Tales of Adventure & Fantasy Excerpt
From: “The Nightbird’s Last Flight” in Tales of Adventure & Fantasy — Book 1
In his dreams, Burt flies. He’s young, 15 or 16, dancing across the rooftops as the adrenaline surges. There’s a joyous ache in his arms and thighs as he vaults fire escapes and water towers. Only rarely does he fall, but when he does it’s the night it all changed. He feels the wrought iron bar in his grip, then slipping away. He tries to resist the pull of gravity, reaching up for help. Reaching up towards him, always out of reach. Burt falls, and never wakes up before he lands. He feels the impact every time, waking up in a cold sweat, a dull ache still in his back.
Burt glances at the clock on his bedside table, the display reading twenty-to-six. There’d be no more sleep for him, so he slips from under the heavy wool blanket on his twin bed. The room is sparse, with only a dresser and a writing desk for furniture. Seven gray suits hang in the small closet, just different enough so Burt’s clients know he actually changes his clothes. He exits his room, the hardwood floor cold on his bare feet, walking the three steps to the bathroom. He catches sight of himself in the large mirror over the bathroom sink. At 46, he’s still fit, even though his days of jumping rooftops are long behind him. Scars, thick and thin, line his body, mostly his arms and upper shoulders. On his right shoulder, three long-healed bullet wounds form a triangle. It almost looks like he did it on purpose. He stretches, feeling all the creaks and the cracks from his tired bones. Sighing, he flips on the shower, only hot water.
After breakfast, Burt walks the four blocks to his office, where he spends most of his time. One thing his past life was good for was learning how to investigate. His former partner hated that part, the research. Burt loved it, had a knack for it. After he healed, he joined the police force to put those skills to use. He made detective in 30 months; a departmental record that still stands as far as Burt knows. That’s when the disillusionment started. The job was somewhat the same as a beat cop, Burt could still help people. He could still stop crime from happening. But as a detective? The crimes didn’t reach his desk until it was too late. When he left the force, he didn’t know what to do, so he became a private investigator.
Burt walks through the large double door on the front of the building, skipping the elevator in favor of the stairs. It’s an easy climb, but by the last leg Burt feels a twinge in his back. He pushes open the stairwell door and sees a woman sitting in the chair outside his office door. She looks like she stepped off the pages of one of those old detective comics, complete with red dress and wide-brimmed red hat. For an instant he almost turns back the way he came. He could go to the diner, get some breakfast. Maybe he could catch an early movie. The urge passes, and he steps forward. “Excuse me, ma’am?” he says, “are you waiting for me?”
Lost in thought the woman snaps her eyes to his, startled. “Are you, Mr. Loren?” she asks, her voice slightly hoarse.
“I am,” Burt replies, fishing his keys out of his pants pocket. He finds them, holding them up and giving them a wiggle. From babies to old folks, people like keys. He flashes a smile at the woman, and she grins back. He unlocks the door and holds it open for her. “Please, miss,” he says, “step inside.” She stands and walks past him, her head down. He flicks the light switch, then steps around the woman to move a stack of file folders off of the good chair. He brushes off the seat with his palm, trying to play it off as if it was a joke but the dust caught in the sunlight from the window betrays that. Still, he offers her the chair, and she sits. He sits in the chair behind his desk, leaning forward and interlacing his fingers. “Now,” he says, “tell me what’s troubling you.”
Six hours later, Burt stands in an alleyway opposite a seedy motel waiting for his client’s husband to arrive with his mistress. Burt laughs at himself, thinking how she looked like a femme fatale from the stories he loved as a kid. Then, she turns out to be just another jilted wife looking for evidence of adultery. Burt eyed the windows in the place. He might just get lucky, and he can catch a shot of the two of them in the room. Either way, she paid for pictures of them going in and coming out. If she needs more, Burt will be happy to charge her for it. Burt holds the camera to his face, using the lens to focus on the rooftop of the five-story motel. It’s lower than its neighbors, so he moves the lens towards the taller building on the corner. This would have been the one Dark Raven chose to use as his vantage point.
Burt closes his eyes, just for a moment imagining it. Devin in his costume and mask, the cape billowing out behind him in the high breeze. Burt on the ledge, crouched so he could peer over and remain steady. Devin would always laugh at that. “Well,” he’d say, “it seems you found your perch, Nightbird.” Burt would tell him angrily not to call him that, a little too angrily truth be told. Then Devin would disappear into the mask, becoming the thing that stalked evil in the night. The thing Burt wanted so desperately to be.
