Chapter 16: Avatars, Part Three

Fighting is different from anything else.

Anyone who’s fought, really fought, can tell you that.

A lot of people, they get into a scuffle with a mugger, they get drunk and fight a stranger, suddenly they’re Captain America.

No. They don’t know what a fight is.

But then again, neither do I; not anymore.

Once you have a superhero battle, all other physical altercations are ruined for you. It’s like listening to a TV with the volume turned too low. You’re just going through the motions.

As a super-villain, when you fight a hero, everything changes. The world isn’t real anymore; you’re disconnected from it. That’s one of the reasons we wear the costumes; I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, the superhero game is just that.

The world’s most deadly game of dress-up.

Cars, trees, buildings, hell, even people become props, to be thrown, knocked down or completely destroyed as you please. Even your opponent sometimes blurs into fantasy; you think I ever thought, “Gee, I better not kick up the gauntlets too high, I might hurt someone!”?

No, I didn’t. Protecting civilians was Spider-Man’s job. Granted, I wasn’t going to go out of my way to hurt people, and in that way, I suppose, I was “better” than the other villains, but hey, if causing a car accident will prevent me from going to jail, I’m going to go ahead and vibrate that Camaro into the Honda.

They can sort out the hospital bills later.

I’m sweating. Badly. I can feel it pressed against my skin under the mask, soaking my hair; I’m a pig in the mud, trapped inside the suit with my own juices, stewing like a Thanksgiving brisket.

Eddie Lavelli was, is, and always will be a creep. He’s one of those meta-criminals who, prior to their own personal “transformation,” was just as bad as he was after it. He used to identify himself as a “Pro-Beater” when we both worked for Kingpin, before all the costumes and craziness.

What’s a Pro-Beater?

Well, Eddie was never a tough guy. A mean guy, sure, mean as hell, but not the kind of person you’d expect to work for the Kingpin; you’d think he’d be too busy at home beating his wife and screaming at his pathetic drugged-out kids.

He saves all that for his off-hours.

No, when he was on the job, Eddie was strictly business.

And his business was pain.

See, “Pro-Beater” was Eddie’s neat little euphemism for professional torturer.

But then the Eighties began, the heroes started really cropping up in droves, and being a six-foot, hundred-and-seventy-pound weirdo just wasn’t going to cut it if you wanted to inflict some serious hurt on, say, Daredevil.

So Eddie adapted; bought himself the suit of the original Eel, Leopold Something-Or-Other, and set about finding some seriously horrific uses for electricity.

Eddie is only good at one thing: hurting people. Emotionally, physically, it doesn’t matter, he will maim you and leave you for dead.

In this respect, on Edward Lavelli, the Tinkerer’s Volt-Suit was a perfect fit.

The suit is brilliant, but it’s nothing the villain world hasn’t seen a hundred times before. It’s skin-tight, with some sort of crazy generator system that allows him to fire bolts of electricity out of the palms of his hands.

Eventually, he broke off from Kingpin and went off on his own, teaming up with six feet, six inches of super-strong bitch that calls itself “Blitz.” They formed, “The New Enforcers,” and started taking contract work from folks like the Rose and the Arranger.

It’s an amateur name, “Blitz.” Verbs usually signify small-timers.

Eddie is a friend of mine.

Eddie is also currently intent on killing me, hired by the live-action-video-game-cum-murder-weapon called FPS, run, presumably, by the twisted inventor slash mercenary slash millionaire who calls himself Arcade. Unlike the rest of FPS’s unwilling participants, Eddie has no organic powers; without the suit, he’s like me:




His presence here, along with his goon-bitch, means only one thing: Arcade does not intend for me to leave Jordan Farrell’s apartment building alive. Sure, the mind-raped villains are the ones who’ll do the dirty work. But the New Enforcers are the insurance policy.

But I don’t need to worry about them yet.

My current problem:

Paul DuVall.

The Gray Gargoyle.

