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       Hellraisers, p.1

           Alexander Gordon Smith
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  That was the trouble with being a hellraiser.

  Sometimes you got burned.

  Marlow Green knew this better than anyone. How many times had he heard it? From his teachers, when he got kicked out of class. From the principals, when he got kicked out of schools. From his mom, over and over. You set fire to the world and you run, Marly. And he did. Not literally—hellraiser, yes; arsonist, definitely not—but he lit up the world around him, started wildfires that burned through bridges, that sent his friends and his family packing, that spat and roared into his future, destroying it before he could even get there. Then, when it got too hot, he turned and bolted.

  One of these days you’re gonna start a fire that can’t be put out, his mom had told him. One you can’t ever run fast enough to escape. And he’d always wondered when that would be, always wondered what he’d have to do to ignite an inferno of that magnitude.

  Turned out the answer to the first question was now. And the second? Yeah, that would be carving a certain part of the male anatomy into the paintwork of his principal’s car.

  They came for him during class. They didn’t knock, just barged in through the door like they were raiding a meth lab instead of math. Half the kids were dozing off, staring out the dirty windows at the blazing June sunshine that drenched Staten Island. The sight of three school cops and the principal flooding into the room like a dark, cold current made everyone jump.

  “Green!” growled the principal, Mr. Caputo, a scarecrow of a man drowning in his cheap suit. He pointed a blade-like finger at Marlow. “That’s him.”

  Oh, crap.

  The biggest of the three cops pushed his way through the desks. Everyone called him Yogi because he was always confiscating kids’ lunches, then scarfing them. That and the fact he was a major fat-ass. His eyes were two raisins drowning in the doughy flesh of his face and he smiled wickedly at Marlow with sausage lips.

  “Got you.”

  Marlow blew out a long sigh and sat back in his chair, feeling the heat on his cheeks. He chewed the skin of his knuckles the way he always did when he was stressed. His windpipe was already starting to crackle, like static, and he wondered whether he should use his inhaler now before things heated up. He decided against it, not wanting to look weak in front of the class.

  Another cop swept between the desks with an expression like murder. The third cop stayed by the door, her holster open, hand on the butt of her pistol.

  “For the love of…” Charlie Alvarez sat at the desk next to him, running a hand through his mess of dark hair and popping gum. “Dude, what did you do now?”

  “Me?” Marlow smiled at his best friend—his only friend—coughing to clear his throat. “Absolutely nothing. I’m being framed.”

  Yogi stepped in front of the window, blocking the sun and making the room feel ten degrees colder. He reached out and grabbed a fistful of Marlow’s shirt with his free hand.

  “Get your flabby hands off him, Yogi,” yelled Charlie. “He didn’t do nothing.”

  “This isn’t your business, Alvarez,” Caputo said, turning to Marlow and doing his best to stab him to death with his eyes. “Too far, Mr. Green,” he spat, flecks of spittle spraying like gems against the sun.

  “I’m sorry?” Marlow replied, as innocently as he could.

  “You’ve gone too far. There’s no way back from this.”

  “I’m not sure what you think I did,” Marlow said, feeling his windpipe tighten and cursing his asthma for making him so weak. He snatched in a breath. “I’m just sitting in class, minding my own—”

  “Get him up,” Caputo said. “Take him outside.”

  Yogi obeyed, hauling Marlow out of his chair so hard that it toppled over behind him. Charlie was out of his just as quick, squaring up to the cop even though he was half his size.

  “That’s assault,” he said. “You got no right.”

  “I said drop it, Alvarez,” the principal replied. “This shi—This idiot isn’t worth ruining your life for.”

  “Yeah, kid,” said Yogi. “Sit down.”

  “Or what? You gonna eat me?”

  The whole class laughed at that, somebody lobbing a crunched-up ball of paper at the cop’s big, bald head. Yogi glanced at the other two cops but they just shrugged. Marlow laughed. He didn’t blame them. Charlie was tiny, but he was scary as all hell when his blood was up.

  “I’m glad you find this so amusing,” the principal said. “But I can assure you, you won’t be laughing for long. Move.”

  Yogi yanked his shirt and he started walking, coughing hard to release the pressure in his windpipe. Somebody in the class was clapping, and by the time he’d reached the door there was a full-on round of applause going on, complete with cheers and whistles. He turned and bowed to his audience before being bundled out of the room so abruptly he lost his footing. Yogi and the other two cops hoisted him up and it was like Marlow was penned in a prison of black cloth. Somehow the wiry principal managed to squeeze between them.

  “You have no idea how much trouble you’re in, Green,” he squawked.

  “I still don’t know what I’m supposed to have done.”

  “So it wasn’t you who scratched the hell out of my car?”

  “Your car?” Marlow shook his head, trying to hold back the grin that wanted to explode across his face. “I didn’t even know you had a car.”

  “Green Prius, out in the lot.”

  “You just admitted to driving a Prius?” came Charlie’s voice, although Marlow couldn’t see him past the circle of cops.

