Excerpt: On the business of hiring henchmen (from “Nobody’s Hero”)

This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, inspired by the Man Who Wears Time on His Arm when he asked me what I thought the life of a henchman would be like. We were watching The Equalizer at the time.

“As I’ve learned, there are two kinds of people looking for a job as a super villain’s henchman,” Wilcox said, tenting his fingers like he did during his lectures. “There’s people with nothing to lose, and people with everything to lose. Both have their pros and cons, of course. People with everything to lose will do anything to protect it, and people with nothing to lose have fewer inhibitions — you’re smart enough to surmise that. But they all have one thing in common: They’re dangerous but necessary liabilities.

“Sometimes they think they can double-cross you. Sometimes they decide they have a thread of moral fiber in them and go to the authorities. I had one guy try to use his brief time studying psychology to psycho-analyze me, which I must admit was entertaining. But as annoying as they can get — and I hope Todd can forgive me for this —” Wilcox turned, and for the first time Pru noticed that the burly man who had dragged her into the room was still standing by the door, silent as a suit of armor and twice as stiff. “They’re protection.”

Todd gave a thumbs up, as if the statement was praise for the job he was doing. Wilcox returned the gesture and leaned in to seek another pastry from the plate. Really, it was so Pru could hear him speak softer now:

“Ever notice how it’s always the henchmen who die first? The main villain is always the last to go. So you see, I have to staff my operation with as many desperate and-or delusional people as I can as a means of survival. Smart people need not apply — the more useless intellectually, the more useful they are physically.”

“So Todd there?” Pru asked, leaning in to survey the snacks herself.

“Linebacker for my high school football team,” Wilcox said. “Went through senior year twice, and not because he was challenged in his learning but because he was challenged in his motivation to do anything but body slam other teenagers. Our 20-year class reunion hit at just the right time for both of us. He had just gotten let go from his park district coaching job, and his wife had left him in debt up to his eyeballs. And I had just started this research, so I gave him a job.”

“Do you pay benefits?” Pru asked half in jest as she lifted her teacup to her lips, relieved that the handle had cooled down. He was right — the raspberry flavor was much better when added as syrup after the brewing process.

“Of course,” Wilcox said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “With life insurance to be paid out to his two kids, Bianca and Trevor. They’re only 10 and 12 now, but it’ll be waiting for them when they’re 18.”

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Excerpt: Finding Agatha

I recognize the back of Agatha’s head from the tangled hair falling out of its ponytail. But as I take a seat next to her in a metal chair built to keep visitors from outstaying their welcome, I find that this isn’t the same woman who had sat in my office just weeks before.

“They called me this morning,” I say, hoping to pull her glazed eyes away from the obvious one-way mirror on the opposite wall. The chair is bolted to the floor, so instead of turning to face her, I settle for looking at her reflection.

“Can I get you anything?” the nurse asks.

I nod, “Water, thanks.” Agatha doesn’t move.

Too many things to say mean I say nothing, just stare at the linoleum floor. The tiles’ yellow edges glow in the shadows, and I wonder how many of Moundsville’s mental patients have pissed, shat or vomited on the exact spot between my feet.

I’m shaken from my thoughts when the door shuts behind the nurse. Lifting my head, I come nose-to-nose with Agatha. She’s turned to face me, her ear resting against the recliner’s back.

This close, I can see her cheeks are no longer flecked with crumbling drugstore mascara. Now they’re pale with exhaustion and resignation. She smells strongly of shampoo. The nurses hadn’t given her a thorough rinse.

Unable to tolerate being this close to her — the period at the end of my failure — I strain my eyes against the mirror and try to catch a hint of movement on the other side. All I see, however, is how much older I look since Agatha disappeared.

I turn back to the breathing corpse still gaping at me.

“I feel like this is where I’m supposed to say this is my fault,” I say. “But I don’t think it is. I think it was those two — or maybe it was something else. I think you were overwhelmed.”

