Death was not discriminatory, but murder was certainly selective. At least that’s what Major Crimes detective Madison Knight had learned in her twelve years with the Stiles PD.
She looked down at the male victim. He was single, fifty-nine, and lying on the king-size mattress in his master bedroom. Silver sheets were covering him to his hips, leaving his upper body bare and exposing multiple stab wounds to his chest and abdomen. Blood was everywhere, staining the bedding and spattered on the walls and ceiling.
Normally, being immersed in such a messy murder scene would make Madison’s stomach churn. She’d most certainly feel a burning drive to get justice for the victim. But this time, she was devoid of emotion, flatlined like the man on the bed. If anything, there was lingering bitterness and underlying anger. Because she knew the victim. Jimmy Bates. The man who had killed her grandfather.
Because of Bates, her mother had lost her father as a teenager and her grandmother had to bury the love of her life before Madison was even born. And all this because Bates’s father had been the numbers man for the branch of the Russian Mafia that operated out of Stiles, and Madison’s grandfather, a police sergeant, had put him away.
Madison pinched her eyes shut briefly. A darker part of her was finding some sort of redemption in the fact that Bates had exited the world not of his own volition. Just as he had snuffed out her grandfather’s life, someone had taken Bates’s. A working out of Karma as it were…
“Are you all right?” asked her partner of seven years, Terry Grant. He had a light complexion and never had a blond hair out of place, always ran before breakfast, was a loving husband and father to a baby girl named Danielle. He was three years younger than Madison’s thirty-six.
She turned to see that he hadn’t come into the room alone. Higgins, the first officer on scene and her former training officer, stood next to him. Both men had given her time to be alone with the scene and Bates after learning the vic’s identity.
“I’m fine.” Her response had come out way too quickly to be believable.
She looked back at the body. Both his arms were over his head and tied to the barred, wooden headboard with zip ties. She let her gaze trail down to his ankles, to see if those were also restrained, but they were still covered. She’d have to wait until the scene was processed to find out.
Given the number of stab wounds he had, though, it was likely that both his arms and legs had been bound, which indicated that the killer knew where to strike to delay death and invoke torture. While the former indicated a professional, the latter suggested the killer may have been after something.
Madison scanned the room. A television was mounted on the wall at the end of the bed, and it was on at a low volume and tuned into a popular crime drama.
Odd how reality can mimic fiction.
“Winston should have sent someone else.” Higgins sounded apologetic for the Major Crimes sergeant’s decision to include her in the case.
She met his gaze and dismissed his comment with a wave. “He probably didn’t even know the ID on the vic when he made the call.” She returned her gaze to Bates, analyzing whether he’d paid and suffered enough for his wrongdoings. In life, he’d served a full twenty-five-year sentence, but when he’d gotten released nineteen years ago, it hardly seemed like enough punishment. Was his murder finally enough to satisfy her personal scales of justice?
As her mind relaxed, and she took in the scene, she sensed a familiarity about it. The numerous stab wounds, the bound wrists…
The woman was laid out on the couch, her arms open wide, one resting against the back of the sofa, the other raised in the air, its wrist twisted back at an unnatural angle. Her torso was stained red with blood, which extended to the sofa and the floor. It was as if a can of red paint had been dumped on top of her.
“It looks like she was stabbed dozens of times. The killer must be a professional, too.”
At the time, bile had risen in Madison’s throat. The odor, the sight—it had been all-encompassing.
The woman’s name had been Lillian Norton, and the man who’d killed her had been a Russian Mafia hit man by the name of Constantine Romanov—the same hit man who had almost succeeded in raping and killing Madison ten months prior. Lillian’s longtime boyfriend had worked as an attorney for the mob, and she’d been tortured for information.
With Bates’s father’s involvement with the Russian mob, as well, it didn’t seem like it could be a coincidence that Bates’s murder resembled Lillian’s. And all the stab wounds, the bondage, the time it would have taken, and the seeming lack of concern over getting caught fit with Constantine’s personality. But if Madison was going to entertain the idea that Bates was killed by the hit man, that meant—
God, no, please don’t tell me he’s back.
Madison put a hand to her stomach as her eyes filled with tears. She blinked them away, willing herself to compartmentalize her thoughts. Constantine had escaped police custody and fled the country. Intel indicated that he’d returned to Russia, and he’d be flagged the moment he landed on American soil. Of course, criminals found ways to work around things like that.
She took a deep, steadying breath.
It had to be paranoia that had her dragging the Russian hitman into Bates’s murder. After all, the recent loss of her friend and fellow officer, Barry Weir, had the flashbacks surging again periodically. Before his death, they had been starting to ease. Plus, a connection between Bates and the Mafia hadn’t even been established.
It was definitely best to keep her suspicion of Mafia involvement to herself for now. “I’d say we’re probably looking for a professional,” was all she said.
Terry nodded. “Given all the blood, I’d say the vic was alive for most of these stab wounds. That means the killer knew where to strike.”
