Chapter 19: Avatars, Part Six

Millipedes are vegetarians.

Centipedes are carnivores.

Did you know that if a grasshopper is hungry enough, it’ll eat the paint right off your house?

I learned all that from Aleksei.

“Snails have teeth,” he says as we exit Vienna Houston’s dead house.

It’s like this information piles up inside him; some time back, he must’ve read a book on bugs, or more likely, seen a TV program, and the knowledge is just kind of rattling around in that thick head (or neck, as the case may be; that’s a joke for folks who’ve been paying a-goddamn-ttention) of his. And if he tips the wrong way, the information spills out.

Punisher steps out of the door behind us, and flips me a silver dollar which I fumble, but manage to catch just before it hits the dead grass.

“Buy Aleksei ice-cream,” he says, and starts to go back into the house.

“Wait!” I practically scream, and he stops.

“What?” It pops out of him like he wants to bite me.

“What about the … machine?” I have to know.

“I’ll take care of it. I’m going to burn this whole place to the ground.”

“But —”

“No. Listen to me, Schultz; if they left it behind, it means we can’t get jack shit out of it. We’re not dealing with amateurs. All we’ve got in there is a faded picture of something very bad. You can see the shape, but you can’t know its face, not really.”

“But —”

“Tell me …” the Punisher says, his voice dropping to a dead calm, with a thousand years of silence after every word. “Do you want to fight about this, Schultz?”

My fists spastically clench and unclench.

Do you want to fight about this, kid?

That’s what my dad always used to say.

The equipment in there could tell us lots of things, couldn’t it? I mean, that rig, that crucifix thing, that must mean something, that must be how they control the FPS Avatar Villains, or …

No, that doesn’t make sense. Who would pay to have that horrible thing put on them? Put IN them?

Well, I mean, I could take it to Reed, or —

“I know what you’re thinking,” Punisher says, taking out a cigarette. “Take it to your new buddy Richards.” He grins. “Oh, yeah, I know about that. Well, cut those thoughts right out of your head. You know how that freak got his powers?”

“Yeah,” I say, a little too aggressively. “The Pocket Rocket.”

“Right.” He smiles. “And you know where the Pocket Rocket was built?” There’s a silence, and then I shake my head. Punisher smiles and lights his cigarette. “Alamogordo. He’s got heavy ties to SHIELD, got his business all tangled up with Tony Stark’s … For all we know, your stretchy buddy could be in on this.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I say slowly, realizing how stupid what I’m saying is before it even gets all the way out of my mouth. I don’t know Reed Richards. For all I know, he keeps little boys tied up in the basement; half of those super-freaks are probably perverts as it stands, what’s to stop him from being one of them?

For all I know, the whole “Herman Schultz is a genius” bit was him just schmoozing me for FPS … or the CSA … or … Jesus Christ, Herman, what’ve you gotten yourself into now?

“So the choice is yours, Schultz. Fight past me to get to junk that won’t help you anyway, bring it to your SHIELD friends and catch a bullet in the face, or go get your friend ice cream. Your call.”

I groan, and, as usual, back down.

“You think SHIELD is involved? In FPS?” Aleksei looks to me, confused. “But SHIELD are the good guys!”

“No,” Punisher says, as thunder booms cinematically in the night sky above us. He nods to me. “We’re the good guys.”

We? Us? He’s a cold-blooded murderer who’d shoot through a loaded school bus if that was the only way he could hit the Kingpin, and I’m a sleazy crook with daddy issues whose only friend is a two-ton retard. We’re the good guys? Man, the world is in a shitload of trouble.

Punisher says he’ll be in touch, and we head down the street.

When we’re halfway up the block, the Cheshire Estates explodes.

Little chips of debris rain down on us, and Aleksei looks sad.

I ask him why over a bowl full of hot-fudge sundae at a Baskin Robbins in Coney.

“It’s just …” He heaves a sigh. “I don’t like it, Herman. I feel like everyone is the bad guy all of a sudden, and … Couldn’t you just be you again?”

“Eh?” I try to ignore this, hoping he’ll drop it.

“I mean, couldn’t you just be, you know, the Shocker. Rob a bank or something, or even, you know, me and you could go to the Kingpin and ask if he needs anybody roughed up —”

“The Kingpin is human scum, Aleksei! He tried to have you killed!”

Aleksei shrugs.

“That was eight months ago, I’m sure he’s gotten over it.”

“Yeah, I am, too,” I grunt. Fisk forgets easy when you can do something for him, and Rhino, even though he’s been beaten by everyone from Spider-Man to Iron Fist, is still a very hot commodity when it comes to leg-breakers. Unbreakable skin and a level five on the metahuman strength charts will do that for you.

“Then let’s just do it! Drop this thing, this FPS thing, and you and me can go back to the normal life.”

The “normal” life. So that’s what I was living; subsisting on Doritos, self-hatred and a keg-can of Heineken. That’s the normal life. Blasting cops with level threes while they’re just trying to help people is the normal life. Knowing I’ll never really get anywhere, be anybody, do anything … That’s the normal life.

“Fuck the normal life,” I say. “Aleksei, these fucks got inside your head, took you over and made you do horrible, horrible things. That doesn’t bother you? You don’t want, you know, revenge?”

