My latest novel, MIND GAMES, is available now on Amazon. It’s the first book in my new Fox County Forensics series blending romance with a CSI-style dive into forensic investigation.
Read the first chapter below.
“Today is the day,” Kelsey Granger told herself as she put her hand on the door of the Fox County Coroner’s Office.
She was alone in front of the building, her light brown hair pulled back in a professional ponytail and the top of her head growing warm in the late afternoon sun the longer she stood still.
It had only been a minute or two and she was pretty sure no one had seen her lingering there – inside the glass door there was a small lobby where the day shift receptionist, Reese, sat. She was always gone by the time Kelsey arrived for the night shift, but today she had come in early.
Today was a special day.
Reese’s desk was off to the side of the lobby and she’d have to lean over the counter to see Kelsey standing there like a dork with her hand on the door, doing her little ritual.
Better safe than sorry, though.
Kelsey put her hand back down at her side and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with hot summer air. It was a big day for her and she wanted everything to be perfect. She put her hand on the door one more time and said, “Tonight is the night. You can do this.”
There – that time felt right.
She tilted her chin up and pulled the door open, then went inside. The air conditioning hit her immediately, chilly against her bare arms in a short-sleeved button-up blouse. She smiled toward the desk. “Hi, Reese. Were we busy today?”
“Not particularly,” the girl said with a shrug.
She was in her early twenties like Kelsey, but unlike Kelsey, Reese didn’t seem fazed by anything other than office gossip. There could have been a mass casualty today and she would probably still have answered Kelsey’s small talk question with that nonchalant Not particularly.
Today, though, she gave Kelsey a second glance on her way through the lobby. “Slow days usually mean busy nights. You ready?”
Kelsey clenched her teeth to keep her smile from fading as a ripple of nerves rolled through her midsection, but she kept her chin up. “Sure am – I can’t wait for my first solo case.”
“Give ‘em hell, Kel,” Reese said, smiling back at her even though she was probably more amused by her own rhyme than at Kelsey’s unconvincing answer.
Kelsey went to the door on the back wall of the lobby. It led to the rest of the building and there was a keypad on the handle to keep members of the public – or the media – from wandering into the labs or, God forbid, the morgue.
Kelsey punched in her code, then headed to the forensic investigators’ cubicles.
She’d been working the night shift at the coroner’s office for about six months, shadowing and learning from the veteran investigators. During her job interview, the lead investigator, Maya, told her that most rookies needed about six months of training before they were ready to fly solo on death scenes.
“You’re right where you ought to be,” Maya had reassured her last month when Kelsey asked her about her progress. She’d given the same answer the month before, and the month before that.
Those words were meant to be encouraging, but Kelsey had always been at the top of her class. Sometimes it felt like the word overachiever was a flashing neon sign above her head, and she liked it that way. She didn’t take much comfort in being ‘right where she ought to be’ because her life already hadn’t turned out like it was supposed to.
A year ago, she was on track to go to medical school. She should have been dissecting cadavers in anatomy labs with her roommates right now, not investigating deaths for the Fox County coroner. But here she was, and whether it was med school or death investigation, Kelsey was determined to be the best. She just needed one last reassurance from Maya before she went out on her first death scene, and that was what brought her to the office several hours early for her shift. She had to catch Maya before she clocked out.
“Granger,” one of the other day shift investigators, Tyler, called when he saw her. “Are you pumped or what?”
Kelsey smiled. “I am.”
Tyler came over and clapped her on the back. He was a few years older than her and he’d been the rookie investigator before Kelsey was hired on. He’d only begun solo casework himself a few months ago and he used to work the night shift with Kelsey. They’d quickly become work friends and Tyler was always nice to Kelsey, unlike some of the more senior investigators.
They tended to be matter-of-fact or even blunt when she asked too many questions she already knew the answer to, or asked them to double or triple-check her work.
Tyler had transferred to the day shift last month and Kelsey missed him, but he had a wife and a kid at home so the move made sense. Kelsey had nothing waiting for her but a couple of messy roommates and a never-ending sink full of dirty dishes.
