HUNGRY GODS: chapter one

The country’s greatest superhero team is missing.  So when a mutant monstrosity goes on the rampage, it’s Spitball to the rescue!  He’s a third-string hero today, determined to be first-string tomorrow.  And the Army may be giving him just the chance he needs.  Spitball’s been invited to undertake a secret mission into America’s heartland.  What he’s about to discover, however, is not a chance at stardom but a horror movie come to life...
      Hungry Gods is a fast-paced adventure of costumed superheroes, government conspiracy theories, and flesh-eating zombies.

Available everywhere books are sold, in ebook and paperback.

Here's a taste:

-- Chapter One --

Luke was a little shocked—and a bit excited—when he realized that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie playing on the student union big screen.  A green-grey monstrosity was throwing cars in the background while panicky citizens screamed as fast as their legs could carry them in the foreground.  Only the CNN logo and correct time rolling in the corner gave away the reality of the situation.  This wasn’t a movie, it was life playing out as monster cinema. 
And apparently Luke wasn’t the only one fooled.  Between him and the giant TV were twenty round tables with a smattering of students coming and going, eating and studying and absorbed in their cellphones.  Only a few seemed to notice the pandemonium on TV, and only half of them were as enthralled as he’d expect.  Maybe we are all desensitized, Luke thought.  The union atmosphere was stagnant and smelled of sloppy joes and Tina’s perfume; his imagination registered the former as the monster’s seasoned and bun-served victims; the latter was one of those chemical supermodel scents that’s impossible to trace back to anything in nature.
“I had physics in high school,” Tina was saying, “but it still sounds like gibberish to me when he’s up there teaching.  Or should I say, trying to teach.  I don’t think the instructors really need much for qualifications to work at a community college, you know?  Luke?”
He was watching the big screen.  Pins and needles tingled across his face and his toes started tapping with an anxious electricity—in a good way.
“What?  Oh, sorry, Tina.”  They had just come from Professor Smith’s Physics 120 class.  The only thing Luke had taken away from it so far was that momentum was equal to mass times velocity.  And that was actually very important to him; an exciting revelation, in fact.  Another exciting revelation was that this cute brunette in glasses (there was something he liked about glasses, though he wasn’t sure why) was for some reason tagging along beside him and wanting to talk.  She sat next to him in class, had a little scar through her left eyebrow, and chewed her pencil a lot.  Oh yes, he’d seen her, but didn’t think she’d noticed him.  Luke was not entirely unknown to women, as it were, but they certainly didn’t flock to him.  He’d had better luck with girls in high school, back when he was a track star.  In the few years since graduating, though...  Well, there weren’t a lot of chicks chasing after guys with little apparent ambition.  Luke had dreams, but they weren’t dreams he could freely talk about.  His goals were not ones that everyone had access to.  Only a secret, random few.
Tina pushed a lock of hair back over her ear, adjusted her glasses.  “So maybe we could work together on the homework?  Just until I get a better understanding, or whatever.  I could give you my number.”
“Sure,” Luke said with a smile.  He pulled his cell from his pocket and swiped the screen to unlock it.  There was a text message waiting for him there:  I need to see you before you go.  The little bubble was from W.  “Where am I going?” Luke mumbled.
“Huh?”  Tina was staring at him with her phone in hand, ready to swap numbers, her cute little scarred eyebrow arched in a question. 
Luke glanced back at the news playing on the far wall.  The cameraman was being driven back by a police officer.  Rampaging in the background was a cross between the World’s Strongest Man competition and Jurassic Park.  The banner streaming along the bottom read, “Manosaur Attacks Opal Bay Waterfront.”
Sometimes Luke felt cocky, sometimes humble.  And while riding high on a super-inflated boost of confidence made him feel more than human, it probably wasn’t all that great for his social life.  Past experience had made him painfully aware of this.  But today...  Today there was a supervillainous monster on a rampage, a cryptic message from the Miracle Worker (whom Luke called W—only those who really knew him could call him that), and a girl that he’d been sitting next to for only a couple days was actually initiating a study buddy relationship, at a minimum.  Today was a cocky day.
He stuck his phone back in his jeans pocket and pulled his pack tighter across his back.  “I got to go, Tina.  But yeah, sure.  We got a long weekend, right?  Let’s get together.  Email me.”  He pushed the glass door open with his butt.
