Just the ebook for now, paperback coming later.
But how’s about a free sample first, eh?
This is Secret Origins: Book One. The SO trilogy will be all about the histories of some of the mainstream characters in my other Identity Crisis Universe books. This book consists of a novella, a novelette, and a short story. And I thought this weekend, I’d share the first two chapters of the cover story, “Masks” —
The nondescript grey van turned left, without signaling, and rolled lazily into an alleyway.
Another car followed from a distance: a small, red Prius with the headlights switched off. It was a hybrid model, capable of prowling the streets nearly silent on battery power. That’s what the driver told himself, at least. Truthfully, the payments were kind of steep on a gym teacher’s salary in Mesa City, but he loved that car.
Tonight he wasn’t a gym teacher, though. He was a superhero.
Red Mantis allowed ten seconds to pass after losing sight of the van. Then he crept the Prius to within a block of the alley, gliding along the curb.
There was no other activity in sight. It was past ten o’clock at night, after all, and this was a small business neighborhood. There were no residents here. No one to notice any suspicious activity. No one to hear a young girl scream.
He eased to a stop, threw it in park, and turned off the engine.
From across the street, Mantis could see that the alley was flanked by a small adobe-faced shop on the left and a larger, dark building on the right.
Papito’s Tailor and Dry Cleaning was a square, one-story structure with a large, darkened front window. The mechanical centipede of the rotating dry cleaner’s rack made an ominous shadow on the other side of the glass, but there was no obvious movement inside.
The other place was a much larger lodge hall, three stories of dark brick. The Honorable Brotherhood of the Sunset Horizon, the sign read. The lodge crest looked Native American in theme: a red semi-circle resting on a thick black line, irregular, like a brush stroke. A falcon or hawk soared above and a sinuous snake crawled beneath.
“That even sounds like a cult,” Red Mantis mumbled to himself. “Why hasn’t anyone looked into these guys?” He peered over his steering wheel. “Huh. Maybe that’s why.”
A smaller sign read: “Food Pantry: Tuesdays 5-7pm” and “Bingo Night: Thursday at 7”.
Maybe I’m chasing the wrong suspicious van…
He looked at his watch, its face spun around to the underside of his left wrist to allow for the rigid plastic brace that was strapped to his forearm. The digital display read 10:14:49, alongside the time zone and his current pulse rate, which was an excited 92 and anticipating more. (Let’s face it, the watch had probably cost more than he’d needed to spend, too.)
He’d now allowed twenty-seven seconds to pass since the van had left his sight. Too long.
Without another second of hesitation, Caesar Hernandez—the Red Mantis—popped out of the driver’s seat, adjusted the crimson plates of his segmented combat armor, pulled the pointy-frilled mask down over his face, and burst into action.
The big cargo van idled in the alleyway, its side door ajar, brake lights casting a sinister crimson glare behind it. Two figures in shiny green robes, like shapeless satin gowns, were struggling with a blanket-wrapped bundle between them. Or rather, the bundle was struggling in their grip. One emerald-cloaked cultist was backing away, the other was still inside the cargo hold.
Neither was prepared for the stout, muscular man in red plastic armor who came sprinting into the alley in a wide-curved arc, heading right for them.
The Red Mantis came hurtling through a haze of scarlet-lit exhaust fumes and ploughed straight into the cultist standing on the ground. The villain was blasted off his feet and thrown to the asphalt. Thanks to his armor and mastery of balance, Mantis bounced off his victim and near-perfectly replaced him, catching his end of the blanketed burden.
Something squirmed and kicked inside, bound by hooked bungee cords. The prisoner was petite, not much more than five-feet tall and little over a hundred pounds.
The man on the other end of the bundle stood paralyzed, hunched over in the van, shocked by the sudden transposition he’d just witnessed. Mantis shoved the writhing thing between them, forcing the second cultist backward and feeding all three of them back into the vehicle. The cultist—a brown-skinned man with a black scrunchie for a headband—stood with mouth agape and eyes wide in surprise. His hands unconsciously fumbled with the human bundle as it slipped away from him and folded up on the van floor.
Two red-plated fists struck his bulging eyes shut and slammed him against the van’s opposite hatch. Mantis then hugged and flung the man bodily. The thug nearly cleared the prisoner on the floor and rolled against the extended van’s rear doors.
“It’s all in the hips!” Mantis bragged, panting.
He snapped toward the driver’s seat. (His unexpected speed in the ring had always been Caesar’s greatest asset.) A third villain, the wheelman, sat half-turned around, arm wrapped around the headrest, hipster glasses mismatched with his heavy Cheech and Chong style mustache. Just as he opened his yap to fling out a string of curses, Red Mantis’s thick hands slapped onto either side of his head. He squeezed and pulled simultaneously, jerking the driver half out of his seat.
