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2019 American Fiction Award Winner - Best Mystery/Suspense, Hard-Boiled/Crime
“A simmering crime thriller with an explosive payoff.” –Best Thrillers
Trapped in a wintry setting and followed by two men determined to kill her, Victoria Anderson searches for someone who doesn’t want to be found. She drove the length of the east coast in a quest to find Danny Wilcox, intending to convince him to return to Florida with her. The drug lord, the most wanted criminal in the Province of Quebec, has other plans.
Tori is nothing if not loyal. She unflaggingly defends Danny and refuses to believe he’d harm her, despite several attempts on her life. Others befriend her, even as they covertly advance their own agendas. Tori’s devotion is tested at every turn, not knowing who she can trust, or the consequences of her ultimate decision.
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|Publisher:||Black Rose Writing|
|Edition description:||First Printing ed.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.59(d)|
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Without having to touch it, she felt the lump swell on her forehead. She'd hit the steering wheel with such force the vibrations resonated down her spine. For a full minute, she stared dazedly at her hands gripping the wheel, until she lifted her gaze to see the hood of the car crumpled in front of her. She swore loudly.
Tori couldn't believe it. Snowbanks looked so innocent from a distance. Now, she discovered the kind of havoc they could wreak on a vehicle. She thought she'd been careful, but careful or not, her lack of experience had been her undoing.
The realization sank in that she had to get moving. Tori optimistically put the car in reverse and tried to back out of her predicament, but it was soon obvious it wouldn't happen. Her tires spun uselessly on the snow and ice, the car held firmly in the grip of the great white monster in front of her.
Tori mentally berated herself for naively travelling to Quebec in wintertime, unprepared for the climate. And she hadn't even had the common sense to stay in the city where the road conditions were better. No, she'd ventured out into the countryside, onto a little-used crossroad that was hardly more than a wide path. Tiny patches of black asphalt peeked through the snow, and the snowbanks on each side of her towered several feet high, making the road resemble a long, white tunnel.
She couldn't even call for help. Her mobile phone had suffered its demise this morning, crushed under the heel of a heavy boot. The boot in question belonged to a person with whom she had more important things to worry about besides the fact he had destroyed her phone.
There was nothing else to do. Tori had to continue her journey by foot. It was a matter of time before they found her, their knowledge of the area so much greater than hers.
Fumbling for the latch of her seat belt with shaking fingers, she noticed the blood on her jacket. Touching her forehead, she felt the warm stickiness.
"Great. Just what I need."
Knowing it could be worse, she found a box of tissues in the console beside her and pressed several to the wound. She couldn't allow a bump to the head to slow her down.
Tori glanced at her attire. It had been suitable for driving in a car with the heater set at its maximum, but it was sorely lacking for traipsing around in the great outdoors, particularly in this great outdoors. Her jacket was warm enough for a cool Florida evening in December, but it hadn't taken her long to discover it wouldn't withstand a frigid January day in Quebec. It fell as far as the top of her jeans-clad hips. Her footwear consisted of a pair of sneakers, and a thin pair of leather gloves provided the only protection she had for her hands.
On top of it all, she didn't have a hat to cover her head and ears. She'd have to make do with what she found in the car and hope she soon came across some sort of shelter where she could be safe and warm. Her immediate concern was to get as far from this car as possible. When they found it – and they would – they'd scour the area in search of her, and she couldn't afford to let them find her.
Tori had a light silk scarf that had been designed for use as a fashion accessory. She wrapped it around her head, covering her ears, and shoved more tissues between the cut on her forehead and the now multipurpose scarf. Zipping her coat up to her neck, she flipped up her collar, grabbed her keys and gloves, and stepped from the car. A blast of cold air slapped her face.
Recovering, Tori realized she had another dilemma. She didn't know in which direction she should walk. She couldn't go back. That would be the direction from which her pursuers would come. If she continued along this deserted stretch of road, her blue jacket and jeans would stand out against the pure white background like a beacon. She'd have to scramble up onto the snowbank to escape them. But, would she be able to move quickly enough?
No, she had to venture into the forest while she had the opportunity. But which way? Both sides of the road were identical. There was so much sameness, so much whiteness, eased slightly by the grey of the leafless maple and poplar trees. A few evergreens, heavily laden with snow, offered some color relief.
She shrugged and chose a direction at random, hoping for the best, and climbed up the bank. This was no small feat. The top of the hard-packed snow bank loomed at least a foot higher than the top of her head. She jabbed holes into it with the tips of her sneakers and made footholds for herself. After much grunting and a healthy dose of swearing, she hauled herself to the top.
Tori fell to her knees, gasping for breath. A wave of dizziness washed over her, no doubt from the combination of exertion and the bump to her head. She couldn't rest long. Not only did she have to move to outrun her pursuers, but she had to avoid freezing to death. Lounging in the snow was not the ideal way to do either.
