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Chasing Victoria

Chasing Victoria

Book excerpt

Prologue

The phone rings, piercing sleep and awakening senses. A warm breeze combs my hair, weight anchors my waist, flesh melts into mine, and then, I remember him. Images race like movie scenes, a rolling summary toward a fervent night's ending. I gaze on his slumbering figure, detecting his breath's rhythmic rise and fall until the persistent phone disturbs me again.

“Babe … You awake?”

“Yeah,” I mumble, annoyed someone's calling at one o'clock in the morning. Removing his arm from my waist, I lean toward the nightstand, clutching the mobile's metallic edge. Squinting in the dark, the bright display shows New York City caller. I press accept and answer “Hello.”

City noise, rapid breath, and footsteps eclipse the caller's voice. “Hello. I can't hear you. Speak a little louder.”

“Vicky?”

His lips graze my neck. Simultaneously, I shiver and tense, arching my back to stifle a feverish breath. “Who's this?”

“It's me, Kayla.”

“Kayla? It's one in the morning. Where are you calling from?”

“Vicky, I don't have time to explain.”

Distress in her voice stiffens me further. Concerned, I ignore his lips igniting my spine. “What's wrong?” A door creaks open and shut. Muted restaurant clatter replace city din. “Kayla, where are you? And why are you whispering? I can barely hear you.”

“I can't talk any louder. Vic, I need to see you. Can you meet me at the park in the morning?”

“Excuse me,” a man's voice interjects.

“Oh, sorry,” Kayla mumbles. A door opens. Voices and clinking utensils grow closer then fade. A creaking door tells me she's entered another room—then silence.

“Kayla, what's going on?”

“I can't explain on the phone. Did you find the disk in your bag?”

“Disk?”

“Vic, I have to go. Please, just wait for me at Engineers Gate at five o'clock. I'll explain.”

“Okay. Kayla … Kayla? That's odd…” I mumble, staring at the silent phone. Before I can voice concern, his lips find mine and thoughts of Kayla suspend for the moment.

* * *

Four hours later, I throw on running clothes, tiptoe toward the bedroom door, peer at covers shrouding his outline, and deliberate jumping back in bed. I can't, not after that troubling phone call. I curse Kayla, close the bedroom door, and exit the apartment, realizing this is the first time I've allowed a man to remain in my apartment. How soon I've abandoned control.

Exiting the building, a buoyant, chilly, November fog covers the city a ghostly veil. Only a block away, beads of mist coat my vision. I shiver, not so much from the crisp autumn air, but Kayla's fearful voice. Was she trying to elude someone? And why couldn't she talk on the phone … why the park?

What's going on Kayla?

Pulling my sleeves over my fingers, and rubbing my arms to generate heat, I trot toward Central Park's Engineers Gate and scour the entrance for Kayla. My sports watch confirms it's five o'clock sharp. This is not like her. Kayla's the most punctual person I know. Something's wrong. Uneasily, I stroll inside the park toward the water fountain, disturbing a homeless man asleep on a bench. On the northern end of the gate, a biker zooms into the park, and a woman appears through the fog. I stroll toward her with a loud sigh of relief. “Kayla, I was…” then I realized it's not her. “I'm sorry I thought you were someone else.”

The woman smiles, resumes a brisk walk and then a slight jog toward the reservoir.

Growing anxious, I release my mobile from the armband. Kayla's phone rings several times before going to voicemail. “Kayla, I'm at the park. Where are you? I'm worried about you. Well, it's five o'clock. I'll wait a few more minutes. If I miss you, I'm on the roads running.”

After ten minutes, impatient and itching to run, I comb the entrance one last time before taking off on Central Park's running loop. Worry seizes my mind. Kayla would never get up this time of morning unless it's serious.

Kayla, what have you done?

Approaching the 102nd street traverse, my usual crossover to the western side of the park, I decide to take the longer more challenging route, and head toward steep, rolling hills on the northern end. Dense fog blurs slick leaf-covered roads, so I slow my stride, wary of slipping on dangerous footing. Eerily, taillights emerge through swirling mist. Alarmed, I slow to a stroll, scrutinizing Connecticut license plates and Greenwich Little League Baseball sticker surfacing on a black Lincoln Town car parked near the wooded ravine. The interior light illuminates a man behind the steering wheel. I stop, wary of the wide-open back door, and search for the ever-present police cruiser always present this time of the morning, but it's nowhere in sight.

Muffled voices, crunching leaves, and scuffling arise in the wooded ravine. Paralysis grips my body. Fear seizes my mind. Through sparse tree limbs, a murky trenched-coated man pushes a blurry figure to the ground. My instincts warn, flee! But I'm transfixed by the chilling scene.

“We warned you bitch to stop snooping,” the man threatens.

“No, please,” the woman pleads, struggling from her ill-fated position. The man pushes her forward on hands and knees. “Please don't do this. I won't say anything,” she says with audible tears.

“We know you took the file. Where did you hide it?”

“Please, I told you, I don't know what you're talking about.”

“We saw you take it. Now, one last time, where is it?”

