Night of the Psycho-Shadow
It was late November, and Spiderman was bored. For the last week, the city had been growing quiet. Spiderman had started to follow the usual criminal wanna-be types, because sooner or later, they always tried something.
But for the last week, they had vanished. Spiderman was confused--where were the typical selections of New York thugs going? Spiderman hadn't had a fight in almost a week, and was beginning to get frustrated. That bothered him. Since when did the Christmas season mean less crime? Usually everyone but the crooks slacked off till new years.
And on top of that, Stephen Cranston, his partner, who spent the night as The Shadow, had virtually vanished into his Sanctum. The Cranston family had always been the strong and sinister type, but in the last week, Stephen had become moody, short tempered, and reclusive.
Spiderman decided he was thinking too much. He needed to work off the tension. What this arachnoid vigilante needed was a good, old-fashioned brawl.
But that wasn't going to happen; it appeared. Not with the underworld so quiet.
Frustrated, Spiderman swung downtown, heading for some seedy bars. Surely there'd be some drunken thugs who wanted a fight there. Start with the Dark Star Inn, Spiderman thought.
But when he got there, his jaw dropped beneath his mask. There was a sign at the Dark Star door:
"Closed till New Years. And if you know what's good for you, you'll go home till then and stay there!"
"Oh come on!" Spiderman yelled at the door behind his mask. With a groan of frustration, he swung away again, trying to think of someone who might know of something bad going down. Someone. Anyone…
Max, Spiderman thought, Good old underworld accountant Max. He'll know where to find a little chaos.
But when he made it to Max's shop, the door was broken down and screams of pain were coming from inside.
Spiderman let out a sigh of relief and released his web line. Finally, Spiderman thought, a robbery. A plain, old fashioned break in. He landed lightly and practically bounced into the store.
There, against the wall, was the underworld accountant Max, quivering in terror, spitting out teeth and blood.
And standing over him, like a demon made of darkness, power practically radiating from his cloaked body, loomed The Shadow.
"I swear," snorted Max, through a broken nose. "I told you everything. Nobody's trading. Not this month. Just kill me now."
With an angry growl, The Shadow picked him up and ran him into one of the glass display racks. Before the broken glass even settled, The Shadow had turned, and stormed from the shop, not even acknowledging his stunned partner.
Spiderman finally remembered to move, and with some horror, followed his friend into the street, trying to hop to walls ahead of him to get his attention.
He finally got it. "What are you doing here?" demanded The Shadow in a hard voice.
"Looking for someone to fight," Spiderman answered with some nervousness. He rarely saw his partner lose his temper. Rarer still did his partner become so explosive, and certainly never so brutal.
"You and me both." The black figure strode onward, his cloak billowing around him like a dark specter.
Spiderman kept hopping ahead. "So you decided to put Max into a coma?"
"I wanted to make sure he wasn't hiding anything."
"I think you made sure of that," Spiderman said, with a nervous laugh. He could almost feel The Shadow's rage simmering.
Just then, at the end of the street, Moe's cab pulled up. Spiderman saw the frightened look in Moe's eyes, which clearly told him not to push the subject.
"If you'll excuse me, Spider, I have work to do," The Shadow growled.
This was too weird for words. Spiderman hopped onto the roof of the cab. "What's up, man? You run out of Prozac or something?"
The effect was surprising. The Shadow slammed the cab door and glared into his partner's eyes, practically nose-to-nose with Spiderman. "You have something to say? Because if you do, get on with it."
Spiderman recoiled. The look in his partner's eyes was fierce, demonic, like a living thing. Now was definitely not the time to bring up the recent temper. "No, nothing in particular."
Without another word, The Shadow whipped the cab door opened and practically jumped into the vehicle.
Spiderman quickly hopped off the roof as the cab pulled away, leaving a very confused partner standing on the curb in utter confusion.
"You picked a fight with him?" whispered Victor Cranston hoarsely.
"Well, more like passing on a sarcastic remark that he took great offense to," Peter clarified.
"What the Hell were you thinking?" Victor demanded. "Picking a fight with him NOW?"
"What do you mean, 'now'? What's going on? The underworld is scared stiff and hiding under whatever rocks they normally slither out from. The Shadow is about three seconds from becoming the Terminator, and you and Moe are walking on eggshells. Everyone knows what the deal is but me."
The men were in The Cobalt Club, in Victor Cranston's private booth, sharing a dinner, the bright cheery atmosphere a stark contrast to the outside world, and they had just completed the meal when Peter finally broached the subject on his mind. If anyone knew what was going on in the mind of both Stephen Cranston and his alter ego The Shadow, it would be Victor Cranston, the man who had both raised his nephew Stephen and wore the mask of The Shadow before Stephen had taken over.
"You honestly don't know, do you?" Victor said in surprise. "You've been Stephen's partner for almost two years now."
"So?" Peter said, still confused.
"It's November," Victor said as if that explained everything. Realizing that Peter still did not get it, he continued. "It's Hellmonth."
Peter raised an eyebrow and took a breath. "Victor, I am a mere mortal without the omniscience of The Shadow, elaborate but do so slowly."
Victor resisted the urge to roll his eyes and instead settled for a hard sigh. "Where were you this time last year?"
Peter checked the date on his watch. November 12th. "Calgary. I had some vacation time, and I had to cover some avalanche there before that, so I was away for most of the month."
Victor nodded in understanding. "O.K. I know that before you teamed up with Stephen, you had been Spiderman for a while. Did you ever notice that crime rates in New York City dropped dramatically during November?"
Peter gave a slightly guilty smile. "Actually, I took most of the winter months off. Spandex isn't exactly the best cold weather gear, and I am at the mercy of Mother Nature."
"Ah." Victor leaned forward, speaking quietly. "You know that Stephen was an agent before he became The Shadow, right?"
Peter nodded. "He told me the story. His father didn't want to be The Shadow, so he became an agent. But a low-level crime boss found out. And Stephen's family was kidnapped and murdered except for him as bait for The Shadow."
"For me." Victor took a shaky breath and a swig of his martini. "I…I couldn't get there in time to save them, but I got Stephen out alive." He paused and took another long sip from his drink. "I…I managed to…" He took another deep breath, trying to focus his thoughts. How could these emotions still be so strong so many years later? "When Stephen found out about me, and what that meant for him, he…he didn't realize at first that he was bait. He didn't realize at first that his family was murdered for nothing. He thought that it was just a coincidence. When he did figure it out, he…well, he went a little mad. I guess we all have to be slightly insane to do what we do, but Stephen…"
Peter stared. What did this mean? "So…what is it with November?"
Victor shook off the painful memories, and got back to the point. "Stephen's family was killed on November 5th. Stephen first went out solo as The Shadow on November 29th. Between these two dates, every year, Stephen goes on sort of a wild crusade. I am fairly certain that he does not sleep at all; he just goes completely insane with the mission. For that 3-week period, The Shadow is a wildfire. And I think the entire underworld knows it, business goes elsewhere, crime rates rise in other cities, New York goes under virtual Martial Law, with the one man SWAT team enforcing it."
Peter's jaw dropped at the idea. "Wow. So what do we do?"
Victor leaned back in his chair and sipped his drink. "We stay out of his way."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "Not much of a solution."
Victor shrugged. "When you reach my age, you learn to pick and choose your battles carefully."
"And this isn't a battle worth fighting?"
"Every Cranston has some demon inside him he needs to do battle with from time to time. My father had his. I had mine. This is Stephen's."
"I'm surprised he hasn't burnt himself out."
"Rage is a better fuel than you'd think. So is projective telepathic energy. The worst part of it all is he doesn't see it like we do. He sees it as a reaffirmation to the cause, because it's close to the anniversary of his becoming The Shadow. And of course nobody has a clue about his parents except Moe, you, and me. All the crooks know is that it's a bad, bad time to be doing anything shady. All the agents and middlemen are walking on eggshells. Myself included. The press noticed the trend a couple of years ago. They dubbed it 'Hellmonth'. The name stuck."
"But why hasn't he just exhausted himself? The hottest fire needs fuel to keep it burning. The Shadow doesn't have anyone to fight. Believe me, I've looked."
Victor nodded. "Yeah, but that just makes him look harder. And that just makes the fire burn hotter. So the unlucky few he does find just get pummeled all the more. There are always a few. Crooks that don't believe in The Shadow, guys who actually want to take a shot at him, guys that haven't put it together, and the people who are willing to take the risk because fewer people doing business means more profits for those that are. It's bound to be worse this year, and do you know why?"
Peter shook his head.
"It's been twenty years." Victor looked both angry and pained. "Twenty years and seven days since my brother and his wife were gunned down in cold blood in front of their five-year-old son."
Peter sat still, lost in thought, finally pulling himself out of it. "So. We stay out of the way."
Victor nodded, trying to stay above the emotional undertow himself. "We stay out of the way."
Hours later, Peter finally made it home and turned on the television to catch the 11:00 news.
"And the count is now up to 47," the announcer said. "With the notorious extortionist Cicero Black turning himself in to police, the unofficial Hellmonth confession count is now up to 47. Black turned himself in to a street officer in Battery Park, and the sudden vicious attacks have now encompassed the entire city."
Peter put down his jacket and just dropped onto his couch in disbelief. "Hellmonth." It was rare that The Shadow was mentioned anywhere other than The Classic. And Peter knew that Stephen could have stopped the story going through. But it was clear that he did not want to stop the story. He wanted the crooks to know. He wanted them all to know.
"Police have made no official statement on the sudden rash of attacks or confessions by everyone from suspected crime lords to straight purse snatchers. Conflicting descriptions have come forward but they all describe a tall dark monster." The announcer paused and put a hand to her earpiece, listening to a conversation from the director's booth. "O.K., the count is now up to 48 with another man turning himself in at Belleview Hospital, making a confession to the police already there to pick up 12 of the previous confessed criminals, and describing a man dressed like Dracula attacking him. This latest, like many of the others, has apparently received countless wounds and will probably have to remain in hospital for some time." She once more put a hand to her earpiece. "I have just received word that another man has been found beaten, with a written confession pinned to his jacket. This man was wanted by police for numerous drive by shootings, and was found unconscious, duct taped to the drivers seat of his car, crashed into a warehouse by the docks." Another pause as someone out of camera range signaled to her. "We have a news chopper in the area, and we are getting the feed through to you now."
The screen blurred as the live feed from the chopper came through on the television. Peter watched in amazement as the dark dock area came into focus, the police already on the scene.
"O.K.," said the announcer. "You can see the police now arriving to pick up the 49th man. These are exclusive pictures...wait, something is happening."
Peter felt his jaw drop as on the scene, a sudden flare of light appeared. It was a thin winding trail of flame, making it's way from the car to the dock area. Behind the police cars was a large open, concrete area for unloading, but for now it was empty. The flame trail wound its way around the police, the crashed car, and finally sped into the unloading zone. When it reached the open area, the fire flared, and spread in every direction, racing outward until its borders began to fill out. The flames took shape, a burning beacon, declaring itself to the city.
The bright flames took the shape of a silhouette, drawn in fire, for the entire world to see.
The silhouette of a man in a slouch hat and cloak.
"The question now on everyone's mind...," whispered the news presenter in awe, "Is of course: Who? Who is keeping New York under siege tonight?"
The dark shadowy figure swirled into visibility in a secluded alley behind a run-down business. "You needed to see me?"
Alexander Cranston looked about for a moment. "You weren't followed?"
The Shadow laughed.
Alexander realized the absurdity of his own question and chuckled himself. "Forget I asked."
"You look a little paranoid, Alex. Something big must be about to happen."
"Trust me. It is."
"Then maybe this isn't the place to talk." He glanced toward the end of the alley.
A Sunshine cab pulled to a stop, as if waiting for them.
Alexander cast a sly glance at his companion. "You know Marie will kill me if she finds out I'm still doing things for you."
"You were the one who chose to take that job working for Stankowicz."
Alexander nodded. "Part of me still can't leave the mission behind."
"And I'm very glad of that. Let's go."
The two men walked to the cab together.
Neither of them noticed a window closing in the building overhead.
