Amy couldn't remember exactly when Lira had become the most important person in her life. Somewhere along the way, she'd gone from being just someone from work, to a friend, to her best friend; and somewhere in there, Amy had started developing feelings that went beyond friendship. For a long time, she had dismissed it as a meaningless crush. After all, everyone had a woman crush at some point, right? And if Lira Ward was part of your life, she was naturally going to be the object of that crush. Lira was the closest thing to a perfect human being Amy had ever seen. She could be a bit odd, but that only added to her charm. She was brilliant, beautiful, kind, and capable. There wasn't anyone else quite like her. Who wouldn't have a crush?
The problem was, it wasn't Amy's first woman crush. She'd never let the others develop into much out of fear of how her family would react. She and her sister had worked hard to please their long-suffering mother after their father had experienced a religious conversion and left her for another (more "spiritually compatible") woman when Amy was twelve. Since then, Amy had tried hard to be the perfect daughter, to prove to her mom that she'd done just fine on her own. She was pretty sure being gay would ruin that, and she knew her father wouldn't approve. It would probably reignite all the fighting between her parents that had led to their divorce in the first place. So she told herself it just wasn't an option, and she sometimes even dated men. Her last relationship had been with Tony, the son of one of her mother's friends. Her mom had thought he was perfect for her. Amy liked to fantasize that she was right, but if she were completely honest, Tony's best quality was that he lived two hours away. Most of their relationship was long distance, which made it easy to imagine that they'd be happy if they were really together. A year ago, he'd stopped contacting Amy, much to her relief. But not having anyone else to focus on made it even harder to ignore her feelings for Lira, which were too strong to really be just a crush. Amy loved her. She loved her more than she'd ever loved anyone.
But there was no way for their relationship to be anything other than what it was right now. For one thing, Lira was straight. For another, Amy's mom adored Lira now, but if she and Amy got together, she'd probably blame Lira for corrupting her perfect daughter. That would suck, because Lira was pretty fond of Amy's mom. And, finally, Amy had a dream in her head for how the rest of her life should go. She knew it wasn't the most realistic dream, but it was one that would make everyone happy, so she had to do her part to try to make it come true. In her dream, she would finally find just the right guy, someone who loved her the way she was and didn't want to domesticate her, and they'd get married and maybe have a kid. Once she had the perfect guy to focus all her romantic feelings on, she would go back to just having regular friend feelings for Lira, and they'd be best friends for the rest of their lives. Lira would also find a husband who truly appreciated her, her kids would grow up with Amy's, Mom would babysit all of them, and everything would be perfect.
It was a nice dream, but lately Amy had been thinking it would make more sense to just marry Lira and forget about trying to find perfect guys for them both. They could have a kid together, if they wanted, and they could certainly make each other happy. People always said you should marry your best friend, right? Sure, Mom would freak out, but she'd get over it eventually, wouldn't she? She'd just be glad Amy was happy, and she'd probably be glad to see Lira happy too.
But there was the catch: Lira wasn't interested in Amy like that. She was just her loyal, devoted best friend, and Amy was not going to do anything to mess that up.
Still, nothing could stop her from grabbing every possible excuse to go next door to the morgue for the chance to hang out with Lira. It was sort of ironic that the morgue had become a place of solace for her, but she and Lira had had many a good heart-to-heart over a dead body. And when she was working on a case as disturbing as this one, she really needed the breath of fresh air that was Lira, even if she was surrounded by the stink of rotting flesh.
"I got the full missing person report on the victim," Amy said as she strolled into the morgue carrying the flyer Luis had printed out. Two days had passed since the body had been found, and Lira had just texted Amy that she had finished the autopsy – mostly, anyway. Final results always took a few weeks. She didn't need to show Amy anything in particular, but Amy decided to come look anyway before they released the body.
"Good. I have cause of death," said Lira. She was outfitted in her usual autopsy gear: scrubs, gown, cap, safety glasses, mask, gloves, and shoe covers. Somehow, she still looked adorable.
"You go first."
"Based on the cutaneous bruising and her fractured larynx, it appears she died of asphyxiation due to manual strangulation."