“You told me you found the man who did it —”

“But not the people who gave him the means!” I’m talking pretty loudly now, probably above recommended Baskin Robbins volume. Fuck it. “Aleksei, we’re onto something here! Something REAL, something that means … Something! You don’t see that? You and me, man, we’re cracking into a situation much bigger than us. That doesn’t excite you? That doesn’t yank your crank, just a little?”

Aleksei looks at his ice-cream, playing with his spoon, ridiculously tiny in those giant hands.

“Well … Herman … I’m just … This is so different from what I’m used to. I’m thinking I’ll just go to the Black Tarantula, or Silvermane, get some smashing work. And look at you, Herman, you ain’t meant to be a superhero; you ain’t even any good at it! You wasn’t supposed to live this way, it’s making you crazy.” For some reason, this hurts me. Really hurts me, the kind of emotional pain you actually feel seize up in your chest. And yet, he continues. “I mean, I ain’t never —”


“Herman, I —”

“ALEKSEI.” It comes out of me like the Word of God.

He falls silent. Good, because now I drop the bomb on him.

“Aleksei, how long has it been since you were in jail?”

“Well, I …” Aleksei stops short, thinking, the big, clunky gears in his head turning. “I guess it’s been about a month now. Maybe a little more.” Aleksei’s eyes suddenly widen. “A month! A whole month! Hey, Herman, that’s a long time!”

I smile at him.

“Okay, and how long have I been legit?”

Another silence, and then his eyes get even bigger. “You been … Keeping me out of jail?”

I slap a hand to my forehead.

“No, listen, Aleksei, just listen to me, okay? Think about your life, think about our lives … In and out of jail constantly, waiting for the day we’re too obscure to get bailed out, too tired to break out? Too fucking bored with our lives, too broken, too hurt … This business is hell on us, Aleksei, it’s hell on you. And you’re not the smartest guy, sure, you’ll tell me that, but even you must be getting sick of it. I know you, Aleksei, I really do know you, and I know that you’re better than this, this stupid, petty shit!”

I take a breath. These are the thoughts that have wanted to climb out of me since I started this superhero shit, and now they’re just parading out like there’s no tomorrow.

“It’s not being a ‘superhero’, whatever that is, that’s driving me crazy; it’s being me. I don’t know if you know this, Aleksei, but when I was working for the Kingpin with you, I was miserable. I tried to commit suicide; that time the gauntlets blew up, that wasn’t a mistake; I was trying to bring the goddamn building down on us! I hated the world that much, I was ready to kill everyone I knew, you included, just to, fuck, I don’t know …”

Aleksei’s eyes are wide. He almost looks scared. I hope I’m not going down, no, sprinting down the wrong path here.

“Aleksei, I feel more alive, more clear-headed than I ever have before. I’m headlining the Daily Bugle, and palling around with Reed Richards, I’m … I feel like I’m about to make a difference, like something in my miserable, stupid, small life might mean something, and …”

I’m crying, and it’s clearly getting to him.

Fuck. I hate crying. My father used to say crying was your brain leaking out, because as soon as you started crying, the things you said only got stupider and stupider.

Time to test that theory.

I put a hand on his.

“We don’t have to spend the rest of our lives fighting Spider-Man. We can do something that matters, here; FPS is just the tip of something, something huge, I know it, I can feel it.” I pat my chest. “I feel it here. It’s something big and dark and horrible, and I want you by my side when I face it. I need you. Please don’t piss out on me now.”

There’s a pause, and the expression on Aleksei’s face is blank and unreadable.

“Are we … Do you really want me around?”

Oh, for christsakes.

“Aleksei. Why the hell do you think I buy you things all the time? Why do you think I invite you everywhere with me? Why do I let you stay at my place, and stick by me all the time even though you got that stupid suit on? Why do you think I read to you, and explain movies to you, and always ask for your opinions about shit? You’re my best friend, Aleksei. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

I had my eyes closed for the last bit, really concentrating, forcing the words out; it’s always been hard for me to express emotions, you know, do the “sharing feelings” pussy bullshit, but … you know … sometimes you got to do what you got to do. And fuck you if you’re gonna judge me for it.

When I open my eyes, Aleksei is crying.

Weeping, really.


He swings his arm and swipes the table between us up into the air, through the plate glass window that serves as the store’s front, and then embraces me in those enormous gray arms. The table bounces off the front of a Toyota Camry driving out on the street, and it swerves and crashes into a tree.

“I love you, Herman!” Aleksei says, still sobbing, my bandaged nose aching as it’s shoved into his rock-hard chest, the air squeezed out of me.

“Aleksei. Can’t breathe.”

“I’m sorry I said those things! I think you’re a great superhero!”

“Crushing me.”

“I don’t want you to commit suicide again!”


“Oh, sorry.”

Aleksei sets me down, and I gasp in air. He just sits there smiling at me, then sniffles, and wipes his running nose.

“Okay,” he says. “I’m ready. What do we do now?”

That’s the Aleksei I know; always up for the next step. Now, let’s hope he agrees to what I want.

Better approach this gingerly.

