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Authors: Michael Van Dagger

Better to Die a Hero

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Better to Die a Hero



Michael Van Dagger




Copyright © 2010
Michael Van Dagger

All rights reserved.









For the memory of Ver
yn R. Horst

Best friend to many















1867, Nevada



lood splattered the wall of the tent, turning the hemp canvas from a soothing grey-green to something sinister, and the growing wetness reflected the flame of the lone kerosene lamp that hung at the tent’s center. Beads of wood and bone, woven randomly into the strands of hide, punctured deep into flesh as the obese railroad foreman flogged the elderly Chinese man repeatedly. Tied at the wrists the old man hung limp, his drained face pressing a makeshift cross, constructed from a split crosstie and stuck upright in the earth. Torture left no spot on the man’s back untouched; glistening blood weaved its way downward.

“I'm telling you slant eyes,” the enraged foreman said, “you better start talking about what's in that whisky bottle.” Hanging jowls corrupted the man’s speech, giving him a slobbery lisp. He raised the whip high. Abruptly, the flaps of the spacious tent flew open and the foreman spun. Mr. Simmons, the railroad supervisor for the southwest territory stomped in.

“God damn it Raymond, I could hear his screams half a mile outside of camp,” Simmons said, slamming his fist on a dirty table. A plank hopped from the blow toppling a tall whisky bottle, which made a gritty roll in his direction. Simmons reached for it, held it up to the lamp, and studied its contents. A reddish wax sealed the entire length of its tall neck and white powder filled one quarter of its volume. “Is this the concoction you told me about?”

“Yes Mr. Simmons,” the sweaty man replied.

“Raymond, do you remember whale oil lamps, the way they stunk?”

“Yes Sir, I do.”

“Why is it when I’m around you, I swear I smell a whale oil lamp?”

“I don’t know sir,” Raymond answered, aware he had been insulted, but smart enough to pretend otherwise.

“Tell me more about this powder,” Simmons said.

“It's the damnedest thing I ever saw. The old man here gave some to my crew about seven hours into the day and for the next seven hours, those little bastards didn't even break a sweat. Some of them slant eyes were moving rocks I could barely budge.”

The old man interrupted with a near death whisper and Simmons leaned in to listen. “Please…” the old man said, “Please do not give them any more... the potion is too old... must be destroyed.”

“But will it still make them strong?” Raymond asked.

Ignoring his assailant’s question, the old man whispered a prayer with his dying breath. His head then fell back and his dead eyes pointed at the tent’s ceiling.

Raymond turned to his boss, “Hell, we don't care how old it is, not if it makes them work like horses.”

Simmons thought for a moment. What little remained of the powder would be gone soon, along with any long-term productivity increases. “No,” he replied, “You're going to take this concoction back to Boston for analysis and I'm going to clean this mess up for you.” The supervisor’s face twisted and scowled. “Try not to screw up.”












teve jerked awake to the sound of neck bones cracking. He looked around the deserted alley; it was just a dream; it was light out. Watching a person’s head get twist-snapped one hundred and sixty degrees is enough to give anyone nightmares. It’s not like in the movies where the victim’s face instantly goes blank. The death grimace on the man’s face had burnt a black spot on Steve’s soul. The teenager’s thoughts sped to another victim, the girl who had been caught in the cross fire. When he’d crouched in the corner of this alley to get some sleep, he knew she’d be his first waking thought, so there was no point in fighting it. He scratched the top of his right knee where the denim appeared darker and held his fingers in the light. Burgundy flakes stained the underneath of his fingernails. The girl’s blood had dried all over his jeans. Steve ran his nails along the seam of his pants in an attempt to remove the blood.

He had slept sitting in the dank corner, arms wrapped around his knees, a section of cardboard propped against his shoulder. His nose was congested, his mouth dry. Steve pushed the cardboard away and checked his wristwatch. He’d gotten four hours sleep.

