A woman had been murdered at her employer’s home. Detective Ryan Rogers’ last shift for the week ended with a burglary gone wrong. He parked amongst the marked squads and unmarked cars on the street as his pulse accelerated. Detective Monica Vergas closed the passenger car door, while he stepped around the hood of the sedan to fall in beside his partner. The tight bun contained her long, curly, red hair. Not petite by any means, she was shorter than him by several inches.
They slipped under the yellow crime scene tape, triggering his sensory awareness switch. The brick dwelling was grand in size. The windows exposed the inside, and light spilled through the open front door onto the curved brick steps. The coroner wheeled the stretcher, with the victim enclosed in a body bag, to the black SUV parked on the long crescent-shaped driveway. A light breeze blew toward them as they approached the open door. Death assaulted his senses. He cringed.
“Hey, Mason,” Ryan responded to fellow officer, Detective Jack Mason, stepping into a large foyer with an enormous chandelier hanging above them in the center of the entry. “Home invasion gone bad?” He glanced around. Beneath the glass fixture, the marbled floor had an intricate, likely custom, circular design.
“This is what we have. The homeowners returned from vacation and found their cleaning lady dead. The husband immediately called the police. We arrived and found the house had been broken into without use of force, and we asked if they noticed anything missing. The wife checked on her jewels, while her husband checked on other items.” Jack delivered the basics.
Ryan and Monica glanced at each other with a nod, signaling the connection to their cases.
“Yep, that’s why we called you two. We think this is tied into your other vacation robbery cases. Jewels, cash, and other items are missing.”
“But out of the thirty-three cases, there’s never been anyone murdered,” Monica spoke up.
“I know, but everything else fits. It’s a messy scene. The housekeeper must’ve taken the robbery crew by surprise.” Jack glanced past them as officers moved about the house. “The owners aren’t staying here tonight. They’re in the kitchen. They’d like to leave as soon as possible.”
Ryan, and Monica turned in the direction Jack nodded. Beyond the end of the hall he could see bar stools to the one side and chairs to the other.
“What are their names?” Monica held her notepad open with a pen poised.
“Milton and Janet McTosh. The house cleaner was Maria Hernandez,” Jack answered.
“We’ll go talk to them.” Ryan delivered a quick, firm grasp to Jack’s shoulder. “Thanks.”
They strolled toward the back of the house and entered a gourmet kitchen with top-of-the-line stainless steel Wolf appliances. The white sleek cabinets softened the dark granite countertops. In a small seating area off to the side from the kitchen, dominated by white leather love seats on plush white carpeting, they found the owners of the house.
The lifestyle of the wealthy wasn’t for him. Ryan preferred living simple in an apartment of a refurbished factory, with easy-cleaning concrete flooring. He needed a bed, bathroom, kitchen, and a place to plop his butt to watch TV.
The couple, in their early fifties, sat on the small sofa where Mr. McTosh comforted his wife, who clung to her husband crying.
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. McTosh. I’m Detective MonicaVergas. This is my partner Ryan Rogers. We work with the robbery unit. We need to ask you some questions.”
“Mr. and Mrs. McTosh, we’re sorry you came home from your vacation to this unfortunate act of violence.” He sat on the edge of the opposing sofa while leaning forward. “The officer informed us you’ve had items stolen. Is this correct?”
Vergas joined him on the leather seating.
“Yes. Maria…Maria worked for us for twenty years. Why? Why would someone kill her?” The wife spoke through sobs.
“I don’t know, ma’am. That’s what we’re going to try to resolve.” He maintained eye contact with the couple. “DetectiveVergas and I are here to solve the robbery part of this crime. Can you tell me what was taken? Small collectibles, paintings, cash, or anything of value?” Ryan asked the question with care. This murder made the simple robbery questions seem so mundane, yet they were necessary.
Mr. McTosh pulled his wife tighter against his arm and chest. “I had the opportunity to check my office. They took the cash and left the blank checks. They managed to break into the safety drawers where we keep the jewels.”
“Thank you for your time. You should be allowed back into your home tomorrow. The investigators will be here through the night searching for any evidence. Mr. McTosh, we’ll need a detailed list of items stolen and their values. If you have any photos of these items, they would be helpful too. Do you have a cell phone number where we can reach you?” He glanced at his partner who was again ready with her pen.
Monica scribbled the numbers as Milton rattled off his and his wife’s cell numbers.
“We’ll be in touch in the next several days.” Ryan shook Milton’s hand. “Mrs. McTosh,”—he took the hand she offered and patted hers with his other hand—“good night.”
* * * *
In the confines of their car, Ryan said, “If these are the same criminals, there’s a common link we’re missing, Monica. This murder ups the game.” He started the car and pulled onto the roadway.
“The robbery crew didn’t count on the woman being at the house, panicked, and killed her. The cases have been nonviolent up until now.” Monica spoke the facts, keeping things real with the situation.
“Doesn’t mean they won’t kill again. Especially if they’re not caught.” He couldn’t help but add the negative possibility. “I hope it doesn’t become a pattern. Let’s wrap up the work week. I’m ready for some time off.”
