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The way Detective Taylor McIntyre liked to work a homicide was to put herself in the victim's place. Not just into his or her place, but into their actual lives.
To get a full sense of the person, she needed to walk through their homes, touch their things and imagine what it felt like to be this person who had fallen victim to a homicide.
In essence, Taylor, a third-generation law enforcement agent, wanted to walk in their shoes and examine what they normally had to deal with on a daily basis. She couldn't accomplish that from a distance. And she had come to learn that sometimes the smallest of details was what eventually allowed her and her partner to find the killer and solve the crime.
Just because her partner, Detective Aaron Briscoe, was on a temporary leave of absence, immersing himself in the head-spinning roller-coaster ride of first-time fatherhood, and the precinct was shorthanded, didn't mean that she had to change her approach. She just had to go through the paces alone rather than have Aaron stare at her as she wandered around, patiently waiting until she needed to use him as her sounding board.
Taylor had no doubt that her partner of almost three years considered her approach unusual, but he'd made his peace with it and generally went along with her method. That was what had made them such a good team and she missed him now, missed the sound of Aaron's grunting as he squatted down to examine something close-up.
She even missed the way Aaron sometimes unconsciously whistled through his teeth, even though it had driven her crazy periodically.
Taylor half smiled to herself as she pulled up in front of an impressive, sprawling four-story apartment complex wherethe cheapest lease went for the paltry sum of $4,000 a month.
You just never know, do you? she mused. Right now, she'd welcome that awful sound Aaron made. It meant that he was thinking. And two heads were always better than one.
Entering the parking structure, she drove underground and parked in one of the spots designated for guests. Taylor got out and walked toward the elevator located against the back wall.
The late Eileen Stevens's apartment was on the fourth floor. That made it The Villas—as this particular complex was whimsically named—penthouse. And, given the fact that the building was situated at the crest of a hill, anything above the second floor actually had a decent view of the ocean in the distance.
The Villas, a nine-month-old complex with rounded corners and panoramic windows, was situated directly across the street from a newly constructed, exceedingly popular outdoor mall. The mall boasted pricey stores of all sizes, exotic restaurants, a twenty-one-screen movie-theater complex and even had a merry-go-round located smack in the middle. It also promised a skating rink for the winter months. With Christmas less than a month away, there was one now. Hordes of humanity seeking entertainment and diversion swarmed there every Friday and Saturday night. The rest of the week saw a healthy dose of foot traffic, but it was the weekends that put the mall on the map.
Eileen Stevens would no longer be among the people frequenting that mall, Taylor thought, getting out on the fourth floor. Because Eileen Stevens, thirty-eight-year-old dynamo and newly made partner at her prestigious law firm, was found dead in her opulent, cathedral-ceilinged bedroom this morning. With a key to the apartment for emergencies, her personal assistant had come by to see why Eileen hadn't shown up at the firm this morning and wasn't answering her pager or her cell phone.
Upon seeing her dead boss, the young woman, Denise Atwater, had become so hysterical she'd had to be sedated by one of the paramedics summoned to the scene.
Death could be ugly, Taylor thought.
Marble met her heels. The resulting contact created a soft, staccato sound as she made her way from the elevator to Eileen's apartment. In direct contrast to the holly decorating the walls, yellow tape was stretched out across the extra wide door, warning everyone that a crime had been committed here and that they were not allowed to cross the line.
With a sigh, Taylor lifted the tape, slipped beneath it and began to unlock the door. As she turned the key, she realized that there was no need. Someone had failed to lock up.
Probably a patrolman. Good help was hard to find these days, she mused wryly. But then, life moved at such a fast clip, everyone she knew was juggling three things at once. Oversights were no longer as rare as they had once been. Made the job that much harder to do.
According to the thumbnail bio she'd gotten from the woman's law firm, Eileen Stevens was currently juggling twice that. A criminal lawyer intent on leaving her mark on the world—and making a great deal of money while she was at it—Eileen was regarded as being at the top of her game. The list of clients that the law firm's office manager had surrendered earlier indicated that all of Eileen's clients were high-profile people, people who could pay top dollar for top-notch representation.
Someone obviously didn't think that Eileen was so "top-notch."
Closing the door behind her, Taylor stood for a moment just inside the foyer, trying to imagine what it felt like to come here at the end of a long, bone-wearying day. A sense of antiseptic sterility slowly penetrated her consciousness. Even the Christmas tree, silver with ice-blue decorations, felt sterile as it stood aloof in the center of the room.
"Home" to her had always meant a feeling of warmth and security.
Well, not always, Taylor silently amended.
A feeling of warmth and security was the atmosphere her mother strove to create for her and her three siblings when they were growing up. It had actually been achieved only when her father was out on assignment. An undercover cop, his work would take him away for weeks at a time. Her mother, Lila, also on the police force, came home nightly, no matter what. She was there to check their homework, to make sure they behaved. There to give them the love and support they needed so that they could turn out to be decent human beings.
To give him his due, her father had been an okay guy in the beginning. Taylor could remember laughter in the house when she was very young. But the laughter faded in the later years as jealousy started to eat away at her father. He blamed it on her mother's partner, Brian Cava-naugh, a kind, handsome man who came off larger than life. Initially friends, it got to the point that her father loudly complained that he couldn't compete with or compare to Brian. The growing insecurities that haunted her father, giving rise to arguments, made for an atmosphere of almost stifling tension whenever he was home.
And then everything changed.
Her mother was wounded in the line of duty. Lila McIntyre would have died if Brian hadn't stopped the flow of her blood with his own hands, holding her until the paramedics arrived, refusing to be separated from her even as she was driven to the hospital.
