Chapter 9: Devolution, Part Six

The TV shows Mr. Mustache come out of the bank, scared looking, holding the rebar. He stumbles out onto the sidewalk, and poor old Max charges out after him. Mr. Mustache lets out a scream, something along the lines of, “Come on! Come get me!”

Max did the one thing I’d never seen him do in all the years I knew him: He followed orders.

The rest happens very quickly; Mustache Guy hits Grizzly a couple of times with the rebar, not the same kind of brutal whacks he gave me and Felicia, more like love-taps. Then he jumps over the hood of a Buick and starts shimmying up the rungs on the side of a telephone pole. The Grizzly, so scary, such a hideous creature, follows.

A telephone pole? Open-air electrical lines in the middle of New York City?

This had to be the one corner, the one pole.

It stinks. Everything about it stinks.

The TV shows the monster Grizzly, the terrifying heartless thing that was my friend, chase Mustache up the pole. Mustache reaches the top, and appears to frantically pull at one of the transistor batteries; in reality, if you watch in slow motion, you can see that the rig was already loose. He barely had to touch the thing for it to come flying off. In the same, tugging movement, he throws/drops the transistor into Max’s face.

That enormous, poorly insulated suit lights up like a Christmas tree. Arcs of electricity jump from place to place as the faux-fur pops and fizzes, revealing the outdated 1980s cybernetics underneath, and, as that melts away, Max’s sagging flesh. He sparks and bubbles like a piece of raw meat being cooked in a microwave.

The blood is fizzling and turning to steam as soon as it comes through his now translucent skin. I think I can hear him screaming, but it’s hard to tell over all the noise from the exploding generator.

That and the interview.

They’ve been playing the interview over everything.

See, Mr. Mustache turns out to be quite the effusive fellow once there’s a camera on him.

“I just did what anybody would do,” he keeps saying, and then giving this sickeningly phony “All American Male” smile that Felicia says makes him look like a mannequin of Burt Reynolds.

“But surely you went above and beyond —”

“Well, you know, I was raised in a patriotic household. I defend my own, and the people of New York are my family.” He says this last part extra-loud, and the crowd around him cheers. He knew they would.

People love shit like this. They love the idea that you don’t have to be some superhero or a mutie in order to take down some big scary super-villain. That’s the main reason New York has Code Blue: to prove that with enough training, anyone can take down somebody like Carnage, or the Mole Men.

Of course, they never can; that’s why the roster is constantly changing for those poor fucks. A machine gun, no matter how big, ain’t gonna do jack shit against the Juggernaut.

That’s why they gotta take my advice and do what I always say they should do; just start copying off villain’s designs. You think somebody like Cardiac is gonna fuck with you if you’ve got Doc Ock’s tentacles? Or one of my Shocker gauntlets? Hell, no.

I’m getting off on a tangent.

By the time Max falls, he isn’t a person anymore; not even a corpse. Just a mess of sticky red-black goo in the tattered remains of a grizzly bear costume. I can barely make out his face in it, fused in a macabre scream to the campy fake-bear head of his suit.

“Heroes don’t always wear costumes,” one reporter says.

Aleksei makes a muffled sobbing sound. The big, dime-sized tears have finally stopped, and, with enough cajoling, I’ve got him up and moving around. Which is more than I can say for myself; that hit in the neck from the rebar did more damage than anything big Max did to me. See, I wear this Star of David on a chain around my neck at all times. It had fallen out from under the nape of my suit, and the rebar practically implanted it in my shoulder; I’m going to have a neat little star-shaped scar.

I lie on Felicia’s couch, and I feel like my body is dropping apart. Aleksei putters around in the next room, tending to Felicia, mumbling to himself.

I have no idea how I got here. Last I remember, we three stooges were underground, at 10 in the morning. Now it’s clearly near dark, the room that soft yellow-gray of dusk. I awoke to hear Felicia make the “Burt Reynolds Mannequin” comment in the next room; I could see the TV, but nothing else.

