My love and respect goes out to everyone suffering from COVID and/or who is fighting for racial equality. It seems like every day now is filled with new nightmares. I realize now is the completely wrong time to be self-advertising. The world is on fire and other causes need your help, your voice, and your attention. But if you need a few minutes away from the world, consider reading this. Savor the Wicked is out June 22nd, and available for pre-ordernow on Amazon. If this ain’t the month for you to be reading a book, it’ll be there waiting for you a better time.
Anyways, here it is, the first chapter from the first of my new series The Seven Heroes. Hope it entertains you, today or another time.
* * * * * *
Rich or poor in Rankin Flats, it didn’t matter much either way – step out onto the streets on a hot June day, the whole city was going to smell like baked horseshit. Even deep in the heart of a city of millions, the stink infused the streets and rankled the noses of everyone hurrying with their heads down to get to their boring jobs and keep up with their crap lives.
Peter Balan was one of those people. And as he stepped off the curb and around the front of his car, picking his teeth clean of the cold chicken he’d eaten for breakfast, it was the faint stench he was silently cursing when the van hit him at just over thirty miles an hour.
If it had been a field goal at forty yards, the pigskin would have sailed through the uprights. The van sped up and nailed Peter broadside, a shot that should have probably killed him. Would have, more than likely, if he hadn’t glanced up and raised his arm in self-defense. The arm didn’t save him. It was just an arm, a little too thick, a little too hairy.
But on that arm was something wildly strange, something Peter would have rather left behind with that morning’s coffee grounds in his trash can. Peter caught the movement of the van, and when the arm came up, so did a band of crystalline membrane around his chest, his stomach. It could not protect all of him, though, and when the van hit him and Peter cruised through the air like the world’s most ungainly dart, he had one last bemused thought before his skull whacked off the unforgiving pavement and his mind took a temporary vacation.
* * *
He fumbled out of the darkness in fits and spurts.
When Peter first came to, the pain consumed pretty much everything. There was no pinning down what was broken or how badly he was hurt. Not yet. It was all he could do to hold onto the brief crimson flash of momentary awareness. Someone pressing cold steel on the back of his hands was all he could make out, then clicks. Bracelets, of the criminal type. Unconsciousness grabbed Peter up again, and they did a happy dance together.
Maybe another minute or two later, his feet scraped along the pavement and came up off it. Lifted. He was being lifted. Something deep in his guts hurt, but hurt was good. Hurt meant he was alive. He could still smell the horseshit. Rankin Flats. God, Peter hated the city.
Movement. Rough vibrations, occasional jostling. In a vehicle. Peter processed that much, but if it was an ambulance, why was he sitting upright? And why were his hands cuffed behind his back? The questions hurt his brain too much. Sleep. He needed just a bit more sleep.
More. Flashes of a conversation. A rag rubbing his face. A feminine cackle. Vibrations of tires on the road. Peter’s consciousness started to solidify. He was sitting sideways, not facing forward. Lightbulb flickers of traffic and buildings from the front windows. No windows in the back. Back of what? Blackness for a long while.
The vehicle jolted hard. Pothole. Pain flared in Peter’s neck and his spine, sharp, tingly shards of it scraping across bones and nerves. He wiggled his fingers and his toes. Good. He could still feel everything. No spinal damage. His nose hurt like hell and something in his chest bellowed every time he breathed. Broken nose and ribs, or bruised badly enough it seemed all the same. Scrapes all over. His whole left side stung like hell, and his face felt like it had been razor burned.
The consistency of the road had changed under the tires. Dirt road, his foggy brain mumbled. The van’s shit suspension made it feel like they were crushing cars in a monster truck. Every minute dip in the road made something new and delightful blossom in pain somewhere in or on his body. It was like a fun park of discovering just how badly hurt he was. New rides awaited around every corner. Fun times.
“Hey. Hey, you awake?” someone drawled. A guy, right across from Peter.
Peter didn’t look up. Didn’t acknowledge him. He had to figure out what was going on, then he could act. Besides, unconsciousness still clawed at him. Fighting to stay awake was his biggest priority.
“I don’t think he is,” the man said to someone else.
“Got a knife? Try to get that thing off him.” This second voice was the woman he’d heard laughing earlier. She spoke with a whistling lisp in the front passenger’s seat.
The driver said, “Don’t do that. The Preserver will take care of his mark.”
