Chapter One

Chapter Two 

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Chapter One

Cold. It’s the worst thing about Hell. You could wrap yourself in miles of spare rags and old salvaged clothes then light them on fire, but it never made a difference. When the cold came from inside, nothing could make you warm again.

Hell’s been called a lot of different things—Doom Town, The Asylum, Hades, Gahanna, The Rotten Apple. But when Dante wrote The Inferno, he got the story right. Part of it anyway. He talked about the nine circles of Hell and how each one was worse than the last. Subtract levels one through eight, and he had it. Everything is like level nine, where the real baddies went to endure subzero climates and have their nether-regions cradled in cryogenic underwear.

My part of The Nine, as we locals refer to the place, is a cozy little armpit known as Scrapyard City. It’s a dry, frigid maze of high-rise shanties, catwalks, and junk metal barely fit to stand, much less protect the Woebegone souls who inhabit them. My black-market shop is grounded right in the middle of it all, giving me a great view of the drum-fires and fellow Woebegone who still believe they can absorb some warmth off the flames. If it’s heat they wanted, they were about to get all they could handle.

I glanced out through the open window of my shop and stared at the reddening sky. A firestorm was coming. A twisted reprieve to the humdrum of arctic life.

The crowds of Woebegone going about their business on the catwalks and pathways outside hadn’t noticed the impending catastrophe. Most wrapped themselves up like Tusken Raiders, so their clothes obscured their view. I stuck to my t-shirt and button-fly 501s. They kept me just as warm, and I was comfortable.

I pulled a brace out of my shop window and let one of the heavy overhead shutters come down. My little store happened to be one of the only shielded structures in Scrapyard City. If I didn’t close up before the impending storm, my tiny slice of paradise would be overrun with every killer, thief, and rapist within two-hundred yards. The bolt for the shutter slid in place with a grinding thunk. I was about to reach for the brace holding up the other, but something caught my eye on the corrugated walkway outside my window.

A young girl, a Woebegone no more than nineteen, staggered along looking less than oriented. I squinted, thinking she looked familiar, and shied back when I remembered from where. A girl from my past life. The resemblance was uncanny. The moment I made the connection, I knew it couldn’t be her, but she made my arm hair prickle anyway.

I watched the girl for a few moments, her wide, erratic eyes shifting from place to place, body language and movement aimless. She was a fresh born out of the Gnashing Fields— the endless pools of burning sulfur where Woebegone suffer an eternity of torture and rebirth when they die in The Nine—no doubt about it. She would have no memory—no clue about where she was or what happened. At least not until she regained her memories in a few weeks, but the firestorm was coming now.

I squeezed my eyes shut. It wasn’t my problem. There were hundreds—thousands—of other fresh born out there, just like her. The storm would have them all. Tough luck, but that’s the way it was. I wouldn’t run out and risk my neck for some strange girl, even if she did remind me of someone from my past life. Someone I owed an enormous debt to. Someone who suffered because I didn’t have the guts to help her sooner.

I pulled the brace to the second shutter and let the heavy steel slam before ramming the last bolt home. Then I ran out the door, risking my stupid neck for a girl I didn’t know.

The other Woebegone had noticed the sky by now. It was hard to miss. A rolling cloud of thick, black smoke full of lightning and swirling flame. The girl stood there, barefoot in jeans and a thin plaid shirt. The crowd tossed her around like an old dodge ball. Her hands were up, protecting either side of her face, as if she could box herself in against the insanity. I sighed as the first drop of molten fire hit the ground.

I wound through the frantic crowd, feeling hot wind swirl and gust through the twisted pathways. The Woebegone ran everywhere, and I lost sight of the girl several times as the mass of bodies bounced me back and forth. She had her hands over her ears now, squinting her eyes shut and shaking her head. I sprinted forward, shouldering the Woebegone aside. One hit me hard enough to spin me backward, but I kept going, making my way to the girl.

“Miss,” I called out to her. “Miss, if you come with me, I can help you.”

My hand touched her shoulder, and she spun to look at me. The innocence in her deep blue eyes was so plain; I could not imagine how she ended up in a place like this. They were the color of robin’s eggs, and her blond hair was a tangled mess around her fingers.

“Miss,” I said again, ducking a little to match her height. “You need help.” I reached out to take her hand. The young woman met my eyes, and in one smooth motion, she slapped me so hard my cheek felt like it had caved in.

She screamed, “Leave me alone,” and scurried off like a frightened rabbit.

I stood there rubbing my face and took inventory of my teeth with my tongue.The girl didn’t run far. She sprinted up two flights of rusty stairs, only to find herself cornered between a corrugated steel wall and a dead-end rail—the one thing standing between her and a 30-foot drop to the frozen ground.

