Friday, April 26, 2019

Fid's Crusade by David H. Reiss

Title: FID’S CRUSADE
Author: David H. Reiss
Publisher: Atian Press
Pages: 365
Genre: Scifi/Contemporary Fantasy

BOOK BLURB:
Consumed by grief, rage, and self-loathing, a brilliant inventor rebuilt himself to take on a new identity: the powered-armor-wearing supervillain, Doctor Fid. For twenty violent years, Fid has continued his quest to punish heroes who he considers to be unworthy of their accolades, and the Doctor has left a long trail of blood and misery in his wake. After a personal tragedy, however, Doctor Fid investigates a crime and uncovers a conspiracy so terrible that even he is taken aback.

Haunted by painful memories and profound guilt, the veteran supervillain must risk everything to save the world that he once sought to terrorize. Every battle takes its toll…but the stakes are too high for retreat to be an option.

In the end, it may take a villain to save the entire Earth from those entrusted with the Earth’s protection.

Praise:

"Fid's Crusade by David H. Reiss is one of the most refreshing and lively takes on the superhero genre I've seen in years. His title character's crusade is colorful, compelling, and takes wonderfully unexpected turns, and the novel delivers an impressive emotional punch (to go along with the super-powered ones). It stands easily alongside other character-driven superhero novels like Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, Carrie Vaughn's After the Golden Age, and Paul Tobin's Prepare to Die!." - Hugo award-winning author Tim Pratt

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CHAPTER ONE




THE GROUND TREMBLED and great clouds of dust were shaken from the rafters above…but the silver-clad hero’s fist was stopped cold by an invisible barrier only inches from my armored head. The impact echoed, a bass thrum that filled the chamber like a physical force.

Emotions flickered across his face: surprise first, followed swiftly by disappointment. For a moment, I knew, Titan had believed the battle won. Rage quickly followed, and further blows fell like thunderous rain as the hero explored the unseen shield’s capabilities. Despite his size and awe-inspiring strength, the man was no mere brawler; he was a well-trained and highly skilled martial-artist, yet even his fiercest attack made no progress.

Sensor readings indicated minor structural damage to the floor, but the force-field emitter hidden below was in no immediate danger. Energy levels were excellent and the increased strain continued to fall within projected tolerances. The new force-field design was a masterwork!

Already, my mind was swirling with ideas how to alter the device; to miniaturize components and improve efficiency, and to make the entire system portable. Behind my helm’s featureless faceplate, I was grinning like a fool.

Titan himself looked more-or-less human, with a complexion and features that implied a Mediterranean heritage. His eyes glowed white with raw power, wisps of energy trailing away like strange smoke, and he stood nearly seven feet tall with a broad and muscular physique that would make facing him a daunting concept even without knowing of the supernatural forces that coursed through his body. When he’d first appeared a decade ago, his charcoal-black hair seemed akin to a lion’s mane, but he now wore it cropped short in a military ‘high and tight’ style and shaved away the perpetual 5 o’clock shadow that had once practically been his trademark. It was an improvement, I thought; he looked more intense now, more serious. Truly, the nigh-indestructible hero was a worthy adversary.

“Doctor Fid! I should have known.” He backed a few steps away from the force-field and smirked. “I’d recognize your foul stench anywhere.”

Titan was also a bit of a dick.

Three years past, one of Titan’s fellow Guardians—the Red Ghost—bypassed my defenses and managed to shoot me in the abdomen. I’d required a colostomy bag for months while replacement organs were being cloned,



and the silver-unitard-wearing jerk had been teasing me about my odor ever since. It was petty and small. A schoolyard taunt! A reflexive regression, I imagined, to the childhood days when he must have victimized smaller students and stolen their lunch money.

Every once in a while, I really did consider killing him. But not today.

“Titan.” I nodded slightly in acknowledgment, carefully hiding any evidence of irritation. There were multiple news-camera-drones within range, I was certain, and it would have been unacceptable for any recording to indicate that the hurtful banter had found purchase. Fortunately, my voice was modulated electronically to maintain an emotionless tone. “I was expecting you sooner.”

The truth was that I hadn’t been expecting him at all.

There’d been a myriad of intentionally-left clues at the biotech facility that I’d robbed earlier in the day, and any competent hero would certainly have been led to this facility...but my research had indicated that this particular opponent would be in Arizona training a young hero who went by the nom de guerre of ‘Brute’. It appeared that Brute traveled to New England instead, and was now fighting alongside the Guardians as they battled their way into the auditorium-sized throne room of what they would certainly believe to be my current lair.

The force-field emitter test had originally been intended for a lesser challenge than Titan’s full strength. It was fortunate that the device had been designed to operate with a significant safety margin.

The other heroes were at the opposite end of the room still, keeping a few of my low-tier combat automatons occupied while their leader had advanced to confront me. The sounds of combat raged on even as Titan and I exchanged words: explosions and worried shouts, the shriek of tortured steel and the dull roar of growing flames. The conflict would look glorious when video was leaked to the Internet.

Brute, the visiting teen powerhouse, was acquitting himself well; he’d provided protection for both Veridian and Regrowth and even managed an impressive offensive combination-attack alongside Aeon. I planned to comb through the footage more carefully at a later date to evaluate his performance and determine any useful weaknesses. Fighting the younger hero might make for an interesting diversion someday.

I was currently sheathed within my Mk 33 light-combat powered armor. This suit—my most recent design—was the fastest flier in my current arsenal, with the best augmented-reflexes and combat programming...but it afforded less protection and overall strength than other versions. This model wasn’t particularly appropriate for a hand-to-hand battle with an entity like Titan or his current trainee.

Even so, I knew that I made for an imposing figure.

