The Start of a Beautiful Friendship
A Shadow/Spiderman Crossover Story By Matthew Stephens And Kimberly Murphy-Smith
"Parker! Get in here!"
Peter Parker cringed when he heard J. Jonah Jameson's bellow across the newsroom. He knew exactly what Jameson's temper tantrum was about; he'd seen the front page of the Daily Bugle already this morning and knew it wasn't his best work. He hadn't had time to screen the pictures of Spiderman taking on mob flunkies before the press deadline, and the one that the night editor had picked was definitely lacking. The story wasn't much better, though he knew not even a Pulitzer Prize story would be good enough for the hard-to-please Jameson. He steeled himself for the inevitable dressing down he was going to get from the perpetually grouchy editor and went into his office, closing the door to keep the noise level down for the rest of his fellow reporters.
Jameson smacked the Bugle's headline. "What is this crap?" he demanded.
Peter took a deep breath. "I know it's not my best..."
"Not your best? It's not even good enough to be called your worst!" He slammed the paper on his desk. "When I agreed to let you write some of your own stories, I expected that you'd at least passed Journalism 101! Not only is this the world's worst action shot, but you missed the real action in the story! 'Spiderman Takes Out Mob Henchmen'? That is not only a lousy headline, but you completely missed the real action hero." He flung another paper at the young photographer. "Take a look."
Peter pretended to have trouble catching the newspaper, and then spotted the headline. "'Shadow Of A Doubt: Polito Lieutenants Captured; Crime Boss Still At Large'?"
Jameson would almost have enjoyed seeing Peter upstaged if he wasn't so annoyed. "That's right, Parker. The Classic scooped us again. Go on, read it."
Peter read the story. "Leonardo Polito, alleged mastermind of one of New York's most active mob rings, suffered a major blow last night when three of his lieutenants, including Andre Poudouris, chief suspect in several outstanding merchandise fencing cases, were arrested in a waterfront raid. Police were tipped off to their whereabouts by an anonymous caller and captured them after a gunfight that left an officer wounded. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the lieutenants were flushed out of their hiding place by the mysterious vigilante known as The Shadow." He looked up at Jameson.
"The Shadow. Now there's a story," Jameson grumbled. "And you didn't even get a shot of him. You managed to get a blurry shot of Spiderman and some flunkies running, but not The Shadow." He gestured at the paper. "That kid at the Classic--Stephen what's-his-name..."
Peter read the byline. "Cranston."
"That's it. At least he figured out which costumed freak to write about."
Peter looked at the headline curiously. "Has anybody ever seen this shadow guy?"
"What, Junior, you live under a rock for the last few years or something? Of course not. Nobody sees The Shadow. He's invisible, or so the crooks say."
"Then how do you know he's a costumed freak?"
Jameson hated it when Peter thought logically. "It's a figure of speech, Parker. The point is that Spiderman is old news. This Shadow...he's a legend in the Underworld. He's been around for 70 years or more, and he still manages to scare the living daylights out of mobsters. When Spiderman can still be scaring people when he should be in an old folks home, then he'll be news."
Peter winced slightly. He wasn't sure which was worse--being despised and labeled public enemy number one, or being dismissed as passé.
Jameson picked up his copy of the Bugle and shook it at Peter like a club. "I want a story on this Shadow. He's the one the mob is really afraid of. Get me that story and I might consider not firing your sorry butt." He threw his copy of the Bugle at Peter to punctuate his point. "Now get out of here."
Peter retreated from the office, still smarting from Jameson's tirade. He took another look at the Bugle's headline and the picture on the front page.
It wasn't the clearest shot Peter had ever taken, and it definitely wouldn't have been his first choice for a front-page shot. Too many shadows, too little light. But that wasn't what really bothered him. The notion that there was someone else in the tight confines of that warehouse that he hadn't seen had started him wondering. He would have sworn there was no one in there except police and henchmen--although come to think of it, there were an awful lot of bullets flying right as the police arrived, and it made him wonder who else the mobsters were fighting.
Maybe the other pictures in his roll would have a clue. He headed for the photo lab.
"I don't know what to tell you, Pete," Howie the photo tech said as he shook his head at the front page shot. "It was the best one on the roll. What happened, you set your F-stop wrong or something?"
"Or something," Peter agreed. Come to think of it, he'd forgotten the lights had suddenly gone down in the room, as if someone had cut the power. He'd given only a moment's thought to the camera settings being wrong before he dove in to round up Poudouris and his men. There were things that were more important than getting the best action shot, although getting a hot scoop and an exclusive photo were pretty high up there. "Let me see the others."
Howie shrugged. "Suit yourself." He gestured toward the computer terminal on his desk.
Peter sat down and found the directory containing the digital copies of his photos, then started clicking through them. Howie was right; these were bad. Dark, blurred, shadowy...
Then something in one of the shots caught Peter's eye. "You still got the negatives for these?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah." Howie handed him a long strip of film negatives. "Here."
Peter scanned the negatives until he found the one matching the odd digital image. He picked up a magnifier and held it up to the negative.
He wasn't crazy, he realized. One of those shadows looked human. Only vaguely human, but definitely not a trick of light. Barely visible in the room's dim light was the hint of a brim of a hat on its head and the drape of heavy dark fabric swirling around its body. Peter smiled as he realized that his camera may have inadvertently caught a glimpse of the elusive Shadow. "Hey, Howie, mind if I borrow the darkroom?"
Howie tossed him the keys. "Knock yourself out. You find a better shot or something?"
Peter grinned. "Or something."
The New York Classic was definitely a step up from the Bugle, Peter decided. An old newspaper from way back in the city's history, the Classic was ensconced in a Manhattan high-rise that towered over the street below as an all-seeing, all-knowing observer. The lobby was full of art deco appointments and marble and granite floors, and the whole place had an atmosphere out of a 30's pulp novel. But when he got off the elevator and stepped onto the newsroom floor, he realized that all newspapers share common traits. There were reporters everywhere, cubicles crammed with papers and photos and fast food boxes and the new staples of the trade, the ever-present computers with word processors glowing on their screens and keyboards so heavily used that their lettering was wearing off. He wasn't sure how he was going to find one person in the midst of this sea of humanity and for a brief moment wondered if anyone would notice him creeping up the wall to get an overhead view of the cubicle maze.
Then he saw it. An office, near the window, with an embossed paper sign outside the door that read "Stephen Cranston".
Peter raised an eyebrow. Clearly this was not a cub reporter scrounging for stories. The only way you got an office in this business was to either know someone at the top or be so much better than everyone else that you got one as a perk to keep you there. Jameson had referred to Cranston as a "kid". But then, Peter reminded himself, Jameson referred to anyone under the age of 50 as a "kid", so he could very well be dealing with someone who'd paid his dues, and the little bit of checking he'd done at the Classic's website indicated that the man was indeed quite prolific and apparently quite well-respected by his peers; he'd even been nominated for a Pulitzer last year. He headed over to the office.
As he reached it, he noticed it was a two-person office. Or rather, a one-person office with two desks crammed into it, though one was unoccupied. A dark-haired young man sat at the other desk, typing and occasionally scrolling the screen up and down to no doubt check his work. Peter started to knock on the door.
"Can I help you?" the man asked before he could.
At least the guy was a good observer, Peter mused. He'd seen reporters get so tied up in their stories that an atom bomb could have gone off around them and they'd have never noticed. "Yeah. I'm looking for Stephen Cranston."
The young man stopped typing and looked up. "Can I help you?" he repeated.
Peter raised an eyebrow. This was Stephen Cranston, award-winning journalist? He really was just a kid; he couldn't have been more than three or four years older than Peter himself. "Uh...yeah. I'm Peter Parker, of the Bugle."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Spiderman's photographer. I've heard of you." He stood and extended his right hand. "Stephen Cranston. Nice to meet you."
They shook hands. "Nice office," Peter quipped admirably.
Stephen laughed slightly. "A perk. Got it after I won a handful of awards and had no place to put them. I used to have an officemate, but he quit a few weeks ago." He gestured to the opposite desk chair. "Have a seat."
Peter sat down and took in everything around him. There were a few plaques on the wall, a diploma from Columbia University--geez, the kid was an Ivy Leaguer, too?--but other than that, the office was devoid of personal touches. The desk was full of work items, but they were neatly organized, stacked in crisp new manila folders with tabs notated in crisp and precise handwriting in plain black ink; not even a colored post-it note was visible on the desk. Even the colors on the computer screen were nondescript shades of grey. Stephen himself was clad in crisp grey casual slacks and a white button-down dress shirt, adorned only with a tasteful red power tie--rather plain and generic, except for the huge bright orange-red stone in what was probably a class ring on his left hand. But something about Stephen didn't fit the image he was trying to project. He looked the picture of a thousand other up-and-coming twenty-somethings in Manhattan. But his eyes--blue-green, ocean colored, the oddest shade of blue-green Peter had ever seen--didn't project that image at all. They instead reflected an image of someone who had been there, done that, and wanted to know where you'd been and what you'd done instead. There was something about this guy that was different, and Peter decided to tread lightly. "Saw your story on the Poudouris arrest last night."
Stephen nodded. "And I saw yours. Interesting perspective."
"I've written better," Peter admitted. "What I want to know is how you got the scoop? I didn't see you there."
"Well, I didn't see you there, either, and you even got pictures."
"Yeah, I did. And you didn't. Not even of The Shadow."
Stephen laughed, a low, dismissive laugh. "The Shadow is a myth."
"Yet you write about him."
"He's a useful myth. My editor thinks he sells papers. Similar to J. Jonah Jameson's obsession with Spiderman."
"Yeah, funny thing, that." Peter reached into his portfolio. "Maybe your editor would have liked a picture to go with your latest story?"
Stephen's expression betrayed just the barest hint of tension. "Let me see that."
Peter handed him the photograph.
Stephen studied it for a moment. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a photographer's magnifier. "You either have one Hell of a photo editing setup, or you got a real scoop. Anybody else seen this?"
Peter recognized the intrigued look of a fellow pro. "Not yet. Shall I keep it that way?"
"Let's just say I would be very...interested in future shots. Mind if I keep this?"
"Go ahead. I've got the negative."
Stephen understood the unspoken implication. "Could be worth something someday."
Peter snorted derisively. "Yeah, I say that about my Spiderman photos, but the fact is that only Jameson would care."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. I'd imagine there are a lot of people who'd be very interested in certain Spiderman photos. Especially if they were the REAL story."
Yep, the guy was a real pro, Peter decided. He'd smoothly steered the conversation away from scoops about The Shadow to digging for info about Spiderman, and only because Peter was used to paying attention to such things did he notice the turn in direction--a turn he was determined not to take. "Maybe we could trade info some time."
Stephen gave a sarcastic chuckle. "I'm sure Jameson would love that. He could actually scoop the Classic for once. Might be the only way he ever could."
The words may have sounded cocky coming from anyone else, but Peter didn't hear a hint of cockiness in Stephen's tone. Instead, Peter heard utter confidence. No, he corrected himself, he FELT utter confidence, as if the man across from him was projecting the attitude that he could back up anything he said or did. There was definitely something more to Stephen Cranston than met the eye. "Well," Peter said, "I think I interrupted your work, which means you've probably got a deadline to meet."
Stephen glanced at his computer screen. "Yeah, I've got a lot to get done before tonight."
"Then I should be going." Peter stood and extended his right hand to Stephen, who had stood to join him. "Nice to meet you."
They shook hands.
Stephen locked gazes with Peter.
For a moment, Peter felt strange. Something was hissing inside his head, and the room felt a little confining, as if the walls were closing in. His spider-sense began to tingle. And for the first time, he felt the barest hint of menace from the man still gripping his right hand. He gave the man's hand a not-so-gentle squeeze as a subtle reaction.
Stephen grimaced slightly and released the handshake.
The hissing stopped. Peter let go of Stephen's hand, then smiled and left the room.
Stephen watched him go, then massaged his right hand as he looked back at the photograph on his desk. Sloppy, he told himself. Very sloppy. He sat down in his chair and examined the photograph closer.
It wasn't a very good image--anyone looking at it would be hard pressed to identify that there even was a man in that shadow, much less identify his facial features--but it was still a photograph of The Shadow, and that was bad. Cameras were the bane of a hypnotic telepath's existence, for they had no mind to cloud and thus were not fooled by the psychic tricks Stephen had learned from his predecessor. Stephen carried on his person a device that could temporarily jam the circuits of most observation cameras and recording devices, but Peter Parker looked like the kind of guy who disdained digital cameras for the good old-fashioned whirr-and-click of a traditional 35mm. What Stephen really wanted to know, though, was where Peter could possibly have been hiding when he took this shot. From the angle of the photo, it looked as if he were hanging off a wall a few feet above the floor, but that wasn't possible; there would have been nowhere to stand and focus. It wasn't even a really good action shot--if he were aiming for the thugs, he got a decent pic of them, but you could barely see Spiderman, who was only just swinging into the shot when it was taken. Stephen knew Peter's reputation--he was a good photographer with a knack for hot scoops, luckier than most when it came to getting Spiderman on film--so it boggled Stephen's mind that he wouldn't have framed this shot better, even if he was just trying to capture the hot and heavy action.
Maybe one of Peter's other photos might hold more clues. He set the photo on his desk and walked out to the newsroom floor. "Anybody pick up our competitors this morning?" he called to his compatriots.
"Which one ya want?" a fellow reporter called back.
Stephen shrugged. "I'll take the Bugle."
A hand extended into the air, waving the paper.
Stephen crossed through the maze to fetch it. "Thanks."
"Too cheap to buy your own papers any more, Cranston?" an old-timer across the aisle groused.
Stephen smiled a tight smile in reply. "Didn't get my allowance this week." He nodded to his friend. "I'll have it back to you in a bit."
The co-worker waved dismissively. "Keep it. Not like that rag's good for anything other than lining a birdcage. I just read it for the sports section."
Stephen laughed, then retreated to his office, paper in hand, and closed the office door for a little privacy. The expression on his face turned from feigned amusement to genuine interest as he put the photo Peter had brought side-by-side with the cover shot.
Unless he was very much mistaken, the two pictures were taken from the same angle. Probably even from the same spot, and probably even at the same focus distance, though the Bugle's front-page shot had clearly been cropped and magnified for greater clarity of its focus subject, Spiderman. That meant that either Peter wasn't as careful a photographer as he thought...or Peter hadn't taken these photos at all, he'd instead let his camera's auto-focus and auto-shutter do the trick. And if the latter was true, that meant Peter's camera could well have been taking these shots completely unattended. But why? How would he know where to set it up to get clear shots of the action ahead of time? Was Peter working with Spiderman? Or maybe...
There was definitely something here that needed further investigation. Stephen turned to his computer screen, typed a few more paragraphs to complete his story, and then e-mailed it to his editor with a "done" note attached. He slipped the photo and the Bugle into his briefcase, then grabbed his leather jacket and opened the door to his office.
"Knocking off a little early today, Cranston?" one of the reporters called in his best mocking tone.
"Chasing down a story, Jenkins," Stephen replied, locking his office door. "You might try it sometime."
The retort got "oohs" and "aahs" from the other reporters, but Stephen barely heard them as he dashed out of the newsroom and down the stairs.
By the time he hit street level, a Sunshine cab pulled up to the curb and stopped as if waiting for him. Stephen barely broke stride as he opened the cab door and jumped in. "To The Sanctum," he ordered.
As the cab pulled away from the curb, a figure clad in red and blue tights seemed to burst out of The shadows and glide on a line to an adjacent skyscraper. The chase was on.
Moe Shrevnitz glanced in his rear view mirror as the cab sat in traffic. "Well, I'll be damned," he said aloud.
"What is it, Shrevvy?" Stephen asked, looking around to find the object of Moe's interest.
"I swear I just saw that guy Spiderman swinging around behind us."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Well, at least between the buildings behind us. You know, I always wondered if he was for real. My pal Big Charlie says he's seen him up close and personal, but I always wondered if he had just sucked in too many exhaust fumes."
Stephen discreetly looked out the rear window.
Sure enough, a streak of blue and red swung from one building to another, moving down the block toward them from above. "Shrevvy, I think I'll take a walk. It's such a nice day."
Moe looked in the rear view mirror. "You think he's following us?"
"Well, if he is, he won't be for long. Just in case he doesn't see me get out, take him on a tour of the sights of the city."
Stephen waited for a moment when their pursuer was moving again, then climbed out of the cab and headed for the sidewalk.
Spiderman was almost close enough to see inside the windows of the Sunshine cab when its passenger unexpectedly got out in the middle of a snarl of mid-day traffic and headed down the sidewalk. When he didn't appear to be heading into any nearby business, Spiderman realized he'd been spotted and now his prey was attempting to lose him. This guy was good, he noted to himself, but what was he doing that he didn't want someone to follow him while doing it? He'd heard of reporters going to extremes to protect their stories or their sources, but this was somewhat ridiculous...
He saw Stephen turn down an alley. He swung down toward a lower building, then landed lightly on the wall and scrambled around the corner.
Another turn. Spiderman jumped over to another wall and tried to keep up with him.
Stephen was back on a main street and crossing to the other side. Spiderman had to quickly get higher and shoot a line across to keep up. He swung across, then spotted Stephen turning down another side alley and landed on the wall of a building just ahead of him. Scrambling under a fire escape, he pushed himself deep into the shadows and waited.
Stephen stopped right below him and looked up at the shadows.
Spiderman held perfectly still. Between the tunnel-like atmosphere of the alleys between Manhattan's towering skyscrapers and the darkness of the brick and metal around him, Spiderman was sure he couldn't be seen. But he could swear Stephen was staring right at him, looking right into his eyes. The world seemed to suddenly get darker, it felt like a heavy fog was rolling in...
