The Writings of Michael J. Bowler

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Blurb and 

Chapter One 

of my forthcoming book


Like A Hero


Courage can be costly. Vincent and Dennis Villanueva learn the truth of those words when they create a costumed “super” hero and turn him loose on Los Angeles. The brainchild of fourteen-year-old Dennis and embodied in twenty-year-old Vincent, “Invictus” hits the streets to fight crime and jumpstart apathetic Angelenos into taking a more active role in their city.


But the reality is a far cry from the comics. Vincent finds poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, abuse, bad parenting, and cast-off children – everything city officials and citizens choose to ignore. Labeled a vigilante and criminal, the shy biochemistry grad student with formidable martial arts talent and abysmal people skills begins to doubt his ability to make an impact.


He finds himself embroiled in high-speed chases, drug dealing, gang fights, daring rescues, and making promises to homeless kids he might not be able to keep. Forced to straddle an ambiguous line between moral and legal, he becomes disheartened and secretive, hiding the truth from Dennis and driving a wedge between them. Feeling neglected, Dennis sets out to show Vincent he can be just as heroic, and ends up putting his life in mortal danger.


For unbeknownst to both brothers, the mysterious Cat is weaving an insidious plot against Invictus that incorporates a citywide scheme of vengeance on all who have wronged her. Her machinations ensnare everyone Vincent cares about and push the young hero to the brink in his resolve to protect them. Will Invictus have to sacrifice his humanity to stop her?


CHAPTER ONE

He Must Be Crazy

Courage can be costly.

Dennis’s father’s words ran through his mind as he lay face down on the soccer field, while men in ski masks strolled among his prone classmates waving semi-automatic weapons at anyone who moved. He considered employing his martial arts skills, but being skinny and fourteen and only passably good, such foolish courage would probably get him killed.

He shook his hair from in front of his eyes with a slight jerking motion and focused on his godparents, James and Linda, who were lying on the field, too, right next to him. They hadn’t missed an important event in his life ever, especially since his parents’ death, and they’d been so excited about this event.

“We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Linda had exclaimed when Dennis invited them.

I bet you wish you’d missed it now, huh, Linda?

James had his head slightly raised and Dennis caught his eye. A gunman approached and James quickly returned his face to the grass.

His godfather wanted to intervene. That was obvious by the way James kept looking around for some kind of opening. But could he do anything without getting people killed? These self-proclaimed “anarchists” were well armed. Despite lying facedown for the past thirty minutes, Dennis had spotted sentries patrolling the rooftops. Those guys prevented the cops in the parking lot from storming the school and making their way to the field. He’d also noted the types of weapons these guys carried, and considered how best each could be disarmed if this was a comic book scenario.

Except it wasn’t.

These men were real, and unless the city of Los Angeles coughed up twenty million dollars, he and his fellow graduates might never make it home alive.

He considered the anarchists’ claims. They said they were “anti-capitalism” and “anti-public school indoctrination,” but then they demanded the twenty million as ransom for not killing him and his classmates, which sounded pretty capitalistic to him.

Raising his eyes once more, he noted their head guy, a big, broad-shouldered dude wearing a black and blue ski mask, staring right at him while chatting with a burly guy holding an Uzi. Dennis averted his eyes and hoped he hadn’t called too much attention to himself.

He glanced over at Jackson and Kenny lying a few feet away. His two best friends looked terrified. Jackson’s curly hair partially hid his brown eyes, but Kenny’s bright blue ones screamed pure fear. Dennis tried for an encouraging smile, but it was difficult with his cheek pressed into the grass.

All his comic book scenarios started like this one, except the hero always knew what to do. Even as annoying as Robin could be, he’d know what to do in this situation. Dennis’s mind raced with ideas. He knew James had to be packing – on duty or off, James always packed. But if he pulled his gun, kids would die.

I wish I’d thought of something when these guys showed up.