Her gaze darted to every dark corner or ledge big enough to squeeze a toe onto. She seemed desperate for an escape, but she wouldn’t find one. Scrapyard City had collapsed and been put back together so many times the entire place looked more like a loose pile of junk than a collection of structures. The city was a virtual labyrinth of ladders, stairs, and catwalks that led nowhere. And if the firestorm turned out to be half as bad as it appeared, the resident Woebegone would be rebuilding their ramshackle structures yet again.

I tried not to come off as creepy or threatening as I grinned and crept toward the frightened girl’s cornered position.

Nope. Not creepy or threatening at all.

“What’s happening? Where am I? Leave me alone.” She shook her head in little panicked jerks.

My hands were out in front of me to show I meant no harm when a hot stream of molten fire grazed my forearm. I winced and ground my teeth. The storm was ready to break. I didn’t know how much longer I could risk standing out in the open and still make it back to my shop in one, less than overdone, piece.

The girl screamed again. A wordless shriek born of pure hysteria.

“I’m getting fried trying to help you. Stop wailing and come here.”

The girl answered with another scream, only this time she punctuated the sonic gesture with a turn and climbed onto the rail.

“Whoa.” I froze, and my stomach dropped into my boots. She wasn’t even going to wait for the storm. “Calm down.” My hand found its way into my pocket, and I laced my fingers through a familiar metallic object. “You are not going to make it if you jump. Let me help you.”

I took a step forward, and the girl threw her legs over the rail. The wind picked up, and the ever-increasing hailstorm of Satan’s molten spit became harder and harder to avoid. If this girl didn’t come down in the next few seconds, we were both going to take a long soak in the Gnashing Field sulfur pools.

The girl tilted her head and leaned forward, but she had her hands wrapped around the rail, not quite committed to her suicidal insanity. I lunged, drawing the Knuckle Stunner out of my pocket as I went. She never heard me coming.

I caught her wrist and jerked her back just as her fingers loosened on the rusty metal railing.

“Sorry about this, Miss, but we’re out of time. We have to go.” I tapped her with the Knuckle Stunner wrapped in my fist, a defense weapon made right here in The Nine. The high-tech set of brass knuckles short circuited the brain—temporarily. How long the effect lasted and how much the blow hurt depended on how hard you punched. The girl fell into my arms, and I managed to pull her back over the rail and heft her onto my shoulder.

A loose piece of tin rattled against a nearby wall, so I tore the panel off the rusty screw that held it in place. The razor-sharp hunk of metal wasn’t perfect, but it made a decent makeshift fire umbrella. The flimsy sheet of metal might prevent us from gaining a few red-hot piercings on our way back to my shop.

Scorching wind assaulted my face and threatened to steal my garden shed umbrella as we crossed the open catwalk. The girl still didn’t move. Definitely a good thing. If she woke up now, I’d have to leave her. Woebegone began to fall. They sprawled down the stairs, sometimes two and three deep, making it all but impossible to navigate with the girl’s dead weight on one shoulder and my shield clutched in my other hand.

I lost my balance, and my heel came down hard on someone’s fingers. They made an audible crunch. A Woebegone screamed, and I glanced down to see a man lying below me, a three-inch hole burned through his bicep.

“If you don’t move, you’re going to have a lot worse things to worry about.” I gave him a nudge with my sneaker, but he just looked at me with a pathetic expression. “Sorry, Bud. Only one rider per storm. If you don’t care enough to help yourself, I can’t help you either.”

I trudged forward, hearing the hollow ting of molten fire hit my shield. The Woebegone had thinned, many finding shelter, more finding death and a return to the Gnashing Fields. My legs felt like they were ready to fold like cheap plastic. I really needed to think about jogging or maybe check out that new CrossFit torture craze.

My shop came into view, and I groaned, coming to a momentary halt. A goon had taken up squatter’s rights in my doorway. He stood there with an ear-to-ear grin, watching as the Woebegone fell to the increasing storm. I had left without locking my door. Not a smart move. Lucky for me, the goon seemed too preoccupied with the show to go in and lock the place down.

His face hardened as I made my way toward him. “Shove off, this is my place.”

The guy had a good eight inches on me and at least fifty pounds. Marred, poorly done tattoos covered his shaved head and shirtless body. My favorite artistic catastrophe was the pelican stenciled across his fat belly. The bird wore a sailor’s hat and bore one scrawny leg half the length of the other.

“Afraid I can’t do that,” I said. “This is my place, so if you could step aside ...”

