Excerpt

Pawn Takes Rook: Cashing the Reality Check

THE night was as frigid as my boyfriend’s reaction to the female stripper that jumped out of his birthday cake two months ago. Said boyfriend, Memphis Rook, stepped out onto the ledge of the cathedral rooftop and perched atop a stone gargoyle’s head like a demon. I’ve always considered him my blond Viking Biker Bad Boy. Once upon a time he had made a name for himself in the league of superheroes known as the Power Alliance. You know the type—high and mighty demigods of heroes that all other heroes are measured by and can’t possibly live up to their standards. When a mission had gone horribly wrong, Rook ended up taking the blame for it and the Power Alliance kicked him out. And then Rook saved me from a mugging and passed out in my lap. Anyhow, it’s kind of a messy story. His leader in the Power Alliance was my ex-boyfriend who went rogue and tried to kill me. Yeah. It’s complicated. At the end of the whole cockup, Rook decided to stick with me, and he’s now shacked up with me like a total freeloader in my tiny shoebox of an apartment.

Who am I? Well, I’m glad you asked. Hogarth Dawson, kitbashing technopath—that is, I can take a jumble of mechanical parts and a sliver of some kind of artificial intelligence and put them together into something awesome with the force of my will. I can make stuff like cars into giant robots, or Erector Sets into metal cats that hork Brillo Pad hairballs. Who else could do such a witty monologue, right?

I took a bold step onto Rook’s neighboring gargoyle, slipped on a patch of moss, and tumbled ass over teakettle back onto the roof. Dammit, classy. Sadly, let the record state I excel stupendously at klutziness.

Rook didn’t look up from scanning the expanse of the city. “You okay, Garth?” he asked in a grunt. Steam puffed from his mouth and whispered away like souls rising from his body. I tell ya, he’s just too freaking cool for me.

“Y-yeah,” I muttered, rubbing my tailbone.

Together, Rook and I formed Checkmate, a dynamic duo with origins in World War I. It’s seriously complicated. Like even more complicated than the ex-boyfriend business. In a nutshell, some crackpot scientists got drunk around the table one night and decided to make super soldiers. After they got the idea that the genetically modified turtles weren’t working and dumped them in the sewer, they made Checkmate. As far as Rook and I know, there are two generations of eight pawns, two knights, two rooks, two bishops, one queen, and one king. Both sets of individuals are genetically coded to hunt one another to the ends of the earth and stop at nothing to kill one another. While we remain cautious that there are others like us, we never give up hope they are out there.

Rook’s a red rook from the original set of Checkmate. I’m a black pawn from the second generation.

And we’re dating.

Yeah. Seriously complicated. I’d figure if one of us was sure to die, he was going to drop me with nothing more than a sneeze. He hasn’t yet, and I’d prefer not to think of the concept of yet. I’d like to think out of the gaggle of killer super soldiers, we beat the odds. And it’s hot, you know what I’m saying? Beside the point, the age difference between us is pretty staggering. Rook is 105 years old, and I’m a distinguished 24, which okay, okay, I know that’s kind of skeezy, but it really isn’t. Honest!

“See anything?” I asked him, fishing a granola bar out of my pocket. My fingers fluttered over the wrapper in the dark, and I lamented the bent-up shape. I unwrapped it slowly, feeling the stickiness of melted chocolate. “Aw, dammit, it’s all nasty.”

Rook glanced over his shoulder from his hunched badass position and smirked. “That’s what you get for leaving it in your jacket for a week,” he said, turning his attention back to the sprawling Axis City horizon of astonishing sky scrapers, no right angles, and the Axis City Light Rail zipping about. The ARail monorail cars traced contrails of green, orange, and red. After a long, scrutinizing scan Rook said, “And to answer your question, nada.”

I frowned, indignant. “I need it for my blood sugar,” I said about my late night snack-o’-nasty, and then carefully sat on the gargoyle next to Rook. I glanced down at the empty streets, trying to hone my skills in spotting a crook at fifty paces. I was lucky enough to see my fingers clearly at two inches in front of my face without my glasses. My gaze inched over the magnificence of the city. Sometimes I get caught up in the fact that I really freaking live here. That’s a lot to take in for a country bumpkin from Scandinavia, Wisconsin. Axis City, the paragon of all things superpowered, had more superheroes and supervillains than the word count of all seven installments of Harry Potter combined.

And in the vast expanse of the city, there was not a peep, not a sound, not a scream, not a siren, not a bird, or a plane, or any supermen. It was really bizarre, you know?

I sighed. Rook’s broad shoulders rose and fell with a sigh as well.

“Bor-ing,” I said in a singsong tone. “We should have stayed home and watched After the Final Choice.”

Still perfectly balanced in that creepy, sexy way on the gargoyle, Rook palmed his face and grunted. “Goddammit, Hogarth. I can’t believe you made me sit through an entire season of Single and Super.”

I crossed my arms against the cold. Mostly I was huffy like a little diva, I admit. Admitting it is the first step to recovery, you know.

Single and Super is quality television,” I snapped. “Even superheroes need help finding love. So what if they find love in front of millions watching all of their drama.”

“Is that what passes for entertainment these days? Reality TV? I’m amazed a supervillain hasn’t capitalized on the concept of effortless brain-rotting yet,” Rook said, scanning the city once again.

“You know, it would be pretty ingenious,” I said, mulling over my snack. I blinked with the realization about the same time he did. In unison we turned to one another, pointing and offering a confirming, “Heeeeey….”

