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The Burnside Body Snatcher

by G.G. Morris

Copyright © 2017 by G.G. Morris

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under the copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without prior written permission.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter One



Wanda Whipple discreetly scooted the standing wreath of calla lilies to improve her view of the podium. The wreath was one of many dotting the Burnside Funeral parlor. Her best friend, Arlene Rogers, was in the middle of a heartfelt eulogy for her recently passed aunt.

The funeral attendees, most of whom were elderly men, watched with rapt attention. But Wanda sensed their interest had little to do with Arlene’s words and more to do with her abundance of cleavage. One geezer in particular was literally drooling. A thick strand of goo stretched from his parched bottom lip to a suspicious lump in his lap. Wanda looked away in disgust.

Arlene brushed a tear from her eye, smudging her cleopatra-esque make-up. She leaned over the microphone and spoke in a tone of reverence: “Sherylyn Dillberry was an extraordinary woman, a loving aunt, and my superhero.” Arlene gazed tenderly at the cherry wood coffin beside her. “For many of you, she was the person you confided in when you felt down and needed a pick me up. My aunt’s laugh was infectious and it shook the room. You couldn’t help but smile when Sherylyn Dillberry laughed.”

The audience murmured in agreement. A portly man donning a cattleman cowboy hat let out a sob that could’ve been mistaken for a pig’s squeal. His ruddy jowls quivered with emotion as Arlene continued her praises.

“Sherylyn Dillberry was no ordinary woman. She never married. She never bore children. In fact, she never stayed in a relationship longer than a few months. She loved men—this fact everyone knew.” Arlene smiled thoughtfully as she appraised the audience. “Many of you had your hearts broken when my aunt turned down your marriage proposals. But it wasn’t because she didn’t love each of you in her own way; it was simply because Sherylyn Dillberry was too much for just one man. And one man was just not enough for Sherylyn Dillberry.”

Hoots of laughter erupted from the men in the audience, followed by another pitiful squeal from the portly cowboy in the front row.

Wanda noted that the first row was made up entirely of men. Arlene had informed her earlier that these were Sherylyn Dillberry’s former suitors. Apparently Arlene’s aunt had a diverse taste in men. From short and stout to tall and lean, from rustic to GQ and everything in between—Sherylyn Dillberry was a genuine equal opportunity lover.

But to Wanda, these men were more than former love interests—they were potential suspects in Sherylyn Dillberry’s murder case. Though her death was officially ruled an accident, Wanda was privy to information no one else knew—or, rather, believed. For on the night Arlene had called with the sad news of her aunt’s death, Wanda had rushed over to investigate the scene.

The official police report described Sherylyn Dillberry’s death as an accidental fall from a ladder at Bedknobs and Books, the bookstore owned and managed by Sherylyn Dillberry. Marcus Torino, the medical examiner, listed the cause of death as asphyxiation due to broken vertebrae in her neck.

Upon arriving at the bookstore, Wanda had discovered the busted ladder atop a heap of debris in the alleyway behind the store. After careful inspection she concluded that the wooden rung responsible for Sherylyn Dillberry’s fall had been cut smoothly along one edge. The other side was jagged as one would expect from a splintered piece of wood. But the smooth cut on the suspicious end could only mean one thing: Someone had wanted Sherylyn Dillberry to fall. And the fact that the broken rung was at the top of the ladder meant that someone had wanted her to fall hard.

And fall hard she did. So hard that Sherylyn Dillberry broke her neck and died.

Wanda had shared this discovery with her ex-boyfriend, Federico Rubio—a Portland city homicide detective. But he quickly dismissed her theory and ordered her to drop the amateur sleuthing and leave the real police work to him.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he’d warned her.

“And somebody killed Sherylyn Dillberry,” Wanda had shot back with a huff. “And I’m going to find out who that somebody is—with or without your approval.”

Now, as Wanda observed the row of top suspects she wondered about motive. At the time of Sherylyn Dillberry’s dubious demise the bookstore owner’s estate was worth just north of twenty million dollars. Money was a powerful motive, Wanda knew. But which of these five men would kill for money?

