IT WAS a bright and sunny day. It always was in LA. It was never dark and stormy.
Cain Noble snapped the shutters closed, annoyed at the heat and glare.
He plopped his butt down on his rickety, creaking fake-leather office chair. The gun holster pressed at his ribs, and he adjusted the strap farther to the side, growling in irritation.
His head throbbed painfully, thanks to last night’s abstinence. Grimacing, he yanked the drawer of his desk open, pulled out a yellow jar, and unscrewed the top. He dipped a spoon in the thick substance, the sugary scent wafting over him, and put the spoon in his mouth. An explosion of sweetness from the honey eased the dull headache as the amber-hued nectar coated his tongue.
Damn hypoglycemia. He wasn’t diabetic, but he suffered from annoying bouts of low blood sugar, which made him cranky on the best of days. Last evening’s stakeout had taken far longer than he’d anticipated. He’d run out of his golden drug too fast, leaving him cold and bitter.
Then again, as someone who constantly felt like an antiquated relic of bygone days, Cain was always cold and bitter. Taciturn and surly, as his secretary Tess would say. Except she was a personal assistant, not a secretary, as she would also say. Hoity-toity, he whispered behind her back. She practiced Krav Maga, and had a mean right kick.
Cain Noble was a private dick. He was also a public dick, as his ex-boyfriends could attest. Yeah, he was a heartbreaker. In truth, he had a short attention span when it came to sexual partners. No one ever managed to hold his interest for more than a night or two.
The glass jar did a piss-poor job of mirroring Cain’s reflection. Blue eyes, more dull gray than bright blue; light-red hair combed unflatteringly and cut unevenly; no stubble on his cleft chin, though, and a form much leaner and with less muscle definition than he would have liked.
Gray smoke filled the room. The building was old—not quite dilapidated, but run-down. Smelled its age. Hence the clouds of incense: peppermint and apples this time. Clients thought he was a Buddhist. Cain never bothered to correct them.
The intercom buzzed, an electric static noise he despised. “Unscheduled client,” Tess said. Her tone was polite but there was a hardness to it. Something had set her on edge.
“Send them in.”
A silhouette appeared against the frosted window first. A woman’s figure.
The door parted a crack. A black-gloved hand pushed it open farther.
Then she stepped in.
His heart skipped a beat. Which was weird since nothing in him beat for women.
The first thing to catch his eye was the thigh-high slit in her long, black, body-hugging dress that exposed one gorgeous, shapely gam almost to the point of indecency. In fact, both legs—one visible and one covered but not truly concealed—seemed to go on for miles. Cain’s gaze slowly slid upward from her black high heels, appreciating the way her silk stockings hugged her firm, curvaceous calves. Was she a runner perhaps?
Cain popped a gummy bear in his mouth and slowly chewed the gelatinous goodness. He wouldn’t have minded eating something else in his sights, an odd impulse with little precedence in his life.
The woman’s black dress had a turtleneck. Her long black hair cascaded over her shoulders, and her face was camouflaged by a translucent black veil, the kind Cain hadn’t seen since his last black-and-white noir film years ago. Her slender form bore perky breasts that for some reason Cain itched to get his hands on. His dick jumped inside his pants, further confusing him.
“Mr. Noble?” Her voice was soft and barely audible, coming off as what one might call smoky. It was sexy to be sure. She slowly entered and closed the door behind her.
“Yup. Come on in, Ms.…?” Cain gestured toward the chair in front of his desk.
Daintily she sat down, her movements graceful. Everything about her screamed wealth and elegance. The two were so rarely related these days. Cain figured she was an actress, seeing as she was making such a spectacle of herself. Dramatic or melodramatic, Cain couldn’t decide.
“Oh. Yes. Forgive me. My name is… Camille. Camille Astor.”
“How can I help you, Ms. Astor?”
Either bashful or embarrassed, she looked down and hid her face. “It’s actually Mrs. It is my husband of whom I wish to speak.” Cain nodded to show her she could continue. He was mildly disappointed; he didn’t want to analyze why. “You see, Mr. Noble, my husband, Sheridan Astor, owns the nightclub Iris. Do you know it?”
Cain nodded. “The one on Santa Monica Boulevard?” He’d heard the joint was named after a dame. But since it featured the shade of blue known as iris so prominently on its logo, who knew for certain? Of course, the logo depicted the flower in question too, to obfuscate matters further.
Camille nodded. “Yes.”
She shifted on her seat. The move set her breasts and legs into motion. Cain tried not to look too eagerly. Clients made for the best and worst bedmates. He couldn’t afford complications right now. Seeming hesitant, she licked her lips. Though the translucent veil obscured her features somewhat, her dark red lips were full and luscious, and fuck, they’d look absolutely divine wrapped around his cock.
This time it was Cain who had to shift on his seat.
“Sheridan and I have been together for three years now.”
Cain was surprised to hear that. Though Camille was all woman, she appeared to be quite young. Her short stature and slim figure suggested youth.
“What’s the secret of your long-standing relationship?” Cain asked, curious in spite of himself.
She shivered slightly, granting him a coy look from under her long black lashes. “You know, I believe it’s masochism.”
