Chapter 22: Paranoid

When you start a day by brutalizing one man and ripping part of the skull out of another, you’d think the day has nowhere to go but down.

Maybe you’d be right.

As I’m pinning the address of what might be Arcade’s home base to the grand clipboard in the lobby of the Tube, Felicia clears her throat behind me. I turn to her, smiling, but it’s a strange, skewed smile. I don’t even really know how it got on my face, come to think of it. Ever since I tore open Hammerhead’s skull I’ve 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 I’m 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 isn’t the sort of thing I’m equipped for, Herman; I’m a detective at best and a thief at worst. The stuff you’ve gotten yourself into, it isn’t even superhero fare, it’s something bigger, something darker. And you, Herman …

“Oh, Jesus. I don’t even know what to think about you anymore. You’re better, more brilliant than I ever knew you were. You’re funny, sweet, gentle, and let me remind you I saw none of this when we were working together for Fisk … But then you’ve 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 could’ve killed him!”

“He would have deserved it, he —” I start to say.

“Cut that shit out!” she says, pointing a clawed finger at me. “That’s not you talking, that’s your anger, that’s your hate! That’s the same guy who’d flip out and fumble everything while fighting Spider-Man!” She takes a breath and practically shouts her next words. “That’s 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 robber’s mask, and furrows her brow, staring at me.

“I’m Felicia Hardy,” she says, and shakes her head at me. “Who the hell are YOU?”

There’s a long pause, and then I start to speak, and she shushes me.

“I don’t know. I need to think. Just … Just give me some time, Herman. I’m going to disappear for a while. Don’t 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.

“How’d 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.

“It’ll be fine. It’s 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. “I’d like to get a better look at your nose, though; I’d be —”

I wave her away.

“It’ll be fine. Ain’t no point in fixing anything until all the breaking’s 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; I’d imagine it’s 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 he’s 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, Peter’s got this weird, stern look on his face; like he’s disappointed in me.

Everyone is disappointed in me. The reason Aleksei isn’t 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? It’s not like he was a threat.”

“I think that’s 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 doesn’t nearly cover it, eh?”

“He was pretty much Satan,” I say, and take a sip of my beer. It’s not often I actually talk about Dad, so this feels weird for me, but Peter’s a damned good listener; he always seems likes he’s taking in what you’re 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 don’t get me; he used the term ‘super-villain.’ Like fifteen years before I ever heard it on TV; and he’d put me through these ridiculous exercises, just blatant abuse, really, where I’d be put in simulations of super-villain scenarios, and I’d 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?”

Peter’s silent. He’s 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: It’s like you were looking at someone you’ve worked with for years, and they’ve 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 isn’t a very dignified noise.

The woman who stands to my left, is, as most super-villainesses are, breathtakingly sexy. She’s 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, I’m not. I’m Sylvan Swankmeir, the Masked … Angry … Laser-gun … Dude.”

Peter slaps a hand against his forehead.

There’s 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 (I’m 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.

That’s 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 didn’t start this …”

“You think I’m 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. “I’ve 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 he’s faking. “My prize pupil. What’re you doing here?”

Well, shit, this is getting weirder and weirder every second, ain’t it?

“I came with Herman, Dr. Octavius. We’re friends.”

“Not perhaps thinking of pursuing a career in villainy, are you?” Otto says hopefully. Peter shakes his head.

“Afraid not.”

Otto laughs softly. He’s 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 you’ve 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 there’s a fight, we have to remove everyone involved. As always, nice to see you, Parker.”

As we’re 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 doesn’t 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.

I’d believe either.

“Reed isn’t 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.


“I’ve 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.




“It’s been a while since I’ve 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 don’t really have any friends; I mean, I’m usually busy with my job these days, and when I’m not I’m in the spandex, so it’s not like I have much time to …”

There’s 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.

“That’s cool,” I say, and sip my Coke. “More power to you, man.”

Peter laughs.

“Uh … hey, guys … you mind if I sit with you?”

Aleksei’s enormous body looks so out of place in the pizza joint, it’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 can’t do that, Herman. You make me too scared. I don’t 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 ain’t never seen you that angry before, except maybe at Spider-Man.”

“I just … I just don’t like it when people treat me the way Hammerhead was treating me. I don’t like being talked to like I’m a nobody.”

“But that don’t give you the right to hurt him, an’ rip his head open …”

“Aleksei, he was trying to kill us! Doesn’t that give me some leeway?”

There’s a silence, and then Aleksei says: “I don’t know what leeway means.”

A thought strikes me, and I raise both my hands, silencing Aleksei.

“What’re you doing out of the house? Didn’t I tell you not to leave the place unless I was with you?”

Aleksei looks embarrassed.

“I, uh … I had an accident.”

Aleksei’s retelling of the catastrophe that befell him shortly after my departure from the Tube is so skewed and rambling that I’ll 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.”

Aleksei’s 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 Aleksei’s 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 it’s hurting him.

“I would’ve 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 I’m gonna skedaddle. See you sometime next weekend, right, Herman?”

“Yeah,” I say, a little embarrassed. “Sounds good.”

Twenty minutes later, I’m 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 friend’s ass-cheek.

Welcome to the glamorous life of a reformed super-villain.

After about ten unsuccessful tries, I end up literally standing on Aleksei’s back, vibrating my hand on a level one, pulling like I’m 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.

It’s Miss Peelo. And at this point, anything she says interests me very much.

On the subway headed east, Aleksei blushes.

“I don’t like havin’ this thing stuck in my butt. I feel like everybody is looking at me, Herman.”

“Well, Aleksei, don’t 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 isn’t 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 Aleksei’s 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 it’s the single best dessert I’ve ever had. I look to Aleksei, who, although we’ve 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 she’s “Aleksei-Proofed” the side he’s sitting on; the arm-rest is covered in a sturdy plank of oak.

“Herman, Aleksei,” she says, and smiles at us both, and it’s here I see again how … well … eerie this odd little woman is; for example, her mutations stretch farther than I’d originally thought. I see now something I didn’t see before: She’s got about three times the normal amount of teeth, but they’re so small and cramped together the illusion of normality holds up.

Her third eye catches me staring and winks at me.

“I was reviewing Aleksei’s 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. “It’s 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. “I’ve been … Oh, what’s the word? Ah, yes, ‘hacking.’”

Aleksei’s beady eyes widen.

“You’ve 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! That’s 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, there’s 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 can’t place it.

“So, theoretically, when does he give up?” the young guy says.

“He’s different; he’s not going to off himself like Beck, or retire like Brown. Herman’s like a goddamn fruit fly; once he starts after us, he’s not going to stop until we swat him.”

Oh, dear God.

It’s my father.

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