“Hey, old man,” a voice says, snapping Burt out of his memory, “you okay?”
Burt smiles as he opens his eyes. “Nothing to worry about, I’m fine — ,” but he stops short when he sees them. Five young men, all wearing Road Devils jackets. Burt smiles in spite of himself. For a long time, the Road Devils worked for him and Devin. When they didn’t want to, the two would remind them who was in charge. Without realizing it, Burt quickly tilts his head to the right and left. Two sharp cracks punctuate his movements. He roles his neck a few times. The young men laugh.
“Uh-oh, Dimmy,” one says, “looks we got a tough guy here.” They laugh again.
“Don’t do this, boys,” Burt says, and he means it. “It’s not worth it. We’ve all had a laugh, just get out of here. I’m working.”
The smiles disappear from the boys’ faces, the one they called “Dimmy” steps forward. He draws a switchblade from his belt, snapping the blade open as he does. “Just run them pockets, Gramps,” he says, then points to the camera around Burt’s neck. “And I’ll take that, too.”
Burt moves his hands slowly towards the camera but interlaces his fingers and cracks his knuckles. He rolls his shoulders, and it almost feels like he transforms into someone different, into something different. “Last chance,” he says.
“Same, motherfu — ,” Dimmy says, but before he can finish the curse, Burt lunges forward grabbing his wrist. He snaps it almost effortlessly, catching the switchblade as it falls from Dimmy’s hand. With only a quick glance, he launches the blade hilt-deep into the thigh, just above the knee, of the biker furthest from him. The other three respond, drawing their fists back. In his prime, Burt could have disabled them all before even one punch connected. But he is not in his prime.
He deflects the first punch, then heel-kicks the knee of the third biker. The remaining thug lands his punch, right into the meat of Burt’s shoulder. It hurts, but the pain just kicks in that familiar adrenaline rush. Burt answers the thug’s punch with two of his own, one in the cheek and one in the neck. The thug goes down, gasping. The furthest thug recovered the quickest. He lunges, but Burt sidesteps, planting the sole of his left foot on the knife and pressing down. As they both fall, Burt strikes him across the bridge of his nose with his forearm. Once, then twice. The thug clings to consciousness lying on his back, Burt now straddling his stomach. Burt grabs the biker’s head and smashes it down on the concrete. He watches the thug’s eyes roll back in his head, and he almost starts snoring on account of his broken nose.
Burt wants to catch his breath, but his hearing is sharp as ever. He hears the pipe cutting through the air, so he rolls onto his back, pulling the unconscious biker on top of him. Dimmy strikes his friend twice across the spine. Burt yanks the switchblade from his shield’s leg, then flings it towards Dimmy’s shoulder. His aim wasn’t what it used to be. Instead, the blade glances across Dimmy’s right eye, blinding him. He shrieks. The pipe clatters to the ground as both hands paw at his face. Burt slides out from under the biker, picking up the pipe as he regains his feet. The three remaining thugs now stand where Burt had been, and he stands before them blocking their way out of the alley.
“Just let us go, man,” the youngest of them pleads. Burt thinks he can’t be a day over 16, just a kid. But then so was Burt when he used to do this nightly.
“No,” he replies. Burt steps forward, cracking the kid in the skull with the pipe. When he falls, his forehead bounces on the asphalt. A small pool of blood starts to form like thin red throw pillow. The other two rush him together, pummeling him with body blows. Burt drops the pipe, and just answers punch-for-punch. Burt hears mad laughter as his fists collide with their young faces, knocking out teeth and splitting the soft places. A few seconds later, he realizes he’s the one laughing. When he’s through, three of them are unconscious. Dimmy and the other one moan as they lie on the ground.
Burt turns around, half-expecting a crowd to have formed. It would have back in the day, but there were no camera phones back then. The fleeting thought that a viral video of this beatdown might even be good for business crosses his mind. But when his eyes fall on the street, there’s no one there. No one even noticed. “Please,” a voice says from behind him. He turns to see Dimmy, crawling on the ground and still clutching his ruined eye socket with one hand. “Please call an ambulance, call someone.” Burt glares at him, the grimace on his face reminiscent of the one Devin wore when he disappeared into the Dark Raven. He finally understands it. Instead of answering Dimmy, Burt launches a kick into his good eye. Dimmy’s anguished screams follow Burt all the way back to where he parked his car. The grin stays on his face until he’s home and in bed. There will be no falls in his dreams tonight.
Continued in Tales of Adventure & Fantasy — Book 1: Captain Shock vs Titanor! starting at just $3 US on Amazon.