Friday, December 1, 2017

Natalia lives! Book Two on the way...

Four years have passed since I published my first suspense novel, Natalia: A Vigilante Thriller.  I'd always planned on making this into a series following our heroine, Natalia Nicolaeva, as she goes up against organized crime figures and corrupt government officials all around the world.  That first book was an origin story, showing how Natalia goes from being a quiet farm girl from Moldova into an international crime fighter.  I even started on the sequel, but then got sidetracked by the success of some of my contemporary romances.

Well, I'm back on Natalia now, and enjoying the process of creating the next book in the series!  I don't have a title yet, or a publication date, but I hope to have this next one finished sometime in the spring, and if all goes well, the third title in the series by the end of 2018.  Wish me luck!  In the meantime, I'll post the first chapter of Part II below to whet anybody's appetite who enjoyed the last one.  This draft is very rough.  I haven't revised it at all yet, but here it is for what it is worth!

Chapter One
Natalia Nicolaeva sat in the middle of a crowded auditorium, typing notes into her laptop.  Her history professor stood behind a lectern down below, holding forth on the Battle of Grunwald.  The man wore dark brown pants and a frayed blue sweater.  His mildly unkempt gray hair matched an unruly salt-and-pepper beard.  “Who can tell me which country was the largest in Europe during this period?” he asked his charges.  At 21-years-old, Natalia looked the part of a student.  She wore jeans and a loose grey sweatshirt, with faded green canvas high-tops on her feet.  Her long brown hair was tied back into a pony tail.  Natalia was tall, with the athletic build of a hard-working country girl.  She carried herself with confidence, though she couldn’t help but feel like an imposter in this place.  She’d never planned to go to university.  All her life she’d felt destined to be farmer, married and raising a family amongst the wheat fields of her native Moldova.  Yet here she was, attending Saint Petersburg Polytechnic University, in a city the size of which she never could have imagined beforehand.  Natalia was still was not used to the idea.
“None of you have the courage to answer my simple question?” the professor bellowed.  His cowering students shuffled their feet and averted their eyes.  Only one brave hand shot into the air, from the seat just beside Natalia.  “Yes?” the professor asked.
“Russia!” came the eager reply.  Sasha Antov was one of Natalia’s few acquaintances on campus.  He was a jokester, always fooling around, with a lighthearted merriment in his eyes.  His thin, wiry body was clothed in faded blue jeans, a rumpled green t-shirt and red cotton jacket.  The young man was slightly below average in stature, with light-colored hair cut short.  Scraggly facial hair highlighted his casual attitude.   
“No!” the professor shouted back.  “Not Russia!”
“Are you sure?!”
“I am quite sure!”
“But do the authorities know what you are teaching us?  Russia is the greatest country on earth!”
At mention of the authorities, the professor took a small step backwards.  “The answer is not Russia.”
Natalia felt her own arm rising, as if under its own volition.
“You there!  Can you please tell us the correct answer?” the professor pressed.
“Lithuania,” Natalia answered in a clear, even tone.
 “Very good,” the professor conceded.  “And what present-day countries did Lithuania encompass?”
Natalia cleared her throat and continued, her nerves slightly rattled.  “Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, parts of Poland…”
“Yes, and?” he pestered.
“Part of Russia,” she answered.
“I knew it!” Sasha replied with a sly smile.  “I was right!”
The professor turned his attention to the rest of the class, quickly typing their notes.  “From 1316 to 1430 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania controlled an area that encompasses the present states of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Poland and Russia.  In 1401 they joined forces with the Kingdom of Poland to face off against the Knights of the Teutonic Order in the Battle of Grunwald, considered the largest battle in medieval Europe.”
Natalia saw Sasha slide a folded slip of paper onto her desk.  After taking a quick look around first, she picked it up and unfolded it.  “Show off!” it read.  Natalia turned to the boy, a look of consternation on her face.  She considered a response, but in the end merely shook her head. 
