Suppressing a sigh, Sharon Richards wondered why she hadn’t decided on a different job.
Murder was always a grisly affair, but some days it was harder to deal with than others. This time the location, more than the crime itself, had her on edge.
Surrounded by the sights and scents of death, she scanned the place where a young woman had lost her life only a couple of hours earlier.
The room was decorated in deep shades of red and black, advertising the fact that it wasn’t a common bedroom, but a place meant for seduction. Although she wasn’t sure that seduction had played a large role in the murder.
If it weren’t for the two spotlights brought in by crime scene technicians, the lighting would be dim, with only a small chandelier on the ceiling and a lamp on a bedside table. There was no daylight, the window hidden behind heavy burgundy drapes. She suppressed a snort. Of course there wasn’t. She couldn’t imagine the people coming here wanting any spectators. Although who knew, really?
Scanning the room’s contents, she tried not to let her uneasiness show. The last thing she needed was her colleagues thinking she was squeamish. Anders and Jones, the two crime scene technicians, were nice guys. She had worked well with them on previous occasions. Still, if she showed too much of a reaction, word would spread throughout the precinct at the speed of light.
Turning her back to them, she focused on the rest of the location instead of the people crowding it right now. Even though the space was bigger than her living room, there was scant furniture. Well, cabinets for the fine china and a coffee table with a vase of fresh flowers weren’t needed in a room like this. Not when its sole purpose was to help people find release. Release of a special kind.
Why? Why do it this way? She twisted a lock of her hair around a finger before she realized what she was doing. She crossed her arms over her chest and hoped Anders and Jones hadn’t seen her.
She couldn’t let her feelings get in the way of what really mattered—the victim.
Looking over at the victim for a moment, Sharon tried to ignore the pang of sorrow in her gut. She pried her eyes away.
The murder itself must’ve happened quickly, as everything inside this place seemed to be untouched, especially the four-poster bed. That didn’t show so much as a crinkle on the sheets. Sharon’s hands, sweating inside the cursed latex gloves, itched to touch the sheets to find out if they were indeed satin, as she believed. Ridiculous.
The bed was sturdy, with an upper panel but no curtains. There was no pillow, no extra sheet for warmth, nothing to indicate any measure of comfort. It was so damned impersonal, almost a caricature of what a bed should look like, in her opinion. At least the lush carpet underneath the bed—black again—looked comfortable.
Instead of giving in to impulse, she looked at a bench on one side of the room and the pair of rings attached to the wall behind it. Rings to shackle someone. Who would want to lose their freedom to another man or woman, to be helpless in front of somebody promising not to hurt them? Still, isn’t pain the main part of the experience? a tiny voice inside her mind piped up.
A selection of what Sharon assumed were toys was placed on a rudimentary wooden table next to the bench. She counted several paddles, a whip and some other things she couldn’t place quite as easily. Well, she could always ask. Yeah, right.
As she took a deep breath, the coppery smell of blood permeated the air so strongly that she fought the need to retch. The first and last time she’d thrown up had been when she and her partner had investigated the death of a prostitute, Cindy. The woman had been stabbed to death and left to bleed out beside a dumpster. The mixture of scents had been too much, and she’d only been able to take a few steps to the side before she’d thrown up.
Reining in her wayward thoughts, Sharon walked over to the victim, kneeling down in front of the body. So young, so beautiful and so untimely deceased.
Making sure she didn’t touch the corpse, she focused on the gaping wound caused by a bullet, tearing skin and ending a life within seconds.
The shot which had taken Marlene Davis’ life had left a barely discernible pattern of blood on the dark red wall. If it weren’t for the fetid air, the woman lying like a broken doll on the floor and her glassy eyes, nothing would’ve said this was a crime scene.
Sharon crouched down in front of the wall next, trying to see the crime, to understand what had happened. She looked closely at the blood spatter. It wasn’t hard to interpret. She’d seen patterns like this one often enough to know the shot had been delivered from close range. Most likely from a person Marlene had trusted.