Instead, he’d frozen with fear when the masked men flooded onto the field as the diplomas were being awarded. And now with everything that had gone down since, Dennis trembled with the terrifying possibility that someone would die. Maybe him. Sadly, he wasn’t the hero he wished himself to be.

He peered at the administration buildings. Long, single story, the two main administration wings spread the length of the field. His gaze traveled up and he squinted with confusion. The sentry who’d been on duty at the north end was gone.

What the…?

That guy had been patrolling with an Artic Warfare Super Magnum sniper rifle, likely a .338 Lapua Magnum, but Dennis was too far away to be sure of the model. He knew his weaponry from playing Call of Duty and other war games, and these guys were packing heavy artillery. Whoever called the shots had connections.

Only now the guy was gone. He craned his neck around cautiously, aware that the burly guy was barely ten feet away from his position. His eyes searched the south roof. That sentry was gone, too. SWAT maybe? He knew James’ mean-ass boss would have called in the big guns for something like this. But he was also sure those sentries had been up there no more than two minutes ago.

Could it be Invictus?

His heart thumped with hope at the thought. Then movement caught his eye. The burly dude was on the move. Dennis pressed his face to the grass and pretended to look scared. Hell, he didn’t have to pretend. He was scared. Burly dude’s heavy black boots kept coming.

Oh, crap!

✪ ✪ ✪

James kept his head as close to the grass as possible to avoid drawing attention to himself, but his gaze roamed. He knew the exact location of every perp, but he’d only be able to snap off a couple of shots before kids died. He made eye contact with Linda beside him.

“I feel so damned helpless,” he whispered into the grass brushing against his lips.

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t try anything.”

He grunted weakly and allowed his gaze to drift upward toward the admin roof. He wanted another look at those sentries.

Huh?

They were gone. Both of them!

He directed Linda’s attention to the roof. She glanced up from her prone position.

“Your guys?”

James shrugged slightly. Seemed hellishly unlikely SWAT or even tactical could have gotten up on the roof and immobilized those sentries without calling attention to themselves.

James craned his neck toward the stage. He and Linda had been seated directly behind the graduating class, so he had a clear view of the stage now that the kids lay prone on the grass.

The principal and administrators sat tied to their chairs. Several armed men surrounded them, including the one he’d dubbed “Mask.” That guy called the shots.

Ms. Ellis, an art teacher who’d been about to present Dennis with an award, squirmed against her restraints and happened to glance his way. She looked petrified.

“Why don’t you just let the children go?” the principal pleaded.

“Why would I do that? Who would pay money for you?” Mask raised a walkie-talkie to his mouth. “North roof, check in.”

Static shot from the speaker.

He looked up at the far roof of the administration building and stiffened.

“South roof, check in.”

Again, his only answer was static.

He gazed out over the row upon row of horizontal bodies and waved to one of his men. James glanced in that direction. It was Burly, the one who’d been heading right for Dennis. James tried to catch Dennis’s eye, but couldn’t. Burly veered from Dennis and approached the stage.

“Roof sentries aren’t answering,” Mask told him quietly. “Somethin’s wrong.”

“Think the cops got ’em?” Burly asked, hefting his Uzi.

“How? Ain’t been a sound.” He paused a moment to scan the roof. Then he swept his eyes over the field. James averted his just in time. Face pressed to the grass, he heard, “Alert the chopper. Tell ’em we may need ’em early. I’m gonna check the perimeters.”

Mask stepped off the stage and moved toward the perp standing near Dennis.

“Be ready,” he warned in a low tone. “Somethin’s wrong.”

He strutted past Dennis toward the men guarding the parents.

✪ ✪ ✪

Dennis eyed the masked leader as the booted feet passed within inches of his head. He could have reached out and clutched at the man’s ankle, tripping him. But could he take the weapon away before being shot by the other guy? Not likely. So he remained rigid and allowed the boots to pass out of range. Not sure why, he raised his eyes to the empty roof once more, and sucked in a slight breath.