Arlene was wrapping up her tribute. She cleared her throat and spoke earnestly: “I know this expression is often used when speaking of loved ones who’ve passed away, but in Sherylyn Dillberry’s case it is the absolute truth: She was one of a kind. Who else had the compassion to foster so many children and give homeless teens a place to call their own? Who else had the tenacity to rescue a failing bookshop and transform it into the Alphabet District’s favorite hangout for bookworms? Who else had the keen ability to touch so many lives in such a positive way that it inspired the local news to dub her the Alphabet District’s favorite auntie? Only Sherylyn Dillberry…because she was truly one of a kind.”

Arlene nodded toward the funeral director, who reminded Wanda of a snooty version of Pee-wee Herman. He was tall and gangly with black hair and shifty eyes. The director returned Arlene’s gesture and shuffled over to the coffin.

Arlene focused her attention back on the attendees. “Anyone who knew Sherylyn Dillberry well knows that calla lilies were her favorite. With that in mind, I now invite each of you to pick a flower from the wreaths around the room and drop it into her casket as a gesture of remembrance for this wonderful woman.”

With that, Arlene stepped from the podium and pulled a calla lily from the wreath in front of her. She stood beside the funeral attendant as he opened the casket.

The next moment, Arlene let out a horrific scream and collapsed to the floor, the calla lily squished beneath her bosom.

The funeral attendant whipped around. His already pasty face had gone an extra shade whiter. “She’s gone!” he shouted to no one in particular. “The body’s been replaced by a pumpkin!”

I will sue you, and you, and you!” Arlene screamed at the funeral employees. She took a long drag from her cigarette and extinguished it against the podium. “Where is my aunt?! What are you all doing standing around?! Find my aunt! Find her! Find her!”

“Ma’am, please,” the funeral director pleaded, then immediately regretted it.

Arlene rounded on him with her index finger an inch from his shiny forehead. “Don’t call me ma’am,” she said ferociously. “Do I look like an eighty year old woman to you?”

Wanda was relieved when Federico strolled through the parlor doors. She’d called him immediately after Arlene was revived. His Latin hair was slicked back and his olive complexion was flawless under the parlor’s dim lights. Though Wanda and the detective shared a fickle past—having been in and out of a relationship on two occasions—she trusted Federico’s calm ability to assess the situation and find a reasonable solution.

The confused funeral attendees parted to allow the detective through.

Wanda scanned the onlookers and wasn’t surprised to see Sherylyn Dillberry’s former lovers hovering over the empty casket as if it had once contained the Holy Grail. But then she caught a glimpse of the portly cowboy’s snakeskin boots as he slipped out the parlor door. The squealer has left the building, she thought, wondering where he might be going in such a hurry.

“Let me get this straight,” Federico spoke directly to the funeral director, “you lost Sherylyn Dillberry’s body? And in its place is a pumpkin?” Federico’s face revealed the incredulity he undoubtedly felt.

The funeral director, who was sweating so profusely that his armpits emitted steam, nodded unhappily. “Sherylyn Dillberry was here this morning,” he explained miserably. “I received her myself.”

“Where did you store the body?” Federico asked, pulling out a notebook.

“The refrigerator, of course,” the funeral director snapped. “And that’s where she stayed until about an hour ago.”

Federico consulted his watch. “So between seven and ten this morning—three hours—Sherylyn Dillberry’s body has been in the refrigerator. Who dropped the body off?”

The funeral director scratched his head. “It was another funeral home. Finney Funeral, I believe.”

Federico glanced questioningly from the funeral director to Arlene. “Why did Finney Funeral transport the body?”

“Those were my aunt’s instructions,” Arlene replied, flustered. She flipped her black hair over her shoulder and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse. Her dark eye-makeup streaked down her cheeks, making her look like a painted tigress.

“Please, Miss Rogers,” the funeral director begged. “There is no smoking inside the funeral parlor.”

Arlene glared at him. “Listen up, Mr. anti-tobacco man. If you don’t find my aunt immediately this won’t be your funeral parlor any longer. You wanna know why? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m going to own it after I sue your negligent ass. And then I’m going to throw a huge tobacco party in the middle of this damn parlor in your damn honor!”

