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By LISA JACKSON
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Susan Lisa Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRun, run, run!
Jon raced through the dark city, his sneakers slapping against the wet pavement, his heart pounding so hard he thought it would explode. Piles of dirty slush lined the unfamiliar streets, snow fell from the sky, dancing in the pools of light cast by the streetlamps. Far away he heard the sound of a siren and over it all the muted strains of a Christmas carol.
"God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay ..."
Where the hell was he?
And who was chasing him?
The word rang through his brain.
The one who wants you dead.
As in dead and buried. Six feet underground, covered in ripe soil ...
Breathless, he glanced over his shoulder and saw a looming shadow, dark and swift, a weapon in one gloved hand as it swept the poorly lit streets.
God help me.
Jon turned sharply, slipping and catching himself with one hand, to sprint forward, into a narrow alley, where the cheery Christmas lights no longer blinked, where only dark oblivion awaited him.
Please don't let this be a dead end, he silently prayed as the sounds of the carol oozed through the night.
"... to save us all from Satan's power when we have gone astray ..."
He nearly ran into the brick wall.
Oh, God, a blind alley!
He heard the sounds of his pursuer so close behind, felt his skin crawl, and his soul go numb as he turned and knew that there was no way out ...
Jon Summers opened his mouth to scream ...
And woke up with a jolt. He was shaking, the sheets of his twin bed wet with sweat, his heart tattooing in his eardrums as the recurring dream ... the nightmare he knew to be a premonition, faded into the gray light of dawn.
He let out his breath and hoped to God that he hadn't screamed aloud and woken his mother. Fingers twisting in the bed sheets, he slowly let out his breath and knew, deep in his heart, that his dream was a foreshadowing of events to come. They might not play out exactly as he'd envisioned, but they sure as hell were going to play out.
Oh, God, why me? he wondered as he always did whenever a vision passed behind his eyes. The ones at night scared the hell out of him and the ones during the day ... well, he just had to hide those or else all the other kids would think he was a freak-not that they didn't already.
Kicking off the tangled sheet, he ran a hand around his jaw and felt a little bit of stubble on his chin. He needed a smoke and knew his mother wouldn't approve. She didn't approve of much he did these days, but she'd really flip out if she knew about this latest vision. Swiping the sweat from his forehead, he pushed Houndog out of the way, climbed out of bed, and plowed through the towels and clothes on the floor of his closet. Without turning on a light, he kneeled down, his fingers skimming the baseboard until he found the spot where he'd rolled up the carpet and cut a hole in the floorboards this past summer. Inside was his stash of all things his mother considered contraband.
Slowly he lifted the board and reached into the dark hole. His fingers moved deftly over an old copy of Penthouse he'd found in the recycling bins just outside of town, a jackknife he'd purchased with his own money, a box of condoms Billy Eagle had swiped from an older kid, all the cash he had in the world-about seventy-eight bucks-and a framed picture of Jennifer Caruso. Finally, the tips of his fingers brushed against his pack of cigarettes and lighter.
Not making a sound, he padded barefoot, wearing only his flannel boxers, to the window. Houndog let out a muffled bark as Jon unlocked the latch and shoved the glass open, but the half-grown pup didn't move from his spot on the bed. Jon propped the window up with a stick, then climbed outside to the roof, where he sat on the old asphalt shingles. It was cool outside, the air brisk. Winter was coming, the night air frosty. Thousands of stars glittered in the sky and a solitary cloud passed in front of a lazy half-moon, just as it had in his vision.
Shit. His heart was beating about a million times a minute. Hands trembling, he lit up and felt the warmth of smoke roll down into his lungs. What's wrong with me? Why can't I be normal? The same old questions he'd been asking himself for years rambled through his head, but tonight they seemed even more critical than ever. Jennifer Caruso wouldn't go out with a weirdo like him, someone who could touch her and look into the future, not when she could have other, normal boys who played football like Dennis Flanders.
He drew hard on his Marlboro again and peered through the boughs of the pine trees surrounding this old place his mother rented. Five miles outside of town, the scrap of land was isolated except for the neighboring spread, the McIntyre ranch, which had stood empty for a few weeks, ever since old Eli had been found dead as a door nail on his kitchen floor. The old man had had himself a killer of a heart attack and no one had discovered him for three days. But Jon had known-had sensed something was wrong. He'd felt Eli's whenever the wind had shifted and blown past Eli's house before touching his skin. Jon had experienced a feeling-the kiss of death, he called it. It had really given him the creeps.
