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Harmony PD Detective Miranda Rader parked behind the two cruisers already at the scene. Their flashing blue lights violated the otherwise still, spring night, bouncing off the trees and surrounding homes, spinning and tilting like a carnival midway on crack.
She closed her eyes and for a moment she was fifteen again. Police lights bouncing off the trees. This knot in the pit of her gut, this sense that nothing was going to be the same, not ever again.
She let out a pent-up breath and flexed her fingers on the steering wheel. Shake it off, Miranda. Focus.
She grabbed the ponytail holder she kept in the car’s front cubby and gathered up her shoulder-length brown hair. She couldn’t work with her hair in her face and she sure as hell didn’t want to leave any behind. She popped a piece of peppermint gum in her mouth and climbed out of her vehicle.
Victim was Richard Stark, an English professor at ULH, and even more important, the university president’s son. In a college town like Harmony, that was as close to royalty as you could get.
Miranda breathed deeply, her gaze on the brick two-story and the crime-scene tape stretched across its entrance like a clown’s freakish grin, beckoning: Don’t be afraid.… Come inside, see what thrills await.
Miranda slammed the car door and started up the walk. Gerald LaRoux, fresh out of the academy, manned the door. Judging by his greenish pallor, this was young LaRoux’s first murder.
He straightened as she approached. “Detective Rader,” he said and held out the log.
She signed in, then met his eyes. “How’re you doin’ tonight, LaRoux?”
“Hangin’ in there, Detective.” He handed her Tyvek booties. “Chief said you’d need these.”
That meant blood, blood spatter, or other biological evidence. No wonder LaRoux was green around the gills. “It’ll get better,” she said. “You get used to it.”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s what they say.”
She took the booties. “Cap’s with the vic?”
“Yeah. Master bedroom. Through the great room and to the right.”
The chief met her at the bedroom door. Buddy Cadwell, a fireplug of a man, broad and thick but short, filled the doorway despite his lack of height. He exuded confidence and sheer strength of will.
So it had to be the lighting, because Miranda could have sworn the thirty-year veteran of the force looked shaken.
“What’ve we got?” she asked, bending to slip on the booties.
He cleared his throat. “Stark was stabbed several times in the chest, his throat was slit, and he was—”
He bit it back. She glanced up from the booties. “And what?”
He hesitated, as if searching for the right word. “Let’s call it dismembered.”
It took her a moment to find her voice. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“That’s all I’m going to say. I want to get your take, unvarnished.”
“Gotcha.” She fitted on her gloves. “What about Jake?” she asked, referring to her partner, Jake Billings. “Is he on his way?”
Buddy shook his head. “Just you and me for now.”
“You and me?” She cocked an eyebrow. “What’s up?”
“Jake has ties to the university community, because of his parents being professors. I think it’s best if you and I handle the initial investigation.”
She hesitated a moment, still finding it odd that he’d be here instead of one of the other detectives.
As if reading her thoughts, he added, “Ian Stark and I have known each other for a long time. I thought it should be me here first, as a courtesy.”
He moved aside and she stepped into the room. The vic lay face up on the bed, naked and spread-eagled, hands and feet tied to the bed rails. As Buddy had described, Stark had been stabbed multiple times; the blood spatter decorating the floor and walls would have done abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack proud. And, as a sort of cherry on the top of this blood-fest sundae, the perp had cut off Stark’s penis and stuffed it into his mouth.
It peeked out at her like some one-eyed alien creature and her stomach lurched to her throat. She forced the queasiness back. Getting weak-kneed was a luxury she couldn’t afford. It wasn’t just that she was a woman in a man’s field, needing to prove herself every single day. It went deeper than that, to the essence of who she wanted to be, the person she had crafted her life around: solid and dependable, good under pressure and cool in a crisis.
The person everyone trusted.
She focused, took in the scene; really took it in. The blood—on the ceiling, walls, and bedding. Stark’s gaping throat, like an obscene second mouth.
Another wave of nausea threatened her and she forcefully tamped it back. This was a homicide, just like the many she’d worked before. Hell, just last week old Mrs. Tyson had whacked old Mr. Tyson on the head with an iron skillet. She hadn’t meant to kill him, she’d tearfully told Miranda, she just couldn’t take his criticism anymore. All it had taken was forty-two years of complaining and a chicken-fried steak dinner to cause a sweet old lady to snap.
That Miranda understood. But this bizarro kink-kill? No way. She stopped beside the bed. So, what had precipitated this perp’s breaking point? Now, that was a question she could focus on.