The Preserver? Who the hell was the Preserver? Peter kept his chin tucked against his chest, trying to work all this out. An errant thought that he’d be late for his job hit him, and he nearly groaned and gave away his consciousness.
The woman sounded exasperated when she said, “Yeah, but if one of us had the sleeve, he could just take it from us. We’d be gosh darn heroes and this guy couldn’t pull none of that magic crap on us.”
“I said no,” the driver said. His was a deeper boom than the other man, more commanding.
“Yeah, well, you’re not in charge, are ya?” the woman snapped.
“You’re not either,” the man across from Peter said. “Albert is. Besides, we cut this guy up, we might kill him. Albert would be pissed.”
“You two cuss too much,” the woman said in a huff.
The driver belted out a laugh. “Yeah, go fuck yourself.”
“You’d like that,” the woman said. Her emotions had changed on a dime, gone suddenly light and coy. Peter had seen that plenty before, back when he still wore a badge. If this woman wasn’t tweaking, she used to.
“I ain’t gonna say no,” the driver said.
The woman tittered and bounced in her seat. “I’m so hungry right now.”
“We just ate!” the man in front of Peter said.
“I knoooow,” the woman whined. “Don’t mean I’m not hungry, though.”
“When Albert finds out what we’re bringing him, I’ll bet he cooks us steaks himself,” the driver said.
“Forget a steak. I want like a dozen hamburgers,” the woman said.
Peter let their conversation play out in the background as he tried to focus on what they were calling his mark and his sleeve. “Sleeve” wasn’t far off the mark, actually. The mark did look like a tattoo sleeve. Well… sort of. If the tattoos became infected and engorged, like half a snake latched on his arm. But it wasn’t just decorative. Far from it.
He hated calling on the damn thing. Using his half of the Alder Chain made Peter’s mind feel like it was making out with mucus. It didn’t have any conscious thoughts, but sometimes – okay, most the time – he could feel Quincy on the other end. Not his thoughts, not his emotions, but his presence. If Peter had been hurt, Quincy would have been too. Would he have been knocked unconscious? Peter had no idea, but he gritted his teeth and willed a heart attack on the other man for dragging him into all this.
Of course, that wasn’t how it worked, so instead, Peter set about trying to get the Alder Chain to listen to him.
It hadn’t moved much since he’d been hit by the van. Peter prodded it with his mind, willing it to life. The Alder Chain felt like a muscle inside him working on its own accord, a part of him but twitchy and sometimes uncontrollable. It was helping him heal much faster than he could have on his own, Peter knew that much. Shortly after he was blessed with the damn thing, he’d nicked himself badly enough that there should have been a sliver of a scar, but within a half hour, the only trace of the wound was a patch of missing hair.
With more shadows and less light, it would have moved faster, been more responsive, but as it was, the Chain moved like it was just coming up out of an afternoon nap. Peter willed it to create a rough shape surrounding the handcuffs. The Chain was slow to respond, but when it did, it lurched all at once, coating his hands and the metal bracelets in an otherworldly fabrication. If anyone could see it, it would have looked like a goopy liquid crystal, usually amethystine, but sometimes other colors depending mostly on the light. Never had Peter tried to do something this delicate, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed, so he tested the handcuffs, feeling them out carefully with the Chain. Yep. They were handcuffs, all right.
The lock. He’d try to work it open, he decided. With another burst of effort, the Chain solidified a finger-length pick out of the goop behind his back. He wiggled around, trying to get the pick into the lock, then realized how stupid that was. What did he know about locks? Even as a deputy, he’d never done anything with this kind of finesse. He wasn’t some damn thief.
“This dude’s definitely awake now,” the country boy across from him said.
Peter eased one eye open. The guy in front of him was apparently a denim fetishist. Blue jeans, blue jean jacket, gray denim shirt. He wore a straw cowboy hat tilted back, and his mustache looked like a clump of fronds atop the barely-trimmed shrubbery of his five o’clock shadow.
“What gave it away?” Peter’s voice was groggy, muted.
“You keep clenchin’ your jaw,” the cowboy said.
Up front, something rattled against metal. Peter tried to glance that way, but pain flared in his neck, nearly driving him into the darkness again. He winced, and tried again, slower this time. The pain eased up little by little. Dividing the front and the windowless back of the van was a metal cage wall, the sort animal control might have used. Beyond it, a tall, twiggy woman with a huge hornet’s nest of unkempt auburn hair slapped the butt of a pistol against the divider.
