Thunder cracked, and the crowd of well-to-do guests pointed in awe at the growing storm as they exited the Valle Sol Country Club for the evening. The guests from out of town panicked and ran hunched over like dusty wet humps scattering into the flashing darkness. Gowns and tuxedos were ruined, but nobody wanted to stay to wait out the storm. He understood their urgency though his own feelings of urgency had nothing to do with the storm. His was all about his companion and the need to get her home before he either passed out or she wised up and took off. Passing out seemed more likely with the way he was feeling.
He pressed a trembling hand into the small of his companion’s back and tried to ignore the tingling in his arms and the wave of dizziness that washed over him. His knees weakened, but he blinked and regained focus and a little strength. They neared the bottom of the front entrance stairs, and blowing dirt assaulted his skin and eyes. His companion laughed and twirled as if the storm were feeding her senses.
Despite the blowing dust, he could still see enough of her to know how lucky he was. Most women needed a little encouragement, like a small hint of his great wealth, a tiny promise of a yacht getaway, or the opportunity to ride in his Aston Martin. Sure, they played coy at first, but they almost always came along. This one, however, was suddenly ready and willing, with little to no braggery or promises he never intended to keep. Maybe it was because she was high-class pedigree just like he was. Or maybe it was because she already knew him. Regardless, the word jackpot came to mind, and he laughed like he was drunk. He brought his hand to his mouth and belched and tried to recall all he’d had to drink. His stomach hurt and his body warmed from toe to forehead. Maybe he was coming down with something.
He pushed the thought away and focused on the woman’s high, tight ass as he ushered her into the waiting limousine. The sequins on her beige skin-like dress sparkled and teased as she moved. He swayed slightly on his feet but caught himself and slid in next to her. The door closed behind him, and he inched closer, unable to shake his painful grin. It was so strong it felt like it was cracking his cheeks, yet he couldn’t relax his face. A small part of him knew he should be alarmed at his loss of physical control, but his libido killed it in an instant.
“My God, you are gorgeous,” he said with difficulty, draping his heavy-feeling arm around her shoulders. Wind shook the car, and fat drops of rain splattered against it. The dizzying scent of her perfume mingled with the smell of wet earth, and he wanted more, needed more.
He kissed her graceful neck and fell against her, which only caused her to laugh.
“Mm, you do like to move fast don’t you?” Her eyes flashed against thick lashes, and he felt a twitch in his hardening cock. Something was still working fine. Thank God.
“I do. I thought you were game too?” He ran his hand up the bare silken flesh of her leg. He knew who she was, her reputation. She was definitely game. She shuddered and he licked his lips.
“Oh, I am,” she said. She lowered the driver divider and gave the man instructions on where to go. He didn’t bother to pay attention. He only knew they weren’t going to his place. The car started.
“Where…” he touched her lips, “are you taking me?”
She crawled onto his lap. “Does it matter where we go?” She teased him with light kisses, and he felt his body go completely limp. It felt magnificent. He laughed at the tickle of her kisses but then went breathless as she plunged her tongue in his mouth with dominance. He groaned and tried to pull her closer. When they parted, her lips glistened with dark red and he tasted blood. He struggled to finger his sore lip. She’d bitten him and he hadn’t felt it.
“Too rough?” she asked.
He shook his head though his heart pounded. “No way.”
She raised a hand and ran a sharp finger down his forehead. Something warm dripped into his vision. He fingered it, saw the dark red once again.
She laughed and held up her hand. The glint of sharp metal on the tip of her finger caught his eye. She’d cut him and now she was licking the piercing end of the metal with her snakelike tongue.
“You still up for this?” she asked as the car sped up. She loosened his bow tie, leaned in, and licked his neck. “Or do you want to get out?”
He swallowed the rising lump in his throat and her knee pushed into his groin. He tried to home in on her face, but the edges were beginning to blur. For a second he panicked, but then she morphed back into reality and he felt the hard grin again. Nothing was going to ruin this. He’d waited too long for this one.
“Hell no,” he heard himself say. “I’m going where you’re going.”
The car accelerated again as she laughed and tugged on his shirt.
