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Awkward but eager, Lena climbed up on the bottom rim of the font and leaned over the pool of cold, clear water. First she'd scrub the cosmetics from her face and wash the gel out of her hair. Then she'd splash herself all over to rinse away the perfume and the scent of his hands from her skin.
"Yes, my dear." Her new friend rested a gloved hand on the top of her head. "All of it must be washed away."
Lena sensed that her friend was impatient, but he was obviously a busy man and had much more important things to do than stand here and watch her. She really shouldn't keep him. If he'd just help her take the cross off her neck; it had gotten so heavy—
Lena's eyes opened wide and bubbles escaped her mouth on a scream. She didn't know where she was. Her head was in something white filled with water, and she couldn't jerk it out. Bathtub? Pool? Too small. The weight around her neck felt like a concrete block, and the hands holding her to the rim of the font wouldn't let her push herself out. She was paralyzed, helpless. She screamed, choking as she inhaled water into her nose and mouth. She forced it out with the last of her breath and realized she wasn't going to breathe again, ever.
Not like this. Not like this.
Her hair floated in front of her eyes as her struggles slowed. Her lungs wanted to burst out of her chest, and then they did, and water filled her, cleansing her, cooling her, taking her away from the pain and the fear, from him, from everything.
"Enough, my dear."
The hands let go of Lena, and she wrenched her head out of the water, and air blasted into her lungs. She was rolled over and something pummeled her back, making her vomit the water she had swallowed and cough up what she had breathed in. She groped, trying to hold on to her savior.
He picked her up, wiping the wet hair from her face. He smiled down at her, as if pleased she was breathing. "Are you clean now?"
Lena stopped coughing and stared down at herself. Her dress was ruined. Her hair hung in long, wet clumps in front of her face. And her hands—she'd held on to the edge of the font so hard her palms were bruised. Her stomach rolled as she realized the hands that had held her down had been her own. She'd almost drowned herself in that damn font.
I've been drugged.
"What's wrong with me?" She turned on the man with her. "What did you give to me?"
His smile faded as he stepped back. "Only the cross. Sins cannot by cleansed away by anyone but the sinner. You know this in your heart."
"No." To her horror, Lena turned slowly, like a toy on remote control, and walked toward the font.
" 'And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea,'" the man said softly.
"Stop it." She stepped up and placed her hands on the rim, gripping it tightly. "Don't make me do this." Her back arched and her fingernails snapped as she dug them into the cold stone with all her strength. "Please, God, I don't want to die!"
Just before Lena shoved her head back under the water, she heard him say, "Then you shouldn't have let him touch you."
"Okay, look." Fort Lauderdale Homicide Detective Harry Quinn took out his bronchial inhaler, but didn't stop talking between wheezes to use it. "A swimmer who drowns in the ocean doesn't wash up on the beach, then roll four hundred yards to climb up on a bus bench." He coughed. "No way in hell. She was put there."
His partner, Detective Samantha Brown, silently agreed. The body was clearly visible, sitting as it had been found, propped on a bench, ankles crossed, hands primly folded in her lap. If not for the wet hair and the cocktail dress plastered to her body, she might have been just another woman waiting for a bus. Victims of drowning never looked so tidy.
Sam's nerves had been on edge since taking the call from Dispatch. Seeing the body as it had been left didn't soothe them.
"First impression?" Harry asked.
"She wasn't swimming," Sam murmured. "Not in that outfit."
"Maybe she fell asleep with her head back and it rained real hard." Her partner laughed at his own tasteless joke, then coughed uncontrollably until he put the end of his inhaler between his lips and pumped a shot of medication into his lungs.
Harry was two weeks from retirement, and hanging on to his job by sheer willpower. His asthma had grown so severe that most of the physical aspects of the job were out of the question. Sam's boss, Captain Ernesto Garcia, had offered to let Harry ride a desk to his pension and assign her someone else, but Sam couldn't do that to her partner. Harry was proud of having worked Homicide for thirty-three years of his FLPD career; the least she could do was stick with him through the last fourteen days of it.
After Harry retired… She didn't want to think about it. Harry knew about her deal. A new partner wouldn't.
"We're not sure what happened," the patrolman at the scene said. He paused for a moment to watch Sam walk toward the body, his eyes warming as he checked out her long, ripe form. "Someone might have brought her up here to get her away from the seagulls."
