Chapter 18: Avatars, Part Five

When I was fourteen years old, my father told me that if anyone ever hurt my sister, I was supposed to beat some sense into them. Later that week, my father caught my sister wearing eyeliner and lipstick and he beat the shit out of her.

Paradox, right? Wrong. Not to little beaten, angry Hermie Schultz.

I snuck up to my father’s room in the middle of the night, around three AM, when he’d finally gotten too drunk and passed out. I think that was the same night he was doing lines of coke on the couch with a few of the boys from the bar, but I can’t be sure. I reached into the drawer by his bed, where he kept his pretty blue switchblade, took it out, popped it out and stabbed him right in the ribs.

He woke up.

And then he stabbed me seventeen times.

I remember, when he took me to the hospital, he said told the nurses that some neighborhood kids had mugged me, and even though I was dying of blood-loss, I remember that I laughed.

Because after what my father had put me through the last eight years, those neighborhood kids were too scared to look at me, let alone mug me.

Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?

Good question, asshole.

Lewis Carroll, mathematics professor, LSD freak, pedophile and well-known author, first posed the question, or rather he had his character, the Mad Hatter, pose it.

It’s a riddle, left unanswered, in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, thrown out amidst the flurry of words at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party.

There’s been a ton of speculation since then; I searched around on the internet, but most of the answers I got reeked of bullshit. Carroll himself put forth the following answer:

“It can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!”

Yeah, that’s hilarious.

Fucking jackass.

But even he said that it was just speculation; originally he wrote the riddle with no answer in mind.

So why, I ask you, would a guy as smart as Jonny Ohnn choose an answerless riddle, written in blood, as the only clue towards his rescue?

It’s 8:15 PM, and I’m at my workbench, thinking. Aleksei is pacing back and forth behind me, throwing out the occasional theory. He smiles widely, and spits out stuff along the lines of:

“Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk? ’Cause both of them are things you might see during the day!”

When I greet this with only a stubborn silence, the smile slowly fades from his face.

“Well, geez, Herman,” he says, sighing a big Aleksei sigh. “You could at least try to put out an answer of your own. You know I’m no good with riddles.”

My mind flashes back to a painful memory; riding the train with Aleksei from Florida to New York (Kingpin Business), with only a big book of word puzzles to keep us company.

We traveled for three days.

I completed three hundred and seventy-eight puzzles.

Aleksei, with ample help from me, completed three.

“It’s hard, Aleksei. I mean, he clearly doesn’t mean us to take it in literal context, as the riddle from Alice In Wonderland, but at the same time it’s hard to apply it to anything else. Ravens and Writing Desks don’t make for a simple metaphor.”

Aleksei looks at me blankly, and then slowly says: “What’s a metaphor?”

This is useless; I’m trying to hit the problem head-on, and it’s not budging. I’ve got to stop thinking in flat circles and get three-dimensional.

The problem settles into place in my head, and starts to shake.

What do I know about Jonathan Ohnn?

Jonny and I are old friends; I actually met him about a year before I met Aleksei. We were both Kingpin’s technical guys; I was the safecracker, and Ohnn was the scientist. He’d had to go to Fisk after Roxxon fired him for what they called “dangerous and futile” experiments, the details of which I’ve never fully heard.

Ohnn was a self-titled “Dimensional Scientist;” he had this nutso theory that, by slipping between atoms (without splitting them), one could easily phase in and out of our reality; not into an alternate dimension, per se, but instead into a kind of “sub”-reality. You’d travel in real-space, just kind of “under” everything else,S like you were only the “red” in a 3-D movie.

Then, when you’d traveled to your desired location, you’d open another “portal” and hop out into the “real” world.

It was all based on the metahuman powers of the teleporting vigilante “Cloak,” half of Cloak and Dagger, two lame-brains swimming amidst the already crowded sea of New York superheroes.

The Kingpin got interested in this after he realized that, using Jonny’s theoretical technology, someone could effectively sneak into anywhere in the world.

Of course, at first we all thought Jon was crazy, we being me and a bunch of two-bit goons who couldn’t get through sixth grade chemistry if they were being tutored by Hank Pym.