Tori stood, waited a moment for her legs to get over their shakiness, and struck off toward the trees. Since the weather had cooperated lately, she wasn't bogged down by soft snow, but it was cold, which made it miserable to be outside. She sought comfort in the fact the trees would protect her from the wind. By continually moving, she'd keep herself warm. She knew she wouldn't survive long in these conditions. She'd have to find shelter soon, or she'd die in this beautiful, cold, white landscape.
Tori concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other until she noticed the sun high in the sky. Glancing at her watch, she saw it was midday. It had been two hours since the car had crashed. During that time, she hadn't seen a sign of another human being. Of course, she realized she may not have covered much territory either. It was hard to judge how far she'd progressed with so much sameness surrounding her, so much snow and forest.
Walking was more difficult than she'd expected. Sometimes she'd take several steps on top of the hard crust, until one leg would break through, and she'd find herself in the awkward position of having a limb swallowed by the snow. She'd struggle to extricate her leg, just to have it happen again a few steps later.
Tori came to a full stop. She'd heard of people having mirages in the heat of the desert when they were exhausted and parched with thirst, imagining a cool pool of water. Did people also have mirages when they were exhausted and frozen?
Up ahead, a cabin was nestled in the forest, like a picture on a postcard. Using a tree to support her tired body, she squinted, straining her eyes to see the small plume of smoke curling from the chimney.
Her knees shook, both from weariness and relief. There was hope she would escape this penetrating cold. Her fingers and toes were numb, and her ears had long ago decided the pretty silk scarf was useless. Her eyelashes were heavy and white with frost.
She approached the cabin from the back. Tori didn't know who she'd find in residence. It could be a kind, gentle person just as easily as it could be a dangerous brute. Then again, she was in immediate danger of hypothermia, not to mention the fact that proven dangerous brutes were already on her trail. The choice was obvious, but she didn't intend to waltz into another treacherous situation without checking it out first.
Piles of snow surrounded the cabin, high enough for her to easily peer into the windows. At the back, she saw a small bedroom with a dresser and two beds, a double and a twin. Through another window on the side, she had a view of a larger room furnished with a sofa and armchair at one end. At the other, a table, three chairs, a kitchen counter, and cupboards completed the furnishings.
What caught Tori's attention, apart from the fact the building appeared to be empty of human life, was the wood stove that sat in a corner with a pile of split logs stacked neatly beside it. She had to get inside and warm herself. She'd deal with the inhabitants of the cabin if and when she encountered them.
Tori approached the front door and knocked noisily, despite her suspicion the structure was empty. No sounds of movement emanated from inside the cabin. Tori reached for the knob, hoping to find the door unlocked. She didn't have to worry. It swung open easily. She hesitated for a moment before calling out.
"Hello. Is anyone here?"
No response. She ventured over the threshold.
Tori scanned the contents of the cabin. It had a lived-in look, but it was tidy, everything seemingly in its place. She eagerly crossed the room to the wood stove.
With difficulty, she tugged off her flimsy gloves and fanned her fingers out as close as possible to the heat. She huddled beside it for several minutes before a small amount of warmth crept into her extremities, but the cold had burrowed deep into her bones. She questioned whether she'd ever enjoy warmth again.
Tori considered her next step. Should she seek help from the occupant of the cabin or should she strike out on her own again? It didn't take a genius to realize the person who stayed here was not a quiet, genteel woman. It would be an outdoorsman.
Would she be safe, one woman alone? She wasn't stupid. She knew the dangers. She'd experienced many of them over the past few days. She'd survived, but that didn't mean she'd throw herself on the mercy of the first person she met and damn the consequences. Unfortunately, she didn't have a lot of options.
Reluctantly, she left the warmth of the wood stove to explore the small cabin. The kitchen and living area seemed innocuous. A quick peek into the tiny bathroom didn't reveal anything dangerous. Venturing into the bedroom, on the wall she hadn't seen through the window, there was a well-stocked gun cabinet that rivaled anything she'd ever seen before. Not only did it contain rifles, but it was equipped with large, dangerous-looking knives. It also had an empty spot where a rifle should have been.
Tori's stomach clenched. The owner of the cabin, while temporarily absent, could be armed. She became less enamored with the idea of hanging around to see who lived here and if he could help her. She'd already relied on her wits to get out of a bad situation; she'd continue to do so.
Tori searched the cabin for some items she'd need to survive until she reached civilisation and could find someone she trusted, if indeed such a person existed. In the bedroom, she came across a dresser that had warm, wool socks in one of the drawers. She gratefully pulled them over her still-cold feet. In the closet were men's boots that were many sizes too big for her and too heavy to make walking easy. She'd have to depend on her own shoes, even though she had to untie the laces to squeeze her wool-clad feet into them.
