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Kalorama Road

Kalorama Road

Book excerpt

Prologue

It's coming. I know it is. Restless and awaiting the hour, I watch seconds tick . . . Fifty-seven . . . Fifty-eight . . . Fifty-nine . . . Midnight. My cell phone chimes like clockwork with an email that arrives every month for the last two years from an anonymous sender, posing an unanswerable question that won’t let me forget one memory-less night. It’s torture. A night I wish never happened haunts dreamlike, vaporous, appearing and receding with crushing anxiety, preventing me from seeing clearly. I should have listened to my instincts and never gone to that off-campus party. But as Grandma Blu always said, what’s done is done.

Often, I’ve pondered what-if scenarios and wished I could rewind time. Especially when I revisit the hesitant moment in my dormitory vestibule, debating whether to stay or go to the off-campus party. I took the latter choice and bolted from the dorm into the chilly autumn night toward the waiting Jaguar’s tinted windows. Grandma Blu’s warning, “Never get into stranger’s cars,” roared loud. But the person behind the wheel wasn’t a total stranger, although we’d never spoken before she invited me to the party. For an entire semester, we sat two rows apart and barely acknowledged each other’s existence until she appeared one day after class.

Lively and wielding a smile, she’d approached with curious eyes, sized me up like a tailor, and invited me to a party. Her odd approach left me more than hesitant. Why after three months the sudden interest? She’d introduced herself as Belle, a sweet and innocent name unsuitable for someone so brazen. But she was beguiling, upbeat, and fun. I couldn’t resist and accepted her invitation. In retrospect, I should have said no. But you didn’t, Allie.

The closer I’d grown to the car, the louder Grandma Blu’s warning screamed in my mind. “Never get into a stranger’s car unless you’re one-hundred percent sure.” I lacked one percent assurance of the blond from Literature 301. Cautiously, I’d approached the Jaguar, and searched tinted windows for the obscured driver. The car door flew open, and Belle leaned toward the passenger side. Her lips curled a smile as she’d said, “Girl, it’s freezing. Get in.” I did in awe of her stunning transformation. She was no longer the fresh-faced nineteen-year-old student in jeans and T-shirt but dressed in a black dress with heavy charcoal eyeshadow that framed thick, false eyelashes. Her hair, blown silken blond, had transformed Belle into a sexy siren.

As we drove past Emsworth University, Bell grew silent. The farther we traveled from campus, the more anxious I’d become. Most off-campus parties were within walking distance, but this I hadn’t expected. Past Kalorama Square, I’d wanted her to turn the car around. My instincts in overdrive reared me conscious of landmarks in case I found myself without a ride back to the dorm. As a girl, I’d often imagined what I’d do if kidnapped by dangerous stranger’s grandma had alluded to. I devised a plan to memorize surroundings, street signs, and landmarks, but I never conceived a foolproof escape. When I think about it now, the imagined getaway was incredibly comical. But the farther we traveled from campus, the sharper my alarm. I’d revisited childish musings and studied the route past Kalorama Square.

The car slowed at an impressive home, swiveled into the driveway and through retracting garage doors. At the time, I believed it was Belle’s family’s home given access inside. When the car halted, and the garage door closed, I began to worry. We entered a space more grandiose than its exterior and much too extravagant for a student party. I’d expected a home swarming with college students, not silent halls, and thought we were the first to arrive until voices emanated from remote spaces.

Belle led me into a billiard room through sparse guest, delivering me to a wide-eyed teenage girl seated at an open bar. “Allison,” Belle had said in a sweet, apologetic voice, “I have to take care of an urgent matter.” She motioned to the puckered-browed girl, “She’ll take care of you until I get back.” She leaned into her ear and whispered quickly. The girl shook her head; I’d assumed a yes to whatever was said. Belle smiled. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.” She vanished, leaving me in a room of mismated young women and older men, which looked like a secret society. And from their stares, I’d sensed I was the evening’s main course.

Belle never returned, and the young woman abandoned me at the bar. A fiftyish looking man slid into the empty stool beside me and introduced himself as Pennington. His eyes consumed every inch of me, and I grew anxious. Pennington placed a drink in my hand. A delicate flute with a cobalt rim contained a mixture much too sweet—sugared I’d assumed to conceal alcoholic potency. When I finished, he refreshed my glass with more intoxicating liquid.

Soon, strangely disoriented, figures blurred, my body, a distant island, appeared detached from my head. An urgent need to flee swept over me. Then Pennington refreshed my drink again. His fingers stroked my arm as if sampling a delicate fabric. I smiled and glanced away, sensing his eyes on my body. He’d whispered, “Don’t be afraid, everyone’s here to have fun. Just relax.” Then I felt his hand on my thigh. Incensed, I pushed him away and staggered from the room in search of Belle.

