Chapter 1 – Malice Aforethought


“The offenses one does to a man should be such that one does not fear revenge for it.”
Niccolo Machiavelli

Chapter One
IF IGNORANCE IS bliss, then Dorian Stanlich should never have taken the call. He should have yanked the phone cord from the wall, turned off his computer, and locked his door. Instead, he answered the knock.
His assistant entered, wearing a business suit and a phone headset. “Mr. Stanlich, forgive me—”
“Sherry, I thought I made it clear not to disturb us,” Dorian said, leaning back in his seat. The fifty-two-year-old architect sat in his spacious office on the top floor of his firm, finalizing a project with two partners. Spread out on a meeting table between them were several scrolls of tracing paper held open with scales, drafting pencils, and magnifying domes. The men stared, waiting for her to explain the intrusion.
“I apologize, sir, but it’s your wife. I avoided putting her through to you twice, but this time she demanded that I interrupt.”
Dorian checked his watch. “We’re under the wire, here. Did she say what it’s about?”
“I couldn’t understand her,” Sherry replied.
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“She’s crying, sir.”
The partners leaned forward to stand, but Dorian motioned for them to wait. He sighed and said, “It’s not serious, Sherry. We had a small difference of opinion this morning.”
“Sir, perhaps I can reassure her that you’ll call back in a few minutes?”
“Not necessary.” Dorian got up, crossed the room and stopped between his throne-like chair and glass desk. He placed his hand on the phone receiver. “This should be brief,” he said, peering over his glasses at the men. “I want to finish today.”
Sherry quietly stepped out, pulling the door closed without latching it.
Dorian picked up the receiver. “Yes, Evelin, I’m sorry for my careless choice of words this morning. I’m in a meeting, can we discuss this later?”
“I can’t reach Antoinette,” Evelin said, sniffling.
“Since when?” he asked.
“Since all day,” she snapped. “Do you think I’d call you three times if it were trivial?”
“Take it easy, Honey.” Dorian looked at his wall clock. “Shouldn’t Annie be at work now?”
“She’s two hours late. Her boss called me. She’s never so much as two minutes late.” Evelin’s voice quivered. “She’s not answering and hasn’t returned any of my calls.”
Dorian dismissed a twinge of concern when he remembered how often Antoinette, one of his twin daughters, misplaced her phone. “Let’s not panic. Annie couldn’t find her phone for two days last week.”
“This is different. Last week her phone was at home the whole time, and so was Antoinette. Now we don’t know where she is. Something’s wrong.”
“Stay calm. Hold on...” Dorian pulled the phone from his ear and covered it with his hand. He gave the partners an apologetic look and said, “Actually—if you don’t mind… I’m sorry.”
As the men approached the door, Sherry opened it for them to exit, then latched it closed.
Dorian put the phone back to his ear and heard, “… not a time for me to calm down, and you don’t need to apologize to anyone for taking my call.”
“Honey, I didn’t apologize for your call. I pulled my top architects from other projects to finalize this one today. We’re cramming.”
“I understand that, but we have a missing daughter.”
“She won’t be missing the moment we find her.”
“You think this is funny?”
“No, not at all. I’m choosing to be positive. Where are you?”
“At home. An hour into my fundraiser I realized she hadn’t returned my calls, so I left early hoping she’d be here when I got back.”
Dorian clucked his tongue a few times and said, “Have you messaged her?”
“You know I don’t text. Antoinette and I talk—at least three times a day.”
“I wish you’d learn to text,” Dorian said. “It’s so efficient.”
“You would choose this moment to lecture me?”
“Evelin, you called for help, I’ll give you every suggestion I have. I’m texting her now…” Dorian fished his mobile phone from his pocket, typed Call or reply ASAP and sent it to Antoinette. “What about her boyfriend?” he asked.
“I called Marc, too, but—oh, wait, that’s him calling me back—hold on...” Evelin switched to the other line.