“I don't know…”

It's … And before it registers in my mind, the gun pops and her body falls into the ravine … Kayla! I jump, suppressing a scream. No, it can't be Kayla. No—no—no, not Kayla!

The man behind the wheel, steps from the car. I turn and speed uphill in terror, hoping he hasn't seen me. The steep, leaf-covered incline thwarts momentum, sending my feet slipping and sliding. I tumble, catching my fall in a downward dog. Under my arm, I see the man turn in my direction.

“Hey!” He yells.

I scramble off the ground. The force of adrenaline drives me uphill faster than I've ever run. Glancing back, I see he's gaining speed.

This can't be happening!

An instant sting brushes my leg.

He's shooting at me.

I pick up speed and run off the road onto a dirt path, weaving between trees. Hiding behind a black tupelo tree, I peek sideways at the gunman, doubled over and heaving for air. Straightening his stance he places the gun in his jacket and retreats in the opposite direction.

Uncontrollable shivers claim my body as I watch him disappear down the hill. I drop to my knees, examining blood-ripped running tights, and a small bullet graze to my lower leg. Waves seize my chest, escaping in choppy sobs. Kayla's image falling into the ravine finally registers.

She's dead!

Fearsome trembles leave me weak. I hold onto the tree and breathe deeply. My arm vibrates. My heart wrenches. Kayla's face appears on the mobile. Silent terror grips my breath. Apprehensively, I press accept, knowing it's not Kayla on the other end. The blunt, callous voice from the ravine menaces.

“Ms. Powell, I know who you are and where you live.”

He knows my name!

In my periphery, the blue and white police cruiser winds the curve. With flailing arms, I race in its direction, pointing toward the ravine. Words escape in jagged breathes. “Kayla … My friend…” And the words to follow, unreal as they are, sound like someone else's words. “They killed her!”

* * *

Moments ago, at the ravine, the trench-coated man scours the area around Kayla's body, taking precautions to erase evidence of his presence. Kayla's reddish tresses, immersed in the shallow ravine, ripple with the stream. A beep buzzes from her pocket. With his foot, he turns her body sideways like discarded garbage, retrieving the beeping cell phone. A picture of a smiling woman with a voluminous mane of brownish curls and full heart-shaped lips displays with the name Victoria A. Powell. He presses play. Her voice echoes through the ravine. “Kayla, I'm at the park. Where are you? I'm worried about you. Well, it's now five o'clock. I'll wait a few more minutes. If I miss you, I'm on the roads running.”

He taps the photo and a number and address displays. A chortle escapes. “Well, well, well, Victoria Powell … Wrong place, wrong time.” He gazes at Kayla's body, shakes his head, and whispers under his breath, “What a waste.” Placing the cell phone in his coat pocket, he struggles up the muddy ravine, just as the other man makes his way back to the car.

“She got away, Sir.”

“Don't worry. She couldn't have seen our faces with this fog.” He removes the cell phone from his pocket and waves it like a prize. “I retrieved this from Kayla's jacket. I believe I know our intruder.”

As the car starts its descent, the man dials Victoria's number. The phone rings twice. Dead silence greets him. He knows she's listening, waiting for a voice—perhaps Kayla's. A skewed grin creases his face, picturing her holding the phone to her ear like a cornered mouse. “Ms. Powell, I know who you are and where you live.” Holding the phone to his ear, he listens to her quiet fear as the car creeps down the hill, out of the park, and onto Manhattan's dawn-lit streets.

Chapter 1

A Month Earlier

No one can predict where life will carry them. The most well-thought-out plan can go awry. I ponder persistent solemnness, daily rituals, and countless tasks, which take me nowhere but circles—never-ending, mind-numbing circles. When did it all become so mundane? A part of me wants to shake things up—create disorder in my well-constructed life. Do away with rituals and transform into something different. But fear of losing control—fear of the unknown—holds me in that mundane place bleeding for change.

Often I've wondered if mom, Judith Powell, named me Victoria to signal a triumphant birth. At the age of forty, and after several attempts, she finally succeeded. Mainly, I believe she gave me this name to triumph the ordinary and live as remarkably as she had. Victoria … victorious is an impossible name to emulate, especially when you fail out of the gate. But, as I see it, there will always be challenges to conquer. So, I decided to run. To train my body, prepare for life's challenges, and be physically and mentally ready when the time comes.

I'm just like Judith, although, I try not to be. Judith Powell celebrated opera singer, achieved great success, great victories in her life. She created a life resembling a stage. My childhood was magical. Singers, actors, and dancers, entertained me at home and onstage. For hours, I'd watched Judith's rehearsals, memorizing scenes and music pieces. From Judith's living room to the theater was a continuous act—entertainment on demand by her thespian friends. Sometimes I wondered if there was a division between reality and her stage life. If so, I couldn't tell. Onstage, she played the heroine well, but did she offstage? Would she have survived the real world, a job where vocal and acting abilities aren't measures of success? I assumed not.

