Hello! It's time for the next book in the Arch City Guardians series! Dr. Z and Stardust are two reluctant superhero partners thrown together to stop a group of villains in the red-light entertainment district. Check out the first five chapters of DR. Z here on the blog or download a preview booklet below!
"I like this bad guy. He's big, dumb and hung."
The stern voice cracked like a whip into Stardust's ear piece.
"Stay on task."
"You got it, boss."
"And don't call me boss."
Stardust grinned but didn't respond as he got ready to fight. He, Frost, and Sonica had been sent to take down a group of people rampaging up and down the Delmar Loop, one of St. Louis's entertainment districts. It was a busy Thursday the first week in September, when nights were the perfect temperature to sit outside, and the street was filled with people who'd come out to have a beer and listen to music. Now, they were panicked. Screaming and running to get out of the way as five men caused indiscriminate destruction in front of the shops and restaurants.
Stardust took in the scene. Tables flipped on their sides, food and drink spilled on the sidewalk, plates shattered, and cups crushed beneath fleeing feet. Several shop windows were broken, with their displays and merchandise tossed into the street. One of the rampagers was naked, with the exception of a face mask, a pair of thick white athletic socks, and mountain climbing boots. The naked man yanked back and forth on a lamp post, which despite his efforts, wasn't coming loose from the ground. Still, he continued mindlessly yanking. Stardust shook his head in disgust at the pitiful sight.
Sonica took charge. "Frost, you get the two at the other end of the street. I'll grab the two in front of Iron Age and check inside the building to make sure there aren't more of them in there causing a ruckus."
"Got it," Frost answered.
"Guess that leaves me with Mr. Nakey," Stardust said, already looking forward to the fight.
"You both be careful," Sonica said before she teleported away to the legendary tattoo shop.
Frost took off in the opposite direction in a swirl of cold air, whooshing down the street on an ice slide they created with their powers.
With his partners after their targets, Stardust walked up to his own. He kept his hands loose at his sides, easy and non-threatening. The multicolored lights from the Blueberry Hill sign above the naked man reflected off his pale sweaty skin. Stardust couldn't see the guy's face thanks to the mask he wore, but he could see his blue eyes, cracked open wide and rolling in their sockets. The wild eyes were a clear sign that he'd overdosed on Croton - a drug that increased a user's physical capabilities and blocked fear receptors but caused mindless rage and massive heart attacks after prolonged use. His assumption that the guy was on Croton wasn't an official diagnosis, but anyone who stripped naked in the middle of a busy entertainment district and tried to rip a lamppost out of the ground had to be on something.
"Hey, big man!"
At the sound of Stardust's voice, the naked man stopped his attempted vandalism, and turned to face Stardust, giving him a good look at his mask. It was acid yellow, with blood-red slash marks across the mouth and eyes. The mask was clearly meant to instill fear. But seeing this guy standing there bare-assed naked, with his dick literally swinging in the wind, Stardust wasn't at all intimidated.
"I don't know how far gone you are in that Croton rage but I can help you if you let me." He stepped closer. "Don't get me wrong, I like to fight. But you probably just want to put your pants back on and go home, right?"
Naked guy threw back his head and roared before stomping toward him, fists clenched, veins bulging in his forearms.
The guy was huge. He had a foot and a half in height and at least thirty pounds on Stardust. But this was one occasion where he didn't care about size. Stardust pulled his sai from their thigh holsters. He twirled them around to grip them by their handles, pommels up, blunted blades held against the inside of his forearms.
As the naked behemoth charged, Stardust sprinted forward to meet him. Just before they crashed into each other, he jumped up in the air, flipping over naked guy's head to land behind him. Spinning around, he punched out with his sai, hitting the man in the kidneys. The rampager roared with pain but didn't go down. He turned to face Stardust, swinging with massive fists. Stardust wore his own mask, but he still preferred not to get punched in the face. He dropped down to avoid the hit, sweeping his leg out in the same motion to kick at naked guy's ankles. The man stumbled and fell in the middle of the street. But to Stardust's unpleasant surprise, the big man had speed too. He rolled and leaped back to his feet.
Although he was impressed at the move, Stardust sighed in annoyance. "You should have just stayed down, man."
The naked berserker finally spoke.
"I don't stay down."
"Oooh! A challenge." Stardust spun his sai again. "I accept."