A shadow rose just above the lip of the roof, barely visible in the twilight. The shadow raised something that looked like a small handgun.

Dennis craned his neck around to observe the gunmen at the periphery of the field. One by one, each swatted at his neck in annoyance, as though driving away a pesky fly. But Dennis knew it wasn’t a fly. He lowered his face and grinned into the prickly grass.

Invictus had arrived.

✪ ✪ ✪

James kept his gaze pinned to Mask as the man stopped beside the motionless group of parents and consulted with another perp. James noted this man swatting at his neck, and several others around the periphery doing the same.

He hadn’t noticed any flies buzzing around since the sun began dipping in the sky. Mosquitos, maybe? A warm breeze wafted over his head and only accentuated the unnatural quiet surrounding him. He’d never before been in a crowd where hundreds of people made so little noise. He heard occasional whimpers of fear from some kids up front, but otherwise this field might have been a cemetery.

Mask stopped beside a tall man holding a cell phone.

“Still got them pigs on the line?”

The man handed over the phone.

Mask pressed the speakerphone button. “Captain Torres, I know what you’re tryin’ to do and it’s gonna cost you.”

James could barely make out a muffled, “We haven’t done anything out here” from the speakerphone and recognized his captain’s typically overbearing voice.

“Then where are my men that was on the roof, eh, Captain?” Mask retorted, clearly angry.

“We never touched your guys.” poured forth from the speaker. “And we brought no snipers, per your demands.”

Mask chuckled. “Course you got snipers. You guys always do.”

James eyed Linda. She looked as confused as he. Something was going on. If it hadn’t been initiated by LAPD, then who?

Mask surveyed the field of parents and students, and then spoke into the phone again. “Any word on the money?”

James listened intently. There was a pause.

“No,” came over the phone. “We’re waiting on the mayor.”

Mask cursed and held the phone closer, gripping his firearm tightly in the other hand. “Your time is up, Captain. Maybe if we start reducing class size around here you’ll take us seriously.”

He ended the call and tossed the phone back to the tall man. He fixed his gaze on Dennis and then strode forward with purpose.

Oh, no, James thought, his body poised for action.

✪ ✪ ✪

Dennis saw from the corner of his eye the masked guy ending his call and moving in his direction. He froze. He’d heard the exchange well enough. They were gonna start killing kids and masked guy was headed straight for him!

The guy snapped his fingers at several thugs and pointed to four kids lying on the grass. The men stooped and yanked the kids to their feet. Two were girls and two were boys. The girls whimpered and the boys looked rigid with fear. All sets of eyes widened at the real possibility that they were about to die.

Distracted by their struggles to free themselves, Dennis nearly jumped with surprise when a shadow fell across his face. His eyes registered a pair of boots before he was roughly pulled to his feet and dragged toward the others. He caught a glimpse of the black and blue ski mask as he tried to turn his head. The man shoved him hard.

“Keep your eyes ahead, punk.”

Dennis smelled peppermint, as though the guy wanted to make sure he had fresh breath when he murdered innocent kids.

The men pushed and dragged the five struggling teens to the edge of the field near the administration buildings. Dennis caught James’s eye as he was shunted past. Then the masked guy gave him a brutal shove that sent him to his knees. He threw out both hands to break his fall and jammed his wrists hard as he toppled forward. But he managed to avoid smashing his face into the hard field, rolling slightly and landing on his back, shaggy hair covering his eyes. He whipped up a hand to brush it away.

The masked guy loomed over him. “You’re the prize, so we’ll start with your sorry ass.”

Dennis’s heart pounded. The prize? Start with you? His mind whirled. But, I never even got my art award! And I’m only fourteen!

Burly dude handed off his Uzi to the leader and grabbed the front of Dennis’s blue graduation gown, wrenching him to his feet. One thick arm encircled his throat, cutting off his air supply. The other hand floated before his eyes brandishing a serrated hunting knife.