Her gaze settled on the neckties that had been used to bind his wrists and ankles. Silk, from the look of them. Looked expensive. And judging by the bright splashes of color and bold patterns, Stark hadn’t been the typical buttoned-down English professor. A peacock, she thought.
Miranda shifted her attention slightly. A sailor’s knot. She bent, studied the knot. It was good and tight; the perp had known what he or she was doing. And Stark had struggled to get free. Raw skin on his wrists—and ankles, she saw a moment later—where the fabric had rubbed as he fought.
Miranda straightened. Most probably a woman, although they couldn’t eliminate a man until they knew Stark’s sexual orientation. Crime of passion. Enacted in a frenzy.
Problem. Miranda drew her eyebrows together. Something missing.
She moved her gaze over the scene again, slowly, absorbing. The passion in the crime, she realized. The frenzy in the frenzied act.
She looked toward the doorway, and Buddy waiting. “Where are the footprints? Whoever did this would’ve been dripping blood. Where’s the trail?”
He nodded. “You tell me.”
“This perp was mighty pissed off. No doubt it was personal. But being passionate about killing someone doesn’t make a crime of passion.”
“Our perp’s a sailor. This is a bowline knot. Well executed, I might add,” she said as the chief crossed to stand beside her. “The beauty with this knot: the harder Stark struggled, the tighter the knot became. He couldn’t have escaped even if he’d managed to get, say, a hand free. This baby is impossible to undo when there’s tension on it.”
“Where’d you learn about sailing knots, Rader?”
“Old boyfriend. From my couple years in New Orleans.” Another time in her life that she preferred to leave in the past. “My thinking is, if your bondage game’s just for fun, a less serious knot will do. I’m going to call this strike one against the crime-of-passion scenario.”
“With you so far,” he said.
She motioned to the bed. “This is a king. Stark’s in the middle. He’s stabbed in the chest, his throat is slit. Perp’s got to be on top of him.”
Buddy agreed. “That’d be a long reach from the side of the bed, and even if our unsub could, the angle’s wrong.”
“Pattern of blood spatter seems to bear that out,” she said, pointing. “Bet the angle of the wounds will as well.” She motioned to the vic again. “So, she’s straddling him, all nice and cozy.”
“So, where was the knife?” he asked.
“She hid it beforehand. Maybe in her purse or with her clothes. She ties him up, nice and tight, then goes and gets it. He goes from hot and bothered to begging for his life.”
Buddy pursed his lips. “Like you said, she’s mighty pissed off. She wants him to be scared, to beg for his life, or cry like a little girl. That’s part of the satisfaction for her.”
“Which brings us back to the footprints,” he said.
“Exactly. So she does the deed, climbs off him, and heads to the bathroom to shower off the blood.”
“And there, her clean clothes are waiting, no doubt neatly folded.”
“Right. But she cleans up before she dresses.” Miranda smiled grimly, visualizing the crime being carried out. “She’s thorough, takes her time. It’s the middle of the night and she’s not worried about being interrupted.”
Miranda made her way to the master bathroom, Buddy behind her. The bath was large and luxuriously appointed. The walk-in shower was big enough for two—or even three—people. Party central. On the floor in the corner nearest the door sat a heap of bloodied bath towels. On the counter by the sink stood a bottle of spray cleaner with bleach.
“Look at the bottle,” Miranda said. “It’s all but sparkling. She wiped everything.”
“One problem—the towels. Why didn’t she take them?”
“She didn’t take those towels. My guess is the towel she dried herself with is long gone.” Miranda crossed to the shower, peered in. “Quite the little housekeeper. I can see practically see myself in the fixtures, they’re so shiny.”
She looked over her shoulder at Buddy. “This was no crime of passion, Chief. It was a premeditated, thoroughly planned murder.”
“Strike three,” he murmured, the corners of his mouth lifting, the way a parent’s would at a child’s achievement. “We’ll get her. No way she didn’t leave something behind. A hair, a drop of blood, saliva. A missed fingerprint. No matter how careful she tried to be, trace gets left behind.”
“What’s next?” Miranda asked.
“You’re lead on this. Billings assists. You good with that?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Call him in now. And as much as I hate to admit it, this scene is way bigger than the HPD can handle. We’re gonna need the Parish’s crime-scene unit for the biological and trace collection.”
She’d already come to the same conclusion. “You want to call?” she asked. “Or should I?”
“You do it,” he said. “I want a report as soon as you and Jake wrap up here.”
Copyright © 2017 by Erica Spindler