Victor emerged from the dark memories that had taken possession of his brain and look up at his butler's voice. "Yes, Andrew?"
"Telephone for you. From a Mr. Parker."
Victor nodded. "I'll take it in here."
Andrew nodded and left the room.
Victor picked up the extension next to the overstuffed sofa and pressed a button. "Yes, Peter?"
"Are you watching the news?"
Victor found a remote control and pushed several buttons. "Not yet. Any particular station I should be watching?"
"Depends on how high you want your blood pressure to go."
A pair of doors on an elegant armoire opened, and a large television switched on. Victor watched the footage of the blazing fire. "Good Lord."
"Victor, one of us has got to find him and talk sense into him. This cannot go on."
"There is no talking sense into him." Victor felt his anger bubbling, and his pain stoking the fire. "He has to let this burn itself out. He has to work through this himself."
"He's going to burn the city out before he burns himself out. You didn't see his eyes earlier. I have NEVER seen him look that dark, and I've seen him lose it with bad guys enough where I would have remembered that kind of darkness."
Victor looked at the TV screen. Then he looked up at the wall.
Among the pictures over the mantle was a family portrait of Lamont and Margo Cranston, with elder son Victor to Lamont's left and baby Alexander on Margo's lap.
"Victor?" Peter asked insistently into the phone.
Victor looked at another portrait, this one of Victor posing with his brother and his bride Marie on their wedding day.
"Victor, I know you're still there…I can hear you breathing."
Another portrait, this one of Alexander, Marie, and baby Stephen.
"Come on, Victor. Talk to me."
Victor finally returned his attention to the phone. "I'm sorry, Peter. But I can't stop him. No one can. Or should." He hung up the phone.
Young Alicia picked up the last of her toys and headed for the porch of her house. The sun was setting, and her mother had told her that under no circumstances--one of those long words she didn't understand--was she to be outside at dark, not this month. She didn't understand what was special about this month, but she didn't understand most of her parents' actions. They kept telling her that she would understand when she was older, but she was already six, how much older could she get?
She looked back, and noticed that there was one toy left, her tricycle. It was at the edge of the lawn, and it was getting dark. Torn between obeying her mother's instructions and… following her mother's other instructions, she finally ran out into the lawn, and grabbed the handlebars.
Alicia's mother Elsie, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, looked out the window, and saw her daughter heading for the house, bike in hand, when a black panel van slid over, and a man in a ski mask leapt out, reached over the fence, and grabbed her little girl by the collar.
With a scream, Elsie ran from the window toward the door, and grabbed a knife off the counter without slowing down.
She burst out the door…
Just in time to see the van turn the corner.
Sobbing wildly, she ran back into the house for the phone.
An instant before her fingers touched the phone, it rang.
She snatched it up, with the intent of making an excuse not to talk.
"Mommy?" It was Alicia's voice, from the other end of the line.
"Baby?" Elsie almost shrieked into the receiver.
The familiar voice was replaced with a cold whisper. "She will be safe. She will be given to people who will treat her well. She will be unharmed, unless you go to the authorities, or the press. Do you understand?"
"Yes," whispered Elsie. "I will pay you anything, what do you want?"
"Your silence." The other voice paused menacingly. "Other than that, we already have what we want."
The phone disconnected, and Elsie hung up. She stared numbly out the window for several minutes.
Looking around the room helplessly, she began to feel the tears well up again, and collapsed onto the nearest chair. As she tried to force her brain to work, she looked around the room aimlessly, finally settling on a picture of her, sitting with her missing daughter, and her ex-husband.
She reached out for it, and suddenly froze, her hand extended.
A grin broke out on her face as she stared, and suddenly grabbed the nearest pen and pad.
She grabbed the pen with her left hand, which still wore her wedding ring.
She grabbed the pad with her right hand, which bore a girasol ring.
Stephen Cranston sat in his Sanctum, focusing his powers, actively stretching his psyche. He rarely devoted time to this exercise, usually relying on his usual activities to give him the mental focus, but today, he wanted his power sharp as a blade. But he just couldn't focus…
Ding-dong! The doorbell rang.
"Who could that be?" Marie Cranston wondered aloud. "I didn't hear the doorman call up here."
"Delivery boy," Alexander Cranston clarified, setting his newspaper down and getting to his feet. "Called while you were out of the room."
"Delivery? At this hour? Of what?"
"Something from work, I suppose."
Marie gave a sly look to her husband. "Maybe it's from that mystery friend that invites you out for drinks at all hours. Anybody I know?"
His father tried to look innocent as he headed for the door.
"Anybody we're related to?" his mother called after him.
Stephen looked up from his book as he heard his father freeze and come back into the room. "I don't know what you're talking about." His father sent a look at Stephen, and whispered to his wife. "That world of daring-do is no longer part of our life."
Ding-dong! The doorbell persisted.
"You don't fool me, Alex," laughed Marie. Her voice had the barest edge of annoyance in it. "You never could."
Her husband frowned, then headed to the door.
The door opened and there was a loud thump.
Marie jumped from her chair, as did Stephen.
A tall man appeared in the hallway, with a gun in his hand, and pointed the weapon at Marie. "If you don't want your brains to ruin the wallpaper, you will do exactly as I say." The man fixed a glare on Stephen. "You too, pipsqueak."
Stephen whimpered in fear. What should he do? What should he have done? How could he…
The buzzer on the console sounded, and his eyes flew open. He flipped the switches on the console.
"Report," he ordered.
"Agent has sent sealed message. Ordinary business message tube has not reacted with tests for toxins or tacking devices."
Stephen raised his eyebrow and looked toward the screen. Someone was trying to send the Shadow a message without anyone seeing it? That rarely happened. "Send it over." He commanded.
Burbank whirled and shoved the message into the pneumatic tube. Was it Stephen's imagination, or did Burbank seem frightened? "Burbank? Is something wrong?"
Burbank blanched on the screen, and shook his head. "No, not at all."
The pneumatics hissed. Stephen reached over and plucked out the message.
"Shall I send a response?" asked Burbank nervously.
"Not at this time." Stephen disconnected the line.
As he opened the message tube, a piece of paper and a rolled photo fell out. He looked at the picture of the little girl and felt the hairs on his neck rise.
He started to read the message: Dear boss, my name is Elsie Swartz. I joined you several years ago, and I am in trouble. I was told not to go to the police, so I need the kind of help that only you can provide. My little girl Alicia has been…
Stephen felt his eyes bulge as he read the words. He fought the rage building, fought with the agony and the memories welling inside him…
He leaned back in his chair in a rage, took a deep tortured breath…
And started to scream.
Victor looked up as his fax machine began to hum.
He raised an eyebrow as he saw the number on the screen. The fax was coming from the Sanctum. That never happened. Not during Hellmonth.
He picked up the fax. It was a picture. A picture of a little girl, not more than six years old, with bright eyes and a huge grin. It made Victor smile just looking at her, until he saw the writing.
At the top of the picture, in black ink, the writing screamed an agonized message.
"It's happening again!"
The phone rang in Peter's office at the Classic. He answered it immediately. "Peter Parker."
"The sun is shining," Victor's voice answered.
It took a second for Peter to form the response. Victor calling here? This could not be good. "But the ice is slippery. What's Stephen done now?"
Victor's reply was hesitant. "Peter, I think you're right. One of us has to track him down and try to talk sense into him."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "What changed your mind?"
"In about 30 seconds, there will be a messenger at your door with the answer."
About that time, a light tapping on Peter's office door got his attention. He looked up to see the deli delivery boy often used as a Shadow message courier standing in the doorway, flashing the ring.
The pair exchanged the code phrase, then Peter took the deli bag and fished out the small envelope inside. He took one look at the fax and gasped. "My God…"
"Exactly. I think he's found a direction to send the wildfire. You have to find him, Peter. Someone just made Hellmonth more personal, and I'll bet every dollar I've got that before he's through, there'll be some dead bodies on the deck. Maybe a whole lot of dead bodies."
Peter was chilled by Victor's tone. "What happened to staying out of the way?"
"That was when Stephen was frightening and determined. The stakes just got higher. Now he's just plain murderous. You have to find him, Peter. You have to find him before he finds whoever he's looking for, or he's going to tear them all limb from limb. And God help anyone who gets in his way."
"Mama?" Stephen whispered in fear as the man with the gun kept his aim straight and true on the mother and child.
Marie gently pushed her son behind her, placing herself squarely between him and the intruder. "Turn around and leave right now," she said in a firm, deliberate tone.
"I don't think so, lady." The man cocked his gun.
Marie didn't flinch. Her gaze turned dark and determined. "I said, turn around and leave right now."
The man lowered his gun slowly and turned to go.
Years later, he'd realize it was one of the few times his family's incredible powers were ever allowed to surface in front of him, but at that moment, all five-year-old Stephen Cranston could think to do was to cling harder to his mother's skirt.
"Stephen," Marie said calmly, "go into Mama and Daddy's bedroom and call Uncle Victor."
Stephen hesitated to let go, but something about his mother's tone told him not to disobey. He slipped out from behind her and started for the bedroom.
And that was when the other man appeared in the doorway. "What the…get them!" he ordered, drawing his gun and drawing a bead on Stephen.
"No!" Marie shouted, diving for her son.
The two of them hit the floor and the bullet whizzed overhead.
The last thing Stephen remembered was the medicinal smell of the handkerchief being placed over his face…
"We're here, boss."
The sound of Moe Shrevnitz's voice snapped The Shadow out of the darkness of the memories that kept returning. He quickly got his bearings. They were at Elsie Swartz's rowhouse. That was good. Maybe there he could get some kind of clue as to who might have abducted her child.
Maybe then, he could somehow atone for hiding from the danger in his mother's shadow all those years ago.
Dammit, where the Hell was he?
Spiderman swung through the city, in search of God-only-knew what. The only thing he could think of to do was to start his search at the Sanctum and expand it outward in ever-growing circles. But The Shadow could be anywhere, and Spiderman knew it. The only possible trail he'd leave would be the exhaust trail from Moe Shrevnitz's cab, and Spiderman was carefully watching the tops of every cab that drove by, looking for the distinctive Sunshine Cab sign that might give him a lead on where his partner had gone…
…like maybe that group of rowhouses right below him? Spiderman spotted the cab pulling away from the curb to make the block, not an uncommon procedure when Moe had dropped the boss off at his destination.
Elsie paced through her house for what felt like the billionth time, the tears still hot on her face. She could almost see the floor wearing out where she paced. For the entire night she had paced from the kitchen through the lounge room to the back door, then back through the house to the front door.
But this time, when she entered the lounge, she had a visitor.
"Elsie," whispered The Shadow. "I don't know what to say."
"Say that you can find my daughter," Elsie wept, fighting every urge she had to throw herself into his arms, knowing that this man was the only one who could help her now. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you."
"I'll find her. Tell me everything."
Elsie quickly summed up everything that had happened that evening.
"Did you recognize the car?" The Shadow asked, as he slowly walked around the room, taking in everything.
"No. It was a black panel van. The license plates were covered."
The Shadow had paused at the mantle, looking at the pictures. He picked one up. "Your ex-husband?"
"Did he want custody?"
"Yes. It wasn't a smooth divorce. Do you think it was him?"
"What did he do for a living?"
"He was a bartender. At least he was at the time of our divorce. I think he lost his job about a month ago."
"The Tropical Inn."
The Shadow nodded in fury. Elsie was amazed at the reaction he had to this. It seemed like he was going to explode at any moment.
Without another word he headed for the door and faded from view.
Elsie followed him.
To her surprise, she could still make out a shapeless form of black that moved smoothly over the lawn. It hovered over the curb, and again to her surprise, another vigilante dropped down from the sky to land next to him.
"Hey, I need to talk to you," Spiderman whispered to his partner.
The Shadow breezed past him. "Not now. It's happening again. I have to stop it."
Spiderman felt like he was talking to a caged animal, about to be set loose any second. He quickly hopped into his partner's path. "By killing the guys who did this?"
"I'm an 'eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth' sort of guy."
"But I think it's starting to affect your blood pressure. And your judgment. Victor and I are getting just a little concerned about what we're seeing on the news."
