Last week, as part of the run-up to my upcoming Kickstarter project (which will run from 3/30 thru 4/28), I shared an excerpt from Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom, the opening volume of my Doc Wilde pulp adventure series (which I’d originally contracted to Putnam, but now am publishing independently for reasons detailed here). This week I’m giving you a peek at the second book, Doc Wilde and The Mad Skull. (To make sure you get all the news, you can follow this blog by clicking the button in the right sidebar).
The Kickstarter project will encompass both of these novels, as well as the third in the series, Doc Wilde and The Dance of the Werewolf (which I’ll let you read a bit of next week). It will allow folks to help us produce some really nice books, in exchange for perks ranging from having your name in the Acknowledgements up to autographed and numbered limited editions and exclusive editions of new Doc Wilde short adventures.
All three books will be released later this year, in both trade paperback and ebook formats, starting with Frogs of Doom in June. More Doc Wilde adventures will follow next year.
All the books will be fully illustrated and have gorgeous covers by Australian comic book master Gary Chaloner. I don’t have any actual advance art to go along with The Mad Skull yet, but you can see some of his work in the Frogs of Doom excerpt linked above.
As you read the following, keep in mind that you’re literally reading the first draft. This book hasn’t entered the editing stages yet. But my first drafts tend to be pretty clean, so I’m comfortable sharing it with you…
Bill Shelnutt was walking to the cafeteria when the screaming started.
It was just his third day in this job, and he was still watching training videos, filling out stacks of forms related to his Top Secret clearance, and taking introductory meetings with various superiors. All of which was taking place on the first floor of the Renwick Building. His job, when it really began next week, was on some floor higher in the building, he hadn’t even been told which one yet.
He was lucky to be on the ground floor, with the front door and the street outside so near. It meant he had a better chance of escape than the hundreds of people on the floors above.
There were small clusters of people awaiting the elevators as he crossed the lobby. He was weaving between them when he heard the first screams. They sounded muffled and hollow, and it took him a few seconds to realize they were coming from the stairwells at the far side of the elevator banks.
Then one of the doors burst open and the screams were suddenly loud and shrill as screaming people with wild eyes fought to get through the door. It was like a scene from a horror movie. The people were terrified, as if something horrible was just behind them. But what seemed to be behind them was more people, just as violently determined to get through the door.
A piercing alarm cut through the screams and the ceiling lights turned emergency red.
The second stairwell door banged open and more people charged out. The two streams stampeded toward the front of the building, straight into the shocked people waiting for the elevator. Bodies slammed together. A woman fell and the screamers trampled her. Bill tried to reach her to pull her clear but had to dodge a heavyset man in a labcoat who slammed by like a drunken bull.
Bill backed into the wall, flattening against it as much as he could as chaos roared past. The woman was curled into a protective ball, battered by a storm of feet. The flood of people from the stairwells continued, dozens of people, all screaming in apparent horror. He wanted to help the woman but saw no way to reach her. Others were knocked underfoot as he froze there, unsure what to do.
What the hell was happening???
An elevator across from Bill opened. A handful of people clawed each other in the small space, at first not realizing the door was open. When they did, they surged out as violently as those from the stairwells, merging with the terrifying horde.
A motion in the empty elevator caught Bill’s eye. Something thick and serpentine slid into the elevator from above, seemingly made of fire burning many colors. Through the clashing shapes of the crowd he caught glimpses of the thing coiling there. Something monstrous and impossible.
His own terror swelled in his chest, his heart banging so much it hurt. He had to get out of here. He couldn’t help anyone. If he stayed here that thing would get him. He would die. He had to–
The fiery apparition in the elevator raised its head. It looked straight at him with night-black eyes. It struck toward him like a snake, lunging over the heads of the frantic crowd, stabbing through the air at him.
Bill Shelnutt screamed. He charged into the tidal flow of the crowd with no thought but escape from the monstrous thing. He shoved and clawed at those in his way, desperate to reach the safety of the outside world.
He heard a crack of thunder so loud it hurt his ears, glancing toward it in time to see a military guard whipping a pistol toward more snaking things on the floor, their burning shapes slithering through the legs of the crowd, striking at people. The screaming guard fired again. Bill was dimly aware of a man in front of the soldier falling, but mostly he was aware of the closeness of these monsters.