...and then suddenly, Stephen was gone.
Spiderman blinked twice to make sure he wasn't seeing things. What the Hell had just happened? He dropped straight down atop where Stephen had been standing just a moment ago...
...and landed on pavement.
This was too weird, Spiderman decided. It wasn't just the fact that Stephen was gone, it was as if he'd never even been there in the first place. There wasn't a sign of him anywhere. Where did he go? And how did he get away so fast? He hopped onto the wall and quickly looked around all corners, behind dumpsters, even at storm drains, trying to figure out where his elusive quarry had gone.
Nothing. He was all alone.
"Damn, you're good," Spiderman whispered to no one in particular. Then he shot a web out and swung away.
As he did, he thought he heard a man's laugh, floating through the sounds of the city like dust in the wind.
Stephen took a moment to catch his breath at the foot of The Sanctum's long spiral staircase. That was close, he mentally chided himself. Too close. Spiderman was quick, clever, and very persistent. Stephen thought he would have managed to shake him with the many twists and turns, but he'd not quite thought far enough ahead and only because he'd had his psychic defenses up did he realize Spiderman had anticipated his path and was right above him, only a few feet from the entrance to The Sanctum. There were moments Stephen was grateful for the gift of hypnotic projective telepathy, and this was one of them; he'd managed to confuse his pursuer into abandoning his observation post so that he could get into the safety of his underground office unnoticed. Now to find out why Spiderman was suddenly so interested in him. He stopped off at the watercooler for a cup of water to quench his thirst, then took a seat at an antique mahogany wraparound desk and flicked the switches on a communications console. "Burbank," he called.
The screen flickered to life, and Burbank's interested expression looked back at him. "Yes, sir?"
"I need some information. I need anything and everything you can find on a photographer at the Daily Bugle named Peter Parker. Address, life story, favorite color--you name it, I want it."
Burbank nodded. "That might take a while. Anything else?"
"Yes. Dig me up a basic dossier on the masked vigilante known as Spiderman. I'm especially interested in when he first started appearing in the news, and any known photographs of him. Parker made his name in photojournalism by capturing this guy on film, and I'm interested in any kind of connections you can find on them."
"That I can probably get a little faster."
"Good. I like fast. Keep me informed." He snapped off the link, then opened his briefcase. Pulling out the Bugle and the extra photo Peter had helpfully brought him, he began a more careful and detailed study. There was an answer here, and he was determined to find it.
The more Peter Parker found out about Stephen Cranston, the more confusing the whole thing became. Nothing about the man made sense. The image he was attempting to project to the world didn't match any of the facts Peter was finding out. It was almost as if Stephen Cranston the reporter was the secret identity of Stephen Cranston the...
The...what? Peter still didn't know.
He'd spent the last several hours searching through the Daily Bugle's archives, trying to find out anything and everything connected with the strange afternoon adventure he'd had today. He'd started by looking up the address of the building where he'd lost Stephen. It was an old skyscraper, built in the 1920s, housing several small businesses, a law office, a jeweler, an accountant--nothing really significant. But the owner was a corporation named VC Research. A research firm owning a highrise that had nothing resembling research going on in it? Odd.
Then he'd looked up VC Research. As it turned out, VC Research was a think-tank, a clearinghouse for scientific grants, named for its founder, Victor Cranston. Victor Cranston apparently had a ton of money to spend and founded the firm as a tax shelter, a way to have business expenses to write off and at the same time create new sources of money to come into the family. The name was too much of a coincidence, though, and Peter dug further, trying to make the connection between the young reporter and the billionaire businessman. He'd found out Victor had never been married, but that didn't necessarily mean Stephen couldn't be a son. He kept digging.
Then he found the connection. A news story from the late 1970s on the charitable legacy of billionaire philanthropist Lamont Cranston, whose sons Victor and Alexander ran the foundation trust fund he'd left behind. There was a brief note in the twenty-something year old story about Alexander's brand new son Stephen and how much Lamont would have enjoyed being a grandfather.
Stephen Cranston. Billionaire reporter.
At least, that was Peter's guess. The news story didn't say anything about one of the sons being cut off financially, so it stood to reason that the kid reporter he'd met was probably first in line to inherit one of the biggest fortunes in the world. He was most likely as blue-blood as blue-bloods came. A little more digging had turned up that Stephen was a Summa Cum Laude graduate from Columbia, dual-majored in Journalism and History, and that he'd graduated school shortly after his 20th birthday, after starting school at age 16. A guy like that could own a newspaper, not just write for it. A guy like that wouldn't have to work a day in his life if he didn't want to, and sure wouldn't have to spend his days chasing down leads for stories. A guy like that could have his own limousine--or even his own helicopter--but he'd caught a cab that afternoon instead and sat in midday traffic just like every other shmoe in Manhattan. He chased leads, he wrote stories, he got incredible scoops, he could seemingly find out information no one else could. Peter was completely unsure of what to think...
...then he'd found something that made him definitely take a closer look at the whole situation.
One of the pictures of Lamont Cranston, from the early 1930s, showed him in dressed to the nines, out on the town, blonde on his arm...and on his left ring finger, a huge silver ring with a massive gemstone in its center. A ring that looked awfully familiar...
Peter dug through the Bugle's archives and found a mid-70s shot of Victor Cranston, dressed to the nines, out on the town, brunette on his arm...and a huge silver ring with a massive gemstone in its center on his left ring finger.
Peter searched more archives. He finally pulled up the Classic's website and looked through the thumbnail biographies of the staff reporters.
The picture in Stephen Cranston's bio showed him in a classic thinker's pose, left hand on his chin, huge silver ring with massive gemstone in its center on his ring finger.
It was entirely possible this was some kind of family heirloom, or a class ring as he'd first thought. But the etchings on the side, now that he'd seen three different pictures of it, didn't resemble any college crest he knew about. And something about it was tickling in his brain, as if he vaguely remembered having seen it somewhere else before. He thought about it, then looked at his one and only picture of something that may or may not have been The Shadow. He got out a magnifier and looked at the picture again.
On the edge of that swirling darkness that may or may not have been a person was the tiniest speck of red. It could have been a stray fleck of color, a spot on the negative...
...or a glint of light reflecting off a ring on someone's finger.
Peter shook his head. What the Hell was going on? Was this really all a strange coincidence, or something deeper? How was Stephen tied into all this? And how the Hell did he just disappear when Spiderman was tracking him? And where did he go? Was it all tied into that building where Spiderman had lost him? How? And how was this all tied into the investigation of the Polito mob ring? Stephen had clearly beaten him to the Poudouris story and had gotten the angle of The Shadow's involvement that Peter missed entirely--how? Peter had been following Polito's activity for weeks, had heard about Poudouris's waterfront activities, and had been there when the police raid was about to go down--but he hadn't even known The Shadow was involved, much less been in a position to write about him. Who was Stephen Cranston, really, and what was his angle?
One thing was for certain--this was more than just a rivalry between two reporters for scoops now. Spiderman didn't like being upstaged. And Peter Parker was bound and determined to find out what Stephen Cranston was hiding. And the best place to start would be back at the last place he'd seen him.
He grabbed the gym bag holding his costume and went off to change.
As Stephen studied the file Burbank had sent him, he couldn't believe no one had made the connection before. Granted, no one had probably looked at the story of either man quite as closely as Stephen had. And granted, Stephen was trained to see connections where no one else could, to correlate even the smallest pieces of evidence into a coherent whole. But it still boggled his mind that no one had figured this out before.
Peter Parker. Spiderman. One and the same.
The clincher, ironically, had been Peter's own photos. Stephen had scanned the two photos from the Poudouris raid into The Sanctum's computer, manipulated them so that they were both the same resolution, then had the supercomputer calculate distances and focus depths on certain fixed objects common in both photos. The results were astonishing. The two photos had been taken from the exact same place, the exact same depth of field, the exact same exposure settings, the exact same angles. Even a very still human couldn't manage that. Even a camera mounted on a tripod couldn't manage that; most commercially available tripods moved slightly when the shutter was pressed. Only a mechanized camera secured tightly to its position could manage such a thing. He'd quickly run similar comparisons on other stories written by Peter with multiple shots, and found the same thing on those photos.
So Stephen wasn't crazy. He really hadn't missed finding a person in the room. There really were only five of them in there--three thug lieutenants, Spiderman, and himself. He'd seen Spiderman watching overhead as he slipped into the room, but there was little he could do about it--after all, as long as the web-slinger didn't interfere, he wasn't The Shadow's concern.
But Spiderman had set up a camera that Stephen hadn't anticipated. And he'd caught The Shadow on film. And that was something to be concerned about. And with the way Peter Parker was now shadowing him, he was probably digging up things too and would soon be putting two and two together as well. That meant they needed to talk. To settle things. To...
To do what? That was where Stephen was now at a loss.
Make him forget? Well, maybe he could, but any suggestion would be temporary at best if Peter had already gotten it in his head that Stephen Cranston and The Shadow were somehow connected. Hypnosis was really good at breaking single-thread connections, but multiple-layer ones were much harder to break without frying someone's psyche in the process, and that was something Stephen wanted to avoid if possible.
Kill him? Hardly seemed fair; after all, Stephen's identity hadn't yet been exposed. But "yet" was the key word. It was just a matter of time before Peter figured it out, and then there was no telling what would happen.
Reach a truce? That just left the question of whether one would betray the other hanging in the air. It put each man at the other's mercy, a position Stephen did not want to be in.
The choices spun in Stephen's brain like a whirlwind, and the whole thing was giving him a headache. Stephen rubbed his temples, exasperated. There were times he wished he had someone to talk to about these things. He'd been on his own for three years now, and there were times this job was damn lonely...
A light on Stephen's console blinked. He looked at it.
The motion sensor on the roof of the building had been triggered. Someone or something was up there that hadn't come up via the stairs, something heavier than the stray cat or alley rat that occasionally made their way up there, something heavier than the pigeons that perched on the roof on their way between buildings. Curious, Stephen clicked a couple of buttons on his control panel and waited for the surveillance cameras to answer the question of who his rooftop visitor was.
Spiderman felt his spider-sense tingle and heard the faintest "whirr" behind him. He looked around quickly.
It was hard to see, but a very tiny TV camera mounted on a ventilation chimney was now rotating around to survey the roof.
Spiderman frowned underneath the mask. Undoubtedly, he'd triggered some sort of sensor when he landed on the roof, but he wasn't interested in being the subject of someone's candid camera. Annoyed, he shot a web over to the camera.
The image on the screen suddenly went black. Or rather, grey, with net-like lines.
Stephen drew back. "So, you want to play it that way, do you?" he said with a smile. "All right, Mr. Parker, have it your way. I have other methods of watching you." He flicked the console off and headed for the cloakroom near the stairwell.
His ring flashed suddenly. Stephen went back over to the console and clicked the display on again. "Report," he said into the microphone.
Burbank's face appeared on the screen. "Agent in garment district reports movement in Polito's storage facility. Stolen rental truck pulled up about two minutes ago and several black-clad individuals got out. Agent suspects merchandise is being moved to new facility."
"Understood." Stephen clicked off the display. The cat-and-mouse games with Spiderman would have to wait. Breaking Polito's smuggling ring was far more important. The Shadow had work to do.
Surveillance was the boring part of the superhero gig.
Spiderman crouched quietly while balancing on a narrow drain pipe ringing the exterior wall just under the edge of the rooftop, not wanting to trigger any more sensors or cameras, and scanned the streets below. He still wasn't entirely certain he knew what he was looking for, but he had a strong suspicion this building housed clues to the mystery. He'd already gotten his first clue when the camera popped up looking for him. Now to see if he could wait out whoever was trying to stop him.
A cab pulled up to the curb below him. Its rear door popped open, then closed again, and the cab pulled away.
Spiderman did a double take. That was the same cab he'd seen Stephen in earlier, he was certain of that. But what was with the door opening and closing without someone getting in? Unless...
"Nobody sees The Shadow," he remarked aloud. "But I can sure see his transportation." He shot out a web and swung away, this time making sure he stayed far above the cab and out of its rear view mirror sightline.
Four men worked feverishly in the damp darkness of the basement of a large warehouse in the Garment District of New York City. Bad enough to have one costumed justice freak on your tail; Leonardo Polito now had two, and that was two too many. He'd ordered every piece of merchandise moved out of this facility, wanting there to be no trace of him should either the police or the nosy vigilantes show up to follow the trail of stolen contraband from one of the Polito ring's many arms of profit. Crates of illegal furs were being loaded onto movers dollies and pushed up the loading ramp of the truck as fast as the men could work.
One of the crates fell off its dolly and broke open. "Idiot!" one of the thugs said. "Get that stuff boxed up and let's get out of here!"
"What's your hurry, gentlemen?"
The voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time was followed with a ringing, mocking laugh announcing the presence of...
"The Shadow," one of the thugs whispered, drawing his gun.
Three other men drew their guns. "Polito isn't gonna like this," one of them hissed.
"So find him and kill him," their leader replied.
"Easier said than done." Another taunting laugh.
The men spread out, guns drawn, nervously looking for their tormentor.
One peered around boxes, recklessly not paying attention to whatever was behind him.
His mistake. In a split second, someone had him by the turtleneck collar of his black sweater and was hauling him upward. He struggled against the grip, but to no avail.
Spiderman bound him to a standing water pipe several feet off the ground in a distant corner with impossible-to-break webbing. A web gag completed the capture. "Don't struggle so hard," he chided his newly-apprehended crook. "Don't you know spider webs get tighter the harder you struggle?"
Before the man could answer, Spiderman had leapt away to rejoin the hunt.
Spiderman pounced onto a nearby wall about the time The Shadow had apparently cornered his first victim. He watched the man stagger back from a punch that Spiderman could hear connect but could not see at all, then watched the man swing wildly into nothingness before finally seeing him knocked to the ground and kicked in the head by a coiling, swirling blackness. "Unreal," he whispered.
Then, his spider-sense screamed. On instinct, he ducked just in time to avoid getting nailed in the head by a crowbar.
The thug who'd taken a swing at him couldn't believe he'd missed. So much the better for Spiderman, who reacted with a karate kick right into the man's solar plexus that sent him flying. A blast of impact webbing completed the fight, and the thug was now all tied up just like his partner.
Another surge of spider-sense went through him. Spiderman tried to turn away from the danger, but wasn't quite fast enough, and he got nailed in the head with a heavy steel chain from the last remaining flunky. The blow knocked him to the floor and left him disoriented.
The flunky made a noose of the chain, which he then threw around Spiderman's neck and pulled it tight.
Spiderman struggled against the chain, but felt his airway beginning to close as the choking chain pulled ever tighter. The room was starting to go black.
Shots rang out. Funny, he didn't feel like he'd been shot...
The chain went slack. So did Spiderman, as something in his brain was telling him to go to sleep. Gladly, he thought, before everything greyed out.
The first thing Spiderman noticed upon returning to wakefulness was how badly his throat hurt. The second thing he noticed was that the bandage wrapped around his injured neck was now the only thing covering it. He jolted awake and sat up quickly. His hands went straight to his face, confirming his worst fears: He'd been unmasked.
"Lie still," a voice that seemed to be all around him and inside his head at the same time urged. "You've been injured."
Like Hell he was going to lie still. He threw off the blankets covering him and started to stand up.
"I said, lie still." The voice was calm in tone, but the words were commanding. And they gave Spiderman no choice but to obey. He felt himself sitting back down almost before he realized it. Then, he looked around for the first time.
He was on an overstuffed supple leather sofa, with a down comforter that had been covering him now tossed aside to the floor. The room itself was dark, like an old study from an old manor house in an old movie. Furniture matching the sofa surrounded him--dark shapes that he guessed were a wingback armchair, a chaise lounge, an ottoman, with end tables and coffee tables in dark woods complimenting the dark leather upholstery and richly woven Oriental rugs adorning the floor. But there were no windows. There were only brick walls and dark wood paneling. And no light, save the single light coming from a far away room glowing subtly in the hallway and the faint glow of the fire burning in the small fireplace across the room. "Where am I?" he finally whispered.
"You're in my sanctum."
That voice...it was impossible to tell where it was actually coming from. But it was certainly familiar. Spiderman looked around for its source. "So, you going to tell me who you are?"
"I believe you already know...Peter Parker."
Peter cringed at the sound of his own name. And he was angry at the sibilant laugh of the voice that spoke it aloud as if mocking him. "All right, so you know my name. Why not tell me yours, and we'll be even? Or are you planning some kind of sinister plot to blackmail me into doing your will?"
That got a more mocking laugh from his unseen tormentor. "Oh, you'll do my will, all right, but not because of blackmail. I've saved your life, Peter Parker. It now belongs to me."
Peter gave the room a suspicious glare. "Who says?"
"And just who are you?"
"I am everyone you meet, and no one in particular. I am everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I am in front of you, behind you, everywhere you look, coming from angles you will never anticipate. I am around every corner, in every room, as inevitable as a guilty conscience." The voice dropped to a whisper and hissed in his ear. "I am The Shadow."
This whole thing would have been absurd were it not for the very real predicament Peter found himself in--he was exposed; his captor was not. He had his suspicions about who was behind the unseen voice, but they were only suspicions, and the man who'd brought him here had the real proof. "What do you want from me?"
This was getting crazier by the minute. "What?"
"Your life. I saved it; it is mine now to do with as I choose. You'll become one of my agents, like hundreds of others around the world. Their lives are lived in service to me, in service to justice and integrity in this unjust and corrupt world. They live lives of honor, of purpose, of passion. I shall make your life useful, full, and valuable, even more than it is already. But I shall risk it, too. And possibly even lose it, for I have lost lives, just as I have saved them. This is my promise to you, Peter Parker: Life, with enjoyment, with danger, with excitement, and with purpose. Life, above all, with honor." The voice grew darker and deeper as it seemed to surround him. "I demand only one thing from my agents: Obedience. Complete, utter, absolute obedience. You will do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it, without question. And if you ever disobey me...I'll know."
