Shattered: A Dark Stalker Romance chapter sample!
two weeks earlier
Champagne toasts should lead to drunken hugs, happy thoughts, and celebration, not to broken promises and death. And had I had a better head on my shoulders, maybe we would have gone down the better route. But I was blinded by the light, knowing that I was finally getting what I wanted: an escape from my enormous debt to the Dahlia District and a life where I could paint what I wanted, never caring about what the client wanted from me. Aldrich wanted a virgin bride for his third wife. I could pretend. I could lie on the altar. I could spread my legs and put red corn syrup on my thighs and whimper at the pain. As long as I was free from debt, free to create art.
“To our celebration,” I repeated.
Our glasses chimed together and we both tipped back our drinks. The champagne was smooth and sweet, the bubbles swishing in my mouth. Aldrich drank his entire glass in a single gulp, then settled his flute on the nightstand. His cream robe was falling off of his shoulders, exposing his black and gray chest hair. He wasn’t the first club member I had met with outside of the Dahlia District, an elite entertainment club for billionaires, but he was the wealthiest. At least, he had been.
A knife gleamed on the dresser, shining like the filmy surface of an eye. A hook curved on one end, making the weapon seem more malicious than a simple tool. I had experienced more than enough at the hands of abusive men; a club member with a knife obsession didn’t scare me.
“We’ll get to that,” he purred, tracking my eyes. I took another sip. He pushed back the cardigan on my shoulders, his fingertips gentle on my skin for once, and I let him. This was more clothing than I typically wore when he saw me at the Dahlia District, and there was no reason to protest. He stared down at my breasts and didn’t pretend to hide his gaze. I was a pure object in that moment.
“I was thinking of getting a tattoo,” I said. I traced a finger along my cleavage. “Right here.”
He stared closely, but his expression didn’t change.
“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” he said. “Tattoos symbolize maturity. I’d prefer to keep your innocence intact for as long as we can manage.”
Innocence. That was what Aldrich wanted. The dream that I was a virgin that had saved myself for him, all of these twenty-three years.
If that was what he wanted, then I could give up tattoos. Marking my body as I pleased was hardly a concession if I had a new life without debt or painting only what would sell.
He got up and picked up the knife, bringing it to the bed. “Lie down,” he said. I laid back, tempted to close my eyes and forget, to let whatever was coming come quickly, and come now. But I didn’t have to be defenseless.
I sat up quickly. He tucked the knife under his arm.
“If I do this,” I said, “You’ll keep up your end of the agreement?”
My chest tightened. “My freedom,” I said, “from the Dahlia District. Our marriage. And Haley.” I paused, watching for his reaction as I said her name. It was a delicate balance to negotiate this and still play by his rules. Haley had introduced me to Aldrich, but they were no longer on speaking terms. She gave her virginity to someone else, a prize which he had thought was his. “I ridiculed and threatened her in front of everyone, just like you asked me to. I even said the exact words you wanted. And you said you would leave her alone.”
His eyes didn’t move from mine, as if he had become an unblinking statue. Then he placed the knife on top of the dresser once again. I had crossed too far by mentioning her name, hadn’t I?
“What you bring up is a complicated situation,” he said. He slid open the top drawer. “You’re right about one part, Mel. We made a deal and I always keep my word. But only when it comes to an honest deal. An agreement saturated in truth.”
He turned sharply toward me. “If you were a virgin like you claimed, I would have kept my end of the bargain. But we both know we’ve been playing charades. I was willing to keep up false pretenses, as long as you were. But pushing and pushing and pushing for your end of the deal, when you simply cannot keep promises of your own? Why, that’s unfair, isn’t it?”
My stomach rolled. He had been my regular club member at the Dahlia District for weeks now. He had known the entire time that I wasn’t a virgin?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I stammered, though I know my eyes betrayed me.
He grabbed a new knife out of the drawer, a long thin one, and dropped his grip to his side. “You must think I’m stupid, but I know more than you realize. You haven’t been a virgin since you stepped foot into that forsaken club. But you can act, can’t you? You’re a damn prize when it comes to pretending to be something you’re not.” He sneered, his upper lip curling. “It would almost be admirable if it wasn’t infuriating.”
