Chapter 27: Everything Is Lies, Part Four
Well, this fucking blows.
They told me five days bed rest before I get back to New York; Im guessing they know theres trouble waiting there for me. Me muttering about it constantly probably wasnt helping, but its easier to blame others than take any kind of direct responsibility.
So, as it stands, Im stuck listening to Marty laugh at reruns of Full House in a cut-rate motel room, watching Miss Peelo read Great Expectations, and spending my days in a seedy little shit-hole called the Low-Down.
Its one of those seedy little train-wreck dives, where most of the light comes from reflections glinting off the bottles and even the water tastes like smoke. This is the lower levels of the world, populated by the dead and the dying. This is a neon hell.
Marty seems to be having a great time, though; he found some Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J and Schooly D in the juke-box. Hes happy as a clam.
But when Martys not around, my brain is deadened by the Garth Brooks, the Creed, the endless chatter of the beaver-toothed bartender, and the too-loud volume of the television. I feel the air hot and sticky on my face, the polluted fumes of a thousand Daves and Johns and Larrys who have come before me. My body is twitching and jumping with energy; I want to get the fuck out of here. I want to get back to New York and kick some ass.
I want to get back to Felicia.
Hours pass, but time stands still. Im in the bar, Im in the room, Im sitting outside looking at the desert sunset, Im in the room again, Im in the bar again My whole body aches, and life moves so slow down here you lose track of how fast its slipping away from you. I guess thats what
Now what the fuck is that?
Thats not normal.
Im sitting on the porch of the motel looking out into the desert when I first see it. In the beginning, it just looks like a figure, a little black figure silhouetted against the orange sunset, marching slowly towards me out of the desert.
At first the shape is so vague, the movement so stumbling and awkward, that I dont recognize it as a human. I figure its a lost horse, or maybe a cow from one of the cattle ranches up to the Northeast.
It gets closer, the figure becomes clearer; its not a horse, or a cow. Its a man.
But as it gets closer still, not even that is certain; its too big to be a man, too lanky, its knuckles dragging on the sand in front of it.
Its not a man. Or is it?
Getting closer now; maybe thirty feet. I feel glued into my lawn chair, the motel silent behind me, the sounds of the desert stifled by a thick humidity that seems to emanate from the creature.
The things body looks to be completely composed out of algae, mold and fungus of some kind; its so thin in some places you can see straight through. On its face (if you can call it that), it has two enormous red orbs that must be eyes, and then No mouth, really. Just a bunch of looong tentacles, no, roots, dangling down from the bottom of its face, one of them longer than the others, like the trunk of an elephant.
No, too strange. Too different. Too not human.
Its not a man.
Its a man-thing.
A voice in my head. Too many of those recently.
The Man-Thing lumbers up onto the porch, and looms there in front of me, the red lantern eyes swaying inches away from my face.
I dont move. I dont breathe. Marty has to come out sometime, and Miss Peelo, shit, surely Miss Peelo can hear me psychically screaming my head off.
That name is familiar.
The Man-Thing lurches backwards, collapsing onto its haunches, glowering at me with the big red eyes. It must be seven and a half feet tall, eight hundred or so pounds of moss and wood packed onto some kind of flesh endo-structure. Im betting any kind of direct attack on him would be pointless, especially at this distance (around three feet); that muck hes made out of would probably just fly apart and reform. How the fuck else could he have made it this far? that shit on his shoulders looks like swamp grass, and there sure as hell arent any natural swamplands in New Mexico.
Which means this motherfucker walked here from somewhere down south. Walked all the way out here to talk to me.
What I say, trying to keep the fear out of my voice. What do you want?
The Man-Thing stays still, the reeds and blades of grass growing from its back blowing in the desert breeze. One of the root-things growing from the bottom of its face, the big one that almost looks like an elephants trunk, twitches fretfully, and somehow, I understand:
Its feeling my fear. And it doesnt like it.
Sallis, Sallis, where the hell do I know that name from?
And in my head, the name vibrates into place.
Doctor Theodore Sallis; he was one of the names I couldnt identify on the list of heroes and villains I saw in Alekseis head.
What does that mean? What does that
The Man-Thing lurches forward, and I press myself back into the chair, turning my head, scrunching up my nose, trying to overcome the meaty, earthy smell: like raccoon roadkill mixed with a vegetable compost heap.
