Tyler Bennett trusts no one. Just another foster kid bounced from home to home, he’s learned that lesson the hard way. Cue world’s tiniest violin. But when strange things start happeningwaking up with bloody knuckles and no memory of the night before or the burner phone he can’t let out of his sightTyler starts to wonder if he can even trust himself.
Even stranger, the girl he’s falling for has a burner phone just like his. Finding out what’s really happening only leads to more questions…questions that could get them both killed. It’s not like someone’s kidnapping teens lost in the system and brainwashing them to be assassins or anything, right? And what happens to rogue assets who defy control?
In a race against the clock, they’ll have to uncover the truth behind Project Pandora and take it downbefore they’re reactivated. Good thing the program spent millions training them to kick ass...
The Assassin Fall series is best enjoyed in order.
Hades Rising (prequel novella)
Book #1 Project Pandora
Book #2 Project Prometheus
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About the Author
Aden Polydoros grew up in Long Grove, Illinois, and now lives in Arizona. He is a writer of young adult fiction. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys reading and going on hikes in the mountains. Aden Polydoros is a 2015 Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and has published two short stories in Best Arizona Teen Writing of 2015.
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CASE NOTES 1: APOLLO
Tyler Bennett stood in front of the white marble vanity, staring at the mirror — or rather, what was left of it.
A few large shards bristled like teeth from the frame. The rest of the broken glass was scattered across the counter among lipstick tubes, broken eye shadow palettes, and other cosmetics. A woman's arsenal.
The bathroom lamp gilded the objects with a soft golden light, while also seeming to bring them into sharp focus. A handgun lay in the center of the mess, drawing his gaze and trapping it.
Before he realized what he was doing, he picked up the pistol.
He couldn't recall having handled a gun before, but somehow he knew how to check the magazine. At full capacity, it held ten rounds. Seven were left. More than enough to finish the job.
What job? Like a stone dropped into a very deep well, the thought lasted only long enough to cause a ripple of unease. Then it was gone.
He clicked the magazine back into place. A distant horror seeped through him, a whispering knowledge that what he was about to do — and what he had done — wasn't just wrong. It was unforgivable. It was damning.
It was a feeling that had no place in his programming.
Looking down, he realized he was wearing clothes that weren't his. Black nylon gloves and a wrinkled outfit a size too big. The gloves were torn in places and beaded with blood. His jeans and shirt had also been splattered. Some of the blood was his own, oozing from tiny scratches on his knuckles. Most of it was not.
A black backpack was propped up against the toilet, the front pocket unzipped. Jewelry, camera gear, and crumpled cash bristled from the pouch. He recognized neither the backpack nor its contents, but he zipped it up and slung it over his shoulder.
He stepped into the master bedroom. Clothes had been ripped from drawers and thrown to the floor in wrinkled piles. An oil painting lay on the carpet, canvas split and frame broken. Holes were torn in the mattress and pillows, and upholstery fluff spewed from the seat of the armchair.
Rosy sunlight slanted through the plantation shutters and spilled across the floor. Feeling violently disoriented, victim to a nightmare, he swiveled around.
He noticed the alarm clock on the dresser: 9:45 a.m. He should have been at school.
He had been at school.
Tyler went into the hall. Even from the doorway, he could smell a nauseating stew of blood and gunpowder. His resolution wavered.
A woman lay on the floor, facedown. Her hair was red and her shirt, too, the fabric so saturated with blood that it appeared black. Without looking at her directly, he knew she had been shot twice in the back as she'd tried to flee. The third bullet had shattered her skull at point-blank range.
No, he thought, closing his eyes. No, I didn't do this. It wasn't me.
Sudden nausea overwhelmed him. His right hand jerked up, but, remembering the gun, he cupped his left hand over his mouth.
This was just a dream. Just a nightmare. Soon he would wake up, but first, he had to complete the job. Once he did, he would open his eyes and this would end.
