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In Hero Years... I'm Dead Delux Edition

Michael A. Stackpole

  Other Kindle Books By Michael A. Stackpole

  Merlin Bloodstone Mysteries

  Brewed Fortune

  The Cards Call Themselves

  The Silver Knife

  Let Me Call You Sweetheart

  Wildest Dreams

  Kid Binary and the Two-Bit Gang

  Jed and the Titanium Turtle

  The Purgatory Station Omnibus

  Trick Molloy Mysteries

  No Rest For The Wicked

  Such a Nice Girl

  Little Girl Lost

  The Witch in Scarlet

  'Til Death


  Once A Hero

  Talion: Revenant

  The Dark Conspiracy Trilogy

  A Gathering Evil

  Evil Ascending

  How To Write books

  21 Days To A Novel

  Writing Fiction: A Short Course

  In Hero Years… I’m Dead

  A Superhero Noir Novel


  Michael A. Stackpole

  Author of I, Jedi and Rogue Squadron

  In Hero Years… I’m Dead is ©2010 Michael A. Stackpole

  Cover art by Aaron Williams; Cover design by Kat Klaybourne

  The author worked hard on this story and hopes you enjoyed it. Please visit the site for more stories and information about the author. By purchasing stories directly from the author, you become a patron of the arts, and enable him to continue creating stories for you to enjoy.


  To the memory of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, who created Batman. Without their work, you’d not be reading this book.


  The author would like to thank Kat Klaybourne, Richard R. Klaybourne and Seamus T. Bellaforte for their work editing and proofing the manuscript. Any errors and omissions in this work are the fault of the author alone. The author also thanks Aaron Williams and Kat again for the great cover.

  Chapter One

  Why did I think the bank manager was a super-villain? He didn’t particularly look like one. Then again, he wouldn’t have been much of a super-villain if he had.

  Maybe it was his nervousness. He covered it, but he was trying too hard. I couldn’t dial in just what he had to be nervous about.

  Then it dawned on me.


  The cheap suit they’d given me hadn’t stood up well against thirty-six hours of planes and airports. Neither had I. I wasn’t quite coming apart at the seams like the suit, but my eyes burned. I was also drifting in and out–those little one second blank stares make most folks wary.

  Had I been him, with me standing there, I’d have speed-dialed Security and had them coming at a run.

  Then again, I might have been reading things completely wrong. I hadn’t spoken to a bank manager in about two decades. I couldn’t imagine they’d changed much over time–machines need the same sort of cogs year in, year out. The last one I’d dealt with was probably the bank’s chairman of the board.

  My exhausted brain skipped back a step. I wondered what the manager had for a superpower. I looked for clues: the way he looked up from his desk, the quick smile, the casual tug at his cuff as he stood to offer me his hand; none of these were very helpful. I thought for a moment I’d lost it, then his powers came together with a name.

  The Ingratiator.

  He’d overplayed it with the smile. He’d added a hint of welcome surprise, but his office had a glass wall overlooking the bank’s lobby. He couldn’t have missed Invisible Lad coming for a visit, much less my approach. He probably figured me for Rumpled Man–able to wrinkle perma-press slacks in a single sit.

  In his world, that would make me the villain.

  Unaccustomed to his courtesy and temporarily mesmerized by it, I stared at his proffered hand. Too neat. Perfect manicure. No scars. He wasn’t a super-anything.

  Check that. He could have been a mentalist. That smile, his manner; he definitely could have been a mind-reaper. I could see him in a hostage situation. He convinces the perps that all will be well; and will go better if they surrender. He’d never have to lay a glove on them.

  I’d always had a problem with mentalists. Wasn’t a day went by I didn’t feel crowded in my own head. I really didn’t need squatters.

  The Ingratiator remained frozen with his hand out—waiting, wondering. His distress snapped me back into reality. Be good. I shook his hand heartily. No crushing on his part, just a firm grip, like he was pulling me from a collapsed skyscraper.

  His smile brightened. He liked having folks see him as a savior.

  “So pleased to finally meet you, Mister Smith.” His smile hit the megawatt range. “Please be seated. May I get you coffee, tea, juice, water?” His executive assistant, Penny, stood poised to fetch those things.

  I declined. I wasn’t used to people doing me favors. I’d felt like a lab rat. Behind every treat there was an electric shock with my name on it.

  I lowered myself into a chair made of steel and white leather. It matched everything else in the office, all of it glass, steel and white leather. Seemed to me that I’d seen this décor before. Nostalgic revival, has to be.

  That didn’t do much to make me feel at home.

  The manager’s nameplate was etched glass. Lawrence Baker. Not really a secret-identity-sounding name.

  He pressed his hands to his desktop. “It is a privilege, Mr. Smith.”

  I was supposed to smile at that line. I did, to be polite. “You’re very kind.”

  “I’m serious. You see, I vowed, when I became manager of this branch of First Capital City Savings and Loan, that I would get to know all of our customers. I’ve made it my business to get to know them, so we can figure out how better to serve them. You are one of the last, especially among our older customers.”