“That’s what I wanted to hear.”
Thunder boomed overhead, and Homicide Detective Maria Diaz jerked even with a woman pressed tightly against her.
“Sorry.” Maria laughed a little, embarrassed. But the woman, whose name was Tina or Trina, didn’t seem to notice.
“God, I want you.” She licked delicately around Maria’s ear. “You taste so good. Like candy.”
“Really?” Maria closed her eyes and tried her best to relax and react to the sensual moment. But the flashes of lightning promised more thunder, and the woman’s groans promised more of the dull make out session. Maria winced as the woman laughed into her neck. She thought about pushing her away, but instead she balled her fists and willed herself to feel…anything. What was wrong with her?
“Oh, yeah.” Tina pressed her denim clad thigh between Maria’s legs and cupped her breast. “And you’ve made me wait so long, I’ve been doing nothing but thinking about it.” She thumbed her nipple through her shirt, and Maria’s breath hitched, as she hoped for more pressure.
“Someone else is excited too,” she said. Before Maria could stop her, Tina knelt and lightly kissed her nipple through the fabric. Frustrated at the lack of progress, Maria grabbed her head to pull her away, but Tina took it as a sign of passion. She smiled and Maria knew the dimples had crumbled dozens of hearts. Just not hers.
The woman searched her eyes for reciprocal hunger, and then her face fell. The dimpled smile was gone, and once again Maria felt like shit.
But Tina shook her head in obvious anger. “Not again. Do you realize how long we’ve been doing this?”
“And my name is Trina. With an r.” She pushed away and ran her hands through her hair. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Maria had been putting on the brakes, date after date. But her job as a homicide detective with the Las Brisas County Sheriff’s Office took up much of her time, and she was often exhausted after work. And truth be told, she rarely dated and knew she was terrible at it. But her partner, Silas Finley, had set this one up, insisting she relax and have a little fun, as well as an orgasm or two. But she just hadn’t been able to feel much of anything for Trina. For her or the countless others people had set her up with. All she wanted was her bed and a good night’s sleep. She’d pay for it at this point.
She eyed her watch and lowered her arm quickly. The face of the watch was blurry and she couldn’t tell the time. “It’s late.” She didn’t know what else to say. And why was her vision acting up again?
“Don’t you mean early? It’s nearly four.”
Trina had taken her to a late-night dinner and a club. They’d danced and Maria had pretended to enjoy it. She knew she was supposed to like it, so, why didn’t she?
“I have a long day. And—”
Trina backed away. She held up a hand. “Let me guess? You’re exhausted. You can’t do this now. Maybe another time?”
Maria touched her own lip and sighed. She still felt the moisture from the kiss, but that was all. Nothing earth-shattering or heart skipping. That was what she was supposed to feel, right?
“Don’t bother even voicing it.” Trina turned and headed for the door. She reached for her jacket and then fumbled impatiently with the locks. It was still storming badly outside, and Maria knew she should ask her to stay out of sheer politeness, or to at least wait out the monsoon. But when she opened her mouth, nothing came and she closed her eyes in defeat.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be fine in the storm,” Trina said with a bite to her voice, as if she’d read her thoughts. She yanked open the door. “Please don’t call me again. And tell Silas, tell him he’s a shitty friend to suggest such a shitty date.” She slammed the door, and Maria jerked at the impact. She heard Trina crank her truck and peel out of the driveway. Strong wind shook the windows and lightning flashed, showing an empty space behind Maria’s two vehicles.
She sighed with relief. She didn’t know what her problem was with dating, but she was too damn tired to try to figure it out now. She crossed to the kitchen and retrieved the Patron from the freezer. She made herself a double on ice with lemon and lime and downed it. Her cat, Horace, jumped onto the counter and stared at her with his large yellow eyes. She stroked his long curly mustache and scratched his gray head. If cats could talk he’d do so with a thick British accent and he’d tell her like it was while soothing her with the promise of tea and biscuits. But instead, he just flicked his tail and purred.
“I just didn’t feel anything,” she said. “I mean, it’s better than leading her on, right?”
