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Praise for The Fire Inside: A Sidekicks Novel “The world the author has created is complex, realistic and most likely allegorical. I’m not an accredited scholar, but what I can tell you is: I. Want. More.” Michelle, Reading Lark ( “The ending was perfect, wrapping up all the loose ends in a way that was fitting for the story.” Kelly, Reading Between the Wines ( "Rose’s world building is well done and again quite a visual masterpiece." Leslie Wright, Blogcritics ( "Really, I can't say enough good things about this book, and I can't wait for the next Sidekicks novel!" Katie B, GoodReads user Readers love Better Together "I really liked Paul. He seemed like a real, normal person to me. I felt that his character reacted to his life's situations in a truthful, realistic way. Above all, every single thing in this book is believable, and that adds to its strength." Sarah, Sarah Reads Too Much ( "The characters are extremely well developed, making it very easy to connect to them emotionally as the story progressed. The story was definitely an emotional roller coaster and I was swept away along with the characters in their ups and downs." Kim, The Caffeinated Diva ( "Paul will become a familiar friend to you and his son an adorable little sidekick who you just want to hug. I certainly was sad when I had to put the finished product down and I will still think of the characters." Erica, Soon Remembered Tales ( “Better Together really captures that kind of dual-living that usually only happens if you’re a parent or a bodyguard: you look out for your own self, but you’re hyper-focused on anything that might affect the health and safety of the person you’re caring for.” Tiger Holland, All-Consuming Books (

First Edition, July 2012 Copyright Š 2012 by Raymond M. Rose Cover photography by Marcus J. Ranum Artwork and Book Design by Raymond M. Rose All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means whatsoever without written permission from the publisher or author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review. Christopher Williams Books Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data available upon request.

Raymond M. Rose Novels: Sidekicks The Fire Inside Black Mirror (coming soon) Boyertown Quartet Better Together

Short Stories: Philly-Punk The Franklin Incident Mr. Dad Career Path (coming soon)


Raymond M. Rose

I squeeze myself deeper under the massive mahogany desk, contorting my body into a horribly-uncomfortable position. My limbs protest silently yet painfully at such unfair treatment. I ignore them and continue to push until I can go no further down the 'rabbit hole.' Deeply ensconced, though, I can hear nothing, and, regrettably, see less. All I can do is smell: a trace of leather cleaning oil, a redolence of spent tobacco, and the coppery tang of blood spilt on the hardwood floor— click... click... Fingernails scrape against wood. It's found us! I try to push past my sudden panic and strain my ears to listen to.... click... click... Nails dig through paint and pulp as... hands try to open... a doorknob? Yes, I can hear the jingle of the slightly-loose knob as unseen hands slowly rotate it. Though it's released before it can reach the full revolution. click... click... I didn't think he would find us. No, strike that, I hopes he wouldn't. Why would he return to the scene of an earlier crime? I need only glance toward the front of the office to see what happened that first time: she lie on the floor, her fingers pointing towards me, palms open. If it wasn't for the dried blood – dark splotches on her alabaster skin – it might seem as if she were merely extending her hand to me. Thankfully, I can't see her dead open eyes because my coat respectfully covers her. click... click... Clearly, I was wrong about the killer's thought-process. Though, I imagine, a part of me had indeed thought I was incorrect for I took pains to position the constable and I in such a way that, if the killer did enter this office, the desk would hide us. Yet, the doorknob he was turning was not the one I thought he would use. Not the one in front of us; but he was coming in behind us, leaving us completely visible when he opens that door. I quickly shuffle out of my place of refuge and sneak around the desk, taking care to drag my unconscious friend with me. click... click... The fingernails – let's call them what they really are, claws! CLAWS! – scrape against the door as the killer tries the doorknob again. click... click... creak... The door opens behind me. I press my body as firmly as I can to the side of the desk. Any further and I would be part of the desk. I listen. thump... thump... The sound hammers my already-crumbling resolve. I am firmly rooted to this hiding place not out of comfort but out of pure, strickening fear. Every vein feels ablaze and nerves drawn as tight as a garrote. I wish, though, with all my heart, that my fear was purely of this killer, of this thing stepping into the room. I wish that I was afraid of the harm he might inflict on my person or my defenseless friend beside me. I wish it be fear of death. And not fear of what I'll become if I chose to fight back. thump... thump...

The stench that I smelled upstairs fills my nostrils again. It smells of death, putrefaction, and burned incense. Such smells seem intimately familiar but unrelated to my current predicament. A rite of some— thump... thump... A shadow grows ahead of me. At first, it's an expanding dome of darkness; an inverted rising sun. Then it grows larger, swallowing all light in its path. I need to get out of this place. I need to draw the killer away from my friend. I need to flee before all light is gone and only shadow exists. thump... thump... ***

Three hours ago, I stepped out of the 'mechanical' hansom cab and into an intense June afternoon sun that left me squinting and wishing I'd brought my hat. I paid the driver, a man wise enough to wear a pair of dark glasses against the afternoon's strong sun, and the coins clunked into his fare box. The driver nodded 'thanks.' The engine huffed and the carriage shuttered forward, small clouds of steam marking its departure. Although these 'mechanical' hansoms had become the standard over the past couple of years, they still struck my eyes as queer: I expected to see a horse – or even a team of those fine beasts – in the front, pulling a simple 'box on wheels.' However, recently, a horse-drawn carriage was the rarer of the two. I smoothed the wrinkles out of my charcoal frock coat and fixed my cravat. Although the coat was a decade out of fashion and slightly-frayed in spots, I found it utterly indispensable: it had two wonderful deep outer pockets that could hold all manner of items. I like to believe that I am a man who always has a need for voluminous pockets. The power of utility over the fancy of men's fashion. I carried my instrument valise across the city square toward the address written on a message hand-delivered a half-hour ago by a young man from the Pneumatic Tube Co. The Franklin Building was a squat beast that looked large enough to berth one of those new luxury liners the White Star folks were always going on about. Five stories high, the building was as eccentric as its namesake (whose Bacchus-like 'homage' of a statue was shooting water from its pursed lips in front of me): each level a jumble of gothic and baroque architectures. Gargoyles guarded the east and west. Sphinxes riddled the north and south. And winged seraphs looked to the heavens on the top floor. Just plain mad. Ben Franklin would have been proud. Gathered around Franklin's statue was a crowd of men that bordered on unruly. Although impeccably dressed, the angry clew of dark suited-men was a sight to behold and, it seemed, a force to be reckoned with. True, this part of Philadelphia was usually swarming with professional men buzzing to and fro in pursuit of wealth, health, or justice. They rarely, though, did so in such a large scourge... or so vehemently. As I approached them, they glanced my way, their walrus mustaches twitching and muttonchops bristling as they growled. "Do you know the meaning of this?" “This is preposterous! I'm losing money!" I did not know what this brood of men was clucking for I found my attention diverted as I crossed some unmarked line of demarcation from sunlight into blackness. I looked up to see her.