Not for long.

With Fisk’s money behind him, Jonny invented what I was convinced was simply the world’s most menacing-looking blender. But then he turned it on, and any doubts I ever had about Ohnn blew away like dust in the wind.

The thing started spitting these flat, black spots all over the room. Everybody but Ohnn and the Kingpin panicked; a few people actually got hit, and having an inter-dimensional portal open up on their bodies was more than little disconcerting. Once the room calmed down, Ohnn took out a baseball, did some mathematical equations out loud to himself, and then hurled the ball into a Spot on the wall.

The ball popped out of a spot on the Kingpin’s desk, now traveling vertically instead of horizontally. The Kingpin snatched it out of the air, and smiled. And when the Kingpin smiles, trouble is never far behind.

Two days later, Ohnn did a very foolish thing; he attempted to use his “Spot-Machine” to teleport a human subject: Himself.

Dumb sack of shit. You don’t see me blasting myself with the gauntlets, do you?

… At least, uh, not on purpose.

Ohnn’s Amazing Teleporting Blender blew up in his face while he was in transit from one spot to another, trapping him halfway in the subdimension, and half in ours. The result was a clearly human creature with no discernable human features. Ohnn’s skin had turned stark white, and all of his features had melted away, leaving him looking rather like a colorless, designless, less-buff version of Spider-Man.

With one exception.

Ohnn’s body was covered in the spots; it secreted the dimensional gateways like sweat. At first, Ohnn was horrified: his face, hair, and lest we forget, penis, were all things of the past.

But it didn’t last long;

Once Ohnn realized that he could manipulate the gateways, stretch them and move them in any way he pleased, he immediately decided to strike out on his own as a super-villain.

Since then, Jon just rolled down hill. After a few rather ill-fated encounters with Spider-Man, he simply dropped off the radar and started working behind the scenes, helping out with simple bank robberies and larceny of a more innocuous variety.

Seeing Jonny in a suit was always laugh-out-loud funny, but it didn’t stop us being friends. He even helped me run a few scams on Osborn Chemicals back when they were big.

Before Osborn went totally ass-fuck-your-grandmother psycho.

Of course, this was back when the Frederick Dodson was investing, so —


Frederick Dodson.

“Shit!” I say aloud, and Aleksei yelps.

“Jesus, Herman, you surprised me!” There’s a pause, and then Aleksei leans close to me, smiling. “You got it. You got the answer, didn’t you?”

“One second.”

Frederick Dodson, aged industrialist and primary investor in Osborn Chemicals back when it was big. Frederick Dodson, who was so desperately lonely that he picked up what most people call a “trophy wife,” a wealthy young society girl by the name of Vienna Houston.

Vienna Houston, the daughter of Paul Houston, a father who secluded her from the world as a child, watching by as she buried herself in books.

Vienna Houston, who gives a great blowjob. Trust me, I know, she’s the second to last woman I fucked.

Vienna Houston, who, after murdering her husband, took on a costumed criminal alias.

Vienna Houston, who was so taken by, so deliriously obsessed with the work of Lewis Carroll.

Vienna Houston. Ohnn, you clever bastard; who better to ask for the answer to the Mad Hatter’s riddle than his best friend?

Vienna Houston. The White Rabbit.

Aleksei and I come up out of the subway on Fifty-third and Maine, and then walk the remaining seven blocks down to the Super-Duper Upscale Cheshire Estate (formerly the Dodson Estate). The neighborhood is strangely decrepit and empty; it’s as though it’s been …

Shit, I don’t know.

The word that keeps popping into my head is “cleared out.”

But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

To buy out a fancy block like this you’d need millions … no, hundreds of millions of dollars.

The last time I was at Cheshire Estates, about six years ago, it was for what had been quaintly titled “The Mad Tea Party.” Put in simpler terms, it was a Villain’s ball.

The Prom of Evil.

Vienna got smashed and we got it on on a black-and-white pool table. With those long legs and that tight little yoga butt, she’s probably to date the most conventionally attractive woman I’ve ever fucked.

