Murders for Substance, Book 1
Date Published: 08-17-2021
Publisher: Pax Ardsen
Dr. Kep Woodhead is a brilliant, irascible forensic toxicologist with a dark past. Bernadette Becker is a disgraced federal investigator with one last chance. They’re both assigned to a strange poisoning case: a graduate student has been found dead in a 15th-century chapel, a needle filled with a controversial hallucinogen sticking out of his arm. The priest, the professor, the piscary president, the protestor, the protégé—they all emerge as suspects to stop the victim’s research project, and soon Becker’s life is in danger. Do Becker and Woodhead have a prayer of discovering the truth before more people are killed?
He ducked through the doorway, pushed his glasses up, then raised his nose and sniffed.
“Dr. Woodhead, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Bernadette stuck out her hand in greeting.
He closed his eyes and held up an index finger. Bernadette lowered her hand. Detective Dunn looked over her shoulder at Bernadette, who gave a slight shrug.
Bernadette could almost hear the seconds tick by in her head.
Finally, Dr. Woodhead opened his eyes and pointed to the table on the altar holding a brass censer, a sphere resting on a stand with notches in the top half and an ornate cross on the lid. “Did the CSI team say how long ago that incense was burned?”
The detective followed his gaze. “No. Not since the body was found, anyway. I don’t think.” She hesitated, then spoke quickly. “And I’m Detective Kerrigan Dunn, Milwaukee Police.” She didn’t offer her hand.
“Most of the incense had already been burned, judging from the smell. Benzoin was used.” Woodhead sniffed again, ignoring Dunn. “I’m getting other styrax scents as well; perhaps a touch of frankincense. Is incense used in the services? Are there even services held here?”
Kerrigan Dunn nodded. “The Anglicans have their service Sunday morning, of course.” Detective Dunn took out her notebook and consulted it. “We’ve got a group of Seventh-Day Adventists Saturday, a small Presbyterian group Sunday evening. Tuesday, of course, it’s the Agios Delphi people.”
“I didn’t have time to research them much,” Bernadette said. “It’s an odd name for a church. Delphi was the name of the oracle from Oedipus Rex. Is it Greek Orthodox?”
The detective scoffed. “It’s no kind of orthodox. More like a pyramid scheme dressed in religious clothing.”
“It’s not a mainstream denomination,” Bernadette said.
“If I recall correctly, our victim was a member.” Dr. Woodhead opened his folder. “Yes, here it is: ‘Mr. Thompson was a member of a local church called Agios Delphi.’” He turned a page. “Agios Delphi of Greater Milwaukee. Kymer Thompson was an elder.” Woodhead glanced up at the detective. “Twenty-five and an elder. That’s humorous.” He did not smile.
Bernadette chewed her bottom lip. Woodhead had a point: he was young to have such an elevated position in the church. “Detective, the Agios Delphi group meets here on Tuesday, correct? But last night was Monday.”
“Right,” Dunn affirmed.
“So why was Mr. Thompson inside the chapel yesterday?”
“Perhaps he was trying to, I don’t know, cleanse the bad juju from the chapel for tonight’s service. Maybe that’s one of the things the elders have to do for the, uh, church.” Dunn landed on the last word harder than necessary.
“Detective Dunn,” Dr. Woodhead said absently, reading the report from the folder, “are you able to maintain impartiality, or will your opinion of the victim’s religion color your investigation?”
Dunn formed her hands into a steeple. “I haven’t said anything that isn’t relevant to the investigation, Dr. Woodhead. This organization is known to use methods to separate their congregation from their money. I have a thick folder back at the District 5 station full of fraud allegations. Widens the net we need to cast for suspects.”
Woodhead raised his head, a smile touching the corners of his mouth—the smile looked friendly, but his eyes flashed behind his glasses. “You haven’t answered my question. Will your dislike of Agios Delphi affect your ability to investigate this crime?”
“I believe I’m more familiar with Agios Delphi than you are.” Dunn crossed her arms. “And like I said, I haven’t said anything irrelevant.”
“CSAB was called,” Bernadette broke in, “because your M.E. strongly suspects that ibogaine caused Mr. Thompson’s death. That requires investigation—ibogaine is a class 1 controlled substance. We need to work together.” But she couldn’t catch Woodhead’s eye when she said it.