“The battle marked the beginning of the decline of the Knights, a Germanic order born during the crusades in the Middle East…”

As class broke for the day, Natalia slid her laptop into a black leather backpack by her feet, zipped it shut, and then stood to leave, slinging the bag onto her shoulders as she went.  Sasha followed her out of the auditorium where they emerged into a cool, October afternoon, with puffy white clouds scattered across a blue sky.  “I told you it was Russia,” he said. 
Part of Russia.”
“What else matters?”
“Why do you say anything at all if you don’t know the answer?”
“What do I care?  It’s all a waste of time.  Why live in the past when you can live in the present?  Those Teutonic Knights have nothing to do with me.”
“Don’t you want to get good marks?  You don’t even take notes!  I don’t see why you’re even here at all.  Do you want to get expelled?”
“That would be the best thing that could happen to me.  It would get my parents off my case.  Then I could put my energies into the important things in life, like making money!”
“If you want a good job, you’ll get your degree.”  The pair walked across campus toward the dormitories.
“You think too small.  The employers in my line of work don’t care about university degrees.  All they care about is whether you’re up to the task.  And they pay a lot of money.  Did I tell you that?”
“I think you’ve mentioned it.”
“I can earn more on one job than our professor Grunwald makes in a year.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You could do the same, if you wanted to.  I could teach you plenty that you’ll never learn in school.”
Natalia shivered at the thought.  “Sitting in front of a computer screen all day is not how I plan to spend my life.”
“But come on, it’s fun!”
“You can’t mean that.”
“Why not?  There’s always a challenge.  And did I tell you about the money?”
“I think you might have mentioned it.”
“What is it that you study?  History?  What will you do with that?”
“I plan to study law.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right.  And what do lawyers do all day?  They sit at their desks, in front of their computer!”
“At least good lawyer can make a difference in the world.”
“So can a good programmer.”
“Is that what you’re after?”
“I think you know what I’m after.  The world can take care of itself.”
“You better be careful or you’ll get yourself into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?  My services are in demand.  I don’t see any problem with that.  Clients are willing to pay.”  Sasha seemed intent on convincing himself as much as Natalia.  The pair arrived at the woman’s dormitory, a towering brick block, ten stories high.  “What will you do now?”
“I need to study.  Some of us still care about our marks.”
“But come on, live a little bit!  I’m meeting a friend for a beer.  Why don’t you join us?”
Natalia tilted her head to one side, showing her skepticism.  “Who has time for a beer?”
“Are you joking?!  How could you say no to a beer?  When was the last time you enjoyed yourself at all?”
For Natalia, this last question struck home.  It was true, she rarely allowed herself time for distractions, but that was for good reason.  As the first member of her family to attend university, Natalia felt added pressure.  Maybe Sasha wouldn’t mind dropping out of school.  To Natalia, failure to graduate was not an option.  After this taste of the wider world, the life of a farmwife in rural Moldova would never suffice.  Her dreams were grander, and if hard work was what it took to reach her goals, then so be it.  She would work as hard as she could.  All the same, maybe sharing a beer with classmates once in while couldn’t hurt.  Perhaps it might even be good for her.  “Where are you going, exactly?”
“It’s a little bar, not too far from here.  Come on, you’ll like it!  I promise.”
Natalia crossed her arms and gave it a bit more thought before nodding in acquiescence.  “One beer couldn’t hurt.  Let me drop off a few things first.”
“I’ll meet you right here in ten minutes.”
Natalia pulled out her student ID card and swiped it across an electronic reader to let herself into the building.  Walking across the foyer to the bank of elevators, she had a slight spring in her step.  She could study later.  In the meantime, Sasha wasn’t entirely wrong.  Life was for living.  She would enjoy this night out as a typical university student.  Who could begrudge her that?  When Natalia got to her room, she found Julia, her second-year roommate, sitting at one of two desks.  “Hello!” Natalia called out.
“You seem cheery.”  Julia looked up from her laptop.  She was petite, with wavy dark hair hanging just below her shoulders.  She wore a form-fitting cotton shirt that showed off her muscular physique.  “What happened, you met a boy?”
“Why can’t I just be happy?” Natalia complained.
“Fine.  Be happy.  I’m just not used to it.”  Julia turned back to her computer.
“I’m going out for a beer.  Do you want to come?”
Glancing back up, Julia made no attempt to hide her skepticism.  “With who?”
