EXCERPT FROM CHASING VICTORIA (2015)
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.”
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?”
“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.
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.