Left to Die – Blake Pierce

Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven… The numbers played through Adele’s mind like grains of hot sand slipping through an hourglass. She shifted uncomfortably, adjusting the neck pillow she’d purchased at the Central Wisconsin Airport. She pressed her forehead against the cold glass of the Boeing 737, her gaze tracing the jutting wing stabilizers and then flicking across the patches of clouds scattered across the otherwise blue horizon. How many times had she stared out of a plane window like this? Too many to count. Twenty-six, twenty-five… Why had he stopped at twenty-five? Adele closed her eyes again, trying to push the thoughts from her like pus from a wound. She needed her sleep. Angus would be waiting for her back home; it wouldn’t do to show up baggy-eyed and frazzled, especially not with what she guessed he had planned for tonight. The thought of her boyfriend drove some of the worries from her and a small smile teased its way from her lips, hovering in a lopsided fashion. She half glanced through hooded eyes down at her left hand. Adele wasn’t much one for jewelry, but her fingers seemed particularly bare. At thirty-two, she had half hoped, in a small, concealed part of her, that at least her ring finger would have been occupied by now. Soon. If Jessica’s texts were to be believed, and the cryptic nature of Angus’s last call—soon her hand wouldn’t be so bare. She smiled again. Why had he stopped at twenty-five? Her smile became fixed as the thought interjected itself once more.

She almost reached for the briefcase she had stowed under her seat, but then exhaled deeply through her nose, her nostrils flaring as she attempted to calm herself. She needed sleep now. The case could wait. But could it really? He’d stopped at twenty-five. The Benjamin Killer was what they were calling him, after the story of Benjamin Button—a crass, gauche moniker for a vicious murderer. He killed them based on age. Gender, looks, ethnicity didn’t matter to him. He had started with that twenty-nineyear-old man—a middle-school coach only a few years younger than Adele. The next was a woman with blonde hair and green eyes, just like Adele. It had stuck with Adele when she’d first seen the woman’s photographs.

She’d worked with the FBI for nearly six years now, and she had thought she was good at her job. Until now. The Benjamin Killer was taunting them. For the last three weeks, Adele had visited the residences of the victims, looking for a lead, for anything that might point her to the bastard. Every two weeks, another body dropped, yet she wasn’t any closer to identifying a likely suspect. Then, last month, the pattern ceased. The killings had stopped. Adele’s weeks of work traveling from Wisconsin to Ohio to Indiana, trying to put together a pattern, had turned up squat. They were at the deadest of ends. Three weeks wasted, dwelling on the sick thoughts of a psychopath.

Sometimes Adele wondered why she had joined the Bureau at all. The FBI had contacted her directly out of college, but she had wanted to consider her options. Of course, given her three citizenships—German, French, and US—it had been a near inevitability, she supposed. Her sense of duty, her loyalty to the law, had only been further fanned into flame by her father. He’d never managed to rise higher than the rank of staff sergeant over the course of his long and dignified career, but he exemplified everything Adele admired of those in the service. Her father was a bit of a romantic. He’d been stationed in Bamberg, Germany, and married her French mother, who had given birth to Adele on a trip to the US. Thus the triple citizenship, and a daughter for whom the thought of staying put in anything smaller than a country brought on a serious case of cabin fever. Some people called it wanderlust. But “wander” implied no direction.

Adele always had a direction; it just wasn’t always obvious to those looking in from the outside. She reached up and brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes. In the reflection of the glass window, she spotted someone staring at her over her shoulder. The lawyer sitting in 33F. He’d been ogling her since she’d gotten on the plane. She turned lazily, like a cat stretching in a beam of sunlight, and peered across the ample belly of the middle-aged man sleeping next to her and contributing a light dusting of snores to the ambience of the cabin. She gave a small, sarcastic wave to the lawyer. He wasn’t bad-looking, but he had a good twenty years on her and the eyes of a predator. Not all psychopaths engaged in bloody deeds in the dead of night. Some of them lived cushy lives protected by their profession and prestige.

