General Release Date: 23rd February 2021
Word Count: 33,482
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
Genres: CONTEMPORARY, CRIME, CRIME AND MYSTERY, EROTIC ROMANCE, GAY, GLBTQI, MEN IN UNIFORM
What happens when the person you can’t get out of your head also happens to be the number one suspect in your murder investigation?
Derek Benson, CEO of Benson Industries, is found dead in his office at a time when everyone in the building, including him, should have been at an important meeting about the company’s future. Conveniently for the killer, the security footage from the time of the murder has vanished.
None of this fazes FBI Agent James Solomon. James knows himself, his job and how to set aside his ongoing personal problems to get the job done, even when the investigation is in a small-town backwater like Winton.
There’s just one problem—the intriguing form of young lab technician Leo Hannah, an employee of Benson Industries and a key witness, who appears to know more than he’s admitting to.
As the investigation progresses, James finds that his previously steadfast ability to separate personal from professional becomes increasingly unreliable. Can he get his head in the game before he compromises the investigation and his future career?
Reader advisory: Ths book contains a scene of public sex, graphic corpse description, and scenes involving violence, abduction and attempted murder.
James Solomon knew it was unprofessional—unethical, even—to be grateful for the murder of a high-profile businessman two days before what would have been his parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. But his robust professional pride couldn’t put a dent in the very real relief he felt when the call had come through.
He climbed out of the rented car outside Benson Industries HQ and breathed in the brisk sea breeze. The early morning was still gloomy, casting everything in shadow. Gibson slammed the passenger door with a sigh as a woman in a sheriff’s uniform hurried over to meet them.
“Agents, thanks for coming so quickly.”
“No problem, Sheriff,” Gibson replied, her face schooled professionally blank. “The sooner we start, the better. Sheriff Coyle, right?”
“That’s right,” the middle-aged woman said, her smile doing nothing to warm the pale set of her face.
“Agent Lisa Gibson,” Gibson responded, shaking the other woman’s hand then indicating James. “Agent James Solomon. We’ve had the incident reports, but can you fill us in using your own words?”
“Sure. Follow me,” Sheriff Coyle said, her voice a bit steadier. She preceded them to the wide, glass entrance and swiped a card through a reader. They paced past the empty reception desk and down a marble-tiled corridor. The place was deserted, the black eyes of cameras the only things watching them. “The vic is Derek Benson, fifty-five years old,” the sheriff continued. “Born here in Winton, then got a job with the FDA in Maryland after college. Struck out on his own at age thirty. Now he’s the owner, CEO, director—you name it—of Benson Industries.”
“Specialist pharmaceuticals, right?” Gibson asked, scanning reports on her phone.
“That’s right. Pulling in some pretty serious business these days. Some big names on the client list. That’s why we called you guys in.”
“So what happened?”
“Benson was found by the janitor in his office this morning, shot three times in the chest.”
“Time of death?” Gibson asked.
“Our ME is putting it around nine p.m. last night, though he says he can be more accurate after the postmortem.”
“And you said the security camera footage is missing?” Gibson asked, eyeing another camera as they strode past.
“Yeah,” said the sheriff with a weary exasperation James could more than identify with. “The security system backs up everything onto disk. The disks from eight p.m. last night to three this morning have been taken.”
“No online backup?” James ventured, not hopefully, as they stepped onto an elevator.
Coyle shook her head. “I don’t think Benson trusted the cloud and all that. They’re dusting the Security Room for prints where the disks were kept now.”
“Did Benson often work that late?” Gibson asked as the elevator hummed up to the seventh floor.
“He put a lot of hours in, sure, but there was some kind of business presentation last night. All the heads of department and senior staff were here from seven-thirty onward. Plus, some of the lab rats were working late on a deadline.”
“Lab rats?” James queried, as Coyle led them out onto a level that was all glass walls and spacious offices with big desks and bold, minimalist furniture.
“The technicians,” she said, glancing this way and that, as if wary of what might be hiding in the maze of glass. “We have a list of everyone who was in the building at the time from the swipe system, though so far no one saw anyone leave the conference room or the labs.”