He relaxed his shoulders then, peering over the room.
“As for the marriage,” he said, “I’ve had too many dead wives to be interested now. They’re a bit of a nuisance, if you ask me. It would have to be a fine specimen to make me change my mind. A true virgin.” I sucked in a breath. “And Haley isn’t your concern. It’s commendable that you’d want to save her, but she’s dug her own grave. Let her die in it.”
Adrenaline rattled inside of me, aching at those words. “What do you mean, dug her own grave?”
“It is exactly what it sounds like, my sweet. Just like my late wives. You have to know when to quit, otherwise, you’ll end up killing yourself. Take this as a lesson; let it be my gift to you.” Those warning chimes were clanging now, fighting for my attention. “Once I’ve acquired my business from that scoundrel once again,” Aldrich continued, “I will see to it that you’re paid accordingly. I will pay a significant portion of your debts to Dahlia. After all, you did keep one end of the bargain for me, humiliating that stupid whore. But I won’t have another leech of a wife suck me dry.”
That stupid whore was Haley. I may not have liked working in the Dahlia District, but my fellow servers were like the sisters I never had. I couldn’t let one of them be hurt. She’s dug her own grave. Let her die in it.
“What do you mean, just like your late wives?” I said. I needed as much information as possible to warn Haley. “What does Haley have to do with them?”
A knock sounded on the front door, coming to us like a distant echo. Aldrich pulled his phone from his robe’s pocket and checked the security footage. I looked over his shoulder, but he pulled away, then shoved the device in his pocket.
“Stay here,” he said. “Don’t move. This conversation will end quickly. We’ll finish up our session afterward.”
He closed the door behind him and his loud footsteps clamored through the house. I glanced at the clock hanging on the wall; it was late. Who needed to talk at this hour? I slowly turned the doorknob, banking on the fact that he was far enough away that he wouldn’t hear it. I left the latch resting against the frame, waiting for the right moment to eavesdrop. Then I poured myself another glass and tried to figure out what it all meant. That I would still be indebted to an entertainment club for billionaires where I worked my ass off and rarely saw a cent. My mother’s life was in danger if I tried to leave before I paid back my debt. I hadn’t spoken to her in years, and yet I still couldn’t fathom the idea of something happening to her.
But the part that stood out to me the most was Haley. I had to warn her to stay away from Aldrich, to constantly be on guard. My dreams were shot, but if nothing else, I could use tonight to figure out how to help Haley. I could even try to persuade Aldrich not to do anything to her.
Muffled voices. A woman’s and Aldrich’s. It must have been important if he let her inside. I eased the door open, but I still couldn’t hear any words. Not wanting to reveal myself, I stayed in the bedroom but left the door slightly ajar. I resumed pacing.
A loud bang echoed to the bedroom. The clatter of a metal object fell to the ground. I pushed open the door, peaking through. It was Haley, her dark brown hair tucked into a bun. She stepped back, her eyes focused on Aldrich. Neither of them saw me watching from the master bedroom in the corner.
“I didn’t think you had it in you,” Aldrich said.
“Leave my sister alone,” Haley shouted as she stepped back. He had her cornered against the wall. “That’s all I want. Think about the years we were nice to each other.”
Aldrich threw his head back, laughing like a man on the edge of insanity. There was only so much a person could take, and with all that Aldrich had lost in the last week, I didn’t doubt that he was bordering madness. She tried to dart around him, but he pushed her, knocking her down to the ground, then stepped on her back, using his weight to hold her there. Then he raised the knife.
That sound must have been a gunshot. Haley must have tried to shoot him. Where was the gun?
I stepped forward, careful not to alert them to my presence. I scanned the floor, looking for the gun. The knife was on Haley’s throat now. I had to move fast. I couldn’t let anything happen to Haley.
“I knew your mother. That stupid cunt,” he said to Haley. “That fucking whore worshipped me just so that she could pay a portion of her debts. I don’t usually associate with used up cunts like that, but she was so pathetic. I was doing her a service.”
He pulled down her pants, readying himself.
“You’re a monster,” Haley cried.