Despite himself, Peter felt chilled by the tone of the words. Without issuing a threat, The Shadow had made very clear what would happen if he were to say "no". But just in case..."What if I say no?"
"How do you know?"
That mocking laugh again, rumbling low and deep and sinister. "The Shadow knows."
Peter blew out a hard breath. "I guess I don't have a choice."
"You always have a choice in life. But you won't refuse me. I know that. I know that with such conviction that I am about to trust you with my most valuable secret. It is a secret men would kill to learn. It is a secret men have died keeping. And in entrusting it to you, I am putting my very life in your hands. But I have no doubt you will guard it with your own life."
And with that, an antique lamp switched on...and illuminated the face of Stephen Cranston, dressed all in black, sitting in the armchair across the room.
Peter leaned back against the arm of the couch. Despite himself, he was smiling. "I knew it."
Stephen smiled back. "I know you did. That's why I had to bring you here."
Peter nodded, annoyed with himself that he hadn't quite connected all the dots but pleased that he had at least figured out which dots were missing. "I knew it. I knew you were tied in with The Shadow. The only piece I was missing was how."
"And now you know."
"And now I know." He shook his head. "You'd figured me out, too, I take it? Before you pulled my mask off, I mean?"
"Indeed." Stephen reached into his pocket. "I believe this is yours." He tossed Spiderman's mask across the room.
Peter reached up and snared it with one hand. "Thanks."
Stephen nodded an acknowledgement. "Sorry about the unmasking. Your throat was badly bruised, and you were having a lot of trouble breathing. I promise I didn't pull it off until I brought you here."
"But you already knew."
"Let's just say that you should perhaps invest in a camera with better focus adjustment when it's in auto mode."
Peter groaned. "Geez, I'd never even thought of somebody comparing my pictures to see if they were all shot from the same vantage point. But, clearly, you did."
"I'm trained to."
"That what they teach you in Journalism classes at Columbia?"
Stephen laughed, The Shadow's low, disdainful laugh. "Some of it. But most of my research skills come from much more valuable training."
Stephen smiled. "Why don't we continue this discussion over dinner? Hungry?"
"Starved. But you probably don't have real food in..." Peter looked around. "What did you call this place again?"
"Sounds like an old TV series."
"Yeah, it does. But yes, I have real food down here. And with your swollen throat, I'd suggest we split a can of soup."
Peter rubbed his throat and groaned. Stephen was right; his throat was killing him, and he could barely swallow. But canned soup didn't sound like his idea of a real meal. "Can we at least make it chili?"
Stephen laughed, this time amused. He walked over to a closet and pulled out a pair of sweat pants and a sweatshirt, then tossed them to Peter. "Here. Get out of that spider suit and into something a little more comfortable."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "You always this forward with your agents, Mr. Cranston?"
"Only when I've saved them from certain death by strangulation and bound them to me by a life debt. Now, get changed. I'll see what I can do about dinner."
Peter laughed and shook his head. If his life hadn't been crazy enough before, it was about to take a hard detour into insanity. But he strangely found himself looking forward to the journey.
An hour later, they were both finishing bowls of chili over macaroni noodles and sipping tea as Peter finished telling his life story. He still wasn't sure how Stephen had gotten out of going first in this discussion, but apparently that was part of his Shadow skills, because before Peter knew it, he was off on a long and rambling story about how he went to bed one night with a throbbing spider bite on his hand and woke up the next morning with incredible superpowers, all because of...
"...a radioactive spider," Stephen said, intrigued and amused at the same time.
"Yeah, it's bizarre, I know. But I swear that's how it happened. One day, I'm Peter Parker, king of the geeks. The next day, I'm Spiderman, mutant freak."
"Am I what?"
"A mutant. I mean, in the strictest terms. Like I've heard the term used in other discussions. It normally refers to meta-humans, born with genetic differences that give them special abilities above those of normal humans."
"I don't know," Peter shrugged. "I guess not, if you use that definition." He eyed Stephen knowingly. "But I'd bet money you are."
Stephen gave a mysterious smile. "Well, I wasn't bitten by a radioactive shadow."
"So how do you do it?"
Stephen shrugged. "I'm psychic." He sipped his tea to punctuate the statement.
The simplicity of the statement made Peter laugh. "That's it? That's how you do all that? The invisibility, the weird laugh, the swirling voice, the uncanny knack for putting puzzle pieces together--all that comes from being able to read minds?"
"I don't read minds."
"But you just said you were psychic."
"I am. But not all psychics read minds. Specifically, I don't. I'm a projective telepath. My thoughts push outward instead of pulling inward. I don't read minds, I write in them. I can make you see, hear, do, or think anything I wish you to see, hear, do, or think. I can blanket an entire room with a hypnotic suggestion that you can't see me..."
Peter's eyes widened as Stephen suddenly swirled into nothingness. No, not complete nothingness, he corrected himself; there was a shadow on the chair where he'd been sitting, cast from the side table lamp. Peter watched the shadow move out of the chair and cross the room to stand behind him. "...and I won't be able to see you," Peter said, finishing Stephen's sentence. "But you're still physically in the room. And light can't be hypnotized, so it still bends around you and casts a shadow on the wall. And my camera can't be hypnotized, so it can still take a picture of you."
"That's why you turn the lights out--fewer shadows."
"And why you wear all black, too, I'd guess." Peter looked around for the shadow on the wall that had now disappeared, blended into the room's other dark spots. "But how do you do the voice thing? You're standing..." He gave the room one more appraisal, then reached back behind him and grabbed Stephen's arm. "Here."
Stephen swirled into visibility. "Good reflexes."
Peter nodded his thanks and released Stephen's arm. "Part of the spider thing. Now, how do you do that voice thing? You were standing right behind me, but it sounded like your voice was coming from all around the room. In fact, I'd have sworn you weren't actually speaking at all."
"I wasn't." He smiled. "But my mind was."
Peter was beginning to put the pieces together. "And you can project that mental voice anywhere, like ventriloquism."
"Exactly." Stephen took the dirty dishes and headed for the kitchen.
Peter noticed he didn't turn the light on as he stood at the sink and rinsed dishes. "And you can see in the dark, too."
"Sort of. It's a psychic skill called projective sight. I can reach out with my mind and bounce telepathic waves off the physical terrain. Kind of like mental radar. It's how I saw you under the fire escape earlier."
"But you looked right into my eyes."
"Once my mind maps the physical boundaries, my eyes only have to add details. So I need very little light to actually see in a room--the smaller the area, the less light I need. Just the glow from those lamps filtering into the room is enough for me to see..." He paused. "...that I didn't wash this bowl as carefully as I thought I did last time, because there's a flake of dried pasta stuck underneath."
Peter started laughing. "So that's your whole secret--that you're psychic."
"Well, not my whole secret. I have a lot of other skills I've learned through the years, plus a lot of things I can do naturally. Telepathy just makes most of my job easier. Although I would kill to be half the psychic my grandfather was. Hell, I'd kill to be half the psychic my uncle is, and he always said he would have killed to be half the psychic my grandfather was."
"So does that make you a quarter psychic?"
Stephen laughed aloud, this time a genuine belly laugh of amusement. "Something like that." He returned with a fresh pot of tea and a small plate of cookies. He set the plate on the coffee table, then refilled Peter's cup.
Peter looked at his now refilled teacup. "You have a great eye for detail," he noticed. "When you took my dish, you looked in my cup to see if it was empty."
"Natural skill, or were you trained at it?"
"A little of both. I've always noticed more detail than anyone else I'd ever met...with the exception of my uncle. I was positively blind by comparison with him. That's part of what he spent most of my formative years teaching me."
Stephen raised an eyebrow.
"Sorry," Peter said, "but sometimes you talk like you're so old. 'Formative years'. I looked your age up, so I know you're only 3 years older than I am. But you act like you've been at this forever."
"Not forever." He refilled his own teacup. "Just since I was sixteen."
Peter's expression turned questioning. "You're kidding."
"No, I'm not. Technically, I've been doing some of this since I was thirteen."
Now his expression was one of disbelief. "Thirteen?"
Stephen nodded. "That's when I psychically awakened. That's when I first learned I was the heir to my grandfather's legacy of incredible projective telepathic power...power he used to bring justice to the streets of Manhattan as The Shadow. It took almost three years before I was ready, but on my sixteenth birthday, I joined my uncle on my first mission as a Shadow in training."
"When did you go solo?"
"About three years ago."
"When you graduated college," Peter realized.
"Correct. At that point, my uncle decided it was time I should be making my own way in the world. He retired to live the life of a carefree billionaire who ran his own company in between social engagements, and I went out on my own. Getting a job as a reporter was a great cover story. Gave me the excuse to be everywhere the action was and ask police all sorts of questions. Besides, it was a respectable job."
The way Stephen used the phrase "respectable job" made Peter shake his head. "See, this is what I don't get. Unless I completely misread all those articles on your family, you're like a gazillionaire."
Stephen laughed. "Not quite. I think it was J.D. Rockefeller who said, 'If you can count your millions, you're not a billionaire.' I can still count my millions."
That made Peter scoff. "Millions. I have never even seen a million dollars, probably will never even have a million dollars in my lifetime, and yet you toss the term off casually. Why work at all? Why not just stay at home and live the high life and do this on the side?"
Stephen shrugged. "It's not like that's a bad choice. My grandfather lived the high life. But he didn't do this on the side. He lived the high life on the side. This was his mission in life." He paused. "His penance."
Peter noticed Stephen's mood had turned considerably darker. "Penance for what?"
Stephen hesitated. "With great power comes great responsibility."
"Yeah," Peter agreed. "I know that all too well."
"I'll bet you do." Stephen took a deep breath. "This whole mission came about because of a life debt. My grandfather lived a pretty self-serving life when he was younger. He knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men...because he had seen that evil inside himself. He lived with that evil. He was on intimate terms with it." A sip of tea to calm his nerves. "And then, just as the evil inside him threatened to swallow him whole, a Tibetan holy man saved him from himself. 'I have saved your life, Lamont Cranston,' Marpa Tulku told him. 'It now belongs to me.'"
"I've heard those words before," Peter said knowingly.
"Indeed. Marpa Tulku awakened the telepathic power within my grandfather and turned him into a living weapon against evil." Stephen's eyes were no longer focused on anything but the reverent memories in his own mind. "My grandfather started all this. The Shadow ruled the night for over 35 years. Half the criminals in New York were terrified by him. The other half wanted him dead. So he must have been doing something right." Stephen laughed at his own joke. "He lived every day of his renewed life in service to the life debt he owed to Marpa Tulku. And when he could no longer fight the evil physically, he turned the job over to his eldest son, who was a more than worthy successor. And The Shadow again ruled the night for over 30 years." He shook his head. "And then my uncle turned the job over to me. But times had changed. No more was it acceptable to be just a 'wealthy young man-about-town' who happened to be the police commissioner's nephew or a 'rich important businessman' with upper-class ties that the social-climbing police commissioner wanted to cultivate. I had to have a reason to care so much about what the police were doing or not doing. I had to have an excuse to dig into people's private lives for information. So it was either become a cop, a politician, or a reporter."
Peter laughed at Stephen's choices. "Being a cop was too constraining, right?"
"Right, and I'm not a professional liar. That left only journalism." He shrugged. "It's actually good for me. It allows me to indulge my passion for justice and my obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. And I get the ego-stroking of seeing my name on the front page of the paper every so often."
Peter shrugged. "I see my name on the front page practically every day."
"I noticed that. Jameson's got a real axe to grind about Spiderman, for some reason."
"It sells papers. That and the fact that Jameson resents costumed freaks running around the city doing the police's job."
The Shadow's mocking laugh rang through the room. "If the police would actually do their jobs, you and I wouldn't be running around everywhere."
"Which brings us back to how we ended up having this conversation in the first place," Peter noted. "Did Polito's thugs get away?"
"No, thankfully. You tied two of them up for me, I knocked out one, and shot the fourth in self-defense."
"Or in my defense."
Peter looked at Stephen as the magnitude of what had happened earlier finally began to sink in. "You really did save my life."
Stephen nodded. "Fortunately, I shot him with his partner's gun. It'll look like a haul gone bad. I've got agents in the detective divisions who'll make sure of that."
The cavalier manner that Stephen tossed off that declaration made Peter take note. "Just how many agents do you have?"
"Not enough." Stephen sipped his tea.
"Do any of them know...?"
"Three. My uncle, as you no doubt surmised. It's kind of a tradition for the preceding Shadow to work for his successor as an agent, just like the successor does when they're in training. My priest, Father O'Reilly..."
Peter laughed out loud. "Your priest?"
"Another Shadow tradition. My grandfather recruited his priest as an agent, my uncle recruited his priest, and I recruited mine. There are times even a Shadow needs spiritual guidance."
"Bet you spend a lot of time in the Confessional."
"Let's just say I know my Act of Contrition very well." He picked up a cookie off the platter and finished it in one quick bite. "The other one who knows is the cabbie you've tailed a couple of times. His name is Moe Shrevnitz. His cab is my mobile office...and my limousine."
"Why not a real limo?"
"What, and have crooks be able to spot me coming a mile away? There are places in this city a limo would stick out like a sore thumb. But a cab blends in almost anywhere."
"So why no limo for the off hours?"
"I don't have off hours." Stephen returned to his cup of tea.
Peter didn't miss the change in demeanor. "Job gets kind of lonely sometimes, doesn't it?"
Stephen shrugged. "It was my choice to do this. I chose to take on the mission...and everything that entailed."
"That doesn't make it any less lonely."
"No, it doesn't."
Peter looked away. "I didn't choose this mission. It chose me. I had the chance to stop a thief early on. I didn't. He later robbed my family and killed my uncle. All because I didn't stop him when I had the chance. I knew I could never make that mistake again. So I've been slinging webs and chasing crooks ever since."
"That's a choice, you know. Whether you view it as one or not, you still could have walked away from your hard-learned life lesson. You didn't. You chose to make amends for your mistakes, to face the darkness in your life head on. That's a powerful choice. Not one easily made, nor easily turned away from."
"Like right now." Peter looked at Stephen. "You wouldn't have told me all this if you weren't pretty certain I wasn't going to do anything to hurt you."
Stephen poured himself another cup of tea. "I'd fry your psyche if I thought you were going to hurt me."
That triggered an earlier memory. "Like you tried to do this morning?"
Stephen hesitated. "I was trying to see how deeply your curiosity about The Shadow had managed to burrow into your brain. Hypnosis works really well when someone hasn't thought too deeply about something."
"Thought you said you don't read minds."
"I don't. But I can hypnotize you into letting down your guard so I can look into your thoughts." He sipped his tea. "Most people don't notice."
Peter was annoyed. "I don't like being manipulated."
"And I don't like having my fingers broken." Stephen flexed his right hand. "You have quite a grip."
Peter was pretty sure he'd just been awarded a point in this continuing game of one-upmanship they were playing. "It worked."
"That it did."
Peter leaned back against the sofa. "So you'd really fry my brain?"
"But would you?"
Stephen gave him a dark glare. "Let's just say that I don't like being challenged."
The coldness of Stephen's last declaration still hung in the air when Peter noticed the stone in Stephen's ring flickering with light and the faint sound of a buzzer coming from another room. "That your pager?" Peter wisecracked, trying to change the mood.
Stephen glanced at the stone. "Sort of. Excuse me." He put his teacup down and left the room.
Peter, now full of curiosity, followed.
Stephen sat down before his communications console and flicked several switches. "Report."
Peter raised an eyebrow at the sight of a face on the video screen in front of Stephen.
Stephen held up a silencing hand.
Peter stepped back quietly.
"Agent in 86th precinct reports Polito henchmen arrested," Burbank stated. "One dead on scene. Incident being ruled as a heist gone bad."
Stephen smiled. It was nice when a setup worked as planned. "Good. Any additional information on Polito's activities?"
"Not at this time. Shall I send a response?"
"No, but keep me informed." He flicked off the console, then happened to notice his newest agent had changed his plane of alignment. "I thought you got bitten by a spider, not a bat."
"Sometimes you need a different angle on things," Peter said from his perch on the ceiling. He gestured at the screen with his head. "Can he see you?"
Stephen shook his head. "But he can hear every word I say."
"That your secretary?"
"Something like that." Stephen gave the ceiling a suspicious glare. "Don't you get a headache doing that?"
"Nah. I actually get almost claustrophobic standing on the ground. It's so much less crowded up here. So what do we do next?"
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "We?"
"Yeah. Remember? You made a big deal about how I owe you my life and now it's yours. I figure that makes us partners."
"I don't recall using the word 'partners'."
"All right, agent. Whatever. The point is that I am in this thing way too deep to back out now. And I think you and I are after the same thing--Polito. Maybe we could work together, pool our knowledge, and come up with a plan?"
Stephen shook his head and headed back to his sitting room. "I work alone."
Peter sprang after him, landing on the wall in front of him. "Ha! That's not the way I see it. Hell, you practically have a standing army doing all the behind-the-scenes stuff. Doesn't sound like somebody who spends very much time working alone."
"That's what you think." Stephen brushed by him.
Peter was up onto the ceiling and snared Stephen's teacup off the coffee table before he could reach for it. "Yeah, that's what I think. You know what else I think?"
"No, but I'm sure you'll tell me."
"I think that you don't like being upstaged. The Shadow sees all, The Shadow knows all. But The Shadow can't DO all...not without some help. And THAT is where I come in."
"Yeah, really. So stop playing coy. You saved my life, it's yours, I'm your agent, start using me. Let's put our heads together and figure out this thing. What do you say?"
