Chapter 22: Paranoid
When you start a day by brutalizing one man and ripping part of the skull out of another, youd think the day has nowhere to go but down.
Maybe youd be right.
As Im pinning the address of what might be Arcades home base to the grand clipboard in the lobby of the Tube, Felicia clears her throat behind me. I turn to her, smiling, but its a strange, skewed smile. I dont even really know how it got on my face, come to think of it. Ever since I tore open Hammerheads skull Ive been kind of numb and spinning inside.
I think I might have anger problems.
Herman, Felicia says, her voice a tiny rasp, the enormous black and purple bruises shifting as her throat muscles work. I think Im going to go away for a while.
What? I say, freezing in place, my whole body letting loose a little tremble.
I was When I got into this, I It was a private investigation, one woman checking out the strange death of her husband. But once you clued me in on all the other whacky shit going on, I sort of just got yanked in This isnt the sort of thing Im equipped for, Herman; Im a detective at best and a thief at worst. The stuff youve gotten yourself into, it isnt even superhero fare, its something bigger, something darker. And you, Herman
Oh, Jesus. I dont even know what to think about you anymore. Youre better, more brilliant than I ever knew you were. Youre funny, sweet, gentle, and let me remind you I saw none of this when we were working together for Fisk But then youve got this edge, this very scary side. I think I saw a little of it when you went after the creep that took over Aleksei. And I know I saw it this morning; Jesus, Herman, what were you thinking? You couldve killed him!
He would have deserved it, he I start to say.
Cut that shit out! she says, pointing a clawed finger at me. Thats not you talking, thats your anger, thats your hate! Thats the same guy whod flip out and fumble everything while fighting Spider-Man! She takes a breath and practically shouts her next words. Thats The Shocker! You lose control and let it guide you, like She looks at me plaintively. Like a super-villain.
Something inside me crumples.
She pulls off her tiny raccoon robbers mask, and furrows her brow, staring at me.
Im Felicia Hardy, she says, and shakes her head at me. Who the hell are YOU?
Theres a long pause, and then I start to speak, and she shushes me.
I dont know. I need to think. Just Just give me some time, Herman. Im going to disappear for a while. Dont try to find me.
And I stand and watch in frozen silence as I watch the woman of my dreams walk out of my life.
Well, fuck, I say, and swallow back my tears for the thousandth time.
Two hours later, the doctor is wrapping my arm as I twitch and groan, and Peter Parker watches, amused but empathetic.
Howd you say you found this chick again, Pete? I say, eyeing the lady doctor as menacingly as possible as she hooks what looks like a splint to the side of my left elbow. She smiles at me, completely unafraid.
Spider-Man uses her, Peter says. Well, not uses her, but goes to her. Sees her. No, wait, not sees her like sees her, but
Spider-Man is a patient, the doctor says. And not always a very cooperative one. You, Mr. Schultz, at least manage to sit still.
Hah! Doctor Patient Courtesy: Shocker: 1. Spider-Man: 0.
Hey, I take what I can get.
Is my arm gonna be okay? I say. The whole left side of my torso is aching by now; it feels like someone bent my arm backwards at the elbow.
Itll be fine. Its just some kind of massive contusion due to it being wrenched at an unnatural angle. She looks at me or a moment, and then leans in close, examining my face. Id like to get a better look at your nose, though; Id be
I wave her away.
Itll be fine. Aint no point in fixing anything until all the breakings done.
Peter laughs. So, more breaking in the immediate future?
Christ, I say, smiling at him. I hope not.
As a special treat, I take Peter to the Bronx Bar With No Name for a late lunch. A guy as curious as him should enjoy being around this many metas at once; Id imagine its a bizarre and wonderful experience for a civilian, like Peter.
There are no big names there; the toughest hombre aside from me is Boomerang, and hes so drunk he can barely walk.
I start telling him about the events of this morning, skirting all the bits about FPS and what I think might be a massive conspiracy, and by the time I get to the part where I repeatedly and mercilessly blasting the Ringer, Peters got this weird, stern look on his face; like hes disappointed in me.
Everyone is disappointed in me. The reason Aleksei isnt here is because he went and hid in his room in the Tube as soon as we got home. When I asked him if he wanted to go out, I heard a single, muted no. And then the radio started blasting Queen songs from beyond the door, and I gave up.
I tell Peter about what I did to Hammerhead, and he lets out this strange, high-pitched laugh. Like shock, horror and approval, all at once.
Why? Peter says, more flummoxed than angry. I mean, what was the point? Its not like he was a threat.
I think thats why I did it, I say, staring into the murky yellow depths of my Heineken. All that shit he was spitting about cartoon heroes and rise above, it tore something in me, really struck deep down. I think it reminded me of my father.