The funeral director remained tight-lipped, but Wanda sensed he wasn’t used to being talked to in such a demeaning way.

“Anyway,” Arlene said, speaking directly to Federico, “my aunt left explicit instructions in her will as to which funeral home would prepare her body and which would host her viewing.”

Federico turned to the funeral director. “Is that normal?”

“Absolutely not!” the director replied haughtily. Wanda guessed he’d been holding in a cauldron of rage after Arlene’s biting threats against him. “But we made do with the deceased’s request, as peculiar as it was. And Miss Dillberry paid in advance for such arrangements.”

“Did you view the body yourself this morning?” Federico asked.

The funeral director blushed. “I’m afraid I took the casket directly to the refrigerator.” Then he added quickly, “But the paperwork was in order. Let me show you.”

Federico raised a hand, stopping the funeral director from rushing off. “That won’t be necessary,” he said shortly. “I believe the mystery of Sherylyn Dillberry’s missing body is simple enough to explain. She’s obviously still at the Finney Funeral Home. They sent you an empty casket.”

“It wasn’t exactly empty,” Wanda reminded him. “Don’t forget the pumpkin.”

Federico frowned. But a quick phone call to Finney Funeral Home put the kibosh on his open-and-shut explanation. The director claimed the body had been transported to Burnside Funeral Home at seven in the morning, and they had the signature to prove it.

“So now what, Mr. smarty pants?” Arlene barked at Federico. “Got anymore simple explanations?”

Wanda chimed in: “Who was the last to see your aunt? We should start there.”

“Obviously not this buffoon,” Arlene replied, jerking her thumb in the funeral attendant’s direction.

“Someone at Finney Funeral Home then,” Wanda said reasonably. “Whoever prepared your aunt for the viewing, most likely.”

“That would be the embalmer,” the funeral director helped out. “Marcus Torino, if I remember correctly.”

“Marcus Torino?” Wanda repeated. “The same Marcus Torino who performed the medical examination?”

The funeral director shrugged. “I suppose so. I don’t keep track of such things.”

But Wanda made a mental note to discuss the details of Sherylyn’s “accidental death” with this Marcus Torino.

Wanda guided her Schwinn bicycle down Burnside. The icy rain pelted her forehead so she tugged her beanie to her eyebrows.

The Finney Funeral Home was on the other side of the Burnside Bridge, catty-corner to Portland’s historic skatepark. Fortunately for Wanda, Portland’s bike lanes made the journey safe and speedy.

Not surprisingly, Wanda arrived before the others; with the clutter of downtown traffic biking across town often proved faster than taking a car. Not that Wanda had a choice; she didn’t own a car. Wanda preferred the simpler options in life: no car, no computer, no cell phone, no hassles. She was totally convinced she’d been born in the wrong century.

The Finney Funeral Home was eerily silent. Wanda’s tennis shoes squeaked on the marble floors. She passed a large buttoned sofa and an antique coffee table on the way to the front desk. But no one was there.

Wanda surveyed the vacant lobby and decided to head down a hallway that led toward the back of the building. She tried the first door but it was locked. The next door opened onto a scene that surpassed Wanda’s worst nightmare.

A naked cadaver lay atop an embalming table with the largest needle Wanda had ever seen poking from the corpse’s swollen neck.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

Blood—bucketfuls—covered the floor like the gymnasium at Carrie’s prom. Sprawled in the center of this sea of red was a man Wanda assumed was the embalmer, Marcus Torino.

Unable to look upon the grotesque scene any longer, Wanda tore down the hallway and bumped into Federico, nearly knocking him over.

“Whoa, Whipple,” Federico said, gripping her shoulders to steady her balance. “What’s the hurry?”

Arlene raced over. “Something’s wrong,” she said, inspecting Wanda’s face. “What’s the matter, Wanda? Speak up!”

Wanda took a deep breath and spoke as clearly as possible: “There’s a dead body. In the embalming room.”

Federico frowned. “No surprise there,” he said, releasing Wanda’s shoulders so she could stand on her own. “Embalming rooms have been known to house dead bodies, you know.”

