IF I STOPPED RUNNING I was dead.
My lungs were on fire, my heart pumping acid, every muscle in my body threatening to cramp. I couldn’t even see where I was going anymore, my vision fading as my body prepared to give in. If the siren hadn’t been hammering at my eardrums, then I’d have been able to hear my breaths, ragged and desperate, unable to pull in enough air to keep me going.
Just one more flight of stairs, one more and I might make it.
I forced myself to run faster, the metal staircase rattling beneath my clumsy steps. Everywhere around me other kids were panicking, all bolting the same way, to safety. I didn’t look back to see what was behind us. I didn’t need to. I could picture it in my head, its demonic muzzle, silver eyes, and those teeth—like razor wire.
Someone grabbed my arm, pulling me back. I lost my balance, spilling over the railing. For a second the yard appeared five stories beneath me and I almost let myself go. Better this way than to be devoured, right? Then the beast shrieked through its wet throat and I started running again before I even knew I was doing it.
I heard the rattle of the cell doors, knew they were closing. If I was caught out here, then I was history. I leaped up the last few steps, hurtling down the narrow landing. The inmates jeered from their cells, shouting for me to die. They stuck out their arms and legs to trip me, and it almost worked. I staggered, lurched forward, falling.
Somehow I made it, swinging through the door an instant before it slammed shut, the mechanism locking tight. The creature howled, a banshee’s wail that made my skin crawl. I risked looking back through the bars, saw its huge bulk bounding past my cell, no skin to hide its grotesque muscles. There was a scream as it found another victim, but it didn’t matter. I was safe.
“That was close,” said a voice behind me. “You’re getting good at this.”
I didn’t answer, just stared out across the prison. Six stories of cells beneath me and God only knew how many more above my head, all buried deep underground. I felt like the weight of the world was pressing down on me, like I’d been buried alive, and the panic began to set in. I closed my eyes, sucking in as much of the hot, stale air as I could, trying to picture the outside world, the sun, the ocean, my family.
All things I would never see again.
“Yup,” came the voice, my cellmate. “Bet it’s starting to feel like home already.”
I opened my eyes and the prison was still there. Furnace Penitentiary. The place they send you to forget about you, to punish you for your crimes, even when you didn’t commit them. Only one way in and no way out. Yeah, this was my home now, it would be until I died.
That wouldn’t be long. Not with the gangs that eyeballed me from behind their bars. Not with the blacksuits, the guards who ran their shotguns along the railings as they checked the cells. Not with those creatures, raw fury in their eyes and blood on their breath.
And there were worse things in Furnace, much worse. Maybe tonight the blood watch would come, drag me from my cell. Maybe tonight they’d turn me into a monster.
I dropped to my knees, cradling my head in my hands. There had to be a way out of here, a way to escape. I tried to find one in the hurricane of my thoughts, tried to come up with a plan. But all I could think about was how I came to be here, how I went from being a normal kid to an inmate in the worst hellhole on Earth.
How I ended up in Furnace.
I CAN TELL YOU the exact moment that my life went to hell.
I was twelve, two years ago now, and there was trouble at school. No surprise there, I came from a rough part of town and everybody wanted to be a gangster. Each lunchtime the playing field became a battleground for the various groups of friends. Most of the war was fought with words—we’d call each other names, we’d tell one gang to move out of our area (we had control of the jungle gym, and we weren’t going to give it up). I didn’t realize until much later just how like a prison school can be.
Every now and again something would kick off and fists would start flying. I never threw a punch in all my time at school; even the thought of it makes me feel queasy. But that doesn’t make me any better than the boys and girls who got their hands dirty. It makes me worse—at least fighting with your own two fists is kind of noble.
That Tuesday started off like a normal day. I had no idea that it was the beginning of the end, my first step on the road to hell. Me and Johnny and Scud had been sitting on the jungle gym, talking about soccer, and about who’d been the best English keeper of all time. It was one of those days where everything just seemed like it was perfect. You know, a blue sky that goes on forever, and so warm that it feels like the sun’s wrapped you up in a blanket. When I think back to my life before it turned, I think about this day. I think about how things could have been different, if I’d just walked away.
