Read the first Chapters of Starrella Falls
College freshman Estelle Wright has it all: a superpower, a flying horse, and a hunky boyfriend. All is threatened when her old enemy swears revenge, ruthless killers target Atalanta, and Toby is under pressure to dump her. But, Estelle’s knack of finding trouble scuttles his plans. Their lives are at stake and they face agonizing decisions. The wrong choice will lead to disaster.
If you enjoy superhero adventures with quirky animals, thrilling chases and a rollercoaster romance, read this fun story.
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The music on the car radio died mid chord, jarring Estelle into alertness. “In breaking news,” a strident voice announced, “the notorious criminal, Mr. Sunshine, has escaped from the Akeron Maximum Security Penitentiary. Mr. Sunshine, whose real name is Rigel Zentor, is believed to be the mastermind behind the serial killings in Atalanta last year. The army has locked down the prison. Details are trickling in as I speak. One eyewitness claimed a violent sand storm erupted in the desert outside the jail immediately before the wall was breached.”
“Blistering horse flies!” Estelle yelped, unconsciously echoing her mare’s snort of disgust during their battle with Mr. Sunshine. Her jolt of alarm jogged her grip on the steering wheel and the car swerved into the adjacent lane of the crowded expressway. A driver hooted. She straightened the car and concentrated on the road. The nanosuit she wore under regular clothes might be bulletproof, but she could be crushed to death in an accident. Even on a cold Sunday afternoon, the traffic on the downtown connector was scary for a new driver.
The news reporter continued, “Many of us in Atalanta will recall the events of six weeks ago. Mr. Sunshine threatened to cast the city into total darkness. His attack was thwarted by the bravery of Super Starrella and her flying horse.”
Distressed to hear her secret name on the radio, Estelle bit her lip. Few people knew her covert identity and superpower. She wondered if Toby had heard the bad news. Probably not, since he had just flown in from California. Estelle had borrowed her dad’s car to fetch him from the airport at the end of the winter break. Spring semester at Goldman University began tomorrow.
Her friendship with Toby had reached a new level and he had met her parents. But, they had spent less time together than Estelle would have liked. Even over the holidays, Toby was busy. He visited his father, met with the Jags gang, and worked on a paper he was writing for his engineering project. Estelle had hoped this semester would be better. Now, Toby was flying back from an interview in California, possibly combined with some of his secret Farleon business. Mr. Sunshine’s escape would further complicate his life, and Estelle was eager to track down their archenemy before he sent new killers to Atalanta.
Driving into the Atalanta International Airport, Estelle slowed by the arrivals section of the terminal. Clad in his signature gangster black, Toby was easy to spot in the crowd of departing passengers. His black leather jacket scarcely muted his powerful build, his dark hair fell in a ponytail, and his black brows met in a scowl. A backpack slung over one shoulder, he stood with his back against a pillar. He had a clear view of the cars on the road and the people plodding out of the terminal with their heavy suitcases. Her pulse speeding at the sight of his broad shoulders and surly face, Estelle steered into a vacant spot at the curb.
Spotting her in the driver’s seat, Toby’s expression brightened. His sullen lips angled in a grin and he strode to the car. He tossed his bag in the back seat, sat down beside her, and drawled, “Good to see you, babe!” The familiar twang of his voice sent a flutter of happiness through her. He leaned over and kissed her.
Estelle smiled. “I’m glad you’re back.” She brushed her fingers over his thick hair and sighed, driven shy by his closeness. As he fastened the seat belt, she breathed in the bad boy vibes of the complex, kind and truly dangerous man she loved. She admired his smooth transitions between the respectable graduate student in Aerospace Engineering and the shady gang leader chasing criminals. Beyond the activities in the police records, he had deeper secrets. She sighed. He would hate to hear about their enemy’s escape. Starting the car, she maneuvered across the crush of traffic in the airport and turned north on the highway. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Toby staring at her.
