Below are the prologue and first chapter of Race with Danger, Book 1 of my new Run for Your Life Series.
It wasn’t even eleven p.m. How could the streets of Bellingham be so deserted? There wasn’t a person, or even a cat, in sight. Most of the house windows were black. Was any door safe to pound on? I felt like screaming, but I barely had enough breath to run. Even if I’d had the extra air or seconds to spare, I couldn’t afford to call attention to myself.
I was supposed to be in my bedroom studying that night. Instead, I’d answered my friends’ texts and joined them on an expedition through the vast Bayview graveyard. It was the night before Halloween and it was appropriately uber-creepy dark. Cold thick clouds smothered the moon and stars. We headed for our favorite side-by-side headstones, so old their edges were rounded and so furry with moss that nobody could make out the names underneath, if names were ever there at all. We each had our stories for them. Mine was about star-crossed lovers. The man had been drafted during World War II, and although his girlfriend was terrified that he’d be shredded by bullets in Europe or come home with only one leg, she—of course—vowed to wait forever for him.
Here’s the twist: despite several close calls, he made it home in one piece, carrying an excellent antique engagement ring given to him by a grateful Jewish widow he saved in France. But once he was back in Bellingham, he found out that his girlfriend died two months before in an explosion in the munitions factory where she worked. He couldn’t live without her, so he drank poison while kneeling on her grave so they would get to spend eternity together. I liked to think they even had little ghost children that came up from the ground to play tag among the graves on foggy nights.
Of course, that night being so close to Halloween, we went beyond our usual romantic ghost tales and told stories of vampires and axe murderers and zombies. When the breeze whipped a whirlwind of black leaves up in front of us, we all streaked away in different directions, shrieking. After we found each other again in the dark, we laughed it off. But when sleet started to ping off our windbreakers, we headed home to our books and beds. That’s when my real nightmare started.
It was a lot more difficult to fish-flop in through my bedroom window than it was to slither out, so I peeked through our living room window to see if it was safe to sneak through the front door. The lamps had been turned off inside, which usually meant that my parents had gone to bed. From the living room I could see through into the kitchen, and the light was on over the stove. My dad was a late-night snacker, so I stood there for a minute to make sure he didn’t appear at the refrigerator door. After a few seconds of studying the shadows, my eyes sorted out some unusual shapes on the living room floor. At first I thought one might be Joker, our black Lab, but the shapes weren’t really the same dense black that he was. It took a few minutes more before my brain identified what I was staring at.
My parents lay on the ivory carpet, their arms and legs kinked at odd angles, as if they were trying to swim through the dark pools of blood surrounding them.
For a while, I couldn’t tear my gaze away, because that couldn’t be real, could it? Was it some sort of pre-Halloween joke? Yeah, they’d done plenty of embarrassing things in the past, like putting a Lawn Care by Amelia sign out for all the neighbors to see when I didn’t mow the lawn. But would they go to this extreme to punish me for sneaking out?
Then I heard my little brother scream, and two men dragged Aaron out of the hallway in his pajamas. The men were dressed like ninjas, all in black, and they wore ski masks that erased their features. One ninja stepped into the pool of light in the kitchen. His ski mask reduced his face to two eyeholes and a pair of oval lips. Between the bottom edge of his mask and the collar of his black shirt were two curved V shapes like flying birds.
He turned in my direction, and between Aaron’s shrieks, I heard him hiss out a word as he pointed to me. “There!”
I knew I had to run for my life. I was a few yards from the street corner when a car engine started up behind me, but I didn’t look back. I raced down the next street. It was still sleeting, and the ice pellets and wind were slapping down wet cold leaves from the trees overhead. I took shortcuts between houses and zigged and zagged until I didn’t even know where I was.
I careened down the street between parked cars and hurtled over a kid’s skateboard, trying to stick to the shadows of limbs overhanging the sidewalk. Headlights swung around the corner behind me. I slipped on a drift of wet leaves and almost crashed down on one knee, jamming my wrist as I saved myself from a full face-plant with one hand to the concrete. As I pushed myself back to my feet, the high beams hit me full force in the back. The engine revved louder behind me. The tires squealed on the wet pavement as the car closed in. Its headlights flared around my shadow to illuminate a solid wall at the end of a cul-de-sac—a privacy fence at least six feet tall.
What choice did I have? I leapt.