But I didn’t walk away when Toby and Brandon dragged this little kid across the playground. I didn’t walk away when they started pushing and shoving him and asking him questions about why his daddy drove him to school in a Range Rover. I didn’t walk away when Toby threw the first punch and the kid crumpled. I didn’t walk away when Brandon dug the kid’s wallet from his pocket and threw it to me.
Instead, I opened that wallet, took out two ten-pound notes, and crammed them into my pocket. Then I turned my back on the sound of muffled punches, and thought about what I’d buy.
That was the exact moment my life went to hell.
“ALWAYS TRUST YOUR instincts, Alex,” was something my dad used to say. He was no stranger to trouble: nothing serious, but a couple of dodgy business deals that hadn’t gone the way he’d wanted. A good man, if a little lost, and not the sort of person qualified to give you advice like that.
But he was right. Your instincts are there for a reason, and on the day that I walked out of school with Daniel Richards’s twenty quid they were screaming for me to find the little kid and give it back. You can probably guess by now that I didn’t. No, I learned to ignore my instincts, to switch off the little voice that tells you not to do things, to deny the fact that I hated myself for what I was doing.
And that’s how I became a criminal.
The thing is, it was so easy. It started off with me, Toby, and Brandon walking around the playground demanding money from the other kids. The kind of thing you always see in films, just before the big, ugly bully gets his comeuppance. Only I was thin and scrawny, not bad-looking, and I didn’t get my comeuppance for another two years.
Loose change, a fiver every now and again, and occasionally some candy—it wasn’t enough. When Toby suggested we break into a house or two, Brandon backed out. I didn’t. Greed wouldn’t let me. So we did; we hit a small bungalow three roads over from my house, one we knew was empty for the night. Around three hundred quid stuffed in a fake can and a bundle of jewelry that we chickened out of selling and ended up throwing in the trash.
I still haven’t forgotten the old lady who lived there—glimpsed with a long-dead husband in the faded photographs on the mantelpiece—and the knowledge that those rings meant more to her than any amount of money. But I buried my doubts just like I buried all my other uncomfortable thoughts. Committing any crime can be easy if you don’t think about it.
And I never thought about the future, not once. Even though everybody was talking about the tougher police forces. Even though there was zero tolerance on youth crime after the so-called Summer of Slaughter, when the gangs went on killing sprees. Even though they’d built the Furnace Penitentiary—the toughest maximum-security prison in the world for young offenders, the place that would swallow you whole if you were ever unlucky enough to walk through its doors. I remember the shivers that went up my spine when I first saw pictures of Furnace on TV, but I never once thought I’d end up there. Not me.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t go on like this forever, but so long as the money kept coming in I managed to convince myself that I was invincible, that nothing would ever happen to me. On my thirteenth birthday I bought myself a new bike, on my fourteenth a top-of-the-line computer. I was king of the world and nobody could stop me.
But all those dark, horrible feelings I’d buried were still there, I could feel them churning and growing somewhere inside of me. Deep down I knew I was heading for a fall, one that I’d never be able to pick myself up from.
And, as in all good crime movies, that fall came with one last job.
THE HOUSE WAS EMPTY, we knew it. Toby had been tipped off by a friend of a friend that the owners were away for the week, leaving behind enough electronic equipment to entertain a small country and a massive bundle of cash from their coffee-shop business.
But we were waiting outside just in case, cowering under a small bush in the back garden with only a solid wall of rain between us and a set of big windows.
“Come on, Alex,” muttered Toby, wiping water from his face. “It’s emptier than Elvis’s coffin in there!”
Toby had a thing for Elvis. He loved his music so much that he refused to believe the King was dead. I ignored the comment and scanned the back of the house. The lights were all off and we hadn’t seen a single movement from inside for the half hour we’d been here.
Toby was right, it was probably empty, but the last thing I wanted was to run into some furious guy who’d decided to stay home. It had happened once before when we’d hit a large house out in the countryside and I’d come face-to-face with a man on the way to the toilet. We’d both stared at each other in shock for what seemed like hours, then screamed in perfect harmony. I’d turned and legged it with him on my tail. It was even scarier than it sounds—he’d been stark naked.