“Sasha.  My friend from history class.”
“I knew it.”
“It’s not like that.”
“He’s bringing a friend…”
Julia considered the idea briefly.  “Maybe next time… if his friend is cute.”
“I’ll try to bring some photographic evidence.  Anyway, I don’t plan to be out long.”
“That’s what they always say.”
“What who always says?”
“Anybody who ever went to a bar for one beer in the history of the world.”
“Maybe some of them were right.”  Natalia dropped her backpack onto her own desk and took a quick look at herself in a full-length mirror.  Should she change?  Maybe put on a dress, and some heels?  She shook her head.  No, she didn’t need to impress Sasha.  But she could ditch the plain grey sweatshirt.  She peeled it off and tossed it into a hamper before digging through one of the drawers in her clothes bureau, finding a more presentable green sweater.  When she’d pulled this on over her head, she unzipped her backpack and pulled out her laptop and two books before placing them into a desk drawer.  Lifting the bag, she felt only the weight of her .40 caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol, with a 15-round magazine.  Because, really, what other accessories did a girl need?  She considered leaving the pistol behind altogether, but that would mean pulling it out of the backpack, and since Julia didn’t even know it existed…  And besides, carrying the gun helped set her at ease in unfamiliar surroundings.  It was a psychological crutch as she worked to recover from past trauma.  Maybe someday she wouldn’t feel the need to take it with her wherever she went, but one thing Natalia had learned in life thus far was that you could never be too careful.  She opened an outside pocket on her backpack and slid in her phone, her ID, and a bank card.  From her top desk drawer, she found a few hundred rubles and tossed them in as well.  “Last chance,” she said.
“Have fun,” Julia answered.
“I’ll try.”  Natalia took one last look into the mirror, brushing a few strands of wayward hair into place with her hand, before heading out the door.

The bar itself was one Natalia would have never noticed on her own.  From the street, there was merely a door.  In lieu of a sign, an empty purple picture frame dangled up above the threshold.  Indeed, it was more of a private club than a bar, but after a few words through an intercom, she and Sasha were buzzed inside.  They descended a stone staircase into a basement and past a burly, tattooed bouncer on a tall stool.  He gave them a once over and then a nod as they went on through.  This place was underground both literally and figuratively.  Techno music reverberated off the stone walls and the arched ceiling of a smoky, dimly-lit cellar.   Wooden tables and benches lined either side, many occupied by a mixed crowd of university students and unemployed laborers drinking away their benefit checks on a Thursday afternoon.  At the far side of the room, a bar stretched along the back wall. 
“What is this place?” Natalia asked Sasha took an empty table not far from the door.
“You’ve never been here before?” he replied in awe.
“Of course not, how would I even find it?”
Sasha shrugged.  “If you spend time with me, I can show you lots of places.”
“I’m sure.”  Natasha slid her backpack off her shoulders and placed it on the bench beside her.
“This one is not quite on the books.”
“Not quite?”
“That’s why it’s so cheap.  No taxes.”
“Aren’t they worried they’ll get shut down?”
“If you know the right people, it’s not a problem.”
“Know the right people, or pay the right people?”
“What’s the difference?” he laughed.  “What are you drinking?  The first is on me.”
“Whatever you’re drinking.”
Sasha took a quick look at his phone.  “My friend Vitaly is on his way.  I’ll be right back.”  He rose and made his way to the bar as Natalia continued taking in her surroundings.  At the next table was a group of fellow students; two girls and three boys, smoking cigarettes and talking, laughing, tapping on their phones.  They were young and free and happy to be alive.  Natalia needed to appreciate life’s simple pleasures more herself, though she still found it was hard to let her guard down.  She struggled to trust anybody new, and here in Saint Petersburg, everybody was new.  After surviving Istanbul, she’d thought she could simply move on; that she could pick up the pieces and go back to the way things were before.  Unfortunately, nothing was so simple.  The nightmares made sleep a dicey proposition.  She saw him coming for her, Dusan rising from the dead and out for revenge, carving her open with a hunting knife just as she’d done to him.  Even when she was awake, Natalia was prone to breaking out in cold sweats, always with the sense that anybody unfamiliar might be after her.  She knew what darkness lurked in the hearts of men.  Carrying the gun at least gave her some small peace of mind, though Natalia understood that the past was finished.  She needed a new set of memories, happy ones, to replace the pain.  Here she was in Russia, out at a students’ pub on a Thursday afternoon.  Sonia would have loved this, drinking beer with two boys.  The edges of Natalia’s lips turned upward at the thought.  Sonia, who was no doubt watching over Natalia at this very moment, her presence never far away…
Sasha cradled three glasses of beer as he returned, placing them carefully on the table.  “There he is!”  A grin lit up his face as he looked toward the entryway.  Natalia followed his gaze to see bulky young man in baggy jeans and worn grey sweater coming down the stairs.
