Chapter 13: Prelude To: Avatars

“I know you wanna leave me,” Otis Williams of the Temptations croons. “But I refuse, to let you go.” A fluorescent lightbulb flickers to life in front of me, hanging off a chain. “If I have to beg and plead, for your sympathy,” Otis sings, and I realize that not two inches away from my face is another face, but this face is upside-down. “I don’t mind, ’cause you mean that much to me; I ain’t too proud to beg.”

If a Colt Peacemaker had a face, that face would be the face of the Punisher.

“Baby, baby, please don’t leave me, girl.”

It’s all hard-lines; even the parts that should be rounded off are squared away into angles; I know it’s ridiculous, but I’d swear that even his eyes aren’t round.

They’re hexagons.

Cold, blue-white hexagons that show no emotion; the iris and the pupil look painted-on, like the orb itself is made of marble.

“If I have to plead, baby, baby, please don’t leave me, girl.”

He smells, surprise surprise, like gunpowder and blood.

Gunpowder, blood and something else … What is that?

Oh, that’s right. He smells like ballpark hotdogs: ketchup, mustard and relish.

Damned if I know why.

Of course, I can’t smell much with my nose in the shape it’s in anyway; the blood I smell is probably my own, leaking through my sinuses. I must’ve passed out in the trunk again, and when I woke up, I was in the position I am now, which, now that I’ve gotten my bearings, is not a pretty one.

I’m hanging by my feet upside-down from a ceiling pipe in the dank basement of what must be a low-end housing project, converted into what appears to be, plain and simple, a torture chamber. Spikes, drills, razors, stretch-racks, electroshock rigs …

This place is a nightmare. A living, breathing nightmare.

And oh, it is breathing, it is very much alive. Much more so than the man in front of me in the vest adorned by that enormous white jawless skull. This place hisses and screams and bleeds and sobs; this place has become him, and he has become merely a tool, a piece of scenery.

I’ve heard stories about this guy.

The Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, said that the Punisher has no soul.

At the time, I thought, haha, hypocrisy, irony. Now, looking at those dead blue hexagons, I think I’m starting to understand.

He seems to notice I’m awake for the first time, and he smiles. But it’s not a human smile, not an expression of joy or satisfaction or even cruelty. It’s just another configuration of his face, another dead, cold mask, like somebody painted a smile on a skull.

He’s dead inside. Rotten. A decomposed soul.

“Hello.” He doesn’t actually say the word so much as mouths it. “Do you know who I am?’

“I know you’re —”

He runs an electric current through the chain, and my body buckles upward. I vomit, and it goes up my nose and into my eyes.

“MRPH!” I scream, and Punisher smiles the dead smile again.

“One-word answers only, please.” He wipes the puke off my face with what looks (and smells and feels) like a used garage rag. “Now. Do you know who I am?”

After spitting out some puke, I say “Yes.”

“Excellent.” He goes around behind me, and I hear him screwing around with something. There’s a whirring sound. “Do you know what FPS is?”


“What is it?”

“It’s an orga–”

Another electric shock, and my body spasms a few times, leaving me swinging loosely. I’m bad at this game.

“One word, remember?”


“What is FPS?”

I think for a moment.


There’s a silence, and Punisher stops whatever he’s doing.

“What kind of game? Your cooperation has upgraded your vocabulary to two words.”

I try to think of the two most effective words in the English language to say “A game in which super-villains and paying volunteers are pitted against one another by telepathically controlling aforementioned super-villains, probably devised by the sadistic madman called Arcade with help from the Spot and someone with a mind-control technology, and assisted by numerous dangerous criminals, at least some of them on Bullseye’s level.”

I come up with:

“Death game.”

Punisher reappears, holding what looks like a long, thin needle, glowing with heat. It must be around 170 degrees; metal only glows like that when it’s beyond hot.

“A death game. Well, seems like you’ve got the idea, Schultz.”

He moves scary fast, and then the back of my neck feels cold, my body writhing away from it out of my control.

“AAHHHFUUUUCKKKKYOOOUUUU!” I scream, and I hear the Punisher laugh. He pulls away and wipes some blood off the needle, and then smiles at me and hits a winch which slacks the chain holding me up.

I drop to the ground on my shoulders, and my legs flop down over my head for a minute before I shake my body straight.

“Uuughhhh …” I say, the back of my neck starting to feel very hot indeed.

“So, Schultz …” His thin lips curl into a smirk. “You must be pretty confused right about now.”

“Yes,” I manage through the heat that’s now leaking from the back of my neck and into my head; he burned me deep. He’s completely psycho, the sort of schizoid freak who would’ve ended up as a closet murderer, poisoning traveling salesmen or chopping up teenage girls.

But fate had other plans for him.

The story behind the Punisher, as I’ve heard it, is that he went to Sin Cong, and came back fucked in the head. Things only got worse when somebody (I’ve heard everybody from the Kingpin to the High Evolutionary) whacked his family.

