First Chapter of Tales of the Dim Knight
by Adam and Andrea Graham
Released November 22, 2010 from Splashdown Books. All rights reserved. You can also download a sample to your Kindle or other preferred ebook platform. We also have a sample of Dim Knight available online where you can see the internal art of the print edition and flip the pages.
Superman fell from the sky, collided with a skyscraper, and bounced off as it toppled. The action figure crashed into a green stegosaurus grazing at the foot of the sky blue leather sofa.
Mild-mannered janitor Dave Johnson set the cardboard skyscraper upright again in the model city erected on his steel gray living room carpet.
He tugged down his Spider-Man pajama top and sent a scolding glance at his dimpled nine-year-old. “Derrick, you shouldn’t have dropped him like that.”
Derrick scratched his head. “But, Dad, you said Superman got hit with a missile.”
When would his son ever learn?
At least Derrick still cared, unlike Dave’s eldest. “A missile isn’t going to knock Superman out of the sky, son. He’s invulnerable. He might be fazed, but he’d pop right back up.”
Derrick nodded. “That makes sense.”
“All right, so get him back in the sky.”
Derrick lifted Superman back above the cardboard model of Metropolis.
Naomi called from the kitchen, “Dinner!”
Derrick wrinkled his nose. “Aw, Mom—”
“—now, son.” Dave wagged a finger. “We’ve talked about this. You need to eat.”
“But what’s going to happen to Lois Lane?”
Dave mussed Derrick’s bushy hair, black like his own. “We’ll find out tomorrow, Champ.”
He glanced to their chipped oak entertainment center. The DVD player’s clock read 4:37 p.m. Time to get ready for work. He jogged into the master bedroom, stripped off his vintage Spider-Man PJ’s, and changed into the stone gray coveralls Naomi had laid out for him on her girly yellow comforter, which covered their Queen Anne style bed.
Where was his government-issued, navy blue baseball cap? He usually left it on the stack of red milk crates filled with the newer additions to his comic book collection. He spotted it atop his collection of every superhero DVD box set known to man. Grinning, he snatched the hat up. Aha. No lowly work accessory could outsmart Mild-Mannered Janitor Dave Johnson.
He set the cap askew on his head, patted his breast pocket, and hit thin plastic. Good. Not only would it be embarrassing if he lost his security pass a third time this month, he’d incur another $25 fine, and Naomi wouldn’t let him buy the Wonder Woman action figure he needed to complete his Justice League collection.
The door flung open. Naomi stood outside it in a perfectly pressed navy pants suit, her sharp, side-parted ebony bob curling a bit under her chin. Trouble brewed in eyes the same color as her favorite Starbucks brew: a half-caf, non-fat grande latte with sugar-free chocolate syrup and exactly four packets of Splenda. “Dave, we need to talk.”
Oh no. Mount Naomi was about to blow. “What about?”
She folded her arms. “How about our life and supposed marriage?”
Dave brushed past her into the living room. “I don’t have time for this.”
“You never have time!” She stomped up alongside him. “You get up after I leave for work. And you leave a few minutes after I get home.”
“Wait up for me, and we’ll talk when I get in.”
“At two a.m?”
“That’s as good a time as any.” Dave fled to the kitchen and sighed at the dining nook’s empty claw-foot pedestal table. Naomi had the boys eating dinner in their room again? Funny how that always coincided with the flow of lava. He grabbed his X-Men lunchbox from the stainless steel side-by-side refrigerator. He headed for the door to the attached two-car garage.
Naomi ran ahead and blocked his getaway. “We talk now.”
He looked at his silver bat signal watch. She was making him late. “Fine, two minutes.”
“I’m concerned about the kids.”
Dave stiffened. “What? You don’t think I’m a good father?”
“You’ve been great teaching them to be little boys, but you can’t play Superman with them forever. They need someone who can help them through difficult times. Someone who can show them how to be men.”
“And why can’t I?”