Fortunately nothing like that had happened since, but I was eager to avoid any more encounters with homeowners, clothed or not.
Toby nudged me and I nodded, feeling a trickle of cold water slide down my back. We were sheltered from the worst of the downpour by the bush, but every now and again drips would snake down our faces and necks with an infuriating tickling sensation. Back then I thought it was like Chinese water torture. I know different now.
“Okay,” I whispered, getting to my feet and rubbing the life back into my numb legs. It was a bitterly cold winter night, but through a break in the clouds the light from the moon made the world glow like it was covered in silver polish. If I hadn’t been so focused on breaking the law, I might have stopped to admire the sight.
Taking a deep breath, I jogged across the garden to the sitting room windows, trampling over the flower beds to avoid making a noise on the gravel. I stopped when I heard an angry mutter behind me and turned to see Toby hopping across the mud on one leg and holding his other foot in his hands.
“Cat crap!” he hissed at me, his expression one of disgust mixed with disbelief. “Why do I always manage to put my foot in crap?”
I wanted to smile but I couldn’t. I was too pumped up—adrenaline flooded my whole body like it did before every job, making my heart beat faster than a hummingbird’s wings and sharpening my senses. I felt like an animal, aware of every sound and sight and smell and ready to turn and flee at the first sign of trouble.
Reaching into the long pockets of my coat I pulled out the only two pieces of equipment, aside from a flashlight, that a burglar ever needs—a glass cutter and the sticky dart from a toy gun. Licking the suction cup on the tip of the dart I pressed it against the bottom right pane. After a couple of tugs to make sure it was secure I pressed the blade to the glass and cut a smooth circle. Pocketing the cutter I pulled the dart gently and the glass popped free, leaving a handy hole in the window.
“Voilà!” I whispered, grinning despite the unbearable tension of the situation. “Do the honors, Tobster.”
I stood to one side and looked at Toby, who was trying to clean his shoe on the soil of the flower bed. Each time he wiped it giant clumps of mud stuck to the mess until his shoe was lost in a massive brown ball—like he’d just put his foot through a coconut.
“Toby!” I shouted. He snapped to attention, pouting.
“These cost a hundred quid,” he said.
“Well, buy yourself some new ones with the money you make tonight,” I replied, running my hands through my soaking hair. “Buy yourself twenty pairs.”
Toby grinned back and walked to the window, sliding his small hand inside and fiddling with the clasp. After a few seconds there was a loud click and the window creaked open.
“Wow,” he said, in shock. “That was almost too easy.”
I thought so too. It was too easy. I should have guessed then that something funny was going on, but greed is a powerful thing, and all I wanted was to get inside and get out again with as much loot as I could carry. If all went to plan, the proceeds from tonight would mean neither of us had to hit another house for months.
“Right, let’s do this,” I said, gritting my teeth and pulling the window right open. The room inside was dark, but I could make out rows of shelves and a couple of sofas inside. Several unblinking red lights stared at us out of the shadows, and I imagined the eyes of some hellish guard dog that would bound from the darkness, fangs bared—ready to chew any intruders to pieces.
But they weren’t eyes, they were the standby lights from a fortune in electronics that would soon be safely in our bags.
“I’ll go first,” said Toby. “Give me a leg up.” He raised his foot but I didn’t move.
“I’m not touching that,” I said, looking at the giant clumps of mud and crap that looked like they’d been welded to his sneaker. “Why don’t you give me a foot up.”
He sighed and linked his two hands together to form a cradle. Bracing my foot in his grip, I pushed upward, getting one knee on the window frame and pulling myself inside. Scanning the dark interior to make sure it was empty, I skipped down onto the floor, not making a sound on the soft carpet.
Toby was at the window holding two duffel bags and I took them from him before grabbing his arm and hoisting him up. He was almost in when his soiled shoe slipped on the wood of the window frame. With a yelp that was deafening after the tense silence, he fell on me, sending us and a nearby plant stand crashing to the floor.
For a second, neither of us could move a muscle. I lay there with Toby’s weight on top of me, barely able to hear anything over my thrashing heart. But there was no sound of slamming doors or terrified screams or feet trampling down the stairs. At least we knew for sure now that the house was empty—Toby’s clumsiness would have woken the dead.