Bad relationship? he says. This actually makes me laugh, and he grins, embarrassed. Bad relationship doesnt nearly cover it, eh?
He was pretty much Satan, I say, and take a sip of my beer. Its not often I actually talk about Dad, so this feels weird for me, but Peters a damned good listener; he always seems likes hes taking in what youre saying. Dad was a military guy, corrupt as all hell, and he had his fingers in all this weird shit You know, the sort of high-level classified stuff they only let the really corrupt and scary guys near to begin with.
Right, Peter says, eating a peanut.
Anyway, Dad became convinced, once the superheroes started showing up by the dozen, that the only way I was ever going to survive in the world was by being a super-villain. Peter laughs in shock, but I raise a hand, silencing him. No, Pete, you dont get me; he used the term super-villain. Like fifteen years before I ever heard it on TV; and hed put me through these ridiculous exercises, just blatant abuse, really, where Id be put in simulations of super-villain scenarios, and Id have to figure a way out of it.
Wow, Peter says quietly.
Yeah. Anyway, when I was about fifteen, Dad disappeared. No letters, no notes, no psychotic farewell attack, just poof. General Adrian Schultz vanished. My sister and I were bounced around foster homes for a while before we ended up on the streets. I made my way as a safe-cracker for a while, abandoned the super-villain thing entirely. Then one day I started working for this British weirdo, Wilson Fisk, and Well, you know the rest from there, right?
Peters silent. Hes doing that weird thing he does to me; his face is stuck in a strange cycle of expressions. In fact, now that I look at it, I can nail down the emotion behind it: Its like you were looking at someone youve worked with for years, and theyve just told you they were never the person you thought they were, but rather a different person entirely.
I guess that comes from his only prior contact with me being watching me on television screaming DIE SPIDERMAN! while getting kicked in the head.
Peter suddenly shoves back from the table, milliseconds before a katana buries itself in the table between us. I flinch like a startled monkey, and make a little Yogwap! noise.
It isnt a very dignified noise.
The woman who stands to my left, is, as most super-villainesses are, breathtakingly sexy. Shes an Asian, maybe Japanese, wearing a skin-tight black spandex/latex body suit with an enormous vertical slit down the middle, showing off the sides and bottoms of her enormous, clearly artificial breasts.
I am the Dragonfly, Master Assassin of the True Believers. Are you Herman Schultz? she says.
Uh, I say, and look to Peter, who looks terrified, and vehemently shakes his head. No, Im not. Im Sylvan Swankmeir, the Masked Angry Laser-gun Dude.
Peter slaps a hand against his forehead.
Theres a pause, and I shrug.
She yanks the sword out of the table and swings it at my neck in one smooth, clean motion, but I kick off the side of the table and drop onto my back,
I feel the blade wisp inches above my face as I fall, draw my single gauntlet (Im doing the one sleeve thing again) and blast her in the chest with a level three that lifts her into the air and bounces her off the ceiling. She lands hard on a table, smashing some beer mugs, and rolls off, drawing a wakizashi out of a sheath on her back, her body twitching a little, still vibrating.
Whoa, whoa! Peter shouts, raising his hands protectively.
Aiiiii-ya! the Dragonfly screams, and hurls the wakizashi at Parker, who somehow ducks under it; the guy must be on Ritalin or something, because his reflexes are through the roof. She throws an even smaller sword at me, and I dodge around it and hit her with a level two that slams her backwards against the bar.
Something suddenly hits me in the face, knocking me down, and I lie there trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
Two small, circular points of pressure poke against my back, preventing me from making any fast movements.
Thats when I hear it; the clicking of hundreds of metal joints.
You should both know the rules; no fighting, a nasal, angry voice says. The sort of voice that belonged to every nerd in the Math club. The sort of voice that comes prepared with a calculator, four neatly sharpened pencils and a pocket protector.
The weak, laughable voice that conceals one of the most dangerous men on Earth.
Otto I say, starting to get up, my head clearing. I didnt start this
You think Im unaware of that, Herman? says Otto Octavius (better known to you clowns as Dr. Octopus), lifting the struggling Dragonfly with two of his tentacles, holding me back with the others. Ive been watching you since you came in. You and He looks at Peter, and smiles. Parker Peter nods, and looks nervous and scared, but I can tell hes faking. My prize pupil. Whatre you doing here?
Well, shit, this is getting weirder and weirder every second, aint it?
I came with Herman, Dr. Octavius. Were friends.
Not perhaps thinking of pursuing a career in villainy, are you? Otto says hopefully. Peter shakes his head.
