Murder Game – Caroline Mitchell

The last embers of a guilty conscience made Melissa twist her wedding band free. ‘Leave it on,’ the man behind her murmured, his breath heavy on the curve of her neck. Melissa arched a perfectly plucked blonde eyebrow as she gave him a sideways glance. ‘Why?’ ‘I want you to wear it.’ His hands slid down her arms, driving goose bumps on her flesh. Opening her palm, he claimed the band of gold and worked it back onto her finger. ‘It shows how much I mean to you.’ Odd, Melissa thought. ‘What makes you think that?’ ‘You’re cheating on your husband to be with me. You wouldn’t commit a mortal sin with just anyone, now would you?’ Melissa resisted the urge to shrug. It was hardly love at first sight. The fact that Matthew was offering no strings sex and high-quality coke was good enough for her. ‘I just want to have fun,’ she said, truthfully. ‘I second that,’ Matthew said, raising his iPhone in the air. ‘No photos,’ Melissa slurred after he had captured her image, her reactions slowed by the copious amounts of cocktails she had consumed.

‘If my husband finds out…’ ‘He’d react in exactly the same way as my wife. Don’t worry. What happens in Debauchery stays in Debauchery. I just wanted to remember your sexy face.’ Tapping at his phone, he offered a reassuring smile. ‘There, all gone. You can relax now.’ ‘I am relaxed,’ she said, a devilish smile playing on her lips as all thoughts of her older husband floated away. ‘Why don’t you serve up a couple more lines while I pop to the loo?’ ‘Consider it done,’ Matthew said, turning towards the rucksack he had picked up from the nightclub cloakroom on the way out. The scruffy canvas bag seemed out of place as he rested it on the four-poster hotel bed.

Had she been sober, Melissa may have given it more than a passing thought. ‘What’s in the bag?’ she said. ‘Looks heavy.’ ‘Oh, just some fun and games.’ The words were loaded with promise, and Melissa felt a tingle shoot up her spine. She lifted her foot to kick off her heels, but Matthew shot out another warning. ‘Leave the shoes on too, please… and the dress. I want to take it off myself.’ ‘Fine,’ she said, her voice trailing behind her as she tottered into the en-suite. A series of spotlights lit the room, bouncing against the shiny chrome and temporarily dazzling her vision.

Melissa blinked at her reflection, her eyes alight with anticipation. Her face was still flushed from the afterglow of the club, and the line of coke that followed. She swept back a lock of blonde curly hair before thumbing the mascara stains from beneath her eyes. Matthew wasn’t normally the type of guy she went for, but right now, she was beyond caring. Sex with her husband had become worse than a chore. She tried to remember a time when it meant something, when they had actually connected, but the memory would not come. His wealth could only stretch so far when it came to cushioning the harsh reality. All too late, Melissa discovered that Phillip’s priority was satisfying his own needs first. A smile touched her lips. She deserved this.

And the ironic thing was that her husband would be paying for her fun. Still, she would play the dutiful wife when she went home. She thought of her mobile phone, left charging on her bedside table. She knew her husband sometimes tracked her online. Who needed alibis when your phone could vouch for your whereabouts? But her second phone, the one she hid in her purse, now that was where the real fun began. The flirty texts, the dating app, all leading up to this night. She swished her mouth with water in the absence of a toothbrush, allowing herself a flutter of excitement, thinking about what was to come. Matthew wasn’t like other men. She had not expected such dominance for a start. Not that she was complaining.

His online bio was extensive, and she had been promised an amazing night… Sod it, she thought, flipping up the toilet seat before pulling down her knickers and sitting down. It wasn’t as if she was having an affair. That was what she loved about Debauchery: being a part of such an illicit online group. Each encounter was quick and disposable. Explosive bursts of pleasure in an otherwise mundane week. After three years of marriage, she had come to a crossroads. She could either leave her husband and be penniless and jobless – or stay married and treat herself when he wasn’t around. She rose from the toilet, kicking off the knickers straddling her ankles. It was a no-brainer. She chose the latter.

