If there’s a Hell on Earth, it’s high school. And if there’s anyone distinctly qualified to make that statement, it would be me. I draw a deep breath—mostly out of habit since demons don’t have to breathe—then look up at the threatening sky, hoping it’s a good omen, and pull open the heavy security door. The dingy halls are quiet since the first bell rang almost five minutes ago. It’s just me, the metal detector, and a hunched wisp of a security guard in a rumpled blue uniform. He hauls himself out of his cracked plastic chair, looks me over, and scowls.
“You’re late. ID,” he says in a three-pack-a-day rasp.
I stare him down for a few seconds, sure I could blow him over with a whisper, and I can’t suppress a smile when beads of sweat sprout on his pasty forehead. I’m glad to see I’ve still got the touch even though I’m getting really sick of this job. Five millennia in the same gig will do that to a demon. For this trip, though, the fact that failure will result in dismemberment and the Fiery Pit is all the motivation I need.
“New,” I say.
“Put your bag on the table.”
I shrug, showing him my hands. No bag.
“Give me your belt. Studs’ll set off the detector.”
I pull off my belt and toss it at the old man as I walk through the metal detector. He hands it back and hacks, “Go straight to the office.”
“No problem,” I say, already walking away.
I slide my belt back on and push through the office door. It bangs sharply off the cracked wall and the ancient receptionist looks up, startled. “Can I help you?”
The office is just as drab and poorly lit as the halls except for the brightly colored notices that cover every inch of plaster like psychedelic wallpaper. There’s a nameplate declaring the receptionist is Marian Seagrave, and I swear I can hear her joints creak as she pulls herself out of her chair. She’s got more wrinkles than a shar-pei and the requisite short, blue, curly hair of all hundred-year-old women. Her round body is clad in the uniform of the ancients: turquoise polyester slacks and a matching floral blouse neatly tucked in.
I meander up to the counter and lean toward her. “Luc Cain. First day,” I say, flashing my winning smile—the one that always keeps mortals just a little off balance.
She stares for just a second before finding her voice. “Oh . . . welcome to Haden High, Luc. Let me pull up your schedule.”
She bangs on her computer keyboard and the printer buzzes to life. It spits out my schedule—the same schedule I’ve had for the last hundred years, since the advent of the modern education system. I do my best to feign interest as she hands it to me and says, “Here it is, and your locker number and combination too. You’ll need to collect an admit slip from each of your teachers and bring it back here at the end of the day. You’ve already missed homeroom, so you should go right to your first class. Let’s see . . . yes, senior English with Mr. Snyder. Room 616. That’s in building six, just out the door to the right.”
“Will do,” I say, smiling. It won’t hurt to stay on administration’s good side. You never know when they might be useful.
The bell rings as I make my way out the door into the now bustling halls, and the scents of the sea of teenage humanity hit me in waves. There’s the tangy citrus of fear, the bitter garlic of hate, the anise of envy, and ginger—lust. Lots of potential.
I work in Acquisitions, but it isn’t usually my job to tag them, just to sow the seeds and start them down the fiery path. I get them going on the little ones. Starter sins, if you will. Not enough to tag their souls for Hell, but enough to send them in our direction eventually. I don’t even need to use my power . . . not that I’d feel guilty if I did. Guilt isn’t in the demonic repertoire of emotions. It just feels more honest when they come to sin of their own volition. Again, not that I care about being honest. It’s just too easy the other way.
In truth, the rules are clear. Unless their souls are tagged, we can’t force mortals to do anything out of character or manipulate their actions in any way. For the most part, all I can do with my power is cloud their thoughts, blur the line between right and wrong just a little. Anyone who says the devil made them do it is feeding you a line.
I stroll the hall, taking in the scents of teenage sin, so thick in the air I can taste them. All six of my senses buzz with anticipation. Because this trip is different. I’m here for one soul in particular and, as I make my way toward building 6, a crackle of red-hot energy courses through me—a good sign. I take my time, walking slowly through the throng and scoping out prospects, and am the last to arrive in class, just at the bell.
Room 616 is no brighter than the rest of the school, but at least an attempt has been made at decorating. Prints of Shakespeare’s plays—only the tragedies, I notice—grace the walls. The desks are grouped in twos and are nearly full. I walk up the center aisle to Mr. Snyder’s desk, holding out my schedule. He turns his slender face toward me, glasses perched just at the tip of his long, straight nose.
