Maura studied the mansion in the flickering light of the full moon, trying to dismiss the uneasiness creeping along her spine like invisible fingers. The place was clearly empty, she told herself for the dozenth time. She hadn't seen a sign of any movement of any sort beyond the shifting of the limbs of the mighty oaks that surrounded it and formed a natural tunnel along the long, winding drive that led from the gate through the park-like grounds that surrounded the place.
The drive disappeared behind the stone edifice on the southern side and ended in a carriage house cum garage in the back. She knew. She'd arrived before dark, parked her car in an unobtrusive tangle of honeysuckle vines, and walked the perimeter.
The high stone fence that surrounded the place was well maintained. She hadn't found a break or a single place where crumbling stone might offer an easy hand or toe hold.
The place reminded her of a mausoleum, she decided. That was what was creeping her out. The gothic style of the architecture looked like something straight out of Europe's distant past, not like anything that should be sitting next to a bayou in the U.S. of A.
And yet, it fit right in.
Did the owner fit in, as well, she wondered? Would she discover he was some modern day equivalent of Count Dracula?
It bothered her that she hadn't managed to get so much as a whiff of a description of the man of any kind-the beast master.
There was a weird moniker! Daegon, the beast master. That was all she had after weeks of digging. No last name, no history, no other aliases-Daegon, the beast master.
She hadn't even been able to discover why he was called that if, in fact, there was any reason behind it.
There usually was. She would've thought he'd be called the leather master, though, or maybe the pussy master considering the club he owned. Total freaks! Goths on steroids! She'd felt like she was dressing up for a Halloween costume contest when she'd donned the 'essentials' for getting past the barbarians at the gate, the behemoths that passed as bouncers.
She'd begun to entertain a lot of doubts about the case almost as soon as she began to delve into the dark world little Sheila had been a part of. As far as she could see, the woman had already had one foot in the grave the moment she embraced the lifestyle. She hadn't seen drugs, granted, but it seemed to go with the territory-the leather, bondage-and probably sadomasochistic-orgy-minded clientele of Noir.
If she'd been a betting woman, and she wasn't, that was the reason Sheila had decided to off herself-maybe not even intentionally. She certainly wouldn't be the first idiot that had accidentally hanged herself trying to get a sexual boost from autoerotic asphyxiation.
Her parents wouldn't hear of it, though. Sheila's parents. Her own parents, being best friends with them, were convinced there was something dark going on at Noir and dragged her into it or she wouldn't be sitting in the dark now, staring at the creepy mausoleum the owner of Noir called home.
Well, there was a lot of 'dark'.
What she didn't understand was that the place had never been raided-not once. She'd checked. She still wouldn't have allowed her parents to rope her into investigating except for one tiny little detail. Sheila was the third young woman to frequent the place who'd supposedly committed suicide in the five years since the place opened.
It wasn't much to go on even though her gut reaction was aroused suspicion. She'd studied the files backwards and forwards, talked to the coroner that had performed the autopsies and thoroughly pissed him off, and she'd had to conclude that it was suicide, or accident. There just wasn't anything to indicate anything else.
She wouldn't even have been able to put the three together if she hadn't noticed something nobody else seemed to have noticed-the mark. All three of them had it on the inside of their upper thigh. She didn't know what it was, but it damned sure wasn't a tattoo.