"I had to make them know. They have to understand. They can't hide any more." The Shadow fell silent and crouched at the curb, shutting his eyes. "Yes. It happened here."
Spiderman looked down at the ground. "Wide tire marks."
"Fresh ones. Fast getaway." He looked up, watched the tire tracks. "They turned left. No license plates. No identifying marks, heavy fast moving traffic, we can't track them. We have to find them another way." The Shadow turned back to Elsie, who was standing nervously at the door. "If it was your ex-husband, then he's made a few new friends. This was a professional job."
Elsie nodded, worried. "So…"
"Don't worry. I WILL track them down." He turned back to the street, trying to pick up any clue from any of the surrounding area.
"On that subject, what were you planning to do to them once you got them?" whispered Spiderman.
The Shadow glared hard at his partner. "What do you think?" he asked with silky menace.
Spiderman fought the screaming chills. "Right, see, that's where we may have a conflict."
"Well, I have a little trouble with premeditated murder."
"MURDER?" screamed The Shadow with fire in his eyes.
"What?" screeched Elsie.
The Shadow suddenly remembered she was there. "They won't kill her. They haven't asked for a ransom, so they don't want to use her as leverage or as a bargaining chip. They don't want anyone to know. So they want to disappear with her. They won't kill her, because she IS their mission objective."
"She's not a mission objective! She's my daughter!" wailed Elsie.
"I know," whispered The Shadow. "And I'll get her back. Go inside, and keep calm, do what they want, and let me know if they call again, but I doubt they will. For now, just leave this in my hands, and don't worry--I'll do whatever it takes. I'll get her back to you." He looked pointedly at Spiderman. "By any means necessary."
Elsie nodded and headed back inside, shutting the door nervously behind her.
Moe's cab pulled up next to the vigilantes, and The Shadow got in. He shut the door and rolled down the window. "Spidey, there's a war going on out there. It's not fought over a map or a government or anything like that. It's all about survival. Everyone in this city tries to survive, and they'll do whatever it takes. And when I say whatever it takes, I mean things that'll keep you awake in the middle of the night. There's no trial or court that can stop them, there's nothing to negotiate, because they only care about survival. These animals respect power and blood. Nothing more. If you can understand that, then you can walk through the darkness and come out the other side alive. If not, then you can go fight the crime that reveals itself in the high end of town. You go fight the evil up there, and leave the scum that lives in the underworld to me."
Spiderman leaned close to the window. "Can you walk through that same darkness and not join it? Stephen, there's murder on your mind and I just cannot let you do that. I refuse to let you go into this consciously hoping to kill everyone."
"Not everyone. Just the ones that deserve it. The underworld of this city is a jungle, Peter. Only the predators survive. Understand?"
"But can you do this, and then look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow, and honestly call yourself one of the good guys?"
The Shadow looked over his partner carefully. "Peter, I learned a long time ago that there is a line between the light and the dark. I walk that line, the line in shadow. Sometimes I have to go a bit further over one side of the line or the other to reach the real darkness. And if that's too frightening a concept for you, then get out of my way."
Spiderman could not believe he was hearing this. The Shadow was extreme, but this? "Stephen--premeditated killing is wrong. It's one of the things we stop. Are we above our own standards now?"
"Peter, I have to make them understand that there is something worse than them in the darkness. Me. This isn't just about a scared little girl. If we can make the scum of the earth realize that there is nowhere safe for them anymore, then the city will be safe from them."
"If you insist on going in there and starting the cycle of blood again, I will have to try to stop you."
The Shadow glared at him.
Instantly, Spiderman had realized what he had done. He had thrown down a challenge to The Shadow.
The dark specter knew it too. He was silent for several moments, comprehending what his partner had said. "If you think it's necessary, if you really think that I'm so far wrong in this case that you'll fight me to protect thugs like these, and if you can..." He gave him a look that would freeze lava. "Then let's have at it."
The window rolled up, and Moe pulled away.
Spiderman felt himself shaking. "What have I done?"
The Shadow waited in the alley, and checked his watch again. His brother was over 2 hours late. And Alexander was never late. Never. So where was he? This was it, the night Otto Stankowicz was to make a move on a rival's smuggling operation, and Alexander was supposed to be there to tip him off as to which warehouse was being cleaned out…
Suddenly, The Shadow was nervous. Stankowicz was a dangerous man, and by no means a fool. What if he realized he had a traitor in the ranks? What if he realized that Alexander worked with the Shadow? What if…
At once The Shadow was in motion, running to the nearest phone booth. The street was dark and almost empty, the few people who were out and about giving strange looks to the rush of dark wind that was pushing its way past them.
He dropped a nickel into the pay phone and dialed.
There was no answer from Alexander's phone.
The phone kept ringing.
Victor snapped out of it, and took a shaky breath. How did Hellmonth always do this to him? He picked up the phone. "Yes?"
"Tell me that it wasn't your idea."
Victor almost dropped the phone. It was Stephen, and his voice was flat with rage. "What do you mean?"
Stephen erupted. "I mean Peter planning a coup! What the Hell is that? Do you really think so little of me now that you have to send my own partner against me to protect the scum of the earth?"
Victor felt himself turn white. "He did what?"
"You heard me. Tell me you didn't send him."
Victor got hold of himself and remembered why he'd sent Peter after Stephen. "I might have if I thought you were going too far."
"Too far?" Stephen's voice turned hard-edged. "Uncle, this is my fight. My hunt. I only ask one thing from you now: Stay out of my way." And with that, he hung up.
Victor put the phone down. Good Lord, that chill in Stephen's voice…
The phone rang again. Victor quickly grabbed the receiver. "Stephen?"
"No, it's me." Peter sounded discouraged. "Victor, I blew it. I blew it big time."
"I'll say you did. What the Hell did you say to him?"
"I went too far. I think Stephen's hoping to kill them all. I can't stop him alone. Not like this. Victor, he's on their trail, we have to get to them first. If we win the fight before Stephen can get to them, he'll have no reason to continue. Help me find them before he does. Or at the very least help me get through to him."
Victor thought for a long time about that. Stephen's words echoed in his ears. 'Uncle this is my fight. My hunt. I only ask one thing from you now: Stay out of my way.'
The elder Cranston looked up at the picture on the wall, at the image of his brother. What would you do? he asked the picture silently. But he already knew the answer.
"I'm on my way."
Spiderman landed lightly in the alleyway, waiting for Victor to arrive. The Sanctum was sealed shut, and there was no sign of its sinister master. Peeling off his mask and opening his webbing backpack, he quickly hid his costume beneath his ordinary clothes.
Waiting nervously, and debating the sheer lunacy of what he had done, Peter finally decided to enter the Sanctum without waiting for Victor. Time was of the essence, because the longer he waited, the more chance Stephen had of getting to the kidnappers, and...
Without finishing the chilling thought, Peter pulled the hidden lever, and watched the door slide open. The stairwell was revealed.
"Stephen?" he called timidly into the doorway.
There was no answer.
Instantly, the lights of the stairwell switched off, and the passage was swallowed in darkness.
Then a sound.
A wild spontaneous burst of insane maniacal laughter.
Peter took a step back. Fought the unholy willies, and then took a step toward the door again.
There was a bomb in the Sanctum!
Peter whirled back and shoved his back to the wall. Peter knew that he could probably sneak past the trigger, whatever it was, but he knew Stephen would have thought of that. And this was one very powerful explosive. This was nuts. Had Stephen actually rigged the Sanctum to blow? Was he that desperate to keep everyone out of the way? He knew that he couldn't take the risk. He couldn't be sure that he could get past it fast enough. He tried to think about how to properly approach this. How would the Shadow do it? Oh man, there was a bomb in the Sanctum.
He didn't notice the swirl of black that glided over his shaking form.
The Tropical Inn was a seedy place. Not so much a criminal hangout, but a place where gangs met and drank heavily. Stories were told and jukeboxes played out the same songs over and over. Smoke hung heavily in the air, and the bar was the center of the room.
The door burst open, and the bouncer from the entrance was thrown into the room, amidst a howl of wind, and a peal of sinister laughter.
The Shadow strode into the room powerfully, a force of nature that drank in the fear swelling from the townspeople.
"Where is Jeremy Swartz?" he roared.
Half the men in the room pushed themselves against the walls. The other half shook where they stood. A group of brave men inched around The Shadow toward the door.
The Shadow didn't even turn. "Stop," he ordered.
The men froze. When the Shadow said to stop, you stop.
The sinister man strode forward toward a table, and sat down, collecting a deck of cards from the man next to him. He seemed calm, but nobody was fooled. The Shadow was in the calm before the storm, a pile of gunpowder waiting for a spark, rage flowing freely from his form to the room.
The Shadow roved the room with his eyes, quickly assessing the people. He could tell from where they were standing what they did, which were the centers of information. People surrounded them loosely, chatting to them, and each other, the ones that people trusted with stories and asked for ideas and advice. He knew which of them were most likely to have the information he needed.
He pointed them out, one by one. "Sit down. Let's play a game." He started to deal out the cards.
Reluctantly, the appointed men inched forward and sat at the table.
"I want to know where to find Jeremy Swartz. He was a bartender here. Some very bad men took his daughter this afternoon. Since you travel in those circles, one of you must know something. You will tell me, or I will be the only one at this table that can stand in about five minutes. Any questions?"
One of the men seemed paler than the rest; he was the only one who had not touched the cards before him.
The Shadow read the signs. "You know what I'm talking about, don't you?" he taunted. Then he shrugged and turned back to the rest of the table. "Maybe one of you knows too. I doubt you'd take him off the hook though. So. Any questions?"
There was a beat of silence.
One man curled his fist around a pool cue, walking silently toward the dark clothed man from behind. He swung the cue, thinking that he could take the demon by surprise.
Without even turning back, The Shadow reached over his shoulder and caught the swinging stick, catching it, and curving it into his elbow, ripping it out of his attackers hand, and reversing the swing, smashing it into the man's face.
Only then did The Shadow stand. Committed to the fight by the defeat of their brother-in-arms, half a dozen other man, all armed with blades and makeshift weapons stood before him in a half circle.
The Shadow paced and crouched like a maddened tiger. "Well?" he asked the men.
"Scared?" he mocked.
A maniacal laugh. "You should be. So what are you waiting for?"
The combatants let loose a battle cry and leaped toward each other.
Victor pulled up to the alleyway in a cab. The driver didn't even bother to wait for him to close the door properly before driving away.
Victor hurried down the alley, where he found the door locked open, and looking into it nervously, Peter Parker. "Peter? What are you doing? Leaving the door open this long? Are you mad?"
"There's a bomb!" hissed Peter. "I can't see it, but I know it's there."
Victor raised an eyebrow. Stephen had rigged the Sanctum? He couldn't possibly be that desperate… "How do you know? Did you see it?"
Peter shook his head. "It's there. I just know it. I can tell."
"Spider-sense warning?" Victor asked, feeling his mouth curving into a smile.
"No," Peter said, suddenly confused. "But I know there's a bomb down there."
Victor burst out laughing.
"What is so funny?" hissed Peter.
"There's no bomb," Victor said with utter certainty.
"What?" Peter asked, looking back toward Victor…and suddenly getting lost in Victor's fierce gaze.
"There's. No. Bomb."
Suddenly, Peter felt his mind clear. There was no bomb. What made him think there was? He didn't see anything, his spider-sense hadn't warned him, so how…
And then it came to him. "That stubborn son of a…"
Victor laughed again. "He was still here when you arrived, wasn't he?"
Peter nodded, feeling foolish. "And when I tried to go in, he put the idea in my head, didn't he?"
Victor nodded. "He learned his lessons well. I've used that trick myself a few times. Don't worry. Stephen wouldn't rig the Sanctum because he's angry. Not a chance. Especially after he'd spent so much time and effort to rebuild it. Come on."
Peter and Victor entered the Sanctum.
Inside, everything looked normal, except for the papers left open on the desk. To their surprise, the papers were scorched with acid beyond recognition.
"He doesn't want us to know what he's doing," Victor observed. "He doesn't want us to follow him."
