Author’s note: Deputy Mattie Cobb and a cold case detective from California, James Hauck, are at a Colorado state prison to interview John Cobb, a man they suspect killed Mattie’s father decades earlier. But before they can begin, the entire prison goes on lockdown and they’re trapped inside the interview area’s observation room, which triggers Mattie’s ongoing problem with claustrophobia.
The clamor from the alarm ceased, leaving its echo to fade in the resulting silence. They both rose from their seats, and Mattie watched the door, listening while her muscles tensed. A series of clicks shot through the room as someone on the other side of the door tapped in the lock’s code.
The door opened to reveal Shanice Donahue, and even though Mattie had expected to see the assistant warden, relief washed through her—perhaps at just having the door opened.
“Sorry for leaving so abruptly, but all visitors must remain in place when the prison goes on lockdown.” Donahue’s face had hardened into a frown. “We’ve got some serious shit going on that involves you.”
“What happened?” Hauck asked.
“We’ve had an incident in John Cobb’s pod. He’s dead.”
Hauck cursed under his breath.
Mattie’s heart plummeted. Her hopes, goals, and everything she’d planned to accomplish today dissolved into thin air. “What happened to him?”
Donahue looked grim. “When the guards went to get him, he was found dead in his cell.”
“Dead how?” Hauck asked. “Shanked?”
“Apparently not. No physical wounds. Manner of death is under investigation. Could be natural causes, might be an overdose on something.” Donahue bit off the words, her jaw hardened.
Hauck exhaled in a way that showed his frustration.
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Mattie didn’t want to give up on learning something— anything—of value today. She stepped forward. “Could we see his body . . . and his cell?”
Donahue’s gaze slid away from hers. “I’m not sure I can do that.”
Hauck spoke up. “I suspect you have this entire facility under lockdown right now, so we won’t encounter any of the prisoners. John Cobb was the only known witness in the case we’re investigating. We’d appreciate being able to take a look at him and his cell.”
Donahue hesitated, apparently thinking it over. “All right,” she said, turning on her heel. “You’ll wear caps and booties. I’ll be right back.”
This time Hauck hurried to the door and caught it before it closed. He stepped out into the hallway, holding the door open for Mattie to follow. They waited in silence until Donahue returned, carrying paper hair coverings that resembled shower caps and booties to cover their shoes.
“Our investigator is already at Cobb’s cell, and I’ve notified him that we’re coming.” The assistant warden marched swiftly down the corridor, her long strides making Mattie hustle to keep up. Hauck followed. Donahue stopped at the end of the hall, pressed the button for master control, and lifted her face to the camera for identification. The bolt clicked and the door rolled back, opening into another hallway.
They moved past a guard and into a large, rectangular cellblock filled with a scattering of metal tables and benches that were anchored to the floor. The room was empty of prisoners. A two-tiered row of cells lined the walls all the way around with metal staircases at the narrow ends of the room leading to the second floor. The walls and doors into the cells were solid instead of bars, and men’s faces peered from small, reinforced windows in some of the cells.
“How many men to a cell?” Mattie asked quietly as Donahue began to lead them up one of the stairways.
“In this pod, only one.”
“Was Cobb out here mingling with the population before he was found dead?” Hauck asked.
“Inmates eat their meals out here,” Donahue said. “Unless an inmate is being disciplined or ill, they eat together. So yes, Cobb ate with the group and then went to his cell. That’s where he died.”
“Sounds suspicious,” Hauck said.
“Yes. Everyone in this pod will remain on lockdown until our investigator can sort things out.” Donahue had reached the top of the stairs and threw them a frustrated look over her shoulder before turning down a narrow walkway with a wire mesh railing high enough to restrict inmates from throwing each other over it.
“Was he found in his bunk or on the floor?” Mattie asked.
“On the floor. He’s still there.” Donahue took another turn and headed along the walkway that stretched down one of the long walls of the rectangle. “His body will be left in place until our coroner can get to him.”
Mattie spotted a door that was open midway down the wall. A guard holding a notebook and pen stood outside. When she passed one of the cells, a face leered at her from behind the small window and the man made an obscene gesture. She stared him down as she walked by but averted her eyes from the other occupied cells so she wouldn’t provoke another inmate response.
A man dressed in a brown suit and tie stepped out of the cell and waited beside the guard for them to approach. A paper cap covered his hair, but his iron-gray moustache and swarthy, weathered complexion pegged him at about Hauck’s age, although he was short and stocky as opposed to Hauck’s tall and lean. Donahue introduced him as Detective Russo.
Russo stripped off his latex gloves and offered handshakes. Hauck gave him a business card, and Mattie followed suit.
Russo glanced at her card and then raised a brow. “Cobb?”
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“No relation,” she said, not wanting to get into the complicated history.
“Thank you for allowing us to take a look,” Hauck said. “Did Warden Donahue explain that we believe this man was an important witness to a cold case I’m working?”
“She did. Don’t touch anything when you go into the cell, okay?”
“We’ll keep our hands to ourselves,” Hauck said, glancing at Mattie.
Donahue handed them the protective gear she’d been carrying. Eager to go inside, Mattie slipped on the cap and booties. The guard appeared to be taking notes, and she figured he was in charge of the crime scene record.
She followed Hauck into the room. She peered beyond his tall frame and spotted John Cobb lying on the floor next to a bunk, faceup. Hauck skirted around Cobb’s body toward a horizontal steel tabletop and single bench seat, both anchored to the floor. A steel toilet and small sink occupied the other corner of the room.
After Hauck moved deeper into the room, Mattie had a full view of the corpse. Cobb’s death hadn’t been easy. His mouth gaped open and his features were set in a mask of pain. His face was a ghastly shade of gray, with a bluish tint around his mouth and lips. She felt no sympathy whatsoever for the man. All she felt was a need to determine how he’d died.