“Look at yourself, Dave! You make me pack your dinner in the same lunchbox James used in kindergarten! You don’t buy all that superhero stuff for the kids.”
Dave crossed his arms. “I work hard for this family!”
Naomi flicked her index finger at Dave. “You’ve been at the same job a decade. You’re not twenty-three anymore. You need to grow up for the kids’ sake—and for me.”
“And for you?”
“Yes, and for me! Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve been together? Nine months. It’s like, all you wanted were James and Derrick, and, as soon as you got them, you forgot all about me.”
“I’m the same man you married. You’re the one who’s changed.” He glanced at her pink polished nails. A sandy-haired Mary Jane met him at the altar twelve years ago. So how did he end up married to Lois Lane? “What’s happened to you?”
“I grew up, Dave.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She took the hint and moved out of his way. “This isn’t over!”
Dave slammed the door behind him. Why couldn’t she understand? Superheroes did things he could only dream of. He wasn’t playing silly games; he was sharing his dreams with the kids. It wasn’t like his hobby kept him from working. He always brought home his paycheck, and he never complained about the tight hold Lois—er, Naomi—kept on the purse strings.
He climbed in his pick-up truck and backed out into traffic. He glanced at the empty seat. “You don’t want to talk.” He returned his gaze to the road. “You want to scream at me until I change into some boring Ken Doll in a suit who golfs and does all the things the big bosses do at your work. You say I don’t listen, but at least I let you talk. The only time I can talk to you is when you’re not here. When you’re here, I can hear you, but—”
Dave swallowed. He’d rather be beaten up by a tag team of the Rhino and Doctor Octopus. It’d be less painful.
A freckled little boy on a bike darted out in front of him. Dave slammed his brakes hard.
The truck stopped inches from the kid. Dave lowered his head onto the steering column. The boy cursed and rode away.
Calm down, or you’ll kill somebody.
“This looks like a job for Superman.” Dave pressed the play button on his CD player. The old time radio crackled over his truck’s speakers. From a crowd in Metropolis, a woman shouted, “Look, up in the sky!”
By the time the narrator said, “And now for our story,” the pain had eased.
Dave settled in his janitor’s closet with the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man. He checked his watch; 11:31. Half an hour earlier than usual. Sweet, two whole hours to spend rescuing Mary Jane and then off home to bed. That was the best part of this job. No one stood over him, cracking the whip if he wasn’t working his whole shift. He could even show up fifteen minutes late, like he did tonight, and no one would care. So long as he got their storage facility squeaky clean, the FBI was happy.
Still, he left the closet open wide enough to view the door, just in case. In the distance, the entrance whooshed open. Dave stood with a start, grabbed his broom, went out, and began sweeping the already-swept floor.
Agent Polk entered with a scowl etched on his face. Behind Polk came an agent who looked like he’d just graduated from the academy and another whose hairline had retreated even farther back than Polk’s. The strangers carried a black rod slid through the center of a metal cylinder caked with brown dried blood.
The bald agent gawked around. “You absolutely sure this will be secure here? I still say it’d be safer in DC.”
Polk turned his back to Dave, facing the strangers. “Don’t worry. The director figured the last place the terrorists would look for a weapon from Albuquerque is a small town in Washington State.”
“Weapon. Heh. The boys in the lab say it’s just a cylinder.”
The young agent asked, “Why didn’t you have them study it more?”
“We didn’t want it out in the open.” The bald agent glanced at Dave and then glared at Polk. “Why didn’t you get this guy out?”
Polk laughed. “Dave’s not a problem. I’ve known him twelve years. He’s loyal. And even if he said anything, nobody would believe him; he’s got a wild imagination.” Polk lowered his voice. “The guy wears Spider-Man underwear and uses an X-Men lunch box.”
Dave glowered. At least he had an imagination. Polk lived his entire life in a suit. That guy could use a few X-Men comics.
Polk grabbed the young agent’s end of the rod and yanked the cylinder free. Polk extended it to Dave.
Baldy raised a hand. “Hey!”
