Chapter 17: Avatars, Part Fantastic Four

It’s 6:05 AM.

“Did you have to shave it all off?” I say, my voice a pleading whisper.

Felicia laughs.

“You looked ridiculous with the big clumps of it missing.” She runs her nails over my newly shaved scalp, and the sensation makes me shiver. “Don’t worry, Herman. It’ll all grow back; besides, I think you look sexy.”

And, with one word, I’m completely okay with the shaved head.

I’ll shave my skin off if it’ll make her think I’m sexy.

“I think you look beautiful, Herman.”

I tink you look boodaful, Hoiman.

Aleksei shifts on the waiting couch, and it cracks badly under his weight. He takes a bite out of his Eggo Waffle, slowly, thoughtfully.

“I think it works ’cause you got a really round head.”

“Great.” I sigh. “I’m an eight-ball.”

We’re in the long-abandoned barbershop at the back of the Tube, by the walled-in entrance. On the other side of those double doors is sixty feet of solid concrete in all directions, and then the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Everything in here is covered in dust, and the room is lit by two primitive yellow light bulbs, showing the mirrored walls on all sides. It’s an old place, really classy; everything is red leather, untouched for over fifty years.

And now Rhino’s big gray ass is sitting on it.

That’s fate.

I probably would’ve slept right through my appointment if Felicia wasn’t there; she must be one of those people with a built-in clock, because she was up at five-thirty, dragging me out of my hang-over and to the barbershop.

After I’ve gotten out of the shower, shaved, and toweled off and into my boxers, Felicia brings me a suit, a ruddy brown tweed thing that just oozes School Principal.

“Where’d you get this?” I say, less of a question and more of an accusation of a personal affront.

“There’s an old Brooks Brothers up by the entrance,” she says, lifting up a yellow flannel button-up shirt. “Everything’s still in there; even some crazy looking flapper dresses I fear I might have to abscond with.” She pauses for a moment. “Herman , do you have any idea why they abandoned this place?”

“The Norseman and the Human Torch fought through the subway,” I say, pulling the surprisingly comfortable brown slacks up over my legs. “Destroyed everything they passed; apparently, all the subway exits and entrances got smashed to bits, so they just —”

“Just skiddadled and poured concrete over the whole thing, leaving everything behind?”

Well, when she puts it like that, it’s a little shifty, yeah.

“I’ll look into it,” I mumble.

“I think —” She starts to say, and then her cell phone rings; her ring-tone is “Like A Virgin.”

She takes it out, flips it open, makes an unreadable face at the caller ID, and then puts it up to her ear.

“MJ?” she says. “What’s …” Her face goes pale. “I’ll be right there.”

She looks at me for a whole, silent minute. Aleksei does this kind of adorable thing where he looks back and forth from me to Felicia and back, like a little kid around two arguing parents.

But the only argument here appears to be taking place inside Felicia.

“Herman …” she says slowly. “I have to go.”

“Why?” I say immediately, childlike, whining. I’d hoped her boobs would give me strength during my meeting with Reed Richards.

“Something came up,” she says, with such authority that I don’t even try to question it.

At the door, I touch her arm and tell her to be careful. She shrugs me off like a layer of dirt and says she needs to hurry.

I suppose last night’s “Hold me, Herman” bit was a matter of necessity, rather than choice. Stupid me, taking an act of emotional desperation as a romantic overture. This is the fucking Black Cat, not some low-rent pity-case. The idea of a guy like me and a woman like her is patently absurd.

I finish getting dressed, and put on the brown derby-hat Felicia had picked out for me over my newly bald head.

Looking at myself in the mirror in this suit provokes a revelation; Felicia purposely chose the tweed-brown, flannel-yellow and brown-and-yellow-striped tie because it makes me look like a White Collar version of the Shocker. I can’t believe I didn’t catch this before.

And, looking at it now, I kind of like it.

On the subway uptown, Aleksei keeps giving me this big loopy smile.

“What’s up?” I say finally.

“Oh, nothing,” he says as the subway car takes a turn especially hard thanks to all his extra weight. “I’m just happy you let me come along. I never been to the Four Freedoms before.”

“Hey, something this important, there’s no way I’d leave you behind.”

Aleksei looks absolutely overjoyed, going so far as to wipe a tear from his eye.

Though what I just said is true, there’s a second, more important reason Aleksei is with me: put simply, protection.

Granted, the odds of FPS trying anything are pretty low, because of what I call the the “Day Job Rule.”

