Left to Murder by Blake Pierce

 

CHAPTER ONE

A lonely ray of light refracted through the violet liquid in the bulbous glass, casting a purplish sheen across the naked table. Streaks of azure formed in the blue stone swirls of the circular surface, and Amelia Gueyen wiped down the table, retrieving the remaining glass and placing it on the brown tray resting askew across the backrests of two cushioned chairs.

She arched her back, wincing against a small twinge, before balancing the tray of half-sipped wine glasses and returning to the crisscrossing wooden display case behind the carved oak counter. She sighed, tipping the contents of the glasses into the metal sink hidden behind the counter’s oak frame, before placing the delicate crystal in the plastic wash-holder. One of the openers tomorrow would slot the things into the economy-sized dishwasher before the first customers arrived. She hoped they would remember to leave the settings on low this time. She didn’t want it to be like last time, where she had to clean up a fiasco of shattered glass pieces scattered throughout the most expensive appliance in the place.

She felt another twinge and half-turned, shifting uncomfortably in her white and black uniform. Swirling gold and blue letters spelled the name ChateauBordeaux across her lapel, next to the small golden badge that bore the letters GUEYEN.

She glanced toward the dipping sun through the glass windows set in the far wall of the wine-tasting studio. She blinked a couple of times against the sparkles of light tiptoeing through the veiled glass. Evening was quickly approaching. She glanced at her watch. 4:23.

Nearly half an hour after they’d closed.

So why was there still a gray sedan in the far parking space behind the dumpsters? She frowned and tilted her head, staring behind the counter that led into the kitchens. “Andre?” she called, raising her voice. “Andre, are you here?”

No answer.

She wrinkled her nose. She gently pushed the wooden tray, making sure it was stable on the counter, before dusting off her hands and moving with swift steps through the room toward the glass window. She didn’t recognize the gray car—nor did she know any of the employees silly enough to park so close to the dumpsters.

“Andre?” she called again, raising her voice.

Sometimes the older sommelier would stop by during Amelia Gueyen’s hours. She never appreciated these surprise visits—and it often felt like the older man looked over her shoulder during every movement, as if judging her words or behavior.

While it was true she’d only been working as a sommelier for the last year, she’d spent enough time in study, along with growing up on her grandfather’s own vineyard, that she was happy to test her knowledge and palate against the best wine-tasters in the game.

The last group of tourists who’d passed through certainly hadn’t seemed to have any complaints. Especially not the last bearded fellow with the belly—he’d tried to slide her his number in his glass. She’d tossed the contents in the sink while he’d watched from across the room. His look of dejection hadn’t pleasedher, but one could only stomach so much unsolicited attention before exhaustion set in. Sparing feelings was not why Amelia had signed up for this job—grapes didn’t have feelings, and fermentation was a slow, careful art, but also a science. A sommelier’s job, combined with the vineyard, was the perfect marriage of science and art in Amelia Gueyen’s estimation.

She reached the window now, peering out into the parking lot beyond the wine-tasting studio. For a moment, she felt a flicker of fear. What if the car belonged to the bearded fellow? Maybe he’d been embarrassed in front of his friends when she’d tossed the note.

Maybe he wanted to have a word. Maybe more…

She shivered and quickly hurried to the door, ignoring the twinge in her back from over-lifting a carton earlier that day. She moved toward the lock, but just then, the small tinkling chimes above the door rattled quietly, emitting a soft, musical series of notes.

And the door creaked open, slowly, with the eerie motion of a coffin lid sliding ajar.

Amelia stiffened, staring at the door, one hand half-extended, the other massaging her lower back. Her eyes darted to the wooden tray she’d left on the counter. She could feel the thin veil of sweat from a day on her feet, still pressing into her uniform. She stood, legs frozen as she watched the door widen, pushing a strand of hair past her cheek and brushing a glaze of sweat along the edge of her temple.

“Sorry,” she called, reflexively, “we’re closed!” Her last word came out in a bit of a squawk as she watched the figure sidle into the studio.

