Victor Cranston looked across the study of Cranston Manor at an unfamiliar sight--that of his nephew Stephen Cranston laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his face. "What's going on?" Victor asked as Stephen hung up his cell phone.
Stephen took a deep breath and calmed down. "That was Peter."
"Really?" Victor raised an eyebrow. "Did he and MJ enjoy dinner?"
Stephen burst out laughing again. "We didn't get into that, but apparently, it went well. He needs me to come pick him up. Trust me, you want to come along for this."
"Where is he?" Victor asked.
Stephen gave Victor a wise gaze and silently dared his uncle to read the info out of his mind.
Moments later, Victor burst out laughing too.
Stephen leaned against the bars at the precinct's holding cell. "We're he-e-e-ere," he called quietly.
Peter moaned and rolled over to face them, promptly falling off the narrow bunk. He managed to land on his feet but looked as if he wasn't particularly steady.
Stephen and Victor gave each other a look and snickered slightly.
Peter staggered toward them and barely held himself upright against the prison's small holding cell. "Please laugh at my expense quietly," he coughed pathetically. "I have a hangover that could kill a horse."
Stephen reared back as he caught a whiff of his partner's breath. "Whew! Come on Pete, you gotta give us details. What happened?"
Peter took a deep breath, then coughed and shook his head. "Gentlemen, I would love to tell you what happened last night, but I haven't the foggiest idea."
Victor and Stephen cracked up again.
Peter moaned at the noise. "Come on, guys. Give me a break."
Victor shook his head. "Didn't you ever learn the saying 'all things in moderation'?"
Peter groaned and continued the narrative. "All I remember was ordering drinks at the bar last night with MJ, then waking up here, wearing a 70's style tuxedo jacket which I've never seen before, a cheap plastic wedding ring on my left hand, and a crappy 'I went to Vegas and all I got was this stupid t-shirt' shirt."
Stephen practically fell to his knees from the laughter. "With a cop asking if you were lucid enough to remember a phone number?"
Peter nodded and bowed his head in shame. "I think I need some bail money."
Victor gave Stephen a mock-stern look. "Think he's a flight risk?"
"Yeah, but I know a good bounty hunter." Stephen crossed to the officer who hadn't taken his eyes off them since their entrance. "Who do I talk to about putting up his bail?"
The cop shook his head. "There's no bail on him."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
The cop nodded. "Never is for a murder case."
Now it was Victor's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Murder?"
Stephen's expression immediately turned serious. "What the Hell are you talking about? Who is the alleged victim?"
"Ask your buddy over there." The cop gestured with his head toward Peter.
Stephen's eyes turned dark. "I'm asking you."
The cop's expression turned vacant. "Victim's name is MJ Watson."
The look Stephen sent Peter was complete horrified disbelief.
Peter himself was suddenly sober and alert...and well on his way to panicking. "No way--MJ? She's dead?"
The cop shook his head to clear it, then recovered his composure. "You should know, pal. That ugly Vegas shirt you had on was covered in blood."
"What?" Peter was about to steamroll over panic toward full-scale hysteria.
Stephen held up a hand to silence Peter and returned his hypnotic glare to the police officer. "Details. All of them."
The policeman's eyes glazed once more. "Last night we got an anonymous call saying that a guy fitting Parker's description was dragging a redhead fitting Miss Watson's description toward a paddle boat at the harbor. Caller said it looked like a struggle. Officers were dispatched and found Mr. Parker alone in a boat, heading back to shore. They called for a police boat. Harbor Patrol intercepted Parker's paddle boat and found blood on his hands and clothes."
Peter looked down at his hands involuntarily, noticing for the first time the dark stains still visible on his jacket.
The dazed cop continued talking. "Parker put up a struggle and fell off the boat. Officers combed the shore and found him unconscious under a pier about an hour later."
Stephen spun the pieces in his brain. "What about Ms. Watson's body?"
"Still looking for it. The witness who called in the tip showed up at the precinct with a better description of the redhead. The description matches a picture in Parker's wallet--a glamour shot. An officer recognized the headshot and found it on the web, which led us to Ms. Watson's name."
"What's this so-called witness' name?"
"He wouldn't give it."
Victor turned to Peter. "Tell me that you can remember something--anything--about last night."
Peter paced the cell in a panic, clawing at his own head. "Nothing. Nothing. Oh, God. Please tell me it isn't true."
Stephen drilled harder into the policeman's head, trying to make sure there was nothing they'd missed. "Where's the witness now?"
The policeman shook his head. "I don't know. Nobody does. We offered witness protection. He said he could protect himself. That's the last anyone's heard from him."
Stephen thought for a moment. "I need a copy of the sketch and a list of the officers on duty that night, anyone at all who might have come in contact with either Peter or the witness. And I need that now."
The officer nodded and headed off on a mission that he neither understood nor could refuse to accomplish.
Stephen turned back to the cell. "Well?"
Peter was staring at him numbly. "Tell me I didn't do it! Can you see in my head? Can you find out?"
Stephen focused his glare on Peter for a moment, trying to get inside, and then shook his head. "The memory of last night is too cluttered. It's all fogged, jumbled, confused. I can't see."
Peter slumped again, coughing as he fought to hold back tears. "Can't you cut through it? Either of you?"
Victor looked helpless. "I'm sorry, Peter. There's more than one way to cloud a mind."
Peter fell backward onto the bunk and started sobbing MJ's name.
The policeman came back and handed Stephen two pieces of paper.
The two Cranstons searched the first page for familiar names. "Any of these people agents?" Victor asked quietly.
Stephen shook his head. "No." He turned to the second page and gasped.
The artist drawing was a perfect likeness of Mary Jane Watson.
Stephen looked at his uncle. "Finish up with the officer and put a call in to those fifteen overpaid lawyers that work for Cranston Enterprises."
Stephen walked back to the cell and showed Peter the drawing.
All color drained from Peter's face when he saw it. "Stephen..."
"Peter," Stephen said confidently and quietly, "I refuse to believe that you could have killed her, I don't care what state you were in. However, you are being held on suspicion of murder, so by lunchtime, you'll have the fifteen best lawyers in town working for you." He gave a quick look around, then implanted a reassurance into his partner's brain. "I will find out what happened last night."
Peter nodded gratefully. "Thank you...but..." He hesitated, then spat it out. "If I did do it...if you find out that I killed her, don't have your legal team get me out just because you're my friend and partner. If I killed her, I don't want to be let out. Ever."
Stephen regarded Peter for a moment, then nodded. "I understand. But you didn't kill her. It's that simple."
"How do you know?" Peter snapped, his emotions rising toward panic once more.
Stephen put his jacket back on and motioned his uncle to follow him. "I know," Stephen's Shadow voice pronounced.
The two Cranstons left the prison and got into the cab.
As they did, Stephen turned to look at his uncle. "At least...I hope I do."
"All right," Stephen said as he dropped onto the chaise lounge in the Sanctum. "Once more from the top. Peter and MJ go out to dinner last night at Carrabba's Grill. They make it as far as drinks at seven, according to our agent who's a waiter there. He says they headed out to the harbor at eight. He says they look like they've had a little too much to drink, so going out on the water isn't exactly the smartest thing they could do, but young love, etc... "
"Point of logic," Victor interrupted from the sofa across the room. "There isn't enough alcohol in my entire wine cellar to get Peter drunk enough to where it would be that obvious. His spider metabolism would kick in long before that."
Stephen nodded. "I know. He could drink both of us under the table easily, so either he drank everything the bar had in the space of an hour, or something else happened." He paused. "All right, assuming there is more to this, what would it be?"
Victor began musing. "Revenge? Someone with a gripe against Peter? Against MJ? Against Spiderman, even?"
"If it is revenge on Spiderman, then it's somebody who knows Peter's identity," Stephen noted. "Goblin wouldn't be that subtle, even if he did manage to cheat death and come back to haunt us again. Khan, maybe, if he's even in town, or even alive himself." Then he shook his head. "Not Khan. He wouldn't leave any ambiguity, and he wouldn't even have to drug Peter's drink. A quick hypnotic suggestion and Peter would strangle MJ in front of a room full of eager-to-report-it-all witnesses. Khan's manipulative, but he wouldn't leave it to chance, especially since he'd know that I'd be onto it."
A moment of silence passed, with both men thinking the same question but neither willing to say it aloud.
"Where is MJ?" Victor finally asked.
Stephen shook his head. "I don't know. The only answer we have so far is that she's at the bottom of the East River, and I don't believe that."
"Don't, or won't?"
Stephen gave his uncle a chastising glare.
"I know, I know," Victor said. "But we have to rule out the possibility that she actually is dead before we can clear Peter of this. Which means we have to find out what really happened last night."
"Then let's take a trip down to the paddle boat docks."
Half an hour later, the two of them had arrived at the docks.
Stephen looked out over the water, then slowly wandered back toward the buildings. "O.K., here's where it happened. The witness statement said that Peter was located out there." He gestured to the water. "The cops get out there, there's a struggle, the boat nearly capsizes, and then they lose him for about 20 minutes." He looked down the line and spotted a pier. "He reached the shore here." He pointed to a point under the dock.
Victor looked around. "There are any number of buildings around here--if Peter was coherent in any way, shape, or form, he'd have just scaled the nearest wall and climbed onto a rooftop to escape."
"Except the report said he had passed out under the dock, and that's where they caught him." Stephen frowned. "The report also said that MJ was with him going out, and gone when he came back to shore. So...where is she?"
Victor looked at the water. "She could have fallen out of the boat when it nearly capsized."
"But then she'd have washed ashore somewhere around here. The current's not running that fast. At most she'd be..." He found a stray cigarette wrapper and dropped it into the water and watched it float along. "...maybe a half-mile downshore."
"Unless the current under the surface is running a lot faster. That would take her a mile or more downline. That's a lot of area to look, and likely the police have already covered it." Victor spotted police divers combing the water. "Or are covering it as we speak."
Stephen followed his uncle's gaze to the divers. "Which again brings us back to, why haven't they found the body? The conditions are near ideal for searching, and surely she couldn't be buried under any significant amount of silt in this short a time."
"You're talkin' about the redhead," a grizzled voice observed.
Both of them turned to see an old man in very shabby clothes fishing off the dock.
"Yes," Stephen said calmly. "Were you here last night?"
The man gestured vaguely over to a small collection of ramshackle buildings. "I live here. I saw it all."
Victor and Stephen shared a look. "What happened?" they both demanded.
"Not sure." The man had a cunning glint in his eye. "It was very dark last night."
Stephen rolled his eyes. "I could make him talk," he told his uncle.
"In any number of ways," Victor reminded him. "Try the subtle approach first."
Stephen sighed and pulled out his wallet. Fishing out some large notes, he held them out to the fisherman.
The man's eyes widened. Faster than Stephen could believe, he had reached out and snapped up the money, and started taking very fast. "A cab pulled up last night. Two people got out. Your redhead was one of them."
"Describe the other one."
"Shorter than you. Dark hair. Big shoulders."
Stephen and Victor exchanged glances. "Anyone else with them?"
"Not at first. They were really drunk, though."
"How do you know?"
"They were both kind of staggering. The girl fell down at one point. That's when the other guy came out to join them."
"Other guy?" Victor asked.
"Yeah. Didn't see him too well. Didn't see how he even got there. It was like he just kind of popped up out of the water. Anyway, he helped the guy and gal into a paddle boat. They all went out together. They'd been out about twenty minutes or so when the cops showed up."
"Why would the cops show up?"
The fisherman shrugged. "Got me. Anyway, the water cops show up, there's a struggle, the boat turns over. A little while later, the first guy washes ashore. That's it. Next thing I know the cops are combing the beach and dragging this guy away."
"Did you tell the police all this?" Stephen asked.
"No. I...well, let's just say the harbor patrol doesn't like people living under the docks. I didn't tell them a thing."
"Good." Stephen looked him in the eyes. "Let's keep it that way."
The fisherman's eyes glazed over for an instant.
By the time his vision cleared, his questioners were long gone.
Victor and Stephen swirled back to visibility as they approached the cab. "If Peter flipped the boat, even by accident, then MJ could be dead," Victor noted. "The witness report could be accurate."
Stephen was thinking the same, but dismissed the thought as soon as it came up. "No chance. There are way too many pieces still missing out of the puzzle...not the least of which is, who is this mysterious third guy? Where did he come from, and where is he now? Even the fisherman couldn't tell us anything about him."
"Paddle boat operator, perhaps?"