Let me explain a rather complex and bizarre phenomenon to you: If two super-people are fighting, and one of them dies, there will most likely be no official investigation. Even SHIELD will generally stay away, the idea being that because most vigilantes are technically villains, their deaths were comparable to the deaths of criminals during gunfights with the cops, and if there is any kind of mystery to be solved, other superfolks will handle it.

Fucked up, I know.


If a meta-criminal attacks and kills someone who is known to be a Super-Person “by night”, as it were, there will be a backlash, and often a very rough one. The murdered person usually becomes a martyr, and their alias, let’s say, in this case it was Daredevil, becomes more than a person, it becomes an Icon, a Symbol.

People, the general public, realizes hey, if they could kill Matt Murdock, they could kill me, too! And suddenly there are all kinds of police investigations, private detectives hired, and all manner of fame-seeking fad-riding vigilantes gunning for whoever killed this post-mortem superstar.

So Herman Schultz: Safe.

Shocker: In mortal danger.

When I said protection, I meant his, not mine. Aleksei doesn’t have a choice but to be Rhino; his costume doesn’t come off. And even though it might be more practical just to leave him back at the Tube, what I said before is true: It means a lot to me that he’s going to be with me when I meet Reed Fucking Richards.

Reed Richards. The man who discovered and applied Unstable Molecules. The guy who dreamed up the Molecular Re-Integrator, the Encephalograph, the Brain-Patternizer, the Beta-Ray Gun. The mechanic who created H.E.R.B.I.E., the chemist who cooked up Fire-Proof Plastic, the visionary who designed E.T.S.A.L. (extendable tactile sensory artificial limbs) and forever changed the lives of amputees all over the world.

Reed Shitting-My-Pants-Right-Now Richards.

As we get off the subway at 42nd Street and Madison, an old woman yells something across the platform and starts running towards us.

I’m a fucking idiot; the Rhino is a wanted man after his rampage downtown, and it’s not like any of the cops realize he was being mind-controlled. I’ve led him out into the open, and now this lady is going to blow everything.

“Shocker! Mr. Schultz, Mr. Schultz!” the older woman shouts. “Shocker!” she hollers as she catches up with us. She grabs onto my sleeve and my hand instinctively goes to my father’s old blue switchblade, which I’ve tucked into my coat pocket.

I stop, and turn to her, ready for the worst.

She embraces me, crying.

“Ma!” someone shouts further up the platform. “Ma, don’t bother him!”

I look to Aleksei, who shrugs and shakes his head.

The old lady pulls away. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “I don’t mean to trouble you, I don’t mean to embarrass you, it’s just …” She takes hold of my wrist. “You did a good thing, you know, you did a very brave thing.”

I’m lost. A young cop, the smiling, blue-eyed jock-type, comes up the platform, smiling at me apologetically. He’s familiar, but I can’t place him.

“I’m sorry about this, Mr. Schultz,” he says. “She saw you and just took off.”

“Don’t talk that way about me Michael, I’m not a child.” She turns back to me. “You saved my boy, you know that?” She says the words with such a strength behind them it shakes me a little.

That’s when I recognize the guy; he’s the cop I pulled out of the way when Venom/Scorpion was attacking the police station.

The first person I ever saved.

“I …” I say, completely speechless.

“You’re a good man,” she says, and slaps an open palm on my shoulder. She’s completely overcome with emotion. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, you hear? You’re a good, good man.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I feel like I’m going to explode. How did I fool this woman? How did I fool all these people? I’m not a good man; I’m a fucking crook! And here she is crying and shaking like I’m some kind of fucking saint, she should be fucking ashamed of herself.

A good man.

Why does it hurt so much to hear that?

She nods a few times at me, wipes the tears from her eyes, and heads off towards the escalators. The cop stays for a moment, and looks at me, smiling.

“Thank you.” I let out this kind of choked chuckle, and he looks to Aleksei. “You feelin’ better big guy?” he says, and slaps Aleksei on the arm.

“I …” Aleksei says, confused.

“You keep on slugging, okay?” He shoots me one last smile, and then heads off after his mother.

Aleksei and I stand there, mortified and exuberant at the same time.

“Why was he so nice to me? He’s a cop, Herman, I saw his badge.”

“I know, Aleksei,” I say quietly, heading over to a newsstand.