He meowed and she nodded. “Right, I did let it go on too long. But still, I was trying. I mean I was really hoping to feel something.”
She thought about a refill but decided she was well worn enough to sleep peacefully. She deposited her glass in the sink and bypassed her living room with an unfinished puzzle on the coffee table, along with various crossword books with worn corners. Empty water bottles were lit by low lamplight, illuminated brightly every second or so with lightning. Lately, when she couldn’t sleep, she’d get up and work her puzzles. She considered it her only addiction. She just had to work them until they were finished; otherwise it left a gnawing in the pit of her stomach.
She stripped when she hit the hallway and allowed her clothes to fall freely behind her, leaving a trail of melancholy and fatigue. They joined a small pile of weary and another pile of insomnia. She’d pick them up eventually, but for now, they were markers of difficult times. She stepped out of her panties and into the bathroom where she grimaced at her reflection. Her face had grown pale and the lack of sleep was showing beneath her eyes. She couldn’t stand to stare at herself so she turned and found the bath faucet. The spray of the shower worked miracles, and she groaned like a grateful lover with her worn face now gone from her mind. She stood beneath the hard spray and let it beat her tired body with pounding heat and rising steam. She thought of Trina and questioned her lack of attraction to her. She’d been pretty enough with long, thick, chestnut hair and hazel eyes. She was a Krav Maga instructor so she was rock hard in places most people weren’t. But that was just it. She was hard without the bite. Rough around the edges but too soft inside. There was nothing…. exciting, seductive, erotic.
She needed someone like that. Someone mysterious. Captivating. She leaned back and unhooked the showerhead. She held it between her legs and braced against the wall. With her lower lip between her teeth, she tried to picture the woman of her dreams. Flashes came, too quick to focus on, and the pressure against her clit was hot and needy. She needed to focus, but other thoughts invaded and frustrated her, and she dropped the showerhead and let it hang itself. She killed the water flow and stepped into her satin robe. She pulled the belt so tight she had to suck in her breath.
“Fucking hell, Horace. I can’t even do it myself.” He followed her into the bedroom and leapt onto the unmade bed. She combed her wet hair and then towel dried and applied lotion. Her eyes grew heavy and she smiled with relief. Sleep. It was there and waiting. Oh, thank God.
There was still some lotion on her hands when her phone rang from the nightstand.
It could only be one person. She answered without bothering to say hello.
“Finley, give me a break. I need sleep.” She sat on her bed and looked longingly at her overstuffed pillows and soft, lavender sheets with a ridiculously high thread count. “Give me a few hours at least.”
But he started in as if he didn’t hear her. “What the hell did you do to Trina?”
“Fins, not now, okay? I promise you can ream me later, just not now.”
He cleared his groggy sounding throat. “You can’t sleep now. We gotta call. Check your cell phone.”
She eased back on the bed. “No. Tell me you’re kidding.” Her ceiling fan was seducing her, urging her to sleep.
“It’s a big one. A big fucking whale.”
“Sergeant wouldn’t say. So, get your ass up and come get me.”
Maria eyed her bedside clock which reminded her it was four and fought cursing. At least she could make out the large red numbers.
“Eat something. That shaking shit is not good.”
She hung up and stared at her folded hands. How could she tell him it had nothing to do with eating? How could she tell him it was happening all the time and she had no idea why?
She stood and took a deep breath. How much longer could she carry on?
“Jesus Christ, what a mess,” Maria said as she maneuvered through the hot, muddy desert in her old faded red Jeep Wrangler. The canvas top had been eaten by sun rot years ago, so they were having to drive with the constant tickle of drizzling rain. She’d hoped it would help cool the heat of the early morning, but it just seemed to encase it, making the heavy air thicker. It felt almost ominous, as if promising a truly gruesome scene ahead. Like they were trapped in a macabre snow globe of sorts, trapped inside a piece of the disturbed Las Brisas desert with little air to breathe and no way to escape. She wiped the damp from her face and shook the thought away. But inside, her stomach clenched with anticipation. Just what lay ahead, she did not know. She just knew it was bad. Very bad. And the victim was wealthy.
