"Sorry I'm late," Detective Ethan Harper told his partner, Mark Cugan. "Been inside yet?"
Mark nodded, and after twelve years, Ethan recognized the significance in his frown. Under the unforgiving streetlight, his partner's face almost matched the gray weaving through his red hair. Mark had already been inside, and now Ethan could tell he was in for a bad scene.
Ethan leaned against the car as he pulled gloves on, watching the red lights playing across the motel's faux Mexican facade. Patrol cars and emergency vehicles lined the parking lot of the low cinderblock building, and a knot of anxious half-clothed guests chattered by the office. As the first news van pulled up, Ethan showed his badge to a uniform guarding the scene and ducked under the yellow tape. The reporters knew him, and if they caught him outside the tape he'd have a tough time breaking away.
He sniffed as he walked toward the open hotel room door but smelled nothing but the faint burn from hot investigators' lights glaring over the murder scene. A photographer was inside, digital camera clicking away, and the cheap room was so small there wasn't space enough for Mark and Ethan to step inside without tramping on the evidence.
As was their habit, they stood in silence for several seconds, just staring. With some difficulty, Ethan focused first on the room rather than the victim. The bed was torn apart, the cheap covers and flat pillows dumped to the floor. His first appraisal showed nothing else amiss. But his gaze inevitably drew back to the dead woman and the gash in her throat.
She'd been beautiful a few hours before. Brown hair spilled across the bed and blue eyes stared into death's face. Her cheeks were unnaturally hollowed, and so was her whole body, skin pulled tight against her bones like she'd starved herself. Even her breasts looked deflated. He glanced down at her hands and found no rings or jewelry. The sheet still hung from the knotted fingers of one hand. She had some bruising on the wrist by the other hand.
"M.E. will be here in a bit," Mark said, a hint to get in before others messed with the scene.
Ethan swallowed hard and lifted his chin to the photographer. "Clear out for a little bit, would you, Lisa?"
"Yes, sir," she answered.
Ethan took a few soft steps into the room and leaned over the body. He studied her hands. One lay limp next her body. The other gripped the sheet. No obvious skin or blood in the fingernails, though it'd have to be confirmed with scrapings.
He frowned. "She must have been out when it happened. Don't see any signs of a real fight."
"Me either," Mark agreed.
Next, he focused on the wound, noting the jagged edges. Not a blade. Something--someone--had torn out her throat. What the hell did the killer use?
"No blood," he said, knowing what the answer would be.
"Drained," Mark said. "So I'd say it didn't happen here."
"But she moved here," Ethan said, pointing to her hand gripping the sheet. "That makes her alive here."
"Unless he staged it," Mark said.
"I don't think so. Look, there are her clothes." Ethan closed his eyes and imagined it. She'd let her dress and panties fall to the floor on top of her high-heeled shoes. "She stripped for him, I bet. Thought she was in for a nice night."
"So she knew him, maybe," Mark said. "Or wanted to get to know him better. Wonder if he drugged her?"
Neither man said it, but they could only pray she'd gotten a sliver of the perp's skin under a fingernail, or that investigations would find a hair, semen--anything to link the scene to a suspect.
"Ritualistic, maybe," Mark continued. "Shit, I hope we don't see more of these."
Ethan spent the next half-hour examining the scene. Everything seemed in place, from the paper-wrapped soap to the Gideon's Bible on the nightstand. Too much in place, actually. Someone had squared off the Bible with the edges of the nightstand and set the bottles of shampoo and lotion in a militant row in the sparkling bathtub. No hotel maid took the time to do that.
"I've seen enough," he finally said. "Let's go talk to the front desk, get an artist with her."
Mark nodded and they headed out to let the rest of the investigations team do their job. A familiar red sports car had pulled up, and he had to force himself to keep walking away from it. This was no time to be seen in public chatting up Savannah Oxford, journalist for the Morning Herald. This was a murder scene and professionalism meant everything to their careers.
"Right on time," Mark said. "Man, she's always here. You think it's just to see you?"
"She's dedicated to her career. I admire that about her," Ethan replied.
Mark gave a sagacious nod. "Riiight. And you never noticed her hot ass and legs up to here, huh?"
"Have you been looking at my girlfriend's ass again, detective?" Ethan asked, grinning.
"Every chance I get, bro."
Ethan saw Dana McClure get out of Savannah's car. He didn't know her well, only that she was night shift photographer for Savannah's paper. Savannah and she had worked together on a number of stories and gotten to be fairly close friends in the past few months. And he knew that she was sultry and curvy where Savannah was fair and slim. Not that Savannah was any less beautiful, just utterly different.
Neither woman appeared to pay him the least attention, even the other press seemed to be focused on his captain, Liz Waite. But as he and Mark walked down the sidewalk next to the doors of cleared rooms, Ethan couldn't help but glance around. Shivers climbed his spine and chilled the top of his head. He swallowed hard. This is far from the goriest scene I've worked--what's given me the jitters? Target on my back. That's what it feels like.
But nothing stood out, no one unusual beyond the standard fare of bystanders, cops, investigators, and press. Video cameras glared like headlights, following their every move, seeking to get a glimpse in the door. Reporters called his and Mark's names. Neither detective gave any indication they'd heard, and Ethan just opened the door to the office. A nervous woman waited behind it, smoking a cigarette between glossed lips and holding a cup of something smelling suspiciously like rum-laced coffee in her shaking hand. But still, there was something... Ethan stopped and looked back again.
"Got the crawlies?" Mark asked him, voice low.
Ethan shrugged. "I don't know. Something's not right."
"Yeah, there's been a murder. Somebody drained that woman dry. There ain't nothing right about any of it."
"Let's do this thing," Ethan said, and they stepped out from under the glare of cameras and eyes of onlookers to interview their first witness.