Polk asked, “Would you like me to haul a lab technician out here to do a janitor’s job?”
Baldy sighed. Polk turned to Dave. “We need to pack this. Can you wash it off?”
“Sure thing.” Dave carried the blood-stained cylinder into his closet. No worries about contaminating evidence. They didn’t store that sorta thing here. At the sink, he shifted the cylinder into one hand and turned the water on. He picked up a scrub brush and maneuvered it towards the end of the cylinder. The cylinder grew to the exact size of his arm and slid up onto it.
Dave screamed, “Get off!”
The cylinder released its grip and splashed into the sink.
Dave returned with the cleaned cylinder. The strangers had left.
Polk waved at a packing crate on the table. “All right, Dave, just put it in the crate.”
Dave did. Polk snapped off some pictures and nailed the crate shut. They hauled it inside the vault with the top secret stuff. They had everything in here but Bigfoot and the Roswell spacecraft. “There you go, Agent Polk.”
“How many times must I tell you? That’s Special Agent in Charge Polk to you, mister.”
Picky, picky. Dave shrugged. “Right. I’ll get back to cleaning, sir.”
“Dave, say, would you like to go out for a drink?”
Since when did Polk drink? Dave stared at his watch and then at Polk. “No, thanks. My wife would kill me.”
Polk grunted. He flipped out his cell phone and speed dialed someone. “Hey, want to get a drink?”
Dave stared at the hollow cylinder graphic filling the flat panel computer screen set up on the plastic, white folding table in his basement. This was like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie. He held up the Styrofoam cup from his lunch, which had the bottom punched out. “This means some—” Dave cupped his hand over his mouth. “No, I’m not going to be sued for the contents of my own life!”
He pulled up a search engine and did a search for “Terrorist, Albuquerque.” Hits came up from so-called legitimate news sources claiming terrorists had planted bombs to blow up buildings. Dave shook his head. The mainstream press, regardless of their politics, lied all the time. He needed a reliable source of news.
“Superhero fan forum!” He pulled up an abandoned thread from two months ago, started by Crazy Al in New Mexico. Crazy Al’s name and his avatar’s three chipmunks morphing into beautiful blondes hadn’t been too impressive at the time. Now he seemed far more credible:
The media is spreading so much bowl. Those lamers aren’t reporting the truth. There’s a terrorist blowing up the buildings, but he’s not using bombs. I saw him downtown, and I nearly wet my pants. The guy is superhuman, they have the entire National Gourd out. He’s a freakin’ real life super villain.
Man, where’s Spider-Man when you need him?
Dave read his own response. “Well, I wouldn’t put stock in someone who can’t even spell ‘bull.’ Besides, a guy like that would beat Spider-Man. You dork, Spider-Man’s in New York. He’d be useless with all the cactus in New Mexico. What skyscrapers do you have out there? It’s like adobe houses everywhere. The Flash could do the job, maybe with help from Iron Man.”
The next 351 comments degenerated into a flame war over who would be the best superhero to fight in New Mexico.
“Crazy Al was right.” Dave flicked his Styrofoam cylinder. “Well, not totally. The Flash would’ve done much better than Spider-Man.”
Dave returned to his graphic. The cylinder must be the source of the terrorist’s power. What else could explain what Crazy Al saw, plus what the FBI agents said? That left one question.
What if it had made the guy a terrorist?
What if it hadn’t? What if it was neutral? Only one way to find out. He could tell Polk, but Polk wouldn’t believe him. Besides, Polk was too weak. Only Dave had read enough comic books to know how to defeat an evil symbiote.
But it’d be so cool if it wasn’t evil.
The back door slammed. “Hey, Dad!”
Dave sighed in relief. Maybe now he could focus on something besides whether the cylinder’s power was magic or science.
Dave dropped the mop into the bucket. Finally. He thought he’d never finish.
He pushed his janitor’s cart back to the closet and dumped the dirty water down the drain, still feeling that same tug towards the vault, almost like the cylinder was calling him. But opening the crate would be a breach of trust. If anyone found out, he’d lose his job.