I feel a wave of euphoria come over me; like everything in the world is going to be okay.
Its not. I can feel its not.
But the Man-Thing is forcing it into my brain that it is, so I dont have much choice. I dont want to move. I dont want to fight. Just stay still, and everything will be fine.
The Man-Thing rocks back on its heels, and resumes staring at me. Very slowly, I start to speak.
What do you know about Doctor Theodore Sallis? I say. Lets keep this real fucking simple for swamp-noggin.
The response is instantaneous, and booming; I feel it behind the skin of my forehead, bouncing painfully around my skull.
The word rings in my ears as though it was just blasted over a loud-speaker, even though I know the Man-Thing didnt make a sound.
Who betrayed him? I say quietly, trying to bring down the tone of the conversation, if you want to call it that.
The sad thing is: Sitting around all day and then being harassed by a Swamp Monster with a BO problem is my idea of a pretty laid-back day.
That is, if the creature doesnt end up eating me alive.
Lover. His secret formula. Super-Soldier. A.I.M.
He was working on the super-soldier serum?
Project Gladiator. SHIELD. His secret formula. BETRAYED.
The word blasts out again, and I use my heels to loudly scrape my chair back, across the porch, a few more inches away from Man-Thing. It leans forward, negating the distance.
Did he die? Was it the CSA?
He found The secret Ingredient DARKFORCE
It blows out so hard I actually clap both hands to my forehead, trying to squeeze out the pain like pus from a pimple. It doesnt work.
Dark force what? I scream at Man-Thing, and it turns, looking up at the sky.
When the voice in my head speaks up again, its more coherent. Slower, more even, as though its really forcing the words together, forcing its thoughts into a formation that makes sense.
Sallis recreated 1942 Erskine super-soldier serum Using original ingredients one of them was liquid Darkforce materia acquired it on trip to New Mexico after researching development process of original serum by Emil Erskine but His lover betrayed him to AIM and he destroyed his notes so that no one would ever know
What? I whisper. No one would ever know what?
Alamogordo gamma bomb experiments with Darkforce physics He injected himself but serum was not ready he fled into the swamplands and died You seek truth I have given you my piece.
The Man-Thing sways to its feet, and trundles down off the porch, back out into the desert. Im frozen for a little while, but then I jerk myself to my feet, and shout at its distant form as it begins to fade back into the horizon.
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU? I scream, sure theres a better question to ask it but not sure what the hell it might be.
The shape disappears into the fading sunset, but then I hear it, just a whisper in my head.
I was Theodore Sallis
I dont sleep too well that night. My dreams are filled with that rotten smell, those big red eyes, and that strange feeling of dead, frozen calm the thing exuded.
The next morning, I tell Miss Peelo and Marty all about it over breakfast at IHOP. It doesnt go over too well.
Why in Gods name didnt you tell us? Miss Peelo whispers, slapping down her tea so hard a little lick of it splashes up over the edge of the mug.
Youre a psychic. Why didnt you just read my mind? I spit out without thinking.
Herman, I told you we had an understanding; I said I wasnt going to delve, and I meant it, but this, this creature approaches you ten feet from where Im sleeping and you dont even tell me until fourteen hours later? Thats unacceptable, Herman!
All right, this is pissing me off.
Dont you I start, all piss and vinegar, but Marty cuts me off almost immediately.
What if it had been a mercenary, Herman? A mutant or something
This was no fucking mutant, I say flatly.
Now, how the hell can you be sure of that, man? Ive seen a mutant that just looked like a floating lump of green shit with little arms on the side. There is no way to tell
I slap my hand down on the table, just in front of Marty, and it effectively shuts him up; he even looks a little hurt.
It was not a mutant, Marty, and it wasnt there to hurt me. This thing it felt like it was from a whole different a whole different world or something.
Couldve been an alien merc, then, Herman. There are some wandering around, or are you one of those Bible Belt idiots who still denies that the Skrull and the ShiAr exist?
I grimace at him, a little angrily, and he grimaces right back.
All Im saying is that, if any weird shit goes down, you got to keep at least one of us in on it. I mean
And then Marty goes silent. All three of Miss Peelos eyes open painfully wide. And I feel him sitting next to me in the booth.