This part of Philadelphia lay firmly in the shadow of a giant airship tethered to the proud William Penn statue atop the gothic building the shared her name. The airship, long and sleek an all her black beauty, had appeared one morning six months ago. Although airships filled our skies the night before, none of them resembled in neither size nor mystery the black ship that was suddenly berthed above the city that Christmas morning. Though rumors spread like flames across dry tinder, no one seemed to know who resided in her for she never responded to any hails. Parliament, City Hall, and, even, the Constabulary seemed unconcerned about her so she remained a grand puzzle for Philadelphia citizens. And a fine bit of shade. A silver handled walking stick suddenly appeared out of nowhere and pressed itself to my chest. I stopped walking and glanced at its owner: a dastardly tall man wearing rose-tinted glasses. The handle was shaped like an eagle, wings spread and claws out. Ridiculous. I fixed the man the most blasé of glances and asked, "Can I help you, sir?" "I demand to know the meaning of this!" "You need be a little more specific than 'this'." He motioned to The Franklin Building and, clearly, the wooden barricade erected outside. A lone constable stood behind it. "The Constabulary has kept us out of our place of business for two hours. Two hours! I ask you why, Mr..." "Jonathan Adams," I replied promptly. Then, much to his chagrin, I shrugged. "But I do not know what is going on." "Are you not with the constables?" A delicate question, indeed. And never one that I can answer easily enough for my relationship with the Constabulary was complicated at best. "I do work for them... occasionally. In a consulting capacity—" The man rolled his eyes at me. “Good Lord, not another self-fashioned Sherlock Holmes." "Pardon me, sir, but I know not that name," I responded abruptly. "I am merely a collector. Sometimes the Constabulary calls on my expertise." The man squinted his eyes. “Aren't you a little young to be an expert... on anything?” I loved repartee as much as the next man but I, as a rule, did not engage it with men who jabbed me with their walking sticks nor assumed my breath of knowledge based on my age. “Good day, sir. I have more important things to do than trade barbs with you." I made to leave but he held his cane tight to my chest. I felt the tip of the wing bore slightly into my chest. I thought he might find the handle a little hard to swallow should I elect to make him eat it. Taking a deep breath to calm my anger, I turned to him. "Yes?" He fixed me a stare that must make other men shiver in their shoes. I was not 'other men.' “Do tell the constables that Hart would like to return to his businesses as soon as possible." I bitterly acquiesced with a nod. Mr. Hart removed his walking stick and I, casting him the briefest of glances I hoped convey my sentiment regarding his existence, continued my way. I worked the flimsy wooden barricades and nodded to the constable standing at the door. Clearly the Constabulary's Office had started recruiting from the Irish boxing circuits again for the man looked as if his flesh were made of dough, a nose repeatedly-broken, and hands like sides of beef. The constable's name was unknown to me – I am horrible with names though faces I remember instantly – but he knew me, nodding me into the Franklin Building. The inside was a cavern not of rock but wood paneling, stone pillars, and an ornate glass ceiling overhead. I could see the airship through the ceiling, a dark shadow against the afternoon

sun. As I made my way across a sea of marble, I could hear echoes of my footsteps and electricity purring like unseen rats humming the same note. Ahead lay a grand staircase that led to the second floor. A man stood at the top, his posture military-straight and his eyes glancing upward as if he too were gazing at the airship. He held a pistol in his hands. That said something. In my seven years of associating with the Philadelphia Constabulary Office, I had known the sergeant to pull his pistol only three times. And one of those was to show the thing to me. It meant that he was frightened. And what scared Sergeant Edgar Poe would make normal men soil their pants. I climbed the stairs to meet Poe. The sergeant casually glanced back and I saw shadows fill the dark circles around his eyes. I hoped his wife wasn't sick again. Every time the consumption came upon her, it seemed as if she drew closer and closer to death's shores only to return miraculously to good health. Each time, I feared, was driving Poe more and more... mad. I motioned to the weapon. "Is that to keep the gaggle outside in order?" Poe snickered but made no reply. We stood in a strange silence for a moment or two. Although we enjoyed each other's company when not on official Constabulary business, I felt uneasy at that moment. Perhaps it was the mysterious calling – an address and a Come quickly. E. Poe. – or the pistol in his hand. Either way, the silence was threatening to drive me mad. "Why am I here, Poe?" "That's never a good question to ask." Wry bastard. Before I could rephrase it better to his liking, Poe left, heading down a hallway. Having no choice, I followed, my feet treading on the soft carpet that ran up the center of the hallway. I did not ask him further questions. It would be like asking a boulder for the time of day. He would tell me more when he wanted to. Poe made a right at the end of the hall into another, longer and with handsome cherry furniture and wall sconces. Electric light seemed to stretch for miles. He headed down, passing identical doors with names etched in glass. It was in front of such a door, this one marked FRANKLIN JAMES, ESQ, that he stopped. Without another word, Poe opened the door, revealing a simple office furnished in a mahogany banker's desk, two leather chaises, and a plush Oriental rug. A single Tiffany lamp illuminated a pool of viscous liquid in the center of the rug. The coppery smell of spilt blood hung heavy in the air, invading my nostrils and clothing fibers alike. A woman's body laid on her side, her hand reaching out for something that wasn't there. Her face was calm though her death spoke otherwise: something sharp had bisected her head just above her eyebrows. Where the dome of her skull should have been, there was only a concave cavity empty of its major inhabitant. I stood in the doorway watching this horrid tableau in front of me. My soul did not fill with dread. I did not scream in fear, lest I lose my sanity. I only stared at the dead woman. I did not know her but that wasn't a particularly good reason why the sight of her death caused no emotional response in me whatsoever. No, the only thought that did come was one of identity. "Who was she?" Poe stood beside me, his breathing controlled. When he looked at this woman, did he see his wife? He motioned to the name on the door. "Eliza Goodkind. She's Franklin James' personal maid." I turned to Poe and repeated my earlier question: "Why am I here, Poe?" I'm not doctor nor am I an expert on murder. Why am I here?"

