress at Frankie’s. The others are students who work whatever hours they want to. She puts her hand on his back as she greets him. ‘Hey, how are you?’
She’s only slightly older than Dean but she likes to mother him when he comes in. She dated his brother, John, for a year. Long before he died. She misses him too. She and Frankie have been great listeners when Dean has been angry and confused about what happened. He’s been able to talk to them when he hasn’t been able to talk to Linda or his friends. Linda never really liked John. He’s never been able to figure out what her problem was. His friends have been there for him in the sense that they’re always offering to take him to a bar and help him drown his sorrows. He never takes them up on it but he knows they have his back.
‘Well, Linda’s gone to stay with her sister, so I guess I’ll be having a house party tonight.’
Rachel rolls her eyes. ‘You’re not still cheating on her, are you? That’s not going to help you get over John’s death, you know. It’s just going to make things worse.’
‘It’s already made things worse,’ he says with a sigh. ‘I’ve told her about Sheila.’
Rachel gasps and sits down next to him. ‘How did she take it?’
‘She’s been either screaming at me or ignoring me ever since I told her.’
‘What do you expect? I would be doing much worse than that! But maybe she’ll come around when she realises it was your way of dealing with John’s death and that you still love her. Give her a few weeks breathing space. You might still be able to salvage things.’
Dean’s not so sure. ‘Maybe. I guess I thought having an affair would be healthier than turning to booze or drugs. I don’t want to be one of those people I arrest on a daily basis, the ones with holes in their faces from the meth, or yellow skin from the alcohol. Being with Sheila made me forget everything, just for an hour every now and then.’ He sighs. ‘But, yeah, it was stupid to think sleeping with another woman was helping me. Hindsight’s both a wonderful and a terrible thing.’
Frankie was listening through the opening between the kitchen and the diner. ‘Women are never the solution, my friend. They are always the problem.’
Dean smiles but Rachel gives Frankie a scowl. ‘If you had a woman, Frankie, you wouldn’t be as fat and mouthy as you are now.’
‘Hey, I like being fat and mouthy!’
Frankie brings Dean’s breakfast over and Rachel goes to serve an influx of customers. It’s just turned seven o’clock and the breakfast rush is starting. One of the new customers sits down next to Dean at the counter, even though there are still plenty of empty tables.
‘Hi. What can I get you?’ asks Rachel.
‘I’ll have a cappuccino and a bagel please, with strawberry jam.’
As Rachel goes to sort the orders, Dean looks over at the woman who sat beside him. Her British accent caught his attention. She smiles at him. The only thing Dean can think is how hot she is. And that accent! She sounds like Kate Winslet. He wants to get her talking just to hear more of it.
‘Hi. I’m Officer Matheson, or Dean.’ He puts out his hand and she gives it a firm squeeze.
‘I’m Beth. Very nice to meet you.’
Dean can’t think of anything else to say so he carries on eating his pancakes, self-consciously.
‘That would be quite a healthy breakfast if you stopped adding maple syrup,’ she jokes.
He laughs. ‘You sound like my wife.’
Rachel places Beth’s order in front of her and heads back to the kitchen. Beth slathers her bagel in the strawberry jelly and begins eating.
‘What brings a British girl to our neck of the woods?’ asks Dean.
She finishes her mouthful before she speaks, but there’s a bit of jelly on her top lip that she’s missed. Dean tries to stop himself imagining licking it off. That kind of thinking isn’t going to win Linda back.
‘I’ve just started working at the prison.’
‘The Women’s Correctional?’
‘That’s right. I’m a psychiatrist and counsellor, but don’t let that faze you!’ When she laughs, she throws her head back slightly, which makes her chestnut brown hair glimmer in the slow rising sunshine that’s beaming through the diner’s front window.
Suddenly he’s even more self-conscious. ‘Well, I could give you several hours work just on the topic of me alone!’
‘No, I’m sure you police officers are all perfectly normal and well-balanced individuals.’
She says this with a cheeky smile that tells him she’s being sarcastic.
‘What are you doing at the prison; helping the criminals or the victims?’
‘Well, I believe some of the criminals are victims too, so I’m there to try to help stop their pattern of reoffending. I’ll try to make them better New Hampshire citizens so that when they’re released, they’re no threat to anyone else. In fact, you could say I’m there to make your job easier.’
Dean laughs. ‘Well I guess I owe you one then.’
‘Not yet, let me prove myself first. I have the daunting task of trying to reduce the suicide rate of the inmates.’
The mention of suicide makes Dean think of the woman they cut down earlier. His mind starts working overtime, wondering if she could have been a prisoner who got out somehow.
‘I don’t suppose you’re missing any women, are you?’ He lowers his voice. ‘We found a woman a few hours ago in the woods. Looks like a suicide.’
Beth shakes her head. ‘Not that I know of, but then I wouldn’t be privy to that kind of information, not yet anyway. I only started this week. I haven’t even given any counselling sessions yet.’
As she talks he focuses on her eyes. They match her hair colour perfectly. He thinks she must be about thirty, maybe twenty-nine.
She hands him a card with all her details on. ‘Here you go. Just in case you come across any victims who might need counselling. That might balance out my karma from working with the inmates. I’ve scribbled my mobile number on there, for out of hours.’
He loves how Brits say mobile instead of cell phone. He looks at her card and wonders if she pointed out her number for his sake, thinking how ironic it is to have a hot British woman flirting with him on the day he vows to win his wife back. But the thought of Linda makes him serious again. He finishes his breakfast and passes Rachel some money.
‘Keep the change.’
He notices Frankie and Rachel are both staring at Beth.
‘I’ve been on the night shift so I’m heading home for some shut-eye. See you around.’
‘You can’t miss me.’
He looks at her, trying to figure out if that was a come on, until Frankie explains.
‘She moved in upstairs last week, so she’s here every day for breakfast and dinner. She’s my new best customer. Sorry, Deano, she’s taken your place.’
Dean laughs and heads for the door. He notices the other males in the diner are all staring at Beth. He thinks she’s going to make quite an impression in this town. As he walks to his car, he tries to ignore his excitement at having someone so hot around for the foreseeable future.
‘I’m going to get Linda back,’ he vows to himself, like a mantra, whilst pulling out of the diner’s parking lot.
Want to read on and find out what happens next? Who Cares If They Die is available on all digital platforms as an ebook (Click here for Amazon) and audiobook (click here for Audible). Read it before book 2 comes out this summer!