The two bodies on the floor are not moving. At first I think my parents are playing an elaborate Halloween joke, punishing me for sneaking out my bedroom window to be with my friends, but then I realize the darkness surrounding them is blood, not shadow. As my brother is dragged from his bedroom by two ninjas in black clothing and facemasks, his scream shocks me out of my paralysis.
I snap back to the present, and then I have to swallow hard to recover my wits. I’m at the zoo where I work, behind the tigers’ enclosure, pushing the door open to exit with my cart of feline doo-doo and my cage cleaning equipment. The head cat keeper, Nathan Ransek, just smacked his own cart into mine. His contains a gory load, hacked-up body parts from what used to be a deer, judging from a cloven hoof protruding over the edge.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is like a warp jump. One second I am transported to another time and place, the next second, I’m back to normal. Well, as normal as I ever get.
Ransek quirks an eyebrow at me, his forehead creased beneath his graying hair. “You okay, Tana?”
“Of course.” I take a breath. “You just surprised me. And, well…ugh.” I point at the bloody mess in his cart.
“Animal pickup dropped it off this morning, still warm from the highway.” He tilts his head in the direction of the low grunts and growls coming from the other side of the wall, where our two tigers are pacing, eager to be let out into their habitat area. “Big score for our tabbies.”
“Bad news for the deer, though,” I comment.
“Life is harsh when you are prey.” He grabs the handle of his cart with both hands and wheels it out of my way.
I push my equipment through the exit, careful to keep my eyes away from the puddle of red in the bottom of Ransek’s cart. Disarticulate is the word that runs through my brain. To separate bones at the joints, or to pull apart an argument. That vocabulary lesson from my Wordage app this morning, along with the sloshing blood in Ransek’s cart, has triggered my flashback. Now that I think about it, though, my worry started with the disturbing email message I received an hour ago:
Tana, here’s another one from that mysterious firstname.lastname@example.org.
IP address comes from Kigali, Rwanda.
Msg for Tanzania Grey:
Where is Amy?
The other messages I’ve received from this P.A. Patterson track back to various parts of Africa, most often Johannesburg. This is both more and less creepy than you might think. My mom grew up in Zimbabwe, and because the nitwit sportscasters insist on calling me “the African American Princess of Endurance Racing,” I get fan mail from Africans who aspire to become athletes. Everything gets routed through my website, set up and maintained by my sponsors at Dark Horse Networks. I never give out my personal contact information to the public. You never know who you’re dealing with on the internet.
This P.A. Patterson is more than a fan. Once, during a race, he sent me a necklace identical to the one belonging to my murdered mother, and now he’s telling me that he knows her name, too. Somehow he suspects the truth that I need to hide, that four years ago I was Amelia Robinson.
The burning question: Is Patterson one of my parents’ killers? Are they still hunting for me? I’ve worked so hard for the last four years to cover my tracks.
I’ve never responded to any of Patterson’s messages. It haunts me that he keeps sending them. What does he want?
I wheel my cart toward the compost area to empty the mix of dirty bedding straw, leftover bones from last night’s predator feedings, and animal excrement. On the way there I stop to tease Skye, the baby giraffe, holding out my hand as if I have a treat for her. I love to see her extend her eighteen-inch-long tongue. When she figures out that I have tricked her again, she snorts in disgust, jerks her head back inside the fence, and gallops to her mother.
My cell chirps like a cricket. When I pull it from my pocket and thumb it to life, the screen delivers a second email message:
2 Tanzania Grey:
Way2Go Extreme Team requires endurance champion
4 mtn run, road bike, canoe. C U in Bellingham 4 Ski2Sea?
My first reaction: Wahoo!
I grew up with Ski to Sea. I’ve always wanted to be part of that amazing relay race. This year, for the first time, the Ski to Sea Contest is going to include ten extreme teams of three along with the traditional eight-person teams. And this JJ—whoever he is—is flattering me by recognizing that I am a champion endurance racer.
My second reaction: Oh, hell no!
Go back to Bellingham, where my family was murdered four years ago? Where thugs in a black SUV chased me through the streets, intent on adding me to the death count?
I look a lot different now and I’ve reinvented myself, but I still can’t risk going back there.
The word COWARD flashes on in my brain like a neon sign. In all caps, making it impossible to ignore.
I can’t let the killers get away forever with erasing my family. I don’t know who those ninjas are or why they murdered my parents. I don’t know if my little brother survived.
I scan the message again. Sometimes opportunity knocks. Sometimes, like this, it whacks you up the side of your head. Maybe this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.
I’m not that fourteen-year-old kid anymore. I can’t hide out forever. I take a deep breath, drag the keyboard onto the screen, and reply to JJ.
More info, pls.
If there are clues to follow, the trail will begin in Bellingham. The problem: the trail could end there, too.
So could my life.
~ END OF EXCERPT ~