She adjusted her mirror as the Jeep lurched forward in the unforgiving terrain.
“Thank God you still got this thing,” Silas Finley said as he gripped the upper bar of the Jeep. He’d rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt and his tie was askew. Sweat had weighed down the front of his hair, and he smashed it away from his forehead. The rain dotted his angular face and he adjusted his sunglasses, which he wore rain or shine, with his free hand. “Are we going to arrive in one piece?”
The Jeep shimmied and she gunned the engine and drove out of a menacing ditch. She could see the mud fly up behind them in the rearview mirror.
“At this point, I don’t know.” The monsoons had hit them hard the past week, and Las Brisas was covered in strewn palm limbs, broken roof tiles, uprooted signs, and downed power lines. She clenched her jaw and drove on, squeezing the wheel. Monsoons, she was used to, but having to drive off-road in the early morning dawn was new to her. And the way it was going so far, she realized she didn’t enjoy it at all, even if she did love her Jeep. And as they bounced along, she realized she was glad she’d kept the Jeep, even if it was for nostalgia.
After Finley had called and ruined her hopes of sleep, she’d hobbled from bed and stumbled into pressed khakis and a short-sleeved blouse. She’d laced her hiking boots, snapped on her phone and gun, and pulled her hair back into a quick ponytail. She’d had to dig through the junk drawer in the kitchen to find the keys to the Wrangler. So when she’d arrived at Finley’s, he’d looked impatient with a limp, wet newspaper held over his head and a covered cup of coffee in his hand. He’d looked like a drowned rat, tired but intense. A look, according to him, they’d both perfected lately. He was more concerned over her look than she was his. According to Finley, she was too young to be so fatigued. He, at least, had the excuse of late forties and a house with a baby. While she had nothing and no one to wear her down.
But thankfully, he hadn’t sparred with her that morning. They’d ridden in virtual silence, both of them mulling over what lay ahead in the desert. Neither one of them were morning people so she’d been grateful for the silence.
“The aviation unit is bringing in the sarge by chopper,” Finley finally said, sipping his coffee carefully as they crawled over more rough terrain.
“Must be nice,” she said as she changed gears. Sergeant James O’Connell was all about appearances and perfection. He was often on their asses for being late, underdressed, or not solving cases quickly enough. She glanced down at the spots of mud peppering her shirt and forearms. She didn’t mind getting dirty; her job often required it. She just hated the looks her sarge gave her when she was less than presentable.
Loud thumping came from overhead, and she looked up to see the police chopper landing not far ahead. Finley shook his head and she scoffed. As usual, the sarge would show up looking pristine as always. How did he do it?
She downshifted as they neared a huddle of police vehicles with what appeared to be an old barn behind them. Uniforms wove in and out and one uni was winding the yellow crime scene tape around the area, using nearby bushes and trees for support. Crime scene technicians hurried like ants in their white head-to-toe protective garb. And a handful of plainclothes gave their attention to the helicopter as it landed.
Maria killed the engine to her Jeep, and they crab walked to the small crowd out of habit, expecting biting wind and dust from the chopper blades. But today there was no loose dirt to blow into their faces. Today it was just hot, humid wind and the piercing feel of drizzling rain. The coroner, Dr. Judy Haddock, welcomed her with a smile and a quick brush of loose strands from her blond bun. She was damp and glistening and somehow beautiful despite it all. Maria’s heart lifted and she found herself returning the smile. Haddock was like a mentor to her, and she was a hell of a lot more attractive than her sarge or Finley. At one time, Maria had had a fierce crush.
“I’ve already done my initial and my walk through,” Haddock said. “So go ahead when you’re ready.” She drew closer and Maria’s heart rate nearly tripled as she leaned in and retrieved Maria’s small container of VapoRub from her back pocket. She held it in front of her.
“You’ll need this, trust me. Even if your old man wants you to tough it out for the crowd.”
Maria nodded, speechless. She could smell her light perfume, weighed down and stimulated by the rain. If they’d been different people with different jobs, she’d drop everything to ask her out. But, as it was, she didn’t have crushes and she didn’t date colleagues. She didn’t have the time or the emotional availability of mixing business with pleasure. And the fiasco with Trina reminded her of that. Even if she hadn’t been a colleague.