Poe made to reply, his lips opening just partially then he closed them. Saying nothing more he stepped carefully into the room and took an item off the top of the banker's desk. He put it in my hand. I took a large magnifying glass that I carried in my valise and ran the glass over every centimeter of the object. It was metal, light in weight, and the length of my forefinger. In the shape of a V, the two pieces that jutted from the base looked like fountain pens that ended not in a nib but ten or fifteen hair-thin metal pieces. "Wires?" Poe asked me, looking over his shoulders. I ignored him though people looking over my shoulder was about as horrid as people who talk during operas and continued my inspection. "They look more like antennae." I closed my eyes and turned the piece over and over in my hands, letting my fingers do the 'looking.' The base was a thicker metal tube that ended in jagged metal and strands of flimsy broken wires. It had been broken off as if someone— thump! thump! thump! thump! Loud footsteps suddenly sounded out behind us and a voice boomed into the room. "Sergeant!" Poe and I turned to see another constable in the doorway. A tall, wiry man with a bushy moustache, he wore a Fightin' Jack on his left arm: his hand encased in an iron fist and the rest of his arm and shoulder folded into a brace. I had seen one used with devastating effect by a debt collector years ago. They were still picking pieces of the debtor's jaw out of a brick wall. "He's done it again!" "When?" "Now!" the constable barked. "Upstairs!" Poe turned to me. "The killer's in the building!" The excitement in his eyes scared me slightly. What kind of world of pain was my friend in that the thought of a sadistic killer loose in the building was something to get excited about? I shook my head slightly. "What have you dragged me into, Poe?" He made no reply but dashed after the mustached-constable, who had already given flight down the hall. I turned back to the dead woman splayed on the Oriental rug. It is untrue that her death produced no emotion in me. I felt shame for the disrespectful way she had been laid on the floor like a spilled sack of potatoes. She had lived a life of servitude only to end like this. She deserved more. I took off my beloved coat and laid it over her body. Then I begrudgingly followed the constables. ***

We took the stairs, not trusting a steel trap of an elevator with a murdering madman on the loose. The stairwell was gloomy and sounds seemed to reverberate off every surface as we climbed, single file. The constable led the way, I, the monkey in the middle, and Poe, pistol drawn, brought up the rear. As we climbed, Poe told me that the call had come over two hours ago from a terrified woman who was a maid for one of the other tenants. All the servants in the building took lunch together. Eliza, the dead woman, had gone back to work a little early to tidy

her employer's office up. However, when Maggie, the woman who called, came to the office to speak to Elisa, she found her dead. "How many staff are inside the building at this very moment?" I asked as we reached the landing for the third floor. I need not tell Poe that the chances that the killer was one of the staff was very high. He knew this better than I. "There were five when we arrived," Poe answered. "Though, I imagine, there are four now..." "Any constables other than you and—" "O'Conner, sir?' the constable supplied from above. "Yes, O'Conner, thank you." "There are three others. They are downstairs talking to the staff." "So the staff plus the constables makes seven people in this build—" "Plus us," added Poe. "And the killer," Constable O'Conner said as he reached the door to the fifth floor. He did not open the door, though. Only waited for us to catch up. "So there are nine... possibly ten people in this building. And one of them is a killer." Poe made his way to the door, pistol at the ready. He put his hand on the doorknob but glanced at me. "You really should have brought a gun." Oh how funny he is! "You know I don't own a firearm!" Poe shrugged. "Doesn't mean you shouldn't." He opened the door and entered the hallway. ***

The second body was male, in his late fifties or so, and wearing a handsome suit that signified he was a personal valet. Slumped against the hallway wall, his hands hung at his side and his head was bent slightly forward. Like the woman, something had cut open his skull and removed his brain. However, unlike before, there was a misshapen hunk of grey meat lying just between his splayed legs, sitting in a small pool of blood. I knelt down and examined it with my glass: a piece of the aforementioned brain. A shuffle of feet revealed O'Conner wandering off, watching the hallway and, it would seem, mostly averting his eyes from the dead man. Poe knelt down in front of the body and gave him the briefest of glances before making a noise like a mother duck clucking disapprovingly at her ducklings. "Can I have the glass?" I handed it to him and Poe returned to his examination, making a noise much less disapproving and more... intriguing. "The skull was cut by a very sharp tool. It was done slowly and... with a very skilled hand, I would say." "A hunter?" I asked as I noticed a strange coloring on the man's neck. Kneeling before the man, I quickly pulled a handkerchief from my vest pocket and covered my mouth lest I choke on the horrid smell. He had clearly soiled himself upon death. "Do hunters often remove the brains of their kills?" Poe asked me, glancing up. I did not meet his gaze but continued my line of examination. "I do not know. I buy my meat."