The armor was form-fitted and so thoroughly non-reflective that I seemed a silhouette, a six-and-a-half-foot man-shaped hole in the world. There were stars visible inside that blackness, pinpricks of light and color; looking upon me was gazing into the clearest night sky, entire galaxies encompassed within my being. Only at the armor’s seams were any hint of a three-dimensional form offered: from there an angry red glow seeped, as though something infernal was trapped inside. It was a disorienting effect that I’d spent years perfecting.

I summoned my scepter—a slim and deceptively-simple-appearing black rod with a round red stone at its

pommel—from its subspace storage location, and the powerful weapon’s weight felt comforting in my hand. Even as the last of my smaller combat drones were felled in the distance, I maintained a relaxed and impassive mien. Greater than the armor, more powerful even than the force-field, I was protected by Doctor Fid’s grim reputation.



Titan fell into a wary half-crouch.

“Your robots are destroyed and we have you surrounded,” he declared; the Guardians scattered to make Titan’s statement into reality. “Surrender, Doctor. You can’t hide behind your force-field forever.”

“Hide?” I motioned lazily with my scepter’s tip towards the destruction that they’d left in their wake. “It took you four and a half minutes to fight your way to me, and we both know that I could have escaped in a fraction of that time.”

Titan was steady, but several of his compatriots took a step backwards or glanced around warily. Good. Their fear had been hard-earned.

“Then why are you still here?” asked the Guardians’ leader, finally.

“I’m not,” I lied, “This is a hologram. I brought you all here so that I could watch your expressions while this base self-destructs around you. In five...four...three-”

“Maneuver seven!” Titan barked, his eyes closed to angry slits. The expression looked practiced; did he glower at a mirror every night, I wondered, attempting to hone an expression that would strike terror in the hearts of evildoers? If so, the effort had been wasted. Honestly, he just looked constipated.

The superhero team leaped into action like a well-oiled machine. Whatever Titan’s faults, he trained his people well.

Aeon’s power-set included the ability to produce force-fields more powerful even than my new design...but only for pre-set short periods and only in a sphere about nine feet in diameter. Regrowth, Veridian, and Red Ghost converged around the slender woman and she powered up her famous milky-white energy shield around them. Titan was sturdy enough that he knew he could withstand any of the explosives that I’d used in the past, so he just tackled Brute to protect the younger hero with his own body.

Feeling smug, I lifted my scepter and aimed; a blast of emerald-hued energy surged from the pommel to strike both Titan and Brute with sufficient intensity to drive them through my temporary fortress’s thick walls and out into the courtyard. The entire room shook from the thunderous impact, debris visibly shaking on the ground, and sparks flew as electrical wiring within the walls was torn asunder.

Titan had always been somewhat vulnerable to blows to the back of his head; it would be perhaps thirty seconds before I could expect him to recover.

"Alternately, this base may not have been equipped with an escape capsule, and I’m not a hologram at all," I floated towards the hole in the wall, gloating cheerfully. "In retrospect, that seems significantly more likely. Until next time, Guardians!"

(The ruse had only been successful because my prior two fake-bases had been equipped with unnecessarily

ornate self-destruct mechanisms that the Red Ghost had only barely disarmed in time to avoid catastrophe; the next one would have a built-in escape route, shaped explosive charges and a mocking hologram ready and waiting. Forcing Titan to make the wrong call under fire was one of life’s true joys.)

Laughing mockingly, I launched into the air with my armor’s flight systems shifted to maximum and stealth capabilities enabled. Any of the more esoteric technology left behind would melt itself to slag; it simply wouldn’t do



to leave any resources behind for my enemies to examine. By the time Aeon’s shield dropped, my lead would be insurmountable.



sss



The news broadcasts, I was amused to discover, were quick to declare that the Guardians had forced the notorious Doctor Fid to escape empty-handed with all materials stolen from AH Biotech safely returned, and that— thanks to the Guardians’ valiant efforts! —the battle resulted in not even a single civilian casualty. Property damage had been restrained to the mostly-abandoned city block surrounding Doctor Fid’s secret lair and even the heroes themselves suffered no significant injuries. The event was being treated as a clear win for the Guardians, despite the fact that Doctor Fid had, once more, eluded capture.

But the footage of Titan and Brute being blasted through a wall was replayed over and over again, as well as a beautiful shot of the remaining Guardians watching helplessly as Doctor Fid flew off to safety. One camera drone captured a glorious image of the Red Ghost dropping to his knees, shoulders bowed in defeat. His red cowl hid his eyes, but his lower face was visible, and the setting sun cast deep shadows upon the lines of his face; it was an illusion, but in that moment he looked terribly old and weary.

Technically speaking, the Red Ghost was among the most dangerous of my regular opponents. Titan’s greater experience and calm under fire made him an effective leader, tactically, but the Red Ghost was a more creative thinker. He’d begun his heroic career by making a name for himself as an investigator, fighting crime while wearing a highly protective (but unpowered) crimson and black tactical armor of his own design. Over the years, he’d added to his arsenal using equipment reverse-engineered from villains who he’d fought (It’d been one of my own shaped-plasma gauss cannons that wounded me. My own invention, painted red to match the Ghost’s costume! Damn the man.) and he maintained an impressive regimen of acrobatic and combat training. But those factors weren’t what made the Red Ghost dangerous to my current plans.

Before fate granted him the power to shroud himself in blood-red mists and become incorporeal, the Red Ghost had been a forensic accountant.

Doctor Fid’s dastardly plan may have been foiled by the heroic Guardians, but Terrance Markham was (through dozens of shadow holding companies) heavily invested in construction and real-estate firms that stood to earn a fortune from the properties damaged by the combat. Also, as the founder of AH Biotech, my shares and stocks would surely gain a boost from the media coverage surrounding the supposedly ‘foiled’ crime.

Sometimes, I wasn’t certain which identity was my mask and which one was real. Or perhaps both identities were masks; if so, I wasn’t sure what lay beneath.