“What’s up?” he asked.
Easing into a gap in the stream of cars heading toward Atalanta, she muttered, “Wait a sec.” When she reached the next lane, Estelle glanced at Toby. “Did you hear the news? Mr. Sunshine escaped from jail.”
“When?” His voice was sharp.
“It was on the radio a few minutes ago. What can we…”
Squeezing her hand, he murmured, “Later.”
She stared at his face. His dark brows lowered in a frown, he placed a finger across his lips and mouthed, “Shush!”
Shaking her head, she returned her gaze to the highway.
“California’s a fun place,” Toby said casually. “You should visit sometime.”
Confused by his rapid switch from alarm to a relaxed chat, she retorted, “I’d better start saving.”
Just inside the city boundary, Toby nudged her arm. “Take the next exit. My bike is parked on a private lot.”
Her spirits sank, fearing his new plans excluded her. Estelle steered the car up the exit ramp and followed his directions. She turned left onto the main road, and drove along the side streets of a residential area. He indicated the driveway behind a pawn shop. “Drive into the back.”
Slowing to make the tight turn, Estelle coasted to a stop at the side of the parking area. Toby jumped out and strode to a large dumpster. She ran after him and caught his arm. “What’s the matter, Toby? Why didn’t you want to talk in the car?”
Wrapping an arm around Estelle’s waist, he guided her behind the dumpster. The black motorcycle was parked in front of an overgrown border of evergreen azaleas. Estelle patted the seat as a way of saying hallo to Growler. She forgave Toby for wanting to meet his Farleon companion.
After rubbing the handlebars of the motorcycle, Toby hugged Estelle. He explained, “Your dad’s car has the latest electronics. He showed me when I visited your home. But, I don’t trust them. Too easy to bug. Don’t want anyone to hear us.”
“Okay. You want the latest on Mr. Sunshine?”
“Yep!” He kissed her. “Saves time if Growler can listen too.”
Estelle repeated what she had heard on the radio.
“The abnormal sand storm sounds like a Zarnoth creation,” he commented. “Sunshine, or rather, Zentor, had outside help, probably from his Zarnoth accomplices.”
“Do you suppose he’ll attack Atalanta again?”
He shook his head. “Ain’t sure what he’ll do. We’ll start the night patrols again. Have to find Zentor before he causes trouble. Make plans. Figure out what the authorities know.”
“Our classes start tomorrow,” she reminded him.
“Yeah.” Toby stared into the distance for a minute. “Might not be there.”
Dismayed, Estelle squealed, “But, Toby, you’ve just come back.”
“Where’s Rockette?” he asked.
“I gave her the night off.” She gazed into his dark eyes and stammered, “I… I expected to spend the evening with you.” Blinking away a swell of tears, she had the sinking certainty any protest she made would drive him further away.
Stroking her hair, he said, “Know you’re upset, Star. But, I have to stop Zentor. He’s a vindictive bastard. We’ve pieced together a lot of his history. He has a grudge against Goldman ever since he was expelled ten years ago for assaulting a prof. After his conviction in an Atalanta court, his grievance encompassed the entire city.”
“Sure,” Estelle agreed.
Toby gripped her shoulders, forcing her to look into his dark eyes. “Listen, with Zentor on the lam, you’ll be in danger if he discovers you’re Starrella. You’re the super who blasted him out of the sky.” He glowered. “No night patrols for you and Rockette. Okay, Star?”
She bit her lip and murmured, “Suppose so.” Estelle followed him back to the car where he retrieved his backpack. He brushed the stray hairs from her face and kissed her. “Got to go now. Call you when I’m free.”
“Bye Toby.” Estelle watched him straddle the black motorcycle, chug out of the parking lot onto the road and drone into the distance. She walked back to her car, numb with misery. Something always interrupted her plans for being with Toby. He seemed to prefer distance to the intimacy she longed for. She had not even glimpsed the cat tattoo running up his biceps since the cold weather forced him into long sleeved shirts. Was this aloofness due to Toby’s alien origin, or his father’s prohibition? With Toby away so often, she might never know the answer.
