We’re delighted to present the first of three special previews of award-winning writer Rik Hoskin’s latest novel, Bystander 27, a thriller set in a world where superheroes are real …
Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot, goes on sale on 11th August 2020, available from all good bookshops – and you can order it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) – and read on for a chance to win a copy, too!
Everything changed when Hayes’ wife died. He was waiting for her on the corner of Sixth and West 24th Street, close to Madison Square Park, and she was late. That was Melanie all over, late could have been her maiden name and marriage hadn’t changed her one iota.
There was the other late, too, the one that had been good news for her and for Hayes and the reason they were meeting here today.
“Quo,” she had said one night over dinner, “I’m late.”
Hayes had looked up from the pasta he was working around the plate with his fork, a frown materializing on his forehead.
“Late,” Melanie had replied. “Late-late.”
He looked at her, trying to make sense of the words she was saying, as her brown eyes the color of Turkish coffee looked hopefully into his. She looked beautiful then, more beautiful even than the day they had got married, eight weeks after he had got his discharge from the service.
“You mean… we’re going to be… a mommy?” he said it, knowing the words were jumbled and wrong, knowing she would laugh.
Except Melanie didn’t laugh, she smiled. She smiled a smile that engraved itself on his heart in that moment, and he realized that they were both going to be parents. “Yes, Quo,” she said, nodding. “Isn’t it… perfect?”
“It is,” Hayes had replied, and he had reached across the table for her hand, leaned forward and kissed her. She had tasted of pre-packed pasta and sauce from a jar, and of their future.
That had been seven months ago, and now Melanie was in her third trimester, her belly distinctly ballooning, and they were meeting with her gyno in a clinic off Sixth Avenue to make sure everything was going okay. And she was late.
Melanie Hayes, nee Monroe, had graduated in social sciences from Columbia and gone into advertising. Hayes had met her in her final year at an employers’ fair, he there to represent the US Navy, she dressed for a party along with a gaggle of her friends, none of whom had any intention of signing up. But they had got talking somehow, an attraction flitting between them like a spark trying to catch fire, and when her friends sauntered off to check out the jobs in fashion and media and computers – shooting Warrant Officer Jon Hayes those judgmental looks that students have for “warmongers” as they went – Melanie had stayed.
“Do you swim?” she had asked, running a hand self-consciously through her long, dark hair.
“Yes, ma’am,” Hayes had replied with the unambiguous abruptness of the Navy.
“I mean, privately,” Melanie said. “You know – for fun.”
Hayes had smiled, thinking of how he and his school friends used to sneak into McGinty’s pool not so very long ago. “Yeah, whenever I can.”
“My parents have a pool,” Melanie said. “I mean, we do. I live with them.” She had cursed then, a rising blush turning her pale cheeks pink.
“Where is that?” Hayes had asked.
“Jersey,” Melanie replied, pulling a face that made Hayes laugh.
They had spoken more, exchanged numbers, and when he was on leave they had met up and found that they enjoyed more than just swimming together.
Now, Jon Hayes was thirty-two and Melanie was twenty-nine, and they were about to have their first child. And Melanie was late.
Hayes checked his wristwatch. 11.07. They had arranged to meet here at 11, so that they could walk together to the clinic for the 11.15 appointment, and not have to rush.
Standing at the street corner, his back to a wall, away from the sidewalk traffic, Hayes withdrew the phone from his pocket and checked its suddenly illuminated screen. There were no messages. He could call her, but he knew Melanie, knew it would not make her any faster.
Hayes had served in the Navy for eleven years before his honorable discharge. He had done two tours of Afghanistan and chased all over South America in the name of Uncle Sam. The Navy had made sure he was always on time, and it was a habit that his civilian life was never going to break. Normal life was paced differently, but he would always be that guy who turned up ten minutes early, shoes shined and pants pressed. He prided himself on it.
Melanie still approached life the way she had at uni, sleeping in at the weekends while Hayes was jogging the streets or on the treadmill in winter, arriving for the movie after the trailers had finished, catching the train as its doors played their closing serenade of beeps. In anyone else it would have driven Hayes mad, but Melanie was Melanie, and he loved her for it.