"And a very sizeable part of me doesn't want to," Peter murmured. "But we can't just let him do this. Not like this. A fight is one thing, but the way he is now…"
"I know. We have to get to them first, and do it the right way."
"So how do we do it? He has a good lead."
Victor reached over to the console and flipped some switches. "Burbank," he called in The Shadow's voice.
The go-between answered instantly to the voice, unable to see the face behind it. "Yes?"
"I need a dossier on a family named Swartz. A divorced couple with a girl."
"The father works at the Tropical Inn," Burbank commented helpfully. "Wasn't that the place you wanted info on earlier?"
Victor and Peter looked at each other. "Cancel inquiry. I have what I need," Victor ordered.
"Where is he?" bellowed The Shadow, stepping over the fallen body before him, toward the remaining men.
Victor's black limousine pulled up at the door to the Tropical Inn, and Victor and Peter hurriedly jumped out of it and rushed around to the back of the building.
Once out of sight, Peter did a quick look around, then pulled off his shirt, revealing the costume underneath. "Are you sure you want to do it this way?" he asked Victor, motioning the paper parcel under his arm.
The older man nodded. "It's been a while, but I remember how it's done." With that, Victor reached into his parcel and pulled out a slouch hat.
When they entered the bar, they were momentarily taken aback at the sheer carnage before them. There was not one piece of furniture left undamaged, or one man left standing. The lights were smashed and the jukebox was on its side, sparks flying across the room. The smell of alcohol lurked in the air, rising from the broken bottles. Blood was smeared against the walls, and the silence was chilling.
But in the corner, on a barstool at the only remaining section of the bar still standing, calmly having a snifter of cognac, was The Shadow.
The dark vigilante looked up, and saw his partner enter. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. Then gasped.
Spiderman could tell why. Behind him had entered Victor in his own Shadow garb. Spidey couldn't help looking back and forth towards each of them; they were practically replicas of each other.
"Pulled it out of mothballs, did you?" the younger Shadow asked.
"Feels a little snug," the older man returned. "It must have shrunk in storage." He gestured over the room. "Quite a little tantrum you threw here."
"They're lousy playmates. I'm waiting for someone to wake up." The Shadow pointed to the man unconscious at his feet. "He knows something."
"And how did you deduce this?"
"These guys play a lousy game of poker." He sipped his cognac. "Ugh. I hate cheap cognac. I remember my father once said that the only thing worse than tourist season was a bar with cheap cognac."
"Listen," Spiderman said, trying to get the conversation back on track. "We think you need to slow down here."
"So that you won't have to try and stop me?" The younger Shadow said viciously.
"O.K.," Spiderman said sheepishly. "Maybe I shouldn't have said that. Look, we're afraid that you're spinning out of control."
"Look, both of you. I appreciate your concern, but it's terribly misplaced. I'm fine. Just let me do my job."
"So do it," the older Shadow said. "But not like this. I think you're going to do something you'll regret."
"Why do neither of you understand that there is something very real at stake here? I am trying to save a young girl from these people!"
"But will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow?" Spiderman challenged.
"I don't care. I am not going to let this happen! Not again!"
"You are attempting to do the right thing. But you're doing it for the wrong reasons. This isn't about saving a life, it's about revenge."
"Get behind me, or get out of my crosshairs," The Shadow said bluntly. "You are not going to stop me from doing this."
"We don't want to stop you, but you're just too close to this one," the older Shadow interjected. "You can't stay objective. And we both know that going in this way will get you killed."
There was a darkness in The Shadow's glare that was deeply chilling. "You are NOT keeping me away from this one! You are NOT going to stop me from taking this one. This hunt is mine. MINE. Understand?"
"You're not in the right frame of mind," Spiderman snapped. "Your goal isn't to get Alicia back. It's to kill the kidnappers. And we won't let you do that."
Silence fell like a tarp over the room. Spiderman kicked himself mentally. Where were these challenges coming from? Was he insane?
The younger Shadow stood. Slowly. "Then let's see who gets to them first." With that, he leaped forward and threw a punch at Spiderman.
The arachnid leaned back and let the punch fly past him, put his hands on the floor, and turned a flip into a kick.
The Shadow flew back, and landed roughly. "I do not take betrayal lightly."
"I don't take murder lightly," Spiderman snapped back. "If I have to, I will strap you into a chair and take down these kidnappers myself."
"That is exactly what you will have to do," The Shadow snapped back, suddenly vanishing into nothingness. "And you stay out of this, Uncle."
Spiderman felt his spider-sense scream, and tilted his head to turn with a blow. He swung back instantly, and felt his fist brush a cloak.
Another spider-sense warning, and this time he flipped in time to avoid a kick to the stomach.
A third warning, and this time he caught the incoming fist, just in time to twist the invisible arm.
A sharp grunt of pain coming from nowhere, and Spiderman felt the mind-clouding drop, the arm in his hand becoming slowly visible.
But his opponent was no ordinary alleyway crook or schoolyard bully. The black-clad warrior snapped a fierce kick into Spiderman's abdomen.
Spiderman lost his grip, and the younger Shadow vanished again.
Without warning, various objects went flying toward Spiderman from around the room, and soon, the arachnid vigilante was using everything he had to dodge the missiles.
"Where is he?" Spiderman shouted to the elder man in a cloak and hat.
The older Shadow reached out to the room with his mind, pushing the hypnotic suggestion away from his own psyche, and felt the suggestion whispering from a fixed location. "There!" he shouted, pointing toward it.
Spiderman flew forward with a mammoth punch, and felt a sharp crack as it connected.
The Shadow became visible in midair, flying back against the far wall, and sliding painfully toward the floor. "You have quite a left hook," he commented. Still on the floor, he reached into his cloak and pulled out something that looked very much like a grenade. He threw it toward the center of the room.
With a sharp hiss, it rolled to a stop and a bright green gas spewed out, seeping into every corner.
Spiderman backed away, but it was hopeless; the gas was everywhere. He couldn't see more than half a foot in front to his face. He was debating what to do when a sudden blow to the back of the skull derailed his line of thought. A swift uppercut followed, and as Spiderman reeled back, he had a horrifying realization--his spider-sense hadn't warned him.
A swift karate chop hit him in the upper right arm, and he felt the limb go limp.
"There's no force on earth that can make you move that arm for the next three hours," taunted the sinister voice. "Why didn't you know it was coming?"
Horrified, Spiderman looked to the green mist itself.
"That's right," the voice answered his thoughts. "This mist deadens your danger sense." A wild peal of laughter. "It took me years. Years to synthesize, a fortune to create. Fortunately, I had both."
"Where is he?" Spiderman screamed to the elder Shadow.
"There!" came the answer. But Spiderman couldn't see him, let alone where he was pointing.
A crushing blow hit Spiderman's chin.
"I had to do it, partner." The disembodied voice continued ominously. "You see, no matter how much I hoped I wouldn't, I always knew that sooner or later I'd probably have to do something about you."
Spiderman backed into a corner of the room, as another punch connected with his side.
"Never let it be said that I'm unprepared," the faceless whisper said.
Spiderman lashed out blindly, swinging his left fist through the mist, leaping like he was on springs, weaving a web of punches and kicks, and hoping something would connect.
Something did. He felt something smash into his left fist, and felt the connecting target go limp as it hit the floor.
Spiderman leapt straight up to the ceiling, and looked down into the swirling fog. There was no way to look through it.
Glancing around the ceiling, he noticed a series of vents. Air-conditioning.
Dropping smoothly back into the fog near the wall, he felt along the edge of the room, until he found the controls. Putting his face close to the panel, he made out the buttons enough to turn up the ventilation speed.
A loud whoosh of air, and the mists began to thin.
Revealed was the land of destruction, and against the wall, a man in a slouch cloak and hat.
Wearily heading over to The Shadow, Spiderman suddenly realized something frightening. There was only one Shadow in the room.
The flattened Shadow fought his way into a sitting position. "He was right. You DO have a good left hook."
Spiderman slapped his forehead. He had decked the wrong Shadow.
"Where is he?" groaned the wounded man.
Spiderman spun around. "He's gone! So is the guy he said had information."
"Argh!" snarled the elder Shadow.
The man that The Shadow had taken an interest in woke up quite suddenly, but only darkness met his gaze.
"Where is Jeremy Swartz?" the dreaded voice demanded.
"Why should I tell you?" the man shouted back defiantly. "The people in question do not take loose lips lightly. What assurances do I have that you will be any better? How do I know I'm not damned if I do and damned if I don't?"
"I don't think you properly understand your bargaining position," the voice mocked. "Let me demonstrate."
The darkness in the man's vision cleared, and he realized that the sinister man had had his hand over his eyes. A moment later however, he would have found the darkness preferable.
The man screamed as he looked directly down into the traffic.
Traffic that was dozens of stories below.
Re-orienting himself, the man realized that he was hanging upside down over a busy street from the top of the building, by a rope.
And looking him eye to upside down eye was the Shadow.
The man screamed again as the Shadow drew a long knife, and put it to the edge of the rope. "Where is Jeremy Swartz?"
The man looked around wildly for anything that he could hold onto, something he could catch on the way down. But there was only one thing that would break his fall. The ground.
The Shadow cut one cord on the rope, and the man felt himself lurch downward. He screamed again.
"It took me thirty minutes to drag you up here using the stairwell," The Shadow said calmly. "It will take you thirty seconds or less to get back down."
"All right, I'll tell you!" the man screamed. "He's in with a kidnapping ring. I don't know which one! I don't know where they're based. He got in with them when he lost his job. He said he wanted his kid back. That's all I know."
The Shadow nodded and walked away.
"Help," the man called feebly a lonely moment later.
Two black-clad foes fought a battle in an empty warehouse. Neither man had a visible weapon, yet each fought the other with an arsenal no one else could ever hope to obtain…or duplicate.
Victor Cranston smacked his brother to the floor with yet another sudden psychic blow. "You're getting slow, Alex," he taunted.
"Just a little rusty," Alexander Cranston responded, giving his opponent a mental shove that made Victor take a step back.
"You know Marie would have your head if she knew we were still doing this." Another swirl of telepathy reached out for its rival.
"What Marie doesn't know won't hurt her." A reactive swirling wave responded to Victor's challenge. "Besides, she keeps herself in good enough shape trying to keep Stephen in line."
"I noticed. Willful little boy you've got there."
"He's a Cranston, that's for sure." Alexander pressed the offensive against his brother. "Not a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination, but stubborn as Hell. And assertive. We've been through three nannies because they couldn't deal with him always wanting his way."
"You know why that is, right?"
"Don't even start. Marie's already dreading what he'll be like when he awakens."
Victor kept up his defense and smiled slightly. "Maybe he'll be next in line to take over the family business."
That comment was guaranteed to get a rise out of Alexander, and he responded accordingly with an even stronger offensive assault. "Absolutely not. You want an heir, produce one yourself."
Victor smiled broader. "How are you going to keep him away from it, Alex? He's a Cranston. It's in his blood. And his mind."
"I stayed away from it."
Victor laughed The Shadow's mocking laugh. "You can tell yourself that all you like, but it doesn't make it true. You got the same training I did, and you wanted it just as badly."
"Not as badly as you did, though. And there's not enough room in this town for two Shadows."
"That sounds like a challenge." And with that, Victor swept the strongest suggestion he could generate around his brother's mind and pinned him to the floor.
Alexander let out one last burst of energy to knock his brother back. "Dammit, Victor!"
Victor looked up at the declaration, surprised that he'd once more been lost in a memory. He took a moment to reorient himself to his surroundings.
The Tropical Island Bar was still a mess. And everyone in there was still out cold. Everyone, that is, except an older man in a black slouch hat and cloak and a younger man in red-and-blue spandex.
Victor lowered the red scarf covering his face to massage his jaw.
"Dammit," Peter muttered again, pulling off his own spider mask and holding his right arm, rocking in pain.
"Let me see your arm," Victor offered, coming over to Peter.
Peter started to resist, but Victor took hold of his arm and examined it. "What now?" Peter snapped in frustration. "I can't believe he'd do that. He attacked me. He took advantage of everything he knows about me and used it against me."
"He was taught to do that," Victor reminded him.
"By you, right?"
