As promised earlier, here is the opening of my pulp adventure novel Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom, the first adventure of Dr. Spartacus Wilde and his swashbuckling kids Brian and Wren. As you read this, understand that the book is currently going through a polish and extra edit, so neither this nor the original text of the edition published earlier by Putnam is exactly as it will appear in the improved, fully-illustrated re-release of the book this June.
In April, I’ll be running a Kickstarter project encompassing this novel and its two follow-ups (which I’d originally contracted to Putnam, but now am publishing independently for reasons detailed here), all of which will be released this year. Next week I’ll post the first peek anyone has seen of the long-awaited second book, Doc Wilde and The Mad Skull, and the week after a glimpse of Doc Wilde and The Dance of the Werewolf, which Putnam thought too scary in its original form. I like scary and won’t be changing it.
The art you’ll see below (as well as the early draft cover above) was done by comic book artist Gary Chaloner before I’d even sold the first book to Putnam, in the hopes the book would be illustrated by him when published. That didn’t work out originally, but now Gary’s wonderful take on the Wildes will be an integral part of the series. This isn’t finished art, or necessarily images that will make it into the final book, but it will give you a taste of what’s to come…
The Lyceum of the Wilde family’s manor was a huge, odd room that seemed a combination of world-class library and Olympic gymnasium. There, Brian Wilde sat at a big oaken desk, staring at an ancient scroll till his eyes nearly crossed. An unknown work by the classical philosopher Plato, the roll of papyrus was roughly 2,500 years old. Enormously valuable, it was held with gentle precision in an airless vaccuum inside a small ornate brass device. This was called, simply, a “scroll reader,” and had been invented by Brian’s father.
His father had also unearthed the scroll itself in a bizarre subterranean maze a mile beneath Desoto, Missouri, where it was guarded by an earth monster formed of crystalline needles as long as a man’s arm. The thousand-pointed elemental creature was incredibly dangerous but, it turned out, extremely vulnerable to high-pitched sonics, and Brian’s dad had left it shattered across the stone.
As part of his daily study, Brian was translating Plato’s words into English. From Ancient Greek. And his Ancient Greek, though exceptional for a twelve year old, was pretty darned rusty.
“I could do it faster,” his upside-down sister told him. Wren Wilde was hanging by her knees above him from a trapeze that swung over the desk. With each swing, her long ponytail lightly brushed the top of his head.
She was watching him. Supposedly learning from him, but actually annoying him terribly.
“No you couldn’t,” he said.
“I could too.”
“Vous pouviez pas,” he said in French: You could not.
“Si podría,” she said in Spanish: I could.
“不能,” he insisted in Mandarin: Couldn’t.
“Ninaweza,” she pressed in Kiswahili: Could.
“Okay, smarty pants…what’s this word mean?”
“Ophrys? That’s ‘eyebrow.’”
“It is not.”
“Is.” She grinned. “Look it up.”
“Hmmph.” Brian reached for the translation dictionary. Surely Wren couldn’t be right. Why would Plato be writing about somebody’s eyebrow? If she was right, though, she’d never let him forget it.
He was saved from this dread possibility when the door opened, revealing Doctor Spartacus Wilde. Their dad.
“Grab your backpacks,” Doc Wilde commanded. “Your grandfather has disappeared again.”
As Brian powered down the scroll-reader, Wren flipped from the trapeze and shot out the door. He darted after her, out of the Lyceum and up the stairs. Wren was already out of sight. She was tiny, even for a ten-year-old, but she was fast.
Reaching his bedroom, Brian dove over the half-door blocking the doorway, somersaulting to his feet on the other side. This was one of the many ways the kids honed their skills: they had to do a dive roll to get in or out of their bedrooms.
Similarly, Brian’s bed was thirty feet above the floor and reachable only by a difficult clamber up a climbing wall.
Brian’s backpack was on his desk, already packed for the field. All he needed to add was a book to read and he’d be all set.
He scanned the tightly packed shelves. What to read, what to read…?