She got up and walked a few steps around the body. It was easy to imagine how somebody had stood in the spot she was now, close to Marlene. Had Marlene and her murderer laughed, argued? One thing was clear—at some point the perpetrator had pulled the gun and fired it at the unsuspecting woman. The bullet entering Marlene’s chest had gone right through her body, spraying the wall behind her with her blood. It would’ve been a quick death, at least. The bullet was still stuck in the wall, waiting for the crime technicians to remove it. A small caliber, most likely a semi-automatic, if Sharon had to guess.
So they knew how it had happened, but had to answer the question of why next.
They could do it, and they would do it. While a crime like this always caused drama, suffering and pain for those left behind, in a twisted way, it was routine for Sharon. Eight years of working in homicide had dulled the edge of walking into a crime scene. There would always be a moment of pity, but she’d learned to be objective, to see the crime scene first and foremost. She had to detach the emotional part of herself, or her work would consume her.
Hell, it was the job. Her job. Every murder was a puzzle she was hell-bent on solving. She would solve this one. The only question was when.
She smiled, almost calm once more. Her work had led her to a lot of places throughout the last years, but in all her years in this city, she’d never been in one of the city’s BDSM clubs—not for work reasons and certainly not for private ones. There really was a first time for everything.
At the end of the day, this was just another workplace. A place where a murder had been committed. How ironic that the victim had been shot when so many weapons had been so readily available.
She walked over to the table and picked up one of the paddles. Pictures had already been taken, so she didn’t have to worry about mixing up anything. The paddle was heavier than she had expected. How much pain would it cause when it touched human skin?
At that moment, Sharon sensed him behind her again, and the fine hairs on her neck stood up.
He was watching her—she didn’t need to turn around to confirm it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt such an instant disquiet in the presence of someone else.
There was only one thing for certain. When a main suspect was such a distraction, it was a sure sign of trouble. Putting the paddle down, she turned.
As she’d known, Simon Carter, the subject of her musings, was watching her process the scene, his dark eyes following her every movement. As the owner of this club, he had a vested interest in her investigation, yet she’d have preferred it if he had let her work in peace.
She couldn’t afford to let herself be perturbed. Trying to focus on the crime scene instead of the man, she hoped the effort wouldn’t prove futile.
Carter radiated charm and danger in equal measures. One look and she had understood he wasn’t someone to mess with. She shouldn’t find him attractive either, but she couldn’t ignore the way his deep blue shirt didn’t quite hide his muscles, how the dark pair of jeans fit his otherwise lean frame.
Carter’s eyes twinkled. Hell, he didn’t even try to hide his amusement. From the very first moment of meeting him, his knowing smirk had told her he knew about her discomfort.
In his business, Carter needed to know how to work people, how to charm or placate them. He wouldn’t charm her. She wouldn’t let him.
In contrast to her, he stood there calmly, as relaxed as anybody could be in the face of such a tragedy.
No, she didn’t like him, if only for the fact there had been a spark of interest the moment they had shaken hands. Not that she had to like him. She was here to investigate a murder, and he could be the killer. As the owner of this establishment, he was at least a main suspect.
Ignoring him for the moment, she concentrated on the medical examiner who’d entered the room and had just called out to her.
“Hey, Richards. I’d like to bag her now. If that’s okay with you.”
She returned his smile. He looked tired, and she wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had to pull a double shift again.
“Sure. When do you think you’ll have first results?”
“Whenever I’ll have them.” He raised a hand to forestall the complaint he knew would come. “I know you need answers and need them quickly, but there are two autopsies before this one. I’ll call you, okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Amaro.”
She stepped aside so he could do his work. She’d seen enough. Looking at the body for the last time, Sharon silently promised Marlene she’d find the one who had killed her.
She turned around again and faced the man still watching her. “Mr. Carter, I need to ask you some questions. Standard procedure. Do you have an office where we could talk?”
Sure, they could talk here, or she could let him come to her office for a formal interview, but truth be told, neither place held any appeal to her. She didn’t have time to waste.
He gave her a look that was longer than necessary, sending a shiver down her back for no good reason. As he passed her, his arm brushed against hers, and she bit down on her bottom lip. Damn, had it really been that long since she’d gotten laid?
It was either that or the man itself, a notion she didn’t like to entertain.