A second later, she felt a flash of relief. It wasn’t the bearded bear-gut after all. In fact, as she looked, she felt a sudden, impulsive sense of self-consciousness. The man now standing in front of her looked as if he’d stepped off a movie set. Impossibly handsome, with a thin, neatly trimmed beard and eyes like sapphires speckled with starlight. He didn’t have a single hair out of place, and though she was used to the many fragrant odors of her workplace, she detected one she hadn’t smelled before—a faint hint of a citrus aftershave. He smiled at her and nodded politely as he stepped into the studio and gave a small wave with a gentle hand.

Amelia often could determine the career of someone based purely on their hands. Something a sommelier often paid attention to in their clients—the bruises, the thickness of calluses, the softness of fingertips. She had spotted musicians, laborers, and once even a banker based purely on the hands.

This man had the hands of a painter, or, perhaps, a surgeon. Careful, lean fingers. He also held a small black bag—like that of a physician, or like the veterinarian who had once visited her mother when their cat had been sick.

She smiled politely at the man, but inwardly was in turmoil. She smoothed the front of her uniform and hastily tried to adjust her hair, but then felt a pulse of embarrassment as she realized she’d likely sweated through her uniform and was showing him the unsightly splotches by lifting her arms. Just as quickly she dropped her elbows and stood straight-backed, returning his smile.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” she stammered. “We’re closed.”

The man’s countenance dropped. It was like watching the sun set, a radiance disappearing behind a horizon of disappointment.

“But we only just closed,” she said, quickly, as if trying to catch his disappointment before it hit the ground. “I suppose I could pour you a glass of our special. In fact,” she added, with no small amount of pride, “I had a say in the recipe.”

The man’s face brightened again. He nodded at her, dipping his head in a sort of little bow. He spoke then, in an American accent, his French clipped and clean, but also hesitant as he fished for the proper words. “That would be a pleasure,” he said. He smiled at her, and then he moved over to one of the tables she had recently cleared.

Amelia watched as he moved, tracking his form through the neat suit and dress pants. It almost looked like he’d recently come from a wedding or funeral. She made a mental note to ask if the opportunity arose.

Amelia glanced back at the door. She knew it was against the studio’s policy to have people in after hours. Unlocking the cash register off-timer would be a headache as well. Then again, though she hated to admit it, over the last year, she’d had a number of customers like Mr. Bearded Beer-Gut. She was starting to get tired of unwanted attention. Was it really so bad to use her job, for the first time, to entertain some attention she actually looked forward to?

She looked at him, smiling slightly. He really was quite handsome. Perhaps not as tall as she would’ve liked, but those eyes, that jawline, the posture, the confident swagger, all of it cumulatively made up for any small defect she might have spotted.

Another drawback of being someone whose job it was to critique: some thought she was overly critical in the partners she chose, but Amelia could pick out a ten-euro bottle of wine in comparison to a hundred-euro bottle. She could detect the taste in an instant, and in the same way, she wanted quality in the men in her life.

The handsome man sat at the table and leaned back, placing his small, black physician’s bag on the table. It was then she noticed he was wearing gloves. Riding gloves? Or perhaps driving gloves?

The gloves were black, with stitched seams, and he tapped his fingers against the table for a moment. Slowly, she watched as he peeled off the gloves and placed them into the physician’s bag. He zipped the bag back up, though not fully. This time, she glimpsed something glinting within. A matchbook?

He wasn’t a smoker, was he? She hated it when that happened. Not the vice itself—the prettiest ones always had some hidden crutch. She simply preferred finding out about it after she got what she wanted.

Amelia allowed her eyes to stretch up and down the American once more, taking him in, wondering what he looked like without that suit on. Then, smirking to herself, she moved over behind the counter, withdrawing one of the special stock from the wooden slot at the back of the display case. Then, retrieving two clean glasses, she moved back toward where he waited.

He noticed the second glass. “Will you be joining me?” he called across the room, still cranking his smile to a ten.

She shrugged back at him over the counter. “If you don’t mind. My shift is almost over as it is.”

The man chuckled. “It will be our little secret.”