They rushed at each other once more. This time, Stardust met him head on. Before his opponent could strike, Stardust double-punched with his sai, hitting him dead center in the solar plexus each time. When the big man doubled over in pain, struggling to catch the breath that had been knocked out of him, Stardust jumped up with a flying high knee, catching him on the chin. He caught a glimpse of those wild eyes rolling back in their sockets before the berserker crashed to the street, landing flat on his back. This time, he didn't move.
"Guess you were wrong about not staying down," Stardust mocked as he straightened from the defensive pose he'd landed in. After sliding his sai back into their holsters, he put a booted foot on the big man's shoulder, rolling him over to his front so he could restrain his hands behind his back. Once the guy was secured, Stardust turned his attention to the people who were standing nearby.
"Everything is all right, everybody." He looked toward a trio who appeared relatively calm. "Can you help right some of the tables and chairs?"
An older woman in the group snapped out of her shocked daze.
"Yes. We've got it."
She started directing those around her to help the staff put the sidewalk dining to rights. Stardust left her to it, moving on to see if anyone had been seriously hurt. Thankfully, there were only a few people with minor injuries and no one with anything major. Mostly scrapped palms and knees from falling on the sidewalk or cuts from broken glass. The rampagers hadn't seemed set on personal harm, only destruction of property.
Stardust made his way back over to Naked Guy, who was still out cold in the middle of the street. Frost walked up at the same time, leading the two rampagers they'd been tasked with subduing, both with their wrists restrained in manacles made of ice. Neither of them struggled, but they shivered violently, teeth chattering, lips nearly blue from cold. Cold wind and icy vapor swirled around Frost as they looked down at Stardust's felled opponent.
"Should we try to dress him?"
"Pffft. I didn't tell him to take his pants off. That's on him. Besides, he'll get a nice orange jumpsuit to wear when he's booked at the county jail." Stardust crossed his arms over his chest, fingertips tapping his bicep. "But I suppose I should get him out of the middle of the street."
"It's what a hero should do."
Stardust cut his friend a quick side-eye. Frost didn't react, either because they were sincere, or because they were trying to get Stardust's goat. It was hard to tell with them sometimes.
Stardust rolled the man back over to his front then bent down to thump him on the forehead and wake him up. His powers didn't include super strength, so he wasn't about to drag this hefty bastard up onto the sidewalk. After a second forehead thump, the man came to yelling, cursing, and straining to get free. Unfortunately for him, the cuffs around his wrists were made to hold enhanced strength individuals, so even hopped up on Croton, he wasn't getting loose.
"Hear those sirens? That's the police coming to get you. You'd better get out of the street if you don't want them to run you over." At Stardust's warning, the man sat up, scooting backward on his naked rear end across the concrete until he reached the curb. Stardust followed to make sure he didn't try to make a run for it as the sirens grew closer.
The approaching sirens were also the cue for Stardust and his crew to get out of there. Their group didn't have any type of official working relationship with police, and could be charged with vigilantism.
Sonica popped in, dusting off her hands as if she'd just finished a tough job. "Already dropped mine off at the police station. We've done all we can do here. Let's go."
"You're right," Stardust agreed. "I'll see you two back at the firehouse."
Sonica nodded and put her hand on Frost's shoulder to teleport them both away.
Stardust jogged up the street to where he'd left his motorcycle. Throwing a leg over the sleek black machine, he started it up, the bike roaring to life with a throaty rumble. He pulled out of the space and took off, zipping through the city streets, the air rushing over him, whipping the tail of his heavy braid of hair back and forth. The mask he wore identified him as Stardust, while hiding his true identity from everyone he passed.
As he approached his destination, he turned right and sped down a side street. Up ahead was the brick wall of a dead-end alley. Stardust headed straight for it. Just when it seemed as if he would crash, the wall rippled and he passed through without incident. The "dead end" was a mirage, a visual barrier created to hide the headquarters of the Arch City Guardians - the group of heroes who'd banded together to protect the citizens of St. Louis. As an extra precaution against unwanted visitors, if you got too close to the mirage, a sonic alarm went off. Unless you were wearing the tech that muted the alarm, you'd be hit with the extremely unpleasant sensation of what felt like several giant mosquitos buzzing at the back of your skull. The sound was too high-pitched for regular humans to realize they were hearing anything, but the uncomfortable sonic vibrations made people instinctively turn around to avoid them nonetheless.