"That's what I was expecting. And the rape kit?"
"Extensive bruising, tearing, and scarring of the vaginal wall indicate repeated sexual assault. I did find semen, which I'm having tested now."
"Great. With any luck, he'll already be in the system."
"We're also running a tox panel, because I found this." She pointed to the inside of the woman's elbow, where they were several needle marks. "I'm looking for something he could have used to subdue her. She doesn't have a lot of defensive wounds, and the only evidence I can find that she was physically restrained was the bruising around her right ankle." She lifted the sheet to show Amy what she meant. "It's consistent with the bruising you would see if someone was handcuffed for an extended period of time."
"Which is enough to keep her from running away, but not enough to keep her from trying to gouge the man's eyes out every time he raped her. He probably did drug her to keep her from fighting too much. Then again, the fight probably went out of her eventually." She held up the flyer. "Kelly Bruin, age 34. She had a husband and two kids, and went missing three months ago. When her husband made the report, he said their kids' school called him at work when she failed to pick them up. When he got home, he found her car in the driveway and her keys on the ground near the back door. Otherwise, not a trace. The theory was that someone grabbed her as she was leaving to get the kids from school. Most of the neighbors weren't home at the time, and those who were didn't see anything. Husband's alibi is iron-clad. No leads."
Lira took the flyer and studied it carefully. "She was missing for ninety-six days," she said.
"So that means Luis's theory on the tally marks is wrong. She has two hundred seventy-one tally marks on her body."
"You actually counted them all?"
"How could I make a complete report without counting the tally marks?"
Amy shrugged. "Well, you're right. Luis's theory is obviously wrong. We're back to the drawing board on that one. Do you think you can take impressions of the bite marks?"
"I can try, but bite mark analysis isn't very reliable. There's a lot of potential distortion with bite marks in human skin."
"I know; I just don't want to leave any stone unturned." Amy noticed Lira looking down sadly at the victim. "What's wrong?"
"It's just…I know there's no such thing as a non-violent rape, but this is one of the worst I've seen, with the extent of the damage to her vagina. I can't imagine the pain she went through. And to go through that every day for three months, while she had a family missing her…and the tally marks. He was likely trying to cut deep enough to make sure those would leave permanent scars, and he gave her an average of 2.8 marks each day she was with him."
"I know," said Amy, marveling inwardly at Lira's ability to do math so quickly in her head. "I just wish we knew what those marks meant."
Lira looked at her uncertainly, tilting her head slightly.
"You have an idea what they could mean, don't you?" asked Amy.
"I do, but I don't want to say it."
"Lira, if it could help the case in any way, you need to tell me so I can look into it."
Lira shook her head. "Even if I'm right, I don't think it would help the case. I think it would just depress me to say it out loud."
Amy sighed. "All right. Well, I'm going with Luis to notify the husband this afternoon, but first, why don't I take you out for lunch? We can both get a little break from this depressing case."
Lira smiled. "That sounds nice."
Amy braced herself before walking into the office building where Mark Bruin worked. This was the worst part of the job: notifying the next of kin. The only positive to this situation was that the man had to already be expecting news like this sooner or later, so it wouldn't be quite as bad as telling a man who had kissed his wife goodbye just hours ago that she was gone. Still, they were about to destroy whatever hope he had left.
Of course, one of the more cynical aspects of the job was that they weren't just delivering bad news. They were also here to carefully watch his reaction, to determine if this really was bad news for him. It seemed unlikely that he had anything to do with this – a man who hired someone to kill his wife usually wanted her killed right away, not tortured for a few months first – but anything was possible.
A secretary pointed Amy and Luis in the direction of Mark's office. Heads turned as they weaved their way around desks and cubicles. Everyone here knows Mark's wife has been missing, Amy thought. They've all been waiting for this moment.
The door to Mark's office was open. Amy walked in, Luis right behind her, and saw him sitting at his desk, looking at his computer. A man had to earn a living, even if he was in the middle of the biggest personal crisis of his life.
"Mark Bruin?" said Amy cautiously.
He looked up, surprised. "Yes?"