Mattie looked at Russo. “Was he in this position when he was found?”
“No, he was facedown and a little closer to his bunk. The guard turned him to determine if he was breathing.”
Mattie squatted next to the body to study Cobb’s features. Hauck’s knees popped as he knelt across from her on the body’s other side.
A chill seeped through her as she gazed upon the face of the man who’d once shot an animal tranquilizing dart into her back, abducted her, and tormented her as he tried to elicit information from her that she didn’t even know. He’d aged, his hair whiter, his face more lined. He’d changed more than the five months since she’d last seen him warranted, and she hoped prison life had been hard on him.
A pinkish discoloration at the edge of one of Cobb’s nostrils caught her eye. She leaned closer for a better look.
“No touching,” Russo warned.
“I won’t touch him,” Mattie murmured as she studied the frothy substance inside both nostrils.
Hauck reached inside his suit coat jacket and withdrew a slim case, from which he extracted a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He slipped them on and leaned closer to study Cobb’s face. “What do you make of that?” he asked Mattie quietly.
“What do you see?” Donahue asked from the hallway outside the cell.
Mattie had seen the foamy substance tinged with pink only in pictures. Many of the K-9 handlers in the state of Colorado met for group training sessions monthly with Sergeant Jim Madsen, the officer who’d originally trained Robo. Madsen had shown photos of individuals who’d died of respiratory failure from opioid overdose, and he’d cautioned them to avoid touching or letting their dogs touch both the substance and the skin of the corpse. Opioids could be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, and such an exposure meant immediate danger of suffering the same fate.
“Foam cone in the nostrils,” Mattie said, answering Donahue but making eye contact with Hauck. “Probably from pulmonary edema resulting from respiratory failure.”
She stood and turned to the warden. “So you’re sure he didn’t have any chronic lung conditions? COPD? Congestive heart failure?”
“Nothing like that.”
“This could be death by opioid overdose,” Mattie said. “No one should handle this body without wearing gloves and protective gear. Make sure the guard who turned him is okay.”
“If he followed protocol, he would’ve worn gloves,” Donahue said.
“Unfortunately, not everyone follows protocol. I hope that he did.”
“I checked. He did,” Russo said, telling Mattie he’d already noticed the presence of the foam cone. He was standing just inside the cell doorway, arms crossed over his barrel chest as he watched. He gave her a nod when their eyes met, as if to confirm her assessment of the death.
Mattie sensed that Cobb had not died of an accidental opioid overdose. She believed someone had killed him. And there are dozens of inmates and guards who are now suspects that were within striking range, she thought.
She turned her attention back to Cobb’s body: orange jumpsuit with no pockets, white socks, black slip-on canvas shoes with a thin sole. No clothing stains that would indicate vomiting. She examined his outwardly flung arms and his hands, which lay open against the floor. No lacerations or scrapes. No bruising on the surfaces she could see that would indicate defensive wounds or a fight. Someone close to Cobb must have delivered the drug somehow, possibly in his food or drink.
Hauck also stood. “Could we get a copy of the ME’s report?”
Russo nodded. “That should be possible. Have your department send a formal request.”
Mattie scanned the room, noticing books on a small shelf built into the wall over the desk. Curious as to what Cobb had been reading, she moved closer to look at the book titles—one on US history and one on hiking trails in Colorado. The latter caught her attention.
Why had a book about hiking trails in Colorado been of interest to Cobb? She rose on tiptoe to scan the top of the book and could see where the pages had been dog-eared. What trails had Cobb marked?
Mattie looked at Russo. “Could I see inside this book? It looks like Cobb earmarked some of these pages, and I’d like to see which ones.”
“Let me handle the book.” Pulling on latex gloves, Russo crossed the room and pointed. “This one?”
“Yes.” Mattie moved close. “Right there where the first page is dog-eared.”
He opened the book and held it up for both Mattie and Hauck to see. The chapter heading appeared in bold letters: Trails in Timber Creek County.
Mattie’s anxiety started to rise. She reached into her pocket to withdraw her cell phone to take a picture. “Next page.”
Russo turned the page carefully. Mattie focused on what she saw rather than the coldness that was starting to gather at her chest. Redstone Ridge—the title made her skin crawl.
Redstone Ridge was the beautiful spot high in the wilderness area where John Cobb had killed her brother Willie and then tried to kill her. Cobb had drawn a star at the top of the page and then placed an X at spots on the trail diagram—one near the base, one about midway up where the trail divided, and one at the top near the bottom of the ridge.
And there was another X drawn in a spot on the backside of the ridge, far away from the trail and out in the forest. An eerie feeling crept over Mattie. Though she hadn’t returned to this spot since May, just thinking of it drove a cold chill into her solar plexus.
There was a cave there where she’d been held captive, and the surrounding trees would be charred. Cobb had built a fire pit intended for burning her alive, only to have the wind carry sparks away to ignite a forest fire that had provided cover for her escape.
She shut down her mind to turn off the flood of memories, but she had trouble shutting down her body’s reaction. She had to suck in a breath to loosen the tightening in her chest.
“What’s wrong?” Hauck asked, evidently sensing her distress.
Staring at the page, Mattie shook her head. “I’ll tell you later.”
Tightening her fingers to keep them from trembling, she reopened her cell phone and positioned it to take a picture.
She planned to hike to the places that John Cobb had marked, including that cave of horror on the backside of the ridge. Why would he mark these spots? What was their significance?
She didn’t know the answers yet, but she did know one thing for certain—she was going to find out.
Margaret Mizushima writes the award-winning and internationally published Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries. She serves as past president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is also a member of Sisters in Crime, Northern Colorado Writers, Colorado Authors League and Women Writing the West.