We hadn’t been dating very long. That’s why I was surprised when Aaron told me he wanted to take me out of town for the weekend.
His text came at about three on Friday afternoon. He had a bag already packed, it said. He’d be at the office to pick me up at five. Don’t worry about anything. All the details had already been arranged.
I went through the last two hours of work barely able to concentrate. Where was he taking me? What did this mean? Was this ‘thing’ we had going between us getting serious?
It had only been about six weeks ago, the night the two of us met. Truth be told, there wasn’t anything about that night that hadn’t been awful. It had been the night that my neighbor, Lily, was murdered in the apartment two floors above my own. A burglary gone wrong was what the police said. The newspapers reported that the assailant had been surprised to find anyone at home, that Lily lost her life because she’d decided to cancel her plans to have drinks with her friends and went to bed early instead.
Joe Jamison, Lily’s neighbor, was quoted in several of the articles I read. He lived in the apartment next to hers, was the one who heard her scream. He didn’t even realize it had been Lily until later, until after her body had been found. He’d fallen asleep in front of the television, and when he awoke, a horror movie was on the screen. He wasn’t into scary movies. He didn’t know which film was playing. He said it was all dramatic music and someone had been chasing someone else. The victim in the movie was making a lot of noise. Joe never realized that the scream he’d heard, the one that had woken him up, had been real.
It was the two loud thumps he heard on the other side of the wall sometime later that got his attention. Those, he knew, had not come from the horror flick, although he’d dozed off again, and didn’t know how much time had passed between the two incidents.
He’d listened for a few more minutes, his head still foggy with sleep. When he heard the door close, and footsteps in the hall, he jumped from his recliner. By the time he opened his own door, he was too late to save her.
He didn’t have Lily’s phone number. He’d thought about asking for it on several occasions, but he hadn’t worked up the courage to do it yet. They were neighbors—had been for about a year— friendly but not friends. Lily was beautiful, all five feet nine of her. She worked out like a fiend, had long, dark hair, was an avid sports fan and did her own car repairs. He was sure she’d been perfect for him, Joe told me after the attack, but he’d just gotten through a nasty divorce and didn’t have the nerve or the energy to jump back into the dating pool again. Now he’d lost his chance. At least with Lily.
Her door was closed, but not locked. Joe called Lily’s name as he walked down the foyer. He glanced around the living room. He’d never been inside Lily’s apartment, so he was a poor judge as to whether things were out of place or not. It looked fine to him. He called for her again, but there was no answer.
If the door hadn’t been unlocked, Joe would have second guessed the noises he’d heard. It had been a long week at work. The greasy bacon cheeseburger and large side of fries he’d washed down with three, four … okay, five beers earlier that evening had left him not just relaxed but nearly comatose. Maybe Lily had just forgotten to lock the door before going to bed. Maybe he shouldn’t be in her apartment at all. Maybe …
Joe walked into Lily’s bedroom. His huge dinner flipped in his stomach and threatened to make a second appearance. Things were not fine in here. Things were not fine at all.
Lily was on the bed, her long, dark hair fanned out around her head. It reminded Joe of every childhood drawing of the sun he’d ever seen. The strands of Lily’s hair stretched out around her like sunbeams, but there was nothing happy or warm about the expression on her lifeless face. Her eyes were open, staring upward, but they weren’t seeing anything. Nothing in this world, anyway. Her hands were spread above her head, each wrist bound to the headboard by a length of rope. Around her neck dangled a grisly necklace of torn flesh and blood, and the bra she wore had been sliced open between her breasts. She’d been beaten, no doubt violated, before her life had been taken away from her. And all while Joe had been sleeping through a horror flick on TV.
Joe called 911, but not before his dinner made good on its threat to revisit.
I jumped in my chair and blinked the memories of that horrible night out of my head. When I looked up I saw Gina, a co-worker, standing next to my desk.
“Oh, hi, Gina,” I said taking a deep breath of air into my lungs.
