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Book Excerpts

A Colorado author’s book introduces us to a gritty, reluctant superhero whose powers stretch the imagination

In this richly told tale by the late Colorado author Gary Reilly, you'll meet a protagonist from the mean streets, with some distinctive differences

The only piece of fiction published during Gary Reilly’s lifetime was a short story in 1978. “The Biography Man” was published by the Iowa Writers Review and later picked up by the Pushcart Prize Anthology (1979).  From that point until his death in 2011, Gary wrote 25 novels. None were published during his lifetime.

Since 2011, Running Meter Press has published 13 of his novels.  Eight are from his series of comic novels about a Denver taxi cab driver. There are many more to come.

Of the 13 published so far, five (“Ticket to Hollywood,” “The Legend of Carl Draco,” “Pickup at Union Station,” “The Circumstantial Man” and “Doctor Lovebeads”) were finalists for the Colorado Book Award.

Born in Arkansas City, Kansas, Gary Reilly spent his early years in Kansas and Colorado in a large Irish-Catholic family of seven brothers and sisters. The family moved to Denver where Gary attended parochial high school, graduating in 1967. After discharge from the U.S. Army, Gary majored in English at Colorado State University and continued studies at the Denver campus of the University of Colorado.

The following is an excerpt from “The Legend of Carl Draco.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Science Fiction/Fantasy

Chapter 1

You could walk down a road you’ve walked before and not recognize the familiar bleach of neon painting sidewalk slabs at your feet because those fine and freshly snipped and lilac-watered barber-college hairs at the back of your neck are being stroked harder and faster by that old anticipation. The sounds of the city might plunge into silence, in the way air suddenly stands still in reverent preamble to the advent of a plains tornado, making you to stop long enough to take a quick look over your shoulder.

No one seems to be following you, but you step into the nearest saloon to take stock of the situation, and the sight of drinking men takes your mind momentarily off your own soluble problems. You ease yourself onto the torn and stitched oilcloth seat of a stool at the far end of the bar and lean forward to signal the bartender for a glass of red wine. 

You glance down the long line of seated customers and wonder who among all these Salvation Army discard suits might be contemplating a nightcap of surreptitious stalking culminating in futile assault. But you realize quickly enough that all the schemes and dreams of all the men rooted to stools in this skid-row gin mill could be stacked heel to shoulder and the final tote wouldn’t top a three-tiered shot-glass pyramid. They sit with their shoulders hiked high to hide trembling fingers counting coins or pinching cigarettes going up in smoke. Sipping in silence is the only plan of any man in here. The bartender places a glass of red wine in front of you and collects his take, and you finally relax.

Author Gary Reilly.

On the TV overhead, gloved men in silk trade shots, but the sound is turned down too low, you can’t hear the smack of bruised flesh or the rattle of bones decked in the second round. When your glass is empty, you order another for the heat you’ll need for the fight you’ll win later on, then you place a dollar tip on the bar and walk out.

Alleys are favored places of your enemies, so you approach the upcoming break in the walls slowly, though not out of fear or even necessarily caution. But you have to give it to them if you want to get it over with quickly and put enough distance between yourself and their corpses to lie low long enough to sleep well enough to be awake enough for the next fight. Then a fast black bulk leaps past your head, a tin lid rattles in the darkness like a coin settling on asphalt, and you uncurl your newly balled fists and grin at the sight of a tomcat running up the sidewalk with fishbones in its teeth.

It had been a long time since Carl Draco had laughed at himself, much less grinned. In fact, he couldn’t recall even smiling in a long time, but he was laughing now as he watched that scuttling outcast haul his feast.

Draco moved on, making for a building that he’d called home more than once while passing through this part of the country, a twenty-dollar-a-night flophouse complete with bed and no bath. He came to another alley and overheard the drone of bum chatter devoid of malice. The devious ways of his enemies had never taken the form of this masquerade—had always been frontal and fruitless—so he wasn’t particularly concerned as he peered into the darkness toward three men seated on concrete near a garbage dumpster with their backs against the wall.