And yet, Adele had a nose for them, like a bloodhound with a scent. The lawyer winked at her, but didn’t look away, his gaze lingering on her face for a moment, then sliding down her suit and traveling across her long legs. Adele’s French-American heritage had its perks when it came to the sort of attractiveness that men often described as “exotic,” but it came with downsides too. In this case, a fifty-year-old downside in a cheap suit and even cheaper cologne. She would have guessed, based on his briefcase alone, that he was a lawyer, even if he hadn’t dropped his business card “accidentally” when he’d spotted her sliding past him into her seat. “Want my nuts?” he said, smiling at her with crocodile teeth. He waved a small blue bag of almonds in her direction. She stared him coolly in the eyes. “We’ve been in the air for an hour, and that’s what you came up with?” The man smirked. “Is that a yes?” “I’m flattered,” Adele said, though her tone suggested otherwise.

“But I’m about to be engaged, thank you very much.” The lawyer shrugged with his lips, turning the corners down in as noncommittal a gesture as likely to have ever graced a courtroom. “I don’t see a ring.” “Tonight,” she said. “Not that it’s any of your business.” “You’ve still got time. You want them?” He offered his almonds again. Adele shook her head. “I don’t like that type. Too salty, small, and old—I’d check the expiration date if I were you.

” The man’s smirk became rather forced. “No need to be rude,” he muttered, beneath his breath. “Bitch,” he added as an afterthought. “Maybe.” Adele turned away from the man, rolling her shoulders in just such a way that her suit jacket slid open, presenting the man with a perfect view of the 9mm Glock 17 strapped to her hip. Immediately, the man turned pale, his eyes bugging in his head. He began to choke, trying to cough up an almond which had lodged in his throat. Joining the FBI did come with its perks. Adele turned back, pressing her forehead against the window once more, trying, again, to drift off to sleep. *** Her Uber driver pulled up outside the small apartment complex, coming to a squealing halt on the curb across from a large hub of mailboxes.

Streetlights glowed on the gray sidewalk, illuminating the concrete and asphalt in the dark. Adele retrieved her suitcase and briefcase from the back seat, her arms heavy from the day of travel. Three weeks since she’d seen Angus. Three weeks was a long time. She exhaled softly, tilting her head back so her chin practically pointed toward the night sky. She rolled her shoulders, stretching. She had managed to get a little sleep on the flight, but it had been at an odd angle and she could still feel the crick in her neck. The Uber peeled away from the curb with another squeal and a screech as the driver rushed off in search of his next passenger. Adele watched it leave and then turned, marching beneath the tastefully placed palm trees that the landlord had planted the previous year. She peered up at the orange glow in the second window facing east.

Angus was still waiting up for her. It was only nine p.m., but Angus was a coder for a couple of start-ups in the city and he often kept strange hours. San Francisco: the hub of the gold rush of tech— or silicon rush as some were calling it. Adele had never expected to be wealthy, but with the equity pay-offs Angus had received from his last company, things were about to change. And, judging by the words after his last phone call, Adele felt they might be changing very soon. “I need to talk to you about something,” he’d said. “It’s important.” And then her friend Jennifer, an old college roommate, had spotted Angus outside Preeve & Co.

on Post Street. If anyone knew the jewelers in this city, it was Jennifer. Adele approached the apartment and pressed the buzzer. Would he pop the question tonight? Of course, she’d say yes. As much as she loved travel—exploration and adventure were in her blood— she’d always wanted to find someone to travel with. Angus was perfect. He was kind, funny, rich, handsome. He checked every box Adele could think of. She had a rule about dating men at the Bureau —it had never worked out well in the past. No, dating a civilian was much more her style.