“How many people are we talking?” Gibson, warily.
Coyle pulled a battered notepad from a back pocket and flipped through it. “Thirty-one.”
“That’s a lot of people with opportunity,” Gibson muttered.
“One of them was his wife,” Coyle added. “Melissa Benson.”
“His wife was at the business meeting?”
Coyle nodded. “She’s a senior partner in the firm. She delivered one of the presentations.”
“At what time?”
“Pretty much the same time they reckon he was shot,” Coyle said and grimaced. “Sorry.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want it to be too easy. She looks younger than him,” Gibson said, examining a photo of Melissa Benson on the arm of her husband at some event on a news website.
“She’s his second wife. He and his first divorced about ten years ago.”
“I’m afraid so,” Coyle said with another sympathetic expression.
“What did you think of the victim?” James asked, watching the sheriff’s face.
“Me?” Her forehead creased. “I didn’t know him.”
“But you knew of him,” James pressed. “Big company. Small town. You had to have some impression of what he was like.”
Coyle slid him a sideways glance. “He did stuff for some local charities. Donated to a few nature conservation causes and the homeless actions—that kind of thing.”
“But?” James prompted, seeing her face had tightened.
Coyle looked uncomfortable. “He hired most of his staff from out-of-town. They don’t live here. They don’t contribute to the economy and they can get the locals’ backs up. Snobbish, some say. Elitist.”
“What would you say?”
“I’ve never had much contact,” Coyle hedged. “They’re law-abiding and keep to themselves.”
“What do you make of the wife, Melissa?”
“She’s not upset?”
“Oh, she’s upset,” Coyle said. “But she’s not the sort to go to pieces in front of the likes of me.”
“The report said the murder weapon was his own gun,” James said, carefully logging the sheriff’s last reply away for further consideration.
“Sure looks that way. He kept it in his desk.” Coyle stopped at one of the glass doors, where a uniformed officer, looking a little green, stood at attention. The body of Derek Benson was slumped in a large, designer office chair under the window. Blood splattered up the glass behind him, looking like red rain suspended in the gray sky. The crime-scene photographer was taking close-ups of the bullet wounds while his partner, who looked old enough to have been the scene technician at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, was bent over the desk, sweeping for prints as delicately as if he were applying makeup.
“We don’t get much murder here,” Coyle murmured. “Winton’s a peaceful town. We get some drugs, some drunk and disorderlies, a bit of fraud. But stuff like this?” She shook her head.
“A big company shoe-horned into a small community,” James ventured, watching both the officers’ faces, “can cause friction.”
Coyle raised her eyebrows. “Big companies are fine. But BI’s too big—and only likely to get bigger.”
“Oh yes?” Gibson prompted, pulling on some gloves and pushing open the door.
“That’s what they’re saying that presentation was about,” Coyle said, hanging back near the door as Gibson bent over the body. “They’re striking a deal with an international distributer for their newest antiviral.”
“Do you know which distributer?” James asked, examining the photographs hanging on the interior wall. Black-and-white shots of the local harbor, mostly, plus a few of the hills west of the town.
Coyle frowned at her notepad, ruffling the pages. “It’s in here somewhere. I’m sure it went in the report.”
“It did,” Gibson replied, giving James a hard look. “Loadstone Inc.”
Coyle smiled a relieved smile, and Gibson went back to scrutinizing the crumpled form of Derek Benson. His chin was on his chest. A rope of blood-speckled saliva hung from a corner of his lined mouth. His skin was yellow-gray and his limbs stiff with the rigor of someone dead nearly twelve hours. His hands, hairless and manicured, rested in his lap. His eyebrows were heavy and dark. His thinning hair was iron gray, though still almost black at the nape. He wore an expensive suit and a dark, conservative tie. Blood soaked his shirtfront and pooled under the chair. The gun was on the floor by the desk. A desk drawer stood wide open.
“All three shots went right into his heart,” Gibson said, leaning close to the wounds. “The killer knew how to shoot.”
