Darius Logan ran for his life. And more than almost anything else, he hated running. His pounding heart drowned out all other sound. Fire filled his lungs. Every muscle felt like it was being torn apart. But the cop chasing after him—barely a block behind and gaining fast—kept him running as if his life depended on it, which it did.
His mind raced almost as fast his legs. He had to get away, even though he didn’t know where to get away to. Darius had no real friends. No family. Nowhere to run. He kept running anyway, dashing across a street that cut through the decaying rubble of dead neighborhoods called No Man’s Land.
Darius made it to the other side of the street, ran to the end of the block, and turned the corner. A side street stretched out before him, lined on both sides with four and five-story apartment buildings. People used to live in these buildings. That was before The Attack.
No one lived this far into No Man’s Land. This far in the buildings were just burned-out shells. Block after block of giant tombstones, marking the graves of entire neighborhoods that had been dead for years. And everywhere it stunk of death and decay, an overwhelming smell—like boiled garbage left out to rot—made worse by the humid night air. Darius breathed deep through his mouth, trying to catch his breath, certain he could actually taste the stench.
One of the areas hit hardest during The Attack, and almost eight years later, nothing had been done to rebuild. And so No Man’s Land continued to crumble and stink and fester, and the only sign of life was a desperate black kid who hated running being chased by a cop.
None of the streetlights on the block worked anymore and clouds partially obscured the crescent moon, making it difficult to see. The nighttime shadows cast by the empty buildings stretched out like the bony fingers of a Grim Reaper come to claim all light.
Darius thought for a moment about turning around to see if the cop chasing him was any closer. But he couldn’t risk slowing down, not even to look over his shoulder. Probably can’t see anything in the dark anyway, he thought as he kept running.
Halfway down the block, Darius couldn’t go anymore. A terrible pain stabbed at his side—like a hot knife jammed deep into his ribs. Gotta stop and catch my breath—just for a minute.
Up ahead he saw a narrow alley running between two of the decaying buildings. Alleys like this cut through much of No Man’s Land, and Darius spent most of his youth avoiding them. There were too many unknown dangers hiding in the narrow paths. Some of those dangers might still be hiding—a desperate junkie willing to rob anyone to get a fix. Or maybe one of those crazy street people who ate roaches and rats when there was nothing to be found in the garbage. Worse, there might be some of those giant rats that ate people when there was nothing to be found in the garbage.
Darius thought about all of the things that might be waiting in the alley. Nothing he thought of mattered. Nothing changed the fact that a stabbing pain tore at his sides while a cop practically breathed down his neck. He needed to stop. He needed to catch his breath.
Darius stood about fifteen feet back in the alley—far enough away that someone running past wouldn’t see him, but not so far back that he couldn’t see the dark street he had just turned off of. He worried the cop would hear him panting like a dog. A wave of nausea overtook him as he breathed in the putrid air in the alley—someone or something had recently used it as a toilet. The stench overwhelmed Darius. He fought to keep from vomiting while at the same time trying to figure out how he had messed up so bad.
Ten minutes earlier, Darius had been in an abandoned parking garage, doing something he knew he shouldn’t be doing with three other guys. He barely knew Karlito, the one who talked him into what quickly proved to be a mistake. The other two, Mickey and some guy they called Bay-Bay, he knew even less. That didn’t stop Darius from tagging along when Karlito asked him if he wanted to make some money.
By nature, Darius didn’t talk much. Over the years, as he drifted in and out of foster homes, juvenile detention, and the shelters that housed people like him, he learned that most people really didn’t listen to what he had to say, so he didn’t say much.
Karlito, by comparison, never stopped talking. “I’m a man of a million ideas,” he would say. And even though most of Karlito’s ideas were bad, Darius didn’t say anything. He should have. But he didn’t.
Karlito’s latest get-rich-quick scheme involved selling Adrenaccelerate—better known as eXXeLL—in an abandoned parking lot deep in the heart of No Man’s Land. On the streets a single dose of eXXeLL fetched more money than five times the same amount of cocaine. Of course, as far as illegal drugs went, possession of Adrenaccelerate with intent to sell was a violation of Homeland Security and a federal offense.
“Cops ain’t gonna mess with us in No Man’s Land. Besides, it ain’t like we’re the Masters of D.E.A.T.H. or Doc Kaos,” said Karlito—like he knew what he was talking about.
From the beginning, the plan didn’t sound that well thought out. The presence of Mickey just made everything worse. Mickey was so stupid Darius wondered if he had been dropped on his head as a child.
“That boy is so ignorant, stupid must be in his bones,” is what Darius’s mother would have said about Mickey, if she were alive. At the same time, if his mother had been alive, chances were pretty good Darius would never have found himself in the sort of circumstances that brought guys like Karlito, Mickey and Bay-Bay into his life.
When the cops yelled, “Freeze! You’re all under arrest!” it took Darius a split second longer than the others to realize that he should run. The others bolted like roaches when the lights are turned on, leaving Darius holding the bag, literally. Karlito thought it would be a good idea. “You the youngest,” Karlito said. “Something goes wrong, you a minor.”
It can’t go much more wrong than this, Darius thought, hiding in the foul-smelling alley, gasping for air.
The doses of eXXeLL Karlito stuffed into Darius’s backpack made being a minor irrelevant. The way Darius figured it, he had enough Adrenaccelerate in his backpack to send him away for life. And with two strikes already against him, Darius would be screwed if he got caught. Which is why he ran for his life.
The sound of feet pounding the pavement of the darkened street caught Darius’s attention. With nothing else making noise for blocks and blocks, the police officer’s running footsteps thundered like rapidly approaching cannon fire. Darius half expected the ground to shake. And just like that, the cop ran past the alley, never breaking his stride.
Darius took off toward the far end of the alley, stopping where it opened up on to the block running parallel to the one he’d just been on. More darkness greeted him. Burned-out streetlights helped hide abandoned and crumbling buildings. He stood in the opening of the alley, looking both ways, trying to figure out what to do, when it suddenly occurred to him. I still have the eXXeLL on me. In all of the confusion and running, he forgot to ditch it.
Still fighting to catch his breath, he struggled to get his arms free of the straps, and just as he was about to drop the backpack, Darius heard a voice behind him.
The single word seemed to bounce off the walls on either side of the alley.