Author: Stephensmat PM
If there is one constant in life, it is change. As both heroes deal with disastrous changes, everyone struggles to find their footing.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Adventure - Words: 25,560 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 1 - Published: 01-03-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3322999
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A Shadow/Spiderman Short Story By Stephensmat and Scarlet
Another day, another million. Or whatever's left after taxes.
That was the thought on Stephen Cranston's mind as he sipped his morning coffee in his bedroom on yet another Monday, trying to relax his mind and steel himself for another week in the corporate workforce after the mess of last week's criminal resurgence. It was too damned depressing to watch the news any more, as each day brought another report of another underworld figure killed off "gangland-style" by an "unknown assailant". A month ago, it would have been nearly impossible to stop Stephen's alter ego from going out and wreaking havoc on the man responsible for the murders, Wilson Fisk. But nowadays…he could barely even muster the energy to give a damn. Which frustrated him all the more.
Depression, he reminded himself. One of the five stages of grief. Of course, they say that as if the damned process has any kind of order to it. Order would be easier to take than this sheer randomness. He sipped his coffee. Not denying it happened any more. That would be insanity, which is still not entirely out of the question. He munched a croissant from the platter his butler had delivered for breakfast, savoring a flaky pastry with a luxurious taste that Victor had often bragged about when describing his house chef Pierre's culinary skills. Still angry. That part never changes. He actually smiled at that thought. The only bargaining I do any more has to do with stocks and bonds…and a few words to God asking for a little time to sleep for once. Not yet really accepting that this is it. So that just leaves depression. He crossed the room and leaned against the French-door-style windows to the master bedroom.
As he did, he found himself eye-to-upside-down-eye with Peter. He growled. "Stop looking over my shoulder, dammit!" his Shadow voice ordered. "Get out of here or I will knock you off that overhang myself!"
"Open the damned door or I'll break it open myself," Peter snarled in reply.
Stephen was impressed. That was the most attitude he'd ever seen from Peter. "Nice to see you're growing a backbone. Now get out of here."
Peter wasn't cowed. "You've got three seconds before I punch that smug expression off your face right through the glass."
Peter cocked his fist back. "One."
Stephen mentally flipped the latch.
Peter opened the door and sprang into the room. "You're getting cowardly."
"No, miserly. That's antique glass in those doors." Stephen casually turned to the brunch table to pour himself a refill on his coffee. "Now, this had better be a social call because I'm not interested in playing games right now…"
"I want you to kill me."
Stephen sipped his coffee, nonplussed. "MJ taking singing lessons again?"
"I'm not kidding," Peter growled.
Stephen stopped and turned back to his friend. "No, you're not," he realized. For the first time, Stephen noticed the tension in Peter's expression, as if he were fighting something within himself…a feeling with which Stephen was all-too-acquainted, unfortunately. "What's happening?"
"I want you to kill me."
Stephen now looked interested. Either his mind was going some pretty bizarre places lately, or something was seriously wrong here. "Why? This is New York. The weekly supply of megalomaniacs and super-villains has the situation well in hand…"
"I'm not so sure about that." He thought for a moment. "Try and hit me."
Stephen looked askance. "I'm not interested in breaking my bones today. Self-inflicted pain was a month ago. You're a little behind on the grief calendar."
"Then use your brain, Carnak. Come on. You haven't had a real mental workout in a while. You're probably dying to unleash a few psychic smacks. So do it."
"You know I can."
"I'm betting you can't even touch me."
This was getting ridiculous. Stephen lashed out a telekinetic wave to smack his friend in the back of the head to knock him out of his stupidity…
…and missed as Peter dodged it cleanly. "Come on," Peter taunted. "You can do better than that."
Stephen swirled another telekinetic lash...
…and missed again as Peter moved in the mere blink of an eye. "What's the matter? You getting rusty in your old age?"
Now this was serious. Stephen threw a suggestion of vertigo at Peter…
…and Peter yanked his leg out from under him as he fell.
The two men hit the floor together, but Peter was back up on the ceiling as soon as Stephen's concentration broke. "Come on! Fight!"
Stephen's next telekinetic burst split three ways to surround Peter on the ceiling…
…and impossibly, Peter slipped between the psychic tendrils a nanosecond before they closed around him, leaving the blows to chip the paint.
The next thing Stephen knew, Peter had somehow yanked him up off the floor and was now dangling him upside down over the street from the balcony. "Kill me now!" Peter insisted.
"WHY?" The Shadow's voice demanded.
Peter dove across the room with Stephen in hand and dropped him onto the bed, then settled onto the wall above him, one fist around the front of his shirt. "Do it," he ordered.
"No," Stephen growled, and put every ounce of mental energy he could muster into shoving the hand off his chest.
Peter let go and drew back sharply, then blinked like he was coming out of a dream. He shook his head, then pounced up to the ceiling and mirrored Stephen's recline on the bed, giving a sigh.
Stephen was now more than a little confused. "How did you do that?"
"I'm changing," Peter said, sounding desperate.
Now Stephen was definitely interested. "Physically?"
Stephen was trying to put the pieces together. "MJ kept telling me you were losing your powers earlier this week."
"I was. Then I got them back. So clearly something else had to happen, because a simple power hiccup just isn't possible without it being a disaster for me."
"No idea." He looked frustrated. "But I've been told it's not good."
"So your first thought was for me to kill you?"
"Yes. Because odds are I'm on my way to becoming some eight-armed monster that you'll have to stop."
O.K., maybe I dismissed insanity too soon. "So you want me to kill you to stop the mutation?"
"I want you to kill me before I kill someone else."
"You're not going to kill anybody else," Stephen sighed. "You've got a moral compass that's a Hell of a lot better aligned than mine is…"
"I almost killed a mugger last night."
Now that definitely got Stephen's attention. "You taking on my role now?"
"Look, this is not funny, it's not a joke, and it's not a game! The guy wasn't doing anything worse than the average mugger on the street, and I nearly put him through a wall! I never do that!" He looked frustrated. "I'm getting stronger, I'm getting faster, I'm getting angrier…somebody has to stop me before I kill somebody."
He swallowed hard, then nodded. "I could easily turn into something that could do that."
Stephen looked at his friend for a long time. He reached into the nightstand and pulled out a .45.
Peter fought back his fear and steeled himself against the ceiling. "Do it."
Stephen cocked the pistol.
Peter ignored his surging Spider-sense warnings, knowing this was the right thing.
Stephen pulled the trigger.
The "click" of the empty chamber caused Peter's heart to sink. And yet, despite himself, he was relieved.
"You don't really want to die," Stephen's mental voice noted.
"No, I don't," Peter admitted.
"But you don't know how to stop this."
Stephen thought for a moment. "All right. Then let's figure out how. Get down off my ceiling."
Peter hopped to the floor. "So, you're back."
Stephen glared at him. "No. But that doesn't mean I can't help you." He picked up his briefcase and pulled out his cell phone.
"So, you're going to make some investments in anti-spider-mutation stock?" Peter wisecracked.
Stephen liked the return of his friend's tone. "Don't be silly. I don't invest in those kinds of technologies. Bad return on investment. Usually ends up creating super-villains instead."
"Ah. Bug spray then?"
Stephen ignored the wisecracks and finished scrolling through his contacts list, finally hitting "Send".
"Good morning, Cranston Industries--Stephen Cranston's office," the Queens-accented female voice answered.
"Where am I supposed to be right now?" Stephen asked her by way of greeting.
"Budget at 10:30, then Union Reps after that," Chloe answered, clicking keys on her computer to read his calendar. "Supposedly they want to talk to you about Workplace Safety."
"The Union Rep wants to talk about maternity leave. They use the 'workplace safety' excuse to get in the door."
"Yeah, Jeffries mentioned people sometimes lie about why they want to meet with the boss."
"Which makes them no different than anyone else in the company. Push the Budget to tomorrow same time, then tell the Union guy to meet with Bailey."
"Will do. Where will you be?"
"None of your business."
"Ah. Had a good time this weekend?" She sounded definitely amused. "I've already fended off two calls from your girlfriends this morning. Honestly, they're way too clingy. I'd broom 'em fast."
"Who's in charge of our genetic research grants?" Stephen said, ignoring her impudent tone.
"Find out and have him call me on my cell, then get a table at the Cobalt Club for an hour from now. Use the name Clyde Marsh, and when that doesn't work, use my name. Then call Clyde Marsh, editor-in-chief at the New York Classic, and get him there."
"An hour's notice?"
"You have my permission to use your scary voice if you have to."
"Oh, goody. Consider it done."
"Good." Stephen hung up.
"You've got insiders in genetic research?" Peter asked.
"Great tax shelters." He gestured at the armchair near the window. "Eat. Having a five-star French chef prepare coffee and Danish for one every morning just isn't right."
Peter sat down and started to eat ravenously.
Stephen's cell phone rang, and he flipped it open. "Stephen Cranston. Hello, Dr. Rime. Nice to finally meet you, even if it is over the cellular waves." He paused for a moment. "Thanks, I appreciate the sympathy. Listen, I was reading the scientific news wires this morning and saw there's some new technology on stem cell research down in Australia that doesn't revolve around killing fetuses. If we can get that kind of research off the ground up here, we could be riding the bleeding edge of the next medical revolution. But I need to get a good background on theoretical genetics before I start committing that kind of money. I need a list of the best experts in the field, and the more local, the better." He paused. "You already have someone in mind?" He flicked open a notepad and dashed off a name.
Peter came and peered over his shoulder. "Dr. Connors?" he whispered.
"Not so loud," Stephen's voice cautioned inside his head. "Is this the guy you used to work for in college?"
Peter sighed. "Yeah," he answered inside his head. "Saw him a few days ago. He's the guy who told me I was mutating."
"Good. No sense bringing more people in on this than we need to." Stephen returned his attention to the phone. "Thanks, Dr. Rime, I'll get back to you." He hung up. "Does MJ know yet?"
Peter shook his head. "She still thinks I'll be mortal within the month."
Stephen rolled his eyes. "How about you learn from your mistakes and tell her everything that's going on in your life?"
"How about you shut up?" Peter barked back.
"You haven't seen touchy yet. I need this, Stephen."
Stephen gave his shoulder a pat. "I know. So, you've already discussed this with Connors?"
"A little," Peter admitted. "He's moving away from biophysics and into theoretical genetics these days. I thought he might be able to help when I was losing my powers. Then when I got them back, he gave me the bad news."
"How did he figure it out?"
"He tested my blood for mutagenic factors. I'm fuzzy on the details. I know just enough biophysics to be dangerous."
"Which is a lot more than I do," Stephen admitted. "He took a blood sample. Did he use it all?"
"Probably not, but I'm thinking it may not be any good by now unless he's preserved it."
"So we need a fresh one." Stephen reached inside an armoire and flicked a hidden switch to open the medicine cabinet in the side panel, then fetched a tourniquet, blood-drawing needle, and vacuum test tube. "Roll up your sleeve."
"That's not going to work," Peter reported. "I tried that earlier. Broke three needles trying to pierce my skin."
"So, how am I supposed to get blood out of you?"
Peter shrugged. "Shoot me, I guess."
Stephen rolled his eyes. "Not yet." He found a scalpel tray in the cabinet and withdrew the sturdiest blade of the bunch. "Do you want the honor, or shall I?"
Peter took the scalpel. "I'll do it," he said. "Get your needle ready. It won't last long."
Stephen readied the blood-drawing equipment.
Peter slashed the top of his forearm.
Stephen immediately shoved a needle into an exposed vein and attached the vacuum tube.
"Hurry," Peter said, watching the edges of the wound begin moving toward each other.
Stephen watched the wound with one eye and kept the other eye on the tube, trying to make sure he drew enough blood for whatever testing Connors would need…
"It's closing," Peter reported.
Stephen yanked the needle out a split second before the flesh closed over. "Wow," he said aloud. "And you want me to kill you?"
"If anybody can do it, you can."
Stephen nodded at the odd compliment and patted Peter on the shoulder. "Go on home. I'll be in touch."
"How long do you think it will take?"
"Depends on what I can find out. But there's nothing to be gained by following me around at this point. Go back to your place and get some rest."
Peter looked frustrated. "Can't rest. Too jumpy."
Stephen could see the illogical rage building again in Peter's expression. "Peter, I am not going to let you stay on my tail just to make sure I shoot you at the appropriate time. We both still have identities to hide, and it's going to be tough enough to do this research for you without you hanging around looking desperate. Think about it."
Peter ran his hand through his hair. "You're right. Call me."
"Don't let me do anything to hurt MJ."
"I won't. And you won't."
Peter sighed. "I'm not necessarily betting on that."
Stephen smiled. "But I am."
The two men shook hands, then Peter left the same way he'd arrived.
Stephen shook his head. I am not back in this, he reminded himself, then closed the French doors.
Marsh arrived at the Cobalt Club and was quickly shown to Stephen's table, where the young billionaire was already indulging in a long-time Cranston tradition…a perfectly made gin martini. "You know," Marsh observed, "in this part of the world it's considered a sign of a problem if you're having martinis for breakfast."
Stephen drained his martini glass and was quickly brought another with two olives in it. "In my world, it's called the three-martini lunch."
"It's 10 A.M."
"Yes, but I own a worldwide company and it's lunchtime somewhere in the world." He gestured to the seat across from him, then turned to the waiter. "Coffee, please."
"Is that for me?" Marsh asked.
"Unless you're now taking your caffeine intravenously."
Marsh chuckled as he was brought a cup of coffee by a very attentive waiter. "So, how's billionaire life treating you?"
