This past Friday and Saturday, I had a booth at the 2015 CHAP Curriculum Fair up in Harrisburg, PA, where I advertised my editing, tutoring and writing skills.
Now CHAP is a Christian homeschool organization, and it’s fairly conservative. Which is fine by me. I’m a conservative Christian who was homeschooled, myself.
However, being there got me thinking.
I only brought two of my books to sell: my Christian fiction novel “The Adulteress;” and my historical fiction “Maiden America,” which ended up having a strong Christian theme in order to stay historically accurate. So even the most conservative attendees (e.g. Mennonites) shouldn’t have a problem with either novel.
My other books though? I'm not so sure. I mean, I've read plenty of Christian novels that are more graphically vivid than my secular ones, but still...
As I stated in a previous blog, my Faerietales series was never intended to be anything but modern fantasy. Likewise, my Dirty Politics trilogy isn’t supposed to be anything but a political thriller.
Which means that Mennonites who decide to explore my other stories after reading “The Adulteress” and “Maiden America” could be less-than-happy with me. Even more worrisome is the possibility that the same could happen to one of the promising young authors-in-the-making I spoke to over the weekend.
With that concern in mind, I think it only fair to warn potential readers that this series does include rough characters who don't mind their Ps and Qs. In my first few drafts, they went so far as to throw around some choice language. And while my amazing editor of an older sister shamed me into finding creatively classy alternatives to that profanity, the H E double-hockey-sticks word still does come into play several times.
If that offends you, then please stick to “The Adulteress” and “Maiden America.” Otherwise, enjoy one “heck” of a ride…
1 – Uninvited Guests
It was completely dark.
There were no shadows. No shapes. No nothing.
Peering through her peephole to figure out who had just knocked on her door, Kayla Jeateski couldn’t see a single thing. Which wasn’t right.
It was actually nothing short of suspicious.
She knew the glass had been clean and clear three days ago when the delivery guy dropped off her latest online purchase. And there wasn’t a single good reason why it would have changed so drastically in such a short space of time.
In crime shows, of course, blacked-out peepholes were a sure sign of tampering. They indicated that some sinister plot was underway, and woe to the man or woman who ignored that obvious harbinger of doom.
Kayla’s stomach clenched in fear and uncertainty. On the one hand, she was certain she shouldn’t investigate the situation any further than she already had. Yet sheer curiosity warred with her survival instincts, calling her several shades of coward for even considering that the unthinkable could happen to her.
Another knock sounded out from the other side of her apartment door. A total of three raps, there was nothing alarming about the sounds by themselves any more than there had been the first time. Not in her sprawled-out apartment complex where nothing worse than noisy neighbors ever disturbed her peace and quiet.
Whoever was at her door – whoever had drawn her off her couch at nine fifteen in the evening when she wasn’t expecting any visitors – couldn’t mean her any harm, she told herself. Chances were it was a neighbor delivering a piece of misdirected mail. So there was no need to get paranoid.
She fussed with her dark blond ponytail, finding no comfort from the stalling tactic.
Statistically speaking, she wasn’t in any danger. That’s what her rational self determined with dismissive ease. But that reasonable side of her brain still couldn’t justify the peephole; and her gut really was protesting, saying that something about the situation was wrong. Below her short sleeves, the fine hair on her arms were standing straight up, and her shoulders were tense with an anxiety she couldn’t understand.
Irritated with that reaction, Kayla decided to go with a reasonable middle ground. Placing her right hand on the doorknob, her fingers shaking just a little, she didn’t move to undo any of the locks quite yet.
“Hello?” She called through the door, her other hand braced against the cream-colored hallway wall.
Ominous silence was the only response.
Kayla’s eyes narrowed further. It seemed logical to assume that a neighbor or normal visitor would have answered. Unless, of course, he or she had already given up and walked off a mere two seconds after that final knock. Which didn’t seem likely.
It was the third sign that something wasn’t right.
The first was the fact that she never had unexpected visitors so late, especially not when her boyfriend and best friend were both out of the country on the same business trip. The second was the peephole. And if there was a fourth, it was the way her insides had tensed as soon as she realized there was someone outside.