The chances of discovery were almost nil, though. The FBI came by maybe three times annually. The security guards were supposed to do rounds inside the warehouse, but hadn’t in years. He could pry it open for a peek, nail it back, and nobody would know.
Yeah, one little peek. One little peek wouldn’t hurt.
He grabbed a crowbar off the wall and tiptoed into the vault. Bingo. He pried open the crate and pulled out the cylinder. It seemed to pulsate in his hands.
Wow. Imagine the power it could give him. Instead of, “Today, three children died in a three-alarm fire,” reporters would say, “Today, a Real Life Superhero rescued three children from a three-alarm fire.”
Dave slid the cylinder up his arm. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. He didn’t have time to fight an evil symbiote. He had a softball tournament on Sunday.
The world swirled around him. His stomach lurched, and he closed his eyes.
Once the dizziness subsided, he opened his eyes and gasped. A hundred yards away, a massive waterfall roared like the Boulder Dam, booming in time with his racing heartbeat. Six moons reflected in the waves lapping at his feet. Beside him, a neon orange tree shaped kind of like a curly fry grew bent over, as if bowing to the waterfall.
“Where am I?” Dave asked.
A purple light flashed, and a gray-skinned man at least eight feet tall appeared before the bowing curly fry tree. In his black armor and green cloak, the giant looked like he could snap Dave in half with his pinky. And Dave wore a 2XL in shirts.
He clapped. “Wow, can you do that again?”
The gray figure glared. “I am Zolgron, Champion of the Karonites, not a trained baboon. Fifteen hundred years ago, I was one of eight of my kind. We were a powerful race with strength and abilities far surpassing those of the common Gorlen.
“I resolved to make myself King of the Karonites, vanquish the champions of the seven other nations, and take their lands for my own. Before I even raised my hand to do this, the Creator seized me. He said he had made me and my brethren as guardians, not lords. He took a common, weak Gorlen and made him the new champion.
“As for me, he said I must learn a great lesson. Until I do, I can only empower others. I’ve had three thousand hosts on fifty planets. When I attach to a host, I become part of it. When the host dies, I live on, taking another form. My shape-changing ability is the one power he has left me.”
Attach? Dave touched the arm the cylinder had attached to. “You’re the cylinder?”
“That is the shape I took. I can be as tiny as a mouse or as large as a Doberman.”
“How did you travel from planet to planet?”
Zolgron laughed. “Most of the galaxy has possessed the secret to space travel for six hundred years. And not to merely create something in space to fly up to in the ship you built so you can fly to the thing you created.”
Huh? The International Space Station was cool. Then again, Zolgron was cooler. “So, with you attached to my arm, I get some great powers.”
“You can run faster than one of your sports cars. You have the strength of a hundred ordinary humans, can change shapes, and materialize objects at will.”
“Can I fly?” Dave flapped his arms.
“Not naturally. You could materialize a jet pack on your back, though.”
“This is so cool!”
Zolgron buried his head in his hands. “Creator, have I learned the lesson yet?”
“Wait a second.” Dave folded his arms. “How do I know you’re not evil?”
“I’m neither good nor evil. I’m simply a tool to be used as my host sees fit, like one of your handguns.”
“But guns are evil!”
Zolgron snorted. “Oh, one of those. Let me try this again. I’m like your mop. Your mop can be used for good or for evil.”
Dave laughed, shaking his head. “How could mops be used for evil?”
Zolgron smiled. “Watch.”
Seven mops appeared and bludgeoned Dave.
“Vile cleansing instruments, you shall not defeat me!” Dave karate chopped one of the mops, knocking it to the ground. He jumped in mid-air and decapitated another. He turned. Hundreds, no thousands of mops came at him from all sides, like a horror film shot in a cleaning supply store. He screamed like a cheerleader.
The world spun. Again his stomach lurched and he squeezed his eyes shut.
