Chapter 21: Avatars Finale

My sister and I sat on a park bench, and looked at the gorillas in the Central Park Zoo.

I was twelve.

She was seventeen.

“Do you think Dad is crazy?” I asked her as we watched my father throw baseballs at the gorillas.

“No, Herman,” she said as a ball bounced off the forehead of a furious-looking silverback. “He’s not crazy.”

My father came over, grabbed me under the arms and dragged me screaming towards the edge of the enclosure. “Okay, Herman. Super-strong guys coming at you from all sides. Now, remember, don’t try to fight them, just try to —”

“What are you doing?” I screamed, but not too loudly, my mind already fragile from the “fun” in the vaults of the basement.

“Think of this as a pop-quiz,” he said, laughing merrily.

“General Schultz …” a security guard said, nervously appraising the situation. We never heard “General” back home, so it was always strange when someone would say the full title in public. My father hadn’t been in any wars, had never faced active combat; as far as we knew, he was a crook, a street thug.

At best, a wise-guy.

“Is anything wrong?” the guard said.

“No,” he said. “Everything here is fine.”

One of the gorillas below howled in rage and pain, still clutching its face from where it had been struck by a baseball.

The guard looked from me to my father to the apes and then back to my father, nodded weakly, and began clearing people from the area.

Just before he tossed me over the gates into an enclosure housing eight furious gorillas, I remember my sister saying, very clearly:

“He’s not crazy at all. He’s the devil.”

New York mornings are gray and joyless, the sun boxed out by sky-scrapers, only faint rays of light coming through the buildings, illuminating things you never really wanted to see in the first place.

Hammerhead’s current residence is one of these places.

Last time I saw Hammerhead, he was face-down after a punch from the second-tier superhero called “Darkhawk,” one of Spider-Man’s butt-buddies from back in the day. Hammerhead always was the type to go down easy; I remember one time Spiderfuck webbed his eyes and he actually fled out into the middle of the street and got hit by a car.

This is not Einstein we’re dealing with here.

But it’s not Aleksei either.

Hammerhead (no alias, no “real name”) was always a cold-blooded killer; that much is clear. But at one point in his life, someone, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to replace the top of his skull with a three-inch-thick, ten-by-ten-inch square of titanium.

I’ll be fucked blue if I know why; sometimes, when I’m meeting these guys, hearing their stories, I just have to sit there and bite my lip.

Because sometimes asking, “Why?” is more trouble than it’s worth.

Whoever did the surgery didn’t care much for the aesthetic aftereffects; the skin of Hammerhead’s face is grotesquely stretched, leaving him looking like he’s had about a million face-lifts. The sides, tops and bottoms of his eyes are pulled back, showing some of that gooey red tissue under the eyelids. His mouth is yanked down into a soft-edged rectangular grimace, the veins to his lips and gums exposed and chapped. His perfectly flat head is covered in stained, strained white skin, with a thin layer of oily black hair prickling up from aggravated follicles.

Bet you’ve never heard him described like that before, eh?

Yeah. The news pretties shit up real nice.

Hammerhead asserted himself as a hit-man and mob enforcer, but, in time, ended up as a prominent figure himself. He was never the head of any important gang, but rather functioned as a kind of facilitator to make a posse run smoothly; always a lieutenant, never a general. What most superheroes don’t realize is that Hammerhead is easily one of the richest “street” villains out there; dude barely ever spends a dime, just piles it into secret accounts, occasionally splurging on 1930s gangster clothes.

The place looks to be just a normal warehouse office, but its vibrant green and white paint feels like live skin stretched over dead flesh.

Bad shit has gone down here.

Not as bad as whatever mind-raping nightmare happened in the White Rabbit’s house, but dark stuff, for sure.

You can feel the death creeping along just beyond the walls.

The gauntlets click on with a warm, welcoming little “vrm.”

Felicia fades into the shadows, and Aleksei and I head to the front door.

“Hold it right there, faggots,” the muscle-bound guard says, raising his Uzi.

Aleksei chuckles to himself.

“Hey, Herman, wanna see something funny?”

“Now isn’t really the time, Aleksei,” I say, trying to keep the we’re-here-to-kick-a-whole-bunch-of-heads-in vibe going.