Driving home alone, she resolved to join the hunt for Zentor in spite of Toby’s insistence on hiding her super identity. Estelle guessed Rockette would agree with her. The mare could be flighty on occasion, but she enjoyed a challenge.
When Estelle walked into the house, her mom said in a surprised voice, “I thought you were going out with Toby.”
Estelle shrugged. “He had an urgent call and he’s gone to see his father.” She had invented the excuse. But, she guessed Toby would visit Sol Farleon, the austere leader of the local Farleons, to organize the search for Zentor.
“Oh dear, I hope his dad isn’t ill.” Mom was sensitive to sickly relatives because her mother had only recently recovered from cancer.
“No. I think it’s a business matter.” Estelle sighed and trudged upstairs to her bedroom. She longed for a sympathetic friend to listen to her complaints about Toby’s absence. Who could she call? Diane would be settling back into her dorm room or else gallivanting with some of her admirers. Her other good friend, Veena, never answered texts promptly. Veena had a part time job to pay for college and a steady boyfriend. In any case, how could she tell her friends why Toby had left without mentioning Mr. Sunshine’s escape? She could not risk exposing Toby’s identity as the leader of the Secret Supers.
Even Rockette was absent for the night. Since Estelle had expected to enjoy a late evening with Toby, the mare had flown to the Farleon shelter to exchange gossip with the other animals. Rockette would have commiserated with her, since she knew how Estelle felt about Toby.
Feeling lost without the snarky mare, Estelle leaned on the windowsill and stared out. The setting sun glowed blood red between the black silhouettes of the leafless trees. A shiver of fear sliced into Estelle. With Zentor gunning for her and Toby gone, she would have to survive on her own. She cupped her hands and created a tiny yellow flame. Would her secret superpower be enough to defeat whatever had crashed into Zentor’s prison?
By the next morning, Rigel Zentor’s escape had become the chief topic of conversation in the city. Reactions were mixed. Cradling the phone, Inspector Horace Parkins stared out the window of his eighth floor office in the Crime Investigation Division. After the second inquiry from an overeager reporter, he had asked the receptionist to field any further calls from news agencies. At nine o’clock, the division chief, Major Stafford, had phoned to relay Mayor Steele’s demand for extra security. Stafford had apologized, knowing security enforcement was not part of the inspector’s job description. But, Parkins and his team had been at the forefront of the investigation into the serial killings last summer. Gazing at the top of the Ferris wheel three blocks away in Centennial Square, Parkins sighed. He recalled the desiccated bodies and the monstrous mantises. With Zentor loose again, the inspector feared the city was due for a resurgence of the violent attacks.
A knock on the door and his junior assistant bounced into the office. His skinny frame brimming with excitement, Pete Cassidy cried, “Did you hear the news, Inspector?”
Parkins nodded. “Yes, Pete, I heard about Zentor. I suspect he’ll target Atalanta. But, who knows when, or what new menace he’ll produce?”
“The Secret Supers will fight him off.” Pete beamed. “I can’t wait to see Super Starrella fly on her fantastic horse.”
“Curb your enthusiasm.” Despite his rebuke, Parkins was amused by his youthful assistant’s crush on Starrella.
“I took a photo of her,” Pete said, holding out his phone.
Gazing at the image of the slim girl riding the winged horse, Parkins blinked. The firm tilt of her chin under the masked eyes struck a familiar chord. Where had he seen that resolute face? Parkins frowned at Pete. “Good picture. Perhaps too good. I suggest you don’t flaunt her image to your friends. The Secret Supers have valid reasons for concealing their identities.”
Pete stared at his phone and mumbled, “I don’t. Showed my Mom. No one else.”