“There’s a lock on the drawer but not a complex one,” James said, examining the keypad on the drawer front.
“And there’s no signs of a struggle,” Gibson replied, surveying the rest of the meticulously tidy office.
James nodded. “Someone he knew. Someone he trusted too—or at least someone he wasn’t afraid of or he’d have been standing.”
“But that could be any one of the thirty-one people in the building last night,” Gibson said sourly. She stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at the corpse like it had done her personal harm. “The question is, did he get the gun out himself or did the killer?”
“Business expansion,” James said, tilting the computer monitor toward him. The screen saver was another artistic shot of Winton Harbor. James began entering the most popular password choices. “Not always a popular move.”
“And why was he here?” Gibson frowned. “With a big-deal presentation evening happening in the conference room and the future of his company in the balance?”
“And he’s sitting in his office four floors up,” James affirmed, smiling when ‘qwerty123’ allowed him into the computer. “Writing an email to personnel, by the look of it.” He gestured at the screen. Gibson came to his elbow and bent to examine the open, unsent email with ‘Contract Termination’ typed into the subject line and a blinking cursor in the blank form.
Gibson was quiet a moment. James moved to a set of bookshelves against the far wall and scanned the titles. Tomes on business management, chemistry, biology, academic journals on pharmaceuticals and FDA manuals took up most of the upper shelves. The lower ones held several battered volumes on the history of Winton and the surrounding area, plus some on blues, jazz and soul music, with a Frank Sinatra biography thrown in for good measure.
“I think we have all we need,” Gibson said to Coyle, who was watching them with an expectant air. “The ME can take him away now.” Coyle nodded and stepped back out into the corridor, dialing a number on her cell. “And how about you stop making digs at the local law enforcement, Agent?” Gibson scolded softly.
“If they slip up this early on, it’ll end in roadblocks,” he returned, watching Coyle through the glass. “And we need to establish local feeling about the situation.”
“Consider it established. Are you getting anything on this guy?”
“He loved his town…and music,” James mused, glancing around the office again. “But I think he loved his company more.”
“His company grossed several million last year. I can see why he had a soft spot for it.” Coyle was just hanging up the phone as they rejoined her. “Okay, Sheriff. We need you to round up the employees from last night. We’ll question them here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Most of them will be turning up to work at eight anyway.”
“Good,” said Gibson, looking at her watch and repressing a sigh. “Tell them they can only have the building back when we’re done. That’ll get them through the door.”
Coyle nodded and hurried off.
“We’re doing the interviews here?” James questioned.
“One,” Gibson said, holding up a finger and moving back toward the elevator, “interviewing near the crime scene could get the killer twitchy and we might get a hit early, meaning I can be back in time for my husband’s promotion dinner tomorrow. And two,” she said, stabbing the elevator button with more force than was necessary, “getting everyone across town to the Winton Police Station with its single interview room and stone-age Wi-Fi will add hours to the whole damn circus. I’m not paid enough to be here any longer than necessary on what should have been my vacation week.”
James set up his interview station in the room he was directed to, put the digital recorder on the desk, pulled out a new, leather-bound notepad and re-read the initial reports on his phone as the clock ticked toward eight a.m.
He frowned when his personal phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, saw the number and cut the call. Shortly after, a police officer ushered in a tall woman in a business suit. She was already flustered and annoyed. James could already see a queue of similarly well-dressed and irritated people lining up outside. He flipped open his notebook, indicated the chair opposite and began.
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About the Author
J. Coles is a Romance writer originally from Shropshire, UK. She has been writing stories for as long as she has been able to read them. Her biggest passion is exploring narratives through character relationships.
She finds writing LGBT/paranormal romance provides many unique and fulfilling opportunities to explore many (often neglected or under-represented) aspects of human experience, expectation, emotion and sexuality.
Among her biggest influences are LGBT Romance authors K J Charles and Josh Lanyon and Vampire Chronicles author Anne Rice.
Find S. J. Coles at her website and follow her on Instagram.
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