  “The one that now has … has something scratched into the hood. Something obscene.” He showed Marlow a snapshot on his cell phone.

  “It looks like a rocket ship to me,” said Marlow. “And it definitely wasn’t my doing.”

  “Really?” The man leaned toward him, his fists clenched so hard that his knuckles were white. “So the fact that it says ‘by M. Green’ underneath is a lie, then?”

  The laugh punched up from Marlow’s throat so hard he couldn’t hold it back. The truth was he’d done it that very morning, with his keys, while waiting for Charlie to turn up. It wasn’t like Caputo didn’t deserve it, he’d been on Marlow’s case ever since he arrived at Victor G. Rosemount High School. The principal looked ready to start swinging punches, but instead he turned on his heels and walked briskly down the corridor.

  “Bring him to my office, we have paperwork to fill out.”

  That could only mean one thing. Marlow chewed his lip, feeling his heart drop into his sneakers. Yep, raise enough hell and you got burned—he knew that better than anyone. This was his third school in eight months
, after all.

  They climbed the short flight of steps that led to reception, crossing the foyer, past the security gate with its metal detectors. It had been the same in every other school, the long walk. Like he was being marched to his execution down the green mile.

  The only difference this time was the police escort.

  “Green,” said the principal over his shoulder. “I don’t know why you’re so determined to ruin your life before it has a chance to begin. You’re fifteen years old and about three short steps away from incarceration. You do understand why you’re here, don’t you? At this facility?”

  Yeah, he did. Victor G. was the last stop on the road to Loserville. It was the place you went when you’d been chucked out of every other remedial high school in the city, when you’d incinerated every other option. Marlow felt the familiar pressure in his chest, the storm there starting to rage. He coughed up some phlegm, swallowing hard, then clawing in a breath.

  “You’re a coward, Green. You run away from every shred of responsibility in your life, you burn every bridge. Cowards are not welcome here. If VGR doesn’t want you, nowhere else does. And you can be damned sure that VGR does not want you.”

  Marlow’s blood was boiling too fiercely for him to find a reply. Yogi was holding his shirt so tight that it had become a noose around his neck, making it even harder for him to breathe. Charlie trotted along beside them, looking genuinely concerned now.

  “You okay, dude?” he said. “You’re going blue.”

  “I’m fine,” he wheezed. But that was a lie. He was about as far from fine as it was possible to get. He sucked in some air through the straw of his windpipe, knowing that as soon as he got into the principal’s office it would be over. He’d be given his marching papers, told to scram. Then it would be home to his mom, confession time again.

  “Get back to class, Alvarez, unless you want to go down as an accessory,” the principal said. “There will be criminal charges, this time, Green. You hear me?”

  Marlow tugged at his collar. Where the hell was all the oxygen? He eyed the main doors, the glorious sunshine beyond, twenty feet down the hallway, and all he wanted to do was run. Get the hell out of here. Escape while he still could. Charlie had backed off but caught his eye and shook his head. He knew him way too well.

  They reached the door to the office and the principal pushed it open, disappearing into the darkness. Yogi shoved Marlow in after him. The room beyond was small, barely enough space for a desk and a couple of filing cabinets. It was dark, too, the window boarded over from where somebody had lobbed a brick through it a couple of weeks ago. It was too cramped in here, not enough air. The panic was like a punch to the lungs, paralyzing them. Marlow took a breath and nothing happened.

  Don’t seize, he ordered himself, the panic like an acetylene torch behind his eyes. Please, not an attack. He couldn’t handle the terror, the ambulance, the rush to get the nebulizer, not on top of everything else.

  “You do understand what this is?” the principal asked. “You do understand that you’re finished here?”

  Marlow ignored him, taking a step back toward the door. He reached down to his pocket, for the inhaler, and Yogi grabbed his hand.

  “What you got in there, kid?” he asked.

  Nothing, Marlow tried to say, producing a sound like a broken accordion. He tried to shake his hand free but Yogi’s grip was a python’s, made his bones feel like snapping. He could hear the cop talking, telling him to calm down, but his heartbeat was loud enough to bring down the walls of the office. He felt like he was being held underwater. Panic made him act before he even knew what he was doing, his hands darting out and slamming into Yogi’s chest. The man was made of solid oak but he was unprepared, the push catching him off balance. He staggered back, letting go of Marlow, arms cartwheeling wildly. He crashed into the desk, sending papers flying.

  Marlow didn’t wait to see what happened next. He turned, shouldering past another of the cops, his lungs running on empty. He burst back out into the sun-filled hallway, skidding toward the metal detectors standing sentry just inside the doors. A quick look behind him let him know that they were in pursuit.

  Charlie stood farther down the hallway, back toward the classroom. He waved his arms frantically, mouthing Go! Marlow nodded to him, then turned, bolting out one of the doors and across the parking lot. He dug the inhaler from his pocket as he went, squeezing off a few shots and feeling his lungs loosen up, the relief of being able to breathe again so good that he almost didn’t hear the doors open behind him, the principal’s voice screaming out: “You’re expelled! Green, you hear me? Run all you want, there’s no coming back!”