She watched with her mouth ajar, some degree of disappointment and disbelief evident on her face.  “What’s your email?” she asked.
“I’m in the college system.”  He had one foot outside.
“What’s your last name?”
“Gillis,” he said, turning.  “Luke Gillis.  See you, cutie.”  He cringed as he rolled outward and trotted away.  The cutie bit might have been too much, but, you know, he was extra special today, so he could get away with it.  Besides, turning her down the first time would no doubt make her more eager the second time.  They were on the Friday cusp of Labor Day weekend.  He’d ask her to hangout sometime over the break.  If she was lucky. 
You’re a jerk, he told himself.
“Sometimes,” he replied aloud, “but all the good looking girls go for jerks, don’t they?”
A few more strides and he upped the gas, dodging between fellow students perhaps faster than was reasonably safe.  Not that he was likely to run into anybody, but it did make it more difficult to keep a secret identity under wraps.
His ’99 Honda Civic hatchback was out in BFE, around a crooked finger of parking lot that only those students slowest to rise in the mornings got stuck parking in.  It wasn’t such a big deal for him though.  He could always be on-time, if he really he cared to be.  And there were advantages to being in an isolated little section of campus, surrounded by pine trees and unkempt high grass.
Luke’s car was almost as old as he was, and it looked it, with its scuffed black paint and sagging rear bumper.  It had probably rolled off the assembly line when he was in first grade.  He reached down and gave the bumper a little boost, but it didn’t move.  The “Brilliance for President,” “Cleveland Crusader: VP,” and Misfits bumper stickers were also not sufficient repairs.  Oh well.  He opened the rear hatch and swung his backpack inside.  Another duffel bag was already there, in case of emergency.  Luke looked around, listened for a moment for the sound of voices or tires rolling on asphalt, and then unzipped the nondescript green duffel.  Inside was a lump of black Miracle Mesh costume with yellow trim, complete with head-hugging cowl, sleek goggles, and low-impact boots.  He changed his clothes faster than ordinary people could tie their shoes.
The Opal Bay Waterfront was northwest of campus, probably twenty to thirty minutes on the bypass, assuming there was no traffic.  Of course, there’s always traffic in the coastal cities of central California, so driving was not a good option.  But he had no intention of driving. 
He made it in about eight minutes, on foot. 
The streets of the Waterfront district rolled downhill to the edge of the Pacific.  Seafood dives and cramped little bars shared the neighborhood with fishing piers and shipping industry warehouses.  Oceanside Park was nestled in there too, a common ground for walking dogs, playing Frisbee, throwing parties and festivals, and then sleeping it off on a bench, or until you were sober enough to drive home.  This area was always busy with people—workers, tourists, merchant marines, college kids, or office execs on an extended lunch break.  Today there was a big crowd and an unusually high number of police officers as well.  The police had moved their barricades back another block from the last position Luke had seen on the news.  There were yellow saw horses with flashing lights and patrol cars parked sideways across the lanes, holding back a growing mass of public that was apparently willing to let curiosity turn them into dinosaur food.  Spectators hemmed and hawed from one foot to the other, trying to decide if they should run for their lives or stay and watch.  The news media were at the front line of the mob with their cameras aimed into the small green block of grass and trees. 
“Pardon me,” Luke said, slipping between the gathered bystanders.  “Excuse me, superhero coming through.”  He enjoyed the gasps of awe as those he’d shouldered past now caught sight of him.  When he reached the front, he recognized Melinda Montoya, the Latin beauty from Channel Six News, pointing a finger to direct her cameraman.  She was wearing a green, shoulder strap dress, which looked good on her skin tone and displayed the spider web tattoo that cloaked the entirety of her left shoulder.  He hadn’t seen hers before, but they were pretty commonplace on women these days, modelled after the superheroine Silk Spider.  So she likes capes, he thought, getting that flush of giddiness that surged in the presence of celebrities.  Then confidence swelled in his chest as he realized that he was about to trump her on that card.
 “What’s all the hub-bub?” he asked, daring to place a hand on her back.  “Anything interesting?”
She did a double-take and barely held back from cussing him out.  Her dark eyes glimmered just a little as they scanned his black cowl and goggles.  Only his nose, mouth, and chin were visible; even a reporter with her eye for detail would have a hard time picking him out of a lineup unmasked.  “Who the hell are you?”
