Mary Stone - Fatal Lies (Sky Stryker Series Book 2)

A Taste of… Fatal Lies

Chapter One

Delia Shaw’s fingers trembled as she glanced at her watch. She curled them into a fist in an attempt to hide her jitters from herself.

At seven o’clock on the dot, she stood in front of a dark, spacious warehouse in east Brooklyn. Dilapidated, boarded-up buildings loomed in the distance, accentuating the seedy vibe. A dimly lit basketball court across the street sat abandoned and littered with trash. Weeds jutted up through the heavily cracked sidewalk at her feet.

She glanced at the address on a scrap of paper, checking that this was the right place and grimacing as she confirmed this was indeed the spot.

Go. Just get this over with. Ten grand, remember?

With a sharp intake of breath, she brushed her short ebony hair away from her face. Lifting her chin and pulling her shoulders back, she took on the pose that made her feel more confident than she really was.

Fake it ’til you make it, right?

She was lucky her agent at Pinnacle Modeling had offered her this lucrative gig. Delia’s face heated as she remembered the humiliating moment she’d gone to Gil Stetson and requested—she refused to use the word begged—the extra work.

Eight years in the modeling industry, and she was still reduced to scrambling for table scraps like this random gig in a shitty neighborhood, far from the glitz and glamourous life she’d once imagined. Despite booking plenty of regular gigs, she’d learned that her career offered little more than long hours, irregular income, and a constant state of financial insecurity. Not to mention enduring every version of hell the industry could put a young woman through, including the kind of job she was headed to now.

“I’ve been waiting for that big contract for almost a decade.” Her whisper in the night was met with empty silence on the lonely street. “But it’s not going to happen. I’ll be thirty in a few years. I’m never going to be the face of a brand.”

Delia lowered her chin as shame and disappointment washed over her in one cascading wave.

Instead, I’m going to make rent, pay my credit cards, and battle the ungodly amount of compounding student loan debt from my unfinished NYU degree by begging my agent for “alternative” work of the intimate, unsavory, nighttime sort.

Dammit. She’d used the word begged.

Her mind flashed to the pile of bills on her kitchen table with their bright red Past Due notes stamped on the front. She squared her shoulders. Modesty certainly wasn’t going to pay the bills.

The work ahead of her might be degrading, but she would at least maintain some semblance of self-respect and class in the way she presented herself.

Forcing her head high, Delia clutched her jacket and marched toward the entrance. She raised a fist and banged as hard as she could on the door.

Apprehension rippled through the pit of her stomach as she took in the surrounding shadows.

Almost makes you regret dumping Marcus, doesn’t it?

Marcus had been a sugar daddy she’d secured through Gil’s connections. Entertaining Marcus on the reg had kept her financial woes in check. But reflecting on what she’d had to do to survive in the city via keeping Marcus happy brought the bitter taste of bile up in her throat.

Four months ago, when she’d discovered he was married with two kids, she’d cut ties with him and returned all his gifts. Thankfully, she’d held off on moving into the studio apartment on East Broadway that Marcus had bought for her.

She’d sworn to never participate in that kind of business ever again, but here she was, diving back into the ugly underbelly of the fashion industry.

It’s either that or face ruin. Ten grand isn’t going to fall from the sky. You can handle this. Gil said it was a simple private session with a photographer. Let the guy take the nudes. You’re taking home the money.

The warehouse door creaked open.

The man on the other side was gripping a camera. He ran his gaze from her face and down the length of her body with a curious expression. “You’re the girl from Pinnacle?”

Delia eyed him too. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, medium build, not exactly muscular or tall, he looked normal enough. Nothing about him gave off any of the creeper vibes she’d anticipated, given the location and time of this photo shoot. In fact, the guy seemed unassuming.

Still, a squirm in her gut told her something was off.

She nodded. “Yes.”

“Great.” He pulled the door open wider. “Come on in.”

Ignoring her discomfort, Delia stepped inside the warehouse, her footsteps echoing off the bare cement floor.

The place had been gutted, leaving nothing but concrete and walls in all directions save for the far back corner, where a backdrop had been set up. An abstract monstrosity of splattered paint that resembled an homage to Jackson Pollock. Ugly as it was, at least the setting had the right lighting configuration for photos.