Kelsey set down her work bag at her cubicle. “I re-read my copy of the Death Investigator’s Handbook over the weekend, then I made myself a checklist just in case I forget anything,” she said.
Tyler laughed as she pulled the laminated list out of her bag to show him. “Isn’t that book, like, 500 pages?”
Kelsey shrugged. “I had nothing better to do, unless you count the investigation I conducted in my own kitchen on Sunday night to figure out which one of my roommates keeps leaving empty jars of peanut butter in the pantry.”
Tyler snorted and handed the laminated sheet back to her. “You’re more than ready. Relax – you’ll do fine.”
“I know,” Kelsey said, setting down the checklist and trying to be inconspicuous about lining it up with the edge of the desk.
“So?” Tyler asked. “Don’t leave me hanging. Who was the peanut butter culprit?”
Kelsey laughed. “Who else? Danica – she said it was not empty. According to her, there was at least a tablespoon of peanut butter clinging to the sides of the jar.”
She rolled her eyes – her roommates were both busy and stressed because of school and Kelsey wasn’t even supposed to be living with them in university housing after she dropped out. They were doing her a favor by keeping their mouths shut and letting her squat there while she saved up the money for a security deposit on a place of her own. So she let a lot of their bad roommate behavior slide and took on maid duties because she was the only one who actually cared how much peanut butter was in the jars in the pantry. In the grand scheme of things, she was lucky that was the worst she had to deal with.
She sat down to check her email and Tyler headed back to his cubicle, ready to end his shift. The room held about thirty investigators who, on three different shifts, served Fox County – population two million.
“Are you ready for this, Granger?”
Kelsey looked up from her emails and found Maya walking over to her cubicle. She balanced one arm on top of Kelsey’s cubicle wall, giving her a stern look.
Maya’s long, dark brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail just like Kelsey’s – pretty much the only appropriate hairstyle for a job that involved regularly coming into contact with dead bodies. But that was where Kelsey’s resemblance to Maya ended.
She was about ten years older than Kelsey, without so much as a wrinkle to prove it, and at least forty pounds lighter with prominent muscles beneath her crisp white shirt and black slacks. If she wasn’t investigating a death scene or grudgingly giving Kelsey her monthly pep talk, Maya was lifting weights or running on the treadmill in the gym she and a few of the other investigators set up in the building’s basement.
She was beautiful, strong, intimidating, and if she wasn’t so mean, Kelsey might have had a crush on her. But it would simply be masochism to be attracted to someone who consistently tore her confidence to shreds.
“Do you think I am?” Kelsey asked. “I re-read my handbook-”
“You gotta stop trying to be so damn perfect all the time,” Maya said. “Just relax. You’ve been trained well, lord knows you’ve studied that handbook enough, and if you get in any trouble, you can call one of the other investigators. Aaron’s working tonight – he’ll help you out.” She let out an audible sigh and added, “And if push comes to shove, you’ve got my cell. You can call me if you get in trouble – but try not to get in trouble.”
“Okay,” Kelsey said. She stood up and adjusted her posture, looking Maya in the eyes. “I’m ready to go solo.”
“Attagirl,” Maya said, adjusting the gym bag that Kelsey noticed was slung over her shoulder. She looked impatient to clock out. “Unless you need anything else, I’m heading out for the night.”
“No,” Kelsey said, her hand going reflexively to the laminated checklist on her desk. “I’ll be okay.”
Maya nodded, rapped her knuckles on the top of Kelsey’s cubicle wall, then headed for the time clock near the door. It was a few minutes after five and the day shift was about to clear out – the afternoon shift was already hard at work, and Kelsey planned to spend the next couple of hours mentally preparing herself for when a call came in for her.
It was usually quieter at night, but not always.
Just as Maya reached the time clock, one of the autopsy assistants ran into the room in a blind panic. She nearly knocked Maya off her feet.
“Who’s on shift?” the girl, Jordan, asked loudly, a wild look in her eyes.