The gun was by the couch. I leaned down and grabbed it. I hadn’t shot a gun in years, but I lined up and aimed at Aldrich. I was so close. But could I take a life? His life?
“When she wouldn’t get rid of the kid, I got rid of them myself. I couldn’t have it affecting my marriage with Bella, now, could I?” Aldrich fisted Haley’s breast and Haley sobbed. His cock was in his other hand, ready to penetrate. “And then I saw how easy it was to get away with. You’re pathetic. Just like your mother.”
There was no question in my mind anymore, only commands. Aim carefully. Aldrich only.
I pulled the trigger. The recoil shook my shoulders, shuddering through my body. Aldrich held the side of his face. Blood oozed from what was left of his ear.
He turned over his shoulder. I aimed again. I couldn’t miss this time.
But before he could finish, I pulled the trigger again, shooting him in the head. He collapsed, his dead weight falling on Haley. I stayed there for a moment, keeping the gun trained on him, positive that he would reanimate at any second.
Then I stepped forward, not letting my eyes leave him.
“Mel,” Haley breathed.
I kept the gun on Aldrich. “He’s dead?” I asked.
“I think so.”
I dropped the gun and fell to my knees. I pushed his body, rocking him from side to side, until finally, Haley had enough room to get out from under him. Blood pooled beneath him, like he could drown in it.
The permanence of it hadn’t hit me yet. Didn’t seem real. Even looking at his body. Lifeless. Gone. A dream.
I had pulled the trigger. Twice.
“He’s dead,” I whispered.
“He would’ve killed me,” Haley said.
She said the words confidently like she had known all along that he had a target on her back.
Haley was trying to do something on her phone, but the blood was making it hard for her to do anything on the touch screen. She had known that this was coming, hadn’t she? I had spoken to her hours ago, and she hadn’t told me that she was planning on killing Aldrich. That she even had a gun with her. That he deserved to die. She must have known that he was a killer of women, and yet she had encouraged me to pursue him. She hadn’t warned me. She had put me at risk by keeping that secret.
So much for the sisterhood I had believed in.
“You saved me,” Haley said, touching my arm. “Thank you.”
I flinched, pulling out of her grasp. “You knew, didn’t you?” I asked.
“That Aldrich was crazy. That he killed women. You knew.” It hurt to say those words, to accuse her, but I needed to understand where she was coming from, and that was the only way it was coming out. “You knew and you let me get close to him.”
She raised a brow. “I told you he was a bad man.”
“Are you fucking serious? A bad man?” I pointed to the body on the floor. “That murdering rapist is a bad man?”
“It’s not my fault that you didn’t take me seriously,” Haley said. “Everyone in the Dahlia District knew to stay away from him. I don’t talk to anyone, and I still heard those rumors. You knew what he was like. You chose not to listen.”
Maybe that was true; I wasn’t sure. It was hard to keep track of everything that happened inside of the brick walls of the Dahlia District. I crossed my arms.
Haley lifted her phone to her ear.
“Who are you calling?” I asked.
“Dahlia,” Haley said.
Our boss? “What? Why?”
“Doesn’t she have some sort of connection to a company that deals with this kind of thing?” She nodded at the body. “We can’t clean this up by ourselves.” She turned away. “Aldrich is dead,” she said into the phone. “What serial killer?” I crouched down next to the body and gave his shoulder a hard shove. He rocked back to stillness, or his shell of a body did. I don’t know what I was expecting.
“Don’t move him,” Haley said. I glared at her. She continued talking on the phone. “Mel.” She paused, listening, then added, “No.”
After she hung up, I paced the entire house. It was an out of body experience to walk through the house of the person you had killed. To see where they lived. To see their existence frozen in time. The empty champagne glass in the bedroom. The pictures on his walls. Photographs of his first and second wives. How had they died? Had he killed them too, like he had killed Haley’s mother and her unborn sibling?
Would knowing what he had done make his death any better?
The most troubling part was that I didn’t feel anything. A familiar emptiness crept inside of me, clouding my vision in a black cloud. Nothing mattered. Not his life. Not his death.
