Tracers

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9780399173738: Tracers

In the vein of great box-office blockbusters, the high-stakes romance here sizzles within this page-turning thriller that will leave readers feeling like they are flying through the streets of New York.

Cam has come to accept the rhythm of his life as a bike messenger: racing up and down the streets of New York City from one run to the next. With no family to rely on and a mountain of debts, at least it’s an honest way to help pay off his dangerous debtors. Cam’s whole world comes crashing down on him one day when he runs into a beautiful stranger. After falling out of the sky and wiping out Cam and his bike, she disappears before he can find out anything about her. When he starts to see her around town, he quickly realizes that she is part of an underground group of teens who have turned NYC into their own parkour playground—running, jumping, seemingly flying through the city like it’s an obstacle course. Cam becomes fascinated with the sport—and the beautiful stranger, Nikki. He falls in with the group, and they offer him the chance to make some extra money. But when the stakes become life or death, Cam is torn between following his heart and sacrificing everything to pay off his debts.

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About the Author:

JJ Howard (www.jjhowardbooks.com) grew up in York, Pennsylvania, obsessed with music, movies, television, and pop culture. She graduated from Dickinson College with a BA in English and Tiffin University with an MH in Humanities. She currently lives in Florida. Follow her on Twitter: @jjhowardbooks

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

HE KNEW the stars were up there somewhere, but with all the lights from the city, Cam couldn’t see them. He sat on the edge of the roof waiting for her. Looking down at the little toy car he held, Cam realized he didn’t even remember bringing it with him, but there it was, clutched in his hand—so hard that the small wheels made indentations in his palm. Once, long ago, his father had given him the toy, a miniature of the black GTO he drove, along with the promise that one day Cam would inherit the real thing.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the picture—one of the only ones he had of his family. The photo he did remember bringing up here. He’d had to search around for it—wasn’t like he carried it around with him. Why would he? Just like the seemingly starless New York City sky, the picture was a lie. There, frozen for a moment in time, was his family: his father, smiling, with an arm slung around his pregnant wife. They stood leaning against the life-size version of the toy Cam held in his hand. Anyone looking at his parents’ hopeful faces in the photo would think they were going to be together . . . build a life. Maybe even be happy.

A lie.

“You look like your dad,” said a voice in his ear.

Nikki sat down beside him.

Cam didn’t answer. He closed his eyes, for that moment just feeling the warmth of her next to him.

She went on, her voice low. “I don’t even know my real dad . . .” She trailed off, and her hand found his. “I don’t even know what he looks like,” she told him, a catch in her voice. She leaned her head against his shoulder.

With his free hand he held the picture out to her and she took it from him. He exhaled, then felt the words start to escape from him. For some reason he felt the urge to go confessional around her. It was a new and uncomfortable feeling.

My dad was a guy I talked to on a phone through a glass window . . . he was a lowlife thrill seeker.” Cam swallowed hard, ignoring the voice in his head telling him to shut up.

Not that he was one to share much of anything, but he never talked about his father to anyone. Ever. With Nikki around, suddenly never had started to turn into sometimes.

When it came to Nikki, what he really wanted, though, was always.

He went on: “When I was ten, my dad panicked while he was robbing a liquor store in Queens.” Cam felt Nikki’s hand tighten around his. “He shot an old man for fifty-seven bucks and change. Someone stabbed him to death in prison because he stole their cigarettes.”

Cam took the picture back from her and shoved it in his pocket. Nikki had pulled her head away from his shoulder. She was staring at him. Her eyes were wet, but she didn’t cry.

“Sometimes it’s better not to know,” he said.

The toy car was still there in his hand. He stared down at it, thinking about the real GTO. Thinking about escape. And though for the moment he’d mastered the urge to spill every thought and hope and fear he’d ever had to her, she still figured it out.

“You’re leaving,” she stated, her voice flat. “Aren’t you?”

Cam let go of her hand, only to put his arm around her waist and pull her closer. He stared at her for a few seconds. Her eyes were almost silver in the moonlight, and still full of tears. One blink and she’d be crying. He nodded slowly.

She blinked.

Cam pulled her even closer to him, and lowered his forehead to hers, hearing her breath, as ragged as his own. “Come with me,” he whispered.

“I can’t . . .” she whispered back, another catch in her voice.

“Don’t think. Just . . . come with me.”

Nikki pulled a little away from him. She wiped her eyes and opened her mouth to speak—but before she could tell him all the reasons she couldn’t leave this place, he needed to tell her one more thing.