He reached under his legs and brought his eye mask, Neoprene half mask, and leather gloves to his lap. Just a few more minutes, he thought. He folded his arms around his knees and buried his face. Even through his stuffy nose, the alley stunk of brick fungus, rotting vegetables, and urine. The combination of smells mixed to create a stench worse than the sum of its parts. The sound of traffic reverberated its way to the end of the alley stopping at Steve’s ear as if he were sitting on the curb. He pushed his head harder into his arms. He wasn’t tired.

In fact, he felt excellent. The effects of the powder had worn off; he wasn’t super human, still he felt strong. It wasn’t fatigue that motivated him to stay huddled in this dingy alley—it was everything else. The masks were irritating his skin causing a rash and stinging discomfort. He loathed the thought of placing the rubber against his skin. While his t-shirt and jeans were dry enough, his briefs were still soaked from the sweat of running the rooftops all night. Every time he moved, the wet underwear chafed. He didn’t want to stand up, but he wanted this ordeal to end. The only way that was going to happen was to get off his butt, get to the rooftops, and find his friend. Find Bryan and bring him home. He inhaled, expanding his lungs to their fullest, hoping the alley’s ambiance would act as a catalyst and fire up his motivation. It worked.

Steve expelled the pungent air, scooted away from the wall, and pulled his shirt off over his head turning it right side out so the “M” became visible. He thought it clever wearing it inside out while he slept, in case someone approached. No wonder he felt good. His belly was almost flat and his arms were sculpted. Last night’s rooftop jaunt had burned away the last of his obesity. He pulled his shirt on, smoothed out the front, and opened the backpack beside him. He ate seven nutritional bars and took a long drink of water.

“Time to power up,” he said aloud. Steve popped the top to the medicine bottle that held the last miniscule amount of powder and licked the end of his finger. “What the hell?” The tip of his tongue stung at the touch. He swirled his tongue around feeling the tip with his palate and teeth. There was a sore in the exact spot he’d been applying the powder. And so it starts, he thought. Steve re-wet his finger and dipped into the powder, placing the dose further back on his tongue and away from the sore.

A pleasant tingle filled his mouth and then crawled down his neck tickling the back of his throat. The tingle grew into an electrical charge that spread across his shoulders, down his arms and chest. The charge reached his heart and his entire body lit up from the inside. Energy exploded to every cell in his body as if every cell were a falling domino slamming into the next.

Steve fixed both masks to his face relieved that the itch wasn’t as bad as he’d anticipated. He stood, slipped on leather gloves that were damp and uncomfortable, threw on his backpack, and tugged at his soggy briefs. The alley was the dead end type with a pair of fire escapes running up parallel walls. A jump to the second or third story was possible, but he needed to conserve energy, no telling how long it would take to find Bryan.

Steve jumped to the first story, landed on the iron railing, and quickly found his balance. He squatted and let himself start to fall backward, then nonchalantly grabbed the railing around the steps leading upward stopping his fall. Holding on with one hand, he let his other arm swing freely. Bouncing ever so slightly, his thighs swelled with power. He squeezed the metal above and pulled his body weight up causing his biceps to tighten.

Steve sprang up and across one story and landed on the opposite railing. He pivoted and jumped back across one story higher. He repeatedly jumped back and forth working his way up twelve stories like a tree frog jumping between two trees. He reached the top and couldn’t resist somersaulting onto the rooftop.

He stuck the landing, helped by the tarpaper roof that felt like sandpaper under his sneakers. This rooftop was flat and barren, except for a few jutting pipes and a long sky light. Steve ran at the skylight. Centering himself, he planted his right foot at the windows edge and pushed off. His left leg reached out, he flew over the skylight, and landed a foot past its far end. Every day on the powder, it became easier to control his super strength, to judge just the right amount of effort to jump across a short alley, wide alley, up one story, or up two stories.