An hour later, a white van arrived, designed to look like a landscaping business. Dahlia ushered her way inside and rolled her eyes when she saw us. Ah, Dahlia, the mother of the sex trafficking ring she liked to proudly call an entertainment club, rolling her eyes because one of her servers had defended another from rape and death. It was quite an inconvenience to deal with us.
Dahlia pointed at the van behind her. “They brought you some clothes,” she said. “We need to erase any surveillance footage from tonight. And Mel,” she turned to me, “you killed him, yes?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You know what that means.”
The cleanup service and the death of a well-paying club member meant that my debt would increase. It was hard enough to pay back what I initially owed Dahlia. And with this big of a screw-up, there was a chance she would take me off of entertainment. I wouldn’t even be able to pretend to be a body painter anymore. I would cook and clean at less than minimum wage, most of which would go towards my debt.
“But you can’t—” Haley started, but Dahlia cut her off.
“Stay out of this. Another word about Mel’s punishment and I will make sure to double it.”
Haley fell silent. I appreciated her attempt. Even if it seemed like I couldn’t trust her. But there was no way Dahlia would budge right then, and we both knew that.
Dahlia motioned for us to walk farther inside. “Luckily, that serial killer is out there. Killing all of the johns and tricks and clients alike. This,” Dahlia nodded in the direction of Aldrich’s body, “isn’t the killer’s normal victim. Too rich. But the Cultivation Service can make it look like another target.”
Another target. Another body to dispose of. I didn’t care about a serial killer. Aldrich was dead. And Haley was alive.
I felt nothing for them. Only the swallowing stillness that crept inside of me, threatening to bury me with it.
“And not a fucking word about this from either of you ever again,” Dahlia pointed at both of us. “I don’t want to know why you were both here. I don’t care why, honestly.”
The rest of the conversation was muffled. Even when my parents had left me with nothing a few years ago, I hadn’t felt like this empty. This deceived.
If I could start the night over, I would do it again. I would always protect my chosen family, even if it meant taking another person’s life. But Haley hadn’t looked out for me like I would have looked out for her. I had thought we were like sisters, but you never could tell where a person’s loyalties were, not until moments like this.
The light through the blinds cast the world in staggered lines. As if only half of what was left survived to shine another day. I stared up at the window, willing it to be night.
My roommate, Colin, poked his head into my bedroom. “It reeks in here,” he groaned.
It had been hard to get out of bed to do anything, especially something like a shower. But don’t worry. I had taken at least one or two showers in the last two weeks, but I hadn’t done much else. The laundry was piled in heaps on the floor. The takeout Colin had given me was still sitting on the desk. There was a hollowness in my chest that made it seem like I was a void of nothingness. Everything and nothing could escape me.
Because it was better to feel nothing. To pretend that I wasn’t okay with killing Aldrich.
“You need to pay rent,” Colin said. He held up a whiteboard calendar and pointed to the first of the month. “You see this? This was days ago. Don’t make me cover your half again.”
I sighed and averted my eyes back to those blinds. How many slats were there? Would Colin still be there, standing in my doorway talking about the rent that I owed, when I finished counting?
“Mel,” he said quietly. “You remember what happened last time.”
About three years ago when we first moved in together, I had been late on rent. Living as a starving artist seems grand, until you realize what people do to survive. At the time, Colin had presented me with two choices: make it up to him the easy way, or the hard way. I hadn’t started working at the Dahlia District at that point, so the easy way—a blow job—wasn’t an option I was willing to take. I had fought him hard on it, until he fought back. The bruise on my eye had lasted for weeks, in lingering shades of pink and dark blue.
“I remember,” I said.
“Well, then,” he said.
Three years had passed, and I had changed from a girl who was desperate to have a family that supported her artistic interests, to a woman who was still desperate to please her chosen family, but now, the thought of sucking dick to pay rent didn’t seem so humiliating. Not in the Dahlia District.
“You’ll get your money,” I said. I rolled over and pulled the covers to my shoulders, suffocating myself in the heat.
“Or we’ll revisit your options.”