Otto laughs softly. Hes capable of this bizarre transformation, and performs it often; the radical switch between psychotic, egomaniacal madman and tender, funny, somewhat fatherly science professor, the kind of guy geeks like me would switch our high school schedules around to work in.
Geeks like me, and, apparently, Parker.
Different strokes, eh, Peter? He sighs. Oh, well, he says, and brutally smashes the still-struggling Dragonfly into the wall, knocking her out. At least youve found yourself in good company. Herman here is quite the engineer; a bright mind, like yours. He glances at Dragonfly. And now, both of your bright minds should be moving on. You know the rule; if theres a fight, we have to remove everyone involved. As always, nice to see you, Parker.
As were heading out, a tentacle taps me on my shoulder. I turn, and Otto leans close to me.
Watch your back, Herman. There are some very nasty sorts of people gunning for you. And, may I add, I am not talking about super-villains.
Can you gimme a little more on who these people might be?
Otto looks around, and then says: No.
The door to the Bar With No Name closes.
Peter loved the whole ordeal. He prattles on about it on the subway uptown, to the Four Freedoms Plaza. Apparently, Otto was his teacher in high school, just before the incident. Peter even says he was there when the reactor blew; that I have a little trouble believing, but Peter doesnt seem the type to bullshit for the sake of bullshitting.
The brunette girl with the Count of Monte Cristo is still behind the counter, but she actually seems to be earlier in the book than she was last time I was here. Which means she either is reading the book backwards or she finished and started again.
Id believe either.
Reed isnt in, she says before I even ask a question. She closes the book and give me this weird, half-fake, half-real smile that you usually only see on bartenders. Oh, hello, Mr. Parker, she says, noticing Peter.
Ive been here before, Peter says quickly. On interviews and photoshoots and stuff, back when I was full-time for the Daily Bugle.
He left a message for you, Mr. Schultz, the girl says, and slides a small piece of paper across the table.
IF YOU CAME TODAY, IM SORRY. THE FAMILY AND I ARE ON A WILD, FANCIFUL ADVENTURE INTO AN ALTERNATE DIMENSION, WHEREIN IM SURE WELL SEE MANY AMAZING AND BRIGHTLY COLOURED THINGS. ILL CALL WHEN WE GET BACK.
Its been a while since Ive done this, Peter says, taking a bite out of his pizza at dinner.
Done what? I ask. Pizza?
No, you know, just hung out with someone all day. I dont really have any friends; I mean, Im usually busy with my job these days, and when Im not Im in the spandex, so its not like I have much time to
Theres a looooooooooooooooooong pause, him staring at me with this kind of frozen loopy grin on his face.
Spandex? I say, setting down my slice of pizza.
Yeah, he says quietly. I uh teach a dance class.
I knew he was gay. I just fucking knew it.
Thats cool, I say, and sip my Coke. More power to you, man.
Uh hey, guys you mind if I sit with you?
Alekseis enormous body looks so out of place in the pizza joint, its impossible to look at him without laughing.
Of course you can, Aleksei.
I go through the normal custom of pulling up two chairs for his enormous gray butt, and they buckle a little under his weight. I notice a bizarre clack as he sits down, but I dont say anything; he looks miserable.
Hey, Herman, he says, without looking up.
Hey, there, big guy. You doing okay? I rub his big gray shoulder.
Parker watches all this with that weird I dont know you at all look on his face.
I was You really scared me this morning, Herman. I thought you went nutso.
I wuz You really scared me this mornin, Hoiman. I thod you went nuzzo.
I did, Aleksei, but only for a second.
You cant do that, Herman. You make me too scared. I dont want you to be You know Like the Punisher or nothing
Is that what I was like? I say quietly.
Jeez, I dunno. You were just so angry, Herman. I aint never seen you that angry before, except maybe at Spider-Man.
I just I just dont like it when people treat me the way Hammerhead was treating me. I dont like being talked to like Im a nobody.
But that dont give you the right to hurt him, an rip his head open
Aleksei, he was trying to kill us! Doesnt that give me some leeway?
Theres a silence, and then Aleksei says: I dont know what leeway means.
A thought strikes me, and I raise both my hands, silencing Aleksei.
Whatre you doing out of the house? Didnt I tell you not to leave the place unless I was with you?
Aleksei looks embarrassed.
I, uh I had an accident.
Alekseis retelling of the catastrophe that befell him shortly after my departure from the Tube is so skewed and rambling that Ill have to give you the condensed, simple version lest this entry take up fifty pages, twenty-five of those pages entirely comprised of the words uh and um and and then.
Alekseis Devastating Toilet Trauma:
Aleksei has to go to the bathroom.
Aleksei goes to the bathroom and gets his urine/feces tube hooked up, and sticks it down the toilet, as per usual.