“Luc Cain. I need an admit slip . . . or something?” I say.
“Cain . . . Cain . . .” He rakes a hand through his thinning gray hair and scans down his class roster, finding my name. “Here you are.” He hands me a yellow admit slip, a composition book, and a copy of The Grapes of Wrath and looks at his roster again. “Okay, you’ll be seated between Mr. Butler and Miss Cavanaugh.” Then he stands, pushing up his glasses and smoothing the unsmoothable creases in his white button-down and khakis. “All right, class,” he announces. “We’re shifting seats. Everyone from Miss Cavanaugh up will shift one seat to your right. You’ll all have a new essay partner for the rest of the semester.”
Many of the good little lemmings grumble, but they all do as they’re told. I sit in the seat Mr. Snyder motions to, between Mr. Butler—a tall, skinny kid with glasses, bad skin, and obvious self-esteem issues—and Miss Cavanaugh, whose sapphire-blue eyes stare straight into mine. No self-esteem issues there. I feel the play of hot electricity under my skin as I stare back, sizing her up. And her size is definitely petite, with wavy, sandy-blond hair that she’s tied in a knot at the base of her neck, fair skin, and fire. A definite prospect. Our desks are grouped together, so it looks like I’ll have plenty of opportunity to feel her . . . out.
Okay, so I’m not generally the swooning type, but Holy Mother of God, I can’t believe what just walked into my English class. Tall, dark, and sorta dangerous. Mmm . . . nothing like a little eye candy in the morning to get the day off to a sweet start—and possibly rot my brain. And, bonus. Apparently we’re gonna be essay partners, ’cause obsessive-compulsive Mr. Snyder is having me move down a seat to make room for him. God forbid we should ever be out of alphabetical order.
My eyes work slowly over his black T-shirt and jeans, not to mention the body underneath—very nice—as he saunters over and sits to my left. He folds his tall frame into the attached desk and chair with the grace of a sly black cat, and I swear the temperature in here just shot up ten degrees. The dim classroom lights glint faintly off the three steel bars piercing the outside corner of his right eyebrow as he stares at me through silky black bangs with the blackest eyes I’ve ever seen.
Mr. Snyder paces the front of the room for a moment, taking silent roll, then says, “Pull out your composition books and The Grapes of Wrath. Since Mr. Steinbeck was unable to find a convenient place for a chapter break in the seventy-one pages of chapter twenty-six, you’ll recall we arbitrarily imposed one at the end of page 529. Today, we’ll be reading the rest of the chapter in class and outlining Steinbeck’s major points.”
Mystery Boy looks away, finally, and I feel like I’ve been ransacked—but not in a bad way, if that makes any sense. I feel like he just checked me out from the inside out and maybe kinda liked what he saw.
“Miss Cavanaugh, care to join us?”
Mr. Snyder’s voice is like a bucket of cold water to my face—which I probably needed, ’cause things were getting kinda steamy inside. “Um . . . what?”
“Nice write-up in the Boston Globe yesterday. I think they captured the essence of your program nicely. I especially liked the picture,” he says with a smile. “Will you start the reading off, please? Page 530.”
I look around and everyone has their books open, even Mystery Boy. Mine’s still in my book bag. So, I’m also not usually the blushing type, but I feel my cheeks burn as I pull it out, flip it open, and start reading. My mouth articulates Steinbeck’s description of the preacher Casy’s death at the hands of a pick-handle-wielding stranger as his friend, Tom, looks on. But my mind only vaguely registers any of it, ’cause I’m keenly aware of Mystery Boy, sitting only a foot away, staring at me. I stumble on the words when he leans closer and I catch a hint of cinnamon. Mmm . . .
Mr. Snyder comes to my rescue. “Thank you, Miss Cavanaugh.” His eyes scan the room.
Pick Mystery Boy.
He smiles at me, then his gaze shifts to Mystery Boy. “Mr. Cain, will you continue please.”