“I want to get your mind read.”

Okay, so operation “Approach Gingerly” is officially a fucking failure.

“What?” Aleksei says, nervous. “Why?”

“Aleksei …” I say, plotting my words; I have to lay this out reasonably. It is, after all, a pretty big favor to ask. “You’ve said some very strange things recently, and I want to try to understand. I feel like a mind reader might help me do that. We don’t have to do it, but I feel like it would probably be for the best. What do you think?”

Aleksei ponders this, stirring his melted ice cream. He loves being asked what he thinks; loves being asked questions of any type, really. In his life, he hasn’t had a lot of that. People usually just order him around, and he usually just listens.

But now that I’ve gone and spilled the beans about him being my best friend, ordering him around ain’t going to fly anymore.


The guy who was driving the crashed Toyota Camry shouts at us from out on the street, at what he figures is a safe distance.


“GUTS!” I shriek, leaping towards him. “DELICIOUS GUTS! GIVE ME YOUR WARM INSIDES!”

The guy turns and starts to run towards his car, but I give chase.


The guy tries to get in his car, finds that it’s locked, and tears down off the street, no destination in mind, just hauling ass away from the Crazy Bald Cannibal Jew From Baskin Robbins.

“RAAAAAAAAAAAH! INTESTINES! LIVER!” I shout after him; I want to say more, but it’s all I can manage before Aleksei’s infectious rumbling laughter spreads to me, and I start cracking up out in the middle of the street.

“Okay,” Aleksei says after I’ve recovered and plopped back down across from him in the now empty shop; even the “metacelebrity” gawkers fled after Aleksei put the table through the window.

“Okay what?” I say, baffled.

“Okay I’ll get my mind read. I ain’t never had it done before, so it should be fun, right?”

“Right. Fun,” I say, smiling.

That night in the Tube, I make an appointment with a mutant woman in the Bronx I find in the Yellow Pages for twelve o’clock the next morning, and go to bed.

I sleep fitfully; I keep having dreams of a dragonfly, elegant and beautiful, landing on my face. But the legs are hypodermic needles, and they sink into my skin and inject me with something, and then I’m up on that horrible crucifix thing, penetrated in dozens of places by those hideous rods, screaming for help.

But no one comes, of course.

And I hear my father laughing.

At one point I get up to go to the bathroom, and I see Aleksei shuffling around in the darkness down in the lobby. It takes me a moment to realize what he’s doing; he’s gone to another room, gotten a small lamp, and now he’s spooling out extension cord to the outlets in the lobby. He goes back into his dark room, and I see the faint yellow glow of the old lamp click on. There’s a noise of happy contentment, and then I hear his enormous body fall down onto the huge stack of mattresses I’ve set up for him as a bed.

A night light. I should have known.

The next morning, I wake up tired. The walk down the grand spiral staircase to the lobby and the showers seems like a stumbling eternity, and when I reach the bottom I’m tempted to just go back to sleep on the couch.

The showers of the Tube are always a little creepy; there’s no single shower, just an old-style big communal room with faucets set high on the walls. I turn every faucet on high, and let the whole place steam up. There’s never any water pressure, so I always have to sit on the floor and let the water just pour down onto my head.

I pack up the Shocker suit in its quick-draw case (special made by the Tinkerer, originally for the mobster metacriminals of the 1940s), and wake up Aleksei.

I try to make him bacon omelets but only end up with a burnt, smelly mess.

Which Aleksei eats anyway, of course.

We’re very quiet throughout all of this, or at least I am; I’m still trying to regain some dignity after yesterday’s outpouring of emotion. That was a seriously long-ass day; Reed Richards and a shaved head to start, and weeping openly in an ice cream store to finish.

That’s the problem with time, with temporal continuity in general in the life of a meta-person (though I suppose I’m only a meta by proxy). Sometimes everything lasts forever, every minute an epic, every second six sentences long. But then other times hours, even days might pass with nothing even vaguely interesting happening, and they speed by under your nose.

Keeping track of time’s passage relative to your life becomes impossible.

For example: I woke up at nine fifteen this morning. Now it’s twelve o’five, and we’re probably going to be late for our appointment with the mutie lady.

But look; from the sentence “The next morning, I wake up tired,” it’s been three hundred eleven words.

That’s three hundred and eleven words for nearly three hours.

But earlier, my whole conversation with Aleksei in the coffee shop was one thousand, six hundred and sixty-seven words.

And you know how long that was? Ten minutes, maybe twelve. Maybe even less.

Starting to see what I’m saying here?

And it’s not just me. Otto Octavius and I actually had a pretty lengthy discussion about this back when we were still palling around, before Otto finally went totally nutzoid.

Sometimes I wonder if Spider-Man ever wakes up and wonders how old he is; how much time has passed since he became Spider-Man.

Sometimes I wonder if any of us can.

Before we head out the door, I open my quick-draw case and detach one of the Shocker suit’s sleeves, sliding it over my left arm, vacuum-sealing it on and then pulling on the gauntlet.

Despite my whole “Herman Schultz is safe, the Shocker is dangerous” theory, I can’t take any risks. I kept getting the chills yesterday whenever we hit surface streets; I don’t think it was so much that I wasn’t in costume.