Dorian waited, chewing his cheek, weighing the dwindling options for getting in touch with their daughter.
Evelin came back on the line. “Oh, my God. Marc said they went to dinner last night and hasn’t spoken to her since. I think I panicked him. Dorian, I’m worried.”
“Don’t be. Do you remember when she fell asleep at the beach, and we couldn’t reach her because she left her phone in the car?”
“Her car is here in the driveway. I’m looking at it from the sunroom window.”
Dorian rolled his eyes. “The beach was only an example. I’m not suggesting the same thing has happened.”
“I know. I’m a little frazzled, here.”
“I understand,” Dorian said. He stood and strolled to the picture window that spanned a full wall, overlooking the courtyard of the Frazier Business Park. “Have you talked to the housekeeper?”
“Irma saw her briefly in the kitchen between nine and ten o’clock this morning, but Antoinette never tells Irma when she leaves or to where.”
“What about her sister? They communicate a hundred times a day.”
“I called Allison a half hour ago, but she’s in classes all day, so at least there’s a reason she can’t pick up.”
“Okay, I’ll text Allison, too… What about her friends? Can we call any of them?”
“Antoinette keeps all her contacts on her phone. Her computer is on in her bedroom, but the screen is locked, and I don’t have the password.”
“Allison can give us that. She’s our best chance to clear this up.”
“We can’t wait around to hear from Allison if Antoinette is in trouble.”
“Let’s not assume the worst.”
Evelin blew her nose. “I’ve got an awful feeling about this. Nothing makes sense, here. She would have contacted one of us by now. This is bad.”
“We don’t know that. Listen, the girls sometimes use a GPS app to track each other when they’re going to meet up. We need that app. Do you know the name?”
“How would I know, Dorian?”
“It’s just a question,” Dorian said, scratching his neck.
“I’m tempted to drive to Allison’s college, but she’s two hours away.”
“That won’t help.”
Evelin sighed. “Have either of them texted you back yet?”
Dorian checked his phone. “No.”
“I’m seriously concerned. We should notify the police.”
“I’m not sure what they’d be willing to do after only a few hours.”
“So you actually think calling the police is a waste of time?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well, do you have a better idea?”
“Fine. You call the police, but if this turns out to be a false alarm…”
“So what? You’ll be embarrassed?”
“Go ahead, Evelin. Dial 911. Tell them you haven’t talked to your daughter for a few hours and that she’s late for work.”
“Sarcasm. Great. Minimize this situation if you want to, but you better pray that my feeling about this is wrong.”
Dorian took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. My comment was uncalled for.”
“Forget it. We have a crisis that’s more important to resolve than either of us winning an argument.”
“You’re right,” Dorian said. “I’m on my way home. Don’t leave. I’ll bet she calls before I get there.”
“Thanks. I hope so.”
Dorian walked out of his office with his coat slung over his shoulder. As he passed by Sherry’s desk, he said, “Reschedule the guys for first things tomorrow morning.” Then he air-quoted, “Family emergency.”
“Anything else I can do to help?” Sherry asked.
“No. Everything will be fine. Reach me on my mobile.”
“Yes, sir.”

 
Dorian pulled his black Range Rover to a stop at the entrance to their estate. While he waited for the ornate, 12-foot wrought-iron gate to slide open, he wondered if Antoinette might already be safely in their home at the top of the hill, taking a scolding from her mother.
He sped up the long, arcing driveway to the circular turnabout and skidded to a stop beside Antoinette’s car. He entered the front door of their twelve-thousand square foot house and pressed the intercom button by the door. “Evelin?”
“In here,” her faint voice echoed from the end of the south hallway.
Dorian followed it and entered the kitchen to find Evelin wearing the pinstripe blazer, skirt and heels she wore to her fund-raising event, her nametag still pinned to her lapel. She walked around the marble kitchen island and greeted Dorian with a hug. “I just got off the phone with the police. I gave them Antoinette’s information. I was worried that you were correct about their reluctance to file a missing persons report for twenty-four hours, but they said that’s a myth.”