Mystery Boy’s still looking at me, a wry smile just turning up the corners of his lips. “Certainly,” he says, and his voice sounds like warm honey, smooth and sticky-sweet, as he starts reading. But his eyes don’t shift from mine to the book right away. “Tom looked down at the preacher. The light crossed the heavy man’s legs and the white new pick handle. Tom leaped silently. He wrenched the club free. The first time he knew he had missed and struck a shoulder, but the second time his crushing blow found the head, and as the heavy man sank down, three more blows found his head . . .”
He seems like he’s enjoying the gruesome passage. Savoring it, really. Mr. Snyder closes his eyes and looks as though he’s meditating. He lets Mystery Boy read through the end of the chapter, which is much longer than anyone else has read all year. I glance around the room and everyone—even tough guy, smart-ass Marshal Johnson—seems hypnotized.
“Would you like me to continue to chapter twenty-seven, Mr. Snyder?” Mystery Boy asks, and Mr. Snyder snaps abruptly out of his trance.
“Oh . . . no. Thank you, Mr. Cain. That will be sufficient. Beautifully done. All right, class, the chapter outline on Mr. Steinbeck’s major themes in the second half of chapter twenty-six is to be finished before class tomorrow morning. You have the rest of the period to work.”
Mystery Boy turns toward me, closing his book, and I get caught in his eyes for a second. “So, Miss Cavanaugh, do you have a first name?”
“It’s good to meet you. That was a nice little trick.”
“What?” His eyes flash as a beautifully wicked grin spreads across his face.
“Reading without looking at the book.”
He shifts back in his seat, and his grin falters slightly. “You’re mistaken.”
“No, actually, I’m not. You didn’t even glance at the book till you were on the second sentence, and you were behind turning the pages. Why would you memorize Steinbeck?”
“I haven’t.” He’s such a liar, but before I can call him on it, he changes the subject. “Why a Globe article?”
“It’s no big deal. Just a thing where we send letters to kids in Pakistan. Kind of like pen pals, I guess. Mostly, it’s a way of helping us understand each other . . . you know, our cultures and stuff.”
There’s a cynical edge to his expression. “Really.”
“You want a name?” I shuffle through my bag and come out with a folder. “I have a few more.”
“Let me think about it. I’m assuming we’re essay partners, whatever that means?”
“Guess so.” Despite the freaky reading-without-looking thing, I’m not about to complain. He’s definitely a step or twenty up from Aaron Daly, who has taken his bad sinuses across the aisle and is now sniffling all over Jenna Davis’s composition book instead of mine. “We’re supposed to discuss the reading and come up with a chapter outline with all the major points. Mr. Snyder’s big into discussing things,” I say, rolling my eyes. That’s all for show, though, ’cause I’m seriously into discussing things with Mystery Boy. “So . . . what do you think of Tom’s conundrum?”
I write “Frannie and Luke—Chapter 26-2 outline” on the top of an empty page in my composition book.
He raises an eyebrow, slides my pen out from between my fingers, crosses out “Luke,” and writes “Luc” above it.
I watch her write “Frannie and Luke 26-2 outline” in her composition book, and for some reason it really bothers me that she spelled my name wrong. I fix it before answering her. “I think he made some choices that he’s now got to pay the consequences for.” One of which is eternity burning in the Abyss.
She looks at me, all incredulity. “Just that simple, huh? No extenuating circumstances. No second chances?”
“Nope. Don’t believe in second chances.” The Underworld’s not big on that concept.
She shifts back in her chair and folds her arms across her chest, scrutinizing me. “You’ve never made a mistake? Done something you were sorry for?”
“Everybody has something they wish they could undo.”
I lean toward her and gaze into those sapphire eyes. “What do you wish you could undo, Frannie?”
She shudders when I say her name, and I realize I’m being unfair. I pushed a little power at her without really meaning or needing to. But I like the reaction.
When she replies there’s more than a hint of pain in her tone, and the faint scent of rose—sadness. I search deep in those eyes to find the root of it. “Lots of things,” she says without breaking her gaze.
For some reason, out of the blue, I don’t want her to hurt. I feel Hell-bent on making her happy. Just the tiniest push is all it would take . . .
Stop it. Where the Hell did that come from? I don’t even recognize the sensation that passed with that thought. Demons don’t have feelings. Not like that, anyway. This isn’t a charity mission . . . I’m here for a clear purpose, and Miss Frannie Cavanaugh is showing promise. Lots of promise. As a matter of fact, I’m starting to hope she’s The One. And as the bell rings I realize, to my own astonishment, that it’s her eyes holding me locked here instead of the other way around. This is going to be interesting.