As Adele took the elevator to the second floor, she couldn’t control the smile spreading across her face. This time, it wasn’t the lopsided, wry look of resigned amusement she’d had on the plane while trying to fall asleep. Rather, she could feel her cheeks stretching from the effort of trying to control her grin. It was good to be back home. She passed apartments twenty-three and twenty-five on the way to hers. For a moment, her smiled faltered. She glanced back at the golden numbers etched into the metal doors of the residences. Her gaze flicked from one digit to the next, her brow furrowing over her weary eyes. She shook her head, dislodging her troubled thoughts once more, and turned her back firmly, facing apartment twenty-seven. Home.

Lightly, she knocked on the door and waited. She had her own key, but she was too tired to fish it out of her suitcase. Would he pop the question in the doorway? Would he give her some time to settle? She half reached for her phone, wondering if she should call the Sergeant before he went to bed. Her father would stay up long enough to catch the rerun of 8 out of 10 Cats, his favorite British game show, so there was still time to call him and tell him the good news. Then again, perhaps she was getting a bit ahead of herself. Just because Angus was spotted outside a jewelry store, didn’t mean that he’d already purchased the ring. Perhaps he was still looking. Adele tried to control her excitement, calming herself with a small breathing exercise. Then the door swung open. Angus stared out at her, blinking owlishly from behind his thin-framed glasses.

He had a thick jaw, like a football player, but the curling hair of a cupid ornament. Angus was taller than her by a few inches, which was impressive given Adele’s own height of five foot ten. She stepped over the threshold, nearly tripping on something in the door, but then flung out her arms, wrapping Angus in an embrace. She leaned in, kissing him gently, closing her eyes for a moment and inhaling the familiar odor of citrus and herbal musk. He pulled back, ever so slightly. Adele frowned, stiffening. She opened her eyes, peering up at Angus. “Er, hey, Addie,” he said, calling her by the nickname he’d used when they’d first started dating. “Welcome back.” He scratched nervously at his chin, and Adele realized he had something strapped over his shoulder.

A duffel bag. She took a hesitant, awkward step back, and again nearly tripped over the item in the door. She glanced down. A suitcase—not hers. Her suitcase and briefcase were still in the hall where she’d left them. She glanced from the suitcase to Angus’s duffel bag, then back at her boyfriend. “Hello,” she said, hesitantly. “Is everything all right?” Now that she looked, she realized Angus’s glasses had distracted her from his eyes, which were rimmed red. He’d been crying. “Angus, are you all right?” She reached out for him again, but this time he ducked the gesture.

Her arms fell like lead to her sides and she stared, all sense of euphoria that had been swirling in her chest in the elevator deflating from her like air from a balloon. “I’m sorry, Addie,” he said, quietly. “I wanted to wait—to tell you in person.” “Tell—tell me what exactly?” Angus’s voice quavered as he looked her in the eyes. “Christ, I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” he said. “I really, really do.” Adele could feel her own tears coming on, but she suppressed them. She’d always been good at managing her emotions. She completed another small breathing exercise; small habits, compounded over time. She looked Angus in the eye and held his gaze.

He looked away, rubbing his hands across the strap to his duffel bag in short, nervous gestures. “It’s everything,” he said, quietly. “I won’t bother you. The place is yours. I’ll pay my side of the lease for the next year. That should give you time.” “Time for what?” “To find a new place, if you need. Or another roommate.” He half-choked on this last word and coughed, clearing his throat. “I don’t understand… I thought… I thought…” Again, she suppressed the wave of emotions swelling in her.

The way a sergeant’s daughter knew how. The way a trained agent knew how. She scanned him up and down and spotted the glinting silver Rolex displayed on his wrist. Jennifer had been right. He had visited a jewelry store. The watch had been something he’d wanted for a while now. “God, Addie, come on. Don’t make this tough. You knew this was coming. You had to have known this was coming…” She simply stared at him, his words passing over her like a gusting breeze.