“I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me your brother needs you, that Miller won’t let the two of you—won’t let any of us—go.” Cam pulled her back to him, holding on tight. She didn’t push him away. “But Nikki, I’m telling you. I don’t care. I don’t care if any of that’s true—or if it’s all true. Because ever since you fell out of the sky and crashed into my life, the only thing I care about is you. I’m not leaving without you.

He let her go, stood up, and held out his hand.

They both knew that they could never be together, that they’d never find a way out. But Cam told himself it didn’t matter.

If everything else in his life had been a lie, she was the truth. The way he felt about this girl, in this moment. That was true.

He took a deep breath and waited . . .

AND A MOMENT of silence for the bike.

Crushed under a bus: what a way to go. This wasn’t how Cam’s day was supposed to play out, although he’d stopped expecting much of anything—good, anyway—a long time ago. The morning had started like any other: hot run, bike whizzing through the cars and taxis like they were standing still, back to Lonnie for another pickup.

As usual, Cam had sailed right through the wide door at the front, past the other messengers jockeying for a pickup.

“You got a run?” one of them asked Lonnie. It was probably Mitchell—sounded whiny enough to be him. But Cam didn’t stop to find out.

“I got a run for Cam,” Lonnie shot back, and held up the slip. “Express run. Uptown. I need . . .” But Cam had already grabbed the slip. He was back on the pavement, legs pumping, air rushing past him as he pedaled.

Cam put in his earbuds and cued up some music on his phone. The volume was cranked to the max, but he could still hear the sounds of the traffic he sailed through. Somebody like that Mitchell kid would probably have those noise-canceling earbuds—that guy didn’t actually need to work for Lonnie. Not when his shoes cost more than Cam’s rent. The guy just liked to be able to tell his hipster friends in Brooklyn that he was a bike messenger—even though he spent most of his time sitting around on the couch in the break room.

Don’t think about money. It wouldn’t help anyway. All Cam could do was keep riding faster. Sometimes it felt like that was all he ever did.

Cam rode through the chaos of morning traffic without slowing—down the center, riding right between the yellow lines, weaving his way between the cars and people, then jamming a left, catching the slipstream of a crosstown bus. He caught onto the side, taking a rest and letting the bus do the work. Most of the passengers were reading, headphones on, tuned out. But one old lady’s eyes widened. Cam grinned.

He spotted a yellow light just ahead, let go of his free ride, and then it was a slingshot through the intersection. Cam jumped a curb for the next shortcut, and hitched another ride with a beat-up old Civic.

And then a guy in a hoodie dropped out of the freaking sky, smack in the middle of the traffic snarl. He must have jumped from above, but it sure as hell looked like he’d just dropped out of nowhere. He landed on the roof of a car, then jumped down into the street. A cab swerved to miss him.

Over the music blasting through his crap headphones, Cam heard the cab’s tires squeal. Smelled the burning rubber.

The cab was sliding sideways toward him, fast. He was boxed in; with nowhere to go, Cam turned his bike sideways at the last second, sliding over the back end of the cab, his body crashing into the metal. It wasn’t his first full-body slam into a moving vehicle, but it was the hardest hit he’d taken so far. He could feel the impact of the metal jar his bones, and his body was twisting in midair, 180 degrees and then down, landing with a thud on top of the guy in the hoodie.

No, wait . . .

It definitely wasn’t a guy. Cam froze. She froze. Her face was inches away from his. They were both breathing hard. Her silver-blue eyes locked with his for what must have been just a few seconds, but it seemed longer.

The sound of the bike’s final moments broke the spell—it had skidded sideways out from under him, landing in the perfect spot to be crushed under the wheels of the M14 bus—and Cam realized she was struggling to push him off her. He rolled away, lying on his back on the pavement and cradling his left arm, which felt like it was on fire.

“Are you okay?” she asked, as she struggled to her feet. Her hood had slipped down. Cam looked up and took in his first full view of her: long brown hair, ripped jeans.

“Yeah. I’m fine,” he managed to say.

But she’d already turned away. Her eyes were on the ground—she was searching for something, and still breathing hard. Maybe dropping out of the sky hadn’t been quite as easy as she’d made it look.

Cam managed to stand, avoiding putting any weight on his damaged left arm.

He forced himself to stop staring at her. She was insanely pretty, which made it difficult to tear his eyes away. But pretty girls weren’t anything new. They were always chasing after him. This girl was something else, though. Something more. Or maybe he was just impressed with her dramatic entrance.

He spotted a messenger bag in the gutter that must have belonged to her, and went over to pick it up.

Before he could make the most of his white-knight moment, she snatched the bag out of his hands and turned to go.

“You’re welcome,” Cam said, and she met his eyes again. After hearing how not-welcoming his voice sounded, she frowned.

Unfortunately, frowning didn’t make her any less hot.