My ribs landed hard against the top edge. I jackknifed over into the blackness. As my running shoes hit the ground, I heard the growl of an animal that was big and heavy. And mad.
Maybe that dog was chained or maybe it was only slow because I’d surprised it from a deep sleep. But I made it to the other side of the yard before it did.
That’s how I found out I was a runner.
I’ve been running ever since.
Three Years Later
“Zany Grey,” the loudspeaker announces. For some reason, the voice or maybe the name encourages a big red parrot to squawk from the palm tree overhead, like he’s adding a verbal exclamation point.
I flinch inwardly at that name like I always do, but then I slap on my happy face and step forward, emerging from beneath the gigantic red-and-white banner that reads Verde Island Endurance Team Competition. It seems weird that the race colors are red and white, since verde means green, but maybe the organizers don’t know Spanish.
Zany. I hate how everyone thinks it’s cute to make up nicknames for athletes. When I picked my new name, I was aiming for Tana for short. That’s what my friends call me. I expected Tanya and Tanz and maybe even Tanza, but Zany?
And then, to make it even worse, certain newsquackers keep referring to me as ‘The African American Princess of Endurance Racing,’ which is beyond annoying, like all human beings need to be labeled and categorized. Only the mentally-challenged care about that skin-color sort of race anymore.
And yeah, by now I’ve also heard about the geezer who wrote cowboy books—Zane Grey. Moldy old history. Nobody I hang with ever heard of that Grey, and besides, like I just mentioned, I didn’t choose that stupid name Zany.
I gave myself the name Tanzania to honor my mother. She was raised in Africa, although to set the record straight, she grew up in Zimbabwe, not Tanzania. My father came from Chicago. They met when he was on some sort of business trip in Africa. But none of my fans has discovered those details. As far as they know, my parents died tragically nearly a decade ago. I reversed Mom and Dad’s skin colors, too, not only to add confusion but to emphasize the point that this country just needs to get over the whole Black and White thing. That’s why I chose the last name Grey. I think the world would be a better place if everyone was a mutt like me.
The bronzed emcee is wearing a very untropical suit and a red and white tie that matches the race banner. His pancake makeup is starting to melt in the muggy heat, but his hair gel is gamely hanging in, gluing every strand into a perfect blond helmet.
“Choose your teammate.” He gestures dramatically with his manicured hand toward a crystal bowl on a table in front of the cameras. I’m amazed that the intense sun blazing through the cut glass isn’t burning holes in the tablecloth.
The crowd claps quietly, which is pretty much all they can do, because there aren’t many of them. The people in attendance are mostly race officials, camera teams, and newsquackers. At most of my races in the States, Marisela scrapes together the money to come and cheer me on. Sometimes Emilio comes, too, if he’s in country and not on duty. I could always count on a sweet kiss on the cheek from my adopted mother and a more passionate embrace from Emilio to send me into the fray. But this race is so far away from the U.S., so far away from any civilized place, that only the families of the richest competitors can afford to come.
Madelyn Hatt’s parents are here, hovering as usual, smoothing down her wiry hair or straightening her race bib, constantly touching her to demonstrate that she belongs to them. Catie Cole’s father made it, too, dressed in the same colors as his daughter to show they’re a team. He’s her manager now. His clothes are designed to complement his still-sleek body and remind everyone he used to be a famous Olympic track star.
These girls not only have parents, but parents who are managers. I don’t have either.
The pathetic applause dies into an embarrassed silence. When the television station plays this later, they’ll fill in the sound track with more clapping, and maybe add a digital crowd, too, to make the start of the race look like a much bigger event for the folks back home.
The cameras swivel in my direction. As I approach the glittering bowl, I take a deep breath and pray for inner calm and fantastic luck. I’m not usually a team player, so this partner element makes me sweat even more than usual. But this is the biggest race of the year with a grand prize of a million dollars, and I will win this even if I have to drag my partner up every hill and through every river on this steamy tropical island.
I have to win.
A life depends on it.
I swim my hand around the giant fishbowl, trying desperately to feel magic. Maybe I should have sanded my fingertips to make them more sensitive. Please God-If-There-Is-One, give me a little zing when I touch the name of the right partner. Give me a sign.
The slips of paper, rolled into tight little cylinders and tied with red ribbons, all feel exactly the same. No zing. As the seconds tick past, the matching blond Barbie Doll attendants standing guard at each end of the table start to shoot sideways glances at me. Their camera smiles stiffen into grimaces.