He struggled and fought, but the man was built like a grizzly bear and Dennis could barely squirm.

The masked dude waved over the guy with the cell phone. That guy shifted the phone around like he was framing his shot for a movie.

“Make it gory as hell,” masked dude told Burly. “I want them to know we’re serious.”

Dennis heard Burly grunt with approval. He could smell the man’s fetid breath as the vise grip loosened to expose part of his throat. The arm remained pressed around his torso, locking him against the huge man and preventing him from even lifting his hands. The knife danced before his eyes. It glinted red beneath the setting sun. The blade moved closer. The other guy held out the phone. Masked dude laughed. The blade came closer. It brushed the soft flesh of his throat. Dennis felt weak in the knees. He forgot to breathe. His heart hammered, and he snapped his eyes shut.

“Police, freeze!”

The voice came from behind him.

James!

Burly dude lowered the knife and spun Dennis around like he was a stuffed animal.

James stood amidst the ocean of prone bodies, legs apart, arms outstretched with his service weapon pointed straight at them.

Dennis felt momentary relief until he heard masked dude chuckle beside him. He barely had a second to catch his breath before the leader opened fire.

James dropped to the grass and rolled behind a row of chairs. Bullets ripped through the backs of the chairs and sprayed splinters of white-painted wood into the air. Linda rolled behind another row of chairs, but there was nowhere to hide.

“Freeze!” Dennis heard from behind him.

Once more he felt himself being spun around like a loose rag in a washing machine, and faced the administration building. James’ boss and a crapload of SWAT and heavily armored LAPD officers poured forth from the buildings, their weapons aimed at the anarchists.

The masked leader called out, “Kill the pigs!”

From everywhere around the field, his followers unloaded on the police.

The kids being restrained kicked and struggled against their attackers. One of the girls screamed as bullets whizzed past her head. Their struggles prevented those anarchists from using their weapons, Dennis noted, which was a glimmer of brightness at this darkest of moments.

Torres popped off a few rounds at a guy to his left. The bullets struck the man in the chest, but the guy didn’t go down.

Must have body armor, Dennis realized as he fought and squirmed, but burly dude clamped down hard.

Masked dude tossed burly the Uzi and both of them fired on Torres.

The captain ducked behind a SWAT shield and returned fire. One bullet struck the masked guy, but he didn’t go down and kept on firing. Bullets bounced off Torres’s body-length shield and sailed out in all directions.

Dennis heard whimpering and cries of fear from behind him.

A helicopter appeared in the sky above the field accompanied by a loud whup whup whup sound. Mounted machine guns took aim at the police. The guns sprayed bullets at the crouching officers.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!

Several cops fell to the ground and the others ducked for cover behind large planters fronting the building.

Bullets ricocheted off the concrete walkway. One whooshed so close to Dennis’s face he felt the air moving. He fought to break free, but the thick arm around his torso nearly cut off his breath.

“Fall back!” Torres shouted, leaping through the heavy glass administration doors. The glass shattered all around him under a barrage of gunfire.

Another officer went down as cops scrambled for the safety of the building. Two men grabbed the fallen officer and dragged him inside as the helicopter completed its deafening path and then rose again into the sky.

Odd, Dennis thought. They don’t sound that loud in Call of Duty. Wait, did I just think something that stupid? He struggled all the harder to break free of the iron grip.

Then he noticed a gunman stagger, as though drunk, and topple hard to the grass, the weapon spilling from his grasp. A second guy collapsed. Then a third.

Finally!

✪ ✪ ✪

When Torres and his men burst onto the scene, James rolled over and scanned the area behind him. Several perps remained on guard fronting the bleachers. He opened fire. His bullets struck each man square in the chest, one after the other, but the men remained standing.

Hell, they’re wearing body armor!

He lowered his gun as the thugs took aim. He fired. A jet of blood shot from the nearest man’s right thigh and he went down with a loud grunt of pain. Two more shots and the other two crumpled, lurching and writhing in agony.