Doctor Fid had never before committed a crime that intersected with my civilian life, but in this case the ruse had been too tempting to discard. The success of AH Biotech was crucial for other long-term plans and the publicity was particularly beneficial at that moment. Among the media elite and policy wonks, it was accepted as fact that Doctor Fid deigned to steal only the most dangerous, most advanced technologies...and suddenly every potential customer or investor would be curious as to what wonders AHBT was hiding. There were government contracts to



be acquired, and a receptive Senator had recently been maneuvered into place. Public goodwill always served to make lobbying an easier task.

This latest incident could not, however, be labeled as a complete success; the scenario had originally been intended to test Veridian’s willingness to follow orders when Titan was absent and the Red Ghost was leading the Guardians into battle. In past confrontations, I’d seen hints that the slender, emerald costumed Veridian resented taking orders from anyone whose offensive powers did not rival his own. Confirmation of that character flaw would have opened up further avenues of attack in the future.

Titan and Brute’s unexpected presence had thrown the original plan into immediate disarray. Still…several secondary goals had been accomplished, and the new force-field design was successfully tested against a more powerful physical attack than expected. It was remarkably tempting to send the Guardians a “thank you” card.


sss



Now and then, some reporter looking to make a name for themselves attempted to put together a dramatic expose: the True Story of Doctor Fid. The narratives all felt similar; they described the same battles, the same victories and the same defeats. One woman who was within the crowd at my first bank robbery is quoted in just about every article.

“I don’t think that he wanted us to die,” she always said, “But I don’t think that he wanted us to live, either. He just...barely noticed us. Like we were beneath him. There was this little girl screaming, so loud that we were all terrified that he was going to hurt her just to get some quiet. But the Doctor just walked past her like she wasn’t there—like she didn’t matter. I’ve never been so frightened in all my life.”

Those were the bad years, but even then I had nightmares about that little pony-tailed girl’s wails. When I’d walked into that bank my gut had roiled with so much anger that I could have set the world on fire, but those cries snaked past the rage, infected me, haunted me. I remembered forcing myself not to look at her directly; if I’d looked her in the eyes, I would have been compelled to take off my mask and comfort her and then all my plans would have fallen to pieces.

It always felt strange that none of these so-called reporters ever followed up on that portion of the story. They never looked for the girl, never tried expanding on her tale. They only cared about the tears and not the aftermath.

(Melissa Halden had grown into a talented art student at Berkeley, attending with a full scholarship that I may have quietly influenced. She was happy and well adjusted.)

The articles all failed in the same manner: when attempting to guess at my motivations. They analyzed my name, my targets, my actions. They’d harassed every family in the United States with my sobriquet’s last name while seeking clues, and psychologists who’d never met me pontificated endlessly about my pathology. The authors guessed and made up stories, each more outlandish than the last. I’d once found those fables humorous, but the amusement had long since faded.

There’d been a plan and that plan would have ended in self-immolation.



The whole play had been scripted in my imagination: I would become a villain so feared that people would

barely dare whisper my name, and, when I was sufficiently infamous, I would engage in battle with the hero named Bronze. He would gaze across the destruction that I’d wrought and ask me what could possibly have motivated me to perform such atrocities. And I would take off my mask, crying, and inform him that I was his creation.

In the theater of my mind’s eye, I would tell him what he’d done and I would watch his world collapse as he realized the gravity of his sin. In that moment, we would both get what we deserved for surely there would be no future for either of us. I dreamt of that scene for years until every morning I would wake and still taste the battle’s blood and ash and tears on my lips.

In a final and unknowing act of vicious spite, Bronze drank himself to death before I could ever confront him.

He could not have been aware of his connection to me. Doctor Fid had never mentioned Bronze in public; the eventual revelation was supposed to be epic—Shakespearean in proportion! Whatever demons drove Bronze to the bottle, it wasn’t worry regarding Fid’s actions. There was a vicious part of me that hoped that he’d fallen into despair over what he’d done to Bobby, but I would never know.

I was bereft. The hero had managed to take everything from me. My faith in humanity, my goals for the future, my sense of self. My brother. I’d given up the entirety of my being, stained my soul with violence and blood to force Bronze to feel my pain. And then Bronze had stolen even my revenge.

There was nothing left to me save for guilt and a suit of powered armor equipped with sufficient armaments to level a small city.



sss



“Whatcha drawing?” I’d asked, years earlier. The class was over and my students had long since funneled out of the room; I’d gotten distracted grading papers and my brother had patiently remained in the area that I’d set aside for him at the front of the lecture hall. There were comics and books and an army of action figures to keep him entertained, but Bobby was currently laying on his belly surrounded by crayons and craft paper.

“An adventure!” he chirped in reply. “It’s us, but not now ’cause I need to be bigger before I’m Strongboy.”

“That’s your superhero name?” I smiled.

“Uh-huh. And this is you!”

The likeness wasn’t complimentary—a skinny chalk-white figure with long fingers, a messy scribble of hair and the beginnings of a pot belly—but I thought that the oversized head was an interesting abstraction to represent my cerebral capabilities. Although my actual skull was average in shape and size, Bobby apparently believed that my brain needed a larger container. That, at least, I thought to be flattering.

“How’d I get that hero name?” I asked, looking at the picture’s label.

“Because you’re a P-H-D doctor, and ‘P-H’ is pronounced ffffff.”



I laughed, “Well…get up, Strongboy. It’s late.”

“I’m not Strongboy yet,” he complained, piling up his drawings before pushing himself to his feet. “I need to be bigger.”

“I don’t know…you’re getting pretty big. Make a muscle!”

He complied with an impish grin, flexing dramatically; I checked his biceps and made suitably impressed sounds.

Bobby giggled.

“I think you’re almost ready,” I told him, grunting as I lifted him up and made ready to leave. With my free hand, I checked my pocket to make sure that I had my keys.