Amy flashed her badge. "I'm Detective Sadler, and this is Detective Martinez with the Brookwood Police Department. Could we speak to you privately?"
"Yes, of course. I assume this is about my wife?" Mark said, politely but warily, as Luis shut the door behind them.
"Yes. Um, I'm afraid we have some bad news," Luis told him.
Mark instantly paled. "Did you find her?"
Amy nodded. "We found a body that we have confirmed to be hers."
"We confirmed it with dental records."
His face started to crumple. "I…when did she…die?"
"We found her the day before yesterday. She appeared to have been dead several hours at that point."
He started. "So she was alive all this time? We could still have saved her?"
"It's my understanding that the officers who were working the missing person case did not have any leads, but yes. She was alive until a few days ago."
Mark appeared to be searching for words he couldn't find. "How did she die?"
"She was strangled," Luis told him.
"Strangled? Who did this to her? Did you catch him?"
Luis shook his head. "We don't know yet, sir, but we're doing everything we can."
"That's what the other cops have been telling me the past three months. They all said they were doing everything they could to find her, but they didn't find her in time. What are you going to do that's different?"
"We have evidence now that we didn't have before," said Amy gently. "The Homicide department is now taking over the investigation. We're doing DNA tests and everything else we can to figure out who did this. It's not the same investigation it was when she was just gone without a trace."
Mark nodded uncertainly. "But she was gone three months. What was he doing with her all that time?"
Amy and Luis looked at her, unsure how much detail they should go into.
"We can get you a copy of the autopsy report when it's complete, if you want to," Amy offered. "But it might be best not to remember her that way."
"I…" Mark faltered. "Maybe I don't want to know all the details. I think…I think I can guess what he was doing. There's really only one reason someone takes a woman and holds her prisoner like that, isn't there?" He began weeping in earnest, his whole body shaking. There was no denying it: this was real grief. This man did not want his wife to be dead. He had nothing to do with it. That was when Amy noticed the family picture on his desk, the smiling face of the woman Amy had seen an hour ago on Lira's autopsy table. Next to her was a much happier version of the man in front of them, and with them were two small children: a little boy with a gap-toothed smile and a slightly younger girl. Both had red hair like their mother. Amy realized Mark had a job much more difficult than hers: he had to be the one to tell those two beautiful children that their mother was dead.
Amy looked around for a box of tissues and, finding one, quickly passed it to the grieving man. "I'm so sorry we couldn't have brought you better news," she said quietly.
"Where did you…find her?" he asked.
"In the alley behind Pickles restaurant," said Luis.
"She was the body behind the dumpster? Someone told me about that, but I said it couldn't be Kelly." He blew his nose loudly. "He just…threw her out like a piece of trash?"
"I'm sure you've been asked this before, Mr. Bruin, but this is important," said Amy. "Is there anyone who has shown an unusual interest in Kelly in the past? An acquaintance, an ex, even a stranger? Did she ever feel like someone was watching her? Did she have any kind of strange encounter with anyone?"
Mark shook his head. "She never said anything to me if she did. I told the police before that she'd had an ex who kind of stalked her for a while when I first started dating her, but that was years ago. I think they looked into it."
Amy nodded. "Do you have his name? It doesn't hurt to chase the same lead twice."
"Kirk Riley. I don't know where he lives, but the other cops should know."
"We'll ask them," said Amy. "Is there anyone we can call for you? Someone who could take you home and stay with you?"
"My mother," he said, handing his cell phone over.
Amy handed the phone to Luis, who went out to call Mark's mother.
"It would have been better if he'd killed her right away," Mark told her through his tears. "If he was going to kill her anyway, he should have done it right away instead of making her suffer for months first. She must have been so scared, so…"
"She may have been drugged," Amy blurted out, although she knew she shouldn't.
A tiny glimmer of hope appeared in Mark's eyes. "So she may not have known what was happening to her?"
"It's possible." That was a bit of a stretch. The woman was kept alive for three months; she couldn't have been doped up the entire time. But damn. The man was suffering so much. Amy felt horrible for him, and she just wanted to ease it as much as she could. She could only imagine how she would feel if anyone so much as laid a finger on Lira, and Lira wasn't even her wife, the mother of her children. Lira was just the friend she had inappropriate feelings for.
