Left to Kill – Blake Pierce

Darkness suggested itself across bashful starlight. Ever since the snowstorm two weeks ago, the highway leading through the southern heart of the Black Forest in the Baden-Württemberg region of Germany had become treacherous. Within view, three of seven safety lights lining 317—out. Herman counted them again from within the cabin of his hauling truck. A fading flicker of blue and yellow emitted from one. Fine then. Two out of seven. Still—maintenance teams should have visited. He zipped by the spasming light, moving on to darker portions of the road. Herman gripped his steering wheel, muttering a quiet curse beneath his breath as he guided his large vehicle along the damp asphalt. The snow had cleared, mostly, but the cold had damaged the highway lights. Portions of the road seemed nearly abandoned. Herman knew friends—other drivers —who were avoiding this section of highway. But he couldn’t afford the time wasted. No, not now.

He drove along the lonely, poorly illuminated road, a swirl of browns and greens passing by his windows as he zipped through the forest, testing his vehicle’s capacity for urgency. He’d already passed Rotmeer, and could see Feldberg Mountain in the distance. Couldn’t be late. Not tonight. He had to make the return trip in time to get some sleep before the custody hearing tomorrow. Herman frowned to himself at the thought of what the morning heralded, and, for the briefest moments, he glanced down to the picture of the young, hazel-eyed girl taped to his dashboard. Some of his frustrations melted as he looked at his daughter suspended in time. Only a brief moment of inattention… He looked up again. And yelled. Someone was standing in the middle of the road.

Herman went cold, slamming on the brakes, twisting the steering wheel to avoid the person. The tires screeched, protesting the sudden change in motion. Herman could feel the cabin threatening to tip. His heart had already escaped his chest and seemed to be twisting somewhere in the vicinity of his throat. His scream was lost in the sound of the whining brakes. The truck veered off the road, slamming into one of the light poles. The pole crumpled, and glass from the light shattered, scattering across his windshield with insistent taps. Three of seven lights. Herman sat there, trembling, blood dripping down his nose. It took him a moment to fully realize the airbag had deployed.

His hands still gripped the steering wheel. For a moment, it almost felt like he couldn’t let go. He stared at the back of his knuckles. His vision was blurry, adrenaline pulsing through him. His hands were white. A spectacle of red dripped against the back of his hand. He reached up and felt warm liquid seeping from his nose. He shook his head and blinked a few times. Had he hit the person? He looked through the windshield once more, and was struck by how lonely and desolate these parts of the forests were. No one around.

He glanced up and down the side of the road, given a good view from where he’d crashed, and noticed no cars parked on the shoulder. A slow trickle of fear probed down his spine. Herman wanted to lock himself in the cabin, call the police. But a small niggling sense of worry caused him to glance down at the picture on his dashboard once more. The person in the road had looked like a young girl. A blossom of courage propelled him toward the edge of his seat. He unbuckled, pushed away the airbag, and then opened the door. Normally, though middle-aged, he was spry enough to drop from the cabin in one leap; now, though, with trembling footfalls, he used the metal step leading to the ground and eased himself from the cabin. The cold settled on him like a blanket. The chill winds seemed to have picked up.

Above him, the safety light he’d struck was dead. The one across the road, a few hundred yards back, still sputtered and blinked blue. It was in this haze of pulsing light that he spotted the person again. A woman. A girl. Perhaps something in between. Young, certainly no older than twenty. She stood in the middle of the road, not having moved an inch from when he’d first spotted her. Standing. Standing was good.

It meant she was still alive. “Hello? Fräulein!” he called. “Are you okay?” He raised a hand, gesturing at where she stood in the middle of the highway. She didn’t turn. She continued to stare, eyes fixed ahead, glaring down the open road. Herman glanced one way then the other, his eyes tracking the road curling around the forests and moving through a steady incline. Dark branches with bristling leaves extended over the shoulder of the road. Other limbs had been hacked back, kept away from telephone lines and from hazarding the highway. Where had the girl come from? There was no vehicle in sight. Herman winced, feeling a bruise forming along his ribs from where the airbag had punched him.