She blinks as if startled from a dream and looks down at her empty composition book. “So . . . I guess we didn’t get too far.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” I push my book across the desk.
She reads the ten bullet points listed there in block print under the heading “Frannie Cavanaugh and Luc Cain, Steinbeck’s Themes—Chapter 26-2” and scowls.
“Oh . . . well, I guess these look okay.” Incredulous again. She’s fiery for sure. I like a little fire. Makes me feel at home. “Have you found your locker yet in this rat maze?” she says, throwing her books into her book bag and standing.
“Haven’t looked for it.” I hold up my only possessions: my composition book and The Grapes of Wrath.
“Well, it’ll only get worse, so unless you wanna lug all your stuff around with you, I could help you find it.”
I pull the slip of paper with the locker number and combo on it out of my back pocket as we walk together to the door. “Number . . . hmm.” I smile. The mortal world is so droll sometimes.
“666,” I say, and she looks at me funny.
“Oh. That’s right there.” She points across the hall. “Right next to mine.”
And even though I know fate is a crock—nothing but an excuse for mortals to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make—this is a sign. I look at her more closely. If she’s The One, which is starting to look more likely, I need to tag her soul for Hell before some filthy angel beats me to it. Which roughly translates into now. Because the fact that she’s been so difficult to locate probably means she’s being Shielded by them. If they’re Shielding her, they’re watching her. It won’t be long before they know I’ve found her. I scan the crowded hall. So many prospects, but no angels—so far.
She starts across the hall to her locker and I hang back to admire the view for a few seconds before following her. She is petite—maybe five-two. Nearly a foot shorter than my human form. But she’s no little girl. There are curves in all the right places.
I laugh at myself. Although lust is one of the seven deadly sins, it’s not the one that got me where I am and not something I’ve experienced often in the seven millennia I’ve existed—though I’ve used it to my advantage a few thousand times. This is going to be fun.
I stride across the hall and catch her just as she reaches her locker. I spin the lock on mine a few times, and it springs open.
“How’d you do that?” she asks, like she could possibly know I used my power.
“I had that locker at the beginning of the year and switched ’cause the lock was broken.”
“Hmm. They must have fixed it.” I’ll need to be more careful. This mortal is extraordinarily observant. I slipped up in class by not keeping my eyes on the book—which she’d noticed because her eyes weren’t on the book either. And again with the locker, because as I try the real combination, I find she’s right: it is indeed broken.
She looks skeptical. “Yeah, I guess, except they never fix anything around here. Welcome to Hades High.”
What the Hell? “Excuse me? Hades High?”
“Yeah, get it? Haden High—Hades High. It’s just one letter, but it so much more accurately describes this hellhole.”
“Well, wouldn’t you agree?” She gestures to the cracking plaster, peeling paint, burned-out lightbulbs, gouged gray linoleum, and dented gray metal lockers surrounding us.
“Well, it looks like I’ve chosen just the place, then.” A grin stretches my face. How perfect is it that my target goes to a high school nicknamed Hell? This is too rich.
She looks away and reaches into her locker, but she can’t hide the smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “If your ‘just the place’ is this crappy, washed-up fishing town, then you’re more pathetic than I would have guessed.”
I laugh—I can’t help it—and then shudder when I catch a hint of Frannie’s ginger. Mmm . . . pathetic must be her type.
“How come you had to change schools a month before graduation?”
I smile inwardly. “Business.”
“Your father’s?” she presses.
“In a manner of speaking.”
She looks at me and her brow furrows as she tries to figure out what that means. Then she pushes her locker shut with a crash. “So . . . what’s your next class?”
I pull my schedule out of my back pocket and shake it open. “Looks like calculus, room 317.”
“Oooh, you have Mrs. Felch. Sooo sorry.”
“Why? What’s the deal with Mrs. Felch?”
Just then the bell rings. She cringes. “First, you get detention if you’re not in your seat at the bell—so, sorry—and, second, she bites.”
“Mmm. We’ll see about that.” I kick my locker shut and turn to head to building 3—and don’t try to hide the smile that pulls at my lips as her eyes burn a hole through my back the whole way down the hall. A good start.
Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Desrochers
All rights reserved.