Stumbling through the home, I wandered upstairs on invisible legs, floating with a giddy high, arriving at the landing. When I approached a small, moonlit alcove, a concerned man had asked, “Sweetheart, are you okay?” His words sounded miles away. My lips parted, but words wouldn’t come. On wobbly legs, I continued down the hall in search of Belle and followed echoing voices to the first door. With fading hands, I twisted the knob, and the door squeaked open. Several images blurred into view, shadows I couldn’t distinguish. Like a camera lens, my mind snapped shut and opened the next morning. The previous night was a blank canvas. Several months later, fuzzy images would appear and recede quickly.

I’ve never determined the number of people in that room. However, I’ve pondered inebriated double vision. Though never certain, I suspect something evil happened in that house, and the resultant amnesia acts as a shield, protecting me from wicked horrors. With a deep sigh, I drag my mobile from the nightstand, and as I’d expected, my anonymous sender’s address appears with a single, bold, small-capped question.

Do you remember what happened at 1414 Kalorama Road?

1

We Meet Again

The last time I saw Allison was two years ago. She sat alone on Emsworth University’s campus quad steps talking on her mobile, oblivious to autumn’s first snow dusting the campus white as she gazed at her Ugg clad feet. A black ski parka hugged snug around her slender figure. A beige wool ski cap framed worried brown eyes. Her bee-stung lips puckered and curved with hushed words. Despite obvious distress, I thought she looked more beautiful than I’d ever seen.

Hesitantly, I’d approached and sat across from her with concern. She glanced up for a minute, and in that instant, I’d wanted her to recognize me, but when she didn’t, I figured it best she hadn’t. Intently listening, her low voice rose and fell an octave with alarm as she spoke about the off-campus party three days prior. Worried something horrible happened; her pitch intensified a fearful trill. Allison’s anguish had wrenched my heart and conscience, prompting a consoling need to reveal Kalorama Road’s treachery, but I couldn’t. Self-conscious, her eyes flitted about the quad and met and held my gaze an eternal second. And as I’d suspected, she’d forgotten everything, including me.

Now, here I am, two years later, about to see Allison again and worry her memory has returned. Ahead, a slanted building and large, red number nine graces the sidewalk like artwork, proclaiming my arrival at 9 West 57th Street. Distracted by memories of Allison, I enter her office building’s revolving door, unaware I’ve circled past the exit twice. On the third rotation, I jump through the egress into a glassy lobby, and just in time, rescue my coattail from swift-moving flaps. More alert, I approach the security desk.

“I have an appointment with Allison Bertrand at McClelland.” 

“May I see your identification?” The security guard asked.

“I’m thirty minutes early,” I said, pulling my driver’s license from my wallet.

He shakes his head. “It’s okay as long as someone’s there,” he said, checking the computer and calling upstairs to confirm my appointment. “Mr. McThursten is here to see Ms. Bertrand . . . Okay,” he said, hanging up with a smile. Returning my driver’s license with a guest pass, he points toward the left. “Thirtieth floor, elevator bank two.”

“Thanks,” I said, following his directions, arriving at a talking elevator.

Unknowingly, my father has thrust Allison back in my life. If he hadn’t sent my manuscript to McClelland Publishing, I wouldn’t be here. I had no intention of publishing the book. When I heard Allison’s voice on the phone, I didn’t know who she was until she revealed her name on the second call. I couldn’t believe the fawned-eyed student from Emsworth University who’d entered my life one harrowing night had my manuscript. What are the odds of that? I couldn’t resist seeing her, so here I am, ten floors from her office, wondering if her memory has returned. If so, will she remember me? The elevator opens in front of two large glass doors, and in that instant, I consider not entering, but the elevator doors close, squeezing and forcing me out. A gray-haired receptionist looks up and buzzes me in.

“Mr. McThursten, you’re early. Allison will be here soon. You can hang your coat over there,” she said, pointing to a closet by the door.

I proceed to hang my trench, and when I turn around, the gray-haired receptionist is standing behind me.

“Allison just called. She’s minutes away. Meanwhile, you can wait in the conference room until she arrives,” she said, leading me toward a room near the windows. “Can I get you coffee or tea?”

“No thank you. I’m fine.”

“She won’t be too long. Help yourself to magazines,” she said, pointing at the side table and closing the door with a smile. 

Too tense to sit, I approach the window and stare at Central Park’s rectangular green, running through a city of cement skyscrapers thirty stories below. But Allison’s fawn eyes and the stolen kiss takes precedence over city views. A kiss I can’t forget. Will she remember? If she does, I’ll have no choice but to tell her the truth. I glance at McClelland’s clock. In twenty minutes, I’ll find out.

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