I think they just liked to watch me squirm.

In all seriousness, I can’t figure out why I’m not dead yet as is. I mean, if FPS is so powerful, if it’s “so much bigger” and goes “so much deeper” than I know, why can’t they just have some sniper put a neat little hole in my head as soon as cross the street?

The problem starts to shake.

There wouldn’t be that much fanfare for a fad fifteen minutes of fame Super-Villain-Turned-Hero, would there?

And as we’re heading out onto the street, I come upon a very probable answer to all this: I’ve been making waves. If they kill me in such an untidy manner, or even try to “disappear” me at this point, people will be asking questions.

People like Robbie Robertson, J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker, Tony Stark and, lest I forget, Reed fucking Richards.

People who, with the exception of Parker, can’t be disappeared very easily. Sure, you’re giving the Shocker and Rhino a hell of a time, but I dare you motherfuckers to go head-to-head with New York’s most widely read newspaper, Iron Man, War-Machine, and the Fantastic freaking Four.

Let’s see how “deep” you shitkickers go then, eh?

The woman grimaces, blinking all three of her eyes at us.

We’re in the waiting room of the private office of “Miss Peelo Petrillo,” the mind-reading mutant who I found in the Yellow Pages. Lucky me, the place looks like it’s going to be pretty cheap; the “waiting room” is really just the foyer of her large (but very cluttered) two-room apartment. The “private office” which the little three-eyed troll of a woman just emerged from must be her living room.

Ooh, how mystical.

“Herman Schultz and Aleksei Sytsevich?” she asks.

“Unfortunately,” I say, and stand up; Aleksei, who’s been leaning against the wall, moves away to reveal that he’s left a fair-sized “Alekseiprint” in the plaster. “It’s okay,” I say as the woman starts to speak. “I’ll pay for that.”

She sighs, and beckons us into, surprise surprise, her messy living room. Aleksei plops down on the couch, whilst I remain standing, nervously fiddling with the cuffs of my jacket. Miss Peelo wanders into the next room, tidying something up into a different sort of mess, and my big friend clears his throat loudly.

“This isn’t going to hurt,” Aleksei says, making the statement loudly and boldly. There’s a pause as his words settle, and then he fidgets and booms out: “This isn’t going to hurt or be very scary at all.”

He keeps a look of macho bravado on his face, but his little eyes nervously flick to me for a moment, and I realize what he’s looking for.

“That’s right,” I say, smiling at him. “This is just gonna be fun. No pain, no fear; it’ll be like riding a roller coaster, or trying a new kind of food.”

“That’s right!” Aleksei booms theatrically. “A new kind of food! A new kind of experience!”

We both fall silent, and I see that Aleksei has been gripping the arm of the couch so hard it’s now permanently bent into a kind of surrealist sculptural commentary on the nature of violence. Miss Peelo enters the room, shutting the door behind her, dims the lights, notices the damage to the couch and starts to speak, but before she can get a word out I bark, “I’ll pay for that.”

She smiles at me; it’s a weird, hesitant smile, like we’re on a blind date.

“A lot of people have been thinking of you, Mister Schultz.”

“Oh?” I say, totally unprepared for this conversation.

“Oh, yes.”

She smiles.

“Nothing bad, I hope,” I say, trying to be charming.

She just goes right on smiling as she says:

“Well, it seems an awful lot of them want to kill you.”

“Sucks for them,” I say, and force myself to relax. “Can we get down to business?”

Miss Peelo nods, and sits down at the table, motioning for Aleksei to sit across from her. He does, and to my surprise the chair, less than half the size of his ass, holds up.

“How’s this gonna work?” I say, asking Aleksei’s questions for him.

“Well,” Miss Peelo says, taking out a contract. “First the subject, that’s you, Aleksei, signs here, and then I sign here. Read it over if you want.”

I read the contract; it’s all pretty standard stuff, the sort of thing they make you sign when you see a shrink in prison, mainly focusing on the fact that, if Miss Peelo breaks confidentiality in any way, we can sue her.

Although I’m sure she realizes that, as super-villains at large, we have little time for court cases.

We have much quicker, if perhaps less savage, methods of revenge.

Aleksei signs, Peelo signs, and then she takes his hand, smiles at him warmly and looks to me.

“All right, here’s how this works: I’m what’s commonly referred to as a Class Two Telepath, meaning that I can witness, review and examine nearly any thought or memory in my subject’s psyche, including subconscious catalogues of dreams, daydreams, repressed memories and distant memories, though I cannot influence them in the slightest. I am incapable of planting false memories, effecting decisions, altering real memories, or even controlling motor functions. You won’t feel anything while I’m in your head, Mr. Sytsevich, but you may hear a very strong humming in your left ear, and faint voices in your right. You may also experience temporary but complete loss of vision, and a strange taste in your mouth. I’ve been told it’s rather like copper. Do you understand everything I’ve said so far?”

She waits, and after a moment Aleksei glances at me. I shoot him the thumbs-up. The side of that big, thin-lipped mouth twitches in a partial smile, and he turns back to Miss Peelo and nods.

“Yes. I understand.”

She continues.