Magic, magic, magic, I chant in my head. I finally pull one slip out and hand it to the emcee, whose features beneath his dripping makeup are so perfect and bland that he looks like he came here directly from an Intense Botox workshop.
With a practiced flourish, he unties the bow and unfurls the note. He scans it for a second. Then he faces the camera, flashes his uber-white teeth and shouts, “Sebastian Callendro!”
My heart does an immediate crash dive. It lands on the hard ground in front of my toes and shatters into a dozen pieces. I want to fall to my knees, shake my fists at the relentless sun overhead, and scream, “No fair!”
Instead, I smile and walk a few steps forward to meet my new teammate halfway. Every camera in the place focuses on us. Callendro and shake hands as we size each other up.
Although he’s thousands of miles away right now, I can feel waves of jealousy radiating across the airwaves from Private Emilio Santos. I know he will watch this if he can. Emilio is tall, with hair like a river of ink, eyes like bittersweet chocolate, and a swagger that everyone notices even when he’s standing still. His blue-black sheen of whiskers makes him look older and more dangerous than his nineteen years, and he likes that. His almost-beard is one reason I nicknamed him Shadow, and he likes that, too.
But here, on Verde Island in the blazing sunlight of early morning, nothing is shadowy. Sebastian Callendro is maybe three inches taller than I am. I’m wearing my trademark gold tee shirt with the galloping stallion logo of my sponsor, Dark Horse Networks, on the back. Callendro’s blue tee has three emblems across his chest, like a row of military medals. There’s a jet zooming through a circle, then a sports car logo, then what looks like a couple of crossed test tubes, maybe an insignia for one of those monster pharma companies like the one my mom worked for. No doubt there are more designs all across his back. Holy guacamole, there’s even a row of logos marching down each side of his black running shorts. Does he have decals on his butt? It’s the only space left.
I guess it makes sense. Now that the word is out, Sebastian Callendro has so many sponsors that all their names won’t fit on his shirt. He probably flew to Verde Island on a private jet with a real bed and real food, too.
But right now, we both have identical drips of sweat streaming down our temples. Sebastian’s hair is scraped back in a ponytail, like mine, but his is a rich walnut brown, while mine is ebony with only the tiniest hints of red. The skin on the back of his extended hand tends more toward the copper spectrum than my own caramel shade. His green eyes, too light under such thick black lashes, stare into my hazel ones. His gaze is laser-intense, and just a little creepy, like he’s trying to see under my skin.
Of course I’ve seen Sebastian Callendro before, but never so close that I can count his eyebrow hairs. He’s more than a year older than I am, which makes him eighteen or maybe even nineteen. Together, we make up the youngest team in this contest—could that be an advantage?
Catie Cole is the other seventeen-year-old runner. She’s the favorite golden girl—literally, because she has long blond hair and that evenly sun-kissed skin that comes from a tanning bed. She has a zillion sponsors and a modeling contract. But unfortunately, she’s not just a pretty face; she’s six feet tall and she runs like the wind. She’s real competition.
So is Madelyn Hatt. Predictably, all the reporters call her “The Mad Hatter,” although “The Mean Hatter” would probably be more accurate. Madelyn has been accused, but never convicted, of dirty tricks like putting laxatives—or was it sedatives?—in her rivals’ food. She just turned nineteen. Her parents made a really big deal of it, holding a pre-birthday party before the last race we were both in. They scowled at me when I refused to wear the stupid pointy hat for the camera.
Except for Marco Senai, a perpetually emaciated runner from Kenya whom I was hoping to land as my partner, I don’t know much about the men in this race. Maybe my new partner can at least contribute some usable intelligence about that. And I sure as hell hope he can keep up. Sebastian Callendro often places near the top of the men’s division, but he’s not a champion like me.
“I hope I don’t have to drag you,” I whisper, too softly for the microphones to pick up.
“And I’m not carrying you,” he hisses. His smile does not extend to his eyes.
The Barbie Dolls drape numbered medallions strung on red, white, and blue ribbons around our necks. We are Team Seven. Holding up our joined hands for the camera, we step forward.
Behind us, at least two men are also stepping forward. They’ll be wearing identical suits and mirrored sunglasses, and they’ll have communication sets on their wrists and listening devices in their ears. Their hands will hover near the pistols holstered on their belts.
I didn’t feel the magic, but I definitely got zinged with my choice.
Sebastian Callendro is The President’s Son.