He swallowed back the acidic bile.
"Pandora's box is opening," he whispered to himself, and that calmed him somewhat. He stepped over the body and continued down the corridor.
Framed news articles lined the walls. Vaguely, he wondered if his target might be a reporter or newsman. Then he pushed the questions from his head and thought about nothing at all.
In the kitchen, the air was sharp with the stench of burnt bread. Inky plumes poured from the toaster slots. Before the machine could set off the smoke alarm, he pulled the plug.
Tyler sat down at the wooden table and set the backpack next to him. He looked at the spread of food laid out on white china. Lox, onion and tomato slices, capers, a small dish of whipped cream cheese. Brunch for two, one bagel already split and assembled, two glasses of orange juice waiting to be sipped.
She had sat here and prepared her meal, and then she stood to answer the doorbell. Or perhaps she had already been standing. He didn't know. But he knew that when she had answered the door, he — no, not him. It wasn't him! He hadn't lifted the gun. Not him. He hadn't pointed it at her. He hadn't pulled the trigger.
His gaze fell to the gun. Like in a vision, he saw himself cock the hammer and put the pistol between his lips. He imagined the way the tip of the silencer would feel propped against his teeth and how the oily metal might taste. He thought about the sound it would make when he squeezed the trigger — then realized he wouldn't live long enough to hear the muted gunshot.
There were seven bullets left, but he would only need one. Just one bullet, one twitch of the trigger, and then it would be all over. No more. No more. No more.
Stinging tears blurred his vision as he set the gun on the place mat. He raised his palms to his face and watched them shudder. Even when he curled his fingers into fists, his hands continued to tremble, although more subtly.
"Pandora's box is opening," he repeated, finding comfort in those four words.
From somewhere at the front of the house, Tyler heard a door creak open. He thought about trapdoors dropping open beneath condemned men, the jerk of the noose. This would be an execution, too.
"Honey, I'm back," a man called out.
Please, don't do this.
Please, please ...
Tyler picked up the gun and cocked its hammer. He swiveled in his chair so that he faced the hall he knew the man would enter through. With his other hand, he wiped his eyes. His vision kept fogging up. A sob pressed against the roof of his mouth, but he swallowed it back. He must stay silent.
"Honey? Mary?" The man's voice was closer now, accompanied by hollow footsteps and the groan of floorboards, as though ascending the stairs of a hangman's scaffold. "Is that smoke I smell? Oh, please tell me you didn't forget about the toaster again ..." Go away, he thought. Please just go away.
The man who entered the kitchen was dressed in a tight fitness T-shirt, tennis shorts, and running shoes. A knit headband held back his graying hair. When he saw Tyler, his teasing smile vanished first into a confused gape and then the dazed-eyed shock of a deer caught in headlights.
"Where's Mary?" the man asked. "Who are you? What's going on? What — where is she?" His gaze swept from Tyler's face to his bloodied button-up to the gun that rested in his lap. "Oh my God."
"I'm sorry," Tyler said, lifting the pistol.
The man raised both hands, fingers spread in a placating gesture. His voice wavered as he spoke. "Kid, whatever you've just done, let's talk this over. There's no need to resort to violence. Just put down the gun, okay? Okay? Just put the gun down and —" "I'm so sorry," Tyler said, pulling the trigger.
There was a small popping sound like a wine bottle being uncorked. It seemed almost deafening, at least compared to the dull thud the man made as he hit the floor.
Tyler stood. He retrieved the shell casing from the floor and slipped it into his pocket, then walked over to the body. Stood there. Regarded it.
It was a clean headshot, but there could be no mistakes.
He pressed a finger to the man's throat to make sure he was dead. He couldn't find a pulse. Through his gloves, he felt the damp warmth of the man's skin. The warmth would fade, sweat would dry, blood would settle and coagulate. Rigor mortis would stiffen the limbs like hardening clay. All while the man's judgmental eyes remained open, one a gory hole, the other cursing him blindly from beyond the abyss. Lips parted as though to ask why. A question Tyler didn't have the answer for.