Pushing him off me, I got to my feet and picked up my bag, offering Toby a hand.
“Sorry about that,” he said sheepishly, pulling himself up.
“Never mind, you lump,” I replied. “You start putting away some of this electronic stuff, I’m gonna go find the cash.”
“Ten-four,” said Toby, pulling a flashlight from his bag and aiming the beam at the row of high-tech gadgets lined up underneath the enormous television. I left him to it, pulling out my own flashlight and making my way out of the door.
You never really get over the sensation of being in someone else’s house without their permission. Everything is different—the smell, the atmosphere, even the air tastes strange. I guess that’s something to do with the reason I’m always in another person’s home. It’s as if the building itself doesn’t want you there, like it’s just waiting for you to slip up before it sucks you into some dark room forever.
Trying to ignore my thoughts, I made my way down a small hallway toward the stairs. According to Toby’s friend of a friend, the owners had stashed the week’s takings in a tin inside their office, along with a bundle of cash from a charity gig they’d held at the weekend. It should be a piece of cake.
It was a fairly old house, but well taken care of and the stairs didn’t creak once as I made my way up. I swung my light to and fro to see where I was going, the shadows seeming to dance in front of me like there was an army of goblins hiding in the corners and behind the furniture. I swallowed hard as I neared the top, cursing my imagination.
There were six doors on the long landing, all closed. Carefully twisting the handle of the first, I found myself staring into a pristine white bathroom. The second door opened outward, revealing an empty closet. Well, almost empty—as I was closing the door something rushed at me out of the darkness, slapping me on the forehead. I just about screamed, fighting off my attacker before realizing it was a mop. Shoving it back inside, I kicked the closet shut, no longer caring about noise, and walked past a small chest of drawers to the next door.
Third time lucky, as they say. This one opened into a large room with a desk against one wall. I made my way straight to it and couldn’t believe my eyes. On its walnut surface lay a stack of ten-and twenty-pound notes plus several bags full of coins—what must have been a couple of grand in all.
It was as I was reaching for the cash, a massive grin on my face, that I heard the sound of screaming from downstairs.
I froze, my skin turning to ice, my scalp seeming to shrivel up so tightly that it hurt. The house wasn’t empty. Toby had been rumbled by what sounded like a very shocked woman, which meant he’d make for the nearest exit. I, on the other hand, was stuck up here. I snatched the notes and stuffed them into my pocket.
When the shrieks started again, I realized I’d got it wrong. It wasn’t the owner screaming—it was Toby.
But the shock of that was nothing compared to the fright I got when I turned around. In the shadows behind the office door, right in front of me, was an enormous figure. A man whose black suit blended perfectly with the walls, but whose two glinting eyes and vast, sinister grin shone out of the darkness like those of a shark in the cold, dead water of the ocean.
I DON’T NEED TO tell you what I did next. I ran, straight for the open door. But the figure was too quick, slamming it shut and reaching out toward me with an arm the size of a tree trunk. I ducked but he moved like lightning, grabbing the flashlight from my fist and throwing it at the wall. It smashed as it hit a shelf, plunging the room into darkness.
Well, almost darkness. All I could see as I backed away from the man were his eyes, which still stood out from the shadows like two silver coins. They followed me each time I made a move, never blinking and so bright that they seemed to burn right into my soul.
I had to get out of the room. I had no idea who this guy was but I was in his house and, judging by the size of him, he could turn me inside out without breaking a sweat. I was wondering whether I could leap through the window without killing myself when he spoke.
“Where you gonna run to?” he said, his voice so deep that it sent a vibration through the floorboards. “I can see you, Alex.”
My heart seemed to stop for an instant as I heard my name. He couldn’t know who I was. There was no way. We lived more than a mile away and we never came to this part of town unless we were hitting a house. Then it struck me. He was a cop. He’d been following Toby and me after a previous job and had framed us by setting up this house as bait.