"Tell me something," Stephen said with a long-suffering sigh. "In all those board meetings, the ones I bothered to attend, was I always so…"
"There's one word for it, yes."
"Thought so." Stephen said. "It's like trying to stack marbles in a corner. Everybody wants to work together, just as long as they all get first dibs on…what's so funny?"
Marsh was laughing under his breath. "You. Peter Pan finally has to grow up, and he discovers he has nowhere to land. You're acting so…establishment."
Stephen had to laugh with him. "Yeah. I'm responsible these days. You know what? I was right all along. It's overrated."
They both laughed loud and long. Stephen sobered first. "So, to business?"
Marsh sobered. "To business. What do you need?"
"Some privacy." He finished his drink, left a large bill on the table, then got up and gestured with his head toward the door.
Two minutes later they were in the back seat of Moe's cab. Stephen gave a nod, and Shrevnitz pulled away from the curb. As soon as they entered traffic, Shrevnitz passed a satchel to the back seat.
Stephen reached into the satchel and extracted a manila folder, then turned to Marsh. "I came to you and did everything but put a gun to your head to make sure you understood that you were not to get involved. You told me not to kid a kidder. You told me that you wanted in. Why?"
Marsh considered him carefully. "I sensed an opportunity to make a difference. I didn't want to miss it."
Stephen handed the folder to Marsh. "Open this."
Marsh did so, and found a perfectly-posed wedding portrait. "Who are these people?"
"These are people who wanted to make a difference. The woman is my mother. The man on her left, my father. You may vaguely recognize the man on the right as a young Victor Cranston. Turn the page."
Marsh did so, finding a photo of a blonde woman arm in arm with a younger-looking Stephen.
"The woman in this picture was at one point my fiancée." Stephen nodded for Marsh to flip the page again.
The next page revealed a replica of an Oriental-style painting.
"The boy in this lithograph was a Tibetan monk rescued by my grandfather." Stephen gave another nod.
The next photo was a plain-looking photograph that looked as if it could be on a passport or a photo ID of some kind.
"The man in this picture was a Manhattan cabbie named Michael Shrevnitz," Stephen explained.
"My father," Moe added.
"All of these people have two things in common. One: They're all directly connected to me. Two: They're all dead." Stephen looked at Shrevnitz in the mirror. "Stop the car."
The cab screeched to a halt and Marsh realized they were right next to the Classic. The door on Marsh's side of the cab popped open.
"If you're trying to convince me of the stakes, you don't have to," Marsh told Stephen. "I already know. I knew the moment I heard your uncle had died."
"This is not a game, Marsh. People who go in on this need to have their affairs in order and carry up-to-date life insurance. Self-defense weaponry is a useful accessory as well. If you want in, then you're in all the way. Make your choice."
Marsh closed the folder and handed it back, then shut the door.
Stephen nodded, and the cab started moving again. "The Shadow is not a myth."
Marsh shook his head and laughed slightly. "Been waiting years for you to say that."
"I work for him," Stephen continued. "I was his voice in the press and his eyes and ears on the street to gather useful details for his investigations." He shrugged. "Call it a family tradition. Members of my family have been involved in the mission in various capacities for the better part of three-quarters of a century. My grandfather was one of his first agents due to both his extremely large financial base and his level of influence in the police department--his uncle was the commissioner. My uncle worked as a go-between for many of his agents." He sighed. "With Victor dead, that job now falls to me."
Marsh felt a thrill go through him as he realized what this meant. He'd been recruited. The stories he'd heard whispered by the underworld were true. The man really did have a standing army at his bidding, and Marsh was now being asked to join it. "What can I do?"
"This is a dangerous job, Marsh," Stephen said, then looked him in the eye. "My mother and father died doing it. My uncle was killed for his role in it. I've been stabbed, beaten, and shot at more times than most gangsters. Most of the people doing this have more than their share of broken bones and broken lives. I'm growing weary of attending funerals. This is your one chance to back out now with your life intact. After this, there is no going back. After this, you do what he tells you to do, when he tells you to do it--no matter how outrageous, illegal, or dangerous--and you hold nothing back."
"Good." Stephen handed Marsh the second folder, an expanding accordion-style file folder. "The Shadow teams with Spiderman, as you already know. Spiderman's in trouble. With the death of one of The Shadow's biggest players, everybody's scrambling to cover, so we need to go to outsiders to help him. One of these outsiders is you. Another is a biophysicist at Columbia University, Dr. Curtis Connors. You're going to meet with him."
"O.K. When do I meet with The Shadow?"
The cab screeched to a halt.
After Marsh gathered his senses, he realized they were outside the Physics building at Columbia University.
"When you least expect it," Stephen answered coldly. "And when you most need to."
The door to Marsh's side of the cab popped open.
Marsh took that as a dismissal. He picked up the accordion file and exited the cab.
Moe pulled away from the curb and back out into traffic. "Where to, boss?"
"Cranston Industries," Stephen said, checking his watch.
Shrevnitz gave a chuckle. "Good to have you back."
Stephen had opened the folder and was now staring at the pictures. "I'm not back."
"Yeah, I didn't think you actually were. But it's good to have you in the cab. It seems like we never talk any more."
Stephen looked up. "What?"
"I'm just saying, you work all day, you're never around, then the day ends and you're still working and I'm going in circles…"
Stephen groaned. "Conversations like this are the reason I never got married."
"Speaking of that, what the Hell went on between you and Sarah last week? She came out of your place the other night and looked like…"
"I don't want to talk about it," Stephen interrupted.
"You sure you're not married? You're already acting like my dad did when my mom would nag him…"
"Just drive," Stephen snapped.
Shrevnitz shook his head and laughed slightly. He knew Stephen better than almost anyone. Whether the man wanted to admit it or not, he was back. Now he just had to actually accept it himself.
"Spiderman was in here a few days ago," Connors explained. "He said that his powers were malfunctioning. I checked, and found that his mutated genomes were disassembling themselves--that is, the spider strands were separating from the human strands. But then he came back and said he was fine, and that's when I found the mutation had started all over again, and that's where the problem lies. I have no idea what the final product of this re-mutation is going to be, but I have a strong feeling it won't be pretty…or human."
"What would it take to fix this?" Marsh asked him.
"I have no idea. I've been thinking about it since I found out the problem."
"Are you willing to try it?"
"I don't even know if it can be done yet."
"I've been told that if it can be done, you're the one who can do it."
Connors smiled despite himself. "Probably. But I'd need another blood sample, more equipment, and a lot of time…"
Marsh reached into the accordion folder and handed Connors a credit card and a vial full of blood. "You have two out of three. The third, however, is understandably in short supply."
Connors looked at the card--a high-end American Express card, the rarest of the rare cards where it was rumoured one could buy a small country with the card and not have to pay the bill for 30 days. "Who is Henry Arnaud?"
Marsh shrugged. "No idea."
"Why is the New York Classic getting into this?"
"What did you tell him?" Stephen asked his former boss over the phone. There was a yammering outside his office, but he ignored it.
"I told him Spiderman's a major money draw for the Classic," Marsh replied. "If he suddenly turns into an unstoppable monster then it's bad news for all concerned."
Stephen gave a wry grimace. "Tell me about it."
"He wanted to know when somebody would be in touch with him."
"What did you say to that?"
"Same thing you said to me."
Stephen smiled. "Good. Keep me posted." He hung up and turned to the latest nest of papers Chloe had planted on his desk.
The volume of voices outside his door rose suddenly, and the door opened slightly, then slammed shut again. "I SAID NO!" Chloe's voice thundered.
Surprised, Stephen got up and went to the door, opening it to find Sarah Branson looking more annoyed than he'd ever seen her and Chloe Bryant guarding the entrance to his office, waving her back with a letter opener.
"Call her off!" Sarah shouted at him.
"Chloe," Stephen said disapprovingly, "this is a business office, not an off-Broadway rendition of West Side Story."
Chloe snarled and stepped aside.
"Thank you," Stephen said as he let Sarah into the office and closed the door.
No sooner had the door closed than Sarah smacked him hard across the face. "You self-righteous hypocritical monster!"
Stephen worked his jaw. "What did I do now?"
"How did you put it? 'You have no idea how hard it's been?' 'You have no idea how hard it was not to get involved?'" she yelled. "You blast me for trying to help the people around you, like Victor would have, then you get someone outside the network to help Peter."
Stephen looked annoyed. "How soon after I got out of the cab did Shrevnitz call you, anyway? Or are you still a clairvoyant peeping tom these days?"
"Don't change the subject. You ran an end-around deliberately to cut me off at the pass--why?"
"Because I didn't want to link you to-"
"Oh, please," Sarah snapped. "Marsh would have used Spiderman's connections to the press to explain his involvement--I could do that! The only reason you went to him and not me is because you didn't want to talk to me."
"If that were my ultimate goal, it obviously failed." He retreated to his desk to take their loud conversations away from the door.
She followed him. "How can you possibly justify going outside everybody just so you don't have to…"
"I don't have to justify it!" Stephen snapped. "That's the beauty of being in charge! I don't have to justify anything to you, or to anybody, because the only one I felt like answering to is gone now."
"You hypocrite. You've been begging off getting involved because of your 'grief' but then turn right around and throw yourself headlong into coming to Peter's rescue."
"I thought that's what you wanted me to do. Remember? You've given me nothing but grief of another kind for not stepping in sooner. So I'm stepping in."
"Because Peter is a good guy. I'm not. Peter showed up at my house today begging me to kill him before he crossed the line. For me? There is no line any more."
"Sure there is."
"No, there isn't."
"Yes, there is, and Victor always stepped in when you got too close to crossing it."
"You see? This is why I went around you. You're still trying to be somebody you're not. Victor is dead. The role of line-watcher is now vacant. And I'm not interested in anyone filling that vacancy."
"Are you still hung up on that? It's called being helpful. It's called caring. It's called looking after someone I care about."
"It's also why you're on the outside looking in for a while."
"That's not fair!"
"Life's not fair, remember?"
"Oh, for the love of…"
For a moment, she stopped talking. That look in his eyes was telling her not to push it, but she was this close to ignoring it.
Stephen was really angry and was trying to keep from literally tearing her psyche apart as he could feel her trying to look inside his head right now. "You are still my agent, whether you like it or not. We have been through this before, and as I recall you swore to stop questioning me and take orders like any other agent. And an agent does not question their orders, or they end up dead."
"Fine," Sarah snarled scathingly. "I'll sit back and wait for your orders while you crawl inside your stash of expensive booze and rot."
"If that's what I tell my agents to do, that's what my agents do."
"Well, that's pretty selfish of you!" Sarah snapped. "You really think you can force everybody with one of these rings to simply acknowledge that you have the monopoly on loss? You're setting up your own religion of grief here and turning every agent into an acolyte. Well, if that's what being an agent is all about, forget it." She yanked off her girasol ring and threw it at Stephen. "If being an agent means helping you wallow in your misery, then leave me the Hell out of it."
Stephen picked up her ring. "You don't get to walk out on this!" he warned.
"And you don't get to pick and choose whether or not people care for you! You want my help, you've got it. You want loyalty, you've got it. You want an operative, I'm there, but I'm not going to let myself drown in your swamp of grief and guilt. Forget it. I've got better things to do." She turned to go.
The doors in front of her latched shut.
"I'm not intimidated," she warned, then reached for the latch.
He grabbed her from behind and whipped her around to face him.
"What the…," she snapped.
"Shut up," he said as he pushed her into a chair, then took her left hand and put the ring back on her ring finger. Then he looked right into her eyes and drilled an angry gaze through her. "Let's get something straight right now, young lady," his Shadow voice told her. "I get that you're not enamored with me right now. Don't bother to ask me how little I care about that, because right now there are more important things to deal with than your hurt feelings. I don't really care if you don't like me anymore, or if you think I'm screwing up. None of that matters, because your life is still owed to me. So was Victor's, so is Moe's, so is MJ's, and so is Peter's. And Peter and Moe were involved long before you came along, and the fun will continue long after you walk out that door, and right now, the man who is the brother I never had is in serious trouble and needs my help. This is my network, not yours, and I get to decide when or even if I will get involved in something. That is why I am in charge and you are not. Even Victor figured that one out a few 'discussions' after the changing of the guard. This is the reality of life on the inside as a Shadow agent. If you can't handle that, tell me now and I will wipe every memory of this whole affair out of your brain and drop you off at your house, where you can go back to your everyday life feeling just a little less safe than you are right now."
A mixture of fear and anger played across Sarah's expression, but she said nothing.
"Fine. Now, get out of here and get back to work. When you're needed, I will send for you." He stepped back and let her get up.
They glared electrically at each other for thirty seconds, then Sarah stormed out of the office.
Chloe barely acknowledged Sarah as she stomped out of the inner office. "I remember you now," the secretary told her somewhat tauntingly. "His other girlfriend is prettier."
"I'm not his girlfriend," Sarah snarled and slammed Stephen's outer-office door behind her.
Chloe let the echo of the slam fade away. "Good," she smiled. "Less competition for the rest of us."
Stephen came out of his office and straightened his tie. "Where am I supposed to be now?"
Chloe shrugged off the entire incident and looked at his schedule. "Here, in a meeting. Contractors for the main foyer renovations. They want you to choose between marble or granite for the floors."
"Easiest choice I'll make all day." He pulled on his suitcoat and gathered himself. "Send 'em up."
Across town, Connors came back into his lab and dropped a stack of research books on his lab bench, looking frustrated. "Impossible," he said to himself. "It can't be done." He looked at the latest lab results from the analysis of the vial of blood he'd been given. "I can't even figure out how Spiderman got powers in the first place. How can irradiated genomes attach to existing cells and cause spontaneous regeneration in an established set of genes anyway? And once it's done, how can you separate the mutation and restore the original? It's not possible."