Haddock gave her a wink and left her to stare into the rain. The cool drops fell lazily onto her face, and she wished she could close her eyes and relax into their dance. But instead, she looked alert and straightened as her sarge emerged from the chopper like a huge clown from a tiny clown car. Standing about six foot five with a hefty frame that once held firm muscle, he walked away from the chopper like he was the most important man on earth. His confidence was obvious and alluring, and every other person there was watching him in quiet amazement. He demanded respect in a quiet way, simply by how he held himself. She respected that about him, and even though he was often a pain in her ass, she was in awe of him.
“Here comes the Hulk,” someone whispered, but the laughs were short and stifled. The Hulk was the name the rookies called him, and rarely did she hear it from anyone else. They just knew better. And she wouldn’t be caught dead referring to him as such. She’d seen his temper on more than one occasion. One time too many, in fact.
As if he could read her mind, the sarge caught sight of her and Finley at once, just as he smacked a crime scene technician on the back, encouraging him to hustle back inside the barn.
“Diaz, Finley.” He pointed to the ground, and Maria often felt like a dog being called to its owner. They stood in front of him and attempted to straighten their appearance. By the look on his face, they failed, and Maria heated at being less than perfect.
“You’ll need to clean up before the press arrives.” He looked around with narrow eyes, studying the empty land beyond them. “Scratch that. We’ll keep them from landing. If they come, it will be by vehicle. Hopefully, you two can be done before then.”
The sarge was the one to always handle the press. He had the ability to calm, soothe, and charm the most dangerous of snakes. But he wanted his team looking sharp at all times. He continued looking around as he ran his thick thumbs up and down the length of his suspenders. His navy dress slacks and matching blazer were spotless, and he’d even taken the time to already cover his wing tip shoes in clear plastic. She looked to Finley who merely shrugged in defeat. What could they do? He always one-upped them.
She fought back a smile and was just enjoying the scent of his trademark Realm cologne when they moved closer to the barn and all three of them grimaced as the slap of decaying flesh hit them.
Maria turned and spread some VapoRub beneath her nose and then tossed the small container to Finley who did the same. They did their best to hide it from the sarge who preferred to “man it out.” For Maria, it was bad enough the smell would linger and attach to her hair and clothes; she didn’t need it invading her brain as well as she tried to work.
“So, this one’s a whale, huh?” Finley said as they entered the dark and damp. The sarge spit and wiped his mouth. The scent was overpowering, sneaking in on the tails of the VapoRub. It was even getting to the sarge. Flies swarmed where she couldn’t yet see. One landed on her and she swatted it away. The air was heavy, moist, menacing. She thought about a mask, but her claustrophobia wouldn’t allow it. She needed to breathe, free and clear. But it was difficult.
They moved farther in and she noted the bare wood-planked walls. The barn didn’t appear to have been used in years. It was a wonder it was still standing with the wooden beams so old and weak. How had it withstood the monsoon winds? The sarge led them around some tire mark evidence and stopped. He looked at them with serious brown eyes.
“I’m going to be frank with you two.” Someone was playing with the portable standing lights, turning them off and on again. It caused Maria to flinch and refocus. She reached for Finley’s arm to stabilize herself as their sarge continued. “This will probably be the case of your careers.” The lights came on and stayed on, and Maria blinked again to focus on the form spotlighted in the center. “Diaz, Finley, meet Mr. Hale Medley. Heir to the Medley Hotel chain.”
Maria’s first instinct was to take a step back. Finley caught her, and she quickly regained her resolve. But the figure remained, imprinting into her brain. It was a scene she knew she’d never be able to erase or forget.
The deceased male was nude and sitting in a worn, flannel patterned cushioned chair. His arms were bound behind him and his feet were tied together. A rope wrapped his chest and chin, holding him in an upright position. His eyes were half open and a red ball gag was in his mouth with his swollen tongue protruding around it. His belly was bloated and discolored and looked as though it could burst at any moment. Those were the little things she forced herself to take in. The large things, the real eye catchers, were the wide gaping cut to half his neck and the thick carving in his forehead.