"At 8 PM? The paddle docks close before dark, and they don't like to work overtime." The conversation temporarily halted as the two men climbed into the cab. "The Sanctum," Stephen ordered.
"You got it," Moe answered. "Any luck on figuring out who did this?"
"We're getting there," Victor replied. "Could our fisherman be the third man?"
Stephen shook his head. "Not likely. He sounded like he was fairly surprised the cops showed up, and I believe him when he says he's not likely to contact them about anything. No, the third guy is the one who set this whole thing up. He somehow rigged their drinks at the restaurant. He may have even suggested where they go after dinner. Then, when they arrived, he put them in a paddle boat and got them out there and did something to them. And he called the police to make it look like something funny was going on. And he's our mystery witness. I'd lay money on that."
"May I remind you Peter did have blood on his shirt?"
"The key question there, though, is whose blood? Obviously it's meant to look like MJ's, but if that's the case, why wasn't there more blood on him? And why didn't the witness report mention MJ bleeding? I'm thinking it's Peter's blood. We know Peter can heal really fast from injury; a cut on, say, his arm or side would knit itself back together quickly enough to cause the police to disregard it as a blood source."
Victor searched the police report. "And it's not just the blood that's inconsistent. The caller also makes no mention of them arriving in a cab. He misses that detail but gives a picture-perfect description of MJ."
"Interestingly selective, don't you think?"
"I suppose so." Victor frowned. "Which means you need to find out what his angle is."
"Yeah, but where to start? He's not on the agent lists, he didn't speak to any agents, and none of the paperwork gives his name."
Just then, Victor's pager buzzed. A glance at its display made him groan. "My dutiful secretary, with paperwork for our latest scientific acquisition."
Stephen sighed. "Change of plans, Shrevvy. Victor's office, pronto."
The cab changed routes and headed for Victor's Manhattan office. "So where do we start trying to find the mystery guy?" Moe asked.
"The key is to find the witness that called in," Victor noted. "But without an agent in place to provide that info, it's going to be tricky to get it without having either your motives called into question or getting shunted to the public affairs office for the 'official' press reports."
"I know," Stephen said. "I'll need to do this through a third party. Funny. Usually I'd have MJ start the agent questioning chain while I tracked down more clues."
"So you'll need to find someone who has sources of information not normally covered by us, someone who can be trusted with this information, someone who can be trusted with these secrets in general, and someone who is exceptionally good at finding people."
A small, strange smile played across Stephen's face. "I know someone who fits that description perfectly."
"All I'm saying is that it wouldn't hurt to keep at it. You're the only person on the staff that's managed to get a vigilante scoop."
How much longer is he going to keep this up? Sarah Branson wondered as her new boss at the Post asked her for the umpteenth time whether she had any new leads on Spiderman and Shadow exploits. It didn't matter how many times she tried to explain--sanitized to keep Stephen and Peter's secret identities out of it, of course--the way she'd managed to get her one and only Spidey/Shadow story, he just didn't seem to get it. "I told you," she said, trying not to let her frustration show, "I only got that scoop because I was in the right place at the right time, and at the time I was supposed to be following Cranston anyway. At any other time such a thing could get me fired."
"Not this time," Truman Cooper, newly-hired Editor at the Post, told her. "I'm putting you on this task full-time for now. I want you to try and find out how Cranston gets these scoops, and try and do it yourself. If anybody could find out, it would be you."
"Flattery now?" Sarah said, amused, absently fingering her fire opal ring. "Look, Truman, to pull that off, I'd have to find him, and the thing about Stephen Cranston is that he keeps his own schedule, and nobody knows where he is or where he's going to show up next."
Cooper sighed. "Look, just do the ace reporter thing, keep your ears open, hunt down some leads. I mean, it's not like I'm asking you to snap your fingers and make him appear." Cooper punctuated the point by snapping his fingers.
The sound of the snap had barely pierced the air when her clairvoyance rattled her brain as a familiar presence approached. Oh, no...of all the places he could possibly show up...
"Knock-knock," Stephen said a second later, tapping the metal frame atop her cubicle. Then he realized she wasn't alone. "Oops...I'll come back later..."
Cooper spun around and stared right into Stephen's blue-green eyes. "Uh..." He looked from Stephen to Sarah and back again, then composed himself. "No, stay. We were just finishing up." He turned to Sarah. "Good luck on your...uh...assignment."
Stephen watched Cooper nearly run from the cubicle, then turned back to Sarah. "Is this a bad time?"
Sarah gave a fatalistic sigh. "I hate having to break in a new guy." She looked around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned in to whisper. "Of all the people you could have put in charge, why'd you have to pick him?"
"You think I had something to do with this?"
"Bet your bottom dollar I do. I've read Truman Cooper's resume. It includes a stint as student editor of Columbia University's newspaper...about the time you were enrolled there."
Stephen gave a low chuckle that sounded almost shadowy. "You've done your homework as always. Which is why I'm here. Busy?"
"Yes, but I daresay that what you have in mind is likely infinitely more interesting. By the way, the name of the cop who took the call last night about Peter's boat ride was Max Pierce."
The look Stephen gave her was priceless. "Let's continue this in the cab."
Sarah picked up her jacket. "Let's."
"How much do you know?" Stephen asked as the couple climbed into Shrevnitz's cab.
"Peter is in jail," Sarah said. "He got put there by an anonymous tip. That's all, though."
Moe looked back at her. "How'd you find out?"
"I have my sources, too. One of them is a harbor patrol cop. I'd asked him to keep me abreast if yours or Peter's names ever cross his desk." She turned a mock accusatory look at Stephen. "Looks like one of you got in trouble. Care to explain how?"
"You've been keeping tabs on me?" Stephen asked, his tone somewhere between amusement and outrage.
"Yeah. Want to make something out of it, or should we skip this pas de deux for now and focus on why Peter's name would come across this guy's desk?"
Stephen grimaced. "For murdering Mary Jane Watson."
"Mary Jane Watson?" Sarah blurted in shock. "Mary Jane Watson, advertising's latest 'It Girl'? The one in those perfume ads?"
"One and the same."
"Wow. What does she have to do with Peter?"
"Thought you did your homework," Stephen taunted.
"Yeah, but I try not to read the gossip pages any more than necessary. So how is Peter tied in with the glamour queen?"
"She's his girlfriend...and the one who was on the boat with him."
"And he's supposed to have killed her?"
"That's the assertion."
Sarah whistled. "I'm no farmer, but that's the biggest load of manure I've ever heard."
"I agree," Stephen said. "So I have to find her."
"We," Sarah corrected primly, "have to find her."
Stephen sighed. "Sarah, we have had this discussion before."
"And we will have it again. And again. And again if necessary. And you will never win it. Admit it, I'm good at this. Show me anybody you can share your secrets with that can do it better than I can. And besides, you wouldn't have come to me if you didn't need my help doing this."
Stephen growled. "First sign of trouble, you are out of here. Agreed?"
Sarah smiled. "Agreed. So, let's get busy. Shrevvy, the Harbor Patrol headquarters."
Moe sent Stephen a look, but Stephen didn't contradict, so he pressed down on the accelerator.
"Wait here," Stephen said when they pulled up.
"I'm coming with you!" Sarah objected.
Sarah looked annoyed. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
"Sarah, we can't allow any connection between this guy and you. Cops who put in calls to reporters don't get treated well. I can go in, find out who called, and get out without anybody even realizing I'm there."
Sarah nodded, frowning even though she knew he was right. "O.K., be careful."
Stephen was fading from view. "Always."
The door opened and closed, and Sarah looked out the window, watching a coil of black dive across the street, and merge with the shadow of a man going into the station. "I will never get used to that," she murmured.
"Tell me about it," Moe agreed.
Sarah turned to him. "I cannot even imagine what it would be like to have that much power, much less be able to use it like that."
"You don't spend the bulk of your waking hours watching it firsthand," Moe replied.
"But you do."
Moe nodded. "And have since I was younger than you."
"How do you do it?"
Moe took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "You remind yourself regularly that it is better that that level of power is working for you than against you."
The rest of the wait passed in silence.
MJ's eyes fluttered open, and for a moment, she couldn't remember where she was. Forcing herself to wake up, she realized that not only couldn't she remember how she got where she was, she literally had no clue where she was. She was lying on a small folding cot, with a damp blanket over her, in a dank and oppressively humid room.
Sitting upright, she almost passed out as her head spun from the strong aroma of mold and mildew in the air. She gave a look around.
There was a single bare light bulb overhead, and there was a constant dripping noise, clearly at least one of the sources of water filling the room. But what really got her attention were the thousands of dollars worth of things surrounding her. Everything from stacks of paper money in sealed bags to huge piles of change that surrounded the bed to various objects from electronic gadgets to the silks and the statues made of pearls and marble.
It was a fortune, in a damp and dark sewer-like room.
Where was she?
Her head hurt. It couldn't hurt to just lie back for a moment while she tried to figure it out.
And then, a wet cloth covered her mouth and nose. An acrid aroma, stronger than the mold and mildew smell, filled her nose. She started to protest, but then felt the world going dark around her.
Moments later she was asleep again.
"Rest easy, Red," a hard-edged voice whispered lovingly as she passed out. "Rest easy."
The cab door opened and closed suddenly, startling both Sarah and Moe out of their contemplations. Sarah looked over at the swirl of black that was solidifying into a recognizable figure. "Well?" she asked, finally finding her voice.
"Morris Bench," Stephen replied. "That's what the call log says. Says he stopped in personally. One of the cops asked for ID. He provided an out-of-date driver's license."
"Mighty suspicious," Moe noted.
"Not necessarily. Active military members aren't required to carry current driver's licenses if they're assigned on duty. There are other conditions under which carrying expired driver's licenses isn't illegal. So let's find out if he qualifies." He pulled out his cell phone and dialed. "Burbank," he intoned in the Shadow's harder, darker voice. "I need information. Find me a current address on Morris Bench. Possibly current or ex-military, branch unknown. Operating on expired New York driver's license..." He flipped open the notepad upon which he'd scribbled the license number and read it to his trusted researcher.
There was silence for several moments, then Stephen frowned. "You're sure?" Another moment of silence, then Stephen sighed. "Understood. Keep checking. Notify me if anything comes up." He hung up.
"Wow, this guy must be more invisible than you if Burbank couldn't find him," Moe deduced from Stephen's expression.
"Or maybe he just isn't looking in the right place," Stephen replied. "Burbank found a reference to him in military records, but no current address. He was a low-ranking sailor for several years, then went MIA a few years ago and hasn't been heard from since."
"And in the hands of a lesser woman that would be a roadblock," Sarah responded. "Fortunately, you have me here."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Did you hear that, Moe?"
"Reminds me of someone else I know," Shrevnitz answered.
Stephen gave Moe a light glare as Sarah gave a chuckle.
"Ahem," Stephen added.
Sarah stopped chuckling.
"Look," Stephen said, "don't think that clairvoyance makes you infallible. It doesn't. It just makes things..."
"...jumbled. I know. Believe me, I know."
Stephen chose his next words carefully. "Sarah, you have great skill, but little control over it. That lack of control can get you killed."
"Well, that's your department. Not like you'd ever be able to get away from me anyway."
Stephen inwardly growled. Not even Spiderman teased him this way. "If that's your fallback plan, save your breath. Psychically, I'm hard to miss."
Now it was Sarah's turn to raise an eyebrow. In those words, she didn't hear any bragging, just a simple statement of fact. "And why is that?"
Stephen started to answer, then paused as if confused. "There's something very familiar about this." It took a moment for him to mentally place the conversation, when he realized everyone was waiting on him to finish his sentence. "Ahem," he said again.
"Yes?" Sarah said mock-innocently.
"All right, smart aleck, if you want to impress me, find Morris Bench," Stephen snapped.
"O.K.," Sarah said without hesitation. "Moe, the DMV, please."
"Hey!" barked Stephen. "That's the second time you've done that! This is my cab, my driver!"
Sarah looked genuinely taken aback. "You're right," she said sincerely. "I'm sorry."
"Thank you," Stephen said, mollified. "Now then. Moe, DMV, please."
Moe accelerated out into traffic.
Victor Cranston walked out of the Cranston Enterprises boardroom and heaved a sigh of relief. He thought he was going to go insane in that room. Good thing The Shadow's mission was going to benefit from this little scientific discovery, or he wouldn't have even bothered, as there were a lot more important things to worry about right now.
Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed a number he knew by heart.
Sarah yelped as Moe barely missed an oncoming car. "Maybe we should have taken separate cabs," she muttered under her breath.
"There's a reason I give the orders in this cab," Stephen answered with a slightly shadowy chuckle.
Conversation halted when Stephen's cell phone rang. He flipped it open. "Stephen Cranston."
"The sun is shining," Victor's voice answered.
"But the ice is slippery. Any news for me?"
"No, just calling for a status update. What's new?"
"Sarah and I are on our way to the DMV--we've got a name for the guy who called in last night. His name is Morris Bench."
Stephen could almost hear Victor making a mental note of the name. "Did Burbank find anything?" Victor asked.
"No, that's why we're heading to the DMV, I assume."
"Well, Sarah was the one who suggested the destination...and she refuses to tell me anything!"
Moe grinned again.
Victor laughed heartily. "Let me talk to her."
Stephen handed her the phone. "My uncle, for you."
Sarah looked confused, then took the phone. "Yes." More listening. "No. Never." More listening. "That's right." More listening. "No." Yet more listening. "O.K., here he is." She handed to phone back to Stephen.
"Yes, Uncle?" Stephen asked.
"You're right. She won't tell you anything." Victor noted.
Stephen rolled his eyes as Sarah smirked. "Remind me to kill you later," he sighed into the receiver. "Right now, I need you to go back to the station house, find Peter, and see if he remembers anything else. Also, find out if the name Morris Bench means anything to him."
"Right. Be careful."
"Always." Stephen hung up just as the cab pulled to a stop. "Looks like we're here." He started to climb out of the cab.
Sarah put a hand on his arm to stop him. "This one I have to handle. I have a source that has access to the database. His name is Maurice Baker. He gave me some info on a story I did years back, but it would have gotten him fired. He's been a source for me ever since."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Think he'll cooperate on this one?"
"Count on it."
"Then get moving."
Sarah nodded and practically jumped out of the cab.
Stephen watched her go. "Eager."
"She's trying to score points with you," Moe pointed out.
"With me or with The Shadow?"
"She doesn't see it as two people."
"I know. I suppose I should be glad she's trying to convince me she's useful." He shook his head. "Not that she actually needs to."
"I know," Moe replied knowingly.
Stephen gave the cabbie a glare.
Moe turned away so that Stephen would not catch his snickering smirk.
The receptionist outside Maurice Baker's office looked up. "Yes?"
Sarah put on her best ditzy look, a part she had played with abandon for most of her adult life. "Hi, I'm Sarah Branson. I'm here to see Maurice Baker, please."
The receptionist checked her notes. "Did you say 'Sarah Branson'?"
The receptionist shook her head. "I'm sorry, Miss Branson, but Mr. Baker left strict instructions to refuse all calls and appointments from you."
Sarah was shocked. "Why?"
"He said he no longer has time to deal with you."
Sarah increased the guileless, clueless look. "But...it's important."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but that's what he said. You'll have to leave now."
Sarah looked sad as she turned around, and as she marched back to the cab she dropped the act and seethed.
Stephen looked up in surprise as Sarah got back in the cab and gave the door a violent slam. "I take it the discussion was not as fruitful as you'd hoped?" he observed dryly.
"Aaugh!" Sarah snapped. "Maurice has suddenly decided to grow a backbone!"
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"He wouldn't even see me! It is infuriating! As is that smirk of yours!"
Stephen gave a confident smile. "Now maybe you'll understand why I normally initiate these kinds of conversations. Come on. Let's go see him...together."
Sarah growled, but got out of the car.
Stephen turned back to the cab before closing the door. "Want to share what's so amusing, Mr. Shrevnitz?"
Moe got his smirking under control and shook his head vigorously.
Stephen nodded smugly, then closed the cab door and left.
A bare five minutes later, Sarah had to mentally admit a newfound respect for the way Stephen did things. They hadn't even paused at the front desk, and had marched straight to the office level, where Stephen had stopped only for a moment at the floor plan to get the right office number, and once again had led her straight down the hallway.
But maybe their plans were about to be foiled. "Can I help you?" one of the employees challenged.
Stephen didn't even blink. "Yes, of course you can help us! We just flew in from Washington for meetings that that the geniuses on your staff managed to book while we were still at Baggage Claim! And, thanks to the wonderful gridlock on your streets, we are so late, so if you want to help then get out of our way, and get us coffee, cream and two sugars--think you can manage that?"
Intimidated, the man stepped back and nodded, and once again, Stephen was marching down the hall, trailing an impressed Sarah.
"That was good," she whispered as they turned a corner.
Stephen smiled at the acknowledgement. "One of my uncle's first lessons. Act like you have all the power in a situation, and most people will behave accordingly."
"And when they don't?"
"My uncle taught me ways around that as well." Stephen gave a shadowy chuckle.
A few steps later, they marched straight into the reception area outside Maurice Baker's office.
The receptionist who'd just told Sarah "no" moments earlier rose up to stand in front of her boss' door. "You can't go in there!"
Stephen paused at the door.
Sarah gave him a Well, what now? look.
"Say that again, please?" Stephen asked the receptionist.
The assistant blinked, then looked confused. "You can't go in there."
"Louder!" Stephen coached, placing his hand on the doorknob.
The assistant was confused but obedient. "You can't go in there!"
"Louder," Stephen ordered sharply.
"You can't go in there!" the woman shouted, as confused as she could possibly be.
Stephen gave her a warm smile. "See? Now you're off the hook. Now, if you'll excuse us..."
The woman watched helplessly as Stephen opened Maurice Baker's door and headed inside.
"Thanks," Sarah said, heading in behind him.
The pair were momentarily taken aback at the sight which greeted them--Maurice Baker, sound asleep at his desk.
Stephen raised an eyebrow at her. "Think this is why he wouldn't see you?"
Sarah smirked. "Oh, he's got much better reasons for not wanting to see me. Excuse me." She headed for his desk, then leaned in close and whispered sweetly in his ear. "Wakey-wakey. Rise and shine, Maurice."
His eyes blinked open and saw her face close by. "Gaaah!" he yelped in horror and jumped back, nearly overturning his chair, where Stephen caught him. Looking up for only a moment at Stephen's unfamiliar face, he looked back at Sarah and gasped for breath. "Sarah...didn't you get the message at the desk?"
"Yes, she did," Stephen answered imperiously. "We both think it's hilarious. Irrelevant, but hilarious nonetheless. Now, we need an address. The name is Morris Bench. Give us the address and we will be leaving."
Maurice looked at Stephen as if the man were insane and then looked back at the woman whom he already knew to be so. "Who the Hell is this?"
"My bodyguard," Sarah replied without missing a beat. "The streets are dangerous these days. He knows karate, jujitsu, and twelve other Japanese words. So if I were you, I'd answer his question."
Stephen opted not to augment Sarah's description and instead gave Maurice a slightly menacing glare.
Maurice once more reminded himself why he'd blocked Sarah out, then took a breath and tried to explain. "No, see, I'm sick of this. I could get fired if word of this gets out."
"The harder you fight me, the more the chance that it'll get out, Maurice," Sarah countered. "Besides, the number one rule of journalism is never reveal your sources."
"I don't care," Maurice said angrily. "The answer is no."
"No?" Sarah asked, indignant.
"No?" Stephen said dangerously. This was not a word he liked.
Maurice turned to look at him, and his eyes glazed over.
Sarah looked over at Stephen...and her jaw dropped.
Stephen's entire demeanor had changed. His eyes had that dark, powerful look that she'd only seen when he was cloaked in shadow. And he almost seemed to be radiating power...and confidence in that power. Wow, she thought. Moe's words now made more sense to her--it really was better that that level of power was working for you than against you.
"You have no need to worry about your job," The Shadow's voice told Maurice. "She'll never reveal her sources."
"Well, I understand. You never reveal your sources," Maurice said to Sarah.
"And she isn't asking for much."
"And it's not like you're really asking for all that much. Just a name here and there."
"You will give her all the information she needs."
"What was that name again?" Maurice asked Sarah.
Sarah shook off her shock and took full advantage of the opening Stephen had given her. "Morris Bench."
Maurice turned to his computer and started typing.
Stephen's demeanor turned more relaxed and casual and the darkness in his eyes faded.
Sarah gave a light sigh. Now that's impressive.
"I know," Stephen's mental voice replied inside her head.
Sarah almost jumped.
Bench reached over to his printer and pulled off the paper lying in its print tray. "Here you go," he said, handing her the paper.
Sarah regained her composure and took the paper. "Thanks, Maurice," she cooed in her best ditzy tone. "See you later." She turned to go.
Stephen did as well, then turned back. "Oh, Maurice?" he asked.
Maurice looked up at him.
"We were never here," The Shadow's voice asserted.
Maurice's eyes glazed over once more.
Stephen hurried Sarah out of the room and followed before the spell wore off.
Stephen led the way back to the elevators when Sarah grabbed his arm. "Have you ever done that to me?" She demanded.
"I'm not kidding Stephen, have you ever done that to me?"
"You sure this is the place?" Sarah couldn't help but ask as the cab pulled to a stop in front of the address Maurice had given them.
"It has to be," The Shadow's voice answered inside her head. "Maurice wasn't in any condition to consider duplicity."
Sarah glanced in the rear view mirror from her position in the front seat, where Stephen had directed her to sit once they left the DMV. But the sight that greeted her gaze was not Stephen Cranston...but rather his black-cloaked alter ego, The Shadow. "So what now?" she asked, trying to stay focused on the task at hand.
"Stay here," whispered the otherworldly voice as he swirled into invisibility.
The cab door opened and closed, and he was gone.
The rundown shack was virtually empty, with practically nothing in the way of personal touches. A disembodied shadow ran over the walls and across the floor, looking for some clue that anyone or anything had been in this place recently.
The doorknob rattled.
The disembodied shadow ducked into a corner.
The door opened...and Sarah carefully walked in. "Anyone in here?" she whispered.
Suddenly, she was staring down the barrel of one of The Shadow's silver .45s as a swirl of black coalesced into a dark and dangerous man. She gasped.
"Don't do that--it's a really bad idea trying to sneak up on me," The Shadow chastised.
Sarah stared at the automatic. "So I noticed."
The Shadow lowered his gun. "Did anyone see you come up here?"
"I don't think so. I think we're alone." She looked around. "This place is empty. There's nothing here."
The Shadow gave the room one more sweep with both his eyes and his mind, then fixed his gaze on something he hadn't thought about before. "Except for the carpeting."
Sarah raised an eyebrow, then headed for one of the corners of the rug.
The Shadow headed for another.
Both of them began prying the carpet off its tack strips, trying to see underneath.
One of Sarah's corners gave way easily. "Jackpot."
The Shadow came over to see what she'd found...
...a rusty storm grate.
The Shadow gave the grate a tug.
It came up easily, revealing a huge pipe underneath.
A nasty stench filled the room, and both of them drew back from the pipe.
"Sewers," Sarah muttered in disgust. "Lovely. I knew if I stayed around you long enough there'd be sewers involved.
"Go back to the cab," The Shadow directed.
The Shadow regarded her for a long moment. "What did I say this morning about the first sign of trouble?"
"The only thing down there that looks remotely dangerous is that rat on the ledge," Sarah retorted.
The Shadow sighed. "The rat doesn't worry me. It's whatever else may be lurking down there."
"Then let's go."
Peter almost leapt across the cell at the sound of the officer's voice. He reminded himself to react more like a normal person and crossed to the bars. "What is it?"
"Turn around," the officer ordered, pulling out his cuffs.
Peter did so.
The officer slapped the cuffs on him. "Let's take a walk." He opened the cell.
Peter resisted the temptation to shrug the officer off. "Where are we going?"
"Your lawyer's here." He led Peter toward one of the meeting cells.
As they came into the room, Peter noticed immediately that the bespectacled elderly lawyer sitting at the table and nonchalantly going through papers was wearing a fire opal on his left ring finger. This was a good sign. At least, he hoped so.
The lawyer gave a glance to the guard. "Some privacy?" he remarked.
The guard grunted, then uncuffed Peter and gave him a shove toward the table before leaving the room.
Peter looked at the lawyer for a moment. The fact that he didn't have his ring gave him pause as to whether the man would answer the code phrase, but he wouldn't know unless he tried. "The sun is shining," he muttered softly.
"But the ice is slippery."
Peter nearly jumped at the sound of Victor's voice in his head. "Whoa."
