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 LUCK FAVORS the prepared, no wonder he had gotten away with it for so long. He figured luck had to appreciate his paranoia, too—not to mention his patience. Whatever the combination, it had worked, but he knew the streak wouldn’t last forever.
He pulled into the shopping plaza for his coffee like he did every morning. After his second pass through the full parking lot, he drove out and parked around the corner on Bain Road near the end of the bike trail. Having to do this wouldn't have annoyed him if he knew what a beautiful prize the inconvenience would bring.
Ten minutes later, he returned to his car after cursing at the long walk. He set his coffee in the cup holder and started the car. When he turned the wheel to nose out while waiting for a break in traffic, he noticed a girl in the distance, jogging on the bike path in his direction. He put the car in park and waited to watch her. She was a nice one. He saw a couple on inline skates pushing a stroller toward her. He watched the girl move to the edge of the path to give the couple room. He stiffened in his seat when she took the nasty fall, then held his breath, eyes locked on her as she pushed herself up onto her hands.
If she were fine, she would have jumped up right away, but she didn’t. She just sat there. Her tumble seemed to make her more angry than hurt because she clutched her thigh with both hands and yelled something. The couple stopped, and the man skated back to help her, but she waved him away. They skated away, leaving her sitting alone in the dirt beside the bike path. He sat motionless, locked onto the girl. A loud motorcycle passed by, breaking his trance. He wiped his palms on his pants and swallowed.
He noticed that she had her phone in hand, but was she calling for help? It’s possible she was using speaker phone, but her lips weren’t moving.
During a good half a minute of watching her struggle to her feet, he whispered, “No… no… no…”, but she eventually succeeded. That she was able to make it to her feet wasn't as much of a setback as he first suspected. She flashed all of her teeth when she put any amount of weight on that left ankle—the telltale grimace of a severe sprain, or better, a fracture. Either was promising.
He squeezed the handgrip on the door, assessing her movements to determine her level of injury. He also scanned her immediate area for the quantity and interest of people nearby, the time it would take to approach her, her weight, the risk-reward ratio and all the other factors successful predators calculate within milliseconds.
He pressed the button to unlock all his car’s doors and rested his fingers on the door handle, but then she found a way to move forward that worked. It was more of a hop than a limp. Slow, but with her fists balled up at her sides, she powered ahead.
Dammit. He looked where she was headed and saw an alley to the back of the plaza just before the bus stop at the corner. He quickly backed his car past the entrance and then turned into it, parking far enough from the street to obscure his car from her and passing traffic.
Lately, his grabs hadn’t been particularly difficult, but the ease of this one aimed to be special. As he got out of the car and walked toward the alley opening, he couldn’t remember having another opportunity with a higher payoff for such easy work. When luck winked at him like this, he knew not to question it. He just did what he always did. He took it.

Thirty minutes earlier, Antoinette entered the Stanlich’s spacious kitchen while pulling her sandy blond hair into a ponytail. “I’m going for a run,” she said, passing by her mother.
Mrs. Stanlich, wearing a pin-striped business suit, sat at the marble island counter, stirring a bowl of hot cereal. She stopped stirring and glanced down at her daughter’s shorts and faded concert T-shirt. “Don’t you have work this morning?”
“My uniform is at the store. I’m jogging there today,” Antoinette said, clipping her phone to her waistband.
“Why?” Her mom put her spoon down.
“I missed my run yesterday, and I need to offset those strawberry cream cheese crepes Irma made for us last night.” She swatted her own backside and grinned.
“I don’t like it,” her mother said.
“Mother, you know I try to run every day. I won’t have time after work, so this is perfect.” She pulled a glass from the cabinet and filled it halfway at the sink.
“Yes, but you normally don’t run through town— and plaza is too far away.”
“It’s my normal distance—about five miles. I’ll be fine.” She guzzled the water.
“You know your father doesn’t like you jogging alone, either.”
“Funny, I asked him for a ride, but he had an early meeting. That gave me the idea to just run, so it worked out perfectly…” Antoinette then changed the subject. “So, you’re dressed up. Where are you off to?”
“I’m hosting a fundraiser at the Weston in Grier Bay. Let me drop you off at your store. It’s on the way.”
“Mother, no, it’s not on the way, but thank you.” She inserted an earbud and left the other one dangling while she stretched her arms over her head.”
