She shrugged and shifted against the seat. “There’s not much to tell. About two years ago I was in Japan on assignment. One night a couple of the other women and I were out drinking and three of us got tattoos.”
It didn’t sound like her, but he didn’t comment.
As if she read his mind, she continued. “It’s not something I’d normally do, but we’d been there nearly six months working our assess off with no down time. I guess I just went crazy that night. I think it’s cute, though.” She said the last part defensively, as if she thought he was judging her.
“It’s…” Cute wasn’t the word that sprang to mind. Hot, sexy, yes. Cute? No. “What about the people who were with you that night?”
“Two women who used to be agents, but are now analysts since getting married. I’m in touch with both of them and as far as I know, they’re both still on assignment. One’s in Wyoming, the other is in Germany. My team was a lot bigger than that, but no one else was with us that night.”
“Has anyone else seen your tattoo?” Somehow he managed to squeeze the question out. His voice even sounded normal. Unfortunately he didn’t want to hear the answer. If someone had seen the tattoo, chances were they’d seen her naked. It might help in narrowing down the suspect list, but it left a foul taste in his mouth.
“What do you mean?” Her brow furrowed.
“A boyfriend, one-night stand, whoever. Who’s seen you naked in the past couple years? Any ex-boyfriends who didn’t want to break up?”
To his surprise, a bright shade of pink spread across her cheekbones. “No one.”
His disbelieving bark of laughter earned him a nasty glare, but he still pressed her. “There’s been nobody in two years?”
She glanced down at her hands. “I travel a lot. And it’s been more like three years if you want to get technical. Thanks for reminding me,” she muttered.
When she met his gaze, he could see the truth in her eyes. And it relieved the hell out of him. The overwhelming sense of relief was unnerving. “Okay, so no ex-boyfriends with a grudge. What about co-workers? Anyone who might hate you enough to do this?”
As she shook her head, her dark hair swished seductively around her shoulders and he inwardly groaned that he even noticed. “It’s not likely. I work with a lot of the same people, but every six months I’m on a new team in a new location. Everyone I work with has undergone intensive psychological evaluations. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is improbable.”
Braden rubbed a hand over his face. “I know it is. I just wanted to cover all our bases. It’s got to be someone we both know anyway. And after what happened to your therapist…this is getting too personal,” he muttered.
A sharp knock on the glass door interrupted them.
Detective Isaacs stepped in. She nodded once at Lilly then focused on him. “I just got a call from Laura King that Mallory Spinoza hasn’t opened up her yoga studio this morning.”
He shook his head. “And she thinks that warrants a police emergency?”
“Mallory’s car is in the parking lot. It could mean nothing, but didn’t you guys date or something?”
He risked a quick glance at Lilly and nodded. “We went out once.” The one date had certainly been memorable though. Mallory had gotten plastered on margaritas and thrown up in his truck. Then she’d offered to give him a blow job while he was driving.
“You want me to head down there and check it out?” Vanessa asked.
“Nah, I’ll go.” Today was supposed to have been his one day off, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. “Lilly, want to come with me and I’ll take you to get your rental from there?” He could have left her at the station or had someone else take her to get her car, but every primal instinct he possessed wouldn’t let him. She was involved with this and he needed to keep her close.
She nodded quickly. “That works.”
Hudson Bay wasn’t that big so most of the stores and businesses were located off Main Street. The drive was short and as they pulled into the parking lot, Lilly pointed to a small red car. “Is that hers?”
“Yeah.” The two-door vehicle sat by itself in a corner of the lot and a few other people loitered by the back door. As far as Braden knew, Mallory kept her studio open seven days a week. She opened later on Sunday, but she was religious about her job.
As soon as he stepped out of his truck, Laura King confronted him.
“Something’s wrong, Sheriff. I just know it.”
“Now calm down—”
“I found this by her car.” She shoved a black compact at him. “This is hers and it’s expensive. I know she wouldn’t have just left it lying there.”
“All right. I’m going to need you to get back in your cars. All of you.” He raised his voice a few notches as a group of four other women started to cluster behind Laura.