“I ain’t never had a cop be nice to me before …” he says, muddling it over in my head. “He said I should ‘keep on slugging.’ What does that mean? I ain’t slugging anybody, not right now. So what did —”

I pick up their current edition of the Daily Bugle, and do an actual double-take; it’s yesterday’s copy, and the cover is divided into three different photographs. The first shows Rhino charging at me on the street; a small yellow circle has been drawn around the black spot on the back of his head. Then there’s me on the street fighting the Gibbon and the Griffin; they too have little yellow circles drawn around their black spots.


Robbie Robertson; that’s the old black guy I helped out right before I got kidnapped by the Punisher.

Everyone reads the Bugle.


I buy a copy, and read it out loud to Aleksei as we head up onto the street.

It pretty much fellates the hell out of me, portrays me as some kind of cult hero fighting against a vast conspiracy. Sort of a Robin Hood treatment, the X-Files and all that shit.

Everything it says about FPS is stuff I already know, but near the end it lists two things I didn’t: prior to Ravage’s rampage, eighteen other low-level meta-criminals had acted “out of character” and “gone haywire” before being taken out by “innocent bystanders.”

It abdicates Aleksei of all blame, though it does implore both him and me to come forward with any and all information we have to a legitimate crime-fighting organization.

Yeah, Robertson. Like who?

I toss the Bugle into a garbage can, and walk out onto the street.

Oh, Jesus Christ.

We’re here.

“It’s … Big,” Aleksei says quietly.

Hell, yes it is.

At a hundred stories, the Four Freedoms Plaza towers over all the other buildings around it. They built it right on the site of their former headquarters, the Leland Baxter Paper Company Building (I have fond memories of it from my childhood, in between being dragged uptown to meet with my father’s gangster friends and then dragged back home for another lock-cracking session in the basement), after it was dragged into space and destroyed (don’t ask).

The Four Freedoms Plaza looks, for all the world, like an enormous temple in which to worship the number 4, down to the four gargantuan 4-s lining the top.

Aleksei and I go into the lobby, and I’m immediately floored by how fucking huge everything is. The FF have been sued so many times I’m amazed they still have money for all this shit. I walk over to the front desk, Aleksei lumbering along behind me, and I’m immediately addressed by some bitch who up until now was nose deep in a leather-bound copy of the Count of Monte Cristo.

“Herman Schultz?” she says, without looking up at me.

“Uh, yeah,” I say.

“Elevator on your right will take you straight to the 88th floor. That’s the seventh floor of Mr. Richards’ laboratory.”

I stand there waiting for further instructions, and the girl sets down her book and points to her left, my right. I nod nervously, and lead Aleksei into the elevator.

Eighty-seven floors later, I’m face to face with Reed Richards and Tony Stark.

Or rather, face to back.

Neither of them seem to notice Aleksei and me as we wander out into the lab, all gleaming steel surfaces, electronic equipment and stuff I can’t even start to identify. They’re too busy looking at one of my old suits; maybe the third one I built. They’ve got it rigged up to all manner of analytical machines; one of the sleeves is almost entirely ripped off, from where the chunk of rubble hit me after Spider-Man dropped the building on me.

One of my gauntlets has been dissected like an insect, spread apart on an operating table near the back of the room.

Stark, multi-billionaire and genius inventor of the Iron Man and War Machine suits, is wearing some kind of Armani suit tailored to him so well that when he turns to look at me it ripples organically and the sheer stylishness of it nails me to the spot for a moment.

“Oh,” Stark says. “He’s here.”

Richards turns, and his presence hits me and nearly knocks me down.

It’s not like he’s insanely charismatic or anything; he’s not. In fact, he seems downright dorky. But there’s some kind of weird vibe flowing off him, like pure unbridled energy.

“Mr. Richards,” I start, and then it pours out. “Ive-always-been-such-an-admirer-of-your-work-and-I-just-want-to-take-this-opportunity-just-to-say-how-much-youve-helped-me-Ive-read-your-thesis-on-the-theoretical-effects-of-concentrated-sound-waves-in-a-zero-gravity-environment-and-I-want-you-to-know —”

He raises a hand, and I stop.

“Where did you buy this?” he says, and points to the suit. I stop, stumped. Aleksei speaks for me.

“He didn’t buy it,” Aleksei says, proud of me. “He made it.”

“Ah. Hah,” Stark says, and smiles at Richards. “What did I tell you?”

“Mr. Schultz.” Richards starts slowly. “Where did you buy this? The Tinkerer?”

I let out a choked laugh.

“No?” Richards says. “Who then? Otto Octavius? Adrian Toomes? A Red Skull yard sale … Victor Von Doom, perhaps?”

