Luring – Blake Pierce

Hope Nelson took a last look around the store as she got ready to close up for the night. She was tired, and it had been a long, slow business day. It was after midnight, and she’d been here since early that morning. She was alone now, because she’d sent the last of her grumbling employees home a little early. None of them liked to work late on Saturday nights. On weekdays, the store always closed at 5:00, which was more to everybody’s liking. Not that she had much sympathy with the help. Owning this place with her husband, Mason, meant putting in longer hours than anybody else— getting here first and leaving here last on most days. It was no secret to Hope that local people resented her and Mason for being the richest folks in the dinky little town of Dighton. And she resented them right back. Her personal motto was … Money is responsibility. She took her many duties seriously, and so did Mason, who served as the town mayor. They weren’t ones for vacationing or even taking the occasional day off. Sometimes Hope felt as though she and Mason were the only people around who gave much of a damn about anything. As she looked at the well-ordered merchandise—the hardware and power equipment, the feeds, seeds, and fertilizers—she thought as she often did … Dighton wouldn’t last a day without us.

In fact, she figured the same might be true of the whole county. Sometimes she dreamed of the two of them packing up and leaving, just to prove it. It would serve everybody right. She turned off the lights with a dismayed sigh. Then, as she reached to activate the alarm system before leaving, she saw a figure through the glass door. It was a man standing on the sidewalk under the streetlight, some 30 feet away. He seemed to be staring right at her. She was shocked to see that his face was badly scarred and pitted—whether from birth or from some terrible accident, she had no idea. He was wearing a t-shirt, so she could see that he was similarly disfigured on his hands and arms. It must be hard for him, going through life like that, she thought.

But what was he doing standing out there so late on a Saturday night? Had he come into the store earlier? If so, one of her employees must have helped him. She certainly didn’t expect to see him or anyone else out here after closing. But there he was, staring at her and smiling. What did he want? Whatever it was, it meant that Hope was going to have to talk to him personally. That bothered her. It was going to be a strain to pretend not to notice his face. Feeling distinctly uneasy, Hope punched in the alarm code, stepped outside, and locked the front door. The warm night air felt good after being shut up in the store all day long with unsavory smells, most notably of fertilizer. As she started to walk toward the man, she forced a smile and and called out … “Sorry, we’re closed.” He shrugged and kept smiling and murmured something inaudible.

Hope stifled a sigh. She wanted to ask him to speak louder. But she found it to say anything to him that resembled a command or even a polite request. She was irrationally afraid of hurting his feelings. His smile broadened as she walked toward him. Again, he said something she couldn’t hear. She stopped just a couple of feet in front of him. “Excuse me, but we’re closed for the night,” she said. He mumbled something inaudible. She shook her head to indicate that she couldn’t hear him.

He spoke just a little louder, and this time she could make out the words … “I’ve got a little problem with something.” Hope asked, “What is it?” He murmured something else that was inaudible. Maybe he wants to return something he bought today, she thought. The last thing she wanted right now was to unlock the door and deactivate the alarm system just so she could take back the merchandise and return his money. Hope said, “If you want to return anything, I’m afraid you’ll have to come back tomorrow.” The disfigured man mumbled … “No, but …” Then he shrugged at her silently, still smiling. Hope found it hard to maintain eye contact with him. Looking directly at his face was difficult. And somehow, she sensed that he knew that. Judging from his smile, maybe he even enjoyed it.

She suppressed a shudder at the thought that he might take pleasure in the discomfort he provoked in people. Then he said a bit more loudly and clearly … “Come look.” He pointed toward his old pickup truck, which was parked next to the curb just a short distance away. Then he turned and started to walk toward the truck. Hope just stood there for a moment. She didn’t want to follow him, and she wasn’t sure why she should bother … Whatever it is, surely it can wait to tomorrow. But she couldn’t bring herself to turn around and walk away. Again, she was afraid of seeming rude to him. She walked behind him to the back of the truck. He pulled open the cover on the truck bed and she saw a mass of barbed wire, unbundled and loose and in tangles all over the bed of the pickup truck.