He knew them, had stood all three at different times in different bars. Cadge masters, they licked their glasses empty and shared day-labor take when they had it, shared wine, shared life stories, and sat down uninvited to beg or offer smokes. He’d spent alley evenings with such men in other cities, drawn from his digs to their brief companionship because even a man unlike themselves needs to sit down once in a while and shoot the kind of bull they shoot best.

He stepped into the alley. The three men went silent and looked up at him, exhibiting that nervous tic of fear that plagues the faces of men at odds with life and the law.

He asked how they were making out tonight, and they said “fine” in unison, possibly recognizing him, and possibly not, outside the context of a bar. One man raised a sacked bottle near empty, but Draco turned down this proffered symbol of friendship and handed him a five-dollar bill. As he walked away, they all said, “Thank you,” repeated it, “Thank you,” with that slow, deliberate precision of indebted earnest drunks.

There would be no sleep tonight, and though sometimes the heat of Los Angeles alone was enough to keep a man awake, it would be the ritual vigil of listening that kept Draco from shutting his eyes now. He lay on clean sheets in his darkened room beneath a window left open to entice a passing breeze. He hadn’t bothered taking off his coat because if he heard the heavy tread of booted feet on the stairs, he didn’t intend to stand and fight. His exit would be hasty and out the window. He’d learned long ago that sometimes it takes more than cowardice to run away from a fight—sometimes you just had to be tired of killing.

He reached up and shoved the window open a little further and gazed at his right hand in the alley light. He pondered every pale scar tattooed on every tanned knuckle, and every faraway state, back-road hamlet, and seaboard metropolis where he’d bought those souvenirs hard and fast. All that mottled meathook lacked was the callus shine and crust of heavy labor. 

“The Legend of Carl Draco” by Gary Reilly.

The creak of a stairway slat gave it away. Draco sat up and stared at the hallway light glowing beneath his door. He waited until he saw a shadow darken the light, waited until he heard a sound like the snuffling of a wolf ranging that narrow space, but didn’t wait for the click of hammers cocked. He was out the window and down the fire escape before tripped triggers thundered, taking the door off its hinges and sending a swarm of shotgun pellets crashing through the window.

Draco hit the ground and paused only long enough to look up at that lethal black cloud passing overhead fomenting a rain of glass, which danced ringing down the fire escape, then he heard the bawling, braying, mechanical scream of an engine accelerating. He turned and saw a car coming at him.

In the strange way of combat, it can make a man laugh to see an enemy demonstrate a glimmer of intelligence: vertical pincer movement. Draco took off running toward the far end of the alley with the chrome teeth of a black steel beast on wheels bearing down at his back, possibly a Plymouth, but old, he wasn’t sure, and was less interested. As he passed the hollow tin cube of a cafe dumpster parked beside a delivery door, he reached out and grabbed the lip and let his weight drag it rolling into the alley.

He let go and ran, and listened with pleasure to the tortured howl of wheels braking too late, and the bass-drum reverberation of sheet metal stove in.

The only sound in the park was a tinny husk of teenage voices drifting across a yellow lawn. Draco leaned against a tree and studied the crowd until he was certain that the kids gathered around the dry fountain half a block away were nothing more than curfew-breaking boys and girls upending illicit beers. 

The lawn was long and level and would be an open run past an empty swimming pool. The highway was just beyond the edge of the park, and that’s where he was headed, toward an arrow of parallel lightposts pointing east. Only the low, flat-topped black shape of the swimming-pool pump house stood between himself and that boundary line.

He moved out at a trot, already certain that these most recent brutes were at least as ill-equipped to kill him as all the others who had tried to take him out, so he was a bit surprised, though not at all shaken, when he heard a hissing liquid squeal of water escaping from a drinking fountain and looked over and saw in the feathered darkness of an evergreen grove a different texture of shadow, a smooth and looming shape, possibly a Plymouth.

The flashbulb burst of a single headlight caught him in midstride. Maybe they thought he was a deer, thought he’d lose the rhythm of his retreat and trip over his own feet, but whatever their misconception, he turned toward the fence that surrounded the swimming pool and leapt with a feline spring and slithered up its steel netting with a reptilian grace.

It was the same car, one-eyed now and fender-dented, tearing a dirt two-track across the lawn and sliding to a stop just outside the gate. Draco edged into the shadow of the pump house, then climbed up onto the flat-topped tar roof and lay low watching two men dressed in black overcoats and high-crowned, wide-brimmed black felt hats emerging from the car.