“I …” I start, and then stop. I try again. “I built it.”

“Reed,” Stark says, smiling and shaking his head. “You’re not going to get it out of him with a telepath. Guys like this are all the same.”

“Hush, Tony,” Richards says, and takes a step towards me, friendly, comforting. “Mr. Schultz, I have a file on you; I’m aware of the extent of your formal education, and, after hearing that you’ve attempted to legitimize yourself and seeing the capabilities of your suit on television, I decided to contact you. I acquired an older copy of your suit from the NYPD evidence lock-up, and contacted you to ask after its original designer.”

He takes a breath, and smiles at me.

“Now, I’m almost ninety-seven percent certain you didn’t build this. Tony here is one hundred percent. It’s very important to me, personally, to talk with the man who did, so please, please, can you just be honest with me?”

There’s a pause, and then I say again, weakly: “I built the suit.”

Richards sighs, and his arm suddenly shoots off to the left, across the room, winding like a snake around a desk and a chair, lifting them up and setting them down in front of me.

Seeing him do the stretching thing in person isn’t cartoonish, the way it looks on TV.

In person, it’s really kind of amazing.

Stark motions for me to sit down in the chair, and I do.

Reed lets out a very heavy, disappointed sigh.

“I want you to write down everything you know about the suit, with a focus on how you believe it works. For this, I will pay you fifty thousand dollars.”

My jaw drops a little; he’s not even asking me about the gauntlets, just an older, inferior version of the suit.

“In cash?” I say quietly.

“In cash,” Stark says, and pushes a briefcase across the desk they’ve sat me in. “Right in here. For you to put everything you know,” Stark puts his finger on the paper on the desk. “Right here.”

“Oh, wow, Herman,” Aleksei says. “That’s a lot of money. You could buy like a truck load of Tootsie-Rolls.”

Ladies and gentlemen, my financial counsel, Aleksei Mikhailovich Sytsevich.

“Deal,” I say, and start writing.

Richards nods, half-satisfied, and heads out the door into another part of the lab.

I pick up the pen.

The Problem Is: Explaining the suit to someone new.

It pops into place in my head, and it starts to shake.

I start writing, and the problem shakes harder.

Stark grins at me, the sort of grin certain people have while they watch the Special Olympics.

Aleksei starts to hum “Hotel California.”

I try to ignore them, and continue scribbling down what I’d always thought was basic vibronics; occasionally I throw in equations and formulas of my own design to simplify the teaching process.

“Hey, Herman …” Aleksei says over my shoulder.

“Yeah?” I say, still writing.

“Reed Richards is really stretchy.”

“I know, Aleksei,” I say, erasing a grammatical error and then continuing on to the portion on the sub-physical dynamics of impact energy displacement using simple practical spatial terms.

“Do you think he can stretch every part of him?” Aleksei says. He’s clearly been giving this a lot of thought.

“I don’t know,” I say, maybe a little harshly.

“Hm,” Aleksei says. “Do you think he can stretch his … you know …”

There’s a pained pause, and then Aleksei says, in an almost pornographic whisper:

“Do you think he can stretch his belly-button?”

I drop my head to the desk, trying to control my laughter; writing has suddenly become impossible.

“I know, I know!” Aleksei says, enthusiastic. “Imagine him with a belly button like three feet long! It would be incred … incredulous!”

Stark, clearly holding back less friendly laughter himself, steps forward.

“Do you want me to take the Rhino outside so you can concentrate, or —”

Stark notices something on the paper in front of me, and snatches it away. He reads for a moment, and then looks up at me. “Are you saying that you’ve chemically reapplied orbital physics on a microscale in order to allow for absolutely zero transmission of inertia from particle to particle?”

“Well …” I say slowly. “Yeah.”

Tony Stark swallows, and his face goes a little pale.

“You built the suit,” he says; it’s a whimper of words that comes out all at once.

“That’s right,” I say, and smile my best smug-asshole smile at him.

“Reed,” he says, at first a whisper, and then louder. “Reed, come in here.”

A hand comes through the doorway and makes a waving motion. “Just give me a couple of minutes, I’m working on —”

“ REED,” Stark says, louder. “Get the hell in here!”

Richards’ head floats in, looking affronted.

“Tony, I don’t see what could be so important that —”

Stark sticks my paper out in front of Richards’ face, and his nose stretches out and grabs hold of it. He looks at it for less than a second, and then lets it go, ignoring it as my five minutes worth of hard work falls to the ground. The head snakes over to me, and after a moment, the body walks in from the next room, connects with the head, and sits down across from me.

