Chapter One is available here in a previous post.
Marcelle stood on the winners’ podium, surveying the expectant faces gazing up at her. She searched the crowd for the face of the person who gave her victories meaning, craving the mischievous wink, the smile full of promises.
He wasn’t there, could never be there again.
This time was always the worst for her, when he wasn’t there to share her triumph. Her face ached as she forced another smile, trying to share the mood of her exuberant fans. She wanted to go home, but that was just a futile dream. Once the podium ceremony was complete, there would be the obligatory interviews, where she would tell lies to eager reporters asking inane questions. To win the Carrefour Cycle Classic three years in a row was an exceptional achievement, but she could never tell them her victories made her sad. She could never tell them every day was a challenge.
Two long years have dragged by since the death of her husband, Jean-Michel Deschamps, Formula One racing driver, darling of the French crowds, and thrice World Champion. He had died too young, meeting his fate at 150 miles per hour as the spectators screamed in disbelief and dread.
Cold overcast conditions had persisted during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix, and the sun had not come out for her since that traumatic day. The shock remained fresh in her memory, when she had stared in horror as her husband’s car had spun out of control, cart wheeling in a ghoulish display of acrobatics before slamming into a safety wall.
In the ambulance, she had held his hand as the paramedics tried to keep him alive. Despite their efforts, the Frenchman slipped into a coma, the result of severe head injuries. He died a week later, without regaining consciousness. France declared a day of mourning for her favorite son, and immediately arranged a huge funeral.
As the anguished nation grieved, a stunned Marcelle had stared at the walls, still hearing her husband’s voice in the quiet apartment, unwilling to believe he had left her alone. During his illustrious career, Jean-Michel had twice walked away from spectacular crashes, the only occasions when his phenomenal skills had failed him. It had given rise to a superstitious rumor that he led a charmed life, and even she had started to believe it. At the age of thirty-two, the champion had been riding the crest of the wave, sure to capture the World Title for the fourth time in eight years.
After the funeral, she had fled France, seeking refuge from the prying eyes of the press and the grief of the French public. In solitude and blessed anonymity, she tried to come to terms with the loss of her husband.
Three months later, she returned to her adopted country, her grief buried deep, and picked up the pieces of her life. Her racing career flourished as she became nearly unbeatable, training harder and longer to fill the empty hours. Each day she longed anew for the red agony of muscles pushed too hard and lungs taxed to the limit, as she searched for the black void where pain didn’t exist.
The Mayor of Paris brought her attention back to the present as he held a massive gold cup towards her. She schooled her face into a warm smile and accepted the trophy, kissing the tall Frenchman on each cheek.
The young victor kept her speech short, thanking her team, her team manager and her sponsors. She spoke fluent French, and the crowd cheered. Everybody loves a winner, and she looked like one. She was lean and strong, with slim hips and tight buttocks attesting to the many hours she spent honing her body. Her legs were long and tanned, perhaps too muscular for a woman, but perfect for one of the top female cyclists of all time.
People often stared at her, as if a mere glance wasn’t enough to satisfy their curiosity. The source of their fascination came from the contrast between her tanned skin and her light grey eyes. Dark grey rings circled each iris, and in the right light, only the rings were visible. Most people found this mesmerizing, if somewhat creepy.
Marcelle knew people stared, and cultivated a long fringe, which she could flick forward to hide her eyes whenever she felt the need. Her shiny hair hung halfway to her shoulders, and the color was phenomenal, impossible to duplicate in a salon. The base color was dark honey blonde, but the sun had bleached many strands until they became gold, white blond and strawberry blond.
Certainly, the rest of her face warranted a second look. Her skin was flawless, her teeth regular and gleaming white, and her rosy lips held an unspoken promise for those who cared to fantasize about their softness.
Her trademark easy smile and cheeky dimples was just a memory in the minds of those who knew the young widow before her husband died. Some claimed they occasionally caught a glimpse of the woman she used to be, but most agreed she had lost the light that used to shine from within her.
She was the picture of health as she raised the cup above her head in triumph. The gesture was for the benefit of the press photographers only. She hugged the two women who had come second and third. At a slender five foot eight, she was an attractive contrast to their more muscled bodies. Of course, she wore the rainbow jersey of the current World Champion, a jersey she had made her own.
~ . ~
An hour later, Marcelle had freed herself from the reporters and autograph hunters. In the change rooms, she pulled on her tracksuit and sneakers, foregoing a shower in her haste to get home. Hefting her heavy trophy and her kitbag, she made her way towards her car, a racing red Ferrari Testa Rossa, a present from Jean-Michel.
The bus had left with the rest of the team, along with her racing bikes and equipment, so she was free to drive straight home. There she planned to relax in a warm tub to soothe her aching muscles. The Ferrari let out a joyous roar as she turned the ignition key and pumped the throttle.
As she shifted into gear, she reflected on the huge apartment waiting for her, empty without Jean-Michel. Though they had often been apart for weeks because of busy racing schedules, this was different. The future looked bleak to the young widow as she threaded through the early evening Paris traffic. Tomorrow was Monday, the start of another week. The thought provoked a deep sigh.
Now the heat of competition had died down, she could feel tendrils of ice growing in her chest again. In the beginning, when the grief had been raw and new, she had welcomed the ice, had craved the insulation it gave her from the agony of loss.
