A TASTE FOR STRANGE
They found her hanging from a hook in the ceiling, twirling like a broken piñata. Her body was so bruised and boneless it had lost its shape, but her killer had not touched her face, which was flawless except for some cuts in the corner of her mouth where her perfect lips hung open.
Max felt a cloud of depression descend on him. The victim was young, so very young. And so very beautiful.
“Looks like she was gagged with something,” Jay said, “something harsh like canvas or a leather strap with stiff corners that cut her mouth.”
“There’s no one up here to hear her scream,” Max commented.
“Power thing?” Jay asked. Max shrugged.
Max moved closer to the girl until he was barely an arm’s length away. She’d been suspended from the highest point of the cathedral ceiling, with her toes a good foot from the polished hardwood floor. She was a little thing, not more than a few inches over five feet, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet.
Max felt the beginning of a headache clawing at his eyes.
“Blood on her body but not on her clothes,” Jay commented. “She didn’t die here.”
“So wonder who the show was for?” Max wondered aloud.
Jay inclined his head toward the only civilian in the room, a skeletal woman with a scary bouffant of silver-gilt hair.
“The realtor found her,” Jay said, “and called 911.”
She had come by to install the lock box, she said. The home belonged to a divorcing couple. It was a million-dollar property.
Max was a native Californian, but the prices of real estate still amazed him. This place was roughly the size of his dad’s garage, and it was on the market for a million plus.
Of course, his dad had moved up when he’d remarried after Max’s mom had died. His second wife had lived in a Hancock Park mansion her first husband had bought when he was the hottest thing on television. His dad had fallen in love with the place as much as he’d fallen in love with the woman, and now his dad’s place was a rental property with college students attending C-SUN.
“It’s a good thing there’s no blood,” the realtor said, her hands shaking as she attempted to light a cigarette with a gold Dunhill lighter. “Prospective buyers don’t mind a bit of notoriety, but they don’t want to deal with bloodstains.”
She thought for a minute.
“Unless they’re really sick.”
Jay gave Max an eye roll, but he just shook his head. He’d dealt with enough celebrities to know that the realtor wasn’t wrong.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Jay told the realtor. “You’ll contaminate the crime scene.”
“I’ll just be outside,” she said, and moved toward the wrap-around porch with her cigarettes and lighter.
“Fire danger,” one of the uniformed cops said. “You can’t smoke outside,” he added.
For a moment the realtor looked stymied. “I’ll be in my car,” she finally said. Max could have kept her inside and part of him wanted to, mostly because the murdered girl was just an inconvenience to her and he didn’t like that.
“Okay,” Max finally said, “but I’ll need to ask you a few more questions.”
She glanced at the dead girl, shuddered, and looked away quickly.
“I’ll be in my car.”
Max and Jay watched her leave.
“Who owns the house?” Max asked, and the uniformed officer consulted his device.
“Peter St. Amant and Stefan Younce,” he said. “Gay couple,” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.
“No shit,” Jay said, even more unnecessarily.
“Have they been called?” Max asked.
“Yes sir,” the uni responded.
The criminalists arrived, and Max was disappointed to see that Lark Riordan wasn’t with them. Instead it was Walter MacAfee and a geeky girl Walter introduced as Tracy Winters. Max remembered Lark talking about her.
“You just transferred in from Sacramento, right?” he asked.
She flashed him a tin grin.
Braces, he thought. How old is this girl anyway?
“Close,” she said, “Sausalito.”
“Welcome to L.A.,” Max said.
“Happy to be here,” she said, and then glanced at the hanging girl.
“Well, not exactly happy to be here,” she said, “but you know what I mean.”
Walter ignored the chitchat and moved closer to the hanging girl. “This is going to be a weird one,” he said to no one in particular. “I hate the weird ones,” he added.
“You and me both,” Jay agreed as the realtor came back into the room, accompanied by a handsome, clean-cut guy who stuck out his hand in Jay’s general direction and said, “Peter St. Amant,” with just a taste of a Cajun accent. Jay shook Peter’s hand, but Max just gave him a dude-nod, thinking, Why does this guy look so familiar?
Most people in L.A. looked familiar to him, like they were all cast members in a reality show called LA. Crime.
Peter was trying hard not to stare at the girl, but the expression on his face wasn’t what Max thought of as “the vulture face,” an expression of avid curiosity that he often saw on people who’d just witnessed a terrible accident or some dreadful crime.
“Who is she?” Peter asked quietly.
“We were hoping you could tell us that, sir.”
Peter shook his head.
“I’ve never seen her before,” he said, “but that dress she’s wearing is Vera Wang, so if she bought it or had it bought for her, it set someone back a pretty penny.”
Wow, that would be a shocker, Max thought, a kinky rich guy committing murder.
Max looked at the girl’s dress, a delicate scrap of celery-green silk decorated with glass beads that matched the silk rope suspending her from the ceiling.
The color of the rope surprised him. In his experience, most bondage rope only came in four colors: white, black, red, and purple.
“Can you tell if this rope home-dyed?” Max asked Walter. “Something you could do with a package of Rit?”
“I don’t think they make Rit dye anymore,” Tracy said.
“Yeah, they do,” Jay said. “You can get it on Amazon.”
Max looked at him.
Jay shrugged. “My sister’s a scrapbooker,” he said.
“Fascinating,” Walter said, but Max was pretty sure he was being sarcastic.
“To answer your question, Detective Siwek, bondage rope comes in all colors now,” Walter said. “A company called Twisted Monk advertises that they’ll match anything you send them.”
“Like bridesmaid’s shoes,” Jay said.
“Exactly,” Walter said, and grinned.
“I don’t even want to know how you know that,” Max said, and made a mental note to ask Lark about the topic. All the criminalists working with LAPD had specialties, and hers was ligatures.
His train of thought was interrupted when the other owner of the house walked in, took one look at the girl, and vomited.
Peter was not particularly sympathetic as he watched his soon-to-be ex-husband collect himself.
“You’re such a pussy,” Peter said, and then he looked more closely at his ex’s distressed expression.
“Oh, my God,” Peter said. “You know her.”
He picked up a green Murano glass ashtray they’d left in the living room per the realtor’s instructions to make the place look homey and flung it like a Frisbee at his former partner’s head.
Stefan ducked, and the heavy ashtray hit the realtor right on the bridge of her expensively altered nose, which exploded in a cascade of cartilage and blood.
“Oh, my God,” Stefan squealed as the realtor went down with a grunt.
“Hey, now,” Jay Dickerson said as Peter lunged for Stefan with both hands curled into claws.