He led her to a different part of the house. Hearing someone scream—a man—she stopped, but Carter didn’t break his stride. Another scream—it lay on the tip of her tongue to speak out.
“No one’s getting hurt. Not in this club. Not in a way that’s unwanted. What you’re hearing is a vid someone forgot to turn off. We’re closed for today, after all.”
She hurried to keep up with him.
“Do you think Marlene Davis was of the same opinion? That no one gets hurt here unless they want it?”
“Marlene Davis is dead.”
“And there you’ve just made my point.”
“Whatever happens here is consensual.”
People meeting to inflict and enjoy pain. She shook her head, put her hands in the pockets of her blazer. It took all kinds. They reached the end of a long hallway and opened the last door on the right. He gestured for her to enter.
Again, Sharon was surprised. In contrast to what she’d seen of the rest of the house, this room was all about business. It wasn’t sumptuous. It didn’t scream sex. Dark, sleek furniture ruled its center. There was a desk sporting a phone, a laptop and other accessories to run a business. Along the wall were filing cabinets and a print of a city alleyway. It was a spartan room, one that echoed her own basic tastes.
Carter rounded the table and sat down, gesturing to the seat on the other side of the desk.
“Can I offer you something to drink? Water? Coffee? Something stronger?”
The smell of fresh coffee tempted her to accept his offer.
“This is not a social call, Mr. Carter.”
“Call me Simon.”
It was unsettling how his eyes rested on her. His gaze was piercing, focusing on her in a way that made her think he could see right through her.
“I don’t think so, Mr. Carter. And the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be finished, and I’ll be out of your hair for the time being.”
“Interesting. You really don’t feel comfortable here.”
She took a deep breath to steady herself and made a point of holding his gaze. She’d been a cop for too many years to be easily intimidated, even if her poker face needed some work.
“Did I say that? And what I feel or don’t feel is not the point. Marlene Davis is. Was she a regular customer?”
“What unsettles you about this business?”
She didn’t snarl, but she came close to it. This man had missed his calling. He should’ve become a cop. They always needed more detectives with good intuition who knew how to corner someone in interview. Only this wasn’t his interview, and she didn’t like being cornered.
“Just answer the question, Mr. Carter.”
“Yes, she was what we call a regular customer. She didn’t visit on a regular basis, but she was here about a dozen times. I’d have to check our appointment book to be sure. We’re not the kind of club that you can just walk into.”
Appointment book? It made sense, but the thought of people scheduling sexual activities of this kind as they would a dinner date was hard to grasp. She’d been aware that there were people with rather specialized tastes. It didn’t mean she’d taken the time to think through the details.
Carter’s eyes still rested on her. Although she was proud to keep his gaze, it was as if he could still read her. It was disconcerting, to say the least.
“If you could check the dates and get them to me, it might help. Did she always prefer the same company?”
“You mean, did she have her own personal Dom?”
“A Dominant. The male equivalent of a Dominatrix. Davis was masochistic. To answer your question, no, she didn’t meet with one of our employees. She only used our premises and scheduled her own appointments. At least for the last few times.”
At her questioning look, he elaborated. “Her first few times here, she had appointments with Marco. That’s why I know she was a sub.”
“Sub as in submissive?”
He nodded, a slight smile grazing his lips that was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
“But even so, you must’ve seen who she was with. Her…Dom. I saw the security camera at the entrance.”
“It doesn’t work that way. We have another door at the back of the house. Only someone already in the house can let you in through the second entrance. This door only works one way. It’s not covered by a security cam. Our clients value their privacy. Everything happening in the back of this house is private.”
He was one of those who had an answer to everything, wasn’t he? She held his gaze for a long time, remaining silent. It didn’t faze him. He didn’t so much as twitch. Nobody was that calm. They all had cracks in their armor. The only question was, what was his weakness?
“Doesn’t mean you can’t have a hidden security cam, or cams for that matter,” she finally spoke.
“If anyone gets wind of a secret cam, our credibility will suffer.”
“Having someone murdered on your premises won’t help business either.”
His lips curled upward in a slow smile. “Touché.”
“So do you have any kind of security cam covering this area?”