To avoid saying anything more, I sip the water. It’s sour from the Styrofoam, and I put the cup back on the table in disgust. Agatha’s empty eyes don’t leave me the entire time.

“Tell the nurse to call me if you want to talk,” I say as I rise, sensing that there isn’t more to say and even less to hear. Agatha’s head slowly turns back to the mirror, and I meet her gaze in the glass before admitting, “I want to know what happened to you.”

The words have left my mouth so dry that I take a second bitter sip of water and start to leave. At the door I turn around one last time to find Agatha staring at my reflection. Maybe it’s just the dark glass, but I swear something black — like ink or smoke — curls from her lips.

Excerpt: Meet Pru, from “Nobody’s Hero”

When the world needed saving, Pru needed a manicure.

It was her client’s job to fight evil. It was the nail technician’s job to fight overgrown cuticles. And it was Pru’s job to make sure that once the threat was vanquished, the world restored to harmony, that her nails looked good as she waved the press away from her sole responsibility as a public relations agent: Miss Opal Hayes, alias Nightfire, one of the most popular state-authorized masked vigilantes.

While the manicurist filed away what was left of last week’s Fleetwood Black Cherry from her left hand, Pru scrolled her phone with her right, scanning her newsfeed for any live streams of her client’s heroics. Unlike some of her peers who represented other vigilantes with checkered pasts, she never asked Nightfire to wear a body camera during combat.

Not that Opal would have acquiesced. While she was almost too open about her past for her own good, she demanded her privacy when not wearing the mask. No one had ever seen her face, and even the name Opal Hayes was a pseudonym, as if anyone would think someone named Mr. and Mrs. Hayes had looked at their perfect baby girl born more than a century after 1890 and think Opal was a fitting name. They may have given her a severe nut allergy, but not a name fitting for a 1920s ingenue.

Pru Mornay’s parents gave their daughter a perfect powerhouse name — a one-syllable punch followed by the soothing balm of a French-sounding surname with a phonetic spelling. It was a name made for a high-profile, high-demand woman, given to a girl raised to be a high-profile, high-demand woman. And that’s exactly who she became, against her best efforts.

Her scrolling came to a halt when a call came through. She stared at the three letters glowing on her phone and debated whether to answer. If she didn’t pick up now, the caller would just keep trying, and Pru couldn’t risk the distraction later. She hit the green button and lifted the phone to her ear.

“Hi Mom.”

“I wanted to remind you that this weekend is the Gladstone Gala,” Lilah Mornay said without a greeting. “You still haven’t told me if you’re coming with us this year.”

“Because I don’t know if I’ll be working.”

“That’s our game, sweetie,” Lilah said. “But you still have to have a life.”

It occurred to Pru for the thousandth time since her birth that her mom only gave advice that would steer people to help her achieve some personal goal. It was how Lilah came to have her own public relations firm. It was also how Pru ended up at the same college, in the same degree program, and now a senior private representative at D&L Mornay PR. In this case, Lilah wanted her whole happy family — philandering husband, cuckolding wife and I-need-to-focus-on-my-career daughter — to be present for a ridiculously opulent charity event that would have seemed the stuff of satire if not for its ability to get rich people to open their wallets.

“I have nothing to wear,” Pru lied, switching her phone to the other ear and allowing the manicurist to yank her arm halfway out of its socket so she could attack the other half of Fleetwood Black Cherry.

“We’ll go shopping. Make it a girls’ day.”

Girls’ Day with her mother usually involved a maxed-out credit card, more martinis than Pru could handle and off-the-record rants about office assistants with caky makeup, thick legs and names like Astrid or Ashley or Ammanda With Two M’s.

“I don’t have time, Mom. Have you been watching the news? Op- I mean, my client is a little busy today, and that means I’m on deck for the next 48 hours.”

Pru felt the excitement flush her face. She didn’t particularly like the hurry-up-and-wait that came with relying on havoc — and the subsequent vanquishing of it — to give her life purpose, but she did enjoy the adrenaline rush that came with knowing her next 48 hours would involve drafting remarks for Nightfire’s press conference, accepting and rejecting interview requests, and perhaps most exciting of all, participating the Federal Vigilante Unit’s debriefing, which only she, her client and a handful of FVU officers were allowed to attend.