He was surprised when they silently marched back to their vehicles. Of course, none of them actually got into their cars. That didn’t surprise him. What was he going to do, arrest them?
Lilly rounded the vehicle with a frown etched on her face. “Do you have a key to this place?”
He scrubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “No. I’m just gonna have to break a window or call a locksmith.”
“I can try picking the lock…if you want.”
“You can do that?”
She shrugged. “One of the guys I work with taught me how. I’m not a pro or anything, but it might save you a repair bill.”
He glanced over at the group of women huddled together. The sooner they got this over, the better. “Why not?”
Braden covered Lilly as best he could while she jimmied the lock. He wasn’t sure if he should be worried or impressed that she carried a lock pick set in her purse. Even though she said she was an analyst, she almost acted like a field agent. She carried a SIG and she could pick locks? For some reason, he found that incredibly sexy.
He swiveled back toward her when he heard the click of the metal lock sliding out of place.
She straightened when she was finished. “How are we going to do this? Am I going in with you?”
Considering the weapon she carried he figured she could take care of herself. Under normal circumstances he’d leave her outside but after what they’d just learned about her therapist he didn’t want her out of his sight for even a moment. “Yeah.” He waited until they were inside to draw his weapon.
She did the same.
As they crossed the lobby, his skin tingled. It wasn’t something he could put his finger on, but experience told him that something was wrong.
“You smell that?” Lilly whispered.
Nodding, he continued through the lobby toward the open studio. It was something he’d smelled when he’d been in the Marines, in Afghanistan. There wasn’t a single word to describe the putrid, acrid stench, but he knew what it was.
It permeated the air like the smell of rotten food.
“Why don’t you stay out here?” he murmured.
Lilly snorted under her breath and he didn’t bother arguing. At the arched entrance to the open studio, he jerked to a halt.
“Shit.” Lilly breathed out the word as she peered around Braden.
Mallory Spinoza’s lifeless body hung against the wall, suspended by some sort of ropes. A thick mass of dark blood pooled below her dangling feet.
“She probably died this morning,” Lilly said quietly.
They wouldn’t know until Hailey ran the autopsy, but he guessed Lilly was right. Everything about the scene was too fresh. “Come on,” he ordered, needing to get away from the body.
Without waiting for a response, he headed back toward the main door. By the time they were outside, he noticed how pale Lilly was. “You okay?”
“I’ve seen worse. I’ll be fine.” Her voice was monotone and she sure as hell didn’t look fine, but he didn’t comment.
“You mind covering the door while I get rid of them?” He nodded toward the growing crowd.
“Of course not.”
Braden gritted his teeth as he crossed the parking lot. Things had just gone from bad to worse and there wasn’t a big chance he’d be able to keep this murder out of the news anymore. Mallory lived alone, just like the other victims, but she was a well-known face in the community. And she had a lot of family. There was no way in hell he was going to be able to keep this quiet.
He was glad he hadn’t eaten breakfast this morning because he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to keep it down. Seeing Mallory like that made it hard to keep his professional face on. Everything about these killings was brutal, sadistic and too damn personal.
When Lilly saw a media crew pull into the already full parking lot, she fished her NSA badge out of her purse and hung it around her neck. She wasn’t exactly worried about someone writing an expose on police impropriety but just in case this ever went to trial, Lilly didn’t want Braden taking heat for letting her on the scene without proper ID.
Hailey was inside with Detective Isaacs and Braden was deep in conversation with one of the officers. They’d roped off most of the parking lot with crime scene tape but they hadn’t dispersed the crowd. Just the opposite in fact, it was growing by the second.
And no one but her seemed to notice the tall blonde in the red skirt and matching jacket who ducked under the tape and was making a beeline for Lilly.
Lilly stepped in front of the glass door and crossed her arms over her chest. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Lilly Carmichael. Well, well, look who’s come home.” The woman’s words dripped with unexpected sarcasm.
Lilly narrowed her gaze. The woman looked slightly familiar but she couldn’t place her. She ignored her statement and took a step forward, forcing the blonde to move back. “Again, what are you doing?”
The woman rolled her eyes and held out a tape recorder. “What does it look like? I’m here to cover the story.”