CHAPTER ONE ‘I’m back.’ Phillip Sherman’s voice echoed in the spacious hall. His home was not unlike the hotel in which he had recently stayed, with its high ceilings and marble floors. Built to his specifications, it reflected his wealth; much like his wife who was still not answering his calls. ‘Melissa? I’m home.’ His booming voice filtered through the expansive space, carrying up the stairs and onto the top landing. He frowned at the lack of response and the strange, uneasy silence that followed in its wake. A week had passed since they had last seen each other and it had been three whole days since they’d spoken. It was a silly argument, but unfortunate in its timing. If he hadn’t gone away, they would have made up by now.

He had enjoyed his golf trip almost as much as Melissa’s lovemaking, and he could not wait to be reacquainted with her again. True, his weight had piled on as middle age had crept in, and it was thanks to his hairdresser that no grey hairs were on display, but money paved the way to quiet acceptance as far as his young wife was concerned. It was her job to look pretty, his to keep them in the lavish lifestyle they both deserved. ‘Melissa, darling, let’s not sulk, daddy’s home!’ It was their pet name, born from a joke about sugar daddies. He knew she loved him in her own way, although he was not a big enough fool to believe she would be with him if he were destitute. He rested his hand on the stairwell, a small sliver of fear creeping through his body. It was too quiet. Yet, the friend finder tracker on his iPhone told him that she was here. She would never leave without her mobile phone. Yes, she had been upset with him but— A sudden rap on the door made him inhale a sharp intake of breath, and he half expected to find Melissa on the other side.

Perhaps she had locked herself out. It wouldn’t be the first time. His face fell as a smiling postman greeted him instead. Phillip grunted as he took the white envelopes, and small padded parcel too bulky to fit in the letterbox. He syphoned through today’s post before picking up more letters, littered on the floor. He frowned at the postmarks, some dated three days ago. Having come in from the garage entrance, he had failed to notice them immediately upon his return. Why hadn’t his wife picked them up? A disagreement with the cleaner had left them without housekeeping, but surely, Melissa was capable of doing that one small thing? Another, more worrying thought niggled at him. She couldn’t have left him, could she? Not over something so minor. Only last week she had been picking out a new car.

And then there was the prenup to consider, something he knew would tie her to him for years. So why did he feel so scared? A sudden rush of acid indigestion flared. Still holding the parcel, he climbed the stairs. Perhaps she was just teasing him, dressed in one of her sexy costumes waiting to see to his every need. But the house felt cold and unsettled, and each step upwards felt as if it were bringing him towards a terrible outcome. He thought about Melissa’s Prozac prescription and her comfortable acquaintance with cocaine. He had caught her inhaling the substance through a rolled up fifty-pound note at their last celebrity bash. Her excuse that ‘everyone does it’ did not wash with him. His media profile was perfect. It would not do to have his copybook blotted now.

As he entered their sprawling master bedroom, he half expected to find her laid out on the bed. Where was she? Her clothes were still in the wardrobe and her shoes still in place. But her handbag was nowhere to be seen. He glanced at her phone, which was plugged into the charger on the bedside table. Even the air was sterile, devoid of the expensive perfume that lingered in the air. A sense of dread encapsulated him, his Italian leather shoes clicking against the marble floors as he checked each room in turn. Wiping away the beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead, Phillip’s attention returned to the parcel in his hand. He stood on the top floor landing, ripped the package open and peered within. Almost too late, he noticed that the red splotches coming through the tissue paper were not part of the design. As he unwrapped it his eyes were unable to comprehend the sight of the finger within.

His mouth falling open in a sudden gasp, he dropped the parcel onto the floor. ‘Melissa?’ he croaked in utter disbelief. His heart raced as he tried to convince himself it wasn’t real. Bending down, he examined the object. It was rubber. It had to be. Bluish in tone, it looked like a finger and emitted a ghastly smell. But it was a joke; any minute now someone would jump out on him and… But then he saw it. The bone encased in skin, which told him it was all too real. Forcing himself to pick it up, a whimper escaped his lips.

The nail varnish was pillar-box red, and the skin carried a faint white line where the wedding ring should have been. He could feel the blood drain from his face as the implications became clear. Dropping the finger back into the envelope, Phillip fumbled for his phone. CHAPTER TWO Scrolling through the updated list of incidents, Detective Ruby Preston tried to ignore her craving for a cigarette. Her inability to focus on her paperwork was the result of her conversation with her boss, DI Downes, just minutes before. The meeting was brief and intended to motivate but, for her, it failed to reach the desired effect. She was wasted as a sergeant according to her boss, and should be climbing the ranks of inspector by now. He would even give her a personal endorsement, on the proviso she kept her nose clean. It made her stomach clench to think about it. Becoming an inspector was something she had once hoped for in her career, but she had given up any designs on promotion now.