Kelsey’s heart skipped a beat and she looked around the room. The two afternoon investigators weren’t at their desks. Kelsey looked to Maya, who was watching quietly – waiting to see if she’d step up.
Tonight’s the night – you can do this. Kelsey repeated her mantra, then stepped into the aisle. “I am. Did a call come in?”
“Yes,” Jordan said. “There’s been a boating accident on the lake – at least a dozen bodies. Should I tell them you’re on your way? You better take the big truck.”
“What?” Kelsey asked, all the courage draining out of her. “A mass casualty? Maya–”
“You told me you were ready,” Maya said. “Are you?”
“Yes,” Kelsey squeaked. “Okay…” She glanced at her checklist, trying to collect her thoughts. “Where’s my handbook?”
She was just reaching for a thick black paperback, praying she could quickly and efficiently refresh her memory on mass disaster protocols, when Jordan sputtered behind her and started to laugh.
Then she heard Maya cracking up, too.
Kelsey turned around, hoping she didn’t look as pale and drained as she felt. “Was that a joke?”
Jordan wore a broad smile, her pearly whites on full display as she cackled, amused at her own sparkling sense of humor. “You should have seen your face! I thought we were going to have to call a hearse for you.”
Kelsey scowled, then looked at Maya. She could see from the smirk on her lips that they’d planned this together – a little practical joke to kick off the most important night of Kelsey’s budding career. And she’d fallen for it completely, just like she’d fallen into every other trap that Jordan the jokester had set for her over the last few months.
She was so hilarious.
Kelsey sighed and leaned against her cubicle wall, trying to catch her breath.
“Relax,” Maya said. It sounded like an order, and somehow that did calm Kelsey down a little bit. “We wouldn’t send a rookie to lead a mass casualty investigation – you know that. Now do whatever you gotta do to chill out before you get called out to a scene – nervous investigators make mistakes.”
Kelsey nodded, doing her best to keep her composure while Maya and the other day shift investigators clocked out and left one by one. On her way out the door, Jordan let out another guffaw and said, “That was too easy, Kelsey. Thanks for the laugh.”
Tyler mouthed the word breathe as he passed Kelsey on his way out. She nodded, wondering if he’d known about the prank and didn’t have the decency to warn her.
When she was finally alone in the office, Kelsey sank back down in her chair. She tried to take Tyler’s advice, putting one hand on her stomach and drawing in three long, deep breaths. She closed her eyes and felt the air inflating her belly. It was a strategy Kelsey’s therapist taught her – inhale to a count of four, hold for seven, exhale for eight. Repeat.
It worked little by little, bringing Kelsey’s heart rate down to a reasonable level, but it wasn’t quite enough. She needed to feel in control tonight so she went to the cabinet that held all the investigation kits – large, black plastic briefcases that weighed about twenty pounds each and held all the forensic evidence collection tools an investigator needed at a death scene.
Kelsey grabbed the kit that had her name printed on masking tape across the handle and carried it to a long conference table that doubled as the investigators’ break room. She grabbed a paper towel from the sink nearby and wiped the table down, then carefully lay out every item in her kit.
There were plastic evidence collection bags, swabs and vials, a gunshot residue kit, luminol for blood detection, a digital camera, latex gloves, and dozens of other specialized items. Spreading everything out neatly in front of her, taking inventory and putting it all back exactly as she liked it to be organized always made Kelsey feel better.
She carried out this unpacking and repacking ritual at the beginning of her shift almost every afternoon and sometimes when she had a rough one, she’d do it again before she clocked out. No one in the office knew she had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and she wanted to keep it that way, so it was lucky that they all just considered this ritual to be further evidence
of her fastidious personality.
She needed all the pieces to be exactly where they should be, packed precisely to make sure that once she got out on the scene, she’d have total control of her investigation. Tonight was more important that all the investigations she’d shadowed before, so Kelsey counted everything in the kit twice.
She retrieved her laminated checklist and added it to the kit, then counted it all one more time just to be safe.