The driver, who Peter couldn’t really see without causing himself more agony, snapped, “Jesus, put that thing away before you kill one of us.”
The woman hissed at him – actually hissed, like she was a cat – but the gun disappeared from sight. “You try anything, freak, we’re gonna gut shoot you. Reckon you’d live through something like that.”
“What do you care if I live or die?” Peter asked, wiggling the pick around in the handcuffs’ lock. Through the Alder Chain, he could actually feel the mechanisms within like he was touching them with his own skin. It disturbed him. And, God help him, intrigued him too. He hated using the damn thing. “You hit me with your van, assholes.”
“Don’t be swearin’!” the woman said.
“Asshole ain’t exactly much of a swear,” the cowboy said. He pulled something out of a holster on his lap and tapped Peter’s knee none too gently with it. A leather sap. Peter used to carry around a sibling to its kind. “Don’t be getting any dumb ideas, now.”
Peter tried to twist his head towards the driver. “They both threatened me. You got anything to add? Maybe you’ll yodel until I gouge my eyes out?”
The driver snorted a laugh, and the woman slapped his shoulder. “Shut up,” she said. “Not funny.”
“A little bit funny,” the driver said.
Peter leaned his head back against the wall of the van and regretted it. That made the vibrations a hundred times worse. With effort, he tilted his chin forward again. “Where you taking me?”
“To see Albert Coster,” the cowboy said.
Peter tried to think if he knew any Albert, let alone any Albert Coster. He’d known an Al, but he was guessing this guy didn’t mean a Texas pizzeria owner. Still… maybe. “Don’t suppose you mean we’re going to get a slice from Hogshead Pizza? Down in Dallas?”
“What?” the cowboy asked.
Peter sighed, still fiddling with the lock on the handcuffs. If he was making any progress, he had no idea. “Never mind.”
“Albert Coster is-” the driver started, but Peter cut him off.
“Because Al – that is, my Al, not whatever dingnut you three are talking about – serves up this habanero fish taco pizza, and you think it wouldn’t work, but it’s-”
The sap came down hard on his knee. Pain crackled outward, and Peter writhed, nearly falling off the bench seat he was on.
“I didn’t try anything!” he shouted at the cowboy as he righted himself.
The other guy shrugged. “Mouthing off was a dumb idea. Next up is your testicles.”
“All right, Jesus,” Peter said, leaning forward and back as his knee hollered at him for attention and urgent medical care. Pretty much like the rest of him, then – but the Chain was definitely doing its work. Apart from the knee, the neck, and the spine, almost everything else was fading to the background. Aching, but not pressing.
The woman watched all this with a brown-toothed grin. “Albert’s the Preserver,” she said matter-of-factly, as if this was supposed to mean something to Peter. “He’s going to save all us humans from your kind and help you get rid of your sin, freak.”
“It’s not so religious as that,” the driver said, almost apologetically. “But she’s got the spirit of it right. He tells us you and that sleeve, you’re going to bring on the end of the world.”
The woman bounced up and down in her seat. “You and the rest of the freaks you hang out with.”
“What?” Peter said, hardly able to think beyond the pain. Then it dawned on him, and he gurgled out a chuckle. “Oh you assholes. You got the wrong guy.”
The cowboy tapped his wounded knee again, making Peter sit bolt upright. “You have the sleeve,” he said, as if talking to a child.
“There are two of us, you idiot,” Peter said, mocking his tone. “You want the other guy? I’ll take you right to him. Seven Heroes. It’s a bar and apartments up top. Middle of Randall Street. You can’t miss the place. City full of shitholes, it’s the shitholiest.”
Silence fell among the three. The women looked first at the driver then at the cowboy in the backseat. She repeated the words less certainly, “He has the sleeve.”
“Tommy,” the driver said through gritted teeth. “Where did you hear about this guy?”
The cowboy swallowed. “Street kids. Runners. They told me, guy with a moving tattoo. They knew right who he was. Where he lived.”
The driver sucked at his teeth. “Mm. And did they say anything about a second guy?”
The cowboy – Tommy – was silent for a minute. The woman turned, her eyes huge. “Tommy?” she asked. “Say something.”