Suddenly he seized her from behind and slapped a wet rag over her mouth and nose. Hope kicked and tried to pull herself away, but he was taller and stronger than she was. She couldn’t even get free of the rag to scream. It was soaked through with a thick liquid that smelled and tasted sickeningly sweet. Then a strange sensation began to come over her. It was giddiness and elation, as if she had taken some kind of drug. For a few seconds, that euphoria made it hard for Hope to grasp that she was in terrible danger. Then she tried to struggle again, but found that her limbs were weaker and seemed almost rubbery. Whatever it was the man was trying to do to her, she couldn’t fight against it. Feeling almost outside of her own body, she was aware of him picking her up and dumping her in the back of his truck amid the tangle of barbed wire.

All the while he held the rag tight to her face, and she couldn’t help but breathe the thick fumes. Hope Nelson was just vaguely aware of little stabbing pains all over her body as she fell limp and slowly lost consciousness. CHAPTER ONE As she prepared two ribeye steaks for broiling, Riley Sweeney thought again … I want tonight to be special. She and her fiancé, Ryan Paige, had been too busy to enjoy much of anything lately. Riley’s grueling schedule in the FBI Honors Internship Program and Ryan’s new job as an entry-level attorney had absorbed all their time and energy. Ryan even had to work long hours today—a Saturday. Riley’s 22nd birthday had passed almost two weeks ago, and there simply hadn’t been time to celebrate. Ryan had bought her a pretty necklace, and that was about all there had been to it—no party, no dinner, no cake. She hoped that tonight’s special dinner might help make up for that. Besides, it was pretty much now or never as far as a nice dinner together was concerned.

Just yesterday Riley had successfully completed her internship, and tomorrow she’d be heading off to the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va. Ryan would be staying here in Washington D.C. Although the distance between them was only about an hour by car or train, they were both going to be working very hard. She wasn’t sure when she and Ryan would have any time together again. Following a detailed recipe, Riley finished flavoring the steaks with salt, pepper, onion powder, ground mustard, and dried oregano and thyme. Then she stood looking around the kitchen at her handiwork. She’d made a lovely tossed salad, she had sliced mushrooms ready to broil with the steak, and two potatoes were already baking in the oven. In the refrigerator, a store-bought cheesecake was ready for dessert. The small kitchen table was neatly set, including a vase full of flowers she’d picked up when she’d bought groceries.

A bottle of inexpensive but very pleasant red wine was waiting there to be opened. Riley looked at her watch. Ryan had said he should be home about now, and she hoped he wouldn’t be much later. She didn’t want to sear and broil the steaks before he arrived. Meanwhile, she could think of nothing else that needed to be done right now. She’d spent whole day washing laundry, cleaning their tiny apartment, shopping, and preparing the food—domestic tasks that she’d seldom had time for since she and Ryan had moved in together at the beginning of the summer. She’d found it to be a nice change from her studies. Even so, she couldn’t help but wonder … Is this what married life is going to be like? If she achieved her goal of becoming an FBI agent, would she really spend long days making everything perfect for when Ryan came from work? It didn’t seem likely. But right now Riley had a hard time visualizing that future—or any specific future. She plopped herself down on the couch.

She closed her eyes and realized she was very tired. What we both need is a vacation, she thought. But a vacation wasn’t in the cards for the near future. She felt a little drowsy and had almost dozed off when a memory forced its way into her mind … She was bound hand and foot by a madman wearing a clown costume and makeup. He held a mirror to her face and said … “All done now. Have a look!” She saw that he had smeared makeup all over her face so that she, too, looked like a clown. Then he held a syringe in front of her. She knew that if he injected her with its deadly contents, she’d die from sheer terror … Riley’s eyes snapped open and she shivered all over. It had only been a couple of months since she’d barely escaped death at the hands of the notorious so-called “Clown Killer.” She was still having painful flashbacks of her ordeal.

As she tried to shake off her memory, she heard someone coming down the apartment building steps to the basement hallway. Ryan! He’s home! She jumped up from the couch and checked the oven to make sure it was at its highest temperature. Then she turned off the apartment lights and lit the candles she’d set on the table. Finally she dashed toward the door and met Ryan just as he came inside. She threw her arms around him and gave him a kiss. But he didn’t kiss her back, and she felt his body sag from exhaustion. He looked into the candlelit apartment and blurted … “Riley—what the hell’s going on?” Riley’s heart sank. She said, “I’m fixing something nice for dinner.” Ryan came inside and set down his briefcase and collapsed onto the couch. “You shouldn’t bother,” he said.