His nose still trickled with blood, and he could feel it pooling in the crevice of his upper lip. He detected the faintest taste of bitter salt as the blood seeped down the corner of his mouth. He reached up and wiped it away, still moving cautiously toward the girl in the middle of the road. His truck was still bent around the light post. The post itself had fared far worse than the truck. He would still be able to drive. The trucker continued forward, one hand extended in a calming gesture. The girl still didn’t look his way. And that’s when he spotted the blood. Rivulets of crimson dripped down her arms to her fingertips and pattered against the ground.

Her feet were cracked and calloused, and covered with welts and cuts. She wasn’t wearing shoes, and it looked like she’d run through the forest judging by the state of her. There were small rips in her thin, gray T-shirt. There were cuts along her arm. She wore only underwear, with no trousers. Herman felt another chill, and he stared at the girl, looking her in the eyes. At last, she seemed to notice him, as if snapping from a daze; she looked at him, and began to scream. The sound echoed in the hills and the forests, sweeping across the trees and spreading over the highway like a glaze of ice. With it came a frigid, horrible sensation. Herman shook his head, refusing to allow himself to listen to his gut.

His instincts were telling him to flee, to run back to his truck, get in the cabin, and zip away, leaving this problem behind him. He noticed the girl’s hands were bloodied too, and, tentatively, he called out, “Geht’s dir gut? Are you all right?” She was shaking her head though, trembling, her chin jutting forward. Her eyes hadn’t settled on him until now, but now it seemed like they wanted to see nothing else. She continued to stare at him, desperate, her gaze pleading. And at last, she spoke. If frostbite had a tone, it would’ve echoed in the girl’s words. Her voice croaked and stretched with splinters of sound. “Please,” she said, desperately. Her German strained with an American accent. He winced, trying to understand.

“Please, don’t let them take me back. Please don’t let them take me back!” Herman was now near her. He extended a hand, hovering it over her shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he should touch her. He wanted to comfort her, to let her know it was going to be okay. But at the same time, he didn’t want to scare her. So he lowered his hand and tried to convey, with his eyes, a warmth and gentleness. He could feel his nose still bleeding, but ignored it. “Where did you come from, child?” The girl pulled at the hem of her shirt, as if suddenly realizing she was standing half naked in the middle of the highway. She glanced around, staring toward the trees.

“There are others,” she said, desperate. “He keeps us locked away, hidden, no one can find us. I barely got away. Please. I’ve been there—I don’t know how long. Please, he’s going to kill them!” The trembling, horrible feeling pawing at his spine only increased. Herman stared at her and swallowed. “Who?” She stared back and said, “Please, please don’t let him take me back.” Herman shushed her, quietly, his hand fumbling into his pocket, then realizing his phone was still back in the truck. He gestured at her and quickly said, “Come, hurry.

I need to take you to a hospital. Please, you’ll be safe. Let’s get off the road.” It took some convincing, and patience, gesturing with his hand, but at last, the girl followed, stumbling after him and leaving bloody footprints behind her, leading away from the center of the highway, toward his truck. The speckled droplets of blood scattered across the damp ground. The blue light, flickering and sputtering behind them, suddenly stopped, dying as Herman stared. Each step was one ventured in darkness. The trees loomed around them, the forest and the solitude oppressive. “Come, hurry,” Herman said. He helped her into the truck, gently, doing his best not to touch her.

Every time he did, she seemed to flinch. Then he raced around the truck, got into the cabin, and, without waiting, pulled away from the bent light post. He would have a mechanic look at the vehicle in the morning. For now, he wanted to get off this cursed highway, away from the flickering lights, and away from this desolate forest. “Where are you taking me?” she said, softly, her eyes rolling in her skull. “Hospital,” he said. “The police can meet us there. It’s going to be fine. I promise you. Whoever hurt you, they’re not here anymore.