I’ve never met DuVall personally; only seen him on the news. He’s one of Iron Man’s baddies, and, as weird as this is going to sound, we don’t intermingle much.

The way Gray Gargoyle’s powers work: he turns to granite, which makes him super-strong. And then he’s got this Midas Touch thing, where he can turn anything he touches to granite.

Which is why he keeps trying to fucking grab me.

“Fuck!” I yell at him, turning and diving out of the way as he hurls himself my way, arms swinging closed in an empty bear-hug.

“Damn it!” he shouts, and lands hard on the asphalt, cracking it with his concrete chest. I hit him with three level threes, rolling him through the parking lot like a kid rolling down a hill. He hits a curb, bounces off and lies still for a moment. I stand waiting for him to move, and as soon as his finger twitches I cut out at a breakneck pace back towards the entrance to the tenement.

Blitz pops out from behind a support column, and I duck under a haymaker before turning around, grabbing her by the hair and bouncing her head off the column.

Still holding her by the hair, I slam her face through the driver’s side window of a Lexus, and then vibro-kick her right in the stomach. It’s a street kick, not any fancy karate shit, just a plain old boot to the gut, but the vibration, as usual, has a marvelous effect; Blitz bends in half and crashes to the ground, spitting out blood.

The Gray Gargoyle is up, and he makes a childlike series of scrambling grasps at me before I let loose a level three right into his face. He’s driven across the parking lot, straight into the path of an SUV speeding to escape the metahuman fracas.

It hits him like a battering ram, the front end folding entirely around his hyper-dense granite body, and then picking him up with its momentum and careening around the corner.

I run into the building, but before I even get all the way through the door, water spills starts spilling down out of all the fire sprinklers.

Not spraying.




I turn and take off down a maintenance hallway that looks like it hasn’t been used since 1975. Left, right, left, right, left, more yellow light, more dusty surfaces; this place is either a maze or I’ve already accidentally wandered into another building. Eventually I come to an exit, marked by one of those old neon “EXIT” signs; you know, the ones with red lights instead of green.

I run out into the daylight, but no sooner do my eyes adjust than something heavy comes down on my shoulders, driving me to the ground.

“Oo oo ee ee!” the Gibbon howls, and claws at my mask, trying to pull it off. I roll over and try to shove him off, but it’s no good; he’s too strong. He gives up on the mask and just starts beating on my chest and head; the suit dispels the impacts, and I activate the suit vibe on level three.

Vibrating the whole suit has never been pleasant; my limbs spasm and bounce around, and even though I’m insulated against it, the shakes still make me spasm and shake like a scarecrow in the wind. The concrete of the sidewalk cracks around me, making a respectable “Herman Schultz” imprint. The Gibbon, for his part, is thrown off.

Marty Blank’s body leaps up almost as soon as he falls off, and does a kind of boneless dance out into the middle of the street. A taxi screeches to a halt, nearly hitting the Gibbon, who looks more annoyed than anything else.

“Why don’t my arms work?” he squeals, and twitches his very clearly broken arms. There’s a pause, and then he says: “Broken? What the hell do you mean they’re broken! I paid thirty thousand dollars for this!”

Thirty grand, eh?

Steeper than the two thousand paid to be a hero. Being a villain runs high.

I start to stand up, but the Gibbon turns and smacks me across the face with one of his limp arms, knocking me backwards into a bear-hug from the Eel, pinning my arms to my sides. I immediately vibe the suit on a level five.

Aside from the pavement shattering under my feet, nothing happens.

“Oh, Herman.” Eddie coos. “You’re shivering.”

“How?” I say, my so loudly my voice cracks.

“Phineas based my suit on your designs. You can’t shake me off, old buddy!”

“No?” I say, and my brain screams at that demon in an old man’s body called the Tinkerer. It figures he’d take what little I’ve told him and use it against me.

My brain races; what’ve I explained to Phineas, and what haven’t I?

Vibronic-Insulation? Yes.