“Well why didn’t you say so? Go get ‘em, baby girl,” her mom said, clicking the call to a close.

Pru went back to scanning the news feeds. A few posts from unverified sources using the hashtag #Nightfire had surfaced, but nothing from any official accounts. She read them to see what public opinion had to say on her client’s behalf.

@Bocknstein29: Holy shitt #Nightfire is on my block blasting some dude with a green ray gun. GO GET EM GURL.

@Glamazon_3: Uh, I think I just saw #Nightfire outside the Starbs and Green and State.

@B!ggusD!ckus: Hey #Nightfire when ur done kicking ass, I’ll gladly eat urz. Hit me up. #Nightfire #SexyLady

Pru had discouraged her client from having any personal accounts, recommending she use a special service that could keep her online reputation clean but still give people what they want. After another vigilante, Quantum, had gotten drunk at a convention the year before and posted a video of himself describing how much amputees creeped him out, it wasn’t just his reputation that had tanked. His PR rep, one of Pru’s former acquaintance from college, had closed shop and started experimenting with apps that used photo recognition to identify any breed of dog. There was no way Pru would let Nightfire take to the web, though she wasn’t sure Opal would be willing to do that, either.

“Color?” asked the manicurist, allowing exasperation to creep into her voice now that she had tried three times to get the woman’s attention. She knew this woman. There was nothing about her behavior that separated her rom the other clients: She was more interested in her phone than in the human being shaping her sorry-ass fingernails, all the while trying not to get caught watching the dancers bouncing and grinding in the muted music videos playing on the screens above each table. The salon manager insisted that this woman was famous — that he had seen her on TV before, and therefore she was an important client — but to Angelique, she was just another set of dull, picked-apart nails begging for love and attention. At least she tipped well.

“Sorry,” Pru said. “Number 67.”

Angelique retrieved You Look Radishing from the storeroom and returned to see the rap videos on the screens had been replaced with a live news report from just a mile away. Almost everyone in the salon was watching it.

“Is that Scarlet Sword?” Francesca asked from behind the reception desk. “I like her.”

“Nah, she’s not carrying a katana,” the salon manager said. “That’s gotta be Nightfire.”

Pru’s head snapped up.

“Shit,” she hissed, pushing her chair back with a loud scrape. Turning to the manicurist, she uttered her apologies and dug in her wallet for two twenties. “I’ve got to go. Raincheck on the color?”

She didn’t wait for answer, just blindly took a pump of almond oil hand lotion and strode out of the salon, taking a hard left and disappearing from view before the bell above the door stopped ringing.

Fifteen minutes later, Angelique would see the woman on the TV talking live to a field reporter a block away from the scene and explaining that Nightfire’s first and foremost priority was the safety of Centropolis’ citizens and the preservation of their liberty, dignity and integrity.

This is the first chapter of a novel-in-progress called Nobody’s Hero.

Excerpt: “Lacers” (from an untitled, undecided project)

As if driving a rig wasn’t cool enough, I’ve got my best bitches in the cab with me, packing three guns a piece and making sure anyone who tries to take our cargo ends up being a fresh coat of paint on the trailer.

There’s Cinn, face painted with the cinnabar that earned her the moniker, sitting shotgun as she cradles one in her lap. Dag, flying her arm out the window so the dagger tattooed on her bicep catches a breeze. And Stitch, threading a piece of fishing line through the latest ear she’s claimed as a trophy. This one has a ratty fringe earring dangling from it, clumpy with blood.

“Hey, Gears,” Cinn shouts. “On the left.”

I flip the rear view mirror and see one of the Flora’s distinct bikes coming up close. The thing about their little buzzbombs is that they’re fast and small, but easy to push off the road if you’ve got a big enough rig.

Which I do.