“Good. If the reporters find that photo, Starrella will appear in all the broadcasts about Mr. Sunshine.”
“He’ll come after her.” Pete’s freckled face registered dismay. Shaking his unruly hair, he said, “Okay, I’ll be extra careful. I don’t want him to hurt her.”
Pointing at the stack of folders on his desk, Parkins said, “We’ve plenty of cases to work on.”
“Okay.” His assistant sorted through the stack, choosing two thick folders from the top. “I’ll look at these files.” He gazed at the inspector and his expression brightened in a hopeful smile. “Unless you want me to pull our old records for Mr. Sunshine?”
“No. Zentor’s not our business. No new homicides in our district.” A warning jarred in his mind, although Parkins did not voice his reservation. Not yet!
His phone played a martial air. Waving his assistant out of the office, Parkins grabbed the phone. “Major Stafford?”
“Sorry to bother you again, Parkins. Could you come to my office? Something’s come up and you’re the best person to handle it.”
“I’m on my way, Major.” Resigned to another interruption, Parkins locked his door and rode the elevator to the eleventh level.
Mrs. Cassidy sat at the reception desk, wearing a trim blue suit with a flowery scarf covering her neck. “Good morning, Inspector Parkins!” she chirped, pressing the intercom to announce his arrival.
While he waited, Parkins stared at the green parakeet in its cage on the desk. Not for the first time, he wondered who had given permission for the major’s manager to keep a pet bird in the office. Mrs. Cassidy was known for her efficiency and she wielded an iron rule over the junior staff. None of this explained her fondness for the small bird.
Usually quiet, the parakeet ruffled its feathers and climbed over the bars nearest the Inspector. Cocking its head and staring at him, it squawked, “Parkins!” Momentarily astonished at its acuity, Parkins relaxed at the bird’s next words. “Polly wants a cracker! Please, pretty please!”
“I’m so sorry, Inspector,” Mrs. Cassidy said. “Polly’s a teensy bit agitated with all the goings on this morning.”
Parkins was saved from inventing a suitable response when the inner door swung open. Major Stafford marched out and shook his hand. “Parkins, do come in.” Gesturing for the inspector to precede him into the room, the major turned to his assistant. “I don’t wish to be disturbed, Mrs. Cassidy.”
“Certainly, Major Stafford. Your next appointment is not until eleven am.”
When they were seated in the spacious office, the major began, “We’ve had a request from military intelligence.” He coughed. “A demand in reality. They’re calling a private meeting to discuss the fugitive, Rigel Zentor.”
Suppressing a groan of protest, Parkins said, “I suppose you want me to attend.”
The major reminded him, “You are the best qualified officer in our division. You led the investigation into his alleged crimes. In fact, another member of your team, the army intelligence specialist, Captain Copper, will also be at this conference.”
“When and where?”
“This afternoon at fourteen hundred hours. My manager will forward the directions.” He paused. “I am grateful, Parkins! I’ll add a note to your dossier, recommending your promotion.”
Outside in the reception area, Mrs. Cassidy scribbled on a notepad and handed the directions to the inspector. “The meeting is at two pm in the Albright Center on Peachtree Battle. I’ve written down the address for you, Inspector.” She handed him a scrap of pink paper. The parakeet preened its feathers and said nothing.
Retreating downstairs to his office, Parkins resumed his scrutiny of the skyline. He had moved to Atalanta eight months ago, hoping for an easier job in the laidback southern city. Instead, he had discovered a nightmare of monstrous killers and the marvelous Secret Supers. And, recovered his zeal for apprehending criminals.
That afternoon, a select group of people met in an inconspicuous government building on the outskirts of Atalanta. Colonel Alderbrant Fox chaired the private session in a small conference room. Estelle would have recognized two of the attendees, Captain Mark Copper and Inspector Parkins. Trim in his officer’s uniform, Mark Copper looked bright-eyed and eager for action. Inspector Parkins wore a wary frown on his lined face.