He was still looking at his phone, its screen going dark, when he heard the explosion. He turned, along with everyone else on the block, and tried to locate the source of the noise.
For a moment there was nothing. And then, between towering skyscrapers two blocks away, a distant figure cut through the sky trailed by a familiar streak of light.
Excitement and fear ran through the crowd as they recognized the flying figure. Dressed in white with gold accents at the cuffs and matching boots, the flying man was Captain Light, hero and savior, protector of planet Earth. For a moment, Captain Light seemed to just hover in the air, forty stories above the street, while the trail he had left in his wake dissipated, stars fluttering away like smoke.
The crowd was jazzed.
“It’s Captain Light!”
“I love him so much!”
People adored Captain Light. Everyone knew his story. He had begun life as an ordinary scientist whose experiments with an energy reactor had ended in the freak accident that had granted him fantastic powers. Now he could utilize the properties of the spectrum in ingenious ways.
Captain Light hovered above the street for a few seconds, watching something that was hidden from Hayes’ view by a skyscraper to the left. A news copter came lurching inelegantly into view in the distance, eating up the space to capture footage of the scene that would already be playing out live on rolling news channels.
Captain Light watched the unseen something for a moment. Then, with a spectrum trail of brilliance, the hero dipped down in a graceful arc like an Olympic high diver, trailed as ever by that brilliant streak of luminous propulsion. An instant later, he had disappeared behind the towering structure to the right, accompanied by the distant, muffled whoosh of displaced air.
“What do you think it is?” a woman in the crowd asked. She wore a headscarf and shades, like a fifties movie star.
“Whatever it is,” a heavyset, dark-skinned man with streaks of grey at his temples replied, “I hope Captain Light kicks its butt.”
Hayes hoped so too. He had seen things overseas he wanted to forget, extremism fuelled into hatred that had taken on a bloody and brutal physicality. But heroes like Captain Light dealt with something entirely different. They fought threats from the cosmos, or from other dimensions, or the kind of batty craziness that demented geniuses dreamed up in their lairs – which is to say they dealt with the kind of deranged bastards who had lairs to begin with.
Hayes had seen one of them before, a hero called the Hunter who worked under the cover of night and used a specially-adapted crossbow to topple his enemies. He had been picking up drive-thru at the time, and as he pulled away the Hunter had landed on the roof of his car with a sound like clashing cymbals, before leaping away into the night after his prey. Hayes hadn’t even seen who the Hunter was chasing, it had been so quick.
Another time, he had emerged from the subway to find the office block he was supposed to visit had been totaled a quarter hour earlier by Doctor Decay. The building and its occupants had been reduced to dust that caught in the wind. People were coughing and choking on it, people’s lives reduced to so much debris.
Hayes was a spectator now, watching the brilliant trail that Captain Light left in his wake, trying to figure where he was headed, when something else came around the edge of the far skyscraper. It was big and dark and moving, like an oil slick on the sky. The crowd watched as that dark cloud condensed into a figure, dressed in black with a dark green cloak swirling like mist around her supple form – the Jade Shade.
The news chopper swayed overhead, lining up its shot as Captain Light reappeared from behind the far skyscraper, fists forward, speeding up, powering towards the Jade Shade like a missile. From his mouth he emitted a beam of brilliance, gold but tinged with all the colors of the spectrum – his so-called spectral scream. From this far away, the scream was barely audible, its sound like the buzz of a fluorescent light bulb. The Jade Shade seemed to shudder in the air as the scream burst struck her, and her demonic cloak lost integrity for an instant, its edges fraying outwards in wispy, powdery trails.
And that’s when Hayes saw Melanie turn the corner. She was scared, head partway turned back to watch the incredible scene above her. She was just one member of a crowd of terrified civilians running for their lives from the battle playing out overhead. Seven months pregnant, she ran with all the grace of a water balloon.
“Shit!” Hayes hissed, and he began to push his way through the crowd towards Melanie.