"Then no offense, Victor, but I hate your teaching skills."
"So did he, occasionally." He looked Peter's arm over carefully. "I don't think he broke it, I think it's just bruised. He hit the nerve cluster; it's a pressure point that can be used for incapacitation. If he hit it right, the nerves are blocked until they can repair themselves. Can you move it?"
"Of course not. He was right. It'll take hours for my natural healing to kick in. If that gas he tossed didn't suppress that, too."
"The gas. You think the gas did this."
"No, the gas just suppressed my powers. His impressive strength did the rest." Peter shook his head. "Man, why do I always forget how strong he can be? I should know; I had all that stuff in my head for way too long…"
"You still do."
Peter could feel the swirling hypnotic energy running through his brain. He found himself looking into Victor's dark, piercing eyes.
Something rattled in the back of his head. Instinctively, he raised his right hand to grab the bottle that was flying through the air toward him.
And then he felt Victor's gaze fall away.
Peter's eyes widened. "Another hypnotic trick. Dammit!"
"Well, this time he had some help." Victor retrieved the small grenade and gave it a light sniff. "Anesthetic gas. Relaxes mind and body enough to lower resistance. When it hit you, the spider sense reaction times would have slowed down considerably, and that would give him time to react. Just to keep up the illusion of complete powerlessness instead of greatly delayed reactions, he was able to get inside your head and twist your fears around. The beauty of it is that the fears he played on are exactly the effect he wanted. Your first fear was of something that might cloud your senses, so that's what he used against you. And you always fear losing the use of your limbs, because they're part of what makes you such a powerful and elusive foe."
"My worst fears becoming manifest through hypnotic suggestion." Peter hurled the bottle against the wall. "I may yet kill him."
He never saw the blow coming. But he felt it as something unseen struck him like an oncoming truck and pinned him to the floor. "What the…?"
"Threaten him again," Victor said in The Shadow's voice, "and I may yet kill you."
Peter managed to clear his head enough to raise his right arm and shoot off a web shot to pin Victor to the wall. "Get out of my head! Whose side are you on, anyway?"
Victor groaned as he recovered from his head hitting the wall. "Now I remember why I retired." He struggled against the webbing for a moment. "You got solvent for this stuff?"
"It'll dissolve in an hour. Like that hypnotic suggestion."
Victor laughed The Shadow's laugh. "Oh, you'd like to believe that. Now get me out of this mess."
Peter came over and unwrapped the webbing from Victor. "I can see where he gets it from. You're both insane." He looked around at the carnage. "But he is dangerous."
"More dangerous than you know." Victor shook his head. "All adepts have one emotion they can naturally sense and manipulate without any training, and Stephen's is fear. He can sense it faster than you can climb walls, and he can manipulate it better than you can spin webs. He knows you're afraid of what he'll do, and he will manipulate and twist those fears around every time you try to take him on."
Peter looked offended. "I'm not afraid, I'm mad as Hell."
Victor laughed. "You're mad now. But you weren't then. He just fired a warning shot across your bow."
"More like a tactical nuke." Peter pulled Victor to his feet. "So what now?"
Victor dusted himself off. "I have no idea. I gave up trying to think along with him during this time of the year."
"Yeah, but in a perverse way, he's thinking logically. I watched him figure out what kind of vehicle they used to snatch the kid and some other details. There's got to be some logic to this. But what?"
Victor thought for a moment. "There have been a lot of child kidnappings recently. Maybe there might be some clues in the Classic?"
Peter looked intrigued. "Worth a shot."
"Ever think about children?"
Stephen looked across the cab seat at Diane Burke's question. "What brought that on?"
"Just a conversation starter." Diane checked her appearance in her compact mirror. "You seem awfully pre-occupied tonight. Rough day on the newspaper front?"
Stephen shrugged it off. "Long week."
"I know. Your expose on that kidnapping ring is the talk of the town. Every time I turn on the TV, someone's quoting your story. Seems to me you should be happy. You're making quite a name for yourself."
"Not that I'm interested in that." He sighed and put on his best life-goes-on expression. "Sorry. I'm being a dreadful companion. News stories with sad endings sometimes do that to me."
Diane scoffed. "I don't see what was so sad about it. I mean, they found the little girl, right? That's a happy ending."
"But her parents were killed."
"But she's safe, right? That's the most important thing."
"Not to her." Stephen turned to look out the window to cover any further reaction.
Too late. Diane had noticed. "What did happen to your parents, anyway?"
Stephen tried not to jump. Good grief, was he that transparent? He composed himself and put on a neutral expression. "Long story, best left for another time." He smiled. "You look lovely tonight."
Diane's mysterious smile told him that she knew he was hiding something. "One of these days, Stephen, I'm going to unlock all those hidden secrets inside you."
Stephen's smile was vaguely sinister. "Sounds like a challenge."
"And you love challenges." She looked out of her own window. "Oh, look. We're here."
The Shadow came out of his remembrance at Moe's remark and took a moment to get his bearings. Good grief, what had brought that one on? Didn't he have enough to concentrate on right now without remembering even more nonsensical stories from his past? Especially that witch Diane Burke…even if the last thought he'd heard from her was that she loved him…
Enough, The Shadow commanded himself. They'd arrived. Before him stood a maze of abandoned warehouses on the East River. They were havens for criminal activity because of their proximity to water, to the easy and difficult-to-track escape route the river provided. He'd tracked kidnappers here before. This was as good a place to start looking as any.
Moe looked nervous. The cold anger in the thoughts rippling through the cab gave him the shivers. "Should I wait?" he asked timidly.
"No." The Shadow checked the ammo clips in his weapons, then stashed extra clips in his pockets. "I'll send for you when I'm done." With that, he climbed out of the cab and swirled into darkness.
Very few things could make The Shadow's blood run cold. But the sight of blood on the floor of Alexander Cranston's condo was one of them.
The Shadow hurriedly searched the condo. "Alexander!" he called. "Marie! Stephen!"
No one answered him. And there was no sign of anyone in the apartment. He tried to think rationally. The lock hadn't been broken, so someone had opened the door to whoever was responsible for this. There weren't huge puddles of blood anywhere, just a small spot from what was probably a head wound…but whose head wound? The phone table in the entranceway had been overturned, though, and the collage family portrait in the hallway to the master bedroom had been knocked askew, so there had clearly been some sort of struggle…but over what? If only he knew who was responsible for this, where everyone was…
And then he spotted it.
A crumpled note, tossed aside. The Shadow smoothed out the page and read it.
"The warehouse," the note read. "Now. And don't do anything stupid."
Don't do anything stupid? The Shadow tried to reason logically. The note was meant for Alexander, most likely, since it referred to a vaguely named warehouse that most likely meant something to Alexander. Stankowicz, or someone connected to him? Why? Did whoever was behind this kidnap Stephen? If that were the case, Marie would have stayed behind…maybe. But then again, Marie had been one Hell of an agent, and would fight an armored regiment to the death to protect her child…
"Oh, my God…they took them both…and Alexander's gone after them." The Shadow raced out the door, calling for Shrevnitz as he went.
Peter's radio buzzed. "Yes?" he called into it, half-hoping it was Stephen coming to his senses.
"It's me," Moe's voice returned.
Victor jolted out of his musings. God, he hated getting lost in memories. He'd wasted valuable time that he was supposed to be spending checking through news stories on recent kidnappings. But what the Hell was Shrevnitz doing radioing here? "Shrevnitz?" he whispered to Peter.
Even Peter was confused. "Moe? What's up?"
"I don't know. I could swear I heard Victor calling for me. Did he?"
Victor rubbed his eyes. "Not exactly. Tell him it was a false alarm."
Peter got it. "He was just thinking a little loudly, that's all," he told the radio. Then he looked thoughtful. "Where are you?"
"Making the block. I didn't see you guys in the alley and didn't want to look conspicuous."
Victor gestured for the radio, then spoke into it. "Where's Stephen?"
"Tracking down the kidnappers, I guess. I dropped him off at a block of old warehouses on the East River."
Victor's eyes widened. "Moe, get back here right now. We'll be right up." He snapped off the radio and handed it back to Peter, then raced for the stairs.
Peter was right behind him. "What's up?"
"Get your things," Victor ordered. "I know where he's looking. And if they are there, we've got to find them first."
"Darts, I swear it's the truth!" Junior shouted.
The man lobbing darts in the run-down pub looked over at his loudmouthed friend. "Yeah, right. It's a goof. They're playing some game with somebody and you got caught in the middle."
"The Shadow playing mind games? Not during Hellmonth."
Darts leaned back and thought about it. "Well, the spider has been staying out of Hellmonth, but they're supposed to be partners now, so..."
"Darts! I'm telling you, The Shadow came in, cleaned house, and when I wake up, he and Spiderman are at each other's throats. They were fighting each other, Darts! Nobody else was awake. There was someone else in the room, too, but I couldn't see him."
"Because I was playing dead with my eyes barely open. There was no way I was moving when there were two masked maniacs tearing at each other. Do I look like I'm tired of the face I'm wearing?"
"I would be."
"Darts! Spiderman and The Shadow aren't working together. I don't know what the deal is, but the Shadow was even lobbing gas grenades at the Spider. That's when I ducked out. Something bad has gone down between them, and they hate each other now."
"You don't know that."
"Would you be trying to kill someone you liked?"
Darts regarded the other man silently for a moment, then pulled a cell phone out of his pocket. "It's me," he said after dialing. "You're not gonna believe this."
The Shadow stormed into the center of the warehouse room. It was empty, but The Shadow had an indescribable sense that he was not alone. It took him a while to figure out what it was, then he knew.
There were no signs of age.
Everything had been maintained. Everything. The machines were not rusted, there was no dust on the floor, there were no broken windows, there were no cobwebs. This place had been maintained. Everything was identical to the last time he had seen it. It was like he'd never left.
It was just like he remembered. The only difference was that in the center of the room, there was no scared little boy... there was a small chair.
And tied to it was a blindfolded little girl.
With a gasp, The Shadow jumped forward and started to cut the ropes tying her small wrists behind her.
"Mommy?" called the innocent voice, and The Shadow felt his heart break.
"No, Alicia," he whispered, "not yet. But we're going home."
"Home?" she said hopefully as The Shadow pulled her blindfold away. She looked up at him with puffy red eyes. "Why are you wearing a mask?"
"That's a good question. Let's just say that I have a cold, and I need to keep warm."
"Then you should be at home in bed," the little girl scolded.
The Shadow couldn't help but grin. "So should you. Are you O.K.?"
The girl stood up and stretched. "The bad men said that I had to be kept alive for a while, until a shadow came to get me. Is that you?"
The Shadow started. "Until The Shadow came to get you?"
"Yep. Then I was ex...expen..."
"That's it. What did he mean?"
The Shadow suddenly felt chilled. "Come on. Let's go home to Mommy," he whispered to the child.
"Mommy," cheered Alicia cheerfully. She took The Shadow's gloved hand, and the two walked side-by-side toward the exit, she on wobbly legs, he staring around the room for any detail.
A kidnapping, with the victim brought here as bait for The Shadow. It was happening again.
Just like he remembered.
"Mommy?" Stephen whimpered.
His mother patted his arm reassuringly. "It's O.K., baby. We'll be O.K."
Stephen looked in fear back and forth between the huge man with the gun who had not stopped looking at him, to the thinner man with the scar. He looked like a nice man, with slicked-back hair, hard jawline, and superbly-tailored suit, but Stephen knew that this was a bad man.
The man with the scar grinned down at him. "Scared, small fry?"
Marie's eyes flashed. "Leave him alone."
The man with the scar grinned. "Aw-w-w-w. Motherhood. So sweet."
Just then, the door to the warehouse burst open. And Alexander Cranston was running through it, venom in his eyes.
"Daddy!" Stephen called out, trying to break free from his mother's grasp.
Alexander started to rush over to his family, but the guns turned on him seemed to stop him in his tracks. He calmed himself down and strode over to the man with the scar. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Ah, Alex," the man with the scar smiled. "So nice of you to join us. You probably want to know why you're all here tonight. Well, I'll tell you. You're bait."
Alexander feigned ignorance. "For who...boss?"