“It would help me if you could give me some specific words or images to search for, as this would allow me to move with purpose.”

I take the list I made on the way here out of my pocket; they did something like this to me when I was in the Archimedes Center For Extraordinary Criminals (TACFEC, better known to the underworld as the Tuck’n’Fuck), so I’m familiar with the process.

The List Reads:

Commission for Superhuman Activities
First Person Shooter
Suit Analysis (RECENT MEMORY)

“Oh, excellent,” she says, glancing over the list. “This’ll make it much easier. Shave four hours off at least.”

“Four hours?” I blurt out. “How long is this going to take?”

“Well, eight is the standard, but now, probably about four, maybe three, maybe five. Depends on how deep this stuff is hidden.”

There’s a silence, and then Aleksei speaks up.

“Whenever he asks me questions about it, it gives me a headache. After you walk on my brain, does that mean I won’t have a headache brain anymore, and now I’ll like, get headaches in my stomach?”

There’s a silence, and then Aleksei adds: “Because those wouldn’t be headaches. Those would be stomach aches.”

Miss Peelo stares at me, and I shrug. Aleksei is Aleksei, and there’s not much anybody can do to change that.

“I’ll get started, then,” she says, fixing her hair. “Try to relax.” Miss Peelo closes her eyes, furrows her brow, and then a very strange thing happens:

A tendril of what looks like pink energy begins to extend from her forehead.

“Ooh, Herman, look at the shiny thing,” Aleksei says, truly dropping into toddler mode. Shiny things often have this effect on him.

The tendril wavers, whips about a bit, and then dives across the table and into the corner of Aleksei’s left eye. He grunts, his eyes roll backwards up into his head, and he passes out.

The room is quiet.

I stand there staring at the two of them for well over an hour before my antsiness gets the better of me. I set a Vibro-Mine down on the table; if anything in this room moves over nineteen miles an hour, like say an intruder, a fist or a bullet, the mine will fire out sixteen level ones in all directions. More then enough to take down a normal person, but to Aleksei it’ll just be a wake-up call.

Thinking better of it, I set six more.

I am not losing him.

Two walks around the block, an issue of GQ and a Scientific Weekly Digest and exactly two hours later, I head back to Miss Peelo’s offices on the fifth floor of her Bronx apartment building.

The elevator ride up is uneventful until it stops at four.

I groan; all of this was supposed to go quickly; I mean, I didn’t think this chick would be Charles Xavier or anything, but come on, five hours? Aleksei’s brain can’t be that big of a place; I imagine, if minds were houses, it would look somewhat like double-wide trailer.

The elevator doors open, and an enormous metal scorpion tale whips in; I duck, and it buries its enormous scythe blade in the wall behind me.

The sheer fact that I managed to duck it amazes me for a moment, just long enough for a steel-toed boot to kick me straight in the shoulder, knocking me on my ass.

“FUCK!” I scream, and grab the boot, yanking as hard as I can, dragging my assailant into the elevator with me, even though I’m still on the ground.

My attacker is a blur of black and silver, as blades on both her wrists and elbows slice through my clothes and tear my skin.

This is Elaine Colls.


Assassin, street thug and cold, hard bitch.

“Elaine, Christ!” I scream, and shove my forearm up under her jaw and use my leverage to spring up from the ground and drive the back of her skull into the elevator panel.

The doors close, and I duck around her, giving her a solid punch in the back of the head, and then shove her forward as hard as I can, knocking her into the wall her tail is still stuck in.

The elevator starts going up, and Elaine rips her tail free of the wall and flicks it at me, but we’re in such tight quarters it just sparks off the closed doors, and I juke around it and catch her with a hard left in the nose, following it by shoving both hands on top of her head and banging her jaw off my knee.

I feel the teeth crack against one another, even through my clothed knee-cap.

She drops to her knees, clutching her face, and whips the tail at me again; it cuts me pretty good this time, leaving a three-inch gash on my left thigh.

“There you go, pigfucker!” she screeches in her Hell’s Kitchen accent. No FPS here; Elaine is doing this for the cash.

“Aghh!” I say, always the poet, and drop to one knee, hitting her with a pretty serious haymaker as I fall. She topples over onto her back, and her tail comes flying up from between her legs like some kind of nightmare penis, and I manage to jerk my head back before she can turn me into Herman the Headless Wonder.

It’s at this point that I pull back the left sleeve of my jacket, revealing the very distinct yellow quilted pattern underneath.

I grab the tail as it lunges at me again, kick both legs into it and pin it against the wall with my feet, lying on the floor of the elevator nearly on top of Elaine, who snarls and slashes wildly at me with a wrist blade. I roll out of the way, but it forces me to release the tail, which curls backward into an S-shape.

The classic Death-Strike position.

It comes at me so hard that, had it hit my flesh, it would’ve punched straight through my body, leaving me shishkebabed.

Instead, I lift my left arm, and the Shocker-sleeve absorbs the impact.

I can’t believe that worked.

No pause this time, though: I wrap my arm around the tip of the tail, grapevining it, and vibrate the sleeve on a level three. The tail spasms violently as the vibration travels down it to Elaine, who’s hit so hard by the vibe that she’s actually slammed against the opposite wall of the elevator. I yank as hard as I can, and under the stress of the vibrations, the tail rips in half.