She’d killed his bike, and to top it off: rude.

But still. Hot.

Cam realized she’d just asked him a question.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she repeated.

He stared at her. “I don’t know.” And it was true. Between her dropping out of the sky, turning out to be a gorgeous mystery girl, and the small matter of his body getting slammed into a cab—hard—Cam was dazed as well as confused. He glanced up at the five-story building behind him. She must have jumped down from the roof. (How? was a good question—and also why?)

Cam shook himself and saw that the girl was still staring at him, but then she spotted two cops headed toward them. “Sorry about your bike,” she said, as she whipped her hood back on and ran off.

Crazy girl ran a few steps up the side of the nearest building, barely avoiding a gaggle of tourists, and dropped down into the subway entrance.

One of the cops actually shrugged. Chase over.

Cam stood staring at the entrance to the F train, closing his own mouth. He didn’t want to look like one of the tourists. After all, he’d lived here his whole life.

But he’d never seen a girl drop out of the sky.

· · ·

Cam made his way back to work—walking, thanks to a very strange girl and a last-minute assist from a crosstown bus. When he got back, he looked around Lafayette Messenger Service. He wasn’t sure he’d actually walked in since his first day on the job—the messengers’ entrance was a wide garage door, with a concrete floor so the riders could coast right in without wasting any time. Since Cam was moving at about a tenth his usual speed, he noticed things he usually ignored. And, wow, the place was a crap hole when you really slowed down to look. The floor was crisscrossed with spray paint and various other stains. A couple of armchairs, probably from the seventies, were held together with duct tape. A bank of yellow lockers filled the back wall, some with missing doors, the rest scribbled over with doodles and curse words. The remaining walls had been “decorated” by Lonnie’s ex-girlfriend, who liked to take extreme-close-up photos of completely random things like artichokes or dog noses. Word had it she’d left him for a Williamsburg hipster who managed not to roll his eyes when she called her stuff “art.” Lonnie had been in a rotten mood ever since.

The other messengers were giving Cam curious looks—no doubt because he was carrying the remains of his bike. Or maybe this was how they always looked at him, but he was usually moving too fast to notice. Cam ignored them. He walked up to the front counter and handed Lonnie the envelope he’d been sent uptown to deliver. When Lonnie opened his mouth to complain, Cam laid what was left of his Fantom on the front counter. Lonnie swore under his breath and took the envelope back from him. With a sigh, Cam pushed open the door to the break room. He threw himself down on the couch and closed his eyes.

“Are you just gonna leave this mess here?” Lonnie yelled after him, but Cam didn’t respond.

His arm was still on fire, and the rest of his body ached as well, but he couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen that girl do.

He might have assumed her first dramatic jump was a failed suicide attempt or something. But the way she’d moved like a cat, or maybe a monkey—up the wall, over the bench, and down into the subway—that had to be parkour. He pulled out his phone to look it up. Spelling it was a whole other issue. But even when he missed the u, hundreds of results came up on YouTube. One of the first ones showed two guys dressed like Mario and Luigi running around like they were inside a video game, but Cam clicked past it. Their movements were jerky, not fluid like hers had been.

The next guy was full of advice. Like: don’t snap your Achilles tendon. Okay, good tip.

Cam went searching for a new clip, since this guy mostly seemed to want to talk for half an hour about a move rather than actually doing the move.

He kept clicking. The running-up-the-wall move was called a tic-tac, Cam learned.

He watched two tiny figures running through a park, vaulting up and off trees, leaping over benches. It looked like Riverside Park, but the image was too small to be sure. The wild tricks the tiny figures were performing might have seemed unreal, except Cam had seen with his own eyes—the girl had performed several of the tricks that very morning.

One of the clips Cam clicked on had a tagline: “No equipment necessary.” Sounded like the perfect sport for him, since he couldn’t afford any. He also found out that the sport was called, variously, parkour, tracing, or free running. He liked the last one best: anything with free in the name sounded great to Cam. He’d felt trapped for so long.

Then it hit him that, given the way his life was turning out, learning how to run faster and more efficiently through the obstacle course of the city could actually come in pretty freaking handy someday.

Plus he had a background in martial arts, which a few of the videos mentioned as being helpful. He wasn’t afraid of heights, or falling, or much of anything really. After all, he’d seen his share of trouble—even spent six months in medium security up in Otisville. Maybe he’d take a crack at it himself when his arm got better. Why not?

He was distracted by Lonnie’s voice, booming from the garage. “Washington Heights. Express run.”

Mitchell stuck his head into the break room and grinned down at Cam before going up to the front desk. Cam snorted when he saw the guy was attempting dreadlocks. “Lat...

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