“No, wait,” he squirmed until I let him down, then hurried to the pile of toys and snatched up an action figure with yellowish metallic skin. His favorite. “Okay, we can go.”



sss



The armor was disassembled and I moved back to Cambridge. MIT was eager to have me back; the five-year absence hadn’t even affected my tenure. I taught classes, took classes, performed research, earned a few more doctorates...It’s not that I thought it possible to put Doctor Fid behind me, it was only that I lacked motivation. In a listless malaise, I returned to that which was simple.

When I reestablished my presence in academia, many of my colleagues came to me and expressed their support. “I was so sorry to hear about Robert,” they would say, “He seemed like a great kid.” None of them approached me directly after the incident. Bobby’s middle-school friends did, trying to comfort me in the awkward, honest way that only children can manage. They hugged me and cried and touched some of Bobby’s toys and told me stories and cried some more. The adults, though, my peers and coworkers...they kept at a distance. They left me to my grief when my grief burned, but a half-decade later they finally felt comfortable offering consolation.

At some subconscious level they must have recognized that my anguish bordered on madness. Adults are flustered by those who are mad; they look the other way and keep their distance. When I returned, I imagined that my fellows breathed a sigh of relief and decided that their fears had been imagined.

(Children are more inquisitive about strangeness than they are embarrassed by it. That is, perhaps, why I’d always connected with my brother so well despite the decade of age between us. I’ve always been somewhat odd. I’d never really fit among my peers, socially; when I was a youth, I was too intellectually advanced to connect with others of my own age, and by the time I was fourteen and attending college I was too emotionally immature to relate to my fellow students. Bobby was four years old then, and there was something about his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity that delighted me. He was a normal kid, but he smiled whenever I spent time with him. Bobby listened. He cared with an intensity that was astonishing.)

Strangely, the faculty were more open to working with me when I returned to academia. I was invited to partner with researchers who had, previously, seemed standoffish due to my youth. I was still at least a decade or two younger than them, but somehow witnessing my breakdown and supposed recovery made me more



approachable. Less of a threat. I was still numb and directionless, of course, but perhaps I was also less driven and intense. Our team shared credit for a Nobel Prize and I published papers in whatever fields my peers pointed me towards.

For six years, Doctor Fid was nothing but a series of poorly labeled crates in a storage garage in Somerville. At the time, reporters postulated that the villain had been seriously injured (or died) of wounds inflicted during that last battle with Valiant on the White House lawn. Later, reporters would refer to those six years as the calm before the storm.

Not all wounds heal with time, but some do grow dull. A bearable ache, always uncomfortable but at least the pain was familiar. So it was with my own malaise. Bobby had been dead nearly as long as he’d been alive and I was somewhat surprised to find that my own life continued on. I had my studies and research, my students and my fellow professors.

A social misfit I may have been, but complete isolation had never suited me. One noted psychologist often publicly claimed that Doctor Fid’s behavior could be partially explained by childhood isolation or absentee parents, but that supposition was wholly incorrect; my parents might not always have known how to deal with their precocious and frighteningly brilliant firstborn, true, but they’d loved and supported me as best as they’d been able. They always were remarkably patient with me when I’d taken apart a vehicle or appliance to see how it worked but had gotten distracted before choosing to reassemble it. They were gentle when an experiment went awry and I required medical assistance, and they sang lullabies when I had difficulty sleeping.

I must have been a terribly difficult child. How does one comfort a youth who has developed mathematical models to accurately predict the timing and path of atmospheric electrostatic discharge, and yet still flinches and cries silently at the sound of thunder? My emotional development did not occur at the same pace as my intellectual growth. In retrospect, it seemed likely that dichotomy led to an uneven maturation.

At thirteen, I designed my first breeder reactor. I was eighteen when I received my first doctorate and accepted employment at MIT, nineteen when I became my brother’s guardian, and twenty-one when I watched my brother die.



sss



Bobby is eleven years old today, and it is the most beautiful summer afternoon in recent memory. The warm breeze smells like freshly cut grass, healthy trees and salt blown in from the sea, and the sky is so clear and blue that it seems unnatural. We both still have sand in our hair from building castles that were swallowed by the tides, but our beach blankets and plastic buckets have been packed away back in the rental van. I’d forgotten the sunscreen and I’m sure we’ll be lobster pink in the morning, yet right now I am too happy to care.

Bobby bounces as we walk, giddy with anticipation; I hadn’t been able to keep his birthday surprise a secret any longer. After months of searching, I’d puzzled out Bronze’s secret identity and we’re on our way to surprise him at his office. I’m going to introduce my baby brother to his hero.



Arranging a meeting with Bronze’s alter-ego, Paul Riley, had been simple. Paul works in maritime research and I have patents for a submersible drone that will be invaluable. I’d told Mr. Riley’s secretary that I chose his firm



because we were relocating to the area; at the time, the statement had been subterfuge but now I’m considering moving for real. Bobby hasn’t smiled like this since before the car accident that took our parents.

Paul Riley had offered to meet us in the lobby and guide us up to his office; I see him near the entrance as we approach his building. Bronze’s counterpart is a fit man in his early thirties with black hair and dark eyes, and his ruddy complexion tells me that he probably spends most of his time working outdoors despite the well-tailored business suit that he’s wearing today.

“That’s him,” I whisper to Bobby. “Remember, don’t say anything until we’re in private.”

Bobby’s eyes widen and he grips my hand tight, trembling. His skin is warm and soft; he doesn’t have any calluses. He spends too much time indoors, too much time with me.

We’re across the street from Bronze’s office when the first missile hits. Someone starts screaming and I hear shrapnel and debris scatter along the asphalt. Reflexively, I scoop my brother up into my arms and sprint towards a park bench with concrete sides and thick wooden slats. I’m running as fast as I can, awkward and desperate and terrified.