“Sounds good to me. Hey, did you schedule that shave yet?” Vergas regarded him.
“I have an appointment tomorrow. Thought it would be a great way to start my three days off.”
“I’m telling you, you’re going to love going. David goes once a month.”
“That good, huh? I’ll let you know how it was on Monday.” He had mixed emotions about tomorrow. Stephanie Lockhart, the salon owner, was a woman who at one time held his interest.
The interest never disappeared but had to be put on hold when his career involved the death of her brother, Andrew. Ryan’s brother Chad and now wife Chloe, were tangled in the case as well. He’d kept his distance from Stephanie during the investigation and court hearings, which took more than a year.
The remainder of the ride to the office was quiet. Like him, Vergas more than likely mulled over the day’s events.
While working at their desks, Monica broke his train of thought. “You’ve been thinking about Stephanie and the case against her brother, haven’t you? You’re wondering if you’ll see her.”
“What were you saying? I was caught up in this paperwork.” Ryan continued to focus on the computer screen, although he’d heard what his partner said.
“You heard me. I’m glad you’re going. I’ve never understood why you didn’t call her. Or for that matter, why you haven’t called her.”
“Other women. Job. Life. Family. I’m sure she’s moved on too. It’s a fact of life.” He kept his body poised at his desk, remaining hidden from her inquiry behind the short partition with desk space that divided their shared cubical work area. Talking about his feelings regarding a certain woman wasn’t up for discussion today.
“If you’ve had a woman in your life,” Vergas’s voice loudened as she neared the center of the area, “it hasn’t been long enough of a relationship for me to know.”
He spun around. “Just because you’re my partner doesn’t mean you need to know everything that goes on in my life.”
“No need to bark at me. I was razzin’ you.” She rolled back to her space. “I won’t mention it again.”
Ryan slouched and softened his tone. “I’m sorry for getting defensive. I am anxious about the possibility of seeing her tomorrow.”
“I’ll see you on Monday. You can tell me about it then. If you want.”
“You know I’ll tell you. Let’s finish this and get out of here.”
* * * *
Ryan opened the Taming Texas Beauty salon door late Friday evening. Tall walls separated several areas but didn’t connect to the industrial ceiling. The flooring appeared to be painted concrete. Checked in at the front desk, the receptionist escorted him to a modern, carpeted waiting space and offered him a water, which he declined. While waiting, he observed how the back wall curved and met a finished ceiling, hiding the exposed beams and duct work. No more than five minutes later, a man entered the area.
“Mr. Rogers?” The man was tall, with a full, well-trimmed beard.
He stood. “Hi, call me Ryan.”
“Hi, I’m Vincent. I’ll be taking care of you today. Follow me.” He had shoulder-length dark hair that was styled with a sleek appearance.
They entered a large room at the front of the salon, passing the other stylists and their stations. Rather than the square chairs in the other spots, two lounge-like chairs stood at the front wall of windows. He assumed they were for men when Vincent directed him to sit.
“Please, have a seat.”
Ryan sat, unsure of what Monica had talked him into.
Vincent snapped a cloth cape open and placed it over Ryan’s chest. “Is this your first time getting a professional facial shave?” He wore a short-sleeved shirt which revealed the tattoos covering his arms.
“You’ve come to the right place. I want you to relax and enjoy. After today, you’ll never want anything but to see me for a shave.” He tipped the seat back.
Vincent had holes in his ears, but no facial piercings. Ryan would be turned away from Vincent’s services if he’d had piercings in the nose, eyebrow, or lip. Each to his own, Ryan thought.
A towel was set on his neck and tucked into the cape, another one rested across his chest.
“First, I’ll be starting with a warm towel. Are you comfortable?”
Ryan nodded despite the fact he was anything but comfortable at this moment. He was unnerved to have another man hold a straightedge blade to his neck.
“If this is too hot, let me know, although we’ve never had anyone complain. Close your eyes and relax.”
The cloth was wrapped from his chin, covered his eyes and forehead, leaving his nose exposed so he could breathe. To his surprise, Ryan did relax. The warmth eased the tension from his shoulders left behind by his busy work week. His heart rate slowed and his body relaxed against the chair. Conversations flowed around him. Several minutes passed when Vincent spoke.
“I’m going to take this towel off, replacing it with a fresh one.”
Cool air hit his skin, and a warmth followed.
A minute passed and Vincent removed the now-cool cloth. “This is a pre-shaving oil to give you a smoother shave with less chance of razor burn.” When he finished with the oil, he smeared shaving cream on his face. “If you could stretch your upper lip.”
Ryan did as asked. He welcomed the surprising warmth of the cream.
“Thank you.” Finished, he stepped away and stood at Ryan’s side, poised with the razor. “Since this is your first time, I’ll explain. It’s important you trust me. Don’t move during the shaving.”
“I’m going to start on your right side, to the other, and then up from under your chin.” Vincent began the process. No words were spoken during the actual shaving process. He focused on the blade, taking short strokes. After several strokes, he wiped the blade clean on the towel. Ryan closed his eyes to avoid watching the movement of the sharp blade.