His mind felt like clay, and he just stared at nothing for a long time. After a while his eyes focused on the laboratory cages in front of him…a monkey, some rats, a green iguana…
…a green iguana.
Connors suddenly tore into one of the biophysics books he'd brought into the room. "Of course! Of course genes can attach to a pre-existing genome and cause a physiological reaction. That's how bone marrow transplants work. That's how adult stem cell transplants work. And regeneration of existing strands from damaged stock…lizards do it all the time! They grow back missing limbs from damaged stumps!" Despite himself, he glanced down at his missing limb. "If I can recreate that…" The full range of what he was proposing suddenly came to him. "Missing limbs, ruptured organs, degenerating tissue…my God…"
Coming alive again, Connors went to work with renewed vigour. Now there was more than the chance to repair more than the mutating arachno-human…now there was the chance to fix himself.
Peter paced the floor of his condo like a caged animal, glaring repeatedly at the phone that wasn't ringing. I said call me, dammit, Peter's frustrated thoughts repeated for the umpteenth time that day. Stephen. Sanctimonious egomaniac. Telling me what to do like he owns me. Who the Hell does he think he is? I could rip him in pieces and leave him on every roof in New York.
His frantic pacing had turned to springing around the condo, and soon he had bounced out onto the balcony and sat balanced on the railing. He looked over the city horizon. Thinks he runs everything, can't even keep his own brain in order, not his city, mine.
He looked down to the street and saw MJ coming into the building far below. Mine.
Stephen left his meeting with the contractors in a daze. Who knew there were so many options to choose from in the deceptively simple choice of "Marble or Granite?" Times like this made him wish he still carried .45s and wore a cloak. Mind-clouding the idiots was oh-so-tempting, but not necessarily the best business tactic. Not for the first time, he wondered how Victor had managed to handle all of this without going insane.
Then he realized that Victor would often say "To Hell with this" and duck out to go handle Shadow business. So this might be a good time to go outside, grab a smoke, and give Clyde Marsh a call to find out what was going on with finding a cure for Peter's strange malady.
He ignored Chloe's objections and schedule reminders and complaints about fending off his girlfriends as he practically raced outside, lighting a cigar in stride to the nearest sidewalk vendor, relieved to be out of the business world even for a moment.
He turned toward the sound of the voice and saw Mary Jane Watson approaching cautiously.
He didn't fault her for her caution. After all, just a few days ago, he'd hung up on her repeatedly as she tried to tell him about Peter's power mishaps. Maybe if he'd gotten involved then, things wouldn't be so bad now…
Enough, he told himself. You can't change the past. But you can learn from it. "Long time, no see," he commented with a smile, hoping to reassure her that he wasn't going to either tear into her or run away. He didn't know whether Peter had taken his advice to tell her the truth, and if he was actually going to get involved in Peter's problems, he really needed to be available to her…
…and then he noticed the nuances of her body language. She was looking down, her shoulders hunched forward, her arms stiffly at her sides, her hands hidden in the pockets of her hoodie sweatshirt. "Is everything all right?" he asked.
"What's wrong with Peter?" she demanded in an emotion-filled voice.
Stephen stared at her for a second, then reached out and pulled her hands out of the pockets. Her hands were cut and scraped raw, and her fingers were bleeding. "Oh, God…," he whispered.
"It's not what you think," MJ said quickly.
"It had better not be," Stephen replied, aware that things might be escalating faster than he'd anticipated. He pulled her aside away from prying ears and sent out a subtle hypnotic signal to passers-by to ignore the conversing couple. "What happened?"
"I got home and went over to his place to see how he was," she explained. "He was pacing around…no, pacing wasn't the right word for it. He was literally bouncing off the walls. I thought that was a good sign--maybe his powers were back, finally--but then he looked at me." She shuddered. "He wasn't himself. He looked like he wasn't seeing me, like maybe he was seeing something else, maybe some kind of flashback on some enemy. He grabbed me, and the next thing I knew he was outside and climbing the walls toward the roof like some kind of King Kong spider. Stephen, he wasn't even masked, and yet we were outside where God and everybody else could have seen us. I kept screaming for him to stop and put me down and tell me what was wrong, and I don't think he even heard me…and then, suddenly, he stopped. He looked horrified at something--maybe he came to his senses for a minute and realized where we were--but then the next thing I knew he'd dropped me on my patio and then he disappeared. The next time I saw him, he was masked and costumed and swinging away like something was after him…"
"What happened to your hands?" Stephen demanded.
"I had to break into my own apartment!" she cried. "Took me an hour to get inside!"
"Didn't I give you lockpicks?" Stephen wasn't sure why he'd thought of that, but it at least gave him a few extra seconds to try and process this latest turn of events.
"They broke in the lock! And who knew you'd installed bulletproof glass in your own condo twenty-something stories above street level? Good thing the weather sealant on the glass had a bubble in it, or I'd have never gotten the glass off the patio door. Talk about paranoia…"
Stephen was still having trouble processing what was going on. It was as if Peter were going insane…or maybe becoming more animalistic. Or, rather, arachnoid-like. Whatever this metamorphosis was, they had to stop it. "Why didn't you just call me?"
"I tried, but I couldn't get past your Hell-spawn secretary!"
Stephen smiled wryly. "I pay her well for that, you know."
"What is happening?" MJ demanded angrily.
He sighed. "Peter's in trouble."
"No duh!" she retorted, holding up her hands. "You've got to help him!"
"I'm working on it."
"Can you work a little harder? Who knows where he is right now?"
Stephen thought about that for a minute, and then pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. Grumbling mentally, he dialled Sarah's number.
"You have reached Sarah Branson's cell phone," he heard her voice say coldly in his ear. "Unless the calling party is interested in apologizing for his outbursts earlier, Miss Branson is not interested in taking his calls…"
"The sun is shining," Stephen interrupted.
Long pause. "But the ice is slippery."
"Good, you still remember. Where is Peter?"
"Don't know. Not my day to keep tabs on him…"
"You know what I'm asking," Stephen warned.
"Right." She got quiet for a moment, and he could almost hear her intense concentration to make a clairvoyant picture come into focus. "He's out and about. Hard to figure out exactly where, though…he's swinging really fast…hey, he just passed by your office building!"
Not good, Stephen realized. If Peter was about to go off the deep end, being in the open like this with MJ wasn't a good idea. He took MJ by the arm and started walking briskly toward Cranston Towers. "Focus, Sarah. Fix his location."
"I'm trying," she responded, sounding annoyed.
"Try harder. MJ's here and things are not going well."
"Oh, so you brought her in before me, too?"
"Not now!" Stephen snapped. "Focus!"
"Right," Sarah responded, realizing she'd probably pushed him too far again, not something she necessarily relished doing. She started concentrating again. "O.K., he's stopped. He's back inside his apartment."
Stephen headed into the lobby of the building and instinctively put MJ behind him and away from windows where she could be seen. "What's he doing?"
"Hard to say. He keeps breaking things and throwing things. He's kind of bouncing all over the place…"
"Keep a mental eye on him. If he leaves, I need to know."
"So, can I call your cell phone directly, or do you want me to bring kitty treats for that Hell-cat secretary of yours?"
"Not in the mood," Stephen snapped. "Do what you're told, and keep me posted." He hung up and turned to MJ. "Come with me."
Chloe looked up as Stephen and MJ walked in together in a hurry. "Now, look," Chloe said in a sarcastic tone. "If you want me to keep your groupies away, you can't keep bringing them in and building up their hopes…"
"I'm not his groupie," MJ interrupted.
"Later," Stephen said, on the verge of issuing psychic Shut Up vibes to the whole city. He waved MJ into his office. "Make yourself at home," he said, then turned back to Chloe. "Keep an eye on her for the day. Something's come up."
"I'm not babysitting your girlfriends," Chloe retorted.
"She's not my girlfriend."
"You say that a lot, but I'm not noticing a shortage of estrogens hovering around you."
"Where am I supposed to be now?" he said, ignoring her impertinence.
"Legal wants to talk to you about the possibility that you may have to serve two or three years in a minimum security prison."
"Did they give a reason for this possibility?"
"No, but I think they may have made it up because they need you to sign a ream of sales contracts and they're ticked off that you keep pushing them aside."
"Probably, but I wouldn't be surprised if the jail thing was true. What else?"
"Medical pensions and maternity leave pay. They need your signatures before the first of the month or many, many people don't get paid."
"O.K. Shift that and everything after it until tomorrow. Use the scary voice to keep anybody else away."
She clicked some keys on her computer. "Tell me you're not going to drag another trashy redhead on another late-night bender, " she said, rolling her eyes.
"Another trashy redhead?"
"Remember? My first day on the job?"
Stephen stared, absolutely certain he was the only sane person in a whirlpool of insanity. "As I recall, you were the trashy redhead. I also recall, that you dragged me out on that late-night bender."
"You paid for it."
"So did you, if I remember correctly."
"Don't remind me. That was a hangover I'll never forget. And you didn't have one…what, do you own a hangover prevention business, too?"
He smiled mysteriously. "You have no idea."
MJ came out of his office in a panic. "Windows. High up. Lots of skyline."
"Right," Stephen quickly realized. "Not good. Come with me. Chloe, if anyone calls, I'm not here and you have no idea where I am."
"Got it," she replied, smiling eagerly, filing a long lacquered nail as the pair left the office.
"Wow, she even sharpens her claws," MJ noted as the office door closed behind them.
Stephen smiled slightly as they stepped onto the elevator. "Really, would you expect any less from my secretary?"
"Probably not," MJ agreed.
Shrevnitz pulled up to the curb and popped the door open as MJ and Stephen practically leapt into the cab. "Just like old times," the cabbie remarked.
"The manor," Stephen ordered, not in the mood to argue the point.
"What is going on?" MJ asked as Shrevnitz pulled into traffic.
"I take it that you and Peter are having your usual communications issues," Stephen noted.
"Kind of like you and Sarah right now," MJ retorted.
"Sarah's issue isn't communication, we've been doing plenty of that," Stephen corrected. "It's a matter of control. She wants it, and is pitching a fit because she can't have it."
"Control of you? Boy, that's rich. Even I'm not stupid enough to try that stunt. So, what is Peter not telling me?"
"His powers are escalating out of control."
MJ stared at Stephen as she tried to process that. "But Connors said his mutation was reversing…"
"…and now it's in high gear again," Stephen interrupted. "And no one knows where it will stop."
It took MJ another moment to process this. "But The Shadow knows."
"No, I don't," Stephen snapped in frustration. Then he calmed down. "But I'm doing everything humanly possible to find out."
"You're back," MJ said, feeling hopeful for the first time.
"Not yet." He hesitated. "Peter came to me this morning and asked me to kill him before he could hurt anyone."
"Before he could hurt me," MJ realized.
Stephen nodded curtly.
Her heart sank. "You're going to kill him, aren't you?"
"No." Stephen's jaw set firmly. "I'm tired of funerals." He turned to MJ finally. "I'm going to do what I can to help him. It may not be pretty. But I'll do what I have to."
MJ felt her hope returning. "Stephen, I know he didn't mean to do anything to me. He didn't hurt me. He loves me. And I love him. I love him no matter what. Tell him that."
Stephen nodded his agreement.
MJ hesitated, then leaned against him in gratitude.
For the first time in weeks, Stephen didn't flinch away from a comforting gesture. It was nice to have someone trust that you knew what you were doing. He certainly wasn't getting it from many others in his life.
When they arrived at Cranston Manor, Stephen was annoyed but not at all surprised that Sarah's car was parked on a side driveway. "Enjoy your chat with Sarah," Stephen remarked. "And make sure she does her job."
MJ picked up on Stephen's tone of annoyance. And she was surprised to find herself agreeing with it. She gave a smile and clasped Stephen's hand. "Be careful. Bring him back safe."
"I will," Stephen promised.
MJ got out of the cab and closed the door, marching resolutely toward the front door.
Moe waited to make sure Andrew would open the door for MJ, then pulled out of the driveway. "Any idea how you're going to do that?" he asked the boss.
Stephen hesitated. "Not yet," he admitted. "But I know where to start."
"Where would that be?"
Stephen reached down and popped the latch on the underseat drawer, hesitating only a moment before he pulled out his shoulder holsters and pistols. "The condos."
Moe changed lanes and sped off toward the Cranston family condos. Just like old times, he thought with a smile.
Peter, wearing his Spiderman costume, his mask tossed carelessly on the table next to his microscope, was pacing his apartment, running his fingers through his matted hair, staring around the room with wild eyes and wiping sweat from his brow that was pouring out as if he was having a high fever while inside a sauna bath. "Can't do this…keep focused, Peter…" He tossed aside the printout that had just come out of one of his analytic machines in his home laboratory. "Not good. Gotta keep looking…why hasn't he called yet?" He almost growled like an animal. "MJ goes running right to him, as if he's still something important. Bastard abandoned us, ran like a scared baby who can't even keep his own family alive. Thinks he can run the world…he's not so tough. I could squash him. If he's so good how come everybody he loves keeps dying…" He caught himself at that. "Stop thinking that, get it together."
He spun back to his own microscope. A broken mirror was nearby, with one glass shard covered in his blood from an already healed cut. He picked up the shard and put it under his microscope, focusing on it under his scope's highest power. "Total cascade reversion. No way out." He could barely stand still, making it harder and harder to focus on anything. "Dammit, I should be stronger than this…why can't I find a way…"
Frustration boiled over and he put his fist through the wall, then picked up the microscope to hurl it across the room.