Marie shot her husband an outraged look.
That brought out a chuckle from the man with the scar. "No, you don't get to call me boss now, Alex. Not today. Not ever again." He turned to face his formerly trusted man. "You think I didn't notice? You think I wasn't prepared for traitors?"
Alexander sucked in a breath. Marie was still glaring at her husband.
The man with the scar smiled. "Your lovely wife doesn't know?" He turned to Marie and smiled an oily smile. "Ma'am, my name is Otto Stankowicz. And after tonight, courtesy of those two sharpshooters in the rafters, I will forever be known as The Man Who Killed The Shadow." He turned back to Alex. "And you, Alexander Cranston, are going to call him here for me."
Alexander was writhing uncomfortably under his wife's glare, but still had enough bravado to resist. "Never."
Otto did not seem to worry. "No matter. One does not get a reputation like The Shadow's without some skill, and we even left directions for him." He gave Marie an admiring look. "You know, I heard you stood up to my men back there. You've got some impressive nerve. If ever you felt like...working for me, I'm sure I could get by with two as bait instead of three. What do you say?"
Marie spat at him and caught him in the eye.
Otto wiped it away with the calm of a man who held all the cards. "A pity." He pulled out an antique watch and smiled. "Your friend should be arriving soon. Just enough time for a drink. Care to join me?"
"Too bad." The man walked away.
"You lied to me! You told me that we were past this!" hissed Marie.
"This is maybe not the best time," suggested Alexander.
Marie fought down her temper. "When we get home, you and I are going to have a long chat about honesty in marriage."
Stephen felt lost. "What's happening?"
"Sh-h-h," soothed his mother. "Nothing's wrong. Mommy and Daddy are having a discussion."
Stephen knew what that meant. It was a nice word for "fight", as Uncle Victor had once told him.
"Look on the bright side," whispered Alex a moment later. "This is all the proof that The Shadow would need against Stankowicz. Victor and I have been waiting for this for a long time."
Marie just glared at her husband. "Oh, I'll bet you have."
"Oh, how I've been waiting for this," a victorious voice enthused from overhead.
The Shadow looked up sharply, finally coming out of the painful flashback. He almost didn't hear it at first. Because he suddenly realized that he was standing on the same spot he cowered in twenty years earlier. The exact same place.
Clawing his way out of his own emotions, he berated himself for losing focus. For letting himself get distracted now of all times.
"Twenty years," the voice continued. "Twenty long years of imagining how it would feel, all of this."
The Shadow could not see the man's face. He quickly began searching the room with projective sight, trying to hold together his emotions and force his mind to work logically. "Why?" he asked abruptly, gently pulling the girl behind him.
"Now, the all-knowing Shadow should have figured that out by now."
The Shadow finally located the voice of his unseen assailant. He was standing in the rafters, on one of the walkways hanging off the ceiling for maintenance.
"Her father wasn't a conspirator, was he? He was a client!" The Shadow declared.
"He was...useful. Useful in getting you here."
"This wasn't about him or the girl, though. This was about me."
"Correct. This was about you and me, and a score waiting to be settled for twenty years now. The petty squabbles over a child are of no use to me. But it got you here. And if you survive, it will be no doubt easy for you to find him."
"But why? Why all of this? What is the motive? Others have tried to kill me before. But why this way? The similarities can't be coincidence."
The concealed man laughed. He turned on the rest of the lights in the warehouse by remote.
His face was revealed. He had green eyes, a strong jaw, an expensive suit. Except for a scar, he was a mirror image of Stephen's nightmare, dead for twenty years. In a flash The Shadow understood. "You!"
"Me." The man sounded satisfied. "You think that Cranston was the only one present that night with family, Shadow? You think he was the only one there with a wife and kid? You think that only one boy was told that night that his father would not be coming home? Twenty long years, Shadow. Twenty years I have been waiting for this, that night I swore revenge, and tonight I will get it."
"Then let the child go. This is between us."
"That would be quite impossible. The girl has seen my face, and I can't just let her go now. She knows my secret." His voice became as evil and menacing as his eyes. "As I know yours. Now I know why The Shadow killed my father. You see, I inherited all his journals. He kept quite extensive records. So I know that The Shadow and Alexander Cranston were on a first name basis. As you appear to not have aged a day, I am now absolutely certain who you really are. I have spent years recording details of The Shadow and his actions, but that night, he was particularly bloodthirsty. As you have been this month for years now. Nobody else would realize, but I have my father's notes, and I know what happened that night, and I know the kind of rage you're feeling to do this. It's the same rage that led me here. Emotions never lie, Cranston."
With a blur of motion, The Shadow drew his automatic and started shooting.
The hidden figure moved behind a metal brace, and the bullet pinged uselessly off the metal.
The Shadow pulled Alicia carefully toward the door. "You have to go outside." he told her. "There's going to be a taxi there soon. I want you to get into the taxi, all right?"
"'kay." the girl said, still covering her ears from the explosive noises.
The girl ran out, and The Shadow began climbing a ladder to the walkways. Closer to his prey.
Peter and Victor pulled up in the cab just as Peter was pulling on his mask.
"Look!" shouted Victor.
Spiderman looked, and saw a familiar face come toward the cab, waving wildly.
"It's Alicia!" Spiderman shouted. "Which means that there's only one thing left to do in there."
"Go!" Victor urged. "I'll take care of the little girl."
The Shadow ran down the gantry, shooting again, then ducked behind a supporting beam as a hail of gunfire from a tommy gun burst toward him.
Firing back blindly, The Shadow started moving again, climbing toward a higher gantry, looking for higher ground.
His sharp eyes caught motion. His target hadn't seen him move up. He was wearing a pair of night vision goggles, and holding a tommy gun in each hand.
The Shadow moved cautiously, trying to stay silent, looking for a firing angle. Suddenly, from the other side of the roof, there came a sound.
Both Stankowicz and The Shadow looked toward the noise.
Someone was coming in the window.
And crawling along the wall.
Stankowicz lifted his gun and started shooting toward the arachnid intruder.
Spiderman leapt away just in time.
The Shadow took the opportunity to jump over the edge of the gantry and land practically on top of his enemy.
With a swift chop to one hand, a tommy gun fell.
The Shadow grabbed the remaining gun barrel, and hammered his opponent in the jaw.
His enemy refused to release his stubborn grip.
The Shadow pulled the gun barrel sharply and stepped into the turn, forcing the butt of the gun back into the man's stomach.
Stankowicz fell, gasping and retching in pain.
The Shadow drew his gun and pointed it at the fallen man.
Before it was about justice, now it was about survival too. A sworn enemy had solved the secret of The Shadow's identity. On top of that, he deserved it. Criminal. Security. Safety. Sub-human. Animal. Deserves it.
The Shadow squeezed the trigger.
At the last minute, a burst of webbing whipped the gun out of The Shadow's hand.
"No!" howled The Shadow, then lunged for Stankowicz as he started to crawl away.
Spiderman dropped onto the gantry, landed between them both, and grabbed The Shadow's outstretched hand.
"No!" shouted The Shadow. "I have to..."
Spiderman shoved The Shadow back against the gantry. "He's beaten!" shouted the arachnid-powered vigilante. "Anything more is murder."
"Get out of my way!" The Shadow shoved Spiderman back and ran toward the ladder that Stankowicz was climbing down.
Another sudden burst of webbing wrapped around The Shadow's feet, tripping him like a bola as Stankowicz made it to the ground and ran for the door. Spiderman landed a few feet from him and turned to go after him.
The Shadow drew his remaining gun and crawled to the edge of the gantry, aiming down.
Spiderman looked up as his spider-sense warned him, and fired a ball of webbing that stuck The Shadow's hand to the gantry, gun and all.
"NO!" screamed The Shadow again. "Stop him!"
Spiderman remained staring at The Shadow. "Look at yourself! You're obsessed!"
"He knows who I am!" roared The Shadow.
Spiderman's shock was evident through his mask. He turned and fired an impact web at Stankowicz, but the man was already out the door and locking it behind him.
Spiderman heard an engine start up and sprang for the door. He threw his weight against it, but it would not budge. "He's barricaded it!" Spiderman shouted, realizing it was probably blocked by the vehicle whose engine he'd heard, the vehicle now backed up against the door. No way to push it open in time. Firing a web line, Spiderman swung toward the broken window he had entered at the far side of the warehouse.
"Too long," whispered The Shadow. "Too late."
Alexander fixed a glare on their remaining guard, who was pacing away from them, and then back toward them again, bored into pacing. "Marie," Alex whispered, "if he comes in now, those snipers are going to be a problem. They have infra-red sights. He'll probably see them, but too late. They're waiting for him. Invisibility and all."
"I see that," Marie nodded. "What do we do?"
Alexander gave his wife a sad smile and a light kiss on the top of her head. "Keep Stephen safe."
Marie nodded and turned Stephen to face her. "Are you O.K., baby?"
Stephen nodded and looked over to his father…
…just in time to see him simply vanish!
He began to gasp, when his mother covered his mouth. "Stay still," her voice said, wrapping itself around his brain like a warm blanket.
The guard turned to pace back toward his prisoners again…and jumped at the fact that there were now only two of them huddled in the center of the room. "ESCAPE!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.
"What?" Stankowicz came running out of his office. "Where's Alexander?" he demanded. "Find him!" He pulled a gun and pointed it at the two remaining prisoners. "All of you! Get after him!"
The guard ran off to try and find Alexander, with the last two remaining thugs in tow.
Stankowicz glared at Marie. "If your husband goes to warn his friend, I will take you down myself."
"You won't live long enough," laughed Marie cruelly.
"If I don't, then neither will he," Otto shot back, pointing his gun at Stephen.
But the young boy didn't notice. He was looking up at the walkways. One of the snipers had just reeled and fallen against the railing as if he had been hit. He smiled. "Daddy!"
Marie looked sharply at Stephen. "Sh-h!" she ordered.
Stankowicz looked sharply at Stephen, then turned to follow his point of view. He saw the man reel again, but while it appeared he had been punched, there was nothing there!
His face twisted in surprise, he shot a disbelieving look at Marie and Stephen, then back to the gantry. "No way..."
The first sniper fell over the railing after another unseen blow to his jaw.
Stankowicz looked up and shouted at the other sniper. "There! He's THERE!"
The second sniper spun, looked through his viewfinder, and started shooting.
There was a sharp crack of rifle fire, a shout of pain, and suddenly, Stephen saw his father appear, saw him go limp, saw him fall.
"NO-O-O-O-O!" screamed Marie, and the enraged woman jumped up, grabbed the gun from Otto's hand, and drove an elbow into his face.
The second sniper saw her move, began to turn his gun...
Too slow to stop the furious force of nature that Marie had become.
The sniper reeled from the bullet blow and fell, his gun falling to the floor below. Marie spun again and fired, taking down the onrushing guards.
One spun as the bullet tore into his shoulder, the others dove for cover, just as the lights went dark and an anguished cry filled the darkness.
Another blast of gunfire, and Marie grunted as the high-powered bullets hit her in the midsection.
Feeling like he was in a bad dream, Stephen spun, and saw Stankowicz, holding the fallen gun from the sniper, as he turned to draw a bead on something else.
Stephen felt, rather than saw, a blur of motion go past him, flying straight for Stankowicz.
But all Stephen could do was crawl over toward his mother's limp form.
There was a sickening snap. Stephen barely heard it.
Then there was nothing but silence.
An eternity later, Stephen looked up into the burning eyes of a stranger.
A stranger wearing a dark cloak and hat.
A stranger who was crying over them both.
"Oh, no. Marie. Alex. No. This is all my fault," the menacing stranger whispered.
Stephen looked around and saw the terrible destruction.
"My fault." whispered The Shadow.
Spiderman jumped back in the window. "Lost him. He's gone."
The Shadow let out a bellow of frustration that shattered every window in the building.
The carnage was incredible. Two snipers, one with bullet holes in his chest and another with a severe head wound from a 20-foot fall, dead. Three bodyguards, riddled with bullets, dead. Otto Stankowicz, his neck snapped at a grotesque angle, dead.