“It’s been a hell of a day. And I’m not very hungry.” Riley sat down beside him and rubbed his shoulders. She said, “But everything’s practically ready. Aren’t you hungry enough for ribeye steaks?” “Ribeyes?” Ryan said with surprise. “Can we afford it?” Fighting down a surge of irritation, Riley didn’t reply. She handled the household finances, and she felt like she knew pretty well what they could afford and not afford. Apparently sensing Riley’s dismay, Ryan said … “Ribeyes sound nice. Give me a few minutes to wash up.” Ryan got up and headed for the bathroom.

Riley hurried back into the kitchen, took the potatoes out of the oven, and seared the steaks and broiled them so that they’d both be medium rare. Ryan was seated at the table by the time she put their meals on the table. He’d poured glasses of wine for both of them. “Thanks,” Ryan said, smiling weakly. “This is nice.” As he cut into his steak he added, “I’m afraid I’ve brought some work home. I’ll have to get to it after we eat.” Riley suppressed a sigh of deep disappointment. She’d hoped their dinner would end more romantically. She and Ryan ate in silence for a few moments.

Then Ryan started to complain about his day … “This entry level work—it’s practically slave labor. We’ve got to do all the heavy lifting for the partners—research, writing briefs, making sure everything’s ready for the courtroom. And we put in longer hours than the partners by far. It feels like some kind of fraternity hazing, it except never stops.” “It’ll get better,” Riley said. Then she forced a laugh and added … “Someday you’ll be a partner yourself. And you’ll have a team of entry level guys who’ll go home and complain about you.” Ryan didn’t laugh, and Riley couldn’t blame him. It seemed like a lame joke now that she’d said it. Ryan kept grumbling during dinner, and Riley didn’t know whether she felt more hurt or angry.

Didn’t he appreciate the effort she’d gone to make everything as perfect as she could tonight? And didn’t he understand how much their lives were about to change? When Ryan fell quiet for a few moments, Riley said … “You know, we’re having a get-together tomorrow at the FBI building to celebrate the end of the internship. You’ll be able to come, won’t you?” “I’m afraid not, Riley. This is going to be a seven-day week.” Riley almost gasped. “But tomorrow’s Sunday,” she said. Ryan shrugged and said, “Yeah, well, it’s like I said—slave labor.” Riley said, “Look, it’s not going to take all day. There’ll be a couple of speeches—the assistant director and our training supervisor will want to say a few words. And then there will be some snacks and—” Ryan interrupted, “Riley, I’m sorry.” “But I’m leaving for Quantico tomorrow, right afterwards.

I’m taking my suitcase with me. I thought you’d be driving me to the bus station.” “I can’t,” Ryan said a bit sharply. “You’ll have to get there some other way.” They ate in silence for a few moments. Riley struggled to understand what was happening. Why couldn’t Ryan come with her tomorrow? It would only take a couple of hours out of his day. Then something began to dawn on her. She said, “You still don’t want me to go to Quantico.” Ryan let out a groan of annoyance.

“Riley, let’s not get started on this,” he said. Riley felt her face redden with anger. She said, “Well, it’s now or never, isn’t it?” Ryan said, “You’ve made your decision. I took it to be final.” Riley’s eyes widened. “My decision?” she said. “I thought it was our decision.” Ryan sighed. “We’re not going to have this conversation,” he said. “Let’s just finish eating, OK?” Riley sat there and stared at him as he continued to pick at his meal.

She found herself wondering … Is Ryan right? Did I just railroad us both into this? She thought back to their conversations, trying to remember, trying to sort it out. She remembered how proud Ryan had been of her when she’d stopped the Clown Killer … “You saved at least one woman’s life. By solving the case, you may have saved other lives as well. It’s crazy. I think maybe you’re crazy. But you’re also a hero.” At the time, she’d thought that was what he wanted—for her to pursue a career with the FBI, to keep right on being a hero. But now that she thought about it, Riley couldn’t remember him saying those precise words. Ryan had never told her … “I want you to go to the academy. I want you to follow your dream.

” Riley took some long, slow breaths. We need to discuss this calmly, she thought. Finally she said … “Ryan, what do you want? For us, I mean?” Ryan tilted his head as he looked at her. “Do you really want to know?” he asked. Riley’s throat tightened sharply. “I want to know,” she said. “Tell me what you want.” A pained look crossed Ryan’s face. Riley found herself dreading what he was going to say next. Finally he said, “I just want a family.