“We’re leaving for South Carolina next week for the holidays. I can’t wait to see the grandchildren.” A woman’s voice spoke loud enough that anyone around could listen due to the open industrial ceiling and concrete flooring.
“Your grandkids live out there?” another woman spoke.
Ryan assumed the reply came from the stylist. Why the woman had to speak loud enough for others to hear about her vacation, he didn’t understand. Lord knew he didn’t care about her travel plans or her family.
“Not in South Carolina, but close enough they’ll be able to drive for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They’ll stay for a couple of weeks with us during Christmas break.”
Vincent wiped his face. “I’m going to apply an aftershave oil.” He interrupted the eavesdropping. “I’ll shave again in the opposite direction.”
As the shaving cream was applied and Vincent neared his upper lip, Ryan tightened the area. The strokes of the blade were slightly longer, yet as swift. The process was faster than the first shave.
“Now for a hot, lemon-scented towel.”
Slow and precise, a cloth was wrapped on his face.
“So what do you do for a living, Ryan?” Vincent asked.
“I work for the city.” Not a complete lie. He didn’t want to open up to someone he didn’t know about being a cop. Or to be more specific, to reveal he was a detective, prompting questions, many of which he couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. He never talked about pending investigations or those that had been solved. That was him. Not every detective kept business out of his or her personal life.
“I’ve never seen you running for office. You must not be on the political side of things.”
Ryan chuckled. “No. I try to avoid the politics. I have an office job.” No lie there.
While Vincent removed the towel, he wiped off Ryan’s face. “I’m going to brush on an aftershave mud mask. You may feel a slight tingling sensation.”
He managed to say, “Hmm.” A guy getting a mud mask? Silly to him, but it was a part of the service.
The brush stroked his neck to his chin, then the side of his cheek.
He relaxed with the process. His skin tingled.
“This will take a few minutes to set. I’ll use sponges to wipe the mask off.”
Voices drifted through the air. His ears perked on another conversation about going on vacation. A weird sensation came and faded. They spoke so loud. Why?
Vincent glided warm sponges across his forehead. “To close the pores, I’ll be applying a cold, lavender-scented wrap, followed by a rosewater mist.”
A silence fell between them again as he continued the process.
“To wrap things up, I’m going to finish with an aftershave balm.” Vincent stepped away and returned rubbing his hands together. “Warming the lotion.” His hands and fingers firmly patted his face, remindingRyan of when his father would put on Brut aftershave.
“We’re finished.” Vincent removed the towels and cape before bringing the chair to the full upright position. “I hope you enjoyed your first shave. How does your face feel?”
“Great. It was relaxing.”
“You can check out with the receptionist.” He walked with him to the front desk. “Thanks for coming in, Ryan. Hope to see you again. Tina will help you from here.” Vincent strolled back from the direction they came.
“I had the master shave, and I have—”
“Tina…” Stephanie popped around the corner of the wall. As she came to a dead stop in her red high heels, she wobbled but was quick to regain her stature. “Ryan,” she exclaimed, bounding toward him. Her bountiful breasts peeked over the low neckline of the black top. “What are you doing here?” The embrace lasted long enough that he caught a light citrus scent with masculine undertones.
“I gave the facial shave a try using the coupon from the paper.” He leaned against the high marble countertop.
She looked perfect as usual. Perfect hair. Perfect makeup. Perfect nails. Perfect body.
“Good. What did you think?” Her demeanor remained professional as she put a foot of space between them.
Tina tapped the computer screen.
“Surprisingly, it was soothing. My face feels great. Not sure how often I can afford to come, but I think every once-in-a-while might be in order.”
“That’ll be forty dollars, sir,” Tina addressed him with the total.
He handed her a credit card.
“If things go well, I’d like to expand the business in the future. Vincent has some great ideas for a salon for men. Anyway, I don’t want to bore you. I’m sure you have plans.”
“No plans. Thought this would be a great way to kick off the first of my three-day weekend.”
Tina set his card and the slip of paper on the counter for him to sign.
“Thank you, Tina.” Ryan returned the card and tucked the receipt into his wallet. A woman waited behind him, so he stepped from the counter. “Stephanie, have you recently spoken to Chloe?”
“No. Why?” Her eyebrows drew inward as her hand gently grasped his bicep. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine.” He removed her hand from his arm, but held it in his. “They’re coming for a visit.” His throat grew thick.
“I’ll need to call her. Listen, Ryan, I need to go. I have a client in my chair.”
“Yeah…” He squeezed her hand before releasing his hold. “Um, maybe we could have drinks and catch up.”
“I’d like that.” She leaned in with a hug and whispered, “You still have my number?”
He nodded and smiled. “I’ll give you a call.” With a wave, he stepped outside. His nerve endings hummed.
Although Stephanie helped with the arrest of her brother Andrew, his death made things difficult. They couldn’t get a relationship started. Stephanie never blamed him for Andrew’s death. Maybe enough time had passed to give them a chance to at least have a date. Many women were put off when they found out he was a cop. So where might he and Stephanie go from here?