“Have you got the package?”
With a curt nod, I glance over my shoulders and slip a brown package out of the inside pocket of my jacket, taking care not to rip the cheap, paper wrapping. The faint sound of car horns and traffic come from the entrance to the dingy alleyway but my focus is trained on the package. Travis McGuire’s tattooed hand shoots out, snatching it from my slim fingers and I watch him dig a knife along the opening, creating a long gash. Hundred dollar bills peek out of the slit, stained orange by the slanting sunlight that showers us in a buzzing warmth.
I shield my eyes from the sun’s glare. “That’s the last of the money,” I say, making sure to keep my voice deep. I itch my wig as I glance over my shoulder again. “So am I in or not?”
Two cops have been following me since I left the bank to make the final transaction but I lost them an hour ago. Still, it makes me nervous that they could’ve busted the biggest drug deal in our town. I’d be sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment without a trial – simply because I’m not a Westsider, simply because I come from the poorest sector in the city.
Onyx eyes regard me carefully, skimming my low slung jeans and the layers of hoodies I threw on to make it seem like I’m not just another scrawny scum from Lowerside. They’re calculating; chilling enough to send goosebumps rippling up and down my arms in a frenzy. Fear yawns open in my stomach and I clench my fists to hold myself together because every fibre of my body is quaking.
“A lot of kids have tried to join my gang.” Travis’ lips curl into a sinister smile. “What makes you so different?”
I gulp nervously and eye the bulge in his pocket. He shoves the package into his duffle bag and tosses it to the ground before turning back to me. Cold shivers snake up my spine until my brain freezes, a slab of ice, unable to form a coherent thought.
“D-dude,” I stammer. He raises an eyebrow and I clear my throat, forcing the deep voice I’ve somehow perfected over the past year. “I’m giving you all the money without taking a single cent for myself.” I shove my fists into my pockets to hide my trembling hands. “I’m not interested in the money at all.”
“Then what are you interested in, kid? There has to be some kind of catch. Protection?”
Travis takes a step forward and cocks his head to the side. A chilling smirk tugs his thin lips upwards and I catch a glimpse of another tattoo peeking from the base of his throat. It curls around his neck, navy blue fingers that are bright with streaks of red and yellow. It’s a rose, a thorny rose – beautiful and deadly, just like him.
“Look, bro. I can help you take down the Nefarious,” I spit out pathetically, albeit his dark eyes sparkle with interest and thankfully that buys me a few seconds to think things through.
I could escape. I should escape. I’m a head shorter. I can easily dart under his arms if he lunges for me. I can make a run for it. But that’s not an option, not when I spent a year grovelling and cheating kids my own age just to win Travis’ trust. I need him more than he needs me; but he doesn’t know that yet. To him, I’m just another loose thread that he needs to tie up. To him, I’m just another liability.
“I can help you destroy the Nefarious,” I repeat, this time holding his gaze.
As expected, he throws his head back and laughs. “Now that’s a new one I’ve never heard before.”
“I’m serious! I can hack into their database and track them down–”
He whips a gun out of his pocket and my eyes bulge out of their sockets. My words are ash, tasteless and gritty. I’m shitting bricks but I’m not surprised. I knew this would happen; I just hoped he’d be merciful enough to let me walk away without a bullet wound.
“W-what are you doing?” I stammer, gasping when he closes the space between us and backs me into the alleyway wall.
“Prove to me, right now, why I shouldn’t kill you,” he replies coolly, pressing the cold barrel between my eyes.
I bite my tongue, willing the metallic, coppery taste of blood to chase away my mind-numbing terror. I need a plan. I need one, fast.
“Good question,” I breathe, letting out a raspy chuckle which makes him press the gun harder into my skin.
Wincing, I purse my lips into a white line and hold his empty, soulless eyes. Why shouldn’t he kill me? I’m just a scum from the sketchy part of the city, infested with a criminal record and an escapee from a juvenile detention centre – a female juvenile detention centre. I’m not a ruthless gangster. I don’t have what it takes to be one of them – one of the Renegades. They’re agile, merciless, cunning, vicious, six foot, muscled men oozing with masculinity that I don’t have. I don’t have a damn ballsack between my legs and that’s a fundamental aspect about all the Renegades.