The higher the rank, the bigger the fallout if her relationship with Nathan Crosby was discovered. Dating a known criminal was career suicide at the very least. Her eyes fell on the droplets of rain still clinging to the outside of her office window. Spring was yet to make an appearance, and the dark and gloomy day had cast a shadow on her thoughts, as her life choices loomed up to greet her. She had opened her heart to a man who was known to the police for all the wrong reasons. But they were a family now, her, Nathan, and now Cathy. At the age of twenty, she had found them. Being traced by their daughter years after they gave her up for adoption had come as a shock to them both. They were still taking tentative steps, but Ruby could see a future for them all, if she could persuade Nathan to leave his old life behind. Pushing up her reading glasses, she returned her attention to the screen.

Dare she hope that her job and her personal life could go hand in hand? She reined in her drifting thoughts. Right now, she needed to get to grips with the outstanding administrative tasks involved in supervising her team. Just as she prepared to switch back to the annual leave requests clogging her inbox, an incident caught her eye. She focused on the details updating live before her. Paperwork could wait. There were many cases on the go within the Shoreditch Serious Crime Unit, all being dealt with by competent officers on her team. Each incident did not require her personal appearance at the scene. As sergeant, it was simply her job to oversee the team. Her superior, DI Downes, was on call Senior Investigating Officer this weekend. Ruby sighed.

She should stay in her office, supervise proceedings as her officers visited the scene. But there was no way she could resist the lure of a high-profile kidnapping on her patch. She rose from her seat, pocketing the car keys from the hook on the wall. ‘Have you seen the?—’ Downes said, almost bumping into her as he exited his office. He pulled on his tweed jacket, quickly finger combing his hair. The pressures of the job had gifted him some extra grey hairs as well as some sleepless nights. ‘I’m all over it, boss,’ Ruby interrupted, not one to waste time. After updating control with their attendance, she had furnished her team with enough tasks to get the cogs of the investigation turning. Kidnappings were relatively rare these days, but Phillip Sherman was a prominent figure in the media. With no ransom note issued, Ruby was keeping an open mind.

It was down to the call taker to decide how to classify the incident when it came in, and her team would listen to the recording to glean some extra clues. Phillip Sherman was known for his robust treatment of politicians while presenting his half hour nightly slot, The Sherman Show. It trended on social media with unfailing regularity and others had tried but failed to emulate his success. His wife, Melissa Sherman, was half his age and far more attractive. Having tried to break into acting, she appeared in a couple of low budget films before bagging herself a wealthy husband instead. DI Jack Downes filled Ruby in on all of these details as they sped to the scene. When she woke up that morning, she had not expected to find herself in the company of a BBC celebrity, but at least she looked presentable. Ruby’s new black suit offered a professional appearance, even if her personal life didn’t. She’d even managed to pin her long dark hair into a bun. ‘How come you know so much about Sherman?’ Ruby threw her boss a sideways glance.

‘An auld fella like me has to watch something of an evening. I’m not out dancing every night like you,’ Downes quipped. ‘Pfft,’ Ruby said, ‘my clubbing days are over.’ Despite the fact she was almost thirtynine, that wasn’t strictly true. ‘Try not to fan girl him too much. No Instagram selfies.’ Ruby chuckled, knowing she may as well be speaking a different language as far as her boss was concerned. As she weaved through traffic, her brain processed the information as it was relayed through her earpiece. ‘Slow down, woman, this isn’t a blue light run,’ Downes chastised. ‘Uniform’s with him, he’s not going anywhere.

’ ‘And a speeding ticket won’t help my chance of promotion, will it?’ Ruby’s lip arched in a smile. CHAPTER THREE Like all of the properties on that road, Phillip Sherman’s house was opulence in its purest form. ‘Here, put these on,’ DI Downes said, handing her a pair of forensic overshoes that he had taken from the back of the car. ‘Cheers,’ Ruby replied, bending to slip them over her heels. They crossed the expensive marble flooring, wasting no time in getting to work. ‘I’ll lead, you listen,’ DI Downes said, heading towards the open living room door. Their voices echoed upwards to the high ceilings as they spoke, and Ruby paused to take in the decorative embellishments lining the walls. From oil paintings to small marble statues, the property seemed more like a museum of fine art than somebody’s home. The update from control had given her little to go on. From what she could see, they were dealing with a severed finger and nothing else.