  “I’m not that old, Mr. Baker.” I just feel old.

  “No, no, of course not. I didn’t mean to suggest you are. It’s just you’ve been with us for a long time, through several acquisitions. You’re a highly valued customer.” He shifted uncomfortably, but remained seated on the tails of his gray, pinstriped jacket. It kept the shoulders down and him looking sharp.

  Leaning forward, he lowered his voice into that conspiratorial whisper intended to build rapport. “Frankly, I wish we had more customers like you.”

  Part of me—a part that had gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past–wanted to mess with his head. Remember, be good. I played nice. “I appreciate that, Mr. Baker. And it is good to meet you, but I don’t wish to take up your valuable time.” I flashed the key to my safety deposit box.

  “Yes, of course, you are a busy man.” Baker glanced at the luminescent scroll coming up across the pane topping his desk. “You’ve not accessed the box for the last twenty years.”

  “I’ve been away. In Europe.”

  “Fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here?”

  “Something like that.” I nodded wearily, then pointed past him. “Could you turn that off, please?”

  Baker glanced back, then turned to me again. “The Murdoch?”

  “The television.”

  “Oh, yes, they still call it that over there, don’t they?” He chuckled. “Of course, we can’t turn it off–given the laws and all–but what if…?” He reached back and slid the flat panel around so I didn’t have to be watching it. “I don’t think anyone will notice, just for a moment.”

  “Thank you.”

  He studied the scroll again. “I was hoping to update your records. Your fees have come through your solicitor and are all paid up through the year. You don’t have an account with u
s, and I thought, perhaps, that if you are returning to Capital City on a permanent basis, I could convince you to bring your banking to us.”

  “I really hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

  The conspiratorial tone reentered his voice. “I want you, Mr. Smith. I want you to think of me as your personal banker. We can set you up with a cash chip, make any transfers you need, and really handle any transactions that will ease your transition back into Capital City.”

  “You’re very kind.”

  Just a hint of consternation flashed over his face. “Please, let me be of help to you.” He reached inside his jacket and produced his uTiliPod. He held it out to beam information to mine.

  I opened my hands. “I don’t have one. They don’t use them, you know, over there.”

  “I’ve not been, but I’ve heard.”

  I smiled. “Perhaps you could just give me your contact information.”

  He blinked.

  I mimed writing with my hands. “Paper? Pen?”

  “Oh, yes, of course. I’ll have Penny get that information for you. Paper and ink. How, well, continental.” Baker aped my smile. “And we’ll have to have lunch so you can tell me about the other quaint customs you’re used to from Europe.”

  “I would just bore you.”

  “I doubt that.” He knitted his fingers together. “I do want to mention, however, that if you were to transfer just ten thousand into our bank, we’d give you the latest uTiliPod as a gift. Phone, GPS, NetLink, cashflash and enough space to store everything that’s happened in the last twenty years so you can get caught up. You think about it while you’re getting your box, how does that sound?”

  “You’re very kind.”

  “We have a deal then?”

  “And very persistent.”

  “I just want to make sure you’re going to stay part of the FCCSL family.”

  I stood. “You make it very hard to refuse.”

  He stood and glanced at his watch. “A pleasure meeting you. I have something in a half-hour. If you can stop back before then, we can set things up before the fireworks begin.”

  Fireworks? I wasn’t picking it up from context and, quite frankly, I was too tired to care. “Thank you.”

  I shook his hand, then followed Penny to the vault. Petite and blonde, she was ample reason for having an office with a glass wall. She wore horn-rimmed glasses that might have been part of a secret identity; but I doubted it. Just a bit of hero-wannabe-chic going on.

  She glanced at her watch a bit more anxiously than her boss had. I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but it was oversized and looked too heavy for her slender wrist.

  “Interesting watch.”

  Penny’s face lit up. “Thank you. It’s a Redhawk watch, and not one of those nostalgia knock-offs. My father bought it twenty-five years ago, when Redhawk was still Nighthaunt’s sidekick. He gave it to me as a bit of a consolation prize when I washed out of the academy.”

  She held it up for me to study. There was Redhawk, perhaps rendered a bit more muscular than he had been in those days. Shock of red hair, red cowl, the hue of which extended to his shoulders and the stripes down his arms, flanks and sides. Red boots, too, and utility belt; with his uniform being black and form-fitting otherwise.

  Penny checked the time again. “It’s not the only Redhawk watch I’ve got, but I’m not picking up any of the new stuff. So many folks have become his fans now that he’s going into the Hall. I mean, I’ll be there at the ceremony and everything, and maybe get a souvenir of that, but I’m strictly old-school when it comes to Redhawk.”

  “That’s a good way to be.” I really had no idea what I was saying. Didn’t matter. She accepted the comment happily.

  Penny produced the bank’s key and we unlocked the box together. I slid it out and she led me to an examining room. Aside from a table, two chairs and a Murdoch built into the wall, it was empty. I set the box down and smiled at her.

  “I shouldn’t be long.”

