The Unknown: Prologue Preview

What follows is the prologue to the first Unknown novel. Though the title of the novel may change from it’s current working-title, The Nameless Unknown, I wanted to give my readers a bit of an actual look at what I’m writing.

This prologue started life as a short story written in August of 2008, rewritten sometime the following spring, and eventually re-edited for the novel as it stands today awaiting completed revisions and publishing. I hope you enjoy this excerpt, and don’t mind the tense. I promise the whole thing doesn’t play out in first person present!

The Nameless Unknown: Prologue

Rainwater cascades in a ceaseless torrent across my vision. The tree I’m standing under offers little reprieve from the summer storm. I hitch my hood forward, trying to block out the offending rain, but it does no good. Nights like this are the worst time for someone in my line of work. Not that I know of anyone else crazy enough to do it. The unrelenting downpour obscures my sight and fills my ears with discordant noise that masks and distorts any sound past a dozen feet.

I withdraw more fully into the shadows cast by the young maple as the headlights of a passing car narrowly avoid exposing my presence. It’s late by most people’s standards- early by mine- and soon traffic in the West End will grind to a halt and leave the mostly-residential neighborhood to the silence of the night.

Three months ago, a six-year-old boy was kidnapped from his home by an unseen intruder. No demands were made, no evidence pointed to a conclusive suspect, and nothing was taken but the boy. His parents, distraught beyond measure, made an open plea on the local news for me to intervene and save their child. This did not sit well with the city police. Why should it? They’ve always denied my existence.

The initial investigation turned up very little in the way of leads, and after a month they were already calling it an impossible case. But the cops don’t have my sources, and my own investigation set me on a three month goose-chase all over the city and surrounding area. Every time I found a reported hideout, every time one of my informants assured me the boy had been seen, I arrived too late. Until tonight.

An hour ago, a message went through my listening post network from a homeless man I’ve used as a street-level informant for the past several years. He insisted the boy, in the company of a tall man with red hair, had been taken into the burnt-out ruins of a church used by several squatters for shelter. His intel never failed me before, so I came as quickly as I could.

As the tail-lights of another passing car disappear over the hill, I put myself in motion. My boots splash noisily across the street and into the alley adjacent to the ruined house of worship. I power my way down the alley and use the wall of the church to kick off and up. My hands find a sturdy hold on the railing of a fire escape attached to the side of a mortuary that shares the alley space. With some effort, I pull myself up and ascend the metal staircase slowly until I reach the second-story roof.

The tar-and-gravel rooftop offers sure footing even despite the deluge, and I take a moment to assess the situation. From my perch I can see the uneven and hole-riddled roof that clings desperately to the run-down church. It won’t be easy, but it seems as if it’ll hold my weight well enough if I move quickly. I take several steps back before spurring my legs on toward the edge. My right foot lands on the ledge and I push off with all the force I can muster. Momentum does the rest and I land with a resounding thud on the slanted shingles.

I scramble quickly toward on of the larger gaps in the roofing and unsling the length of nylon rope wound about my torso. With steady hands and a growing concern for what I’ll find within, I tie the rope to a support beam that I hope will hold me during my descent. I creep down, and when I’m certain it’ll hold I slide hand-over-hand inverted toward the floor.

It’s hard to picture the place below before some maniac with a home-brew incendiary put an end to the peace people once enjoyed inside these walls. Bits of scrap metal and the remains of pews now litter the interior as crude shelters for the transient occupants. The glow of a small bonfire lends the church an unusual muted glow only visible from within. I release my leg hold on the rope and swing around to an upright position to drop the last seven feet.

I land in a crouch and barely have time to stand before a gibbering form shuffles out of one of the makeshift shelters at my back. He makes so much noise that I turn fully to intercept him long before he can traverse the distance between us. In one hand he swings a length of wood that probably used to be a table leg. Instinctively, my left hand flashes out to block and sends the chunk of wood spinning through the air as wrist bones give way. I step in and throw a half-strength punch with my right that catches my would-be assailant square in the chin. He crumples immediately and hits the floor hard.

“Over here!” a voice calls out.

I turn and regard the old man, dressed in layers of discarded clothing characteristic of the homeless population, and recognize my informant immediately.

“He took the boy down there,” he says in a hushed tone. With a mangled hand twisted by arthritis and hard living, he points toward a small doorway behind what used to be the altar.

“Any other way out?” I ask as I stride purposefully toward the portal.

“Nope. Used to be a basement. Now it’s barely a hole.”

“Thanks,” I offer as I produce a couple twenties from my coat pocket and deposit them in his grimy mitt. “Sorry about your friend. He’ll wake up soon. Treat him to a drink on me.”

“What? Him? I hate that guy. Always pulling shit like that. Fuck him.”

I shrug it off and carefully pull open the fire-damaged door. Thunder peals overhead, and for once I’m actually thankful for the cover the storm provides. Silent as a fart in a blizzard, I slip inside and close the door. At the bottom of a short flight of stairs I find a surprise. Electricity. Dust-coated incandescent bulbs glow weakly in the dark of the subterranean hall- just enough light to work by without night vision.

The storm raging outside, and the diminished state of the building above, makes any sort of audio surveillance of the area useless. I stalk through the hall and carefully scan each of the little rooms along the way as I delve deeper. At long last three months of painstaking investigation pays off in a small room that looks to have once served as a Sunday School classroom. There huddled under a rotting fold-out table and wrapped in a filthy, moth-eaten blanket, is the boy.