  Marlow did just that, sprinting past the Prius with its brand-new decoration. He spun around as he went.

  “Nice car, dick!”

  And even though he was well and truly burned, even though he could hear his future being flushed, even though it was probably the worst comeback in the history of comebacks, he was grinning as he fled.


  “We’re in trouble.”

  Pan didn’t need anyone to tell her that. It was pretty damn clear that they were in trouble. Big trouble. They were barreling down the Cross Island Expressway at eighty miles an hour, the truck roaring like a jet plane. Most of the cars on the road had the good sense to swerve out of their way, but a couple had been shunted off the tarmac by the Ford F-650’s custom grille guard. Pan hadn’t looked back to see what happened to them. There were more important things at stake.

  Her life, for one.

  She checked her watch. There was no time on the display, just a line of bright red numbers. 00:00:32:21. There were way too many zeroes there for her liking. Thirty-two minutes, counting fast. Thirty-two minutes until they came for her. She checked her black Kevlar body suit, designed to withstand a close-range shot from a .44 Magnum. Not that it mattered. It wouldn’t last five seconds against what was coming.

  “Serious trouble,” said the guy sitting next to her. His name was Forrest, although Pan didn’t like to think of him as something with a name. It made it too difficult. You didn’t name cattle when you sent them to the slaughterhouse. His skin was a nasty shade of gray, coated in sweat, and it wasn’t surprising. He’d made his contract ten minutes before her so he’d have ten minutes less on his countdown. He wiped his brow, then sat forward in his seat looking like he was going to puke. It was Forrest’s first mission and the Lawyers were cutting it fine.

  Way too fine.

  “Hold it together, guys,” said the other man in the back of the truck. Herc. He was mission commander but he’d commanded jack on this particular mission. The whole damn thing had gone wrong and if the Lawyers didn’t hurry up, then all he or anyone else in the van was good for was a midmorning snack for hell’s hungriest. He rubbed a hand through the grizzled stubble on his chin. “Take the next exit, we gotta get out of sight. And rack ’em up, we’re gonna need ’em.”

  Herc pumped a shell into his combat shotgun and Forrest fumbled with his. They were the best defense they’d found against the demons. Kind of like saying a toothpick was the best defense against a rabid bear, she thought. Pan didn’t have a gun. She reached down, felt the crossbow at her feet. Even that wouldn’t do much good. Not unless the Lawyers found a way to end her contract. What the hell was taking them so long?

  “Ostheim,” she said into the radio attached to her armored suit. There was a permanent open link between her and her employer, Sheppel Ostheim. “You guys any closer? We don’t exactly have a lot of time here.”

  There was a hiss of static, followed by a voice with a trace of a German accent.

  “They’re going as fast as they can, Pan. This is a tricky nut to crack. Just stay alive, they’ll get there.”

  Pan spat out a bitter laugh.

  “Stay alive? You finally developed a sense of humor, Shep? Any chance of backup?”

  “Nightingale and Truck are inside the Engine, everyone else is airborne. Until t
hen you’re on your own.”


  Everyone jolted in their seats as the truck made contact with something else. The sour stench of fear filled her nostrils, making her want to gag. She and Herc had done this before but Forrest had only heard stories—the way the world is torn open, the way they swarm out from behind the paper-thin shell of reality. He had a hand over his mouth, his eyes wide and white, the brightest things in the truck. She didn’t offer him any words of comfort. What would be the point? Chances were that in less than half an hour the only evidence he’d ever existed would be his entry in the Book of Dead Engineers.

  Right next to her own.

  “Hang on!” yelled the driver, wrestling with the wheel. The truck lurched off the expressway, thumping into the side of the road hard enough to jolt them all off their seats. Pan was pushed back by an invisible hand as they accelerated, her stomach trying to punch its way out past her spine, the world flashing by outside the tinted windows too fast to see. It didn’t matter how fast they were going. They couldn’t outrun them. They couldn’t escape, they couldn’t hide. The only thing that mattered was finding cover, where nobody could see what happened next.

  “Get off the street,” Ostheim said, reading her mind. “By my calculation…” He swore. “Twenty minutes, Pan, and counting, fast. Get out of sight.”

  The world cannot know. It’s the only thing that counts, it’s more important than your own life. Ostheim had drilled that into her on day one. And every day since.

  So why the hell were they heading right into the heart of Staten Island?

  “Out of sight, goddammit!” Herc yelled, grabbing the seat as they smashed into the back of an SUV, sending it spinning out toward the side of the road.

  Too late, Pan thought as the driver steered them around a wide bend, so fast that the world outside was just a blur. The screeching tires threw up smoke, and for a second the driver almost lost it. There was a wet retching sound as Forrest puked over his trousers but Pan ignored it. There was something else in the air alongside the smell of vomit. A thick, heavy, sulfurous scent that she knew all too well.

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