“Sasha!”  The man opened his arms wide as he approached the table.  The two embraced in a manly display.
“Vitaly!”  As they separated, Sasha gestured beside him.  “This is my friend Natalia.”
“Natalia!” Vitaly repeated.  “A pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”  Natalia rose and offered a hand. 
As he shook it, Vitaly cracked a sly smile.  “How could it be that a perfidious rascal like my Alexander finds himself in the company of such a lovely creature as yourself?”
The question struck Natalia dumb.  She turned to Sasha, unsure how to respond.
“Don’t listen to him.  He likes to think of himself as a comedian.”
“If only I were joking!”  Vitaly followed the comment with a hearty belly laugh.
“Sit down and drink your beer.”  Sasha took a seat beside Natalia.  Vitaly eased himself in across the table and all three lifted their glasses. 
“Na Zdorovie!”  They looked one another in the eye and then took a drink.
“Shouldn’t we be drinking something a little more serious than beer?” said Vitaly.  “It is a Thursday, after all.”
“Oh no, not me.  I need to study after this,” Natalia replied.
“Study?!  On a Thursday afternoon?  What do you need to study?”
“History, to start with.”
“Natalia wants to be a lawyer,” Sasha explained.
“Ah, now I can see it,” said Vitaly.
“See what?” Natalia asked.
“Why Sasha conned you into being his friend.  He might need you some day.”  Again, that smirk crossed Vitaly’s face.  “I only wonder how he did it.”
“Of course, I can understand that you’d be jealous of my social graces,” said Sasha. 
“Social graces?!  I doubt you know what the phrase even means!”
“Are you two always like this?” Natalia asked.
“Pretty much,” Sasha admitted.
“Why is Sasha going to need a lawyer?”
“Are you kidding?!” Vitaly scoffed.  “You don’t know him very well, do you?”
“I know that he likes computer programming.  And that he has some dubious clients….”
“Are you one of his merry band of hackers, too?” said Natalia.
“A hacker?  No, Vitaly is not a hacker, he’s more of a slacker.” said Sasha.  “Let’s just say he lacks the proper skillset.”
“Sasha is on the technical side.  I’m more on the content side,” Vitaly explained.
“What kind of content?”
“Whatever the client requires.”
Natalia raised her eyebrows, looking from one man to the other before laughing lightly.  “It sounds to me like you both might need lawyers someday.”
Sasha shook his head.  “No.  Only people working for the wrong side need lawyers.”
“Which side is that?”
“The wrong side,” Sasha repeated.
“Anyway, Sash and I don’t work together anymore,” said Vitaly.  “We used to, but Sasha ran off on his own.  I don’t know what he’s up to anymore.”
“I wish I could tell you!”  Leaning forward onto the table, Sasha’s expression lit up with uncontained glee.  “Just a little bit...  I wish that I could, really I do.  I’ve come up with something, Vitaly.  Something big.  This is going to make me very, very rich.  I promise you that.  Once this project is complete, I’ll back you on any venture you want to start together.  Whatever you can dream of, we can do it.  I promise you!”
A cloud crossed Vitaly’s face.  He didn’t like the way this conversation was going.  “As long as we bring along our lawyer friend here, to look after us.”
“I don’t want any part of this,” said Natalia.
“That’s because you’re the only intelligent one at the table,” Vitaly answered.