For once, CSI had beaten her to the scene. The head of the team, aptly nicknamed Bones, was leaving just as Ruby walked in. His long black dreadlocks were tucked up in an elastic band, his large frame encased in a white forensics all-in-one. ‘No time to talk, I need to get this back to the lab,’ he replied, in response to Ruby’s request for a catch-up. The finger was now in an evidence bag, soon to be booked in. After crime scene officers conducted their initial examination, it would be frozen to prevent further degradation. The parcel would be tested for fingerprints, fibres and residues, but given it had come through the Royal Mail system, Ruby did not hold out much hope. ‘Just your initial thoughts,’ Ruby said, keeping her voice low. Bones checked for an audience before taking her to one side. ‘I can’t give you much at this stage.

We have a very clean cut of the proximal phalanx – that’s the bottom segment of the bone on the ring finger to you. Either the victim was dead, unconscious, or tightly restrained when the amputation was carried out. According to the postmark, it happened at least three days ago. The envelope is lined with plastic bubble wrap. There’s no note.’ Pushing up the sleeve of his paper suit, he checked his watch. ‘Time waits for no man. Katie’s about if you need to talk to her. She and the team will give the place the usual going over.’ Ruby thanked him before joining her DI in the lounge.

She cast her eyes over Phillip Sherman, who was sipping from a crystal tumbler, his skin tone a pallid grey hue. His suit jacket discarded on the sofa, he sat with his legs spread wide, and his shirtsleeves rolled up his arms. A tall man of considerable bulk, he appeared fiercer in the flesh than on TV. Ruby reminded herself that people reacted in different ways. She waited until Downes had finished speaking before introducing herself, but Sherman barely looked her way. ‘What makes you think this was a kidnapping?’ Ruby asked. ‘What else would it be, given my status in the media?’ Phillip snapped, before downing the last of his drink. ‘It’s obvious they’re after money. I just hope I’ve done the right thing by calling, instead of waiting for a ransom letter to come.’ ‘If they didn’t want you to report the crime they would have been in touch by now.

Have you checked your emails, texts, social media, post?’ Downes’s Northern Irish accent touched his words in an upward inflexion. ‘No,’ Phillip said, in a more respectful tone. ‘But I left a pile of envelopes on the bedroom dressing table when I came in.’ After checking through his post and logging onto his emails, it seemed that whoever had sent the finger was in no hurry to get in touch. ‘You mentioned you spoke to your wife three days ago,’ Downes said. ‘Any arguments? Anything that might cause her to leave without telling you where she’s going?’ Phillip pursed his lips as if mulling it over. ‘We had a minor tiff. It was nothing serious, just a petty disagreement over a credit card bill. She hung up on me after I gave her a telling off.’ A frown crossed his face.

‘We’re meant to appear at an awards party next month. What’s she going to look like now without a finger? It’s repulsive, that’s what it is.’ ‘Was this a common occurrence? Your arguments, I mean,’ Ruby interjected. She had taken an instant dislike to him. No amount of gold cards would make her want to live with such a man. Downes met her gaze, passing unspoken words. He was telling her to leave this to him. It was uncanny how they could communicate with each other through a single look. When attending scenes with members of the public, many of their exchanges were silent. They had been working together for years – long enough to communicate in such a way.

Sherman bristled. ‘I don’t see how it’s any business of yours. It’s obvious that Melissa couldn’t have done this to herself. You should be out there looking for the person responsible instead of quizzing me.’ Ruby almost snorted at his presumption that he was exempt as a suspect. Downes went on to explain their next steps and how they would progress with a search. ‘It’s important we gather some background knowledge of your home life. But rest assured, we have our best officers on the case.’ His smooth, reassuring tone seemed to do the trick as Sherman’s shoulders dropped half an inch. Ruby smiled inwardly as she observed the conversation.