When the chopper appeared James rolled on top of Linda to shield her, but the copter passed over him and bore down on the administration buildings, bullets spewing forth like someone stuttering. He looked up and spotted several officers go down and Torres scrambling the rest of them back inside. From the corner of his eye, he saw movement and raised his weapon. But it was just one of the perps toppling to the ground, where he lay unmoving. Then a second and a third crumpled as though falling asleep. The two he’d shot also sagged into unconsciousness. The one doing the video recording toppled and the phone bounced on the grass. James recalled these guys swatting at their necks for invisible flies. There had to be a connection!

“James, I can’t breathe,” Linda mumbled beneath him.

He rolled off her as the chopper banked away from the school and circled high for another run. “Sorry.”

She pressed herself upward to get a better view of the school building while James rose to his haunches, keeping his head bent low. Burly still had Dennis, though the knife was no longer pressed against his throat.

“I gotta save Dennis,” James whispered.

Movement caught his attention, this time on the roof.

In the growing twilight, a silhouetted figure rose up wearing some kind of dark costume. The setting sun cast the figure in dappled shades of red and gold and black. The figure wore a mask over the face. Long hair and what appeared to be a black cape billowed in the breeze. It carried a round shield, mostly black, but with alternating circles of white surrounding what looked like a large white “V” with a small “I” inside it.

The hell?

James glanced at Linda as she crouched beside him. She looked just as confused.

Mask and Burly momentarily froze, and the caped figure leapt into action. It dropped to the lower roof that extended out above the administration entrance, and then did a forward flip to land on its feet in front of Burly and Dennis. The figure spun into a kick and planted one black shoe squarely into Burly’s face. The big man grunted and staggered backward, releasing Dennis and pin wheeling with his arms to keep from toppling onto his back. Dennis dropped and scrabbled away on hands and knees.

The figure whirled and slammed his shield into the face of the perp restraining one of the girls, while simultaneously leaping up and kicking a third hard in the knee. Both men staggered back and collapsed to the grass as the kids broke free.

“Run!” the caped figure commanded the kids, the voice clearly that of a male, James noted in the back of his mind.

They didn’t need to be told twice. They scrambled for cover toward the school buildings.

Dennis jumped to his feet and ran toward the stage.

The whup whup whup of the helicopter blades grew louder.

Mask and another perp trained their guns on the caped figure and opened fire. The figure raised his shield and the bullets bounced off, ricocheting out over the field and sending terrified parents and students scrambling for safety.

The two men stopped firing. The caped figure hurled the shield at them like a Frisbee. It plowed into the men, sending them sprawling to the ground, their guns clattering onto the walkway.

James watched open-mouthed as the shield arced in the air and returned to the figure like a boomerang. What in the hell…?

The perp holding a tall boy took aim at the caped figure. In a swirl of hair, he leapt up and planted both feet against the thug’s chest, flinging him backward onto the grass. The boy remained frozen in place. The figure landed on his feet and shoved the boy toward the buildings.

“Go!”

The boy bolted.

Torres waved him on. “Hurry, kid!”

James saw the boy fly through the shattered doors, but he looked around for Dennis. In the distraction caused by the costumed figure, he’d lost track of him.

The chopper swooped low over the field, triggering a whirlwind of air that blew graduation programs every which way. People panicked. Some ran for the safety of the bleachers, while others raced desperately for side doors into the administration building.

Where was Dennis?

There!

He was leading Ms. Ellis and the administrators to safety, waving them to follow as he sprinted toward the side of the building.

James inwardly smiled. Loy would be proud.

The chopper lowered a rope ladder. Mask dashed across the field toward it.

James stood and fired at Mask, but the man was too far away and James couldn’t risk hitting parents or students. Mask leaped up and snagged the rope ladder with both hands and clambered up as the chopper rose higher into the air.

The caped figure crouched and turned his shield on its side. The shield sprouted a sharp blade around half its circumference and the figure flung it at the chopper.