He'd been the one to call the sheriff's department, anonymously of course, from a phone booth in town, and a deputy had been dispatched to find Eli still clutching his chest as he lay on the cracked linoleum only a few feet from the phone that he'd tried and failed to reach.
Jon still missed the old coot. Eli hadn't seemed to mind that he was different. For as long as Jon could remember, the leathery old farmer had been kind to him, showing him how to whittle on his back porch, or pointing out constellations in the heavens, or letting him have a fiery swallow of his own home-brewed brand of moonshine.
Helluva thing-the old man being dead.
"Son of a bitch." Eli was the closest thing he had to a grown-up friend. He studied the red embers of his cigarette, then took a long drag. He calmed a little as the nicotine hit his bloodstream. Mom would have a fit if she thought he was smoking-really smoking-but he didn't care. He was fifteen, old enough to make some of his own decisions.
He couldn't tell her about this vision tonight because she'd really wig out if she thought he was seeing his own death. She was wigged out enough already. He didn't blame her. It wasn't easy to be the mother of a freak, especially not in a town as small as Hopewell-damn-Oregon.
Wrapping his arms around his knees, he closed his eyes and slowed his breathing, forcing himself to think about his vision and analyze it. His fear had subsided enough for him to consider what it meant and he had to search it through-examine it from all sides-before he could lay it to rest.
In the dream it was night and he was in an unfamiliar city, a busy city that smelled of sea water, gasoline fumes, and something else-pine, maybe? Cedar? Christmas? He was running hard and fast, barely able to breathe, his lungs burning for more frigid air. Cold, mind-numbing fear chased him as buildings, tall, narrow, and looking centuries old, flashed by in a blur. The ground was blanketed with snow that had crusted with ice and he slid all over the place as he forced his legs to pump faster. His muscles began to cramp, his heart pumping in fear. Someone was chasing him-someone deadly-someone with the cunning of a wild animal, a man who could stalk prey in the forest or city, it didn't matter.
Someone who was going to kill him.
Jon swallowed against a dry throat. Who was this guy? Try as he might, he couldn't get a mental image of the man, but he knew with cold certainty that the stranger had been searching, looking for him, following him with the deadly and patient skills of a hunter. He wouldn't give up.
Lights blurred his vision-blue, red, green, yellow-strings of Christmas bulbs framing doors and windows of the brick houses. Wreaths and sprigs of holly adorned the grand homes with their paned windows and warm lights. He raced past them all, hearing footsteps relentlessly pursuing him, feeling the hot breath of his enemy against the back of his neck. His feet tripped and the man caught up with him, grabbing the collar of his jacket.
Go! Go! Go! Faster!
He slipped out of his stalker's grip.
Faster and faster he ran, gasping for air, sweat drenching his body though snow was falling all over this dark, unfamiliar town. Far away a ship's foghorn bellowed through the night.
Sometimes the shadowed man actually caught him, a sharp hand reached forward, strong fingers clamping over his shoulder. That was usually when Jon started to scream, dragging himself out of the nightmare. But the man's parting words always followed him into consciousness, chilling the marrow in his bones.
"I'm your father, Jon."
Son of a bitch! Jon bit down on his bottom lip until he tasted blood. His father. His father? No way. This was too damned weird. His father was dead-buried before he'd been born. James Summers. Killed by a hit-and-run driver. Or so his mother had insisted. He'd seen the faded pictures of the thin blond man who was supposed to have been his dad and the infant who had been his older sister.
But then there had always been something odd about that story-something that didn't ring true. His mother was never able to meet his eyes whenever they discussed his dad, and she always changed the subject quickly whenever Jon asked too many questions. Jon assumed it was because she felt somehow guilty about the accident that had taken Jim's life along with that of Jon's older sister.
He'd never been able to divine into his mother's mind, not once. The gift he'd been cursed with seemed to work best on people he wasn't close to.
Except for these damned dreams.
He squashed his cigarette into the gutter and tried to think. Maybe this was just a bad dream, not really a vision, just a nightmare. Everybody had them, didn't they? But the goose bumps still clinging to his flesh convinced him he was only trying to fool himself. He knew the difference.
Running a shaking hand over his face, he considered waking his mother. He slid through the window and walked to the door of his room only to halt, his hand poised over the doorknob.
Stop being a baby. This is your problem. You've got to deal with it.
All his life he'd run to Kate, cried to her, clung to her, but he couldn't do it forever, especially when he knew how she'd react. Nope. This time he had to handle it himself. He had time. Christmas was still two months away.
Still shaken, he climbed back into his bed, nudged the puppy off his pillow, and stacked his hands behind his head. Staring at the ceiling, he clenched his back teeth together. Nothing was ever unchangeable. The future wasn't laid out in a perfect plan.