“No, wait, just watch,” Aleksei says, and steps up to the guard. “Hey, you know it’s two seconds till.”

The big muscle-bound goon cocks his head, confused.

“Two seconds till what?”

Aleksei grabs him by the leg and swings him like a fly swatter, smashing the other guard and taking them both down for the count. Then he swings them both up and through the door, which is smashed

He then turns and gives me a big gray thumbs-up.

Okay, I have to admit; that was pretty fucking funny.

I blast the door off its hinges with a level four, incidentally taking out the three guards rushing towards it from the inside. Seeing non-metas, normal folks, getting vibed by the gauntlets is always a little rough; imagine a person getting hit by a car, minus the car. The bodies bounce and twist aside like they got skimmed by a wrecking ball.

A point-blank blast is even nastier; they just wipe the fuck out. Primarily because getting hit with an fresh blast, rather than one that’s traveled like twenty or thirty feet, won’t knock you back.

It’ll just shake the living shit out of you.

Not pretty.

Just ask Bullseye.

We’re in the open-room two-story foyer of Hammerhead’s HQ, now, and I’m blasting everything in sight. He’s actually got a pretty sweet set-up here; he’s pulling in major cash from somewhere. Everything is felt and old wood; old gangster stuff, very classy, so seeing it fly apart is all the better.

A guy with a pistol pops out of a door to my left, and shoots me in the head; the bullet slides around my head, frictionless, and drops to the floor. I start to raise a gauntlet to blast him, but a giant gray fist flies in and catches him in the left shoulder.

The effect is immediate and devastating: he sails backwards, his shoulder crumpling in on itself as he goes, hits a wall, and falls to the ground, unmoving.

“Ain’t nobody shoots my friend in the head.”

A hail of bullets bounces off his back, and he turns, allowing me to hit his three AK-47 wielding attackers with a series of level twos. One of them, a big black dude, manages to stay standing, and I walk towards him, firing off the gauntlets like six-shooters, hitting him with at least eight or nine level ones.

Needless to say, he drops like a rock.

As we tear deeper into the building, I look back over my shoulder: with all the level fours I’m throwing out, and Aleksei just smashing and ripping into anything everything, we’ve created a massive, rubble-strewn tunnel through the superstructure of the warehouse, plunging through like a diamond drill.

It’s been a while since I’ve been out wrecking with the Rhino, and I’d forgotten how good it feels. When Aleksei hits his groove, he’s like Hulk Junior; a goddamn tornado, the Black African Rhino smashing through the savannah.

A goon throws a grenade, and Aleksei catches it and closes his fist around it.

There’s a muted “bomf,” and a wisp of smoke comes out between his knuckles. Aleksei laughs the big, booming Aleksei laugh, and the goon turns to run.

I catch him with a level one in the back of the head, and he stumbles twice before dropping to his knees, clutching at the air in front of him and then collapsing unconscious. Aleksei slams an elbow through the wall into a little kitchen area, and then throws his massive body through the room, horn first, crushing everything in his way.

We finally come to a broad, oaken door, and I blast it off its hinges.

Hammerhead stares at me, sitting calmly on his desk, wearing a blue and white pinstripe suit and spats.

“Come on, Herman!” Aleksei says, trying to barge past me. “Let’s crush ’em!”

“No,” I say, throwing up an arm in front of my big friend’s face. He stops, but eyes me with an avarice and frustration that Aleksei is only capable of in the heat of battle.

Hammerhead walks around his desk, and chuckles uncomfortably.

“So, someone told you about the contracts. I knew I shouldn’tve hired those damn Enforcers, they’re outdated, and —”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” I scream at him, and he goes quiet, but suddenly seems more placid, cooler. He’s adjusting to the situation, exactly what I didn’t want him to give him time to do. “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to fight you. Just give me an address where I can find Arcade.”

Hammerhead sighs, and sits down behind his desk, perfectly calm; not fake calm, either.

He actually seems a little bored.

Where’s that “oh, shit” look I love so much?