"Try to keep things subtle," Victor's mental voice replied, shuffling papers once more.
"O.K.," Peter said, not sure how he was supposed to do such without the guards noticing only one of them was doing the talking.
"Oh, I've worked this kind of case for years," Victor answered verbally. "So, tell me, what do you want me to do for you?"
This is too weird, Peter mentally noted. "Uh...any idea who might be...involved with this?"
"You tell me." Victor pretended to make notes on a battered legal pad. "Stephen wants to know if the name 'Morris Bench' means anything to you."
Peter drew back.
"Think it," Victor cautioned.
Peter felt his spider-sense tingle as he forced himself to put words to thoughts. Hydroman.
The Shadow led the way down the wet, dank, dripping pipe, until the wall ended in a small wooden door.
"Maintenance shed?" Sarah guessed.
"Let's find out." The Shadow opened the door.
Inside was thousands of dollars worth of treasure surrounding a small cot. Everything from stacks of paper money in sealed bags, to huge piles of change scattered around the bed, to expensive electronic gadgets to rich silks and priceless statues made of pearls and marble.
And lying on the cot was a sleeping redhead.
"MJ!" The Shadow's relief at finding her alive was apparent even in his mental voice.
"Wow," Sarah whispered.
The Shadow checked her over. "She's alive. Drugged, though." He lifted her slowly to a sitting position and gently slapped her cheeks. "MJ...wake up."
MJ groaned, then opened her eyes. "Where am I?" MJ asked.
"We were hoping you knew," Sarah admitted, coming over to help steady her on the bed.
MJ looked over and tried to focus. "Who are you?"
"Oh, sorry. Weird time for introductions." Sarah extended her hand. "Sarah Branson."
MJ somehow managed to look more mentally fogged than ever.
"She knows," The Shadow clarified.
"Oh," MJ whispered, still very much out of it. "O.K."
Sarah looked around the room. "This place is a treasure trove. Who brought all this here? Who brought you here?"
"I...I don't know," MJ mumbled.
"I don't know either," The Shadow said, "but I'm going to find out. Sarah, get MJ out of here. Get back to the cab. I'm going to check this place out for any leads."
Sarah pulled MJ to her feet and practically had to hold her upright. "Oh, boy. This is going to be fun." She shook her head and looked a little disoriented.
The Shadow noticed. "Something wrong?"
Sarah wasn't sure. It felt almost like one of her clairvoyant sensations, but not quite--it wasn't the vibes of a person she knew, which was how her particular brand of clairvoyance worked. Of course, it could well be the fact that they'd seen a half-dozen rats on their way in and those definitely made an impression on her, and not in a good way. She shook off the feeling. "Must be the sewage. Look, be quick. I don't like this place--it gives me the creeps."
"I'll be careful. Go. Now."
Sarah half-carried and half-dragged MJ down the pipe tunnel.
The Shadow gave only a brief glance in the ladies' direction to make sure they were safely on their way, then made a quick inspection of the room. No personal touches again, but several of the electronic toys had names etched on them. Obviously stolen, he decided, but why would he bring MJ here? Why would he bring MJ anywhere? What's going on?
He stepped up the search, peering under the cot.
There was a small case beneath the cot. The Shadow pulled it out and found a small empty bottle. A whiff of the contents told him it wasn't a drinking bottle. Chloroform, he noted, pocketing it. So Bench clearly intended to keep her here. But again, why?
The Shadow checked the door they'd come through. There was no sign or identification on it. Must be some kind of machine room, he mentally noted. He turned toward the corner, where a boiler, a rusted relic of now rarely used equipment, stood silent.
"MJ?" a voice asked in disbelief.
Surprised, The Shadow whipped back around and saw in the doorway a man, solidly built and almost as tall as he was, wearing a plain black shirt and plain blue trousers. "Morris Bench, I presume," The Shadow said, punctuating the statement with a sinister chuckle.
Bench quickly got over his own surprise and immediately noticed part of his treasure was missing. "What have you done with my MJ?" he demanded.
"Why did you kidnap her?" The Shadow demanded back.
Morris shook off the unsettling feeling of The Shadow's voice and looked angry once more. "Isn't it obvious? MJ loves me. Red and I were made for each other."
The Shadow raised an eyebrow. "Chloroform...hardly a basis for forming a long-term relationship," he taunted.
Morris seethed and pointed his arm at The Shadow.
What happened next, The Shadow couldn't believe. For a moment, Bench's hand simply morphed until it looked like a frozen block, carved in the shape of his hand, then it seemed to melt, but the resulting liquid kept its shape...
...and then exploded toward him.
It was as if Morris Bench's arm had turned into a fire hose--a powerful and potent one at that. The pressurized spray forced The Shadow back.
Disbelieving, but not wasting time with shock, The Shadow rolled out of the spray, his hat and cloak soaked through and heavy. He flipped himself to a one-kneed aiming posture and drew his automatics.
The explosions from The Shadow's pearl-handled retribution erupted in the confined space and hammered Morris, who reeled under the blows, but he did not bleed, nor did he fall.
Suddenly his body took on a watery sheen and melted like a statue of ice in the desert, turning to droplets of water and crumbling. But even as his form started flowing outward, the Shadow could perceive that the watery form was moving, gathering, reforming.
Bench was a man made of water!
The liquid form, still very much recognizable as a human, raised his arm again.
His arm sprayed out again with the force of a fire hose, blasting The Shadow back into the wall, forcing the water up under his eyelids, and filling his automatics.
The Shadow reached deep into his psyche, then filled the room with an ear-piercing shriek of thought waves turned to sound.
Morris let up on his assault and grabbed his head.
Gathering himself quickly, The Shadow took advantage, grabbing a crowbar and swinging it in a fast, hard arc, smashing Morris just above the shoulder.
The bar went through him like it would through ordinary water, and the watery arms reached up and grabbed the bar that was now stuck through him. The water flowed, losing its human shape, until the shapeless liquid flowed over the bar, and reformed, into its human shape, with its hands around the bar.
Then, he swung it hard into The Shadow.
The Shadow crumpled.
"MJ!" Shrevnitz called out, unable to hide his relief in seeing her alive. He popped open the rear cab door for the approaching women.
Sarah piled MJ into the cab and then scooted her over to rest against the rear driver's side door.
"Is she all right?" Moe asked.
"She will be," Sarah answered, glancing over her shoulder to see if The Shadow was coming. As far as her mind could tell, he hadn't moved from under the building from whence they'd escaped, and that was not a good sign.
Moe turned his attention to MJ. "What happened?"
MJ tried to clear her head. The fresh air was helping immensely, but the bright light was giving her a headache. "I have no idea. Peter and I were just having drinks at Carrabba's. Peter mentioned that his tasted odd...and then...nothing. Nothing until you and Ste-...er, The Shadow woke me up."
Sarah kept looking back toward the building.
"What is it?" Moe asked.
Sarah frowned. "He's still down there. He's not heading back toward the surface. And he hasn't moved in the last 30 seconds." She hesitated for a moment, then made a decision. "I don't like this. I'm going in there." And before anyone could object, she was out of the cab and heading back toward the building.
"He'll hate you for it!" MJ called after her.
The cloaked man grunted under a second impact of the bar, then regrouped and yanked on the crowbar with every ounce of strength he could muster.
Then he swung it into Bench...and once more the bar went straight through the watery man.
This time, Bench was ready for the move and swirled a watery arm across the crowbar, up The Shadow's arms, and around his neck. Then he enclosed the fluid limb into a contained sphere of water surrounding The Shadow's head.
The Shadow dropped the crowbar and clawed at his face, desperately trying to break through the bubble so he could breathe.
The bubble dropped away from The Shadow at the sound of another person in the room. Bench whipped around to face Sarah, who was standing in the doorway, staring incredulously at the sight before her.
The Shadow fell to the ground in a coughing heap but forced his mind to refocus and psychically shout out a warning. "Sarah! Get out! Now!"
Too late. Bench turned his firehose power on Sarah and slammed her into the wall.
The Shadow picked up the cot and brought it crashing down on Bench's back.
This time, Bench wasn't able to fully liquefy his body in time, and he staggered and deformed under the blow, stopping his onslaught of Sarah.
"Get out of here!" The Shadow barked once more, putting as much hypnotic emphasis as he could behind the words.
Sarah somehow managed to get her feet underneath her and stumbled out the door.
Moe looked up in surprise as Sarah staggered toward the cab, soaked and apparently stunned. "Oh, no..." He quickly popped open the rear door.
Sarah practically fell into the cab, and Moe and MJ helped prop her up. "What happened?" MJ asked.
Sarah was about to answer when there came the sound of a phone ringing.
"That's Stephen's phone," MJ said. "I recognize the ringtones. But where would it be...?"
"Under the seat," Sarah replied, feeling around for the drawer latch.
"We're in public," Moe reminded her. "Don't open it any further than you have to."
Sarah nodded, then groped blindly inside the drawer until her fingers located the phone. She lifted it out and closed the drawer, then flipped the phone open. "Hello?"
There was a pause on the line. "Did I...dial the wrong number?"
Sarah recognized the voice. "No, it's Sarah. The sun is shining."
"But the ice is slippery." Another pause as Victor still sounded puzzled. "Where's Stephen?"
"A little busy right now. We found MJ."
"Thank God. Sarah, I need to talk to Stephen right now. If what Peter just told me can be believed, Morris Bench has a very dangerous alter ego."
Sarah squeezed some water out of her hair. "Really?" she deadpanned.
Suddenly, the building across the road virtually exploded, sending glass and wood and other building shrapnel flying everywhere, and shooting what looked like a small tidal wave out of it.
Sarah's mental radar indicated someone very familiar was closing in fast. "Oh, my God...Stephen!"
Before she could react, a torrent of water smashed a nearly drowned Shadow up against the window and tilted the cab like it had just been hit with a tsunami.
Sarah tried to open the door, but the water pressure was too much.
The Shadow clawed at the side of the cab, finally grabbing hold of the door handle. "DRIVE! NOW! NOW! RIGHT NOW!"
Moe floored the accelerator, and The Shadow fought to hang on as they sped away from the suddenly-appearing surf.
Trying to slow her suddenly racing heartbeat, MJ looked back behind them. "Oh, my God..."
The water had settled in the street, and then shifted, flowed, and grew up from the ground, every drop moving into place, until it seemed like a living statue of water.
Then the watery texture hardened, and the statue was suddenly human.
A human she recognized.
A human they were leaving behind.
At least, for the moment.
As the cab turned a corner, Morris snarled. He looked around and spotted a storm drain cut into the curb. He melted into liquid and rolled like a wave into the drain.
The cab had paused just long enough to let The Shadow in, and now Stephen Cranston had pulled down his scarf and was coughing madly to clear his lungs as the cab sped onward. "MJ," Stephen's mental voice said sardonically, "the gentleman in whose room I found you seemed to think that you two were old friends."
"I know," MJ sighed. "I recognized him as we were driving away. His name is Morris Bench. We...um, we dated briefly."
"To hear him tell it," The Shadow continued as he pounded his chest to dislodge stubborn fluid from his lungs, "you never broke up."
"He...didn't take it well," MJ admitted, embarrassed.
That almost made Stephen laugh aloud, but he instead coughed some more. "I would say not."
MJ looked at him. "You know, it really freaks me out when you do that."
That did make Stephen laugh aloud. "You date Spiderman, I just rescued you from the sewer chamber of a man made of water, and this freaks you out?"
"Yeah, yeah," MJ muttered, rubbing her eyes.
Sarah's mental radar started going off suddenly. She looked around frantically.
"Where?" The Shadow asked, immediately snapping back into defensive mode.
Sarah kept looking around, trying to make sense of the confusing signals. "I don't know...it feels like he's right underneath us, but that's crazy..."
Just then, a slight tremor ran through the cab.
"Or maybe not," Moe said as he slowed down and joined in the search for something unusual.
Sarah's clairvoyant sensations shifted directions. She searched for the visual confirmation of what her mind was telling her. "He's in front of us--but where?"
The Shadow looked across the street in horror. His eyes had fixed on something, something that was suddenly starting to shake.
A fire hydrant.
The hydrant exploded with unbelievable force, blasting a sudden geyser high into the air, a massive column of water that went straight up.
And atop this column was the shape of a man, who pointed his arms down at the taxi.
"MOVE!" The Shadow roared. "Away from the river! Away from the waterfront! Away from any kinds of large water sources!"