Even so, it annoyed her to not know what was going on. Naturally analytic, Kayla had a strong aversion to uncertainty, and always wanted to take whatever extra steps she could to turn hypotheses into proven facts. It was part of who she was and what she did for a living, and it was never an easy urge to turn off.
Kayla moved her left hand away from the wall to tug at the hemline of her medical-green top. The gesture was more nervous than necessary since her scrubs almost never rode up inappropriately. But she needed that final movement to secure the courage necessary to take a look out into the hallway.
Releasing the deadbolt first, she tensed at the loud clack it made in her otherwise quiet apartment. The lock on the doorknob went next and then she was twisting it open, pulling the door toward her until she could peer out above the sliding chain she’d kept secured. Kayla might be too curious for her own good; but she wasn’t a complete idiot, and so she made sure to maintain some precaution.
Her eyes scanned over everything they could, from her neighbors’ solid blue door across the way; to the light-fixture on their shared ceiling, which they left on around the clock during the winter; to the angle of the hallway as it teed out of sight toward the front entrance and the stairs going up to the second floor. There was nothing unusual about the picture as far as she could tell. Yet she kept looking for signs of something being out of place, somehow certain the situation wasn’t nearly so simple.
No matter how hard she strained her vision though, nothing looked wrong. There wasn’t a single suspicious detail she could detect, and so she pushed the door shut, her brow scrunching in confusion while she worked the other two locks back into place.
Kayla tried to shrug the entire experience off, but her skin was still tingling when she took a step back from her entranceway down the short hall to the living room. The movement brought her just about in line with the archway leading into her kitchen, making it impossible not to feel the draft of cold air seeping in. It felt like the room’s one and only window was wide open.
Kayla froze where she was standing, her eyes tearing up in immediate terror from the implications.
That window hadn’t been open when she got up from her couch a minute ago. In fact, as far as she knew, it had been locked for weeks. She hadn’t thought to air out her place for at least that long when even the afternoons could be intolerably chilly this early in February.
A violent shudder ran down her spine, though not from the cold. The curiosity that had led her to open the door a mere moment ago had vanished. There was nothing inside her that wanted to see why there was winter wind creeping into her first-floor apartment when she knew she hadn’t invited it. It took every ounce of willpower she had to step forward and look around the corner into the kitchen.
That was when he attacked her.
All she saw was black at first. Solid, seamless black covering alarmingly wide shoulders that were exactly at her eye level.
Panic set in before she could fully comprehend what was happening: a white fog of terror that penetrated every inch of her being. Kayla’s mouth opened in the first stage of a scream. But she never got a sound out thanks to one black glove closing fast around her arm, pushing her backward in a single, smooth, commanding motion that ended with her spine thudding against the wall.
Her eyes flew wide with shock, and her mouth gaped open further, either to gasp air in or let it out in the solid shriek she’d originally intended. But the impact of her body against the solid plaster had knocked her breath away, making it impossible to do much of anything, no matter how much she wanted to.
While she struggled to get a proper lungful of oxygen again, her gaze flew up the man’s shoulders to his face. That was covered in black as well. His mouth, the very bottom of his nose and his bright blue eyes were all that showed, making an altogether petrifying image.
Towering over her that way, he didn’t need the ski mask with its four stark holes to be intimidating.
Technically, he didn’t need the gun either, though it went a far way in ensuring her ultimate cooperation. In the first few seconds, however, she had just one physical response. With the weapon not yet aimed at her, she went with her instincts instead of her head.
At least that’s what she tried to do.
Breath back, Kayla was in the process of tensing up to fight when her assailant cut her off again. As if he was inside her head, knowing her moves before she had fully thought them through, the man brought his gun up to the space between her chin and her throat.
She could feel the hard metal pressed against her skin. It wasn’t digging in, so it wasn’t a painful sensation per se. Yet it was still very much there, catching one of her dark blond hairs in such a way that tickled her jaw.