“Herman, Herman, Herman …” Hammerhead says, smiling that strangely stretched, square smile at me. “When are you guys gonna learn? There’s no money in the street-villain business any more; no room to grow! There are too many heroes these days, and some of them are way too strong. Guys like you and Rhino; you’re obsolete.”

“Hey, you watch who you’re calling obsolete, jerk-off. Your power is that you’ve got a funny-looking head.” I take a step towards the desk, and he rolls his eyes.

“Don’t you get it, Herman? If this was a movie, you’d be the bad guys the hero beats before he fights the real danger! You’re throwaway thugs, cut-rate creeps bought cheap and beaten easy. Take off the cartoon costume and get yourself a suit; the only way to get anywhere in crime these days is to rise above all that super-strong, super-fast crap. Network; learn to sell yourself. Find friends with real power, not ‘super-powers.’ Understand what I’m saying?”

“Is that what you’re doing, flat-top? Is a sociopathic, video-game-loving billionaire ‘real power’ now?”

Hammerhead laughs.

“Hey buddy, from what I understand you know more about all this than I do. Shit, I’m just here to take you out. Arcade calls me a ‘mini-boss,’ can you believe it?”

Aleksei growls at him and starts to move towards the desk.

“They went inside my head, you jerk! I ought to smash your face!”

Day went inside my head, you joik. I odda smash yer face.

Hammerhead sighs and shrugs.

“You Halloweeners are all the same; you think because you’ve got a costume and some super-powers, that means that you’re part of some kind of special club where we all help eachother out and wife-swap and give each-other handjobs at two AM talking about the one time we were thiiiis close to beating Daredevil. Herman … Aleksei … Even if you get out of here, do you honestly think you’re going to get anywhere with whatever’s going on over my head? No. You’re not, because doing something significant isn’t in your natures. You … Both of you … Are born failures. Just … give up. Let go.”

“Give me an address,” I say, my voice shaking a little. But I could care less; I like when things shake.

“I’m just trying to help you out here; you know, advice from the living,” Hammerhead points at himself. “To the dead.” He points at me. “Oh, well. Nice chatting with you, Herman, but —”

“Give me an address,” I say again. It comes out so fucking ominous I give myself the chills, but sadly has absolutely no effect on Hammerhead.

“Enough of this.” He nods to someone behind us. “Kill them both.”

Aleksei suddenly tumbles forward, some kind of metal band wrapping his ankles together, tightening rapidly.

“Hey, what the hell is this?” Aleksei yowls, more afraid than angry. Another metal hoop hits him, wrapping around his left arm and looping over his back and then tightening at sickening speed, wrenching him into a half-nelson.

I turn to the source of the constricting rings, to find, who else, the Ringer.

Or at least, the Ringer Two. I was present when the original Ringer, Tony Davis, was gunned down by the Scourge of the Underworld in a Bar With No Name in 1993. Which means that someone bought the ridiculous orange and green suit, and it’s that asshole who we’re dealing with now.

I raise my gauntlets, but he tosses a hoop around my wrists and they’re suddenly buckled together, the pressure steadily intensifying on my humerus bones as the ring tightens. The weight of the damn thing pulls my arm down, so I can’t get a good shot at him, and he tosses another ring, this one neatly lassoing my head, shrinking tight around the top of my head, crushing in on my temples like a sadistic headband, squeezing the mask so tight I feel the ring’s edges cutting into my flesh beneath the fabric.

I vibe the suit on a level two, and the rings stop actively contracting. I jerk my head around violently, trying to shake the ring loose.

No dice, and then, stupid me, I’m distracted while the Ringer tosses another hoop at me, which I duck, but only barely. He whips a smaller ring off his belt, slides around behind me and pulls it down over head and around my shoulders; it contracts inward instantly, pressing my biceps into my ribs, squeezing the air out of me.

“Gahdahmuh!” I bellow, but there’s not enough air in my lungs to form the word properly. He kicks me in the back and the shove knocks my already unbalanced body over onto the plush red carpet, face-down.

“There,” the Ringer says, sliding a ring down onto my neck, which immediately contracts around the suit, crushing onto my throat, my adam’s apple trapped at the back of my mouth as I try frantically and unsuccessfully to swallow. “Got’em both. Told you I could do it, Hammerhead, you’ve got to have more faith in me.”