Peter spun and found Stephen standing in the doorway, The Shadow's .45s pointed right at him. "You!" he shouted accusingly at the intruder. "Where is she? Where did you take her?"
Stephen knew he had to get through this animalistic rage controlling Peter, and the best way to do that was to stay calm but speak firmly. "She's under my protection, which is what you asked me to do, remember? She comes running to me in tears, saying that something's terribly wrong with the love of her life."
"And I'll bet you told her everything…"
"…which, if you'll recall, is what I told you to do…"
"Shut up!" Peter roared. "I'm sick of taking orders from you! You can't even keep your own life together, so stay the Hell out of mine!"
"No can do." Stephen released the safeties on both pistols loudly. "You're the one who brought me into it again…"
Suddenly, Peter doubled over, clutching at his sides as he jerked in violent convulsions. "Oh no…NO! Please, stop it!"
Stephen holstered his pistols and raced immediately to his partner's side. "Hold on, Peter," he urged. "Try to stay in control…"
"Can't…," Peter replied through clenched teeth.
Suddenly, much to Stephen's shock, Spiderman's suit erupted at the torso.
As Peter gave an inhuman screech of agony, two arms exploded from the middle of his partner's ribcage, fully formed and heavily muscled.
Then, a second later, two more, at the abdomen.
Peter looked down at himself in simple disbelief, then threw back his head and gave a defiant roar, revealing two long canine incisors in his mouth.
Stephen immediately drew his pistols again.
One of Peter's new arms backhanded him across the room in response. Two more ripped the microscope in half and threw it aside. The fourth grabbed his mask and pulled it over his face, and with that, the Man-Spider bolted for the outdoors, crashing through drywall and window glass as if it were nothing at all.
Stephen staggered to his feet and raced for the broken window, staring in disbelief at what had just happened.
"Holy cow!" Sarah exclaimed suddenly.
"What?" MJ asked anxiously.
Sarah ignored her and flipped open her cell phone to speed-dial Stephen. "Hey, I think Peter just hit critical mass…"
"What?" MJ exclaimed, all the color draining from her face.
"I know," Stephen said to his cell phone. "I'm on it." He cut off that call and rapidly dialed Marsh's number. "Marsh--please tell me Connors has something."
"I'm with him now," Marsh reported. "He's onto something here, all right. I don't have a clue what he's talking about, but if it works like he says it will then it'll do more than just fix Spiderman's mutation problem, it'll revolutionise the entire medical profession. Reanimate tissue, regenerate defective organs, and even regrow limbs."
Stephen couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. "Somehow I don't think that'll be an issue for Spiderman any time soon…"
Sarah closed the phone, giving it an irritated frown. "Bastard," she whispered under her breath.
"Look, will you cut him some slack?" MJ snapped. "He's doing the best he can right now…"
"Oh, you're on his side now, too? What happened to that steady drumbeat of outrage about his selfishness you had going last week?"
"In case you weren't paying attention, he's back in the thick of things again. I thought that was what you wanted! It was certainly what I wanted, and I'm sure glad to see he's on top of things…"
"He's not on top of anything," Sarah snapped. "He's standing there in Peter's wrecked apartment with his cell phone glued to his ear. For all we know he's getting a stock tip or asking Hell-No-Kitty what time his next appointment is…"
"Grow up," MJ snapped and stormed out of the parlor.
Marsh came back into the lab looking shell-shocked.
Connors looked up from the centrifuge. "What's wrong?"
Marsh wasn't sure how to say this, so he decided to repeat Stephen's words. "Spiderman's mutation saga has reached a certain…um, er, critical mass. Either we find a way to stop it right now, or there's going to be a body count. Are we ready?"
Connors' first instinct was to say no, that more testing was needed.
Then he glanced at the computer screen to review the results from simulator he was running against the blood sample, a simulator that had spent the last few hours laboriously spinning away at producing chemical formulas and DNA maps that looked like they should work, if the correct protein strands could be isolated.
Then he thought about the fact that this formula could transform his own life if it worked like the simulator said it should.
Then he thought about how insane that thought actually was.
Then he thought about how insane thoughts sometimes brought about outstanding results, like Alexander Fleming figuring out that some kinds of mold could actually kill bacteria…
"...uh, Doc?" Marsh prompted.
Marsh's question brought Connors back to himself. "Well, we might be able to if we can find a decent donor to start the gene regeneration reaction," he declared. "And a test subject to test its effects on human DNA."
"Jeez, that far away? I thought we were closer than that."
"We are. But each component of this formula requires a separate source. If it doesn't work on regular human DNA, it's sure not going to work on whatever is in Spiderman's DNA."
Marsh nodded, wishing for the umpteenth time today that he'd paid more attention in high school biology. "Well, what could we use for the gene regenerator?"
Connors went to his specimen cage and drew a syringe from his pocket. "Normally I would never do this. Doing this will skip about eight steps of safe laboratory work."
"I'm sure, but it's necessary. Time is not our friend."
Connors picked up the iguana gently. "O.K. then, what we're talking about is using a retroactive virus, genetically engineered to attack one set of genes with another, and have it take over. The genes of a lizard allow it to regenerate limbs by kick-starting the body's cellular-level growth almost as if it were a newly-forming embryo in that one damaged section. This is strictly a reptilian trick, but I was hoping to isolate the genetic structure that allows the action itself." He glanced over at Marsh. "I gather we don't have that kind of time?"
"Then we're going to have to do this the hard way. Hold our friend still, please."
Marsh held the lizard still as Connors drew a blood sample.
The lizard wiggled in protest, but Connors managed to get what he needed. He picked up a vacuum blood sample tube and sat down at his computer, typing in a set of commands.
"INSERT REGENERATION SAMPLE," the screen replied.
Connors put the syringe needle into the vacuum tube and let it extract the blood from the syringe, then removed the vacuum cap and placed the tube into the centrifuge.
Sarah found MJ in the kitchen, raiding the refrigerator. "Look, I'm sorry," Sarah began. "I know this must be tough on you right now…"
"Oh, now you're sorry," MJ responded. "What's the matter, Sarah? Feeling guilty?"
Sarah looked offended. "I don't have anything to feel guilty about."
"Then you haven't been paying attention." MJ slammed the refrigerator shut. "You know, if you'd just shut your mouth and did what you were told, we'd all be in a lot better shape right about now."
"Oh, come on. Don't play games. You thought you knew it all. You'd won the heart of the dark and powerful Shadow, he'd brought you into your awakening and helped you hone your mind's eye, and suddenly you thought you could do no wrong. That's when you started your power grab. You got in the middle of things when Peter and I broke up and deliberately tried to break off my engagement…"
"To a guy you didn't really love, as I recall," Sarah interjected.
"But it wasn't your place to do that! Then you decide you know more than Stephen about how best to protect a crime target and get him to choose you over his own family…"
"Now that's not fair!"
"Life's not fair, you stupid bimbo!"
Sarah reared back like MJ had slapped her.
The redhead was on the warpath. "We were laughing ourselves sick that day, all of us. Me, Peter, Moe, Andrew, Victor, the only people who could be let in on your problem, so we were all there, guns loaded and ready, waiting for you to show up so we could protect you. Stephen's greatest enemy was hunting you, and you pulled a sit-down in your living room. We all laughed at it and we all laughed at him because he was so all over the place because of you, all of us making jokes about how 'cute' this was and how we were sure this was all just some kind of game where the two of you were doing some kind of 'trial marriage' thing." She scoffed. "Little did we know that the one night Stephen decides to follow someone else's instincts instead of his own, Khan would make his move and take the most valuable piece in the network. It's your fault Victor is dead!"
"It is not possible for me to feel worse about that than I already do…"
MJ scoffed. "Could've fooled me, honey. You may have said and done all the 'right things' in the immediate aftermath, but then you started trying to take over Stephen's whole life!"
"I did not!"
"I was there, Sarah. You hovered around him non-stop, giving orders to the staff, telling us to keep his agents at bay because you felt he wasn't ready to do it himself. You know how he is about keeping control of things, the one time he gives up that control, for you, gets Victor killed. And less than three days after you start taking that control yourself, to the point where he throws all of us out of his life!"
"So that's all my fault?"
"You bet it is! You're the one who turned this into a power struggle, and you're still doing it! I'm betting as soon as you got that phone call from Stephen this morning, you hopped in your car and came right over here to take your 'rightful place' heading up the command post…"
"Oh, come on. This is ridiculous…"
"Is it? What's the first thing you did when Stephen hung up the phone on you? You immediately called him names and acted as if he'd slammed the door in the face of the Queen!"
"So I'm not allowed to be offended?"
"No! You're not! You should be on your knees thanking God for small mercies. You have any idea how lucky you are? He told you who he was. He told you what he could do. He told you about the entire network."
"And I'm trying to keep it all going!" Sarah yelled. "He's hiding away in his office over this while the network…"
"The network is shut down! You shut it down!"
Sarah actually took a step back. "What?"
"This network is the only thing The Shadow can't do his job without. Seventy years it's been building, seventy years it's been organizing. It's a force of nature!"
"I know that MJ, I'm in it, remember?"
"You think you know so much? You know nothing! You know what I do in between missions? I'm a courier. I get people moving. I passed status reports, mission updates, tips from sources, all of it into Victor, so that he could make sure things were working smoothly while Stephen handled the heavy lifting. That's shut down now. Nothing's working. Nothing's moving. None of the agents are talking to each other, none of the reports are going through. The Shadow's army is broken. The force of nature is dead. The whole mission has been paralysed with Victor gone, and Stephen can't get it moving again because he's got to get his family business in order first."
"So why shouldn't I help?"
"You don't get it, do you? You don't help him, you don't give orders for him, you don't do things concerning the network without his say-so; you just don't. None of us give orders to the network without his O.K., not even Victor. Victor could do what he did because he had Stephen's permission to do so. You don't! You have any idea how lucky you are? Peter, Moe, Andrew, me, nobody expected you to live out the week once you got Victor killed!"
Sarah jerked again. "What?"
MJ sighed and started speaking slower, like explaining a very simple point to a very stupid child. "You probably had good intentions, you probably weren't thinking about it like this, but you disobeyed a direct order, Shadow to Agent. If it were his uncle wearing the hat and cloak, you'd already have a bullet in your brain for all you screwed up here. If it had been his grandfather, he would have put a bullet through you with a smile on his face. At the very least we all expected Stephen to have wiped your brain clean and thrown you out on your ass by now, and I have personally seen him do just that, my dear, so don't think it isn't possible. You have any idea how lucky you are? He gave you your way on practically everything since you met him. He actually let you into his mind during your awakening. He trusted you with every ounce of trust that someone in his lifestyle has, and you repay him by calling him names and second-guessing him at every turn? You should be ashamed of yourself. I know I am." MJ swallowed her emotions. "I'm ashamed I ever doubted how much he cares for us all."
"I was in his office for all of three seconds today, and in the time between coming in and coming out, Stephen was told that he had to face a roomful of lawyers because he might have to go to jail, and in the same breath he had forty papers to sign or a few thousand workers don't get paid this week. Most people would cover that first. Stephen didn't. He dumped all that instantly and got straight into this with Peter because I asked him to. He's doing everything he can do to help Peter right now, even though all of us have been as supremely ungrateful as any human being could ever be." She shook her head. "I can't deal with you. Peter's in trouble, and Stephen's trying to help him. I don't have to defend him to you." She fled the room, tears pouring down her cheeks.
Sarah stayed behind, looking completely shell-shocked.
"If this works, I've won the Nobel Prize. If it doesn't, I'm likely going to jail," Connors said, holding up the finished vial.
"Now all we need is a test subject," Marsh said quietly. "Where do we get one? Chop an arm of that chimp in the next room and see if we can make it grow back?"
"No. We've already taken too many liberties on this thing, there's too many genes floating around, we don't know how many of them are active, we don't even know if this is going to work at all."
"It was designed to work with a human host."
"Where do we find one?"
Connors gestured at his missing arm. "How about a volunteer. Show of hands?"
Marsh balked. "No way. You're the only one who knows how that works, and if something goes wrong, you're the only one who can figure out how to fix it!"
"Fine. Which arm do you want me to chop off, or do you want the honor of doing it yourself?"
Heck of a life I've signed on for, Marsh thought distantly. After a moment, he rolled up Connors' right sleeve and pulled a tourniquet tight around his exposed arm. "Good luck."
Connors took a deep breath and injected himself.
The sun was slowly setting, as Man-Spider, scaling quite faster than normal with twice the number of limbs, was clambering down the wall.
"Help me! Please! Somebody!"
Man-Spider gave a hiss as he heard it, couldn't quite grasp it, couldn't quite comprehend.
Noises. No. Memory. What?
Great power…great responsibility…
A shudder ran through him that he couldn't quite control or explain.
A tiny voice, a weak will against the cataclysm struggled to be heard. Great power…great responsibility…great power…great responsibility…
The Man-Spider looked down, saw a man in a ski-mask raise a threatening hand to a small man with glasses.
Is it prey? He seemed to ask himself.
The tiny voice seized on this. Yes. Yes. This one is our prey.
The Man-Spider wasted no further time, swooping down, grabbing the masked mugger around the shoulders and the torso with four arms, and fired his muscles again, sending them straight back up six stories to the rooftop.
Once there, the Man-Spider put him against the edge of the wall, and pinned him down neatly.
"Oh please…please…I'm sorry, I'll never do it…what…what are you DOING?" the mugger cried out.
