the dept.

For the next few weeks, for those that follow (and event those that don’t) I’m going to be posting excerpts from my big magnum opus novel “the dept.: creation myths.” It’s a sprawling tale of superheroes, fugitive Nazis, atomic secrets, undead armies and Hitler’s disembodied brain set in the mid 20th century and will serve as the prequel to the modern-day series that started with “The Villain’s Sidekick.” Here’s the first blob of it, in which me meet the original supersoldier, General Public. Please to enjoy!

GENERAL PUBLIC

Chicago, Illinois November 1956

General Public stood on the steps of the Holy Name Cathedral, trying his best to look both menacing and reassuring, a near-impossible facial task to accomplish under the low-brim of his silver helmet and the domino mask over his eyes. Before him were throngs of clergy, nuns and their devout supporters. They were currently demonstrating for unionization. The Brotherhood of Catholic Priests Local 3:16 or something. The General wasn’t really sure of all the issues. Despite his supersoldier status and his public image as the living embodiment of the American fighting ideal, politics weren’t really his thing. But between the Vatican strikebreakers, the Teamsters, and the more radicalized nuns, things were threatening to get ugly in a hurry, and the General was on hand to keep the peace. He hoped against hope that his mere presence would be enough; his back hurt like hell and his bum knee had been giving him trouble ever since the weather started to cool.

Folk tales and hero worship aside, General Public, aka Brock Stone, took a serious beating doing his part for the war effort. After all, it was hard work being not only a symbol, but a guy who was expected to more or less perform as a one-man army, or at the very least a one-man platoon, especially if you had no superpowers to speak of. Oh, sure, the government made a big deal about the so-called “Project Olympus,” trotting Brock out in his impressively gaudy costume and making all sorts of claims to irradiation, liquid hydrogen infusions, and animal hybridization, but the fact was, Brock was just an incredibly fit, well-bred, and highly trained specimen of ordinary manhood. Never mind the fact that he was just north of forty when he was recruited to lead the all-American super-squad to allied victory, and hadn’t spent a minute in uniform since he’d been discharged from service during World War I for being fifteen at his time of enlistment.

Now here he was, in steel-blue and silver, medals decorating his broad chest like Christmas ornaments, .45 on one hip, saber on the other, grenades and ammo on his crossbelts, birth name secure behind a tiny strip of black cloth over his eyes, staring down a bunch of angry priests and their righteously indignant flocks, who were striking for a cut of the collection plate, higher quality wine, and fewer midnight masses, as near as he could figure. He found himself wondering if all those sermons preaching tolerance and compassion would hold sway in these circumstances, or if a bunch of men who had willingly chosen to deny themselves sex for the remainder of their lives would find their emotions overwhelmed by the lesser angels of their nature.

Then the chanting started. Demonstrators. Always with the chanting.

“We want raises to sing his praises!”

“If you want last rites give us our rights!”

Not bad, as angry chanting went. Maybe not as clever as the anarchists, but infinitely more poetic.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, we don’t want to work past seven!”

Okay, that one was pretty lame. But more heated.

“Fathers, brothers, sisters, everyone, please, calm down!” General Public shouted in his best authoritarian timbre. In spite of his name, public speaking really wasn’t his thing.

“Who asked you to come?” asked a priest near the front, possibly the ringleader, voice hoarse from long hours shouting to be heard by the Archdiocese in the morning chill. “This is an issue of the church, not the state!”

“Archbishop Stritch himself!” Public replied.

“Where the Hell is he then?” the priest wanted to know.

“He’s assured me that he’ll address all of your issues, once you’ve placed a formal request with the…”

Something hit him in the chest. A can of beans maybe, or a chunk of lead pipe. Whatever it was, it hurt, but years of perfectly honed reflexes kept him from letting the crowd see that. And his keenly sensitive nerve endings told him that the bruise was already forming, even beneath the armor. Damned senso-enhancers, making sure nothing got past him, not even the pain. Especially not the pain.

“That wasn’t very Christian of you,” General Public said calmly but firmly, doing his best to keep things light.

Something else hit him, on the side of his face, a wet slap of soft, spongy matter, hopefully food, maybe something worse.

“Turn the other cheek then!”

“Let he who is without sin…” Public began.

And then came the barrage, a sudden incoming flurry of objects small and large, hard and soft, sharp and blunt, rank and perfumed. And General Public lost his cool.

He dove from the top of the steps, headlong into the collared and habited crowd, and was met with a rain of fists and shoe heels, the weak, ineffectual blows of angry men and women with little real fighting spirit, and zero training. They were no match for his speed and agility, however diminished by age and injury, and between their pained cries were genuine gasps of astonishment at the brutal fact of his own battle-hardened fists and the savage kick of his steel-tooled army boots as he brought down an earthly taste of the torments of Hell on the insurrectionists. He hadn’t doled out this kind of punishment to a practicing Catholic since his mano a mano tussle with Pope Ignatius IX, the Gangster Pope, in Vatican Square during the fall of fascist Italy.

His pistol and sword remained safely sheathed, at least for the first several minutes. The angry onslaught, threatening to overwhelm him through sheer numbers, began to diminish as priest, nun and supporter fell to his might; soon, he’d have them on the run. But even as he landed blow after blow, he felt hands scrabbling at his utility pouches, scabbard and holster, and pretty soon a pair of hands came up clutching his nickel-plated .45, firing wildly and taking out a Benedictine monk and Father Chadwick from the South Side Parish. A nun had his gun. Without thinking, he snatched out with one hand and broke both her wrists as he wrested the pistol back into his own possession.

This was not going to look good in the papers.

“The door, it’s unguarded!” someone shouted, and there was an eternal microsecond of hesitation before the mad crush of pious protestors swarmed the steps. They didn’t get far.

The doors to Holy Name burst open and Public wasn’t entirely sure what poured out. Were they Chicago cops, Vatican-sent security forces, or a private army hired by the Archdiocese? Maybe they were all bishops and cardinals under that heavy steel armor, peering out from the eye-slits at their own people as they formed a tight line and marched forward, down the steps, firing through small weapons ports into the crowd. It was like the famous scene in that old Russian movie, as enacted by a battalion of clanking robots. The General even had a panicky moment where he had to make sure there was no baby carriage rolling down the steps. Thank God for celibacy.

It was pure pandemonium, and for the first time he could remember, in an all-out melee situation, General Public had no idea what to do. Just a moment ago, he’d been busting jaws and flattening noses out in the crowd, and now he felt more inclined to protect them and take down these armor-wearing goons, no matter their affiliation. But was he any match for them? He couldn’t be sure; he wasn’t currently sure of anything. Truth be told, he was terrified, and when something exploded just a few feet away it didn’t help matters one bit. He had to do something; he had to move. But where? At what? Against whom? Nothing made sense, and he was literally petrified, frozen in place, hearing the screams from dozens of battles, hundreds of secret missions, thousands of men dying for the cause in far-flung corners of the world. He remained that way, stuck between the gun-toting thugs and the now-helpless lambs of God, until a chunk of brick or something thudded against his helmet, literally ringing his bell, and he suddenly knew what to do.

He threw off the helmet, dropped it really, not wanting to hurt anyone, no longer interested in fighting back. He unhooked the utility and cross-belts, tore off the mask, hunched his shoulders and slunk into the crowd, away from the bullets, away from the madness, away from the rage and the pain and the fear, running now, through the wintry streets, stripping off bits and pieces of his living fiction, leaving it all behind.

By the time he reached Lakeshore, he was down to his skivvies. The biting wind off the water felt like a baptism.

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