Arlene whacked Federico’s shoulder. “It’s more than that, smart ass! Can’t you tell Wanda’s totally freaked out? You’ve known her since high school and you still can’t recognize obvious alarm on her face? No wonder your relationship never worked! I bet if she was holding a pregnancy stick you’d get the picture.”

“Stop it. Both of you!” Wanda shouted. “There’s a dead man on the floor in there! And I think it’s Marcus Torino….”

Arlene and Federico exchanged stunned glances and then they both hurried down the hallway to the opened door. Wanda stayed put, preferring not to relive the horrifying scene.

A few minutes later, Arlene returned with a worried look on her face. “Sweety, the only dead man in that room is on a table with a tag attached to his toe. But there is quite a bit of blood on the floor. I can see why that freaked you out.”

“That’s impossible!” Wanda exclaimed, marching down the hallway. “I saw a body!” She rounded the corner and her jaw dropped. The body of Marcus Torino was gone. The lake of blood was still there, but a pumpkin sat in the spot where the body had lain only moments before.

Wanda spotted a set of bloody shoe prints leading out an open door on the opposite side of the room. She carefully skirted the lake of blood and knelt down to have a closer look.

The shoe print was divided into two parts: a square in the back and a triangle in the front. She recognized the shape at once: it was unmistakably a boot print. An image of the portly cowboy from Sherylyn Dillberry’s funeral flashed in her mind.

Federico touched her shoulder. “Two missing bodies in one day, huh, Whipple?” He glanced at his watch. “And it’s not even noon…”

Chapter Two



Wanda set her tub of peanut butter and chocolate ice cream on the coffee table and turned up the volume on the TV. A female reporter was speaking to the director of the Burnside Funeral Home or, as Wanda preferred, the snobby version of Pee-wee Herman. Behind them, an orange sun crested the roof of the building, reminding Wanda of a cheesy horror flick.

“We’re quite accustomed to reports of missing people,” the reporter was saying a little too enthusiastically. “But when was the last time you heard of a corpse going AWOL at a funeral?” She paused for dramatic effect. “I’m standing here with Maximilian Huber, director of the Burnside Funeral Home. Mr. Huber, can you please describe for us what happened when you opened Sherylyn Dillberry’s casket this morning?”

Pee-wee Huber blinked nervously and stuttered through the events of Sherylyn Dillberry’s funeral. He finished with an obviously rehearsed declaration absolving himself and the Burnside Funeral Home of any wrongdoing. “The authorities suspect foul play,” he assured the reporter.

“Indeed,” the reporter replied, turning back to the camera. “And just when you thought the day’s events couldn’t get any stranger, the director of the Finney Funeral Home has also gone missing. An eyewitness, who prefers anonymity, claims that Marcus Torino was murdered while performing an embalming. The eyewitness stated that the room in which Mr. Torino was working was covered with the embalmer’s blood…but a body has yet to be found. The discovery of a pumpkin in the room, similar to the Sherylyn Dillberry case, has us wondering: Is there a serial body snatcher in our midst, haunting the Burnside area? So far the police haven’t confirmed the veracity of the claim. But all attempts to reach Mr. Torino by our news station have proven fruitless—no pun intended.”

An eyewitness? Wanda wondered who this mystery informant could be. As far as she knew there were only three people who could describe Marcus Torino’s murder scene—if, in fact, it was a murder: Arlene, Federico, and herself. Unless the tipster was one of Federico’s crime scene officers.

Wanda shut off the TV. She grabbed her cordless and dialed Federico. He answered immediately and his tone was anything but friendly.

“Which of you morons talked to the press?”

“Well, hello to you, too,” Wanda snapped back. “What makes you think it was us and not someone from your department?”

“Unlikely,” Federico replied, and then warned: “When Doug Perry hears about this he’s going to demand your head on a platter.”

Wanda cringed. Deputy Sheriff Doug Perry was her sworn nemesis. Wanda had a knack for getting mixed up in police investigations and the deputy resented her for it. It behooved Wanda to stay off Doug Perry’s radar at all costs.