Shot the hell out of his wife and kids, right in front of him.

Since then he’s been like a disease that crime syndicates can catch; Punishillis. Punishitis. The Punishment Syndrome.

He kills without mercy, hesitation, or even thought, really. If you get in his way, you are very much a dead man.

And he’s right. I am confused, namely because I am still alive.

“What’re you thinking about right now, Herman?” He squats down along side me, dabbing something cool on my neck. I start to speak, but then he raises a finger. “You’re back to one word.”

For some weird reason, I choose the word “Rhino.”

“Rhino?” Punisher says, and this weird look comes into his eye. “Aleksei Sytsevich, your friend who I watched smash sixteen people to death yesterday. You’re worried about him?”

Christ, yesterday? How long have I been here?

Am I worried about freaking Rhino? Why did I say that? Why did I …

Man, I’m a mess.

“Don’t,” I say, hoping he’ll take the bait.

“Don’t what?”


“Don’t hurt who?”


Punisher pauses for a moment, and then shakes his head.

“Why would I hurt Rhino? When a person is killed, you destroy the murderer, not the murder weapon.”

A moment of understanding through the pain: Punisher knows.

Punisher knows about FPS, or at least the mind-control aspect.

I’m not alone in this. Someone else has figured it out.

Which begs the question …

I point at the back of my neck. “WHY?”

Punisher smiles the dead smile, pulls down the lycra collar of his uniform, and displays a nasty burn on the back of his own neck. Okay, so he’s got one, too. Great, now, what, we’re blood brothers?

“Think of it as a vaccination against unwanted parasites.” He dips the needle into a bowl of murky water, and it sizzles. “Ohnn’s spots can’t project the music through scar tissue.”

This stops me dead.


“Yes, Jonny Ohnn, you know him?”


“That’s right.”


The Punisher nods. “If you can call it that; sort of a cacophonous noise, like an electric guitar. It comes through the spots Ohnn lays down; if you’re listening for it, you’ll hear it, but don’t listen too hard. I used a KMP Hearer while Markham was going nuts, and I ended up stumbling around a deserted office, flailing my arms and going ‘RAAAH.’ Mind control, eh?” He lights a cigarette. “Scary shit.” He takes a drag, and blows the smoke out up into the thick air of the basement.


Punisher laughs, a strange barking sound that’s barely human. “Friends? Who, you and me? Fuck no. Would your friend do this?” Again, he moves too quick to see; he shoves the lit end of the cigarette into my left temple, searing deeply into the skin.

“YARHG!” I say, extra-coherently, and slap a hand over the burn as he pulls away.

“Guys like you disgust me, Schultz. Spend your whole life stealing, and hurting, and cheating others, and then one day, poof, you have a revelation. No! Oh lordie lordie lordie, forgive me for my sins, I was misled.” Punisher leans down next to me. “Let me ask you something, ‘friend’: Do you think those shits you saved on the bus, do you think they make up for all the people you’ve hurt? The people you’ve killed?”

“I haven’t killed anybo–” He slaps me across the face; it feels like a punch. The guy is made of stone.

“Haven’t killed anybody, my ass. You’ve been in the Sinister Six; one of its more pathetic incarnations, but still deadly. You stood alongside killers, and did nothing to stop them. And as long as you stand by, you’re as guilty as they are.” He stands up, and goes over to a table full of guns. “So, no, Herman. You and I are most definitely not friends.” He loads a pistol, and about now I’m looking for a way out.

Why would he burn me just to shoot me? Fuck it, I don’t care. My hands are unbound, but my legs are still chained; the chain has about seven feet loose on the floor, and then goes through an electric motor (with a handy crank on the side), run between winch and pulley, up the wall, across the ceiling and through another pulley, down to where I was hanging.

On the floor, carelessly discarded less than two feet away from me, is an Allen wrench.


The Punisher’s back is to me. Because he’s the Punisher, and I’m the Shocker.

His mistake.

I reach for the Allen wrench, and I hear him load a pistol.

“Don’t try it, Shakes.” Punisher turns, pistol raised. “I’m not going to kill you, and there’s no point in making me give you a flesh wound.” He shakes his head. “You and I are on the same side. Neither of us like FPS; actually, in your case, it’s more that they don’t like you.”

“Oh?” I say quietly. They don’t like me? That’s probably bad.

“Yeah. You put a fly up their ass something fierce. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve intercepted with the byline ‘Eliminate The Shocker’ or ‘Such and Such canceled due to Shocker’s interference.’ It’s charming, really.”

He leans down and unbuckles my ankle-cuffs. I stand up and then immediately shrink away from him.

“I even intercepted a personal communiqué from Slug reading ‘Why hasn’t anyone killed that stupid fuck?’ High honors, Schultz.”