She brushed a strand of hair back into submission behind her ear and then returned to the table, her heels clicking against the floor as she strode back toward the man. She placed the tray and the two glasses on the table next to him. She hesitated, then realized she’d left her wine opener back with the other dirtied glasses.

Merde,” she cursed. “Sorry, one second.”

She turned and hurried away, but a few seconds later, behind her, she heard a quiet pop. She glanced back, stunned, but realized the cork was now off, and the man was wafting his hand over the top of the bottle, inhaling deeply and then smiling.

“Spatburgunder, no?” he called out, smiling.

As she rejoined him a second time, leaving the bottle opener with the dishes, she slowly sat at the table and raised her eyebrows, impressed. “You know your grapes,” she said. “Are you a sommelier too?”

He shook his head primly. His hands were clasped around the glass he poured, and she noted how he kept twisting it, studying the liquid within. One of his eyebrows arched delicately on his forehead.

“You know, there are stories about wine… Have you heard of Dionysus, the Greek god?”

She wrinkled her nose, shaking her head as she settled in the chair opposite him.

He smiled. “Just a myth, of course. But some think Dionysus’s infatuation with wine was due to its god-making potential. The fruit in the garden of Eden, some say, was closer to a type of grape. It certainly wasn’t an apple.”

She smiled, puzzled for a moment.

Seemingly sensing her confusion, he gave a dismissive little laugh. “Wine is what you went to school for?” he asked.

She puffed her chest a bit and said, “Actually no—agricultural engineering.” She still wished she hadn’t sweated so much, but it was nice to talk about herself. Not everyone shared her interest in wine. She studied his lips, his jawline, her eyes tracing up to his soul-searching gaze. For a second, she glanced back at the physician’s bag with the slightly open zipper. She still couldn’t quite see what was inside and realized perhaps it wasn’t polite to stare, so she looked back at him. “You haven’t told me your name,” she said.

He curved one side of his lips up into an alley cat grin. “You can call me Gabriel.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Gabriel,” she said.

“The pleasure is all mine, Amelia.”

She smiled, but the expression became rather fixed. A slow, chilly wind seemed to suddenly creep through the studio. How had he known her name? Her name badge only had her last name. An intentional effort by the staff, after some unwanted phone calls from various customers.

“Excuse me?” she said.

He smiled at her again, his startling blue eyes shifting in the fading sunlight, almost changing hue to a deep purple. “And besides wines, what other things do you enjoy?”

She rubbed at one of her arms, unbuttoning the sleeve, deciding this only made her more uncomfortable, before buttoning it again. “Music, art, poetry.”

“Wonderful. All of it, wonderful. You’re young, aren’t you?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I doubt I’m much younger than you.”

He shrugged modestly. “What are you, twenty-five? Twenty-six?”

She felt another bout of discomfort. Why was he asking her these questions? So quick, moving seamlessly from discussing wine to digging into her personal life. It wasn’t a huge bother from someone who looked like Gabriel, but Amelia wasn’t stupid, either. She suddenly realized she was alone with a stranger and glanced toward the gray sedan parked behind the dumpsters. She couldn’t quite make out the license plate.

She watched as the man’s fingers twisted around and around the wine glass. He still had some wine left in his glass, along with a small bead of red on his upper lip, which, after a moment, he licked away and gave a satisfied sigh.

“Well, I hope you enjoyed it,” she said, softly. While his was nearly empty, her own glass was nearly untouched. “I really do need to be closing, though. It’s policy.”

“Dear Amelia,” said Gabriel, “I fully understand. It is important to stick to one’s policies. I must ask you one other thing. Have you ever thought about the afterlife? Have you at least considered it?”

Her stomach dropped, and now for the first time, she allowed the emotion to cross her face in a creased frown.

He acknowledged her expression, curious, and smiled in return. “You really are quite pretty when you frown, you know that? Well, have you considered the afterlife?”

“I’m sorry, what do you mean? That’s a very strange question.”