Stephen looked at him for a long moment. Arrogance got on his nerves faster than almost anything. But Peter Parker looked to have the confidence to back up most of his arrogance. "Give me my teacup."
Peter drained the remainder of the cup's contents, then dropped the delicate china into Stephen's hands.
Stephen gave him a scowl. Peter had obeyed the command to the letter, if not exactly to the spirit. "Now, get off my ceiling and get down here. We've got work to do."
Peter grinned. Yep, his life had definitely taken that hard right turn into insanity. But he never knew insanity could be so much fun.
They spent the better part of the next hour comparing notes, putting together locations, adding pieces to each other's puzzle. But it was far from looking anything like a completed work, and both men knew it. "So where do we start?" asked Peter from the wall above the console.
Stephen looked over the work table, strewn with papers and maps and wild notes of ideas. "The inventory was clearly the important thing tonight. At least one of the crates was full of furs."
"I saw that too. There have been a couple of shipments to that warehouse in the last few months. They come from some place in Chinatown, can't be more specific than that. I never attacked any of them because I wasn't sure if they were Polito's or not."
"More than one shipment?" mused Stephen. "They would all be furs--after all, the warehouse was in the garment district. So where are the furs going?"
"More important, where are they coming from? Fur sales aren't exactly common in these amounts. Maybe they're fakes."
"Nope. Not fakes." Stephen tossed an evidence bag with a strip of something in it onto the table.
"Malayan Sun Bear, specifically, and it's quite real. You can get anything in this town if money is no object and you don't ask where it came from."
"Well, I'm asking. Where does he buy them, and where does he get the money for them?"
Stephen got a crafty look in his eyes, which had turned black and powerful. "I think I can answer the latter of those questions."
Peter shook off the unsettling feeling from that look and jumped to the floor. "What? How?"
"There's a black market accountant who specializes in funneling purchase money for expensive and illegal items. They call him Max. He handles the accounts of most crime families. Let me see..."
Stephen had stopped at a filing cabinet. He opened the drawer marked "Accounts" and opened a file marked "Max". A list of names of crime families in NYC was at the top of the file. Sure enough, Polito was listed.
Peter looked in awe at the file cabinet. "Where do you get all this information? This stuff must have every crook in New York listed."
"Most of the serious ones. Follow me."
"Where are we going?"
"Let's go find out where that money comes from."
Peter collected his costume. "Is Max an agent?"
Stephen let loose a chilling laugh. "No. But Max and I have met before."
Peter rubbed his neck, which was healing fast. "O.K. Lead the way."
"Before we go," said Stephen, catching his arm, "you'll need this."
Peter looked down at his left hand. On his third finger was one of those very distinctive rings. "Nice ring. If we ever get a divorce, I'm keeping it."
"Very funny." Stephen held up his hand and displayed his ring. "You're one of us now."
Peter gave Stephen a knowing look. "So what college is this class ring from again?"
Stephen laughed the chilling laugh again as Peter followed him up the stairs.
The wall slid back into place as they reached street level. Peter looked around. "Of course," he realized. "The alleyway where I lost you earlier."
"You wouldn't believe what I went through to get that cursed webbing off my camera."
Pulling up to the curb as they reached the main thoroughfare was the cab Peter had seen earlier. "Your driver's here," Peter wisecracked.
Stephen opened the rear door and gestured inside, and the men piled into the back seat.
"Moe Shrevnitz," said Stephen by way of introduction, "meet Peter Parker...our newest agent."
"Hi," said the driver. Peter saw the authentic New York City cab license that read 'Moe Shrevnitz', and that the meter was completely dark. The cabbie waved to the new passenger, and Peter noticed that he was also wearing the bright red ring.
"Pleased to meet you," Peter said, not sure where to go from there.
"Moe, he knows," Stephen said straight off.
"He knows?" The cabbie was surprised to say the least.
"Yep. It's O.K. He's with us. And we need to pay Max a little visit."
Moe nodded, still shaken, and pressed the accelerator.
The cab moved at a speed far too fast for evening traffic, cornering like it was on rails, the crazy driver only having one hand on the wheel. The taxi turned off Broadway and headed toward the seedier side of the city, rarely moving slower than 55 mph. While Peter fought the impulse to point out every car they were on the verge of hitting, or at least the urge to cover his eyes, Stephen reached under the seat and opened a hidden drawer.
"Peter," he said as he pulled out some dark clothes, "Our mutual friends have some work to do."
Peter knew exactly what he meant, but hesitated. Stephen obviously didn't mind about changing identities in front of the driver, so after a moment, reached into his pack and pulled out the Spiderman mask.
Moe's eye widened as he saw, and realized why his boss had given out his secret to a new agent. He adjusted the rearview mirror, and turned toward the street.
Peter dared a glance next to him, and suddenly saw why Stephen didn't seem to mind changing in front of his driver. Or, rather, he saw because he didn't see. Stephen had virtually vanished, and in his place was a thick cloud of black. Mind-clouding, Peter realized, then became aware that he hadn't felt a thing. The hypnotic spell had been cast, and his own heightened senses didn't even notice.
The darkness resolved itself into Stephen once again, now wearing even darker clothes--a black trench coat, a black cloak, black leather gloves. Only a slash of red from the scarf around his neck interrupted the flow of inky blackness. Peter gasped as he saw Stephen's face. It had changed. The eyes were burning with black power, his face now made of sharp and hawkish angles. Stephen pulled the bottom of the wrap around his neck up and over the lower half of his face, and the resulting profile sent chills down Peter's spine.
Peter pulled Spiderman's mask over his head.
The Shadow reached down into the drawer and pulled out and a pair of beautiful silver automatics--two of the biggest personal weapons Spiderman had ever seen.
"Nice pieces," Spiderman commented, adjusting his web-shooters.
"Glad you like them. Genuine antique .45 automatics."
Spiderman jumped at the sound of The Shadow's voice. Even in the cab, the sound seemed to swirl in from all around, even though he knew it was coming from just inches away. "Like the kind Grampa used to carry?" he joked.
"Granddaddy," The Shadow corrected, then gave a nod to his companion's gauntlets. "Is that where your webbing comes from?"
Spiderman nodded and demonstrated the nozzle, the activator, and the cartridges. "My own invention. The shooter and the webbing."
"Impressive." The Shadow placed a black felt fedora on his head, the terrifying profile complete.
Spiderman couldn't help but draw back slightly. "Talk about impressive..."
A whispered laugh filled the cab, more impressive now; it trailed the cab into the night.
The taxi had pulled to a stop in a depressing part of town. The streets were littered with debris, and the walls coated with graffiti. In this oppressing part of the city, where it seemed the sun never shone, was a pawn shop with a grimy door and barred windows.
It was this shop at which The Shadow and Spiderman stood. The Shadow knocked at the door. There was no answer.
"Maybe he's closed for the evening," suggested Spiderman.
"Not Max. He sleeps on a cot in there. After all, he can't keep banker's hours." The Shadow knocked again.
"We're closed," snapped a voice from inside.
"Told you," Spiderman said. "So what now?"
"I have the key." The Shadow gripped the barrel of one of his automatics and clubbed the lock. The padlock broke with a resounding clang, and an instant later, The Shadow had kicked the door open.
Max stood up and pulled out a small revolver from behind the counter.
Then The Shadow strolled in. "Hello, Max. So good to see you again."
Spiderman looked at Max. The man looked like Dracula had come to his shop. "No. No. No. Not again." He was shaking so much he nearly dropped the gun.
Spiderman moved up to the ceiling above The Shadow and took care of the remaining detail, slinging a web over to Max and snaring the gun from his hand. He looked down at his black-clad counterpart. "You must have made quite an impression last time."
The Shadow nodded. "Max, I need some information, and I know you have it."
Max was backing up toward the wall, and The Shadow stepped forward every time Max moved back. "I-I-I swear, I got out of that business."
The Shadow looked up at Spiderman, and shook his head. "Max, that's what you said last time. Why do we have to go through this every time I visit? I hate it when you lie to me."
Spiderman decided that it might be useful to play good cop. "He's not in a good mood, Max. Just tell him what he wants to know, and we'll leave peacefully."
The Shadow laughed. Spiderman understood the routine. "Leonardo Polito has expensive tastes, Max. I'm in the market for a few fur coats myself--want to tell me where he's getting his?"
Max was now against the wall, The Shadow less than two feet away. Max was inching slowly away from him, but the cloaked tormentor was matching his movements precisely. Max still tried to play the innocent. "I don't know any-"
"DAMMIT, MAX!" The Shadow suddenly exploded, and even Spiderman flinched. "I'm running out of patience here."
"O.K., O.K." Max had crumbled. "He's getting the money from an overseas source. Somewhere in Asia. I don't know who, and I don't know what their deal is. But that's where the money is coming from."
"Where's he getting the pelts?" asked Spiderman.
Max hesitated, but The Shadow had backed him into a corner. "He's buying them at a black market auction house in Chinatown."
"When's the next auction?"
"Tomorrow night. The Green Pagoda."
"Thanks, Max," said The Shadow, suddenly cheerful. "By the way, you need a new lock on your door." He started to go, then turned back. "Oh, and Max...don't tell anyone we were here."
The masked men calmly left, leaving a blankly-staring but clearly terrified Max behind.
"You are psychotic," Spiderman proclaimed as they left the building.
"It's pronounced 'psychic'," The Shadow corrected, striding onward.
Spiderman leapt to the wall in front of The Shadow's path. "No, it's pronounced 'psychotic'. As in 'crazy'. What did you do to him back there?"
The Shadow stopped and looked up at the wall-crawler. "What do you think I did?"
"I think you scared the Hell out of him. What's worse is I think you enjoyed it. No--I think you drew some sort of power from it, as if his fear was making you stronger."
The Shadow fixed his gaze on his masked companion. "Let's get one thing straight. The world of evil is a world of darkness and shadows. It's not enough to just shine a beacon of light into the darkness, for light creates its own shadow. To defeat evil, you must drive it from The shadows and into the light, where it cannot survive. I derive no pleasure in making good men fearful. But evil men? I will do whatever it takes, and I will use any means at my disposal, for evil must be destroyed."
"So why not take him down? You said it yourself, scum like Max are evil men. You could destroy him, probably with no more mental effort than it takes to remember a takeout order. Why not just do it?"
"When a spider spins a web, they do it with care and precision. They also do it with a remarkable design of redundancy. As long as the center remains intact, a spoke or two can be torn asunder and the web is still functional. I don't care about spokes like Max. I want to destroy the center. And we still haven't found that center."
Spiderman looked at him for a long moment. "You've got a point. I hadn't thought of it that way." He sprang to the opposite wall, out of The Shadow's path.
The Shadow strode onward toward the street.
By the time he reached the curb, Moe Shrevnitz's cab had arrived.
The timing was too eerie for words. When they'd left The Sanctum, Spiderman had attributed the cab's timely arrival as simply a response to some kind of secret radio call he'd probably missed. But this time he knew he hadn't missed a signal...at least not one he could have heard. He was slowly beginning to realize the magnitude of The Shadow's power.
"Are you coming or not?" he heard The Shadow's voice echo around him.
At least he'd been given a choice this time. Spiderman dropped to the street and slipped into the cab.
The Shadow climbed in next to him. "Drive," he commanded.
Shrevnitz pulled away from the curb.
"So what now?" Spiderman asked.
The Shadow had all but disappeared into the darkness of his side of the cab as he reclined against the corner. "We get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day. Or rather, night."
Spiderman for the first time noticed the digital clock on the cab's dashboard. "Geez, it's 3 A.M."
"Oh, good. I'm finished early tonight." The sound of the under seat drawer latch popping signaled the end of tonight's activities.
Spiderman shook his head as he began to pull off his own costume. "You sure you're not really a vampire?"
A low chuckle of amusement that still managed to sound threatening. "I've been called worse."
Shrevnitz's cab pulled to a stop next to a curb.
Peter realized with shock that they were parked just up the street from his apartment building. He turned to the dark corner again. "Tell me you told him where to go and I just didn't hear you."
"I told him where to go and you just didn't hear me."
That got a laugh from Peter. "And you say you're not a professional liar."
"That's not a lie."
"I know. That's what scares me." He thought for a moment. "So what time should I meet you tomorrow?"
"I'll let you know."
"I don't suppose you need my office number."
A chuckle. "No." The darkness resolved into visibility for a moment, and Peter could clearly see the orange-red stone on The Shadow's ring. "An agent will contact you tomorrow. They will tell you that 'The sun is shining.' You must answer, 'But the ice is slippery.' And make sure that they can see your ring--and you can see theirs."
"The sun is shining..."
"But the ice is slippery."
Peter shook his head. "How do you come up with this stuff?"
"There are some questions better left unanswered." The darkness cleared, and Peter could see that his fellow passenger was now Stephen Cranston once more, and that Stephen's right hand was extended. "Good night, Peter."
Peter accepted the handshake. "Good night, Stephen."
Were it not for the fire opal ring perched on his left ring finger, Peter would have dismissed the entirety of last night's adventure as some kind of pepperoni pizza-induced dream. As he sat at his desk in the Bugle's cramped office space, going over the Classic's scoop on a haul gone bad at a garment district warehouse--geez, when did Stephen find time to do his job on top of everything else?--Peter wondered how or when he'd be summoned, not to mention how to explain to Jameson that he'd be gone all day with no pictures to show for it...
"Excuse me," a youthful voice said.
Peter looked up at the delivery boy who was now standing at his desk, brown paper deli delivery bag in hand. "Think you've got the wrong desk. I didn't order any takeout."
"I don't think so. The sun is shining."
Peter for the first time noticed the boy's right hand--and the fire opal ring on its third finger. He discreetly raised his left hand to flash the ring. "But the ice is slippery."
The young man nodded, then left the paper bag on Peter's desk and departed.
Peter opened it. Inside were two sandwiches and a cream-colored envelope. He extracted the envelope and opened it.
The paper was blank.
Peter was about to check the back of the paper when suddenly, writing shimmered into view. "Downstairs. Now. Bring the bag."
Peter wasn't going to ask how the words appeared on the paper, nor how they vanished just seconds later. He gathered his camera bag and his delivered lunch, then headed for the stairs.
By the time he reached the street, Moe Shrevnitz had pulled up to the curb.
Peter opened the rear door and climbed into the cab. "I'm assuming you know where to go?"
"To The Sanctum," came the reply, but not from Moe.
Peter looked to see Stephen had climbed in right behind him, just before the cab pulled away. "Watching to see if I'd really come?" he asked his mysterious new partner.
"Actually, I had to cash a check. Did you bring the bag?"
Peter held it up. "This is a working lunch, I take it?"
"Most definitely. And we have a lot of work to get done before tonight."
"You know, if Jameson sees us together, he's going to wonder what's going on."
"No, he'll think he knows how the Classic gets all its scoops."
Peter groaned. "Terrific. You do realize I don't have a million dollar trust fund to keep me going, right? I actually have to work for a living."
"Leave everything to me."
Peter gave Stephen a questioning look. "What, you going to pull a hypnosis trick on Jameson to make him not go looking for me this afternoon?"
"Not at all. My uncle will take care of that."
Now Peter had his doubts. "You're kidding."
"Yes, I am." Stephen smiled. "Actually, my uncle invited J.J. to lunch. He's known J.J. since he was a copy boy. They should be sitting down to cocktails in the Cobalt Club right about now." Stephen looked at his watch to make sure his timing was right. "And after such a filling and rich lunch--and a fine Dominican cigar--J.J.'s going to feel very sleepy and decide to take the afternoon off."
It took all Peter had not to laugh out loud. "You do think of everything."
"Could you maybe make him not look for me all the time?"
Stephen laughed. "I'm not that good a hypnotist." Then he reconsidered it. "Well, I am, but that's irrelevant. Besides, you wouldn't want that. He might forget your paycheck then." He looked Peter in the eye. "I take very good care of my agents...as long as they take very good care of me."
"I'll try to be worthy of the trust. So what's on the agenda?"
"We're going out to dinner."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "And I haven't a thing to wear."
Stephen smiled. "I can fix that."
The Shadow's laugh trailed the cab through the streets of Manhattan.
"Will you hold still!" snapped Stephen.
The men were in The Sanctum preparing for the evening. The auction was that night, and the men agreed that they had to attend. But as they could not be identified as Peter Parker and Stephen Cranston, they had to be disguised.
Peter could not help fidgeting. Stephen had wrapped a thin wire mesh around his face, it was very light, but still an unfamiliar feeling. Once that was done, Stephen had opened a veritable mask shop, dozens of flesh tones, fake appendages, eyebrows, contact lenses, false teeth, and scars. The variety was astounding, and Stephen was using them with the ease of considerable experience. He referred to a large volume of pictures, each page with a picture of a different face.
Finally, the artist was done. He handed Peter a mirror. "What do you think?"
Peter looked at the mirror and found a stranger's face staring back at him. "Is that me? Amazing!"
"I've done this before."
"Obviously," said Peter, almost afraid to touch his cheek.
"You can touch it, just don't rub it too hard. The mesh is so that your new face will move when your actual face does. Makes it less mask-like."
"Useful little device," said Peter, working his jaw. "Where'd you get it?"
"I made it."
Peter shook his head. "Why am I not surprised?"
Stephen laughed slightly. "My uncle showed me how to make them. Granddaddy apparently showed him how as well. How Granddaddy learned it, I have no idea."
"And here I've been using a mask all this time to hide my face." Peter still couldn't get over it. The mouth moved when he spoke, the eyebrows lifted and fell, even the nose twitched.
"I do it all the time in the field. But I always take my time when possible." Stephen had taken back the mirror, and was now working on his own disguise.
"And you do this because it's easier than mass hypnosis?"