She stared while her mind computed. Despite the cut to his neck, there was no blood. Despite the cuts to his forehead, there was no blood. Flies swarmed, and she could see where what did drain from his body had seeped into the chair and onto the dirt below. It was as if he was melting into the chair. She fought turning her head. She’d seen worse in the way of decay, but never had it been such a presentation. This was for them. A sick play of sorts, with the body center stage.
Finley coughed and the sarge cleared his throat. She wasn’t the only one affected.
“What’s…what’s on his forehead?” Maria asked as the crime scene technician hovered around the body taking photos.
“Jackson!” The sarge snapped. “The forehead.”
Another technician rose from next to the body and pushed the man’s head back with two careful gloved fingers.
The word HORNY had been carved into his forehead.
“Yes, my little warriors,” the sarge said. “This will be the case of your careers.”
Maria closed her eyes and fought dizziness. The lack of sleep was getting to her, but she couldn’t let on. Instead she steeled herself and opened her eyes. Hale Medley stared back at her with a clouded, cold stare. And she admitted what she always hated to admit.
The sarge was right.
“Who found the body?” Maria asked, forcing herself into “the zone” as she called it when she narrowed in on her crime scene. She moved closer after she covered her feet in blue booties and snapped on a pair of gloves. Behind her, she heard the other plainclothes enter, their banter echoing in the small enclosure. Her sarge shook hands while her hands shook as she tried to write in her small notebook. She lowered them and glanced around to make sure no one saw. But Finley’s blue eyes were bright and staring right at her. He approached slowly and leaned in.
“You all right?”
“Mm, fine.” She cleared her throat.
“Did you go for that checkup?”
She sighed. “No.”
He nodded in frustration. “Okay, we’ll talk later. In the meantime, I’ll take notes and you can get them off me later.” He opened his notebook, made a few notes, and then clicked on his handheld recorder. He rounded the body and began to speak while she drew ever closer, wanting a better look at the forehead.
“Diaz?” the sarge called, interrupting her inspection. He placed a hand on a young man’s shoulder. “This is Everest Miller. His grandfather owns the ranch nearby. He’ll tell you what you need to know.” Maria stepped away from the body and faced Everest, who looked like he was green around the gills.
“Do you want to step outside?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am, I been around dead things before. I’m all right.” He tugged on the brim of his white straw cowboy hat. He appeared to be in his early twenties with a boyish face and a sad attempt at a five o’clock shadow.
“Even so, seeing someone, a murder victim, it can be overwhelming.”
He refused to look anywhere near the body. He kicked at the ground. “Yeah, I—I was real shocked at first. Thought it was a dummy at first even.”
“So you were the first to find him?”
“Yes, ma’am. I come up here to check my rabbit traps and to check on the fence after last night’s storm. My dog run in here and my horse stopped out front and refused to go any closer. I climbed off and whistled for Remington, but he didn’t come back out. So I came closer and that’s when I smelled it. I thought maybe it was an animal, like maybe a coyote come in here to die or something. But the smell was too strong and I knew when I walked in here I’d find trouble.”
His voice shook and he turned to spit. For a second, she didn’t think he’d be able to continue. But then he regained control of himself and he tugged on his worn hat again, as if the snugger it fit on his head, the stronger he’d be.
“Like I said, when I first saw—it, I thought it was a doll. It was so pale and shiny like in the early morning light. And then I drew closer and shined my light on it, I nearly fell over backward. I scrambled to back out and I kept calling Remi, but he was—he was—you know—messing with—gnawing at—”
She stopped him with a gentle hand to his upper arm.
“Who identified him, Everest?”
He blinked as if he’d totally lost focus. “Uh, that’d be the deputy who first arrived. He found the wallet nearby and opened it with his pen.”
“Did you know the victim?”
“No, ma’am. Never seen him before.”
“Have you seen anyone or anything unusual around the past few days?”