The Man-Spider had pulled his head to the left, exposing his neck. With one stretch of his jaws, the new canine incisors exploded through the lower half of his mask.
A growing stain spread down the mugger's trousers as it suddenly dawned on him what was about to happen. Spiderman was about to drink him dry. "NO! NO! HELP! NO-O-O-O!!! SPIDERMAN, NO!"
The Man-Spider had a shudder run through him again.
As the eight-legged monster suddenly released him, adjusted his torn mask, and leaped away, the mugger forced himself to turn over and threw up.
Stephen was in the cab, staring out the windows. Where is he? Dammit, I know he's probably a lot faster now than he was, but surely I should be able to spot some kind of web trail…
His cell phone rang and he eagerly flipped it open. "Marsh, give me good news!"
"It's me!" The voice was raspy, as through talking with his mouth full, but it was unmistakable.
Stephen nearly dropped the phone. "Peter! Where are you?"
"I'm sitting on top of a phone booth somewhere in SoHo."
"Are you…all right?"
"I was leaping around town, looking for a place to spin a web, and I stop to grab a mugger, and I'm just about to suck his blood dry when it suddenly it just hit me!"
Stephen fought down the shock. "What?"
No duh, Stephen's mind noted, then realized the term may mean something different to Peter now. "Meaning?"
"Connors was looking for a way to reassert my human DNA over my increasing spider genes, right?"
"Well, you don't have to! If the goal is to return me to what I was a month ago, then all you have to do is reset my genes over again."
Stephen pinched the bridge of his nose. Maybe he should have told Victor to make Monica give him a crash course in biophysics when she was speed-tutoring him all those years ago. "Once more with clarity, please."
"I was human, a mere mortal, a weak and whiny seventeen-year-old nerd, right? But I'm not any more because of that damned spider bite! I used to be out of shape, then I turned into Mr. Universe. I used to be myopic, now I've got 20/10 vision."
Stephen could almost hear the lightbulb go off above his head. "Your powers aren't the only manifestation of the spider bite."
"Bingo! The spider bite didn't mix and match my DNA, it rewrote my entire DNA sequence already! It sloughed off whatever it didn't need and upgraded everything else. I don't need the human parts reinforced, because my genome hasn't been homo sapien for a long time. I'm something new, something I've been for years now, arachno-sapien! We don't need to get rid of the spider DNA, we need to reset the mutagenic trigger back to where it was before all these changes started."
"O.K., so we don't need a human retrovirus, we need a spider one. You think it'll do the trick?"
"My genome has shown remarkable resilience against external attacks. Viral agents, nerve agents, your own hypnotic attacks. A flu vaccination uses a little bit of the flu virus to kick-start the immune system to fight the disease. Same principle here. I think it'll work."
"Problem!" Stephen interrupted. "Where do you get the spider DNA to work with?"
"Where?" Peter was gripped with spastic laughter. "Stephen, I've only been bitten by one radioactive spider. It's the same DNA, and right now it's practically coming out of my pores. But I've got to get to the equipment."
"You mean Connors?"
"Stephen, it's all worthless unless I can get to his lab."
"You said yourself that you might lose it any time."
"Then we both better hurry."
"Race you there." Stephen hung up the phone. "It's dark now," he commented.
"Yep," Moe nodded, hiding his eagerness.
"Seems like a nice night, too." His voice was shifting, deeper, raspy. "Columbia. Drive."
Moe spun the wheel as Stephen reached into the hidden compartment beneath his seat, pulling out the hat and cloak.
A halfway lucid Spiderman came flying into Connors' office through a closed window feet first and landed in a flat yoga pose, freezing in disbelief as glass rained down around him. "Doc!"
The room had been ripped apart, debris and shattered equipment was everywhere. Confused and worried, he looked over the wrecked laboratory. Shattered microscopes, broken centrifuges, no test tubes left undamaged. "No…"
There was a groan behind him, and he spun to see Marsh under a table, trying to look very small, and seemingly a little punch-drunk. He saw Spiderman and his jaw dropped. "Holy…"
Spiderman could feel the adrenaline eating away at what little calm he had left. He shoved the anger aside as best he could. "Where's Connors?" he gritted out around his fangs.
Marsh's face cleared with memory. "He can cling to walls!"
Spiderman whirled in spider-sense enhanced realization as a huge shape dropped down to attack, two rough clawed hands seized around his throat.
In the microsecond it took for Connors to start crushing his windpipe, Spiderman got a look. He was a hideous amalgamation of reptile and human. His eyes were cats-eye yellow, his mouth full of sharp fangs, his claws were long and pointed, and his skin was covered in hideous scaled ridges, as though something were trying to push it's way out from beneath. And if the grip around his throat was any indication, he was quite a bit stronger than he used to be. If not for the ripped labcoat around his shoulders, Spiderman would have wondered who he was.
Spiderman fought down his shock and clapped his upper-arms around his wrist, then caught the elbows with the next two, and flipped the beast straight into the wall.
Connors twisted in the three feet to the wall and landed feet first, and crouched there. Sideways. On the wall.
"So you're the new Frankenstein," Spiderman hissed. "Congratulations. Give yourself a hand. Oh…you already have."
Connors leaped out at him, straight into three of Spiderman's fists. The inhuman force drove him back against the wall heavily. Connors was up quickly, grabbing the first thing he could grab--half a table--and threw it at Spiderman.
Spiderman bent almost double over backwards and the table went flying over him…
…and right toward Marsh, who was a few feet behind him. Marsh had just enough time to shut his eyes, waiting for the blow…
…that never came.
Opening has eyes slowly, he saw someone he knew well but had never met, a black-cloaked and black-hatted man with hard features and dark eyes, his black-gloved left hand extended out toward the wooden debris, which was now hanging in mid-air.
The Shadow gestured with his hand, and the wooden table went flying back toward Connors.
Connors shoved the table aside, splintering it into so much kindling.
The Shadow aimed his right hand, clutching a huge silver gun in its grip, and fired at Connors.
Three massive thunder cracks of sound, and Connors' left leg suddenly broke off at the ankle. Connors fell to all fours with a roar.
Spiderman reacted instantly, lashing out with his webshooters. By instinct, all his arms followed the movement.
Six streams of webbing flew out to nail Connors straight to the wall.
Surprised, Spiderman looked down. No, he wasn't imagining it; his new arms had their own organic webshooters.
"Pour it on," The Shadow ordered, pulling Marsh behind him.
Spiderman kept going, cocooning Connors into the corner, securing him tightly.
"What happened?" The Shadow demanded.
"He tested the retro-virus on himself," Marsh told them.
Spiderman pointed at Connors, who was glaring balefully at them. "He's got two arms. He used a lizard, didn't he?"
"Yeah." Marsh was still staring at the torn lower half of Spiderman's mask. He couldn't take his eyes off the fangs.
Spiderman was stalking around. "It's all gone!" he wailed mournfully.
"No it isn't," Marsh realized. "There's still the main lab. We moved the operation in here when classes started this morning. We didn't want anybody looking too closely at what we were doing, but the original equipment will all be available now since classes are done for the day."
The Shadow looked at Spiderman. "Go. Clock is ticking."
Marsh was looking at Connors, glued to the wall. "Is there anything we can do for him?"
"If we can find the cure for me, it might work for him, but we'd need a supply of his DNA, plus whatever the Hell he injected himself with," Spiderman lisped.
The Shadow picked up the sharp-toed foot he had blown off and tossed it to Spiderman. "Go to work."
Spiderman hurried out.
Connors protested with a series of hisses and growls at the sight of his limb being tossed around the room.
"Shut up," The Shadow said, shoving a piece of the shattered table leg into Connors' elongated mouth. He gave the piece of wood a hard tap with the handle of one of his pistols, then nodded in satisfaction.
Turning around, he spotted Marsh still on the floor, sprawled out and staring in a mixture of fear and awe that The Shadow didn't realize how much he'd missed seeing in a new agent's eyes. He crossed the room to Marsh and offered a hand.
Marsh grasped it and struggled to his feet. "Good to meet you," he said, somewhat sheepishly.
"Having fun yet?" The Shadow said sarcastically.
"Hasn't been boring." Marsh admitted. "It's…it's an honor to meet you finally. I've always wondered just what you were really like…"
The Shadow laughed long and loud.
Marsh could feel every hair on his neck stand on end at the soulless cackle.
The Shadow took Marsh's right hand and put a huge gleaming red-stoned ring on it. "Welcome to the mission."
Marsh looked at the ring. It was the same as the one Stephen always wore. A glance at The Shadow's left hand spotted another huge silver ring with a red-orange stone whose color was so intense that it practically glowed. "What do I do now?"
"Go home. Your work here is done." Marsh could see the smile in his eyes. "I'll take it from here."
Up the hall in Connors' master laboratory, Spiderman was working frantically, all six hands handing each other things back and forth, making adjustments, adding and mixing.
The Shadow, meanwhile, was keeping watch to make sure they weren't interrupted. "How's it going?"
"I'd make one Hell of a bartender," Spiderman answered. He was sweating again and gnashing his teeth.
"Deep breath," The Shadow urged.
"I'm breathing deep already," Spiderman retorted. A little harder than he should have, he put the vial in the centrifuge and started it spinning. "And that's it. Now we wait. Now, what about Connors?"
"I'd better get started on his cure too."
"No, you focus on yourself. If this one doesn't work, you won't have a lot of time to try again."
"I suppose. Welcome back. How's it feel?"
"Just make sure I'm back in my coffin by dawn."
Spiderman was about to respond with a witty comment when the wall from Connors' office erupted.
Standing there, lit from behind was Curtis Connors. But you couldn't prove that by sight. The ridges under his skin had hardened into genuine dark green scales, his cat's eyes had turned red, and a forked tongue poked out from between his fangs. His foot had healed completely, and a long tail coiled out from beneath the torn lab coat he still wore.
"Whoa…," Spiderman began.
The Lizard let out a screech that covered three octaves, and leaped at Spiderman, picking him up by force and putting him through the brick and Mortar room into the hallway.
As the bricks settled, both of them picked themselves up and faced each other. Spiderman struck first, nailing his ankles with webbing, and pulling. Before he could pull, the Lizard moved faster, ripping the webs asunder with one swipe, barely putting any strength into the move.
"Good reflexes," Spiderman hissed around his teeth. "For a future handbag anyway."
The Shadow appeared at the hole in the wall, and aimed an automatic square at the Lizard's back. He unloaded four shots left to right into his lab coat. The bullets slammed into the monster's armoured scales, and the beast spun, claws slashing toward the cloaked man's face.
The claw stopped dead six inches from his face. The Lizard turned to glare at Spiderman, who was holding his wrist with two hands. "I can't let you do that," Spiderman gritted.
The Lizard spun away from Spiderman fast enough to break the hold, and kept spinning enough to nail Spiderman full across the stomach with his tail.
Spiderman felt the air explode from his lungs, felt like somebody had swung a safe into his gut with enough force to pick him up and bury him two feet into the nearest wall.
The Lizard turned back to The Shadow, who had vanished.
Hissing, The Lizard flicked out his tongue, using the reptile prey detection method of tasting heat, and sensed heat and movement moving down the hall quickly.
Dropping to all fours, The Lizard galloped after him.
Forgotten behind them, Spiderman started to pull himself out of the wall. He moved to take up the chase, when a convulsion gripped his insides. "Oh NO, NOT NOW!"
Throwing back his head, he roared.
The Lizard had chased The Shadow as far as the end of the hallway, where he had ducked into the chemical labs. The Lizard had ripped the door down two seconds later.
The Shadow was waiting with a sealed jar from the chem lab, which he threw straight into his attacker's reptilian snout.
The Lizard hissed in anger.
The Shadow quickly tossed a match.
The Lizard's face went up like a pyre, but if it hurt him at all, it wasn't noticeable. But it distracted him long enough for The Shadow to get back into the hallway.
The Lizard thrashed back and forth violently, smashing anything he could reach in a rage, his tail was shattering student's workstations into pieces.
Including the Bunsen burners gas lines.
As gas started leaking into the room, the Lizard took off after his prey.
The Shadow was at a full run back toward Connors' lab, but came to a screeching halt at the sight of his friend. "Oh, no…"
A nanosecond later the Lizard crash-tackled him to the floor, dugs claws into both his shoulders and held him down, ready to bite off the back of his skull.
The Shadow grunted at the blow, but didn't flinch at the foul breath. He mentally pressed back against the Lizard's skull. "Rules have changed, pal."
The Lizard roared.
Another inhuman roar answered, and the Lizard looked up.
Wearing a few tattered scraps of his Spiderman costume, the entire top two third ripped to shreds by the expanded torso, stood an eight foot tall pure Spider. His face had expanded to include eight huge compound eyes, and his arms and legs had degenerated into hairy spider limbs with hooked claws. His torso was ripped with huge muscles, and his fangs had morphed into outright mandibles that clicked back and forth.
The Lizard pounced off The Shadow and landed a few feet in front of the gigantic arachnid in a predator crouch.
Terrific, The Shadow thought. He's defending me. He's protecting his kill from another predator.
Spiderman--or, rather, Spider--leaped at his reptile foe with still greater superhuman force than The Shadow had ever seen him use, picked the Lizard straight up off the ground, and sent them both rolling down the hall.
The Shadow could feel his adrenaline surging through his veins, instincts howling for him to move, and he rolled to his feet as they passed, guns drawn, trying to pick a clean shot between his partner and the good doctor gone wild.
Spider and the Lizard were sprawling down the hall, snapping at each other with their fangs and mandibles, howling as blows got through, weaving in a savage dance.