"And it has the added benefit of not being uncovered by cameras." Stephen paused in his work and handed Peter some fake identification. "Your name is now Brodie Thorne. I am Henry Arnaud. Just two more people at the auction tonight, shopping for furs."
"O.K. But you realize that Polito will be there."
Henry Arnaud's face looked back at him, and The Shadow laughed. "I sure hope so."
The Green Pagoda was a restaurant in Chinatown. Peter ordered fried rice and Peking duck. Stephen ordered sweet and sour pork.
"The food here is pretty good," remarked Peter.
"Yeah. Too bad it's also a black market sale house," answered Stephen. "Careful not to smear the sauce on your mask."
Peter nodded and dabbed at the small dribble on his chin. "Some of these people look familiar."
"Yep. They're members of the underworld. Mobsters have pretty good tastes, but they hate to leave a paper trail, so they buy things here."
Peter suddenly sat upright. "Polito just walked in."
Stephen nodded and looked at his watch. "The auction starts in a few minutes."
"Where, though? I can't figure out where. Are all these people criminals?"
"No. Most of these people are legitimate customers. There will be a message sent to all the prospective buyers." He waved over a waiter. "Can we have the fortune cookies with extra fortune please?"
The waiter gave a knowing nod and left.
"That the code word?" asked Peter once he was gone.
Stephen nodded. "I've worked this place before."
The waiter brought them some fortune cookies.
Stephen took his and crumbled it. Inside was a piece of paper. It simply said: Authorized. "Let's go," said Stephen, standing up.
The basement of The Green Pagoda was larger than the building itself. It was a simple enough auditorium, with the tables lining the walls. On each was a picture of a product. Each picture had a very detailed description, and exhibit number. The lighting was dim but comfortable, and incense and candles burned in the four corners of the room.
Standing at the entrance to the basement was a huge man, built like a gorilla and just as friendly. Stephen handed him the slip of paper, and their fake credentials. The guard looked at them, and let them pass.
The two men moved around the auditorium, and the other prospective bidders. Stephen pointed out all the furs exhibits. "That's what he'll be after. He can't have them."
A plain, squat man entered the room and walked to the head of the auditorium, where a small podium had been set up. The man hit a small gong. The resounding tone filled the room, and everyone turned to him.
Without preamble, the man began the auction. "Exhibit A: Early Victorian chair."
Some of the people in the room glanced over at the picture, just to be sure. The bidding began. But Stephen and Peter remained quietly in the back of the room.
The auction continued. There were huge varieties of items up for auction. Things that you would find in any auction, some for the more exotic tastes. There were antiques, furniture, clothing, art, stock options and jewelry. Then there were items that were less than legal. Drugs, stolen goods, and of course, the furs.
The fifth item was the first fur exhibit. Bear skins. Polito opened the bidding on this exhibit with $5,000. The auctioneer immediately began to close the bidding. Nobody thought this odd. It was clear that Polito usually bought the furs; nobody else cared.
But then, unexpectedly, there was a contender. "$15,000," called Stephen simply.
His bid caused a ripple of amazed chatter. This was not anticipated.
"$20,000," countered Polito.
"$100,000," returned Stephen.
Polito was silent, and while considering his options, the bidding was closed. Stephen had bought the first fur exhibit.
Nobody was amazed as much as Peter. "What the Hell are you doing? I thought the goal was to observe and not attract attention."
"No, the goal was to figure out what Polito was doing with the furs, and why he wants them so badly. The best way to do that is to see what he does when he can't get the furs. Besides, you said you've never seen a million dollars. Tonight you will."
Peter grinned at the look on Polito's face. "Mind if I give it a try?"
"By all means," said Stephen graciously.
"What's our upper limit?" Peter asked.
Stephen snorted at the absurdity of the idea of a limit.
Peter got the message. "This is going to be fun."
The second fur exhibit came up; this time, it was white tiger pelts. Polito opened the bidding high, hoping to frighten off opposing bids. "$50,000."
It didn't work. "$150,000," Peter called out.
Polito gritted his teeth as the hammer came down again.
The same routine ran through the rest of the auction. For every bid Polito made, Stephen and Peter topped it. They bid on a few other items, just to make it less obvious what they were doing.
The auction lasted for several more hours before it finally came to a close. By the end of the evening, Stephen and Peter had spent about 2 million dollars. Polito was beyond angry, and just wanted to know who had taken his products.
"So, how did this help us out?" Peter asked. The men were outside the Pagoda, and Moe's cab was nearby.
Stephen did not answer right away, instead gesturing with his eyes toward the approaching auctioneer.
The auctioneer walked right up to the men and did not waste time on pleasantries. "Your purchases are ready," he said, indicating a moving van nearby. "You have payment?"
Stephen snapped his fingers.
Moe popped open the trunk.
Stephen took out three large briefcases. Opening them all, he displayed the contents for the auctioneer's approval. The cases were all full of bundles of money.
Peter felt his eyes boggle, but tried to hide it. There was more money than Peter could count.
"Two million dollars," clarified Stephen.
The auctioneer picked up one of the stacks and thumbed through it. It was genuine. The auctioneer gave an ugly grin and handed Stephen the keys to the back of the moving van.
Stephen slid the door up, and the van was full of their purchases. The men thanked the auctioneer and gave the van driver the address of a warehouse for the items to be taken to.
As the van pulled away, Peter repeated his question. "How did this help us out?"
Stephen was about to answer when a man came up to the cab. "Excuse me, gentlemen, are you Henry Arnaud and Brodie Thorne?"
"Who wants to know?" asked Stephen.
"My employer, Mr. Leonardo Polito. He wishes to meet you. He is in the restaurant."
Stephen and Peter shared a look. "Lead the way," said Stephen.
The man who'd come to fetch Henry Arnaud and Brodie Thorne led Stephen Cranston and Peter Parker toward a private room in the back of The Green Pagoda. He knocked on the door.
"What is it?" a voice called from within.
"Your guests," the man replied.
The door was opened, and the man gestured for Stephen and Peter to go inside--after an appropriate pat-down for weapons, of course.
Stephen was quite used to this. Peter, who normally did his surveillance and detective work under the mask of Spiderman, clearly was not. Stephen gave a glance to Peter, who was noticeably casting his gaze about the room, looking incredibly nervous. "Relax," he mentally urged, putting a bit of hypnotic emphasis behind the thought command.
Peter wanted to relax, but he couldn't. His spider-sense was jangling his nerves. Something was very wrong in here. He kept looking around, trying to find the source of the danger.
Sitting at a corner table deep in the room was a middle-aged man in a finely-tailored Italian suit, enjoying a platter of Chinese appetizers, with bodyguards flanking his table. "Good evening, gentlemen," Leonardo Polito greeted, then gestured to the chairs across from him. "Sit."
"I prefer to stand," Peter answered, a bit too sharply.
Stephen was beginning to catch on to his counterpart's cues. "Suit yourself, Brodie," he answered, then calmly sat down in the chair directly in front of Peter.
Peter got the message loud and clear--Stephen wanted Peter to watch his back. He was only too happy to oblige.
"So you're Henry Arnaud," Polito said.
"Sometimes," Stephen replied. "I don't believe we've ever met, though."
"You are correct. But you've forced this meeting, Mr. Arnaud. You have some things that belong to me."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "I don't believe so. I believe I bought and paid for those things myself."
"Didn't your friend win some of those? Surely you didn't pay for his, too?"
"It's a loan," interjected Peter.
"He forgot his checkbook," Stephen added.
"I see." Polito eyed them skeptically. "What do the two of you need with $2 million worth of exotic furs?"
Stephen didn't miss a beat. "I needed a new bearskin rug for my living room."
"I see. And what does your friend need with them?"
"My apartment's drafty, and some of those looked like they'd go well with my drapes," Peter replied. "The real question is, what do YOU need with $2 million worth of exotic furs?"
Stephen kept his expression even. A bit more direct than he'd have been, but effective.
"I own four furriers in the garment district," Polito replied. "Surely worldly gentlemen such as yourselves already know that."
"Furs like those will get you five to ten," Stephen remarked.
"Per item," Peter added.
"Then what do YOU plan to do with them?" Polito snapped.
Peter's hypersensitive nerves suddenly focused his attention on the sound of a switchblade being snapped open. "Tell your man to put his knife away before I put it away for him," he hissed.
Stephen gave Polito a wary smile. "He's not kidding, either."
Polito gestured with his eyes at his blade-happy underling.
The man flicked the blade closed again.
Stephen looked disappointed. "And I thought this was going to be a useful discussion."
"There is nothing to discuss," Polito responded. "You have property that belongs to me. I want it back."
Stephen gave a wicked, cold smile. "Fine. I'll put it up for auction next week. If I don't find a better buyer first."
"And you might bid higher next time," Peter added.
"I think I'd like to place my bid now." Polito looked at his men.
Peter could see hands reaching for guns in hidden holsters. He tried to think of how best to put himself in a defensive posture without giving anything away.
In one sudden move, Stephen kicked the table over into Polito and sprang to his feet.
Peter caught Stephen's chair as it jerked back and smashed two henchmen with it in rapid succession.
Stephen picked up the platter that had crashed to the floor and flung it Frisbee-like across at the remaining guards, knocking their guns from their hands.
Before anyone else could react, the two heroes had fled the room.
"Idiots!" Polito snapped. "After them!"
Stephen and Peter raced out into the alleyway behind The Green Pagoda, looking for an avenue of escape. "This way," Stephen called, heading for the fire escape.
"Where are you going?" Peter asked.
"Up," Stephen replied, as if it weren't obvious.
Peter shook his head. "There's a faster way." And before Stephen could object, Peter had grabbed his arm and leapt a full story up the brick wall before them.
Stephen wasn't sure if it was the speed and agility of the move or the raw strength it took to execute it that impressed him more. "Whoa!"
"I need my other hand," Peter said.
It took a second for Stephen to realize that they were both suspended ten feet off the ground with only the strength of Peter's five left fingertips holding them there. He quickly caught up mentally. "Pull me up a bit."
Peter hoisted him a bit higher.
Stephen reached out and secured a hold across Peter's shoulders and around his neck.
With his other hand free, Peter quickly scaled the wall and hopped onto the roof.
"Wow," Stephen observed as he regained his own footing. "I think I just gained a whole new appreciation for the survival skills of a spider."
"If I had my web-shooters, it would be even better," Peter admitted. "We'd be long gone by now. Where to?"
Stephen did a quick scan of the block. "That way," he pointed to the right, already crossing the roof to get to the other side.
"Get down!" Peter shouted suddenly, diving for his partner.
The two of them hit the deck just as bullets went flying over their heads.
"I owe you one," Stephen admitted.
"Nah, I'm just getting warmed up," Peter replied. "We'll settle the accounts later. Right now, we need to get out of here. And that way is not the way to go."
"Stay here." Stephen moved away and swirled out of sight.
Even though he knew precisely what was happening, Peter was still blown away by the effect of the mind-clouding spell. He wondered if he'd ever get used to it. Even trying to use his spider-sense to pick out Stephen's movements, only the slightest things betrayed his presence--a shadow where one shouldn't be, a swirl of movement momentarily obscuring the object it passed before, etc. This was an incredibly detailed hypnotic suggestion, and the effort it must take to hold it was something Peter could not even fathom.
"O.K., here's the situation," he heard The Shadow's voice say. "Our friends with the machine guns are on the fire escape right across the way. There are two more on their way up the other fire escape, the one on our left. That only leaves one escape route for you..."
"For us," Peter corrected.
"No, for you. You're the one they can see. I have my own means of escape. I can't cloud you, but I can make sure they don't see you. But you'll have to move fast."
"I'm good at that."
"Good. In five minutes, Shrevnitz will be here."
For a second, Peter thought Stephen meant right below them outside The Green Pagoda, then realized he suddenly had a street map location imprinted into his brain, several blocks away from their current position. "What...how...?"
"Later. Can you find that location?"
Peter let go of his curiosity for the moment. "Absolutely."
"Good. When I say 'go', take off for there. And whatever you do, don't look back. I mean it."
"What about you?"
"I've already got my escape route mapped out. You're the one who's got to get clear fast. Now, get ready. Here they come."
Peter quietly slipped to the back of the building, preparing to move on command. His spider-sense was jangling again, signaling danger close at hand...very close at hand...as in, almost at the top of the fire escape close at hand. It was taking everything he had to stay steady, to not move on instinct.
Peter leapt off the back of the building, dropping the three-story drop to the roof of the adjacent building.
He felt the flash of light a split second before he saw it reflecting off the metal chimney stacks in front of him. A second one surged in from the left, and Peter had to quickly shield his eyes as he sprang to a nearby wall. What in the world? Couldn't have been a bomb; he'd have heard an explosion. He wanted to look back, but remembered Stephen's admonition not to. Instead, he had to quickly traverse the blocks to meet Shrevnitz's cab. Not for the first time, he wished he had his web-shooters as he leapt from building to building, staying in the shadows of alleys and under the edges of rooftops to keep from being seen from below. Even under the mesh mask of Brodie Thorne, Peter still felt exposed without his own mask and tights.
Shrevnitz's cab was turning onto the street below him. Peter leapt from the overhang and landed on the cab's roof.
Moe thought he was going to have a heart attack. He quickly screeched to a stop. "What the...?"
Peter opened the passenger door and swung himself in. "I hope you know where he is, because I sure as Hell don't," he told the cabbie as he slammed the door.
This new partnering arrangement was going to take some getting used to, Moe decided. He floored the gas and ripped around a corner. "He should be coming out right about...now!"
Peter hung on for dear life as Moe hit the brakes at the edge of an alleyway and popped open the rear passenger door.
And as if on cue, Stephen darted into the cab. "Green Pagoda," he ordered, slamming the door shut. "Back side."
"Didn't we just leave there?" Peter asked.
"I dislike leaving unfinished business behind." Stephen reached into a compartment between the seats and extracted a plastic bag. "Here--get that stuff off your face," he said as he handed him a damp cloth.
"Loosen the edges of the mask and pull it off. Use the cloth to wipe off any remaining paste and residue." Stephen began removing his own mask.
Peter followed suit. "What was that burst of light?"
"You didn't look back, did you?"
"No, but I sure caught a good reflection off the windows and vent ducts. What, do you carry nukes in your pocket?"
Stephen produced a disc between his fingers like a prestidigitator palming a coin. "Magnesium flash discs. Magician's prop. Ever watch a stage magician set off a flash pot to distract your attention from the sleight-of-hand? Same stuff. Look right at it and it'll sear your retinas."
Suddenly, Peter understood. "Light creates its own shadow."
"That's why you had to get clear fast--so that in the moment of your escape, they wouldn't have time to see you before the light hit. It's a big burst, but it only lasts a few seconds. That's usually all I need." Stephen popped open the drawer at his feet and dissolved into the shadows.
Peter wished he had that ability to vanish into the darkness as he found his own change of clothes in the bag under Moe's seat. "You threw two of them--one at the guys coming up, one at the guys on the other side."
"Learn that trick at your uncle's knee, too?"
The Shadow laughed. "Intellectual immortality at its finest." He swirled into visibility and looked over at his partner. "Shall we settle our accounts with Polito's assistants?"
"That's the thing about Chinese food," Spiderman said as he pulled his mask into place. "Makes you want to go back for more."
The private room in The Green Pagoda was a flurry of activity. Polito was maintaining an admirable calm. He was directing the cleanup of the room, while arranging his own escape. "Get all this stuff outta here!" he yelled at the few men left in the room as they started to clear the file cabinets, the tables, and the several briefcases out of the room. "I don't know who those two work for, but we can't let them find anything when they come back." Polito rushed out of the room to the back alley, where his car was waiting.
A dozen other men entered the room and gathered up the last of the evidence--two large briefcases. They were carried out by two lightly armed men, and flanked on all sides by men with rifles and Uzis.
"Right," said the man with the first briefcase as they headed for the door. "Let's get outta here fast." No sooner had he finished speaking than he felt himself run into something and hit the floor.
Struggling to his feet, and looking for the briefcase, he glanced over at the door and tried to figure out what he'd hit. Before he could ask any of the surprised men around him, he saw something. Something that explained what had happened.
Like a magic trick, a cloud of pure darkness gathered in the doorway like a thunderstorm, and solidified into a figure of pure black, darkness so deep, that his gaze seemed to slide off it. Except for the slash of red near the top, the figure seemed to be made of the night itself. The burning black eyes looked down at him and made him shake in fear. There was no doubt who this man was, for 70 years the underworld of New York City had spoken his name in terrified whispers. The contract on his head was a devil's dare to professional hitmen. The Shadow. Death to The Shadow!
The raven man crouched, and something blazed in over his head, flying through the top half of the doorway and attaching itself to the wall. It was another man, this one in bright red and blue, the low light glinting off his silver gauntlets and glowing in the lenses of his mask. The spider web pattern on his suit and the black silhouette on his chest gave name to the figure which crouched on the wall above the men. Spiderman.
Spiderman considered giving one of his trademark one-liners, but the tension in the room was almost suffocating. The Shadow had his hands hidden beneath his cloak, but the silver automatics were all too clearly being held and ready to fire. The terrified gunmen had been raised on stories of what this hero could do, but they were not going down without a fight. Hands were on weapons, stances shifted into combat position unconsciously, and fists were balled. Spiderman shifted his hands to point down at the men, web shooters on a hair trigger.
For about thirty seconds, nobody moved. Then, suddenly, one of the gunmen sneezed. There was a short bark of laughter from the masked men, and then the tension returned.
There was a nuclear silence.
And all at once, the stand off was over.
The backside of the Green Pagoda was constructed from thin wood, made as an office for customers after hours' business. It started with the usual four walls. Within minutes, it only had two.