It was her power that was winding this man up. He liked his women subservient, submissive. The total opposite of her. ‘We haven’t been married that long, just three years,’ Sherman said. ‘Melissa’s spending was out of control. I had to establish some ground rules. She had the house, the car, she wanted for nothing.’ Except for your respect, Ruby thought, swallowing back her disgust. ‘How much did she spend?’ Downes said. Sherman’s lips visibly tightened before volunteering the information.

‘Six thousand pounds – in one day. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of this when you should be concentrating on where she’s gone.’ ‘We’ll have to seize her phone,’ Ruby said, ‘it may provide clues as to her whereabouts. Does she have a computer?’ ‘No, she’s not into technology,’ Phillip said. ‘Her phone is upstairs.’ Ruby gave a slow nod. ‘It’s procedure to search the premises. Are you happy for officers to do so now?’ Phillip sighed. ‘Very well, if you must. But I don’t want any leaks to the press.

’ Taking a deep breath, Ruby opened her mouth to speak but was quickly interrupted by Downes. ‘My team are making enquiries as we speak. It’s important you contact us if you receive any outside communications. Do you have any other postal or electronic addresses: work? Private?’ Sherman stretched to place his empty glass on the coffee table before him. ‘Work, of course, but why send a random note there after posting a finger to my home? It makes no sense.’ ‘Perhaps not to us,’ Ruby said, ‘but I’d advise you check your work mail as a matter of urgency.’ ‘The Fields of Athenry’ blasted out from Downes’s pocket as his work phone burst into life. After mumbling his excuses, he departed the room, but not before shooting Ruby a warning look. Ruby would have felt mildly insulted, had she not known him so well. ‘Is there anyone that may hold a grudge against you or your wife?’ ‘I thought I made my position clear, officer.

’ Phillip looked down his nose at her. ‘Do you know who I am?’ ‘It’s Sergeant Preston, and yes, I’m aware,’ Ruby replied, curtly. ‘Well, then you would know that my wife and I are not in the habit of mixing with the criminal element. I interview politicians. In fact, the last person I grilled was our very own prime minister. Are you suggesting our fine leader kidnapped my wife and chopped her finger off?’ ‘Of course not,’ Ruby said. ‘But I don’t understand why you’re so defensive. That is unless you’ve something to hide?’ ‘Why, I’ve never been so insulted…’ Phillip said, his mouth gaping open as DI Downes walked back into the room. ‘Who is your supervisor? I want to make a complaint.’ ‘I am,’ Downes replied.

‘Thank you for your time, Mr Sherman. I’ve just spoken to the family liaison officer, DC Ian Rutherford, who’s on his way. In the meantime, I’ll leave you in the capable hands of the uniformed officers. They’ll take a formal statement before carrying out a quick search of the premises and making some local enquiries.’ Plucking a business card from his back pocket, Downes passed it over. ‘Here’s my details, we’ll be in touch in due course.’ Downes exercised less control in the car on the way to the station. ‘Jesus, Ruby, why do you have to get people’s back up all the time? The man’s wife has gone missing. Is that any way to behave?’ ‘So he says,’ Ruby replied. ‘Did you see the way he looked at me? Sexist, misogynistic pig.

’ The corners of Downes’s eyes creased in mild amusement. ‘Sexist or not he’s still a victim… unless you think otherwise.’ ‘I’m not buying that Melissa didn’t use a computer. Everyone has access to technology these days. Given her profession, she’s bound to be active on social media at the very least.’ ‘Perhaps if I didn’t have to pull you out of there to swerve a complaint, we could have asked him.’ Ruby braked hard as the traffic lights blared red. ‘Perhaps if he weren’t such a wanker his wife wouldn’t have left.’ ‘Is that what you’re thinking now?’ Downes said, pressing his hand against the dashboard of the car as they came to a sudden halt. ‘I’m just saying, is that finger really hers? Maybe that six grand spend was a pay-off for some elaborate fake kidnap attempt.

’ ‘And what happens when he makes the payment?’ Downes said, sighing heavily. ‘She disappears with the cash. Reinvents herself. What has she got to hang around for? A failing career, a husband who sees her as nothing but a trophy wife. It’s worth considering, don’t you think?’ ‘Yes, except that finger was posted days ago. Why hasn’t contact been made?’ ‘Well that,’ Ruby said, pressing her foot on the accelerator as the light turned green, ‘is what I intend to find out.’

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