“Good.”
“And Allison called. She hasn’t talked to Annie all day. Now she’s worried and on her way here.”
“Okay. Have you checked the guest house?”
“Yes, it was locked and empty.”
“What about the gym?”
“I thought of that right before you arrived. I sent Irma to search it while I was on the phone.” Evelin nibbled her lip and tapped her phone against the palm of her hand. “Shall I call that convenience store on Mallon Street?”
Dorian shrugged. “Why?”
“It’s right at the end of the running trail, and Annie sometimes stops for one of those sports drinks she slings over her shoulder while she runs. A run would be the only reason I can think of that she wouldn’t have her car. What do you think?”
Dorian didn’t respond. He walked around the island, thinking, jingling the keys in his pocket.
“Did you hear me? …Dorian!” Evelin said.
“What?” he turned back to her. “If you think it will help, go ahead.”
“Am I being ridiculous?” Evelin asked, setting the phone down. “Because if I’m being ridiculous, just say so.”
“Honey, calm down.” He came back to her. “It’s not ridiculous. Go ahead. Call them.”
Evelin looked up the number and dialed. While it rang on speakerphone, she said, “Even if there’s only a slight chance they’ve seen her, I’ll take any possibility over nothing.”
“I agree,” he said, “but you have to remember—”
“Wait.” Evelin held up her finger and put the phone to her ear. “Yes, my name is Evelin Stanlich. I want to know if you’ve seen a young lady of about nineteen years old come in. She stops in often when she jogs…” Evelin swallowed to steady the waver in her voice. “Yes, I realize you see many customers—she has sandy brown hair, perhaps wearing earphones, beautiful smile … I know, I know, but could you please try to remember. Her name is Antoinette, and we’re trying to find her … Please, can I give you my number in case she stops in? … Well, your customers can wait, dammit! My daughter is missing!” she screamed. Dorian came to her and embraced her. He took the phone from her and ended the call.
“Honey, I can’t take this,” Evelin cried. “I’m going to lose my mind!”
Dorian rocked her. “Shh, shh. We’re going to get to the bottom of this. Antoinette could still walk in at any moment.” He pulled a nearby tissue and wiped her face. As they quietly held one another, the only sound came from the tick, tick of the second hand on a wall clock.
When Dorian released her, Evelin said, “I need some water.” She pulled a glass from the cabinet and filled it from the faucet. After guzzling half, she put her phone onto the countertop.
Dorian took out his mobile phone and placed it beside hers and the landline handset that already rested there. Their phones had become the most important objects in their opulent home. Dorian and Evelin stared at them in quiet thought, willing any of them to ring.
After a few quiet minutes, both of them jumped when they heard the chime of the front door opening. They hurried out into the hall where they saw Irma in the distance, standing in the foyer.
“No sign of her in the gym?” Dorian asked. He and Evelin approached her.
“No, sir. I haven’t seen her since this morning.”
“Did you say that was about 9:00 AM?” Evelin asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Antoinette’s laptop is open in her room. Maybe you can check it.”
“I already tried earlier,” Evelin said. “It’s locked.”
“Her password is honeysweets.”
Dorian swallowed. It was his nickname for her.
“How did you know that?” Evelin asked.
“Ma’am, she gave it to me to email an assignment to her from her laptop about a month ago.”
“Thank you. We have to try it,” Evelin said, hurrying to the staircase. She took two steps at a time in her heels quickly reaching the top landing. She called back to Dorian, “Honey, will you watch my phone? I didn’t grab it.”
“Sure.” As Dorian returned to the kitchen, his phone chimed. He checked it and saw a text message from Allison.
Will be there within an hour. Will call if I hear from her.
His phone buzzed with a call. He grabbed it. The caller ID displayed Unknown. “Hello?”
“Daddy, it's me…”
“Oh, hi, Allie. I just read your text. Any news?”
"No, Daddy, this is Annie."