Not exactly the rock concert groupie kind of response he was hoping for. 
She kept talking, as much to herself as him: “You’re not one of the...?  No, you’re not, but you are a costumed somebody, aren’t you?  Are you interview-worthy?”
“Am I what?” Luke gasped.  “Melinda, darling, you cut me to the quick!”
A uniformed police officer stepped up on the other side of the barrier.  “Okay, people, things seem to have settled down for now.  We’re just going to hang out and wait for the Phenomenal Five to show—Wait a minute.  What the hell is this?” 
“Officer.”  Luke tipped an invisible hat. 
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the cop said, hands up as if to push him away.  “This ain’t amateur hour, kid.”
Amateur hour?  I come all the way across town to help out and this is the reception I get?  First, the top reporter in town isn’t sure if she wants an interview, and now Opal Bay’s finest doesn’t even recognize me.”
“Yeah, I recognize you,” the cop said.  “I seen you around a couple times.  ‘Shitball,’ I think.”
Spitball,” Luke said.  “My name is Spitball.  You know, I didn’t come down here to be insulted.”
“What the hell kind of superhero name is ‘Spitball’ anyway?” the officer asked. 
He offered only a shrug.  Luke Gillis had been cruelly nicknamed “Loogie” since the fifth grade, and on formal occasions, “Hock A. Loogie,” but he wasn’t about to tell them that. 
“Look.”  The officer gave him a fatherly glare from under the brim of his cap.  “The big bad monster has finally decided to take a nap.  He’s in the park, huddled up under the bridge.  You see all this shit?”  He gestured around the scene.  There were smashed up cars rolled over in the street.  The rear end of a police cruiser jutted out from the ruined front of a fish and chips joint, its red and blue lights still flashing on the other side of the restaurant window.  “The damn thing wore itself out.  It’s laying low, so we’re laying low.  Got it?  Everybody just sit tight.  The National Guard is on the way, and the Phen Five are bound to show any second.”
“No one’s seen the Five for days,” Spitball said.  “Like, anywhere.  New York, Chicago, Darkholme.  Even so, national heroes can’t be everywhere at once.  They’re not here.  I am.  Spitball, super-speedster and local-boy-done-good.  Every major American city needs its own patron cape.  Well, here I am.”  He vogued, hands on his hips, chest out and chin high. 
The cop stepped up, face to face.  “Lay.  Low.  What don’t you understand about that?”
Melinda pulled a brush from nowhere and began prepping her lush, 80’s hair band look.  “How about an interview while we wait?  My viewers would certainly like to get to know you.”
That would be awesome, Spitball thought.  However, a nice friendly sit-down is not exactly why I came down here.  What good is TV footage without an action reel to lead in with?
“Tell you what.”  Spitball hopped the barrier and was standing behind the officer in half a second, his fist cranking an invisible old-school movie camera.  “Keep the film rolling.  First I’ll give you a show worth running, superhero versus super-monster stuff, and then we can chat over drinks, maybe dinner.”  He winked, though it was probably lost behind his goggles.  The cop yelled after him but was way too slow to stop him. 
 Oceanside Park was an oasis of greenery surrounded by concrete and asphalt, and was just a stone’s throw from the bay.  (Or in this case, a car’s throw—Spitball could see the trunk end of a dragon green Saturn bobbing up and down in the water.)  The scene was quiet, save for the background noise of distant police bullhorns and news helicopters buzzing around overhead.  Any animal life that had called the park home was deep in hiding now.  There were picnic tables broken up and scattered about.  A small tree lay torn out by the roots, its earthy hairdo exposed.  A seesaw was snapped in half and the chains of a swing were wrapped around a tree; he guessed it’d been ripped off the jungle gym and flung like a bola.  Maybe this is a bad idea, said a voice at the back of Spitball’s mind.  Probably right, he told it.  But you can’t be a famous superhero if you hide from the real bad guys.  A gravel walking trail wound like a snake through the trees and around the perimeter of the park.  It also ran through the epicenter of this micro-cataclysm and over a stone bridge that arched over a shallow creek.  Spitball followed the trail cautiously.
Something moved under the bridge and just past a copse of trees.  It was subtle movement, not going anywhere, not charging or hunting or smashing.  It was more like a very large animal lying down in its den, or crouching over a fresh kill to feed.