Spider managed to get a grip with four legs around his tail and started swinging him back and forth like a ball and chain, smashing him into the walls.
The Lizard got his claws dug into the wall and reversed the swing, putting the Spider, spine first, into an emergency fire hose on the wall, hard enough to bend the steel frame.
The break in the action gave The Shadow a chance to fire off a mind-clouding suggestion down the hall and slide along the floor into the action, aiming his.45s right at the Lizard.
The Lizard flicked his tongue, trying to locate the source of the heat from what at one point was his prey.
Spider grabbed The Shadow off the floor and hurled him the entire length of the hallway, then ripped the entire bolted fire hose off the wall, taking a good chunk of the brick with it, and hurled it across the hall into the Lizard's jaw.
The Lizard was hurled back with enough force to send him reeling backwards back into the wrecked student lab.
The Shadow gathered his senses and tried to take in what had happened. I was mind-clouding--how the Hell did he know where I was? It had been years since he'd had to actually think about all the steps involved in projecting a mind-clouding suggestion, but he ran a quick mental checklist to figure out what step potentially wasn't working right…
…and then it hit him. Oy. Mind-clouding assumes a human-style visual pattern--two eyes focusing as one. Doesn't work against compound eyes because there's too many inputs to block. Lovely. One can smell me with his tongue, and the other can see me with his bug-eyes. So much for my major means of avoiding detection… He got to his feet and started following the sounds of action, this time employing only his surveillance camera scrambler to at least block out one means of someone other than his prey tracking his progress.
Moments later, he found the two beasts in the main student chemistry lab beating the living daylights out of each other, thrashing about the room, knocking over everything in their path.
Including the storage cabinets.
The Shadow came in, guns drawn and ready, as Spider got a grip around the Lizard's throat and used his many appendages to put the overgrown handbag through the outer wall and out into the night.
Realizing he might not get a better chance, The Shadow reached into his pocket and threw a small circular device at Spider's back. A bit of extra telekinetic pressure buried the small barbs on the device into the creature's skin.
If Spider noticed the pressure on his skin, he gave no sign as he dove through the hole in the wall and took off after the Lizard.
The Shadow turned to follow when he realized that the aroma in the room had taken on a decidedly explosive-smelling odour. Stephen Cranston hadn't majored in chemistry or any kind of physical science-related pursuits, but if there was anything he knew how to do in a laboratory, it was mix almost any kind of chemical items together to form a bomb.
Which, he realized, was pretty much what the fighting super-creatures had done by breaking open gas lines and knocking over chemicals that were starting to sizzle, crackle, and smoke.
The Shadow didn't hesitate as he holstered his guns and took off running out of the student lab, hoping and praying that he could get to Connors' main lab before the building exploded.
The two human/beasts caught up to each other in mid-fall and once more engaged in brutal combat the whole way to the ground.
Spider managed to get an arm free to fire a web to the corner of a rooftop as the Lizard dug his teeth deep into a wrist and started shaking him like a dog with a bone, trying to rip his arm out.
Spider roared and kicked the Lizard hard.
The Lizard hit the ground first and tail-whipped Spider away from him, watching him swing out of site attached to the web.
Spider somehow remembered to hang onto the web line and let it pull him back with a force equal to the force that had catapulted him.
The Lizard, surprised to see his enemy coming back so fast, was too slow to react to a pair of hairy arms grabbing him around the shoulders and yanking him off the ground.
The pair went flying through the air across the city.
The Shadow bolted back into Connors' lab, yanked open the centrifuge, and grabbed the finished vial. That explosives smell was getting stronger, and at this rate, he had maybe five seconds before the whole thing hit critical mass…
…and that was when he heard the first explosion from one of the gas lines.
Wow, my sense of timing is rusty, The Shadow thought grimly, then shoved the vial into an inner pocket of his trenchcoat as he bolted through the various holes in the walls made by the duelling mutants and dove out of the building just a split-second ahead of the massive fireball.
Quickly, he scanned the area and got his bearings as he was falling. Closed dumpster below. Not as soft a landing as I'd like, but… He started projecting a telekinetic cushion to try to reduce the impact of what was not going to be the prettiest of landings under any circumstances.
A split second later, The Shadow's projection bounced off the lid of the dumpster and slowed his fall just enough to give him a chance to curl up to protect his head and neck from the impact, and he rolled off the dumpster onto the pavement with a hard flop. Ow. Definitely rusty.
Moe's cab came screaming up, and The Shadow dove into the backseat and slammed the door. "Go!" he ordered.
Moe hit the gas to clear the rain of fiery debris from the explosion above. Just like old times. "Tracking now," he reported.
"Where are they headed?" The Shadow asked as he fed fresh clips into his pistols.
"Good. Don't lose them."
Moe smiled. Definitely like old times.
Sarah was staring at the city. Was it true? Had the network just stopped for a while? Was it really because of her?
Sarah went back into the main room. "You gathered reports from contacts."
"Who did you give them to?"
"These contacts, were they agents?"
"Some. Others were just paid."
"Where did the money come from?"
"There are at least two dozen criminals that Stephen knows about and doesn't move on, some because they aren't worth his time yet, some because they're too useful where they are. Who organizes surveillance?"
"Who orders those agents to rotate and when, so that they won't be recognized?
"The standing orders regarding hush money, property repairs, hiding information, or covering up details that gets out. Who organizes all that?"
"And who gave those standing orders while Stephen and Peter were out fighting or working, or spending time with us?"
Sarah's face crumpled. "Oh, my God…it's true! All roads lead to him, and now he's dead because I decided to stay at home."
MJ wasn't unsympathetic, but she made no effort to soften the blow. "Yes."
Sarah started pacing. MJ said Stephen had everything armed and waiting at the manor. They would have been here if I had. She turned to MJ. "Because Khan wanted to prove to Stephen that he wouldn't just make me fall into line like he would any other agent."
"And I didn't. I did exactly what Khan wanted me to! I did exactly what the bad guy wanted, and now the whole damn system's broken down…"
"He played me." Hearing the words out loud, she lost it completely. "KHAN PLAYED ME LIKE A TWO DOLLAR BANJO AND I STARTED SCREAMING AT STEPHEN, WHO HAS TO TAKE UP THE WHOLE THING ALONE BECAUSE OF…"
Sarah's phone started ringing, and she forced herself to calm down before she answered. "Hello?"
"The sun is shining."
Sarah took a quick breath and answered crisply. "But the ice is slippery. I lost him about ten minutes ago, I'm sorry."
"Not your fault, he stopped being Peter Parker about ten minutes ago."
"Is MJ with you?"
"Yeah, she's right here."
"O.K., listen carefully, I've got a mission for you both."
Sarah waved MJ over. "Fire away."
"Sarah, Marsh is an agent now. There was an explosion tonight that gutted the Columbia chemical wing. Since I'm on extended hiatus from my newspaper job, I need you to write up a story that'll explain it without the words 'Spiderman', 'Curtis Connors', or 'Shadow' in it anywhere. Give it to Marsh, tell him the code words and tell him to bury any sign of his involvement in the whole thing tonight."
"You'll probably have to explain what the code words mean too. MJ, get to Columbia and start stealing surveillance tapes. I scrambled any of them that I'm on, but Peter and Connors were going at it all over the building and they're probably starring in a lot of surveillance tape cassettes. Send them through the message system, with a note that they are to be sent on to The Shadow. Some time tomorrow Victor will get…" He caught himself silently as MJ and Sarah traded a bleak look. "Some time tomorrow I'll get the packet of tapes. I'll do a bit of choice editing so that anyone who looks at them will see what 'happened' without giving us away. Meantime, MJ, get to some agents in the NYPD and tell them that it was an accident, and nobody was injured, and that surveillance camera tapes are on the way. Any questions?"
"Is Peter all right?" MJ said into the phone.
As Moe followed the tracking device, The Shadow stared down at the vial in his hand. "Jury's still out on that," he reported. "Don't worry, round one hasn't ended yet." With that he closed the cell phone and shoved it into the underseat drawer. "Are they still at it?" he asked his driver.
Moe checked the scanner. "They move fast, but they must stop to trade blows as they go."
The Shadow checked. "One of our obstacle courses is in this direction."
"About ten blocks."
"Let's see if we can divert them."
The Lizard and the Spider were smashing at each other on a rooftop, slashing at each other violently.
The Lizard clamped his jaws tightly on Spiderman's ankle and started twisting.
Spider clamped his mandibles down on the tip of Lizard's tail and started twisting, both of them slashing at each other as they did.
The Lizard won the grapple, and managed to rip the Spider's limb clean out.
Now freed, Lizard was able to plant his feet, and swung that tail again, hard enough to send the Spider flying a good six blocks, weak enough that the Spider took about ten inches of tail with him.
The Spider was used to this move by now and fired all his webs, top and bottom limbs into the walls around him, middle arms into Lizard, yanking him off the rooftop and pulling him along.
The cab screeched to a halt and Moe got out of the driver's seat.
The Shadow moved out of the back seat and hopped into the front seat to take the wheel. "O.K., you know what to do, right?"
"Move the mirrors under the skylight, and turn them so that…"
"Good." The Shadow slammed the cab door and floored it.
The Spider had a web in four of his hands, and the other two were throttling Lizard sixty feet in the air. The reptile was squeezing back, thrashing his tail at the webbing.
He managed to catch the end of one and grab it from his foe's grip, swinging away toward a building, where his claws dug into the brick and mortar.
For another moment, they just stared at each other Spiderman suspended between three web lines, in midair. The Lizard was clinging tight to a wall ten feet away. They both roared defiance at each other, ready to continue the fight.
The Spider leaped from his web and flew up the wall the Lizard was crouched on. Lizard started ripping his way up the wall after him, gathered himself, and hurled himself straight up, high enough to catch Spider's feet.
Knowing he was caught, the Spider gathered his other six legs and hurled himself away from the wall, brought his rear legs up, caught the Lizards wrists, and pulled him into a massive, midair toss, hurling the huge beast up over his shoulder, then straight down fast and hard to the pavement below.
As Lizard went down, Spider caught the edge of the roof and crouched.
Lizard slammed the pavement hard enough to break it apart. He didn't move.
Spider threw back his head and roared victoriously.
He glanced down again. Lizard was alive, and he was crawling slowly toward a sewer grate.
Spider prepared to end him completely, when something across the way caught his eye.
It was a stark white billboard, with writing on one side and a photo of a gorgeous model on the other. Spider couldn't recognize the writing anymore, but he still stared, dumbstruck at the billboard. There was something about the girl…
The Shadow pulled up a few seconds later. He saw a tail vanishing into the sewer and checked his tracker. His partner wasn't moving.
Swallowing the sudden knot of worry that formed, The Shadow looked up.
The inhuman thing that his friend had become was sitting on the edge of a roof, mooning over Mary Jane Watson's gorgeous face on a billboard for Emma Rose Parfums.
The Shadow shook his head slightly. Some things never change. "Hey, Peter!" The Shadow projected upward. "If you come down I'll make you less hideous and you can get back to the real thing!"
Spider ignored him.
"Partner, if you want to do this the hard way then I have to get you two blocks to the west," The Shadow complained, hoping to somehow get through to the one-track mind holding his partner's genius hostage.
Spider kept staring at MJ.
"Well, I hope this works--otherwise my triumphant return to battle won't last long." The Shadow aimed an automatic out the window and fired twice.
Both shots struck the huge Spider squarely in the gut. The response was instantaneous, and Spider started searching for blood. He quickly spotted his attacker…and leaped down toward him.
The Shadow felt a wolfish grin split his face again, and he gunned the motor. "C'mon, Pete--you finally get a chance for a fair fight!"
The cab screeched away, and Spider landed behind it, took off running. The cab climbed past fifty, and Spider was gaining on it easily.
The Shadow gunned it again, and turned a corner on two wheels, managing to settle back on all fours as the turn finished. He gave a glance in the rear view mirror.
Spider was still gaining.
Lovely. This had better work… The Shadow looked forward again and spotted Moe, half a block away, running out of a building he owned.
Moe saw the cab coming, waved at him, and ran across the street to find cover.
The car suddenly lurched and stopped moving. The Shadow glanced into a side view mirror and saw Spider was lifting the rear wheels clean off the ground.
Well, I said I wouldn't kill him, The Shadow thought, but that doesn't mean I can't make his life a little more interesting. With that, he killed the accelerator, jumped out of the car, and hurled a pellet straight into Spider's face.
The pellet broke open and erupted into white flame. Spider batted furiously at the incendiary liquid across his face, wiping it away as it cooled, and quickly identified his annoying prey.
The Shadow had almost made it to the obstacle course. For three generations, each Shadow had passed to the other the three rules of combat: Choose your place. Choose your time. Strike first and get out of there alive. Well, The Shadow had chosen his place, and he had chosen the time. Now it was just a matter of getting there alive.
Spider had cleared the distance he had run in the space of an easy leap, and back flipped, landed directly between him and the door, and lashed out with one of his claws.
The Shadow snap-drew an automatic and put it against the grasping claw, then pulled the trigger.
Spider barked out a noise but didn't reel in pain, looking at his claw as though it had betrayed him.
The break in attention was just long enough for The Shadow to get inside.
Spider was in the door after him instantly.
Inside was a series of gym equipment, some free weights, and a bunch of full-length mirrors, set facing each other in a circle.
The room was large, but slowly started filling with a green gas, which crept to every corner.
Spider looked left, looked right, and was about to jump up to the ceiling, when he felt something land on his back and heard those annoying loud pops again, followed by a stinging sensation on the back of his neck.