She shivered, beginning to push back from the table. Perhaps it was simply an American thing. She often heard they would ask very personal questions, even of strangers. The French didn’t particularly like that sort of intrusion. Emotions and the like were all well and good, but certainly not among complete strangers, not even gorgeous ones. Then again, he had said she was pretty. But such words were beginning to lose their spell, and she was now past uncomfortable.

“I have, Amelia, see?” he said, softly. “The great painter Albrecht Durer completed the piece about the key and the pit, you know. In it, he depicted the only way to the beyond. Have you read Revelation? Or have you considered the Norse end? So many theories, so many thoughts. The best ones, though, if you ask me,” he said, prattling on as if she were still interested and not scared, “they’re the ones, in my humble estimation, that speak of an eternal life. A continuation of this thing. Infinite health. No more sickness or sadness. Can you imagine?”

She crossed her arms now. Of course, the one good-looking man who ever paid her attention was just trying to peddle his faith. She didn’t say it out loud, but she thought it. Who came into a wine studio after hours, with a young woman, and began speaking to them about the afterlife?

She pushed away from the table, shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, softly, “I’m not interested. Whatever church you’re a part of, sorry. I really do need you to leave now.”

The man looked up at her, and his eyes were still twinkling with mirth. If anything in her countenance threw him off, he didn’t show it. He dipped his head in quiet acquiescence. Then he reached into his physician’s bag and withdrew his two black gloves. He pulled them on delicately, like a jockey before a horse race. Once they were on his hands, he retrieved the glass he had been drinking from, his fingers pressed against it, and then he tossed the contents of the wine off to the side.

She nearly shouted, watching the splatter against the grain wood of the floor.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she snapped, angry now. It didn’t matter how good-looking someone was, there was no sense in wasting wine, nor in staining the floor.

He didn’t reply right away, but instead placed the glass in his small bag.

“Hang on,” she protested, “you can’t take that.”

“Oh,” he said, “how about if I just buy it from you?” He tried to zip the bag, but it didn’t fully close over the stem of the glass. Now, the physician’s bag was open, wider, and she stared in at the contents. Her heart nearly escaped her chest. A cold, freezing sensation spread over her spine and up toward the base of her skull.

There was rope, and duct tape, and an assortment of small knives seemingly bound together by a thin strap. She spotted other instruments she had no name for, some with small hooks and others with probing needles. She spotted an IV bag and rubber hosing.

She felt a flicker of fear, and then it came flooding into her chest all at once, dropping to her stomach like the sudden hot swish of whiskey, spinning toward her belly. She quickly looked away, hoping the man hadn’t spotted her attention.

She dipped her head in what she hoped would be perceived as a polite nod, rather than a terrified adjustment.

“Apologies,” she said. “I must powder my nose.”

The man just looked at her and gestured gallantly toward the back. “Do what you must,” he said. “I’ll be leaving soon as it is. I don’t want to intrude.”

Trying to hide her trembling hands, she began to move away quickly.

Fingerprints, she thought to herself. Such a strange thought. An odd thought, but one that struck her as true. He didn’t want to leave the glass behind, because it had his fingerprints on it. This thought only further propelled her into another bout of terror.

She needed to get out. But where could she go? Her car was parked in the same lot as his gray sedan. She would have to exit the back, circle the building, and he would see her through the glass. She would have to cross in front of the dumpsters to reach her car. He might be fast enough to reach her before she could. Especially with her twinged back. She would barely make it.

She needed help. Was Andre here? No, she hadn’t seen his car. She needed to call the police.

She walked stiffly, straight-backed, no longer caring about the sweat blotches against her uniform. She moved hastily toward one of the side rooms in the back of the wine-tasting studio. The room here was cold, where they would often chill some of the older vintages before serving them to richer clients. She pushed under the stray, dangling plastic barrier of rectangular strips, like the spinning rags at a car wash. She pushed at the cold plastic and stepped deeper into the cooling room.

With scrambling fingers, she groped for her pocket, hastily pulling out her phone. It took her a couple of tries to remember her own pass-code, as fearful as she was. Adrenaline was coursing through her, pulsing up and down her body.

“Come on,” she muttered darkly. “Come on.”