Spiderman leapt from the wall and dove into the center of the men, just as they flashed their weapons, and started shooting. But The Shadow was no longer in the doorway; in fact he had vanished completely. One of them had drawn a bead on Spiderman, and started to turn. Spiderman's danger sense screamed, and he turned to meet this attacker. The gun lifted, and Spiderman ducked to avoid a blow from behind. From nowhere a blow came, and threw the aiming thug to the floor. Spiderman was confused, when another man on his left reeled from an unseen punch. Suddenly getting it, Spiderman grinned and kicked one man in the stomach, while punching another's jaw simultaneously, then leaping seven feet straight up and used the height to kick another man through the nearest wall.
The Shadow became visible mid-punch and took stock of the situation. Spiderman was moving fast, and keeping in close combat, making the rifles useless, but the men had now drawn knives, and the light glinted off steel. The Shadow considered shooting out the lights but didn't know how well Spiderman worked in total darkness.
In his moment of hesitation, a thug jumped him from behind, a long blade searching for his throat. The Shadow threw him over his shoulder in a karate move, and spun 180 degrees into another roundhouse punch, which sent the man into, and through, the next wall.
Suddenly Spiderman spun, and fired a ball of webbing past The Shadow, nailing the face of the final opponent.
With the battle over, a calm descended. Spiderman and The Shadow looked each other in the eye and laughed.
"Sweet moves," Spiderman complimented. "They literally never saw you coming. Neither did I."
"Me?" The Shadow said back. "You were everywhere at once. I almost pulled a gun on you. And that web shot was amazing. Six inches to the left and you would have hit me!"
"Impact webbing. The very latest in non-lethal hardware."
Then the men remembered where they were.
"They were clearing something out of here real fast," said Spiderman. He gestured to the sleeping men. "Do we wait for them to wake up?"
The Shadow had already picked up the two briefcases and pulled a table upright. "Let's see what the goods will tell us first." He popped one briefcase open. It was full of strips of paper. But it was not money.
"Dry cleaning receipts?" Spiderman laughed. "That is not at all what I expected."
"All of them from Jiang's Dry Cleaners." noted The Shadow. "Look at the due dates, none of these have been cashed yet." He gathered up half a dozen of them. "We'll take a closer look at this later." He popped open the second case.
Small packets, filled with white powder. "That's more like what I was expecting," Spiderman noted.
The Shadow slid a knife from his boot, and slit one of the packets open. He very carefully sniffed a very small amount. Then spat. "Opium." His voice suddenly turned so dark and poisonous that Spiderman shivered. That was quite a reaction, stronger than he expected.
Spiderman was carefully considering what to say next. The Shadow looked ready to explode. But then his spider-sense screamed. Too late, he saw one of the men had revived and grabbed the nearest gun. "LOOK OUT!"
He dove and crash tackled into The Shadow, who let out a harsh shout of pain, and the two of them landed behind the table as a spray of bullets came at them. As he dove, Spiderman flooded the shooter with webbing.
Once again, calm descended, and The Shadow sat up with a groan. Spiderman looked his friend over. The side of his black coat was stained with a dark liquid. Spiderman stared; he knew what the liquid was. "Y-you've been shot."
"Yeah," grunted The Shadow. He shoved the receipts into a pocket. "Help me up."
Spiderman tried to help The Shadow stand, but The Shadow's knees buckled almost as soon as he was upright, and Spiderman caught him quickly before he hit the floor again. "Where is Shrevnitz?" he asked, hoping his friend had at least had the presence of mind to summon the cabbie.
"Making the block right now."
Spiderman was chilled. Even the mental voice had ragged edges to it that suggested the situation was far worse than he could see. He practically carried his partner into the street and into Moe's waiting cab. "Quick, Moe! To a hospital!"
"NO!" shouted The Shadow. "To the Sanctum. I can take care of myself."
"You got it, boss." Moe could hear the pained edge in The Shadow's voice, too, but obedience overrode concern, and the cab pulled out into the street.
The Shadow faded into the dark corner of the back seat.
Spiderman was stunned. How the Hell did he even still have the presence of mind to cast a mind-clouding suggestion? Then he could see the darkness swirling oddly and realized that it was taking everything his partner had to hold the darkness around himself. "You look like Hell," he cracked in a half joke and half warning that the spell wasn't holding as strong as The Shadow might like.
"I've been through worse." Spiderman heard the hidden drawer open. "You want to put your costume in here, too?"
"Sure. Why not?" Spiderman pulled his mask off, and tossed it over, and it vanished into nothingness.
As the cab pulled up at the alleyway, Stephen and Peter exited. Peter had insisted in coming along. "You would have done the same," he said over his partner's weak protests as he supported Stephen down the dark path.
"I think I did do the same," Stephen replied in a deadpan tone.
The memory of waking up in The Sanctum made Peter laugh. Had that really been just yesterday? "Yeah, you did, didn't you?" Then, as they reached the familiar alley where their first game of cat and mouse had ended, Peter realized he couldn't tell which bricks were supposed to form a door. "Hope you brought your keys."
Stephen seemed to get a second wind. "Wait here." He pulled away for a moment, and Peter heard a dull, metallic clank. Then the familiar grinding sounds of the hidden doorway opening. Peter had not seen anything, but felt the strong grip of his friend leading him surely toward the end of the alley.
After difficultly negotiating the staircase, Stephen collapsed onto the nearest leather couch. "Pete, in the kitchen is a cabinet marked with the Red Cross. In that you will find a box marked 'Gunshots'. Bring that in."
Peter followed the directions robotically. When he returned, Stephen was sitting upright and had his blood-soaked top off. Peter was momentarily stunned with the amount of scar tissue on his skin--it had all had been well treated and healed excellently, but Stephen definitely had a soldier's wounds. The most recent of which was on his side, just above stomach level.
Stephen tried to twist to get a look at it and nearly passed out from the pain. Keeping himself straight, he opened the box Peter had brought and retrieved a small mirror and a surgical sponge. He looked over the area carefully and mopped away a fair amount of the blood. Despite the pain on his face, he spoke with a clipped, to-the-point tone. "Looks like I got lucky. The thing grazed a rib and curved around it instead of shattering it." His fingers poked the skin around the hole, searching for an exit wound. "Didn't quite make it out, though, and if it stays in there, it'll move." He gestured at a long pair of tweezers with a scissors-like handle. "Let me have that hemostat."
Peter slapped the instrument into his hand, surgery style.
Stephen tilted the mirror so he could see clearly and reached the hemostat into the wound, but the bullet was out of reach and he couldn't flex enough to reach further. He switched hands and tried it the other way, but he reached too far and sucked in his breath at the pain again. "Peter," he said, handing the instrument back, "I can't reach it. You'll have to do this."
Peter's stomach did a flip, and he took the hemostat automatically. "O.K.," he said after a very long silence. "What do I do?"
"Just put the tweezers in, grab the bullet, and pull it out carefully." He gestured over to the sidebar. "First, though, hand me that bottle--square-ish one, on the left."
Peter handed it over. "What's in it?" he asked as Stephen took a long sip.
"A very important medical necessity. Bourbon."
Peter grinned and took a swig himself. "O.K. Here we go." His hands shook only slightly as he slipped the tweezer-like ends of the hemostat into the entry wound.
Sensing his partner's tension, Stephen started talking. "Never done this before?" he asked as he handed Peter a handkerchief.
Peter hadn't realized he'd even been sweating, but was grateful for the cloth to wipe his brow. "Never been shot before." He pondered for a moment. "I've been attacked with acid, electric shocks, metal tentacles, living water, sand, fire, razor edged wings, rhino horns, knockout gas, and I'm probably forgetting a few things. Hell, I've fought my own costume once, but I've never done field surgery." He looked at Stephen oddly. "You're trying to hypnotize me again."
"And obviously not doing a good job, or you'd have never felt it." Stephen managed a small chuckle. "Force of habit. You look very nervous."
"Gee, ya think?" He felt the tweezers hit something hard and watched Stephen take a sharp breath inward. "Tell me that isn't your ribs."
"Nope. I felt the bullet shift. You found it. Don't be afraid. Dig in as deep as you have to go to get it out. You're not going to hurt me."
Peter wasn't sure he believed his partner, but he took another deep breath and opened the tweezers a little further. The distracting conversation stalled as Stephen gritted his teeth. Peter thought about asking about his reaction to seeing the opium powder, but felt it was a conversation for a less stressful time. "Where's Noah Wylie when you need him?" quipped Peter.
Stephen allowed himself to smile as he felt the tweezers recede. He let out the shaky breath he'd been trying to hold and looked over at Peter. In the ends of the tweezers, held tightly, was the bullet. "Great work."
Peter looked exhausted, but he still had a goofy I-did-it grin on his face. "Wow."
Stephen pulled from the case a heavy gauze pad and a roll of surgical tape.
"Don't you need stitches for that?" Peter asked.
Stephen shook his head. "Unless it's bleeding severely, you should never stitch a bullet wound shut. It'll heal with a hollow core--the top will heal faster than the inside. It just needs to be kept covered to keep it clean." Holding the pad in place against the wound with one hand, he handed Peter the tape. "I need three strips, about six inches long."
Peter tore off the three strips and handed them one at a time to Stephen. "So, when did you find time to sneak in med school, too?"
Stephen laughed slightly as he positioned the tape over the pad. "I'm a quick study. I've also had a lot of experience on both ends of this situation." With the wound now covered, he pulled out a thick elasticized cloth bandage and wrapped it around his entire ribcage to stabilize the whole region. "You did well for your first time."
"Thanks," said Peter as he swigged another shot of bourbon.
"Careful. That stuff has a kick."
"Yeah, I'm finding that out." He looked around for the blanket that had been in this room the other night. "You need to rest."
"I know." But even as he responded, Stephen was searching the pockets of his pants, finally pulling out the receipts they had collected. "Jiang's dry cleaners." He thought about it for a second, then forced himself to his feet, collected a bottle of cognac and a snifter, and dragged himself over to his desk. Pouring himself a glass, he swirled it in his hand as he read the receipts. "Check this out, all of them for fur coats."
"I'm shocked," said Peter in a sarcastic voice as he came over to the desk. "Something told me you wouldn't take the weekend off and guzzle cognac like most people do when relaxing."
"Of course not!" said Stephen in an over-the-top anger voice. "Cognac is meant to be swirled, sniffed, sipped, and savored. Never guzzled."
"Nice to see the bullet left your funny bone intact," laughed Peter.
Stephen took a sip from his snifter, then gestured for quiet and flipped on the radio. All the humor left his voice, and it took on that chilling edge. "Burbank."
The familiar face appeared on the view screen. "Yes?"
"Send agent Vincent to pick up an order of dry cleaning from Jiang's Dry Cleaners, tomorrow at 10 A.M. I am sending the claim check now." He leaned over and picked up a plexiglass tube, then stuck one of the receipts into it and set it in a pneumatic chute and watched it speed away with a vacuum hiss. "Once he has it, he is to meet a new agent, Peter Parker, at the Cobalt Club, and give the clothes to him. Parker's contact info will be forthcoming. I'll make sure he gets his assignment this time."
"Yes, sir," chirped Burbank, and the screen went dark.
"You want me to do this," Peter observed sarcastically. "Pretty substantial bit of trust you're placing in such a rookie's hands."
"As if you've never worked alone." Stephen pulled out a drawer from the file cabinet, also within reach of the desk, and drew a photo from one of the files. "I would prefer to handle this personally, but you're right, I need to take it easy." He handed a photo labeled "H.V." to Peter. "Keep an eye on Harry Vincent when he goes to pick up the furs tomorrow, just in case you need more than the claim check to collect, and Harry gets in trouble. If all goes well, meet him at the Cobalt Club, and bring the goods back here." He looked Peter in the eye. "Harry's one of my best field operatives. He's good with a gun, fast on his feet, and quick-witted. Sometimes a little too quick-witted. Peter, remember, he doesn't know who The Shadow really is, so don't let that slip."
"Don't worry. I can keep a secret." He smiled to himself. "The Cobalt Club, huh? I've always wanted to eat there."
"Tell them you're there to meet Harry Vincent for an interview. They'll give you a great table. I'll have someone take care of the check, so don't worry about that, either."
Peter nodded and stood up. "Understood. Anything else?"
"Don't let Harry see you as Spiderman. The Bugle has given you a reputation in this town."
"No kidding." He looked at Stephen, who looked a lot paler than he'd first realized. "You going to be O.K.?"
Stephen nodded. "I just need some rest. I take it you can find your way out?"
"Yeah, but not back again."
"Don't worry about that. I'll make sure you don't get lost." He got up from his desk and quickly caught the edge of it to keep from falling.
Peter was by his side quickly, helping him get his balance and leading him back into the sitting area. "You sure you don't want me to take you home or something?"
Stephen took a slow, painful seat back on the couch. "No, I have everything I need here. See you tomorrow."
Peter nodded and headed for the stairs, looking back to see Stephen settling back on the long leather couch and closing his eyes.
"You Peter Parker?"
Peter looked up from his Cobalt Club menu at the declaration. He recognized the face of the questioner on sight--Harry Vincent, the man he'd tailed earlier--but he wasn't entirely sure he was supposed to acknowledge that fact quite so quickly. "Who wants to know?"
Vincent gave Peter a quick appraisal, then straightened his tie with his right hand to flash the fire opal ring. "The sun is shining."
Peter drummed the table with his left fingers. "But the ice is slippery."
Vincent nodded and took a seat. "The usual," he told the waiter who came over.
The waiter gave a knowing nod and left quickly.
"You come here often," Peter deduced.
"And this is your first time," Vincent countered.
"First time here. I believe I'm supposed to pick up a package from you?"
Vincent accepted the drink the waiter brought and sent him away with a nod. "You're new, aren't you?"
Peter carefully appraised the man across from him. No immediate threat, but he would definitely have to be careful. "That obvious, is it?"
"Let's just say I recognize the uncertainty. And the eagerness." He sipped his drink.
"How long? For you, I mean."
"Seven years." He shrugged. "In some ways, it feels as if it's been forever. And in others, only yesterday. You?"
"Um...two days." Peter did some quick math in his head. Seven years ago was right about the time Stephen said he'd first gone on a Shadow mission. Was Harry Vincent possibly Stephen's first recruit? He made a mental note to ask later.
Vincent leaned back in his chair. "You are new, then. Let me give you some good advice that I got when I was brand new. There are only five words you have to know to be a good agent, and those are 'Yes, sir' and 'I don't know'. 'Yes, sir,' for whenever he tells you to do something...and 'I don't know,' for whenever somebody asks you about him."
Peter tried not to smile. Somehow, he'd figured Vincent would try to size him up and see if he was easily scared off. "You know him well?"
"As well as anyone else does."
"That wasn't 'I don't know'."
Vincent smiled slightly. "Touche." He sipped his drink. "Seven years ago, I had nothing to live for. My parents were dead, my girl had left me, my business failed, I was a wreck. I decided to take a dive off the George Washington Bridge. And just as I swung myself over the rail and let go, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back...and gave me something to live for."
Vincent nodded. "He's a tough taskmaster. No nonsense allowed. He doesn't brook disrespect. And God help you if you cross him. But everything he demands of his agents, he's willing to do, and more." He looked at Peter for a moment. "How old do you think he is?"
Peter knew the exact age of this generation's version, but wasn't going to reveal that to Vincent. "No idea."
"Exactly. The rumors go back over seventy years. He could be immortal, for all we know. He's also a genius--there's nothing he doesn't know or can't find out. And he's a master of disguise. He could be anybody. He could be me, for all you know."
Peter gave Vincent another quick appraisal to see if he'd somehow missed signs that his lunch partner was actually his crime-fighting partner. He had to admit that if this was a disguise, it was a damn good one.
Vincent noticed the pause and interpreted it as a sign of doubt. "And I know what you're thinking."
Peter raised an eyebrow. Was this a test? "You do?"
Vincent nodded. "Because I thought it myself, too, when I first realized what I'd gotten myself into."
Peter hoped the relief he was feeling wasn't noticeable.
Vincent saw the kid relax. "Don't for one second think it's not tough. Dropping everything on a moment's notice...doing anything you're asked, at any time, with no questions allowed...knowing that you could be asked to give your very life without ever really understanding why...knowing that your contribution could save the world and most people will never even know what you've done for them. But you know. And that makes it all worth it. I promise you that." He pushed a Cobalt Club coat claim check across the table to Peter. "The package is here. Gal at the counter's an agent, and she's familiar with the drill. Tip her good, too--the boss likes that." He finished his drink and got up to leave.
"You're not staying for lunch?"
Vincent shook his head. "Place is way too pricey for my blood. Besides, my work here is done." He extended his right hand. "Good to meet you, Parker. Hope to work with you again."
Peter accepted the handshake. "Count on it."
Vincent nodded and left.
Peter realized belatedly that he'd forgotten to ask Vincent who was supposed to pick up the check. If Vincent thought the place was too pricey for his blood, it certainly wasn't the place for an underpaid photojournalist to grab a bite to eat...
"Are you Mr. Parker?" a waiter asked.
Peter looked up and gave the man's hands an appraisal. No ring. "Uh...yeah, I am."
The waiter handed him a cream-colored envelope. "Message for you, sir."
Peter nodded his thanks, and the waiter departed. He waited until he was sure no one was watching, then opened the envelope.
A blank card, again. But this time, he knew to watch and wait.
His patience was rewarded with neatly printed script shimmering into view. "Enjoy lunch. Tab picked up. Be out front in 30 minutes."
Peter smiled. Stephen really did think of everything. He motioned a waiter over and ordered the spinach tortellini.
The "garment preservation" box Peter was carrying out of the Cobalt Club was a lot heavier than he'd expected it to be. He'd seen Vincent struggling with it earlier when he watched him at the cleaners, but had assumed it was just because it was rather large. He did make sure to tip the coat check girl nicely because she definitely had to work to slide it out the door of her little closet. Still, it wasn't too heavy for a man with spider-enhanced strength to carry easily to the curb while he awaited the cab he knew had already been summoned.