The Shadow took advantage of the break in the skin his bullets had caused and stabbed a syringe into the hole. When it met with resistance, The Shadow determined he'd finally hit the equivalent of a muscle and pushed the plunger on the syringe as hard as he could.
Enraged, Spider lashed out, far faster than The Shadow could follow, and started shaking him back and forth viciously.
The Shadow started returning blows, hitting him in the mandibles, the elbows, the throat, the huge compound eyes, anything he could reach, and had no effect that he could notice whatsoever. In desperation he drew an automatic.
Wise to this move now, Spider battled it away with one of its limbs.
The Shadow tried again with the other, to the same result, only this blow nearly took his arm off. With his world going dark, he grabbed a flash disk and tossed it at the monster's face, where it exploded in dazzling light.
Spider's eight compound eyes took the full force of it, and he tossed the cloaked man away in surprise.
The Shadow gasped for air and started dragging himself away. "Little biology lesson, Ace--compound spider eyes may see great in the dark, they may see great in fog and mists, but they don't have eyelids!"
Spider whirled to finally kill its annoying quarry, and saw him across the room. He picked up weight, about 200 pounds, and threw it at him.
It hit The Shadow squarely in the face, and he shattered into a thousand pieces.
Surprised, Spider pounced over, clearing the distance in a quick jump, and found himself surrounded by identical versions of The Shadow, moving past each other into infinity. "Here I am, Peter…kill me."
Spider roared and lashed out, smashing three Shadows instantly. He hadn't tried to dodge, and his image splintered under each blow. Shadows were disappearing, but Spider wasn't happy, his vision was starting to blur, he was starting to become confused.
A tap on his shoulder made him spin, and he found ten more waiting for him, simply watching. "Kill me again, Peter."
Spider roared, a shudder going through him, confusion and concern taking their place in his mind again, as he struck over and over, making Shadows shatter into glass. He looked down at his claws, worried. What was wrong?
Then his body began to quiver, and he fell to the floor, unable to shatter any more Shadows.
The Shadow quietly eased over to the circle of shattered glass and gently pulled the tracer out of the skin on his friend's back as the huge beast shuddered and sank into the depths of transformation. "Easy, Peter. It's over. You did it."
MJ was making her way quickly out of Columbia, dodging fire trucks and their crews with a practised ease, when her cell phone rang. A glance at the display told her it was Stephen's cell phone calling, and she immediately flipped the phone open. "Tell me you found him," she told the phone.
Mary Jane let out a breath like she'd been holding it for weeks. "Peter! Oh, my God…are you all right?"
"I'm…me again. For whatever that's worth."
She could hear the exhaustion into his voice, but it was the sweetest sound she'd ever heard. "Thank you God."
"You're welcome," she heard Stephen's voice call through the phone.
She burst out laughing. "At least he loaned you his cell phone," she remarked. "Where are you guys now?"
"The Sanctum. It's the only safe place left that has any lab equipment I haven't wrecked yet."
Her heart sank again. "What do you need a lab for now? What's wrong?"
"Connors has my problem now. Stephen wants to talk to you."
Stephen's voice came over the line. "We think the cure that worked for Peter will work for him, but we have to synthesise it again to work for reptile."
"Very, very long story. Peter wanted to call and let you know we were O.K., but this is still a work night."
"I understand. Sarah's got her story written, she's on her way to the Classic now."
"Good. You have the tapes?"
MJ shut the dropbox that posed as a book return slot on the library. "They'll reach you in about twenty seconds."
"Good. Go home, your work day is over."
"Tell Peter I'll wait up for him."
"I'm sure you will." Stephen hung up.
MJ gave a deep sigh, then hugged her jacket a little tighter around herself as she made her way toward the subway.
"Stephen?" Peter asked somewhat sheepishly.
Stephen looked up from the first-aid patch job he was doing on his broken and battered body. "Yeah?"
"I only remember about half of what I did today," Peter muttered. "And pretty much nothing after the giant handbag busted in on us. Do I…did I…"
"You didn't do anything we blame you for," Stephen said.
Peter frowned. "That doesn't help much."
"We have to end this," Peter noted. "We have to find Connors. It's my fault he's out there."
"No, it's not. Neither of us made him shoot himself full of reptile DNA strands. That was his choice." Stephen dampened a washcloth in the sink and wiped the sweat and blood off his face. "We'll find him. I put a tracer on him tonight."
"You don't think it's been knocked off in the fight?"
"Hopefully not. I stuck it in the back of his mouth between his rear molars."
"When did you do that?"
"While he was cocooned in your web. Nice of your DNA to give your extra arms real webshooters. They'd sure come in handy in your everyday form…"
Peter held out a hand, pointed it across the room, and fired a web line.
He wasn't wearing his webshooters. The web came straight from his wrist.
Stephen's eyes tripled in size. "Holy…"
"Yeah, that was kind of my reaction, too," Peter said, then held up his wrists. There was a slight bulge on the inside of each forearm, and a barely-visible slit on his wrists almost at the exact spot where the nozzles from his mechanical webshooters used to rest. "I don't…I don't think it's a problem, and I don't think it's a sign of things to come, but there they are."
Stephen stared long and hard at the web. "A memento."
Stephen nodded. "Microevolution."
"I wouldn't call this micro," Peter countered.
"After what you went through over the past few hours?" Stephen reminded him. "I'd consider anything short of eight limbs and fangs 'micro'."
"True." He looked over at Stephen. "Speaking of microevolution, did I really see you stop a table in mid-air?"
Stephen nodded. "The Cranston psyche expands with age and during moments of extreme stress. Let's just say I feel a lot older and a lot more stressed than ever in the last 24 hours."
"Or maybe you've finally decided you're tired of holding all that power inside your head in check."
Stephen shook his head. "You really don't want me to not be holding all that power in check. I think it might rival eight limbs and fangs for sheer fright factor."
Peter gave a snort. "Psycho."
"Arachnoid," Peter corrected.
"Psychic," Stephen responded in kind.
A second later, both men were laughing. "Isn't it amazing how quickly we fall back into old patterns? Been a long time since we've had that kind of conversation," Peter noted.
Stephen shrugged. "Lots of things have changed lately."
"Some of them for the better, even."
Peter shrugged. "Well, I'd consider the fact that we're back in the same room and on the same side a positive change."
"That's not a change," Stephen smiled. "That's a return to normal."
Peter laughed slightly. "What about either of us could even remotely be considered 'normal'?"
Stephen welcomed the return of his partner's sense of humor. He hadn't realized how much he missed it. "True enough. So, how's the cocktail mixing going?"
The centrifuge stopped spinning and Peter gave the results on the computer screen a quick once-over. "It's happy hour," he declared with a smile.
Spiderman hadn't stopped ranting as they stalked through the sewers. "You know, you'll never see Captain America sloshing through a sewer. Batman either. Certainly not Superman."
The Shadow gripped the dart gun tighter. He may have missed Peter's quick wit, but there were times stealth would likely be far more effective. "Spidey, when you were issued your superhero handbook, did you read the chapter that covered silent stalking?"
"You wouldn't be silent either if you'd seen what just floated past me…"
"At least you can cling to the wall. I'm slogging through sewage in a cloak that's dry-clean only."
"What, you can't use your overactive psyche to levitate?"
The Shadow started to suggest that Spiderman stop using his overactive mouth to chatter when he spotted something in the muck. "Hold up," he said, then bent down and scooped up the find. "Oh, crap…"
"What is it?"
The Shadow held up a broken reptile tooth with a small electronic device embedded in it. "My tracker."
"Oh, great. You know what this means?"
"Means we can't track Connors."
"No, it means there are alligators in the sewers, and we put them here!"
"Remind me to kill you later. Now what?"
Spiderman's spider-sense went off. "Look out!"
The Shadow spun and saw a long thick tail fill his sight for a microsecond before blinding pain exploded in his face. He flipped twice before landing facedown in the water.
Spiderman reached for the fallen dart gun, but had to break off to dodge a slash, and flipped out to hang upside down from the ceiling to dodge that tail swipe.
The Lizard caught him around the throat and yanked him down, started digging in claws.
The Shadow dragged himself upright, picked up the dart gun, and fired it point blank into the Lizard's back.
The dart needle broke off against his scaled skin and the vial dropped into the water.
"Oh, great," Spiderman remarked. "What all did he put in that little mutation mixture, anyway?"
"Does it matter?" The Shadow remarked, firing a .45 at the raging reptile.
Two swipes of the Lizard's tail sent The Shadow flying and Spiderman dodging frantically.
The Lizard grabbed the wall-crawler in transition, then planted a clawed foot on the wall and launched himself across the pipe, holding Spiderman in front of him, ready to smash against the slimy wall.
Spiderman got a foot planted on the wall and sent them both reeling back, crashing into the opposite wall.
"Listen, dude, you have got to pull yourself out of the gutter," Spiderman wisecracked as he pummelled the Lizard's body. It was the best retort he could come up with in the frustration of having no room to jump or flip.
The Lizard, driven against a wall, tried to swipe his tail back at his opponent hard.
Spiderman, ready for this, jumped up two feet and landed on the tail itself, gripped with his toes, and shoved him face first against the wall, then webbed him in place.
Lizard tried to swing over his shoulder blindly.
Spiderman ducked, caught the claw as it passed, and shoved it against the wall and webbed it down.
The Lizard managed to rip his head off the wall, and turned into a roundhouse with the free claw.
Spiderman bent back over double, shoved the other claw against the wall, drove an elbow into the Lizard's fangs, and webbed the free claw down. "I could use a hand here," Spiderman remarked sarcastically. "This guy's got one too many."
And that was when The Shadow practically materialized out of nowhere, shoving the cure vial into the Lizard's mouth, where it broke open on the creature's teeth. "Eat this!" he ordered, putting everything he had into both the telepathic order and the hard grip to close the Lizard's jaws.
Spiderman gave his wrist a spin around the Lizard's snout and webbed the long mouth shut.
The two heroes together managed to hold the reptile in place as the beast raged, fought, settled, and finally weakened.
The ridges in his scales softened. So did his claws. So did his teeth, so did his eyes, and eventually, his left arm shrivelled away as the metamorphosis reversal accelerated until a weak and barely-clothed Curtis Connors sagged against the webbing.
Spiderman pulled the webbing off of Connors' mouth and untied the doctor's remaining arm. "Steady, Doc," he said as he supported the man's tired body. "That one was a lot faster than your last transformation--it's bound to take a bit out of you."
Connors forced himself to look up. "And that, children, is why you never skip safety procedures in laboratory work," he remarked in a shaky voice.
"I hear you," Spiderman quipped, relieved that the doctor's mind seemed to be working. "How do you feel?"
"Not sure." Connors looked at himself, and spent several long seconds looking at his now-gone left arm. Then he looked around. "Why am I in a sewer?"
An hour later, after the pair dropped Dr. Curtis Connors safe at home, the two heroes, beaten within an inch of their lives, aching all over, leaned back against the rear seats of Moe's cab. Each man had lowered their heroic facades, leaving Stephen Cranston and Peter Parker both looking like death warmed over. "You want a ride home?" Stephen groaned.
Peter shook his head and pulled Spiderman's mask back on. "Nah. My way's faster. MJ'll be waiting for me."
"You'll probably have to stay with her tonight. Your place has a hole in it."
Spiderman shook his head mournfully. "What the Hell did I do?"
"I'd tell you, but I'm not sure you really want to know."
"True enough." He paused. "You could really use a shower."
"So could you."
"I could use a good, stiff drink, that's what I could use." He gave a nod to his partner, then leapt into the sky and web-slung his way across the city.
Stephen finished pulling off the trappings of his alter ego and folded them to go back into the drawer. "Drive."
Moe pulled out into traffic. "Don't be putting that stinky thing in the drawer," he remarked. "I'll never get the smell out of my cab."
"Fine." Stephen dropped the folded pile at his feet and gave a hard sigh.
"I'll drop it at the cleaners if you're intending to ever use it again," Moe suggested.
Stephen recognized the unspoken portion of the question. "Yes, I am."
Moe gave a big smile. "Good." The smile faded. "Now, you have to make peace with Sarah."
Stephen was annoyed at his driver's impertinence. "No."
"Yes," Moe emphasized.
"Do all my inner circle intend to snark me today?"
"What does 'Snark' mean?"
"I don't know but you're all doing it!"
"You know I'm right. You have to fix this thing with Sarah."
Stephen looked at his driver in the rear-view mirror. "I don't have to do anything. That's the beauty of being in charge."
Moe wasn't cowed. "You don't have to if it's an agent, or even if it's me, but you have to make peace with the ones who keep your secrets. She blames herself for Victor, and you have to tell her it's O.K."
Stephen looked out the window. "It's not O.K."
A long silence passed between the two men as the blocks went by.
"You killed my father," Moe finally said aloud.
Stephen jerked. "Excuse me?"
Moe gave Stephen the hardest look he had ever sent his employer. "You got my father killed, and you had your uncle tell me instead of you. Victor was showing me the hidden workshop for the cab when the strike team checked in the night of the Niska raid. Victor kept telling you not to make a move until he got there. You didn't listen. My dad radioed back that you'd decided to do the raid yourself and the other agents were moving in to protect you. That was the last thing I ever heard him say."
Stephen couldn't look his driver in the eye. "Moe…how long have you known?"
"Long enough. You have to have it out in the open, and then you have to get past it or it'll burn."
"Like it burned you?"
"Victor helped. He told me all about how many people my dad helped, and how proud I should be. You said nothing. You pretended."