Past the barriers, Stardust pulled into the small parking lot next to their headquarters, killed the engine and hopped off his bike. The headquarters was an old firehouse, decommissioned nearly a decade ago, and recently purchased to serve as the center for the newly created superhero team. Constructed from tan brick with white stone accents, the building was longer than it was tall. Multiple satellites and electronic towers were mounted on the roof. Thanks to Bulldozer, a member of the ACG team, the grounds were in immaculate condition, with mature greenery, and not a single crack in the driveway. The two wide fire truck doors were down, so Stardust entered through the pedestrian door.
Inside, where firetrucks were once parked, two men sat at a U-shaped trio of tables that held a multitude of computers, monitors, and other tech equipment. The younger of the two men sat directly in front of the largest computer screen in the center, the overhead lights shining on his bright blue hair, while the older was off to the side, typing onto the electronic pad he held. Frost and Sonica were already there, sitting in two of the club chairs set up in front of the command center.
"That wasn't so bad," Stardust said as he took off his mask and plopped down on one of the three remaining chairs.
Caleb spoke up first, brushing the blue strands of hair back from his forehead. "More Croton freaks. But you guys stopped them before they could do too much damage or seriously hurt anyone."
Strong gave an approving nod. "Nice work."
"Blaze is going to be furious when he hears what happened. He fought so hard to keep that drug from hitting the streets."
They started discussing the drug that was steadily taking over the city. Caleb brought up a map of the city on one of the big viewing monitors to highlight areas where Croton incidents seemed to be the most widespread when an alarm went off, signaling that someone was approaching their headquarters. They all turned to look at the outside camera feed on one of Caleb's giant monitors. A dark SUV was driving down the street at a steady pace, headed straight for the barrier.
Stardust frowned in confusion. "What are they doing? Shouldn't they have turned back by now?"
"They're invited and were told to signaling continue past the auditory defense line," Strong answered.
Stardust and the others settled back into their chairs at Strong's announcement that the person approaching was expected. The conversation switched to a mundane discussion of the weather while they waited for Strong's guest to arrive. They heard the faint sound of a truck door closing, then a few seconds later, the front door opened. Stardust looked back over his shoulder to get a look at their visitor.
A Caucasian man walked in, tall, broad in the chest, thick in the thighs, biceps bulging beneath the thin material of a forest-green, long-sleeved T-shirt. He had dark brown hair cut short with a neat side part. His jawline was firm and clean-shaven, a perfect fit to his strong nose and sharp, bright green eyes. But his mouth... Stardust stared a second too long at full lips with a pronounced Cupid's bow - a spot of softness in that otherwise hard face.
"Who's the beefcake?" Stardust faux whispered.
He didn't get an answer, but when the mystery man walked up to Strong to shake hands, Stardust immediately recognized the similarities in their precise bearing and movements. This guy was military too.
"Mike, it's good to meet you in person," Strong greeted him. "Welcome to the Arch City Guardians headquarters." The older Black man turned to his team. "Everyone, this is Mike Zielinski. Former Army medic and newly relocated to St. Louis. I've invited him here to take a look at our operation. Mike, this is Caleb, our tech specialist. Sonica, Frost, and Stardust are field members. Helios is across town helping Ignite with a building fire and we have a few other heroes who aren't here right now as well."
Zielinski briefly made eye contact with each of them in turn. "Good evening," he said crisply.
Stardust ran his gaze over Zielinski during Strong's introduction. He assumed the other man was enhanced and wondered what his powers were. Maybe he was a super soldier like Lieutenant Strong. Going by his height and muscular build, that was definitely a possibility. When Zielinski made eye contact with him, Stardust pursed his lips and silently blew him a kiss. The Army man didn't react, other than a slight stiffening to his already stiff posture. The restrained reaction intrigued Stardust. Was the man shy or impossibly uptight? If Mike Zielinski was going to be sticking around, Stardust wanted to find out the answer to that question sooner rather than later.
After the brief introductions, Strong and Zielinski disappeared into Strong's office behind a closed door, and Sonica popped into their quiet room to lay down. Stardust turned to Frost. "What do you think?"
"What do I think about what?"
"About the possibility of adding a new guy to the team."
