The Taskmaster

"The Cult of the Tiger!"

The Taskmaster was not an easy person to find. So when three black suited men in shades strolled into the nameless dive and sat down at his corner booth, his attention was perked. When they opened their mouths it lessened.

"Herr Taskmaster, we are looking to procure your services." The accent was straight out of central casting. He was shocked the man didn't have a dueling scar and monocle.

"I'm not cheap. How many men are you looking to train?"

"An army!" the second man, lacking the phony German tones, scowled. "We have been told you are the best there is at what you do."

"That's another guy. Me? I'm just a simple teacher." He sipped his drink slowly. "A million up front, another when I finish."

Now it was the third man's time to talk. "That's outrageous!"

"I cost the most because I'm the best. I expect to be paid for my efforts. There have been too many guys who say they can pay me once they rule the world. I'm not interested in maybes."

The men conferred with each other. At length the first man spoke. "Very well, we accept your terms. You will meet us at this location and at this date. Don't be late." The man slipped a card across the table. "You will be paid once you arrive."

"A pleasure doing business with you gentlemen." He tipped his glass at them as they silently left.

-T

Some time later, the Taskmaster stood on a dock in one of the seedy ports in the world when the three men from the bar reappeared from the shadows. All three were carrying very large suitcases. "We have your money. Now will you help us?"

"Of course." He took the cases easily. Handing them off to a few nameless helpers, he followed the men to a large yacht. "Fancy ride."

"Wagner's Pride shall take you to our location. You will be searched while onboard and checked for listening devices or other tracking implements. Resist and you will be shot. Reveal our whereabouts to the any outsiders and you will be shot."

"I'm getting a distinct lack of trust on your part." Under his skull mask, the Taskmaster grinned. "Like I said gentlemen, I'm the best. That means I'm professional, so just be cool and we'll all get what we want."

He ignored the muttered German curses and walked up the gangway. True to the men's words, he was searched to the skin by a team of experts. Once they were satisfied he redressed and went to the captain's quarters.

The first man from the bar was sitting behind an ornate oak desk. "Herr Taskmaster, I'm so glad you passed our test. Are you ready for the details about your task?"

"Yes," he helped himself to the liquor cabinet as his employer talked.

"Tell me, how familiar are you with the German agent dubbed the Armless Tiger Man?"

Taskmaster sipped the aged whiskey slowly. "Only vaguely, I think he tangled with the Angel during the war."

The man smiled. "Yes, yes he did. Tell me, do you know why he was called the Armless Tiger Man?"

"I figured it was because he lacked arms."

"Good! Yes, the man was born Gustav Hertz. He was a simple machinist in one of the countless factories outside Berlin when his arms were caught in the gears. Both arms had to be amputated."

"Pity. So he decided to fight the Allies because he lost his arms?"

"No! Hertz was a true believer in our Fuehrer's dream! Even with both arms missing, he still walked to the army and begged for a chance to serve der Fatherland! Hertz was taken in and trained, his teeth augmented and his feet altered. Within months they produced the greatest assassin to ever walk the Earth!"

"I know some people who would argue that point, but let me guess. You want me to train your troops so you can have an army of tiger men?"

"Exactly! Hertz was truly the superior man. He needed no chemicals like Master Man and no gimmicks like that buffoon Iron Cross, no, the Armless Tiger Man was the perfect physical specimen. We have footage of his fighting. Can you copy it and impart the techniques to our men?"

The Taskmaster finished his drink. "Provided the next part of your payment clears, sure."

"Excellent! With you at our side, we will overtake the world and crush all the machines!" The man continued his speech, ignoring the Taskmaster. "One thing not many people know about Hertz was that he held a special hatred for machines. If people weren't so dependent on those godless hunks of metal he wouldn't have lost his arms. His missions in America had him striking at that soft country's mechanical underbelly. Once our men are ready we will continue his mission!"

-T

For the next several days, Taskmaster did nothing but watch old film footage of the Armless Tiger Man. Hertz was an impressive physical specimen, he had to admit. With both arms gone, Hertz trained and developed his legs to near superhuman levels.

His lower jaw was enhanced, enabling him to bite through metal, as well as support his own weight. The lack of arms would ordinarily be a problem, but he managed to copy the man's movements thanks to his photogenic reflexes. "Now the issue is how can I train these morons in time?"