Pelican Belly made his move. I tossed my shield in his direction as a distraction and drew the Knuckle Stunner. With the girl on my shoulder, I couldn’t dodge his hay-maker completely, but I managed to sneak my own shot in. This time the Knuckle Stunner went off with an audible crack, and Pelican Belly went flying. He hit the wall and staggered, then he straightened and shot me a smile, inviting me in with a wave of his grimy hand.

Chapter 2

My face ached from the girl’s slap, and now Pelican Belly’s glancing ham-hock blow. All in all, I was beginning to feel a little under appreciated. I wasn’t sure if Pelican Belly had noticed the Knuckle Stunner. My first shot barely connected. He had managed his own maneuver to avoid the full force of my punch. He was more agile than I gave him credit for. That, and I hauling a hundred and twenty-pound girl on one shoulder. I didn’t have time to fool around, so I gambled he was as ignorant as he looked. A clear shot at my face should be enough to do the trick.

“Nice of you to deliver a girl.” He met my step and drew back, thinking he could end the whole thing with one punch. “I’ll have some fun with her during the storm.”

Dumb as dumb could get. He was right about one thing. One punch was enough. I surged forward, ducking his blow, and lanced him square in the chest with the Knuckle Stunner. He never had a chance. It wasn’t pretty, but Pelican Belly went out like a birthday candle—fat rolls, bad breath, and all. I stepped over the pile of tattooed blubber, set my more tender cargo down inside the shop, and then headed out to see to my unwanted guest.

* * *

When I got back in, I slammed the door closed with a heavy thunk. The sound always reminded me of the door on an old Cadillac. I threw all three bolts and leaned my forehead against the pitted steel to catch my breath. Pelican Belly had been heavy, but I had managed to drag him to a spot under an overhang. At least he was safer than lying in the open. He should wake up in plenty of time to find real shelter, provided his ego didn’t send him running back to my shop. Much as he may have deserved it, I couldn’t let him die. I didn’t want his blood on my hands. Pelican Belly wouldn’t be the first Woebegone I had sent to the Gnashing Fields, but I didn’t enjoy killing the way most lowlifes in The Nine did.

A weak groan rose from the floor behind me, and I looked to see the girl stir in the hazy light. Her eyes fluttered open, and she skittered backward into the wall as she scanned our cramped interior. The front of my shop was about the size of a walk-in closet, but reinforced I-beams and rusty steel walls made the place about as bomb proof as it could get.

I reached to the counter on my left and retrieved a shabby box of matches and a homemade lantern I had fabricated from an old canteen and some scrounged motor oil. My cramped metal room got coal mine dark with all the doors and windows secured. It didn’t bother me, but I figured a little light might go a long way toward calming my guest’s anxiety. The match flared to life with a flash of eye-watering sulfur. When I touched the greasy wick, a small flame illuminated the shop with an oily yellow glow. An ominous tendril of thick, black smoke rose from the lamp, and long shadows flickered along the walls, dancing with the howling wind outside. I realized I had achieved an atmosphere even more creepy than the dark.

The girl’s gaze fell to a sliding metal door on the back wall. I stepped forward to head her off before she could move.

“Hold on. Don’t get worked up again.” I held out my hands and tried to appear calm, but I made sure to stay out of swinging distance. “You’re safe. I promise. If you want to go out and kill yourself, I’ll open the doors and send you on your suicidal way after the firestorm. For now, sit tight and relax. This is the safest place in Scrapyard City. My shop has stood through hundreds of storms. It’s not going to fall during this one.”

The girl peered at me, drew her knees to her chest, and hugged them in her arms.

I took that as an expression of agreement. At least for now. “Good.”

I released a thick thermal blanket attached to the ceiling and let the weighted fabric cover the door like a grungy grey curtain. “So, what should I call you? Do you remember anything? Your name?”

The girl’s face went pale, and tears welled into her eyes. She shook her head.

“Wow, you are a fresh one.” I moved over to the shop’s big front window and released another thermal blanket above the counter. “Don’t worry, it’ll all come back after a while. Waking out of the fields is no fun, but we’ve all been through it. For now, why don’t I call you, Stray?”

I smiled and tried to seem reassuring, but Stray just stared up at me.

I raised an eyebrow. “Try to contain your excitement.”

She still didn’t move.

“Look, if you just sit there, this is going to be a long few hours. I saved your life, the least you could do is offer a little conversation.”

“Do you know what happened to me?” Her voice came out stronger than I expected, high and youthful, but confident.

“Not specifically, no. There’s a lot of ways to die in The Nine. My guess is some jerk knocked you off for fun, or you offed yourself. Doesn’t really matter. Every death lands in the Gnashing Fields. I don’t understand the suicide angle though. Woebegone do it all the time, but killing yourself to be tortured and reborn right back where you started? Doesn’t make any sense.”

Stray shuddered. “I remember that. The burning. The pain never seemed to end.”