Fire-proof? Water-proof? Yes, yes …

Impact displacement?

Impact displacement.

“How about this?’ I say, and mule-kick Eddie in the nuts. He drops away like a leaf in the fall. The Gibbon bounces at me, wildly waving his broken arms, and I jump out of the way; The Gibon goes crashing through an electronics store, his face lodging in a digital TV.

Okay, so far this is going well.

Most of the people around us, the “innocent bystanders” you might call them, are running. Not even for their cars, just running; the braver ones among them, the ones who’ve lived in NYC for a while, they don’t bother trying to get away. They just take cover, and if you die, you die. That’s New York.

The big white-lion-thing from Farrell’s apartment comes down next to me.

“RAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRR!” the woman’s voice says with the lion’s mouth. Two level fours not only shut the lion’s mouth, but also pick it up and send it flying backwards into the side of a Pepsi truck.

And then I feel it; ten, yes, I think ten hooks sunk into the mask.

Those same fucking hooks that Bullseye used.

The mask slides up over my nose and I grab at it, but it’s up and over my head before I can do anything but stand there and say “… Hey!”

And then Blitz punches me straight in the face; it’s like getting bitchslapped with a two-by-four. I stumble backwards and bang into a mail-box, nearly falling over. I fire three blind shots at Blitz, and one must hit, because I hear a noise that sounds like a bunch of sticks snapping and Blitz say this wonderful little yelping word that sounds like “Eip!”

I touch my face, and it’s already swelling; I don’t think anything’s broken, but next time around I need to make a note: DO NOT GET PUNCHED STRAIGHT IN THE KISSER BY PEOPLE W/SUPER STRENGTH.

Something clamps down on my forehead, and it takes me a second to realize I’m in pain. The fucking Gibbon again, biting into my face. I instinctively vibro-uppercut him away, and he tears off a good portion of my skin in his jaws; my entire right eyebrow is now just a bloody mess. I hit him in the face again, grab him by the neck and shove him into a street light, face-first.

I hear a few of the teeth crack in his mouth, yank him back by his monkey fur, and shove my fist into his broken maw, vibrating on level two; his jaw breaks nearly off, and I kick him away, pushing my foot as hard as I can into his hip, which cracks like a saltine cracker.

“Damn it!” the Gibbon shouts, in no noticeable pain. He tries to get to his feet, and the shattered hip tears through his skin. He looks down at it, and furiously shakes his monkey-head. “Why’d I get the monkey? I wanted the water man!”

The Lion-Thing swoops past and hits me square in the ribs with an enormous paw, lifting me up and sending me soaring at a vertical angle.

My body turns in a slow arc, with me doing a full 180 before I realize that all is not well; my head isn’t covered. If I hit it, it will crack like a ripe watermelon. I throw my arms out uselessly in front of my face, then think better of it and hit the side of the building I’m heading towards with a level four; the plaster and steel comes apart like confetti. I hit the carpet of a second floor office space and smash head-over-feet into a copy machine.

Ooh. Stars. Pretty.

By the time I force myself to get up, the Lion-Thing is inside the office, and something clicks in my head.

This is the Griffin. I’ve seen him on the news fighting Namor and Captain America.

Okay, I’m well out of my league.

“Come out and fight, faggot!” the woman’s voice shouts, and the Griffin’s huge spiked tail whips around and smashes a fleeing secretary, squashing her like a bug against the wall. One of those big paws swats the head clean off a neatly-dressed guy still sitting at his desk. “I paid out my ass for this, make it fun!”

I start quickly crawling away, towards the elevator. Felicia must be safe by now; if I can get back to the sewers, my beloved sewers, I can get the hell out of here.

I hear a man scream and then a wet, squelching sound. The smell of raw shit fills the office. Someone’s stomach just got torn open.

Fuck him. Fuck them. Let the Griffin tear through this whole damn place looking for me, I don’t care. I want to go home. I want to bandage my face. I want to take a shit and jerk off thinking about that kiss.

