Read an Excerpt
To the Fifth Power
By Shirin Dubbin, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Shirin Dubbin
All rights reserved.
Twenty-one nights of insomnia only had one cure. All right, she'd confess she didn't deserve to sleep. Not with a past as low-down as hers. Not even as a retired superhero who'd saved more lives than she had cells in her body. Still, Zola craved a moment's peace, no matter which sins she had to commit for it. That's how she ended up at church. Nothing knocked her out quite like a sermon.
Forty-five minutes later she slipped into a pleasant comatose state on the moonlit roof of The Friends of Christ Worship Center, which she'd scaled thirty minutes prior. It'd been wise to hold on to her grappling-hook-augmented boots and gloves after leaving the superhero game.
The slim white capsules of her extenda earbuds proved more useful. Expanding into trumpet shapes within her ear canal, they made eavesdropping on the reverend easy. They also averted the disrespect of interrupting him in the sanctuary when her head inevitably lolled and struck a pew — sometimes hard enough to send a wooden knock echoing. Zola shifted on the gentle curve of the roofline. The scent of doughnuts laid out for after service added a second layer of comfort to her nap. Of course, as with everyone lately, the Good Reverend refused to allow her the rest she craved. His voice boomed through the rooftop, magnified by her earbuds.
"Many religious leaders will tell you superheroes are abominations. Usurpers of the rightful place of the Lord."
He had a habit of putting extra emphasis on his references to God. Lord became lawd and —
"But I'll tell you, church, what if gawd has sent these heroes to us as warrior angels."
Oh, God. Zola snapped awake.
"It's true their origins and the source of their powers are a mystery, but doesn't that make them miraculous? Do you hear me? What if the Almighty has sent us archangels and we've thrown his blessing back in his face?"
The church shouted their encouragement in the form of praise. The reverend chuckled and Zola could envision him mopping his brow with a deep purple handkerchief for dramatic effect. The tenor of his voice grew in vibrato.
"Y'all see what the world is like today. And I say pray for superheroes, church. Pray for their strength. Pray they be divinely guided." A pause before he continued, quiet and thoughtful. "And ask the Lord God for the Watcher's return."
And there it was. She switched the earbuds off. Everyone on planes, trains, and in church wanted her back in the superpowered bad-guy-busting business. No one seemed to respect the hell she'd been through or the void she fought daily to climb out of. They only cared that someone be there to catch them when they tumbled out of hundred-story buildings. It didn't matter to the public what their heroes sacrificed for the greater good as long as they did it with a smile, their capes flying patriotically.
"You're still using church as a sleeping pill?"
Who? Zola jerked and fell off the side of the building. Fort casually leaned over the ledge to watch her hang by one gloved hand. "Well done, you," he said, nodding.
He acted as though her reflexes had been sewn into her old costume and she'd left them behind like car keys. Zola sniffed and blanked her expression to hide the embarrassment of allowing him to sneak up on her.
"Move," she said, beginning to rock side to side until the momentum built into a swing, and the swing propelled her back onto the roof with a high jumper's arch. Fort stepped back, giving her the maneuvering room she needed. He bowed his head in deference to her silent landing.
He looked great. Always had. She hadn't forgotten that for a single day since they'd parted.
"I take it you need something." Zola dusted her hands on the backs of her thighs and gazed up. Her sight line hit Fort squarely in the chest. She craned her neck higher to catch the half smile curving his lower lip.
He deadpanned. "A hero. I'm looking out for a hero to the edge of the night."
"Holding and end."
"Holding out. End of the night."
"Ah." He pushed the dark fall of his hair back and adjusted his glasses. Fort somehow turned the symbol of nerdiness into a visual aphrodisiac — Spanish fly in the form of solid black frames. The man emanated hipster flair without the douchebaggery typical to the type. Zola wondered how many of his patients got well purely to make him happy. She hadn't, she told herself, but she supposed many did.
"What's he preaching tonight?" Fort leaned against the ledge and waited. Other than tensing his arms to support himself, he seemed at ease. Zola knew better. Not only had he come to see her despite the fact she'd made him uncomfortable, he also held his shoulders a little too high and tight. Something had gone wrong.
"The Good Reverend thinks superheroes are the new archangels," she answered.
"Innovative. Nothing about your return?"
"What do you need, Fort?"
He chuckled. Straightening to lift the strap of his messenger bag from its position across his chest, he let the weight fall to the rooftop. "Don't tell me folks have started praying for your return."
His smile warmed her in ways she didn't want to deal with. She turned away, giving him her back. Everything about him messed with her mind and she didn't like it.
The gesture of dismissal didn't stop him. He left the ledge and walked around to face her. "Maybe God is trying to tell you something."
"The Color Purple? Seriously? Are you going to toss quotes at me all night?"