Dunn pressed her lips together and was silent.
Woodhead looked up at the vaulted ceiling. “So Agios Delphi uses this space for their services on Tuesday nights?”
“How did Mr. Thompson get in here?”
“According to the docent, he was one of the two people from the Delphi group who had a key. He was an elder in the organization, and he lived in university-owned housing, so he was close.”
“Who’s the other member with a key?” Woodhead asked.
Bernadette remembered the name from her file. “Ms. Roundhouse is the Agios Delphi priest.”
Woodhead flipped back a page. “Ah. Yes.” He turned to face the back wall, stepping closer until his nose was only an inch or two from the stones. Pushing his glasses up again, he took a long whiff and kept sniffing.
After the third sniff, the muscles around Woodhead’s eyes tightened.
Uh oh. That wasn’t a good sign.
He opened his eyes and looked at Detective Dunn.
“Is something wrong?” the detective said.
And then Bernadette caught the faintest whiff of it—perfume. And not the same scent the docent wore.
“You—” Woodhead began.
Then Bernadette caught his eye. She set her mouth in a line. He had already upset Detective Dunn by questioning her ability to stay neutral. They needed Dunn on their side—and if he insulted her again, she might not be cooperative. “I tried to reach you several times, Dr. Woodhead.”
“Yes, I know.”
That wasn’t a response she’d expected. “I’d hoped you would give me some direction on clearing the crime scene for you so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.”
Woodhead looked at Bernadette impassively. “It wouldn’t have helped. You wouldn’t have been able to prepare it to my satisfaction.”
Oof. Martin’s letter was prescient.
“Does someone want to tell me what’s going on?” Dunn asked.
Woodhead turned to face her. “You’re contaminating the crime scene.”
Dunn narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me? I haven’t touched anything.”
Bernadette steeled herself and interrupted. “Dr. Woodhead, as I’m sure you saw on TV, has a gift for identifying subtle scents. It’s what makes his expertise in poisoning cases such as this so invaluable. But”—she gave Woodhead a questioning look, then spoke haltingly—“perfumes, strong deodorant soaps—those can mask the scents he’s trying to find at the crime scenes.”
“Oh,” Detective Dunn said.
“Theme Music.” Woodhead muttered. “Obviously.”
“What?” Bernadette said. “Did you say Theme Music?”
Dunn glanced at Bernadette. “He’s right. The name of my perfume—Theme Music.”
“That’s correct,” Woodhead said tersely. “Would you step outside?”
“Outside the crime scene?”
“Yes.” Woodhead lifted a hand, palm in, fingers down, and made a shooing motion.
Dunn scoffed. “Sure. Wouldn’t want to disturb the famous TV star with my overpowering stench.” She walked out, not quite stomping, into the snowy day, but left the front door open.
“We haven’t been properly introduced, Dr. Woodhead,” Bernadette said, keeping her hands down. “I’m your new case analyst. Bernadette Becker.”
“Salmon will mask scents too,” Woodhead said.
Bernadette cocked her head.
“Salmon. You must have had some earlier.”
“Not since last night, and I showered and brushed my teeth twice since then. Surely I don’t—”
“You smell like urine.”
Bernadette took a step back.
“The trimethylamine oxide in the salmon breaks down into ammonia. Very similar scent profile to urea. It’s extremely distracting.”
Bernadette shook her head and followed the detective out the front door.
“He’s a real charmer,” Dunn said under her breath.
Bernadette grunted. “Yeah. We’re getting along like a house on fire.”
About The Author
Paul Austin Ardoin is the Amazon bestselling author of The Fenway Stevenson Mysteries. Book 1, THE RELUCTANT CORONER, is his debut novel. He has published short fiction and humorous essays in the anthologies Bottomfish and Sweet Fancy Moses, and non-fiction works about computer security in California Computer News and European Communications.
Paul is a California native who put his creative writing degree to use by authoring marketing materials for computer security companies for the better part of two decades. When he’s not writing novels or trying to save the world through better computer security, Paul plays keyboards in a dance rock band. He lives in the Sacramento area with his wife, two teenagers, and a menagerie of animals.
Join Paul’s mailing list at paulaustinardoin.com for news about new books.