Spitball’s mouth suddenly felt very dry.  Doubt crawled up his throat and sucked all the moisture from him.  He glanced over his shoulder.  A few blocks away were the human borderlands between this real life sci-fi flick and normal life in the city of Opal Bay.  He gave his goggle lenses a twist, zooming in.  There was the lovely Latina anchorwoman, Melinda Montoya, trying to talk her way past that cop.  The camera was trained on the park, pointed right at him, waiting for action.
He turned back toward the bridge.  “Let’s go wake the sleeping giant.”
The creek lay about thirty yards ahead of him.  He made a quick and quiet zip across the grass and debris, right up to the water’s edge.  There he squatted down and wiggled his fingers in the cool stream.  The shallow, gently gurgling water rolled over a bed of rocks, curved to the left, and ran under the massive troll and his bridge.  Manosaur looked different in the flesh than he had on TV.  On screen he was a movie monster, a thing of fantasy and special effects.  Here was the real thing.  The creature sat right in the water, arms folded over its arched knees while it rested its fearsome, disproportionate head on top of huge, scaly paws.  Seated and slouching, the creature was man-like but nearly as wide as it was tall.  Spitball was five-eight and this thing looked to be that wide.  He guessed that, when it stood up, it would be eight or nine feet tall.  Its skin was colored in wavy bands, light grey to slate, aquamarine to evergreen.  Rough, hexagonal scales formed like thick calluses over its powerful shoulders and up its back and neck.  What neck there was.  The monster had a T-rex-like head that looked too big for its incredibly bulky physique.  There was virtually no neck, just a lumpy, green-grey curve of callous-plated flesh that arched up from its spine, over its massive shoulders, and smoothed out into the top of its oversized skull.  The small eye Spitball could see was closed, as was the toothy line of crocodile teeth that divided its face in half.  In half...  That thing could bite me in half. 
Has to catch me first, he assured himself.
He drew a deep breath and picked up a strong, musky smell permeating the air.  “You rub dead beavers under your arms,” he muttered, “or is that some kind of ‘Ode de Jungle’ pheromone cologne you got going on?”  He drew a couple of nervous circles in the water.  The monster still didn’t move, so he scooped up a smooth, flat stone.  “It’s now or never,” he told himself.
Standing, he chucked the stone in a wide pitcher’s arc—and missed.  It hooked too far left and clacked off the bridge. 
Manosaur’s eye remained closed.  It didn’t stir.
Spitball cursed himself as a loser.  Then again, he thought, maybe missing was a good thing.  There was an anxious lump in his throat that he couldn’t swallow. 
“No,” he whispered aloud.  “I’ve got to get closer.”  Reluctantly, he inched ahead, snatched another rock, tossed it up and caught it again.  He reviewed what he knew of the beast.  Manosaur had appeared three times before, twice defeated by the combined powers of the Phen Five and disappearing on its own the third time, like Godzilla going back into the sea.  But just three events had been enough to earn the somewhat lame moniker that the press had given it: Manosaur.  And it definitely was a man, a he rather than an it, as evidenced by the embarrassingly large genitalia Spitball could now see resting in the creek.  Maybe that’s all it was, he joked to himself.  He accidentally sat on his giant green junk, went understandably crazy, and just needed to sooth them in a nice, cool bath of running water.  He smirked at himself.  “You’re such a smartass,” he said.
Manosaur’s eye opened.  It was blue—a beautiful, horrible sky blue—and it was looking right at him.  Spitball froze.  He was less than forty feet from the thing now.  How had he gotten so close?  Why was he so cocky, so stupid, so—
The eye closed.
“Hey,” Spitball said, suddenly offended.  “What, I’m not a threat?  You don’t see this black armored leotard I’m wearing?  I’m a superhero, goddamn it!”  He threw the rock, faster and harder than he’d really intended.  It hit the T-rex on the snout, right on its tender, triangular nostril. 
The monster’s crystal blue eyes popped open half a second before its huge, toothy maw.  It burst from under the bridge into a quick three-point stance, gained balance, and then came into a full charge at pissed-off, ten-foot strides.  An unearthly roar shook Spitball where he stood and a deep, instinctual fear shoved him onto his butt, driven by squirrel-stupid hope that by falling on the ground he could make the giant predator suddenly lose track of him and it’d just pass right over.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t a goddamn tiny squirrel.  Manosaur’s thick, blue-grey tongue arched toward him, stretching for a taste just ahead of that mouthful of two-inch long teeth.  In another second those huge jaws would snap shut and he’d be halfway down the thing’s throat.  

* * *  

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