The words froze Dorian for a moment before he collapsed onto the countertop. “Oh, Honeysweets, thank God!” he said. Allison and Antoinette’s voices were indistinguishable on the phone and Dorian was known for getting them confused. Today, the mistake thrilled him. He laughed and said, “Your mother is worried sick. If you go somewhere without your car, tell her, so she doesn’t worry. I knew you were okay.”
“I'm okay at the moment,” she said. Her voice seemed shaky.
“What do you mean ‘at the moment?’ You sound upset. Where are you?” Dorian hurried out of the kitchen to share the fantastic news with Evelin. Antoinette didn’t answer. “Honeysweets?”
Her silence brought Dorian to a dead stop at the base of the staircase. “Antoinette, are you there?”
“I need you to listen to me,” she said.
“Do you need a ride?”
“No. I need you to listen to me.”
“Of course, I’m listening.”
“Do you love me?”
Dorian briefly pulled the phone from his ear and frowned. “Honeysweets, what are you talking about?”
“Please answer the question.”
Dorian paused. “Of course, I love you.”
“What am I worth to you?”
Something wasn’t right. Honeysweets, this is Daddy-addy,” referring to her nickname for him to normalize the conversation, “and I love you and your sister more than anything. Why are you asking that?”
“Come on, Daddy. Name a price,” she said.
“Price? What do you mean?” Antoinette’s twin, Allison, was a practical jokester, but Dorian couldn’t fathom that she’d participate in a trick so cruel.
She repeated, “Come on, Daddy. Name a price.” Her voice wobbled.
“Annie, why are you talking this way? … I don't understand.”
Through the phone, Dorian heard a slap. Antoinette shrieked.
“Oh my God!” Dorian yelled. “Sweetheart! Annie? Annie… are you there?”
Antoinette sniffled, and her voice came back softer. “When you don't answer my questions, I pay for it. Answer faster, Daddy.”
Dorian’s heart pounded so hard he felt his pulse in this neck. He focused on keeping his voice calm. “Yes, I will answer all of your questions.”
Antoinette said, “You have every reason to worry because everything is not okay. Say yes if you understand.”
Dorian felt his throat tightening. He squeezed out, “Yes.”
Antoinette continued, “I know Mom has already reported me missing. Nineteen other families called the cops. Guess what those nineteen calls accomplished?”
Dorian’s eyes welled up. He managed a raspy whisper. “Something not good.”
“Those calls delivered nineteen corpses,” Antoinette said. “Twenty, if you can’t learn from the mistakes of others, Daddy. Do you understand?”
“Yes.”
“You and my new friend can resolve your problem without cops. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand, Honeysweets.” He tried to lick his lips, but his dry tongue stuck to the corner of his mouth. “I know this is not you speaking,” he said. “Let’s not waste any time. Just tell me what this person wants me to do so we can get you home again.”
There was no reply. He heard a keyboard clicking in the background. “Are you there, Honeysweets?”
“Wait for my next statement,” she said.
Dorian took hold of the banister and looked up when he heard Evelin’s heels approaching the top of the stairs.
Antoinette said, “Now, I will tell you how to save my life.”
“I’m listening…”
There was more typing.
Evelin appeared at the top landing and peered over the railing at him. She raised her eyebrows and held her thumb up asking him to confirm good news. Dorian gave a slight shake of his head and turned away, walking back toward the kitchen.
Evelin hurried down the stairs to follow him.
At the kitchen island, he pulled a pad and pen closer to him on the island countertop.
“If you want to save me, you need to buy me,” Antoinette said. “I told my new friend that we have lots of money. I made a promise that money wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Of course. I understand.” Dorian kept his reply vague.
Evelin pointed to the phone handset against Dorian’s ear and frowned. “Is it Allison?” she mouthed. When Dorian didn’t respond, she leaned in, trying to hear the conversation. Dorian pulled back and motioned for her to wait.