Alexander Cranston, a gaping wound in his side so immense that it looked as if he'd been shot in half, dead.
Marie Cranston, blood pouring out of her through an exit wound in her back that was the size of a softball, dead.
And Stephen Cranston…five-year-old Stephen Cranston, draped over his mother's body, covered in his mother's blood…
…alive. And crying. And terrified.
The Shadow reached for his nephew.
Stephen drew back. "No," he said in a frightened voice, trying to crawl away. "Leave me alone…"
"It's all right, Stephen," The Shadow said calmly. "You're safe now."
"Leave me alone!" Stephen shouted, throwing a handful of bloody shell casings toward the dark stranger reaching for him. He scrambled to his feet and tried to run.
The Shadow scooped him up from behind.
Stephen kicked and struggled. "No! Let me go! Let me go…"
The Shadow turned the child to face him and stared directly into his terrified blue-green eyes. "Sleep," he ordered.
Stephen's eyes glazed over, and he slowly went limp in The Shadow's arms.
The Shadow looked around at the carnage once more, then strode out of the warehouse, his precious parcel cradled to his chest.
Shrevnitz looked aghast at him as they climbed into the taxi. "Boss…Alex and Marie?"
The Shadow looked at his cab driver, beaten expression on his face. "Home, Shrevnitz."
"Yes, sir." The cab pulled away from the curb, horror still etched on Moe's face.
The Shadow held Stephen's sleeping form tightly the entire way home.
"Are we going home soon?"
Victor looked over at the little girl in his lap. "Soon," he reassured. "I'll bet you're really sleepy."
Alicia shook her head. "No, I'm not."
Victor stroked her back gently. "Oh, I think you are."
Alicia rubbed her eyes. "A little."
"I thought so. Close your eyes. You'll be back with your mama before you know it."
"'kay." She closed her eyes and snuggled against Victor's chest.
At that moment, every window in the warehouse shattered outward.
Moe jumped. "What the Hell was that--some kind of explosion?"
Victor felt the shockwaves from the psychic blast rip through his brain like a harsh winter wind. "You could say that."
Moments later, both Spiderman and The Shadow emerged from the warehouse.
"They're together," Moe observed.
"But neither of them looks pleased about it," Victor noted, getting out to move to the front seat and make room for the returning warriors.
Both younger men climbed into the cab. "Is she all right?" The Shadow asked.
"Yes," Victor responded. "She's also asleep. And can't hear us."
"Good." The Shadow fixed an angry gaze on his uncle. "I told you to leave me alone! This was my fight! I had everything under control before you interfered!"
Victor did not want to hear it. "You were no more in control in there then you are in here," he warned in an equally menacing voice. "You were ready to commit wholesale murder. We had no choice…"
"Victor, he's right," Spiderman interjected. "We screwed up. Big time. The guy got away."
Victor turned to him. "What?"
"He knows who I am!" The Shadow snapped.
Victor looked horrified. "You didn't…"
"Of course not!" The Shadow retorted. "He already knew. He'd set the whole thing up. She really was bait. For me. Just like his father did twenty years ago."
Now Victor understood. "Karol Stankowicz."
"Wait a minute," Spiderman interjected. "You knew all this?"
Victor took a deep breath to steady himself. "Not exactly. I knew who Karol Stankowicz was…or, rather, is. He's Otto Stankowicz's son--eight years old the night his father killed my brother and his wife. I'd heard rumors that he'd gotten into the underworld, but nothing more than that. He set this up?"
The Shadow laughed bitterly. "Oh, yes. He's been waiting twenty years for the right moment to strike back. A moment when The Shadow would be distracted by no other crimes. A moment when the right crime would bring out old memories of destruction and vengeance. And that's when he struck." He looked venomously at Spiderman. "And you let him get away."
"I am so sorry," Spiderman said, genuinely contrite.
"Well, you should be!"
Now Spiderman was angry. "How was I supposed to know? You haven't exactly been a communications major lately, you know."
"I think I communicated enough with you to tell you to stay the Hell out of my way!"
"Yeah, well, I didn't feel like listening to that nonsense! You were out of control. You needed help. If you'd just told us what was going on…"
"He doesn't have to!" Moe suddenly shouted angrily.
All three men turned to face the cab driver.
Moe looked furious, casting angry glares at both Victor and Spiderman. "I cannot believe I'm having to explain this to you two, of all people! You know better! Agent rule number one is that you NEVER disobey an order from The Shadow! NEVER! You do what he tells you to do, when he tells you to do it, and you do it without question, OR PEOPLE GET HURT! I don't care if it sounds completely insane, I don't care if it looks like he's acting insane, it doesn't matter! If he says jump, you're not even supposed to ask how high! You just jump! What the Hell has gotten into the two of you?"
Victor fixed an angry stare on Moe.
"Don't even start," Shrevnitz snapped at the older Cranston. "You retired. You are NOT the boss any more." He gestured toward The Shadow. "HE is. That means you do what HE tells you, not the other way around. Get that through your head right now or get the Hell out of my cab." He turned to Spiderman. "That goes double for you, bug-boy. You even think about mouthing off and I'll throw you out of here myself." Then he looked to The Shadow. "Where to, boss?"
The Shadow gave it some thought. "Elsie Swartz's place--fast as you can."
Shrevnitz pulled away from the warehouse.
Spiderman looked over to The Shadow. "Not that I'm questioning you or anything…but shouldn't we be going after this Stankowicz guy instead?"
Suddenly, Victor was thinking in line with his nephew. "Because he knows you'll want to get the girl home to her mother as soon as possible."
"Exactly. And unless I've missed my guess, Jeremy Swartz will be wondering why his daughter hasn't been delivered and be going over to his ex-wife's to find out what's going on."
"And Stankowicz will be going there to get rid of the only evidence to connect him to this crime..."
"…and wait for me." The Shadow replenished the clips in his weapons. "But he won't have long to wait."
The doorknob attached to Elsie Swartz's front door rattled.
The noise startled Elsie. What in the world…?
Then someone started pounding on the door. "Open up, Elsie!"
Elsie's blood ran cold. Her ex-husband. The man who'd engineered the abduction of her daughter. She started to shake with fear…then realized her fury at his actions was stronger than her fear. She took a deep breath and opened the door. "What do you want?" she spat.
Jeremy Swartz pushed past her. "Outta my way," he snarled, coming into the house.
Elsie hurriedly grabbed an umbrella from the hall closet and brandished it like a sword. "Oh, no, you don't," she warned. "Don't you dare come barging in here like you still own this place. Not after today. Not after what you've done."
"Shut up," Jeremy barked, looking around the living room. "Where's Alicia?"
Elsie scoffed. "Oh, yeah, like you don't know."
"Cut the crap. Where've you stashed her?" He started wandering through the house.
Elsie jabbed at him with the umbrella. "I mean it. Don't go any further."
Jeremy grabbed the umbrella and threw it aside. "Please." He drew a revolver from his jacket. "I want my daughter now."
Elsie was taken aback by the gun, then took a deep breath and gathered her courage again. "Seems to me you already know, seeing as you snatched her out of the yard a few hours ago!"
Jeremy looked confused. "They already got her?"
"Yes, we did."
Jeremy and Elsie both whirled to see Karol Stankowicz standing in the doorway.
Stankowicz smirked. "But I don't have her right now. Because somebody called The Shadow…just like I expected them to." He closed the door to the house and drew his gun. "But let's just say things didn't quite go as planned."
"Where is my daughter?" Elsie hissed.
"That's a good question," Stankowicz replied. "I fully expected she'd be back here by now. That is what you wanted, right, Elsie? Otherwise, why would you call for help?" He circled around the unhappy couple. "So, Elsie, how did you meet The Shadow? Some dark alley, perhaps?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Elsie snapped back, a bit too quickly.
"Of course you don't." He shook his head. "Seems to be a common trait among Shadow agents. Kind of a shadow network, so to speak. It's taken me a long time to find out how to get to The Shadow. You agents are really closed-mouthed folks. Hard to find a way in." He turned to Jeremy. "Did you know she was a Shadow agent when you called me? If you did, congratulations on your ingenuity. If you didn't, it was one Hell of a convenient coincidence."
"What the Hell are you babbling about?" Jeremy said in frustration. "You were supposed to get my kid and bring her to me, and now you say that not only do you NOT have her, but The Shadow does? Are you insane?"
"No. I know exactly what I'm doing." He cocked his gun. "I'm going to get rid of the only things that link me to this whole situation--the two of you. Haven't decided what I'm going to do with your kid yet. I'll figure that out later. Maybe while I'm…"
"…waiting for me?" Mocking laughter rang through the room.
Both Jeremy and Stankowicz gestured around the room with their guns. "Where is he?" Jeremy snapped.
"Ask her," Stankowicz retorted. He reached for Elsie.
An unseen hand pulled her into the kitchen and away from the danger.
Stankowicz aimed his gun toward the kitchen.
Impact webbing smacked against the pistol and ripped it from his hand. "Surprise!" Spiderman called out. "You thought I was on your side, right, Stinky? Boy, are you dumb."
Stankowicz looked up and saw Spiderman, perched high on the wall on the stairwell. "How did you get in here?"
"Found her spare key. A little shadow told me where it was."
The Shadow swirled into visibility in front of his partner. "Hello, Stankowicz. Good to see you again." He turned to Jeremy. "Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy. I've been looking all over for you. Did you realize when you got involved in this whole thing what was really going on?"
Jeremy looked suspicious. "Whadd'ya mean?"
"You didn't know?" The Shadow laughed. "Your new friend Stankowicz over here isn't so friendly after all. He was using you. And your daughter."
"What?" Jeremy looked over at Stankowicz.
"Don't listen to him," Stankowicz said. "He's psychotic…insane. It's Hellmonth."
"It may be Hellmonth, but I can assure you I am quite sane." He looked Jeremy in the eye. "He used you. He used your child. He used her as bait. And he used you as the fall guy."
Jeremy's expression was blank.
Spiderman recognized the blankness in Jeremy's expression…an expression becoming engulfed in dark and hypnotic shadows. "Oh, my God…," he whispered.
Stankowicz was nervous. He knew what The Shadow could do. "Don't listen to him," he ordered.
"Oh, he's listening," The Shadow assured, a calm confidence in his voice. "He's listening quite well. He's learning for the first time that you had no intention of delivering his daughter to him. She was bait to attract me. After that, she was expendable. You even told her that. Can you believe it, Jeremy? And then, if by some miracle I survived his trap, he was going to pin the entire thing on you and let you take the fall while he disappeared." A sinister chuckle. "He used you, Jeremy. He took you for a fool. He took that outlandish finders fee you had to pay him to snatch your child for you. And he took your daughter to be used and thrown away like so much refuse. Your daughter. Your precious, beautiful Alicia."
"My precious, beautiful Alicia," Jeremy echoed, his expression turning from blank to enraged as he turned to face Stankowicz. "You son of a bitch…"
"No!" Stankowicz shouted, lunging to grab Jeremy's gun.
Jeremy fired point-blank into Stankowicz's stomach.
Stankowicz toppled to the floor. He tried to say something, but all that came out was a gurgling death rasp. Then, he collapsed completely.
Jeremy suddenly realized what he'd done. He turned to The Shadow…
…and stepped right into a right cross that knocked him to the floor.
A blast of impact webbing pinned him there to stay.
The Shadow was suddenly on top of him, grabbing his head in his hands, holding it firmly as if he were about to tear it off.
"Don't do it," Spiderman urged, leaping over to his partner.
The Shadow stared long and hard at Jeremy Swartz. It would be so easy to do. A quick twist, and it would all be over. The one who started this mess would be dead. A nice, neat, tidy ending…
…except that it would leave a precious, beautiful little girl without a father.
The Shadow locked gazes with Jeremy. "You will tell the police all about how you and Karol Stankowicz plotted to abduct your daughter and escape the state with her," he hissed. "You will tell them that you shot Stankowicz dead when you realized he was trying to cheat you. And you will forget all about me." With that, he shoved the man's head away.
It banged against the floor, and Jeremy passed out.
For a long moment, no one dared move in the room.
"Where's Alicia?" Elsie finally cried.