Boofuckinyeah, bitch! Mess with the bull and you get the —

Elaine throws herself onto me and punches any kind of bravado out of my head, leaving me with only a vague recollection of back when she and I served on a particularly pathetic version of the Sinister Six. I remember her saying the suit enhanced her strength by five hundred percent.

That was probably an exaggeration, but not by much; I feel like I just took a punch from Spider-Man. And trust me, that’s no fun.

Seeing stars, I go into auto-pilot as she presses the attack; I’m barely dodging the blades now, and she finally shoves me against the wall of the elevator and swings in with a wrist blade, aiming to perform a rather unprofessional lobotomy. Instead of ducking or trying to dodge, I lift the severed scythe blade-tip of the tail I still hold, and, vibrating it on level two, slice off her arm at the elbow.

The result is a hot spurt of blood directly into my face, and I fall out of the way as Elaine’s momentum carries her forward, causing her to drive her new, spouting stump into the wall. The impact is hard to watch.

She collapses forward, leaning heavily on the bronze safety railing, staring numbly through those stupid goggles at her severed arm, not comprehending. The walls of the elevator are splattered with blood, and the floor is starting to flood a little. I stand up, retreating three feet to the other side of the elevator, biting my lip and putting pressure on the slice on my thigh, breathing hard; I’m not used to super-combat like this without the suit.

All things considered, I think I did pretty fucking well, yeah?

The elevator dings, and the doors open, revealing two old ladies.

They look at us, their eyes wide behind Coke-bottle thick glasses.

I grin bloodily at them.

“Bitch wouldn’t cook me dinner,” I say. One of the old ladies faints, landing on her back so hard I wouldn’t be surprised if she broke something. The other just quietly says:

“We’ll take the next one.”

The doors slide closed, and the elevator starts to ascend again. We go past fifteen, the highest floor, which means somebody pressed the button for the roof.

Which probably means more trouble.

I look to Elaine, who hasn’t moved or spoken in at least the last thirty seconds.

“You’re feeling pretty fucking stupid right about now, eh babe?” I say, gloating a little. I do an imitation of her accent, to drive home the point: “Ooh, lookame, second version villain, blades all over me, looking hot, Shocker’s gonna be easy pickings — whoops, my arm!”

Elaine just stares at me, her face paling from blood loss, and she slowly sinks to her knees.

On a hopeful whim, I press the “Lobby” button. If we can get down there without any trouble, I can get Elaine to a hospital before she —

The doors explode inward in a blue blaze, knocking us both on our backs.

Blue light.

Great. Eddie the Eel and his gargantuan girl-pal. Just what I needed.

Daylight streams into the elevator, and Blitz is framed quite elegantly by the blue sky. She grabs me by the collar and hurls me out onto the roof. I land flat on my chest, in the process making the unpleasant discovery that the roof is one of those old-fashioned deals where the top is tarred and covered in loose gravel, some of which rips through my shirt and into my skin.

“Nowhere to run now, Herman,” Eddie says from where he stands atop an air-conditioning unit. I pick up a handful of gravel and roll over. “Nowhere to —”

Ever seen two dozen tiny, awkwardly shaped stones vibrated into a man’s face and chest?

Well, I just did, and let me tell you, it’s a thing of fucking beauty.

Eddie flies off the air-conditioning backwards into the concrete ledge on the side of the building, bounces off with his already bullet-wounded shoulder and crashes headfirst into the gravel, his Eel-suit sparking and burning now that the gravel has penetrated the insulation.

I’m pretty proud of myself for a moment, and then Blitz picks me up and punches me in the stomach. It feels like a miniature sledge-hammer connecting with my guts, and I feel my organs shift agonizingly around her fist.

“Urgle,” I say, and then throw up all over her.

She takes a pause to wipe the vomit off her face, and then cocks back a fist and goes to punch me in my already very broken nose. This will drive splinters deeply into my brain, killing me, if my face doesn’t just fold clean in half around that super-strong fist.

And I’m too goddamn disoriented to do anything about it.

Well …


Blitz smiles, but then flinches as a lasso closes around her punching arm, tightening into a knot on her elbow. Another flies up and goes around her neck, noosing her, and then both are pulled violently backwards.

“Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-haa!” a shrill male voice screams as Blitz is lifted up and away from me, across the rooftop, past a little guy in a cowboy hat (who’s holding the lassos) and into an enormous fist to the face, which flips her twice in the air before she goes tits-first into the roof.

Ronnie “Ox” Bloch, owner of the huge fist, sends an equally huge boot into the side of her head, knocking her out, and then smiles at Jack “Montana” Brice, owner of the lassos.

Eddie forces himself to his feet, wrecked costume and all, and throws himself at me, only to get a neat series of snap-kicks into his exposed chest from “Fancy” Dan Brito. Who then leaps into a crescent kick that knocks Eddie down, and I’m pretty sure out.

“Moron,” Fancy Dan says, cracking his knuckles. “If anyone is picking up this bounty, it’s us. The real Enforcers! We’ll be the ones to kill Herman Schultz!”

