Liars, Inc.

Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes


DEDICATION


—to DK

for Einstein, for Odd, and for

being so nice to my mom




THE MIDDLE IS THE BEGINNING OF THE END


December 6th


I DON’T MAKE TO-DO LISTS, but if I did, today’s would have gone something like this: 1. get drunk, 2. get laid, 3. go surfing (not necessarily in that order). Noticeably absent from the list: get arrested. And yet here I am, spending my eighteenth birthday with my back against the wall of the Colonel’s hunting cabin, two FBI agents prowling the dark with their guns drawn, both trying to get me to confess to the murder of my friend Preston DeWitt.

“It’s all right, Max,” one of them says. “We just want to talk.” It’s the nice agent, McGhee.

“How’d you guys find me?” I ask, stalling for time. I push my long bangs out of my eyes with the hand that isn’t clutching a gun. To my left, I can just barely make out a razor-thin beam of gray light creeping in under the back door. I debate making a run for it, but it’s too far away. By the time I get there and undo the bolt, both agents will be on top of me.

“Colonel Amos tipped us off,” Gonzalez says. That’s the other agent. He’s kind of a dick. “Your little girlfriend ain’t as smart as she thinks she is.”

My girlfriend, Parvati. The Colonel’s daughter. I knew hiding out here was a bad idea.

“Where’s Preston?” McGhee again.

“I don’t know.”

“Did you kill him?” Gonzalez sounds like he’s already made up his mind.

“No. Of course not.”

The blackness ripples in front of me. One of the agents is moving. I can hear him inching his way across the floor. Slowly, methodically, like I’m a rabid raccoon and he’s a guy from animal control.

“Don’t come any closer.” I wave the handgun back and forth in front of me. “I don’t want to shoot anybody.”

They probably don’t think I’ll do it. They’re right. I’ve never shot a gun before. I’m not even sure if I know how. But if there’s one thing I learned from spending a year on the streets, it’s that people are afraid of weapons.

“Everything is going to be okay, Max.” Soothing voice. Another quiet scuff. They’re closing in. I have to do something. I point the gun at the ceiling and pull the trigger. Nothing happens. Apparently I don’t know how. I swear under my breath. Then I remember what Parvati told me. You just slide the lever and pull the trigger. I fumble with the little lever on the side of the gun and feel the bullet enter the chamber. I shoot at the ceiling again. Fire erupts from the muzzle. The light fixture explodes and glittering shards of glass rain down on my shoulders. The gun shudders violently, but I manage not to drop it.

The agents mutter four-letter words as they duck and cover. It’s all the distraction I need. With my ears still ringing, I lunge for the back door. As soon as I open it they’ll be able to see me, but all I have to do is make it to the woods. I can lose them in the trees.

As I throw open the door, I hear shouts. Hoping the feds won’t shoot me in the back, I cover the distance between the cabin and the edge of the tree line in just a few strides. It’s as black in the forest as it was in the house, but I’m not afraid of the dark or what hides within its shadows. To me, Mother Nature isn’t nearly as scary as human nature.

I plunge through the shrubbery, branches clawing at my face and arms. I hear McGhee and Gonzalez behind me, crashing through the brush like angry bears. Lengthening my stride, I propel myself forward. I know these woods. I know where I’m going. The river. These guys aren’t superhero TV FBI agents. They won’t go over the cliff.

But I will.

I’ve done it loads of times. Never while being chased, but still, it’s easy. Run. Push off. Fall. Sink. Emerge.

Breathe.

The moon shucks off a veil of clouds, illuminating the widening path in front of me. I can see where the trail dead-ends at a sheer drop-off. Water roars, just out of sight. My tennis shoes crunch gravel as I accelerate. Blood pounds in my ears. Where’s Preston DeWitt? I don’t know. That’s the truth. Not the whole truth, because it’s too late for that. Even if I told the feds everything, they wouldn’t believe me.

My left foot lands at the edge of the cliff. I push off with all my might, rocketing my body out toward the middle of the river, far away from the jagged rocks below. As I plummet through the crisp night air, I think about whether things might have been different if I had just told the truth from the beginning.





THE BEGINNING





ONE



October 21st

About six weeks earlier . . .


THE TRUTH IS, IT ALL started the day I tried to get detention. I tended to be late a lot and occasionally fell asleep in class, so I usually got it without much effort. Not that week, though. It was Friday, fourth period, when my girlfriend, Parvati Amos, strutted by my desk in a shiny black-and-red dress that looked like a sexy superhero costume.

“I didn’t see your name on the list for tomorrow,” she murmured, just loud enough for me to hear. Parvati was an office assistant during third period. Between that and writing for the school newspaper, the girl knew everything about everyone.

“Working on it.” I had already tried being late to algebra and swearing in Spanish class. For some reason, all my teachers were in a charitable mood that week. Or else they were just too lazy to fill out the paperwork for a detention.

Parvati leaned in as she slid into the chair behind me, just close enough for me to catch a whiff of her vanilla perfume. “Work harder.” She was wearing a scarf made out of a bright orange-and-red fabric with gold embroidery. I wondered if she’d taken scissors to one of her fancy saris. She liked pushing the limits with her parents.

I glanced around the room, as if the solution to my problem might lie between the row of pastel file cabinets and the bulletin board featuring cartoon drawings of famous figures from American literature. If I didn’t get assigned Saturday hours, my parents would assign me an even crueler punishment—babysitting my three younger sisters. Not only would I end up covered in glitter pen and strained peas, I’d miss my weekly rendezvous with Parvati.

Her dad had forbidden her to see me, but we quickly figured out a way around that. Every Saturday I went to detention and she went to newspaper club. What our parents didn’t know was that these activities only took two hours, instead of four. That gave Parvati and me two uninterrupted hours of alone time every weekend. Two hours that I didn’t want to miss.

The tinny chorus of Boyz Be Bad’s unfortunate hit, “Doll Baby,” interrupted my train of thought.

My English teacher, Ms. Erickson, glared at the class over the tops of her pointy glasses. “Whose cell phone is that? Please bring it to my desk.”

“It’s mine,” I blurted out. Around the room, I heard snickers and giggles. There was no way I, Max Cantrell, boy voted most likely to drop out of school and become a roadie for the all-girl hard-core band Kittens of Mass Destruction, had a Boyz Be Bad ringtone. But Ms. Erickson didn’t know that.

I slid out of my seat and started making my way to the front. My eyes skimmed across the rows of students, trying to figure out who it was that owed me big-time.

“Max. Now.” Erickson gave me the evil eye. She held out her hand, wiggled her crimson fingernails.

“Coming,” I muttered, shuffling the rest of the way up to her desk. I slipped my cell phone out of the center pocket of my hoodie, double-checked to make sure it was turned off, and slid it in the general direction of Erickson’s outstretched talons.

She grabbed my phone and made a big show of depositing it into the top drawer of her desk. “You can come get it after school,” she said. “You can pick up your detention slip then as well.”

Score. I gave her what I hoped was a look of apathy tinged with frustration and then headed back to my desk.

Parvati tapped me on the shoulder. “Smooth,” she whispered.

I peeked back at her. “You have no idea.”

She winked. “Oh, but I do.”

Resting my head on my desk, I let Erickson’s nasal voice fade into the background. I played with the shark’s tooth pendant I wore on a leather cord around my neck, poking the sharp point into the fleshy pad of my fingertip. The necklace was a gift from my real dad. It wasn’t really my style, but it was all I had left from him and I only took it off to shower and surf. He had been an oceanography professor at UCLA and found the tooth when he was scuba diving during a research trip.

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