IF THE CUTE barista turned out to be stronger than she looked, it wouldn’t matter. That’s the wonderful thing about fate. What was supposed to happen, was about to happen. Gage could feel it. His sweaty fingers twiddled the keys in his pocket as he leaned against the window inside Hot Perks. Sunlight poured into the crowded coffee shop and patron conversations competed with the sounds of hissing steamers and gurgling coffee machines.
He watched her make thirteen drinks in a row before she looked up once—a record for her. He loved the ponytail. It flitted and flopped so playfully when she tilted her head to pour milk or leaned to scoop ice. She did most of her work framed under the Pick Up sign. The irony made Gage smile. What a treat she’d be.
He wore a new brown parka, blue jeans and year-old work boots that looked as though he had purchased them yesterday. Well-groomed hair and refined facial features complemented his outfit to make him look like an executive on his first day of a blue-collar job.
“Have you ordered, friend?” An elderly man nudged him from behind. Gage shook his head and pointed to the rear of the line, keeping his eyes locked on the barista. Today she must have forgotten her nametag, but Gage knew her name. He had gathered more trivia about her than he needed. In less than a week he had learned that she was 20 years old, left-handed, worked 10:00AM to 5:00PM weekdays, respected authority, lived alone, quit college, went to more concerts than she could afford, had a growing affinity for alcohol and had rejected three customer date requests in two days. And he also knew her missing nametag had Marissa engraved on it. All these facts were useless. Only three things mattered today—Marissa had short-trimmed fingernails, she would ride her bicycle home after dark and her route included a road with sparse traffic.
His best estimate from a distance was that she stood about shoulder height to him. Her breasts were difficult to assess under the stained bib apron, but it was a safe bet they’d turn out to be acceptable. The skin on her face was a little pasty, but nothing that putting her face-up in the sun for a couple of hours couldn’t fix. Although she wasn’t a perfect specimen right off the shelf, she’d more than suit his needs after a few adjustments.
He got in line and inched his way to the Order Here sign where he paid for a medium, half-caf, no-foam, non-fat, vanilla soy latte. He dropped his change from high above the tip jar. The piercing coin crash failed to make her look his way. He moved along the display of cupcakes, croissants and gift cards to a chocolate bar rack beside the worn countertop where Marissa placed her finished drinks. He pulled an oversized chocolate bar from the rack and pretended to read its label. Then he put the candy bar back, slipped his hand behind the rack and removed a magnetic bug the size of a bottle cap from the backside. He had only needed four days of its seven-day battery.
“I have a large chai latte for Jim,” Marissa called out, sliding the drink to the edge of the counter. Her voice, in person, was always richer than it sounded in the tinny recordings.
As she scooped vanilla powder into a large cup, Gage stepped closer and said, “Pardon…”
Marissa looked at him and raised her eyebrows, inviting his question. Her inquisitive expression made him smile.
“Has anyone ever told you that you favor Hailey Vaughan?” he asked.
Color flowed into Marissa’s cheeks. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who that is.”
Gage winked at her. “That’s okay, Darling. She comes in here every day without fail. Dresses impeccably. She has auburn hair like yours and lights up a room like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I still don’t know her, but she seems like a great person to look like!”
“Trust me, you do. And the two of you have something else in common…” Gage threw his hands up in surrender. “Let’s just say that when God created your smiles, he was just showing off!”
Marissa’s blush deepened. “Thank you.” She stepped away, wiped a steamer nozzle with a damp cloth and then pulled an empty cup for a new order. When she served the next drink, she noticed Gage, still waiting and watching her.
“Does she wear business suits and carry a shoulder satchel?” Marissa asked.
“I think I know who you’re talking about. She orders a medium half-caf, no-foam, non-fat, vanilla soy latte. I know my customers by their drinks!”
Gage pointed to a monitor above Marissa’s head that displayed the drink queue. The next order was for a medium, half-caf, no-foam, non-fat, vanilla soy latte. She laughed and said, “I always joke with her that it must taste good because it’s as hard to say as it is to make. Looks like she’s gotten you hooked on it, too.”
Gage rubbed his chin. “Oh, yes. I’m hooked.”
The reflection of a brilliant sunset slid down Wenshire Harbor’s tallest buildings. Below, Gage sat parked at the curb in his yellow Chevy Blazer. He had emptied the rear compartment of its stacked toolboxes, wire spools and electronics. Only a tattered comforter remained, spread edge to edge, foam stuffing protruding from several tears in its lining.