He says all this loudly, theatrically, which is weird considering I’ve always known Dan to be a pretty soft-spoken guy.

I take off towards the elevator shaft; trying to take on old pros like the Enforcers without my suit would be suicide.

A lasso lariats around my legs, and I’m thrown onto my back, and dragged into the utility staircase, where Montana is already waiting. Ox and Fancy Dan are heading across the roof to join us inside, but Montana just stands there, staring at me, and I take the opportunity to hit him with a clean level three in the chest, which picks him up and throws him down the flight of stairs behind him.

“Oh, son of a bitch!” Ox shouts, sounding strangely frustrated as he dives into the stairs-shed and catches a level three in the shoulder; it flips him up over the security railing and he drops ten feet down to the next floor, landing with a nice loud THUD.

Fancy Dan is next, and I’m launching level fours at him; you can’t take any risks with this guy.

I can’t keep this up for long. So, this is how it ends, murdered by men I used to consider as some of my best friends.

“Herman,” Dan shouts as jukes and jives around my blasts. “Will you please —” He pops up in front of me, swings up a leg and pins me against the wall by my neck, his leg extended in one of those crazy Bruce Lee positions. “— calm the FUCK down!”

We stand there like that, me panting and sweating, him looking more annoyed than anything else.

“Jack?” He calls over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off me. “You okay?”

Montana groans from the bottom of the stairs as he stands up.

“Christ, Herman, what was that? One of your level threes?”

“Yeah,” I whisper.

“On an unarmored guy?” He rubs his back, pained. “Jesus. And down a flight of gawdamn stairs, it just ain’t right, buddy.’

“Ronnie?” Dan shouts over the terrace.

There’s a pained grunt from below.

“Damn it all to hell!” Ronnie’s British accent moans. “My teeth are still chattering in my bloody head, and I think I twisted my ankle.” I hear the seven-foot-two, four-hundred-and-fifty-pounder stir down at the landing. “Damn it all!” he says, louder, but less angry and more amused.

Dan slowly lowers his leg, and then smiles at me, his pencil-thin mustache curving in the way all pencil-thin mustaches should. He claps me on the shoulder.

“Herman fucking Schultz!” he says, and then embraces me, and I find myself hugging him back. “It’s been too long, you crazy Hebrew Hellion!”

The Hebrew Hellion. The sad thing is, in this world, I’m sure there’s someone out there who calls himself that and thinks it’s the baddest shit on the planet.

“Now tell me, man …” Dan says, still smiling. “Why is it that every skeezy criminal jackwipe in New York City wants you dead?”

Thirty-five minutes and a great deal of explaining later, we’re chowing down on a pizza we ordered from a shop up the block, sitting around in the “waiting room” of Miss Peelo’s apartment.

“I still don’t get it,” Montana says. “If he can open spots anywhere, without even being there, how come they don’t just open one up next to you, throw some dynamite through and blow y’all to smithereens?”

“I don’t know,” I say through a mouth of pepperoni, and then, after swallowing: “Thing is, I don’t remember Jonny even being able to do that. They must have found a way to enhance his power, but maybe they can’t send physical objects through anymore … Only energy.”

“Is that how you think they’re doing it?” Fancy Dan, always the smart one, says. “Transmitting some kind of short range mind-control beam through the Spots?”

“That’s my theory, yeah,” I say, and Dan nods.

“Makes sense.”

“American pizza tastes like rat-bollocks,” Ronnie says, taking another bite of his pepperoni. “If we could get out of here, maybe go to Manhattan, we could get some real food.”

“Then why don’t we?” I say, smiling. “Aleksei’s got at least another hour in here.”

It would be good to get out with the guys again, like the old days. Back before I realized how unhappy I was. Back when I was still a soft-spoken, safe-cracking street thug.

I first met Fancy Dan, where else, under the employ of the Kingpin. When I told Fisk I wasn’t willing to kill anyone, though I had no problem with non-lethal violence, he laughed and said that everyone these days was trying to be a superhero, and brought in Dan Brito.

Dan’s a slim Southerner with a penchant for dressing like a 1920s dandy and drinking a little too heavily. He’s got a rather unique back-story: see, much like me, Dan was raised by a father who was determined that he learned to … ahem … “defend” himself. But instead of hiring gang members and hobos to beat him down on a regular basis, like my father did for me, Old Man Brito took a different approach.

Through years of rigorous, abusive training, he forced his son to very literally invent a style of martial arts. Dan calls it Mississipi Fu, and it’s the kind of flip-kicking, neck-chopping, pressure-point shattering shit that allows a normal human like Dan to take on a freak like Spider-Man.

You might not believe it, but I’ve seen him in action against heavy rep hitters like Iron Fist, Task-Master and even the Ghost Rider, and let me say flat-out:

“Fancy” Dan Brito is not the guy you want to fuck with.

Kingpin hooked us up because we had something in common; we both refused to kill. Oh, Dan’ll beat you down all right, kick you within an inch of your life, but he’s got this weird thing about killing; not so much a moral thing, more physiological.

Let’s say this plain: Whenever Dan sees a person killed, he pukes.

Like a fountain.