Jon was convinced he could alter the course of his destiny. He just had to figure out how.
Eyes shielded by aviator sunglasses, Daegan O'Rourke eased up on the gas, allowing his old pickup to slow at the Summers place. He couldn't see much, just a long lane that wound through a thicket of pine and scrub oak. The twin ruts were long overdue for a load of gravel, and the house, barely visible through the branches, was some kind of white cottage trimmed in cobalt blue. Neat. Clean. Just as he'd expected.
Daegan grimaced and ran a hand over four days' worth of stubble on his jaw. Dry lips flattened over his teeth. Guilt and apprehension had been his constant companion for the past week, and now as he stared through the grime and dead insects splattered over the windshield, he wished he could roll back time and change things.
He was on a fool's mission. No doubt about it. He'd suspected it from the minute he'd heard Bibi's bullshit story and yet he hadn't been able to tell her to go back to Boston where she belonged. Instead, he'd landed here in Hopewell-damned-Oregon wishing he were someplace else. Anywhere else.
Maybe he should just back up and go home to Montana, because the truth of the matter was he didn't have the stomach for what he was about to do. He'd lost that cutting edge years ago-wasted it on a youthful need for revenge.
But curiosity and guilt had spurred him on and now here he sat in a used pickup planning his next move.
"Hell," he ground out as he drove a little farther, to the next long drive. This house, a sorry hovel, was more visible from the county road that ran straight as an arrow from the blue hills in the distance to the town of Hopewell about five miles in the other direction. Weeds and tall, dry grass already gone to seed choked the lane and scraped the underbelly of his truck as he pulled in. He braked at the open gate. A freshly painted FOR SALE sign had been nailed to the weathered fence, and Daegan decided that he'd just been granted his first break in the ten days since he'd reluctantly started this, his personal quest.
Maybe his luck was changing.
Oh, yeah, and maybe you'll win the lottery, too, you son of a bitch.
His body ached from hours in the truck and he'd have liked nothing better than a beer to cool his parched throat, but first things first. He opened the glove compartment and pulled out a leather pouch. Fingering past a thick stack of bills, he found what he was looking for-several snapshots, old black-and-white stills taken by a private investigator's camera, pictures of a girl who was nearly twenty at the time. Her long hair was caught back in a ponytail, her face clean and fresh scrubbed as she dashed across the corner of School and Washington Streets toward the Old Corner Bookstore Building in Boston. A backpack was slung over one arm and she looked over her shoulder, directly into the camera's hidden eye. Pretty, young, brimming with vitality. Even features, large eyes, and arched eyebrows. Full lips and a wary expression.
He wondered how much she'd changed since then, but then he wondered about a lot of things when it came to Kate Summers, a woman he'd never met.
That would have to change.
Stuffing the photos back into the pouch, he located an old receipt for a six-pack he'd picked up at a convenience store in Boise, and with a pencil the previous owner of the truck had tucked into the visor, Daegan scribbled down the number of the real estate agent who'd agreed to list these dry, barren acres. He didn't much care about the land; the ranch would just provide him with the cover he needed until he'd figured out his next move, but the location was perfect.
Location, location, location. Wasn't that the phrase real estate agents always promoted when they were trying to sell you a place? Well, in this case, being right next door to Kate Summers's house, they were right. The location was perfect.
"I'm telling you, Kate, a boy that age needs a father."
A father. Kate's blood ran cold at the mention of the man who had sired Jon-the criminal who didn't know he'd created a son.
"... any boy that age needs a man around. I'm not just talking about Jon, but because he's well ... different, you know, and hard to handle, he needs the influence of a strong man even more. Now, I know it's really none of my business, but what're friends for?" Cornelia Olsen asked, her voice blaring from the telephone receiver.
Yes, what? Kate walked around the counter, stretching the phone cord as she opened a kitchen cabinet and found a bottle of aspirin. Even after fifteen years, the mention of the circumstances surrounding Jon's birth made her break out in a cold sweat. As Cornelia continued to ramble on about Kate's teenage hell-on-wheels son, about the McIntyre place next door being unoccupied now that old Eli had died and what did that mean-that more riff-raff would be moving into Hopewell, that's what it meant-about how the weather had turned from a furnace blast two weeks ago to the cool of autumn now that it was nearly November, Kate tossed back the pills and chased them with a gulp of cold coffee. She didn't care about the weather or the McIntyre place. But Jon worried her. He worried her a lot.
Excerpted from RUNNING SCARED by LISA JACKSON Copyright © 2010 by Susan Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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