His gaze swept her face. "Does it bother you that much or is it me you can't stand?"
"It's not your job to psychoanalyze me, Fort."
"Not anymore," he said, "but one wonders if you come to church to sleep or because it's the only place you feel safe."
Zola's expression turned inscrutable, if the bird-of-prey in her stare could be called that. Fort stilled, wondering if he'd pushed too hard too soon. For his plan to work he needed her to believe any bullshit he decided to shovel. If she pushed back and questioned why he'd sought her out, he'd have a tough time hiding what he needed to while revealing only what he wanted to.
When she spoke, her voice held the quiet rasp he remembered Watcher using on foes who'd needed a diaper change afterward.
"Do you want me to harm you?"
"No." He meant that.
"Your wits are no match for mine, Dr. Arturo Forté. Be kind enough to remember this."
"I will," he said in complete sincerity — at least in his effort to come out of this scheme unharmed.
There were patients at the asylum who could only be calmed by telling them Watcher planned to come by for an inspection. No one knew what she'd whispered to villains when she caught them, but most inmates didn't want to dance with her a second time. Those who did were certifiably insane. He knew, he'd diagnosed a few and they counted among the deadliest and more subversive mega-villains alive. He wondered where his subversion weighed on the scale. No doubt Zola would stamp his rank on his forehead. If she caught him.
In other circumstances, Fort might've feared Zola would crush him if he were a bad guy like his patients. He wasn't. So his reaction to her brand of intimidation ran a different path. He found her sexier than that curvy Latina actress he liked, in a red bikini serving up fry bread. Damn sexy.
"There's something I've been wondering for a while." Her face lost its predatory slant. "What nationality are you, Fort?"
He lifted his chin and gazed down at her. He knew her well enough to know she'd aimed the question at relaxing him, a setup for easy interrogation. Zola's almond smooth skin, gently dimpled chin, and the pixie cut to her hair implied a tenderness one shouldn't trust.
He wanted to touch her bad.
Fort thrust his arms behind him and captured his hands in an unyielding grip. His quick reaction stopped him from running a finger down the bridge of her nose and over her lips to sample the softness of that skin. He wasn't immune to the tender side of her, no matter how deeply she hid it, because he trusted her implicitly. Especially since she'd respected his request not to look into his background. Her word meant something to her and thus to him.
He allowed the pain of his grip and his super-heightened sensitivity to emotion to bring her inner turmoil into sharper focus. Her feelings were scraped raw from fighting against them for so long. He remembered how she'd splintered from a psychotic break a few years ago. Her heroic side, Watcher, had been sucked down into a pit of bleakest mourning and she'd named her post-breakdown state the Big Empty.
The person she'd become put on a good show, but she couldn't trick his power of empathy. Not that it mattered much. All these years he'd waited for a chance to make use of the pit inside her and tonight the opportunity had finally come.
He dropped his hands to his sides and smiled to keep Zola from guessing he had something to hide. Let her think he played coy to evade revealing more about his background. He couldn't change the plan now and he felt no guilt in having to manipulate her. He'd risk anything, even deceiving someone he cared for, in exchange for the life he wanted.
"Fort?" Zola said, piercing him with that assessing gray stare. "I didn't ask for your social security number."
He'd been silent too long. "Like you don't already have it." He coughed a short laugh. She shrugged and asked again, "What nationality are you?"
As much as he trusted Zola, as deeply as he knew her secrets, he'd never return the favor of sharing the dirt of his past with anyone. Besides, her questions always held ulterior motives and her sudden change of topic reeked of digging. "You want access to my head now?"
She arched a brow. Followed by, "An eye for an eye."
"I'm Canadian, but you know that," he answered. "Specifically I'm a little Italiano, a little Caribbean, and a lot Native."
"Plains Cree nation?"
"Mostly. You amaze me." Anyone could guess his Indian heritage by looking at him. Zola's keen eye saw the details. He liked that about her. Liked it a lot.
She actually smiled. It came with a huff, without a hint of teeth, but still managed to be adorable.
Zola's body language softened. One couldn't say she ever truly relaxed. Otherwise she wouldn't have had the awareness to catch herself from falling off the roof earlier.
"What do you need, Fort?"
He moistened his lower lip, faking chagrin. "I've got three escapees from the Arc."
She covered her mouth with a finger, pausing before she dropped it. "Archesis Institute can't seem to hold on to its inmates, can you?" She stepped over to the ledge, with arms crossed, and looked out over the city. "Perhaps you should try the reverse and see if villains can get in. You've certainly proven they can get out."
Fort took the dig as due. Zola told the truth to a fault. "I work hard to run the Arc. It's not easy what we do there."
She glanced at him over her shoulder. "No, it's not. And I'm grateful to you. Too many heroes have no one to talk to. Too many citizens believe death sentences are the solution."