Its the smell that hits me first; ball-park hot dogs, ketchup, mustard and relish.
Both of you should consider yourself volunteers, and ask for absolutely no more than Herman is willing to give you, the Punisher says, picking a sausage up off Martys plate.
Oh, Marty says in a tiny voice. A wispy pink line appears between the heads of the Punisher and Miss Peelo, tentatively, as though shes hoping he wont notice.
Mr Castle its a pleasure to Miss Peelo says, but then the Punisher slices a knife through the pink energy cord, and Miss Peelo jerks away as though scalded.
You cut that shit out. Either of you try anything funny and I shut this freakshow down right here, right now.
Marty and Miss Peelo both look ready to soil their pants.
Herman, the Punisher says, turning to me. Weve got problems. I assume youve been told about the debacle in New York.
The contract on my head, I heard, yeah.
And you understand the magnitude of the bounty?
Shit, I dont know, do I?
The Punisher sighs.
Its an open contract with a call-in number; anyone can claim it, superhumans and non-meta lowlifes alike; all they need is a good hacksaw, and pow, seven hundred million dollars.
Marty gasps at the number and starts to speak, but I cut him off.
Wait, a hacksaw? Why do they need a hacksaw?
The Punisher either grimaces or grins; on him, its hard to tell, but I think its a mix of both.
The contract is on your head. And just your head.
Dear old Dad. Always could count on him to surprise me.
Whos signed up? I wheeze.
The Locust, Anarchy, Styx and Stone, Blue-Bird, Gunmetal Gray, Speedfreek, Joystick, Recoil, Man-Ape, Razor-Fist, Boomerang, Quicksand, Stilt-Man
I thought I was being pretty damn clear, Schultz. His eyes narrow; he doesnt like being interrupted.
Its just youre sure Stilt-Man signed up? Punisher nods, but I press on. My friend, Wilbur Day? Old Willy? He signed up to cut off my head?
You catch on quick, Punisher growls, and lights a cigarette. I dont know how I feel; betrayal? Despair? Shock? I cant tell anymore.
Whats that old saying about honor amongst thieves?
I wasnt done, either; thats just the list as it stood when I left New York to come looking for you. I thought you might want the raw data before you headed back into town. Theres a pause, and he takes a puff on his cigarette. Add to that maybe sixty or seventy non-meta hit-men, thugs, and crack addicts, maybe more, and thats a whole army on your ass. Your butt-buddy Sytsevich checks out of intensive care tonight; if we leave now, we could make it in time to pick him up outside the Stark Building, maybe give him an escort back to your place. Ive got a vehicle that could move him.
This is the Punisher, after all; whos to say that when they come for me and oh, they will come for me l he wont just set off eight pounds of C4 and wipe all of us scum off the face of the Earth?
This guy once nearly beat a guy to death for stealing a womans purse; his names Stevie Lawrence. He lives uptown now; he used to just be Steven Lawrence, but that was before; these days hes Stevie and he has trouble completing sentences.
Whats in it for you? Why would you do this for me?
Punisher sighs; a real deep, long sigh, and then turns to me.
Youve done right by me, Schultz. Youre smarter than anyone like you ought to be and youve been leading me through this maze of shit by the seat of my pants, and Im lucky Ive been able to keep up with you this far. So maybe we should both just count our blessings and shut the fuck up, how does that sound?
That sounds great, I whisper.
Good. Im paying. The Punisher gets up, and heads over to the register.
Miss Peelo and Marty are both in nervous silence, but theres something I simply have to know. I lean across the table to Miss Peelo.
What did it look like in there? In his head? I whisper to her, and she gets very serious, her face a little pale.
There was nothing in there, no thoughts I could read, nothing Just an image and a sound; blurry crows flying against a gray winter sky, and their screams, echoing out over fields of dead yellow grass, echoing forever, back and forth, the flock never moving, just flapping in place on that bright gray sky. It was
Fucked up, Marty posits, and Miss Peelo nods.
The Punisher walks back to the table, dangling the keys to our rental on his forefinger. He mustve picked them off me when he sat down next to me; this motherfucker is slick as snot.
Im driving, he says, and starts to walk out, but then turns back. And, just a thought, you folks should probably let that Dragonfly woman out of the trunk. She aint sounding so good.
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