Travis takes the safety off the gun and curls his forefinger around the trigger. With a deep breath, I crane my head to the blood-orange sky and mumble a quick prayer. Two invisible hands wrench my stomach as a dry sob heaves through me. Travis isn’t moved by my obvious terror, instead he’s amused.
Glimpses of the sunset catch my attention, and I drink in the hues of peaches, pinks and purples before closing my eyes for what Travis thinks is the last time. I can’t stop shaking, even my bottom lip is quivering. He chuckles, assuming that I’m preparing myself for an inevitable death but I knew this was going to happen. Travis knew this was going to happen, too.
Travis pats my shoulder, a reassurance. “Nice doing business with you, kiddo.”
The hands in my stomach squeeze harder. Pull and release, pull and release. My eyelids crack open and travel along Travis’ hand to the gun pressed to my temple. Pull and release. Just as the gun is fired, my knee jerks up and slams into his crotch. The gun slips from my brow and the bullet skims past my ear, grazing the soft skin like a vicious scratch. A flash of pain is followed by a sharp intake of air. I double over, clamping a hand over my ear as my head starts ringing. Dark spots dance across my vision as if I’ve been staring directly into the sun, and then everything stills.
There’s no time to think, no time to rehearse, only time to act. My arm bulldozes forward and a balled fist crunches Travis’ nose, cracking the point of contact hard enough to make him gurgle a scream. In the span of three seconds, I’ve kicked him to the ground and straddled his throat, pinning his arms behind his back.
Reaching for the discarded gun, I position a finger on the trigger and aim it up his left nostril. Mirroring his amused, vicious smile, I lean forward and meet his gaze with blank eyes. I breathe a light chuckle, ignoring the flashing, throbbing, piercing pain that cuts through my left ear. Quirking up an eyebrow, I cock my head to the side. My smile stretches wider.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t blow your fucking brains out?”
I’m unnerved when he bursts out laughing. A hearty guffaw heaves through him and echoes for miles while I sit still, perched on his shoulders, rigid as a pole. Blood trickles from his nostrils and soaks his scruffy, week-old beard yet his shoulders shake as if I’ve just dropped the joke of the century.
“What’s so funny, asshole?” I ask, digging the gun’s nozzle further up his nose.
He flinches but the laughter continues to come in crashing waves, hysterical and chilling. I frown deeply, losing my concentration and relaxing the death grip I have on the gun. He jerks his chin, gesturing for me to get off him.
“Seriously, dude?” I mutter, irritated that he’s bossing me around even when I’m the one holding the gun.
He nods and I narrow my eyes before huffing and effortlessly getting to my feet. Reluctantly, I hold a hand out to Travis and help him to up before handing him a wrinkled tissue from my pocket. With a wince, he dabs his bloodied nose and flashes me a toothy grin that leaves me unsettled. He extends a hand out and I stare at it, bemused by his sudden change of heart when he just tried to paint the dingy alleyway with my brains. He pulls me into a manly hug and pats my back.
“You’ve got a good set of balls on you. I’ll give you that, kid.”
He swipes a sleeve across his nose and winces, still grinning. I don’t have balls, I want to say but I don’t want a bullet wound between my eyes so I return the gun to him – handle first, of course. He pockets it quickly and swipes the back of his hand across his bloodied nose one last time.
And then he looks at me – really looks at me. I panic. His eyes are almost black; a thrilling, chilling, unwilling colour that bores into mine until my entire body stiffens, harder than a slab of stone. I can’t move, and I can’t breathe; I can only look back. I’m caged in Medusa’s glare. We stare at each other. He studies my face and I begin to squirm uncomfortably until a tattooed, calloused hand reaches out.
I take it.
“Welcome, Alex Hayes,” he says with a slow grin, squeezing my fingers in an iron-clad grip. A chill ripples through me – euphoric. “Welcome to the Renegades.”