The cab's tires squealed as Moe turned and headed for Upper Manhattan, pulling them all out of the way of the next blast of water that threw itself at them.
Suddenly, the entire column of water tilted and seemed to follow them like a snake in the air.
Moe gripped the wheel tightly, making hairpin turns and sideswiping cars that weren't as fast in getting out of the way, but little by little, they gained distance.
"Sarah," The Shadow ordered, "shift over--as close to MJ as you can get."
The Shadow pulled down the back of the seat, revealing a trap door into the trunk of the cab. Hitting a latch, a large compartment lowered, revealing a row of heavy weaponry.
"We're almost to the warehouse district, boss," Moe reported. "No sign of Mr. Wet and Wild."
"He's still coming," The Shadow assured, reaching inside the trap door.
"Um...maybe this isn't a good time to mention this," Sarah said as she looked around nervously.
"Mention what?" The Shadow said, searching through the compartment.
"My editor wants me to try and get another Shadow/Spiderman story. You wouldn't mind if I were to write about..."
The Shadow gave her a 'why-are-we-even-talking-about-this' look. "You aren't serious."
"Can you guys talk about this later?" Shrevnitz demanded, swerving to miss another obstacle in his way of getting them to their destination. "I'm trying to escape from a supervillain here!"
The Shadow looked directly at Moe for a moment, then returned his attention to Sarah. "Yes. We will talk about this later."
Sarah smirked. "You know, you're not fooling anyone with that gruff attitude..."
"Are they always like this?" MJ demanded groggily of Moe.
The Shadow gave everyone a glower, then returned to searching the compartment.
The cab had finally come to a stop in front of an old warehouse, and now it just seemed to be sitting and waiting for something.
Moments later, there was a rumbling noise from the nearest warehouse, and the sprinklers turned on of their own accord. The falling water seemed to gather together as it fell, becoming a ghostly form, rapidly solidifying till it was once again Morris Bench facing the cab.
Morris glared at the cab, fire in his eyes, when a sudden peal of terrifying laughter echoed from behind him.
Spinning around, Morris saw The Shadow behind him, and in his hands, a grenade launcher.
Bench barely had time to liquefy his form before the small sphere smashed into his chest, the impact driving him back a few feet with a wet splat. Still glaring at The Shadow, Morris suddenly realized what that sphere was.
The explosion ripped him apart, sending him in every direction like an exploded water balloon.
The droplets splayed out across the concrete, lay still for an agonizing moment, and then, began to move. Each little drop crept together, forming into little blobs that shivered and ran together, forming larger pools, which linked up, forming a large mass.
As each of the little drops hurried to join, the mass raised itself, forming into its humanoid form again.
Morris Bench shook with rage as he looked around furiously.
Neither the cab nor The Shadow was anywhere to be seen.
"I'll be back," he seethed. "You can't keep us apart."
The cab pulled to a halt in Times Square, near The Sanctum. Its occupants sat still in the cab, none of them daring to move.
The Shadow watched a fire hydrant down the road.
Moe watched the water meter for the radiator in the engine.
MJ watched the nearby restaurant, and the tall pitchers of ice water on the out door tables.
Sarah watched a woman hosing down the footpath outside her store.
"Anything?" The Shadow asked Sarah for confirmation of what his instincts were telling him.
Sarah shook her head. "Nothing. I think we lost him."
"For now, anyway."
All of them let out a sigh of relief.
Suddenly, Sarah realized that she still had Stephen's phone. Victor was bellowing into the phone so loud, that in the sudden relieved silence, everyone heard it. "IF SOMEBODY DOESN'T TELL ME WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON OUT THERE..."
The Shadow pulled off his hat, releasing still more water into his face. He shook his head, then pulled down his scarf and took the phone from Sarah. "Uncle? It's me. Give Peter this message..."
Peter looked at Victor anxiously as the cops brought him back in to see his "lawyer". "Did you...um, check with your sources...?"
Victor looked shell shocked, but managed to nod in order to keep up appearances. "Stephen said that he got most of what you wanted me to tell him from the last few minutes. He wanted me to assure you that he found MJ, and she's alive and well."
Peter collapsed from sheer relief. "Thank you!" he said to himself, not caring who saw or heard him. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"He also said," Victor interrupted, destroying the mood, "that he just survived round one, but he needs some help if he's going to do that again."
Peter looked at the older man incredulously, and then suddenly realized what it meant. "What do I need to do?"
"Watch your back and keep your mouth shut," Victor's lawyer persona replied. "I'll be in touch. Be ready at any time."
Victor gathered his papers and nodded at the guards that he was ready to go.
"Does he know that Peter is Spiderman?" Stephen asked, hunched over his microscope in Cranston Manor as he studied a sample from the bottle he'd found in Bench's chamber.
"No, I don't think so," MJ muttered. "And please talk quietly."
Sarah tried not to laugh at the pained hung-over look on MJ's face. "How much did you drink last night?"
"Not enough to get like this," MJ insisted.
"That would be the work of this stuff," Stephen declared, holding up the bottle. "It's some kind of drug. A few drops of chloroform, some pesticides, and you get hit with one as you sip, and the other as you swallow it. It accounts for Peter's reaction to it, too."
"Quietly," MJ said, rubbing her head.
"Let me get you something for that," Stephen suggested, heading for the next room.
"So let me see if I've got this straight," Sarah said. "You two have drugged drinks that knock both of you for a loop. Somehow you end up in a taxi that takes you to the paddle boat piers. Bench then calls the cops anonymously, takes you out onto the water, and when the cops arrive he uses his abilities to cause a commotion and capsize the boat, leaving Peter to drown and taking MJ to the sewers. The cops, not realizing they've been set up, comb the beaches for the bodies and find Peter under a pier, passed out cold."
"Right," Stephen responded as he came back into room. He handed MJ a glass of purple-green liquid. "Here you go. Dr. Cranston's miracle hangover cure."
MJ looked nauseously at it. "Will this get rid of my headache?"
Stephen laughed. "A glass of this will get rid of your head."
MJ rolled her eyes and fought to suppress nausea as she took a sip.
Sarah leaned over to Stephen. "What's in it?" she whispered.
Stephen smiled mysteriously. "The Shadow knows."
As MJ coughed as the potency of the drink, Sarah hid a grin.
"The first sip's the hardest," Stephen promised. "Keep drinking."
After forcing down several more sips, MJ's vision finally cleared. "Wow. Now that's some hangover cure." She looked at the two reporters before her. "So if I wound up in Morris' underground highway, where'd Peter end up?"
Stephen gave Sarah a look, who made a 'after you' gesture in response.
Stephen sighed. "Peter is in jail, charged with your murder."
"What?" MJ was instantly on her feet. "Then let's go get him out. I'm not dead, obviously, so I'll just go tell the guy at the police desk my name--"
"You can't," Sarah and Stephen said in unison.
"Because that's what Bench is hoping you'll do," Sarah said.
"Bench wants you back," Stephen explained. "He can't find us, so he'll go to the one thing he knows is connected with you, in the hopes that you'll go straight back to him."
"But we need Peter's help to fight him!" MJ exploded. "We can't leave him in a jail cell charged with a crime that never happened!"
"I know that," Stephen reassured. He stood and led the way out of the Manor. "Andrew, if anybody asks we weren't here today." He shouted to the butler on his way out. He turned back to MJ. "We'll get him out but you can't be involved with it. You'll have to go into hiding for a while. Victor is on his way over to join us. You'll be heading to one of my agent safe houses that's far away from large bodies of water." He looked at Sarah. "And you'll be going with her."
"Now wait a minute...," Sarah began.
"Don't argue," Stephen warned. "Victor and MJ will need all the help they can get."
Sarah seethed but backed down. "Then what are you going to do?"
"I will be quite occupied coordinating Peter's rescue."
"How are you going to get him out?" MJ asked.
Stephen gave The Shadow's sinister chuckle. "He's going to walk right out the door."
"Parker!" barked a policeman, tapping the cell bars. "Your lawyer's back. Get up."
Peter stood up and allowed himself to be handcuffed through the bars, hoping this was the rescue Victor had promised.
The cop ordered the cell doors opened and led Peter out.
They were on their way to the interview room, when a pair of policemen intercepted them and flashed their badges. "Hold it," one of them said. "Homicide. Forensics wants him first."
The other one held up his own cuffs. "They want to verify some things they found."
The cop grumbled, then slapped the second set of cuffs on Peter and uncuffed the first set and handed off Peter to the pair.
The two homicide detectives pulled him another direction and headed into an interrogation room.
As soon as they were inside, one of them pulled the plug on the video camera and discreetly showed Peter his fire-opal-adorned right hand.
The other uncuffed Peter, then handed him a small manila envelope and flashed his own fire opal ring. "The sun is shining."
Peter for the first time in a while allowed himself to feel hopeful. "But the ice is slippery."
The first detective nodded a greeting. "We know you didn't do it. The boss is working on setting up a trail that allows us to prove it."
"Meantime, we've got our orders," the detective who'd handed Peter the envelope replied, nodding toward the envelope. "Your personal effects are in there. And so are your orders."
Peter opened the envelope and inverted it so the contents fell out into his hands...his wallet, his fire opal ring, and a small cream-colored notecard-sized envelope. He quickly opened the note and the words faded into view:
"The rest of your things are upstairs. Rendezvous at usual destination."
Peter understood. His Spiderman costume was up on the roof, and he had to get to The Sanctum as fast as he could. How Stephen had gotten it up there was yet another Shadow mystery that he was probably never intended to solve...
"There's a fire escape fifty feet that way," one of the homicide detectives told him, gesturing in the direction of the far end of the hall. "It dumps out at street level. All alarms in your path have been temporarily disabled. You've got two minutes to make it out of here before they come back on. Try not to kill anybody in the meantime."
The detectives opened the door, looked around, and gave Peter the thumbs-up to go.
Peter slipped out of the room and started walking quickly toward the fire door.
He had not even gotten five feet when the lights shorted out, and the sprinklers turned on.
"Oh, great," Peter muttered, as his spider-sense buzzed. He hurried down the hallway, instantly soaked through by the falling water. Then he stopped.
In his way, something terrible was being born from the cascade of water. The sprinkler droplets seemed to grow in the air as they fell.
For a moment, Peter thought that his partner was doing his invisible man trick and that the water was drawing an outline of him. And then in an instant, he knew better.
As the ghostly watery form hardened, Peter turned to run back the way he came, but found the door to the lockup area had been secured once more. Breaking through it would both give away his secret and waste time. He turned back to the watery form that had now created a very recognizable man.
"Where's my MJ?" Bench bellowed.
Peter turned cold. Bench was after MJ? That would certainly explain a lot of the circumstances surrounding his arrest, but MJ? Why? He looked frantically for a way out...and realized glumly that there was really only one way he could go.
Taking a deep breath, he started running for the fire door, charging the man in his way.
Bench braced himself for the impact to catch the diving Peter in a watery bubble and hold him until he got what he wanted.
Except Bench was bracing for a human with human reflexes and human speed. Peter was far faster and more agile than that, and he crashed right through Bench's watery trap, landed on his feet, and raced for the fire escape.
Bench quickly recovered and turned himself into a tidal wave, crashing down the hallway toward his fleeing foe.
The wave crashed into the fire escape door just as it swung shut. Bench coalesced into human form and opened the door...
...only to discover that Peter had vanished completely.
The closing of another door below him got his attention. He turned into a stream and flowed down the stairs, then became human-shaped again and opened the door that lead out of the building and into a back alley.
Still nothing. He looked around the alley, confused.
"Hey, Hydrant-man! Long time, no splash."
Hydroman looked up to see Spiderman sitting smugly on the wall above his head. He snarled in fury. "Hydroman! My name is Hydroman! Every single time we meet you make that same stupid joke, and think you're being so funny!"
"I'm sensing hostility here," Spiderman said with mock understanding in his tone. "Go with your feelings, let it all out."
Hydroman seethed and fired out a jet of water.
Spiderman somersaulted away just in time. "That's the way. Don't you feel better now?"
Hydroman spread his arms wide, and the ground splintered under the force of an immense geyser, which Hydroman rode upward like an elevator.
Spiderman looked up as Hydroman rose fifty feet in the air. "All righty then," he deadpanned as his spider-sense screamed out a warning to spring away.
As Hydroman's water jets fired out, Spiderman fired a webline and swung across the street as fast as he could, screaming to the pedestrians. "RUN! EVERYBODY GET OUT OF HERE!"