I want to see Aleksei. Christ, I only hope he made it back to the Tube all right.

I want —

The Griffin grabs a fleeing fat woman by the arm, and she screams.

I stand up.

“HEY, ASSJACK!” I scream at the Griffin, who turns, the spiked tail whipping through a row of file cabinets. He drops the fat woman, who scrambles away.

“There you are,” the Griffin says, smiling.

“Here I am,” I whisper, and raise the gauntlets. Clear, this thing is impervious to the vibro-blasts; he doesn’t have a scratch on him, all my earlier shots did was knock him around; if I’m going to keep the Griffin down …

The Griffin drops his jaw and roars, shaking the entire office.

There it is. That’s my plan.

I run at the Griffin, and he does this wonderful thing where he actually takes a step back; the woman controlling him didn’t expect this.

“Hey, what’re you —” she says, and then I jump at the Griffin and shove my arm down his throat to the elbow and let off a single level three.

The Griffin explodes.

Just plain explodes.

Blood and organs spray everywhere. I let out a little gasp as the now-bodiless head slides down off my arm, and a bit of bloody fur gets in my mouth.

“YAGH!” I say, and then vomit all over myself.

Before I’m even done throwing up, the elevator dings and the Gray Gargoyle runs out.

“Flulck!” I say, spitting vomit, and start to raise a gauntlet, but the Gargoyle, or whoever is controlling him, is too quick. He throws a punch that I duck under, and then snatches at my face. I jerk my neck back and his fingers close on nothing.

He swings again, an open-palm slap at my chest, and I jump out of the way again; he overbalances and both his hands come down on a desktop computer, which rapidly turns into granite. I grab a computer monitor with both hands and smash it over his head, screen first.

It immediately turns to granite.

He tries to get it off; can’t.

“Hey!” he says loudly. “Hey, that ain’t cool!” He stumbles to the left, then the right. I kick him square in the chest, and he goes down flat on his back.

“Hey! He tricked me! Somebody help! Help!”

Like a little fucking kid.

Blitz kicks off a door from the stairwell, and comes charging at me. I try to pull a Matador and sidestep, but she grabs me by face and slams me against the wall. My vision blurs, my throat seizes up, and my face feels numb.

That’s called a concussion, kids.

“Hold him still,” says Eddie Lavelli, Pro-Beater extraordinaire, adjusting the power controls on his wrist. “We’re gonna have some fun with my old friend, Herman.”

I act without thinking; I grab a stapler off the desk next to me, pour the staples into my hand and vibrate them into Blitz’s face. She screams so loud it hurts my ears, and I headbutt her in the nose once, twice, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine times.

Blitz starts to fall, and I kick her into Eddie, who shoves her aside.

“You stupid fuck!” Eddie screams. “You think that’ll help you?”

He lets loose a burst of bright blue energy that carves a line in the wall where I just was.

“Eddie, please!” I yelp, scrambling between the cubicles. “We’re friends, we’ve had some good times, me you and Aleksei, remember?”

“Fuck you!” Eddie screams, firing off another blaze of blue energy, cleaving apart a desk as I crawl/run past it. “Fuck you and your retard friend!”

“Aleksei is not a fucking retard!” I scream. I stand up and take a wild shot at him; he dodges, and the level-three gets nothing but a printer, which it drives through a wall into a bathroom.

Eddie jumps up from behind a water cooler and fires a blue stream of electricity at me. I start zig-zagging through the cubicles, throwing level threes off at him wherever I can. I finally catch him with one, a clean hit right in the shoulder.

It knocks him down, but the vibro-dampeners in his suit diffuse the impact.

“Cocksucker!” he screams.

“Lavelli you prick!” I shriek. “Stay down!”

I fire another shot off, but he rolls out of the way. The carpeting warps and explodes upward in a tumult of shattered marble.

“It ain’t gonna help you, Herman! Ain’t nothin’ gonna help you!”