"I really hope she didn't," Mark said miserably.
Luis returned with the cell phone, and Amy stood up. "If you think of anything, even if you're not sure it's significant, do not hesitate to call us," she said, handing Mark her card. "I promise we will do everything we can to find out who did this."
"Well, I've been in Homicide less than a year, but I think this is my worst case yet," Amy told Luis on the way back to the station. "I hope we can keep the poor guy from finding out about the tally marks. He's already falling apart."
"We withheld that detail from the reporters, so unless it leaks, he won't find out that way," said Luis. "Was it any easier dealing with victims who were still alive?"
Amy shook her head. "They were suffering just as much as that poor guy. At least in Homicide, if we catch the guy, he goes away for life. In Sex Crimes we were lucky if they went away for five years."
"Yeah, that had to suck." Luis shook his head grimly. "I feel bad for him. I don't think I could take it if anything happened to Becky." Becky was his wife of just two months, a truly lovely person inside and out. Amy had been at the wedding, with Lira as her plus one.
"That's why I'm not married," she said. "I'm not brave enough to get that attached to anyone."
"Liar. You heart someone."
"I do not!"
"You do. I've seen the way you look at her."
"At her? I'm not gay."
He shrugged. "Call it whatever you want. I think she hearts you too."
"No she doesn't."
"So you admit it."
"I didn't admit anything!"
He laughed. "You just did! So ask her out already. She'll say yes. I've seen the way she looks at you."
"She doesn't. Does everyone think this?"
"Well, no one else is around you as much as I am." He pulled into the parking lot at the station. "I'd ask her out if I were you. She'll say yes. I'm gonna be at your wedding someday."
"You are so full of shit," Amy told him, blushing furiously. She couldn't stop the image from entering her mind, though: how beautiful Lira would look in a wedding dress. How amazing it would be to call that woman her wife.
She shook her head to dislodge the thoughts. It would never happen, and anyway, she had a murder to solve.
Amy could feel the rope cutting into her wrists, her ankles. Her hands were tied together over her head. Her feet were tied separately, her legs spread apart. She could hear the man breathing, knew what he planned to do. She continued to struggle, but she couldn't get away, and she was losing hope that anyone would save her. Her own partner seemed to have abandoned her.
Her ribs ached from being beaten, and her head hurt from when he knocked her out. She hadn't been out for long; just long enough for him to strip her naked and tie her up. Long enough for him to find the wire, to realize she was a cop. That was why he had beaten her so savagely. He knew he was caught, knew she had backup somewhere, that he couldn't get away. If he was going to go down anyway, he might as well punish her first. But the backup wasn't coming, even though they must have heard something over the wire, and should have come immediately when they lost communication. Now she wondered if she would even survive.
She took a deep breath and instantly regretted it. The pain was unbearable. Her ribs had to be broken. Who would hear her if she screamed? She heard him coming closer and decided to try.
The scream pulled her from sleep. She struggled against bonds that weren't there for a moment before realizing she was home, safe in her own bed. Without even thinking, she reached for her phone and dialed Lira.
"Amy? Are you okay?" said Lira's sleepy voice at the other end of the line.
"Yeah, sorry. I shouldn't have woken you up. I just…I had another dream about Flynn."
"I'm not surprised, with the case you're working on. And don't be sorry. I've told you before you can call me any time you need to. How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay, I'm just…" She could still feel the blind panic she had felt when she thought no one was coming to help her. She struggled to catch her breath, but couldn't. "I can't breathe."
"I'm coming over," said Lira.
"No, you don't have to—"
"I want to. I'll be right there."
The phone disconnected and Amy rubbed her eyes. She could still feel the rope cutting into her wrists and ankles, but this was tempered by the knowledge that she would see Lira soon. Her breathing evened out a little and she pushed herself out of bed, across the room to where Henry, her deaf golden retriever, was asleep in his dog bed. Henry wasn't much of a guard dog, but he did make a good companion. She knelt on the floor and ran her fingers through his fur, trying to focus on that instead of her dream. He opened his eyes and lifted his head slightly, looking confused as to why she was waking him up in the middle of the night. Seeing that she had nothing exciting to offer him, he put his head back down and lifted a front leg so she could rub his belly, which she did. The warmth of his fur brought her further into the present, further from that night a year ago when Daryl Flynn had attacked her.