Aleksei was a mess; he was closer to Max than I was (there was even a weirdo-gay rumor for a while, but that’s bullshit and honestly who the fuck cares). It took a lot of convincing for Aleksei to finally (temporarily) buy that Max had gone to a better place.

A lot of convincing, especially since the TV keeps showing that burnt corpse that was our friend.

Short-term memory loss, dilated pupils, nausea, disorientation … That’s a fuck of a concussion. I’d rate it a seven out of ten, with an honorable mention for that persistent, jarring throb that runs down the back of my head and into my neck.

But baby, it’s all good; I figured something out. I don’t totally have it yet, not totally, but I’ve got a piece.

And if I’m going to get the rest of them, we’re going to need the corpse of “Mad” Maxwell Markham.

It takes me a minute to realize I’m no longer wearing my Vibrosuit; now I’m in my boxers and some kind of XXL shirt, a sleep shirt; I look down at it and realize that the shirt features Spider-Man prominently; it’s that famous picture, him swinging with some creep under his arm, looking all noble and heroic and …

Fuck him.

The shirt hits the floor.

“Felicia,” I say, rolling off the couch onto the floor. Rhino’s wrapped about two hundred layers of gauze and padding onto my nose, or more accurately onto the blob of blood, skin and snot that once was my nose. The muscles in my back feel beat to shit from my crash landing on the computers, and standing up straight is a painful and ultimately pointless endeavor.

So I crawl. I crawl like a goddamn wounded animal into Felicia’s room, grunting and moaning.

“What’re you doing down there on the floor?” Whud’re you doin’ down dare on duh floor?

“Herman,” Felicia says from her bed. “You’re up.”

Silk sheets, of course, of course.

Blank and white motif, of course, of course.

Everything over two thousand dollars, smooth and sexy, what else, of course.

Felicia’s doing well for herself; God knows how she managed to keep all the money over the years; whenever I used to pull a heist, that shit just dissolved itself.

Of course, Felicia doesn’t have an obsession with forever upgrading her costume. Some people have gambling. Some have booze, and some have drugs, but me? I have my gauntlets. They’ve been a work in process for the last twelve years.

She’s wearing this little silk camisole that’s probably illegal in most Middle Eastern Countries/Southern States. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, she’s mostly covered by her comforter, a big fluffy thing that looks like it’s made out of baby’s kisses and marshmallow love.

“He hired him.”

“Who hired who?” Aleksei says thickly as I pull myself up onto the foot of the bed. He starts to rise from where he sits on an oversized love seat, but the chair makes the sort of noise chairs make directly before they collapse, and Aleksei settles back down.

“Mustache guy …” I glance over at the TV, and read his name aloud. “Brian Cordwell. He hired the Grizzly.”

Aleksei’s face twists oddly, a sort of harlequin confusion. “That don’t make no sense.”

“It DOES make sense, at least partly. Look at all the attention he’s getting, he’s loving it. He wanted this. That’s what the receipt meant; it was a receipt for a villain. He bought himself a super-villain.”

Aleksei starts to talk, but Felicia shushes him. “Go on, Herman.”

“I don’t …”

I don’t know. I start to say it almost out of habit; I’ve never been the brains of an operation. I’m always the muscle these days, ever since the gauntlets. But for once, I do know.

Sort of.

“I don’t think Max knew what he was getting into. What I …” I try to organize my racing thoughts with little success. “I mean, I think there was a third party. I think that, jeez, I, uh, fuck, um —”

“Herman,” Felicia says, purring the R in a distinctly sensual manner. “Just concentrate. Tell us from the beginning.”

“Okay,” I say quietly. “Okay,” I say again, mapping out what I’m going to say. “First, Dead Husband, the guy you were talking about Felicia, him and Brian Cordwell contacted somebody. This person contacted Ravage, brainwashed him somehow, and put him under lock and key. They then found a time and place where superhero interference would be minimal, informed Cordwell and Dead Husband, and then set up some method by which they could kill Ravage and look like heroes. Ravage was supposed to be essentially a big green homicidal target shot at point-blank range.”