On the table between them, Sasha’s phone lit up, vibrating against the hard wood surface.  Incoming Call: Dmitri read the screen.  Sasha quickly reached for the device.  “I better take this.”  His own expression darkened as he answered the phone.  “Dmitri, hello.  Yes.”  Sasha glanced anxiously toward his friends before rising to his feet and abruptly leaving the table, moving up the stairs and out to the street to take the call. 
“Someone you know?” Natalia asked.
“Dmitri?” Vitaly shrugged.  “I know lots of Dmitri’s.”
“Yes, I suppose so…”
Natalia and Vitaly sat drinking their beer as they waited for Sasha to return.  The place was filling up, with more students trickling in as they wrapped up their classes for the day.  It had been some time since Natalia allowed herself the luxury of a nice cold beer.  She was enjoying the moment, beginning to feel the alcohol flow through her veins.  Despite the hardships of her past, moments of brightness still existed in life.  The trick was in learning to appreciate them; to not let the darkness simply take over.  She ought to get out more, Natalia thought.  “Why don’t I get the next round?” she said.
“You?  No, no!  The next is on me, I insist!” Vitaly raised one hand in the air.
“Why, because I’m a girl?  My money is as good as yours,” said Natalia.  “Save your rubles.  I’ll get this one.” 
“As you wish.  I’m not going to argue with a lawyer.”
“I’m not a lawyer.  Not yet.”
“You see?  I’m losing this argument already.”
Natalia lifted her backpack and placed it onto the table.  Unzipping the front pocket, she pulled out her bank card.  “Watch my bag?”
“Certainly.  I’ll keep an eye on it.”
“I’ll be right back.”  Natalia made her way her way to the far side of the room, where she nestled up along one side of the bar.  The bartender was busy serving other customers, but from here Natalia could keep an eye on the scene while she waited.  At a table nearby, she spotted a man alone with a near-empty bottle of vodka for company.  He was middle-aged, though probably younger than he looked, with greying hair and creases in his face.  The man took a drag on his cigarette before stubbing it out in a trayful of smoldering butts.  He poured the last of his vodka into a glass and then threw it back, swallowing the drink in one go.  His eyes opened wide as the alcohol hit his blood.  Placing his glass on the table, they narrowed once more, his head swaying gently side to side.  Natalia thought of her brother, Leon, back home in Moldova.  He fought his own demons when it came to the temptations of drink, but the last she saw of him, he was holding himself and his young family together.  With their father no longer around to look after the farm, those responsibilities now fell to Leon.  Natalia never completely stopped worrying about a relapse, heaven forbid.  And what of this man, sitting here drunk in a college bar?  Didn’t he have a family of his own somewhere, worrying about him?
“What will you have?” the bartender asked.
“Oh!  Three beers.”
“Large or small?”
Natalia considered her options.  She had no intention of trying to keep up with these two boys.  “Two large and one small.”
The bartender gave a quick nod and then reached for the glasses.  As he filled them, Natalia peered back across the room.  She saw Sasha come down the stairs and move toward their table.  Something about his demeanor struck her as odd.  He seemed unsettled somehow.  Pale.  Unsmiling.  He sat without a word and put both hands on the table, pushing his phone to one side.  Vitaly asked a question, but Sasha snapped in return.