The Spanish obscenities came fast and loud as the driver tried to wrestle with the forearms that had arrested his face, but he found gripping the irregular arm guards problematic.
Mantis pulled again with his full weight, dragging the now screaming hipster cultist into the cargo space. He let go with his left hand, only to bring it back with a vengeance.
The blanket-bound captive screamed too, the high-pitched wail of a teenaged girl—Mantis had stepped on her. The van’s hold was big, but not that big. Collateral damage was unavoidable when fighting outnumbered in a confined space.
Then the entire world came unhinged: the van was moving!
“The brake!” Mantis realized aloud, spitting the words into the wheelman’s face, as if it were his fault he was no longer standing on it.
Selective darkness moved beyond the windshield as the headlights probed the walls on either side of the alley.
Mantis climbed on top of the kneeling driver and dove between the seats—but found that his broad shoulders with their (perhaps overly ornate) armored plates couldn’t squeeze through. His head poked into the cab and came to an abrupt stop.
Just in time to see someone new appear in the headlamps.
Mantis gasped. This headlong tumble into chaos was all happening too fast.
A figure stood before the runaway vehicle, buttoned-up in a trench coat with an old-style fedora on his head. His hands flashed up as if to somehow stop the two tons of rolling steel.
“Move!” Mantis roared.
But the man only had time to stare up at him.
Half a second later, he was under the van.
Mantis froze. Hunched over, shoulders pressed between the headrests, too stunned now to act. The momentum of his attack had been broken and someone had just been run down by the errant vehicle, thanks to his rash, thoughtless assault on the driver.
If he was real. Did he even have a face?
In that flash of panic, as the figure had glanced up just before disappearing beneath the van’s nose, Caesar’s eyes had been convinced that there was no face in the V formed by the raincoat’s up-turned collar; nothing at all beneath that archaic hat brim.
His weight jostled as bodies moved behind and beneath him in the chaotic cargo hold.
The van continued to idle further down the alley’s throat, picking up speed.
Hands clawed at Mantis from behind. Both cultists came at him again—were already on top of him. The black scrunchie headband, swollen eyes, the hipster glasses, a bloodied nose.
Three men became entangled in a very tight melee, all on top of the poor girl bound in a blanket on the hard steel floor.
Have to end this quickly, he thought.
Luckily, this was his element. Little did the cultists know that Caesar Hernandez was even more adept at ground work than slugfest. His days in the MMA circuits had made him a consummate grappler. Even tangling with two men at once wasn’t much of a challenge when his opponents were untrained in the arts.
He wrapped one flailing arm—he didn’t know whose—against his own shin and pulled. Something snapped audibly, followed by a howl of pain. The scrunchie curled to one side, no longer a threat.
Boom! The van—and their world—suddenly crashed to a violent halt.
The dogpile of bodies lurched forward.
Mantis found himself near the bottom now, with a whimpering lump beneath the small of his back, a hand wedged against his throat, and gritted teeth growling above him. He heard the click of a switch blade and saw the van’s pale internal light glistening off the thin plane of steel.
“You’re dead, muchacho,” Hipster Chong snarled. He stabbed down to pierce the would-be hero’s heart, but the strike was blunted by his sturdy plastic armor.
Finally good for something! The thought blurted across his mind, but his relief was short-lived.
The blade dragged itself across his red chest plate, dropped a quarter-inch off the edge, and found nothing but cloth backing to protect the sternum beneath. The gap between plates was little more than thick elastic. The chink in his Red Mantis armor.
A toothy grin split wide beneath the fogged lenses and their thick, black frame.
Every muscle in Mantis’s body exploded in an effort to escape, but they failed to free him. His burst of motion managed only an inch of disruption. Not enough to save him from the knife that was about to splinter through his breastbone.
The girl squirmed under him. Once he was dead, there’d be no one to save her.
Suddenly, two gloved hands appeared on either side of Hipster Chong’s sweaty, wild expression. Ten fingers curled around his ears and yanked him backward.
He disappeared with a yelp.
Mantis shot up into a sitting position.
Outside the van, Hipster Chong was stabbing wildly at a trench coated figure who now had the thug in a sleeper hold. The knife landed several vicious points right into the man’s face, but he never blinked.
In fact, he had no eyes. Nor any other features. The head beneath the hat brim was smooth, blank.
He had no face at all.
* * *
Chapter 2 up tomorrow!