The old, rusty pipes of the tube jam up, and Aleksei panics.
Unable to find a plunger to unclog the rapidly flooding toilet, Aleksei picks one of my old gauntlets.
His big, fumbling fingers set it to level five, and aim it at the toilet.
The subsequent shitsplosion lodges half of cracked toilet seat, which was still vibrating on a level 5, in Alekseis big gray left buttock.
Aleksei, after several unsuccessful attempts, sets all the alarms and leaves the Tube, seeking my assistance.
Peter is holding back laughter to the point that it actually looks like its hurting him.
I wouldve asked Felicia Aleksei says slowly. But, you know she Aleksei looks sad. She left.
Peter looks from me to Aleksei and back.
Wellllll he says, and looks around. I think Im gonna skedaddle. See you sometime next weekend, right, Herman?
Yeah, I say, a little embarrassed. Sounds good.
Twenty minutes later, Im standing in an alleyway, braced against a dumpster, using my one good arm to try to tug a piece of molded plastic out of my best friends ass-cheek.
Welcome to the glamorous life of a reformed super-villain.
After about ten unsuccessful tries, I end up literally standing on Alekseis back, vibrating my hand on a level one, pulling like Im trying to get Excalibur out of the stone.
FUCK! I say as I lose my balance and fall face-first into the dumpster, getting an eyeful of half-eaten Big Mac. I sit up, cursing, when a cool euphoria washes over me.
Herman, a voice says in my head. I have something that might interest you.
Its Miss Peelo. And at this point, anything she says interests me very much.
On the subway headed east, Aleksei blushes.
I dont like havin this thing stuck in my butt. I feel like everybody is looking at me, Herman.
Well, Aleksei, dont you think that might have something to do with you being an eight-foot-tall guy in a Rhino suit? Aleksei laughs a little. See? What you see isnt always what you see, I say, trying to forget the fact that everybody is, indeed, staring at the very conspicuous chunk of toilet poking out of Alekseis butt.
The slice of moist, spongy strawberry cake looks positively organic under the layer of white frosting. Like a tooth torn out by the gum.
I take a bite anyway, and within seconds, realize its the single best dessert Ive ever had. I look to Aleksei, who, although weve only been here a minute and a half, is already on his fifth slice, squirming awkwardly in his chair like a toddler who has to go to the bathroom, trying to find a comfortable position. I rub his back a little, and, whether he can feel it or not, the gesture calms him down.
Miss Peelo comes out of the kitchen with two glasses of pink lemonade, and sets them down in front of Aleksei and me before sitting down in the luxurious rocking chair set up on the other side of the table. The money from our last reading is evident in the room; the couch that Aleksei destroyed has been completely replaced, with a larger, softer model, on which we sit now.
I smile privately inside as I notice that shes Aleksei-Proofed the side hes sitting on; the arm-rest is covered in a sturdy plank of oak.
Herman, Aleksei, she says, and smiles at us both, and its here I see again how well eerie this odd little woman is; for example, her mutations stretch farther than Id originally thought. I see now something I didnt see before: Shes got about three times the normal amount of teeth, but theyre so small and cramped together the illusion of normality holds up.
Her third eye catches me staring and winks at me.
I was reviewing Alekseis carbon copy in my mind, just because I found your case so interesting, and I came around another little tidbit I thought you might find useful.
What is it? I ask. Another picture, or ?
Better, she says, and smiles. Its an audio file. Recent, too, from just before his rampage last week.
No shit, I say quietly. I thought you said all that was blocked off?
It was, she says, and daintily sips her cup of maroon tea. Ive been Oh, whats the word? Ah, yes, hacking.
Alekseis beady eyes widen.
Youve been hacking? On my brain?
For lack of a better term, yes, she says. Aleksei turns to me, and squeezes my shoulder in excitement.
Oh, Herman! Thats so cool!
So, this audio thing Can you play it for us?
Of course, she says, and sets her tea cup down. But you must remember, this data is highly corrupt. There might be some distortion, static and whatnot.
I smile at her.
Lady, the fact that you even got it is amazing enough. We can handle a little static.
She closes all three eyes, and the pink energy tendril appears again, extending out until it floats just above the table until the end of it widens into what looks like a gramophone funnel. First, theres only white noise. And then, after a moment of pops and buzzes, two voices begin to speak.
One of them is a young, tired-sounding guy.
The other is vaguely familiar, but I cant place it.
So, theoretically, when does he give up? the young guy says.
Hes different; hes not going to off himself like Beck, or retire like Brown. Hermans like a goddamn fruit fly; once he starts after us, hes not going to stop until we swat him.
Oh, dear God.
Its my father.
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