Eddie fires off a blast of the blue energy that catches me square in the chest; I’m lucky it doesn’t hit a centimeter higher, or it would catch my unprotected skin and I’d be barbecued. As is, it just feels like an enormous hand grips my chest tightly for a few seconds, and then I’m shoved backwards. I manage not to fall, and hit Eddie with a neat level three as he starts to stand up. It smashes him back through a glass meeting room partition, and I tackle him onto the long table, repeatedly punching him in the head.

I tear his mask off, vibrating it on a level one so all the insulation tears apart easily. There he is; the sadistic beaver-faced bastard I once called a friend. He spits out some blood and smiles at me. Turns out I knocked his front left tooth out, too.

“They’re gonna kill you, Herman. They’re dragging it out because you still ain’t their number one priority, but it’s comin’, man, it’s comin’.”

“I already know about Arcade,” I say, trying to shock him. Instead, he just laughs.

“Arcade?” He makes a fart sound with his split and bloody lips. “Arcade is just the tip of the ice berg, you stupid shit. You have no idea how deep this goes.” I feel all the hair on my body stand up.

Oh, fuck.

He’s charging.

“You have no idea,” he says again, and lets off an immense burst of blue energy. It knocks me off him, but it doesn’t kill me, like he thought it would.

The suit is built too good for that.

Rock beats Scissors.

I tackle him as he’s standing up.

My feet leave the floor; I got overzealous.

We both go through the floor-to-ceiling windows, fall six feet, bounce off the back of the Pepsi truck I saw earlier, and then fall the remaining ten feet to the ground.

Somewhere nearby, there’s the sound of rushing water.

I stand up hurriedly, and my ankle gives out a little; I must’ve twisted it when we landed on the Pepsi truck.

Turns out there was no need for me to hurry; Eddie hasn’t moved an inch.

The fall must’ve knocked him out.

I turn, and my legs give out; I fall against the Pepsi truck and let it hold my weight.


The gunshot is so loud my ears ring; the barrel was practically next to my head.

“JESUS!” I scream, raising a gauntlet, but I stop myself just in time.

It’s a cop.

A kid maybe twenty-three, twenty-four, blond hair, built like a brick shithouse; one of those guys who could either go varsity or be a cop.

He’s shaking like a leaf.

At first I think that he was firing a warning shot over my shoulder, but then I turn around and see Eddie on his knees, clutching his bleeding shoulder. His suit sparks a few times; the bullet must’ve broken some vital connections.

Eddie was faking me out.

Which means …

This kid just saved my life.

“You … you okay, Shocker?” the cop says, slowly lowering his gun.

Did the cop … did the cop just …?

Yeah. The cop just asked me if I was okay.

“I’m fine,” I say, and then add for good measure: “Nice shot, man.”

The cop smiles this befuddled, nervous smile, and holsters his weapon.

“Is that all of them?” the cop says quietly, looking around to where the Gibbon writhes in the middle of the street.

Is that all of them?

Well, the Gargoyle is stuck, the Gibbon is out of commission, Blitz is probably in a coma, I fucking liquefied the Griffin.

That sound of rushing water is getting louder.

There’s something very obvious here, something that I’m missing.


“Piss,” I say loudly.

“What?” the cop says.

I’m so scared I can’t even express it.

“You need to run,” I say, and a fire hydrant behind me explodes. A manhole cover up the street launches into the air. A sewer drain erupts with clear blue water. Another fire-hydrant explodes further up the street.

I duck behind the Pepsi truck, trying to get out of sight; wherever this version of Hydro-Man’s eyes are, I want them off me.

“I’m not fucking with you, kid. Run.”

The cop takes one long last look at me, and then takes off down the street, screaming at the remaining civilians to run.

An enormous stationary wave, a wall of water ten, now twenty, now thirty feet high is forming in the street, filling it up from building to building like some kind of biblical flood, the side facing me a rippling brick wall.

