Read an Excerpt
Rules of Survival
By Jus Accardo, Robin Haseltine, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Jus Accardo
All rights reserved.
There are just some things you don't do. Call it common sense, self-preservation, or simply intuition. During my eighteen years of life, I'd accumulated one hell of a list from my mom. Never let people see you cry. Don't overstay your welcome. Avoid the yellow snow — she always did have a good sense of humor ...
But above all else, you don't return to the scene of a crime.
Especially when you're the main suspect.
It's time to strap our boots on. This is the perfect day to die ... The line from "Soldiers," by Otherwise, played inside my head. This was it. Time to suck it up and push forward.
I hadn't been back to Coopersville, New York, in nearly a year. The car slowed and pulled up alongside the curb. The driver, a middle-aged balding man with uneven brows and a funky lisp, tilted his head, frowning. "You sure this is where you wanna get out?"
I glanced out the window. Dense forest lined either side of the narrow road, thick branches hanging together to blot out the fading sunlight. To most people, it probably looked like the middle of nowhere. Deliverance with a side order of Children of the Corn. To me, it was home.
One of them, anyway.
I nodded, slipped the strap of mom's old backpack across my shoulder, and swung both legs from the car. This was actually the last place in the world I wanted to get out. Playing in traffic during rush hour, wading waist-deep into a pile of rotting shrimp — even Jersey ... I could think of a million places I would rather have been. But right now I needed to be here.
The passenger's side door closed with an obnoxious squeak, and I ducked down to peer in through the open window. "Yep. This is perfect. Thanks for the lift, mister."
He shrugged and zoomed off, leaving a trail of road salt and slush spitting in every direction. I watched him drive away, and as soon as he was out of sight, took a deep breath and stepped off the road.
The cabin was about four miles into the woods, and even though I could have found it with my eyes closed, the fact that I was losing the light made things tricky. Twice, I stumbled over exposed roots and fallen trees, twisting my ankle good.
Mom would be pissed at my lack of stealth, but the silence started getting to me about a half mile in and I sang Aerosmith's "Livin' on the Edge," White Lion's "Radar Love" — two of her all-time favorites — and recited the alphabet twice. Once in English and once in Italian. By the time the familiar crest of trees that bordered the house came into view, I was thrilled to see it — despite the fact that it brought a rush of painful memories.
I stepped onto the porch and set my bag down so I could pry the small piece of wood loose at the base of the door. With some work, it slipped free and I found the key — a bit dusty, but otherwise fine — right where I'd left it.
It had been three hundred and fifty-two days since I'd placed it there for safekeeping. I'd been wearing a white shirt stained with blood and black Converse sneakers with a small hole in the right toe. I remembered all this because it was the day my mom died. That wasn't something you forgot. Ever.
I shook off the memories and slipped inside. There was a reason I left after Mom died. After she was murdered. Several reasons, in fact. One of the big ones being that I was the main suspect in her death, and I knew they were still actively looking for me. How far could an eighteen-year-old girl with no cash get on her own, right? But after I gave authorities the slip numerous times, they started to wise up. They had my mother's associates watched. All our old haunts. Anything and everything that could be connected back to us. Back to the Morgan girls. I'd spent the last year living like a ping-pong ball. A few nights here, a day or two there — never in one place for very long.
I wouldn't have come back if it wasn't so important.
I tore into Mom's bag, yanked out a flashlight, and went to work. Systematically ripping the entire house apart, I searched every oddball place she could have possibly thought to hide something. In the air-conditioning grate. Inside the toilet. Behind the loose paneling in the master bedroom. I even checked out the attic — and I hated it up there.
I worked all night, frantic as the minutes turned quickly to hours, and by the time the sun started to clear the hills to the east, I began to panic. I couldn't still be here in the morning. I'd been here too long already.
"Come on, Mom," I said, falling back onto the couch. It still smelled like the nail polish remover she spilled on it last year. Just four days before she'd died. "I know you left something for me. I just need to find it. Give me a hint. Some kind of sign ..."
Letting my head fall back, I blew at one of the stray chestnut hairs that had escaped my ponytail, and my chest grew tight. I used to joke with Mom about dyeing my hair blond. She'd threatened to shave my head while I slept if I ever went through with it. Blondes didn't blend in as well as brunettes, she'd always said. I blew at the hair again, sending the strands fluttering in and out of my field of vision and, for some reason, directing my attention to the ceiling fan overhead.
Holy crap. Of course ...
I hopped off the couch and dragged one of the dining room chairs across the hardwood floor. It scraped and scratched, and I cringed a little with every step, the sound abrasive to my already-taut nerves.
