Heart of Gold – Chapter 1

I thought you all might want to take a look at Heart of Gold. The first chapter of the Urban fantasy novel by J.B. Garner & myself.

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Chapter 1

My name is Frank Butcher and when my mother looks up ‘underachiever’ in the dictionary, I swear she sees my picture. I’m not sure that’s quite fair since I was in the military. Sure, I work as a delivery boy for APD (That’s American Parcel Delivery) now, but that was after I fought for my country.

At the time, it offered me the cash to pursue my true passions: music and movies. Well, listening and watching them anyway. I mean, okay, technically you’re not supposed to watch movies while driving around on the clock, but who’s gonna know?

Besides, I look damned handsome in those green shorts.

And this good-looking SOB was about to do his favorite delivery of the day. The last delivery.

Sure, I was a bit late when I approached Doctor Gabriela Perez’s oncology (that’s the ten-dollar word for ‘cancer medicine’) clinic, but it was summer, and I’d spent the whole day sweating through deliveries. To top it off, I’d stopped to help an old lady with her breakdown on the interstate. No big deal, just a stall-out caused by some corroded battery contacts. Anyone could have handled that, right? Anyway, the ladies at the Doc’s office could cut me some slack. If they didn’t, well, happy hour was only a few minutes away.

This particular package looked like someone who shall remain nameless had drop kicked it into the truck, which was fine. If it was expensive, it’d be insured. Either way, it wasn’t my problem. It was just a hop, skip, and jump up the steps to the front door, which was good because it was hot and Inigo Montoya was about to avenge his father.

As I stepped up to the reception desk, the late afternoon sun streamed through the glass doors behind me. The front room was packed, which was pretty much the case every day I stopped by.

The Doc’s practice was one of the most successful on the West Coast, and I don’t mean in the ‘raking in the cash’ sort of way. She had the highest success rate on cancer treatment around. I wasn’t sure what she did exactly, but it was interesting enough to have made the news a time or two, not that the Doc ever rubbed it in anyone’s face. Yessir, the Doc was a real Mother Teresa type.

Cutting through the crowd, I made my way to the front desk and leaned across it. “Afternoon, Kit.” I smiled at the middle-aged receptionist wearing a simple grey cardigan with a cat shaped button above her left breast.

“Frank.” She nodded her frizzy head at me while taking in my tanned face and manly cleft chin before returning to her jumble of paperwork. “You’re late.”

“Hey, I got here, right?” I said, placing the package on the edge of her desk and flashing her my most conciliatory smile. Like always, she completely ignored it. You might say she’d been to this particular rodeo before. “Any pickups today?”

Kit rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. “I think so. Give me a second. I’m a bit overwhelmed here!” As if on cue, a guy with a massive bald spot dumped a clipboard full of forms onto the desk next to me and walked off without a word. Kit shot an angry glare at the guy’s back before turning her attention back to me. “Besides, you made me wait. Now you can wait.”

I turned, leaning against the desk and scanned the waiting room while trying to ignore the sea of sick and worried filling the chairs in front of me. “Good thing you guys are last on my route. Otherwise I’d just have to leave. We’re not allowed to wait, you know. Regulations.” I wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but I was betting Kit didn’t know either. I hated waiting here. It stirred up way too many feelings. None of them good.

I shut my eyes, trying to picture something more interesting, like the triple beef burrito I’d had for lunch. Well, the half of it I ate, anyway. Half had gone to Pablo, one of the rugrats who lived on the corner. Kid’s only got his mom, and she has trouble making ends meet sometimes. Still, that’d been a couple hours ago, and my belly was already starting to rumble. Those half price hot wings couldn’t get in my stomach fast enough.

The loud rap of a clipboard on the Bakelite counter snapped me back to reality. “Mr. Butcher, please don’t fall asleep in my waiting room again,” the Doc said in her clear, concise, “I will gut you with my scalpel” tone of voice. “Last time, you fell over on Mrs. Guterres!”

“Sorry, Doc,” I said through a muffled yawn. Normally, the Doc was a lot nicer than this. Maybe I was finally wearing thin on her. I was good at that. Better be a good boy for a bit. “Won’t happen again.”

I turned to my right and nearly forgot how to speak. It happened every time I saw the Doc, because, frankly, Dr. Gabriela Perez was the highlight of my day. Dark skin, sharp green eyes, real easy to look at despite the conservative slacks, blouses, and doctor’s coats.

Not that I had any real romantic aspirations. Sure, I could charm her (I was a handsome devil, after all), but I respected her too much to try. She was both smart and dedicated, and judging by the patients I saw here every day, I was pretty sure the Doc wasn’t making any money here. Bring me your poor, your huddled masses, real “Statue of Liberty” shit. A real class act, I’m telling you.

“Long day?” she asked, and I got the impression she might actually be curious about what I did all day. I couldn’t tell her, and not just because I spent eighty percent of my time goofing off. No, as my manager had once told me over a particularly revealing beer, talking about the inner workings of the APD would kill the mystique.