Luckily, I wasn’t too drunk, and I believe I managed a respectable sexual performance. Better than the shit I throw out usually, at least.

It was a pretty sad affair; no big guns showed up, just us small-timers.

The heaviest hitter there was Jack’O’Lantern. What does that tell you?

The gates are covered in caution tape, the kind police leave behind after investigating a particularly gruesome murder.

I’m still out of costume, so I have Aleksei smash the gates down, and we head in. Originally, this enormous courtyard housed a number of ridiculously intricate topiary sculptures depicting scenes from Alice and Wonderland.

Now, however, it’s worn and gray, as dead as the enormous manor-house that used to loom over the neighborhood like a malevolent queen. Now it totters and creaks like a hungry ghost, angry and tired in its unending thirst for souls.

Several of the windows have been shattered, and there’s graffiti across the front porch detailing the sexual exploits of one “T-Money.” Apparently, T-Money gets all the big booty bitches in the butt.

Hurray for T-Money and his mastery of alliteration.

I pick the lock on the front door, and it creaks open with a high-pitched whine that sounds more like a sound effect than anything you’d hear in real life.

The foyer is empty.

Not dingy-smelly-crack-house empty; instead, it’s the big, wide, white-marble kind of empty you only get in places that are very rich. And very dead.

Everything seems vacant and hollow; all the furniture is covered in sheets, and a thin layer of dust sits on everything. Adding to the unease is the way the house is built; Vienna had the architecture ape that of “Wonderland;” everything is slightly askew, everything is just a little bit off. Lots of dark red and chalk white.

“It feels like we’re being watched by the eyes of a skeleton,” Aleksei says, another one of his strange bits of poetry.

“Come on, Aleksei,” I say, stepping inside.

“Herman, I wouldn’t go in there if they was handing out blowjobs and lemonade.”

A pause, and then I grab him by the horn and drag him in.

Of course, if he set himself against it, there’s no way in hell that I could move him. Luckily, I’m me and he’s him, so he shuffles along like a scared little puppy, as I walk ahead, not doing much better.

The electricity is still on; I can hear it buzzing. That’s weird; New York is usually pretty studious about this sort of thing.

“Are we looking for anything specific …” Aleksei says as we walk through the grand dining room, the table, formerly the Caterpillar, now a long, curving ghost under a succession of eight-by-eight sheets. “… Or are we just wandering around scaring the shit out of ourselves for no reason?”

I laugh, and Aleksei loosens up a little.

“We’re looking for Vienna, Aleksei.”


“The White Rabbit.”

“Ooh. Well … I don’t think she lives here no more, Herman.”

“I’m getting that impression, too, yeah.” I peek into a closet, and find only rat shit and the dead rat who made it. “But this is where Ohnn told us to go, so here we are.”

We head across the hallway towards the double doors to the ballroom

“But I mean, Herman, how do we even know Jonny wanted us to come here? Maybe we was supposed to find the White Rabbit somewhere else, or —”

I open the doors to the ballroom, and Aleksei shuts the fuck up right quick.

The smell hits you first. Blood, sweat and shit. Deep, raw shit; the kind that comes out when you split open someone’s bowels.

I flip on the lights, and dozens of pastel neon pinks, blues, yellows, oranges, purples and greens light up on the walls, forming murals from Wonderland, now decayed from neglect.

Everything is lit in an awkward fuschia glow, and Rhino instinctively takes a step back.

The ceilings in here used to be thirty feet high, but they’ve been effectively been lowered by the addition of an enormous hanging scaffold; on it sits the remains of some kind of enormous computer bay. All of the (probably very interesting) hardware has been cleared out; all that remains are dozens and dozens of monitors. All the cords lead down to this enormous generator, which hangs down like a sword of Damocles, connected to some kind of large device at the center of the room.

The device itself is one of those things that as soon as you look at it, you get a chill. I can’t imagine what it was used for, but I’ll try to describe it for you.