“Herman, I think I misunderstood,” he says. His voice has this incongruous light baritone that makes him impossible not to listen to; it’s the voice of a patient father. “When you came in here, I thought you were some thug taking credit for another person’s creation.”

There’s a pause, and he looks uncomfortable and overjoyed all at once.

“I clearly didn’t understand the extent of …” He stops, and seems to think. “Simply put, by what’s written on that paper, it’s clear that I have vastly underestimated you.”

I don’t know what to say, but it’s all right, because it looks like Richards doesn’t know what to say either.

Stark, for his part, is just kind of staring at me cock-eyed, like I suddenly grew another head or something.

I guess in his mind, I kind of did.

“I want you to explain it to me.” Richards says. “No paper. Just words.”

So I start talking.

I tell him about safe-cracking, and the principles of vibration in the discipline.

He nods, and then asks questions about how I got into crime.

Family trade, I say. I continue on about going to prison, and then sketching up schematics for the suit and the gauntlets on napkins. I tell him about pilfering materials from every possible resource: transistor radios, microwaves, ceiling fans, mattresses, televisions, telephones, guards’ walkie-talkies, boom-boxes, dead inmates’ pace-makers, the wiring in the boiler room, a shotgun I managed to steal from the armory, pieces of washer-dryer I managed to get during a particularly nasty riot …

And this whole time, he’s listening. Really listening to me, you know? His eyes are clear and bright, he laughs when I make jokes, asks questions whenever I stop talking for more than three seconds …

He’s not studying me like an animal any more.

Now he’s treating me like I’m something entirely new.

I tell him how I put the first gauntlet together in the metal shop where we were supposed to be making license plates. I tell him how originally I only had materials to build one sleeve of the costume, so I could only use one gauntlet; if I try to fire the gauntlets without the suit, they’ll break my wrists on a level two, my whole arm on a level four and I don’t even want to know what they’d do on five; probably shake my arm clean off.

I tell him about the break-out and the first full version of the suit, with the simplistic onboard computer.

I tell him about inventing Scilonium, the material that most of the suit is made of, at five AM, high out of my mind on some pill given to me by Wilbur Day (who you probably know as Stilt-Man). I tell him about how I couldn’t dye it any other colors than yellow and brown, and about how I wired the whole thing on the basis of what I call “The Schultz Theory of Unified Vibronics,” which, up until now, I just thought was me bullshitting around.

He asks me to explain the way the suit works, how it displaces and reinterprets the energy of motion, particularly vibration.

I start to talk, but after twenty-five seconds he stops me, and laughs this strange, friendly, excited laugh.

“My God. This is fantastic.”

Is that a joke?

“Uh …” I say; that’s me, eloquent, well-spoken, debonair …

“I’m in over my head,” Richards says, holding his hands out, palms towards me.

“But —” I say, unsure of how else to respond.

“No, don’t you understand?” he says, his voice getting higher, happier. “I don’t understand a damn word you’ve just said; I know the words, I know you’re not just spouting gibberish, but I don’t understand.” He knocks his fist against his forehead.

“I’m … sorry?” I say slowly.

“Don’t be,” he says quickly. “This is the most excited I’ve been in years.” His head snakes over to the door. “Sue!” he shouts. “I’m stumped!” he yells gleefully, putting a slightly odd high-pitched yelp on the word “stumped.”

“Congratulations, honey,” a soft, female voice says from somewhere in another room.

His head whips back. His mouth curls into this childlike, ecstatic smile.

“I want you to show me,” he says, eyes wide.

Twenty minutes later I’m in the suit, standing in the center of a barren steel room.

Ben Grimm stands to my left.

A kid who I’ve seen one too many times on MTV stands to my right; it’s Johnny Storm, “The Human Torch,” in all his dubious glory. I’m just glad he’s wearing street clothes, instead of that ridiculous blue get-up he wears in all the posters plastered on the walls of fourteen-year-old girls throughout America.

I still have trouble calling him “The Human Torch;” whenever I hear the name, my brain shows me old black-and-white newsreel footage of Captain America and the Invaders. The bright white streak in the sky behind Cap and Namor … that’s the Human Torch.

Not this twentysomething pretty-boy punk-ass.

He grins at me.

I smile.

“So. I hear you’re a big brain, like Reed up there.”

“Like him?” I’m suddenly a yelping teenager. “Did he say that? Did he compare us? Did he say that —”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Storm says, holding up his hands. “Cool down there, Ritalin Kid. Don’t go Elvis Fan on us.”