Cain quirked an eyebrow. He would have put his money on laziness or fear of change. Manly excuses. Or perhaps that was just him.
In any case, she hadn’t used the word love.
“Yours or his?” Cain asked for clarification.
This time her smile was anything but shy. A wicked gleam in her eyes—what color were they?—spoke of a woman of experience. This lady of refinement had hidden depths. Was she a celebrity? Cain had a good memory for faces. Hollywood and LA in general were filled with people he needed to be able to recognize on sight.
But Camille? She was a mystery.
“So… your husband?” Cain prayed this wasn’t another prelude to an ugly divorce. He hated those sorts of cases. People who had once loved ardently turned into despicable monsters full of hate, vengeance, and greed, showcasing the worst sides of humanity. Lawyers didn’t help in that equation either.
“Sheridan….” Her voice cracked. She raised a trembling hand to her mouth. “He’s gone missing. I fear he’s been abducted. For ransom, you understand.”
Cain frowned. A nightclub owner missing? Those were a dime a dozen. This was LA. People went missing all the time. Most returned home with hangovers, STDs, illegitimate children, mistresses, or simply flat-out broke. Of course, some never came back. Those were darker tales.
“Why do you think he’s been kidnapped?”
“When I returned home two days ago after work—”
“Where do you work?”
She blushed, her cheeks growing two shades rosier. “At the club. I… I sing there.”
Camille was a lounge singer? How quaint. He’d not imagined those sorts of places still existed, not in the twenty-first century. They seemed such old-world, classical Hollywood golden era establishments. Then again, Cain would have felt at home in those bygone days. Some days he felt like a living anachronism.
“Anyway, I returned home to our house in the Hollywood Hills late at night—and he wasn’t there. I realized it has been a whole week since I’ve seen him last. His room has been ransacked, I think….”
Again her face grew ruddier. This time Cain was sure the cause was dismay. “Sheridan is not the cleanest man in the world. He’s a… a slob, if you must know. That is one of the reasons he and I have separate rooms.”
One of the reasons? Cain’s groin heated at the implications. Husband and wife were not sleeping in the same bed? Perhaps Camille could be… seduced.
Cain had to inwardly slap himself silly. What was he thinking? For one, the woman had lost her husband. And two, Cain wasn’t into women. So why did this vision of beauty get under his skin?
“His room had been tossed, or the whole house?”
Camille shook her head. “No, just his room.”
“Did you notice if anything was missing? Aside from your husband?”
Camille hedged. Cain couldn’t see why she would. Finally she said nervously, “Yes, I believe a piece of art was taken.” When Cain said nothing, she added, “It’s a small sculpture made by Auguste Rodin.”
“The creator of The Thinker and The Kiss?”
“Yes. But, ah, this statuette is… erotic in nature, from the beginning of his career.” Cain hadn’t known Rodin had done erotic art. News to him. Camille carried on, her sultry voice sending hot frissons through Cain’s balls. “It’s called Inamorata in Sepia. It’s priceless because it’s made of wood. Rodin typically used marble.”
Theft of expensive artwork could be motive for whatever crime had been committed. To be fair, though, Cain wasn’t even sure there had been a crime. After all, if the possible perpetrators already had the statuette, why take the husband too?
“Could your husband have simply taken the piece and sold it?” Cain left unsaid that Sheridan Astor could potentially have gone so far as to leave his wife and take the statuette as spoils of war or as a means of obtaining quick cash. Happened all the time.
“No, he wouldn’t do that. You see, the statuette belongs to me. He bought it for me on our three-year anniversary.”
“Why was it in his room, then?”
Instead of getting agitated at the probing question, Camille smiled mildly. “The statuette reminds Sheridan of me, so he likes to keep it close to his bed.”
Cain considered the answer. Sounded suggestive but also rather vague and inconclusive. So he fished his iPhone from his pocket and did a search for the artwork. The wooden statuette, Inamorata in Sepia, was indeed quite small compared to Rodin’s other works. Unlike The Kiss, this piece of art showed a lone female figure—trapped in the throes of solo passion. Rodin had followed the grains in the wood to shape her curly hair, long limbs, curved breasts, arched back, and beautiful features. In any case, the statuette was small enough to be carried by hand or hidden on one’s person.
“Is this statue insured?”
“Yes, for three million dollars.”
Even in this day and age when everything cost an arm and a leg, that was a lot of money. “Do you or your husband have financial problems?”
Camille relaxed visibly, her crossed legs moving slightly, catching Cain’s eye. “No. We are more than well off, Mr. Noble.”
Cain studied her carefully. “Are you two happily married?”
Her sly smile and rising chin warned him to remain suspicious. “No two marriages are the same. Ours… should be judged by different standards. But if you mean to ask me if I’ve cause to wish for a divorce, the answer is no. And no, Mr. Noble, there is no prenup. If either of us starts divorce proceedings, we’ll both get an equal share, worth tens of millions.”
Her perfume, the dark floral scent of black orchids, lingered in the electrified air crackling between them. Where did this sensual allure of hers come from? And why was Cain so susceptible when he had never been attracted to women before?