-T

"Alright ladies, attention!" Taskmaster barked. His recruits snapped to order as he made his way up and down the aisles. Twenty men stood in a neat group. They all wore fairly non-descript black uniforms. Judging from the looks of most, he doubted any of them had ever had a straight one-on-one fight. "Ok, here's where the fun begins. Anyone of you who can knock me out gets out of basic. What do you say?" He unclipped his belt and dropped it for emphasis.

-forty seconds later

"That the best you losers got?"

The Taskmaster stood over the men. He hadn't even broken a sweat; where as most of the men had broken something major at a minimum. "If that was your best I suggest you start looking into something less stressful."

"What do you think you're doing?" The second man from the bar stepped outside. "We give you men to train, not break!"

"Training is what I'm doing. They're scuffed up a bit, yeah, but what will happen when they fight Captain America? You think the Punisher will go easy on them? Or the Hulk?"

"Yes, but if they are injured they can't train! Our time table will not allow for any deviations. Train them, but we need fifteen at a bare minimum if we are to have any hope of success." The man gave a self-satisfied smirk and walked off.

"Baby them? Alright, as long as the check clears." The Taskmaster slipped his belt on and had the few who could walk carry the ones who couldn't off to the side.

-T

Thus it went for the next several weeks. The Taskmaster would train the men as hard as he could. Most of them improved and some even showed signs of competence.

During one training session, the first man (as the Taskmaster never bothered to learn either man's name) marched stiffly into the training floor. "Attention!"

With a nod from Taskmaster, the recruits snapped to attention. The first man ignored this sign and continued to talk. "Gentlemen, our time has arrived!" He grinned widely. "The legacy of the Armless Tiger Man will survive into the Twenty-First Century! Through these doors lies your destiny!"

As the troops marched out through the wide double doors, the first man took the Taskmaster aside. "Have you trained them?"

Under his white skull mask he gave the man a withering look. "That's what I've been paid to do, isn't it?"

"Excellent!" The double door slammed shut as the last recruit walked through them. "I was hoping you would be willing to perform another task for us."

"If the check clears; what, you want me to lead these kids?"

If anything the man's grin grew wider. "Yes! Precisely! We want you in front when we charge the soon to be capitol of our new Reich!"

The Taskmaster shook his head. He had been ordered to train the men to attack inside an urban environment, so he knew they wanted to assault a city. From the level of security they were supposed to overcome, he guessed they were making a play on Washington.

"Sorry chief, I just train them, I don't lead them." He started to walk away.

The man's grin vanished. "We can't let you walk away knowing what you know."

Taskmaster didn't even hear the gun clicking to know the man was drawing on him. Borrowing a move from Captain America, the Taskmaster knocked the gun free of the man's hand with one fist and punched him square in the throat with the other. "You think you're the first person to try and kill me?" The man coughed and staggered back. He swept him off his feet with a move that Iron Fist would have enjoyed. "I train troops, that's all. I don't knock over banks and I don't try to take over the world. If you morons want to run things so bad, go ahead!" Drawing his sword, he pressed the blade to the man's chest. "But don't drag me into your little dress-up games!"

Blood curdling screams coming from behind the double doors gave him pause. "I have a feeling I know what's going on, but why don't you enlighten me?" He removed the sword and pointed the blade at the doors.

The man looked puzzled, not at his actions but his words. "I thought you understood? In order to live up to the legacy of the Armless Tiger Man, all our troops are having their arms cut off."

It was a while before the Taskmaster could speak. "That has got to be the dumbest idea I've ever heard."

"Nonsense!" Another door opened. "If you fail to see our genius, then we must eliminate you as well!" The other two men from the bar entered, nearly making the Taskmaster do a double-take. The second man's arms had been removed at the shoulder. The third man's head was missing, his hands placed neatly on the second's shoulders for balance. A large bulge in the man's chest suggested his brain may have been placed inside his torso. The first man reached down to his hips and neatly popped his legs off.

The Taskmaster stared as the first man rolled over to the pair. The third man stood still as the first man climbed onto his shoulders. From there the pair of them hopped onto the second man's back. "Now you face the Ultimate Tiger Man!" The first man crowed from his vantage point. "And from here, you look so small!" He laughed madly. "Open the doors and let our new army gaze upon the world!"