Moe Shrevnitz pulled to the curb and popped open the rear door and the trunk.
Peter put the box in the trunk and closed it, then climbed into the cab. "I assume we're headed to the office?"
"The Sanctum," an older man's voice corrected.
Peter looked to his right and noticed someone had joined him in the cab. It took a second for him to realize who it was. "Uncle Victor, I presume?"
Victor Cranston smiled mysteriously. "You presume correctly." He extended his right hand. "So you're Peter Parker."
"Right now, at least." Peter accepted the handshake. "I'd ask what you're doing here, but I think I'm about to be grilled by Dad on prom night."
"Actually, I was having a nice lunch at the Cobalt Club. How was the spinach tortellini?"
Peter eyed him knowingly. "You sent that note."
Victor smiled. "You are good. Stephen said you were. Nice to have it confirmed, though."
Peter wondered if Stephen had told his uncle the real reason he needed to meet the newest agent. "You know he was..."
"Shot yesterday? Yes. He told me."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "You're awfully calm about this."
"That's because I've been on both sides of this whole situation."
"So I gathered. You get good hazard pay?"
Victor looked amused. "You're smart and a smart aleck."
Peter accepted the odd compliment. "Keeps me sane."
"I can understand that." Victor chuckled slightly. "I must admit I was a little worried at first when he told me he'd briefed you into the secret. Understandably, the secret you now are privy to carries with it an element of risk to both sides, risks we like to minimize as much as possible, and even one additional person knowing the secret increases the risk of exposure dramatically. So I asked J.J. what he thought of you."
Peter groaned. "Oh, man, do I even want to know what he said?"
"He likes you. Of course, he didn't put it in those words. He said something to the effect that if you weren't constantly bringing him first-rate pictures of 'that costumed freak' he'd have booted you to the curb long ago. He also said that you are not stupid, merely ignorant and far too young. From J.J., that's high praise."
Peter shook his head and laughed. "That's J.J. If I didn't need the job, I'd have saved him the trouble of booting me long ago. There's got to be a better way to earn a living."
Victor appraised the young man next to him carefully. "When Stephen first told me he wanted to be a reporter, I thought he'd gone mad. After all, the last thing The Shadow needs is exposure of any kind. But his reasoning was sound. He said he'd rather be in a position to influence the perception of The Shadow than be constantly working against it." He smiled a careful smile. "He has good judgment. He picks his agents carefully, and his friends even more so. The fact that he trusted enough to tell you the truth says a lot about what he thinks of you."
Peter suddenly felt uneasy. "Did he tell you that I was within about a day of figuring it out on my own?"
"He did. He was impressed. You followed a trail that most would have simply ignored."
"Which is the whole idea, I take it."
"Correct. And you didn't follow it to expose him, you followed it because you needed to know everything about the crime you were trying to solve. You're thorough. He respects that."
Peter hesitated. He had actually followed the thread to find out what Stephen was hiding, but he suspected Victor already knew that and was trying to see if he understood the ramifications of being an agent and being in possession of The Shadow's most valuable secret. "He saved my life. I respect that."
Victor gave a knowing smile. "Good."
Peter shook his head. Another test passed. "I think I'd have figured out within five seconds that you and Stephen were related even if you hadn't said a word. He looks just like you."
Victor's smile turned slightly wistful. "Actually, he looks just like his father. It's almost unnerving." He looked up as the cab reached Times Square. "We're here."
The two men exited the cab. Peter got the box out of the trunk and hurried to catch up to Victor, who was already turning down the blind alley ahead of him.
"Take a peek behind us and see if anyone followed us."
Peter touched his temple for a moment. He was barely used to the sound of Stephen's mental voice, but Victor's was definitely something different. It swirled inside Peter's head and sounded like it was coming from inside his own ears. "Wow. Talk about head games..."
"Anyone back there?"
Peter did a quick sweep of the area and let his spider-sense give him the answers his eyes could not. "No."
Peter felt his head spin, then suddenly realized he'd moved into the Sanctum's stairwell without realizing it. "Damn, you're good," he whispered.
The Shadow's deep, sinister chuckle answered. "I know. Mind the stairs."
"I'm good on stairs." Peter quickly made his way down the stairs to the Sanctum's main room, put the box down, and looked around. "Stephen?" he called.
"Sh-h," Victor scolded. "He's resting."
Peter rubbed his temples. "Anybody ever told you that you have a way of getting into somebody's head?"
The Shadow's laugh answered.
"Forget I said that." Peter looked into the den...and was startled to see Stephen lying on the couch, eyes unfocused and expression blank.
"He's all right," Victor said, coming up behind Peter. "He's awake. He's just not in a position to respond to anyone right now." Then he looked over at his nephew.
Peter watched as Victor and Stephen made eye contact. Though Stephen's expression remained unchanged, Victor's went from a tension Peter hadn't really noticed was there before to visible relief. It was as if they were having a conversation no one else could hear...which, Peter realized, they probably were.
Then Stephen took a deep breath and seemed to come back into reality. He gave a weak smile to Peter. "Hey," he said in a tired voice. "How'd it go?"
"I think I should be asking you that," Peter answered. "You all right?"
"Fine. A little tired." Stephen sat up slowly, wincing as he did. "And stiff."
"I'll bet. How's your side?"
Victor and Stephen exchanged glances. Then Stephen pushed back the blanket and unwrapped the dressing.
Peter gasped. Stephen's side was bruised, but the wound was closed over. "Accelerated healing," he realized.
"It's called a tumo summoning," Stephen explained. "Tibetan technique of using mental energies to redirect blood flow, which speeds healing. Taught to the first Shadow by Marpa Tulku. Passed down to my uncle, who passed it down to me."
"And he's very good at it," Victor added.
"I can tell," Peter noted. "That's amazing."
"It comes in handy." Stephen turned to his uncle. "Thanks for bringing him."
"Anytime," Victor responded. "Need anything before I go?"
Stephen shook his head. "I think we've got it under control." He clutched his uncle's hand for a moment, and again more silent conversation was exchanged.
Victor smiled, then turned to shake Peter's hand. "Good to meet you, Peter. Look forward to working with you again."
"Same here." Peter shook Victor's hand. "Next time, I might even buy dinner."
Victor laughed The Shadow's hearty laugh, then nodded to both men and headed up the stairs.
Stephen turned to Peter. "So, did Vincent pick up the cleaning?"
Peter was impressed how fast Stephen could return to business mode after what had to have been an exhausting experience. "Did he ever. Wait here." He went off to fetch the box.
Stephen stretched and shrugged to loosen his stiff back and side before slipping on a sweatshirt. Tumos were lifesavers, figuratively and literally, and Uncle Victor seemed to like Peter. The day was going well so far.
Peter put the box down on the table. "It's heavier than it looks."
Stephen pulled a stethoscope from a drawer and put it to the box. "Nothing ticking. Looks like they didn't smell a rat."
Peter was disturbed. "That happened before?"
"More than you'd think," answered Stephen, pulling on a pair of latex gloves.
Peter listened for a spider-sense warning. "I can give you about 2 seconds warning."
"Good--every bit is useful." Stephen was lifting the top off the box.
The boys looked over the inside. But it appeared all that was there was just the fur coat. "Malayan Sun Bear coat," Stephen observed. "Looks like this is from Polito's newest shipment."
Peter picked it up. "Seems like an awful lot of work to go to for some new coats..." he said, then stopped as he heard a slight crinkling noise. "There's a plastic lining."
Stephen took the coat, opened it, and slit the seam with a thin blade. White powder packed in the lining came pouring out slowly, and Stephen held it over the box so it wouldn't go everywhere. "Opium."
The hiss in Stephen's venomous declaration reminded Peter of something he had been meaning to ask. "What is it about opium that gets to you so bad?"
Stephen's eyes had the burning black look again. "Let's just say that The Shadow takes opium seriously."
"Really?" Peter wisecracked. "You like it straight from the poppy or refined first?"
Peter never saw the blow coming, his spider-sense warned him way too late. Before he registered Stephen's movement, he was on the floor, dazed, with that buzzing in his head again, raised to an unbearable din. The room turned dark, except for Stephen and his burning eyes.
The glare was practically a physical force. "I'm sorry," Stephen said in The Shadow's most chilling voice. "I must have misheard. You want to run that by me again?"
On the floor with darkness engulfing his mind, Peter decided not to. "It was just a joke," he said feebly.
"If you look carefully, you'll see I'm not laughing."
Peter struggled to find his cool. "Um...yeah, I noticed. How about letting me up now?"
"You going to make any more jokes?"
Peter went on the offensive. "Not if you tell me the truth. Why is this so personal?"
Stephen considered what to tell him. This story was rarely brought up. Never mentioned outside the family, and even then, only as the kind of story to tell misbehaving children.
"How long were you addicted?" asked Peter finally from the floor.
"Why do you ask?" shot back Stephen, surprised by the new tack.
"Well, you took my joke rather personally, as in you went right for my jugular."
"Yes I did, didn't I?" Stephen was letting nothing go, including the chilling dark glare.
Peter kept fishing. "So I assume you either were addicted, or lost someone close to you who was."
The buzzing in his head finally wavered and stopped. Stephen turned away. "Nobody I ever met."
That gave Peter the final piece. "Granddaddy's penance? For being a drug addict? Or was he a dealer?"
"Direct, aren't you?"
"How close did I come?"
Stephen fell into a chair, and Peter got up from the floor and took a much safer perch on the wall.
"A dealer?" Stephen said in the hardest tone Peter had heard him use. "Think bigger."
Bigger? This was not something he had expected. "A drug lord?"
"A warlord," Stephen corrected. "Pete, the opium poppy is virtually impossible to grow in the US. Only in the Far East can you make a cash crop out of opium. When do you think it all started up? When did the main drug trade come here do you think?"
"I don't know."
Stephen took a deep breath, trying to keep his thoughts calm. "The Harrison Act of 1914 was intended to be a law to combat opium addiction by prohibiting the prescription of opiate-based narcotics to an addict for the purpose of maintaining their addiction. But instead of driving down addiction rates, it opened brand new avenues for crime. By 1924, the only avenue for an addict to obtain high-grade narcotics was on the black market. And the chief architect of the trade routes from the poppy fields in Tibet to the streets of New York was a western-born warlord named Ying Ko...the Chinese word for 'shadow'."
Peter suddenly understood. "Whoa! Is that where the Cranston money comes from?"
"No, thankfully. Granddaddy was estranged from his family by that point. Cut off from their funds, he had to develop his own. But money wasn't his driving force. He did the warlord thing because he liked the killing. He got a thrill from it. He nearly conquered Tibet before he was done. If he wanted to he could have crashed the whole system over there."
"And all that could stop him was a Buddhist monk who saw something greater in him?"
Stephen laughed harshly. "All the Tulku saw was what he was--a person who could redirect his evil, against evil. He was once as bad as the boys he put away. Worse even."
"With great power comes great responsibility," Peter observed.
Stephen glared at him. "I'm rarely open like this. So, this is not the part when you try to say something wise. This is the part when you shut up and listen."
"O.K.," Peter said, shutting up.
"He controlled virtually the entire trade across Asia, he had contacts to get the trafficking routes to America set up too. Then he woke up...and was sent home to become a crime fighter over here, surrounded by the Hell that he had created." He took a deep breath to steady himself. "He once told Uncle Victor that he had done enough evil to have to spend three lifetimes redeeming. I guess I'm the third lifetime. So yeah, we take this personally." He turned to Peter. "Do you want to torture me some more with The Shadow's demons, or can we get back to work now?"
"Depends. Can you let go of enough of them to get back to work?"
Stephen's glare turned hard again. "My demons drive me to work."
Peter pounced onto the ceiling right above Stephen's head. "Don't talk to me about demons. I know all about them. And you are not driven by demons. You're driven by something else."
"Yeah, really. You didn't go through what your grandfather did. And in some weird, warped way, you feel you'll never measure up because of it. You never knew him, but you're constantly comparing yourself to the stories you heard growing up. It comes through in everything you say, everything you do. One of the first things you told me was that you'd give your right arm to be half the psychic he was. And I'm telling you, I think you ARE all that and more. I never knew the man and I know he'd think you were an outstanding successor. And I know your uncle does, too. You cast a big enough shadow by yourself--don't keep trying to step out of his."
Stephen looked up at his upstart agent. "You look ridiculous up there."
"Yeah, I know." He smiled. "Now, shall we stop all this soul-searching stuff and focus on the real bad guys here?"
Stephen smiled back. "Get off my ceiling. I'm getting a stiff neck looking up at you."
Peter backflipped to the floor and took a seat on the arm of the sofa. "So, Polito wants the furs so that he can smuggle opium in them."
"Do you think that Jiang is in on it?"
"Almost certainly. Polito's furriers make the coats, Jiang 'cleans' and 'preserves' them with the special lining. He would of course get a cut."
"And Polito never has any drugs with him--he sells the claim checks. The buyer gets a new coat and his fix."
Peter tried to think like a detective. "Max said that he was getting the money from Asia. What if he wasn't getting cash? What if they were shipping drugs?"
"Polito sells the opium off over here, and he'd get a better price than in Asia because it's almost impossible to get here. So he sells the opium in the furs, and buys the next shipment of furs with some of the profits, pays off the cleaner, and keeps the rest, and gets in good with the local drug lords, reputation and power have as much influence as money."
"Is it worth it? How far can the cash spread?"
Stephen gestured toward the coat. "Pete, this stuff is extra refined. A tiny portion of this can pay for your next three salaries. In Asia, this coat would have a black market value of $20,000 US. In America, current demand would get a shrewd dealer who was good at cutting drugs a cool million. It'll stretch far enough."
Peter let out a low whistle. "So how do we shut the scum down?"
Stephen was silent for a long moment, and then grinned evilly. "We make them think we already have." Stephen slid over to the console, and flipped the switches.
"Yes?" buzzed Burbank.
"Burbank, I need to see the phone records for Leonardo Polito, and a drycleaner named Jiang. Include all extensions and cell phones. Once you have all their phone lines, contact our agents in the phone companies. Something tells me they haven't paid the phone bill, and send agents to cut all the phone cables."
"Yes, sir." Burbank sounded almost eager.
Stephen cut the connection and turned to Peter. "Burbank doesn't always get to issue a full mobilization order to our people. Now he gets to have some fun."
"So they can't get calls in or out, so we're keeping them separate."
"That's not entirely true," corrected Stephen. "We can call them from here, and they still know where all their people are. They just can't call any of them."
Peter gave a sly grin. "What are you up to?"
"Get your work clothes on, we may have to hurry."
Leonardo Polito sat in his office, with a drink in his hand, and a report from the previous evening's damage in the other. Spiderman and The Shadow had both joined forces and attacked his people in Chinatown, only minutes after Brodie Thorne and Henry Arnaud had stolen the furs and escaped his trap. The timing was too good to be a coincidence. Clearly Brodie and Henry were Spiderman and The Shadow in some combination, but despite his best attempts, Polito was completely unable to find any trace of them both, they didn't exist. Polito was still mulling over this when his cell phone rang.
"So, Polito," the voice on the other end of the phone said before he could answer. "Checked your holdings lately? Last night was only round one. Today I took out you main operations building. Tonight I'm taking out your dealer." The voice suddenly turned dark and sinister. "Tomorrow, I'm coming for you."
"Who is this?" demanded Polito.
The only answer was a mocking triumphant laugh.
The connection dropped. Polito looked at the screen: Signal Lost.
Polito stared at the phone in silence. Could it be true? Had The Shadow and Spiderman destroyed his operations storehouse? Jiang would know. He was in charge of collection and dealing. Polito hurriedly dialed the drycleaner's number.
His phone bleeped. No signal.
Polito went out on the balcony and tried again.
His phone bleeped. No signal.
Polito went back in and picked up his cordless phone. The line was dead. The sound of that mysterious laugh echoed in his mind. After a moment of worry, Polito jumped to his feet and went down to his car. Starting the engine, he floored the pedal, and headed to Chinatown.
As he turned the corner, a figure in red and blue came gliding out from between two buildings. Spiderman flew after the black car on the end of a web line.
Spiderman followed the car halfway to Chinatown, when a black-and-yellow pulled out of a side street, and took up the trace. It pulled off the road about 500 meters from the drycleaner.
Polito rushed into the drycleaners after a short pause to make sure he wasn't being followed. But that cursory glance did not spot the irregular pool of black that glided along the footpath behind him.
"Leonardo," Jiang said in surprise when Polito rushed into the shop. "I am surprised to see you. I thought we had to seem unacquainted."
"Jiang, there's a problem. Last night two vigilantes attacked our operations. Spiderman and The Shadow."
"I heard they hit the garment district. Do you honestly think they can shut you down?"
"Well, I got a call last night saying they already have. I tried to call the main storehouse. But somehow they've managed to disconnect my phone. So I came here. Are they telling the truth?"
"I haven't heard anything." Jiang was suddenly concerned. "But if they were hit fast enough..." He rushed over to the phone and started pushing numbers on the keypad.
If they had looked, they would have noticed a dim shadow extend over the phone when Polito entered, and when they turned away, they would have seen it pull back. But the lights were dim, and the men were worried.
"The line is dead!" Jiang practically shouted.
The unnoticed coil of black moved subtly toward the back of the shop and slid out an open window into the back alleyway.
"The call said that the storehouse was gone, and that you were going down tonight, then me tomorrow," blurted Polito, his face ashen.
For a very long time, the men just stared at each other in fear.
"We have to make sure about the warehouse," said Jiang finally. "If everything is well there, then this is just some fool trying to scare us."
