AS SOON AS COUNTY HOMICIDE INVESTIGATOR Loren Muse opened her apartment door, the waft of cigarette smoke attacked. Loren let it. She stood there and sucked in a deep breath.
Her garden apartment was on Morris Avenue in Union, New Jersey. She never understood the term "garden." The place was a pit- all brick, no personality, and nothing resembling green. This was New Jersey's version of purgatory, a way station, the place people stayed on the way up or down economic and social ladders. Young couples lived here until they could afford the house. Unlucky pensioners returned here after the kids flew the coop.
And, of course, single women on the verge of old-maidhood who worked too hard and entertained too little- they ended up here too.
Loren was thirty-four years old, a serial dater who, to quote her cigarette-toting mother who was currently on the couch, "never closed the sale." The cop-thing worked liked that. It initially attracted men and then sent them scurrying when the commitment-aka-expiration date approached. She was currently dating a guy named Pete whom her mother labeled a "total loser," and Loren had trouble arguing with that assessment.
Her two cats, Oscar and Felix, were nowhere in sight, but that was normal. Her mother, the lovely Carmen Valos Muse Brewster Whatever, lay sprawled on the couch watching Jeopardy! She watched the show nearly every day and had never gotten a question right.
"Hey," Loren said.
"This place is a pigsty," her mother said.
"Then clean it. Or better yet, move out."
Carmen had recently split with Husband Four. Her mother was a good-looking woman- far better looking than the plain daughter who'd taken after her suicidal father. Still sexy, though now it was in a sort of sloppy-seconds way. Her looks were starting to droop, but she still landed better dates than Loren. Men loved Carmen Valos Muse Etcetera.
Carmen turned back to the television and took another deep puff of the cigarette.
Loren said, "I told you a thousand times not to smoke in here."
"No, Ma, I quit."
Carmen turned the big browns in her direction, blinking seductively out of habit. "You quit?"
"Oh, come on. Two months? That's not quitting."
"It's five months."
"Still. Didn't you smoke in here?"
"So what's the big deal? It's not like the smell is gone or anything. It's not like this is one of those fancy no-smoking hotel rooms. Right?"
Her mother gave her the familiar judgmental eye, sizing Loren up the way she always did and finding her wanting the way she always did. Loren waited for the inevitable "just trying to help" beauty tip: Your hair could use some shape, you should wear something clingier, why do you have to look like a boy, have you seen the new push-up bras at Victoria's Secret, would a little makeup kill you, short girls should never go out without heels...
Carmen's mouth opened and the phone rang.
"Hold that thought," Loren said.
She picked up the receiver.
"Yo, Squirt, it's moi."
"Moi" was Eldon Teak, a sixty-two-year-old Caucasian grandfather who only listened to rap music. Eldon was also the Essex County medical examiner.
"What's up, Eldon?"
"You catch the Stacked Nun case?"
"That's what you're calling it?"
"Until we come up with something funnier. I liked Our Lady with the Valley or Mount Saint Mountains, but no one else did."
She gently rubbed her eyes with an index finger and thumb. "You got something for me?"
"Like the death wasn't accidental."
"She was murdered?"
"Yup. Pillow over the face."
"God, how the hell did they miss that?"
"How the hell did who miss that?"
"Wasn't she originally listed as death by natural causes?"
"Well, Eldon, see, that's what I mean when I say, how the hell did they miss that?"
"And I asked you who you meant."
"Whoever originally examined her."
"No one originally examined her. That's the point."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No. I mean, shouldn't that have shown up right away?"
"You watch too much TV. Every day zillions of people die, right? Wife finds the husband dead on the floor. You think we do an autopsy? You think we check to see if it's murder? Most of the time cops don't even come in. My old man croaked, what, ten years ago. My mom called the funeral home, a doc declares him dead, they pick him up. That's how it normally works, you know that. So here a nun dies, looks like natural causes to anyone who doesn't know exactly what to look for. I would have never gotten her on the table if your Mother Superior doesn't say something."
"You sure it was a pillow?"
"Yup. Pillow in her room, matter of fact. Plenty of fibers in the throat."
"How about under her fingernails?"
"Isn't that unusual?"
Loren shook her head, tried to put it together. "You have an ID?"
"An ID on what?"
"On the victim?"
"I thought she was Sister Silicon or something. What do we need an ID for?"
Loren checked her watch. "How much longer are you in the office?"
"Another two hours," Eldon Teak said.
"I'm on my way."