“I agree.” Usually the person to find a body was the first under suspicion, and Madison’s mind went to the woman she’d seen talking to an officer when they showed up. She was in her twenties and beautiful with long, honey-colored hair. She could have been any number of things to the deceased—a daughter, a lover, a wife, or in this neighborhood, a housekeeper. While she didn’t strike Madison as a killer, first impressions could be wrong. Madison turned to Higgins. “Who’s the woman who found him? The one talking with Officer Tendum earlier?”
“That’s right,” Higgins said. “Name’s Yasmine Stone. She worked with Bates, as well.”
“As well as what?” Madison asked.
Higgins shrugged. “She claims they were sleeping together.”
“Claims? You don’t believe her?” Terry asked.
Higgins’s gaze hardened. “I don’t take anything at face value.”
Terry pointed at Higgins, then said to Madison, “Now I see where you got your skepticism.”
“She claims she found him just a couple hours ago.” Higgins slid his glance to Terry, as if to punctuate his word choice. Maybe Terry was right and she had inherited her doubt of people from her former training officer. But in their line of work, it was better to be wary than gullible.
“She made the call to us at seven,” Higgins added.
Terry nodded. “And you said she worked with Bates?”
“That’s right. Berger & Stein. It’s an accounting firm downtown.”
Madison recalled their logo on the top of a high-rise. “Huge company.”
“That it is,” Higgins replied. “Bates was sort of a bigwig accountant there, according to Yasmine,” Higgins began. “She reported to him.”
“That could explain how he afforded all this.” She was referring to Bates living in Deer Glen, a prestigious gated community, and doing so alone in a two-story house that was large enough for a family of six. Not to mention the grand entry with the curved staircase, marble flooring, high ceilings on the main level that were easily twenty feet, and the chandelier in the foyer that had probably cost thousands of dollars. But Madison couldn’t help but wonder if that was the only explanation for his wealth. Was an ex-con that lucky, or was it a matter of a son being like his father? Had Bates taken after his father by cooking the books for the Russians after he got out of prison? By extension, was the accounting firm connected with the mob?
“How long has Bates been working at Berger & Stein?” she asked.
Higgins shook his head. “Don’t know. I hadn’t gotten that far with her. It’s possible that Tendum knows by now.”
Madison nodded and made a mental note to find out.
“His old man was an accountant of sorts, too,” Terry said.
She met his gaze, and her partner seemed to be prying into her mind through her eyes. Was he thinking the Russians might be involved with Bates’s murder? She wasn’t convinced yet based on the evidence, and she couldn’t allow her past to interfere with her judgment. While she might not care that Bates was murdered, she still had a job to do, and she’d make sure his killer was caught.
“That he was,” she said impassively.
“It probably wouldn’t hurt to see if Bates had any connections to the Mafia,” Terry suggested. “It’s not often we see violent murders like this in Stiles.” He raised a brow at Madison.
Was he baiting her? She glared at him. She couldn’t let herself give into her paranoia; she had to remain objective. “We had that case two Christmases ago—the woman who had her throat slashed in her kitchen.”
Terry didn’t say anything. He just held eye contact with her. Was he going to bring up Lillian Norton? No, Madison wasn’t going to give him the chance.
“We’ll look at it from the Mafia angle, of course, but we need to dig into Bates’s life,” she said, “see who would have had motive to kill him. And we should start by talking with Yasmine.”
Higgins touched her shoulder. She flinched, and he pulled his hand back. His brow creased, and his lips pressed downward in a concerned frown. “If you’re not comfortable with this case, I’m sure Sergeant Winston would understand.”
“He’s right, Maddy,” Terry chimed in. “As you said, he probably didn’t even know the victim’s identity when he assigned you. If he did—”
She jutted out her chin defiantly. “I’m staying on the case.”
The last few months had mostly passed without an altercation between her and Sergeant Winston. They were working better together than they ever had. After Barry’s death, they had moved past their differences and navigated his murder investigation as a team. Even in the cases following that, things had proceeded more smoothly than before. For her to go to him now and request to be pulled from a case would be tantamount to admitting defeat. And all she needed was to resurrect his outdated mentality that law enforcement should be a boys’ club. And she knew the request would somehow become about that.
“I’ll be fine,” she started. “What happened with Bates and my grandfather was a long time ago. I never even knew him.” But she had seen pictures and was told that she got her light complexion and blond hair from him. He’d only been blond until he was six, but the rest of her family were brunettes with brown eyes. She’d inherited her dark eyes from them.
Terry tilted his head. “Are you sure? This one is personal.”
“I’m fine.” She turned her back to Terry then, not wanting him to see the lie in her eyes. But now she was facing the bloody side of the room, and the situation was starting to sink into her awareness. Even still, she couldn’t rouse empathy for Bates.
“Just so you two know, Crime Scene should be here any minute now, and I’ve made the call to Richards, too,” Higgins said.
Cole Richards was the medical examiner, and the sooner he arrived, the sooner they could get some real information.
“Thanks, Chief,” Madison said, using her affectionate nickname for him. She smiled at Higgins, plastering on a strong front. Inside, however, her heart was racing and her mind was whirling with thoughts, the foremost of which was that, if Constantine was back in Stiles, it was likely only a matter of time before he’d be coming after her to settle an old score.
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