Dave stared at the shelf in the vault and the crowbar in his hand. The crate before him remained nailed shut. He didn’t even open it?
It had all been a dream. A lousy, stinking dream. “I’ve got to stop eating Hawaiian pizza. Though, curly fries sound good.”
Note to self: Head to Arby’s for two a.m. snack.
Dave stood on the bench as his teammates did their batting practice. He cupped his hands. “Swing through the ball!” He sounded like he knew what he was doing if he shouted out softball clichés.
The batter swung and missed as the ball went so wild, it landed in the other team’s dugout.
“Good eye!” Maybe he didn’t get big hits these days, but after nine years, he had clubhouse leadership.
The batter glared at him, extending a fist into the air.
Well, he’d renewed his determination.
The batter growled. “I’m gonna kill that jerk.”
Dave pumped his fist. “That’s the spirit. Get some fire. Eye of the tiger!”
His softball coach waved him to the other end of the dugout. Dave grinned. After starting at first for six seasons, would he finally make captain?
Dave strutted across the dugout, chest puffed out. “I was just rallying the troops. You know, captain stuff. It’s too bad we don’t have a captain.”
The coach grimaced. “Johnson, could you sit down?”
“Sit down? It’s time to stand up. The Star Spangled Banner will be sung, and, if there’s a captain, he needs to run the line-up card out to the umpire.”
“You’re going to be a back-up next season.”
Dave coughed and pounded his chest. “What?”
“We all like you.” The coach stared at the batter who’d just finished practice. The batter’s teeth were clenched like he was about to go to war. “Or most of us like you, but this team is supposed to bring positive publicity to Benny’s Bar and Grill. What exactly do you think a 3-18 record means to the public?”
“That we’re good sports.”
Coach shook his head. “No, that we’re losers! I’m playing Larry Gray at first so we have a shot at advancing in the playoffs. Next season, you can back up and coach third. Maybe pitch an inning if everybody else’s arms are tired, or if we’re ahead or behind by twenty runs.”
Dave slumped on the bench. What happened to the days when winning wasn’t as important as friendship? Sure, he had two hits and six walks in a hundred at-bats this year. Sure, he had given up twenty-five runs in ten innings pitched, but what about loyalty?
Naomi took her seat in the stands. “Go Benny’s!” She stared at the scorecard and double-checked the names like she would a client’s credit report before approving the mortgage. Ah, softball, where she got to both see her husband and see him doing something more adult than playing with action figures made for eight-year-olds.
Shoulders slumped, Dave trudged up the steps and plopped beside her. She pointed at him. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
The gullible little boy in a pudgy man’s body stared at her. “Um, Naomi . . . .”
Why ever had she found his Peter Pan syndrome adorable? “Yes, I was wearing a white dress and weren’t you the gentleman in the tuxedo?”
“They’re putting me on back-up.”
What? Dave had been starting forever. “You’re not injured, are you?”
“No, but I’m not going to get played anymore. It’s not fair. I’ve played every game. Remember when I went 3-for-4 with a couple singles and a triple a few years back?”
Naomi touched his left cheek. The poor thing must be devastated. “I’ve seen all your games, honey. As much as you love the game, you’re not Lou Grant.”
Dave blinked. “From the sitcom? You mean Lou Gehrig, don’t you?”
“There’s a difference?”
Dave laughed. “Yeah, there is. Lou Gehrig played for the New York Yankees until 1939. He hit 493 Home Runs and played 2,130 games in a row. Lou Grant was a fat sitcom character from the 1970s that my mom made me miss Superfriends to watch. Big difference, honey.”
Naomi smiled. “Sometime, I’ll have to explain to you the law on mortgage insurance.”
“Sure, about the time I get my next root canal, after I go under.”
She frowned. Maybe she should try something more on his level. Like Chutes and Ladders.
Through the next few innings, a grin kept tugging at the corners of Naomi’s lips as she sat with an arm around Dave, lost in his warm brown eyes. Maybe, if he didn’t get to start any more, he’d spend more time with her.