There had been several attacks in the same part of town, all with the same MO: a masked man would enter a woman's home in the evening, sometimes when the sun was till up, and rape her at gunpoint. He chose women who lived alone and seemed to prefer young women with dark hair, so it seemed likely that he watched his victims for a time before attacking. Amy and the others in the Sex Crimes Unit agreed that the best way to catch him was to use an undercover cop as bait, and Amy was the best candidate. So she'd "moved" into an empty house in the neighborhood and simply gone about living a normal life there, coming and going on a regular schedule. She made sure to spend some time puttering around the garden each day so if the guy was watching, he would see that she was the type he went for. She felt very little fear about the impending "attack" because she knew he wouldn't get far. She was wearing a wire, and her partner, Mitch Wright, was parked down the street in a van listening in with another officer each night. The rapist reportedly went through some ritual each time he came into a woman's home in which he forced her to say she loved him and wanted to have his children before stripping her and tying her up. Once Wright recorded enough of this ritual to use in court, he would come in and arrest the guy before he had a chance to touch Amy.
It took almost two weeks for Flynn to finally come after Amy, and maybe that was the problem. Mitch got bored just waiting for something to happen. Hugh Hardy had been on duty with Mitch that night, and they were missing some big game because of it. Hardy had brought a wireless radio, however, so they decided to listen to the game for a bit. As a result, they didn't hear when Flynn finally broke into Amy's "house." Amy still remembered the triumph she'd felt when he first came in, the relief that they were finally about to catch a serial rapist. She had cooperated with him up until the point when he told her to take her clothes off. Mitch and Hardy should have been there by then, but since they weren't, she decided to fight back. That was when Flynn hit her with the butt of his gun, knocking her out.
She had woken up naked, tied up, with Flynn ranting and raving at her about the wire, which he had destroyed. He then beat her viciously, breaking several of her ribs and puncturing a lung, before Mitch and Hardy finally had the sense to realize they'd lost contact with her. They rushed into the house just in time to stop Flynn from raping her. Amy never knew which was the worst part of the whole ordeal: the beating, the fear of being raped, or the betrayal by two people she should have been able to trust. Her only comfort afterwards had been the gentle presence of Lira, who had come every day to the hospital, and then to her apartment, to look after her and keep her company. Often she had stayed the night, climbing into bed beside Amy as if it were the most natural thing in the world. That way she would already be there if Amy had any bad dreams.
Mitch and Hardy had been disciplined for their actions that night, but they weren't fired, and Amy could not bear the thought of working with them again. She had worked with the department to get transferred to another unit, which was how she ended up in Homicide. She liked her new job. She'd always dreamed of solving murders, she loved working with Luis (who she didn't think would ever let her down like that), and she worked much more closely with Lira now. She just wished the transfer could have happened under better circumstances.
She heard a key turning in the door and knew Lira had arrived.
"Amy?" Lira called. Amy felt herself calm a little just at the sound of her voice.
"I'm here," she called back. Lira appeared in the bedroom doorway. Henry immediately jumped up and ran over to greet her. "Yeah, sure, you'll get up for her," Amy muttered.
"Hey buddy!" said Lira, bending down to scratch behind Henry's ears with a big smile on her face. Like Amy and everyone else, she still talked to the dog even though he couldn't hear anything. It just felt weird not talking to him. "Oh, what a sweetie," Lira crooned as Henry leaned affectionately against her, gazing up at her as if he were as enamored with her beauty as Amy was.
"Did you come here to see the dog or to see me?" Amy griped impatiently.
Lira looked up at her and smiled sweetly. "Mostly to see you, but I'm always happy to see my buddy!" She looked back down at the dog and rubbed his head.
"Okay, okay!" Amy squeezed past woman and dog into the kitchen. "Next time I come to your house, I'm going to talk to your cat instead of you and see how you like it."