The Slug. A superhumanly obese fortysomething with his sausage fingers in everything from drugs to white slavery. Figures he’d have a fat pinky in FPS.

“Arcade,” I say.

Punisher raises his eyebrows, then nods.

“Cerada. Arcade. Heh, he must be running the machinery of the damn thing; I’m amazed I didn’t think of that. Good call, Schultz. C’mere.” He beckons me with one white-gloved hand, and I inch towards him. “Hit me.”

A pause.

“Come on, asshole. Hit me.”

I’m so scared right now it’s ridiculous. My brain keeps flashing me the image of me hitting him, and then him bringing up the pistol and blowing my brains out all over the floor. I fight through it, and I hit the sunuvabitch.

It’s a no-joke punch, either; a straight right into his face, hard as I can.

He doesn’t even blink.

“I like it,” he says, and nods approvingly. “You’re gonna do fine.”

“Fine?” I ask, still a little shaken by the fact that I just hit this guy as hard as I could and he didn’t move, at all. Not even a little bit. Didn’t even take a step back.

“Yeah. You and I are going to be working parallel.”

“Uh … huh?”

“Parallel. You just keep going at FPS your way, and I’ll handle them …” He clicks off the safety on his pistol. “My way. Eventually, if all goes well, we’ll meet up again when we’ve chipped away till there’s nothing left. You should have some extra incentive, now that they’ve fucked with your friend and torched your place.”

My eyes go wide.

“Torched my place?” I yowl. Punisher smiles, a real, genuine, sympathetic smile.

BAM. A punch to the face, and everything is darkness.

When I wake up I’m floating face-down, and I can hear Punisher’s muscle car motoring away through the lapping of Atlantic Ocean in my ears. I splutter bubbles and yank my head up out of the water, the salt water stinging the burn on my face and the open wounds that are my nose and my ear.

I’m in a wharf, a sea-eaten old place probably abandoned for not under ten or fifteen years. I pull myself up a ladder onto the dock I was most likely thrown off, and find the Flying Broomstick, newly decorated with a single small Punisher Skull on the side. The vibrosuit is sitting on top of it, along with the gauntlets and a yellow piece of note-paper.


Don’t Die Before I Can Kill You. I guess that’s version of “Kisses and Hugs.”

Twenty minutes later, I’ve got my clothes on, and I’ve almost managed to drag the Broomstick all the way down the dock to the boathouse; the thing is heavier then it looks.


Tell me I didn’t hear that.

There’s a silence, and nothing happens. No Spider-Man. Which means the thwip was probably, no, definitely the water splashing up against the dock. It’s getting dark, puffy gray rain clouds covering the last vestiges of sun.

Christ, I’ve got a fucking headache.

So. My place has been torched; if Punisher said it, it’s true. I shouldn’t go back; they’ll be watching for me. I’d show up and boom, they send someone like Deadshot, or Taskmaster, or Deadpool.

Deadpool would be a fucking nightmare.

And I just cleaned house. Figures.

So, first thing, I go to one of my back-up places; either the Tube or the Olmec.

Then, Rhino.

Then … Who? Felicia? No, she’d never … Would she?

Phineas already sold me out, making those fucking hooks …

My hand touches where my ear used to be, and I wince.

So, who then, who, who, who …

“Sir?” a voice says, and I jump nearly out of my skin. A guy almost my age, maybe thirty-one, thirty-two, is standing just up the dock from me. He must’ve come around the boathouse from the street.

I think about blasting him, just out of habit, but manage to stop myself. I smile at him; I’m lucky I didn’t put on the mask, along with the suit.

“Yeah?” I say; I’m a guy in a yellow and brown vibrosuit, dragging what looks like a miniature 1950s Moon-Rocket. “Yeah” seems the only appropriate response.

The guy laughs awkwardly, then scratches his head.

“I heard you from the street, you know, cursing and dragging that thing. I thought maybe you could use a hand.”

This is too good to be true. And there’s something likeable about the guy, something friendly that predisposes you to trusting him; if he’s an FPS assassin, he’s a damn good one.

“Do you know who I am?” I ask in a tone that sounds more retarded than menacing.

“You’re the Shocker, right? I saw you on TV yesterday, saving all those people from the Rhino.”

“TV?” I say quietly. “No shit?”

“No, man, you’ve been all over. You used to be a bad guy, right?”

A pause. Punisher’s words echo in my head.

“I still am a bad guy,” I say quietly.

“Well, you did right by me,” the guy says, and walks over. “So, Shocker, you need a hand with that or what?”

I look up the dock where I started dragging the Broomstick; that was twenty minutes ago, and I’ve maybe moved it eight feet.

“Yeah. I could. But don’t call me Shocker; when I’ve got the mask off, I’m Herman.” I stick out a hand, and the guy takes it; he shakes hands like an excited kid, clenching my wrist with his free hand.

“I’m Peter,” the guy says. “Peter Parker.”

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