Into his pack went a book of Ray Bradbury dinosaur stories. He’d already read it three times, but some books never get old.
He sprung to a small square tunnel in the wall opposite the door. Backpack hugged to his chest, he slid through the opening feet first.
SWOOSH! On his back, down a slippery slide, he whirled and spiraled through spaces behind the walls, under the floors, beneath the Wilde mansion.
The slide ended abruptly and Brian flew out of a hole in the wall at the bottom into a large mat stuffed with goose down, landing like a mouse falling onto a soft pillow.
He was in a huge chamber, bigger than a football field, carved out of solid granite 150 feet underground. Scientific equipment of all types known (and many unknown outside of the family) filled this hidden space; it was the subject of countless odd rumors, weird tales, and international legends. It was also the finest laboratory on Earth: Doc Wilde’s workshop.
A short distance away, Brian’s dad stood before a large screen, arms across his broad chest, holding his chin in thought.
Wren had, annoyingly, gotten here before Brian, and stood by their dad, mirroring his pose down to the way his fingers held his chin.
With them was Phineas Bartlett, a very thin, very stylish Englishman with a pencil-thin moustache. A brilliant attorney and great friend, Bartlett managed the Wildes’ legal matters, general itineraries, and the Wilde manor, Lyonesse, itself.
Brian slung his backpack over his shoulder and joined them.
In excited thought, the Wildes presented quite a picture. They were all long-limbed and golden: golden-brown hair, golden tans, and large eyes with glittering irises that seemed composed of layered gold leaf. Brian and Wren were both a bit smaller than most kids their age, but they had reason to believe they might one day shoot to greater height, for their father stood well over six feet tall. Thousands of hours of physical training had made him muscular and agile. From the look of him, Doc Wilde might have been some ancient hero, perhaps the half-human child of a solar god, glowing with warmth and golden light.
Like the others, Brian stared at the screen.
“Is that some kind of monstro frog?” he asked.
“Yes,” his father replied. His voice was deep, resonating like distant thunder.
The sinister shape on the screen was, indeed, a frog. A frog as big as a dump truck, with long, spidery claws and shark-like rows of dagger teeth.
Grandpa Wilde was in its mouth.
“Do we know where this was taken?” Wren asked.
“Or who took it?” Brian added.
Doc shook his head. “Unfortunately not.”
In the photograph, Grandpa Wilde stood in the monstrous frog’s gaping maw, grinning and waving at the camera. His longish white hair stuck out, looking wind-blown as usual. He wore rugged safari-style clothing just like Doc and the kids usually wore in their travels. In fact, he looked just like an older version of Doc himself.
The frog was actually the sculpted mouth of a cave, its stone skin mottled green with fungus and moss. All around it were brawny roots and snaking jungle vines.
Grandpa was clearly in no immediate danger when the photograph was taken. But what had happened since?
Lyonesse, Doc Wilde’s manor, was immense and imposing.
Its structure was an odd mix of gothic castle, log cabin, and Art Deco glass and steel, with an enormous white ash tree rising through its architectural core like Yggdrasil, the sacred World Tree of Norse myth. It sat on a high wooded hill eighteen miles outside the city limits of New York, a mighty guardian watching over the land.
Doctor Spartacus Wilde had designed Lyonesse, and oversaw its construction. He took its name from Arthurian legend: Lyonesse was the mystic island of Sir Tristan’s birth, a sunken land lost beneath the waves somewhere off the coast of Cornwall. Now, this modern Lyonesse was internationally renowned as the fantastic home and headquarters of the world’s greatest adventurer.
Half a mile from the hill on which the manor stood, a faint dirt track branched off the road into deep woods, ending at a well-camouflaged cave which penetrated deep into the bedrock beneath the rugged hillscape. This passage led to a spectacular underground bunker in which Doc Wilde stored his amazing assortment of vehicles.
As early evening twilight painted the hills above, an elegant jet-black automobile with three headlights zoomed from the bunker, eerily silent but for the crunch of tires on the gravelly cave floor. This muscular rocket of a car was a 1948 Tucker Torpedo. Only 51 of them had ever been made, and only 48 remained in existence. Some were in museums. Some were with wealthy collectors. They were virtually impossible to acquire.