“I’ll talk to Arlene tomorrow morning,” Wanda promised. “But I seriously doubt she said anything to the press.”

You did what?!” Wanda exclaimed, cupping her forehead in her hand.

Arlene calmly set down her coffee mug and said, “Look. The police haven’t done diddly-squat in the search for my aunt. I thought if I told the press a juicy story, they’d light a fire under the department’s ass.”

“Well, you certainly succeeded in doing that,” Wanda remarked, shaking her head. “Except now Doug Perry is on the hunt for this mysterious eyewitness and naturally he’s set his sights on me.”

“Don’t worry your pretty head about that,” Arlene assured her. “I’m more than happy to take the blame.” She smiled warmly. “Still friends?”

Wanda sighed. “Of course.”

“Good. Now that we’ve got that settled, here’s the information you asked for.”

Wanda took the slip of paper handed to her.

Printed at the top was the name, Howie Palmer, below which was an address in Troutdale. If Wanda’s memory served her correctly, Troutdale was roughly fifteen miles outside of Portland. An hour and a half by bike. Or longer, if the rain kept up. But Wanda had to check it out. There was a good chance the bloody boot prints from the Finney Funeral Home belonged to the cowboy from Sherylyn Dillberry’s funeral.

“And you’re sure this Howie Palmer will be at the reading of the will today?” Wanda asked.

“He’ll be there,” Arlene said positively. “They all will. My aunt left each of her former lovers a little token to remember her by.”

“I’m afraid to ask,” Wanda said.

Arlene grinned devilishly. “Let’s just say these particular parting gifts come in all different colors—but just one size: 12. Aunt Sherylyn had wide hips.”

Wanda raised an eyebrow. “And I suppose as executor of the will you got to assign which panties go to whom…”

“Hardly,” Arlene said. “Aunt Sherylyn was very organized. Each panty has the future owner’s name stitched on the buttocks.”

“Scandalous!” Wanda exclaimed. “I never knew your aunt had it in her.”

Arlene sighed. “Aunt Sherylyn was one of a kind. Anyway, I’m going to need your help with Bedknobs and Books. I’ve no idea why she left the bookstore to me. I haven’t read a book since grade school and I’m pretty sure it was the Cliffs Notes version.”

Wanda snickered. “Your experience running a beauty salon should count for something. I bet Sherylyn took that into consideration. Besides, what did she know before she took the bookstore over and transformed it into the success it is today?”

“Is that a yes or a no?” Arlene asked.

“Of course I’ll help. I read a book about every couple of days. I’ll make sure your inventory is stocked with the latest and greatest.”

“Excellent. Now I’m going to ask you one more time—are you sure you won’t take Federico with you? Troutdale is a world away from Portland. And you have no idea what you might find in this creep’s house.”

“Absolutely not.” Wanda said adamantly. “First of all, I shared my suspicions about Howie Palmer with Federico already and he totally brushed me off. I pointed out the bloody boot prints and he told me to let the professionals do their job. And I don’t have to tell you what a lousy job they’ve been doing. It’s been twenty-four hours and your aunt’s still missing.”

“I just worry about you sometimes,” Arlene confided. “And if that bloated swine, Howie Palmer, is capable of what you suspect… Well, let’s just say I’m not in the mood to give another eulogy…”

“So dark, you’ve become,” Wanda said, leaning forward.

Arlene smiled. “So Yoda, you’ve become.” She chuckled. “Go, already. Live long and prosper.”

Now it was Wanda’s turn to laugh. “You’ve just mixed up your aliens.”

Arlene shrugged. “Sue me. I’m not a fan of science fiction. By the way, how do you expect to get to Troutdale, anyway?”

“By bike, of course,” Wanda replied.

“Nonsense,” Arlene objected. “Troutdale is more than an hour away and you’re no spring chicken. You’ll have a stroke before you reach the city limits. It’s time I introduced you to a little thing we here on planet Earth like to call technology. Have you ever heard of Uber…?”