His footsteps pattered down the hallway. I know it doesn’t make sense why I was living with Colin, but when my parents excommunicated me, their only child, at eighteen for choosing an art degree over a ‘respectable’ career path, I had been left with nothing. After a year and a half of private student loans, Colin’s offer to share rent on a cheap house seemed like an oasis. His best friend, now one of my best friends too, Jake, had started working on-site security at the Dahlia District. He introduced me to Dahlia herself. She agreed to take care of my loans, and I agreed to pay her back by working for her. I could even sell my art. All I had to do was convince rich businessmen to pay for my time.
Sounds easy, right? Sounds like pure magic. The artist’s dream: selling your art to people who will actually pay for it. But I was, at least, smart enough to continue living with Colin. He may have been an asshole, but the rent was stagnant and he was a reliable asshole. After that one incident, I always knew where I stood with him. Family, be it blood or chosen, didn’t matter to him. I was there to pay rent. And sometimes, he cared enough to make sure I ate, hence the takeout rotting on my dresser.
A knock sounded on the front door to the house. Colin’s heavy footsteps clamored through the walkways, reaching the entrance. I recognized the voice: smooth and hesitant, the detective who had been assigned to Sage City’s newest serial killer. A murderer who went after the customers of prostitutes.
“Mel,” Colin yelled, “It’s for you.”
I ambled to the door. Detective Foreman ran a hand through his shaggy black hair. “Good evening, Ms. Foley,” he said.
Was it evening already? The sun was still out, though it was setting. I shrugged and pointed towards my bedroom. “Privacy,” I said.
I resumed my position in the nest of stale blankets, and eventually, Detective Foreman moved some old textbooks to sit on a stool.
“You’ve been—” he paused, eyeing the mess of empty cans, open mascara tubes, and tangled electronic cords on my dresser, “—working hard?”
“Here and there,” I said. I had been calling out as much as I could afford. I stared at him, waiting for the real questions, and finally, he budged.
“Can you tell me about Haley’s relationship with Aldrich?”
I shook my head. “We weren’t close.” Not really, anyway.
“Some of your fellow servers said you were friends, but one of them hinted that something might have happened right before Aldrich was murdered.”
It was nice that they had kept it vague. Detective Foreman was referring to when Aldrich made false promises about marrying me and saving me from the Dahlia District if I isolated and threatened Haley in front of the club. I had done it only because I knew Haley would understand. It wasn’t personal, and my freedom was on the line. I would have expected her to do the same.
But even now, with Haley long gone, I wouldn’t tell any secrets about our relationship.
“I don’t remember, but we all have our differences. Did they tell you about the time Iris and I got into an argument about scheduling?” Detective Foreman shook his head. I didn’t think so.
“Did Aldrich hurt either of you?”
That question disturbed me. The recognition in his eyes showed that he saw it in me too. I hadn’t wanted to believe it at first, but Haley was right, she had warned me; Aldrich had a reputation for breaking the boundaries of the servers. But did that qualify as harm? I wasn’t sure. But I remembered what he said about Haley’s mother and his late wives.
“I didn’t know him like that,” I said. We had never gotten that far. But we might have, if Haley hadn’t come there that night.
“What about Haley?”
The image of Haley crushed underneath Aldrich, his knife to her throat, as he was about to force himself inside of her crossed my mind. I blinked it away.
I had to protect Haley. That meant from the police too.
“I don’t know,” I said. The detective sighed. “Is there anything new about this killer? Anything I haven’t read in the papers yet?” I hadn’t read the news in a few days, but if anyone knew something, it was Detective Foreman. He was a new detective and therefore seemed freer with his information. Or maybe that was part of his interview tactics.
“At this point, all we know is that he goes after men who abuse prostitutes,” he said.
So the killer was no longer targeting men who simply bought sexual services, but ones who hurt the women they bought. Almost like a revenge spree.
“They’re calling him the Pros’ Angel,” Detective Foreman continued, “Pro, as in prostitute.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Haley and I are entertainers, Detective.” I didn’t want the club to be put in jeopardy for being a rumored brothel because of our association with the case. I was the reason we were being questioned, not a serial killer.
