Weekday Fiction Fix is a sometime special here at Spec Faith aimed to introduce readers to some of the newest fiction available. Today’s offering is an excerpt from a book I mentioned earlier this week, a middle grade superhero book by Matt Mikalatos. I wrangled with whether to give a sample from the Prologue or from Chapter 1 and finally went with the latter. Enjoy.
by Matt Mikalatos
Psycho mass murderers can wreck your summer so fast.
John Ajax planned to spend every sun-filled summer day playing Tread Battalion 2 with his friends. Then a super-powered goon tried to kidnap him, and his parents freaked out and sent him to “hide” in
Capeville—a city populated entirely with superheroes and villains.
It might be okay if he could fly, or shoot laser beams out of his eyes, or crush a brick in his bare hands. Instead he has a drill-sergeant grandfather, a crush on his boss (Jupiter Girl, a flying, brick-crushing, psychic powerhouse. No laser eyes.) and a best friend with speedster powers and poor impulse control.
To make matters worse, the aforementioned psycho mass murderer is trying to kill every super-powered person in the city. If that happens John will lose his job, the respect of Jupiter Girl, and his best friend, too. So mass murder, that’s where John plans to draw the line. He may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but
maybe, just maybe, John can still be a hero.
John Ajax sailed his bike off the curb with a victorious whoop, landed it in the middle of the street, popped a wheelie and swerved past a dented blue truck. Eighth grade was finally over, and an unbelievably vast ocean of summer days stretched out ahead of him. Nothing to do now but throw his backpack under his bed, grab some ice cream, slouch to the sofa and play Tread Battalion 2.
The air tasted like summer and exhaust and hot pavement. He cut a diagonal across an intersection and a white minivan honked lazily at him. He popped onto the curb and turned toward home. The whole world seemed familiar and strange at the same time. He had seen this stretch of sidewalk a million times, but never as an eighth grade graduate. A high schooler.
A dog slid out of a shadowy alley and onto the side- walk. Its grey and white fur gave it the unmistakable look of a husky, but its hair was ratted and a deep, hairless scar ran over its forehead and slashed across its snout. When John looked at the dog, it stopped moving and turned its head away. John stopped pedaling and watched it more carefully. Every time he looked away, the dog moved closer. John’s neck hairs stood on end. Was it… hunting him?
He stood on his pedals and zipped down the sidewalk, cutting toward the white walk lights whenever he hit an intersection. The dog followed close behind, and twice it nearly got flattened when it jumped into traffic. John got caught at an intersection while the green turn arrows were lit, which meant no walk signal. A weird guy leaned against a streetlamp at the intersection, and John figured being near someone—even a weird someone—would be good if the dog got too close. John rolled to a stop at the corner.
The dog came padding up the sidewalk and stopped a half block from John, its tongue lolling out and sides heaving. The man against the lamppost had short-cropped that hair covered a sweaty scalp. Even in the summer heat he wore long jeans and a black leather jacket. He had a black number thirteen written across the left side of his face, coming down from his forehead, over his eye and cheekbone and ending on his lower cheek. Whether it was a tattoo or magic marker, John couldn’t tell. The man squinted at the dog, then at John, pinched off his cigarette and flicked it into the street.
“That your dog, kid?”
“No.” John looked at the scarred husky. Its ears perked up. Number 13 stood a step closer than before, a lopsided sneer on his face.
The man scratched at the thirteen on his face with his right hand. “You John Ajax?”
John shook his head, keeping his eyes on the man. The light changed and he put his foot on his pedal. “I’ve got to get home, Mister.”
Number 13 grabbed John’s handlebars. “I’m not going to hurt you, John.” He said it like an actor reading a script for the first time, like he wasn’t used to people believing him.
What should he do? Leave his bike and run for it? Yell for help? Before John could think of another option, the dog barked ferociously and ran toward them, startling Thirteen and John both. The man’s grip on the handlebars loosened, and John tugged away and pedaled furiously across the street. He cut across traffic and barreled down the street toward home.
The dog kept close behind him, growling and barking, its white teeth inches from John’s tire. It pulled even with his legs, so John poured on more speed, worried about being bitten. He cut down an alley, speeding past Dumpsters and illegally parked cars. A homeless man looked up from his cardboard shelter and John yelled, “Careful, there’s a crazy dog out here!”
The homeless man shrank back into his box, stroking his beard, and shouted after John, “Looks like a wolf!” He pulled a flap down over his box and mumbled, “Wolves in the city. Never a good sign.”
A chain link fence blocked the end of the alley, a Dumpster pushed against the building next to it. He pedaled up fast, skidded to a stop and jumped on top of the Dumpster. He grabbed his bike and, with a grunt of effort, slung it over the fence. The dog didn’t break pace, but ran and leapt on top of the Dumpster. John swung his backpack and caught the dog in the chest, sending it flying into the far wall.
He tossed his bag over the fence and followed after it. The dog, still on the other side, growled and snapped at him. John pulled his pack on and picked up his bike. He leaned against it and took a deep breath. What was going on? A stranger and a dog chasing him on his way home from school? The dog growled one more time, then sped back the way it had come.
“Nice move, John.”
He recognized the voice immediately. Number 13. He turned. Thirteen stood in the middle of the alley, his arms crossed. He looked precisely the same as before, with one difference. The number thirteen on his face had been replaced with a number seven.
“What happened to your thirteen?”
Number Seven laughed. “So, we’ve met already, have we?” Seven cracked his knuckles, then dropped his fists to his side. “Since you’re running, I can only assume you rejected our deal.”
“I didn’t even hear your deal.” John tried to edge around the guy, but the narrow alley prevented it.
Seven grabbed John’s wrist. When John pulled away, he gripped it tighter. “You’re coming to meet my boss. He has plans for you. And, considering his history with your parents, he thought it would be safer to send me to pick you up.”
John twisted his arm sideways, yanking his hand free from Seven’s grip. He kicked him, hard, in the kneecap. Seven fell backwards, gasping. Seven’s skin stretched and bubbled, then pulled apart as a second man yanked himself free from Seven. A disgusting sound, like a foot being pulled out of mud, echoed through the alley, and two nearly identical men stood in front of John. One with the number Seven on his face, and the other with no number.
Seven groaned. He pointed at the new man and said, “You’re thirty-two.”
John edged away from the two men. No way. No way this was happening. Since the Jester blew up Kane Bridge and the Rubicon Protocol came into being it was illegal for people with powers to be anywhere but Capeville. Capes shouldn’t be in regular society.
The new man pulled a marker from his pocket and drew a three and a two on his face. He turned to John. “Your parents have been hiding things from you, John. We can tell you the truth about them, about everything.”
“What are you talking about? And why aren’t you in Capeville? Caesar is going to find you, and he’s the most powerful superhuman on the planet.”
Seven coughed, laughing. “Caesar is dead. No one has seen him in years. The Black Vulture is dead, too. I’m not worried. We’re going to kill every cape out there, John. And you’re going to help us.”