I sighed and nodded. “Another one of their cute tricks. You might only be out of the action here for a few days, but your perception of time in the Gnashing Fields is different. Your stay can feel like an eternity when you’re in the pools.”

Stray stood and brushed herself off, looking a little more steady. “So, what is this place? What do you do here?”

Stray reached for the sliding door at the back of the tiny room.

“Hold on.” I put out a hand to stop her, but it was too late.

The door slid to the side to reveal my secret warehouse stash. A gutted school bus that had somehow made its way beneath piles of rubble and building collapses. Dozens of beams and girders crisscrossed the area above and around the old yellow husk. The thing could take a direct hit from an atom bomb without getting a scratch. A subway train had crashed through the far wall and smashed the front end of the bus at some point in ancient history, although I couldn’t imagine when. I had never seen a school bus or subway train since I’d been here, and I’d been here for a very long time.

The bus’s side door opened up to the rear wall of my shop, giving me a convenient little staircase to ascend into my hideaway. Stray bounded up the tall steps like a pixie made of super balls. I hit the first step, missed the second, and did my best impression of a bobsled racing down a rock quarry. By the time I recovered, she had already made a beeline for the most valuable item in my stores. Almost a quarter case of unexpired, individually wrapped Hostess Twinkie cakes.

She reached for them, and my hand shot into my pocket to draw out the Knuckle Stunner as I sprinted toward her. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I growled. “Don’t touch the Twinkies.”

Stray turned to look at me and noticed the Knuckle Stunner in my hand. “Are you serious? I can’t even remember my name. I was just hungry.”

“You may not understand the whole picture here, but the items in this store are priceless to a lot of Hellions out there. They are beyond difficult to come by.”

Stray surveyed the mishmash merchandise around her. Two cans of Dr. Pepper, a few photos, a locket, and a box of old cigars.

“Not many have seen this room, and less have seen what’s stored inside. I saved your life, but I can make you this promise.” I leaned in close and narrowed my eyes. “If you ever speak a word about what you saw here, you won’t live to see another day. I know enough secrets about the Hellions down here to guarantee your stay in the Gnashing Fields will be long and recurring.”

“Over Twinkies?” Stray raised an unfazed eyebrow. “Seriously.”

She tilted her head as if she replayed a part of our conversation in her mind. “You trade goods for secrets, don’t you? You said you know lots of secrets about the Hellions. You trade this stuff for information and then what? Trade information for more stuff? That’s pretty smart. You stay in business with a built-in insurance plan. What do you do with the information? Blackmail or something?”

I stood there dumbfounded for a second. “What? No—not blackmail. People ask me to find information. I have the means to do it, that’s all.”

“So, you trade them the information, and they use it for blackmail.”

I smacked my face and shook my head. “No—I don’t know. Look, for someone who just crawled out of the soup, you’re a little too smart for your own good.”

Stray shrugged. “Sorry. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell anyone about your shop, I promise. You saved my life, and at the moment, you’re my only friend.”

She smiled and glanced at the locket laid over the back of a lonely torn-up green passenger seat. “Can I touch this without you zapping me?”

I rolled my eyes and threw my hands out, “Why not?”

She picked up the locket and popped the tiny latch open, revealing the picture inside.

“Who wanted this?”

“No one,” I said. “That’s mine. The piece has sentimental value.”

“Is this your mom or something? She looks young.”

“All right, you saw the locket. Now put it down.”

Stray laid the old silver piece across the seat with tender care and glanced back at me again. “What’s in your hand? Is that what you knocked me out with earlier?”

“Yes. If you keep asking me questions, I’m going to show you how it works.”

Stray smiled and kept talking. “Are you allowed to own something like that? Seems like the big baddies would be awfully uptight about anyone having weapons.”

“Woebegone are not allowed to own anything, much less weapons, but I’m different. I know people.”

A gust of wind whipped against the side of the shop causing a stream of dust to fall from the ceiling. Stray looked at me, and I smiled, gratified that something had the ability to make her stop chattering, at least for the moment.

“We’ll ride out the storm, and then you can be on your way. If you keep your promise, I will help you settle in somewhere until you regain your memory and figure out where you belong, deal?”

Stray held her fist out. I stared at it.

“Fist bump,” she said. “I think it’s a thing.”

I reached out and rapped her fist with mine. A huge bang came from the door at the same time, making me jump and drawing a little squeak from Stray. 

“I know you’re in there. Let me in, or I will put my fist through the wall and pull your scrawny ass out through the hole.”

Pelican Belly. Apparently, his ego had brought him back after all.

Click Here to buy THE NINE now to see what happens with Stray and read the hilarious first encounter Gabe has with Judas Iscariot

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