He shook his head. “No, I didn’t see anything, but a couple of nights ago, I heard—” his voice caved. “I heard, well, I thought it was coyotes. It was—like loud—screams.” He lowered his head, and his shoulders shook as he cried. Maria squeezed his arm. “I didn’t know, you know? You hear wild animals out here and when coyotes kill they yip and yowl and make all kinds of noise.”
“It’s okay, Everest.”
“I mean, what if it was him?” He looked at her with pain filled eyes.
She led him out of the barn and back into the rain. He kept his head low while she stared up at the sky and into the falling rain. She hoped, for the briefest of moments, that it would wash everything clean and gone and that Everest hadn’t seen what he’d seen or heard what he’d heard. She wished she could go home and strip and slip into a bath and fall deeply asleep in her cool bed. Oh, how she wished.
“I’ll never be able to sleep again if it was him.”
She turned him so he’d look at her. “Everest, from what I could see…he wasn’t killed here. There isn’t enough blood from the wound in his neck.”
Everest nodded slowly. “You think?”
“I’m pretty sure. But regardless, it’s not something for you to think about. You’re an innocent bystander. And you did the right thing by calling this in quickly.” She pulled out her cell phone and had him enter his name and address into her contacts. His hands trembled, and when he finished he looked embarrassed. “You did good, Everest. Real good. Now go see if someone will get you some coffee and a place to sit.”
She watched him walk away and then reentered the barn. She approached the body and knelt next to Finley. “No body hair,” she said, studying the shaved legs, arms, chest, and scrotum. Even his head was completely bald.
“Was he this well-groomed or is this ritualistic?”
“I’m guessing this was our killer’s doing. Guy’s clean as a whistle. Forensics said they’ve found next to nothing. He appears to have been thoroughly washed, maybe even bleached. And check this out.” Finley held up the dead man’s fingers behind the chair. “They even pulled out his nails.”
“That was done post mortem,” a voice said next to them. Maria looked up and smiled at Dr. Haddock once again.
“I thought I heard the voice of God,” Finley said, giving her a wink.
Haddock pulled on some gloves and knelt with them. Her thick blond hair was still wound into a bun, and she had on her typical dress slacks, rubber boots, and tailored blouse. Her glasses rested on the tip of her nose, and Maria always had the urge to gently push them back for her.
“See the lack of bruising and trauma to the nail bed?” she asked as she encouraged them to look at the fingers which had turned a dark crimson from settling blood. “The nails were pulled well after death.” She stood. “So were the toenails. There’s no healing.” She lifted the dead man’s chin more and made a ticking noise with her tongue as she studied the forehead. “These marks, however, were not. They were cut into him while he was alive and some time before death. See the scabbing and the attempt at healing?”
Maria grimaced. They were very deep cuts. It had to have been extremely painful.
“But the perp went to a great deal of trouble to groom and clean the body afterward. This was done somewhere very private, where they had a lot of time. I’m thinking we won’t find much of anything on him.”
“Time of death, Doc?” Maria asked.
Haddock took a step back and removed her gloves. “I’d say forty-eight hours. And he’s been here exposed to the heat and damp for a day, possibly a little more.” She paused and scanned the body again as if it were softly speaking to her. “He also has some liver mortis along his back and shoulders, suggesting he was lying flat for a time after death. Probably while he was being cleaned.”
“What about cause of death?” Maria asked. “Was his throat slit while alive?”
“Could’ve been. There’s a great deal of trauma and more than a few attempts. We’ll have to clean him up a bit to get a better look.”
Maria noted the leaking nose, mouth, and gaping wound. He was decomposing quickly from the inside out.
“He was bled out and then bathed,” Finley said.
“To hide evidence,” Maria said. “They may have been amateurs in killing, but they were good at getting rid of forensic evidence.”
“I’ll oversee the medical examiner who does the autopsy. I want the best of the best on this,” Haddock said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Certainly not in Las Brisas.”
“There may be more,” Maria said as she studied the body. Someone was trying to make a statement. And they were deadly serious in the way they chose to make it. She had a feeling they weren’t done talking.
“This could possibly be a female perp,” Finley said, standing next to Haddock.
“I’d say more than one,” Haddock said.