One handedly, I carefully pulled the collar of the man's jacket back to reveal the greater portion of a bruise. It was a dark, violent thing that bespoke of horrible pain and brute force. I began to search the rest of the man's person, speaking only when I had found a number of bruises. "He's covered in contusions as if someone repeatedly beat him down with fists." "Beaten into submission," Poe began, "only to have his skull skillfully cut open and brain removed?" All of a sudden, a stench more horrible than the dead man enveloped me. I instantly smelled rotten meat, something smoky like burned... flowers? The others smelled it too. "What is that—" Poe exclaimed! He never had the chance to finish his sentence for the electric lights lining the hallway flickered once then shut off completely. My vision gone completely dark, I quickly stepped up from the dead man and took two steps back. I heard Poe's voice not too far from me, "Blown breaker?" "Someone shut the power off," Constable O'Conner said nervously as he rushed toward us, turning on the torch he carried on his belt. I took out my own from my valise. I had an extra one for Poe, however I watched him turn his own on and sweep his circle of light across the hallway, searching for something. Would the killer have turned off the lights? I said so to the others but neither of them commented on the question. Without a word said, we formed a very loose circle around the dead man, our lights slowly sweeping in different directions. That silence – and vigilance – continued for a few moments until a sudden cry seemed to leap from O'Conner's lips. I swung my light around to see O'Conner's light suddenly jerk as a loud smacking noise exploded behind him. A flash of movement and I felt something wet and warm shower my face like an unexpected summer rainstorm! Then something smacked into my left foot. I turned my flashlight down to see the Fightin' Jack iron fist still in O'Conner's severed arm resting against my boot. O'Conner howled, his voice torn with intense pain. He jerked forward as if something had shoved him. A jet of bright red liquid sprayed out from an arm that now seemed never to have left his torso. I dashed toward the constable but got no more than two steps when something literally sliced through O'Conner's chest and cut the man in two. Poe drew down with his pistol and opened-fire before both parts of the constable's body had even hit the carpeted floor. His gunfire revealed a massive darkened shape that bounded down the hall, retreating from them. Poe stopped firing and barked at me, "Let's go, Adams!" I stood in that suddenly-still hallway and felt my feet unable to move. It wasn't fear, at this moment, but an inability to think of what to do next. The hallway had been alive only moments before with a grotesque dance of outright slaughter, O'Conner having been cut down no differently than a steer on a cattle ranch. Yet now nothing stirred in the darkness. Nothing moved. No sound. It was as if nothing had happened before. As if a man had not just died. But one... actually, two... had. The question was: what was I to do about it? Poe took away the need to answer that question at that moment by grabbing my elbow and yanking me in the opposite direction. "Adams!" I know not the reason why I decided to do this but I grabbed the Fightin' Jack iron fist off the ground, severed appendage and all, and tucked it under my own arm. Then I ran down the hall with Poe, dashing for the stairwell that we'd used earlier. It seemed miles away, though, and getting further even though we were running as fast as we could

toward it. The hallway reverberated with our footsteps and things horrible: a high-pitched keening like some wild animal and fingernails raking across plaster! It seemed to be everywhere: in back of them, to the left, suddenly coming from the front. We finally arrived at the stairwell, Poe reaching for the door. But a flash of light drew my attention back down the hallway as ten... fourteen... twenty small round lights suddenly turned on. They went from small, intense beams to a massive flash of bright white as if the full candlepower had been switched on. Poe stood beside me, as transfixed as I was. And a rumbling grew out of the stairwell, the very floor under us shaking. The door suddenly flew open and shapes bounded out, enveloping us. ***

It was a collision of bodies. I felt like a wave in the ocean had suddenly barreled me over. However, it wasn't water but solid flesh rushing into more flesh. Limbs intertwined, feet were tangled, and we all rolled painfully to the floor. Grunts escaped mouths and curses flew like fireworks. But no one fought and it was only when I had regained my torch and brought it around on the assaulting group, did I see that there were six people: three constables and three men in liveried clothes. Servants. Two of the constables and a valet had pistols, while the others carried clubs or strong pieces of wood. The constables immediately peppered Poe, their senior officer, with questions, trying to find out about everything from the gunshots, the dead people they'd found, and where Constable O'Conner was. Poe was succinct and – perhaps you might say – a little cold with his responses. But the men needed Poe to tell them what was going on so that they could prepare for what might lay ahead. Unfortunately, they never got that luxury. Poe was drawing up the better parts of a plan when the lights that we had seen earlier came on again down the hall. Instantly, that horrible keening sounded out. Valiantly, the three men with pistols stepped forward and knelt, forming a firing line. Constables were no more than British soldiers in a different costume. The men with clubs, Poe, and myself held up the rear. I took the moment to carefully take the severed arm out from the Fightin' Jack. I set it as respectfully as I could on the ground. Then I slip the fist over my own, trying not to be too conscientious of the liquid lining the inside. I fastened the brace on my arm and reset the pistons on the side. It was ready. Poe, pistol drawn over the heads of his constables, scanned the hallway, the white lights pulsating at us not twenty feet away. "Wait for my signal men! Then open fire." The pulsating stopped. The lights went dark and the hallway returned to its pitch black existence. No sound could be heard whatsoever. Everything was still and black. "Where'd it go, si—" one Constable began but Poe smacked him on the shoulder. "Say nothing!" I watched my friend carefully; glad to see the natural-born leader in him finally getting a chance to shine. Most people found Poe to be unsocial and cold. However, I always found the opposite. In certain company, Poe could be a fine conversationalist, amicable, even gregarious. He understood most men perhaps more than they cared to be understood. Most men found that offputt—

Something about the door on the constables' left side seemed to suddenly change. Not the door itself but... I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then the light seen through the crack at the bottom went dark all of a sudden as if... someone was standing before the door! "POE!" The door seemed to bulge outward as if something was trying to climb through it like an open window. With a nerve-gnashing rip, the wood began to literally tear as the door exploded off its hinges in pieces. Shrapnel assaulted the line of constables like a cannon barrage. One large piece slammed into the closest constable, hitting him at the juncture of his neck and head where the bones inside cracked like dry branches on a lit fire. The man slammed into the other constables, barreling them over to the ground. They turned to the door, guns drawn around as a dark shape leapt out of the maw of the doorframe. Screams of horror filled the hallway and gunfire crackled, spent gunsmoke suddenly engulfing us all. I watched Poe step forward, firing off the remaining shots in his six-shooter. His bullets, though, sparked off some metal chest plate as the smoke-shrouded shape dove at them. Then it was among them. One of the Constables was cut down by the killer's sword like a scythe through a wheat stalk. The three men with melee weapons leapt into the fray, their clubs drawn back for the strike. What were clubs against a sword? Beyond that, what was an Iron Fist? One of the men was drawn upward by a powerful arm and thrown towards Poe and myself. I scrambled out of the path of the living cannon fodder but Poe wasn't so lucky. He was slammed back though the open door and I heard his body tumble down the stairwell. I fled the gruesome battle. Not out of cowardice nor to go in search of reinforcements. I fled the battle to find my friend. I knew him hurt and possibly defenseless against, what was clearly, a skilled warrior. You may think me craven, but I care not. I know why I left that battle. I hurried into the stairwell. Poe lay at the bottom of the next landing, his head resting against the wall, blood flowing from a gash in his forehead. Carefully, I gathered up my unconscious friend and slung him over my shoulder. Sporadic gunshots, horrid screams, and that high-pitched keen echoed down through the stairwell. I ignored them all. Carefully – but hurriedly – I made my way down the stairs. I found my way back to the office that we had first gone to, the office that held the dead woman. I would treat Poe's wounds and hide him and myself. We would wait out the killer until reinforcements came looking for us. There we would be safe. For why would the killer return to scene of his first kill? ***

thump... thump... The killer is in the room with us. The feet that shuffle across the floor do so uncoordinatedly, as if they are too big for the legs that use them. Such power in each step makes the very floorboards under me shiver. thump... thump... I need to flee. I need to draw the killer out of the room, if only for Poe's life. Draw it somewhere else into the belly of this great building and... contain it, somehow without fighting it. For why kill a beast, if only to become one?