“Well, we working men work, uh, hard.” That didn’t come out right. “Uh, anyway, Doc, pickups?”

“Here you go.” She unceremoniously shoved a small pile of boxes into my waiting arms. “Some of these things are extremely time-sensitive, Mr. Butcher. Would it be possible to maybe get them back in time for them to get sent out sometime today?” She flashed me a smile that made my heart beat so hard she must have heard it. “Please?”

I took a long hard look at the Doc. If I agreed to help her out, those hot wings would have to wait. Still, I was pretty fond of the Doc, and it wasn’t like she’d ever asked me to do this before. Besides, the other regulars would hold my place at the bar if I was a little late. Man, was I ever a sucker for a pretty face.

“You got it, Doc.” I winked. “Frank Butcher, delivery boy extraordinaire, is on the case.” I warded off the frown spreading across her face with what I hoped was a genuine-looking smile. “Seriously, Dr. Perez, I won’t screw this one up. I’ve got a super-secret route back to the office that will get me there well before closing.” I cocked a cheeky grin at her. “I’ll tell you about it over dinner sometime.”

The Doc’s frown quirked into a nervous smile. “All right, Frank, thank–” her voice seemed to trail off as her eyes looked past me “–you.” I should have caught on quicker. I’d been trained for this sort of thing, after all, but my head was still stuck up my ass. That head would have been taken off if not for Gabriela throwing us both to the ground.

The flash of heat and light almost blinded me outright as a fireball blew debris and broken glass across the room. I’d seen a surprising amount of explosions in my thirty-some-odd years, but this one was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. My head smacked the tile floor with a wet crack, and a cry of pain tore from my lips as the Doc pushed herself off of me and looked around, eyes narrow and angry.

“Kit, the wards are down!” Gabriela commanded, her kindly inflections gone, her voice loud over the strange chants and the echoes of gunfire. “Get everybody out of here and call the White!”

“What the hell is going on?” I tried to ignore my wooziness and pushed up to my elbows. The floor beneath me vibrated with a deep shudder that accompanied breaching charges on the front wall. As the front wall crumbled to ash in a whirlwind of smoke, I found myself staring at the sunlight streaming into the room. The explosion should have thrown more debris across the lobby, but it hadn’t. Why?

Even through the growing cloud of dust and debris, I could see the Doc’s arms and fingers dancing through the air. Somehow, the entire building was more or less intact, and even more amazingly, while a few people looked battered and bleeding, only a couple people had been killed.

It was crazy because I’d been around explosions before and usually they rendered people into puddles. No, even though the windows and doors had been blown out, spraying broken glass and debris across the floor, there should have been more death and destruction. Sure, there was even a chair embedded in the far wall, but the rest of the furniture had fallen to the ground in front of most patrons like it’d hit an invisible wall.

I wasn’t sure how most everyone had survived with so little damage, but I was pretty sure it had to do with whatever the Doc was doing. I just wasn’t sure how she was doing it.

“Doc, what’s going on?” I asked as my heart thudded in my chest and my old instinct came surging forward. Cover. I had to find cover.

“You’re not involved, Frank, so you’re safe. Just keep down and get out through the back.” She said, glancing at me as I turned toward her in confusion. “Please.”

At the time, I was sure it was the ringing in my skull that added the glowing trails from her fingers as she spoke. Purple sparks from what had to be some crazy new munitions leapt from the counter beside us as bullets pinged off its surface. I ducked away, fearing ricochets, but thankfully none hit me.

The thing about the military is they ingrain in you the importance of keeping your head down and following orders. Taking that to heart, I slid myself out of the immediate line of fire. Guys who looked like a combination of fantasy cosplayers and survivalist nut jobs flooded through the ravaged opening in the hospital. They ignored the bleeding and wounded patrons as they moved to secure the room with military-like precision.

Black hooded tunics, fatigues, and an unhealthy amount of guns seemed universal, though the sizes and shapes under all that black were very different. Whoever they were, they didn’t seem to give two shits about the fact their initial volley had injured more than a few innocent cancer patients just minding their own business and blown the hospital waiting room to smithereens.

Sure, I’d seen crazy things during my time in the service, things I’d wished hadn’t happen, but that had been in a battlefield, not in a cancer hospital in the good old US of A. I wasn’t sure what their deal was, but I didn’t care either. It was time someone taught them a lesson.

As I found cover behind the counter, the Doc shouted something in what sounded like Latin while the rest of the people in the waiting room made a blind rush deeper into the clinic.

Another burst of gunfire seemed oddly muffled as if there was suddenly a foot of padded walls between us and them. My first instinct was to follow after everyone else. That’s what the Doc wanted me to do, and she seemed to have half a clue as to what was going on. Besides, I couldn’t afford to take a bullet for some lady I barely knew when I had my mom at home to worry about. There was one big problem though, a problem that made me curse what a damned idiot I was.