The man cleared his throat, redirecting Delia’s attention.

How long had he been holding his hand out for her to shake?

He wasn’t exactly what she’d been expecting. The usual after-hours clients Gil booked were pudgy, middle-aged, wannabe mafiosi. But this guy was nothing of the sort. Appearing somewhere between his late twenties and early thirties, he sported a boyish handsomeness despite his shaggy brown hair and five-o’clock shadow.

“Sorry.” She shook his warm, calloused hand and met his gaze.

Though it was still a little early to tell, Delia suspected Gil had been truthful about this job being low risk.

“I’m John, by the way.” He held up the camera in front of him. “I’m focusing on natural beauty for this shoot. No makeup or fancy outfits. Honestly, you’re fine the way you are now.”

The tension in her shoulders eased. “Okay. Sounds good.”

John gestured to the colorful backdrop. “Your natural radiance will contrast the chaos of color behind you.” He gave her a lopsided smile. “I hope that’s all right.”

Delia peered at the backdrop. For a job offering ten thousand dollars, she’d expected the setting to be a little more extravagant.

“I know what you’re thinking.” John hunched his shoulders. “It’s pretty bare. But that’s what the client wants for this shoot. Kind of a behind-the-scenes meta look. Most of the magic happens on the computer. Once I’m finished editing the photos for the site, they’ll be beautiful. Trust me.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And the payment…”

John blinked. “That was all arranged prior to the shoot. The money will be wired through the regular channels.”

Delia released the breath she’d been holding. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to make sure—”

“That you were in the right place because it looks like I can’t afford to pay you five dollars?”

A sheepish grin slipped onto her face, and she shrugged. This was one of the highest paying gigs she’d had in a long time. She hadn’t meant to offend the hand that was about to feed her.

With a dismissive wave, John threw back his head and laughed. “Don’t worry. No offense taken. Why don’t we go ahead and get started?”

Relief flooding her, Delia followed John farther into the warehouse.

He gestured toward a couch off to the side of the backdrop. Beside the sofa was a folding screen. “You can set your things there. Give me one second.”

She shed her jacket and set down her purse while John disappeared behind a door. Under the assumption that her photo shoot wouldn’t involve much in terms of wardrobe, she’d dressed in a pair of leggings and a Purple Rain t-shirt, figuring she needed something easy to slip on and off to move things along more quickly.

Just as she was about to take a seat on the couch, John returned with a black drape in hand. “All right. We’re going for contrast. Balance to the chaos of the back screen. I’m going to have you wrap yourself in this drape. Treat it like a high fashion garment. We’re going to play with shape and form. I want you to really pop against the background colors.” He jerked his chin at her. “I love your jet-black hair, by the way. It’ll add nicely to the effect.”

“Thanks.” Delia reached for the drape, trying to imagine the final layout of the photos. “You’re right. Those will look nice.”

“Thank you.” He gestured to the folding screen. “You can change behind there. You’ll probably need to take off the t-shirt so it doesn’t show. We’ll start with headshots first, so wrap the drape around you like a sleeveless dress. And I need to see bare shoulders for these first few shots.”

At least she wouldn’t be completely nude. Not at first anyway. “No problem.”

With the drape in tow, Delia retreated behind the folding screen and pulled off her t-shirt, not having worn a bra to avoid any marks on her skin for the shoot. The squirm in her gut eased. The gig seemed harmless. She’d have to ask John to keep her in mind for future opportunities. Making ten grand for this kind of work was something she could get used to.

Delia emerged from behind the folding screen with the drape wrapped around her torso, her shoulders bare, with a hint of cleavage showing. “How’s this?”

“Perfect. Go ahead and stand in front of the backdrop.” John adjusted his camera lens. “Trust your instincts. Strike whatever poses come naturally to you.”

“Okay.” She made her way to the backdrop, the drape trailing behind her like a royal cloak.

Delia dropped into the zone she always tried to find when she was modeling, the one where she felt beautiful and stylish no matter the setting. She leaned to the side, placed her hands on her hips, and hunched her shoulders forward, giving the type of pose that separated model wannabes from the real deal. As John clicked away, she shifted from one pose to another, swishing the black drape as if it were an expensive ball gown she was showing off on the runway.