Judith's second stage, her home in Martha's Vineyard is filled with magical artifacts. She decorated my room like a castle with drawings of a forest, moon, and magical creatures guarding me as I slept. That seemed so long ago. A child no more, I've chosen a conventional life offstage, a life different from Judith's. I followed my father's path, a career in finance. Aiden Powell adored Judith. He showered her with love and a life of luxury. They were a perfect match, although Judith was not the type held down by marriage. “A free spirit,” dad would always say. He understood her, he accepted her ways, but at what cost. His pain, I can't imagine.

In my mind, I hear Judith say, “You should have had a career on stage, your first defeat.” Maybe she was right. If I had a magic ball, would my life be different? Truthfully, I lost focus, my direction twisted or am I rebelling against a life planned by Judith. Determined to make my own way, I chose a career shocking to both my parents. Eager to conquer Wall Street, I donned the typical attire of the financial world, filled my closet with power suits, black leather pumps, and accessories alluding to wealth. I subscribed to the tools of the trade—Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and Forbes. I became another Wall Street drone clad in designer clothing.

I felt good for a while, even enjoyed the ritual, which seems like someone else's life, not mine. I soon learn Wall Street success comes quickly for those with good connections, family status, and sometimes sleazy improprieties my ethics can't stomach. However, I've determined with diligence and hard work I'd be victorious. Or would I? Soon, making it through mind-numbing days of numbers, market trends, and research left me questioning my purpose. At twenty-five, I assume I'm way too young to experience an existential crisis. Or am I?

Eventually, getting out of bed and going to a soul-draining job felt incredibly difficult. So, I decided to run. Running became compulsory, an endorphin-laced addiction, bolstering and melting mundaneness, and it would save my life.

* * *

It's morning again, and the alarm jolts me from the bed. I perform ritual one, two, and three, fumbling in the dark. Slightly awake, I dress for my morning run, exit the condo, imagining another performance—a vestige of Judith. It's one of those foggy mornings when summer heat collides with falling autumn temperatures, coating New York City surreal. Five o'clock hum of early risers serenades me across the avenues. On the narrow streets between Lexington and Park Avenues, newspapers boys hurriedly toss papers inside building lobbies. At the corner, a taxi stops eager for a fare. I smirk at his disregard of my running outfit and shake my head. A polite greeting occurs on Madison with a lethargic dog owner walking his pet.

“Morning…”

“Good morning … Have a good day,” I reply and continue toward Fifth Avenue.

In front of the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest, a homeless man packs up his makeshift bed. Ahead, teenagers exit the park trailed by marijuana fumes. I feign disinterest, clutching steel keys in my hand. As I grow close, the group part politely, allowing me to pass. With languid strides and glassy eyes, a tall, thin boy dressed in sagging jeans, takes a long drag on the waning joint, exhaling fumes through his nose. Narrowing his eyes, he intones in a strained voice, “Holy shit, you're out early.”

“Not as early as you,” I say.

His eyes follow and his head bobs up and down with an approving smile. “Shit, she's got some balls … I like that … Can I join you,” he says, rubbing his hands in his masculine parts.

I keep walking, dismayed by his ignorance. An opera of comedies, I think as I turn my head, noticing the group disperse to different addresses along the street. The lingering pungent scent grazes my nose and I juxtapose a grassy high and endorphin-induced runner's high. Addictions … Mine's not so different.

On Fifth Avenue, the entrance to the park, inky skies turn indigo blue. I make my way inside and perform my morning ritual, finishing with an orange-magenta sunrise coloring the horizon. Assuming a steady walk, I head toward a bench at the entrance. My body heat collides with cool air, spreading mist around me. I find a bench and begin to stretch when footsteps approach behind. Quickly I turn my head toward a striking man. He nears the bench, stopping to stretch beside me.

“How was your run,” he asks catching his breath.

His athletic built and calf muscles tell me he's a seasoned runner. A drop of sweat, commingle with mist on my face, rolls off my chin, and I reply “Wet,” embarrassed by my profuse sweating.

“I watched you from a distance. You're a good runner, good pace. I had a hard time catching up with you. Do you get out every morning?”

His voice is so unguarded as if he's been speaking to me forever, not the typical wavering of strangers. But, I'm a little perturbed he'd been trailing and watching me from behind. Cautiously, I reply, “Sometimes.”

Lifting his leg on the bench he stretches more limber than any man I've met. Silence pursues as we each continue a ritual I perform alone after each morning run. It's unusual stretching in silence with a stranger. I catch the smooth, dark hairs and muscles etching his calf. An earthy musk grips my nostrils and somehow it's pleasing. He catches my eye. Embarrassed; I stretch deeper.

“My name is Chase,” he says standing straight with an outstretched hand.

I straighten, shake his hand, and notice his angled jaw, full lips, and intense brown eyes smiling at mine. It's odd, but shaking this stranger's hand is calming. I release my grip from his grasp, detecting strength and smoothness. He smiles. I smile back and say, “Good name for a runner—Chase. My name is Vicky.”

“Is that short for Victoria?”

“Yes, but I've always preferred Vicky, less formal. Victoria is so regal. That I'm not,” I say shaking my head.

“You should let someone else decide that. You're impressive when you're running. You have the form of a dancer and the spirit of a gazelle.”

A burst of laughter escapes my mouth. “A gazelle … Hmmm … I never pictured myself running like a gazelle, but they are fast.”

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