Felicia raises her eyebrows.

“What went wrong?”

“I think I did,” I say, shrugging, which hurts like a bitch and is totally not worth doing ever a-fucking-gain.

“I don’t get it.” Aleksei, of course. “What do you mean, ‘you did?’”

“I mean, Aleksei, that when I attacked Ravage I threw a wrench in the whole process. Somehow, my interference ended up getting Dead Husband killed. And then I accidentally kill Ravage, and …”

Felicia nods, and smiles. “And every party has a pooper and Cordwell’s was you. You ruined the act. Thus the angry phone call.”

“Exactly,” I say, smiling, which painfully shifts the mess of bandages on my nose. “But you’re missing a piece. Whoever the third party is that screwed with Ravage, they get scared; they know that the police will spend a lot of time on a corpse like his; in fact, I’m guessing however they planned him to die would’ve destroyed the corpse.”

Aleksei speaks up in another one of his occasional moments of clarity. “Like Grizzly; that way, the police couldn’t see what they’d done. That’s why they sent Venom to rip up Ravage’s body.” I give him a smile and a thumbs-up; I love it when Aleksei gets something right. It makes me … shit, I don’t know. Proud.

Hey, fuck you, too. Don’t laugh.

Felicia motions for me to continue.

“But only half the money was returned, see, Dead Husband’s half. Because whoever the third party is, we’ll call him or her the Villain Dealer, is still willing to fulfill his part of the bargain; he figures he’s got me scared with Bullseye, and there’s no chance of me showing up again, so he spends his time finding the perfect place, the perfect villain, the perfect climax, in this case Max’s electrocution. I’m guessing the Villain Dealer then contacts Cordwell, lets him know the new plans and, bada-bing bada-boom, Cordwell shoes up and …”

“Slays the dragon,” Felicia says, quietly, maybe a little angry.

“Well, he has to take us down first, but in the state Max has got us, that’s easy.”

Aleksei snorts indignantly. “So he didn’t even care that his friend got killed the first time around? What an asshole.”

“He didn’t care about his friend. He didn’t care about you or me or Ravage or the Grizzly. All he cared about,” Felicia says quietly, “was that he got cheated out of the glory.”

This is not only true, but also obvious, so it’s strange that hearing it out loud makes me a little sick. But it also opens a door to a question in my head. The cobwebs that’ve covered the analytical parts of my brain for so long are being peeled away. So many heists, so many “DIE, SPIDERMAN!”s, so many punches in the goddamn face.

Being defeated shuts down your brain after a while; all you can do is go out and get beaten again, convinced that this time, THIS TIME, you’ll win, this time, you get away.

It’s all linear. You really don’t THINK much.

But now I’m thinking.

“Why would someone with the power to brainwash a villain as powerful as Ravage bother with two-thousand-dollar payoffs from Regular Joes? It seems kind of petty, doesn’t it?” Aleksei shrugs, but Felicia nods. “I mean, where’s the Villain Dealer, FPS, whatever … Where’s he making the real money?”

Rhino starts to talk, but then a rocket hits him in the chest.

I blink.

Fire fills the room, and the impact launches him, that confused look locked on his face, through the wall, through a crawl-space and into the apartment next-door. He moans, sitting up, clutching the scorch mark on his wide gray chest, breathing hard.

The explosion knocks me stupid, rolls me across the floor like a bowling ball. A pair of open handcuffs flips through the air like a boomerang, one cuff catching Felicia’s wrist and the other snapping shut around one of her bedposts.

Oh, bite my bag and tell me I’m pretty. There he is.

“So,” the World’s Deadliest Assassin, the man known only as ‘Bullseye’ says, balancing a knife, blade down, on the tip of his pointer finger. “Who’s first?”

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