“Shit,” Tommy mumbled under his breath. “Look, I… uh… the other one, he’s surrounded, you know? He’s got all sorts of other freaks with him. But this one’s got the sleeve too. It’s all the same.”
Peter thought about his manager at the big box store Thankfull and how pissed the Doucher was going to be with him for being late again. Then he thought of Quincy, somewhere on the other end of the Alder Chain, maybe drinking at his bar or screwing that gladiator-looking woman of his. “I’m going to kill Quincy,” he said, leaning his head back again. His neck pain was getting mildly better. That was good, considering this was all about to go tits-up.
“What do we do with him?” the woman squawked. “We screwed up, we screwed up, we screwed up.”
“Tommy was the one who screwed up, not us,” the driver said.
“Hey, come on,” Tommy protested.
“You don’t get to have a say anymore,” the woman said.
The driver snapped at both of them, “Shut up! Shit.”
She yelled right back, “I said don’t swear.”
“Just take me back,” Peter said. “We walk in the Seven Heroes, I point him out to you, you can all go ride happily into the sunset with your life preserver.”
“The Preserver,” the woman said, her eyes wild now. She was the dangerous one of the bunch, Peter thought. The cowboy might get his kicks beating him up some, but she was unhinged. An addict who had found zealotry, unless he missed his mark, and he sure didn’t think he had. Nothing more dangerous than someone who substitutes a physical high with an ephemeral one.
The pick. He’d almost forgotten about it. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen now. The Chain solidified the pick again out of the shadows behind him, and he slammed the sharp end into the machinery of the lock. The Chain didn’t snap, but something in the handcuffs did, and he suddenly couldn’t make any more progress. He’d only made things worse.
The Chain. The handcuffs. The links.
“We kill him,” the driver said quietly.
Well… Peter guessed he’d been wrong about which one was the dangerous one of the bunch.
The woman gaped at him, her eyes like sickly moons. “Kill kill kill him? Ah-Ah-Ah-Ahl…”
“Albert’s not here,” the driver said, his voice cold. “We have to fix this. Nobody’s going to see us out this far. We shoot him, we leave him for the coyotes, we bury the gun a few miles on.”
The cowboy swallowed. “You sure that’s the only play? Maybe we do take him back.”
Peter formed a tiny saw out of the shadows, willing it to have a jagged edge he could work the links on the cuffs. “Listen to him,” he warned. “He’s a smart man, your redneck friend.”
“Shut. Up,” Tommy said. “Last warning.”
Peter didn’t have the room to manipulate the Chain and had to bob back and forth, working it over the links. He didn’t know what he looked like, and he didn’t care.
“What’s he doing?” the woman asked. “What the heck are you doing back there? Stop it. Stop it!”
She reached up with the gun again, and Peter saw with a sickening lurch her finger was on the trigger, the hammer pulled back. Almost as if on cue, they hit the next pothole, and the gun went off, the bullet punching through the top of the van, the boom deafening inside the tight confines. The chains on the handcuffs snapped as the driver and Tommy shouted, yelling at the woman to put the gun down, put it away. Peter brought his hands around, the Alder Chain forming a rough hammer shape in midair. It felt like silicone, looked like smoky white glass, and hit like… well, a hammer. Tommy’s head whipped sideways with the impact, spittle flying out of his mouth in a wide spray. It was a good shot, hard, clean, and he was out as he sprawled sideways.
The driver jerked the van left and corrected with a soft gesture. A pro. He didn’t panic. Peter didn’t bother with the metal gate between him and the two up front. He thought about the undercarriage of the van, willing the Alder Chain with his mind, imagining a spike piercing the left rear tire. It was about as far as he could reach with the Chain, but it would be enough, he hoped. He grabbed for anything he could to hold on. There was nothing. When the tire popped and the van lurched sideways again, there was nothing to do but tumble into the metal as they flipped.
Glass shattered. Steel squealed. Something much more human shrieked. All the injuries the Alder Chain had been healing blazed with newfound fury, and Peter dove joyously into the dark again. But the dark didn’t want him this time, and moments later he came to as he rested in a jumble of limbs with the cowboy as the van slid to a stop on its side, the engine roaring one last time before cutting out completely.
No one moved, save Peter. He rested on his back under Tommy, and lifted his head up just long enough to look around and mutter, “Well. Shit.”