Pull over here,” Wanda told the young driver. The girl parked the Prius on the shoulder beside a stand of evergreens. Wanda could just make out the gabled roof of Howie Palmer’s two-story house, about a stone’s throw away from the Sandy River.

Slinging her purse over her shoulder, Wanda exited the car and headed down a pebbled drive toward the sizeable home. She felt strange not paying the driver, but Arlene had assured her the fare was already paid through Arlene’s cell phone. Wanda was completely behind the times.

She checked her purse for the third time and was relieved to find Arlene’s phone safely tucked inside a hidden pouch. Wanda wasn’t used to carrying such an expensive device around, but Arlene had insisted she use Uber to transport her safely to and from Howie Palmer’s home rather than trek the fifteen or so miles on her Schwinn.

Wanda just about tripped over a crumbling board at the top of Howie’s steps. She secured the rotted plank and tested it again, wincing at its brittleness. If she’d been a few pounds heavier she’d have crashed through to the basement.

She knocked on the door and waited. Better to be sure no one was home before she trespassed. She already had a cover story in case someone answered the door. She’d be an Avon lady for the day. Who cares if she didn’t actually wear makeup?

Wanda peered around. It was eerily silent, save for the steady gurgling of the Sandy River.

When she was sure no one was coming to the door, Wanda crept toward the back of the house. Dappled sunlight danced against the wood slats as the trees swayed in the breeze. Her feet crunched on loose gravel.

A sudden rustling, like metal against metal, startled her, and she spied an Irish Setter chained to a large cedar on the perimeter of the property. The taut chain creaked as the dog tested its ability to hold him. His eyes followed Wanda intensely, as if she were a sirloin steak with legs. Wanda kept her distance, thankful the dog hadn’t found his voice.

A camouflaged truck sat behind the house, ringed by what appeared to be discarded hunting gear: an army green tent, a mud-spattered duffel bag, a pair of binoculars, and a large cake knife. It was this last item that drew Wanda’s attention. She leaned in for a closer look.

The knife gleamed with fresh blood.

Just then, Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil screamed from her purse. Wanda just about peed her pants. She fumbled for Arlene’s phone and clicked the green answer button.

“Hello…,” she whispered into the phone. The dog began to bark and so Wanda edged further behind the house, distancing herself from the bloody knife and the pesky dog.

“Wanda, it’s Arlene. Is that a dog barking? Where are you…?” Her voice sounded urgent.

“At Howie’s house,” Wanda answered.

“Crap,” Arlene said. “We have a problem. Howie’s not at the will reading.”

Wanda’s blood went cold.

If Howie wasn’t at the will reading then where was he? No one had come to the door…but that didn’t mean the plump cowboy wasn’t hold up in his house, perhaps watching her from an upstairs window at this very moment. And whose blood was on the cake knife? It was too fresh to be Marcus Torino’s. Had Howie claimed another life already?

“Wanda…you there?” Arlene asked. She sounded absolutely panicked.

Wanda was about to answer when the sound of a gunshot tore through the air. She dropped the phone and ran.

“Who’s there?!” a gruff voice belched from somewhere in the distance. Wanda didn’t bother to look over her shoulder. She wrenched open a pair of cellar doors and dove inside, quickly shutting the corrugated doors behind her.

The cellar was pitch-black and had a musty odor. A narrow seam of sunlight shone between the doors. Wanda held her breath, peering through the thin crack. She could just make out the camouflaged truck and the wall of cedar trees that lined the perimeter. A horizontal blue ribbon marked the Sandy River just beyond.

She listened. The shooter was coming up the gravel walkway. But it didn’t sound like footsteps. More of a steady sound. It was hard to discern with the constant barking. She focused her eyes through the thin bar of light between the doors.

Then Wanda spotted a hefty woman in a wheelchair. Her hair was a mass of gray and looked as though it had never seen a brush. A rifle lay across her lap.

“Who’s there?!” the woman hollered. Her voice sounded like she’d smoked a carton of cigarettes a day. This thought made Wanda think of Arlene and her cell phone, which now lay in the gravel somewhere between the camouflaged truck and Wanda’s current position in the cellar.

