I posted Chapter 1 yesterday. Today, Chapter 2!
Am I hallucinating? Mantis wondered, trying to blink the hypoxia from his vision.
But there was no time for it, even if he was. Go crazy later, he told himself.
Mantis rolled up, off of the crushed bundle on the van floor and onto the cultist whose arm he’d hopefully fractured. A few more brutal blows to the face and he was certain the guy wasn’t getting up to fight again.
He checked outside. Phantom Humphrey Bogart still had an arm lock around Hipster Chong’s throat. The knife arm was no longer flailing viciously, but instead hung limp.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Mantis told himself. At least long enough for me to free the girl and get my footing.
The bundle whimpered as he pulled at the blankets. Finally, he found a head of dark brown curls wrapped inside and a young girl beneath them. An even greater level of fear arrested her features when she saw the thorny red mask peering down on her.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said, unravelling her further.
Mantis glanced behind him to confirm what he’d taken for granted. Hipster Chong was no longer visible—lying unconscious on the ground, most likely. Instead, there was the faceless figure in the coat and hat, splintered scrapes and gouges plain on his otherwise smooth head. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, staring on without eyes.
Wooden, Mantis thought. He has a wooden head!
And his casual stance indicated that he was not an immediate threat to the Red Mantis or the young damsel in distress.
Even under the smothering blanket, the girl was bound with belts and bungee cords. She wore a school uniform—a blue and white cheerleader’s skirt and top. Caesar Chavez High. Not his school, but one of their rivals. He knew it well.
“Caesar,” he said, the name now too ready on his tongue. “My name is Cae—I mean…”
Damn! His first kidnapping rescue and he’d already nearly blown his secret identity!
“You’re from Caesar Chavez High School?” he asked, untying her. She still hesitated to answer. “I’m the Red Mantis. I’m a superhero. You’re safe now.”
Mantis crawled backwards out of the van and helped the girl out, too. She favored her right leg, hesitant to put weight on her left.
If that’s the extent of her injuries, he thought, we did pretty well.
The trench coat made room for them. The hipster cultist lay on the ground, breathing exhaust fumes.
“We should get out of sight,” the wooden-faced figure said. (Without use of a mouth!)
“Thanks for the help, sir. I’m the Red Mantis.”
“I’m called Shadow Puppet.”
“You’re the Shadow Puppet?”
The mysterious figure pinched the brim of his hat and gave a slight bow.
Another superhero! A real superhero! Mantis was in good company now.
“We should move this guy, too,” Mantis said, nudging Hipster Chong with his foot.
The girl followed suit, but kicked him, hard, while mumbling obscenities.
“He’s a bad guy,” Mantis went on, “but we can’t let him get carbon monoxide poisoning breathing these fumes.”
The Shadow Puppet opened the driver’s side door, leaned in, and turned off the engine. He came away with the keys and tossed them into the random darkness of the alley.
“Oh,” Mantis said. “That works, too.
“A job well done, I guess,” he concluded. “Why don’t we call the cops and get this girl home?”
“Cops have better things to do than get killed,” Shadow Puppet said in a raspy voice.
Mantis cocked an eyebrow beneath his mask. “Isn’t that…? Isn’t that from a movie?”
“I came here for a reason,” Shadow Puppet said.
“So did I. I was patrolling. I knew there’d been kidnappings lately, and saw this van speed away from a curb as I was coming around a corner. Seemed suspicious, so I followed it.” Mantis placed a hand cautiously on the girl’s shoulder. She nestled in and allowed tears to roll from her eyes, streaking her mascara all over again. “Did they hurt you?” he asked. “Did they do anything to you?”
She shook her head, but hooked her fingers around the plates of his armor, digging in and pushing her face harder against him. It was all coming to a head now, he realized, the full weight of what she’d been through.
“We need to get this girl to a hospital. And the police. And her parents.”
“You do that,” Shadow Puppet said. “Get her taken care of. I have something else I have to do.”
The trench coat walked away.
“Something else…?” Mantis secured the girl with one arm and followed. “What do you mean? What else are you going to do?”
Shadow Puppet came to an alleyway door on one of the buildings. A big padlock kept out the uninvited.