Poe's pistol lies beside him. I know that it's spent, however, he always carries an extra set of cartridges. The bullets won't hurt the killer; that much I know. However, it might anger him enough to keep after me and save others. Yes, that is a lie I allow myself as I carefully shift my position and began searching my friend's pockets. I find the paper cartridges and pocket them in my vest. Taking the pistol, I tuck it under my arm— thump... thump... —and leap from my prostrate position to my feet. I make a mad dash for the door, hearing the killer make a strange noise that seems part auditory 'question mark' and part grunt behind me. Suddenly, the room erupts in that horrid high-pitched keening and heavy footsteps explode behind like a breaking dam releasing its waters. I keep my head down and eyes on the floor so that I do not step on the dead woman as I run like the dickens. I clear each hurdle, glancing up and seeing the door ever closer, knowing that freed— That’s when the killer grabs my arm, wrenching me backward. My arm feels as if it's in a vise, someone recklessly turning the wench. I spin around like a top, my natural instincts wresting control and my body moving like one of those automatons serving the food in Wanamaker's restaurant: quickly, precisely, and without independent thought. The pistol in my hand whips across the killer's face slamming off the multi-eyed helmet and cracking two of the portals. The vise-grip lessens for a moment and I wrest myself free. Immediately, I bolt in the direction of the door. Throwing it open, I fling my body out into the hallway with such force that I lose my footing and hit the wall. Bouncing off the plastered hallway, I recover just enough to plant one foot in front of the other and run as if the devil himself were after me. As I had planned – and hoped – there are explosions of sounds from behind me as something large knocks over furniture, rips wood out of the doorframe, and spills framed photos off the wall. Its thunderous footsteps clamber behind me but I do not look back. No, I press on, turning the corner and barreling down the hallway that leads to the grand staircase. It is now, though, that I allow myself a glance back. The killer is a stone's throw away, the massive form turning a small hallway table into kindling— Instantly, I discover that of all the times to glance back, this moment was the worst... for I cannot see the dead body suddenly at my feet before I am tripping over it. I have a moment's conscientious thought regarding that I am about to fall down a flight of stairs before I am actually falling. In that time, I tell myself to tuck my body into a roll, eager to put my torso between the stairs and any vital organs that probably shouldn't connect violently with wood. I plan to use my hands as rudders that I will use to direct my fall. I am ready. But reality is far worse than fiction. I learn instantly, that it makes no difference, one cannot control chaos. The fall is graceless and disorienting. I can scarcely tell which end is up and which is down. My world is just a succession of spinning horizons and painful spasms as limbs connect with stairs and banisters. The pistol goes crashing off somewhere and I feel the iron fist strike wood with a thunderous tattoo, splinters showering my body. A white searing pain explodes on the back of my skull. Just when I think that I will roll forever, like some twisted backwards Atlas, I plow into the bottom landing and my battered frame stops on the marble floor. The stone feels cool under my warm skin. I have no idea what kind of damage my body has sustained for I hurt everywhere. It seems impossible to tell if one place hurts more than the other to indicate more severe wounds. All the pain can tell me is one thing: I'm alive. creak... And that the killer is at the top of the stairs.

Turning painfully toward the steps, I can see the shape of it approaching the top of the stairwell. Though the building lay in the shadow of the airship, which I can make the shape of it out in the evening sky, an evening light filters down. It renders the world in shades of a blue as if I donned one of those fancy colored-lens spectacles. creak... The killer steps into the moonlight, its towering frame illuminated. It takes the slow steps as if it is unsure of its footing or is merely stalking its prey. I cannot analyze its behavior for I am finding it impossible to even understand the sight of the creature that descends the steps before me. There are so many things wrong about what I am seeing that I scarcely know where to begin. The stout legs are encased in an armor that is bulky and intricately decorated with unfamiliar symbols and glyphs. This armor covers legs and torso and small stubby arms. The plating across its chest looks dented and marred with signs of battle. The creature's hands have four long fingers tipped in black claws. On top of broad shoulders, sits an oval shape that looks to be a helmet adorned with twenty small portholes— Suddenly a bright light comes on above. I immediately find the source of the light: the airship. The airship bathes this part of the city in an almost-blinding light as if it were searching for something. However, the light suddenly begins to flicker as if someone were turning it on and off... at varying lengths of time. Code. The killer on the stairs pivots towards the ceiling and the lights I had seen in the upstairs hallway flash on again. This time, though, I'm a stone's throw from the killer so I can see that the light is coming out of the portholes. And the light is pulsating. My growing sense of dread seems to suddenly crest and that need to flee pulsates like the light. Moving my limbs experimentally, I find that they respond to my brain's directions with little physical resistances. However as I stand up, one of Poe's cartridges falls out of my vest pocket, flittering to the ground and spilling the gunpowder it encased through a tear in the paper. I pick up the cartridge only to find that it's stuck to a wad of chewing gum someone had left on the floor. "Wha— What in God's name?" a voice suddenly wails from behind me. I painfully turn to find a young woman in a plain white dress no different from the two dead women I've seen today. She's standing just outside a glass door, one hand on the doorknob and her other shielding her face from the pulsating light. Her face contorts in horror as she stares at the creature on the stairs. But when the creature's lights suddenly stop pulsating and it turns towards the young woman, her face suddenly blanches white and the scream that erupts from her lips chills me to the bone. The creature returns with its keening and begins to shuffle hurriedly down the stairs. I turn toward the woman, yelling "RUN!" but my voice is drowned in the din of their noises and can't seem to turn from her gaze from the creature. It has pulled the short blade that had killed so many upstairs and has almost reached the landing. The woman isn't going to run. She's going to die. I have to do something. Forget who I was or who I might become. Who am I right here and now if I let a defenseless woman die at the hands of this sadistic killer? I am someone who has no business living on this earth at all.