The man in the ski mask regarded her with a clinical degree of objectivity. Thanks to the fourth hole in the fabric, she could see his mouth was set firmly, though not too much so. And if his very blue eyes were any indication, he was nothing short of calm, his breathing barely accelerated.
“You’re not going to scream, right?”
Kayla didn’t shake her head. She didn’t move at all other than the faintest motion of her lips. “No.”
It was excruciating to get that single syllable out; she could barely hear the sound of it beyond the pounding of blood in her ears.
“And you’re not going to fight and make this more difficult than it has to be, right?”
Kayla hadn’t thought it possible, but the question took her terror to a whole new level. “What do you mean by ‘this?’”
“Nothing that’s going to get you hurt,” he promised. “Just following me outside. Coming along quietly. And doing as I say.”
Someone from the other side of her violated kitchen window interrupted before she could speak, which was a small mercy since she had no idea how to reply. It was hard to think straight past the all-consuming anxiety coursing through her system.
“Everything okay?” Cautious though the man sounded, his wasn’t the voice of a savior. He didn’t sound surprised or afraid, just slightly impatient.
Not so much the guy with the gun against her skin. “Everything’s fine. She just wants a guarantee.”
That didn’t seem to sit well with his friend. “Can’t we give her that in the car?”
Blue Eyes shot a single look over his shoulder, and the conversation stopped like that. It was further proof of what Kayla had already determined: that the individual towering over her was comfortable with every aspect of being in charge.
If so, that made it yet another factor decidedly not in her favor. If it wasn’t for the weapon under her chin, she thought her legs might give out.
He turned his full attention back to her. “Believe it or not, I meant what I said: I don’t want to hurt you, and I won’t have to if you cooperate.”
She swallowed hard, the action doing nothing to calm her down. Being inside her apartment with him was terrifying enough. But the thought of leaving with him was even more disturbing.
There was nothing in her that wanted to agree. Yet there was nothing about him that indicated she had a say in the matter. Whether she went without protest, kicking and screaming, or unconscious over his shoulder, Kayla was very certain he was going to win in the end.
He was going to win, and she was going to lose. Miserably.
Her head still craned upward against the gun, she choked on a sob.
He made it obvious he was waiting for an answer. “You really don’t have a choice, Lucy.”
The name, which clearly wasn’t her own, registered on Kayla’s subconscious as a possible slang term she didn’t know. Beyond that brief contemplation, there were too many details demanding her attention to focus on such trivialities.
“You have three seconds to decide,” he warned, his bright blue eyes searching her brown ones without a hint of mischief, only unyielding calculation.
Three seconds was an unacceptable amount of time to set when presenting such a life-changing decision. It was inhumanly cruel. And while she already knew what her answer was going to be – what it had to be – she still didn’t want to say it out loud.
He cocked his head to the side in question. “One more second. Then I’m going to decide for you.”
Kayla let her lashes sweep downward in defeat. Then she swallowed back her emotional horror and physical bile. “Okay.”
The gun left her chin to fall to his side. “Good. Let’s go.”
He pulled her away from the wall, the movement so abrupt that she almost tripped, stumbling over her feet like she had never learned to walk in the first place. It was his grip on her forearm that kept her standing, his fingers digging in with bruising force.
A low cry of pain left her lips.
His hand loosened a little. “Sorry.”
The apology sounded sincere and therefore very wrong coming from someone wearing a mask, holding a gun and carrying out an aggravated kidnapping. Kayla didn’t understand anything that was going on. None of it. Nor did she care to. The only thing she wanted right then was for him and his friend outside to go away.
“Coming out now,” he called in a normal voice as he led her into her kitchen.
The evening temperature streaming through her wide-open window hit the exposed skin on her face and arms without sympathy. It seeped through her scrubs and even the fluffy blue socks she’d put on as soon as she got home.
She shivered violently.
He cast her a quick glance without breaking his stride. “It’ll be warmer in the car.”
If that statement was supposed to be encouraging, it didn’t work.