Colonel Fox opened the meeting. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming here at such short notice. Most of you were invited here due to your prior experience with the fugitive, Rigel Zentor, or Mr. Sunshine as he called himself. He operated under several aliases. After Super Starrella defeated Zentor in an aerial combat, our fighter jets deployed men with parachutes. They managed to capture Zentor before he hit the ground. Subsequently, we conveyed Zentor to the Akeron maximum security penitentiary in the Sonoran Desert prior to his trial for multiple homicides. Zentor escaped yesterday. According to our intelligence experts, he poses a serious threat to Atalanta and its inhabitants.”
Gesturing to each person in turn, the Colonel gave brief introductions. “Intelligence specialist, Captain Mark Copper, and Inspector Horace Parkins from the Atalanta Crime Investigation Division, were present at several of the crime scenes last year. Dr. Natasha Budovska directed the laboratory analysis of the dead mantises from Centennial Square.”
Dr. Budovska interjected, “Colonel, I also received specimens of the giant flies from the final encounter with Zentor. They exhibited the same characteristics of enlarged cells and an extra piece of genetic material as observed in the giant mantises.”
“Thank you, Dr. Budovska,” Colonel Fox said coldly. He had little interest in the scientific details. Indicating the fifth person in the room, a brown complexioned woman in an Air Force uniform, he said, “I invited Major Terry Kendry to join us today. She will be your point of contact with the Dupree Air Base. Major Kendry can explain our combat equipment and capabilities.”
The major said, “Good afternoon! As the closest military base to Atalanta, Dupree will be prepared to defend the city in case of an emergency. We can field anything from armored trucks to tanks and fighter planes. I’m here today to learn your estimates of the forces required to defeat this enemy.”
Colonel Fox thanked the major. He continued, “Moving to the events of yesterday afternoon, Zentor escaped in a sudden raid from outside the prison walls. I will summarize our deductions. His confederates cut the power supply, breached the walls and flooded the facility with some type of sleep-inducing gas before releasing the prisoner.” Looking around at his audience, the Colonel said, “The gravity of the situation has reached the attention of the highest authorities. We have an unknown enemy capable of interfering with the electric power grid and piercing a steel reinforced concrete barrier. We have been assured of the President’s support to prevent another attack.”
When the Colonel paused to allow the message to sink in, Parkins resisted the urge to tug on his thinning hair and exchanged glances with Mark Copper. The Captain shook his head, looking as dumbfounded as Parkins felt.
“The cameras captured some images before the interruption in power.” Colonel Fox pointed to the screen. At first, the picture showed only a wide expanse of desert. Then, something large erupted from the ocher sand and sped toward the camera. A monstrous snout lined with jagged teeth emerged from a swirling cloud of sand particles. Expanding to fill the view, the scaled head slammed into the wall. The image froze on smashed concrete blocks coating the ridged back of the beast.
The Colonel said, “The size is difficult to establish from the video. But, the visible end of the scaled nose is some ten feet in length by our estimations. After that image was recorded, we had no active monitors until the power was restored an hour later. By that time Zentor had escaped, leaving a trail of broken walls and two dead guards.”
Fixing his steely gaze on his audience, he asked, “What are your opinions on this attack?”
Dr. Budovska observed, “That monster is not an arthropod. We analyzed the remains of giant mantises, centipedes and flies from Zentor’s assaults on Atalanta last year. All arthropods. This new animal has scales and toothed jaws and resembles a giant crocodilian species.”
“Indeed,” Colonel Fox said. “Our experts had arrived at the same conclusion.”
Captain Copper raised his hand and the Colonel gestured for him to speak. Mark Copper said, “Colonel, Mr. Sunshine or Rigel Zentor, was adept at producing new killers. He switched from mantises to centipedes, and then huge flies for his final assault on the city. It looks like he’s turned to a bulkier animal to create this monster.”