The lobby was now was crawling with them. They twined across the floor, wrapped around their unfortunate victims like pythons, even wove through the air overhead like weightless demons.
Bill sensed the creature which had struck at him, still stalking behind him, hungry. He screamed and fought so hard his throat closed and he couldn’t scream any more. He couldn’t even breathe.
Then he somehow plunged through the front doors, into the warm summer sun. He had to get far away. The things wouldn’t stay in the building, and the one chasing him was probably coming through that door right behind him.
So he bolted on, dizzy with fear, crashing into those around him, reeling, suddenly aware of a huge shape roaring up at him from the side. Its shadow covered him. In a split second of clarity he realized it was a truck and it was going to hit him.
Impact. He flew through the air, slamming to the sidewalk in front of the building he’d fled. But someone was on top of him…he hadn’t been hit by the truck…
He lay there, dazed. The person who’d saved him hopped to his feet. A boy, a young teen, with golden-brown hair, golden skin, and strange eyes flashing gold in the sunlight.
“Are you okay?” the boy asked. Bill couldn’t answer. His throat was raw from screaming. His thoughts were submerged in a red haze of terror.
The nightmare wasn’t over. Two of the monstrous serpents raised their fiery heads behind the kid, black eyes huge. They lunged at the boy so quickly Bill couldn’t even start to warn him.
A few minutes earlier:
Brian Wilde dodged his bike through the thick Manhattan traffic at high speed without braking, guided by reflexes and reaction time far greater than the ordinary thanks to a twelve-year lifetime of intensive training.
Several yards away, his ten-year-old sister Wren also zipped around rushing cars, her ponytail whipping from beneath her helmet.
Both were laughing, even as they zigzagged to avoid probable injury or death.
They were a remarkably matched and unusual pair, golden-skinned with golden-brown hair, wearing identical outfits they called their “danger clothes.” These consisted of white safari shirts, khaki cargo pants, and dark leather boots. Over their shirts they wore distinctive brown field vests, snugly-fit and full of pockets holding an amazing assortment of gadgets.
They had just spent a few wondrous hours browsing the stacks at the New York Public Library, one of their favorite places in the city. They were headed for a rendezvous with their father, who’d been assisting in a brain surgery, and now had some mysterious errand to perform he hadn’t explained to them.
Ahead, Brian spotted the cross-street where he wanted to go right. But he was all four lanes to the left side of the street, zooming between the curb and traffic going the other direction. Wren was closer to the right, between the two lanes of cars travelling their way. Perhaps she’d done a better job than he had of thinking ahead. But no, that couldn’t be it. Course not.
The light ahead was green. Naturally. It would have simplified things if it turned red in time for him to cut directly across in front of the stopped traffic.
“Better watch your butt up there,” Wren’s voice sounded through his vest communicator, now plugged into his helmet. “I don’t want to have to stop and try to put Humpty back together again!”
“Don’t worry, Miss Muffet,” he said. “I came over here to make it more challenging for me, which you weren’t doing on your own!”
“HA!” she shouted.
He smiled at the weak come-back.
The intersection was six seconds away by his reckoning, which tended to be precise. He was in such a flow state that his senses were super-sharp, absorbing the motion vectors of the cars in his field of vision, the engine rumbles and brake squeaks from those behind, the flickers of wind constantly changed by the motion of large objects nearby. On the deepest level of instinct, this gave him a constant three-dimensional image of the world around him, and a highly accurate awareness of what was likely to happen in the near future. Allowing for possible chaos variables, of course.
The two Wildes reached the intersection in tandem. Wren jumped the curb onto the sidewalk to cut the corner, angling between startled pedestrians, passing a cop walking his beat. She hit the street with hardly a change in speed.
Brian slung his rear wheel sideways and bounced it off the curb. The frame of his bike, built around a unique system of springs, flexed against the curb, giving him a boost like a swimmer kicking off a wall. He rocketed at a severe angle across the four lanes, in front of cars rushing in both directions.
The bike had been designed by his father for both speed and a high degree of bouncy agility, and Brian had the reflexes and skill to maintain precise control. Three cars came within a foot of hitting him, then he was clear. He sped after his sister, whizzing past the cop, who was still just reacting to the shock of Wren’s passage.