The bartender placed one beer on the bar, and then another.  When he’d filled the third, Natalia handed across her bank card and he ran the charge.  “Thank you,” said Natalia before tucking the card under her sleeve.  She arranged the glasses into a triangle between her fingers and gently lifted them into the air.  As she moved across the room, Natalia saw another man come down the stairs from outside.  Something about him set her alarm bells ringing.  She didn’t like the look of him.  This wasn’t a student, nor a middle-aged alcoholic either.  He was tall and broad, in a designer suit.  His blond hair was cut short on the sides, flat on top.  Even in the dimly lit basement, he didn’t bother taking off dark sunglasses.  There was an air of confidence about him… arrogance, really, with his strong jaw tilted slightly upwards as he scanned the room.  Natalia had experience with men like this.  She knew what they were capable of.  A chill took hold of her as she flashed back to Istanbul.  She tried to reminded herself, that experience was over.  She was a college student, enjoying a beer with some friends.  Nobody was after her anymore.  Continuing across the room, she slowed as the man approached the table ahead of her.  What was he up to?  He stopped beside Sasha and the two passed a few words.  Natalia saw Vitaly look in her direction, a frightened expression on his face.  He shook his head slowly, left to right, trying to tell her… what?  To stay away?  Natalia spotted her backpack, sitting in front of him on the table.  So close! Just ten meters away!  She took one more step.  If only she could get there… 
The man in the suit reached under his jacket and Natalia’s world spun in slow motion as he pulled out a gun of his own.  She saw the glint of metal, the finger on the trigger.  She saw the disbelief in Sasha’s eyes as the man opened fire, pumping round after round rounds into young friend’s body.  Screams rang out as Sasha collapsed onto the bench.  Next it was Vitaly in the killer’s sights.  Arms raised in the air, Vitaly plead for his life with sorrowful eyes.  The killer pulled the trigger just once, splattering her new friend’s brains against the wall.  The three beer glasses slid from Natalia’s hands, floating downwards in freefall until they shattered against the stone floor.  The gunman’s head swiveled toward her, gun aimed Natalia’s chest.  As he sized her up, she was unable to move.  Unable to breathe.  Unable to think.  She caught a slight upturn in the man’s lips, as though the sight of her amused him.  He tucked his gun back underneath his jacket and then beat a hasty retreat, moving past the ineffectual bouncer, up the stairs and out.
Natalia rushed to Sasha’s side, though she already knew it was too late.  Blood dripped off the bench, pooling beneath on the floor beneath his inert body.  There was no time to waste.  For any hope at justice, she must act quickly.  Grabbing her backpack from the table, she joined a mad rush for the exit, bumping and pushing her way through the panicked crowd and up the stone stairs until they were disgorged onto the street above, a stumbling mass of hysteria.  Quickly, Natalia scanned the scene.  Halfway up the block, she spotted the killer disappearing into the back of a black Maserati.  The car sped off down the street, Natalia chasing after on foot.  What would she possibly do if she caught up to it?  Shoot the man?  She would if the opportunity presented itself, but that thought was only a glimmer.  Natalia was working off instinct.  This man killed her friends in cold blood, right in front of her.  If Natalia had learned one thing in Istanbul, it was that she couldn’t let such incidents go unpunished.  And so, she ran, weaving through startled pedestrians as she raced along the sidewalk, ducking into the street, hoping for a miracle.  The Maserati turned right and disappeared around a corner, wheels spinning.
As Natalia approached the intersection, she heard the crash without seeing it; a loud screeching of brakes followed by crunching metal and shattering glass.  Arriving at the corner, she spotted a bus at the end of the block, resting diagonally across the roadway with a gaping hole in the side.  Spun around at a 60-degree angle was the Maserati, front end smashed into a heap of twisted metal.  A red and white Japanese superbike lay on its side, the stunned rider sprawled on the pavement nearby.  Natalia paused just long enough to take it all in before hurrying forward once more.  The crumpled door of the Maserati was pushed open from the inside.  The driver emerged from under an inflated white airbag.  From the back seat, the killer climbed through a smashed window, blood running down his face, soaking his expensive suit.  Passersby stopped to gawk, moving closer to the unfolding drama.  Natalia couldn’t allow these two men to escape.  But could she shoot them in cold blood, in the middle of a busy intersection?  There would be no explaining it away.  Not with this many witnesses.  Yet she couldn’t allow these men to get away with murder. 
Slowing her pace as she drew closer, Natalia took off her backpack and quickly unzipped it.  She reached one hand inside and felt the cold grip of her semi-automatic pistol.  No, this was not the time or the place for vigilante justice.  Instead of the gun, she pulled out her phone.  Natalia quickly switched on the video recorder, pointing her camera lens toward the action as she blended in with the gathering crowd.  The Maserati driver was a man of Central Asian origin, with dark hair and a round face.  He appeared to be relatively unscathed as he came to the aid of the killer, who hobbled across the pavement on an injured leg. 