I try to gasp in air, but it just swirls around in my mouth, not going anywhere.

“Yeah, well, this is gonna do wonders for yah, kid,” Hammerhead says.

I’m dying. I’m choking to death on the floor.

Beaten by the fucking Ringer. Is there no end to my long list of failures?

“I got this shit down. I’m —” There’s the sound of a window breaking, and then gunfire and swearing, followed by a crash. I roll over and watch as Felicia punches and kicks the Ringer repeatedly in the face, slowly knocking him across the room. She’s really clobbering him like a punching bag; Felicia’s super-strength is a very minor facet of her abilities, but her punches feel like bricks breaking on your face; trust me, I know.

Hammerhead, who’s wiping blood out of his eyes from where Felicia must’ve sliced him on his forehead, is picking up a tommy-gun he must’ve dropped on the floor.

He’s going to shoot her. He’s going to shoot her in the goddamn back.


I wrench my left arm outward, vibrating it on a level five. It cuts through the rings on my shoulders and my wrists, but this is accompanied by a sickly “popping” sound; something in my elbow just went seriously haywire, and it’s sending off little fireworks of pain up and down my arm; like I just got hit in the funny bone with a hatchet.

I use my good arm, vibing on a level five, to tear the ring off my neck, and stand up, firing off a single level three at Hammerhead, who tosses aside the gun and dives behind his desk, his face still a mask of ambivalence.

My first breath hurts so bad I nearly fall back down.

Felicia turns at the sound of my gauntlet, and this gives the Ringer the chance he needed; he drops a ring over head, and contracts onto her neck so tightly that the flesh at the front is almost compressed against the spine. She makes a sound like “gak” and falls forward, clutching her throat.

He turns, and throws a handful of rings at me but I blast them out of the air. He ducks towards me, and tries to get a ring over my hurt arm, which is dangling conspicuously at my side, but I slap it out of his hands. He pulls another ring off my belt, some kind of bladed boomerang, and hurls it at me; it slides off the suit, and I punch him in the face on a level two.

He’s knocked back, so I grab him by the shoulders and repeatedly knee him in the gut, and then slam my good elbow down onto the back of his neck. He falls onto his chest, and I sit down on his back, straddling him. I tear off his helmet and toss it aside; it’s just as I thought, he’s some thug kid, Latino, bulldog-faced, with a little blue tear tattooed under his right eye.

I grab a hand full of hair, pull him up a little and then punch him in the back of the skull, driving his face down into the ground. I do this one, two, three times.

The Ringer stops trying to get up, and just lies there, moaning.

I practically leap on top of Felicia, vibing my gloves on a level five to tear the ring off her neck. It falls back into its normal shape, but a thick line of red-black bruises is forming even as she takes in her first few gasps of air.


The name comes out of me all sideways, different from anything I’ve ever said before. Our eyes meet, and, even though she’s on the verge of passing out from asphyxiation, there’s a connection so intense I have to look away.

I rush over to Aleksei, and yank the rings off him.

Someone starts clapping.

I stop dead, and turn to the source of the sound.

“Bravo,” Hammerhead says, sitting in his desk chair, looking mildly amused by the proceedings, politely applauding.

“The fuck are you clapping about?” I say, and Hammerhead stops the applause, but the smile stays. “ONE GUY?” I scream at him, still spluttering and trying to catch my breath. I feel like my neck has been compressed into a drinking straw, and whenever I swallow it feels like I’m trying to shove a bowling ball down my throat. “One fucking guy. That’s it? That’s all?”

I wipe some of the Ringer’s blood off my mask, and help Felicia up, but something inside me is still vibrating.

Still shaking out of control at Hammerhead’s even, calm gaze.

“I want you to watch this,” I say to Hammerhead, who stays quiet.

“Herman …” Felicia says weakly, rasping, but a single look from me silences her.

I pull the Ringer to his feet, vibrate my glove on a level two, stick my fingers into his nose and tear it off his face, releasing a high arcing splash of blood.

He screams, and I hit him point blank in the chest with a level two that sends him flying backwards into the side of Hammerhead’s enormous desk, bouncing off with a hearty snapping sound, and when he lands his body is bent awkwardly, contorted into a sort of broken fetal ball.