The policeman started to yell at the two kids, then recognized their distinctive clothing and smiled. The Wilde kids and their famous father had saved this city several times, and as far as the boys in blue were concerned they had the run of the town.
Both kids were amazing athletes. It was possible that Wren had an edge on agility, but Brian was older and male, thus benefitting from more muscle mass. He churned the pedals, closing the gap between them. They were a block and a half from their destination.
He was going to win this race.
Then he heard the alarms and all thoughts of competition left Brian’s mind.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“Yes,” Wren’s voice answered in his helmet. “It sounds–”
“Like it’s coming from the Renwick Building,” he finished.
Which was where they were headed to meet their dad.
Without another word, they zoomed on, actually increasing their already impressive speed.
* * *
As the Wilde kids neared the Renwick Building, the shrill alarm was joined by a chorus of screams. They got within sight of the lobby doors and saw crowds of people erupting onto the sidewalk in apparent terror.
I hope Dad’s already here, Brian thought.
He and Wren leaped from their bikes and charged toward the building. They saw no signs of threat, no smoke, no shattering glass, no crazed thugs waving machine guns. Only the rapidly increasing stampede of men and women in suits, uniforms, and lab coats, all screaming and trying to escape something.
The screamers scattered in all directions. One young man bolted from the sidewalk into the path of an oncoming truck, giving the driver no time to brake.
Brian leaped headfirst into the street in front of the truck. His dive took him past the man, then he executed a tight roll on the asphalt which launched him back in the direction he had come. He hit the panicked runner in a flying tackle that carried them both out of the truck’s deadly path with but inches to spare. They crashed to the sidewalk in a jumble of limbs.
The truck’s brakes squealed behind them. Brian heard other brakes, horns blaring, tires screeching, the loud crunches of cars smashing together, the tinny sound of broken glass hitting the street. And above it all, the piercing alarm and the crazed screams of the thickening horde escaping the Renwick Building.
Brian jumped to his feet and bent over the young man he’d saved.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
The man looked up with a stunned expression. Then his eyes focused behind Brian, widening in terror, and his mouth opened in a silent scream.
Brian side-stepped, rocking into a defensive ninjutsu stance facing the oncoming threat.
There was nothing there. Only more and more screaming workers charging helter skelter in every direction.
“What the heck are they running from?” Wren shouted through the communicator. He saw her several yards away, frantically trying to steer people away from the street. She wasn’t doing well; for all her amazing abilities, Wren was still a tiny ten year old girl. There wasn’t much she could do to halt a flood of panicked grown-ups. She wasn’t giving up, though, and as Brian watched she started gracefully tripping each person that got near her, at least temporarily halting their mad flight.
“I don’t know!” Brian responded. The guy on the ground was scrambling away like a manic crab, apparently trying to escape whatever he’d seen behind Brian. Still the boy saw nothing…
Something was there.
Brian sensed it. Something moving toward him. Something unseen, unheard, but there.
“Wren,” he said, “there is something. But I think it’s invisible!”
She glanced his way, then dodged a tall woman who ran straight at her as if running a 50 yard dash. Wren leaped atop a New York Times vending box and scanned the area around her.
“I don’t…” she said, then “Wait! You’re right. Something’s moving through the crowd!”
Brian struggled to get a better sense of the apparent threat, getting only a dim impression of large things writhing in the air.
His pulse quickened at the perceived danger, but he settled his mind and steadied his breath with a mental technique he’d learned from his dad. He didn’t know what was there, but as far as he could tell, the things weren’t yet doing harm to the panicked people. The people, however, were clawing and shoving and trampling each other trying to get away from the things, so the Wildes needed to try to deal with them first.
His quick mind found a possible solution. He shouted his idea to Wren.
The kids opened pockets on their field vests, extracting silvery spheres about the size of marbles. These they tossed hither and yon through the crowd; where they fell, people stopped moving and crumbled to the ground. This effect expanded from the broken spheres like ripples from stones thrown in a lake, toppling people like dominoes. As more people rushed from the building, they too dropped, falling atop each other in loose-limbed tangles. And still they came by the dozens, fighting to leave the building, trying to crawl over the fallen until they too fell.