Frost shrugged. "Doesn't bother me."
"Might throw off the group dynamic. We've already got one uptight superhero."
"I'm not uptight. I'm reserved."
"If you're not uptight, then how did you know I was talking about you?"
Frost narrowed arctic blue eyes. They brought a hand up, ice and snow quickly swirling into a small ball in their palm. Once it was solid, they flung it at Stardust.
Stardust quickly twisted in his chair, snapping a leg up to kick the snowball away before it could hit him. It went flying across the room, sailed over Caleb's command center, and hit the opposite wall with a wet splat. Both of them looked at the slush sliding down the wall, then at each other, before they burst out laughing.
"Hey!" Caleb snapped. "If you two damage any of my equipment, I'll put the emotional suffering of every fan disappointed in the latest Star Wars movie into your heads."
The threat was enough to have both of them straightening up in their chairs and apologizing.
"Won't happen again."
After Caleb's reprimand, they sat there and quietly speculated about the possible recruit for a few minutes before Frost pushed up from their chair.
"I have to go. I have an appointment to keep."
Caleb nodded in acknowledgement without taking his eyes off whatever he was looking at on his screen. "We should be fine for the rest of the night. Don't forget that we have an official meeting coming up soon. Everyone needs to be there."
"It's on my calendar. See you guys later."
After Frost left, Stardust cast a quick glance at Strong's closed office door. "I think I'll stick around for a little while longer."
Caleb nodded again, his fingers now flying over one of his three keyboards.
Stardust settled back in his chair to wait for the meeting to end.
* * *
When Mike walked into the headquarters for the Arch City Guardians, he took the time to look around. The building was an old firehouse the heroes had taken over for their use. It was impressive, but clearly still in the early stages of use. For one, it was too neat, missing the personal clutter of a broken-in headquarters. But the bones of a good set up were there. The technology was in place and top of the line, apparently run by the young Hispanic man with the royal blue hair. There were several club chairs facing the main command center. To the right, a vending machine, open shelving, and a locked cabinet took up the wall in the front of the room. In the back area, a small gym had been set up, with three treadmills, a couple of bikes, a multi-purpose weight machine, and a thick blue floor mat for sparring. On the loft above, there was a small kitchen area, with a long table taking up most of what he could see of the space. And on his left were several small offices, all with their lights off and doors closed except one.
After everything Mike had learned about Strong and his history, he'd expected to be greeted by the organized, high-tech set up. He hadn't expected to walk in and come face to face with the most beautiful man he'd ever seen in his life.
Slender and elegant, the man lounged in one of the club chairs, an arm tossed across the back, one leg crossed over the other at the knee. Skin tight liquid-latex black pants with a holographic gold shimmer on the fabric clung to those long legs. Black boots embellished with thin gold chains laced up to his knees, and an intricately tooled leather holster was belted around his waist, with straps to hold a pair of gold sai buckled around his thighs. A cropped jacket made from the same material as those sinful pants opened to a smooth, bare chest. Black half-palm gloves partially covered delicate hands, and a gold face mask dangled from his fingers. The man's hair was as dark as a country night sky, confined in a long braid that reached to his narrow waist with shorter strands framing his face, while his skin was pale as moonlight. His lips were a rosy pink, the top lip slightly fuller than the bottom, making them appear as if they were just shy of pursing for a kiss. And his eyes. Set beneath gently arched brows and framed by long, thick lashes, they were a shocking intense gold, like a tiger's eyes caught in sunbeams.
He was gorgeous. The name Stardust suited him, as he appeared to be touched by ethereal starlight. Mike didn't let on that he was affected by the other man's beauty, however. He ignored the beefcake comment, greeting him politely along with everyone else.
"Come into my office and we'll talk," Strong said.
Mike followed the retired superhero across the room to the one office with its lights on. Strong closed the door but left the blinds on the big window facing the main area open. The older man gestured at one of the two chairs in front of his desk.
"Have a seat." He went around to sit in his own chair once Mike sat down. "I'm glad you came in."