Inspector Parkins cut in, asking, “Colonel Fox, do you have any clues to Zentor’s hideout? We had identified several of the men working for him and houses he purchased under the pseudonym of the financier Rinaldo Zentori.”
The Colonel answered, “We’re checking the known locations. As you are aware, it takes time to set up a covert surveillance operation without alerting the suspect.”
“What do you want us to do, Colonel?” Parkins asked, groaning inwardly. He guessed what was coming.
“According to his reported history, we predict Zentor is likely to threaten Atalanta again. He will want revenge for his defeat six weeks ago. The local authorities must prepare to counter his attack. That is why I have shown you our data for the giant reptile.”
“How did the croc travel to the penitentiary?” Mark asked. “Someone must have noticed an animal of that size walking across the desert.”
“A good question, Captain Copper. We don’t know the answer.” Colonel Fox glowered at the great scaled lump on the screen. “The maximum security prison is situated in a region with few inhabitants. The beast popped out of the sands without warning. We have no reported sightings of a giant reptile in the vicinity. No unusual tracks or footprints. Most worrying of all, our seismic sensors detected no significant motion until the beast shot out of the sand. As you saw, the power cut coincided with the start of the attack.”
Seeing a glimmer of hope, Inspector Parkins suggested, “The police force cannot deal with such massive monsters. Surely, the army has the best equipment to destroy a giant reptile.”
“We will put you in direct contact with Major Kendry at Dupree Air Base,” the Colonel assured him. “However, the local police are most familiar with the city.”
Captain Copper nodded toward the Inspector. “Parkins and I coordinated the defense in Zentor’s last attack. The Secret Supers were ahead of us and fantastically effective. Super Starrella with her flying horse trounced Zentor before our fighter planes arrived.”
“Can we get in touch with these mysterious supers?” Colonel Fox asked.
“We have not uncovered their identities,” Parkins said firmly. He was not inclined to reveal his suspicions to the military. He rather liked the flying horse and spunky Starrella, and had no wish to disturb their private lives. Coming to a decision, he said, “In my opinion, the police should pursue the search for Zentor and his associates.” Gesturing to Dr. Budovska, he added, “The creation of giant animals is a question for the scientists to answer.”
Dr. Budovska nodded. “I concur.” A puzzled frown wrinkled her pale forehead. “We have not yet discovered how the giant arthropods were created. My technicians extracted the foreign DNA and injected it into cells and the larva of fruit flies. We observed no significant size increase in either case. We are still monitoring the next generation of fruit flies.” Her eyes dropped to the tablet in front of her, and she scrolled through the reports from her lab. “Nothing unusual so far.”
Everyone looked thoughtful. After perhaps a minute of silence, Colonel Fox spoke, “Thank you for offering your perspectives on our problem.” His heavy sigh hinted of disappointment. “Let me summarize. We have three problems to solve. First, and most urgent, we must locate Zentor and his accomplices in order to avert further attacks. Second, we must determine what types of weaponry they wield. And third, we must investigate this phenomenon of the gigantic crocodilian that traveled to the vicinity of the penitentiary without detection by our monitors.”
Major Kendry had been silent during the discussion. Now, she said in a hearty voice, “Colonel Fox, I believe you have summed up the problem. My job will be to deploy the necessary troops, armament and vehicles to counter an assault. If we have advance notification, we can stop the attackers from penetrating into the city.” She pointed a finger at Mark. “I recommend that Captain Copper act as my direct liaison with the army and the local police force.”
“Certainly, Major Kendry,” Mark replied with true military promptness.
“A creature that size could devastate the city,” Inspector Parkins remarked quietly. “Especially if it can pop out of nowhere.”
No one had an answer.
After an awkward silence, Colonel Fox concluded the meeting and hurried away to his next appointment. The other participants departed for their normal activities in the Dupree Air Base or the city.