As the months passed by, the ice turned out to be an enemy. Soon it had taken over, threatening to choke the life out of her as it crushed her lungs and froze her heart. The ice filled her with a constant feeling of fear, telling her she was one half of a whole, and wouldn’t survive alone. She never told anyone about the ice, because it sounded crazy, even to her own ears.
The logical side of her mind told her there was no ice, and that the icy numbness of shock she had felt after Jean-Michel’s death had turned into dread, which had manifested as a cold chill in her body. The desperate fluttering she felt at times in her chest and the difficulty breathing was most likely a panic attack, when the anxiety became too much.
Her logical mind told her so, but she preferred to give it a name, and imagine the ice was an outside force that invaded her body. It was easier to focus on the ice than on the pain that shredded her insides into mincemeat.
Only in competition and training could she generate enough heat to melt the ice, allowing her to breathe freely. Occasionally the effect lasted for several hours afterwards, allowing her to feel again, which presented a new problem. Without the pain of exertion, she would concentrate too much on the pain inside, and find herself curled up on her side, biting her clenched fist to stop her screams.
Sometimes fire melted the ice during the night, when she dreamed of Jean-Michel, and the fire that consumed him. She had come to recognize the fire as symbolic of her guilt, and in her dreams, the fire burned her until she woke from the sound of her own screams. Those were her two realities, fire or ice, neither of which eased her mind.
~ . ~
Marcelle decided to pick up her mail on the way home. She didn’t want her home address to be common knowledge, and rented a private box at a small post office near the outskirts of Paris. It coincided most often with her regular route home, which was why she had chosen it.
After parking near the entrance, she directed a worried glance at her quiet surroundings, wondering if she should rather come back during business hours. She decided against it, jogging over the gravel towards the mirrored doors. It would only take a minute.
She hurriedly entered the lobby after shoving open the swing doors, but had gone only a few steps when her right foot hooked on something. The speed of her passage allowed no time for recovery. She sprawled headlong onto her stomach, skidding over the smooth tiles with outstretched arms, feeling something hard digging into her hip.
She jumped to her feet, alarm bells jangling in her brain, the adrenalin rush rendering her breathless. What? Where? Who?
Nobody pounced on her.
She noticed the dark outline of a man sitting against the wall. His outstretched legs had tripped her. He seemed unaware of her presence, and as if to reiterate the fact, toppled over to the side, coming to rest with his face against the tiles.
She waited, holding her breath. Nothing more happened, and in the silence, she heard the man’s rasping, labored breathing. Clearly, he needed help. She expelled her breath and moved towards him. Her left foot collided against something, sending it skittering a few feet forward. She bent down and picked up the object. The gun’s grip was slippery with blood, and she grimaced at the uncomfortable sensation, holding it between thumb and forefinger. More cautious now, she crept towards the fallen man.
She nudged him with a foot. ”
M’sieur, can you hear me?”
The man gave her no reply, but as her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, she could see him more clearly. He was dressed in black, and was perhaps six feet tall. Tangled blond hair hung to his shoulders, matted with blood trickling from a wound on his left temple. Blood from the same wound covered the left side of his face, partly obscuring his features. His face was deathly pale, and she knew the stain beneath him was blood, too much of it.
She was about to sink to her knees to help the man, when she heard the crunch of a shoe in the gravel outside the door. She froze. Friend or foe? Before she could react, a slender, swarthy man of medium height pushed the doors open, a gun in his hand.
The man advanced towards her, dark eyes darting from her to the fallen stranger and back. “Has fate robbed me of my destiny? Has the great warrior died like a dog in the streets?” He spoke French with a thick accent, contempt in every word.
Marcelle swallowed, unsure if she should answer. The man clearly hadn’t seen the gun in her hand, because he lowered his weapon, his confidence making him careless. She turned to conceal her firearm further, wrapping her fingers around the butt, no longer caring about the blood on the weapon.
“You have been helping him, perhaps? You are one of his people?” The man’s tone carried a threat she took to heart. He took another step towards the blond stranger, who did indeed look dead. If he wasn’t, she knew he would be soon. She would have to act fast.
She brought her gun into view, pointing it at the gunman. “That’s close enough,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt.
The aspiring killer turned to face his new adversary. The smirk left his face when he saw the weapon, but after scrutinizing her for a second, he smiled. “If you were one of his people, I would be dead already, I think.” He took a step towards her. “Do you want to die for a man you don’t even know?” He shook his head. “I think not, but if you give me the gun, I’ll let you drive away in your fancy Ferrari.”
She stared into his cold eyes, seeing the soul of a killer, not believing him for a minute. How could she leave the stranger to his deadly mercies? The gunman had made his intentions clear. Technically, she would be an accessory to murder.
When she didn’t respond, the killer’s tone hardened. “If we wait for my friends to arrive, they’ll kill you, but they might want to have some fun first, when they see what a sexy girl you are.” He took another step towards her, stretching out his hand. “Come on, we both know you won’t shoot. Give me the gun, before it’s too late.”
Marcelle stared at him, remembering another time, another place. Hatred rose in her chest, threatening to cut off her breathing. Her finger tightened around the trigger as her eyes turned to stone.
* * * *