Tori smiled when she found a warm sweater so large she could pull it on over her jacket. The sleeves needed to be rolled up to accommodate her much shorter arms. She topped off her outfit with a fleece-lined man's jacket that she put on over all her other clothes. It fell almost to her knees. She wondered if it was over-kill to wear so many layers, until she remembered the temperature outside and the fact she might spend the night in the woods. She decided it could never be too much. She knew she resembled the Goodyear blimp on a bad day, but her biggest concern was survival, not her appearance.
Tori thought about the size of the man who wore these clothes. She realized she'd made the right decision to escape the warmth and relative safety of the cabin, but she'd have to hurry. She didn't know when he'd come back. Rifling through the kitchen cupboards, hunting for something to eat, she shoved bags of dried fruit and nuts into her pockets, along with a few apples. A wave of guilt flowed over her at the idea of stealing from someone, but her life depended on it. She vowed she'd return the clothes and replace the food as soon as she could. She didn't have time to worry about it now.
Having donned an enormous pair of fleece-lined gloves and tucked her long brown hair under a woollen cap, Tori took a last glance around the cabin. She gazed wistfully at the stove, and hastened out into the winter frontier. In front of her was a large, almost perfectly circular clearing. She headed toward it, wondering if it would be easier to hike across such an expanse since it was so flat and clear of trees. On the other hand, it would make her more visible. Tori decided to be cautious and skirt the clearing, hiding in the shelter of the woods.
Loud barking exploded behind her. Looking over her shoulder, her eyes widened, and her heart thumped. A man stood beside the cabin, and even from this distance, she saw he was big. She had no doubt he was the owner of the clothing she'd borrowed. But, her attention was drawn from the man to the great beast that lunged toward her, growling furiously.
Without a second thought, Tori swiveled and ran, heading for the clearing. The bulk of the clothing she wore impeded her progress, her knees hampered by the weight of the heavy coat. The collar she'd turned up to shield her from the wind bobbed up and down in front of her face as she ran. She had difficulty seeing the ground in front of her. The surefooted animal could outrun her, but she wouldn't give up without a fight.
When it hit, it hit hard. A great weight landed on Tori's back, and she found herself lying face-down in the snow. The pressure of the dog's paws penetrated the heavy layers of clothing, two on her shoulders and two on her buttocks. Her arms came up to defend her face from the teeth that were inches away, his loud barks ringing in her ears.
Unexpectedly, his barking stopped, and the animal's weight left her. Squinting from behind her collar, she saw the dog, a German Shepherd, standing to one side, panting without taking his eyes from her face. His tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth, and his breath created great clouds of frosty air.
Tori dared to glance back toward the cabin and spotted the man striding in her direction. He had a thick black beard, shaggy hair sticking out from under his wool cap, and a distinct scowl on his face. What caused her the most distress was not his size, or even his scowl, but the rifle he carried under his arm. Again, without a second thought for the consequences, she jumped to her feet and leapt forward. The man bellowed, but she couldn't make out the words and didn't know if he shouted at her, or if he ordered the dog to attack. Tori didn't stop to find out.
Without warning, her right foot didn't connect with the hard snow beneath her anymore, and she pitched headlong. As her body was engulfed by freezing water, she realized she'd run onto a frozen lake, or at least a partially frozen lake. She grabbed ineffectually at the edge of the ice, but the water swallowed her up, her body weighed down by heavy clothing. Panicking, she flapped her arms and kicked her feet, trying to dislodge the boots. Surfacing briefly, she opened her mouth to scream and inhaled icy water as she dipped below the surface again.
Tori's wrist was painfully clasped in a sharp grip. She saw the watery image of the huge dog crouched on the ice with her arm clenched between his massive teeth. She didn't know if he wanted to make a meal of her arm, or if he intended to save her, but she didn't care. His efforts dragged her head above the surface, and that's all that mattered. She'd gladly sacrifice an arm for her life.
A low growl came from behind her, and Tori worried there was another dog joining in the attack. Someone or something grabbed the back of the heavy winter coat and pulled upward with a quick jerk. She was lifted up and out of the hole in the ice. But, when the dog released her arm from his iron grip, she slid out of the overlarge coat, and with a muffled scream, slipped back into the water and felt it close over her head once more.
* * *
The man couldn't believe his eyes as he stood on the ice holding an empty coat – his own coat –in his hand. The person had disappeared from inside the garment.
Riley had been the first to spot the stranger, and his bark had alerted both humans. The man was surprised to see the small figure ambling awkwardly toward the lake. The cabin was private, as it was meant to be. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen anyone in the area.
The man's surprise turned to alarm when he saw the person run toward the lake and the ice-fishing opening directly in his path. His shouted warning made the person run faster. He swore soundly and took off at a run, hoping to intercept the kid before he reached the hole.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cold Betrayal"
Copyright © 2018 A.J. McCarthy.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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