As a huge tower of water loomed, the pedestrians scattered in panic.
Spiderman stretched himself out to get maximum swing distance, then bent at the waist to avoid a sudden shot of water.
A sudden shot of water that hit a building, shattering one of the walls.
Spiderman saw a small girl on a bike on the street below about to be crushed by the falling bricks, and dove to save her. Stretching his arm to the limit, he caught the back of her shirt and pulled her up off the bike an instant before it was crushed beneath the wreckage.
"Waaaah!" screeched the little girl in Spiderman's ear as he fired another web. "MY BIKE! You destroyed it! What kinda superhero are you?"
Incredulous, Spiderman performed a daring flip around a light post one handed and web-slung himself down the street. "Are you kidding me, kid? I saved your life!"
"Captain America would have found a way to save me and my bike!" the girl protested. "You gotta buy me a new one or I'll get my daddy to sue!"
Hydroman cracked up laughing at Spiderman's predicament, even as he made a seafood restaurant's lobster tank explode toward the wall crawler.
Turning himself so that his body was between the flying glass and his annoying charge, Spiderman frantically fired another web, trying to get distance from the watery menace. But swinging single handed, his speed was sharply reduced. "Gotta find a place to dump you off," he muttered.
"Waaah! You belong in jail just like my uncle Jonah says!"
Oh great, Spiderman said to himself. Of all the helpless bystanders, why'd I have to pick up you?
"I don't wanna play with you any more," the girl wailed. "Put me down!"
Spiderman obliged landing just long enough to toss the girl lightly into the arms of a surprised policeman. He would have tossed off another wisecrack, but his spider-sense was once more screaming at him to get clear.
He backflipped off the wall, and a spray of water slammed where he'd been an instant before.
As Spiderman sprang across the street, Hydroman ran to catch up...
...and got smashed by a speeding car.
Hydroman splattered all over the windshield, hood, and street so badly that it took him a few minutes to gather himself.
By the time he did, Spiderman had vanished.
"ARRRRGH!" screamed Morris Bench.
Stephen checked his watch as he heard The Sanctum's street-level door creak open. "About time," his Shadow voice taunted.
Spiderman dropped down the stairs and pounced onto the wall above Stephen's head. "Watch it, darkman. I'm not in the best of moods."
Stephen regarded him for a moment. "You're welcome."
Spiderman sighed. "Thanks. Really. It's just been a really long day." He dropped to the floor and stripped off his mask. "Where's Mary Jane?"
"Perfectly safe. She's with Sarah at one of my safe houses. And it's not on an island or waterfront or anything else that could conceivably be used by your friend, Mr. Firehose. Victor is on his way to join them as soon as he can get out of his latest meeting with some agent police officers in an attempt to formulate an evidence path that will lead them away from you and toward the human hydrant." He looked at the soaked costume. "So I take it you had a run-in with the jovial Mr. Bench?"
"Yeah, you could say that." Peter fetched a cup of water from the water cooler. He gave it an odd look for a moment, trying to make sure it wasn't going to attack him, then took a swig and sighed gratefully. "O.K., so your uncle and your girlfriend..."
"Ahem," Stephen interjected.
"...are watching over my girlfriend," Peter continued, exhausted but still willing to get in a little dig at Stephen's continuing denial of his obvious affection for the clairvoyant investigative reporter.
"No," Stephen corrected. "My uncle and Sarah are watching over your girlfriend."
"Didn't I just say that?"
"Peter," Stephen said with a long-suffering sigh, "Mary Jane is right now being hunted by an enemy we cannot block, anticipate, or kill. Do we have to have this discussion now?"
"O.K., so your uncle and your girlfriend are watching over my girlfriend, and we're not with them...why?"
Stephen chose to ignore Peter's prods. "Because Bench is looking for us, and for MJ, and I don't want him having nowhere else to go until I know how to beat him."
"What is Bench's involvement in this, anyway?"
"He's the one who set it all up."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "No kidding?"
"No kidding. He spiked your drinks last night. That's why you had the world's worst hangover."
Peter took a seat on the wall. "Why would he do that?"
"Apparently he's got a case of the wants for MJ. She said they used to date a while back. Did you know that?"
Peter grimaced. "I try not to dwell on MJ's past relationships. She dated JJ's son, of all people. It's not like the girl has the best taste in men; I'm living proof of that."
Stephen chuckled despite himself. "Good to see you still have your sense of humor. Want to explain why Bench has this mysterious command of water?"
Peter saw the drenched cloak draped over a makeshift clothesline. "You noticed, eh?"
"Yeah. And that cloak is 'Dry Clean Only', so I'm a little ticked, to say the least. So, did he get bitten by a radioactive tidal wave or something like that?"
"You know, you could be a little less cynical about us superheroes," Peter chided. "At least the ones who could grind you up into little shadowy bits."
"Hey, at least he's not in spandex or Power Ranger armor."
Peter raised his webshooter and pointed it at Stephen.
Stephen gave the water cooler a light telekinetic push to shake it slightly as a warning.
"All righty then," Peter said, lowering his webshooter. "Keep in mind I'm not making any of this up. I was there when the whole thing went down. Good old Morrie Bench became Hydroman when he was knocked into the water during the testing of a new underwater generator. One of those bizarre 'unlikely set of circumstances' moments--the device blew up, undersea volcanic gasses, probably the moon in the right phase--and he gets infused with the waste from this device and suddenly he's a man made of water. He can absorb it and flow along with it, use it as a weapon, etc."
"How can he be stopped?"
"He has to be cut off from water. He dries out if he can't get contact with water."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Oh. Well, that shouldn't be too hard on a major metropolitan island, right?"
Peter grimaced. "Believe me, I know. Good thing the guy's a real lunkhead or he'd be a real force to be reckoned with."
Stephen thought for a moment, then fired up The Sanctum's main computer.
Peter laughed. "Don't tell me. You're going to Google 'water absorbing chemicals'."
"Don't be silly," Stephen responded. "I don't have to Google that." He tapped some keys and smiled. "Not when Cranston Enterprises already owns the patents on some of them."
Peter hopped off the wall and crossed to read over Stephen's shoulder. "So you were actually researching using water absorbing polymers to control the weather?"
"No, but somebody obviously was," Stephen smiled. "Why do you think we bought the rights to this stuff? Do you really want this stuff in the hands of just anyone?" He tapped some more keys. "Victor found this while indulging his fondness for collecting secret research. There are probably peaceful applications for this stuff--or at least better ones than launching water absorbers into the air and letting them be sucked into your lungs after they've sucked up all the moisture from the sky." He typed again. "Here we go. Some stuff that's a little safer. This is the stuff they use in de-humidifiers."
Peter read the screen. "Calcium chloride. Basically, a salt. That's one way to remove water from the area. The big problem with that, though, is that it leaches water after a while because it just can't hold as much moisture as some of the more powerful absorption chemicals."
"So all we need to contain Hydroman is to mix the stuff with something that will absorb the leached water and hold it in. Sounds like a job for a science whiz."
Peter smiled. "At last. Something I'm better at than you."
Stephen smiled back. "I try to collect agents with multiple useful skills." He clicked off the computer. "Let's head over to one of Cranston Enterprises' labs. We've got work to do."
Bench didn't pace exactly. He had smoother forms of movement in private, but he moved restlessly, trying to figure out what to do next.
Parker was keeping Mary Jane from him again. Spiderman was already on to him, and a new player had shown up. His incredibly simple plan was fast becoming a fiasco.
It didn't take a lot of work to find the name of the cloaked man. The Shadow. He had been in the papers recently, credited with being Spiderman's partner. Now, he had to find someone who knew how to find The Shadow.
Bench slid down the nearest pipe.
He reappeared not far from the prison, where he bought a Classic from a small vendor and started checking for names beneath the stories.
A follow-up to the previous day's story had an image of Spiderman, and below the article, the name Stephen Cranston.
"Cranston," Bench grinned. "Call me stupid, will they?"
Nobody noticed that the newspaper in his hands got soaked through till it practically dissolved. Nor did they notice it land on the pavement with a wet "splat" as Bench exited toward his aquatic subway again.
Sarah pulled the blinds shut and looked around the nondescript room where she and MJ were now encamped. "Well, Stephen, whose opinion I am willing to accept, thinks that this place will be safe."
Mary Jane nodded and set her bag down in the Jonas building apartment. "It should be. I've stayed here before--last time a super-powered maniac was hunting me, as a matter of fact."
Sarah turned and scrutinized the redhead. "This has happened to you before?"
MJ couldn't help but smile. "You'd be surprised." She caught herself a moment later. "I'm sorry, maybe you covered this while I was hung over, but who are you and how ...?"
"...do I know about Stephen and Peter and Victor and you?"
Sarah shrugged. "Stephen told me."
The plan fit together perfectly in Hydroman's mind. Find Cranston, get to Parker, take him out, and he would finally be re-united with MJ.
To achieve this end, he'd rapidly skimmed through old newspapers to pick up clues on Cranston's likely whereabouts. He'd found the name connected to another Cranston, Victor, probably the younger man's father judging from the admittedly-old photos he'd seen. So now he was perusing the phonebook, looking for either Cranston's address.
He found it. The phonebook was several years out of date, but had three addresses for one of the two Cranstons listed. Might as well take them in order.
He slid out of his hideout and into the sewage stream.
MJ couldn't believe what she'd just heard. "He just up and told you?"
Sarah grimaced. "Well, it's a bit more...um, complex than that."
Mary Jane sighed. It was likely to be a long and boring wait until the heroes called to give the all-clear, and there were so few people she could discuss this with openly, after all. "So? It's not like we're going anywhere anytime soon. So, tell me the whole story..."
Bench had to check the metal woven grid work of the front gate to make sure he hadn't popped out of the sewer in the wrong neighborhood. The word "Cranston" was sculpted into the wrought iron, so it was fair to say he had the right place.
But it was a mansion! A huge mansion in Turtle Bay, yet! The reporter lived here?
But he couldn't ignore it. His investigation had turned up three addresses for the Cranston clan. The first one was a penthouse apartment that was undergoing renovation, and clearly no one had been living in it for several months. It almost looked like a bomb had gone off up there, but the drywall repairs had done a great job of patching the blast damage. This was the next one on the list, and no matter how preposterous it seemed, he was going to check it out, find Cranston, get to Parker, take him out, and be re-united with MJ. It was that simple.
He headed for the gate, turned to his liquid form to pass through the bars, and headed for the door without breaking stride.
Mary Jane couldn't stop laughing. "He couldn't lose you?"
Sarah shrugged. "It's a gift."
MJ gasped for breath, got a moment of control, then collapsed into giggles again. "This is the man that hypnotized half of New York into picking a fight with Goblin using broken bricks and pipe, the man that bluffed a crime lord into helping him take out Kingpin, the guy who turns invisible whenever he wants, and he gets cornered by a reporter with a ditzy act? Peter must have had a field day!"
Sarah couldn't help but laugh along with her. "Well, he sure seemed amused by something."
Bench was balling his fists to restrain himself from drowning this snobbish upstart butler who was refusing to tell him what he needed to know. He couldn't do that, though. He had to stay as subtle as possible until he knew where MJ was.
"I'm very sorry, sir," Andrew stated in a tone that indicated it wasn't the first time he'd spoken these words in this conversation, "but Master Stephen hasn't lived in the manor for several years."
Bench gritted his teeth. "Do you have his current address?"
The butler's expression never altered one bit. "If I did, sir, it would be improper of me to give it out without at least knowing your name, and the nature of your inquiry."
"Business," Bench ground out.
The butler gave him another once-over, glancing at both hands very quickly. No ring, so this couldn't possibly be urgent business. "If this is a matter regarding Cranston Industries or the Cranston Foundation, it should be directed to Mr. Victor Cranston, but if this is regarding Master Stephen's current employment as a reporter, then you should call him at the Classic offices and make your enquiries there."
Bench revised his plans swiftly. Find the elder Cranston, to get to the younger Cranston, to get to Parker, to take him out, to be reunited with MJ. "Fine." He stomped away.
Andrew closed the door before he could see Bench slide through the fence rails again.
Sarah propped her feet up, enjoying a moment when she no longer had to hide her involvement in possibly the largest clandestine network in history. "So I've just found out that my boss is part of some massive criminal conspiracy..."
"Is it us, or is it them?" MJ demanded with good humor. "I mean, it seems everyone they know is involved in this somehow, and I can't tell if they draw conspiracies, or if conspiracies draw them? I mean, everywhere they go, a villain is following."