The thought filled me with panic. At last, the thing I never thought would happen was finally happening—I was about to be busted. Another ear-piercing scream penetrated the room from downstairs. What the hell were the police doing to Toby? I suddenly wished I was back at home, tucked away in bed and dreaming, wished I had never stolen that money from Daniel Richards. And I knew that if I didn’t make it out of this room, I wouldn’t be back in my own bed for months, maybe years.
I fingered the money in my pocket, realizing how pathetic I was to risk everything for a few hundred quid—money that would be useless behind bars. But maybe it could prove useful here. Grabbing as many of the notes as I could, I wrenched them from my pocket and threw them at the man. I didn’t wait to see what effect they’d have, but dived to the floor, rolling under his reach and scrambling to my feet on the other side of the room.
I couldn’t see the door: it was too dark. I slapped my hands furiously against the wall, knowing that I had only seconds before I felt the cop’s huge hand on my shoulder. But there was nothing there except shelves and books. Risking a look behind me, I saw the man’s two disembodied eyes race across the room, and it was all I could manage not to collapse to the floor screaming.
Just as he was above me, however, my hand hit the doorframe. Reaching across, I felt the handle and twisted it, ripping the door open so hard that it almost came off its hinges. It struck the man square in the face, but his only response was to laugh—a deep, grating rumble that followed me out onto the landing.
“Run, Alex, run, Alex, run, run, run,” came his voice as I felt my way toward the stairs. What the hell was going on? What kind of cop would say that?
I was running too fast and tripped on the top stair, almost plunging into darkness before I managed to get a hold on the banister. I tried to plan my escape route as I descended. Obviously the room we came in through was now a no-go area—I had no intention of meeting whoever was in there with Toby. There was the front door, which lay directly ahead of the stairs, or I could try to find my way to the back of the house. Either way, I wouldn’t get far in the dark.
As it turned out, though, it wasn’t the dark that got me. Almost as soon as I propelled myself from the bottom step every light in the house was switched on simultaneously. I gasped and pressed my hands to my eyes, momentum flinging me into a wall. The illumination had completely thrown me, filling my head with stars and causing me to lose my bearings.
I squinted against the glare to see that the hall was empty. A quick glance at the front door told me there were too many locks to force it open, so I started running toward the back, hoping for a quick exit.
I couldn’t tell you what happened next. I’m not sure if it was the fact that my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the light, or if fear and adrenaline did something to my brain, but it was as if a figure simply stepped from the wall. One minute my path was clear, the next it was blocked by another mountainous man—so wide and so tall that he seemed to take up every centimeter of space.
I skidded to a halt, mouth agape. This man too was dressed in a slick black pinstriped suit, with a white shirt and black tie. He looked more like an undertaker than a cop. What scared me most about him, though, was his face. It seemed to be expressionless and grinning at the same time—his silver eyes staring down at me with unmistakable glee, like a boy about to squash a bug.
“Boo,” he said, his thick voice just as deep and dangerous as that of the man upstairs.
I staggered backward, shaking my head. The man had left only one escape route—the way we’d come in. I bolted through the sitting room door, ready to fling myself screaming from the window. But what I saw in that room drained the strength from my body, turning my legs to jelly. It took everything I had to remain upright.
The room, which had been deserted less than five minutes ago, was now full of men. Each was almost identical in size, dwarfing the furniture and making the large space feel like a doll’s house—each almost identical in looks too, like brothers. And they were all wearing the same immaculate black suits. I counted four in all, and the sound of footsteps behind me made it clear that the other two were in the hall.
But the figure I couldn’t take my eyes off was standing in between the giants, twitching and shaking like he was having a fit. He looked tiny in comparison, barely reaching the elbows of his comrades, and wore a long, black leather coat that made his bald head look like pale parchment.
I knew now why Toby had been screaming. The man was wearing what looked like a gas mask—an antique, rusted device that covered the lower part of his face and stretched over his shoulder to a tank on his back, like the ones worn by divers. He wheezed noisily through the ancient contraption as if he was having an asthma attack. Peering over the top of the mask, like two raisins set into rancid porridge, were his eyes, and the way they stared at me made me want to curl up and die.