A shadow of hurt haunted her expression, then dissipated. Zola didn't like to watch anything die. Fort knew it well. But that didn't mean it wouldn't happen again.
Her hidden pain reached out to his empathic ability and ensnarled him. The force dragged him back through his memories; to the night Zola became his patient.
House calls hadn't been common in super-powered psychiatric care at that time. Of course no one said no to America's hero, Justice. Especially not when he flew through your bedroom window, took out most of the wall, and deposited his best friend in your bed, then roared, "Fix her."
That night, Quickstep had joined them with such velocity he'd taken the color off Fort's walls. The speedster had slowed only when he could lay hands on his teammate and friend, Zola.
Three years hadn't faded the images. Fort remembered half sliding, half falling out of bed and fumbling around the floor for his boxers. He'd yanked on a pair, and with some semblance of dignity in place, his mind had begun to process the scene.
The congealed blood spattering Watcher's costume hadn't concerned him as much as what he saw when her two teammates pulled off her owlish cowl. He'd been struck by how desperate Justice and Quickstep must have been to trust him with her secret identity. He'd learned they had good reason.
Zola's physical wounds had amounted to a cut lip and facial abrasions, but her eyes had been empty, staring inward into nothingness. He'd reached out with his ability to probe the broken parts of her psyche and found a ... lack ... so profound he'd staggered back. Later, in therapy, she'd introduced him to her void, "the Big Empty." No better name for it.
Fort eased out of the memory. He disliked thinking of Zola as broken, but he'd never allow himself to forget it.
Taking slow steps, he moved to stand beside her at the ledge and followed her gaze. Night in the city.
Argopolis gleamed in the moonlight. The sleek skyscrapers cutting the sky, the dingy slums, wealth and poverty, art and ignorance, the fear of sudden catastrophe, the safety of faith in heroes — balanced perfectly so none could be taken for granted. Fort wished he'd been born here. Like her.
Zola shook her head. "Seems you should petition Justice or Quickstep for help with your escapees."
"Justice said you 'can handle yourself.' And this problem applies more specifically to you."
Surprise. He'd rarely seen her taken by it. "Each of my three runaways are obsessed with you."
"Me, Zola Noite?" She looked at him, curiosity in the set of her jaw.
"Yes, they figured it out. They know your true identity and they know you're the Watcher."
"Were. I don't save the day anymore."
"That, too. They're coming for you."
Zola's humorless laughter caught the wind and spun out into the night. "Of course they are."
Fort nodded. "I want us to catch them when they do."
"Of course you do. Justice and the Society of Superheroes already said no."CHAPTER 2
They took the stairs down and exited the vestibule the way Fort had come. As she pushed through the heavy oak double doors, Zola looked back to find he'd grabbed a doughnut on the way out. She gave him her blank face.
"What?" he said, demolishing the treat.
"You didn't think to get one for me?"
A trace of smile. "And put you through the labor of eating?"
Zola turned away and jogged down the steps. She supposed she shouldn't give him too much credit for having listened to her during their sessions — he was her psychologist after all — and yet him knowing her so well felt good.
His legs rippled with muscle as he took two long strides and stepped onto the sidewalk. A bright flag of fabric draped over one of the charity boxes bookending the Worship Center's entrance caught his attention. "How cute is that?" he said, pointing to the neon purple fleece.
They didn't have time for cute.
The engine of Zola's 1968 Camaro SS came to life as the sensor picked up her proximity. She'd parallel parked under a streetlight a few paces away from the church. The doors unlocked by remote and she motioned Fort to climb inside. He obliged her, his hand running along the reflective midnight blue of the car's carriage as he made his way. Everything he did held a sensual edge. She licked her bottom lip. Or maybe she'd managed to use the relatively superficial drive of attraction to deflect other, more meaningful emotions. She shook her head to turn off her keen ability for assessment. She'd stick with sensual. It was safer.
Once he'd gotten in, adjusting the seat to accommodate his six-foot-seven-inch frame, he settled himself and closed the door.
Alone on the quiet street, a stab of fear ripped through Zola's chest. She went boneless, leaning against the hardtop of her car for support. After a low exhale she forced subsequent breaths in through her nose and out of her mouth. Rolling her head side to side, she allowed the cool metal to soothe her flushed skin. She didn't want to go back to saving the day. She didn't have the strength.
Every week, the Society of Superheroes sent her two dozen bags of mail from all over the world, mostly from fans begging Watcher to come back. She read the letters from midnight to dawn each night. Having something to do took the edge off her insomnia. Irony there. Sleep taunted her, dangled just out of reach, because she'd failed at being a superhero. Yet only letters asking her to don the cowl again got her through the night. She would've laughed if she could breathe.
Excerpted from To the Fifth Power by Shirin Dubbin, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2013 Shirin Dubbin. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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