He wished he did. He wished he knew why. Why couldn't he stop crying, even though his hands had stopped shaking and the darkness was flowing in again and — Where was he? What was he doing? Oh, yes, the job. He must finish the job.
It was too late to stop now. Pandora's box had already opened, and the beast that came out could not be forced back in.
With the man's death confirmed, Tyler stowed the gun and shell casings in the backpack. He stripped out of his shirt and baggy jeans and stuffed the bloody clothes into the pack's outer pocket. From the main compartment, he retrieved his school clothes and changed into them.
He left through the front door. As he walked down the flagstone path, he peeled off his gloves and shoved them into his pocket. Without the cloth to obstruct his view, he saw that although the cuts had bled profusely, they were shallow. It was doubtful they would require stitches.
It was late morning, and there was little traffic in the upscale Maryland neighborhood that his victims called home. He had parked his car one block away. He encountered no one on his walk back and made it to the vehicle without incident.
Once he sat down inside the car, he pressed the callback button on his cell phone. It rang no more than two times before Zeus picked up.
"Olympus is rising," Zeus said.
"Pandora's box is opening," Tyler responded automatically.
Zeus was straight to the point. "Are you done, Apollo?"
"They're both taken care of? You made sure of it?"
"I checked," Tyler said. "They're both dead."
"And you made it look like a robbery? You took the jewelry and money?"
"Both. The cameras and computer stuff, too."
"Good boy," Zeus said. "Bring the bag back to the live drop. Hades will meet you there to retrieve it."
After Zeus disconnected, Tyler's motions became mechanical, and he ceased thinking for a while.
The shrill cry of a train whistle drew him back into reality, and he found himself in the parking lot of a Walmart, watching train cars shriek by on the railroad tracks across the street.
As the train passed, the rev of an engine replaced its piercing whistle, and a sleek black motorcycle pulled up alongside his car.
The rider climbed off his bike and sauntered over. His helmet covered his entire head. When Tyler stared into the mirrored visor, all he saw was his own face reflected back at him. The visor's curvature distorted Tyler's features in a way that troubled him, and he had the distinct impression that there was something wrong with his eyes.
The motorcyclist took off his helmet, revealing a pale, handsome face surrounded by a tangle of dark hair. The teenage boy offered him a warm smile and tapped on the window with a gloved hand.
Tyler rolled down the window.
"Hello, Apollo," the boy said pleasantly, like they were old friends.
He couldn't recall having met the boy before in his life but knew that he must have. He nodded in acknowledgment and said, "Hades."
"Where is it?"
"In the back."
Hades opened the back door of Tyler's car and sat down inside, directly behind the driver's seat.
Tyler kept his eyes on the windshield, listening to Hades unzip the bag and rifle through its contents. When he heard a metallic click like the cock of a hammer, his body tensed.
"Four bullets for two targets." Hades laughed. "Sloppy work, Apollo."
The tension eased out of Tyler's shoulders as he realized the other boy had removed the pistol's magazine.
"Are you going back to school after this?" Hades asked.
"Yes," Tyler said, watching him in the rearview mirror.
"I don't see the point in it," he said, returning the pistol and detached magazine to the bag. "We have no future, you know."
Tyler didn't respond.
Hades dug through the pouch and took out a wad of cash. He leafed through the money, dropped half of it back into the bag, and put the rest into one of his jacket pockets.
"Did you enjoy it?" he asked, zipping up the backpack. "Taking care of the enemy?"
"It was necessary."
A ghost of a smile touched his lips. "Did they suffer?"
"I don't know," Tyler mumbled.
"Don't look so troubled," he said, meeting Tyler's gaze in the mirror. His eyes were as blue as gas flames and seemed to smolder with the same devouring heat. "None of it's real anyway. Everything's a lie."