The main doors slid open. Instead of a fighting force, all that staggered out were men sporting heavy gauze around their torsos. The new Tiger Man raged at his forces. "Fight him you fools, fight!"

"How about we wait until their anesthetic wears off? Because these boys are in no condition to move, much less fight." The Taskmaster poked the closest one for emphasis. The man fell over and moaned.

"But, Hertz was a master at combat!"

"He also had doctors you morons!" He sheathed his sword and drew his gun. Two quick shots at the bottom man's knees brought the Ultimate Tiger Man down. The first man crawled from the bodies and starred defiantly at the Taskmaster. Taskmaster ignored them and shut the doors to the operating theater, trapping the men inside. "At least in there the docs can take care of them." He gave the three men a withering glare. He noticed at length the first man was trying to say something. "What?"

"Kill me! Our deaths will serve to motivate our men into a righteous force against the decadent machinery of the world!"

The Taskmaster laughed. "From the state of those boys, I don't think that will motivate them to harm me." An explosion from outside rocked the complex. Walking over to one of the doctors, he pulled the man aside. "Ok sawbones, what is going on?"

"We are under attack! A man with red, white, and blue hair is attacking our perimeter!"

"Jack Flag? Uh, the kid's got some brass, or else Fury's standards have dropped considerably." He holstered his gun. "Gentlemen, as much as I would love to teach you some more, I think it is time for me to leave." He calmly walked past the doctors and bleeding men as more of the complex shook.

"Wait, the rest of our forces is still inside the room! Without their arms, they can't use the hand scanner to escape and fight!" The doctor pleaded.

"That, while hilarious, is really not my problem." He slipped away as a part of the ceiling fell and pinned the doctor to the ground.

He made it quickly to his quarters. As a rule he also packed light. Slipping off his costume, he quickly dressed in a nondescript pair of coveralls and a ball cap. Shoving everything inside a duffle bag, he made one last sweep before tossing an incendiary bomb inside the room. "Just in case they feel like going through anything with a fine toothed comb." He made it out as the fire burned away anything that could link him to the room.

The explosions were growing louder outside. "Just to beat feet, but I'm glad I got the payment in advance." He popped open a plate and entered an access tunnel. Sliding down a ladder, he jogged through the tunnel until he came to a fork. "Good thing I memorized these tunnels when I first arrived."

As a precaution, he had taken to walking around the base at night. The security was so slipshod he was able to mark various escape routes out of the base in case things went south. Taking the right fork, he made his way down the tunnel until he came to the end. Opening an access hatch, he starred into the drainage system. Taking a small square of fabric from his pocket, he pulled a cord and dropped it into the water.

The square unfolded into a raft. Hopping into the black rubber lifesaver, he left the current take him outside. He had sabotaged the grate leading to the outside a few hours before, so he simply sat back as the grate popped free and sank as he floated out into the ocean.

Glancing up at the stars, he got a good idea of his bearings. Unfolding a paddle, he slowly began to make his way towards freedom when a major explosion tore the building apart. He spotted a SHIELD airship floating off in the distance. "Guess those boys didn't pay as much attention as I thought. Ah well, live and learn."

The end

Now for the fan mail, and thanks as always for Darci's amazing proofreading this latest tale for everyone.

They Call Me Bruce

Good writing here, fella

Original tale, but the following characters were created by the following:

The Taskmaster first appeared in The Avengers I#195 (May 1980) with credits to David Michelinie (script), George Perez (pencils), Dan Green and Jack Abel (inks), Ben Sean (colors), and John Costanza (letters).

Armless Tiger Man first appeared in Marvel Mystery Comics #26 (December 1941) with credits to Paul Gustavson (pencils), Al Bellman (inks), and Joe Simon (editor)

Jack Flag first appeared in Captain America I#434 (December 1994) with credits to Mark Gruenwald (script), Dave Hoover (pencils), Danny Bulanadi (inks), George Roussos (colors), and Joe Rosen (letters).

Be here next time the Yancy Street Gang rumbles with some new foes on the block! Be here next time for "Roller Disco Smash!"

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Tales to Astonish#17-The Wasp VS the Human Top!