Her mother got up and took her bowl to the sink. “How will you get home? It will be practically dark when you finish your shift.”
Antoinette sighed. “Why are you making this into such a big deal?” She held a shrug, waiting for an answer.
“Darling, I wish you wouldn’t jog alone. Especially with all that’s is the news recently.”
“So that’s why you’re freaking out… None of those girls were taken anywhere near us. I’ll be fine.”
“Sweetheart, I hate to sound harsh, but nineteen dead girls probably said the same thing.”
“Oh, please.” Antoinette rolled her eyes. “And thousands of girls say the same thing every day, and they are just as alive as me.” She woke her phone and checked it. “Shit, I gotta hurry, or I’ll be late.”
“Sorry…” Antoinette kissed her mother’s cheek and disappeared into the hallway, torso twisting on the way to the foyer.
As she stepped out the front door, her mother’s voice echoed from behind her, saying, “Call me when you arrive at the store.”
Antoinette leaned back inside. “Okay, but if I forget to call, remember, no news is good news.”
“Antoinette Irene Stanlich!” her mother hollered.
Antoinette speed-walked down the long curved driveway of the palatial house and out through the gate. On the street, she broke into a jog, zigzagging her way through the oversized blocks that comprised Palotte Grove Estates. She relished the time outdoors on these crisp fall mornings.
She turned up the music on her phone and synchronized her steps to the beat, settling into a comfortable pace. She jogged through an adjacent suburb before entering the Bain Road Bike Path that continued all the way to the plaza where Fashion Able, the clothing store where she worked was located.
Foot and bike traffic on the path was light. After running four and a half miles, the Gaimridge Shopping Plaza sign came into view in the distance. A couple approached from its direction. As she closed in on them, she noticed the couple rode inline skates, the man pushing a side-by-side baby stroller for twins. Just before passing by, the woman waved and said, “Morning!”
Antoinette returned the wave and smiled. The stroller looked wider than it had from a distance, so she moved to give it a wide berth. Her foot slipped on the edge of the asphalt, and she tumbled, hands spread, to the ground.
“Oh my God!” The man said, rolling back to help her. “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” Antoinette said. She pushed herself up to a sitting position. She felt pain in her foot and gritted her teeth to conceal it.
“Let me help you up,” the man said, extending his hand.
“No, go ahead, I’m okay. I needed a rest anyway,” Antoinette forced a laugh. “I'm such a klutz. Thank you so much for stopping.”
“Are you sure? I’m so sorry if we crowded you.”
“It’s not your fault. I’ll be fine. I’m just going to rest for a minute.” Antoinette swatted her hand for them to continue and then began untangling the wires of her dislodged ear plugs.
The man glided back to the stroller, and the couple rolled away.
When Antoinette tried to stand, the unmistakable burning pain of a sprain shot through her ankle. “No!”
She struggled for what seemed like a minute to get up onto her good foot and brushed herself off. She hoped that the initial pain would subside enough for her to walk. She raised her wounded foot for relief while she watched the roller-blading couple shrink in the distance.
She considered calling for a ride although it seemed completely silly while having come to within a couple of blocks of her destination. Brett, her boyfriend, was in class so she knew he wouldn’t answer his phone. Her dad was at work and would unnecessarily freak out about her injury. Her mother was certainly on her way to her fundraiser by now. Antoinette knew she could call Irma, their housekeeper, for rescue, but Irma would most likely spew embellished details of Antoinette’s injury details to her mother, who would have hours to fine tune an “I told you so,” lecture that evening.
After a minute, Antoinette’s raised foot actually felt a little better. She gritted her teeth and tested some weight on it, cringing when the pain flooded back. She hopped a few times and then found a way to put weight on her heel in a way that made walking bearable. The success boosted her confidence about making it to the store unassisted.
She set off, hobbling toward the intersection of Bain Road and Hasser Boulevard, focusing on a bus stop in the distance. If she could make it to the bench, she could rest before rounding the corner to the plaza. After having run almost five miles with the ease of a gazelle, she laughed out loud at the seeming silliness of her new goal to reach a bus stop that was probably less than a hundred paces away.
As it turned out, Antoinette wouldn’t need a hundred paces. Before she reached the bus stop, someone would be good enough to help her. Someone who could get her off that painful ankle.
Antoinette should have listened to her mother.
- End of Preview-

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