Peter looked around at the lab Stephen had procured for their work--one of Cranston Enterprises' many scientific facilities in the city, a lab that made even the one at Columbia University where he'd first encountered the genetically altered spiders look like a high school chem lab. "Wow," he said in a definite understatement. "So, is this where you make that anti-Spidey gas?"
"Had it made," Stephen corrected.
"I don't suppose you'd care to show me where any remaining stockpiles are...?"
"All righty then." Peter looked around. "So shall we get started on building ourselves a dehumidifier gun?"
"You're in charge," Stephen replied.
"Can I get that in writing?"
"All righty then."
Victor came out of the boardroom at a near run. Intellectually, he knew there was no serious rush. Mary Jane was hidden, and had Sarah with her already, with Moe out the front of the safe house for a lookout, but still, the phone call he'd received from Andrew was more than a bit unnerving, and he needed to get to the women as quickly as possible.
Hurrying out of the elevator into the lobby of Cranston industries, he had just reached the front exit when a man he didn't recognize shoved him out of the way in his haste to enter.
Victor swore under his breath but was otherwise in too much of a hurry to be offended.
"So I've got this gun to my head and there are cars zooming across a six lane highway," Sarah continued, telling her story with great excitement. "And I'm freaking out, looking around for help, when all of a sudden out of nowhere, BAM! Spiderman just appears out of the sky..."
Mary Jane smiled affectionately. "Yeah. He does that."
"I'm looking for Victor Cranston," Bench told the security guard working the desk.
The man pointed over Bench's shoulder at the door. "You just missed him."
Bench spun. The old man! Where was he?
"That's how you figured it out?" Sarah laughed. "The way he kissed you?"
Mary Jane looked almost proud. "I have a very good sense about these things."
"A full face mask, a secret identity, two attacks by Goblin, a heartfelt speech in a hospital room, hearing his voice as Spiderman twice, and the clincher is how he kissed you?"
MJ rolled her eyes. "O.K., so maybe I needed a few extra hints."
Bench made it to the street just in time to see Cranston get into a black stretch limo. He looked to be in a big hurry. Maybe he was hurrying to tell the other younger Cranston about the weird visitor who'd yelled at his butler. So Bench needed to follow him, to get to the younger Cranston, to get to Parker and take him out, then be reunited with his beloved MJ. Simple, really.
As the limo pulled away, Bench turned and took a full speed dive into a sewer grate, getting disbelieving looks as he smashed into the grate with a watery thump.
"You did what?" MJ almost shrieked.
Sarah's head was in her hands. "I know, I know!" She was laughing and wailing simultaneously.
Mary Jane couldn't stop her jaw from dropping. "Stephen? Shadowy Stephen, creepy, sinister, dark, and terrible Stephen?"
"He was worried, he wanted to make sure I was O.K., and he was being so insecure about it..."
"So you just grabbed him and kissed him?"
"I wasn't thinking, I just... He'd just saved my life, and he had really nice eyes..."
"What?" Sarah demanded defensively.
MJ held up her hands, placating. "Nothing, I mean yes he's rich and super-powered and all, but...Stephen? For crying out loud!"
Sarah stared. "You know, for a guy who pulled you out of the sewer hideout of a walking water slide not three hours ago, you have a low opinion of him."
MJ tried not to laugh. "No, that's not it at all--trust me, I have a lot of respect for the guy. After all, he did save my life. And he's a great fighter, and trust me when I say it's a lot better to have that kind of maniacal focus working for you and not against you..."
"Don't tell me you never noticed. I mean, come on. There's a reason there are only two letters different between 'psychic' and 'psychotic'. Yeah, he's good looking and yeah, he's got more money than God, but you've got to have noticed he's got more than a few loose marbles rattling around up there..." Then she noticed Sarah's focus had drifted away from her. "What is it?"
Sarah shook her head, trying to clear the weird sensations up there. "Victor just pulled up outside."
"'bout time." Still, MJ was worried about the odd look on Sarah's face. "Stephen did say he'd be joining us, right?"
"Right," Sarah said. But something was still not right. She moved toward the window and carefully cast a glance outside.
Once more, her brain swirled with clairvoyant sensations. And one of them was definitely not friendly. She looked around.
A trickle of water was emerging from a crack in the sidewalk around a water main cover.
Sarah's eyes widened. "Oh, no..."
"What?" MJ asked, getting frustrated that everybody but her seemed to have some superhuman sense of danger.
Sarah backed away from the window, her eyes still wide with fear. "Oh, this is going to be bad."
Peter started boiling off the solution, rapidly drying it into a fine powder. He glanced over at Stephen. "Science project's nearly done. How's shop class coming?"
Stephen was welding a metal tube to a spay nozzle. "Not bad. The problem is keeping the pressure behind the powder even. We can't use it like an ordinary gun, because having a gunpowder blast to propel the powder out would make the most expensive dust cloud in New York history." He gestured at the spray bottle. "The handle of the weapon will have an air compressor, which will force the powder straight up through the tube." He gestured at the barrel. "At the base of this tube are two spring loaded switchbacks which will force the powder to compress. When I pull the trigger, the compressed solution will be propelled by air pressure. The basic concept works like a pump action shotgun." He gave the handle a firm pump to illustrate, and peter could hear the air blasting through the tube.
"What's the range?"
"Only twenty feet with any accuracy."
Peter lifted the beaker off the burner. "Think it'll be enough?"
"It'll depend." He started counting off on his fingers. "On if the particles can absorb enough water. On if the gun can fire enough of them out. On if the chemicals will work on him at all. On if Hydroman gets to any other water. And on if I can aim straight enough to get him."
"That's a lot of 'ifs'."
"Yeah, it is." Stephen pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, clicked its auto-dial directory a few times, then tossed the phone to Peter. "Here--give Lady Mary Jane a call and tell her we'll be on our way to join them shortly. I think she'd enjoy hearing from her knight in red-and-blue spandex."
"Not half as much as I'm ready to hear her voice again." Peter hit the "dial" button on Stephen's phone and put it to his ear.
Stephen nodded his understanding and began loading the weapon.
Peter lowered the phone, looking confused. "There's no answer."
Stephen and Peter stared at each other levelly for a moment, and then bolted for the door.
They made it to the Jonas office in near record time and found the place a wreck. Spiderman smashed into the ruined room, ready to pounce, but found only a soaked Victor Cranston giving mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to an equally soaked through Sarah.
The Shadow forced his way through the wrecked door just in time to see Sarah cough up a lungful of water and open her eyes. She blinked blearily and saw Spiderman standing over her. "WHAT IS IT WITH YOUR GIRLFRIEND AND SUPERVILLAINS?" she yelled. She wanted to continue the rant, but another coughing fit overtook her and soon she was back to gasping for breath again.
"Is she O.K.?" The Shadow asked Victor.
"Seems to be," Victor responded. "Though I'm not quite sure what happened. I just opened the door, and BANG! A hurricane parks itself in the middle of the room!" He shook his head. "I tried to stop him...I really did...he was just way too fast...or maybe I'm too slow for this any more..."
"Right." Victor got himself and his personal recriminations under control. "Tell me you two have a plan."
"We do," Spiderman said. "We just need to find him."
"That's easy," The Shadow intoned. "You are empowered by water. You're on an island full of piping, the more of it you have around the more of it you can call on for a weapon. Where would you be Peter?"
Spiderman turned and looked out a shattered window following The Shadow's gaze.
At the end of the street, between a construction site and a warehouse, sat the water tower.
The Shadow and Spiderman headed out of the room. Sarah stood and started to follow.
"No," The Shadow said without turning.
"Why not?" Sarah demanded indignantly.
The Shadow paused. "Sarah, take a deep breath for me please."
Sarah did so, and started hacking and choking almost instantly.
"I rest my case."
Mary Jane was playing possum, waiting for a moment to escape. Encounters with supervillains were never fun, but she was getting frustratingly good at figuring out what the best thing to do in a moment like this was. She occasionally would lightly tap her ring against the gantry, hoping to attract attention.
"You know nobody can hear you," Morris, standing over her and watching her lovingly, informed her. They were standing inside the water tower, on a gantry way, forty feet above the main tank, filled to capacity.
"Why would you be worried about anyone hearing me?" she replied.
"Because you've picked up a few new friends since we last saw each other, Red. That Shadow guy, for one. And I've heard tell he hangs around with the little bug. You wouldn't be trying to send some secret code signal, would you?"
Suddenly, a loud clanking noise got both of their attentions. Bench turned, and was horrified to see the tank draining rapidly.
"It worked," MJ taunted.
"Yes Shadow, this is the perfect hiding place!" said a loud stage whisper at the other end of the gantry. "Every dog in the city is looking for the hydrant-man, they'll never find him in here!"
A cold taunting laugh answered.
Hydroman snarled under his breath and stalked off searching for his unseen tormentors.
The moment he was gone, MJ was up and tiptoeing toward the ladder.
Bench hadn't found the masked men, but had quickly changed his destination. He made it to the tank controls, and threw the main levers.
The tank stopped draining, half full.
An instant later, Bench started feeling impacts all over his back. He spun.
The Shadow was standing right there, armed with an unusual weapon firing at him rapidly.
Bench reacted, firing a heavy spray of water at the cloaked figure, which rolled away, trying to avoid the hits.
Bench stalked closer, when he felt something odd. He looked down at his chest.
Whatever the gun was, it had been firing particles at him. He could feel them moving inside his watery form.
He started to wonder about them, when he saw Spiderman on the gantry above him, rushing MJ out of the water tower.
Enraged, Bench propelled himself upward.
Spiderman, meanwhile, had scooped up MJ and was hurrying out of there. "I can walk," she objected.
"So can I, but it's not my style," Spidey cracked wise.
A wave suddenly exploded up through the grating in front of them, took shape, and suddenly Morris Bench was there.
Spiderman shoved MJ behind him and fired out two shots of webbing. The moment the web lines struck his liquid skin, they lost their shape and fell through.
Bench grinned and swung on Spiderman.
Ducking and weaving like a prizefighter, Spiderman lashed back, his fists smashing straight through his watery opponent. "Run!" he called over his shoulder to MJ.
Tired of hitting air, Bench stopped swinging, and focused.
The half tank rippled. The water in it gathered, and exploded upward.
Would-be photojournalist Eddie Brock, a hapless and hopeless photographer, had fallen on hard times in his career, and was now selling portraits on the street to make ends meet. His whole career had been based on never quite being in the right place at the right time, even for this tourist group-shot gig that he'd been 15 minutes late for.
As such, he was completely unaware of the whole desperate fight going on practically on top of him until the top half of the water tower, a full two blocks away from him, exploded.
Freezing mid-click, Brock watched the wreckage fall and witnessed, to his astonishment, a man made of water fighting with Spiderman. The figures were barely visible at that distance. He turned to the people he was photographing. "Call the police!" he yelled.
As shocked at the fight as he was, they obeyed.
The moment they were gone, Brock reached into his bag and pulled out a telephoto lens.
Spiderman was running out of time. With the top half of the tank gone, he had limited things to swing from and with Bench summoning the water in the tank, twisting it back and forth like a lash, he was way outgunned, and Bench looked mighty happy as he took aim at Spidey...
...so happy that he didn't see The Shadow coalesce behind him with the air gun and fire a blast straight into the back of his head.
Surprised by the blast, Bench lost concentration, and the water whip fell back into the tank. He spun on The Shadow, only to get a second blast straight into his face.
Bench reeled back, feeling the sticky particles cling to his face.
The Shadow pressed the advantage, firing steadily.
Bench summoned the water to attack.
Confused, Bench looked down, and saw that the tank was empty. A second later, he saw why...
...Mary Jane had worked the controls.
Incensed, Bench melted straight down through the gantry, and landed with a thud on the deck surrounding the tank.
MJ saw him coming and turned to run.
Bench gave chase, when Spiderman swung down on a web and slammed him viscously back into the wall.
Bench was so angry with Spiderman just then that he didn't stop to wonder why Spiderman didn't go through him as usual. Nevertheless, he struck back, firing a jet of water with enough force to send Spiderman flying.
The Shadow appeared to take up the fight almost instantly, firing that weapon again.
Turning away from the particles, Bench fired back blind, a jet of water hitting the gun in his hand.
The Shadow shook it off and fired again.
Horrified, The Shadow kept pulling the trigger, with no results.