“No, we don’t. When I started the business, I didn’t plan on anybody being murdered here.”
“All right, let me get this straight. Davis booked a room and met with someone she let in herself.”
“Did she come in through the front entrance or did she have someone let her in?”
“I already checked our cam. Yes, she came in through the front. You’ll get a copy of the data.”
“Thank you. But tell me, aren’t you worried that your customers could let in more than just their personal guests?”
“Are you asking if I’m worried our clients have big orgies or let in thieves?”
“Thieves, murderers, yes. If it were my property, I’d make sure I was protected. It’s one thing to ensure people’s privacy, but I’d also make sure it’s not my butt in the sling if things go south. I’d be the one in control.”
Another smile and her pulse sped up.
“Control can be a burden. One reason for places like this one. But this will only be a sanctuary if people can trust us. If they can’t, they won’t be able to let go.”
“They need a safe environment, knowing there’ll be no pictures of their naked glory in the paper next morning,” she mused. She had to admit it made sense.
“Yes. It doesn’t mean there aren’t safety measures. Each room has a panic button. If something’s happening that the client isn’t comfortable with, or if there’s an intruder, the client can summon help.”
“I didn’t see one in the room we found Davis in.”
“Under the bed. Davis knew that, and one of the crime scene techs dusted it for prints when I checked earlier.”
Sharon was annoyed she hadn’t spotted this herself. A slip like that was unacceptable. She ignored the thought. She could beat herself up over it later.
“Davis knew how to call for help,” Carter repeated.
It was a nice concept, in theory. But help was not in the cards for guests that found themselves literally tied up. She focused on Carter again and relayed the thought to him.
“Everyone tied up is in control of his Dom at all times. And if a Dom breaks the rules and actually hurts his sub, they’ll be banned for life and, depending on what happened, we’d file a report with the police.”
“Has that happened before?” She would check, and he had to know it.
“No, it hasn’t. But I wouldn’t hesitate a second.” His face got hard. “Safe and sane are the key words here. And if I find out who did this—”
He left the thought unfinished. So he didn’t like when something, someone, slipped by his control. His chink in the armor.
“Someone got around your security measures.” She shrugged. “There was a hole and he or she used it.”
“Only known guests, or guests cleared by them, are permitted outside the private rooms. We have bouncers to ensure no one wanders the premises.”
“You still trust your system?”
A smile made his lips curl. It was as enticing as it was dangerous. “Our business is all about trust.”
She shouldn’t take the bait. Although when had she ever done what she should do? “Trust? Didn’t Marlene trust your system too much? Someone used her, killed her.”
“No offense, Sharon. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He shouldn’t use her first name, and it shouldn’t affect her that it had.
“It’s Detective, and I think I know enough. I know a woman got killed here, and it’s my job to find out who. You don’t have to like this investigation. Just know, I won’t rest until I have answers to my questions. Speaking of which—where were you for the last five hours?”
She hadn’t shaken him or his composure. If anything, his smile had become a bit more taunting. For a second, she contemplated how his lips would feel pressed against hers, then she snapped out of it. She hoped her face hadn’t shown her struggle. It was bad enough the thought had been there in the first place.
“I was right here. Before you ask, during that time I spoke to various employees, wrote emails, took calls and made some calls myself. In short, I worked. I suggest you check for yourself. But you’re smart enough to have figured it out on your own. I could have snuck out to meet Marlene. It wouldn’t have taken long to kill her, but I didn’t. Sorry to disappoint.”
“You sound pretty relaxed, Mr. Carter.”
He leaned back in his seat. “Well, that’s because I am. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry about Marlene, and I’m pissed that someone killed her. This shouldn’t have happened. I’d do anything to undo it, but I can’t.”
His eyes had narrowed, but then he took a deep breath, his smile back in place. “I might not be able to prove I didn’t kill Marlene, but you won’t be able to prove I did it, either. I’m innocent, at least when it comes to that.” His dark eyes sparkled with challenge. “It’s your task to find out who murdered her. I can only offer you my help. If you want it, that is.”
Something told Sharon they weren’t only talking about the case. She didn’t like it. Not one bit.