“You’re a natural. This is exactly what I need.” John snapped a few more photos before lowering his camera. “Thanks. Let’s try a different route now.”

“Cool. Want me to restyle the drape? Maybe pull it over one shoulder for a different look?”

He rubbed his chin. “Actually, we can get rid of the drape for the next few shots.”

Delia blinked, her heart sinking.

There it is. Surprise, surprise.

She should’ve known this shoot was too good to be true. But what did she expect from one of Gil’s after-hours assignments? Although she only resorted to them when money got tight, some of these extra gigs were much worse than a half-nude photo shoot. She should be grateful the “work” didn’t involve sleeping with this client. It wouldn’t be the first time.

In the absence of clicking shutters, an eerie quiet enveloped the warehouse. John stood stock-still, studying her with a banal expression that seemed to Delia almost like a dare.

Posing topless was no big deal, and Delia had done it before. Most models eventually had to. But here? Alone in this warehouse?

Her gut squirmed again, her stomach somersaulting with nerves.

Ten grand. Come on. For ten thousand, this is nothing.

She swallowed and took a deep breath before loosening the knot she’d placed in the drape and dropping the black cloth to the floor. A chill caressed her bare skin. She suppressed the urge to shudder, trying to maintain her professional demeanor as a nagging feeling of dread inched its way up her spine.

“Perfect.” John’s gaze darkened, lingering on her breasts. “Go ahead, just like before. Strike whatever poses come naturally.”

Delia closed her eyes and took another deep breath, trying to get back into her modeling zone. Shaking off her jitters, she turned around and glanced over her shoulder, forcing a sultry smile as she ran other poses through her mind to do next. John snapped photos, muttering words of encouragement and approval with each flash of the camera.

“All right. I’d say it’s time for some full-body shots now. Those leggings clash with my backdrop.” His tone hardened into a more demanding, businesslike edge. “Go ahead and remove the rest of your clothing.”

Delia pursed her lips.

How had she been stupid enough to convince herself this photo shoot would be aboveboard? Deep down, she’d expected this, but she’d let herself pretend everything would be classy and respectful.

She glanced over at the folding screen. There was no point in modesty now. John and his camera were going to see her entire body in a matter of seconds.

Gritting her teeth, she stepped out of her shoes, pulled off her socks, and removed her leggings, all the while trying to ignore John’s intrusive stare.

His eyes lit up, and he licked his lips. “Beautiful.”

Bite me.

Delia squared her shoulders, trying to exude confidence despite the unease and self-consciousness running through her.

There’d been subtle changes to her body over the years. As a teen and early twentysomething, her fast metabolism had kept her all skin and bones no matter how much she ate. She’d boasted the kind of figure fashion designers put on a pedestal. Now in her late twenties, she had to work out more often to ward off extra pounds. And although she remained thin, she had developed some noticeable curves.

Of course, the fat-shaming fashion industry didn’t approve. Only a couple weeks earlier, a designer had complained about Delia’s fuller hips.

John, on the other hand, clearly didn’t mind. This was the main reason that aging or heavier models resorted to gigs run by people like him.

Delia’s movements grew stiff in the absence of her clothes. The modeling zone she’d found earlier eluded her now. She kept her head high, trying to insert a sense of sophistication to her pose, while strategically twisting her legs and positioning her hands over her chest for coverage.

“Can you lie down on the floor for me?” Though John phrased it as a question, the steely undercurrent in his voice implied an order.

With clenched teeth, Delia obeyed, settling onto the cold cement floor. Goose bumps peppered her flesh as she crossed her legs and draped her arms across her chest.

John lowered the camera, an air of impatience emanating from him. “All right. Prop onto your elbows and…open your legs.” A lecherous smile spread across his face. “Keep your eyes on me.” He moved closer and dropped to one knee, preparing to take some up close and personal shots.

Delia didn’t move. Being spread-eagle in front of a camera—especially with the photographer so close—was asking too much.