“You entertain men. Not exactly the same, but still along the same lines.” Fine. He could make that distinction himself. “The gunshot wounds don’t make sense though. This killer strangles his victims, but shoots and strangles Aldrich?” He jotted down some notes on a pad, then stood.
“The killer could have been startled,” I offered.
“The wounds indicate it was at close range from behind. The killer wasn’t caught off guard. It was planned.” He tipped his imaginary hat. “If you think of anything, you know my number.”
I walked him back to the front door. When I turned around, Colin was pulling on his shiny red vest, his bouncer uniform for working at the Theater. It was how he had met Jake.
“Work already?” I asked.
“Took an early shift,” he said. “Going to Ivy Ledge after.”
Ivy Ledge was a bridge that was commonly known for having drugs and sex for sale. “You do know there’s a serial killer on the loose?” Why did I care about what happened to Colin? He proved time and time again that he could take care of himself. “They’re calling him the Pros’ Angel.”
He scoffed. “Angel? How stupid.”
“Seriously,” I said. I crossed my arms. “Don’t get mixed up in that though.”
“I’m not scared of a serial killer. I’ve got protection,” he said, his teeth gleaming. He meant the gun he kept in his car. “Don’t you have work soon?”
“I’m not on schedule today,” I said.
“I’d go in if I were you,” he said. “You remember last time.”
I turned towards my bedroom. Rent again. He didn’t need to remind me. “I’ll get your damn money.”
The room smelled like leftover food stuck at the bottom of a backpack. I choked back a gag, then rounded up the food I could find, putting it into a plastic grocery bag and tossing it into the kitchen trash. Talking to Detective Foreman was more than I had done in the last few days. It wasn’t our first interview, but it had motivated me to move. To stand up. Stretch. Wash a few bowls and plates crusted over with sauce. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirrored closet doors, and I grimaced. Bags under my eyes. Stringy red hair with the dark black roots inching out. A yellow stain on my shirt. I switched the shirt for a tank top that smelled clean.
A knock sounded on the front door. I waited for Colin to answer it, but when the banging interrupted my thoughts again, I remembered that he was at work. I opened it.
Dahlia, with her white-blond hair freshly styled into a neat a-line cut, her lips an apple red, tilted her chin.
“I see you’re doing well,” she said, her voice croaking. I blinked my eyes. Dahlia hadn’t come to our house before.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I thought I’d make a house call. May I come inside?”
I stepped to the side, and she took a seat on the patchy couch in the living room.
“You know the accommodations in the Greenhouse are more than acceptable,” she muttered. The Greenhouse was the dressing room and dorm section of the Dahlia District, for servers that wanted to live or get ready on property. I didn’t say anything. I had chosen to live with Colin a long time ago. “No matter. I came to see if you’ll return to work soon. There’s a new club member who refuses to see anyone, but you.”
I raised a brow. “A new person?”
“No one will do, except for Mel Foley.”
“But I’m not on entertainment right now,” I reminded Dahlia. I was supposed to work in the kitchen for five years before I could return to entertainment. “You put me on penalty.”
“I’m quite aware,” she said. She raised her nose. “I’m willing to rearrange punishments if it comes with a lucrative offer.”
There were some kinds of people that I admired, simply because you knew exactly what to expect with them. It didn’t mean I liked them, but that I respected their honesty. Most people hid behind false promises, ideas about who they wanted to be, rather than who they truly were. Like me. I was a failed artist who claimed the status of ‘entertainer’ when really, I was selling my time and body for an exorbitant price.
But Dahlia… Dahlia always hid behind the same armor. Money was her bottom line. And we, the servers, were her product. I could respect her for that. At least we knew where we stood.
“How much?” I asked.
“Enough to warrant a dismissal of your penalty,” she said. “Can I tell him you’ll be available tomorrow night?”
I almost agreed, but then I remembered something I had talked about with Iris the last time I was at the Dahlia District.
“What about Kendall?” I asked. She was the potential new hire, a belly dancer. “You haven’t hired her yet, have you?”
“We have to replace Haley,” Dahlia said coolly.
“You know Iris and Kendall have a history. A bad one,” I said. Iris was the mother bear of our group, even though she was younger than most of us, including me. The fact that she was freaked out about it had worried me. “Kendall beat the shit out of Iris. And she has a criminal record.”