Evelin tapped her finger on the pad for him to jot an update. Dorian resisted, remembering Evelin’s emotional explosion during her conversation with the convenience store clerk.
Through clenched teeth, Dorian said, “How much money does the person want?”
Evelin clapped both hands over her mouth, and her eyes filled with tears as she gazed at Dorian’s agonized expression. She tapped her finger on the countertop and whispered, “Let—me—hear, dammit.”
Dorian pulled the phone from his ear, put the call on speaker.
They heard clicking.
Evelin looked confused. Dorian mimed typing on a keyboard, but it didn’t help her understand.
Antoinette said, “Wait for my next statement.”
Evelin’s eyes widened at the sound of Antoinette’s voice.
Dorian carefully pressed the phone’s mute button. With a shaky voice, he said, “It’s Annie. She’s relaying some sort of money demand for someone who’s holding her.”
“Oh, my God!” Evelin said. The tears flowed as she looked at Dorian with an incredulous expression. “We have money. Get her.”
Dorian took the phone off mute. “Just tell me what you want.”
Antoinette said, “Don’t be demanding, Daddy, or you will make me suffer.”
“No, please… I apologize. I simply want to get the person doing this whatever they want.”
Evelin wiped her face. Some of the horror in her expression gave way to contempt as she glared at the phone.
After more typing, Antoinette said, “I’m going to give you a dollar amount. You’ll get me for a bargain. Attempt to bicker, and my body will cost you more dead than alive. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Let’s start with $250,000 cash.”
Dorian said, “We can agree to that figure. We won’t bicker.”
Evelin nodded emphatically.
Antoinette said, “You will provide it in hundreds. Two thousand five hundred $100 bills will fit into a medium-sized backpack. You’re lucky it needs it to be portable. If you fail to provide it, you’ll receive footage of my punishment and my price will double.”
“Please don’t hurt her,” Dorian blurted. He put his hand over his mouth to silence himself.
Evelin grabbed his hand.
They heard more typing. Antoinette said, “If you don’t want me to be hurt, remember that money buys comfort, Daddy.”
Evelin stepped away and pulled a tissue, but didn’t wipe tears. She came back with it squeezed in her fist. She clenched her jaw while her eyes bored into the phone.
Dorian composed himself and said, “When do you want it?”
“Tomorrow at 4:00 PM.”
Dorian said. “I, uh, I don’t know if I can get it that quickly.”
“My new friend knows that almost half of it is downstairs in the safe, Daddy,” Antoinette said. “You find a way to get the balance. You can pay with your money, or I can pay with my life.”
Evelin touched Dorian’s arm and whispered. “We can do it.”
He switched the phone to the other ear. “Listen, we want to get him what he wants in exchange for you. Please explain that banks are closed now, and we will need time to compile that amount of cash.”
Evelin looked at Dorian terrified, as if he was recklessly throwing away their daughter’s life.
After a pause, Antoinette said, “Your hesitance has earned me some punishment after this call. You find a way to get the money, or I’m gonna be gurgling.”
“Wait, I’m not hesitating! What gurgling?”
More typing…
“If you aren’t on time with the money he gives me another bath and holds me under.”
Evelin unfolded the tissue and covered her face with it.
“Lot’s of water,” Antoinette said. “Daddy, please don’t make him give me any more baths.” Her voice dissolved into sobs.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Dorian yelled.
“Stop it!” Evelin screamed. She grabbed Dorian. “Do what he wants!”
Dorian pulled away.
“Daddy, please listen to her,” Antoinette said.
“I’ll get the money,” Dorian replied. “How do we get it to you?”
More typing... “There’s a dumpster behind my work. Drop the backpack inside.”
“So we give the money and we get you, right?”
“Just do it, Daddy!” Antoinette yelled.
Dorian saw Evelin’s lips forming a response as she leaned toward the phone. He motioned for her not to talk.
“Sweetheart, it’s Mom, and I love you!” Evelin blurted.
“I love you, too, Mommy. I’m in...

- End of Preview -

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!