Gunpowder. Chewing gum. Iron hand. Instantly – as it used to happen many times before – a course of action plants itself in my head. 1. Smear the chewing gum over the iron fist. I rush toward the spilled gunpowder and the chewing gum I found on the ground. As I pull up the gum from the floor, the creature reaches the bottom stair and the landing below. I can smell that horrible stench of decay and death that seems to surround it. Through the small portholes, I can see a pale, putrid skin covered in multiple eyes that have gone milky white. There's no movement to the eyes. It's as if they are— The thing inside is dead! That smell is nothing but the dead creature... who walks and moves as if it is alive. 2. Open remaining cartridges with teeth. Paper cartridge clenched in my teeth, I hear the woman's scream suddenly die in her throat. I turn to find that she has opened the door she'd come through. I take the cartridge out of my lips and encourage her behavior: "GET THROUGH THE FUCKING DOOR!" 3. Pour gunpowder on chewing gum-covered iron fist. A sudden blur of moment and I barely have a chance to move before the killer is lunging for me, that Shoto sword arcing towards me. I lean out of its path and draw my iron fist-encased arm back, hearing an audible click come from the Fightin' Jack. Electricity sizzles and the pistons on either side of the brace contract. 4. Trigger the Fightin' Jack. The creature's helmet suddenly splits down the center, opening partially to reveal the putrid-skinned thing inside. The dead eyes – though milky still – seem to be alive now, swiveling crazily on fibrous stalks. An oval mouth full of long shear-like teeth opens! "GET DOWN!" I yell to anyone who is listening. The force with which shoots my arm forward takes me utterly by surprise! This power is not my own. It is technology. My fist collides with the helmet just aside the open maw. Instantly, there's a sharp flash of orange flames, sparkling and igniting outward like fireworks. The compression from the fist and the flames causes the gunpowder to explode outward, sending a jet of flames into the helmet that incinerates the undead creature inside. I feel the flames lick at my arm and face as suddenly I'm throttled backward. For a moment or two, gravity has no effect on me. I am beyond this world's restraints. Then I connect with something hard (a banister) and physics reasserts its control on me. Darkness creeps in from all sides and, this time, I do not fight it. I embrace oblivion as she envelopes me in her arms, holding me steady until I am asleep like a loving mother. ***

The first thing I am aware of is the rough texture of a cool washcloth drawn delicately across my face. None of my other senses are alive except for touch. The washcloth traces across

my forehead then down the side of my face. The skin feels tight and tingles slightly under the cool water. It feels wonderful. A soft lilting hum whispers in and I know that I my hearing is fine also. Someone – a woman, I imagine – is humming a sweet tune that has an air of familiarity to it. She cascades over the chorus once, twice and I, oddly, think of my mother. I can smell instantly the strong scent of the soap she used to clean the floors with. Her callused hands wrapped in mine as we walked to church. I— I open my eyes. The woman who kneels before me is unbearably beautiful. Though she wears a plain white maid's dress, it cannot mask her pretty Irish looks. She's the woman who discovered the creature on the stairs. Her blue eyes twinkle for a moment, a small tear appearing in the left. "I thought you dead." "Not without trying," I reply, my voice sounding rougher than before. "Your face is burned slightly. Same with your left hand," she says grimly, carefully touching my check and forehead with her cloth. But when she meets my eyes, she smiled. "I imagine that you'll live, though." "Duly noted." She fixed me a look, holding my eyes for a moment. "You saved my life, good sir." I shook my head slightly about to make another witty retort but found none to say. All I could do was watch her eyes. She glanced off to the side and I followed her eyes. Poe stood speaking to a collection of men in fine uniforms, some the dark blue of the Constabulary and the others the red of the military. Other men were carefully examining the floor, stairs, and landing above for evidence. The Chief Constable of Detectives was a man with interesting ideas in investigation. Poe noticed us looking at him and nodded, leaving the men he had been speaking to. "The constable wants to talk to you," the woman – whose name, I realize, I don’t know – tells me as she stands up. I watch her rise and smooth out the wrinkles in her dress. Poe comes up beside her and she takes her leave of me, nodding to Poe and mouthing the words 'thank you' as she walks away. Poe makes to crouch before me and I can see him wincing with every movement. The gash on his forehead had been tended to, a few black stitches against his chalk white skin to mark the spot, though he is clearly injured in other places. I put out my hand, eager to meet him on a level playing field. He takes my hand and helps me stand up. Muscles scream, joints pop, skin feels like stretched leather, and I feel as if I might pass out or vomit. He hands me a walking stick. "Here." I take the thing and lean on it, feeling slightly steadier. "How's the head?" "I could ask you the same question," I replied. Poe grimaces, a strange sight I am sure to the men in the room. "We both lived. That's a bit better than I thought we would fare." Poe motions beyond us and I follow his gesture to a black tarp near the wall. It covers some unseen misshapen form. "You saved lives today. Mine included. If that thing had gotten out—"

"It wasn't trying to get out," I replied, turning away from it. The airship still hung in the sky, though, no lights were lit. "It was here for a reason. What I have no clue but it was supposed to be here and, I think, kill certain people." "I know." I spun on Poe as best as I could without turning all the way around and falling to the ground. "You— you what?" Poe watched me carefully as if he were trying to glean some information from my face. Clearly unsatisfied, he began, "This wasn't the first time this has happened. It's the third." "The—" "On two other occasions, multiple people have been found dead inside an office building like this. All have been servants." "Why the hell didn't you tell me—" Poe made to reply, his face twisted in anger but he stopped himself. He took a deep breath, then fixed those coal-black eyes on me. "You have never been straight with me, Jonathan Adams, so why should I be so with you? I asked you to come today because I knew...," he paused for a moment and carefully pointed to the tarp, finishing, "I knew you could handle that." "Why would you think that I could—" "Because you are more dangerous than you seem." Poe took a step back from me and motioned to a constable standing behind him. The man held my valise and coat slung over his arms. I was being told to leave, I was sure; but there was no way in hell I was going to go! Why would he think anything about... this? I have never given him any reason to believe I am anyone but who I say I am! I— Poe motions to the door. "Our business is concluded, Mr. Adams. Good evening. I imagine we will not call on you anytime soon." Bastard. I fix him a grim face and take my belongings from the constable. "That, dear sir, is fine by me." I do not give anyone the satisfaction of drawing this scene out any longer. Clearly, by the faces on the Constabulary and military officers, they are enjoying this little farce. I almost tell them to find a Nickelodeon if they wanted to take in a show but I keep my tongue. Instead, I am mute as I storm to the door, throw it open, and leave The Franklin Building. ***