He liked it up here. The muffled traffic below made a pleasant white noise. Down on the street the racket forced its way into a person’s skull and agitated a person’s nerves. Up here, the echo of the city was comforting like a soft blanket of sound. The air was better too. A lung full of oxygen went a lot further up here. At street level, a full breath was half car exhaust.

The next building was only a few feet higher and Steve jumped to it, pleased to see more obstacles to hurtle. He took the most cluttered path, over a roof access shed, and then over a brick chimney, and on to the next building that was a full two stories shorter.

Steve dropped the two stories and landed solid. Wooden garden troughs full of rich dirt were sitting on sawhorses to his left. Three reclining lawn chairs with three corresponding sleepers in each, all but one covered under a blanket, lie to his right. Steve thought about jumping over the three, but jogged around them instead. There was no point in disturbing them.

As Steve ran around the recliners, three fat cheeked men, typical New Yorkers, their faces pressed into the chairs, wheezed and snored. His thoughts turned to Bryan. He tried to imagine were his friend would be hiding in the city. Where would he find shelter? Where was he sleeping?

“Haaay, y.. you.”

Steve slowed at the sleepy voice, stopped, and turned.

Three men rolled off their lawn chairs, two of them throwing off their blankets. They were slow and clumsy getting up and each had been sleeping with a baseball bat.

“Sorry to wake you guys up,” Steve said, “I’m just passing through. I’m not going to touch your flowerbeds.”

The three men gripped their bats and cocked them aggressively. They inched toward Steve. The leader slammed his bat down on one of the troughs—dirt flew. “We don’t care about this garden, we care about turning you in for reward.”

“Don’t tell him that dumbass,” said one of the men as they moved to surround Steve.

Steve looked back over his shoulder. He could easily run to the next building and avoid confrontation, but he wanted to hear about this reward. “What reward?”

“Go head and tell him,” the smallest man said to the leader.

“Mafia’s offering fifty large to anyone that brings one of you superheroes to them.”

“Dead or alive,” the small man said.

“Interesting,” Steve said letting one of the men flank him. “It’s your guys’ lucky day. I need some fighting practice. My fighting style resembles that of an orangutan. I’m not kidding”

“You’re going to be a dead orangutan,” the leader said, then charge his bat held high.

Steve reached out grabbing one of the wooden flowerbeds and flung it off its sawhorses at the two men in front of him. Wood and dirt exploded at their feet tripping them. He hopped back as the man to his right swung his bat. The bat missed by an inch and Steve threw a roundhouse kick into the man’s upper thigh. The man’s legs came up from under him and he slammed the rooftop hard. The leader jumped over the broken flowerbed, catching his foot and stumbling forward bent over at the waist. Steve hammered his fist down on the back of the man’s neck and the man sprawled face first on the roof. The third man stood in place unwilling to move past the mound of dirt.

“Wow, did you see your friend’s legs fly up when I kicked him,” Steve said to the last man standing, “I never saw that happen on an ultimate fighting video.”

“I think you broke my neck... you
,” the leader said running his fingers over the back of his neck.

“You’ve got some nerve complaining,” Steve said, “You’re trying to kill me, here.”

The man who suffered the kick to the leg grimaced his way back to his feet using the bat to help him stand. He hobbled forward and raised his bat. Steve exploded forward with a roundhouse kick to the man’s other leg and again his legs were swept off the ground. The bat bounced out of the man’s hands as he hit the roof. He rolled to his back his knees to his chest.

The third man tossed his bat down and stepped back.

“That’s probably a good idea,” Steve said, turning his back to the scene. Steve walked to the ledge and looked down into the alley. No activity. He looked back at the men and the third was kneeling by one of the cots reaching into a gym bag. In one fluid movement, the man pulled out a revolver and fired. Steve dove off the building headfirst. As the windows swept by and the concrete grew in detail, Steve thought about that first day. The day he and his friends had taken the powder. Oddly enough, the first thing he remembered about that day was Mr. Keller catching him in a daydream.

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