He groans and starts to reach for a ring on his belt, but I vibrate my boot on a level three and stomp his hand so hard it’s permanently mangled into what resembles a bloody, flattened artichoke.

He shouts in pain, and slowly drags himself over to the wall, pulling himself to his feet, and starts limping pitifully away, so I turn and blast him in the back with a level four; he’s thrown forward a little, skids off the wall and then smashes down onto his face.

I hear his bones crack.

It sounds like fucking music.

I start towards him, but Felicia puts her hand on my shoulder.

“Herman. Enough.” There’s a sweetness and concern in her voice that’s completely alien to me. All I hear is the harsh command, and I shrug her hand off.

“Yeah, whatever,” I say, suddenly a lonely, angry fourteen-year-old boy again. I look to Aleksei, who’s standing up, rubbing his shoulder. “You okay, bud?”

Aleksei smiles.

“No problem. He just caught me by surprise, any other time I could’ve pounded him flat.”

I turn to Hammerhead, my hurt arm dangling loosely at my side, little lightning bolts of pain jetting up to my shoulder and down to my finger tips every time I move it.

I stand there staring at him; he remains seated, his perfect, still silence having changed to a sort of frozen catatonia.

“Schultz,” he starts shakily, but I cut him off.

“I am God’s Solution to over-population. I am the last surviving dinosaur. I am the scariest man alive. Make no mistake: If you do not give me what I want, right now, I hit you so hard your mother will feel it.”

There’s this kind of hollow silence where I realize how absolutely and completely fucking silly what I just said sounded, and then Hammerhead reaches into his desk, takes out a sheet of paper, scribbles something down on it and slides it across the desk.

The “oh, shit” look is finally here, torn onto his face like an open wound.

And it’s fucking beautiful.

“Excellent,” I say, and then smash his desk in half with a level two.

“Hey, I gave you the address, what’re you —” Hammerhead warbles, and then I grab him by the jaw and slam him against the wall, drawing out my father’s old blue switchblade, vibrating it on a level one so it slides through the flesh of his scalp like butter. He screams, and I scream over him.

“YOU THINK YOU KNOW ME, MOTHERFUCKER? YOU’RE GOING TO TRY TO GIVE ME ADVICE?” I scream, the words pouring out of me like the blood that pours down Hammerhead’s face as I saw away at his cranium. “YOU DON’T KNOW ME! YOU —”

I vibrate my fingers and stick them into him.

“— DON’T —”

I rip upwards, and there’s a wet cracking sound. I hear Felicia gasp.

“— KNOW —”

I yank as hard as I can, and there’s another splintering crack before it gives and I tear it off.

“— ME!”

Hammerhead falls onto the carpet, hemorrhaging blood from the wound on his head, the wound that is his head. I lift the three-inch-thick, ten-by-ten-inch square of titanium up in front of my face, and wipe some of the bloody hair off it, flicking off some of the bloody, stringy flesh.

“Nobody knows me,” I whisper, and I hear my voice shake.

Hammerhead whimpers, and I hear Aleksei gag a little in revulsion, and maybe fear.

… What the fuck did I just do?

“Aleksei,” I say, tossing him my satellite phone. “Call an ambulance.”

He does, and I turn to the woman of my dreams.

Felicia is staring at me in a kind of disgusted, terrified and completely raw shock.

I ponder saying something to her, but figure it’ll have wait until we’re out of here.

“Let’s roll,” I say, and exit through one of the enormous holes I’d blown in the wall. Aleksei follows, still glancing nervously at Hammerhead’s writhing form, giving the address to the paramedics. After a moment, Felicia, to my surprise, follows us.

I drop the blood-soaked chunk of titanium on the street on the way out.

Cartoon that.

Comic book that.

Show that in the Daily Bugle, Robertson, see who thinks I’m a hero then. Show them the real me, see if they still root for the Shocker: LEGIT.

I am nobody’s toy. I am not an archetype. I am not a cartoon, I am not a joke, and I sure as hell refuse to be just another fucking avatar.

FPS, CSA, whatever the fuck you are, you better watch your back.

Because the Shocker is officially on the offensive.

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