It is only when I am far enough away from the building that I dare sneak a peak in my valise. Ah! I knew he would deliver! Standing underneath Franklin's statue, an arc of water leaping from his lips, I carefully take out the device that Poe had handed to me only hours ago. I knew he had put it in there. I'm unsure of how much of what he said was actual truth – for I panicked when he talked of lying because I have been, to him – but I knew he was doing it for the benefit of the audience. He wanted me to have this device to find out more about it. Three sets of murders. The game was indeed afoot. As I found my way onto Market to hail a cab, I allow myself a small moment of pride. Not for stopping the creature but for not becoming something else in the process. I have stared down many dark things in my days and what they brought out in me time and again is something

I truly fear more than anything else in the world. But not today. Today I remained me. I know so... because I hadn’t taken the creature apart limb from limb, segment from segment, with an ax. And smiled the whole time.

Jonathan Adams will return for another tale from Philly-Punk. In the meantime, turn the page and enjoy an exciting excerpt from The Fire Inside: A Sidekicks Novel.

Ten Years Ago... Osprey ran out of the stairwell door first. He was a handsome young man (just a few months into nineteen), lean and tall. He wore his jet-black hair short and a domino mask framed chocolate brown eyes that darted around the room, marking the three men. All were in crimson leather jackets – the signature of one of The Rook’s badasses. One of the men drew a pistol, another a knife, while a third swung a nasty-looking machine gun. The black leather cape fastened to Osprey’s grey tunic flapped behind him as he leapt and tucked into a roll, gunfire filling the small kitchen with a deafening clap-clap-clap. Windows exploded, tile chunks flew, and pieces of white dinner plates rained down like hail as he rolled across the faded linoleum floor. Without hesitation, he leapt onto his feet and catapulted himself for the shooter. Behind him, Osprey’s best friend, Sparks, stormed out of the stairwell, the stomping of his rubber boots being the only sound of his arrival. He was a blur of dark blue (his fire resistant body suit) and red (his hair) as he slammed into the thug with the knife, his powerful body a locomotive bearing down on the strung-out henchman. Osprey heard bones crunch and metal clang to the ground as he dropped the shooter with a quick roundhouse then jerked to the right, cartwheeling across the decaying dirty blue linoleum as the third thug unloaded his pistol. The kitchen flashed in strobes of light as the henchman fired on Osprey and– WHAM! The thug got clocked aside the head, turning slightly to see flaming eyes before a follow-up punch sent him pitching into darkness. Osprey bolted after Sparks, his friend already flying through the living room and foyer of this deserted house that they’d woken up in, tied to chairs. Osprey had no idea how they’d gotten here or where here was but he was going to find out. Sparks threw open the door and they ran out of a run-down rowhouse on some street that didn’t look much better. Osprey spied a few parked cars. They needed to get uptown fast. ***

Minutes later, they were shooting uptown on a main thoroughfare. Osprey was in the passenger seat gripping the 'Oh-Shit!' handle while Sparks drove the car, pushing it as fast as it could go. Feeling Osprey glancing at him, Sparks turns his way. Osprey said nothing but they’d been best friends long enough that a glance was sometimes as loud as a scream. “What?” BOOM! Straight ahead, thunder shook the air and the sky flashed an intense orange for a second. That’s where they were headed. “Nothing. Just keep driving.” “You’re sighing over there like my mother.” “You never knew your mother.” “I imagine she was sigher, though! All the women I’ve ever met have been!” “It’s just... could you have stolen a slower car?” “Don’t start with me!” “You had to pick a lunchbox that can’t hit fifty without losing pieces!” “Oh! And the station wagon you were eyeing was a gem?”

“That was a solid car!” “Yeah! A solid piece of shit!” “Look, I know you’re worried. So am I but—“ “Your father’s life isn't at stake!” Anger suddenly flared in Sparks’ chest like a lit match, all brimstone and combustion. Gripping the steering wheel like a vise, he jerked it to the left, swinging around an abandoned car in the right-hand lane. More empty cars were ahead, the drivers having run off. Sparks could see smoke in the distance and flashes of color, green, orange, then blood red. He jerked their car around another, his own thoughts warring. “Look! Just because I'm no one’s sidekick doesn't mean that I don't care about what's happening—“ “I know. I'm sorry. I know that they... that The Rook means a lot to you too...” Ahead, the heavens rumbled and the two young men watched a lone man fall from the clouds, the buildings swallowing him. “Just get us there fast. Please.”

FRIDAY, JUNE 16TH Chapter One Jack King lay in a place that was somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, a part of his brain knowing that he should get up. Another part of his brain, stronger and with quite the sailor's mouth, told Jack to go the frak back to sleep. However, he felt Rachel stir beside him and knew that all was lost. As if to further that point, his cell phone alarm sounded off, first vibrating then belting out some smooth jazz melody that was the least offensive of all his preprogrammed ringtones. Jack, well practiced in this most important of actions, reached out unseen, grabbed his phone, and pressed SNOOZE. “Good morning,” Rachel purred in his left ear. “No talky. Sleepy,” Jack replied, pulling the sheets up over his head. “I have to get up. So do you.” “Why?” “Because I have to be in court by ten. And, if you don't go into the store, Cecil will probably burn the place down in some antisocial form of expression.” Jack pulled down the sheets, his eyes peeking out at her. And what a sight she was. Wrapped up in his sheets, she revealed nothing but the shape of the lithe form underneath. He still had no idea why this beautiful, intelligent, funny lawyer wanted to spend as much of her free time as possible with him. “Right....” Jack groaned and got out of bed, the chillness of the slightly-open window a little wake-me-up against his naked body. Rachel just lay in bed, watching the show. And whistling. “You like what you’re seeing?” Jack asked her as he tugged on underwear. “Oh, yes.” Jack grabbed his t-shirt. Before he slid it on, he motioned to the end table beside the bed. “There's something in there for you. I meant to give it to you last night but I got—“ “Distracted?” “Something like that.” Rachel leaned over and, as she looked in the drawer, chided him, “Oh, Jack, I hope it's not a ring because it's just so....” Her words faded away as she found not a ring but a single brass key. She picked it up, turning it around in her fingers. It had a few small slivers of metal shavings still attached to it. “Is this for me?” Jack nodded. “I want you to be able to come and go as you please. I got a dresser drawer all emptied for you.” She suddenly burst into the biggest smile, thin tears in her eyes. She leapt out of bed and pounced on him, laughing with joy as they fell to the floor. Jack was going to be late for work. ***