"Clea will ignore you," Lira giggled, following Amy into the kitchen. "She's only affectionate with me."
"Hey, I was making progress with her the last time I was over."
"How are you feeling now?" Lira asked, pulling off her jacket to reveal her nightgown underneath.
"My nerves are still on edge, but I feel better. Petting the dog helped. I feel bad that I dragged you out of bed and made you come all the way over here."
"You didn't make me do anything." Lira assessed Amy for a moment. "Sit down. Whenever I had a bad dream as a child, my mother would make me a nice, hot cup of tea."
"I don't have any tea," said Amy, sitting down at the kitchen table. Ignoring her, Lira filled a kettle with water, put it on the stove, got down two mugs, took a small wooden box out of the cabinet, and extracted two tea bags. Amy's jaw dropped. "When did you sneak tea into my house?"
Lira giggled. "It bothered me that you didn't have any. This is caffeine-free, so it shouldn't stop you from going back to sleep. It should be soothing."
Henry sat next to Amy and put his head on her lap. "What did you have nightmares about when you were a kid?" Amy asked thoughtfully.
"When I was six I read a book about hemorrhagic fevers and had a recurring dream about blood coming out of my eyes and orifices." She put tea bags in the mugs and poured in the water.
"Oh, yeah. Well, we all read that book in first grade, didn't we?"
"Very funny." Lira brought the mugs to the table and sat down. "I also had a lot of nightmares about playgrounds."
"Yeah. I always felt anxious at recess because no one would play with me. I was always the new girl, and not only that, but I was the weird girl who kept her nose in a book and did science."
Amy shook her head sadly, carefully sipping the hot tea. "Your mom shouldn't have moved you around so much. I thought writers were supposed to be hermits."
"She is now. She's only moved once since I left home. Now she's been in the same house for more than a decade. Why couldn't she have done that when I was a kid? I could really have used the stability."
"Well, stability isn't everything. I've lived in Brookwood all my life. People know me too well."
"It's better than starting over all the time, especially when you're a shy kid. My mom never saw it as a problem. She just wanted it to be her and me against the world. Sometimes I think that was why she moved so much, to keep me dependent on just her. But that would be a bit abusive."
"It would be very abusive. But maybe it wasn't that. Maybe she was trying to keep your father from finding you or something like that."
"It's possible. She won't tell me anything about him, so anything's possible where he's concerned." Henry moved from Amy to Lira, who scratched his head. "Do you want to talk about your dream?"
Amy shrugged. "It was the same old thing. I was tied up again. Naked. I just wish I could move past it."
"You have," Lira promised her, putting a soft hand on Amy's. "You had a horrible experience, but you've moved on with your life. You went back to work as a cop, and so far you've proven yourself to be just as amazing as a homicide detective as you were in the sex crimes division. I'm impressed by your resiliency!"
"So why am I still having nightmares?"
"It's only been a year. There are still some things your brain is processing about that night. It was a very traumatic event. I know you weren't raped, but what happened still qualifies as sexual assault, and that's one of the hardest traumas to cope with. It can take a while, but you're on the right track, and you're not letting it dominate your life. I'm proud of you."
"I'd probably still be afraid to show my face in public if I hadn't had you coming over here every day dragging me out of bed."
Lira smiled. "Nevertheless."
Amy swallowed the last of her tea and looked at the clock. "It's not quite two a.m. We both should try to get some more sleep."
"Sounds like a good idea." Lira put their mugs in the sink and started walking towards the bedroom.
"Wait, did you think I meant we should both sleep here?" Amy asked her.
Lira looked at her in surprise. "That's what I used to do after your attack. It's certainly faster than driving back to my house."
"Yeah, it is," Amy agreed. She padded into the bedroom with Henry at her heels. He curled up in his dog bed, and Lira casually climbed into the side of the bed she'd always slept on when she was looking after Amy after the attack. Amy had never stopped thinking of it as Lira's side of the bed. She slid under the covers on her own side, bid Lira good night, and let the sweet smell of her friend's herbal shampoo lull her to sleep.