I took a bigger bite than I should have out of my pitiful granola bar. I realized a millisecond later it wasn’t a good idea.

Rook shot me a glance again as I struggled to chew. “That looks like it tastes like sadness.”

I shook my head, slapped my hand over my mouth, and held in the sudden need for granola liberation. I waved my hand quickly in charades to indicate, “No, no, I’m not choking. I just need to dispose of this!”

Rook tilted his head like an inquisitive parrot, trying to make sense of my gestures. “Good news, I’m having your baby?” he asked, trying to puzzle it together.

I dashed quickly to the other side of the cathedral roof and disposed of the… er… problem. As I hung over the edge of the roof, I caught sight of our first damsel in distress wandering nearby.

On the street below, a young woman in a tattered carmine evening gown staggered down the middle line of the empty street. Her dark hair was painted a sickly green in the orange glow of the street lamps. Her head lolled bonelessly on her neck, flopping to and fro. She limped on one broken high heel.

“Hey, Rook,” I hollered to the other side of the cathedral. “We got a vic.” I shivered with prideful chills. New York’s finest Benson and Stabler would totally be congratulating me on my expert delivery of their line.

In the span of a blink, Rook was at my side, leaning far over the rooftop ledge.

I thumbed my chin, considering the possibilities. “Or, she could be a zombie….”

Rook’s attention snapped to me, his eerie aquamarine eyes burrowing into my brain. “Garth, there is no such thing as zombies,” he said flatly.

I wisely chose to shut up. But the way he said it neither confirmed nor denied the statement. Jinkies! A mystery, Scooby!

He extended his hand to me without a word, and I took a moment to consider those broad, callused digits that have seen a lifetime of busting heads and popping joints from their sockets. My mouth ran dry and my fingers itched. My hesitation bubbled up in my stomach.

“Are you quite finished swooning at my hand?” Rook growled, flicking his fingers.

The bubbles in my belly popped instantly, and I thought my nasty-ass granola bar was going to repeat on me. “Oh, right,” I said, slapping my hand into his.

In one smooth motion, Rook spun me into his arms like a ballroom dancer curling his partner into a hold. With no warning or fanfare, he simply stepped off the roof like he was descending a staircase. My stomach shot up into my throat, and my blue houndstooth scarf flapped in a panic into my face. Why must I always look so uncool?

It was always the sudden stop that startled me. No crater from Rook’s brawny frame. No shifting of weight. Just bam, there we were on the street.

I scrambled out of Rook’s grasp, adjusting my glasses onto my nose and running my hand through my short red hair to make it fashionably spiky and disheveled. I had to make a decent first impression to our soon-to-be-saved woman. As I ambled over, I wasn’t feeling as confident about it as I was before. The woman staggered in a shuddering shamble toward me. Her pallid complexion didn’t quite assure me if she indeed still had a pulse. And the tattered and filthy state of her evening gown didn’t give me the impression she was still in possession of all of her vital organs. Of course, her dress was a deep ruby red, so I could have been totally wrong.

Rook made a hiss between his teeth and a shooing gesture with a flick of the wrist to get me to do my thing. That’s the way we work, you know. Rook’s not terribly good at public speaking, and I apparently appear “less threatening,” as he said once. Just because I’m only six inches over five feet and a skinny hipster, while he’s seven feet and built like a one of Michelangelo’s statues.

I tapped into my wellspring of courage and stood before the totally-not-a-zombie-but-likely-a-zombie woman. It was moments like these I really wished I had a shovel, just in case something went horribly wrong. Like a hiss, and a thrash, and a cry for braaaaiiins!

She wobbled on her broken heel, her jaw slack with words I was pretty sure she was trying to mutter but I couldn’t hear. Her eyes were cloudy and rolled back. Her stringy dark hair clung to her face and reflected the greenish sheen like she had been marinating in chlorine. I stood four feet from her, and my hands felt horribly empty without some weapon of blunt force trauma. A hammer, a baseball bat, hell, even a whiffle bat.

Zombies are totally real. Rook was a damned dirty liar.

“M-ma’am…,” I stammered, awaiting the moment my brain was slurped out with a crazy straw. She stepped toward me. Okay, stepping back now. “Ma’am…,” I croaked. “Can you tell me your name?”

“…i… love…,” she whispered.

I snorted. “What kind of name is that?”

She lurched forward again. And again, I took a big step back.

“She looks familiar…,” Rook said, finally being a big brave man and stepping forward to get a better look. He squinted right in her face, shifting his body with her movements so he wouldn’t touch her. He was definitely a more courageous soul than I.

“…you… i…,” she gurgled again.

I turned one eye on Rook and one eye on the woman. Impressive feat, mind you.

Rook snapped his fingers, as if he were trying to get his idea to materialize into his brain. “She’s Ada-what’s-it. That girl you’re nuts over,” he said.

“Ada-what’s-it? What the hell are you taking about?” I asked him, backing away another step from the totally-likely-a-zombie woman. What has all those videogames taught me? Headshot. Make it a headshot. Got it. Right.

Rook swatted me in the back of the head and I flopped forward two feet. “The girl from Single and Super!” he hissed.

My attention darted to the dead-eyed woman. And then it hit me like the not-so-surprising plot twist in Titanic.

“Great Scott,” I gasped. “It’s Adaleigh Swanson!”

Now. Let’s back up a sec. Because what you need moving forward is context. Cue the flashback!


Copyright © 2013 Lex Chase. All rights reserved.

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