Knowing it took about a minute and a half for the invisible sleeping gas to become inert, Brian and Wren held their breath for two minutes.
The Wildes scanned the area. They sensed something moving out there among the scores of fallen workers. They felt eyes upon them.
“What are they?” Wren whispered.
“I don’t know,” Brian replied. “Ignore them. At least till we can tell what they are or what they’re doing. Right now we probably need to get in the building.”
“How?” Wren said, indicating the choked doors and piles of people in their way.
Now frustrated people in the lobby, unable to get through the doors, pounded the front glass with chairs, signposts, even their hands. Their screams were muted but audible through the open portals.
“We can throw some gas inside,” Wren said. Brian nodded. They started toward the doors, trying not to step on anyone.
“Stand fast, kids,” a deep voice commanded through their communicators. They turned to see a tall man, dressed as they were, bounding car roof to car roof across the snarled traffic. He leaped to the sidewalk near them.
Dr. Spartacus Wilde. World-renowned scientist, inventor, and adventurer. Hero.
“Are you okay?” Doc Wilde asked Wren and Brian.
He swept his gaze over the scene, taking in every detail, checking for immediate danger. Then he crouched before them, looking them over for injury.
Had there been anyone nearby rational enough to focus, they would have found the Wildes an amazing sight. They were long-limbed and Olympian, sharing the same nearly metallic gold skin, golden-brown hair, and eyes compelling and strange, their glittering irises like swirling pools of flaked gold.
Their every movement was smooth and graceful. Doc was broad-chested and heavily muscled but appeared sleek and athletic in a way professional bodybuilders never do. Well over six feet tall, he towered over most people, appearing gigantic next to his kids, who were actually small for their age but ever hopeful for growth spurts.
The kids quickly briefed their dad.
“Can you still sense these invisible entities?” he asked. He peered into their eyes, using both hands to simultaneously check their pulses.
“Yes,” they replied in unison.
Doc opened one of his vest pockets, removing a silvery rod about the size of half a pencil. Holding it before him, he pressed a tiny button and a thin sensor extended from its top. There was a puff no louder than an exhaled breath, then tiny lights flickered along the sensor’s length.
“There’s something in the air the spectrometer doesn’t recognize,” he told the kids. “It may be some kind of toxin. We’d better gear up.”
From their pockets, the three Wildes produced small rebreathers, highly advanced gadgets that allowed them to breathe safely in unsafe air or underwater. Like all their gear, these unique devices were designed and made by Doc himself. Then, because the unknown agent in the air might be absorbed through the skin, they unfolded small packets into full-body hazardous material suits. These were made of transparent, paper-thin fabric with fibers inspired by spider silk and stronger than steel . They swiftly donned the suits, connecting the rebreathers to lines on the suits rather than holding them in their mouths.
Now, distant police sirens clashed with the still shrieking alarm from the Renwick Building. Patrol cars were going to have trouble getting through the gridlocked streets, but two police blimps now hovered above with large blue lights flashing. Their hatches were open and the Wildes saw officers preparing to descend.
Doc opened the city’s emergency frequency on his communicator. “Attention,” he said. “This is Spartacus Wilde. “Three of us are on-site at the Renwick Building. An unknown chemical agent is in the air and we are wearing hazmat suits. I suggest anyone entering the area do the same.” Receiving confirmation, he returned to the quantum sub-channel used only by his family and close associates.
“Is this some kind of attack?” Brian asked.
“I imagine so,” his dad replied. “This building houses some of the US government’s highest level labs. It’s full of stuff we wouldn’t want bad guys to get their hands on.”
Lines dropped from both blimps and men wearing blue hazmat suits and bristling with weaponry rappelled down. The first down ran to the Wildes. “What’s the sitch, Doc?” his voice came over the emergency channel.
“The workers in the Renwick are in a blind panic, perhaps caused by a toxin in the air, perhaps by creatures unknown,” Doc responded. “You men need to begin crowd control immediately to prevent as much injury as possible. We’re going in to investigate.”
Nearly four-hundred feet in the air, Brian Wilde fell out of a blimp.
He dropped toward the helipad atop the Renwick Building, sliding down a rope expertly looped about his body in a way allowing full control of his descent. When his boots touched, he released the line and was free, no rappeling gear to disengage.