"Agreed," said Polito. "But if it is gone, then I have twelve clients due to collect their shipments in the next few days, and they won't get what they paid for. Their payments have already gone on an advance bid for the next auction. I decided not to take the risk this time. Those guys won't take kindly to being swindled."
The men left the drycleaners, fear on their faces.
The Shadow appeared in the cab and immediately reached for the radio. Moe yelped when the hand appeared an inch from his face, passing for his dashboard.
Spiderman landed on the roof with a loud thump, making Moe yelp again. As Spiderman swung into the cab's backseat, Moe gave a tired grin. "You guys are going to kill me before long."
"Don't worry, Moe--depending on how tonight goes, you may outlive us," quipped Spiderman.
The Shadow had spun the frequency dial on the radio. "Burbank."
The radio crackled. "Yes?"
"Track down the address for this number." The Shadow recited a phone number which he had watched Jiang dial minutes before. "I need this yesterday. I'll settle for now."
The Shadow snapped off the radio. "Now, we wait..."
"Stephen!" interrupted Spiderman. "Tweedledum and Tweedlejust-as-dum have just pulled out into the traffic again."
The Shadow looked out the windshield and saw that Polito and Jiang were driving away. "Tail 'em, Shrevvy. Stay well out of sight."
A buzzing sound came from the radio. "Report."
"Phone is set up in a warehouse district." Burbank gave the address.
"Excellent. That's all for now." The Shadow tossed the radio forward. "Moe, that's where our boys are going, we need to get there first!"
Moe settled into his seat, and floored the accelerator.
The Shadow was calm again, but Spiderman knew the murderous rage was simmering. And he could hear it in the words that came out of the darkness next. "Round two, Spidey. We're going to give this whole operation a knockout punch."
"Ding!" interjected Spiderman. "Let's get ready to rumble!"
The mirthless laugh followed them into the night.
The warehouse was fairly well set up; cases of money were kept in one stack, opium packets in another, and the fur coats in the third. Once a week, a shipment of furs would come in, and the dozens of men, all of them armed with much heavier weapons than sewing needles, would sew the packets of opium into the lining of the coats. The loaded coats would then go out the way the furs had come in. Once a month, a large shipment of the opium would come in, and an equal amount of money would go out in its place.
But on this day, something interrupted the routine.
There was a sudden scream from the hallway, cut fearfully short suddenly.
Everyone in the room looked nervously at each other, stood, and slowly reached for weapons.
Next the alarm went off, the piercing whistle also suddenly silenced, and replaced with a far more frightening sound--soft, mocking laughter.
The door bent suddenly, the 2-inch metal literally bending outward and ripped into the hallway. Strolling calmly in, through the torn doorway, to the shock of all present, was The Shadow and on his left, Spiderman.
"Hi!" called Spiderman cheerfully. "Sorry about the door. Is this the masquerade ball?"
"Opium, money and furs. I think we found the right place, Spidey." The Shadow gave a whispered laugh.
"Spiderman!" yelped a man with a shaved scalp and a ponytail. "And another costumed freak."
The Shadow's arms flashed, and before anyone could blink, he had his arms aimed straight at the man who had spoken, his gloved hands clasping pearl-handled retribution. Everyone stepped back involuntarily at the sight of the huge guns.
"That's MISTER freak," The Shadow whispered archly.
The atmosphere was electric, like lightning was about to strike.
Then it did.
With a shrill war cry, one of the men spun and drew an Uzi. But The Shadow fired first and the heavy bullet blows hurled the man back.
Spiderman leaped high into the air, and at the apex of his leap, fired a volley of impact webbing at every target he could.
The Shadow went into a half crouch, and crabbed walked to his left, while trying to stay behind any case and crate. His automatics barked flame, as a few dozen scattered gunmen spat hot lead in his direction, and huge chunks of wood, plaster, and concrete flew in every direction like a foul rain of debris.
Spiderman caught one of the men in a rope of webbing, and swung him like a ball and chain around the room, knocking men sprawling in every direction.
The Shadow pointed his right hand over his left and blasted a man trying to reach a flank position. He straightened his arms again, and continued his shoot out, his shots finding their targets with unnerving accuracy.
Spiderman fired a ball of impact webbing over his shoulder, while punching another, when his spider-sense suddenly went berserk. He spun and saw a disaster unfolding.
One of the men had unloaded a machine gun!
"INCOMING!" screamed Spiderman.
The remaining gunmen rallied to their comrade's side, giving Spiderman and The Shadow the precious few seconds needed to move out of the line of fire.
The spray of bullets came from the gun barrel like water from a hose, tearing up the floor and walls as he peppered the room.
Spiderman flew, leaping, spinning, ducking, and somersaulting like he was made of springs, all the while staying inches ahead of the trail of destruction, which drew itself after him. Spiderman was wearing out, aware he couldn't hold the pace, when an invisible blow threw him to the ground.
"Are you O.K.?" a concerned whisper asked.
Spiderman remembered to breathe. "I'm fine, but we are way outgunned!"
"No matter what they tell you," crowed the man with the ponytail. "It IS the size of your gun that counts."
The Shadow took a quick look around to appraise the situation. "How well do you work in total darkness?"
"My spider-sense can tell me where everything in this room is," Spiderman whispered back confidently.
The Shadow loosed his triumph laugh, and after slapping fresh magazines into his automatics, he shot out the overhead lamps, plunging the room into darkness.
As a panic reaction, the last of the men resumed firing, the constant small explosions throwing short flares of light into the room. But it was in vain, for while they were flooding the room in lead, Spiderman was crawling across the ceiling, while The Shadow stayed hidden, hugging the floor.
Spiderman let himself fall from the ceiling, doing a swan dive into the tight knit group of men, weaving a web of punches and kicks, throwing a web to block the gun barrel, the recoil jamming the gun.
The moment the huge gun was silent, The Shadow leaped to his feet and started to run for the remaining men, when in the doorway appeared, shock registering on their expressions, Polito and Jiang.
Laughing triumphantly, The Shadow struck. The sound of fist meeting jaw and stomach and anything else that could get in The Shadow's way echoed through the room, mixed with cries of pain and terror.
Spiderman did a one-handed cartwheel across the floor, firing impact webbing with his other hand at anything that moved.
And just like that, the battle ended.
"I'd call that a pretty successful knockout," Spiderman said, coming over to his partner.
The Shadow did not answer. He had turned and was looking back at the room. "Spidey," he said at last, "I'm going to leave the job of tying up everyone who's still breathing and dragging them out of here to you. I have some business to take care of."
Spiderman knew well enough not to ask for details, and got to work with his web shooters, while The Shadow headed out to Moe's cab.
The Shadow went to the trunk of the car without a word, and pulled out a large can of gasoline. Without hesitation he marched into the warehouse again and unscrewed the lid.
Spiderman was dragging the last of the unconscious men out of the building when the sharp earthy smell hit his nose. "What the...?"
The Shadow marched out of the door, the empty can in his hands. He threw the can back into the room and turned to the two sleeping dealers Spiderman had helpfully laid in the parking lot next to Polito's limousine. Without a sound, The Shadow threw some of the money, a handful of the packets, and one of the manufactured furs over them.
"Don't forget this." ventured Spiderman, and he shoved a dozen of the dry-cleaning receipts into Polito's pockets.
"Nice touch," complimented The Shadow. "Did you get any good snaps?"
Spiderman proudly held up two cameras. "Lots. I even remembered to set one for low-light conditions just in case you tried your favorite trick. I think I'll use the one with me swinging the guy like a club on the end of my webbing. Somehow I figured you wouldn't want me to use one of you."
"Oh really--you think?"
"Well, J.J. would love it, but I doubt you would."
The masked men continued the discussion all the way back to Moe's cab. The cab remained stationary near the door of the warehouse, while the men switched identities.
Stephen and Peter looked at each other silently, aware that the mission they had joined forces for was now over, but neither of them wanting to say it.
Finally, Stephen spoke. "Good job."
Peter nodded his appreciation. "Thanks. You too."
Another long moment of silence.
"Smoke 'em if you got 'em," Peter joked, trying to cut the mood.
Stephen smiled. "Good idea." He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a cigar, cutter, and box of matches.
"Oh, don't tell me you smoke those things, too?" Peter groaned. "Bad enough I have to be around them every time I step into J.J.'s office..."
"Cranston tradition. Blame my uncle. Actually, blame Granddaddy, who got Uncle Victor started." Stephen clipped the end of his cigar and lit it, taking several puffs to get it going, then leaned back in his seat. "Besides, from what I understand, J.J. smokes cheap cigars, which is why they stink. A good cigar is like a good cognac...mellow and relaxing."
"Yeah, if your idea of mellow and relaxing includes burning leaves."
Stephen laughed heartily for a moment, then the cab grew quiet again.
"Well, uh...," said Peter uncomfortably, "if you ever need some hard muscle for a mission again, you know where to find me."
Stephen was silent for a long moment. Being The Shadow was a lonely job, and it was indeed nice to actually have someone to talk to after the whole thing was over. "You know, Peter, it occurs to me that seeing as how your usual topic Spiderman seems to have joined forces with my usual topic The Shadow, it may be wise to for us to write the official account of this story together."
"That thought had crossed my mind," said Peter with a huge grin. "Of course, someone like you would never be able to handle working for J. Jonah Jameson."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "I wouldn't?"
"Well, you COULD. But your identity would be exposed within a week, because he'd drive you so insane you'd probably be tempted to swirl in there and scare the Hell out of him just on general principle."
Stephen considered it. "Well, that's true. So, come work with me at the Classic."
Peter hoped he didn't look as eager as he now felt. Was this a legitimate offer? Was Stephen even in a position to make such an offer? "Would I get an office, too?" he joked, trying to ascertain whether Stephen was actually serious.
"You can have everything to the left of the door in my office, including the window, and a substantial increase in salary."
He was serious. Peter couldn't believe it. "Can I at least have top billing?"
Stephen gave him The Shadow's glare, with just a hint of mischief behind it. "No. But you will be paid more than any other photographer at the Classic or the Bugle."
Peter considered it. "This is the part where I'm meant to be torn and conflicted, right?"
"Yes. Think fast and I'll let you buy the whole Bugle staff a cigar on me."
Peter raised an eyebrow.
Stephen rolled down his window. "Home, Shrevvy."
"Sure thing," Moe answered, and the cab rolled slowly out to the street.
As the cab moved, Stephen pitched his cigar out the window toward a small puddle of gasoline near the warehouse door.
Moe gunned the engine, and the cab sped away quickly.
The lit cigar landed on the ground, igniting the gasoline trail. Flames snaked into the warehouse and raced back and forth over the opium, money and furs, turning the warehouse into a giant funeral pyre to the crimes committed there.
"Feel better now?" asked Moe as the warehouse exploded into flames behind them.
Stephen looked truly relaxed for the first time in hours. "You bet. It's going to smell like a giant hookah back there for about a week, though."
Peter just shook his head and marveled. "Seems like a waste of a good cigar."
"We all make sacrifices." He turned to Peter. "So, what do you say?"
Peter tried to keep up a shrewd bargaining face and failed completely. "Can I use the Classic's darkroom?"
"Of course," Stephen said graciously.
Something suddenly occurred to Peter. "Did your officemate REALLY quit?"
Stephen grinned slyly. "Well, actually, I just got that office the day before you came to meet me. I convinced my editor that if I was to get a partner soon, then we would need an office."
Peter laughed, completely flabbergasted. "You knew, didn't you? How did you know I was coming to find you? How did you know I would be interested? How did you even know I would say yes?"
Stephen laughed loudly in his triumph laugh, the sound trailing the cab like the tail of a kite.
The Shadow knew!
"Parker! Get in here!"
Peter checked his watch. Thirty seconds since he walked through the newsroom door. J.J. was getting slow in his old age. He poked his head in J.J.'s office. "You called?"
"Get in here," J.J. snapped. "Where the Hell have you been the past two days? Where are my pictures? And how the Hell did the Classic scoop us AGAIN?"
"I've been a little busy," Peter said, closing the door. "I took your advice and started looking for The Shadow."
J.J. looked impressed. About time the boy finally listened to him. "So where are my pictures?"
"Check the front page."
"Don't be cute, Parker. I know what's on my front page. A whole lot of nothing, that's what!"
"Wrong front page." Peter tapped the copy of the Classic on J.J.'s desk.
J.J. read the headline. "'Shadow Falls Over Polito's Web: Drug Ring, Illegal Fur Smuggling Ring Busted'?" Then he took a closer look at the picture on the front page...and the credit underneath it. "What the...Parker, you're fired!"
"You can't fire me, J.J., because I quit!" Peter flipped an envelope at J.J. "There's my resignation letter."
J.J. opened the envelope and pulled out the letter, written on The Classic letterhead stationery, and a business card with the words "Peter Parker, Staff Photographer" printed on it fell out of the folded paper. He looked apoplectic. "I...I'm going to withhold your last paycheck!" he burst.
"Go ahead. I got a $500 a week raise anyway. And my own office, too. Got a counteroffer for me?"
J.J. for once was completely speechless.
Peter just grinned. Stephen would absolutely love this. "Didn't think so."
A knock at the door got both men's attention. Stephen poked his head in the office. "Sorry--am I interrupting?"
The man's timing was incredible. Peter looked from his partner to J.J. "Oh, I almost forgot--I get to work closely with a Pulitzer nominee, too. How's that for a step up in the world?" He looked back at the door. "Stephen, have you met J.J.?"
"Only by reputation." Stephen entered the office and extended his right hand. "Stephen Cranston. Nice to meet you."
J.J. blew his stack at that point. "What do you think this is, a social club? Get out of my office!"
Stephen looked at Peter. "Charming, isn't he?"
Peter nodded his agreement. "Regular prince." He gave J.J. a wink. "See you in the papers, J.J." The partners started to leave, then Peter turned back. "Oh, and J.J.? The Shadow is a myth."
"He's a useful myth," Stephen added. "He sells papers."
"Kind of like Spiderman," Peter noted. "He sells papers, too."
"Ours," Stephen finished. "Oh, and my editor says thanks for sending Peter to look for The Shadow. We can always use a good photographer." He reached into his pocket and tossed a cigar to J.J.'s desk. "Here--have one on me."
Peter smacked Stephen on the shoulder as they left the room. "You promised me I could do that."
"Oh, come on. I've got to have a little fun," Stephen retorted.
"What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Helping you pack."
"Yeah, yeah. That ought to take all of five minutes." They made their way over to Peter's small desk, where Peter saw two boxes sitting open and ready to fill. "Any more surprises in store for me?" he quipped.
Stephen smiled mysteriously. "Oh, just wait."
"You scare me sometimes."
"Don't get me started..."
"Peter?" a familiar voice called.
Both men looked up to see a middle-aged black man crossing toward them. "Hey, Robbie," Peter replied.
"Did I hear right?" Robbie Robertson asked, expression puzzled. "You're leaving?"
"Yeah. Got a new job. New partner, too." He turned to Stephen. "Stephen Cranston, Joe Robertson, Bugle City Editor."
The two men shook hands. "The Classic's Stephen Cranston?" Robbie sounded impressed.
"Indeed," Stephen replied. "I've followed your work for quite a while. The Classic could use a good city editor. Interested in a change of scenery?"
"Robbie!" J.J.'s voice bellowed across the newsroom. "Get in here now!"
Robbie smiled sheepishly. "Nah. I've got job security here. Who else would put up with him?"
"Good point." Peter offered Robbie a cigar and a business card. "Change your mind, you've got my number."
"I'll keep it in mind." He gave Stephen a nod. "You got yourself a good one here."
Stephen gave Robbie a knowing smile. "I know."
The three men shook hands, and Robbie went off to calm J.J.'s latest storm.
After an eventful few days, two tired superheroes unwound with Indian takeout food as they enjoyed a warm mid-summer evening on the balcony of Stephen's Manhattan penthouse. "Man," Peter said, "what a view."
"I'd think you'd had better ones," Stephen teased.
"Yeah, but usually I'm wearing tights and sitting on gargoyles. Do I even want to know what the rent on this place runs?"
"Nothing. It's a condo."
"Figures. Next you'll tell me you own the whole building."
Stephen just looked at him.
"No...don't tell me..."
Stephen laughed. "No. Not the whole building. Just the top floor. I actually inherited it. My parents used to live here. My uncle lived in the other unit, across the hall, before he inherited the mansion." He got quiet for a moment and looked out over the city.
Peter knew he was close to touching a sensitive subject and backed off of the questions he wanted to ask. "So this is how the other half lives."
"Well, it's how I live."
"So, are your neighbors freaked out by all your comings and goings at all hours?"
"I hope not. My neighbor spends enough time climbing the walls as is."
It took Peter a second to connect the thought to its conclusion. "No...no way...I can't possibly accept this..."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "You don't want it?"
"I like to earn what I get."
"Trust me. You earned this one." Stephen let his guard down for a moment. "I'm sure you're aware of how lonely this job can get sometimes. I haven't been able to really talk to anyone outside of my uncle in...well, in what feels like forever. So you'll forgive me if I'd like to have someone to talk to a little more frequently."
Peter just looked amazed. His life had taken some strange turns, but this was something completely different. "I suppose it would be nice not to have to worry about how I was going to be able to pay rent for once."
"Don't worry. I'll keep you busy enough that you'll feel like you're earning your keep."
"Nothing I'd rather do. Now, when do I get my keys so I can move in?"
Stephen tossed a key ring into the air toward the adjacent balcony.
In a flash, Peter leapt to catch the keys and sprang across to the balcony next door. He turned back to scold his new neighbor for issuing such an easy challenge.
Stephen was gone.
Peter just shook his head. "One of these days, Stephen...one of these days..."
The Shadow's laugh echoed
through the night in reply.