Bench grinned triumphantly. Whatever that stupid particle gun was, he had broken it. Now his target was defenseless.
The Shadow knew it, too. He took off, and Bench gave chase.
The chase left the water tower and hurried into the warehouse next door. Bench slammed into the main room, a full two seconds behind the Shadow.
He was gone.
Moving steadily through the room, Bench looked left, right, checking every direction.
The warehouse was used as materials storage for the construction site on the other side of the wrecked tower. The ensuing labyrinth of stacked timber, iron beams and other assorted supplies gave his prey a thousand hiding places.
Bench started searching when he felt it again. He looked down at himself. The particles were expanding. What was it doing?
On a rafter above, Spiderman watched carefully.
His partner was less than fifteen feet from Hydroman, trying to get the gun working again. Between them was a stack of timber planks, stacked eight feet high.
Bench himself had turned a milky white color.
Spiderman grinned beneath the mask. Time to strike.
Bench worked his way around the stack of lumber and found The Shadow working frantically on the inner mechanisms of the gun.
Bench was a little unsure. His movements had been slowed by something. Had he been drugged? He took another step. Another. He paused. His foot was stuck. He couldn't get it off the floor. What was it?
Bench and the Shadow both looked, Spiderman was skittering down the wall, flipping on lights as he did. Bench raised an arm to fire another water jet.
Spiderman flipped away. "Behind you!"
The Shadow snapped the gun up, broke it in half over his knee, and grabbed a glass beaker from inside it. In the same movement, he spun and hurled it like a discus into Hydroman's chest.
Enraged again, Bench lifted both arms, and fired two water jets. One picked up The Shadow and hurled him hard back into the lumber behind him. The second blast hit the wall, millimeters from striking Spiderman, and broke loose a section of the electrical wires.
The soaked, sparking wires fell, and struck a stack of fiber insulation, which immediately burst into flames.
Bench moved on The Shadow driving him back toward the fire. But something was slowing his normally fluid steps noticeably...he was barely creeping along...
The Shadow took a step forward and swung the barrel of the ruined weapon up in a short sharp arc.
The barrel impacted painfully, knocking Bench down hard.
Looking up bewildered, Bench tried to raise a hand...
"Now that is an ugly lawn ornament," Spiderman noted as he touched down next to his partner.
"So it is," The Shadow agreed.
Bench had solidified right before their eyes, a half solid statue of a man trying to get up from the floor of the warehouse.
"Is that it?" The Shadow finally asked aloud.
Spiderman nodded. "Game over, drive home safely."
The Shadow nodded and pulled out his radio. "MJ?"
"Go ahead," MJ's voice responded.
"Where are you?"
"About five blocks from you, in Shrevnitz's cab. Victor and Sarah just pulled up. Is it safe to come back?"
"Yep." Spiderman answered. "Hydroman's done."
"He sure seemed ticked about something for a while there though," The Shadow deadpanned.
"Must be the costume," Spiderman grinned. "I myself used to get such a rash from the spandex."
"Sensitive skin?" The Shadow asked rhetorically.
"Nah, but it kept rubbing in such annoying places. It got to the point where I had to line it with silk." Spiderman added.
"Cost of silk lining, $95, being able to swing in comfort and style?"
"Priceless." Both heroes said in unison.
Laughter came through the microphone. "You guys are such nutcases." MJ laughed.
Just then the laughter stopped.
The fire from the electric wiring had caused great dark clouds of smoke to billow up toward the sprinklers.
Sprinklers that suddenly burst to life, raining water down on them.
"Dammit! I'm getting tired of this! I'm never going to get this cloak dry!" The Shadow growled.
"Your cloak's not the only thing getting wet...," Spiderman said plainly.
The Shadow turned, and saw the Hydroman statue losing its shape. Too much water from the sprinklers was overloading the particles.
The solid statue melted.
"Go!" The Shadow ordered.
Spiderman leaped for the ceiling trying to find the valve for the sprinklers.
A watery mass was rising from the floor, taking shape. It started moving for The Shadow.
The cloaked man drew his automatics and started firing trying to keep him from reforming, but even as he lost shape, falling droplets from the sprinklers moved to reform him. Hydroman kept advancing.
The fire had been put out, and the sprinklers stopped.
It almost didn't matter. Hydroman had been washed clean, the only useful weapon destroyed.
The Shadow turned to run. A blast of water picked him up off his feet and threw him down the corridor.
Hydroman lunged forward, straight into a blow that he didn't see coming.
Spiderman was leaping back and forth, staying one step ahead of the water, his hands were filled with parcels that Hydroman couldn't identify, but they were heavy and Spiderman stepped in and slammed him with one wherever he could.
Hydroman fired back with jets of water.
Spiderman back flipped out of the way, planted one foot on the stacks to his left, and somersaulted back, over hydroman, bringing both packages down hard on his head.
Hydroman reformed his shape, coughing on the dust, when he felt that familiar feeling again.
He was slowing down.
Confused, Hydroman looked down at himself. He was turning white!
Sensing the advantage, Spiderman gave a high leap planted his feet on the ceiling...
...ripped open the packages...
...and dumped the full load of instant cement down on his opponent...
Hydroman raised his hands, and prepared to fire, when The Shadow stepped in again and hammered Bench in the face, as hard as he could.
Bench turned to lash back at the shadow, reaching for him with clawed fingers...
Spiderman once again dropped to stand next to his partner. "Now that lawn ornament is even uglier."
"I think that's even against the code in most homeowners' associations," The Shadow agreed.
"Is it over now?"
The Shadow reached out and knocked on Bench's cement face. "I think so. I don't suppose you know any chemical formulas for further waterproofing concrete?"
"I might if you asked real nice."
The Shadow glared at him.
"All righty then." Spidey scooped up the statue and carried it out like a trophy on his shoulder.
Sarah looked up at the man in front of her desk at the Post the next morning. "Are you sure about this?"
Eddie Brock stood proudly. "I saw the whole thing with my own eyes. I got plenty of photos too. Including some of the Shadow!"
Sarah scoffed. "The Shadow's a myth."
Bench produced an envelope. "I've got photos of him."
Sarah looked at the envelope with great interest. "Really. Let me see."
Brock handed her the envelope. Sarah started looking through the pictures. They were pretty well taken. "So...where's The Shadow?"
Shocked, Brock snatched them back, and started flipping through them. There they were, just like he remembered, Spiderman fighting with Hydroman on top of the wrecked water tower, but... "They're gone!" he blurted. "The pictures of The Shadow are gone!"
"I told you...The Shadow is a myth!" Sarah repeated easily. "However, the pictures of the fight will bring a good price for you. Great work!"
Brock nodded to himself, still wondering where The Shadow photos had gone.
"Listen," Sarah continued. "The Classic already has a Spiderman photographer, and the Post has started taking an interest in vigilante stories again. If you find any more of these photos, bring them to me, huh?"
Brock nodded again. The day wasn't a bust after all.
Sarah stood and walked him to the elevator. "Tell the guy down at the front desk that you sold these to me, and he'll give you your money. We buy freelance photos at $300 a roll."
"The Bugle used to give $300 a shot for good ones," Brock sniffed.
"We're not the Bugle. Take it or leave it."
Brock snorted, then took the note and got on the elevator.
Sarah strolled back to her desk, took a seat, and opened a packet of graham crackers for a mid-morning snack. "All clear," she said to the air.
A swirl of black reached over to snag the graham cracker out of her hand as Stephen swirled into visibility.
"Ahem," Sarah frowned.
"I missed breakfast." Stephen studied the photos Brock thought were missing from his portfolio. "I don't think he got my good side. Not that I have one."
Sarah grinned. "You like my new office?"
Stephen looked around. "Mine's bigger. What'd you get it for anyway?"
"For a great scoop regarding the actions of a vigilante crimefighter."
Stephen's eyes burned black so fast that the room dimmed. "What?"
Sarah snapped on her desk light and pointed it right at his face. "Back off, evil eyes. Cooper wanted me to follow you for vigilante stories. I had one. These photos were not acquired through you or Peter, I got them on my own. The article will leave all the names out of it and focus on the fight. I haven't even scooped you, you've got the same story on your front page."
Stephen sighed. "This is going to come up a lot, isn't it?"
Sarah nodded. "Truman put me on this full time now."
Stephen sighed fatalistically and gave her a stern look. "The Shadow is a myth."
Stephen stood. "You don't use the network or Peter or MJ, or Victor, or Moe for your stories without my permission."
"If you're involved in it as an agent, that's left out too."
"After that, you can use what you get."
"O.K. then." Sarah agreed. "What about Brock?"
"Oh, he'll keep trying. He tried to get Spiderman on film too. Nobody else could. Peter muscled him out of his job at the Bugle over Spiderman photos."
"Peter's a muscle kind of guy."
"If you like that sort of thing."
"Wouldn't you like to know." Sarah opened another package of graham crackers. "You think that could be a problem?"
"He's got a history of having a short temper, but I don't think so."
"You checked up on him?" Sarah laughed.
"I like to know who's taking my picture." Stephen responded.
"What do you do when you find somebody doing it?"
Stephen's look actually softened slightly. "Depends. The last guy I took on as my partner."
Sarah laughed again. "Get out of my office, you're keeping me from working."
"But of course, madam." He headed for the door and paused. "You do know I've checked up on you, too."
Sarah didn't seem surprised. "I figured you would once I found out who you were."
Stephen wasn't amused. "I've read your file too."
Sarah looked up slowly. "Yeah?"
Stephen grinned slyly. "You really need to learn that 'No Parking' means 'No Parking."
She rolled her eyes. "The thing is, sometimes I can't find a space. And have you priced parking garages lately? It's almost cheaper to get a ticket."
"No wonder you have a friend at DMV."
"Friends in high places come in handy." She flipped on her computer as a way of ending the conversation.
Stephen shook his head and smiled, then turned to go.
"In case I haven't said it lately...," Sarah called.
Sarah looked up...and Stephen was gone.
She smiled as she returned to her computer. "You're not fooling anyone, you know."
A light sinister chuckle filled her ears as she felt his presence drift away.
"Like the view?"
Mary Jane looked around at the Manhattan skyline. "I have to admit, it's pretty good up here." She leaned back in the hammock-sized web Spiderman had spun between two construction cranes. "Too bad there'll be a building in the way in a few weeks."
"Yeah, they never stop putting stuff up by the East River. Getting to the point where a guy can't find a decent waterfront view these days." Spiderman pulled off his mask and Peter took his beloved beauty in his arms as they settled in together to gaze up at the stars. "So, do I need to give the standard 'this is why getting involved with a superhero is a bad idea' lecture, or shall we just enjoy the cool breeze and the clear night sky?"
"As if it'll make a difference whether I'll still be hanging around you," MJ retorted.
They both chuckled cynically. They'd had this discussion a lot, and it usually ended with one of them deciding to shut the other one up with a kiss. Peter found he actually liked provoking this discussion occasionally...kissing MJ was always the highlight of his day.
"Speaking of hanging around with superheroes...when did Stephen find time to get a girlfriend?" she asked.
Peter laughed out loud. "You noticed, huh?"
"It's pretty obvious. Even for the damsels in distress."
"Obvious to everybody but the two of them."
She looked at him. "You mean they're not..."
"...in love? Head over heels for each other? Two halves of the same whole? Insert pulp romance cliché here? Oh, yeah, they are, but neither of them would ever actually admit to such a thing."
"Victor know about them?"
"How'd he take it when he found out somebody else knew who The Shadow was?"
"About like you'd figure, but Victor likes her. We have a betting pool going about how long it'll take them to get together."
"How long has that been going on?"
"Couple of months now. He thinks I don't notice when he skims the papers but takes time to linger over her stories. It's really lots of fun to watch but the man's oblivious to all the signs."
"Men are like that sometimes."
Peter shrugged. "Yeah, but superheroes have an excuse."
"Yeah. All the blood goes to the muscles and leaves the brain starved."
"You know, you might be a little nicer to us spandex-wearing guys. You're on our protection list you know, and with the premiums you pay... Some of us actually have some sense."
"Yeah, you're right. I hear that guy Reed Richards is really kind of smart. I wonder if he's a good kisser..."
Peter looked mock-offended. "Oh, now you're gonna get it..."
MJ gave Peter a poke in the chest. "Come on, big guy. Show me what you've got."
Peter lunged over her, scooped her up in one arm, and then toppled off the web with her in his arms.
She laughed and squealed with giddy joy as the two of them swung away together, leaving the waterfront view far behind.