“Kendall is the best option we have right now. As I’m sure you’re aware, business has not been going well. That serial killer has been making it rather difficult for the servers to make their regular quotas. A new dancer is the best way to entice old regulars to return.”
I grit my teeth. Good ol’ Dahlia. Dahlia truly didn’t care about alliances between the servers, as long as we made her money.
“At least tell me that she’s not moving into the Greenhouse,” I muttered.
“We shall see,” Dahlia said. She stood up. “Can I put you on the schedule for tomorrow or not?” I nodded sharply and looked away. I could use my share for rent, and it was better than working for pennies under penalty. Besides, if I refused, Dahlia would punish me more. “Good. I’ll let myself out.”
The door clicked shut behind her. I locked it, and watched her drive away in her sports car.
Working tomorrow, and meeting a new club member, meant trying to pull myself together. I grabbed as many dirty clothes off of my bedroom floor as possible and started a load of laundry, then tried to organize the rest of the clutter into neat piles. I moved the textbooks into the closet, leftover from my one and a half years in art school, and looked through the suitcase full of lingerie that I carried with me to the Dahlia District every night. About half of us lived on property, and half of us commuted. Most of the lingerie was wrinkled, but the dim lighting of the club wouldn’t let that show.
But I did need to dye my roots. My dark red hair and my blue contacts were part of my signature look. I didn’t feel like myself without them, as if someone had stolen my mask. Luckily, I kept a stash of cheap boxes of hair dye under the sink in the bathroom. I dyed my roots, erasing my connection to my mother, then indulged in a long, scalding hot shower, trying to mentally prepare myself to become Mel, the body painter, the redheaded voluptuous entertainer of the Dahlia District, someone with enough of a reputation that this new person had to have me. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. That it had nothing to do with the fact that I was willing to break the rules, when servers like Haley, a once true virgin, so rarely did.
I ordered Thai food from a shop around the corner and made sure to actually store what I didn’t eat. I even left a note for Colin, in case he wanted some after work.
I lit the glass vanilla candle on the dresser and looked around my bedroom. It was night now, black streaks filled the slats between the blinds, but I was awake. Even if the last few weeks had been filled with sleepless nights, it was like I had consumed my first cup of coffee in ages. Awoken to a fresh, brand new morning. If nothing else, it was a start.
Full of energy, I laid there, waiting for sleep to consume me. The hours ticked by, and I watched the flame in the candle dim and flicker as the numbers on the clock rolled on. Colin came home; the jiggle of the lock was followed by the bass-heavy music thudding through the floors.
At least this insomnia would help me get back to a graveyard shift schedule. If I slept in the morning, I would be well-rested by the time I had to commute to the Dahlia District in the evening.
A human noise, deep and staggered, vibrated through the walls, followed by nothing. That wasn’t like Colin. His music continued playing. I sat up and waited, listening for more.
I leaned over the dresser and pinched out the wick, watching the smoke rise as I listened. I put the top over the jar, closed the blinds, and laid down in bed.
The crash of a heavy object fell to the floor.
“Colin?” I called out.
I stood slowly, quietly pulling on a loose shirt. Maybe it was Colin messing with me again. Or he had brought back a woman from Ivy Ledge and hadn’t heard me. I crept down the hallway, past the bathroom, and peered into his bedroom.
A lifeless heap laid on the floor, like another pile of laundry. Colin’s blank eyes stared back from the middle of it.
A tall, looming figure, unmistakably male, stood above him, stretching in height. A black jacket, black cargo pants, with matching buckled boots. A brown leather mask encapsulated his entire face, with a metal grate placed where his mouth should be, and cloudy bulbous disks covering his eyes, making it impossible to see him, knowing full well that he could see me. A white cord dangled from his black-gloved fingers.
What had he done with that cord?
He had strangled Colin. It was him. The killer.
He moved forward, and I stepped back, blinking my eyes.
“Don’t move,” his mechanical voice said.