” Then he shrugged and ate another bite of steak. Feeling a glimmer of relief, Riley said, “I want that too.” “Do you?” Ryan asked. “Of course I do. You know I do.” Ryan shook his head and said, “I’m not sure even you know what you really want.” Riley felt as though she’d been punched in the stomach. For a moment she simply didn’t know what to say. Then she said, “Don’t you think I can have a career and a family?” “Sure I do,” Ryan said. “Women do it all the time these days.

It’s called ‘having it all,’ I hear. It’s tough and it takes planning and sacrifices, but it can be done. And I’d love to help you do all that. But …” His voice faded. “But what?” Riley asked. He breathed deeply, then said, “Maybe it would be different if you wanted to become a lawyer, like me. Or a doctor or a shrink. Or go into real estate. Or start your own business. Or become a college professor.

I could relate to any of those things. I could deal with them. But this whole thing with going to the Academy—you’re going to be in Quantico for 18 weeks! How much are we going to see each other during that whole time? Do you thin any relationship can survive so much time apart? And besides …” He held Riley’s gaze for a moment. Then he said, “Riley, you’ve almost been killed twice since I’ve known you.” Riley gulped hard. He was right, of course. Her most recent brush with death had been at the hands of the Clown Killer. Before that, during their last semester in college, she’d almost been killed by a sociopathic psychology professor who still awaited trial for murdering two other coeds. Riley had known both of those girls. One had been her best friend and roommate.

Riley’s help in solving that awful murder case was how she’d gotten into the summer intern program, and it was one of the main reasons she was thinking about becoming an FBI agent. In a choked voice, Riley said, “Do you want me to quit? Do you want me to not go to Quantico tomorrow?” Ryan said, “It doesn’t matter what I want.” Riley was struggling not to cry now. “Yes, it does, Ryan,” she said. “It matters a lot.” Ryan locked gazes with her for what seemed like a long time. Then he said, “I guess I do. Want you to quit, I mean. I know you’ve found it exciting. It’s been a great adventure for you.

But it’s time for us both to settle down. It’s time for us to get on with our real lives.” Riley suddenly felt as though this had to be a bad dream, but she couldn’t wake up. Our real lives! she thought. What did that mean? And what did it say about her that she didn’t know what it meant? She only knew one thing for certain … He doesn’t want me to go to Quantico. Then Ryan said, “Look, you can work at all kinds of jobs right here in DC. And you’ve got lots of time to think about what you want to do in the long run. Meanwhile, it doesn’t matter if you make a lot of money. We’re not rich on what I’m making at the firm, but we’re getting by, and I’ll eventually be doing really well.” Ryan started eating again, looking oddly relieved, as if they’d just settled everything.

But had they settled anything at all? Riley had spent all summer dreaming about the FBI Academy. She couldn’t imagine giving it up right here and now. No, she thought. I just can’t do that. Now she felt anger swelling up inside her. In a tense voice she said, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m not changing my mind. I’m going to Quantico tomorrow.” Ryan stared at her like he couldn’t believe his ears. Riley got up from the table and said, “Enjoy the rest of your meal.

There’s some cheesecake in the refrigerator. I’m tired. I’m going to take a shower and go to bed.” Before Ryan could reply, Riley hurried into the bathroom. She cried for a few minutes, then took a long, hot shower. When she put on her slippers and bathrobe and came back out of the bathroom, she saw Ryan sitting in the kitchen. He’d cleared the table and was working at his computer. He didn’t look up. Riley went into the bedroom and climbed into bed and started crying again. As she wiped her eyes and blew her nose, she wondered … Why am so angry? Is Ryan wrong? Is any of this his fault? Her thoughts were such a jumble, she couldn’t think things through.

And a terrible memory started to creep up on her—of waking up in this bed with a sharp pain, then seeing that she was soaked in blood … My miscarriage. She found herself wondering—was that one of the reasons Ryan didn’t want her to go into the FBI? She’d been badly stressed by the Clown Killer case when it had happened. But the doctor in the hospital had assured her that stress had nothing to do with her miscarriage. Instead, she’d said that it had been caused by “chromosomal abnormalities.” Now that Riley thought about it again, that word disturbed her … Abnormalities. She wondered—was she somehow abnormal, deep down inside where it really mattered? Was she incapable of having a lasting relationship, let alone a family? As she drifted off to sleep, she felt as though she knew only one thing for sure … I’m going to Quantico tomorrow. She was asleep before she could think about what might happen after that.

.

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