There is a Paragon Research facility at the end of the block and the terrorist supervillain Locust is attacking. He’d assaulted the New Mexico location only a few weeks earlier; I’d seen it on the news. Being close is different from watching on a screen. Terrifying! My chest aches and my eyes sting; there’s something in the air, an acrid taste I don’t recognize, and my breath is already coming in desperate gulps.

A score of foot soldiers wearing Locust’s symbol pour out of an armored truck, firing indiscriminately to clear the road and cause chaos as they swarm towards the gate. There are more shouts, different voices and I hear a little girl cry for her mother. In my head, I’m designing better surveillance, counter weapons, heavy armor, anything that could keep Bobby safe, but my workshop is hundreds of miles away and all I have time to do is try to make sure my brother is behind the bench.

In the lobby, Paul Riley is staring right at us. I’ve researched his power set; he can transform his body, gaining nearly a foot of height and skin that appears to be made of his namesake material. Once metamorphosed, he is strong and fast and has moderately strong telekinesis that only affects metal.

Paul Riley could shift to his heroic form in a heartbeat, but he is in public among coworkers and people who know him. He could reach us, he could get Bobby to safety, could use his power to disarm all of Locust’s thugs and leave only the insectoid, acid-spitting villain as a serious threat, but doing so would certainly cost him his secret identity. The moment seems to take forever as he weighs the value of his privacy against the speed of his response. I can see him considering how many steps it will take for him to get into a private room, how many extra seconds it will take to make a clean entrance. He makes his choice.

“Ow.” Bobby looks bewildered, holding his chest. For the first time in my entire life I can’t think. I can’t calculate the angles, can’t figure out what I did wrong. I’m holding my brother, shouting for help and feeling helpless and small. There is so much blood.

I watch my brother’s eyes as he watches his favorite superhero turn away and run back into the office building.





sss




I was twenty-six when I disassembled Doctor Fid’s armor and returned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I was thirty-one when I made my way back to the storage garage in Somerville where the armor had been hoarded.

Becoming completely absorbed into my work had always been a problem for me. When I was studying or constructing mathematical algorithms or designing new tools and devices it was far too easy to lose track of time and fail to pay attention to my surroundings. The symphony of creation inside my head grew too loud and the external noise faded.

My colleague, Takuma Ichiro, must have talked to me first, must have asked my permission; out of ingrained habit, I must have made an appropriately polite response. Distracted by theoretical physics, I didn’t notice an area of floor space being cleared in the protected low-energy section of our lab, didn’t notice the boxes or the small yellow bookshelf filled with colorful titles.

There was a stack of notepads under one of my arms and my other hand was holding a large mug of coffee; with my hands thus occupied, my pencil was carried between my teeth, and I gnawed thoughtfully as I pondered an annoying magnetic resonance that was polluting the results of the afternoon’s tests. A ten-year-old child was sitting in the corner, quietly playing with superhero action figures while his father worked.

The pencil fell to the floor.

“Terry, I’m so sorry,” Doctor Ichiro jumped to apologize; he must have read something strange in my expression. “I didn’t realize how much Hideki’s play area would look like—”

“It’s all right.” I smiled unsteadily and took a deep breath. “I was just surprised is all. Hey there, kiddo. Your name is Hideki?”

The boy nodded, his eyes wide.

“You like superheroes, hm?” My chest hurt, and I was torn between an aching sadness and bright nostalgia. “My brother liked superheroes. Who’s your favorite?”

Hideki reached for one large figure wearing a black costume with orange highlights and a dark bandit’s mask that covered its lower face; Takuma moved faster, snatching up the offending toy.

“Hideki!” Doctor Ichiro looked aggrieved. “I told you that you can’t play with this one anymore.”

“But Gamma is the coolest!” the boy complained, “He fought Metalstorm and Spiker at the same time!”

“Gamma is a good fighter, but he is not a good person,” Takuma tried to explain, “He has said things that are rude to women. He does not behave well.”

“Gamma is the coolest!” Hideki insisted, voice rising angrily. His small hands clenched into fists. “And if you’re twelve feet tall you don’t HAVE to behave good!”

“Everyone should behave good,” I said quietly. There must have been something odd about my voice, some truth or hint of pain that transcended mere words; Hideki stopped mid-tantrum to listen. “If someone puts on a costume, if they claim to be a superhero...they should have to be a hero. They should be good.”



“Gamma is good!” Hideki pouted. “He beats up bad guys.”

About a month later, a drunk Gamma caused a few thousand dollars’ worth of property damage in his hometown of Atlanta, and a cell-phone recording caught Gamma claiming that he didn’t need to listen to the responding police officer because he was only three-fifths of a cop.

The public relations firms and lawyers swarmed. There was the inevitable scripted public apology in which Gamma stated that he was impaired at the time and that the views expressed did not match his true feelings. A few heroes repudiated Gamma, but others repeated a statement of support for the hero and lauded his supposed ‘bravery’ and ‘honesty’ in holding his press conference. The mighty Valiant, an African-American hero who Doctor Fid had clashed with in Washington, D.C., responded to a reporter’s query with a quiet ‘No comment’. The event was twisted and spun and slipped out from media attention after a week.

Hideki continued to play with his Gamma action figure whenever his father wasn’t looking.

Even then, I recognized that so-called superheroes performed a public service that is both difficult and dangerous; they were marketed, however, as something far greater. They accepted the accolades, pretended to be righteous warriors and icons of justice and all that is good, and yet still quietly accepted a system that protected the undeserving. A thin spandex line that stood in opposition to villains like the very-deceased Locust or the monster who had been Fid but also shielded their peers from accountability.

They accepted worship from children. Didn’t they know how precious that was? How could they live with themselves if they didn’t spend every waking moment struggling to be worthy of such unconditional trust? Someone needed to remind the public that, beneath their colorful costumes and flashy powers, their idols were only human. Someone needed to remind the cape and cowl set that they could—no, should!—aspire to be something more.