Hades opened the door, then paused. In the rearview mirror, Tyler saw him lean down and remove something from the backseat. Paper crinkled, and his smile faded into a strange expression Tyler had no name for.
"Elizabeth Hawthorne," Hades said, then chuckled to himself. "Is this today's paper?"
"I think so," Tyler said. He had a vague recollection of picking up the newspaper at the end of the driveway when he had left for school that morning, but it felt like a distant dream. Something that had happened in another life.
"I'm taking this." Hades stuffed the newspaper into the backpack. He got out of the car and put on his helmet. "Good-bye, Apollo."
Hades shut the car door and returned to his motorcycle. He glanced back at Tyler once, then he was gone.
Tyler sat there long after Hades had left, staring at the barren lot on the other side of the railroad tracks.
As the minutes passed, the memory of what he had done dissipated from his mind like so much smoke. In time, there was nothing left.
CASE NOTES 2: PERSEPHONE
Beautiful. Elegant. Composed. Intelligent. Soft-spoken.
Those were just some of the many virtues expected of a state senator's daughter, and Elizabeth Hawthorne had them down pat. She knew when to open her mouth. She knew when to keep it closed. If asked about her father's political agenda, she would either number off a list of practical points or smile and act like a meek, trusting thing.
She despised it completely.
Unfortunately, one part of saving face was entertaining old perverts like the one standing before her, ogling her chest.
Thin and stooped over, bald save for the thick tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears and nose, the letch examined her carefully, as if she were one of his prize racehorses. "You're really growing up, aren't you? Why, the last time I saw you, you were just a tiny, little thing." He raised his hand to his waist level, uncomfortably close to his crotch. "You were only this big."
"Thank you." She was glad that she had no memory of the encounter. She had no doubt it would have scarred her for life. Post-traumatic amnesia was good for one thing at least.
Taking her stiff smile as an invitation to continue, the man began to ramble on about the sorry state of America. Apparently everyone was to blame but himself.
You can at least look at my face while you talk, she thought, resisting the impulse to cross her arms over her chest. Although her silver gown was one of the more modest outfits at the fundraising banquet, she felt bare under the old geezer's eyes.
"And don't get me started on those liberals in Hollywood!" he wheezed. She couldn't remember his name, but she knew he was a CEO of some company or another. He brought it up almost as often as he mentioned his yacht, as if he thought that would impress her.
Oh, please, just kill me now, she thought, smiling and nodding, polite as always.
As the old man ranted, he leaned in closer to her. His breath reeked of gingivitis and brandy, and his gaze never went above her bra line.
He paused halfway through the conversation to compliment her, as if her appearance had anything to do with the liberal agenda. "Has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful hair, dear? Most people don't have hair that light, at least not naturally."
She resisted the urge to groan aloud. If she wasn't being complimented on her flaxen hair, it was her blue eyes, or her skin, or her smile, when she knew the speaker was only interested in what lay beneath her silk gown.
"What I can't stand is people who dye their hair," the old man said, lifting his caterpillar eyebrows at her. "It's such a disappointment when the drapes don't match the carpet, if you catch my drift."
With some difficulty, she managed not to projectile vomit in his face, therefore saving the other guests the trouble of calling an exorcist. Once she thought it polite to do so, she took a step back, only to bump into something hard and unmoving. A hand closed around her shoulder, steadying her.
"Careful," said a low, rolling voice, rich with amusement.
"Pardon me." She turned to face the man who the hand belonged to — and froze at the sight of him.
The stranger was not a man at all but a teen who looked no older than her seventeen years. The boy's face could have belonged to any one of the angels adorning the frescoed ceiling above, if not for his sharp cheekbones and strong jaw. Those feral touches in his skull's architecture, combined with his ink-black hair, made him seem better suited for the role of Lucifer, post-fall.
Excerpted from "Project Pandora"
Copyright © 2017 Aden Polydoros.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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