Days earlier, he had discovered this parking spot that had a perfect view of the rear alley exit for Hot Perks Coffee Shop. He checked his watch at 5:02PM. The headlights of passing cars blinked on as the sky darkened. Like clockwork, Marissa emerged from the alley on her bike and stopped at the curb to put on her helmet. Gage whispered, “Good girl.”
Marissa plugged an earbud into each ear, checked for oncoming traffic and pedaled onto the street for her ride home that should take anywhere from eighteen to twenty minutes.
Gage started his Blazer and waited. He didn’t need to keep her in sight—yet. He knew her route. He knew her speed. He knew that the night would be darker by the time she reached the two-mile stretch on Route 6 between Mantle Tavern and the driveway to her apartment building.
After waiting ten minutes, he began his drive, joining the same traffic Marissa had. He stayed in the slow lane, keeping a careful eye on his speed. Turning onto Route 6 gave him a bigger rush than he had imagined. “Finally!” he said, wiping his hand on his lap.
The outskirts of town had only sporadic traffic, which Gage chalked up to another wink from fate. In his rearview mirror he saw two sets of headlights. He soon recognized his prize in the distance. A red safety light under Marissa’s bike seat fluttered, dimming and brightening with each rotation of her pedals. Before getting too close, he pulled to the side of the road, briefly flashing his hazard lights. The two cars behind him passed. He checked his mirror again and saw the darkness that promised time—a limited amount, but plenty for what he needed to do.
As he drove his Blazer back onto the road, he pulled two pairs of flex cuffs from the glove box and put them beside a first-aid kit that sat on the passenger seat. He drummed his fingers on the kit as he closed in on Marissa. She pedaled in strong, even strokes. Her head moved side to side as she bounced to her music. He pulled up beside her and slowed to match her speed. His Blazer came within an arm’s reach of her left handlebar. She looked toward him as his passenger window slid down. He turned on his interior light to disarm her with his smile.
“Excuse me,” he shouted.
Marissa released one hand from the handlebars and held up her finger for him to wait so she could remove an earbud. Gage jerked the wheel hard to the right and then straightened. He heard the metallic thump against the passenger door and a brief scream. In the right rearview mirror, he saw her go down, arms and fingers spread to break her fall. He slammed on his brakes and then shoved the gearshift to reverse. He backed past her and then pulled forward to park, his bright headlights illuminating Marissa amidst a thinning cloud of swirling dust. She sat upright on the road’s shoulder, rubbing her knee. She cupped her hand toward the car to shield her eyes from the headlights. A short distance away, her bicycle lay with its front wheel turned backward. She yelled something that Gage didn’t hear.
After watching her for a moment, he tossed the first-aid kit onto the rear seat and then got out, tucking the flex cuffs into his back pocket. He walked toward her, gravel crunching under his boots.
Marissa fingered hair from her face and said, “What happened? Did you get stung by a bee or something?” When Gage didn’t answer, she said, “I’m okay,” and waved him away. “You can keep going. I’m good to go. No harm done.” She tried to stand and grimaced when she put weight on her left leg, so she sat down and resumed rubbing her knee.
Gage walked past her. A chill shot through her. He hadn’t even asked if she was okay. She leaned back and tried to see if any cars approached from behind the man’s vehicle. There was only blackness. She fumbled in her sweatshirt pockets. Both were empty. To stave off panic, she tried to act calm. “You can just leave my bike there. Seriously, I’ll take care of it. I don’t want to hold you up,” she said.
Gage picked up her phone from the asphalt near the bicycle. He pried open the back cover and popped out the battery. Then something else caught his eye. It was a pen-sized pepper spray dispenser with its cap missing. He picked it up and turned toward the headlights. Marissa saw his face. “Are you the guy that was in Hot Perks today?” Gage didn’t reply. Marissa wanted him to say something—anything. She forced a smile and asked, “Did you like the drink?”
Gage pulled the flex cuffs from his back pocket.
“Look, I don’t need any help. I just need my phone,” Marissa said.
Gage separated the flex cuffs and pinched one pair between his teeth while he loosened the other. Marissa’s eyes widened and she screamed, trying to scoot away.
As it turned out, the cute barista wasn’t stronger than Gage had expected, but she was much louder.
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