Okay, so old Mrs. Cranston told her third-grade Sunday School class to put others first. Well, she’d sacrificed enough. She was entitled to a little happiness for once.
A cry of pain echoed through the ballpark over the crowd’s applause. Dave’s replacement at first limped across the field to the bench. Looked like he’d made a great catch to end the top of the sixth, but twisted his ankle in the process.
Dave’s coach screamed, “Johnson! Get down here!”
Naomi’s husband kissed her cheek, ran down onto the field, and into the dugout. She sighed. That was her life. These moments never lasted long enough.
Coach grunted. “We’re only down 7-5. Try not to mess it up, Johnson.”
Dave walked onto the field. After all three of Benny’s batters went down, Dave glanced at the score. The scoreboard boy put a “0” in the bottom of the sixth. Only one inning remained. It was loser out. Do or die.
In the seventh, the first hitter hit a pop fly into shallow right field. Dave ran to make a diving catch. Naomi and the rest of the crowd jumped to their feet to cheer.
At last, she’s applauded me! Dave threw the ball to the pitcher, bowed, and tipped his cap to the crowd.
Coach screamed, “Johnson, who do you think you are? Albert Pujols? Get back into position.”
The next batter hit a ground ball, which the shortstop scooped up and threw to Dave. The ball came six feet wide of first base. Dave stretched far enough to catch the ball and got to the base in time to record the second out. A strikeout later, the inning was over.
In the bottom of the seventh, the first hitter grounded out, and the second struck out. The third bunted for a base hit. Coach shouted from the dugout, “You mind not risking the season?”
The next batter hit a ground ball to short that should’ve ended the game, but the shortstop’s throw landed in right field. The runners advanced to second and third.
Dave gulped. It was his turn to bat. He strode to his skipper, chest out, belly in.
The coach rolled his eyes. “Try not to make a fool of yourself.”
Coach gave such encouraging advice.
Dave stepped into the batter’s box. The first pitch came high and tight—ball one. The pitcher lobbed the second pitch over. Dave swung and connected with the ball. The ball zoomed over the bleachers and across the street before vanishing from sight.
He grinned. Wow! I haven’t hit a home run in two years!
The crowd roared as he rounded the bases. At home plate, Coach slapped him on the back. His teammates heaved him up on their shoulders, nearly dropping him in the process. Dave glanced to the stands. Naomi stood screaming, jumping up and down as she waved her hands over her head.
In the semi-finals, played an hour after the first game ended, Dave smashed another three homers as his team won 6-3.
In the finals, played after a pizza break, Dave hit three more homers. His team was up 14-2 as he came to bat in the bottom of the sixth. After three balls out of the strike zone, Dave swung. Ping. The ball not only flew out of the park, but the aluminum bat shattered, the barrel flying out into left field. Dave gaped. It was not possible for an ordinary human to shatter an aluminum bat.
Dave circled the bases. Zolgron’s words echoed in his ears. You can run faster than one of your sports cars, have the strength of a hundred ordinary humans, can change shapes, and can materialize objects at will.
Dave grinned wider. It wasn’t just a dream brought on by Hawaiian pizza and an overactive imagination. The cylinder had become part of him. He frowned. Except it was in the crate he never opened.
Oh, this must be like in Roanoke Roadie and the Mentalist, where the Mentalist subconsciously created a replacement box of magic juju beans to fool the Kavnothians from Marnoc 7 to save the amoeba people from extinction.
The coach tugged Dave’s arm. “Hey, captain, we need to celebrate. We won a championship!”
Hey, coach, I have something far more important to celebrate.
Dave stood with his shoulders firm, his jaw set, and his hands on his hips. “Mild-mannered janitor by night, softball player by weekend, Dave Johnson fights a never ending battle—to not get sued. So, to stay on the right side of the copyright attorneys, he fights a continuous skirmish for honesty and fair play.”
The entire team cracked up.
Let them laugh.
A legend had been born.