The woman directed the wheelchair toward the cellar doors. She rolled as close as the wheels allowed. Her wrinkled eyes squinted, peering through the thin crack between the doors.

Wanda slowly backed down the steps. She continued backing away until her bottom met the cold cement wall behind her.

Suddenly, the door flew open about a foot and then crashed back down. Apparently the woman had tried to open it, but her attempt had failed, due to lack of strength or poor leverage. Wanda didn’t know which, but she was thankful all the same.

The woman tried again with the same result. Sunlight flooded the cellar momentarily and for the first time Wanda caught a glimpse of her surroundings.

She was in an animal trophy room. The walls were stacked with the heads of various animals: deer, goats, sheep, hogs—so many Wanda couldn’t count.

On the wheelchair woman’s next attempt, Wanda glimpsed the unimaginable—a human head. And it wasn’t just any head—it had recently belonged to Howie Palmer, the man Wanda had suspected of murdering Sherylyn Dillberry and Marcus Torino.

Howie’s ruddy jowls had a dusting of gray. Apparently the killer hadn’t given him an opportunity to shave before slicing off his head. But now Howie was apparently the third victim of the Burnside Body Snatcher.

Wanda held her breath, resisting the urge to scream at the top of her lungs.

The image of Howie Palmer’s decapitated head was burned in her mind, his wide eyes staring sightlessly across the room at the countless animals he undoubtedly killed and then mounted in his cellar. The irony was sickeningly rich.

Wanda crept back up the stairs and peered through the crack. The wheelchair woman was gone. The dog had finally stopped barking. The only sound was the sirens of an approaching police car.

You should’ve called me first,” Federico said. “That could’ve been your head hanging on that wall.”

“I tried to tell you,” Wanda argued. “But you didn’t listen.”

“Chasing down psychopaths is not your job,” Federico shot back. It’s my job.”

Arlene ambled over, dusting off her phone. “It still works!” she said. “Samsung rocks!”

Wanda apologized for dropping her cell phone. But before Arlene could respond, an angry roar interrupted them.

Wanda turned to see the woman in the wheelchair—who turned out to be Howie Palmer’s older sister—pointing a rifle at a member of the forensics team.

“Don’t you take my brother!” the woman snarled.

The investigator backed away. In his hands he held a large evidence bag containing Howie Palmer’s decapitated head.

“Give him to me!” the woman demanded. “Give me back my brother!”

The forensics investigator glanced shakily at Federico, who nodded toward the hysterical woman.

“Go ahead,” Federico said calmly. “Give her the head.”

Meanwhile, several officers had drawn their weapons and were aiming them toward the disturbed woman in the wheelchair.

“This is not looking so good,” Arlene whispered to Wanda.

The forensic specialist carefully placed Howie Palmer’s head in the woman’s lap and backed away.

Howie’s sister lowered the rifle and cradled her brother’s head in her arms.

“I don’t know whether to be disgusted or touched,” Arlene whispered to Wanda.

Meanwhile, Wanda couldn’t get over how closely Howie Palmer resembled his sister. The two might’ve been identical twins.

The woman directed her wheelchair toward the stand of cedar trees, wailing as she went. The officers followed at a safe distance, keeping their guns trained on the woman.

“Where does she think she’s going?” Arlene asked.

Wanda had a pretty good guess. “The river. She’s headed for the river.”

Chapter Three



Wanda shot down Vista Avenue and crossed Burnside. 23rd Street, or as the locals fondly coined, Trendy-third, due to the street’s swanky shops and restaurants, was fairly empty in the morning. Wanda guided her Schwinn down the center of the road, being careful to avoid the black ice, which was common this time of year. One slip and she’d be instant road meat.

She shook the vision of her mangled body from her mind, but it was quickly replaced with the even more grotesque image of Howie Palmer’s severed head hanging on a cellar wall.

Now—thanks to Howie’s deranged sister, Alma—Howie’s head was likely miles away down the Sandy River. A half dozen armed policemen couldn’t prevent a wheelchair-bound woman from tossing her brother’s head into the river. The result was the loss of valuable evidence.