Her father used the incident as an excuse to shame Lila into retiring from the force, saying a mother of small children had no business putting herself in harm's way. Wanting only peace, Lila went along with it for the sake of her marriage—and her children—until Frank, the youngest, was in high school. Against her husband's wishes, she came back to the police department. Trying to compromise, she took a desk job rather than go back on the street.
Life took a few really strange twists and turns after that. Taylor's father, still working undercover, was suddenly executed, a victim of a drug dealer's hostility. Only it eventually turned out that it had been her father who was the hostile one, staging his own death and stealing the enormous amount of money that was to have been used to stage a sting.
In the end, justice was served. Her father was really dead now and Brian Cavanaugh, a man she had tremendous respect and admiration for, was her stepfather. It was only fitting since over the years he had been more of a father to her and her sister and brothers than her actual father had been.
Brian, now chief of detectives, had been the one to send her out on this case. He'd also offered to restructure a few things within the department so that she could have a temporary partner assigned to her until Aaron and his whistling teeth came back.
But she hated disrupting things and said she'd go solo until Aaron's leave of absence was up. Besides, she didn't relish the idea of breaking in someone new, especially if it was just for a finite amount of time. She could muddle through.
Taylor frowned now as she looked around. She had no doubt that what Eileen had probably spent to furnish just the living room could have kept the children of a third-world nation eating oatmeal for breakfast for the next two years. Maybe three. And yet, for all its tasteful, enormously expensive decor, there was absolutely no warmth to be found in the room.
No warmth anywhere, she concluded as she moved about the area with its snowstorm-white furnishing, making her way to a state-of-the-art kitchen that was too immaculate.
All amenities seemed for show, with no soul evident anywhere. Was the late Eileen Stevens an ice princess, or just haughtily devoid of color and shading?
Taylor found herself feeling sorry for the woman.
"What were you trying to prove, Eileen?" she murmured.
Plastic gloves on, Taylor skimmed her fingertips along the pots hanging from the ceiling like so many slavishly dusted, oversize wind chimes. There had to be a reason for all this decadent hemorrhaging of money, she thought.
"What were you trying to make up for? Were you trying to bury your conscience? Or was there an insecure little girl hidden inside those Prada suits, thumbing her nose at anyone and everyone who had ever made fun of her while she was growing up?"
She made a mental note to find out if the woman had any relatives in the area.
Living well was supposedly the best revenge. And although this was not living well—just living expensively—Taylor knew that many felt their success, their actual self-worth, was reflected in the amount of "toys" they managed to amass.
"Didn't do you any good, did it, Eileen, spending money on all this?" she murmured under her breath. "You still turned out to be mortal." She walked back to the living room. "Who got to you, Eileen? Who did this? An ex-lover? A jealous underling you treated like dirt? Or some client who wanted his money back because you couldn't get him off the way you promised?"
She had yet to carefully go through Eileen's caseload. She made a mental note to do that first thing in the morning, review the woman's past clients as well as her current ones. With any luck, by morning the medical examiner would have gotten around to doing the autopsy. He was a prickly man who marched to his own drummer and refused to listen to anyone else's. But he was good.
"She didn't have any lovers."
Her heart instantly jumping up to her throat, Taylor spun around on her heel. She had her weapon out before she completed the turn. Both hands were wrapped around the grip, its muzzle pointed and meaning business, by the time she found herself facing the source of the voice behind her: a tall, good-looking, dark-haired man in his early thirties.
"Hands in the air!" Taylor ordered, aiming her revolver dead center at his head.
Rather than jump to obey, the stranger watched her as if she was the one who was out of place, not him. "Hey, calm down, honey," he cautioned. "I'm one of the good guys."
The hell he was. Taylor found the man's deep, steady voice with its hint of a smile irritating, not to mention patronizing.
Honey? Was he for real?
"Hands in the air!" she ordered again. She cocked the trigger, her blue eyes blazing. "I'm not going to tell you a third time!"
"Yes, ma'am." The stranger acquiesced. But when he raised his hands, they went only as high as his shoulders. At what looked like six-three and in excellent physical condition, he all but towered over her.
There was definitely amusement in his eyes.
Was he a psychopath, coming back to review his handiwork? Eileen Stevens had been found bound and gagged. Cause of death looked like strangulation. From the wet marks on the comforter beneath her body, a wet leather strip had been tightly tied around the woman's throat and then apparently allowed to dry. As it did, it slowly shrank, depriving her of air until she finally choked to death.
It had struck Taylor as a particularly cruel way to kill someone.
Was this man capable of that? She tried her best to make a quick assessment.
In the meantime, more immediate questions needed answering. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
He began to shrug and drop his hands. She quickly motioned for him to raise them again. Her eyes told him she meant business. Or thought she did. For the sake of peace, he raised his hands again.
"Same as you," he answered casually. "Looking around." And then he added with an amused smile, "Except I'm not talking to myself."
She had no doubt that the man was accustomed to getting along on pure charm. She knew any number of women who would probably go weak in the knees just looking at him.
But the circles she moved around in were full of good-looking men. The Cavanaughs had all but cornered the market and her own brothers didn't exactly look as if their secondary careers involved house haunting. All in all, that made her pretty much immune to the ways of silver-tongued charmers.
Her eyes narrowed now. "No, but you'll talk to me. Turn around," she demanded, whipping out a set of handcuffs from the back of her belt.
The stranger obligingly turned around for her. "Now, nothing kinky," he warned. Taylor found herself wanting to hit him upside his head for his mocking tone. "We haven't even been introduced yet."
As she came close enough to the man to slip on the handcuffs, he suddenly swung around to face her and in a heartbeat, Taylor found herself disarmed. He had the gun now.
"Never let your guard down," he counseled.