James’s mouth dropped open as the sharp blades sliced through the rope ladder and sent Mask plummeting fifteen feet to slam hard into an unmoving heap on the field. The shield arced around and returned to the caped figure. As he snatched it out of the air, the blades retracted.

Who the hell was this guy?

The chopper banked a turn and headed back toward the field.

The caped figure called out, “Run for cover!”

The kids on the grass jumped up and sprinted for the bleachers. The chopper moved in their direction, strafing the field with bullets and kicking up clods of dirt. A longhaired boy went down. Another boy cried out as blood spurted from his leg He began to topple, but the girl beside him grabbed his arm and kept him upright. She pulled him toward the safety of the bleachers where there were easily a hundred kids cowering. The last stragglers raced across the field to join them.

James stood to his full height and took a few shots at the chopper. The bullets bounced off, but the pilot veered left to avoid being struck again. James surveyed the field. The longhaired boy lay motionless on his stomach. The rest of the kids and parents had ducked beneath the bleachers and crouched low. A short kid suddenly rose and started back onto the field. A girl pulled him back.

“Let me go! I gotta get my brother!”

He yanked his hand loose and sprinted toward the unmoving boy.

“Get back, kid!” James shouted, but the kid ignored him. James started in that direction.

The caped figure raced toward the fallen boy.

The kid dropped to his knees beside the unmoving form.

“Don’t move him, kid!” James called out, but he wasn’t close enough to offer protection.

The chopper swung around and opened fired on James.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!

He spun right and sprinted for the bleachers. Bullets ripped divots into the grass as James dove beneath the bleachers where Linda crouched alongside covering middle schoolers. The chopper veered away toward the two boys in the center of the field.

The caped figure reached the boys and planted himself between them and the approaching chopper. Bullets burst from the machine guns, but the figure held out his shield and the bullets ricocheted off to the sides. The chopper soared overhead and banked around for another pass.

The caped figure bent and searched the motionless boy for a pulse.

“He’s alive.”

“We gotta move him,” the kid replied anxiously as the chopper approached.

The caped figure eyed the incoming helicopter. “No time.”

He stood and stepped out in front of the two kids, his gaze locked on the chopper. The machine guns spun. Bullets spewed forth, striking the grass and kicking up dirt in a straight line right toward him.

James muttered, “He must be crazy.”

The figure stood his ground, shield at his side. The kid behind him was immobile, crouched low to protect his fallen brother.

“That’s right,” the figure muttered. “Keep coming.”

James was almost afraid to look.

Bullets tore up the field.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!

The figure lifted his shield in an arcing motion. The bullets hit the shield, but rather than ricochet off to the sides, they bounced upward, striking the bottom of the helicopter.

Black smoke billowed forth and the chopper veered sharply to its left, the pilot either dead or unable to control the massive machine. It tilted slightly and plummeted downward, slamming into the field so hard the ground rumbled. The front rotor struck the wooden bleachers and sliced through them before snapping off from the impact. The kids beneath screamed and scuttled back from the crumbling rows of seats.

Fire erupted within the cockpit. Smoke poured forth.

Oh, hell, it’s gonna blow!

James shouted at the kids beneath the bleachers, “Get back, everyone!”

Kids and parents scrambled as fast as they could away from the downed copter, pressing in against each other beneath the wooden bleachers.

The caped figure pelted across the grass toward the burning chopper and used one gloved hand to yank open the cockpit door. He reached in and flung the pilot over his shoulders and then stumbled away from the smoke and flame. He dumped the pilot onto the grass and sprinted back to the wreck.

“He really is crazy,” James muttered as he helped Linda find space for incoming kids and their parents underneath the sagging bleachers.

The caped figure reached back into the burning cockpit and dragged the other perp out onto the grass. He dropped his shield long enough to scoop the large man up over his shoulders. Then gripping the shield handle he rose unsteadily to his feet and staggered away from the wreckage. Oily black smoke filled the field.