"Up here, Mommy," came a voice from upstairs.
Elsie looked up and saw her daughter coming down the stairs. She raced over and grabbed her in her arms, sobbing with all her might. "Oh, baby…"
"Mommy," Alicia cried, holding her tightly. "Mommy, I was so scared…"
"I know, baby. I know. But it's all over now." She turned toward the living room to thank her child's rescuers…
…but no one was there. Not even a shadow.
"Who are you looking for, Mommy?" Alicia asked.
The sound of police sirens approaching brought Elsie out of her confusion immediately. "Nothing, baby. Nothing at all."
The bed felt strange. The linens smelled odd. The room was the wrong color--some kind of cranberry and rose room, not the midnight sky blue with silver stars and planets in his own room. Stephen Cranston had no idea where he was.
"You're awake," a familiar voice said.
Stephen looked over to see his uncle, Victor Cranston, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Uncle Victor?" he asked. "Wh-where am I? How did I get here?"
Victor looked at him oddly. It was the same look his father sometimes gave him when he'd ask questions about things that he got the feeling he wasn't supposed to have noticed. "You don't remember?"
"No." But he did remember what had happened earlier. Or did he? Had it all been a dream…a horrible nightmare? "Where's Mommy? Where's Daddy?"
Victor looked away.
Oh, God, it wasn't a dream. It had really happened. "They're dead, aren't they?"
Victor nodded. "I'm so sorry, Stephen."
Oh, God, it was true. They really were dead. And the last thing he remembered clearly was… "That man…that man in black…"
Victor was giving him that look again. "A policeman?"
"No. He wasn't a policeman. He looked like…" Even thinking it sounded crazy. "…a shadow."
"Really?" Victor was looking even more intently at him.
Stephen nodded. "He told me it was all right…that I was safe." He looked up at his uncle, incredible sadness in his blue-green eyes. "But it's not all right. Mommy and Daddy are…are…"
Victor's intense gaze faded into a reflection of the boy's own sad one. He gently took Stephen into his arms. "I am so sorry, Stephen. Oh, God, I'm sorry."
Stephen began to cry and held onto Victor with all his might.
Victor held him close. "You're safe now, Stephen. It's all right. It's over." His voice cracked, and Stephen felt a tear roll down his uncle's cheek. "It's over."
"It's over," Stephen whispered into the cold November night air as he stood on his balcony, looking out over the city.
"Is it really?"
Stephen looked up just in time to see Peter leap across and catch a perfectly balanced landing on the balcony railing. "For now," Stephen finished, then gave him a slightly annoyed glare. "Don't you ever knock?"
"Only as often as you do." He hopped off the railing. "Cold out tonight."
"I know." He looked out over the city again. "It was cold that night, too."
"Then maybe we ought to get inside where it's warm," Peter suggested.
Stephen gestured with his eyes into his still-dark apartment.
The two men made their way inside to Stephen's bedroom--a room that was the size of some small apartments in Manhattan. "Want a drink?" Stephen offered, heading over to the mini-bar.
"No, thanks." Peter took a seat on the wall and reached for the light switch.
"Don't turn that on," Stephen interrupted. "I've got a headache."
"O.K." Peter reclined against the wall in the darkness and looked over at his fatigued friend. "You look a little calmer than you did yesterday."
"Looks can be deceiving." Stephen poured himself a cognac, then sat down on his bed and leaned back against the headboard. "It's more exhaustion than calm. Even I burn out after a while."
"I was afraid you were going to burn the whole city out before you burned yourself out. This whole month's been like one long night of the psycho-Shadow."
"I know." Stephen swirled his snifter and took a sip.
Peter wasn't sure where to go from here. "You want to talk about it?"
"Not particularly." Another swirl, another sip.
"Too bad. Because I'm still pissed off that you pulled that anesthetic gas stunt at the bar. And I'm still pissed off that you're still keeping to yourself even after I have gone out of my way to reassure you that I am your partner, your agent, your friend. Dammit, Stephen, talk to me. Tell me the truth. What the Hell is going on?"
Stephen glared at him. "If I wasn't so tired, I'd knock your arrogant ass off that wall."
"At least then, you'd actually be interacting with me instead of treating me like just so much hired muscle. Come on, Stephen. Talk to me. What happened to make this Hellmonth so damned intense?"
Stephen swirled his cognac, then threw back the remaining liquid in the glass in one shot. He let the burn pass through him, then sighed. "I got yet another reminder that, for all the material possessions and people around me in both of my disparate worlds, I am very much alone in life."
Peter nodded. "Twentieth anniversary of your parents' murder. That'd do it for me."
Stephen laughed The Shadow's laugh. "Oh, how I wish it were that simple."
Peter looked confused. "You mean it's not?"
"Oh, no. No, that would be way too easy. That I could probably deal with in a normal fashion." He looked thoughtful. "Or, as normal as Hellmonth gets. No, this one hit a little closer to home…to something I didn't even think I still cared about."
Closer than his parents? This was strange. "What happened, Stephen?"
Stephen got up to pour himself another drink. "I've told you before that adepts don't tend to be long-lived, right? That the balance between their physical and mental energies is really precarious sometimes?" He poured slightly more cognac than normal into his snifter and took a swig of it without swirling it first. "Last week, I got a reminder of just how precarious that balance can be…and how little it takes to destroy it completely."
Peter tried to think of anyone other than Victor in Stephen's life who was an adept, and was coming up almost blank. The Tibetan monk who'd saved the first Shadow's life over seventy years earlier was the only name coming to mind. "Did something happen to The Tulku?" he guessed.
"No." Another sip as he sat back down on the bed. "But last week, I heard from him for the first time in months...the first time since we sent Diane Burke up there."
Peter's eyes widened. Stephen's ex-girlfriend. He'd almost forgotten. She'd been on the verge of a projective awakening when they'd rescued her from the clutches of Kuba Khan, after her psychic walls had been tampered with by the Mongol demon, who'd stirred and stimulated her mental energies to near overflow levels. They'd sent her to The Tulku's temple in upstate New York to experience her awakening in peace a couple of months ago, and Peter had just assumed that was the end of the story. "She didn't survive her awakening," he realized.
"Oh, she survived it," Stephen clarified. "But her psychic walls were so damaged by Khan's manipulation that they never did properly rebuild themselves afterwards. She had a psychic growth spurt…" He took a moment to get hold of himself. "Her mental walls couldn't take the sudden build-up of energy. She had a massive stroke. The Tulku tried to save her, but her brain was too damaged…" He looked away. "Dammit, the last thing she ever said to me was that she loved me. And I never got the chance to ask her if she really meant it…" He clenched and unclenched his fist. "For all this power I have inside my head, I've been pretty damned useless to the people who loved me when they needed my help the most. God, I hate this. I hate this whole thing." He finished his drink, then hurled the glass toward the wall.
Peter flew like a bullet across the room to snare the crystal snifter before it smashed into the wall, then pounced onto the wall next to Stephen. "Don't do this," he warned. "Don't do this to yourself. Because I know what this is like. God only knows I've blamed myself for my uncle's death enough times in my life. But at least I know my blame is properly placed--I WAS responsible. For God's sake, Stephen, you were five years old! You couldn't possibly have saved your parents that night. And you were not the person who destroyed Diane's psychic walls--that was Khan! You could not have stopped her death, any more than you could have stopped your parents' deaths."
"Khan manipulated her psyche because of me. He would not have done it if The Shadow was not after him."
"So? I don't subscribe to the butterfly flapping its wings and causing global destruction theory of life. You were not responsible for Khan behaving like a sadistic maniac. You were not responsible for some crook thinking he would make the big time by killing The Shadow twenty years ago. You were not responsible for little Alicia being in danger tonight. You were responsible for SAVING her. You are the master of darkness and sentinel of shadows, the one who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. You are The Shadow. And if you ever doubt that all that power in your head is actually doing anybody any good, count how many fire opals you've given out in just a few short years. If you can count that high without an accountant helping you."
Stephen looked away. "But is it all worth it? Is it all worth the price those around me pay?"
"Right now? Probably not, or at least I'd probably think it wasn't if I were in your shoes. But in the long run? Only you can decide that. I can only tell you what I think is the case. And I think the answer is yes." He hopped over to the mini-bar and set the glass down. "But it's really up to you to figure it all out. And maybe when Hellmonth is over, the balance sheet will be a little easier to figure." He sprang across the room once more, opened the balcony doors, and stepped outside.
Peter poked his head back inside.
Stephen smiled sadly. "Thanks."
Peter nodded, then closed the door and hopped across to his own balcony.
Stephen lay back in bed and let the shadows of night surround him as exhaustion carried him away.
"Catch, Mommy!" Alicia squealed.
Elsie laughed and caught the ball that her daughter had thrown, then tossed it back.
Alicia fumbled with the ball and fell to the grass, laughing.
Elsie came over to her and scooped her up with a huge smile on her face.
And across the street, a taxicab with three men in the backseat, three men who were more than they seemed, watched.
Stephen couldn't help but smile. "Sometimes it works out," he murmured.
"You did a good thing," Peter answered. "Even if the road was somewhat…"
"Hellish?" supplied Victor. "That's why they call it Hellmonth."
Alicia stood up and suddenly noticed the cab. She waved to the people inside.
"Back in a sec," Stephen said, then got out of the cab and crossed the street.
Elsie was naturally concerned when she noticed a stranger coming toward her daughter. "Can I help you?"
"Stephen Cranston, ma'am. New York Classic." Stephen flashed his press ID. "I was told that The Shadow was involved in little Alicia's return. I write about his activities all the time, and I wanted to see if there was anything worth writing about here." Then he discreetly showed his ring.
Elsie saw it instantly. "The Shadow is a myth," she said slyly.
Stephen smiled and nodded, then gave a wave to Alicia.
The little girl looked at his ring, then up at his face. "Do you have a cold, mister?" she asked suddenly.
Stephen blanched, then recovered his composure and gave a cough. "Yes, actually."
"Then you should be at home in bed!" Alicia scolded.
"And so should you." Elsie told her daughter. "Come on now--it's time for your nap."
Alicia just smiled and winked at Stephen.
Stephen grinned and shook his head. He headed back to the cab.
"She O.K.?" Moe asked.
"She's fine." Stephen smiled slightly. "She'll make one Hell of an agent someday."
Silence filled the cab for a moment.
"We owe you an apology," Peter finally said quietly. "We did break the rules. Even though you seemed a bit out of control, it was your business."
"Apology accepted." Stephen looked at his uncle, then his partner. "And you were right, I was a little close to it this time, my…regrets."
Peter smothered a grin. "Have you ever apologized for anything, Stephen?"
Stephen looked out the window. "I average about one a year."
Peter laughed as Stephen gestured for Moe to start driving.
"Are we all right?" Peter asked finally.
"We will be soon enough," Stephen answered.
Peter nodded. "O.K."
It was a nice spot on a hill with a great view and a pleasant stream going past. But Stephen still hated being there. Or rather, he hated the reason for being there.
"Here Lies Alexander and Marie Cranston," the marble stone declared.
"I'm sorry," Stephen whispered to the gravestone. And Peter thought I was making a joke.
He gently placed a bouquet of red and white roses--his mother's favorite, his father had once told him--in the marble vase affixed to the headstone, then turned to go.
He was not surprised to notice Peter standing at another grave a few hundred meters away.
Heading down the path toward the gate, he met Peter, who was on his way back.
"Your uncle?" Stephen asked, gesturing back the way Peter had come.
Peter nodded solemnly. "Your parents?" he asked, gesturing back the way Stephen had come.
Stephen nodded. "Ever notice how the ones we never get to save are the ones that mean the most to us?"
Peter couldn't help but nod. "Yep. Maybe that's why we do this."
Suddenly, Stephen's ring flashed. The two men saw it at once and sighed.
"Well," Stephen said finally, "let's go save the people who are important to others."
Peter grinned. "You know," he said as they headed for the cab, "the criminals in this city have apparently got the idea in their head that we aren't a team anymore."
Stephen gave an amused half-smile. "Really? Let's show them the error of their reasoning…partner."
The two heroes shared a crafty chuckle and shook hands.