You’re safe.” The girl let out a quivering sob, her chest heaving, her eyes fixed on the road and then closing, her eyelids fluttering. As exhaustion took its toll, and she bled, staining the seat next to him, she murmured, “The others aren’t safe. He’s going to hurt them. He’s going to kill them for what I did.” CHAPTER TWO No elevator in her new apartment, but Adele didn’t mind the stairs. Her hand trailed along the lacquered wood banister. Her mind cast back, sifting through memories. She remembered skipping down these marble steps. She remembered pausing and glancing at the door across from the post boxes.

Apartment 1A. The peeling silver letters had been replaced. In fact, the entire apartment had been renovated. Even the lights above were no longer flickering and dim, but provided a stream of illumination to the hall and stairwell. Adele took the last step, pausing at the bottom of the stairs and gathering herself. Back in France. She never saw that coming. She passed a hand through her shoulder-length blonde hair and smiled. Less than a month since the last time she’d seen her father. That business at the ski resort had ended strangely.

Adele had wanted to visit her father for Christmas, now that she had relocated to Europe. But the small apartment in France was far enough away from his home in Germany that the snowstorm two weeks ago had prevented travel. So she’d spent the week with Robert, celebrating Christmas at his mansion. She reached up and delicately touched the teardrop diamond earrings he’d bought her. Adele wasn’t normally one for jewelry, but from Robert, it always meant something special. She frowned, lowering her hand and staring toward the front of the apartment door. Robert didn’t seem well. Whenever she asked, he would deny it, but he would break into fits of coughing, and sometimes even excused himself from the room. She shook her head, wishing she had broached the subject more aggressively last time she’d seen him. But Christmas celebrations hadn’t seemed the time.

And now, not only was she back in France, she was back in the apartment she used to live in with her mother. Fate had aligned—the unit had gone up only a week after Adele had started apartment hunting in Paris. Perhaps not just fate… perhaps something closer to inevitability… Adele fished a small, worn, brown leather notebook from her pocket and thumbed through the pages, her mood darkening. She leaned against the banister, facing 1A while scanning the notebook. Every clue, every possible lead, and some, she was certain, the police hadn’t even known. Her father had been hunting Elise’s killer for years. And now he’d given the notebook to her, effectively passing the baton. Adele had been combing through the notebook for the last three weeks in between moves and Christmas celebrations. Three weeks of time sifting through her father’s notes, cataloging them, memorizing them. She had multiple files on her computer she used to sort through the notes.

Eventually, she would find something. Returning to this apartment? Not the same unit—but the same building she’d once shared with her mother. Not nostalgia—it had a purpose. Adele wasn’t someone who considered herself a particularly nostalgic person. She was a bloodhound with a scent. Page thirty-seven. She thumbed through it again and reread the lines now seared into her mind. “Someone is switching notes… handwritten. Funny?” Adele shook her head. She’d already asked her father about it, but he hadn’t been able to make much sense of it either.

It had simply been a memory of a conversation he had with his ex-wife. The first time he’d suspected something might have been awry in France. His ex-wife had called him, and had seemed flustered. She mentioned someone had been switching something or other. Adele gritted her teeth. Her father had never been great at listening. At least he’d written it down before he’d forgotten completely. Someone had been switching notes, handwritten, funny… So someone had been switching notes. What did that mean exactly? Adele tapped the notebook against her hand and stared at the mailboxes. She’d already spoken with the mailman.

A young fellow, no older than thirty. Certainly didn’t fit the bill. She had tried to extort him for information of who had delivered mail to this building nearly ten years ago. He hadn’t known. Couldn’t say—confidential. If someone had been switching her mother’s mail out, and leaving notes, perhaps he’d been a stalker. Someone interested in her. Perhaps the killer himself? But the mailboxes were locked. Not sending notes… switching them. That’s what the message said.