Doctor Fid had never been unmasked. It would have been a relatively simple thing to build a completely different suit of powered armor and come to the public under a new persona. I could try to be the hero that children like Hideki deserved...but it would only be another lie. I’d failed my brother and caused too much heartache to ever be deserving. My inventions had, by now, saved far more lives than Fid had ever harmed, but there would be no salvation for the likes of me.

In a vacuum-sealed and UV-resistant glass case hidden away in a secret bunker, I kept my most prized possession: a series of crayon drawings on construction paper. The Adventures of Strongboy and Doctor Fid.

I smiled, long-term plans beginning to percolate through my mind. A private company, tools and devices, surgical augmentations performed by medical robots, an upgraded powered-armor suit...Doctor Fid would never be the hero who Bobby imagined, but he could at least serve the noble purpose of demonstrating the heroes’ shortcomings. He could inspire some heroes towards greatness and drag others from their pedestals back down to earth.

I could do more, too. With sufficient resources and no bureaucracy holding me back, I could design machines that could generate cleaner energy, purify sea water, grow crops more efficiently and deliver resources in a more equitable manner. I could cure diseases, build tools to protect civilians, create safer buildings and vehicles. Doctor Fid might be a supervillain, but perhaps he could save the world right out from under the fraudulent superheroes’ noses.

Also, someone really did need to punch Gamma in the face. Repeatedly.




sss



Damn the man!

I’d been careful...studied the frequency of land acquisitions in analogous neighborhoods and applied a Bayesian scatter to add random elements to the pattern such that it should not have too-accurately reflected a pure average. The contracts were neither overbid nor underbid, and I’d even made certain to include a statistically-normal number of errors in the paperwork (with minor variances consistent between each shell company). No software or hardware-based data analysis tool in the world should have indicated a connection! Sadly, there was no consistent model that accounted for human intuition.

Miguel Espinoza (the Red Ghost’s alias) had been sniffing after records concerning the transfers of ownership of properties surrounding my ex-lair. Like all the other supposed base-of-operations to which the heroes had ever tracked Doctor Fid, it’d been chosen more for its suitability for combat than for research purposes; no hero had ever discovered the true laboratories or manufacturing facilities, only facades intended to serve as backdrop for violent encounters. This location had been no different, and yet somehow the Red Ghost thought to investigate more deeply than in the past. Some arcane bookkeeping divination had sparked his interest in property titles; it was possible that comparable voodoo might find a similar connection to the firms from which I'd planned to reap profits with reconstruction.

There was no direct link to Terry Markham’s holdings, but even so I was forced to isolate the relevant accounts...it would be years before I could safely launder those earnings! The twenty-two percent surge in AHBT’s stock price offered little consolation, nor did the company’s contract to supply field medical kits to the U.S. Army’s infantry branch. Any fortune from publicly traded stock could not so easily be funneled towards questionable purchases without raising red flags. I’d been counting on income flowing into Doctor Fid’s shadowy network in order to fund the final pieces to rebuild the massive Mk 29 heavy combat armor and replacements for my combat drones.

Conflicts with the Red Ghost always brought mixed feelings. When my research revealed his secret identity, I’d expected to uncover a few of the usual character flaws; instead, I’d found a conscientious man with no history of violence or difficulties with the law. He’d progressed in his civilian career through talent, skill and hard work rather than backstabbing or politicking. No known enemies or past disasters. Miguel was helping both of his nieces pay for college (he’d never married and had no children of his own) and volunteered at a soup kitchen on his days off.

I’d have nominated the man for sainthood if he hadn’t perforated my intestines with my own damned rifle. Also, he’d cost me seventy-three-point-one million dollars from Doctor Fid’s criminal empire, money that could have been put towards the development of a proper doomsday weapon! Defeating him always rewarded me with a spark of vicious pride and a pang of terrible guilt.

I’d purchased four Red Ghost toys over the years. Two were given to Hideki, one was incinerated in a fit of rage, and the last resided in my most treasured vacuum-sealed and UV-resistant glass case. Bobby would have loved that action figure.

Damn the man.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Chapter Reveal: Jordan, by Victoria Landis

Genre: Thriller
Author: Victoria Landis
Publisher: BookPainter Press, LLC
JordanFrontCoverFeb12019
About the book:
When Petra Simmons and her brother, Andy, help a seemingly homeless young woman, their intended good deed immediately changes their lives forever. Within days, it’s clear that the woman, Jordan Crissman, is so much more than meets the eye. Jordan possesses an amazing ability – perhaps the most miraculous ability of all. Petra and Andy realize that, in the current world of viral social media, they must proceed with extreme caution. But how can they best employ the miracle without causing havoc? They plot a careful strategy. Despite their plans, word gets out too fast, and the world comes running – invading and overwhelming South Florida and bringing danger.
Television talking heads pontificate. Pundits opine. Some claim Jordan’s a messiah. Others insist she’s the devil. Massive crowds gather, demanding to see Jordan. Everyone wants her.
But there’s nowhere left to hide. Damaging and horrible rumors swirl. Protest groups march and riot. Mass hysteria reigns.
And people are dying.
VickiSF15Headshot
About the Author:
Victoria Landis is a professional writer, editor, and artist. A 16-year member, and former board member, of Mystery Writers of America, she Co-Chaired the SleuthFest Writers Conference from 2015-2018.
She’s taught at SleuthFest, the Authors Academy at Murder on the Beach, and the Alvin Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern University.
Social Media Links:
Twitter: @VictoriaLandis1
Instagram: VLandisArtist
First Chapter
CHAPTER ONE
Sunday 6PM
 