Harry looked up at the empty sky, just now turning pink and purple. "No gulls around here. That's a little weird."
Sam spotted a local news channel's van pulling around the corner. "Officer, set up some screens and barricades, and keep those cameras on the bar side."
She went back to her car to retrieve two Styrofoam cups filled with coffee, and almost felt the patrolman checking her out from behind. Being a fairly tall woman with straight, dark brown hair and warm hazel eyes got her some looks, but it was the rest of her that snagged men's interest. Sam was, as the polite men on the squad put it, built. The plain suits she wore didn't completely disguise her curves, which daily exercise only kept toned. Keeping her hair in a braid or ponytail gave her a no-nonsense look, but she still drew too much attention for her own comfort.
"You're going to give yourself an ulcer drinking that stuff the way you do." Harry nodded at the coffee in her hands as they walked over to the bench. "I thought you were going to cut back."
"No one will sell me any speed." She stopped and looked at the victim's body. "What's your take?"
"Deliberate. Kind. Could have been a tourist." Harry used the inhaler again as he contemplated the dead woman. "Say he's out jogging or walking down to get another layer of skin cancer, he trips over body, panics, picks her up, carries her over to the bench to do, I don't know, mouth-to-mouth?"
"Civilian trips over the body, he panics, he runs away, he yells for help, he throws up. But he doesn't touch her or move her. They all watch CSI these days." Sam ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and walked around the carpet of Visqueen encircling the bench.
Harry kept speculating as he followed her in. "Yeah, but if it was a smart-ass kid, or a drunk…"
"Look around." She gestured with one of the cups. "No footprints, and no seaweed or sand on her. She's not bloated, either." She looked at the concrete pad under the bench. "Big puddle of water down there. I'd say she's only been here an hour at the most."
"Only one way to know." His gaze moved from the dripping dress to the woman's hands.
Sam saw the broken, bloodied fingernails, and checked the perimeter to assure the uniforms were cordoning off the area. She was just about to touch the body when a white van pulled up to the curb, blocking the view of the bench from the street.
"Hold it, the walking smokestack's here." Harry coughed. "I'll go make nice to the media."
Sam watched as Dr. Evan Tenderson jumped out of the van and stomped over, a scowl puckered around the unfiltered cigarette in his mouth. The assistant medical examiner was a militant smoker. "Morning, Doc."
"Morning, my dick, it's five-fucking-thirty a.m.," he said, removing the cigarette and baring nicotine-stained teeth his parents never bothered to have straightened. He squinted at the dead woman as he dropped the butt and pulled on a pair of thin latex gloves. "Now I've seen everything. How the fuck did she get up here?"
"We're trying to determine that. Here." Sam gave him one of the coffees she carried. "Black, one sugar."
"If you wanted me to move faster, Brown, you should've brought doughnuts. Or a hooker with a tight mouth." A sour smile covered his yellowed buckteeth. "No sexual harassment intended by that remark." He shoved a pair of gloves from his case at her.
Sam let it go. "I need an ID if she's got one."
"Everyone's got one." Tenderson set down his bag and gingerly braced himself on the edge of the bench as he leaned over the body. "Caucasian female, approximately twenty-five to thirty-five years of age, deceased." He looked down. "Hair, clothing, and skin are saturated with water." He used a pair of long-handled tongs to unzip the purse hanging from her shoulder and extracted a wallet, which he handed to her along with an evidence bag.
Sam placed it in the bag before she released the snap and unfolded the wallet. The sun sparkled on the seal holograms imprinted on the lamination over a smiling headshot of the dead woman. "Lena Caprell, twenty-seven years old, Fort Lauderdale resident, safe driver."
"Told you." Tenderson turned his attention back to the body. Sam was about to walk over to update her partner when the medical examiner yelped and pulled back his hand, holding it by the wrist as he swore loudly and at length. When he saw Sam watching, he yelled, "Bitch shocked me."
"I thought you'd seen everything." She stepped up as far as she could without moving off the protective plastic, and saw the dull glint of old metal and shriveled leather.
"I mean it. Felt like getting zapped with household current," Tenderson insisted, shaking his hand.
"She's wearing some kind of necklace." She took the pen out of her jacket pocket and slipped it under the crinkled thong, fishing out the pendant attached to it. Even with the gloves on, she took care not to touch the dead woman's hands. She couldn't risk it now, not with Tenderson hovering beside her.