“Does your husband have enemies?” The Astor marriage might not have been standard in the regular sense, but PIs had certain questions and points of view they always investigated.
“Aside from me, you mean?”
Camille lifted her veil. A pair of captivating green eyes, like perfect emeralds, fixed on Cain, glimmering with amusement. His office was shady, in every sense, so little light illuminated her lovely face. But those full, pouty lips, that raven-black hair like spun silk, and the flawless ivory skin were as vivid as if displayed in full light. All real, all right in front of him, tempting him to… dastardly deeds.
Her chuckle was as deep as her voice. It echoed and reverberated inside his rib cage. She had womanly wiles about her. Cain longed to succumb.
“I can tell you more on the way,” Camille remarked then, seductiveness gone from her tone. “Will you come with me and inspect the house for clues?”
Though Cain was suspicious of the whole damn thing, he had no doubts about what his answer was going to be. “Lead the way, sweetheart.”
“DID YOU call the cops and file a missing person’s?”
The two of them hadn’t officially spoken about money or Cain’s fees. But for better or worse, she was already his client. Camille Astor was a living mystery; Cain itched to solve her. No, wait. Solve it. The case, naturally.
“No.” Camille sat on the passenger seat of Cain’s truck, bouncing on the poor springs in the leather seat. Cain wanted to still her movements with his hands—and then make her move with him.
“Why not?” he demanded.
“What if he’s not… taken?” she asked, her low purr tingling Cain’s nerve endings. “If he’s simply… left me, I would look the fool.”
Cain resisted the urge to roll his eyes. What man in his right mind would ever leave a woman like her? She was sublime, a goddess of sensuality. He wanted her bad.
As far as logic was concerned, her explanations were left wanting. They sounded like a load of excuses. Better to be safe than sorry, surely? One could always go to the cops and take back a report with a successful outcome. Later, explanations became much harder to sell to the authorities. The law didn’t allow a lot of leeway—though it sometimes should have.
The heart and soul of law had vacated Los Angeles long ago. The system was corrupt, there was always a cop or an official to buy off, neither innocence nor guilt determined punishment—only money and power did—and there was a criminal lurking in every shadow and under most lamps too.
So much sin under the sun. Cain’s truck roared and stirred beneath him, as if wishing to confirm what its owner already knew. Or maybe the old heap of junk simply knew it was out of place in the lap of luxury that epitomized the glittering surface of LA.
The Hollywood Hills, where the heat waves weren’t quite as unbearable, were dotted with luxurious mansions and estates. The rich and the famous looked down their noses at the ordinary folk from on high. Back in historical times, it’d been castles and palaces on ancient hills in the Old Country. Now it was all high-security mansions and walled-off compounds in the New World.
The Astor Estate didn’t disappoint. Opulent to excess, the white building was built on three floors and had two wings, a three-car garage, and a pool with an adjacent hot tub, a pool house, and an open-air gazebo. Cain cringed at the sight. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen lavishness. He never liked it, though, nor did he crave the same for himself. Greed was not his driving force.
Inside the air was cool and fresh. Scents of flowers floated everywhere. The soles of their shoes clicked against the spotless, reflective marble floors. Chandeliers clinked slightly in the faint cool breeze of the air-conditioning.
Camille led Cain upstairs and to the right. Judging from the darker, more masculine decor, that wing of the house belonged to Sheridan Astor. The dark blue bedroom confirmed as much. Not that women couldn’t like the darker shades of blue. As conclusions went, though, it seemed a natural one to draw.
Cain whistled as he stepped in. Piles of dirty clothes appeared in spots around the room, drawers and cabinets hung half-open, and the sheets were rumpled and the bed unmade. For a slob, that was to be expected.
But then there were the other things. Signs of a disruption. A broken vase on the floor by an open window with dented shutters, the desk with stacks of papers carelessly tossed about, and the cracked mirror in the open bathroom, with splinters in the sink and on the rug in front of it. No blood spatter, though, not so much as a drop.
It certainly seemed like someone had been looking for something. Had they found it?
“Does your husband drink? Does he have a temper?”
Camille stood by the doorway, hugging herself. “No. He’s mild-mannered. He neither drinks nor smokes.”
Cain did roll his eyes then. Sheridan Astor couldn’t have been born in Tinseltown if he was that virtuous. Everyone here had a vice. Some more of a secret than others. This place had a way of tarnishing even the most glittering things, like innocent souls.
Then again, it hadn’t been this town that had sullied Cain. Heck, it hadn’t even been this country. Not directly anyway. Foreign soil but familiar domestic leaders with cold-hearted orders.
So perhaps location, location, location had nothing to do with the process after all.
“What vices does this saint have, then? And don’t tell me he has none.”
Camille blew out an impatient breath. “He… gambles. But he almost never loses.”
That was a boldfaced lie. Everyone lost in the end. The house always won.
In that sense, casinos, dames, and life were the same. They always got their pound of flesh, and they tested a man’s luck. Not to mention patience, endurance, and ingenuity.
Not that Cain had a great deal of knowledge of or experience with dames. Mobsters and casinos were a different story. Cain and life had a long-standing history of back-alley brawls, bruises, and broken bones.