He moved to stand with his dad, who’d descended first. They watched Wren wrap herself in the rope above.
Entering the building through the apocalyptic chaos on the ground floor would have been difficult. Assuming that the panicking workers throughout the building would be fleeing downward toward escape, they opted to enter from on high, hitching a ride in one of the NYPD blimps.
The law-men trusted and respected Spartacus Wilde, and he possessed “Special Marshal” status with the New York State Police. Even so, the men on the scene resisted his taking charge until he pointed out that not only should public safety be their first priority, none of them possessed the security clearances to even go above the first floor. The minimum necessary was a Top Secret clearance, which both Brian and Wren had been granted by the US government. Their father’s clearance was much, much higher.
Now, Wren zipped down the rope. The Wildes moved to the heavy security door, which Doc opened with a corneal scan and a typed-in code. He had full authorization for access to all floors.
“Tread carefully,” he told Brian and Wren. “This entire building is a crime scene.”
They followed him down a short stairwell into a top floor hallway.
To Brian it seemed the Renwick had slipped into another world. The alarm still sliced the air, and the emergency lights covered everything with blood-red light. Most of the workers had fled, but the Wildes heard occasional screams, and here and there passed people huddled in corners or under furniture, wailing pitifully, unharmed but apparently too scared to flee. And he still felt creepy things slithering invisibly all around.
Were they real, or just manifestations of the strange gas in the air? He hoped for the latter; he had no desire to face such things if they were real. They scared him so much he felt an almost uncontrollable urge to flee. It wasn’t a familiar feeling to someone trained since birth to not let fear control him.
Doc Wilde stopped briefly at a security station and reset the system. The alarm’s sonic assault ceased, and the light around them returned to normal. Then he led them rapidly through the corridors, not pausing to investigate any of the offices or laboratories they passed.
“Where are we headed, Dad?” Wren asked.
“There’s something I need to check before we do anything else,” Doc Wilde answered.
“What?” she asked.
“I can’t go into it,” their father said. Brian had expected that response. Wren should’ve taken the hint when Dad referred to the thing as an item instead of saying what it was.
They reached another security station, this one in front of a wide security door. Doc again peered into a corneal scanner and tapped in a code to gain entry.
Beyond was a large laboratory filled with powerful computers and tables scattered with parts and seemingly incomplete electronic devices. One corner was dominated by the glassware of a well-equipped chemistry lab, another was set up as an office, the wooden desk chaotic with stacked books and paper.
Brian was reminded of the Einstein quote, If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? No doubt the owner of this desk, as messy as Einstein’s had been, had a mind that was far from empty.
His father strode quickly past the desk to a man-sized safe behind it. The door stood partially open. As Doc whipped it open, Brian and Wren tried to look past him at whatever was inside.
“Damn it!” Doc said, his deep voice booming through the alarm. The kids looked at him wide-eyed. It was extremely rare for their father to swear.
“What is it?” Brian asked.
“Is the item gone?” Wren added.
Their dad turned. His face was grim, his jaw clenched, and his hands were fists.
“Yes,” he said. “Someone has stolen the McGuffin Device.”
“What’s a McGuffin Device?” Wren asked.
“It was created by my friend, Dr. Henry McGuffin,” her father replied. “What it does, I can’t tell you. It’s covered by a security clearance so high even the name of the clearance is classified.”
“I take it the device is dangerous,” Brian said.
Doc Wilde nodded. “Extremely. Henry decided the military shouldn’t get their hands on it. He destroyed the records regarding it, and planned to dismantle the device itself. He didn’t get the chance. Someone shot him at his home last week.”
“To keep him from destroying it,” Brian said.
“That seems likely.” Doc motioned toward the door of the lab. They tread softly as they left the room, trying to disturb the scene as little as possible..
“Why did Henry invent something so terrible in the first place?” Wren asked.
“He invented it by accident while trying to create something much more beneficial.”
Doc sealed the door, then continued. “Henry knew the possible dangers caused by his invention, so he made me his research partner. Upon his death, the miltary possessed the device but had no idea how to activate it. My official reason for coming here today was to examine it and deduce its operation.”
“What was your unofficial reason?” Wren asked.
“To eradicate it and wipe every trace of it from the face of the earth.”