She was a block away, running scared. But she saw Hayes, raised her hand to wave, shouting something that was lost to a loud howl that suddenly ripped through the air. Hayes recognized that sound. It was the noise a helicopter engine made when it was in distress, a descending whine like a moping dog. Back in Afghanistan, Hayes had seen a friendly chopper get hit by an anti-aircraft missile, and it had made just that same canine howl before striking the ground in a fireball. Eight people had died.
What happened next, happened fast. People were panicking, running in all directions, scattering for cover. Melanie was caught up in a crowd, some of whom ran straight into traffic. Car horns blared, a truck’s air brakes hissed loud as it fishtailed across the street.
Then the news chopper appeared from behind a building. Its angle was all wrong, nose pointed almost directly towards the ground, but still fifty stories up. The chopper was surrounded by tendrils of Jade Shade’s black mist.
Captain Light’s indignant holler carried a whole block as he launched himself at the Jade Shade, but his spectral scream dissipated as she threw up a shield of inky haze that seemed to knock him from the sky.
Then, suddenly, the chopper began picking up speed as it was tossed straight towards the Captain like a spear. Captain Light was knocked from the air as it struck him, hurtling away like a rag doll as the chopper continued its deadly descent.
“Run!” Hayes screamed, seeing the helicopter arrow down towards the crowds ahead of him. He was sprinting towards the diving chopper, towards Melanie. It was automatic for him. SEALs ran towards danger, never away.
Melanie was still running when the chopper hit the street. Its starboard ski cut through her chest and abdomen in a sudden, gruesome explosion of blood and flesh and bone, before flattening a yellow cab like it was made of tapioca. The impact was so hard that it shook the street for a block in all directions. Hayes felt it, his legs still pumping, hours on the treadmill and pounding the streets around their house ultimately giving him no more time to reach her than if he had been standing still. Screaming came from everywhere at once, a chorus of shock rising to illustrate the scene.
Above, Captain Light and the Jade Shade were exchanging blows, light against dark. One side of an office block exploded into glass shards as the villainess went caroming into it, but Light was at the scene in an instant, propping up the roof while the floor was swiftly evacuated. Shade dove for the hero, bringing the full fury of her tesseract cloak to bear.
Captain Light stood staunchly in place, holding the ceiling aloft as Shade’s demons screeched all around him, batting their pliable bodies uselessly against his chest and legs as they tried to unbalance him.
“Not today, Shade,” Captain Light said through gritted teeth. “Not even on your best day.”
Ninety seconds later and it was all over. The Jade Shade was taken into custody, unconscious and with her supernatural cape removed and placed in a specially designed crate.
The crowd cheered Captain Light, some freckled kid running over to ask for his autograph. There was a thirty-foot-wide crater on Sixth Avenue containing the flattened remains of a news helicopter that looked as though it had tried to merge with a taxi cab.
Hayes stood beside the crater and looked into its crumpled residue, a spider’s web of cracks across the blacktop all around it. Emergency vehicles were on the scene, sirens wailing, and New York cops hastily ushered everyone back behind the temporary barricades they had erected. Hayes found himself pushed back with the crowds, cordoned behind those barricades with their candy cane stripes of red and white, as though someone was trying to prettify the scene of the deaths.
Just then, Hayes’ phone burbled, trembling against his pants’ pocket. Without thinking, he removed it from his pocket and looked at the illuminated screen. It was 11.15. Melanie’s appointment.
• Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot, goes on sale on Tuesday 11th August 2020, available from all good bookshops – and you can order it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
• Get all the latest news about Angry Robot at www.angryrobotbooks.com – and joining the mailing list, the New Robot Army | Find Angry Robot on Facebook | Follow Angry Robot on Instagram | Follow Angry Robot on Twitter
Courtesy of Angry Robot, downthetubes has some copies of Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin to give away!
To be in with an opportunity to win, correctly answer the question “Which pen name has Rik used to publish over over 20 books?” and email us at downthetubesATcruciblecomicpress.com (replacing the AT with @ when composing your mail) with your answer by 12 noon UK time on Monday 17th August 2020. Please include “Bystander 27” in your email subject. Good luck!