“What the hell is this for?” The question snapped out of her mouth. She needed the money, but she was starting to doubt these photos were for an artsy website like John had claimed.

If she was going to pose in such suggestive positions, Delia at least deserved to know what the images were really going to be used for.

John stared at her. His eyes narrowed into beady slits. A shiver ran through Delia.

To hell with this. I’ll find another way to pay the bills. I don’t know how, but I’ll come up with something.

She attempted to get up, but John scrambled in closer, preventing her from climbing to her feet. He reached out and gripped her shoulder hard, shoving her back down. There was nothing unassuming about his manner now.

“I’ll be the one asking questions. And as it turns out, I don’t have any. So do you know what that means?” His lip curled in a snarl. “It means you keep your mouth shut, mind your attitude, and do whatever the hell I tell you to. Otherwise, you can kiss your payment goodbye. Understood?”

Tears stung Delia’s eyes. She tried to blink them away, not wanting to appear weak. A tightness formed in her chest as an ache twisted in her shoulder where he’d shoved her. She struggled to fill her lungs, reminding herself how desperately she needed this money.

John returned to his knees and raised his camera. “Now, are you going to pose for these pictures, or do I need to find another girl?”

She’d already made it this far. Delia could grit her teeth and finish the shoot. Couldn’t she?

Ten grand. I can do this for ten grand.

Delia counted in her head, trying to soothe herself and concentrate on her breathing. She leaned back, propping onto her elbows as she parted her legs like he’d asked.

The shutter clicked as she tried to bury her humiliation deep down and keep her gaze from turning hateful on John and his camera lens.

“Now, turn around and get on all fours.” It was a command.

Delia silently chanted the words like a mantra as the photographer ordered her into increasingly explicit positions. She’d almost succeeded in mentally checking out, drifting away from her current surroundings. In her mind, she was lounging on the beach sipping a piña colada, reading a—

The sound of approaching footsteps snapped her back to reality.

Delia’s heart pounded, sending a flood of adrenaline through her system.

Another man had joined them, maybe a decade or so older than John. Dark hair topped his tall frame, and Delia bet his impeccably-cut suit cost more than the ten grand she was getting paid. But the effect of the suit paled in comparison to the most striking component of his appearance. A white mask covered his face like a modern-day Phantom of the Opera, obscuring his identity.

The blood drained from her face.

I’m going to die…

The man looked from Delia to John and back again, sweeping his gaze along her naked body. “How about she and I take some pictures together now?” His low whisper sent chills down her bare spine.

John bowed to the man. The commanding lasciviousness he’d displayed with her melted into acquiescence in the masked man’s presence. “As you wish, sir.”

Shit. I’ve got to get out of here.

Delia scrambled to her feet, ready to grab her clothes and make a run for it. To hell with the money. The only thing that mattered now was getting the hell away from these two before the night took a dangerous turn.

John angled his body between her and the door. “And where do you think you’re going?”

Giving the photographer a hard shove, Delia dashed to the couch for her clothes. But in an instant, both men descended on her. John seized her right arm and yanked her backward, his fingers digging hard into her flesh. She yelped in pain, struggling to regain her footing, as the masked terror clutched her other arm. Behind the expressionless white mask, his sinister amber glare bored into her.

Tears she no longer cared about hiding streamed down her cheeks. Delia screamed into the blank white face. Behind the mask, his laughs echoed with a menace that chilled her even more. And why wouldn’t he laugh? Her panicked screams only reverberated into the vast emptiness of the warehouse.

No one could hear her.

Or help her.

Chapter Two

Sky Stryker rested her head in her hands, trying to gather her thoughts. Exhaling a defeated sigh, she examined her work desk, which was covered in notes detailing what she wanted to include in her book. Organizing the scattered ideas was proving to be a Herculean task. Her butt had been glued to the chair for hours, and although it was nearly midnight, she didn’t plan to go to bed until she made more progress.

There was so much she wanted to say. And considering the price tag of living in New York City, she needed to figure out how to say it. Fast. Her rental manager wouldn’t care if she was struggling with writer’s block, and neither would the electric company.

Yet rushing the words wasn’t an option either. The subject matter was heavy…as well as near and dear to her heart.