This was their first time meeting face to face. They'd been put in contact through a mutual acquaintance in the military. After a couple of phone conversations, Mike had agreed to come in for an in-person discussion. Lieutenant Strong's appearance fit what Mike had expected. Other than the slight bit of salt to his dark, low-cut hair, the lieutenant barely looked old enough to have retired. He was handsome, with an unlined, medium-brown complexion, dark eyes that were clear and direct, and a solid build with upright military posture. The former superhero turned director gave off an aura of calm competence, the type of demeanor that would have instilled unfailing loyalty among his soldiers. Mike liked him on sight.
"I'll be upfront with you, Lieutenant. I didn't have any plans to become a superhero. Receiving my powers was unplanned and unexpected. I'm still getting used to the fact that I'm an enhanced human."
"That's understandable. There are many people with powers who are at first reluctant to become a superhero. And not everyone who has special powers chooses to become a superhero. But there are many others who are unable to ignore the chance to do good with the powers they have and eventually overcome their initial reluctance."
Mike acknowledged Strong with a brief nod. He did have power. Only recently acquired, and one he hadn't asked for. Honestly, he'd give it back if he could. But according to the top secret doctors he'd seen, the change was irreversible. And since he couldn't give it back, he might as well do some good with it, as the lieutenant said. "I didn't plan for it but now that the opportunity has presented itself, I'm willing to put in the work."
Strong leaned forward in his chair, hands folded together on his desk top. "Perfect. We've only been a team for about two months but we're coming together well and doing good work. I believe you'd be an amazing asset to add. Your military training will help our missions run more smoothly out in the field. Especially on ops where our more experienced members are otherwise occupied."
"And you'd have an in-house medic."
Strong smiled. "That too."
"What about privacy?"
"Identities are as secret as you choose to have them. You'll be assigned a code name of course. Some of the team are open to the public with their alter egos. While others are private with the public but open among the group. It's completely your choice which way you go. In addition, Caleb has implemented various protocols to keep the team and those closest to us safe."
"That's good to know." It was good that they were protecting the members and their families, but that wasn't a concern for Mike. He didn't have anyone close enough to be concerned with keeping safe. Orphaned at nine, the Army was the only family he'd had for most of his life. Strong must have recalled that piece of information from his file because he leaned back in his chair, his voice taking on a more personal tone.
"I think it would be good for you to belong to a group again."
It was true that Mike missed the camaraderie of being part of a team after being reassigned from his original Army unit. He would like it if he could find another team to bond with. But he had a few more questions before he made his decision.
"Why did you form this group?"
"In general, because I've had a sense for some time that things are changing in St. Louis. More specifically, we had an incident two months ago, where one of the local superheroes almost lost his partner in a villain attack. I'd already decided that the heroes could serve the city more efficiently if we worked together, but that situation pushed me into getting the ball rolling."
"That makes sense," Mike agreed with a nod. "A team can always accomplish more and achieve better results than individuals working on their own."
"Who is your team leader?"
"We don't have one yet. I've been watching to see who is a good fit for leadership roles, but ultimately it will be up to the team to choose. I've also been feeling things out, rotating partners to see who works best with who. We have a meeting coming up where we'll solidify roles and address a few more housekeeping items."
"And does your team have any official government sponsored backing?"
"Officially? No. Especially not in St. Louis proper, where other parties have tightened their influence on local government."
"You don't take orders from any government arm?"
"No, we do not. We serve the people directly and that will always be our mission. Does that work for you?"
Mike nodded. "Yes, that works for me."
Strong smiled. "Another reason you'll be a good fit with us."
Mike thought so too. In fact, he was eager to join up but wanted to take some time to consider all the angles before giving Strong his answer. "I'll think about all of this and get back to you."
Strong rose and extended his hand and Mike followed suit. They shook hands, concluding their meeting.
Out in the main area, the room had cleared except for Caleb typing away at one of his computers, and the elegant tiger, who was still lounging in his chair. The man barely moved at Mike's appearance, other than a slight tilting of his head towards the now open office door. Still, Mike had the feeling that the other man had been waiting for him.
"It was nice to meet you both," he said in their direction.
Caleb looked up from his computer with a distracted smile. "I hope we see you back soon."
The tiger gave him a quick two fingered salute. "Bye, Beefcake."
Again, Mike ignored the beefcake comment. "You have a nice night."
DR. Z is available on Amazon and in Kindle Unlimited October 15, 2021. Sign up for my newsletter to receive notification when it’s released. And don’t forget to check out the Arch City Guardians page on my site for lots of fun superhero extras!
My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.