You see, at the end of the day, I’m not a guy who cuts and runs, not on people worth a damn. Now I know what you must be saying, “Frank, you may be the manliest and most handsome delivery man to ever grace a APD truck, but you sure as hell aren’t a hero. You aren’t the guy who runs toward the burning building. You sound like the guy who stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks away.” Well, you’d be right, I’m a lot of things, but one of them is definitely not that kind of hero.

Most folks will say a hero is the guy who runs toward the fire. Well, they’re idiots. Guys who run toward fires just want to see shit burn. The real hero is the guy who walks straight into where some lady is getting mugged, and just can’t walk away. Sure, that guy gets stabbed, but at least the lady is okay, right?

Me, I’m the guy who couldn’t walk away from a doctor who had the guts to stand her ground in order to give her patients and some piece-of-crap jerk who was always late with his deliveries a chance to get away. If you want to call me a hero for that, feel free. Or don’t. After all, heroes don’t wear green shorts.

So yeah, I popped back up, wishing I hadn’t left my pistol in my gun safe at home that morning. Then again, it was probably better that way since being a G.I. couldn’t have prepared me for what I saw.

A half-dome of force extended to the back wall of reception sprang forth from Gabriela’s outstretched hand, forming a translucent, glowing barrier that wavered in the air like a soap bubble. Bullets and honest-to-God fireballs bounced off of it like it was the shield on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Sweat poured down the Doc’s face, and while I wasn’t sure how she was doing what she was doing, it was obvious whatever juice she was running on was fading fast.

The black robes continued pouring lead into the shield, causing concentric circles of color to flow outward from the impact points while others chanted more fantasy mumbo-jumbo and waved their hands, conjuring balls of fire and light from thin air before hurling them at the glowing wall.

Two big dudes lumbered up from the back, each one as tall and wide as a pro-linebacker. Their black robes strained under the force of their muscles as they moved. That would’ve been manageable, but the real kicker was their heads. Now that their hoods and masks had been torn away. I saw them for what they were. Monsters.

One had the head of a bull complete with horns, flaring nostrils, and huge crimson eyes. The other’s head looked like Clayface from Batman, you know, if Clayface was the color of blood had some strange geometric symbols engraved on his forehead.

There’s a point where you push from stressed to mental shock and straight on through to crazy fight-or-flight, no-fucks-given mode, and thanks to all the crazy shit going on in front of my eyes, I was right fucking there. As the clay guy effortlessly shoved his hands through the Doc’s magic dome and peeled it apart like tissue paper, the entire room shrieked with a sound like nails on a chalkboard. Thankfully, most everyone was gone so it was just pretty much the Doc and me now. It made me glad I didn’t have to worry about getting any cancer patients past the minotaur and his clay-faced friend.

The Doc let out a small cry, stumbled back half a step, and glared at the monster. Another surge of light pulsed from her hands as the walking side of beef barreled through her shield like it was a soap bubble. Well, time for plan B. Get the fuck out of here.

I leaned over the counter and grabbed Dr. Gabriela Perez under both arms and managed to heave us both to the relative safety behind the sturdy counter. It was harder than it should have been, and I secretly promised any and all deities that if I survived this, I would stop skipping workouts and start skipping Taco Tuesdays instead.

“I’ve got you, Doc!” I tried not to sound too strained or out of breath, but it was hard.

“Frank, what are you doing?” She didn’t sound very appreciative of me saving her life. “I told you to run! Let me go so I can –”

I pulled us up from a crouch, ready to push us both into the clinic, my back to the front. “Thank me later and run!”

In hindsight, if I could do it all over again, I’d have let her arms go, let her do whatever mojo she’d been about to do. Instead, I carried through with my plan and pushed off, shielding her with my body.

Before we managed two steps, a big hand that smelled distinctly like musty fur and repressed rage clamped over my head and yanked me backward. As its fingers crushed my skull like it was made of eggshell, agony exploded inside my brain.

The Minotaur snorted derisively and threw me through the air like a sack of dirty laundry. As I smacked into the side wall and slid down in the most macho way possible, my vision went blurry, and I flopped onto the tile broken and bleeding.

Another ball of flame slammed into the wall not two feet from where I was crumpled into a heap. My bones shrieked in pain as I instinctively covered my head with my hands. Another wave of heat and sound crashed over me, and as I tried to cringe away from it, the only thought running through my brain was that I should have called in sick to work that day.

The Doc’s cry rippled through the room, and even though I could barely move, I tried to push myself toward that sound. I mean, I’m no hero, but how could I ignore that? I forced away the darkness encroaching on my vision and flopped forward on the tile in a desperate attempt to try to drag myself over to her. I wasn’t on my feet yet, but I’d solve that problem when I got to the two monsters. Then I’d give them a piece of my mind.

“Frank, watch out!” the Doc shouted, and I could just barely make out her gesturing to my left. I turned my head just in time to see a fizzy ball of golden doom explode. The blast threw me backward in a hail of agony, fire, and blood. Darkness encroached upon my vision so quickly that by the time my head thumped wetly onto the tile, I didn’t even feel it.

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