James knew what was coming. “Get down!”

The few stragglers flung themselves to the ground and he pulled Linda down with him.

The chopper exploded in a massive fireball that sent flames in all directions. The heat singed James’s hair and he felt like the inside of a sauna. The explosion flung bits of flaming debris all over the field, igniting small fires that blocked many of the kids from regaining the field. James looked behind the bleachers, but a tall fence prevented their escape. The only choice was for everyone to race back across the field to the admin buildings, but the rapidly spreading fire blocked their way.

Damn it! There must be a way around that fire!

The caped figure emerged from the billowing smoke and stood gazing at the burning copter. He eyed the flaming bleachers, and then swung his gaze up at something James could barely make out. He craned his neck and spotted what everyone called “The Old Water Tower” that stood just outside the school grounds. It had been a landmark for as long as he could remember, but no one knew what, if anything was actually inside.

The caped figure reached into a small pouch on his belt and pulled out what like aspirin tablets. He affixed several of these to different spots along the circumference of the shield, gripped it like a Frisbee and flung it hard up at the water tower.

James watched with wide eyes as the shield arced toward the wooden legs that held the old tank aloft. The shield struck the front leg. There was a visible explosion and a snap of wood. The tower began to topple. The shield continued its arc and struck the second front facing leg. Another explosion ensued, followed by a crack of breaking wood. And then the entire tower toppled forward, right onto the flaming helicopter.

The tank shattered. Rather than water, which would have spread the gasoline fire, what poured out of the splintered tank was… sand!

The hell? James wondered. How’d he know there was sand in there?

The sand doused the flames, spreading outward across the field toward the bleachers and putting out the residual fires, leaving only small patches of grass still aflame.

Kids and parents scrambled out from under the burning bleachers and ran from the danger zone.

James assisted Linda to her feet.

Parents ran to their kids and engulfed them with hugs and affirmations of love. The caped figure panted from his exertions and watched the area beneath the flaming bleachers empty out.

One girl, her blue graduation gown smudged with grass stains and singed by fire, eyed him with awe. “Who are you?”

“Invictus. I’m a kind of guardian angel, I guess. You okay?”

She nodded just as a man in a suit and a woman wearing a flowery summer dress raced over to drag her away.

The short kid, still crouching beside his unconscious brother, jumped aside as paramedics raced over to attend him. Torres, his uniforms, and the SWAT officers charged out from the administration buildings toward the fallen gunmen.

The short kid hesitated, glanced at the medical personnel attending his brother, and then marched over to where Invictus remained watching.

“Why did you save those assholes?” he practically screamed, pointing to the two unmoving men from the helicopter. “They shot my brother!”

Invictus took a slight step back. “Well, I, uh, why kill someone if you don’t have to? I believe in justice, not revenge.

“Payback is justice!” He punctuated his vehemence by spitting into Invictus’s face. The spittle landed on the mask, just above the nose, and slid slowly down one cheek.

Invictus reared back in shock. The eyes within the mask narrowed in confusion and one gloved hand wiped away the spit.

A harried man rushed to the boy and grabbed him around the shoulders, dragging him back to where the paramedics were placing his brother onto a stretcher.

Invictus turned and James was sure the guy looked right at him. Then, shield gripped firmly in hand, he darted past the remnants of the helicopter. Several uniforms pursued, but James had a feeling they wouldn’t catch him.

“Dennis!”

James spun to find Linda engulfing Dennis in a crushing hug, and his whole body sagged with relief.

“You okay, Dennis?” he asked, holstering his gun.

Still smothered by Linda, Dennis nodded. But James saw his gaze fixed in the direction their costumed savior had disappeared.

Linda released Dennis, but kept her arm around his shoulders, as though he might disappear if she didn’t.

“Who was that guy, anyway?” she asked in amazement.

James eyed the smoldering wreckage beyond which Invictus had vanished.

“Good question.”

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