Then she heard a quiet click. A tap on the side of her neck. A patient, even tap from a gloved finger, the sensation of smooth leather.

A blossom of absolute horror pulsed through her.

She whirled around, and was struck in the side of the head, hard, with an open hand. A second blow followed, but not a wild, untrained punch. A strange shooting motion, straight into her throat.

She gurgled, gasping, and heard a quiet, soothing voice, as more pressure was applied to her neck. “It will all be over soon, dear Amelia. Don’t struggle, it might break your windpipe. I wouldn’t want that.”

Then she blacked out.

 

***

 

Twisting pain, pulsing needles in her eyes, her head.

She felt weak, sluggish, and her headache only increased. It was like a headache she’d once gotten when her nose had been congested, and she had breathed through a thin blanket at night. Not enough oxygen.

Her eyes fluttered sluggishly, and her eyelids felt heavy, weighted with lead. The insides of her eyeballs were scratchy, and hurt, and she blinked against a sudden glare.

She tried to look around, and found that though her head could move, her body was restrained. This filled her with an even greater terror. But the fear also moved like a steady prickle up her body, through her like seeping molasses across a floor.

She tried to rise, but found that her back was pressed against something cool. A second later, she realized she wasn’t wearing her shirt. For some reason, this sent an even greater bolt of fear through her.

Glancing down, she realized her bra straps had been lowered past her shoulders, and there were metal clamps against her arms, holding them in place. Her legs couldn’t move either; she tried to kick them. She glanced down, fearing the worst, but saw she was still wearing her pants; there was at least that.

Exposed like this, she looked around and realized she was in an unfamiliar room. Bright glows, like movie theater lights, were blazing down on her. She looked at her arm suddenly, and nearly screamed. A needle was gouged into her wrist, leading to an IV and a bag with rubber hosing.

For a moment, she wondered if they were pumping something into her body. But it became clear enough, after a moment of disoriented staring, that they were pumping something out.

Someone was taking her blood.

“Help,” she croaked in a weakened voice. The words barely managed to escape her lips before dying from their own frailty.

How much blood had she already lost?

She tried to look one way and then the other, but the blinding light still pulsed ahead of her. The cool metal pressed against the back of her half naked torso. And then, a blurring shadow.

It took her a moment to adjust, but she realized the shadow was that of the man.

He was still as handsome as she remembered. Still, not a single hair out of place. Still wearing the same black gloves: riding gloves? Driving gloves?

He was whistling softly to himself, tapping against a needle. He flicked the tip of the needle a couple of times, and she realized it was at the end of an injection. He held the shot up, examining it against the light, and then moved toward her.

A second later, though, he paused. “Ah, dear Amelia, you’re awake. A pity. I had hoped you might stay out a bit longer. This isn’t a pleasant process. I didn’t want to put you out.”

She groaned, trying to speak. “Fuck you,” she managed to say.

He tutted quietly, still speaking in that American accent. It had been so charming at first, but now it felt like he was taunting her. “Amelia,” he said, quietly, “look, I don’t mean to cause you discomfort or displeasure. I promise you,” he said, crossing a finger over his chest, “I did not manhandle you inappropriately in any way.”

He patted her on the cheek and made a modest gesture toward her unclothed torso. “Just looking for the best vein. It’s an art form, truly. The way you speak of wine, I understand.” He smiled at her. “I didn’t do anything untoward. I hope you believe me.”

She didn’t nod, she didn’t respond. She strained against the bindings on her wrists and legs. But she was held fast.

He placed one of his gloved fingers to his perfect lips, and his blue eyes peered out at her. “Dear Amelia, I had asked if you’d considered the afterlife. It didn’t seem to interest you. I suppose that might be a good thing. If you think of it, on the other side, I hope you would tell me about it. Anyway, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you. I hope to see you again. Thank you.” He added this last part quickly and dipped his head. “Thank you dearly.”

And then, with the same fast motion he’d used to knock her unconscious, a hand darted to his waist, pulled out something sharp. There was a flash of metal, and a sudden pain across her throat.

She gagged, choked, and then died.