She shook her head against the sound, trying to make sense of it. But while she could hear him, it sounded like his voice was echoing up from a deep well. “I didn’t see it,” she said, simply. “Typical,” Angus said with a sigh. He shook his head and pointed toward the kitchen table. “My key is there. All the bills are paid and the stubs are beneath the coffee tray. You’ll need to water and feed Gregory, but I stocked up enough for the month.” Adele hadn’t thought about the turtle they’d gotten together. She hadn’t had much time to take care of the thing.

At least Angus had. “What do you mean?” she said. “About Gregory? I figured you might want him. I’ll take him if you don’t, but I didn’t want to steal him if you cared or—” “You can have the damn turtle. I mean why did you say ‘typical.’ What’s typical?” Angus sighed again. “We really don’t have to do this. I—I don’t know what else to say.” “Something. You haven’t said anything.

I come home from three weeks on a work trip to find my boyfriend of two years packed up ready to leave. I feel like I deserve some explanation.” “I gave you one! Over the phone. I said we needed to talk when you got back. Well, here’s the talk. I’ve got to go; I have an Uber coming.” Vaguely, Adele wondered with a dull humor if the same Uber driver would come pick Angus up. “Over the phone? You talked about a movie night, right? Said something about going out with your friends.” “Yes, Addie, and I said that I was tired of not having you with me. Remember that part? Christ, for an investigator you sure suck at figuring out what’s beneath your nose.

You’ve been gone for twenty days, Addie! This is the third time this year. Sometimes it feels like I’m dating a phone app, and that’s when you have time for a quick ten-minute call.” Adele shook her head. She stepped back and retrieved her own luggage from the hall and dragged it over the suitcase in the door. She shook her head as she moved, frowning. “That’s not fair.” “Isn’t it?” “I thought…” She trailed off again, still shaking her head. She glanced down at her left hand and felt a sudden surge of embarrassment. Humiliation was the one emotion she had never quite learned how to suppress. She felt it swirl through her, bubbling in her stomach like hot tar.

She felt her temper rising and set her teeth. Growing up with three passports, three nationalities, three loyalties as some saw it, Adele had been forced to weather all sorts of comments and jibes at her appearance, at her heritage. She had thick skin, with some things. Pervs on board jet planes were easy enough to handle. But vulnerability? Intimacy? Failing in those areas always left her with a deep pit of self-loathing formed by humiliation and fear. She could feel it clawing its way through her now, ripping apart her calm, tearing down her facade. “Fine,” she said, her face stony. “Fine then. If you want to leave, then leave.” “Look, it doesn’t have to be like that,” Angus said, and she could hear the hurt in his voice.

“I just can’t do it, Addie. I miss you too much.” “You have a hell of a way of showing it. You wanna know what’s funny? Christ—I can’t even believe it.” She snorted in disgust at her own stupidity. “I thought you were going to marry me. I thought you were going to propose. Ha!” Angus shook his head in small, jagged little motions that caused his curly hair to shift. “You’re already married, Adele. And you’re loyal—I know you won’t cheat.

” “What are you talking about?” “I should have known when we first started dating. The signs were there. But you’re just so damn pretty, sexy, smart. You’re the most driven person I know. I guess—I guess I didn’t want to see it. But you’re married to your job. I’m second place. Every time.” “That’s not—” “True? Really? Say it if you believe it. Tell me that next time you get a call to go out of state for three weeks that you’ll turn it down.

You’ll request to stay at the office here. Tell me you’ll do that, and I’ll stay. Hell, I’ll march right back in our room and unpack this damn minute. Tell me you’ll say no if they call.” Adele stared at him, the hurt in his voice and in his eyes pricking her pride and deflating her once more. She studied his eyes behind the glasses. She hadn’t realized just how long his eyelashes were over his dark stare. It hurt to look at him, so she averted her gaze. “See,” he said after a moment of silence. “You can’t.

You can’t promise that you’ll choose me first. I hope it’s worth it, Addie. It’s just a job.” He began to step past her, into the hall.

.

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