The Gibbon lies out in the street, pulling himself along with his chest.

“Damn it, Carlton!” the Gibbon shouts at the wall of water in that weird Japanese accent. “This isn’t fair! You got the most powerful one, and I’m stuck with monkey man!”

A laughing mouth forms about ten feet up.

“Oh, come on, Hiroki, all’s fair in love and war. I’m gonna smash this whole fuckin’ street flat, you included, to get to Schultz; the cambots say he’s still here, right under our noses. Brace yourself; they say the Death-Disconnect is a little jarring.”

If I run now, cut through the shops in front of me and just boogie-woogie through back hallways till I reach a side street, I know I can get away.

I know it.



There are no Hired Heroes this time, no-cut off. Nothing to stop him.


It flashes into my head, against my will.

The Bar With No Name, the Bronx, 1997.

Max sits across the table from me, smiling that World Heavyweight Champion smile; simple and unassuming, with a glint of intelligence and wit behind it that so many people didn’t catch.

His best friend Marty sits to my left, hairy face grinning out from under a New England Patriots baseball cap.

Max has just posed a question.

“Kids?” Marty says, and laughs, a very human laugh from such a strange creature. “I dunno. I’ve never put a lot of thought in it. How about you, Herman?”

I shrug.

“I could never be a father, not in this life. I’ve done too many bad things, way too quickly. I got absolutely zip when it comes to Karma. The kid would probably be a retard.”

“Or worse, a mutant,” Marty says, and Max and I laugh.

“Easy there, you rascist prick,” Max says. “Some of my best friends are mutants.”

Marty laughs, and eats a pretzel.

“So I’m twenty-seven, a former super-villain.”

“Super-villain is a bit generous,” I say, and Marty chuckles.

“Okay, a former criminal …” he corrects, smiling.

“Much better,” I say.

“Bravo, bravo! Long live the criminals,” Max says, his voice as big as his body.

“A former criminal, who, for all intents and purposes, looks exactly like a great big monkey. A damn sexy monkey, but a monkey nonetheless. I’ve got seven hundred dollars to my name, and I haven’t a fucking clue how I’m paying next month’s rent, or even putting food on the table. I’ve been a carnival freak, a bodyguard, a cat burglar and a janitor, and I’ve failed at every single one.”

He smiles, and looks up at us with those black and yellow monkey eyes.

“My kid would make Norman Bates look like Beaver Cleaver.”

We laugh.

Marty is a funny guy.

good guy.

Something in my head snaps like rubber band, and I go running out into the street.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I scream out loud at myself as I kneel down next to the Gibbon.

“CARLTON!” the Gibbon screams. “He’s here, he’s right —”

I shove my hand into the hole in the Gibbon’s head, and start firing at random.


The sound someone makes when they’re hit with a level four.

I yank my arm out, and the spot closes.

Marty Blank screams in unimaginable pain, and writhes in agony, his broken arms spasming violently as the muscles come back under his control.

“Be cool, Marty,” I whisper. “You be cool. I’m here.”

He lets out a long pained moan, and then hisses out a single word.

“H–… Herman?”

“Yeah, buddy,” I say, hearing the wall of water come crashing down behind me in a great torrential flood. I pick Marty up in my arms and hold onto him tightly as I’m hit by what feels like a brick wall, feeling cans and street trash rush by in a great tidal burst. For a second we’re above water, and I see a car come flying at us, swung on a great liquid tentacle.

I duck under it, and the water wrenches at me supernaturally, thousands of hands yanking in different directions, trying to tear me apart. I feel clumps of my hair torn out, my nose rebreak, my face split open in several places from the stress.

A single level five stops all that bullshit right quick.

The water sprays away from us and we’re left bleeding on the asphalt. I’m hurting in so many places the shock has numbed the pain, and I know it, which makes even worse.

Nothing broken, though; my damage seems to be all superficial.

I’m going to have some interesting scars.