The fan should have been one of the first places I searched. Mom used to joke that I was the "wind beneath her wings." It was a line from a cheesy old song she'd loved. Sentimental, that was Mom. She believed music made the world go round.
I was losing my touch. Or maybe my memories of her were fading. Each morning I found myself waking up and needing to concentrate harder and harder just to picture her face. Some days it remained elusive, nothing more than a watery silhouette with no defined features. I wondered if eventually she'd be no more than a cloudy image dancing on the edge of my mind. The ghost of someone I used to know.
Balanced on the chair, I rose up on my toes and managed to hook a single finger around a blade and give it a good push. A whoosh of air sent a year's worth of dust everywhere, up my nose and down my throat, and as I gagged on it, a white blur caught my eye when it drifted to the ground.
I almost lost my footing as I hopped from the chair, and in my haste to retrieve the letter — which had slipped under the armchair — totally missed the front door opening. And an uninvited guest stepping inside.
Two of them, actually.
"See, Shaun? I told you it was only a matter of time before she came back to town. Never doubt me, kid."
"What the —" Letter momentarily forgotten, I spun toward the door. A cold gust of wind blew through the room along with two men — both tall, a younger one with unruly black hair and intense hazel eyes, the older one bald with large brown eyes and a long scar on the right side of his face that went from chin to ear.
"That's Mikayla Morgan?" the younger of the two — probably in his early twenties if I had to guess — said, frowning. He looked unimpressed, and I found myself a little insulted. Wearing a leather jacket and dark-blue jeans that were shredded at the knees, he had the bad-boy thing working overtime. Intense, soulful eyes that screamed mischief looking for a place to happen, chiseled jaw, and an athletic build. In other words, hot as all holy hell. Judging by the way he stood there, cocky grin in place, he knew it, too. "I thought she'd be ... bigger."
The older one laughed. "Don't let her appearance fool you. I bet she's plenty dangerous. Just like her mamma."
"Wow," I said, shaking off the cold as he closed the door. I'd never seen the younger one before — I would have remembered — but the older guy I knew all too well. I hadn't seen him in almost a year, but I could never forget that face. He'd been a part of my life off and on for as far back as I could remember. "Patrick Tanner. Long time no see."
Arms folded, Patrick frowned. I'd forgotten about him lacking a sense of humor. The last time we'd met, Mom and I left him stranded on the side of the road in Minnesota with four flat tires during one of the biggest snowstorms of the year. We thought it was hilarious — for some reason he hadn't agreed. "Not from lack of trying on my part."
I shrugged, trying to come off casual while scanning the room for a possible escape route. Patrick Tanner had been obsessed with my mom since before I was born — and not in a good way. He was a bounty hunter and his main goal in life was to bring her in. Now that she was gone, he'd turned his focus on me. "What can I say? I'm just that good."
"Or that lucky," his leather-clad mini-me said with a shameless smirk. I caught a glimpse of black against his skin just below the neckline of his T-shirt. A tattoo maybe? It made me hate him all the more. I'd wanted one in the worst way, but it was against the rules. No permanent markings — tattoos, piercings, etc. — that made you easier to identify. We needed to blend in easily with any crowd. That meant being completely generic.
I glared at him. Oh, yeah. Those eyes were heartbreak city. "And you are?"
Patrick clasped a hand down on the guy's shoulder and gave a slight shake. He hadn't taken his eyes off me since coming inside. "This is Shaun. I'm showing him the ropes. Teaching him the tricks of the trade."
"Tricks of the trade?" I snorted. "That's fancy talk for hunting people down like dogs, right?" Shaun stuffed both hands into his jacket pockets, finally breaking eye contact. "That's a little dramatic, don't ya think? We hunt criminals."
"I'm not a criminal," I said with barely contained anger. Sure, my mom did a few things that had been technically against the law — okay, more than a few — but I was innocent. Mostly. Patrick didn't seem to care about that, though. He'd been on my ass from day one. Following me from town to town, determined to finish what he'd started with Mom.
"You're a murder suspect," Patrick said, matter of fact.
"You might have had some serious hate-on for my mom, but you know damn well I didn't murder her. I would never ..."
I let the rest of the sentence hang in the air, biting back a wave of emotion. Pain, and more than that, hate. For Patrick. His relentless pursuit hadn't given me much free time to think about Mom — much less mourn her loss. The wounds were still raw.
There was a flash of sympathy in his eyes, but it was there and gone before I could blink, making me wonder if I'd even seen it to begin with. Patrick wasn't the apologetic type. He was a soulless prick who benefited from other people's mistakes. "Quite a few people looking to get their hands on you. Doesn't matter one way or the other. Innocent, guilty, it's all the same to me. There's a hefty price on your head. The police think you did it, and I intend to bring you to justice and collect a fat check."