He says it’s his nerves.

Dan and I tooled around doing the protection racket/mansion burglary/bank robbery thing, but Dan always wanted more.

He had a vision.

The idea was a well-balanced, tightly-knit group of mercenaries who could quickly, easily, and most important, very brutally carry out any job a paying party asked them to.

Just as long as it didn’t involve any body’s heart stopping.

At first, no one took him seriously. But then one cold blustery night in June, Dan took down a super-strong, sword-wielding, energy-blasting hero named El Aguila (The Eagle) in hand-to-hand combat, and the crime families of New York stopped looking down their noses.

Two weeks later, Dan and lasso-savant Jackson “Montana” Brice fought off the Punisher when he tried to pull a hit on Kingpin’s consiglieri.

Now, keep in mind, they didn’t beat the Punisher by any stretch of the imagination.

But they fought him, and managed to keep up with him and stay alive until he ran out of bullets and retreated.

And that was more than enough.

That day, street legends were born.

The Enforcers had stepped onto the scene.

Ronnie didn’t join till later; originally they had a big brute of a guy named Raymond, who got high on LSD one night and tried to fight Captain America.

Things didn’t work out too well for Raymond.

“Sorry, Herman,” Dan says, stroking the side of Aleksei’s big unconscious head. “I’m afraid we can’t. Can’t go anywhere with you, as a matter of fact.”

I reach under the table and flip on my gauntlet; I should’ve known, I should’ve fucking known. They didn’t want to take me head on, wanted to toy with me a little and …

Dan smiles at Aleksei, a smile so sincere and so sad I actually go ahead and turn the gauntlet off. Liars don’t smile like that at Aleksei; not even the very, very good ones. He turns to me.

“Nothing like that, don’t worry,” he says. “We just can’t risk being seen. As far as we know you’re not being followed, but we know that Hammerhead sent some guys to keep an eye on us.”

“Wait, Hammerhead? How’s he fit in?” I say, confused. Hammerhead’s a mob guy; I thought FPS was a rich boy’s game … Or maybe a government conspiracy, or … It’s hard to keep it all straight.

“Well …” Dan says, smiling. “That’s a little awkward.”

Ox smiles. “He hired us for some guy named ‘Cerada,’ a bigwig, tons of bread.” He chuckles. “We got a contract on your life, mate. We’re supposed to be killing yah.” He laughs, but the neurons in my brain are firing, vibrating the problem. “Doing a piss-poor job of it, if you ask me.”

So the CSA, or someone with access to equipment from the CSA, has hired Arcade to run FPS. When I show up and things start going off the tracks, Arcade uses Venom to destroy the body, and I fuck that up, too. Arcade starts trying to off me, first using FPS villains, making it part of the game, trying to keep things running smoothly.

But when I fuck things up further by being more than some rich Video-Game kids can handle, and end up with a front-page cover on the Daily Bugle, Arcade gets desperate, and starts going through Hammerhead to hire pros like the New Enforcers to take me out.

Why Arcade doesn’t go to the people above him, whoever they are, I don’t know.

How he got involved, I don’t know.

How the Spot fits in, I don’t know.

How the spots work, I don’t know.

How CSA is involved, I don’t know.

The list goes on.

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

Montana raises his can of Dr Pepper. “Here’s to a piss-poor job.”

We all knock cans, and then a thought strikes.

“How’re you going to explain it? What’re you going to say happened?”

Dan grins.

“Well, we had him, right?” he starts, an angry look on his face, gesturing wildly. “We beat out Lavelli and his big bitch, and we chased the Shocker into the building, and the fucker just opened up on us!”

“I got hit square in the chest!” Montana squeals, lifting up his vest to reveal the massive purple-blue welt forming on his solar-plexus.

“Bugger hit me in the shoulder and knocked me off a balcony!”

“By the time I got in there,” Dan continues, “he was already gone. We must’ve searched the building, thirty, forty minutes, couldn’t find a damn thing.”

He smiles.

“Isn’t that right, guys?”

“Damn straight,” Montana says, and growls. “I get my hands on him, he’s a dead man.”

“He’s a clever bastard, he is,” Ronnie says, and winks at me.

Dan checks his custom watch fob, and grimaces.

“And on that note, we better get kicking, kids. They’ll come in looking for us soon.”

The Enforcers head out, and again I’m left sitting with an unconscious Aleksei and the still-silent Miss Peelo, who must be in some kind of psychic catatonia, the shimmering purple tendril stretching between them.

After fifteen minutes, Aleksei stirs, and the tendril shatters apart. Miss Peelo opens her eyes, and blinks a couple of times.

“Kitchen appliances!” Aleksei shouts, snapping awake, and then immediately claps a hand to his forehead, locking the other one on my shoulder for support. “Oh, Herman. I got such a fucking headache …”

Miss Peelo hasn’t moved, just sits there, staring straight ahead.

“Answers?” I say to her, my voice a little high with anticipation.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” she whispers. Really whispers, the kind of tone people use when they’re being stalked in the dark. She looks at me, blinking all three of her eyes. “But I’m pretty fucking sure you won’t like what I’ve got.”

Here we go.

I’m practically holding my breath.

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