Petra Simmons plucked the last truffle from the day’s sample tray and added it to the other chocolates in the white paper bag.  She handed it to Lettie Hillier, an old friend of Petra’s deceased parents.
     Lettie accepted it with a grin.  “Are you sure you kids are doing okay?”
     “I miss them.”  Andy, Petra’s younger brother, stepped toward them.
     “Losing them still hurts,” Petra said.  “But, yes.  We’re fine.”  She gestured to the bag.  “Open it.”
     It crinkled when Lettie unfolded the top and looked inside.  Laugh lines scrunched outward from her mouth when she smiled.  She winked at Petra.  “Chili-pepper-shaped?  That’s new.  Thanks, Punkin.”
     “You’re most welcome,” Petra said.  “They’re infused with cayenne.  Hope your husband enjoys them.”
     “If they escape being eaten on the drive home.  You kids take care, okay?”
     “Will do.”  Andy held the shop’s glass door open for Lettie, grinned at her as she exited, then locked it.
     Pushing her palms against her temples, Petra sighed.
     The building shuddered slightly for a half-second.
     Petra grabbed the counter.  “Did you feel that?”
     “Yeah.”  He pointed skyward.  “Weird.  Military jet going by?  A sonic boom, maybe?”
     “I didn’t hear any boom.”
     “Me, either.  Maybe it was too far away.  Wasn’t very strong.”  He ambled toward her.  “We don’t get earthquakes.”  With a dramatic flourish, he took a wide stance and stretched his arms outward, as if waiting for the building to shake.  After a few seconds, he went back to a normal stand.  “I think we’re good here.  Why do you give Mrs. Hillier free chocolates?”
     “Because she’s been so kind to us since Mom and Dad died, and she sends all her friends to me for their special occasions.  At first, she argued with me about the freebies.  I’m far more stubborn than she knew, and I won.  So now she calls herself my taste tester.”    She wiped her brow and surveyed the mess around the seating area of three small round tables by the front windows.  “Wow.  That was one hell of a last minute rush, huh?”  Grabbing the cleaning spray and sponge, she realized he hadn’t responded and turned.  “Andy?”
     He’d returned to the door, his back to her.  “There’s a strange chick on the plaza freaking everybody out.  See?  They’re all moving away.”
     Petra came from behind the counter and stood beside him.
     A disheveled woman, her brown hair a rodent’s nest, sat staring at the sky, on the bench ledge of the hexagonal fountain twenty feet from Petra’s Kingdom of Chocolate shop.  She wore a red T-shirt and blue jeans−both ripped and stained.  Her entire body shook for several seconds, then she lowered her head.
     The people nearest her shuffled further down the bench.  A man with two toddlers in tow hustled them off the plaza.
     “Really, I can’t work up much interest,” Petra said.  “Another homeless person.  It’s sad, but too bad.”
     “No,” Andy said.  “There’s something different about her.”
     Andy often misjudged situations and people.  Petra sighed.  “I don’t think so.  She’s only another hard luck story.”
     “She’s pretty.”
     “No.  She’s not,” Petra said.
     “Look beyond the mess.  Come on, let’s see if we can help her.”
     “Please don’t.  I’m so tired.  I want to finish and go upstairs to relax.”
     Ignoring her, Andy unlocked the door and headed outside toward the woman.  He gestured for Petra to join him.
She shot a glance heavenward.  “God grant me patience.”  She ventured out.
     Reaching the homeless lady, Andy knelt to peer under the cascading hair.  “Are you okay?”
     The woman shook her head.
     Nearing her, Petra found her younger than she’d assumed.  Maybe thirty.  And she did have attractive features under the unkempt locks.
     “Do you need help?” Andy said.
     His angelic expression of compassion tugged at Petra’s heart.
     “Apparently.”  The woman chuckled and swept the hair from her face.
     Her voice also took Petra by surprise.  The one-word reply was enunciated in a clear, sophisticated tone.
     “What happened?” Andy asked.  “You look like you fell out of a tree.”
     She hesitated, then leveled her gaze at Petra.  “I really don’t know.  I can’t remember anything.  It’s all blank.”
     Her eyes were a golden brown, almost amber.  Unusual and striking.
     In her peripheral vision, Petra saw the three remaining people on the plaza, now sitting on an iron bench eating ice cream cones.
One of them pointed behind Andy and Petra, and the others’ eyes widened.
     Petra twisted to see a small red fox sniffing and making its way, inch by inch, toward them.  “Andy, very slowly, look behind us.  It’s an actual fox.  Where did that come from?”
     He turned.  “That’s strange.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  Maybe it’s rabid.”
     “No,” the disheveled woman said.  “He’s not.  He’s being friendly.”
     Petra glared at her.  But, in fact, the fox was sniffing its way closer to them as a curious dog would.  She didn’t like the oddity of it.  “I think we ought to go back inside.”
     “All right,” Andy said.  “Come with us, um . . . What’s your name?”
     “Wait a minute.”  Petra grabbed Andy’s arm and pulled him about ten feet away.
     The fox froze, then retreated a few yards.
     Its posture reminded Petra of a spooked cat with its fur standing on end.  Whispering, she said to Andy, “Are you nuts?  We’re not bringing this woman into my store.  It’s closing time.  I’m tired, and who the hell knows what kind of drug addict she could be?”
     “We can’t leave her out here.”
     “Sure we can.  We’ll call security, and they’ll take care of getting her to someone who will help.”
     “No.”  Andy gestured toward the woman.  “We should help.”  He went back.
     “You can be so infuriating sometimes, you know that?”  Unwilling to leave him alone with a possible lunatic, Petra joined him.
     The woman was touching a purplish mark on her left palm.  “I don’t blame you.  Look at me.”  She grinned and displayed her bruised arms.  “I’m a mess.”  Her eyes locked onto Petra’s.
     A strange comforting feeling about this woman enveloped Petra—as though she were with a long-lost friend.
     “Help me up?”  She kept her right arm in the air.
     Petra offered her a hand before Andy could.  “Come on.  Can you stand?”
     “We’ll find out.”  The woman gripped Petra’s hand and pulled herself up.  She twisted her torso.  “Okay.  Much better.  I was so dizzy when I woke up.”
     “Woke up?  Where?”  Petra’s fingers spasmed and felt suddenly warm.  The recurring fear that she’d inherited her father’s arthritis raced through her.
     “Right here.  On the edge of the fountain.  All I know is waking while sitting on it.”
     “Were you tired when you sat down?” Andy asked.  “Tired enough to fall asleep sitting upright on a concrete bench?”
     She gave him a blank stare, while seeming to ponder his question.
     “This is beyond strange,” Petra said.
     “I agree,” the woman said.  “I don’t like feeling this disoriented.”  She blinked.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know how I got here.”
     Petra’s resistance to her lessened.  To her amazement, she felt a growing urge to do as Andy suggested—help her.  “My name is Petra Simmons, and this is my brother, Andy.”
     “Hello.”  She pushed on and patted her legs, then her ribs.  “No broken bones, it seems.  I’m relatively unscathed.”
     “What’s your name?” Andy said.
     The woman’s mouth screwed up to one side.  “I haven’t a clue.”
     The feeling the stranger wasn’t a threat, and was, in fact, someone innocent, grew stronger.  “Tell you what.  I live on the second floor over the shops.”  Petra pointed behind her.  “See?  That bay window is in my living room.  Let us take you there.  You can get cleaned up, and I’ll lend you some clothes.”
     Andy gave her a shocked expression, then smiled.  “That’s a great idea.”  To the woman he said, “Don’t worry.  We’re good people.”
     She nodded.  “I know.”
     “And . . . how do you know?” Petra said.
     She shrugged.  “I don’t know.”
     It seemed the woman was thinking the same way as Petra.  Producing a key from the back pocket of her jeans, Petra handed it to Andy.  “Will you lock up, then come upstairs?  We can do the tally and cleaning later.  And bring my phone and purse, too?”
     Grinning, he took the key, pivoted, and strode to the shop.
     That startled the fox, but didn’t stop him from edging closer.
     A huge black blur swooped in, nipped the fox on the head, then settled on a nearby tree branch.
     The fox yelped and scrambled into the thicket of cocoa-plum shrubs at the edge of the plaza’s parking lot, now backlit by the transitioning oranges, reds, pinks, and lavenders of sunset.
     “Did you see that?” Petra glanced around.
     The three people finishing their ice cream cones nodded, looking dumbstruck.
     “I have never seen a fox out in the open like that.  Or a buzzard attacking a live animal.”  Petra spoke to the ice cream folks.  “That was a turkey vulture, wasn’t it?”
     One of them responded with a weak shrug.
     “Wow.  Freaky animal day.”  Petra gestured toward the alley between the two three-story buildings of the retail complex.  “The apartment entry is in that causeway.”
     They walked in silence to the entrance.  Petra used a passkey to unlock the residence lobby door, held it open for her, then pressed the elevator button.
     Petra studied her as they rode up one flight.  Long hair, in tangled waves, fell to her waist.  Her T-shirt had grass stains along with mud, as did her jeans.  She wore a ripped and frayed pair of canvas sneakers that Petra assumed were once white.
     The doors opened, and the women turned right, going to the end of the hall.
     “I was lucky enough to get an end unit,” Petra said while inserting her key.  “Lots of windows.”  They went inside.
     “It’s beautiful.”  The woman wandered around the combined living and dining space, stopping at the wide bay window facing the plaza and its fountain.  She gestured to the open kitchen and the granite island that separated it from the living area.  “There are four barstools.  Do other people live here with you?”
     “No.  I live alone.  My boyfriend is here a lot, though, and my brother stays fairly often.”  Petra walked to the short hall off the kitchen leading to the two bedrooms and a guest bathroom.  “I imagine you’re anxious to get that dirt off you.  You look like you’re around my size.  A six?”  She opened her bedroom door and went in.
     Another shrug.  “Guess we’ll find out.”  The woman leaned against the doorframe while Petra gathered some clothing for her.
     A stab of doubt hit Petra.  What was she doing inviting this complete stranger into her home?
     “You’re being so kind.  Thank you.”  The woman touched Petra’s hand before taking the neat pile, then entered the bathroom.
     In an instant, the negative thoughts disappeared—replaced by that comforting feeling again.  Petra shook her head to clear it.  “You’ll find everything you need either in the tall cabinet or in the drawers next to the sink.”
 