On a better night, I would have checked the entire house before I took any action, but that wasn’t tonight. Music circled us, whatever garbage the corpse had been playing. The dim light from the hallway silhouetted her from behind, highlighting the curves of her thighs. A large shirt hung over her breasts, leading down to panties barely covering her round ass. Her face hidden in the shadows. If we were in another world, seeing this woman’s body illuminated like this would have been a treat. But a dead body lay between us. This woman hadn’t taken a breath since she had realized Colin was dead.
She took another step backward, her hands curling into fists. I stepped over the body, pocketing the used cord.
“I said don’t move,” I repeated, my words manipulated through the voice changer, coming out machine-like. Another step forward, and she took another step back. I shook a hood and cable ties from my back pocket, readying them. “Don’t—”
She bolted backward, racing down the hall. I lunged after her, pulling her wrist and enveloping her in a tight embrace. She struggled, thrashing out of my grip as hard as she could, but I linked her wrists together with one hand, using the other to keep her still. Another few movements and her wrists were locked together in a cable tie. I grabbed the hood and threw it over her head, and she stilled then, silenced by the darkness. Her hands continued to flex and release, but she was done fighting. For now.
I led her back to the master bedroom. When her feet knocked into the body, she grimaced.
“Is this your boyfriend or your roommate?” I asked.
That was lucky for her. It was easier for them when they weren’t romantically attached, when they didn’t hold their partners in such high regard. She lifted her foot high, wanting to gracefully step over him, but I shoved her forward, knocking her into the bed. Pushed on her ass until she rolled onto it, lying down.
“You killed him,” she breathed, her voice muffled by the cloth fabric. “Why? Why did you do it?”
I got the feeling she knew why, like she was used to hiding his secrets, that the surprise was more about how he had finally been exposed. But I answered her anyway.
“Because he didn’t deserve to live.”
“What did he do?” I pulled her wrists until she was lying flat on her back, then I pulled off the hood. I looked into her eyes.
“He knocked a woman’s head into the dashboard.” I held her wrists down, leaning my weight into them. “She asked for the money he owed her, and that was how he had repaid her. A broken nose.” And the woman wouldn’t be able to get decent jobs for a few weeks. Pity tricks would only work for so long.
The woman’s thick red hair lay in streams along the mattress, though her brown eyes blinked, watering at the sudden exposure. I realized I recognized her. She looked different than I had expected. Melissa.
She was supposed to be at work. How had I been so focused on Colin that I had failed to realize that she was home?
To call it stalking would be accurate, but it wasn’t my intention to capture her. Only to find out more, for curiosity’s sake, about the woman who had framed her own murder on me. Aldrich fit my base criteria, but he didn’t venture into my usual hunting grounds.
Melissa used colored contacts at work, then. Dyed her hair. Played the role she created for herself. But now, she was in comfortable clothes. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone.
“What do you want from me?” she said. The helplessness of that question typically did nothing for me, but there wasn’t anything weak about her. She was restrained, underneath me, but there was an emptiness to her words. She wasn’t scared. In fact, she was brave.
Finding her here was good luck. I could use her to take the fall. The police already knew her association with Aldrich. One more body next to her would help guide their hunches.
Her legs twitched against mine, her warmth coming through my pants. Her lips opened, sucking in a quiet breath, but still, there was no fear. Only emptiness. A quality I recognized in myself. That wasn’t something I had anticipated.
It was never my intention to kill her anyway.
I ran a leather-gloved hand along the side of her face. “I want everything,” I said. She stared back at me, not sure where to look when there were no pupils to find in the global eyes of the mask.
With one hand on her wrists, I used the other hand to find a fresh cord in my pocket, then swathed her neck inside of it. I pressed the mouth of my mask to her neck; she may not have been visibly scared, but her pulse was throbbing through the layers of material.
“This will only take a few seconds,” I said.
Her eyes widened and I pulled the cord. Her eyes watered, staring into me. She struggled to speak. She whimpered and gulped.
And there it was. She relaxed, loosening into sleep. I released the cord and quickly cut the cable tie on her wrist. As I closed the door behind me on the bedroom’s balcony, Melissa sharply inhaled.
Shattered: A Dark Stalker Romance coming to you in October 2020!