"Four agents died that night because I thought I could handle it all," Stephen sighed. "The death of my parents in a similar way was still a sore spot at that time."
"It still is. You still have trouble talking about the loss of people near and dear to you. Back then, Victor was still in charge and he was very good at making sure the families of agents understood that their sacrifices were not in vain. And you've improved a lot in that area…but you're still hamstrung by that one sore spot. But you can't afford to be that way any more. Victor can't smooth this over anymore. Another part of the mission that falls to you now."
Stephen looked in the cab's rear view mirror at his friend. "I am very sorry your dad didn't come home that night."
Moe sighed. "See, you're still not getting it. One of the reasons I've been waiting for years for you to mention your role in that whole mess is that I wanted to tell you I forgave you for it. I didn't need an apology; this is a war, and rule number one in war is that people die. You don't have to be sorry for death during a war. But you have to be honest and acknowledge that death happens. All I ever wanted was for you to tell me the truth about that night, and that was it. I've long since forgiven you. But because you wouldn't talk about it, I never could talk about it and the whole thing lingered and festered. I think you actually have forgiven Sarah, but you're still angry at her for what happened, so you won't have the conversation because you don't want to acknowledge what you believe is a contradictory position." He swallowed his own emotions at the memories the issue raised. "One of the things Victor used to say over and over is that 'forgive and forget' isn't the healthiest thing for people because it implies that it's not O.K. to feel anger or frustration after you've issued a public forgiveness declaration for something."
"Forgive and remember," Stephen said quietly. "Because it's important to never forget why forgiveness was needed."
"This is the conversation you need to have with Sarah," Moe stated.
Stephen nodded. "You're right. I do."
Moe smiled. "Good. Now, where to?"
"Not the manor? You really need a shower."
"I also need to sign a gazillion papers. Drive."
"Thank merciful Heaven I was too stupid to get into economics," Moe commented as he pulled off onto a side street and headed for the now darkened business district.
Victor Cranston would likely have been horrified at the sight of his expensive burgundy leather executive chair draped in plastic sheeting. But the draping was a necessity brought on by a still-sewage-covered Stephen Cranston's need to sign payroll documents and sales contracts to ensure the business continued running smoothly. After splashing water on his face and giving his hands a quick wash, Stephen had started plowing his way through the pile of documents in Chloe's inbox, and at 0200, in a darkened office with only a desk lamp for illumination, Stephen's right hand was methodically dashing off his signature as his sharp eyes took in details with a precision he'd spent weeks trying to hone. Funny how one night back on the job had given him the incentive to make sure all of his reflexes were running at peak efficiency…
The phone on his desk gave a ring. Stephen hit the speaker button without slowing his signature pace. "Been expecting your call, Marsh," he commented.
Marsh laughed, now feeling like he was finally in on the whole reason his best reporter was so good. "Well, I knew I wouldn't wake you."
Stephen smiled. "What can I say? This is a work night."
"I'll bet. Listen, that woman from the Post…the ditziness is just an act, isn't it?"
Stephen grinned. "Don't feel bad, she fooled me at first too."
"And now I notice the three of us are wearing matching rings," Marsh sighed. "I should have known when I didn't see the promised 'expose on the Prosperous Pulitzer-Winner' on the front page of the Post. The lengths you'll go to just to avoid an interview."
Stephen laughed loud and long. "She get you what you needed?"
"I got the feature piece, I got the photos, but if you want to bury this we'd better not put it on the front page."
"That would be a good idea."
"One word of warning--the Times, the Post, and the Wall Street Journal all have the explosion at Columbia already up on their websites. Everybody seems to buy the 'unsafe chemicals reacting badly' story, but it'd help if we had evidence to support that."
"Well, everybody knows the Times makes up their stories these days, so that one should be easy to solve. As for the underlying story, the police will release it within a day and a half. Do what you can to convince them it's a non-story."
"Shouldn't be hard. Zero body count, nothing expensive or sensitive destroyed, unless you count blown out walls in half the labs in the place."
"Then that's the end of that."
Marsh paused, not sure how far he could push their newfound partnership. "Can I ask…"
"Ordinarily no, but seeing as how you're involved here, I'll make an exception. Connors is fine, and so is Spiderman."
"That's good news."
"What do I do now?"
"Go back to your life. Tell your wife hello for me."
"If these nights keep up, she's going to suspect something eventually."
"Those are the fortunes of war."
"I suppose so. Don't stay up too late. You looked like week-old bread this morning. I'd bet good money you haven't slept or eaten since, and you probably need a shower if you've worked half as hard as I did today."
"That means you need one too."
"Yeah, but I'm going home now. What are you doing?"
"I've got papers to sign."
"Take care of yourself."
"Do my best."
"Till the next time. Will there be a next time?"
Stephen hung up the phone, signed the last page, put it down, and leaned back in his chair. His head was still ringing from the Lizard and the Spider attacks and his body was just fried. He needed a tumo summoning, but his psyche was still regenerating from the overexertion, so he closed his eyes to relax his body in preparation for the healing meditation.
Stephen came awake to a splitting headache. Every movement was agony, and the room was much lighter. He glanced at his watch and groaned at the fact that it was well after 0900. He had fallen asleep.
"I told you not to go on a ten-hour bender last night. Didn't I tell you that? I have a very clear memory of it," Chloe noted.
Stephen put a hand to his aching head. "Chloe, you really want to speak very quietly right now." He struggled to sit up in the chair. Really should have tried to tumo last night as best as I could, Stephen sighed.
Chloe wrinkled her nose. "You sleep in a sewer last night?"
Stephen groaned. "Well…not slept."
Chloe sighed and went to her desk, then came back in with a cup of coffee. "Drink it, I'll get a change of clothes in from Brooks Brothers."
Stephen couldn't seem to sit upright, so he just lay back and took a deep sip.
A moment later his jaw dropped open at the hinges and the coffee fell out of his mouth all over his shirt. "Gah…," he began.
"So it's not fresh," Chloe shrugged. "It was fresh when I poured it yesterday afternoon while collecting all those papers you owed everybody."
Stephen sighed and started work on wiping out his headache mentally. "Whatever."
Chloe noticed the signed stack of papers. "What, did you spend the night here?"
"You're quite the detective," he responded in a dry tone. "When's my first meeting?"
"No, bad. Very bad, if you and your office still look and smell like this in an hour. You need a shower." She gathered up the signed documents off of his desk. "I'll get your coffee and drop down to Brooks Brothers for some new clothes. I figure they probably know your measurements by now, judging by all the tags sewn in your suits. Jeffries told me that your uncle's got a private bath and shower in one of those closets on that wall over there." She started out the door, then turned back and noticed he was still slumped in the chair. "Are you going to listen to me from now on?"
"I'm barely listening now," Stephen answered.
She came over to his desk, found a heavy iron paperweight, and pounded it on his desk over and over. "HEY! WAKE UP! I SAID ARE YOU GOING TO LISTEN TO ME-"
Stephen clapped hands over his ears. "All right, all right! Yes I am, Yes. Yes. Yes I am." he shouted back.
"Good. Now, get yourself cleaned up. I'll be right back." Chloe turned smartly on her heel and headed out on her errands.
Stephen waited until he was sure she was gone, then shut his eyes for a long overdue tumo session.
The tumo was just winding down when he felt a hand shaking his shoulder gently. He opened his eyes to see Sarah. "Hi," he said in a groggy tone.
"The dragon lady that guards your office wasn't there," Sarah responded, looking shy. "Moe said you wanted to talk to me."
Stephen sighed. "Well, he's right, I did. Have a seat."
Sarah sat down across the desk.
"I wasn't really mad at you because you were playing Victor, you know," Stephen said quietly. "I was mad because you got into it so easily."
"What do you mean?"
"Victor was my conscience, he was my go-between, he was my confidant, he was the one person in the whole network that I couldn't do without. But now he's gone, and all that stuff that The Shadow had at a moment's notice without a thought relies on me to make sure I get it. And I am not Victor. Every meeting I walk into, every time I sign my name on a business document drawn up originally for his approval, every time I get a report from an agent who needs something yesterday, it's all reminding me that I'm not Victor, and I can never be Victor." He looked at her. "I can't fill his shoes, I can't do all the things he could do, so when I see you just jump into it like you belong there, it burns."
"I can't be Victor either," Sarah quickly responded. "That was something I needed to hear from you but didn't like hearing. You were right, I was wrong." She sighed. "And when I'm wrong, I hate myself for it. So I redouble my efforts and try my hardest to never be that wrong again. But this…this is the biggest thing I've ever gotten wrong. That's why I jumped in with both feet, trying to fill a role that was empty because of my actions. I wouldn't have even been doing those things for you if I didn't feel so damn guilty about Victor dying in the first place. It was my fault you weren't there."
"Yes it was," Stephen said plainly. "But it wasn't your fault he died. That was not you and not me. That was Khan."
"You say that, but we both know Khan would not have felt the need to strike at Victor, or at the very least, he wouldn't have succeeded if I had just followed your orders, the orders all agents are supposed to follow. I see you trying like mad to fill his role all by yourself and I know that it's my fault you even have to do that, and I…I just…"
Sarah decided to confess. "I'm normally not scared of you. But yesterday, I was."
Stephen remembered. "When I threatened to wipe your memory."
Stephen got up to pace the room. "I wish I could say I was kidding at that moment."
"But you weren't, and I knew that, and that scared me all the more. I saw you thinking about giving it up, I saw you seriously contemplating tossing it in, and I saw you thinking about throwing a part of your network--a part of your network that's very important to you, a part that knows the secret and knows what lies beneath the façade you create--and you seriously contemplating throwing that part away. And I suddenly realized that this whole thing, this life…my life now…" She struggled for the words. "I looked back at what I was a year ago and that life just seems so small now, and I realized that this thing your grandfather set in motion, this network, this mission, had taken its first and only debilitating hit and it was because of me. I saw the mission in jeopardy, The Shadow dead for over a month and it was because I made you stay at my place instead of following instructions, Shadow to agent." She was rambling now, looking scared again. "I'm a go-between too, and not just last night with Marsh. I see the people you help face-to-face, I see the hope go back in their eyes when they know you're on a case, and I knew that it has been this way for the better part of the century, and the idea that it stopped because I broke the rules…"
Stephen interrupted her rambling apology with a kiss on the lips that threatened to steal her breath away.
They broke the kiss and stared at each other, seeing the same mixed look of why did I do that? and why did I wait so long to do that? in each others' eyes.
Stephen spoke first. "The rules apply to everyone, including you, Sarah, for exactly this reason. Agents who know the secret have a special obligation to stick to the rules with absolute precision. The stakes are higher if something goes wrong." He took her hand. "You are at fault, but you are not to blame. You are not Victor, but you are more than a typical agent. You know my name, you know how far it goes, you have pieces that no other agent has. I give you grief about how other agents do what I tell them, and I forget sometimes that you aren't a typical agent. You know my name, you know Peter's, you know things that no other agent knows, and I have to remind myself that the reason you do is because I told you. But that knowledge requires you shoulder an additional burden…the burden of knowing what happens if you ever break the rules. And now, you know that."
"As for the network, well…yeah, it's the hardest hit it's ever taken. But it can't be shut down by the loss of any agent, not even Victor. Lamont Cranston ensured that as part of his transfer of Shadow authority to Victor, and Victor reaffirmed it when he transferred that same authority to me. Some agents have more authority granted to them than others, but the only person with the authority to shut down the network is me. And I have no intention of ever doing that, because the mission is eternal. As long as there is evil in the world and The Shadow is around to fight it, the mission will never end. And as long as agents are still agents, the network will always be there to carry on its part of the fight."
"Now, as for you, my dear…you're still in the doghouse for a while."
Sarah started to react to his declaration, then realized this was a test. "I understand."
Stephen smiled. "Good."
Sarah breathed a sigh of relief. She'd finally passed the test. "When will I get out?"
Stephen shrugged. "When I decide I have need of you. Not before."
"O.K." She wrinkled her nose. "You need a shower."
He gave a chuckle. "You know, you're the fifth person who's told me that in the last ten hours."
"Well, it's not like it's not obvious." She sniffed his shirt. "Is that raw sewage?"
Just then, Chloe came in, coffee in hand, fresh suit in a garment bag over her arm, and saw Sarah leaning in close and sniffling against her still-strung-out boss. "Now, look, chickie-babe," she said, irritated. "I'm getting a little tired of fending off females and really don't like stalkers hanging around."
Stephen smiled. "Don't look at me. I didn't invite her in."
"No, but you could do a better job keeping her out, you know." She laid the garment bag across his sofa and handed him the coffee mug, then started dragging dirty plastic sheeting off of the executive chair. "Now, as for you, sweetie…"
Sarah smiled despite herself. "Chloe, isn't it? I don't think we really met yesterday." She turned on her best ditzy smile. "My name's Sarah. I'm a reporter. You boss thinks you should be nice to me so I don't make him look bad in the papers. Really, I'm not so bad. I even brought you some live mice."
Chloe wasn't amused. "Out, psycho-stalker chick, before I call security."
Sarah held up her hands. "I'm going." As she left, she stopped at the door and glanced back at him. "Just to confirm my suspicions… "
Stephen smiled mysteriously, giving a vaguely shadowy chuckle. "I'm back," his mind assured her mind.
"Out," Chloe ordered, giving Sarah a glare as she brandished the smelly sheeting as a weapon. Then she turned her attention back to Stephen. "And you--Legal's on their way here in fifteen minutes. I'll stall them with the signed documents for a few minutes. Clean up your act and get down to business."
Stephen smiled victoriously. "Gladly."