  She smiled. “Remember, there is the thing at eleven.”

  “Thank you, I should be done by then.”

  She flashed the watch, then closed the door behind herself.

  I reached out to open the box, but hesitated. Acid burned in my throat. Twenty years. A lifetime or three. And opening the box would start another one.

  Or just finish your first.

  But why was I here? It wasn’t money. I could have gotten that where I recovered the key. I didn’t need to be here, in Capital City. They would have let me go anywhere. And yet, they knew. When they asked me where I wanted to go and I told them, the general just pulled the travel card from his pocket and flipped it at me.

  There’d never been any doubt in his mind. Nor in mine, I guess. Finishing, starting, they’re the same when you get down to it.

  And it was time for me to get down to it.

  I lifted the box’s lid.

  Everything was as I remembered it. The sharpness of the recollection surprised me. Twenty years gone, but the memories not faded a bit. It was like time had stopped for everything but me. Nonsense, but there it was.

  The contents anchored me to a life long lost. The money, neatly banded and stacked, came to twenty thousand. I pocketed half. That was really all I needed out of the box. I could hand it to Baker, he’d give me a uTiliPod, and I’d just sink into the grey masses.

  If it wasn’t the money… I smiled. The key to the other safety deposit box–the big one–sat there. Like a grenade. Taking it wouldn’t necessarily mean I was pulling the pin, but…. Who are you kidding?

  The identification documents were too old to be of immediate use, but I picked out four sets and slipped them into a pocket. They’d be a good place to start rebuilding identities. I’d need new pictures and have to find a way to hack the databases to remove flags from the old ones.

  I snorted. My skills were twenty years old. Note to self, find a kid to do all that stuff for you.

  I pulled out a steel neck chain. A silver car key dangled from it. Of absolutely no earthly use now. I shrugged and slipped the chain over my head. I tucked the key down next to my heart. To remind me of what I’d lost.

  Or to remind me of what I’d come to take back?

  I wanted to laugh that thought away. I couldn’t. Thinking I could take anything back was stupid. I’d told myself that a hundred thousand times.

  And a hundred thousand and one times I’d found myself thinking hard on the how of doing it.

  I stared at the box. The key warmed against my flesh. I wasn’t the man I’d been. I hadn’t been him almost from the point I left Capital City. They’d broken my life in two–and the break had been anything but clean. For twenty years I’d tried to figure out who and why.

  I should have abandoned that quest, but there were times it was all that kept me alive.

  But now, exhausted and back in Capital City–a megalopolis I barely recognized when flying over it–the futility of trying to solve that mystery hit me. Clues would be two decades old. People would have died. Things would have been forgotten. People would have moved on and gotten over it. It was over before it started. I should just give in.

  Then I heard his voice echoing in my head. You just have to have confidence.

  Yeah. Confidence. And sleep.

  The travel exhaustion was taking its toll. I wasn’t really in any condition to be making any decisions. And I could defer this one.

  For a day. A week. A long time. Another two decades?

  My mind wandered. My eyes tracked to the Murdoch in the wall. Nice color, really great definition. The images flowed between advertisements for the bank’s services, to shots from the bank’s security cameras. They were artistically framed, panning here and there, moving into close-ups with robotic regularity. A long shot showed Baker in his office. He had a uTiliPod box open on his desk and was fiddling with the device.

  And obsessively checking his watch.

  Penny tapped on the door. “Take your time, Mr. Smith. Si
t tight and I’ll be back for you.”

  “I’ll be done soon.”

  “No hurry. It’ll all be okay.”

  Before I could ask what would be okay–and finding no comfort in the word fireworks bursting into my head–Penny locked me in.

  The Murdoch went full screen on bank’s lobby. Armed robbers, a dozen of them, wearing psychedelic tie-dyed spandex, poured through the doors. Half of them hauled huge tubes connected to cylinders on their backs, the others carried something that looked like a blunderbuss, complete with wide, conical muzzles.

  Screams and shouts resounded through the examination room’s door. On screen, Penny ran into the midst of the hostages. She must have panicked. But did she just mug for the camera?

  Just my luck. At best it was a bank robbery. At worst, a messy hostage siege.

  I have to do something. I reached toward the box.

  I stopped.

  In fact, I didn’t have to do a blessed thing. Stopping the robbery wasn’t my responsibility. I didn’t owe these people anything. As friendly as Baker had been, or faked being, he wasn’t my friend. He saw me as an account balance and annual fees, nothing more. Penny, cute kid, but if she’d not gone running out into the lobby, she’d probably have been able to sneak out a back door and summon help.

  This wasn’t my problem.

  They didn’t need my help.

  I’d probably make things worse.

  Since when has that stopped you?

  Good point.

  I slipped the other safety deposit box key into my trousers. Then I reached in and felt along the recessed part of the lid. The small packet came free with the ripping sound of Velcro.

  Burglary tools.

  I glanced at the door’s lock and smiled.

  Somehow, I’d caught my second wind.

  I went to work on the lock.