“Where were you just then? You looked a million miles away.”
“I wasn’t that far.”
“You got a bad case of the Fridays.” She grinned at me. “Fortunately for you, you only have fifteen minutes before you can hightail it on out of here. You got plans for the weekend?”
“I do, actually.” I began straightening up my desk and getting ready to leave. “I’m going away with Aaron.”
Gina raised an inquisitive brow. “Where to?”
I smiled. “I have no idea.”
I watched as Gina grinned. “A romantic getaway weekend. Ooh, girl, you gotta love those spontaneous kind of guys,” she said. “You know, Hank doesn’t know the meaning of the word. It’ll be pizza tonight and bowling on Sunday. It never changes.” She shook her head and reached down to nudge my arm. “You’ll be sure to tell me all about it come Monday, right? I’ll live vicariously through you.”
“Well,” I laughed. “Let’s just wait and see if there’s anything interesting to tell first, shall we?”
Aaron was waiting for me just like he said he would be, sitting out in front of my building in his black Mercedes. When I slid into the passenger’s seat he gave me a smile.
“Ready to go?” he asked, leaning forward to press a kiss against my cheek. “I have a fun weekend planned for us.”
I returned his smile when he pulled away. “Okay, let’s go.”
He pulled the car into traffic and I studied his profile, thinking about the first time I saw him.
Much of the apartment complex had been alerted by the sounds of sirens once Joe called the police. The ambulance arrived, and soon afterward, officers were going door to door questioning tenants about anything they might have seen or heard to aid them in their search for the murderer.
I stood in the hallway in front of Joe’s door, my body wrapped in a terry cloth robe, my feet in socks that slouched around my ankles. It was nearly two in the morning and, although I’d only known Joe for about half an hour, I was doing my best to console him.
The police gathered a few people that were wandering the hall near Lily’s door and brought them into Joe’s apartment. I couldn’t help but hear one of the officer’s as he questioned a man dressed in pajama pants and a white t-shirt. Joe rented a one bedroom, and the space had filled up fast.
“Do you live on this floor, sir?”
“No,” the pajama clad man said with a shake of his disheveled head. “I mean, yes, I’m staying in an apartment on this floor, but I don’t live here. I’m dog sitting for a friend who’s out of town.”
“That’s what, two doors down?”
“Did you know Lily Andrews?”
He shook his head. “Except for my friend, I don’t know anyone in the building.”
“Did you hear anything? Any strange sounds? Anything at all out of the ordinary?”
“I was listening to music,” the man explained, reaching up to brush the hair away from his eyes. “I’d fallen asleep with my headphones on. I’m afraid I didn’t hear anything. I’m sorry.”
“How long are you dog sitting for your friend?”
“She comes back this afternoon.”
The officer gave him a dip of his chin and moved on to another tenant who had been pulled into the small living room. I turned to check on Joe, but he was sitting on the edge of his couch, a paramedic talking him through some deep breathing exercises. His face was white and his hairline was wet with sweat. He wasn’t looking so good. I feared he’d either hyperventilate or pass out.
“This is crazy.” I turned at the voice and realized white t-shirt guy was still standing there. “Just awful.”
I nodded in agreement. I was in shock and found it difficult to come up with a response.
He moved forward, placed a warm hand on my arm. “Are you okay?”
“No,” I finally said. “No, I’m not. Not really.”
“Maybe you should get out of here.” He tilted his head in Joe’s direction. “Looks like your friend is in good hands. It would probably do you good to be back in your own place.” I watched him without speaking. The circumstances seemed unreal. I couldn’t wrap my head around it all. “Come on,” he urged, guiding me by the elbow. “Tell me where you live. I’ll make sure you get there safely.”
“Second floor,” I mumbled. “Apartment 202.”
We stepped into the elevator. When the doors closed, most of the sound went away. “I’m Aaron Murray,” he told me. “And you are?”