Another masked man, this one lean and long-waisted, was standing outside her kitchen. “All clear,” he assured with the confidence of someone who had trained for trouble. The way he held his short, angular gun indicated he knew how to handle that too.
He fixed the weapon on her while his friend – or boss or whoever he was – went to grab a chair from the other room. That took a mere minute though, so Kayla was climbing across the window ledge and onto the grassy slope below well before she was psychologically ready.
The first thing she noticed was the stiff, freezing lawn through her socks. The second was how her mesh screen was leaning up against the brick side of the building. It wasn’t slashed or marred in any other way. If anything, it looked like one of the property’s maintenance men had come along and forgotten to put it back in place.
There would be no real sign of foul play when she was gone; no indication for anyone to think about calling the cops.
Her abductors shut the window behind them, then hurried her down into the long alley that ran behind her apartment. Tall lampposts lined the way for residents’ safety, shining brief halos of light into the dusk. But they might as well have been turned off for all the good they provided her that evening. The only thing they did was allow her to see the empty cars parked up and down the makeshift street.
There wasn’t another normal person in sight. She was completely on her own, and she knew it with sickening certainty.
Loose bits of gravel bit into her soles. Yet she couldn’t slow her pace when Blue Eyes once again had his hand clamped above her elbow, his fingers all but touching in the undesirable embrace.
A third man slunk out from behind one of the nearby dumpsters. Also dressed in black from head to toe, and both hands wrapped around a gun of his own, he barely glanced at her. His attention was on everything else around them while he moved in the direction of a dark SUV, a Suburban from what she could tell, idling in the middle of the lane.
It was what she was being pulled toward too.
Parked the way it was, the vehicle was blocking in three other cars, even if there wasn’t anyone to complain about it at that time of night. Its lights were off and the back windows were darkly tinted, so Kayla couldn’t see inside at all. The most she could do was make out how someone was sitting in the driver’s seat.
It was another frightening man, she had no doubt, even if she couldn’t detect any of his features. Which made it four against one.
And he was probably armed too.
Her heart already racing, her breath coming in short gasps that didn’t seem nearly sufficient enough, Kayla recognized that her odds had just gone from sickening to horrific. It had her frantically wondering if she should reevaluate her initial pledge of cooperation.
She watched in silent, shivering dread while the two other men went around to the passenger’s side of the car. That put a solid barrier between her and them, offering a better opportunity to escape.
For all she knew, it would be her last one.
The closer she got to the SUV, the more her muscles tensed and her stomach clenched in a wretched mix of anticipation and uncertainty. There was no way to know which would be worse: the untold dangers of getting into the car or the very high probability of being shot if she tried to get away. But while her brain remained frozen in indecision, her body made the choice for her when Blue Eyes reached for the door and swung it open.
The internal lights went on, illuminating the soft grey fabric of the immaculate seats. Considering all the other details she was trying to come to grips with, the car’s interior shouldn’t have seemed so intimidating. Yet for some reason, it was. When the opposite doors swung open at the same time and two of the masked commando types climbed in, one in the front seat and the other into the middle row, some part of her that wasn’t necessarily logical took over.
Kayla barely even knew what she was doing when she twisted forward to stomp down on her captor’s foot, her free hand curling into a claw aimed at his face.
Neither move worked the way it was intended to.
For one thing, her shoeless state left her at a distinct disadvantage. And even if she had been wanting to drop a few pounds, she still wasn’t close to heavy enough to do much damage to anyone but herself up against a brute like him.
As for her nails, they just raked against fabric. Thick fabric at that.
Her abductor responded by slamming her up against the side of the SUV hard enough to leave her breathless for the second time. It only took a moment for Kayla to get that breath back, but the brief interval gave him an easy opening to shove his gun at someone in the car and spin her around so that she was facing away from him.
She felt the horrid sensation of his hands curling under her armpits, and then the equally offensive impression of being dragged into the car and across his lap.
In no time at all, he had deposited her in the middle seat between him and one of his masked friends, leaning away only to slam the door shut and lock them all inside.
Before the car could roll forward an inch, Kayla was shrieking for dear life.