From the mangled bus, that driver stumbled down the steps to the street.  He peered in a daze at the Maserati, then at his bus, before gesturing toward the two men as they shuffled away from the scene.  “Hey, where are you going?!  Look what you’ve done!” he shouted.
Caught up in the chaos, a silver Range Rover attempted to navigate past accident.  The Maserati driver blocked the vehicle’s path, pulling out a gun of his own and pointing it at the SUV.  Screams of terror emanated from the spectators.  The driver made a quick flick of the wrist, motioning for the occupants to exit.  A well-dressed couple climbed from the car, arms in the air.  The Maserati driver helped load the hitman into the back seat and then took his place behind the wheel.  The Range Rover lurched forward, hopping a curb and then plowing into spectators as they attempted to scatter.  More screams rang out as bodies launched through the air.  With a screech of tires, the SUV swerved across the sidewalk and past the bus before dropping onto the street and speeding away.
Natalia quickly slid her phone into the backpack, zipped it shut and threw the straps over her shoulders.  She hurried across the intersection toward the young motorcyclist in multi-colored racing leathers, helmet off as passersby attended to him.  Without missing a beat, she heaved the motorcycle off the ground and hopped on.  The rider rose to his feet, but it was too late to stop her.  Natalia hit the ignition, revved twice and popped the bike into gear before taking off down the street in pursuit.  She had to know where the killer was going.
Clearing the bus, Natalia didn’t see the Range Rover right away, though they couldn’t have gotten far though the gridlocked traffic.  Slowing at the first intersection, she looked right and then left before she saw the silver SUV, barreling up the sidewalk once more as pedestrians desperately tried to scramble clear.  Natalia pulled a hard left and followed after, weaving past bags, parcels, and pedestrians sprawled along the ground. 
At the next corner, the SUV turned right, off the sidewalk and onto a wider avenue, sideswiping a rusty Lada as it went.  Who were these people?  What was this all about?  And what was she getting herself mixed up in by following them?  These questions were only quick flashes through her brain as Natalia struggled to keep up.  She knew what it was to live in fear of men like these.  Never again would she allow that fear to consume her.  She would do whatever she could to bring justice for her two murdered friends, no matter the consequences.
As traffic thinned, the Range Rover picked up speed until they were flying down the road at speeds reaching 160 kilometers per hour.  Where were they headed?  Toward the river.  Toward the city center.  Natalia kept pace, staying just far enough behind that they might not notice her.  They had more on their minds than some girl on a motorcycle, right?  If she could figure out where they went, it would be a start.  There were witnesses to their crime.  She had the three men on video just afterward.  An arrest would bring justice, but could she trust the authorities?  Her track record on that score wasn’t good.  All she knew for sure was that she didn’t want to lose this Range Rover.
When they reached the river, the SUV turned right onto a busy boulevard, flying through red lights as they went, just missing several more collisions.  Natalia scooted through an intersection after them, wondering if they might plow into another bus.  She drew closer, trying to get a better look at the driver.  As she pulled nearly alongside, the car’s left passenger window shattered in a flash.  The barrel of a gun protruded from the opening.  Natalia hit the brakes, ducking low as she swerved away.  From the corner of her eye she saw muzzle flashes as the weapon fired once, twice, three times.  Her windscreen shattered, and then one headlight.  Sparks flew off her handlebars before the Range Rover turned left, racing over a bridge and across the river.
Pulling to a stop along the road, Natalia’s heart pounded as she quickly gave herself the once over, checking her arms, legs, chest.  Aside from a few cuts from shattered Plexiglas, she was unharmed.  Somehow, they’d missed.  In the distance, she heard the blare of sirens.  Moments later, two police cars sped across the bridge in pursuit, blue lights flashing.  Natalia looked over the rail into the cold, black waters of the Neva flowing silently below.  What had just happened?  With no warning at all, she was thrust back into this place of darkness, this cruel desert of the human spirit that she’d fought so hard to escape.  Life, it seemed, was not ready to cut her any breaks.  And what of Sasha and Vitaly?  It hadn’t cut them any, either.
Popping the bike back into first gear, Natalia spun around and headed back the way she had come, back along the river and toward the life of a quiet university student that she so desperately craved.  Destiny, it seemed, had other plans.

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