I looked up at him. “Kate. Kate Miller.” The elevator stopped and the doors opened again. I didn’t move and Aaron took my elbow again. He led me down the hall and toward my door, pulling the keys from my hand.
“Do you have your phone with you?”
He smiled. “Let me see it a minute.”
I reached in and fished my phone out of the pocket of my robe. We exchanged the phone and keys and I watched him tap on the screen without a thought about what he was doing. When he handed it back, I felt him gently push me inside my apartment.
“I saved my number for you. Call me in a few days, let me know how you’re doing.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
“I’m going to shut the door now. Make sure you lock it. I won’t leave until I hear the bolt click.”
He disappeared and I leaned my head against the wood.
“Kate?” he said after a while.
I swallowed back tears and reached up to engage the lock.
“Try to get some sleep.”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I walked to my bedroom, climbed into bed and pulled the covers over my head.
I did call him. I didn’t mean to. Well, I did, but only because I couldn’t remember who Aaron Murray was, or why I had his number in my contact list.
He remembered right away who I was.
“Kate,” he said when he answered the phone.
“Um, hi,” I replied, trying to place his voice.
“I’m glad you called. It’s been a couple weeks. Hear anything more about your neighbor?”
My neighbor. Lily. Aaron Murray. White t-shirt guy.
I took a deep breath. “No,” I said, shaking my head even though he couldn’t see it. “No, they still don’t know who killed her.”
“Listen,” he said. “I have an idea.”
“How about we go out for coffee and come up with something more pleasant to talk about?”
As the weeks went on, coffee turned to drinks. Then it turned to dinner, and now it had turned into a weekend away. I watched as Aaron smiled. I’d been staring as I recalled the unusual start to our relationship. He glanced over and moved his hand to my thigh. He gave it a squeeze and I smiled back.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see soon enough.”
My smile grew wider. “What will we do when we get there?”
“I’ve got something fun planned,” he answered mysteriously.
It was clear I would get nothing more from him, so I sat back in my seat, relaxed, and enjoyed the scenery.
The suitcase he’d packed for me sat on the bed. I saw it as soon as I walked out of the bathroom. My face was flushed from the cocktails I’d drunk at dinner, and I wasn’t feeling very steady on my feet. I was euphoric, the feeling helped by the alcohol, but fueled by an enjoyable night out.
“Go ahead,” Aaron told me, motioning toward the suitcase. “There’s something in there you might like to try on.”
I grinned. Perhaps the evening was going to get even better.
The zipper was smooth as I pulled it down one side and across the front. It wasn’t a large suitcase, and not one I’d seen before. No one had ever packed a bag for me, or whisked me off on a weekend adventure. I laughed quietly when I thought about the story I’d have to share with Gina come Monday.
I flipped the top back and scanned the contents of the case. On top lay a bra and panty set. They were made of satin and black lace and the heat in my cheeks intensified. I picked the panties up and saw an envelope beneath them with my name scrawled across the front.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Why don’t you look and find out?”
I lifted the envelope and tugged the flap open. I reached in and pulled out a sheaf of papers. No, not papers, photographs. I turned them so the photo on the top of the stack was right side up. When I realized what I was looking at, my breath caught in my chest.
It was a woman. She was about my age and lying on a bed. She had long, dark hair and there was blood. Lots and lots of blood.
It was Lily.
“What?” I asked, dropping the photos. They fell into the suitcase and I could see that there were several more just like the one on top. I scattered them with my hands. Women. All of them different. All of them dead. All of them wearing black bras and panties. Their throats all gaping in a fatal, red smile.
My vision blurred for a moment and I moved the photos again, my fingers brushing against something rough. I dug in, wrapped my hand around it and pulled it out. It was a coil of rope.
“Aaron?” I looked up to see that he’d moved closer. He was staring down at me with a cold hard smile.
He pulled a knife from behind his back. The blade glinted in the light from the bedside table. “I told you I had something fun planned.”