“Hehe,” says Grimm. “We wouldn’t want him to get too excited, fall down and get arrested.” Grimm laughs again. “That’s a hobby of yours, ain’t it? Gettin’ arrested? Right up there with stealin’ things and hurting people?”

“Easy Ben,” Reed’s voice says over the intercom. “I want you to treat Mr. Schultz with respect.”

“Respect?” Grimm says, looking to Storm. “We gotta respect ‘Mr. Schultz?’ You gotta be jokin’; Reed, this guy’s a stain on the world’s undawear!”

“That’s an unfair comparison,” Storm says, smiling. “Not everyone’s underwear stains are as big as yours.”

“It’s understandable; he probably shits fossils,” I mumble.

“What’d you say?” Storm says, turning on me.

“I said …” I say, a little louder. “It’s understandable, because he probably shits fossils.”

Storm smiles.

“See? I like him already.”

At first Reed just has me do simple stuff; he has Grimm hit me a couple of times, and runs tests as the suit absorbs and disperses the impacts. The last one is a punch right to the chest, and it sends me flying right into the wall.

Grimm and Storm think this is funny as all hell.

I’m lucky I don’t break anything.

Then he has Grimm leave, and Storm turns up the heat in the room to well over five hundred degrees. The suit finally starts to singe at the seams, and Reed calls Johnny off, but he’s overjoyed to hear that my newer suits can handle up to 2,000 degrees, easy.

He makes an appointment for me to take what he calls the “Richards’ Standard”, some kind of IQ test, and then ushers me out the door; he actually comes down to the lobby with Aleksei and me, prattling back and forth with me about Vibronics the whole way.

Once we’re back on the subway, Aleksei starts giggling uncontrollably.

“What’s that all about?”

“What, Herman?”

“The giggling. What’re you on about?”

“Nothin’. It’s just … Is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“Are you like Mr. Fantastic said to me?”

“Aleksei, you’re going to need to form a complete sentence.”

He pauses, thinking.

“Are you a ree-vo-loosh-on-ary? Revolutionary?”

My eyes nearly bug out of my head.

“He said that? Did he say that?”

“Yeah, while we was up in the booth watching the Thing smack you around. He said you was a revolutionary.”

It hits me like an orgasm; suddenly I’m covered in a wave of euphoria.

It dies quick, though. Revolutionary. Little Hermie Schultz. No, no, Reed will have the suit figured out by Monday and I’ll be long forgotten. Two months from now I’ll be robbing banks for food money.

I remember the suitcase sitting by my feet, and the euphoria comes back.

Fifty thousand dollars. Holy hell.

“Come on, Aleksei.”

I say, standing up.

“Herman, what’re you doing, our stop’s not till the bridge.”

“I know,” I say, and smile at him. “First we’re going shopping.”

By the time we get back to the vault it’s five PM, six hours with the Fantastic Four and two hours of buying everything I could get my hands on in Midtown.

I reset all the security systems, unload Aleksei (he was carrying over three hundred pounds worth of loot; we weigh it on a luggage scale after we get it off him, and have a good laugh), and unpack our new big-screen TV. It’s a digital so big that when we put on our copy of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (one of our two hundred or so new DVDs), the Warner Brothers music booms out so loud even Aleksei covers his ears.

He smiles, though, and it makes me happy. He hasn’t smiled much since what FPS did to him.

My big friend looks so small there, sitting on the floor, holding his new Stuffed Black African Rhinoceros from Toys’R’Us tightly to his chest, watching Jimmy Stewart in black and white on the enormous screen.

I head up to the room I’ve designated as my own, plopping down in a bed I haven’t slept in in the better part of five years.

I listen to Aleksei laugh along with the movie downstairs, and I think about Felicia.

It just brings me down, so I try to stop, and I find I can’t.

She’s everywhere in my mind.

That’s when I notice the spot appear on the ceiling. It doesn’t form or grow or swirl, it just blips into existence like a cut in a movie.

I freeze, and then a single, torn sheet of paper falls out, and floats gently down to land on the bed alongside me. I very slowly reach out and pick it up.

On it, written in what looks like blood, are the following words.

“HErmAN — ITS JOHNNy. wHy Is a rAVeN lIke A wrITING DesK? HelP me”

Johnny Ohnn, once a close friend of mine.

The Spot.

A man who, up until about five seconds ago, I believed to be a willing participant in FPS.

And this is so damned confusing, it has to be a clue.

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