Was he kidding? Like he could pull that crap on me? I knew better. "The police? Save it. We both know bottom-feeders like you don't work to help the cops, not to mention the fact that they're too cheap to pay out a hefty price. And you couldn't care less about justice. This has to do with your weird vendetta against my mom."
Patrick shook his head, smiling. "No, really. Someone hired me to find you — which I planned on doing anyway." His lips twisted with a cruel sneer. "You know, because of that vendetta? Now I just have the added bonus of a nice fat check."
"Who hired you?" I took a step back. I couldn't go through them, and the cabin didn't have a back door — serious design flaw, if you asked me. Weapon. A weapon would have come in handy. Anything I could use to fend them off and battle my way out the door. But unless I could somehow pillow-fight them to death, I was out of luck. "And how did you even know I was here?"
Shaun pointed at the mantel on the other side of the room. "Camera hidden inside the fake flowers. Pretty fucking brilliant, right?" He winked. "My idea."
I wanted to kick myself. One of the first rules Mom taught me was to be sure a location was secure. Safety first. In my rush to get in and out, I'd skipped that step completely. Clapping for him, I took another step back and shifted to my left. "You're obviously in the wrong line of work. Ever thought of brain surgery?"
He clutched his chest dramatically, face twisted in an expression of mock insult. Annoyingly, it only made him hotter.
Patrick laughed and shook his head, eyes following my movement. "Where do you think you're going?"
He had a point. I was basically screwed and we all knew it. Begging was still an option — one I wasn't above at this point — but lights from outside stopped me before I could get the words past my lips. There was a car pulling into the driveway.
The other reason I'd hightailed it out of town when Mom died was that someone — presumably the someone who killed her — was also looking to stick me into the ground. She'd warned me with her dying breath. Run. Don't let them find you. Because of that, I'd been forced to leave before finding the information she'd left me.
Information I believed would reveal her killer and clear my name.
"Please ... please tell me you called for backup." I knew even before he answered that he hadn't. Bounty hunters worked alone. They didn't play well with others, and they certainly didn't share. Especially someone like Patrick.
Confused, Patrick turned to brush the thin curtains away from the window. "Those boys aren't with me," he said, backing away.
Shaun made a move to peek, but Patrick grabbed a handful of his jacket and hauled him backward. Mr. Ripped Jeans wasn't happy about this and they started to argue. While they were distracted, I fell to the floor and jammed my hand under the chair, desperate to find the letter. I needed it. If my guess was right, then maybe — just maybe — I was only seconds away from getting the information that would turn my screwed up world right side up.
Just when I thought my fingers couldn't stretch anymore, they brushed the edge of the paper. A moment later it was in my hands. Under normal circumstances I would have taken a second to appreciate the moment. It had been a long time coming and I'd gone through hell to get here. But there was no time. After ripping the envelope, I tore the paper out and skimmed the sheet. My mom's scrawling chicken scratch, complete with bubble-dotted I's and swirly g's, stretched across the page, and seeing it made my chest ache a little.
Baby girl, I don't have much time. I've done some bad things. Things I'm not proud of. I made poor choices and trusted the wrong people —
An explosion and the sounds of shattering glass filled the air, followed by a series of loud pops and ricocheting pings as bullets assaulted the room. I startled, jumping back and scooting along Mom's pristine hardwood floor on my backside.
"Friends of yours?" Shaun yelled as he ducked behind the couch for cover. "Mrs. Popularity, aren't ya?"
I made a move to join him — some cover was better than none — but a bullet hit the plaster in front of me, and I locked up dead in my tracks. Inches. It'd hit the wall inches from my face.
Luckily for me, Patrick wasn't so skittish. He swept across the room, flying past and dragging me off the ground in one smooth move. "Where's the out?" he barked, peering around the corner of the couch.
It took a second to find my voice. "Out? What are you —"
"The out!" he yelled, shaking me by the shoulders. I almost let go of the letter. "You spent a lot of time up at this cabin over the years. There's no way Mel would have done that without an out. A getaway. Something to ensure you guys could bail out fast and unseen if you were ever found."
At first, all I could do was stare. How did he know that? And Mel? What the hell was that about? I'd heard him call Mom a lot of things over the years, but Mel? Not one of them. I probably would have kept right on staring like an idiot, too, if he hadn't given me another good, brain-jarring shake.
"Where. Is. It?"
Excerpted from Rules of Survival by Jus Accardo, Robin Haseltine, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2014 Jus Accardo. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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