Robby's head tilted as he studied the painting. "I suppose its purpose is to help a man be prepared."
Jean-Luc stood beside him, his gaze also glued to the painting. "That makes sense from a business point of view. If the men are ready to perform, then they can move the customers through more quickly."
"And make more money," Robby concluded.
"Hello?" Heather waved a hand in front of their faces to get their attention. "We're looking for a homicidal maniac, remember?"
Robby jerked as if coming out of a trance. "I'll take a look around." He returned to the foyer and clambered up the stairs.
Heather glanced at the painting, then frowned at Jean-Luc. "Are you done?"
His mouth twitched. "I feel a bit sorry for her. All the men who came through here, and still, she needs to find pleasure by her own hand."
Heather shrugged. "If you want a job done right, you gotta do it yourself."
He arched a brow. "Has it been that way for you?"
She scoffed. "I wasn't talking about myself."
"Are you sure? Didn't your ex have only three steps?"
Heather felt her cheeks grow warm. "I wonder what happened to Mrs. Bolton." She headed toward a closed door and knocked before cracking it open. "Hello?"
"Allow me." Jean-Luc withdrew his foil, then entered the room first.
Heather smoothed a hand over the wall and found the light switch. A small crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, circled by a mirror edged in a gold, ornate frame. The mirror reflected the lights, making that part of the ceiling sparkle, but Heather suspected the mirror had other purposes as well, seeing that it was situated over a large bed.
The bed and windows were lined with red satin and lace. Red wallpaper, flocked with black cupids, covered the walls. A large desk with pigeonholes sat in the corner.
"The madam's room, I believe." Jean-Luc looked inside a closet. "Though it looks like she did some entertaining herself."
"Yep." Heather motioned to a pair of handcuffs linked through the bed's wrought-iron headboard. "Looks like she needed to be in charge all the time."
Jean-Luc frowned. "I could never submit to that. I don't like to feel powerless."
Heather snorted. "You would have to trust me not to hurt you." She winced. "I mean whoever was with you." Her face grew hot.
He smiled slowly as he approached. "Are you inviting me to your bed, chérie?"
"No. I was speaking theoretically." She crossed her arms. "Though I doubt I would need to chain you to the bed."
"No, you would not." His eyes twinkled. "Would I need to chain you? Theoretically speaking."
She shoved her hair back from her damp forehead. This theory was getting too hot to handle. "I need to feel that I'm in control."
"Ah, now you have given me a challenge." He stepped closer. "To make you lose control."
She swallowed hard. "I think we're getting off course. We need to find Mrs. Bolton." She strode toward another door.
Jean-Luc went through first, and she followed. It appeared to be a less formal parlor, a place for the ladies to relax when off duty. It opened onto the foyer and the next room, which was the kitchen. There they found the door leading into the cellar.
Robby joined them and insisted on going down first. He flipped the light switch. Nothing happened.
"Could be a blown fuse," Jean-Luc said.
Heather retrieved her flashlight from her purse and lit the stairs. Robby went first, followed by Jean-Luc and Heather. At the bottom she shone the flashlight around, illuminating a small storeroom with shelves. The cellar was obviously divided into more than one room.
"Do you smell that?" Robby asked quietly.
"Yes." Jean-Luc grabbed Heather's arm. "I'm taking you back to the car."
"What? Why?" She saw Robby going into the next room. She sniffed the air but could smell nothing but dust.
"Lui's not here," Robby called from the next room. "But I need the torch."
"Merde." Jean-Luc wrapped his left arm around Heather. "Stay with me."
She shivered, and the light wavered as they entered the next room.
"The wall to your left," Robby's voice came out of the darkness. "That's where I smell it."
She pointed her flashlight at the wall and gasped when letters in red appeared. It was a message, but not in English.
"It's French." Jean-Luc took her flashlight and panned across the words. "It says, 'We will meet at the time of my choosing.' Signed with an L."
"Louie," Heather whispered and stepped back. "He was here."
Robby stepped close to the wall and examined the red letters. "'Tis fresh."
With a gasp, Heather realized it wasn't paint on the wall. It was blood. Fresh blood. She stepped back, her skin crawling with gooseflesh. "He left the message for us. He knew we were coming."
"Yes." Jean-Luc continued to study the message.
Bile rose in her throat. Where did all that blood come from? She stepped back and tripped.
"Aagh!" She fell back and landed on something bulky. She screamed again.
Jean-Luc quickly turned the beam of the flashlight on her. And the dead body.
"Oh my God!" She scrambled away.
A woman's body lay on the cellar floor, her throat slit. Jean-Luc and Robby rushed forward.
Heather slapped a hand over her mouth. Jean-Luc grabbed her. Everything went black for a second, and she blinked, nauseated and dizzy.
A breeze wafted over her face, and she realized she was in the parking lot next to Jean-Luc's BMW. She must have fainted for a minute because she couldn't recall getting there.
"Let's get you home," Jean-Luc bundled her into the car.
With shaking hands, she dropped her purse onto the floorboard. Poor Mrs. Bolton. She'd become Louie's first victim in Texas. With a shudder, Heather realized she'd thought the word first.
They couldn't let Louie kill again. Especially when she and her daughter were on his list.
Back at home, Jean-Luc paced the hallway outside the kitchen. Never again. No matter how much Heather pleaded with her pretty green eyes, he was not taking her on another hunt. Not when Lui was leaving dead bodies behind.
Merde. There'd been too much blood on the wall. The smell of it had been so powerful, he hadn't sensed the dead body on the floor.
Heather rushed down the backstairs. Her face was still pale, and her gaze flitted about nervously.
"Are they all right?" he asked.
"Yes. Bethany's asleep, and Fidelia's reading. She could tell something was wrong, but I didn't want to talk about it."
Heather strode into the kitchen, and Jean-Luc followed her. "I don't even want to think about it." She washed her hands in the sink, then wrung them dry with a towel. "It was so awful."
"I shouldn't have let you go." He poured her a glass of water. "Here. Unless you want something stronger."
"This is fine." She gulped down half the glass. "Fidelia was right. Louie was hiding there in the cellar."
"Oui. But he's moved on now, and we don't know where."
"Poor Mrs. Bolton." Heather shuddered. "I don't understand. Why would she let a creepy killer stay in her basement? Was he threatening her or tricking her somehow?"
Jean-Luc frowned. He would have to divulge some information. "Lui was probably controlling her. He's adept at manipulating minds."
Heather's eyes widened. "Then Fidelia was right again. He's psychic."
"Yes. He uses people and then discards them." With a gulp, Jean-Luc realized it was time to tell her more. If he wanted their relationship to develop and last, and he did, then he needed to be honest with her. His heart raced. What if she rejected him? He would have to be very careful. He couldn't let her run away and face Lui alone.
She sighed. "I know Robby has already called Billy, but I dread talking to him. I don't want to relive that horrible scene all over again." She turned on the faucet and rinsed her hands once more.
"Heather." He turned the water off. "You can't wash it away."
Her eyes glistened with tears, and her hands shook as she dried them. "I'm trying to be brave, but I keep remembering her body. I just want it all to go away."
The kitchen door cracked open, and Robby peered inside. "The sheriff's outside."