“Marty, you still with me?” I say, spitting out water. He lets out a hacking, choking cough, and some bloody water-vomit pours out of the side of his mouth.

An enormous water-whip flies at me, and I hit it with a level five; it explodes apart, and slithers back into the enormous mass. Two more replace it, and two more level fives take them out, but then the mass swirls up into an insane conical vortex fifty feet high, swirling around me like a liquid tornado.

I scream, and start randomly firing off level fives, blowing holes in the twisting water walls for mere seconds before they’re sealed, and closing in, shrinking the circular space where I now kneel, holding Marty with one arm, fruitlessly blasting away at the force of nature that is Hydro-Man with the other. The water hits, crushes in on me, and then I’m flying.

At first I think Hydro-Man must’ve thrown me.

But then I get the balls to open up my eyes, and everything changes.

I’m two hundred feet up and rising, the enormous flood vanishing below me.

My arms are wrapped around Marty, who’s spluttering harshly, but an arm covered in black latex is wrapped around my chest.

Felicia sets the Broomstick down on the second tier of the Empire State Building.

She doesn’t say anything, just smiles sadly at me, and vanishes into a roof access doorway.

I’m shell-shocked, still shaking, but I know what I have to do.

The Flying Broomstick looks ridiculous parked alongside the bicycles outside of the Stark building.

“PETER!” I scream as I stumble into the lobby. “PETER PARKER!”

I drop to my knees, setting Marty down on the floor.

“I need Pedahh …” I say to no one and everyone, my words mushing in my mouth. The concussion is actually setting in now.

One of the security guards, armed with some kind of futuristic cannon, approaches me and starts to speak, but I shout dazedly in his face.

“PETER PARKER! HE LIVES HERE! CONTACT PETER PARKER AND TELL HIM I SAID, I’m the Shocker, I SAID YOU NEED TO PROTECT THIS MAN!” I shout, and point at Marty, who actually looks dead at this point. “YOU NEED TO PROTECT THIS MONKEY MAN! HE NEEDS …” My brain seizes up for a moment. “Um … He needs … Hoppy? Hoptowel?”

The word finally arrives.

“HOSPITAL! HE NEEDS TO BE HOSPITALIZED AND PROTECTED, BECAUSE … because …” I turn and walk shakily out of the lobby, straddle the Flying Broomstick and take off. It’s all I can do without passing out.

It’s all random images after that; I string them together later.

Flying on the Broomstick.

Dragging it down into the sewers.

Going through my security measures.

Aleksei standing in the kitchen, drinking chocolate milk.

Hoiman, you dun look so gud.

And then a solid twenty-four hours of sleep.

An hour after I wake up, I’m on the couch, going through my SHIELD Criminal Database.

I’ve managed to undress myself, and redress in a 1980s “Avengers: Assemble!” T-shirt and sweatpants.

After an hour of searching, I find the file.

His name was John Horton.

Alias the Griffin.

He was the product of a genetic experiment by the subversive organization known as the Secret Empire; old-school stuff, 1940s. I think he might’ve gone up against the Invaders.

And I killed him.

The panic doesn’t come as strong this time. In fact, after eight vodka shots it disappears completely.

Is this it? Am I becoming a killer, now? Is this me as a superhero?

Am I the Punisher? Or am I something even worse?

Sprawled out on the big plush couch in the lobby, and I’m drunk now, definitely and totally drunk. I hear Aleksei laugh in the next room; I set him up with some old Looney Tunes, and he’s loving every second of them.

But in between the cartoons, I can hear him crying.

A sound at the vault entrance; long, sharp scratches. Like a dog pawing at a door.

Or a cat.

I stagger over to the huge circular hinged block of steel, and numbly go through the motions of unlocking it.

I don’t even check the security cameras.

Probably a bad move, something to avoid in the future, but eight shots of Jager will do that to you.

Felicia’s slumped against the wall, a bullet-proof vest strapped over her usual outfit. Her eyeshadow, which she always over-applies (it’s the only make-up she wears, I think), is running down her face in translucent black tears.