Maria backed away and stood next to them. She wasn’t sure on more than one. A single pissed off female could’ve pulled this off with careful planning. But why? Abuse? Violence? Revenge? And why all the trouble? It was unusual for women to kill hands on. So why didn’t she poison him or shoot him?
Finley answered, as if he’d heard her.
“The killer wanted to make him suffer. And they wanted to shock whoever found him.”
“Yes,” Haddock said. “And shock us, she did.”
“If this is a woman, she is one twisted bitch,” he said.
“Twisted, yes. But intelligent, more so. She’s one smart, smart woman,” Maria said. She knew the time it took, the planning, the blood draining, the cleaning, the moving of the body. If the killer were a woman, she’d be hell to stop if she chose to continue.
“She is clever,” Haddock said. “During my walk through I found small tire marks. Indicative of a dolly or a hand truck. He wasn’t drug in, he was wheeled in and then placed in the chair.”
“Which is in the center of the barn, ready to shock whoever entered,” Maria said.
“And the killer wanted us to know right away who he was by leaving the wallet next to the chair.”
“Yes, where the hell did that come from when they left literally nothing else on the body?” Finley asked.
Maria reached for her phone and took photos. Finley did the same, only he made his way backward from the body, photographing the crime scene techs as they took casts of the tire marks.
When they finished, they gathered next to the Jeep under the gray sky. Maria wiped the VapoRub from her nose and tossed the hand towel to Finley who did the same. She always carried a kit with her to every scene. Water, VapoRub, towels, gloves, dry T-shirts, socks, and rubber boots like Haddock wore. She didn’t use them much in Las Brisas, but she was always glad to have them when she did. She tossed Finley a water and a fresh wet towel. He wiped his face and neck and cleaned his shades before slipping them on. She wiped herself down with her own towel, trying to rid her skin of the mud flecks.
“This is a goddamned nightmare of a case,” Finley said, kicking his boots against her tires.
“You said it.”
“Horny? Can you imagine the field day the press will have with this one?”
“So, we don’t tell them.”
“Yeah, like that won’t leak.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t. It’s critical to the case.”
He brushed off the legs to his pants and climbed in. He gripped the roll bar, ready to go. Maria asked the question that had been on her mind since she’d seen the word horny. “If the killer wanted to make him suffer, and he/she is attacking his libido, why were the genitals left alone?”
Finley sighed. “I was wondering the same.”
“That tells me this killer has self-control and deliberation. And that…is very, very scary.” It meant the killer would be more than careful and more difficult for them to catch. Intelligent, yes. Oh, yes, the killer was intelligent.
“Now we’ve got to go find this psycho who thinks he’s a little too horny,” Finley said with a scowl. “From what I know about him, that won’t be so easy.”
“He a dog?”
“A big one.”
She packed up her kit and placed it in the back. She took several swigs of warm water and caught sight of another plainclothes running toward them. It was Martin Biggs, another detective in their unit. She wasn’t surprised to see him. No doubt the sarge would pull out all the stops on this case.
“Diaz,” he said, catching his breath as he stopped at the Jeep. He bent with his hands on his knees. “Glad I caught you.”
“What’s up?” Finley asked.
“I’ve got a big lead for you.”
“Oh?” Maria perked up and Finley removed his shades.
“This Medley guy,” he breathed. “Big damn deal. Very, very wealthy. Big time playboy. Liked his women a lot. High class, high pedigree, prostitutes, it didn’t matter as long as they were hot and willing.”
“Sounds like we’ll be busy,” Maria said.
But he held up a hand. “There’s one you should know about. One he tried to get for years, but she always turned him down. I guess it caused a feud between them, and at one point she even threatened to kill him.”
He straightened as he caught his breath. “Her name is Ashland. Avery Ashland.”
“Holy shit,” Finley said. “The Avery Ashland? Of Ashland Resorts?”
“That’s the one.”
Finley slid on his shades and looked to Maria.
“Get in the Jeep, Diaz. This case just went from shit show to shit fest.”
She climbed in and started the engine. “What’s going on? Who is Avery Ashland?”
He laughed. “Very soon, you’ll wish you never, ever wanted to know.”