Doc Wilde had three.
The Tucker accelerated swiftly. A titanium wall loomed in its path, but the vehicle did not slow. Seconds before impact, the wall snapped open, locking shut again after the car was through. Every hundred yards another such gate barred the way, but allowed the Tucker to pass. These indestructible gates were just one of the many security measures protecting Lyonesse.
The unusual automobile shot from the cave onto the dirt track through the forest.
Doc Wilde had made some modifications to the three Tucker Torpedoes so they would be truly adventure-worthy. Their steel bodies were reinforced with a spray-on armor coating, the windows were unbreakable glass, and the tires made of rupture-proof polymer gels. The old gasoline engines were replaced with solar/hydrogen engines of Doc’s own invention, eliminating all polluting emissions. And running boards had been added along the sides.
When the weather was nice (and sometimes when it wasn’t, if time was short), Doc liked to ride outside the car on the running board. In times of emergency, this served the additional purpose of making Doc visible to law enforcement officials, who knew that if Doc Wilde was breaking traffic laws, it had to be for very good reason, so they would try to clear the way and offer any assistance he might require.
The weather was nice now, and Doc was out on the driver’s side running board, the wind blasting through his hair, his mighty arms holding tight. He wore a white safari shirt with epaulets on the shoulders, khaki cargo pants, and leather boots. Over his shirt he wore his field vest, brown and full of pockets holding numerous useful tools and gizmos he always took with him on his travels.
Brian and Wren rode in the Tucker’s backseat, wearing clothes identical to their dad’s. The Wildes called these outfits their “danger clothes.”
Behind the wheel was Doc’s driver and pilot, an Irishman named Declan mac Coul. Declan’s hair and beard were shaggy red, and while he was just a few inches taller than 5 feet, he weighed as much as Doc. He was like a short bear and all muscle. There were many mysteries about Declan mac Coul, but one thing they knew for sure was that he could always be counted on completely.
Next to Declan sat Phineas Bartlett in a dapper suit and derby hat, holding a cane with an ornate eagle’s head handle of purest silver.
Spraying dust, the Tucker veered from the dirt track onto the main road into town. Bartlett scowled at Declan. “Slow down now, you misbegotten ape.”
“Funny you callin’ me an ape, all natty in that monkey suit,” Declan replied. But he did slow to the speed limit, as they were no longer on Doc’s private land.
When Declan and Bartlett addressed one another, the two men’s voices oozed disgust and dislike. But actually, they were the greatest of friends.
Wren interrupted their sparring. “Declan? Bartlett? Do either of you know what Ophrys means?”
Brian shot her a look. The little trickster hadn’t forgotten their squabble.
Bartlett chuckled. “You’ll need to wait till Declan learns English before you start tormenting him with Ancient Greek. But Ophrys means ‘eyebrow,’ if I recall correctly,” which he did. Phineas Bartlett recalled everything correctly; he had an eidetic memory (often called a “photographic memory”), and had total recall of everything he’d ever read.
Wren grinned at her big brother. “Gotcha.”
Declan snorted. “You would know that.”
Bartlett smiled. “The benefits of a high-brow education.”
Wren grinned at Brian even more. He scowled and tried to ignore her.
Bartlett gazed benignly at Declan. “Aristotle tells us ‘Educated men are as much superior to uneducated men as the living are to the dead.’”
Bartlett was familiar with lots of quotations.
“Well,” Declan said, “I reckon that means I’m superior to Aristotle, me bein’ alive and him bein’ dead. So why should I listen to him?”
“Where’s Dad?!?” Wren suddenly cried. Startled, everyone glanced out the windows.
Doc Wilde was no longer on the running board.
Declan slammed on the brakes, the Tucker’s tires skidding asphalt in a long screech. “DOC?” he shouted out the open window.
There was no reply.