That’s what her father remembered. He’d been adamant about that part. On the phone call, from all those years ago, her mother had been upset that someone had been switching notes. But for that to happen, someone would need a key to the mailbox. Not even the landlord had one. Adele had already tried to call the post office a few times but they refused to relinquish the information over the phone. She thought to use her credentials, but without an active case, it would be a breach in protocol and grounds for termination. This was only her second week working as a correspondent for the DGSI, in between cases for Interpol. Using credentials without permission might not be the best tactic. But Adele now had a new idea.

She moved along the corridor and approached the door to 1A, raised her hand, and tapped delicately. A shuffling sound from inside, then quiet. She tapped a bit louder. More sound, then footsteps. Then the sound of a chain rattling, and the door swung open. Within, the apartment was quite neat. A cupboard filled with china sat across from a clean dining room table with four embroidered chairs tucked neatly under the table. The woman standing in front of Adele was old, with wrinkles around her eyes and forehead. She wore a single silver locket on a chain and had on a pink cardigan. One painted eyebrow rose on the woman’s forehead as she examined Adele.

“You again,” she said in creaking French. “Yes,” replied Adele, also in French, nodding politely. Very few Parisians could pick up that Adele’s first language hadn’t been their native tongue. She spoke with a faint accent, according to some, but for others it was difficult to detect. “I was wondering if you had a moment to talk.” “Not about tenants again, is it?” said the landlord. “I told you before, I can’t tell you.” Adele fixed a smile and nodded politely. “I remember. No, not tenants.

Postman.” The landlord’s eyebrow seemed permanently quirked. “Like I said, I don’t remember. It’s been years.” “Yes,” said Adele, “but landlords in France are required to keep tenant records, yes? For tax purposes.” Here was the risk. But Adele had to go with her gut. She glanced back into the apartment, her eyes scanning the neatly arranged furniture, the freshly painted walls. Everything about the building, and the renovations, suggested order. “You don’t use a computer for your records, do you?” said Adele.

The woman frowned. She adjusted her glasses and shook her silver-crowned head. “So what if I don’t?” Adele swallowed slightly. “And you’ve owned the building for what, more than ten years?” “Been in the family for fifty; yes, I’ve owned it. My late husband helped, but I do most of the paperwork, what of it?” “I was wondering if there are disputes. Missing packages, complaints. Fragile items that have been smashed. In a building this large, there has to have been someone with an issue.” Adele swallowed. “Specifically, anything from up to ten years ago.

” The landlord blinked behind her glasses. “I do have a folder for complaints. Not sure how long they go back. But so what? Without a warrant, I can’t show those to you.” Adele nodded once, feeling a prickle spreading across her skin. “Because you don’t want to betray your tenants, I understand. But what about tenants that don’t live here anymore? People that have left? Surely it wouldn’t be an invasion of privacy. Specifically… what about my mother?” It was now Adele’s turn to study the landlord, waiting patiently. The woman wrinkled her nose. “You don’t want to let this go, do you?” Her voice creaked with age, but there was a glint in her eye that propelled Adele to say, “If I could, I would.

Please, I’m not interested in the tenants. Just the postman. That would’ve been public information anyway, yes?” The woman cleared her throat. “Did you try calling the company?” Adele flinched. “Yes.” “And?” “They said the information was confidential.” Adele quickly added, “But that’s on their side. They have to safeguard employee records. But a public dispute—a missing package… Or,” she licked her lips, “tampered mail… That would be on record. Yes? Please, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.

Elise Romei, do you remember her? My mother. We used to live here nearly fifteen years ago.” To Adele’s surprise, the woman seemed to react at the name; she blinked owlishly behind her glasses. “Elise Romei?” she said. “Of course I remember her. I still remember the policeman when they came around asking questions. Tragic. You say she’s your mother?” Adele nodded. “I don’t know if you remember. But I actually used to live here too.

With my mother—I should have mentioned it when signing the lease, but didn’t feel it was relevant.” “Yes? It is now, though?”

.

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