Like the Burnside Body Snatcher’s other victims, Howie’s body was nowhere to be found. The police canvassed the Palmer property but uncovered no evidence linking Howie’s murder to the other victims. Alma Palmer offered zero help, threatening to “cap” anyone remaining on her property past sundown.

A solitary pumpkin left on the bank of the river, however, was all the proof Wanda needed to convince her Howie’s murder was committed by the same perpetrator.

Wanda was waiting to hear back from Federico on the forensic evidence collected from the knife. Though no one doubted the blood would turn out to be Howie’s, she was hopeful the killer had left a small trace of DNA behind, and that he or she would be discovered in the criminal database. Otherwise, Wanda was back to square one.

The Burnside Body Snatcher was now credited with three victims—Arlene’s aunt, Sherylyn Dillberry; the embalmer, Marcus Torino; and the cowboy, Howie Palmer, whom Wanda had wrongfully suspected of being the killer.

Wanda hadn’t a clue as to motive. The only commonality the three victims shared was Sherylyn Dillberry. One man had dated the woman and the other had embalmed her. And now all three were dead.

So who was the Burnside Body Snatcher?

In order to figure that out Wanda would first need to decipher the motive.

Initially she’d thought Sherylyn was murdered for her money—since the woman was loaded. But if money had been the reason then the killer would have stopped after killing her. According to the will, Arlene’s aunt had left all her money, as well as her home, in a trust fund for Hoyt’s Foster Association. So money was likely not the motive.

Next, Wanda had suspected jealousy—since Sherylyn had a slew of ex-lovers. But then why would the killer murder the embalmer, Marcus Torino? He’d recently married and there was no evidence suggesting the two of them were having an affair. So jealousy was probably not the killer’s motive either.

No, Wanda was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. She would have to dig deeper to root out the killer’s motive and narrow in on the Burnside Body Snatcher.

Bedknobs and Books was nestled between a vegan grocery store and a new age boutique in the heart of the Alphabet District. Wanda arrived to find a bewildered Arlene sitting Indian style on the office floor amongst a heap of colorful post-its. The bookstore manager, a scrawny man with a ZZ Top beard and John Lennon eyeglasses, gazed over Arlene’s shoulder with a befuddled expression.

“Sherylyn refused to do anything on the computer,” the manager said scornfully, stroking his long beard. “She’d scribble everything on post-its and expect me to decipher them and make my orders. No disrespect to your aunt, but she was as stubborn as a Missouri mule!”

Arlene looked up. “Missouri, huh?”

“Born and raised,” the manager replied. “I escaped a few years ago.”

“That bad?”

“The state’s okay, it’s my family that’s deranged.”

Arlene looked the manager up and down, sizing him up. Wanda could sense a snide comment on the tip of Arlene’s tongue, so she preempted the verbal assault by jumping into the conversation.

“I’m good with post-its,” Wanda offered, taking a seat across from Arlene. “You’ve got me till five o’clock today. My gig at the Coffee Table isn’t until six. Where should I start?”

The bookstore manager’s ears perked up. “A gig? Are you in a band? I’m Leif, by the way.”

Wanda extended her hand. “Wanda...nice to meet you.” After the handshake, Wanda discreetly wiped her hand on her jeans. Shaking hands with Leif was like squeezing a slimy eel.

“Wanda’s a one-woman band,” Arlene pointed out. “Maybe you’ve heard of her mother, Bernice Whipple...”

“The jazz singer?” Leif’s eyes widened as he studied Wanda’s face. “Bernice Whipple’s your mother? Wait, I see the resemblance now. Red hair…freckles. Your mother’s quite the crooner. Do you cover any of her music?”

Wanda glared at Arlene. She didn’t feel comfortable talking about her mother to strangers. They usually asked a lot of the same, mundane questions and the exchange almost always led to what is your mom doing now? This was the one question Wanda strived to avoid. She hated discussing her mom’s Alzheimer’s; she hated the lump that developed in her throat when she thought of how her mom’s once brilliant mind had betrayed her.

Arlene must have picked up on Wanda’s discomfort. She spoke up: “Okay, Leif, we can take it from here. Why don’t you go find someone a book or something.”


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