An hour later, Jack rode the escalator up the two stories from the stale-air subway to an overcast morning above, the air heavy with mist. He had both hands on each railing, never a fan

of escalators. He wore a dark blue sweatshirt against the morning’s dampness. Blue eyes watched the sky as it drew closer and closer until he was at the top of the escalator, stepping out onto the sidewalk. He made a slight left and crossed the intersection. The city was oddly quiet this Friday morning. They were square in the middle of primetime run-as-fast-as-you-can-from-thesubway-to-your-job morning rush however not many people were on the streets. The streets, the signs, the buildings – tall steel monoliths in this newer area of the city – seemed cast in similar gray hues. Even the green stoplights looked dull. Downtown Claremont seemed devoid of all color and still asleep. Then he saw the park. And what he saw made him stop abruptly. Remembrance Park, the center of Remembrance Square, was in bloom, determined to be colorful when the rest of the world didn’t want to be. Outside her crimson wrought iron gates, a line of dark blue trucks stenciled with CITY WORKS CREW sat. Men in matching uniforms carried white wooden chairs into the park, setting them up in rows in front of a long granite wall. The Memory Wall, as it was called, was covered in names etched into the shiny, granite face. These same workers had planted lively pink, yellow, and purple flowers all along the Wall’s base. Today was The Naming Ceremony. Seeing those empty chairs sitting in front of a wall covered in names, Jack couldn’t help but let that old friend, sadness, in. The chairs, sturdy and strong, were poised to take on the weight of those who had lost someone (or, worse, someones) ten years ago. Ten years of pain and heartache, only to come back to this park, a place that had been the epicenter of so much death, and revisit those emotions all over again. How could such torture be honoring the dead, really? It was like public flagellation. Jack left the edge of the park and made his way deep into the north side of Remembrance Square with its variety of restaurants, droves of trendy clothing shops, a trio of cell phone boutiques, two coffee houses, and a bookstore. Someone, years ago, had thought another way to best honor the dead was to enshrine them in consumerism. Jack walked into the bookstore where he worked. It was clean-looking from the outside with big windows full of interesting displays and lots of signage. Inside was the same: no precariously stacked book towers, tall shelves that blot out the sun, or cats. Downtown Books was a casual reader’s bookstore – not a haven for true bookstore hobbits. “Jack...!” Though it did have its share of woodland creatures. Cecil, behind the information desk, looked like one of the 'talking trees' from The Wizard of Oz – a long trunk of a frame, stick-like fingers (right now) clutching a hardcover book, and an angular face with a gnarled nose and shrewd eyes enlarged by Coke bottle glasses. Jack had once found him lovingly holding an apple and had almost pissed his pants from laughing so hard. Cecil was one Jack's two ‘banes of his existence.’ The second – and the source of Cecil's current whining – looked spot-on for the Mayor of Munchkinland: squat, rosy cheeked, and always decked out in his finest clothes. For Norm, though, that was sci-fi t-shirts. Today’s read Han Shot First and, coincidentally, he was reading a new Star Wars paperback. He glanced up at Jack and instantly began to perspire. “Uh... Hey... Jack.”

“Jack...," Cecil whined again, clawing at Jack's arm with his impossibly-long fingers. “He’s doing it again.” Jack used to work mornings with another bookseller, Silvio. But Silvio had decided to pull a Felicity and follow some girl he barely knew to college. Silvio had been a liar, pathological thief, and stuttered heavily. God, he missed Silvio. Jack swallowed his slowly-rising anger. “What’s the problem? What's he doing.” “He hasn’t bought that book!” “Cecil, we’ve been over this: the boss is okay with customers reading the books in the store even if they haven’t bought them.” “He’s dog-earing the pages.” Jack bit down on his tongue. This shtick was such a regular bit that Jack had often thought about taking it on the road. “Let’s just let it go today, okay? “ Ever persistent, Cecil exclaimed, “But, Jack, he’s cracking the spines!” Jack thought for a moment about cracking Cecil’s spine but instead said in his best Mr. Rogers’ voice, “Fine. I’ll talk to him.” Jack walked over to Norm and was about to speak his name when the man cut him off with a verbal explosion. “Jack, I’m having a crisis of faith!” “To be honest, Norm—“ “I don’t think I love Star Wars as much as I used too! I think the prequels really did me in! Even the books aren’t—“ Jack cut him off with a wave a la Jedi. “Stop!” Norm did. “I’m sorry that you are having a crisis of faith but you can’t deface the books if you haven’t—“ “Cecil, you’re such a Judas!” Norm suddenly screamed past Jack. “Jack, he’s yelling at me!” But Norm wasn’t done: “That’s because you’re a tool—“ “I’m just doing my job!” “You can take your job and stick—“ “WILL THE BOTH OF YOU SHUT THE HELL UP?” Norm felt a slight wave of heat rush over him and he shut up instantly. Cecil, utterly terrified, cowered behind his book. Jack stared both of them down and, through gritted teeth, hissed, “The both of you are driving me crazy.” “He started—“ “If he wasn’t—“ “Shut. Up.” They did. “I’m going to go get a cup of coffee before I murder one of you.” He pointed to Cecil: “Leave him alone!” Then to Norm, “If you’re going to damage the book, buy it. I have no qualms about calling the cops on you for loitering.” “Hey—“ But Jack wasn’t listening. He just left the store.

You can find The Fire Inside plus my other books and stories at these fine retailers:

The Franklin Incident: A Philly Punk Story  

The first story in a series called Philly-Punk. Steampunk. Adventure. Horror.

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