Nearly two months ago, her cousin had been murdered, her body found in a garment bag in the Hudson River. Paying tribute to Megan Nowicki had become a calling for Sky, and she wouldn’t do it half-assed. She refused to rest until she completed her book, letting the world know what a magnificent person the young woman had been.

Megan’s light had been snuffed out too soon, and Sky’s book would ensure her cousin’s memory—her legacy—was more than just a wisp of smoke in the wind.

And despite her rough start with life in NYC, Sky found she didn’t quite want to give up on the Big Apple. She’d made some friends, and the fast-paced atmosphere energized her in a way no other place had.

In short, she was home. So she had no choice but to make things work.

“And that means you guys have to move faster.” She wiggled her fingers, catching sight of her reflection in the mirror above her desk.

As a testament to her late-night work sessions, dark circles ringed her wide pale-brown eyes. The auburn hair piled in a bird’s nest on top of her head completed the mad-professor look. At least she lived alone, where no one was privy to her unkempt appearance.

Standing to stretch her legs, she decided to break for a cup of tea to help restore her energy. While waiting for the teakettle to heat, she opened some windows, letting the fresh April night air circulate through the apartment.

With the breeze came all the sounds of the city at night, and she found an odd beauty in the amalgamation of traffic horns and sirens. Sky inhaled deeply, breathing in the essence of the city.

New York truly is The City That Never Sleeps.

A rap sounded at her door.

One day someone will buzz correctly. There were so many people in this building that it was almost too simple a matter to follow someone in.

She jumped back from the window, pausing for a moment in the middle of her apartment before making her way to the entrance. Now that she had some friends, a knock didn’t produce the automatic suspicion or dread that it once had, but she didn’t think the instinctual jolt of fear would ever go away.

She peered out her peephole, half expecting to find her neighbor, Callie. Sky wondered if the woman was surprising her with more of those scrumptious lemon crinkle cookies she’d—

A beaten and battered Delia lurched into view.

“Oh, my god, Delia!” Sky yanked the chain from its catch and pulled open the door, struggling to prevent her stumbling friend from hitting the floor.

The model’s beautiful face was horribly swollen, a combination of red and blue. Her stylish hair disheveled, and her clothing ripped into tatters. Blood dribbled down her chin from her bottom lip, and it seemed that the effort to reach Sky’s third-floor apartment had wiped out the last of her energy.

“What happened?”

Through ragged breaths, Delia locked her tearful gaze on Sky. She tried to speak, but only sobs came out.

She’s been beaten within an inch of her life.

What else was done to her friend?

The sight was like a nightmare, and Sky had to blink several times to realize what she was seeing was real. She half-carried Delia to the couch, lowering her to the cushion and trying to understand the mumbles from her friend.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Sky knelt before her and spoke in a soothing tone. “Just tell me who did this to you. Who hurt you?”

The question sent her friend into a fresh bout of sobs, stronger than the previous wave.

She might not be able to speak for hours at this rate, but she needs help now.

“Don’t worry.” Sky eyed her house keys on the coffee table. “You don’t have to talk about it. Not right now. But we have to get you to the emergency room.”

Delia’s eyes widened with horror at the suggestion, but the point wasn’t up for discussion.

“You don’t have to say a word. And I’ll be at your side every step of the way.” Sky motioned toward the door and kept her tone sympathetic yet firm. “But we’re going. You need a doctor. I’m taking you to the hospital now.”

Sky pulled on some sneakers and snatched her keys, no longer caring how ridiculous she looked. She hoisted her friend up, cringing as Delia winced with every step but thankful she wasn’t fighting the plan.

All that mattered now was getting to the ER and having her friend taken care of.

Sky swallowed a growl rising in her throat.

Someone had nearly killed Delia. And that person was going to pay.

Sex, lies, and murder.

Two months after the murder of her fashion-model cousin and her own near kidnapping, Sky Stryker is more determined than ever to expose the dark side of the fashion industry and memorialize her cousin’s life. Even if it means dredging up her own long-suppressed but never forgotten horrific nightmares.

Then another model is attacked, beaten within an inch of her life.

And another.

The common denominator is a man known only as… Read More