One man carried a shotgun still warm from its recent flophouse roust. He placed its muzzle against the steel padlock of the closed gate and tugged the trigger. Coiled links burst, ringing into the empty swimming pool. The two men strode in, sniffing chlorine odors and peering into dark corners seeking what they doubtless believed to be a panicked quarry.

Who lay prone peering over the edge of the roof and studying the hunters pacing the pool perimeter like baffled animals stalking weak meat. Not worth killing. Time to go.

As he was getting to his knees in preparation for slipping off the rear of the building, he heard the thin high-pitched rising wail of a siren coming his way. He dropped flat against the roof and watched the white rectangle of a police cruiser racing across the lawn. A spotlight hit the men standing directly below him.

The car stopped in front of the dented sedan, and a policeman got out and crouched behind his door with a pistol drawn.

“Drop the gun!”

Draco looked at the cop, then looked over his shoulder toward those highway lights growing small in the east. He wanted to make that road tonight.

“Drop it!”

He heard the clean click of a shotgun touching concrete and saw the cop come through the gate kicking links into the pool.

“Hands above your heads!”

One man raised his arms, but the other began edging away with both hands hanging at his sides. The cop pointed his pistol at him, and Draco saw it happen, saw the man with his arms raised reach inside his greatcoat and bring out a revolver and point it at the cop, who looked down at a fresh hole the size of a poker chip punched into his chest. The two men retrieved the shotgun and walked past the cop, ignoring his blind, off-balance, lurching, graceless fall into the empty pool.

Draco waited until the dark sedan retreated across the lawn into a shadow line of trees, then looked down at the spread-eagled shape on the dry swimming-pool floor. He eased off the roof and dropped to the sidewalk, hopped down into the shallow end of the pool, and knelt beside the cop.

A flow of blood was trickling off the chest and worming downslope toward a drainage grate suffocated with weeds. No pulse. He dragged a lid open on a dull lens. The sound of another siren came from a street bordering the park, and Draco glanced up, then looked down at the alabaster face and had to stop himself from doing what he did best, had to set his shoulders and breathe deeply to keep from running.

He wiped beaded sweat off his brow and opened the cop’s shirt and placed a damp palm over the coagulating pot of blood rimmed with torn flesh and splintered bone in the center of the man’s chest. He held his hand there until he sensed the bullet tucked deep inside a leather pocket of the man’s heart. He closed his eyes and calculated the bullet’s lie and gauged internal damage.

Then he took it.

The spent slug rose slowly through a drilled and bleeding meaty straw. Draco felt the chunk of useless lead spill into his hand. He rolled it between his fingers and examined it in the spinning flash of approaching red-and-white lights. Flattened, bent, flecks of scorched blood in the crevices, the soft metal had destroyed itself crashing through the breastbone. Draco chucked the chunk of lead over the fence, where it bounced in the grass with the soft sound of a small animal in retreat.

He placed his hand over the hole and closed his eyes and set his jaws so tightly that his eardrums began to hum, and in this stifling humid vale of LA heat he caught a whiff of cool rain-lashed rock, of thick-treed mountain peaks and fast winds dragging heavy clouds that glowed with silent lightning. He clamped his eyelids tighter and saw a single blue flash of static split a bowl of night, delivering a feast of power and life—and felt the burrowed flesh beneath his palm begin to stir like worms.

A pistol hammer cocked at his back. 

“Get away from him!”

The scorched rim of that poker hole shrank with moving flesh-meeting-flesh until it closed with a healing pinhole snap. Draco lifted his hand and examined the seamless rip. The trail of blood no longer stretched toward the drainage grate.

Spit-shined shoes smacked the pool concrete.

“Facedown with your hands behind your head!”

Carl Draco took one last look in the direction of that line of receding lights aimed at the desert east, then intertwined his fingers against those fine and freshly snipped and lilac-watered barber-college hairs at the back of his neck and surrendered himself for the first time in a long time to a decent night’s sleep.

— Buy “The Legend of Carl Draco” at BookBar

— Interview with publisher Mark Stevens

Rising Sun