“Nice!” Cinn affirms as we watch the Flora take a sharp detour down an alley to avoid being smeared along the brick walls of Lower Wacker. “Wacker? I hardly know her!” my dad would joke. I still don’t get it.

“They’ll be back,” Dag says, pulling her arm in and checking her rifle one more time. “We should get up top.”

I pull up a street that used to be called Garland, going the wrong way according to the faded signs, and emerge onto a street roofed by elevated train tracks.

“Well that’s new,” I say, nodding to the hole blasted into the building in front of us. “Floras?”

“Nah, probably Sparklers,” Dag says. “That’s got glitter bomb written all over it.”

“Fucking Sparklers,” Stitch spats as she ties the ear around her neck and adjusts it so it hangs in the middle of her chest tattoo spelling out “Lacer.”

That’s what we are in this post-apocalyptic world: Fucking Sparklers. Lacers. Floras. Fuck Mel Gibson in his desert wasteland. After Armageddon hits, the buildings are still here. Kids between the ages of 14 and 19 are still here. And with the patriarchy-pushers now just ashes in the wind, we girls have risen to the top while the boys are too busy doing dick-measuring contests in their underground Boys Only clubs because society tucked them in each night with a kiss and promise that they would inherit the Earth without having to do much to earn it.

Well move over, because we might run like girls, but we also run this world. We’re driving the gas rigs. We’re trading protein packs and solar lamps. And we’re not sacrificing our feminine sensibilities to fit some patriarchal bullshit that fits the narrative Hollywood decided would be most profitable to share in sequels upon sequels of special effects movies.

That doesn’t mean we don’t feel the need to bitch slap each other once in a while. There’s no love between us Lacers and the Sparklers, Floras or Prom Queens, but we also have our allies. The GCs — Gold Crowns — provide surveillance in exchange for a share of the loot we bring back from our runs, and there’s tight history between our leader, Golightly, and the chief navigator for the Chanels.

The boys wish they could be us.

“Flora is back,” Dag announces. “On the right, about forty feet behind.”

“We don’t even have the cargo yet,” Stitch says.

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that, and she’s not going to wait to ask,” I say, cutting the wheel to cut her off as I hit the breaks. I wait for the telltale thump of her body hitting the back of the trailer, but instead I hear metal dragging on pavement.

The bike slides out from under the front of the truck, slamming into the light post ahead. There’s no sign of its rider as I put us back into gear and pull back out onto the road.

“If she’s back there, she’ll be long gone by the time we get to the pickup point.”

“Unless she’s Indiana Jonesing this thing,” Dag says.

Cinn twists around to look at her.

“Come on, Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Dag says. “Indiana grabs on to the bottom of the Nazi’s truck with his whip so he can keep up with it. No one?”

“I lost interest when my brother forced us to watch Church of Doom or whatever,” Cinn says, looking forward again.

Temple of Doom,” Dag and I say in unison. Cinn looks at me incredulously.

“Harrison Ford was hot in those,” I say. “Much hotter than he was in Star Wars. Definitely fuck material.”

“Nah, I’d much rather do Han than Indy,” Dag says. “Imagine how Indiana Jones smelled.”

“Yeah, but the stubble. And that open shirt, hat and whip combo.” It’s been forever since I saw them, but I remember realizing I liked boys thanks to Harrison Ford easing his shirt off with Karen Allen’s help.

“OK, you might have a point.”

Cinn gags melodramatically and keeps looking into the side mirror for a sign of our potential tail.

 

This is the beginning of an undetermined project (book? graphic novel? film starring Amandla Stenberg and Millie Bobby Brown?) that crosses Mad Max: Fury Road with Mean Girls.

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 13: “The Cathedral”

Holy Name Cathedral

Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral sits among one of the high-rent areas in the River North neighborhood.

The cathedral held its ground against the high rises that have shot up like weeds around it, blocking the sun from the stained glass windows that used to share their kaleidoscope hope with the rest of the city when it knew better than to try to touch the sky with iron and steel.