“Felicia …” I say, and accidentally burp as I’m saying it, so it comes out as “FuURPlisha.”

She looks up at me, and says:

“It’s Pederman.”

Pederman? What the hell is Pederman?

“Spider-Man,” she says quickly. “I just saw on TV; this guy Morlun beat the hell out of him and tore his eye out. I don’t know where they took him afterward, but he was ripped apart.”

Tore his eye out?

Like, out of his head?

Tore his eye out?


“Oh, Jesus,” I say loudly, maybe too loudly. “That’s terrible.”

She shakes her head.

“Herman, stop that, I know you don’t care.”

Well, there goes that.

“I just came because … Well, to be honest, I’ve got nowhere to stay. I heard that FPS has people looking for me, and with New York in the state it’s in …”

“Do you want to stay here?” I say, way too quickly.

I’m so smashed I have to lean on the doorframe.

“No,” she says, equally quick.

And there goes that.

“I came here to give you this,” she says quietly, and holds out what looks like a formal invitation, stark white, with a simple blue engraving on the front cover.

A thick blue 4.

“It’s for you,” she says.

“Is this for real?” I say thickly.

“Delivered personally to Spider-Man by the Human Torch.”

“And Spider-Man gave it to … You?” I say, my brain free floating in the alcohol.

“Yeah. This morning. Just before he was attacked.”

There’s a silence, and then I take the card; it’s fancy paper, real high-class stationary shit.

Inside, in meticulously neat handwriting, is written the following:

“Mr. Schultz: I would be most appreciative if you would come to the Four Freedoms Plaza at 8:15 AM tomorrow. I believe we have much to discuss. I also recently got this enormous bin of pistachios as a gift, and you can have some.


Reed. Reed who?

I don’t know any Reed.


My drunken brain catches up to my drunken eyes, and I shiver so hard I nearly drop the letter.

Oh, my God.

Oh, my God. Oh my god oh my god oh my god.

Oh, my God.

Reed motherfucking Richards.

“Felicia?” I say, looking up, but she’s gone. I sigh and close the door, flipping back on the security toggles.

I turn, and receive a very pleasant surprise:

Felicia is lying, half asleep, on the couch; she must’ve snuck by me while I was reading the invitation.

I kneel down alongside her.

“Thank you for coming back for me,” I say. “You saved my life.”

She half opens her eyes at me and smiles.

“That was a very brave thing you did, Herman,” she says, a sleepy mumble. “For Marty. A very brave thing.”

Brave? Bullshit, it was just selfish, wasn’t it? I mean, the only reason I saved him is because I liked Marty, and …

I mean, if you save someone who you like, that doesn’t count, does it?

This woman is sexually involved with Spider-Man. Fucking SPIDERMAN.

That’s brave.

I’ll say what I will, but he’s the fucking brave one, not me …

I’m not a hero. I CAN’T be a hero.

“Herman …” she says, her voice so quiet I have to strain to hear it. “Will you … Would you stay with me?” I’m silent. “Just for … Just for a little while.”

I stand up next to the couch, and look down at her.

Even now, at her worst, she’s the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen.

I let out a long, loud, drunken sigh that lasts for about six seconds longer than I mean it to, and then climb over Felicia and wedge myself in between the cushions of the couch and her back, and then stretch my body out, framing hers.

She presses into me, and, maybe for the first time in my life, I’m intimate with a woman and not thinking about sex. She’s all muscle, and she could break me in half, but she feels so …


The way I always feel.

I put an arm over her, and she doesn’t move, doesn’t push it away.

I feel myself drifting away into sleep, listening to her breathe, smelling that wonderful smell in my broken nose.

I took on six super-villains, and I won. I fucking won.

Tomorrow morning I have a meeting with the smartest man on the goddamn planet.

And here, holding the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known in my arms, while my best friend’s loud snores resonate from the next room …

I feel Big.

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