It took me a few moments to notice the frail, shaking body of Toby on the floor beneath one of the men in black. He stared at me with a look of pure terror, his eyes wide, pleading for me to help him. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t even know who the men were. Taking another look at the shriveled figure by the window, I found myself praying for the familiar uniforms of the police, not this freak show of gas masks and goliaths.
“Nice of you to join us, Alex,” said the huge, black-suited man who was standing above Toby. His face was a mirror image of the others’, only with what looked like a small mole on his chin. His voice too was indistinguishable from those I had already heard, like distant thunder.
“It looks like everybody here knows my name,” I said, the words coming out of my mouth before I even knew I was speaking. Despite the terror that rooted me to the spot, I was determined not to give these men the satisfaction of seeing my fear. “If I’d known there was a party here tonight I would have brought some cake.”
To my surprise, the men all chuckled at my joke—a noise so deep that it made the remaining glass in the window vibrate. It was the most terrifying sound I’d ever heard.
“We wanted to surprise you,” the man continued.
“Well then, arrest me—arrest us,” I said, just waiting to get out of that room. “You’ve caught us red-handed; take us down to the station and we’ll confess.”
The same grating laughter that set my teeth on edge. When it had finished, the giant man turned to his smaller friend as if awaiting a command. Seconds rolled past while the freak in the gas mask studied me and Toby, then he turned his dark eyes to me and nodded.
“What?” I asked, desperate to know what was going on. “What the hell does that guy want?”
“He wants you to say goodbye to your friend,” the man continued. I shook my head, the fear and confusion churning in my stomach. Were they just going to take me and not Toby?
“What?” I repeated. Toby was no longer looking at me, but was staring at the carpet, sobbing uncontrollably.
“They’ve got guns with silencers,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper. “They’re not police, Alex.”
I didn’t understand what Toby had said until the giant man opened his suit jacket to reveal a holstered pistol tucked beneath his armpit. For a second, I felt the world spin as if I was about to pass out, and by the time I’d regained my composure the man had pulled out the silenced handgun and was pointing it at me.
“Last chance to say goodbye,” he said.
I looked at Toby, wanting this nightmare to end, thinking about the things I’d never be able to do if the man pulled the trigger, thinking about how much I’d miss my friends, how much I loved my family. All lost because of greed. It was so stupid! I couldn’t control my emotions anymore and tears filled my eyes, blurring my vision. All I could see was the outline of the man, and the black shadow that was his gun.
“Goodbye, Toby,” I said through sobs. “I’m sorry.”
“Alex,” was all I heard of his reply. Then the black shadow moved, sweeping downward and emitting a low pop that was barely audible against the laughter that once again filled the room. I tried to blink the tears from my eyes, not quite believing what I’d seen. But when my vision had cleared I realized there was no escaping what had just happened.
Toby lay motionless, his eyes blank, the carpet beneath his body the same horrible color as the wound in his head.
It seemed like hours before anyone moved again. It felt as if the connection between my brain and my body had been severed, turning every limb numb. I wanted to feel anger, hatred, sorrow, anything, but all I could do was stare at my friend, at the body that would never move again—a corpse with one dirty shoe. My legs finally gave way and I sank to my knees.
“Catch,” came the booming voice. The giant man tossed the gun to me and I reached out instinctively, grabbing it by the handle and staring at it in shock. For a second, I pointed it at the black-suited brute, but I’d barely held a toy gun before, let alone a real one, and quickly tossed it to the floor.
“Now, if I were you, Alex, I’d make a run for it,” he continued. “I mean, you’ve just broken into a house, stolen a load of cash, and shot your best friend in the head in cold blood. The police aren’t gonna like you one little bit, so why don’t you put those sneakers to good use and run.”
I couldn’t respond, I didn’t know what he was talking about. But suddenly I felt an enormous pair of hands grip me under my arms and hoist me effortlessly to my feet. The same hands turned me around and pushed me roughly toward the front door, which had been unlocked and opened.
“Good luck, Alex,” came the voice from behind me. “Run as hard as you can, or sit and cower outside. Either way we’ll see you real soon.”
I turned and saw the face of the man in black break into a monstrous smile—all teeth and slitted eyes. Then I took one last look at Toby, at rest on his crimson bed, and bolted out into the rain.