He and Bartlett unsnapped their seat belts and sprang from the car, scanning the empty gloom behind them. Wren and Brian scrambled out the rear doors.
“I don’t see him,” Brian said. His heart pounding, he clawed at a pocket on his vest and pulled out his communicator.
“Dad?!?” he shouted into it. “Dad, are you there? Dad?!?”
His father did not reply. Where was he?
“Get in the car,” Declan mac Coul ordered. “We’ll go back and find him.”
Everyone jumped back into their seats, slamming doors.
“KIDS?” Doc Wilde’s voice boomed from Brian’s communicator. Relief washed through the boy.
Bartlett and Declan whirled to face Brian as he responded.
“Dad! Where are you?”
His father’s voice replied: “I’m about a mile back along the road.”
Wren had her communicator out too. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” Doc Wilde answered. “Sorry I couldn’t answer earlier. Come back, swiftly. I’ll tell you what happened when we’re together again. But be alert, there’s danger afoot.”
Declan spun the Tucker Torpedo and rocketed back the way they had come. Soon, the beams of the car’s three head-lamps washed over Doctor Spartacus Wilde, who stood on the right side of the road. He raised his hand in a wave, his golden eyes glittering as they caught the light.
He was unharmed, though the right sleeve of his shirt had been ripped. It hung raggedly between his shoulder and the cuff still around his wrist, revealing the sleek muscles of his arm.
Everyone scrambled from the car and gathered before him.
“What happened, Dad?” Brian asked.
A few minutes ago:
Doc Wilde grinned, the brisk wash of wind around the Tucker smoothing his hair back so that it looked like a golden skullcap. His clothes rippled in the wind, his muscles bulging as he held on.
Through Declan’s open window, Doc could hear the muted sounds of conversation, though the words were unclear. From the sharpness in Declan’s and Bartlett’s voices, he judged they were arguing. But then, if those two were within speaking distance, they were usually bedeviling each other.
The twilight was fading from navy blue to black as night fell. Trees along the roadside swayed gently in a breeze. The car was so quiet, and his hearing so keen, that even with the wind from the Tucker’s speed roaring around him he could hear crickets and frogs singing their evening songs.
Ahead, to the right, something moved in the shadows among the trees. Doc tried to make it out, but the Tucker reached the spot quickly. As he stared across the car’s roof into the shadows, one shadow detached itself and leaped over the car, so fast it took him off guard, which was not an easy thing to do.
The dark shape crashed into him, clutching at his shoulders, its weight knocking him from the running board. Doc’s body was still traveling at 65 miles per hour as he fell toward the hard asphalt.
In mid-fall, Doc Wilde grabbed the shape with one-hand, wrenching its mass off of him. He felt its hand (or claw?) grasp and rip his sleeve as it fell away in a different direction.
Doc tucked his chin and pulled himself into a tight ball, shifting his weight a fraction of a second before impact so that he’d strike the ground at a better angle. He hit the road in a ball, spinning madly, and rolled as smoothly as would be possible for a human to roll under such conditions.
As the Tucker sped away, Doc’s roll ended in the grass by the roadside. As he stood, his head reeled with brain-wracking dizziness. Using a mind technique learned from a ninja monk in Northern Japan who would somersault for miles down forested mountainsides, Doc cleared his senses. He dropped into a defensive stance and looked for his attacker.
About forty feet back, it was a shadowy lump in the grass. Staggering, it heaved itself to its feet. Doc’s eyes couldn’t make out its exact shape and he realized it was wearing a cloak or loose robe.
He charged it just as he heard Brian’s voice come over his communicator.
The shape turned toward him, then leaped into the woods. The leap carried it at least thirty feet. Doc tried to catch up, but the shape leaped again into the darkness, then again, and it was gone.
All Doc had seen was the dark shapelessness of its cloaked form, and when it looked at him, huge bulging round yellow eyes…
I thought Bartlett was going to be a villain, what with the pencil-thin moustache and all. I guess the jury’s out on that. What I didn’t see coming was that he is THAT Bartlett. Well played.