                                                                           ***
 
Petra was in the kitchen perusing the freezer when Andy came in.
     “How is the mystery girl?”  He tossed the shop key into the raku pottery bowl on the entry table and placed Petra’s purse on the counter.  “We left the store a mess, and I should have stayed to clean it, but I’m too curious about her.”
     “Still can’t remember her name.  She’s in the shower.”  Petra shut the freezer.  “I’ll order pizza.”  She grabbed her cell from her purse.  “But first, I’m calling Ben.”
     “Is he on duty tonight?”
     “Yes.”  When Ben picked up, she filled him in on the woman in her bathroom.
     “What’d he say?” Andy asked after she put the phone down.
     “It’s a slow Sunday night, so he’ll come over himself.”
     The bathroom door opened.  Her guest emerged, smelling of fresh flowers.  Clean, her skin was flawless.
     Andy let out a small gasp, and Petra knew he was smitten.  That was probably not good.
     The woman smiled and pulled at the black tank top.  “A little tight, but thank you so much.”  She held up a hairbrush.  “I couldn’t get all the knots out.  Would you mind trying?  It might be easier because you can see them.”  She came to stand in front of Petra, handed her the brush, and turned around.
     With an inward shrug, Petra accepted the brush and worked through the first of the tangles.  “My boyfriend is a Sheriff’s Deputy.  I’ve asked him to come over.  Maybe he’ll be able to help you.”