The superhero produced a set of lock picks from his coat pocket and went to work.
“I didn’t follow the van. I followed something else. A clue, a lead, a trail. I’m investigating the Never-Ending Serpent cult. And obviously, I’ve found them.”
“We’ve found them,” Mantis corrected. “And I want to help.”
“I work alone.”
“Alone? One guy against a whole cult?”
The girl sucked in and choked on a violent syllable—probably a word that wouldn’t pass in Mr. Hernandez’s gym class—and pointed.
Several yards up the alley, another figure in a shiny green hood and cloak was crawling up on all fours. It must have been the first cultist that Mantis had knocked from the van. But getting body checked alone wouldn’t have done that much damage. Maybe Shadow Puppet had intercepted him some time after that.
Red Mantis disengaged from the cheerleader and jogged over to the man on his knees, who slowly cocked his head back enough to see who was towering over him. (Towering, perhaps, wasn’t the right word—Caesar Hernandez was only five-foot-six.)
Mantis checked the goon back out with a powerful downward punch.
The young brunette was waiting for him when he returned—her rescuer, her protector—and though she hugged only herself now, she resumed a close stance just inches behind him.
“Thank you for the help,” Mantis said. “And now it’s my turn to help you. I want in on this.”
“You’re welcome. But I don’t need help. They can’t kill me. I don’t think.”
Those last three words were quieter, less confident.
Something clicked. Shadow Puppet twisted open the big lock and pulled it free.
“The girl needs your help,” he said. “Get her out of here.”
She did need his help. Without him, who knew what might have happened to her? But saving her was just the tip of the iceberg. The kidnappings would continue. The cult would go on. They were becoming more brazen, more dangerous. If the rumors were true…
“I heard they killed Coyote.”
Shadow Puppet had his faceless head against the door jamb and was about to ease it open for a peek inside. He paused now, though.
“I heard that, too. She was one of the good ones. I’ve also heard that Medicine Man is on the warpath because of it.” He turned around. “The time to strike is now. To topple this cult on multiple fronts. But not with her here.”
They both looked at the cheerleader. She sniffled her wet nose, wiped it with the back of her hand, and stared back with black-streaked, blue eyes. The fear in those eyes had been displaced now, though, with… Defiance?
Like she was taking Shadow Puppet’s remark as a challenge and was resolving to meet it.
“We can’t stand here debating,” Shadow Puppet said, turning back to the door and readying his shoulder for a charge. “On three.”
Mantis held up a hand. “Wait. On three? What ‘on three’?”
“I tracked this scum to this shop. ‘Papito’s.’ I think it’s a Serpent safe house. The fact that we’re all here right now, having this conversation, confirms it. Now there may be more goons inside. There may not. But we have to spring with the element of surprise.”
“Surprise? The van ran into the side of their building!” Mantis exclaimed, then caught his own volume and lowered it. “How could anyone inside not know we’re coming?”
“I just opened the lock,” Shadow Puppet pointed out, dangling it from one black-gloved finger. “Anyone inside is going to assume we have a key if we come through that door, and therefore must be cultists.” He dropped the lock with a heavy metallic chink on the asphalt. “But you’re right, if anyone was in there, they’d probably have come out to see what the hell was up by now.”
The same gloved hand reached out and slowly turned the doorknob. When it reached its limit, Shadow Puppet leaned further into his ready stance. “On three…”
“What about the girl?” Mantis demanded.
“Yeah!” the cheerleader agreed. She gave Mantis a desperate look and raised her empty hands in front of her.
Was she relaying helplessness or asking to be armed?
“Keep her at the rear. Here we go…”
Impressed as he’d been just minutes ago, Red Mantis was becoming rather doubtful as to the Shadow Puppet’s superhero credentials.
“One, two… three!”
* * *
It gets better from there. (Beginnings are always the most awkward part…)
But to find out, you’ll have to buy it. That’s it for the free sample. (Sorry, but hope you enjoyed it!)
(Pre-orders, through the magic of computer algorithms, boost the visibility of a book when it hits the stands live. So I appreciate your forward thinking and enthusiasm!)