Certain no one else is with him, I walk over and lower myself to one knee to peer under the table. Though motionless, I can see he’s alive by the faint rhythm of his chest as he breathes the stale air. I’m reaching to give the poor child a gentle shake when a shot rings out and the back of a wooden folding chair explodes in a shower of splinters just over my shoulder.

The child screams and draws himself into a ball. I whirl and launch myself sidelong over the table into a pile of discarded desks.

“You can’t have him! He’s mine!” the red-headed kidnapper screams as he unleashes another shot from the too-short barrel of his shotgun. The gun clicks twice more, empty, and he hurls the useless firearm at me.

I deflect the projectile with the slate top of a disintegrating school desk and light up my “face” with a cold brilliance. While he’s momentarily blinded by my radiant visage, I throw the desktop and it slams into his left knee with a satisfying crack. The next instant blurs by as I leap headfirst into my prey and drag him down.

The man recovers quickly and we scuffle on the floor as we both try to gain the upper hand. A fist pounds impotently against my helmet. I don’t even feel it through the titanium and impact gel. I find adequate footing and use it to propel myself over the prone man and into the hallway. We come up at the same time and clash against each other again as he tries to drive me through the decaying plaster wall.

He starts punching and kicking as he holds me fast against one side of the hall. He’s good, and strong, there’s no doubt about it. For a moment I can do nothing but roll and twist away from the onslaught. Somewhere in the melee he produces a rusted blade and tries in vain to thrust it into my chest. My suit holds back the slicing edge, but the impact bruises my ribs.

I’ve had enough. I jerk my head forward, the only weapon available, and his nose explodes in a gush of blood and mucus.

He steps back stunned, but it’s not over yet. His grip reverses with practiced ease and falls back into a defensive stance with the blade weaving back and forth. Whoever this guy is, he fights like a professional.

Mindless of the petty threat of the knife, I step into his guard and force the scum back another step. The scurrying form of the six-year-old boy distracts me for a second as I watch him run for the back of the room and disappear behind the stack of desks. It’s just enough time for the kidnapper to launch another attack.

He leads with a surprisingly well-placed kick that connects with my midsection and drives me back into the hall. I retreat into the next room and kill my light to catch my breath and rethink my strategy. He doesn’t give me enough time.

Mere seconds pass, I don’t know how many (and won’t until I review the data logs later) and I hear a gunshot that eclipses the boom of thunder overhead. Down the hall, a light bulb goes out with a bang. A shadow hovers over the doorway of my hiding place and the muzzle of his shotgun pokes through. I react thoughtlessly and seize the smoking barrel with a gloved hand. It goes off again in a searing flash that drives lances of hot pain into my dark-adjusted eyes.

I wrench the offending weapon out of the madman’s grasp and toss it further into the room even as I grab his wrist with my other hand. With a sharp twist of the wrist I slam my freehand into his armpit and throw him with all my weight. He hits the floor and I apply more pressure; straining his entire arm and hyper extending the elbow to a point just south of dislocation.

He cries in shock and pain as I twist his arm up behind his back hard enough to pop the shoulder out. I drive one knee down on the small of his back and deliver the final blow to the back of his head. He goes limp at last.

Confident he’ll stay down this time, I stand and brush myself off. I walk back into the other room and stand over the terrified boy with my helmet lit up and my right hand extended. The pure, white light washes over him in what I hope to be a soothing effect.

“It’s alright now. You can come out. Nobody is going to hurt you,” I tell him.

He recoils at the sound of my digitally masked voice, but eventually relents. He begins sobbing faintly and clings tightly when I pick him up.

I carry the child back up to the ground floor and leave him with my informant while I pull down my rope and head back into the basement lair. The old drunk entertains him with a ratty puppet fished from the depths of his cardboard hut and a passable Yoda voice.

Three minutes later I emerge from the basement again with my quarry in tow, bound tightly and deprived of his weapons. Sirens begin to blare outside. Someone must’ve recognized the gunshots for what they were instead of thunder.

I could leave. I know the people that call this charred ruin a home will explain it all to the cops, but I stay. It’s time they learned a valuable lesson about me.

I tear down the rotten planks that barricade the front door of the church and thrust the portal open. With a shoving kick of my heel I send the kidnapper rolling down the half-dozen steps to the sidewalk below.

The boy stands beside me, his crying abated for the first time, as a sea of blue swells up around the red-headed man. They look at me like a myth they refuse to believe in, and I look back at them and see nothing but confusion and resignation. They know. They gave up on the boy, but I didn’t, and that shames them to silence.

For an agonizing, tense moment it seems as if every cop on the block is going to shoot me, but they don’t risk the kid getting in the way. I lead him down the stairs and they all back away under my glowing gaze. I offer the boy a parting word and walk away with the eyes of a dozen disgruntled public servants watching me go. None follow, and I’m gone before they can pull themselves together.

The media will be all over the story by dawn, and I’m sure the police will spin it to look like they did it all on an anonymous tip. That’s fine. I don’t need praise for doing what’s right, but at least the boy and his family will know. They’ll know I answered their call for help when no one else would, and that sits just fine with me as I fade into the background noise of the city once more.