Okay, imagine the meanest looking crucifix you’ve even seen, made out of computer parts that look like they’re from about three hundred years in the future. But imagine that, instead of laying against the vertical bar of the cross, the person who’s crucified is actually jacked into it by a number of … I guess the proper term would be “penetrating plugs.” Into the back and into the …

You get the picture.

There are four more penetrating plugs on the arms, and all manner of hooks and restraint chains. Hooks that sunk into skin. Chains that went under muscle and wrapped around bones.

This is one sick fuck machine.

“Schultz,” a cold, gravelly voice says from behind me. “You got any idea what the fuck that thing is?”

I turn, and even though I knew the voice, the Punisher’s ice-blue eyes still give me a little chill of surprise. Aleksei drops into a three-point stance, and I immediately throw a hand up in front of him before he charges. Aleksei stops, and grunts in frustration.

“Sorry, Herman. I forgot he’s our friend now.”

Friend. Right.

Rhino Versus The Punisher might seem like an easy one to call, but I guarantee you that Rhino would be dead in seconds. There’s a reason guys like him and me are the lowest of the low on the villain totem pole.

The Punisher smiles a skeleton’s smile, and steps ahead of us, running his white-gloved hand along the side of the … device.

“Looks like a fun little toy for Saturday nights, yeah?”

“I don’t know,” I say quietly. “But I’m guessing it’s nothing pleasant. That up there looks like some kind of energy converter, but all of these dangly things are intravenous tubes, and they’re hooked up to that in-out sixty-one, which would mean they were just … just vacuuming out bodily fluids. And that thing on the pylon, that almost looks like … Shit, I don’t know, a marionette rig.”

“Marionette …” the Punisher says slowly. “Like a puppet?”

“No, more like a wire rig. Like they used to work animatronic monsters in Eighties movies. Those tensile cords —”

“The ones with blood on them,” Punisher adds.

“Yeah. Those usually ran throughout a puppet’s body, and then they’d manipulate it using a control panel, tensing and loosening the wires.”

There’s a pause as the implications of this sink in.

“You’re saying …” Aleksei says quietly. “The guy on this thing had wires in him? Like inside him?”

“Yeah,” I say quietly. “And they’d move him around on this pylon here —”

“Which was inserted into his spinal column and anus,” Punisher says helpfully.

“Right,” I say, glancing at Aleksei, who shudders.

“This is scary, Herman.”

“I know, Aleksei. We’re dealing with very scary people.”

Punisher notices something at the base of the device, and kneels down; it’s so small, miniscule even, half concealed by blood splatters, that I would’ve never noticed it.

“Huh,” says the Punisher, and beckons me to kneel beside him.

There, inscribed at the base, is the following:


I read it out loud.

“CSA,” Punisher says, annunciating each letter. “Now what the hell is that?”

I shrug, but then Aleksei speaks up.

“I know what that is,” he says, almost monotone. “It’s the Commission for Superhuman Activities.”

“The what?” I say, baffled.

“The Commission for Superhuman Activities. General Haywerth is on it. He was there when they put the suit on me.”

“Haywerth,” Punisher whispers. “I know that name. He’s part of the Trust.”

“The what?” I say again, feeling quite stupid right about now.

“The Trust.” Punisher stands up. “The organization that first had me freed from Ryker’s Island. I’ve never been able to find out anything about them, no matter how hard I look, save for the fact that some top military geeks were involved. I’ve got names, but no real details: General Slinkard, Colonel Harrison, General Haywerth, General Ross —”

I do the unthinkable. I interrupt the Punisher.

“Hold up. General Ross? Like ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross?”

Punisher lights a cigarette.

“Yeah,” he growls.

“Yeah, that’s them,” Aleksei says. “Them’s the guys who put the suit on me.”

He’s got this odd, hollow tone; his eyes are blank, too.

“Wait, wait …” I say, throwing up my hands. “I thought the KGB put the suit on you?”

“They did,” Aleksei says, and then pauses. “I mean, I think they did.” Another pause. “My head hurts.”

I look to the Punisher, who stays quiet, looking evenly back at me.

“Schultz …” he says, and touches his temple. “This is getting very interesting.”

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